The Devil's Tattoo
Quote from 2 Samuel 22:43, paraphrase
Beauchamp refused to admit that he was starting to panic.
His proclamation, declaring himself Lord Protector of Gravonia, had been met with complete silence, if not utter apathy. The only people in Luvov who knew of the invasion were the Lacovian soldiers and his mercenaries themselves, and they were starting to get bored and restless, according to Scriven. That man wanted his payment, and so did the soldiers. The mercenaries, too, were getting annoyed, as Beauchamp was doing his best to delay them attacking the houses and doing their share of looting. If he turned those men loose on Luvov, he would have a full-blown civil war on his hands, and that meant loss of revenue, dead citizens, ruined crops and a destroyed country. If he wanted that kind of thing, he could have just stayed in Lacovia.
Yet so far, a great deal of nothing was happening. Beauchamp knew that if he wanted to take the throne without too much trouble, he was going to have to be extremely careful with how he treated the people of Gravonia—he didn't need a rebellion breaking out, and his sense of panic rose with every second when he realized that they would not accept him without clear evidence that Henry and his family were no more. God knew the people would be suspicious if he declared himself King too soon and failed to produce the king's body. Plus they would start asking questions about how the royal family would so suddenly die. A robust king, an energetic queen and six lively princes don't suddenly vanish, much less die off. Even more, they might not so readily accept that their loyal and devoted Queen had fled the country during such a crisis.
But if he did not declare himself King, it would all be for naught. All Beauchamp knew for certain was that Henry was dead. He had no information so far on the Queen or her sons. The people of Gravonia had not read his proclamation yet, and Beauchamp was uneasy about sending the Lacovian soldiers out to the entire country with his declaration of Protectorship. If he did that, he would definitely have a rebellion on his hands, and even worse…
He stubbornly refused to admit that he was afraid of what Eleanor would do to him if she caught him. That woman terrified him, while he insisted on calling his feelings toward her as 'disgust'. She had made it clear about what she would do if he harmed her family, and he knew she was no liar—she was going to bring hell down on him, right down to her last breath. If he failed…
Beauchamp straightened in his chair. He would not fail. He would defeat her. The alternative meant a slow, agonizing death, with common peasants watching and laughing at the downfall of a man of royal blood.
He sat down in Henry's study, rubbing his temples, his head pounding. Even worse for his nerves, the Gravonian army had vanished. His scouts had come back from their search without any information, yet Scriven continued to look remarkably unperturbed. It was unnerving. The man was known for his patience and steadiness on the battlefield, but Scriven had yet to come up against Henry, much less Eleanor or, God forbid, Prince Constantine of Morvenia. Queen Joanna had assured him that the mercenaries would make short work of Constantine, but since when had anyone made short work of that man? He made short work of everyone who came at him, and with a cool efficiency that sent vast armies running for their lives. People said Constantine never even broke a sweat while calmly cutting down his opponents, and if he did, it was because he was irritated for having been inconvenienced. For God's sake, he had soundly thrashed an entire army of Turks for injuring his horse.
Beauchamp grabbed the bottle of wine at his elbow and drank down more of the potent stuff. He had also not heard anything about Tygo. He had been assured that the port cities had all been blockaded and that the Queen would be brought to him soon. But no one had come back from the coast yet. No one had told him a thing.
Everyone kept assuring him that everything was fine, but no one had ever presented him with proof that things were going as planned.
It kept niggling at the back of his mind—Spencer had told the Queen to go to Tygo, but the Queen had surely noticed the stupid whelp didn't look like he had come from any battle. At least no one knew that Henry was dead, aside from himself and the Lacovian generals. But so far, he had no idea where the Queen was, if she wasn't at Tygo. God knew that if and when she heard that Henry had been killed, she would be coming for Beauchamp's blood, and he knew it would take several strong men to cut her down. Queen Joanna called Eleanor the She-Wolf of Livonia, after all, and Beauchamp knew that woman feared the Queen of Gravonia, too. The term was considered derogatory in some circles, but in others it was said with genuine respect. You didn't cross that woman without fearful consequences, and now that her son was betrothed to the Dragon's daughter…
Beauchamp rubbed his forehead, forcing himself to not think about that woman. He told himself that she was the least of his worries.
His biggest problem was the absence of the treasury. Where in God's name was the treasury? He needed that money if he expected to survive this usurpation at all.
He looked up when General Scriven came stomping in. The man was huge, scarred and frightening to look at, and Beauchamp always felt uneasy around him. The man's wife and two children had all died a year ago, during a horrible, crop-destroying drought in northern Lacovia, and everyone knew he was embittered by their deaths—his hard expression brooked no discussion of anything besides military matters, and Beauchamp swallowed. Small talk was frankly impossible with Scriven. His attempts at jocularity with the man had been met with stony silence.
"Sir, the soldiers have returned from Tygo."
"And they have the Queen?" Beauchamp asked eagerly, standing up.
"What?" Beauchamp stalked into the Presence Chamber and met with the three soldiers who had sent Henry to Willemet. "Where is the bitch?" he snarled.
"There was no one there, sir," one of the knights told him. "Only the housekeeper and a few servants were at Konigshaus. Insel der Rosen was empty. They had not seen the Queen or the royal family since they were there back in the spring."
Beauchamp clenched his fists, rage consuming him. He whirled around and glared at Scriven, whose face was expressionless. The Lacovian general gazed back at him in silence, and Beauchamp began pacing back and forth, his panic rising. The Queen was gone, but for God's sake, where? "Where would she be?" he finally asked in desperation.
One of the Lacovian soldiers stepped forward, though he looked a little nervous. "Sanctuary would be at a church, right?"
Scriven gave the soldier an icy glare, and the soldier swallowed. Beauchamp clapped his hands, looking much more cheerful. "So the bitch is hiding in a church, you think?"
The Lacovian general's fists clenched. He did not like hearing a woman being spoken of so disrespectfully, particularly a queen. But he held his tongue on that matter. "It would not be a surprise, sir. And if she has taken sanctuary in the church, you cannot touch her. You know that."
Beauchamp's smile faded, but he regained his composure. "Then we'll close the cathedral and starve them out."
"In public view?" Scriven asked mildly.
"No one knows she is there!" Beauchamp snapped.
"People will start to wonder why they can't go to church without being pestered, sir, and no one will tolerate any harm being done to anyone taking refuge there, least of all Rome. If you so much as touch them, Gravonia will come under a Papal interdict for sure and I can't imagine you wanting that." On top of having no money, no weapons and no army, he thought darkly.
Beauchamp ran a frustrated hand through his hair. Scriven was right. He could make no move to harm the Queen or the royal family while they were taking refuge—and he knew that if she was indeed in the cathedral, her children and household were there, too. Did she have the treasury, too, and the armory? He looked out the window at the city below, fingers twitching at the vast amounts of money he would soon reap if he could just rid himself of Eleanor and her children. Yet he couldn't get rid of her if he couldn't gain access to her—the Church would protect her and her children, and by no means would the people of Gravonia accept him as King if Alexander was still around.
"If she is in the cathedral, we will starve her out. She can't stay in there forever. So no food or materials are to be taken to her. Put guards around the cathedral… the Hessians and Saxons in particular. See to it, Scriven, and order the Archbishop to open the cathedral for Mass as usual tomorrow. Anyone seen taking any sort of food or materials into the cathedral is to be stopped and questioned."
The Lacovian general nodded and stalked out of the room. Beauchamp sat down in the plain chair that was temporarily serving as his throne. Even Eleanor's famous ivory and gold throne was gone, and that alone infuriated him. He intended to find himself a new wife as soon as he could get his writ of divorcement from Alice and settle the girl—she would be young, that was for sure—on that throne. He frowned, wondering if Alice was back at Pontrefact, or if she had gone home to her family in Hamburg. His son Stephen was nowhere to be found, and Margot was still in France, with her former husband wasting away in a heavily fortified castle in northern Germany. As such, he had no direct heir in Gravonia, save Irene's baby son, and the Gravonians weren't likely to take a Lacovian as their future King. He needed to breed an heir of his own.
He snickered. He could force Eleanor to marry him. The thought had come to him a few times, but he knew she would spit in his face at the altar and cut his tackle off on the wedding night. Just the same, he was going to take his pleasure from her, even if it required several strong men holding her down. He would relish killing her when he was through, just as much as he would relish killing her sons.
He had come this far, and there was no turning back now.
Scriven gave his orders to his men and rode out of the city, pausing at the gates to look around for signs of any trouble. Instead, even the houses outside the gates were silent, their occupants locked up inside. Muttering under his breath, he paced along the road to the spot where he was expected, and he paused in the little grove of trees near a cold springs. He looked up, measuring the time by the position of the sun, and was vastly relieved when he saw a hooded man in black ride out of the woods on a fine bay horse. "Sir," Scriven nodded.
Richard of Stormont did not remove his hood, but nodded. "It's good to see you, Francis."
"If you ask me how I'm doing, I'll have to say I'm pretty damned exhausted and even somewhat disgusted."
"So what has happened?"
"The treasury has been removed from the palace, or hidden somewhere, as has the armory. The stables are empty, and the palace has been evacuated. Every citizen of Luvov has locked himself in his home and not a single Gravonian has been seen on the streets. Beauchamp has declared himself Lord Protector, but he's not so stupid as to declare himself King yet… though no one in town has read the declaration besides my soldiers and those damned mercenaries."
"And King Henry?" Richard asked.
"Dead. Beauchamp murdered him at the Savern River."
"Good God," Richard whispered. "Were you there?"
"Nay, sir. I was still in Lacovia, gathering the army."
"That heartless bastard," Stormont muttered, shaking his head. "And where has the royal family gone? Are they at Tygo?"
"The theory, so far, is that they are taking refuge in a church in the city. Perhaps St. Michael's."
"Huh." The hooded man dismounted and let his horse to the springs, letting him drink. Scriven also dismounted and they stood together, looking at the silent city of Luvov. A small flock of pigeons flew up, startled by a small pack of dogs, but otherwise the city was quiet.
"Beauchamp wants the people to think the royal family has fled. He has proclaimed that Henry is captured and being held in Rumon and that the Queen and her sons have abandoned the country," Scriven said. "He has declared himself Lord Protector. Sir, this isn't going exactly as we thought… "
"No, it's going even better. We must hope that she and her children can get out of Luvov, though. They must get somewhere safer—I am sure he will try to starve them out of the cathedral."
"Beauchamp has his bloody Germans posted to guard the cathedral. He has also ordered that the cathedral open tomorrow for Mass, as usual." He frowned. "What if someone sees… "
"We don't know yet if they are there," Stormont pointed out. He mounted his horse. "From what I know of Queen Eleanor, she would not show herself, even in church, at such a time. She is a canny woman, and she knows how to deceive the enemy. The Field of Stones taught us that, didn't it? Report to me tomorrow."
"Aye," Scriven nodded, looking back at the city gates. "I hope, sir, that you will not disappoint me."
"I am surprised that you would be willing to do this at all," Stormont mused. "A few years ago, you hated Gravonians as much as anyone."
"It wasn't King Henry that starved my wife and children to death," Scriven muttered. "I grew up half-starved and poor, but I was never stupid enough to think it was Gravonia causing me to go to bed hungry every night, nor was it Gravonia that caused my parents to die of starvation. It was Paul and his vicious tyrant of a father who caused that. His heartlessness and cruel policies led to the deaths of my family—my wife and daughters were nothing to him, and neither is anyone else. And I never hated Gravonians."
Scriven got back on his horse. "Emma and Liliana—they were eight and six. They had blue eyes, like their mother. I can only hope, sir, that their deaths were not entirely in vain." He turned his horse and rode back toward the city, leaving Stormont staring after him.
"Your Majesty, there are now several guards posted around the cathedral," Archbishop Nichols told Eleanor, bowing. "They are not Lacovians, however. I believe they are Beauchamp's German mercenaries. They have been pestering us even as we gathered in the church for worship. Nasty men, the lot of them. Alas, no one in the city attended services this morning. That's probably for the best."
"Then Beauchamp knows we're here."
She was seated in the room where Henry's catafalque stood, and she barely lifted her head, even as she spoke. The Archbishop sat down beside her and gently took her hands in his.
"He strongly suspects it, I think. Ma'am, I know you are in great mourning, and you know that you have my prayers and my sympathy, but the people of this country need your strength—you have been their devoted servant these past twenty years, and they still need you. You told your son that they must trump even his family. I can only think you feel the same for yourself."
She finally looked at him, blue eyes bleak and filled with tears. "I know that, sir. I do." She wiped her eyes. "I suppose I'm just in shock."
"Yes. I know." He looked a little amused. "One of the priests here has suggested you retire and become… well, join a convent. Become a bride of Christ… "
She snorted with laughter. "That is what I call twaddle."
Nichols smiled. "I believe I said the same thing, or at least words to that effect. I know you are far too energetic and active to live in a convent."
"Or wear a wimple. I cannot imagine such a thing." She paused, thinking of how much she was going to miss the physical pleasures of marriage. She was going to have to live without that entirely, whether she resided in a convent or a palace. That, she realized, was going to be rather hard. It wasn't as though she could take a lover and maintain her reputation or her conscience. Remarrying, too, would be extremely difficult while Alexander was so young and still needed to establish his authority as King. He would not be served well by a mother who married again and foisted a stepfather on him—that sort of thing never proved helpful in the establishing of a new dynasty, and Alexander was only the second member of his house to reign in Gravonia.
But dear God, she was going to be miss being schtupped senseless on a regular basis. Whatever Henry's shortcomings (and they had become fewer and farther between as the years had gone by), his abilities in bed had been beyond description. She was not remotely ashamed of the pleasures of lovemaking with her husband, but now that part of her life was over.
She was only thirty-five years old. Recently she and Henry had begun to really enjoy lovemaking, what with the children all in their own rooms, far down the hallway (and they were not permitted to enter their parents' chamber at night unless they were on fire or bleeding), and she had even started to think a little of having another baby—perhaps a girl this time, as a companion for herself and for Henry to spoil shamelessly. But she knew she was not with child, and that actually made her eyes sting with tears. A baby, now, would be rather stressful but also would provide something else to focus on besides her grief and anger.
Embarrassed to even be thinking of such a thing at a time like this, Eleanor clasped her hands together and closed her eyes. "Am I wrong to seek vengeance?" she asked softly.
"You are in authority, ma'am. You must use the sword to execute justice in this country, and also to protect the weak. If and when Beauchamp sets his men loose on Gravonia, there will be much bloodshed, and your sons will be the defenders of the people of this nation. I… can only pray, ma'am, that you will seek vengeance for justice's sake and… perhaps not your own."
"I am no longer in authority. I never had any… "
"Come now, ma'am, you're in a church. You oughtn't to lie," Nichols said, with a mischievous smile.
Eleanor smiled back and looked down at her still clasped hands. "I miss him," she whispered. "I miss our talks—about the future, about the past, about… nothing in particular and about everything. I miss hunting trips and funny visitors from foreign courts and sitting behind the grille during his Council meetings, and attending Petitions Saturday with him. I miss our rides together, and trips to Insel der Rosen, walking on the beach and collecting seashells and sitting up late to play cards or chess and reading letters and making lo—… discussing the children."
"And making the children," Nichols nodded. "I know, ma'am. You need not be ashamed to discuss such matters with me, though I admit I am not an expert on them. That would be better saved for Lady Clothilde."
As if on cue, Clothilde appeared in the doorway, curtseying in her usual elegant way, sharp eyes assessing the Queen's present condition. "Ma'am, His Majesty wishes to speak with you."
Eleanor looked at Henry's catafalque, briefly confused, then nodded and stood. "Yes. Thank you, Clothilde. Archbishop," she nodded to the priest, who stood and bowed to her.
"If you require my assistance at any time, ma'am, please do not hesitate to send for me. You know I am at your disposal day or night, and I pray for you constantly," he said. She nodded, clasping his hands in silent thanks, and followed Clothilde out into the large common room where her sons and the household were gathered. The gentlemen were talking while the women sewed and whispered, and when Alexander saw her he stood.
"You wished to see me?" Eleanor asked.
"Yes. In your room, please?"
Eleanor looked at Elizabeth, who was sitting with her ladies but looking rather forlorn. She had had little time to speak with her father, and even more, she had been genuinely fond of Henry and her tears on hearing of his death had been sincere. Eleanor paused for a moment to touch the girl's shoulder, smiling warmly at her. "Do not fear, sweetheart. All will be well in the end."
Elizabeth swallowed. "It is the end that I fear most, ma'am. We do not know what the end might be."
Eleanor touched Elizabeth's cheek, wiping away a teardrop. "We cannot see the future, but what is to fear when your father and his army are here, and when God does not abandon us?" She looked at Elizabeth's subdued ladies. "Come now, girls, do not let Elizabeth become gloomy. You must do your best to cheer one another up."
"Yes, ma'am," Lady Anna whispered, but she did not look convinced. Eleanor turned away and followed her son into her room, and only sat when Alexander took a seat by the fire.
"Mama, we have all discussed it and we agree that we need to leave the cathedral and seek shelter in some place… safer. For the sake of the household, mainly, and for you."
Eleanor drew in her breath. She was her son's subject now—she had never disputed with Henry over his decisions about how the government was to be run, even though his ideas generally came from her, and she would not argue with the new king. Besides which, Eleanor was not sure that her ideas would become his with quite so much ease. She knew her son was strong-willed and highly intelligent, and he also had a natural common sense that would serve him well in the coming years. His level head and Frederick's increasing skill as a tactician would make them a formidable team, and so long as he listened to his Council of older, experienced men, Eleanor had every reason to believe her son would make an excellent King and would soon be able to stand on his own feet.
"If you are suggesting that we leave the country… " she started.
"Never. We will never leave, Mama. But we must find a safer place. Beauchamp had no qualms about trying to kill you in the palace chapel—he would have as much respect for this house of worship as he did the other. I cannot risk your life or the lives of the others… " he bowed his head. "Archbishop Nichols tells me that everyone in Luvov and throughout the country has been ordered to stay in their homes and not venture outdoors… but if Beauchamp has declared himself Protector, he will soon order everyone out and begin… "
"The bloodletting, I know."
"For all that, though, I do not understand why he has not already let the Lacovian soldiers loose."
"Because for now, he has no financial backing," Eleanor pointed out. "Lacovia has no money, and Beauchamp has no treasury. The soldiers from Lacovia can cause great damage and can kill many people, but if they destroy the city they will have the entire country against them, and once they take everything that isn't nailed down, there will be nothing left. Greedy people only want more—they will not be satisfied, and Beauchamp will have nothing to give them. Once they return to Lacovia they'll still have nothing for their trouble. They also might be rather lazy—it's easier to be paid out of coffers, without working, than to put forth so much effort and have it dry up in a little while. But now Gravonia's coffers are empty. They could have stayed in Lacovia for that much—they've already bled that country dry. Even more, no one will come to Beauchamp's aid unless they believe we… we are all dead," she said, bowing her head. "And even then, they might just go to von Arklow, as he has a better claim to the throne."
"Does anyone know where he is?" Alexander asked.
"I've not even a clue."
"Do you think he could be counted as an ally?"
"By no means," Eleanor said, mouth tightening. She could not trust any other member of the royal family now. Countess Cecily still lived and she could still have some influence over her son. She knew he was, at heart, a good man but he was also weak-willed and might be persuaded—or coerced—into taking part in his cousin's atrocities. Of course, von Arklow's wife might be of a different mind all together. "But I must agree that we need to move to safer confines."
Alexander looked relieved. "There must be some way to let the people of Gravonia know that we have not abandoned them."
"Right now, sweetheart, we must pray they have not abandoned us."
Alexander paused, wanting to ask his mother a question that had been niggling at the back of his mind since he had spoken to Prince Constantine, but he could not bring himself to do it. She looked so pale and tired, and her eyes were red with tears, and he sensed that such inquiries might upset her even more. He sat down beside her on the bed and embraced her, letting her rest her head on his shoulder, and he could only murmur whatever comforting words he could think of. Yet he knew that she would not be comforted by any means for a very long time.
Constantine paced, his anxiety growing. He did not call himself an imaginative man, but in the past few hours he had begun to imagine all sorts of horrible things being done to Eleanor. Beauchamp wasn't above sending his mercenaries into that church and butchering her and her entire family… and his own daughter. To lose Eleanor again would bring him down to a place from which he could never rise again, but if Elizabeth were harmed or killed, he would surely die of grief.
"Damn it all," he muttered. "I should have thrown Elizabeth and Eleanor over my shoulders and carried them out of there," he said between clenched teeth.
Philp, idly whittling on a stick, frowned at his brother. "Eleanor would have fought you like a rabid honey badger and you'd currently be bleeding all over my nice new carpet." He flicked a wood shaving across the room, avoiding getting it on the carpet. "But I agree, we should get them out of there. Beauchamp is, I'm sure, becoming increasingly anxious to make his claim on the throne. Lord Protector doesn't have quite the ring of 'Your Majesty', or so I hear."
"And how, pray, do we get them out?"
Philip stood and opened the flap to his tent door. He peered out at some of his knights, watching as they expertly rolled long strips of cotton cloth, to be used later to tend wounds. He turned back to Constantine. "What do most of us fear?"
"Well, with you, it's cockroaches."
Philip sighed. He couldn't argue that point. He ran jibbering from any room where he saw a cockroach. "And what else?"
Constantine thought for a moment, then brightened. "Cats?"
"I'm not afraid of cats! That's Trebane, for God's sake. Focus, Constantine. Men fear death, don't they?"
"And speaking in public," Constantine nodded.
"That's just you. And the dark."
That got Philip a narrow glare, but the King of Morvenia grinned. "Anyway, the soldiers guarding that cathedral wouldn't be too keen on facing Death coming out of a church."
"I didn't know Death attended church. Sleep does attend church, depending on who is speaking and even more, who is listening."
"No, Sleep attends my council meetings. But Death… " Philip smiled, looking across the field at a group of German soldiers walking through the open city gates. "I have a plan. I'll have to rely on your considerable skills at deceit and subterfuge."
"I'm not deceitful," Constantine objected, indignant.
"Please. You tricked an entire French regiment into thinking you only had fifty men!"
"Aw, hell, Philip, it only takes fifty men to beat a French regiment!"
Constantine didn't dress in Lacovian colors. Instead, he waited until nighttime, dressed in black and slipped silently along the walls, entering the city through the gates and passing a group of bored-looking Lacovian soldiers. He approached the cathedral and saw a pair of rather large Germans standing guard at the front doors, neither looking terribly enthusiastic about their night duty. In fact, they were engaged in what seemed like a long-running argument over sauerkraut.
"I'm telling you, the stuff smells like piss."
"Well, that's just your mother's recipe. My mother makes excellent sauerkraut and she doesn't use urine."
Constantine could not imagine how anyone could make something that smelled so hideous taste remotely good. He shook his head, moved along the wall below the two guards, spied a discarded spear and snatched it up. He moved between the two men, peeking over the wall at them, and waited until one of the Germans turned away, looking toward the street. He waited until the soldier closer to the doors was looking away before he smacked the other in the head with the flat end of the spear. The German turned, swore angrily and attacked his companion, tackling him roughly and knocking him to the ground, growling about insults and sauerkraut. As the two soldiers wrestled and snarled, Constantine vaulted up onto the wall, dropped down onto the steps and slipped easily through the doors, closing them behind him, all without making even a sound. Once inside, he could hear the men still fighting, and paused to make the sign of the Cross before pacing down the center aisle.
The cathedral was empty, save a tall, wolfishly lean priest in humble black robes lighting votive candles. Constantine approached him cautiously, and the man jerked, startled, when the prince cleared his throat. "Good Lord, son, you scared me half to death!"
"Who are you?"
Constantine eyed the priest, uncertain. "You don't dress like an archbishop."
"There's many things I don't do."
"Yeah. Including one particularly important thing. Listen, I need to see Queen Eleanor."
"And you are?"
"Constantine of Morvenia. Do you have any white sheets you can spare?"
Eleanor had picked listlessly at her supper, saying nothing to anyone, and when the meal ended she retired to her room, rejecting even Clothilde's offer to sit with her by the fire. The Queen had sat at the fireside alone, patching a hole in a shirt Henry would never wear again, until she finally was able to stop crying and had stabbed herself three times with the needle. She climbed into bed, wrapping her arms around a pillow and imagining it was Henry until sleep finally claimed her.
She dreamed of her childhood, except she was at Teslo. She was sitting in her mother's lap, tracing her fingers over the letters on the wooden board Margaret had made for her. She could hear her mother's soft voice and could smell violets—the scent of that flower never failed to transport her back to Teslo. Eleanor had always wanted to commission someone to carve a stone monument to the victims of the slaughter in her home village, but time and protocol had kept her from it. She longed, one day, to even visit the ruins of the village where she had been born, and see the destroyed church and the blacksmith's forge where her father had worked. She could suddenly see his face: rugged and handsome, with blue eyes and dark blond hair, and she could hear him telling her about dragons and fairies and will o' the wisps until Margaret told him to stop filling their daughter's head with nonsense.
She longed for nonsense. For silly, sweet pleasures of childhood, where no one around her lusted for power or money. Her father had made a good living making swords and daggers, along with horseshoes, and they had lived in a comfortable, warm home and had plenty to eat. Her mother had been teaching her a smattering of French and German, as well as her letters and numbers. She saw his forge in her dream, and she could hear the tune he always whistled as he worked. He hadn't minded her coming into the forge, but he had been firm about her coming too close to the fire and had spanked her once for playing with some iron rods and getting her clothes dirty. Even then, he had been gentle but firm, without even an inkling of anger toward her, and he had held her afterward as she cried. Eleanor had done her best to be the same toward her sons, when they were naughty.
Eleanor woke to the sound of someone knocking on her door. She scrambled out of the bed, gripped with terror, and looked around the room. She finally spied an iron fireplace poker and rushed to it, snatching it up and preparing herself for a fight. "Come in," she finally managed. The door opened and she was shocked to see Constantine step into the room. She dropped the iron tool on the floor and almost burst into tears with relief and terror and dear God help her, desperate, almost uncontrollable joy at seeing him.
"Eleanor," he said quickly, moving into the room and closing the door He was about to say something else when she launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and hugging him fiercely. She didn't want to let him go—she finally felt completely safe, for the first time since finding Henry's body. He embraced her, and she breathed in his strength and his maleness and his protection, but was able to finally regain her composure and reluctantly let go, stepping back and rubbing her eyes with the heels of her palms.
"We need to take you and your sons and the household to a safer place," he told her, once he had reined in his own emotions. He wished he had his sword with him now—whenever he felt unsettled or anxious, he could slip Eleanor's blue ribbon between his fingers and would soon calm down and start thinking clearly again.
She paused, staring up at him, then looked at the door. "I… I don't know… " she whispered.
"You must, Eleanor. For your safety, and for your sons' and for Elizabeth's. We must take you away from Luvov and… "
The door opened and Alexander and Frederick came in. She caught Alexander's furrowed brow as he noticed that she and Constantine were standing a little too close to each other, and she took a quick step back, cheeks pinking. "Mama, we heard that Prince Constantine was here… " Frederick said, and he paused, staring in confusion at the prince and his mother, unsure of how to react.
Constantine looked at the two princes, nodding his head politely to Alexander. "Sir, my brother is offering you and your family, and the household, sanctuary in Morvenia."
Eleanor bristled, but Constantine continued, noting the angry fire just starting to blaze in her eyes. He almost grinned—here was the Eleanor he knew and would always love. Just the same, he went on. "We would remove the four youngest princes all the way to Garon, as well as Princess Elizabeth and her ladies, while you and the King and Prince Frederick will be taken to Eagle's Nest, which is virtually impregnable and… "
"The princes will not leave without me, I will not leave the King and the King will never leave!" Eleanor snapped.
Alexander nodded in agreement. "I will not leave Gravonia, sir. It would be unforgivable and a sign of cowardice."
Constantine feigned annoyance and looked at Eleanor, who was starting to pace back and forth by the fire, growing more and more agitated. She hardly looked a day over fifteen, even know, and not even six confinements had done a thing to her figure or her energy. Her fists were clenched and her mouth was set in a firm, angry line. He knew not to try and get into a verbal sparring match with her while her sons watched, so he turned back to Alexander. "And where do you suppose you might be safest, sir?" he asked the young king.
"I… " Alexander's brow furrowed. "I'm not entirely sure, sir."
"Pontrefact," Eleanor said, startling everyone. All three men looked at the Queen, who nodded. "Beauchamp would never think to look for us there."
"Is his wife or family there?" Constantine asked, pondering her idea carefully.
"His wife returned to her home in Hamburg some years ago. She is a broken woman—her daughters are gone from her, her son no longer speaks to her… " Eleanor shook her head. "Even Henry was unable to convince poor Stephen that Alice was not in collusion with his father."
"And where is Stephen?" Alexander asked. "He was not at Court when you returned from Lord Coventry's ball, was he?"
"No, he was not. He is of age to go where he pleases, though. It is curious that he has never married and keeps company with no one, man or woman. I like to think he finds his father as revolting as most, but he is still a Beauchamp… " Eleanor mused. She looked at Constantine, considering his rough beard and slightly shaggy hair. He did not look as though he was taking good care of himself lately, and even more he looked much thinner than he had when he had brought Elizabeth to Luvov.
"So you truly believe Pontrefact might be a place to hide for now?" Constantine asked.
"We can't very well go to Tygo," Eleanor said, sitting down on her bed. "We will all go to Pontrefact… but how on earth are we to get out of here?" she asked Constantine. "Beauchamp's mercenaries are posted around the cathedral, and they question everyone who comes or goes from here. Even priests and nuns who attended Mass this morning were pestered."
"Well, my brother and I have a plan," Constantine said. "I'm afraid you won't be very comfortable… or fashionable, Eleanor."
She blushed and looked down. "I have never cared much for fashion," she answered softly.
"Yes, I know," he nodded, and off Alexander's curious stare, he cleared his throat. "Or, so I have heard. Ma'am." He nodded. "We will have to move your household out with you, but if our plans go as we'd like, they should be able to go with you to Pontrefact without being molested. If you would prefer some of your ladies to return to their homes, however, we can arrange for soldiers to escort them."
"Some of my ladies, I think, should go home, particularly the younger ones, and Elizabeth's ladies… " Eleanor frowned. "I will only require two servants, and Elizabeth can do with two as well, and I think the rest of the household should go home, too, save Sir Niall Lassiter and Sir Lorenzo Bartolomeo and two or three gentlemen of Lord Hallam's choosing. Where is Lord Hallam?"
"He has his own duties, ma'am. One or two he wasn't too keen on, but we know he can be relied on," Constantine told her. "Now. I think you can start getting ready. We hope to leave before dawn."
Eleanor stood, with Alexander taking her hand and staring anxiously into her eyes. "Are you all right, Mama? You look so pale."
"Ask me later. Right now, we must follow Prince Constantine's instructions."
The young King of Gravonia looked at Constantine, who nodded. "At your permission, sir."
Alexander drew in his breath. "We will do all that you say, Your Highness."
The German guards at the front of the cathedral clattered down the steps when they saw the two wagons rumbling out from the cathedral's little stable yard, and they grabbed the edge of the first cart, peering down at various people wrapped up in white strips of cloth and shrouds. One of the guards pointed his spear at the wagon driver, who was also wrapped up in a shroud, his hands bound up strips of white cloth. Another man, wrapped in heavy black robes, was seated next to him, his head hooded. "You! Where are you going with these people?"
"Oh, off to the countryside."
"On whose orders? Did Lord Beauchamp say you could leave here?"
The wagon driver peered out at them, his face wrapped in strips of cloth, with only his green eyes showing. "Beauchamp? Who is Lord Beauchamp?"
"The new Lord Protector of Gravonia, man. Who are you?"
"Just an humble friar, doing the Lord's work. Usually I keep bees, but my principal occupation is tending to the lame, the sick, the halt, the blind… people who have been stung by bees… "
"Why are they leaving this cathedral?"
"Ah, well, these poor peoples' ailments make it very hard to live here in these confines. I'm sure Lord Beauchamp would be eager to see to their well-being, just as he would the healthier specimens of Gravonia's people. Perhaps you'd like to help us a bit, son?"
One of the shrouded figures in the wagon bed began coughing, while another patted his back.
"All will be well, my poor leprous friend," the wagon driver kindly. "Oh, dear, is this your finger?" He reached behind him, shifted straw aside, and held up what appeared to be a ring finger. The German guard jerked away from the edge of the wagon, eyes wide with horror.
"Lepers!" he gasped.
"A whole passel of them, I'm afraid. Poor souls. Fingers and toes everywhere… we even found a nose last week in one of the chamber pots. Poor things sneeze, they lose another part. It's not nice, really, but we all do get a laugh to watch a finger go rolling down the steps, and Lord knows these poor wretches need a laugh sometimes." He paused, clearing his throat. "Anyway, the rooms where they've been living these past few months have become overcrowded, I'm afraid, and good heavens they do make a mess, though I dare say they don't mean to. As if they can help it if something falls off every time they sneeze, cough or fart. Would you like to assist us, my kind Teutonic friend?"
The German stepped back several paces, eyes still wide. "Uh… no. No thank you."
"Well, are we allowed to pass? There is an old, empty priory where they are being moved, and while it's not nearly as grand as this place it's larger and a bit more airy, and they can drop limbs and digits and the like all about without disturbing anything but chickens… "
"Aye, go. Be gone with you." The guard gestured frantically toward the city gates, already turning a little green. He nodded to the second wagon, which was driven by another, younger man. The guard gestured to his companions to keep away as well, and the two wagons trundled through the side alley beside the cathedral and turned onto the cobbled street. The driver of the first wagon gave the Germans a jaunty wave and clucked at the donkeys and they continued on toward the city gates. The guards all looked at each other and exhaled, one of them saying "Wir werden alle tot sein bis Sonntag!"
Eleanor, wrapped in strips of cloth and huddled between Harry and Frederick, muttered softly, "We can only hope so, you thieving brute."
"It's not nearly as grand as Ravensburg," Constantine said to Eleanor, who was still unwrapping strips of her cloth from around her body. She shivered slightly and looked up at the dark black mass of Pontrefact Castle. The palatial citadel was derelict now, as it was unoccupied, and the front gates were open, with one door swinging drunkenly on broken hinges. Weeds were growing everywhere, and as the wagons passed through the gates, Eleanor noted that some of the windows in the guardhouse were broken. Indeed, the vast castle was abandoned.
"No, but what place can be as grand as Ravensburg?" she asked. She finally removed the last strip of cotton and straightened, looking at the broken front doors of the castle's main residence. "Good heavens, what a mess. I suppose no one has been here since Beauchamp fled to Lacovia."
"It's very odd that not even Lord Stephen would come here," Constantine mused. He turned around and saw Alexander standing there, still in his black cloak, and caught the young King's curious expression. "Your Majesty, perhaps you and your brothers could do a bit of… scouting. See if there's food in the larder—though after all this time, I suspect whatever is there is not fit for eating—and see if there's anyone about. I will see to your mother and the household."
Alexander eyed Constantine for a moment. The question still niggling at the back of his mind was refusing to be put off, and their mentioning of Ravensburg Castle, in Livonia, only added further questions. But he held his tongue and gestured to his brothers to come with him. The six young men went into the castle, stepping cautiously through the front hallway and into the Great Hall as they discarded their wrappings. Cobwebs were everywhere, and there were signs that the castle had been broken into a few times and looted, but aside from a few broken windows and rain damage, it was still structurally sound.
"Mold," Alexander said, sniffing. "I hate that smell."
"Rain rot, too," Frederick said, wrinkling his nose.
"Mama will have us cleaning up soon, I'm sure," Harry said, but he didn't look as though the notion bothered him. "We'll have to be sure not to set any lamps afire, and I suspect the fireplaces can't be used—they're probably full of soot and dead birds. We can't have any of the neighbors knowing we're here."
"Quite so," Alexander nodded. "All right. Let's see about the rest of the place. We'll all stay together. Constantine will settle Mama and her ladies and everyone else upstairs, I suspect." He paused, frowning, uncertain for some reason of leaving his mother alone with the Morvenian prince. But he could not bring himself to voice his concerns to his brothers, who were already uneasy enough as it was. He nodded to his brothers and led them out of the room to begin exploring the home of the very man who had murdered their father. The idea of spending time at Pontrefact did not exactly ease the King's mind, but for now he had to center his mind on protecting his family and forming a strategy to claim his throne.
Everything else would simply have to wait.
Eleanor looked around in Lady Alice Beauchamp's formerly pretty little private room, taking in the bowls of shriveled flowers and long burned-out oil lamps. Dust was everywhere, as were cobwebs, and the room smelled sickly sweet, as though some sort of creature had died in the fireplace and other creatures had sent flowers for the funeral. She looked at the portrait of the Duke of Beswick—Beauchamp's formidable grandfather—over the fireplace and frowned at it, disgusted. The Beauchamp family had married into the royal family, and instead of being grateful to be so honored and serving the Crown and the people of Gravonia, they had become cruel, grasping and hungry for power. She had heard tales of the Duke's cupidity, and how little sympathy he had spared on his leprous son the Marquess of Rousseau. The Duke hadn't even attended the Marquess' funeral…
She jumped when the door opened, and she anxiously clasped her hands when Constantine came in. He was limping slightly, and she wondered if he had had any rest since leaving Morvenia. His hair was disheveled, he wore a rough beard—he looked so much nicer clean-shaven—and he had dark smudges under his eyes.
"I'm sorry to have dragged you into this," she said softly. She cautiously sat down in a chair by the fire and coughed when dust flew up from the cushions. She stood and carefully beat as much dust out of the cushion as she could before settling down again.
"Do not apologize. I am… honored that you would ask for my… for our help."
"I did not even notice you were wearing Lacovian colors yesterday," she said. "I was so turned inward, so full of rage… had I noticed that green cloak, I might have attacked you."
"Now I'm just cured of leprosy and I'm thinking a bit more clearly."
He smiled, and she blushed, looking down at her hands. She was wringing them, and she forced herself to fold her hands neatly in her lap, like a proper Queen Mother.
Queen Mother. She still could not wrap her mind around the fact that she was a widow.
"You look so tired, Eleanor," he said quietly. "Is there anything I can do?"
"As I said yesterday, you can bring Beauchamp to me."
"And what of Stormont? We have not heard from him, but I have a somewhat good feeling about him. He is a Lacovian, yes, but not all Lacovians are dripping in pure evil. His father was even said to be a decent man and his mother was described as a very warm, caring woman. Decent men and kind women do not generally produce evil children. All I have ever heard of him is that he is nothing at all like his cousin King Paul and that he is a good sort of fellow."
She pursed her lips and looked into the empty fireplace. "You are right."
He removed his sword from its scabbard and sat, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. "If I can find Stormont and bring him here, will you speak with him?"
Eleanor's fists clenched. "I have never been in the same room with a Lacovian that I did not wish to spit upon," she whispered.
"You cannot be blamed for that, considering your past experiences with them. But remember that the past is the past."
"Yesterday is dead," she nodded, her eyes brimming with tears. "Two days ago, my husband was alive and I was Queen. Now I'm just… Eleanor Reeve."
"I know, Eleanor, but you are still Queen. And I can't tell you how sorry I am."
She looked at him, and a puissant silence fell between them. She dared not let herself even think of that at a time like this. But she could not help thinking of it—she was sitting just a few feet away from the man who still owned her heart and always would, and she was by all intents and purposes freed from the bonds of marriage.
And so was he.
But she was not freed from her link to Gravonia. She was forever tied to this country, and she doubted she could ever leave. She was not even entirely sure she wanted to. This was her home now—her sons would continue to need her until Andrew was of age and on his own, and she had vowed her lifelong devotion to the country on the day she had married Henry.
"I have not wept so much in years," she said softly. "Not since I was sixteen. I didn't even cry this much when I was in labor."
"It must have been a terrible shock," he finally said. "I take it he fought them?"
"Yes. Of course. Henry would never go down without a fight."
He nodded. "Eleanor, I will do everything I can to see that Beauchamp pays for what he has done. In exchange, I want you…"
She looked at him, blue eyes bright, and he nervously rubbed his knees.
"I want you to let me take Alexander and Frederick with me. They need to be seen by the people of this country, particularly Alexander. They need to know that Beauchamp's claim of Protectorship is illegitimate and that Alexander is King."
She stood, her natural protective instincts overwhelming her. "Send my sons away with you," she said, her voice soft and fearful. "I cannot."
"Eleanor, Alexander is the King, yet no one in Gravonia knows it, save possibly the people at Willemet. I doubt word has spread that quickly, though Lord Hallam is currently undergoing a mission in that regard right now, with some of my most reliable knights. They must all be reassured that he has the crown and that the succession is secure. This country has become accustomed to security and stability, and even the death of the King must not cause a hiccup. They don't shout 'The King is dead, long live the King' for nothing, you know."
"What if he is hurt or… "
"I will protect him, though at his age I suspect he will chaffe at being coddled."
"He already does. He and Frederick are excellent at martial arts, but… but surely you understand my feelings on this."
"Yes. Isabella refused to let me take Michael with me to Havor before she… " He looked down, unable to finish.
"Yes. Elizabeth told me."
"Michael spent his year in Havor last year," he said, standing. "He did well, but he was glad to get home. He even missed Charlotte."
"How are your children?" Eleanor asked, wiping her eyes.
"They are all very well," he nodded. "Charlotte is quite good with her bow and arrow, and can throw a dagger with the best of them."
"I am not at all surprised you would teach her how to fight."
"I taught them how to put an end to a fight. I don't allow any of my children to start them."
She smiled, and she felt that long-familiar rush of pleasure and excitement when he smiled back. After all these years, he still had the same effect on her, but her smile faded. She had lost her husband two days ago, and she was sitting here smiling and laughing with a former lover!
"As a mother, it will surely kill me to send my sons away into danger. As a Queen, I know it is my duty, and theirs," she finally said, carefully reining in her raw, confused emotions. It would do no good for either her or Constantine to let him see the hold he still had over her.
"That's what we're born into," Constantine said. "I suppose that's the only thing my parents ever agreed on, with regard to me—that I had to put duty above all else. Unfortunately, that's what Alexander is in for, too."
"Promise me… promise you will take care of him. Fault me for being an overprotective mother, Constantine, but I still see him as my baby, still waddling about in his nappies, demanding shortbread from Agnes."
"My Mistress of the Wardrobe," Eleanor said softly. "She has doted on my children since their births."
"Ah, so they have their own version of Betsy, do they?"
"I don't think Agnes will ever match Betsy in the brains department, but in sheer kindness and loyalty, Agnes has no equal. She adores my children almost as much as she does her own."
Constantine nodded. "I had a nurse, of sorts, while I was growing up. Charlotte—she more or less raised me."
"So am I to believe you named none of your children after your own dear mother?" Eleanor asked, with just a slight teasing edge to her voice.
"Not a single person in our family has ever named any child after my mother," he said, mouth twitching a little. "Marie is even a fairly uncommon name in Morvenia."
Eleanor sighed and looked around the dusty, lonely little room. "Lady Alice came to this room often, she told me, to be alone. One can imagine she was not attempting to escape from her children."
"Do you have any idea where she is?"
"She went back home to Germany a few years ago. If Beauchamp submits a petition for divorce, she will undoubtedly agree to it with no small amount of pleasure. He has caused her to lose her entire family and has reduced her to poverty. She loved her children. I suspect poor Irene has no ill will towards her, but Stephen… Henry told me of the boy's bitterness toward both his parents, but towards Alice it was utterly unjustified."
Constantine nodded. He began to finger the blue silk ribbon on his sword hilt, thinking, and finally he seemed to reach a decision. "I will take Alexander and Frederick with me back to the royal forest, where the Gravonian army waits. He will have the army, of course, on his side. Meanwhile, Lord Hallam and my knights are travelling to every village in the country, declaring that Alexander is now King. That will alert Beauchamp and he will have to move."
"We can only hope it does," Eleanor said, eyes narrowing. "Then will I beat him as small as the dust of the earth, I will stamp him as the mire of the street, and then I will spread him about."
Eleanor's hands were shaking as she carefully helped Alexander into his armor and mail, and she drew in her breath as she stepped back, looking at her son. "Remember all that your father has taught you," she said softly.
Alexander's blue eyes met hers, and she almost burst into tears. There was such resolve in his eyes, and self-confidence. She saw no fear in her son—he was as self-assured as Henry. A whole pride of lions, she remembered Margaret Trueblood saying. She had indeed raised a lion. She looked at her four other sons standing nearby, and knew they wanted to go with their brothers, but Constantine had agreed they were too young for such things. They would have their day soon enough, she knew.
Henry's own self-assurance had not exactly been helpful, in the end, she thought. This was her son's first real fight, and while she knew he was more than capable, a man his age could become over-confident. "Please, sweetheart, be careful and take care of your brother, and let him take care of you, and let Constantine take care of you both."
"I will Mama. I promise."
Frederick, kitted out in his armor and mail, tested the balance of his sword and spun it easily in his hand, making it whistle as the blade sliced through the air. Eleanor was far less frightened for Frederick, as he had come into the world ready for a fight. Not that he ever instigated fights, she was relieved to say, but he was a warrior to his very heart. She had decided it was best not to tell him that Lord Despencer had been the one who had told her of Henry's 'capture', as she was sure her second son would have dispatched that stupid whelp without a second thought.
Of her two sons, she saw that Alexander was the one with presence, but Frederick was intimidating. Just that cool, level stare of his could make a seasoned warrior take a step back and reconsider. He was also slightly taller, with a solid bulk to him, though he had not an extra pound of fat on his body. He reminded her a great deal of a Friesian warhorse—big, strong and muscular, but surprisingly elegant and agile.
Of course Constantine still was the standard against which all warriors was measured. The Morvenian prince was standing behind Eleanor, and when she looked back at him she saw him watching the two young men with a cool, apprising eye. He was not intimidated by anyone, but he looked as though he approved of her boys. Finally, Constantine went to his big black warhorse and swung easily astride, in spite of his armor, and gave Alexander a curt nod. "I take it you two are ready?" he said, in that ice-edged voice he used when giving orders.
"Yes," Alexander said. He only squeezed Eleanor's hands, then turned and swung astride a large white stallion. Eleanor shook her head—leave it to Alexander to pick a horse that big and flashy. For all his self-effacing humor and natural humility among any sort of folk, he still had a bit of an ego. She supposed that was a good thing, in small doses, for a king. Frederick, meanwhile, was more businesslike and mounted a tough-looking bay, sparing only a brief but tender glance at Lady Ellie Bartolomeo.
Eleanor could only stand there in the derelict courtyard of Pontrefact, watching her sons turn their horses and ride out through the broken gates. Constantine stopped in front of her, and she saw him fingering the silk ribbon on the hilt of his sword.
"I will protect them, Eleanor. If anything happens to them, I will take full responsibility, and will endure your wrath as bravely as I can."
"I do not fear for them while you have charge over them," she nodded. "I know you will return them safely to me."
He nodded, glancing at the four unhappy princes and at Eleanor's ladies. Sir Lorenzo and Sir Niall Lassiter were on horses, ready to go with them. A dozen tough Morvenian knights were staying with the royal family, along with a handful of trustworthy gentlemen from the palace, and so Eleanor knew she was well-protected. Constantine had given the men explicit orders: if anyone approached the castle, they were to get the Queen and the princes to safety or die trying.
He saw his daughter come up beside the Queen and clasp her hand. He nodded to the girl, hoping to God she understood and that she would take strength from Eleanor. Lady Ellie and Lady Anna were behind Elizabeth, and Lady Clothilde and Lady Agnes stood behind the Queen, and all four women had expressions of steely resolve on their faces—they would not surrender to any attacker, and would only go down after giving them hell. He looked at Eleanor again and saw the girl he had fallen in love with so long ago—beautiful, tough as nails, and determined, with all the fire required to sink an arrow into a seasoned warrior's skull.
Beauchamp had no idea what he was up against.
He bowed his head to the gathered ladies, then to the princes, who nodded back. He turned his horse and spurred him out through the gates, joining the young King and his brother on the weed-choked road, followed by Lassiter and Bartolomeo, who galloped on ahead. Constantine turned his horse around to face the princes as they rode out through the gates.
"Are you two ready to beat the Devil's tattoo?"
Alexander's brow furrowed.
Constantine grinned. "An old soldier asked me that, just before my first battle. You're going to have to beat it, lads. You'll feel the needle soon enough, but can you stand the blood?"
Frederick, more ferocious than his older brother, fingered the hilt of his sword. "I am ready, sir. Beauchamp killed my father. Let's go get him."
The Morvenian prince studied the two Gravonian princes, seeing Alexander take on his brother's cool resolve. Frederick, he realized, was the warrior—he would greet with fire, like Eleanor, but Alexander was the planner, with the ruthless calculation required of a King. Pleased, he nodded, kicked his black stallion into a gallop and began the long ride back toward Luvov, the two younger men keeping pace with him all the way.