The She Wolf
Alexander was more than a little amazed that he and his brother—at eighteen and seventeen—were far more winded from a long ride than the forty-five year old Prince Constantine. Both princes, when they stopped at the Morvenian camp hidden in the little forest to the south of Luvov, murmured to each other that the 'old' Dragon was as fit and healthy as a man half his age. Constantine dismounted from his horse and paced right into his brother's well-camouflaged tent and emerged a moment later with the King of Morvenia, who was pulling on a boot and looking a little disgruntled.
Constantine spared little courtesy for his brother, and Philip had to introduce himself. "Good day to you, Your Majesty, Your Highness," he said, bowing slightly to Alexander and nodding politely to Frederick. "I take it you're here to let loose a bit of hell on Beauchamp?"
"That is our aim," Alexander nodded.
"Good. While temporarily casting aside the whole notion of violating the mystical concept of monarchy and the far-reaching consequences of regicide, we will offer proper condolences on the loss of your beloved father and sit down for a bit of breakfast and a round of planning. Shall we?" He gestured toward a man coming toward them with a large tray. Alexander shook his head.
"I already ate, sir."
"Well I haven't. I was just rousted from my uncomfortable bed and herded outdoors by my over-sized brother. Come on." He sat down at a table set up outside his tent and accepted a plate of fried eggs and bacon. Constantine, looking annoyed, sat down opposite him. The young King of Gravonia and his brother sat down at the other seats and accepted toasted bread and water. ""Firstly, we need to find a way to draw Beauchamp out of the city, and we also need to make sure your army is aware that you are alive and well and most importantly that you are still here." He began cutting up his eggs with his knife and fork, which Frederick found fascinating. Philip ate his eggs at a leisurely pace, then sopped his egg yolks with his fried bread and chewed cheerfully on his bacon. "Excellent bacon you Gravonians make. Fine pigs in this country."
"Thank you," Alexander finally managed. "I'm sure we can draw up a fine treaty on trading pigs one day."
Philip grinned. "I'm sure, but you'll want Morvenian chickens, not pigs. Now, what sort of ideas do you have, sir? Let your training kick in. You're your father's son and your mother's too, eh?"
Alexander sat back in his seat. "We must indeed draw Beauchamp out. He must leave the city and come at us. We need to also see we take the most advantageous ground and more importantly we need to know we have the loyalty of the people of this country."
"Indeed. Mind, Beauchamp has a large Lacovian army and a small but ferocious force of mercenaries. However, he is not blessed with wholesale devotion from his generals or even from some members of the Lacovian army. Nor is he popular with damned near anybody. Granted, popularity is not all it's cracked up to be, but with an army invading another country, the leader of that invasion must have the hearts and minds of his soldiers. He has neither, and many in Lacovia look to Richard of Stormont, not King Paul, as the means of escaping poverty and waste."
"It would be foolish to draw him toward the south, where we are encamped in boggy ground with poor cover," Constantine said. "North of the city is best, and the element of surprise is always ideal when you're dealing with an invading force. I know your army knows this country extremely well, and better yet, the Gravonian army is entirely loyal to King Henry."
"Will they be loyal to me?" Alexander asked, with just a small sign of unease.
"Have you given them any reason to be disloyal?" Philip asked.
"I don't think I have. I have gone on several progresses all over the country and I've never sensed any… dissatisfaction from anyone towards me."
"Do you give long, boring speeches?" Constantine asked.
"No… " Alexander said. "I'm a bit shy of speaking in public, though I can manage."
"All the better. Nobody wants to listen to a politician or a king blather on. Short speeches make for long reigns," Constantine shrugged, nodding at Philip.
"Well, then. For now, you are respected for your father's sake and I daresay your mother's even more. All you have to do is earn their loyalty for your own," Philip said, taking another bite of bacon.
Constantine took a sip of his ale and winced. "Fine pigs. Lousy ale."
Eleanor paced, moving up and down the long parapet along the castle walls, only stopping to stare eastward, toward Luvov and where she had last seen her two eldest sons and Constantine gallop over the horizon. She had great belief in the power of prayer, but right now the power of sight would be far more comforting. She wanted to see her babies were safe, but the hours had crawled by with no news. Lord Hallam was due any time, but without his steadying presence she was becoming frantic. She was tired of Clothilde telling her to sit down and calm herself, and when she had come close to shouting at her ladies, she had excused herself and insisted on being left alone.
Sleep was impossible in the home of the man who had murdered her husband.
It was mid-morning, and she had yet to eat a thing. She wasn't hungry. She wasn't anything but agitated and weary of wallowing in sorrow. This was not a time for mourning, she decided, and she had no more tears to shed. This was a time for action—her husband had to be avenged. She had sworn to Henry's mother, hadn't she, that Beauchamp would pay for what he had done, and Eleanor was determined that he would pay with his blood. She hugged herself, rubbing her arms, and stared across the bleak but fertile fields that surrounded Pontrefact, pondering an idea that had formed in her mind last night when sleep had been eluding her.
Growling, she turned away and leaned against the parapet, pulling her cloak around herself and closing her eyes. She could not stop thinking of the disaster that could occur if the Gravonian army was not properly prepared or placed for battle. In the past twenty years, the army had grown in size, experience and skill, but now Henry was dead and the army might very well consider itself leaderless. Henry had always been able to inspire the soldiers with not only his presence and talent as a commander, but also his very sincere concern for them. Alexander would have their loyalty for his father's sake, but how far could that go when he was still wet behind the ears and had never seen battle before?
She wiped her eyes, shuddering at the very thought of her baby riding into battle, and not only him, but also her second-born son. She could lose them both. A sword would indeed pierce through her very soul then, and she wasn't sure she would be able to go on. She knew many women who had lost husbands, fathers, brothers and children to war, and the pain they experienced was beyond description and their wounds never healed completely. For all her much-vaunted strength, Eleanor was not sure she could endure such a blow.
A woman at Court had once said that if women ruled the world, there would be no war, but Eleanor knew that to be nonsense. Women were just as capable of making war on each other as men, and could be a hundred times as vicious. Even more, a woman could add petty vindictiveness and jealousy to the mix and commit all manner of horrors to make her own mark. Eleanor knew how to draw blood, too, and she knew how to fight very, very dirty when necessary, and as far as Beauchamp was concerned, she was going to be extremely vindictive. She was not going to be some gentle, peace-loving woman when it came to him.
She felt a chill in the air and drew in her breath. This was war indeed, and the survival of her family was all she could think about now. She had heard that in Lacovia, she was called the She-Wolf of Livonia, and she had been amused by the epithet, finding it more flattering than insulting, though she had little doubt that the latter had been the intent. Well, she thought, opening her eyes and looking out across the pale gold fields, she was going to show them what a she-wolf was capable of.
Walking down the steps, she forced away all distractions from her mind and heart besides avenging her husband and seeing her sons safe. Everything else, even her own safety and happiness, had to be put away until all threats were put down and Alexander was safely on his throne. If it meant total war and ruthless bloodshed, so be it. She would do her penance when it was all over.
In the castle courtyard, she was surprised to see Lord Hallam riding through the broken gates, followed by his two eldest sons and by Lord Baltasar Seebolt. The four men dismounted from their horses and bowed to the Queen. "Your Majesty, you remember my sons."
"Of course I do," she said, nodding and tugging her cloak more tightly around herself. "Louis, Wolfgang… Baltasar. Your loyalty is appreciated."
"We have been brought here to be your personal bodyguards, ma'am," Wolfgang said. "His Majesty the King has ordered it."
"You have seen my sons?" she asked eagerly.
"Yes, ma'am," Lord Hallam nodded. He looked very tired, but Eleanor knew he had bottomless stores of energy, even at his age. Good heavens, how old was he now? Fifty? Sixty? She studied him for a moment, taking in his gray hair and laugh lines, but his steadiness, reliability and dedication were timeless, and she knew she could trust him with her life. She wondered, yet again, how she could have gotten through the past several years without his level-headed assistance, efficiency and discretion. Not even Henry was fully aware of all that James Hallam had done for her and for the kingdom.
"How is he? And Frederick?"
"They are both fine, ma'am, and have joined King Philip and Prince Constantine in the royal forest, and they have been joined by the Morvenian army. They are ready for battle—they were preparing to move north of the city last night, and I suspect they have taken their position by now."
She swallowed. "What size is the Morvenian army?"
"Probably ten thousand foot soldiers and about two thousand cavalrymen. I daresay they are impressed, however, by our own archers—our yeoman are marksmen of the highest order. The Morvenian navy is also ready to attack the Lacovians at Tygo."
"Who commands them?" she asked.
"A cool-headed man named Corbett," Baltasar told her. "I know him well—he has made life hell for Lacovian pirates these past few years."
"Good," she nodded. She squared her shoulders. "To that end, as soon as I meet with Stormont, I want to travel back to Luvov."
Hallam paled and she made a mental note to reward him well for not strangling her then. "Ma'am, that is out of the question."
"Am I or am I not the Queen?" she asked mildly.
"Yes, ma'am, but… "
"Then I can see no reason for you or anyone else to argue with me. I can assume that Stormont is on his way here?"
"Aye, ma'am, at last report he was… "
"Then I will meet with him. When he is escorted away from here, I will leave straightaways for Luvov."
"Ma'am," Hallam tried again, using a wheedling tone. "I cannot allow… "
"James, please. How many times have you won disagreements with me?"
"None, ma'am, but I should hope you would give me a chance here. For my sake as much as your own."
"I'm sorry, James, but I cannot. I must go back to Luvov and… "
"And what?" Hallam finally shouted at her, losing his temper at last. "Join in the battle? I will not countenance that, ma'am, and neither will your sons or any man in the army. My wife alone would kill me if you were harmed."
"James, please settle yourself and do not shout at your Queen. Your instructions are clear—when Stormont arrives at his appointed place of meeting with your men he is to be blindfolded and brought here, and he will not be allowed to see a thing until he is in a room with myself, you and the gentlemen who bring him here. Once I have spoken with him and assessed whether he can truly be trusted, I will… "
"Please, ma'am. Please. I beg you, ma'am. Do not risk your life. If anything happened to you I would not be able to live with myself and to that end Alexander would surely help me along by putting my head on a pike at Tower Bridge. Please, ma'am… "
Eleanor sighed. "All right, James. I will reconsider my plans." She bowed her head to him, and after a beat she looked up to see the relief on his face. She smiled sweetly at him and, with a sweep of her skirts, stepped around him and went back into the castle.
"She's going to go anyway, isn't she?" Baltasar asked.
"Yes," Hallam and his sons all said in unison. Lord Hallam sighed, rubbing his temples. "Nothing on this earth will stop her. It's almost pointless to put guards at her door."
Eleanor ate a larger than usual meal that night and played cards with Clothilde until bedtime. She was undressing when Agnes knocked on the door and rushed in before the Queen could even speak. "Your Majesty, Richard of Stormont is here!"
Drawing her breath in slowly, Eleanor pulled on her blue cloak and had Clothilde tie her hair back with a blue ribbon. She pulled on slippers and swept from the room, her ladies almost running to keep up, and she paced down the hallway into the Great Hall and finally into Alice's derelict little room, where Richard of Stormont still sat, blindfolded and looking more than a little unhappy. The cloth was finally removed from around his eyes and after letting his vision adjust to the semi-darkness, Eleanor stepped forward.
"Am I to call you 'Highness', sir, or merely Stormont?"
The Lacovian stood and bowed, but that did not impress Eleanor. "I am pleased to meet you, ma'am. Your reputation precedes you."
"My reputation for what, sir?" Eleanor asked.
"Ferocity in defending your family and your country, ma'am."
"Do not attempt to flatter me, sir. What do you want?"
She rolled her eyes. "Peace is a chimera and it is impossible while Beauchamp lives, and peace is not just the absence of war. When he is dead and his head is on a pike at Tower Bridge, we might be amenable to the notion of negotiation."
"I understand, ma'am," he said, meeting her hard gaze with surprising boldness—he was not intimidated by Eleanor, and she found that rather encouraging. "Your husband was viciously murdered by a wicked man, and my cousin King Paul is an enthusiastic sponsor of his deeds. The people of Lacovia, however, are weary of foolish wars, though not nearly as tired as they are poverty, violence and ignorance. They want freedom and prosperity, and they are willing to work for it."
"They will have many years to go before they overcome the deprivations of the past, sir," Eleanor snapped. "And your country's leaders will have many, many more years to make up for the murder of my husband and the threats posed to my children. I will tolerate nothing less than abject apologies, total capitulation and remuneration for their deeds, and peace will be on our terms. Am I very clear to you, sir?"
"Very much so, ma'am," Stormont said, bowing his head.
She glared at him, taking in his appearance—he had dark hair, surprisingly warm brown eyes, and was nicely built. He was even rather handsome for a Lacovian.
"I understand your mother was German," she finally said.
"And many of the mercenaries Beauchamp has hired are German."
"I can hardly see how that will influence me, ma'am," Stormont said firmly. "My mother was a gentle, kind and generous woman. That is the main reason why she and my father were never welcome at Court."
"And here you are, willing to commit treason against your king and cousin," Eleanor said, eyes narrowing.
"I don't consider it treason, ma'am. I have spent my life watching my grandfather, my uncle and my cousin bring my country lower and lower—it is because of them that our people are starving and we are vilified throughout Christendom. There is still hope for Lacovia to rise out of the mire, but that hope is very small while he is king. Paul is a cruel, merciless tyrant and he must be… removed."
"So you are truly determined to remove him from the throne and take it for yourself? What of your cousin's little son and heir? Prince John."
Stormont looked down, and Eleanor felt a tiny glimmer of compassion toward him. If he was truly the father of the baby boy Irene had borne, he could not publicly claim him. If and when Paul died, John would be King of Lacovia. Then again, the Lacovians might not want a baby as king when they were struggling through abject poverty and chaos. They might want a steady grown man and could possibly not truly care how that man got the throne. As much as she disliked having to admit it, Richard of Stormont looked, sounded and behaved like a reliable and reasonable man.
"John has my loyalty," Stormont said at last. "Always. And so does his mother."
She shrugged. It was really no matter to her who reigned in Lacovia, but a glimpse into the true character of Stormont was intriguing. If he was indeed Irene's lover, and the father of her baby, he had normal moral failings, but his intentions to help his country and protect the little prince commended him, and she knew she had no right to judge him considering how she had ended up Queen Consort of Gravonia. She decided that he was trustworthy, or least a little. That he was here at all, willing to provide aid to her and her sons, earned him a few good marks from Eleanor, but her first instincts were to not trust a Lacovian. What his people had done to her own family still stirred anger in her heart, however much she tried to make herself remember that Stormont had had no hand in the massacre at Teslo.
"Well. So far as your behavior now—how am I to trust you? Are you not also a Lacovian?"
"I am, but I despise what my cousin has done to my country and to the people… "
"And to his wife Queen Irene?"
"He is cruel to her, yes."
"Cruelty being a common trait amongst you Lacovians," Eleanor said, lifting her chin. "If you betray us, Your Highness, I will not hesitate to show you the same courtesy. If we can trust you, however, to do what you are able to compromise Beauchamp and King Paul and their soldiers, you will be rewarded with… compassionate terms when the time comes for peace negotiations. However, you might be wise to remember that not many soldiers in our army are inclined to be terribly nice to Lacovian soldiers. For now, all I can give you is the benefit of the doubt."
Stormont nodded, looking at the two big knights who had carried him into the room, then at Lord Hallam, who looked like he wanted to lie down and sleep for a few years. Eleanor looked at the men, signaling to them to remove the Lacovian. The man squawked when he was blindfolded again and picked up, but he made no further objections as he was carried out of the room. Eleanor frowned and sat down, hugging herself and staring into the empty fireplace.
Clothilde came into the room and sat down opposite Eleanor. "You are ready for bed now, ma'am?"
Eleanor smiled, glad to have something to distract her from her troubles. "I am. I hope James will be staying tonight. I know you have missed him dreadfully these past few days, and are happy to have him to yourself for a bit."
The German woman blushed a little. "I do look forward to being able to… catch up a bit."
"So that's what they call it," Eleanor said with a smile. "Well. Go along then, and sleep well if your James will allow it."
Clothilde rose, curtseyed to the Queen, and left the room. Eleanor waited until her lady-in-waiting was gone before rising and searching under a chair for the items she had already stored there. Once she had her weapons ready, she went to the door and opened it, smiling warmly at the two husky guards standing watch outside. "Gentlemen, could you perhaps go and find me some more blankets? I'm dreadfully cold."
The guards nodded and stomped away. She closed the door and calculated how long it would take for them to return. If she moved quickly, she would be able to slip past them fairly easily.
She examined her dagger, her crossbow, her arrows and her quiver, then stood, thinking carefully for a moment before wrapping the items up in a little bundle. She changed quickly into a simple leather brigandine, leather leggings, a mail hauberk and finally tucked her hair under a cap. She tiptoed to the door, opened it slowly and peeked out into the hallway. No one was there, and she crept silently along the wall to the door leading out into the castle courtyard. She paused when she heard a pair of knights clanking by, talking about apple dumplings, and when they were gone she moved quickly to the stables. She found her horse, saddled him quickly, and swung astride.
When she was sure no one had seen her, and that the courtyard was empty, she urged the horse forward and out through the gates. Only when she was a few yards away did she kick the black stallion into a gallop. She had a long night's ride ahead of her, and she wanted to be north of Luvov before sunrise.
Clothilde rose early, in spite of a busy night with James, and wrinkled her nose at the mustiness of the room she and her husband occupied. She had insisted that the grandest room of the castle be assigned to the Queen, and that the princes and Elizabeth be given the other finer rooms, while she and the Queen's ladies occupied smaller, humbler quarters. Considering that they had more privacy at Pontrefact, no one was complaining too badly, though all the dust and dampness was causing poor Agnes to cough a bit. Lorenzo, before departing for the battlefield last night, had insisted his wife be moved to an airier room in the castle tower.
After dressing, the Queen's chief lady-in-waiting went downstairs to see about breakfast. Agnes and Elizabeth's ladies were preparing eggs, toast and cheese and were murmuring quietly together like little ducks, and Clothilde smiled at them—the men were ferocious defenders of the Queen and her sons, but it was the women of the household who made sure everything ran smoothly and were just as fiercely devoted to Eleanor and her sons, and the Queen's ladies had refused to return home during this crisis. The King's gentlemen, too, had stubbornly remained with the household, with no one complaining even once about the tight quarters at St. Michael's or the mustiness and gloom at Pontrefact. Elizabeth, too, had refused to hear even a suggestion of returning to Morvenia and referred to herself as a Gravonian now, and her loyalty was entirely with Alexander, his family and his country.
Over the years, Clothilde and Eleanor had worked out means of bringing out the strengths of each of the Queen's ladies. For organization and attention to domestic matters, Agnes simply excelled—she herded the princes like a little sheep dog and the day-to-day routines of the household were smooth and peaceful with her in charge. Matilda was adept at keeping the Queen's clothes in perfect condition; Agatha was wonderful at arranging the Queen's hair and jewels, and tiny, fierce little Amandine made sure the Queen was always where she was supposed to be, on time, and that pugnacious little sprite became extremely agitated when the Queen was late for an engagement. Harriet was a trusted source of court gossip and was practically an artist at spreading advantageous rumors, as well as sensible advice on how to handle mistakes, and her husband Lord Ellis was an exceptionally discreet and cool-headed spy for the Queen. Clothilde, as the Queen's principal lady-in-waiting, liked and trusted the others and knew the Queen never had to worry about her day-to-day matters due to their diligence.
When Agnes looked up from her kneading, she gave Clothilde a cheerful greeting and asked if the Queen was up yet.
"No, she's still asleep, I think."
"Oh? I knocked on her door and she did not answer. I assumed she was still abed."
Clothilde knew Eleanor was a light sleeper. A knock on the door, particularly while she was at Pontrefact, would have the Queen up and armed with her dagger. Puzzled, Clothilde went back upstairs and knocked on Eleanor's door. Clothilde waited a moment, bewildered, and finally opened the door, stepping inside.
The Queen was gone.
"Oh mein Gott!" Clothilde whispered, and rushed back out into the hallway, calling for her husband. James came stumbling out of their room, pulling on his dressing gown and looking disoriented.
"What the hell?"
"The Queen is gone, James! She is gone!"
Hallam's shoulders sagged. "And you're surprised because...?"
"She… well, for God's sake, James, she could be killed!"
Hallam passed his wife and went into the Queen's chamber. He looked around and sighed. "She took her crossbow and her arrows. Bloody hell. She thought I didn't notice she had brought them, I suppose."
"Dear God… " Clothilde whispered. "You don't think she… no, surely she would not!"
"Damn right she did, and she will. You think she'll let Henry's murder go unanswered? Send for my horse to be prepared."
"You're not going, too, are you?" Clothilde gasped. "James please… plead your age, if need be, to stay off the battlefield."
He took her hands in his. "Good little woman," he said, smiling at her. "You have never failed me, and I pray I have never failed you. But I will not fail the King or the Queen. I have my duty." He kissed her, and whispered his love to her before returning to their room to dress.
Clothilde could do nothing to dissuade him. She rushed down the hall and back down into the kitchen. Agnes looked at her, expression quizzical. "What is it?"
"The Queen has left. She has gone to Luvov."
Agnes look confused. "But… Beauchamp is at Luvov."
"Yes. He is, and she's set on killing him."
"Bloody right she should," Agnes nodded. "He killed her husband and threatens her babies. If anyone hurt my Lorenzo or threatened my babies, I would do the same." With a firm whap, she smacked the bread dough on the table and began to firmly spread the dough out. "The princes must be fed, of course, and the household. Please send Amandine up to collect the boys and they can help me make breakfast."
"Agnes, how on earth can you stay so calm?"
"I have nothing to fear. The Queen and Alexander will see to Beauchamp. I've breakfast to prepare for a large household, war or no war." Agnes finished forming the bread into a loaf and expertly slid the pan into the baking oven. "Now then. I need eggs." She smiled when Agatha came into the room. "Agatha, would you please go fetch some eggs? There's plenty of chickens still pecking about." Agatha nodded and left.
Clothilde sighed and went in search of Amandine. Hallam appeared in the doorway just as his wife stepped outside. "Lady Agnes, it is imperative that the royal household stay indoors and out of sight for now."
"Of course." Agnes smiled warmly at Harry and William when they appeared in the doorway, both looking sleepy. George and Andrew both soon appeared as well and looked eager for a good meal. "Boys, go and set the table and help the ladies with whatever they require. Is Princess Elizabeth up and about yet?"
"Yes, ma'am," Andrew said. "Are we having any sausage or bacon?"
"Nay, poor lad, we've only bread, some cheese and eggs. But we will thank God for that, too, as it will be enough. Now, I should tell you that your Mama has gone to Luvov to help direct the battle against Beauchamp. We will pray for her safety and that of the army." Agnes briefly checked her bread. The four princes stared, astounded, at Agnes. She had a way, sometimes, of making startling statements without any notion that they would send everyone around her reeling.
"What did you say, Agnes?" Harry asked cautiously.
"Your Mama has gone back to Luvov. I don't know if she will join the battle, but I know her presence will be a great encouragement to the soldiers. My own Lorenzo is there, you know, but I do not fear for him and you should not fear for your mother."
Harry looked at his brothers. "Women don't fight in battles, Agnes," he said carefully.
"Your mother does." Agnes began cleaning the tabletop, wiping flour and unused dough into a rubbish bin. "And if you start jabbering about how she might end up experiencing pain, well I've given birth to eight children and she's borne six, so we know quite a bit about pain that you can only hope you never feel yourselves. I suspect she could defeat the Dragon himself, if called upon, and she will use Beauchamp as a mop. She is doing her duty as Queen and as your mother, as is good and right. Now, put aside your worries and go be useful."
The princes were accustomed to Agnes' matter-of-fact approach to difficulties, and as worried as they were, they knew the consequences of disobeying her—she would refuse to give them any shortbread biscuits, or worse, she might launch into a story about her childhood in Ullan. Harry and William led their younger siblings into the famous Great Dining Hall and looked up at the vaulted ceiling and the high beam from which Hallam and several knights had dropped Rieti's body parts down on Beauchamp and his Lacovian cohorts. The four young men helped the servants set the table, and when the ladies filed in, they held their chairs back and helped them sit down. Once the ladies were comfortable, the princes sat and Lord Hallam came stomping in.
"Well, ladies, I'm to take my leave and try to prevent the Queen from… harming herself."
"I think you should be more concerned for Lord Beauchamp, sir," Agnes said. She folded her hands and Harry took her signal, bowing his head. Hallam stood still for the young prince's prayer.
"Dear Father, we do thank you for all we have, and for all we will ever have, as all our blessings are from You. We pray for the safety of our mother and our brother the King, and for the good soldiers of our country, and we ask for Your continued blessings on us all, according to Your will. Help us all to grow in our love for You and for each other. In the name of Christ we do pray. Amen."
Hallam kissed his wife's cheek and gave her a surreptitious pinch on the bottom. She covered her tears well, and kissed him, then he turned and walked out into the courtyard and easily swung astride his horse. He looked up at the sky, exhaled, and galloped out through the gates, heading toward Luvov, followed by Baltasar and his two sons.
Harry, taking a sip of his cider, looked at his brothers. "She will be all right."
"She oughtn't to be there," Andrew said. "It's… well, it's hardly proper, is it? Queens don't take part in battles!"
"I've heard of some who have. That English queen… Boudicca, or whoever she was, took on the Romans, and then there was Zenobia… " William said.
"The former was forced to commit suicide and Zenobia was defeated!" Andrew snapped.
"Then there's Cleopatra," William tried again.
"Happily playing with her asp!" Andrew growled.
"Will you shut up?!" Harry hissed.
"You shut up!" Andrew snapped back.
"Why don't you all shut up and eat your breakfast," Clothilde said, keeping her voice mild. "Your mother will be fine."
Andrew looked at Clothilde, and she swallowed but still managed a smile. He picked listlessly at his eggs, saying nothing more, and she knew he wouldn't feel good about his mother joining any battle, and would not relax until he saw her again. He looked at his brothers and Harry leaned forward a bit.
"Don't get yourself upset, Andrew," he said kindly. "You know our mother. She's as hard as nails and twice as tough, and Constantine is with her. He will protect her, and our army adores her and they are loyal to Alexander."
Clothilde looked down at her eggs, her private concern over the Queen's relationship with Constantine coming to fore again. But right now, she could not voice those concerns. They would only add to the princes' distress. Right now, she had her own duties and like her husband, she would not fail to perform them to her last breath.
"Mama will give Beauchamp merry hell," Harry said firmly. Clothilde looked at the Queen's third son and smiled, but she could see the worry in his eyes. He managed a smile in reply but said nothing. The rest of the household tucked into their makeshift meals and said no more.
It was dawn, and Philip had the commanders rouse all the soldiers and have them gather in the center of the camp. He instructed that the Morvenians stay in their tents for now—he only wanted to speak with the Gravonians. He easily swung astride his big gray warhorse and waited until they were all silent.
"Good morning, gentlemen! I'm sure you are all wondering what the bloody hell is going on," Philip said, raising his voice a little so the Gravonian soldiers could hear him. He smiled expansively at them all. "Don't worry, though—I am not interested in taking over anything here, except maybe a side of bacon when it's time to go home. I and my brother are both only too pleased to be here to help you drive Beauchamp and his 'men' from this kingdom and to avenge the heinous murder of your good king Henry." He gestured to Alexander, who rode forward on his sleek white horse, showing no sign of nervousness. "Your King, Alexander, will speak to you now."
Philip turned his horse aside and Alexander regarded his soldiers for a moment. "I am very young, and I do not deny that I am inexperienced, but I know you were all loyal to my father and that you are devoted to my mother. I pray that I can earn your loyalty today on my own merits. As it is, you will never know a more devoted servant than I, and I know that so long as we are on God's side, nothing can be against us. Today we will drive this murdering usurper and his cruel henchmen from our country and avenge my father the King. Be sure, too, that no one in our household is the least bit concerned that we can be defeated, as that possibility does not exist."
The Gravonian soldiers were silent for a moment, and Alexander drew his breath in slowly, wondering if he words had had any effect at all, and started when a man shouted "God save the King!" from somewhere among the yeoman archers. He was soon joined by more shouts of "God save the King!" until all the Gravonian knights and soldiers were shouting the phrase again and again, banging on their shields with their swords. Alexander exhaled and glanced at his brother, who was shouting along with the soldiers. He looked back at Philip and Constantine and saw that they both looked pleased.
The Queen stopped her horse near the clearing and peered out at the archers camped there. Carefully, she dismounted, tied the horse and saw to it that she appeared like any other yeoman. She made sure her hair was tucked neatly under her skullcap, and wished she had thought to just cut it off entirely last night—it would grow back soon enough, though it would probably all be gray. Her biggest problem, though, was her chest—not even her hauberk could disguise that. She grabbed her black cloak from her saddlebag and pulled it back on. She stepped out into the clearing and sniffed, startled by the smells of sweaty men and roasted meat. The combination was not entirely pleasing.
Eleanor quickly stepped into line with some archers testing their longbows, and she grabbed a longbow herself and carefully examined the weapon, checking her arrows to see they fit it properly. They did not, really, but she was not going to use a longbow anyway—the crossbow would serve her purposes much better.
"What is your name?"
She gasped and straightened, facing the captain of the yeoman archers, a man she knew only vaguely—a big, rough-looking but intelligent man named Martens. "Reeve, sir," she said, making her voice as deep as possible. "John Reeve."
"Fine. Get on with you and join the archers. We must be ready to move within the hour."
"You're a bit small. Are you good with a longbow?"
"Aye, sir, but I prefer my crossbow."
"Huh." Martens frowned at her. "Reeve, you say? I don't recall anyone named Reeve in this unit."
"I joined just a few weeks ago."
Martens started to speak when a knight on a big black Friesian galloped up. Eleanor backed away and blended in with the other archers when she recognized Constantine. She drew in her breath and waited, pretending to test the string on her crossbow while listening in as the men talked.
"Have the archers set themselves with their backs to the sun, and set heavy fire on the main body of the Lacovian footmen and archers, and see your best marksmen aim for the regiment commanders and particularly the mercenaries—we think they will make the first assault. Only three hundred of you are to be placed initially on the field, but will be joined by the rest and the cavalry at General Seebolt's signal." Constantine exhaled and looked around. "See your fires and pitch are all ready, too, as you will use flaming arrows. Has everyone had breakfast?"
"Aye, sir," Martens nodded.
"Good. See they have all eaten well, Martens, and see that bandages are prepared for any injuries. They must be ready to move at a moment's notice." His mount began bouncing around excitedly, and Constantine settled him. "I know you must not like taking orders from a foreigner, sir, but mind these are your King's orders, not mine."
"We know you are our ally, and we fight for our king, sir," Martens said. "Besides, your daughter will be our Queen one day, and we fight for her, too."
Constantine seemed satisfied with that and rode away. Eleanor breathed a sigh of relief and checked her pocket for her matches. She sat down on a fallen log and checked her arrow points—she had been careful to dip them in pitch before leaving Pontrefact. Her matches were dry, so she put them back in her pocket.
"You there… where're you from?" a man asked her. Eleanor kept her head down, shoved her arrows back into her quiver and began carefully sharpening her dagger. Her father's dagger, actually, she remembered, examining the perfectly balanced, shining steel blade.
"I'm from Gravonia, just like you," she said at last, looking up at the man, who was sturdy-looking, ruddy and handsome. He reminded her a great deal of Henry, in fact. "And I'm here to fight for my king and my country."
"Aye, me too. That's a fine blade you have there," the archer said, sitting down beside her and beginning to examine his own arrows.
"Yes." She tucked the dagger back into the scabbard on her hip. "My father made it. I knew one day I would carry it into battle."
Constantine's head was pounding and his armor and mail were so heavy they made his neck and shoulders ache. His knees hurt, he felt a crick in his lower back, and he was glad there no mirrors about because he knew he'd probably be horrified at how he looked. Just the same, the day had broken bright and sunny, and the skies were blue, with the air crisp and chilly. He was glad to have been able to lie down for a few moments in his tent, but he had not slept.
He stepped outside his tent, bent down to snatch up a handful of dust and threw it in the air, noting the wind direction. Satisfied, he walked through the neat but crowded forest encampment, pausing briefly at the tent of King Alexander and his brother Frederick, watching the two young men practice sword fighting. They were using real swords, and the clang of metal against metal was just as unsettling a sound as ever.
Eleanor's sons. It amazed him every time he thought about it—she had borne six big, healthy, handsome young men who could put the fear of God into any army. They all even looked like her, to varying degrees, and had that same air of cool, calculating resolve about them, and Alexander in particular had inherited her intelligence and will. Henry had contributed size, physical strength and a good deal of dash to his sons, but they were the image of their mother in steel. Even young Prince Andrew looked like he could do some damage, even at his age.
"Lads," he said. Frederick nodded to the prince, but Alexander stood still, turning his sword expertly and making it whistle as it sliced through the air. The young king and his brother resumed their mock battle and Constantine stomped past them, hearing his armor clanking and feeling his knees click.
Philip, carefully trimming his beard, looked up from his mirror and smiled. "Good day for a battle, I think."
"Plans are all set."
"We're well positioned, and those Gravonian archers… good heavens, they never miss their marks."
"Huh." Constantine sat down opposite his brother. "If Alexander or Frederick are even scratched a little, Eleanor will have my head on a platter." He watched a group of Gravonian knights clank by, carrying a large box of longbows. The Morvenian and Gravonian armies had joined up last night, and had moved silently through the woods around Luvov to settle in higher ground north of the city. It had been an all-night operation, and Constantine had personally directed the soldiers and visited the captains of each regiment, going over last-minute details and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each troop. He was, for the most part, quite pleased with them all. His seasoned soldiers also found the inexperienced but devoted Gravonians easy to work with, well-fed, well-conditioned and extremely well-armed, and they were all eager to drive a hated enemy out of their country. His captains and regiment commanders all reported that the Gravonians were still wet behind the ears but were outraged by the murder of their King and were loyal to Alexander. They were ready for a fight.
"Eh, I don't think so. She still loves you." Philip put his scissors down and frowned at himself in the mirror. Constantine flinched at his brother's words, but he kept his own counsel.
"They are all safe at Pontrefact Castle, according to Alexander," he finally said, fiddling with his brother's comb and scissors for a moment. "Has Stormont showed himself yet?"
"Not yet. I expect to hear from a highly placed soldier today," Philip said. He smiled broadly when he saw Alexander and Frederick approaching. "Good morning, lads! Sleep well?"
"Not a wink," Alexander said.
"Ah well. You'll have plenty of time for sleep after you marry my fair little niece and the babies start coming. Eat some breakfast just the same. We must visit the regiments and speak with the generals, then make our presence known to Beauchamp's forces, and hopefully by mid-day we'll be lining up for battle. Well, 'hopefully' is hardly the right word, but this sort of thing needs doing, eh? You've got a throne to claim and a usurper to cut to bits. Eat well, both of you. Constantine, I hope you'll eat, too."
The younger man shrugged vaguely. He never relished breakfast and only ate a piece of toasted bread. He sat up straight when he saw the Scotsman stomping into the clearing. "Angus," he said, nodding, and Philip stood.
"Yer Majesty, I caught sight of King Paul and several of his gentlemen gallopin' along t' main road to Luvov this mornin'. He's bein' followed by a few war machines—siege towers and trebuchets and the like, and a good-sized cavalry."
"Dumb ass," Constantine muttered. "They already have Luvov, but nothing else. What's he going to do? Lay siege to his own army? That stuff will only slow him down."
"Ugly little wart, that king. He don't look like any bleedin' king I've ever seen—looks more like 'e was spawned in a cathouse," the Scotsman said. "I've got patrollin' to do, sir… "
"Have you seen Stormont yet?" Philip asked.
"Aye, sir, he's takin' a good position to the west o' here, with a few relatively less awful-lookin' Lacovians, and he's on board with Scriven."
"Good. Thank you."
The Scotsman eyed Alexander for a moment. "Ye look like yer mum, sir, if I might say so, and like yer great-granny, too."
Puzzled, Alexander stared at the Scotsman, and started to ask him what he meant when Philip deftly cut him off.
"Thank you, Angus. Please see that all is done properly."
The Scotsman nodded and walked away, disappearing into the dark woods. Alexander looked at Philip, brow wrinkled.
"How could he have known my great-grandmother? She died long ago.
"I often wonder how he knows the things he knows." Philip took another bite of bacon. "He gets around a lot, too, I should say. Now. Let's study our battle plans a bit, eh? We need to decide on placement of the archers and of the main body of the cavalry… " He glanced at Constantine, whose expression had darkened, but fortunately the prince said nothing and took another piece of bread off the plate. Alexander stared at Constantine for a long time, but the Morvenian prince made himself focus entirely on his toasted bread.
"No one knows anything?" Beauchamp shouted. "Good God, what sort of spies do I have about me? None of you can gather even one hint of information?"
Scriven glanced at his two lieutenants, who held their tongues. They had seen plenty of movement from the Gravonian army during the night, but they had their orders from him and from Stormont. They were to keep silent on such matters. Scriven's brief meeting with King Philip and Stormont had been nerve-wracking, particularly with the Dragon standing nearby, nearly breathing fire, but the discussion had been civil and Scriven was pleased with the terms—if they kept to the plan, they might just get home alive.
"Has anyone heard from Stormont, then?" Beauchamp finally asked, teeth clenched.
"Nay, sir. He has vanished."
The self-proclaimed Lord Protector of Gravonia was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, his hair was disheveled, and he was starting to develop a rather disturbing tic that caused his right eye to twitch more and more frequently. The Lacovian army was demanding their pay or else they would begin looting and burning Luvov and every city in Gravonia, according to Scriven's report. His mercenaries were annoyed, too, about their lack of payment and pretty girls to make sport with. Beauchamp had no servants at the palace, and his spies were bringing him no news whatsoever. At this point, all he had was a blockaded port at Tygo, an empty treasury, a capital city that looked like a ghost town, and not even his own son Stephen could be found. The nobles of Gravonia had all gone to ground, Eleanor and her sons had disappeared. To make matters worse, last night Beauchamp had had nightmares of being chased across a field by a dragon.
The usurpation had been easy, but it had also been an empty, vain triumph. He had a crown, but nothing to wear on his head. He had a throne, but nothing to sit on. He couldn't even call Archbishop Nichols to the palace to crown and anoint him, because that would go against Rome, and the Pope would never sanction his being crowned without sure proof that there were no other living claimants to the throne. Eleanor and her sons were still out there, and after them was von Arklow. He had seven coffins to walk over before he could truly, legitimately claim the throne, and all seven of those caskets were empty. Eleanor was surely gathering an army and preparing for a fight, and she had friends in high places. Even more, Gravonia's own seasoned and accomplished generals were nowhere to be found, and the Gravonian army had vanished.
He squeezed his eyes shut. She had the upper hand. If she was not dead, she was ready to draw blood. She had warned him, hadn't she?
Good God, what if she had King Philip and the Dragon on her side? What if she brought the Livonian and Havorian armies into the fray as well? His Lacovians and his mercenaries would be decimated, and after that would be the true bloodletting…
Swallowing and forcing away his morbid thoughts, Beauchamp shifted in his chair and glared at Scriven. "Do you have any information for me at all, you useless fool?"
Scriven bit his tongue and shook his head. A commotion down the hall diverted his attention from Beauchamp, and he sighed when he saw King Paul and his retinue coming. The King of Lacovia was looking around the magnificent but tastefully-decorated palace with an acquisitive eye, and it took all of Scriven's self-control to keep him from grabbing his dagger and making this whole idiotic endeavor completely moot. It wouldn't be that hard to get rid of Paul, either. The little mongrel would not take long in dying, that was for sure—he looked as though the ride from Rumon had been too much already.
Paul stomped into the Presence Chamber and looked around. "Where's the famous ivory and gold throne?" he asked.
"It's in storage until time for the coronation," Beauchamp said. He caught Scriven's narrow gaze, but the general shrugged and walked out without backing out of the room, as would have been required. Paul looked at his father-in-law, who frowned.
"Well, I would like to see the bodies of Gravonia's late gracious Queen and her sons. Where are they?"
"They are… still at Tygo. They will be brought here when the crown is secured and quietly… disposed of."
"Ah. And King Henry's corpse? Where is it?"
"At Willemet, of course."
Paul frowned, puzzled. "You just left him there?"
Beauchamp stood up and paced to the window, looking out toward the north. What he saw made his blood run cold.
"Dear God," he whispered.
Paul moved to the window and looked out. He grinned. "Such a small force of men. You're afraid of that?"
Down below, positioned on high ground at the edge of the royal forest, a rather small force of Gravonian soldiers stood ready for battle. Beauchamp swallowed and turned back to look at Paul. "Prepare the men."
"Finally. Bloody hell, it's taken you long enough. All the booty we could have already gleaned from this country, and you've wasted it. But what do they have down there? Three hundred or so? We'll wipe them off the face of the earth." Paul grinned. "I will rally my soldiers. After this battle, they will have plenty of sport in Luvov and throughout the countryside. You'll get the Queen and the onus of dispatching her sons, and I'll have a fortune. I can't imagine why you've waited so long, Charles."
Beauchamp nodded and went in search of his armor. Today he was going to finally firmly establish his right to the crown. The path was set, his army was prepared, and he was ready. There was no going back now, and he had only this final move to make before all was settled, once and for all.
Eleanor joined the yeoman archers, keeping her head down and saying as little as possible to the men. No one seemed concerned that she was using a crossbow instead of the usual longbow, and as she prepared her weapon she jabbed her arrows into the ground, within easy reach, and finally straightened, keeping out of sight as the commanders trotted by, and she pulled her hood down over her head. She saw Constantine and his brother and was relieved to see Alexander and Frederick with them. She smiled as she watched her sons discuss strategy with Constantine, and was pleased when her former lover agreed with her sons on positioning of the cavalry in the woods behind the archers. It was well known that Henry's archers were particularly devoted to the late king, though the cavalry and foot soldiers were also very devoted to the crown and to their country, and Alexander's insistence that the archers be the first to launch their offensive against Lacovia was considered and agreed upon, and Constantine commented that the Gravonian archers were unmatched for deadly accuracy with their arrows.
Alexander sat on his regal warhorse, while Frederick rode his handsome, head-shy chestnut. Both young men were exactly what knights were supposed to be and look like—tall, handsome, strong and fit, and from the way they were carrying themselves among their experienced elders, their training was serving them both well. She whispered a prayer for them, then settled her gaze across the field, watching as a line of Lacovian cavalrymen rode across the field and began lining up, facing the Gravonian force. The Lacovian archers soon moved out in front, and the mercenaries took their positions at their flanks. Eleanor gauged the distance between the two armies at about a hundred yards—well within distance of her own crossbow and of the yeomen longbows.
Her eyes narrowed when she saw Beauchamp ride out onto the field with Scriven and two other generals. She knew of Scriven somewhat, but she had no opinion of him either way, and she did not recognize the other men. It did not escape her that most of the soldiers on horseback were not Lacovians but Germans and Hessians. The Lacovian archers were, for the most part, a ragged-looking bunch and not only were they poorly kitted out, but also seemed to look woefully underfed and seemed unenthusiastic about joining this battle.
She glanced around at the three hundred or so men beside her, their backs to the forest where the rest of the Gravonian and Morvenian army stood waiting. She waited under she heard General Seebolt shout "Archers!" before she set her crossbow and leveled it toward Beauchamp, narrowing her eyes as she searched for a vulnerable spot in his armor plating. She finally settled on his shoulder, and carefully set her arrow and lit the point aflame. The archer next to her looked at her, brow furrowed, but she paid him no mind. She waited, and when Seebolt gave the order to release, she steadied herself, aimed and let the arrow loose.
Beauchamp was bewildered by the behavior of the Lacovian archers. They were not moving, and even worse, Scriven had given them no orders. They only seemed to have set their shields up, while across the field he heard Seebolt order the archers to make ready. He turned his back to the archers and watched as the arrows were raised in the longbows, each point on fire, and swallowed, realizing that his forces were in a bad position—the Gravonians had drawn his forces below theirs, and it suddenly dawned on Beauchamp that Scriven and his generals had fallen for the ploy.
He looked across the field to see a line of flaming arrow points pointed almost straight toward his position. Swallowing, he looked back and was stunned then at what he saw—the Lacovians were falling back, one step at a time, and the cavalry that was supposed to be providing cover to the flanks of his archers were nowhere in sight. Only his mercenaries, positioned directly behind the archers, were holding their line while the Lacovian line was disintegrating. Scriven, Beauchamp saw, was shouting orders at the Lacovians, and over the din he heard "Fall back!" Beauchamp looked past the mercenaries and saw King Paul wheeling his horse, shouting angrily at the archers, but they were already running away, as fast as they could, and were ignoring the King entirely. Beauchamp's rage only increased when he saw Richard of Stormont at the edge of the field, calling to the Lacovians to retreat. "Go home! Go home now before they unleash hell on you! Save yourselves! Run!"
"Treason!" Beauchamp screamed. "Rally, dammit! Rally!" But the Lacovians were not listening—they were running, as fast as their legs could carry them, back toward the border. Only the mercenaries remained, and Beauchamp galloped up to their leader, a brutish-looking Hessian. "Attack, dammit!"
"With what? We have no cover from your archers now!"
"Attack!" Beauchamp screamed. "Now! Kill Alexander, dammit, and his brother, too!"
The Hessian raised his arm and galloped forward, followed by his force of eight hundred. Beauchamp turned back to face the Gravonians and howled in pain when a steel-pointed arrow pierced through the space between his breast plate and shoulder. He screamed in horror when the padding under his mail caught fire, and he reeled, barely managing to stay astride his mount. At that same moment, hundreds of flaming arrows rained down on the mercenaries as they surged forward, and many in the front line were immediately felled. Beauchamp managed to steady himself on his horse and looked across the field and gasped in pain and horror when the Gravonian archers split forces and moved out of the way of a large force of Morvenian footmen and cavalry, all moving forward with deadly precision from their hiding place in the forest, and they were heading straight toward the charging mercenaries.
Beauchamp swallowed when he saw Constantine riding almost in the center of the charging Gravonians, and behind him, red and white banners flying, were what seemed like thousands of Morvenian knights on well-armored warhorses. Beauchamp felt as though his heart had dropped into his belly, and he sat there on his horse for what seemed like forever, watching his entire world crumble around him through flames, smoke and the screams of wounded men and horses. He watched Constantine pull his sword from its scabbard and raise it, galloping toward him in what seemed like slow motion, gracefully turning the sword in his hand.
With Lacovian archers running away, and his mercenaries charging toward a huge, skilled army, Beauchamp knew he had only two options: flee for the border or join in what was sure to be a bloodbath of his forces. He closed his eyes, yanked the shaft of the burning arrow out, knowing the barbed arrow was still digging into his flesh, and urged his horse forward. He pulled his sword from his scabbard and spurred the horse, screaming to give himself some courage. He searched the line of Gravonian archers and was surprised to see Alexander, astride a flashy white horse, giving orders to a group of knights. Beauchamp turned his horse toward the King of Gravonia and galloped toward him. Alexander pulled away from the knights and charged toward him, shield set and sword raised, fury and vengeance darkening his face.
That was enough for Beauchamp—there was too much Henry and Eleanor in that boy, and his nerve failed him. He drew back on the reins as hard as he could, causing his horse to come to a skidding stop. As the young king galloped toward him, Beauchamp turned around, cursed and urged the horse to run, spurring the animal mercilessly. He had to get back to the Lacovian border or he was sure to die—to hell with Paul and his damned Lacovians.
Alexander continued after him, but Beauchamp's horse was faster. The young King decided it wasn't worth it to chase the man down when his own knights were fighting the mercenaries. Alexander saw one of the foreign knights riding toward him, sword raised, and he wheeled his horse expertly and counted the other man's horse's strides before he struck his blow, his sword cutting right through the man's neck. The king winced as blood sprayed everywhere, splattering on his face and armor. He heard the other man's horse squeal and the clatter of metal, and Alexander wished he hadn't opened his eyes just then, because his attacker's head was rolling down the hill. If it hadn't been so awful, it would have almost been rather amusing.
"Alexander, rally your men to the center of the field," Constantine told him. The King wiped blood from his face and stared at the Morvenian prince, panting. Constantine's horse and his armor his were splattered with blood, too, and the legendary commander had clearly been engaged in hand-to-hand fighting.
"I… killed him."
"I'm afraid so," Constantine said, looking at the headless knight sprawled in the grass. "Go on. Now is not the time for self-doubt, son. See to your men. Lead them. Keep your archers on the flanks of the mercenaries and see they do not relent at firing on the them, but tell them to cease using fired arrows for now, but also see they don't cut themselves down in the process. Pincher move, lad—cut them off from any hope of aide, box them in and annihilate them. Set the best marksmen to the rear of the yeoman, in a higher spot, so they can pick off the remaining enemy trying to move toward my horsemen. If they falter, rally them. Your brother is on the other side and he's got the archers set well and they're pushing the Germans back to the center. Make sure you're not firing on each other."
The King nodded and galloped away. Constantine scanned the battlefield, noting the Gravonian archers still holding their position on the flanks while the Morvenian knights engaged Beauchamp's knights in battle in the center of the action, fighting hand-to-hand and on horseback. The mercenaries were being pushed back across the field, the survivors unable to withstand both swords and arrows. The field was littered with dead bodies, and Constantine was pleased to see virtually no downed red and white banners, and he couldn't tell that any of the Gravonian archers had been felled. He scanned the battlefield, counting the flags of each force's regiment and seeing none missing. He watched Alexander shouting at his archers to keep firing at the mercenaries now trapped in the center of the field, and the archers were loosing arrow after arrow on the mercenaries, Alexander at their side, shouting encouragement. He galloped over to the bowmen on the left flank and made a quick count, noting that not one man had been harmed, and saw Frederick testily breaking the shaft of an arrow that had pierced his shoulder, and winced when the prince stabbed a German with his sword, so that the point went through the man and pierced out through his back Frederick looked irritated, rather than frightened, and Constantine wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. Particularly when he remembered his own first battle and how irritated he had been at being inconvenienced by some ass coming at him with a sword and needing to be cut down.
"Excellent work, men," he shouted over the noise. "Keep raining hell down on the mercenaries for now, but don't bother with the Lacovians themselves. They're out of range anyway. If the mercenaries try to flee to the west or the east, move forward and box them in on either side but let the Morvenians thrash them with swords. Use your pikes to push them back into the center of the field and we'll finish them off. Save your best archers for their skill."
Martens, bloodied and cheerful, nodded. "Aye, sir. One of my own archers got Beauchamp in the shoulder."
"With a crossbow, no less," Martens told him. He searched around. "Huh. The bowman's gone."
"He said his name was John Reeve. I know that."
Constantine stared at Martens, brow furrowing. "John Reeve?"
"Yes, sir. Do you know him?"
"I've heard of him." Constantine nodded to the man and galloped back toward where Philip had his cavalry prepared for action, should the need arise. So far, though, the mounted knights had little to do besides cut down the very few mercenaries that managed to break through the Gravonian charge. He trotted up to his brother and Philip raised his eyebrows, seeing the expression on his brother's face.
"What is it?"
"Nothing," Constantine muttered. "Tell me, has the Queen showed herself?"
"Here? Good heavens, brother, this is no place for a woman!"
"You know Eleanor is no ordinary woman."
"Granted, but I'd never allow it."
Constantine snorted. "As if you could tell her anything. I certainly couldn't." He turned and looked back across the field. Gravonia's flaming arrows had set the field behind the mercenaries on fire, and Beauchamp's hired men were now trapped between enraged Gravonian knights and more level-headed Morvenian horsemen. Panicked mercenaries were attempting to flee from the field now, trying to head east or west, but Constantine was pleased to see the Gravonian archers meticulously picking them off as they tried to regroup. All the ranking German and Hessian knights were dead or wounded, and those that remained were being cut to pieces or, in some instances, captured and dragged forward by the Gravonians while being punched and kicked. The handful of mercenaries that had managed to escape were running north, toward the Lacovian border.
King Paul was riding away with his remaining knights, the mercenaries were reduced to only a handful of survivors, and Beauchamp was no longer in sight. Philip saw a white flag waving, and was surprised to see Richard of Stormont riding alongside the knight conceding defeat. He exhaled, relieved that it was over, and turned back to look for his brother. He was startled, then, to see Queen Eleanor riding toward him on a big, mean-looking black horse, with a scowling Lord James Hallam riding beside her. She was resplendent in black and gold, and she was wearing a jewel-encrusted crown that flashed and sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. When the other Gravonian knights and archers saw her, they began cheering loudly, and only became louder in their acclamation when Alexander trotted up to his mother, his face still streaked with blood, his cheek scarred by a mercenary's dagger.
"God save the King!" the Gravonians began shouting, but Constantine had his own words for Eleanor. He shoved a Morvenian knight aside and rode up to the Queen, barely able to contain his rage.
"What in bloody hell were you doing on that battlefield?" he shouted at her.
Eleanor frowned at him, and Alexander stared at Constantine, at first startled then angered.
"You will not speak that way to my mother!" the King snapped.
"I damned well will! Eleanor, for God's sake, you could have been killed!"
"I have no idea what you are talking about," Eleanor replied, looking utterly serene, but there was fire in her eyes.
"So you would deny that you took part in this battle? That John Reeve's arrow wounded Beauchamp?"
"Who is John Reeve?" Alexander asked, but Eleanor cut him off, her blue eyes narrowing.
"Is it of any matter, Your Highness?" she asked. "Beauchamp still lives and if he gets back to Lacovia, he will not face justice for his crimes."
Constantine's jaw was so tight it was a wonder he didn't crack a tooth. He scowled at the Queen, then rode forward, crowding against her mount as he spoke in hard, angry tones. "We will discuss this later, Eleanor." He ignored Hallam's indignant grunt and only glanced briefly at Alexander and his brother, both of whom looked like thunder at seeing their mother being crowded and shouted at.
"I did my duty to my husband and my sons," she hissed, barely keeping her horse and her temper under control. "And I was not afraid. I vowed vengeance and I got it!"
Constantine glared at Eleanor for several moments, then he turned and galloped away, following the path Beauchamp had taken toward Lacovia. Eleanor calmly accepted the homage of her son's soldiers, and avoided Alexander's pointed stare, knowing the young man would have plenty of questions for her later. She smiled at Philip, who still looked stunned. Lord Hallam looked exhausted and furious, but Eleanor ignored him and touched her son's bleeding cheek.
"I see you have won your spurs, sweetheart," she said.
Alexander nodded, at a loss. The Queen looked at Philip and smiled.
"I take it we have been triumphant, sir?" she asked mildly.
"Quite so," Philip nodded, looking at Alexander. "Quite so."
Beauchamp knew he was almost thirty miles from the border. He wasn't sure his horse could make it, but by God he was going to try, because the alternative was unthinkable. He stopped briefly, letting his horse rest a little, and watched in dismay as the Lacovian army rushed past him, followed by only a small number of mercenaries. He knew better than to let them see him, and was about to kick his horse into a gallop when he saw some knights carrying a fallen soldier on a pallet. Puzzled, and throwing away his sense of self-preservation, he rode over and gasped, horrified, when he saw the injured knight was King Paul.
"What has happened?" he asked.
"His horse fell—stepped in a damned hole. The King has been badly injured: the horse rolled over him. He says he cannot feel his legs."
Beauchamp looked at his son-in-law, who was unconscious, and knew it was over. He turned his horse and galloped away.
Constantine felt his age as he galloped along after Beauchamp. He removed his helmet and loosened his armor, wishing he could take it off entirely, for his horse's sake as well as his own. Lamman was a fast horse, but the armor the animal was wearing had to be wearying as well, and he stopped to remove it and let the warhorse drink from a little creek. As he rode on, he caught sight of the Lacovian army trudging home, demoralized but alive, and he was curious to see a fallen knight was being carried on a pallet. He made no effort to go and ask about it, but he knew the soldier had to be important to be carried home, as the Lacovians were not known to care to bring home dead or injured knights after a battle. For all he knew, the two knights he had killed in the Turon Valley were still rotting in the woods.
The terrain changed as he moved north, from flat wheat fields to craggy hills, and he knew the land gave Beauchamp good cover. He looked for hoof prints and finally saw signs of someone riding at top speed toward the border, which at his calculations was only about ten miles ahead. He spurred Lamman on and charged over the hill and saw Beauchamp astride a large gray horse, whipping the exhausted animal toward the line of willow trees that lined the shallow Gabriel River, which marked the border between the two countries. The prince's mouth set, seeing the broken arrow shaft still protruding from the man's shoulder, and remembered the risk Eleanor had taken at joining in the battle. The one man to blame for that, of course, was Beauchamp.
Beauchamp turned and saw Constantine riding toward him and paled. He spurred his horse on, determined to get to the border, but Constantine was gaining on him quickly, despite the rising terrain. Finally, knowing he wasn't going to make it, Beauchamp turned his horse and charged down the hill toward the Morvenian prince, desperation being his only option now. Constantine pulled back on his reins and brought his horse to a stop and pulled his sword from his scabbard, turning it coolly and bracing himself for the attack. Beauchamp shouted as he rushed forward, sword raised, but his momentum was too much for him to stop as the Morvenian dismounted and moved smoothly aside, grabbing Beauchamp's saddle and dragging him off the horse. Beauchamp hit the ground hard, crying out in pain, and dropped his sword, the weapon landing several feet away.
Constantine moved down the hill toward Beauchamp, who was scrabbling away on his knees and trying to reach his sword. The prince allowed the man to get within reach of the sword before he spoke.
"Please don't make me kill you."
Beauchamp rolled over and stared up at him. Finally, he sat up, gasping for breath. "Mercy."
"You'll get as much mercy as you gave," Constantine told him. "Get up and don't give me any trouble. I'm already in a bad mood—don't give me reason to take it out on you."
Beauchamp slowly got to his feet, and Constantine went to his horse, dragging chains from his saddle bag. Beauchamp looked gloomily at his sword, which still lay in the grass, just a few feet away. He submitted silently to being shackled, and stood still, watching as the prince stretched a length of sturdy chain from his saddle horn to the chains wound around his wrists.
"She's going to kill me, isn't she?" he asked Constantine.
"That isn't up to me." Constantine collected Beauchamp's ornately-decorated sword and swung astride his horse, shoving the traitor's sword into his scabbard. "Now walk." He grabbed Beauchamp's horse's bridle and jabbed Beauchamp with the tip of his own plain sword, making the man walk ahead. "We'll pass through a village or two, I think, so if you don't want to get hit with shit and rotten vegetables, I'd recommend you learn how to duck. And as for when we get to Luvov, you might want to practice your groveling skills."
Irene rushed out onto her balcony and looked down at the road leading up to the palace gates. She was startled to see Richard, not Paul, riding at the head of the army as it trailed up the road to the palace gates. She searched for any sign of her husband, bewildered, and noted that some knights were carrying someone on a board, which was extremely odd, as the soldiers never carried their dead or wounded comrades home. She stood for several moments, not sure what to do, and turned back when she heard her door open. Queen Joanna came rushing in, looking agitated.
"They're coming back!" she said, rushing to the balcony to look down at the returning army. Her excitement turned to dismay when she saw who was riding at the head of the army, and she turned and rushed out of the room. Irene looked back down and saw Richard, looking magnificent on his white horse, and her heart swelled with joy at seeing him. She went back into her room and peered down into the cradle at little John. "Do not worry, sweetheart. Your Papa will be a good king, and you will reign one day, if God wills it."
She went out into the hallway and soon heard the clattering of booted feet as the commanders of the Lacovian army came into the palace. She heard Joanna's anguished cry, and finally heard Richard telling the commanders to disperse the army and let everyone go home.
Irene slowly walked into the Great Hall and saw Richard facing Joanna, who was sobbing as Paul was carried into the room on a wide board. "The King cannot feel his legs. He is crippled," Richard told the Queen Mother.
Paul was whimpering, and someone gave him some water. Otherwise, he was ignored. Joanna was asking Richard what had happened as Irene walked into the hall.
"Beauchamp's mercenaries were annihilated on the field, and our soldiers thought better of attacking Gravonia's knights and archers… particularly when they saw they were joined by Morvenia's foot soldiers and cavalry. There are perhaps twenty mercenaries remaining alive with us. The rest are probably still being cut to ribbons by the Dragon's men and by Gravonia's archers," Richard said. He saw Irene and nodded to her. "Your Majesty, I'm sure you wish to take charge of the King's care."
Irene gestured for the men to carry the King on into her room. She followed, ignoring Joanna's keening cries and the chattering of the soldiers and courtiers in the Great Hall. She stood in the doorway as Paul was moved onto her bed, but as soon as they were finished making the King comfortable she gestured for them to leave. Paul looked at her, moaning in pain and animal terror.
"My horse fell on me," he said between gasps of pain.
"Shall I send for your mistress?" she asked with acid sweetness.
"I cannot feel my legs! I cannot move!" he wailed.
"Hm." Irene went to the sideboard and poured him a cup of water. "Perhaps Motherdear should come and see you?"
Paul picked miserably at the blanket covering him. "I want my Mummy."
Snickering silently to herself, Irene went back out into the hallway. "Motherdear, Paul wishes to see you."
Joanna rushed into the room and sat down on the bed beside her son, stroking his face and his hair. "My sweet baby. You will be well soon, I know it. You will be on your feet very soon, and you will rule for many more years."
Irene washed her hands in the basin and listened to her husband and his mother murmuring together.
"So where is my father?" she finally asked, turning to face Paul and her mother-in-law.
"He fled the field. I'm sure he will be here soon," Paul gasped, grasping his mother's hand. "We will rise again, Mummy. I know we will."
Irene sighed and went out to look over the stinking city of Rumon, then turned back to look at her husband and his mother. Paul had brought so much misery to his own people, and he would continue to do so as long as he remained alive. His cruelty toward her was minimal compared to what he had done to the citizens of his own country, and after this humiliating defeat his cruelty would probably only increase, and he would raise their taxes to pay to rebuild his army.
Someone knocked on the door and Joanna opened it, welcoming the doctor into the room. Irene caught a glimpse of Richard, who only briefly looked at her, casting an encouraging smile at her before continuing down the hallway with several of Lacovia's commanders, including the hard-looking but just General Scriven, for whom she had a cautious respect.
Irene watched the doctor examine her husband, and the man did not look as though he was encouraged by his findings. Finally, the doctor faced Joanna. "Ma'am, the King is rendered… unable to walk. He has no sense at all in his legs."
"No sense?!" Joanna shouted. "You are wrong. My baby is the King and he will… he must walk. You must make him walk."
"Ma'am, his back is broken and the damage is irreversible."
"Get out!" Joanna shouted. "Get out, you worthless quack!" She opened the door. "Guards! Take this traitor to the dungeons and see he learns to be respectful!"
The doctor withdrew and was dragged away by the guards, but one caught Irene's eye and she nodded—the doctor would be released. Irene checked her little son, smiling down at him and tickling his chin, making him smile. She turned back to look at her mother-in-law, who was back at Paul's side, holding his hand and whispering to him, telling him again and again that he would walk again very soon. "Motherdear, perhaps you ought to step outside for a bit and try to calm yourself. Your son is already quite stressed, and you are surely almost as upset."
Joanna stood and, after a moment of gazing adoringly at her son, turned and strode from the room. The door clicked shut and Irene went across the room to Paul's chair and picked up a heavy, brocaded pillow. She smoothed it for a moment, thinking of the past twelve years of her life and all she had endured. She thought of her son, who deserved a loving father, and she thought of the poor people of Lacovia, who deserved peace and dignity. She thought of Richard and her love for him. She thought of her family back home—she had not heard a word from her mother in years; poor Margot's husband had died two years go and left her destitute in France, and Stephen was, according to what little she had heard of him, so embittered by their father's treason that he had refused to marry and was living in Italy, determined to let the Duchy of Beswick die with him. So be it, she nodded.
It had started with her father and his greed and lust for power. Her marriage to the loathsome Paul had probably separated her from her mother and siblings for the rest of her life and tainted them all forever. Whenever anyone heard the name 'Beauchamp', they would likely think of treason, cruelty and greed.
No more, she thought. She picked up the pillow and carried it with her to Paul's side.
"Paul," she said mildly, sitting beside him on the bed. "I think I ought to tell you something."
"What is it, you stupid cow?" he hissed, opening his eyes and glaring feverishly at her.
"John is Richard's son. He and I have been lovers for some time now." She smiled. "I love him, and if he asks me despite my taint of having ever shared a bed with you, I will gladly marry him."
The King of Lacovia's expression changed from pained to outraged. "You little whore!" he shouted in his weedy, high-pitched voice that always made her think of Irish banshees. "I will have you killed for this for sure, no matter if I have to return your dowry to… "
She placed the pillow over his face and pressed down. Paul tried to grip her arms, but she put all her weight into pushing down, and his attempts to shove her away were to no avail—she put all her strength and anger into her efforts. She continued pressing down, ignoring his muffled cries and desperate flailing. He gradually stopped trying to push her away and grew weaker and weaker, until finally his arms dropped to his sides. She knew not to let up, however, and continued pressing down, wanting to make sure the matter was permanently settled.
After several moments, she finally raised the pillow and pressed her fingers to his throat, feeling for a pulse, but there was nothing.
He was dead.
Irene calmly took the pillow back to the chair and plumped it carefully, settling it back in place, then moved back to the chair beside Paul's bed. She smiled at her dead husband, then took on a serenely sorrowful expression when Queen Joanna came bustling back into the room, armed with several bandages and followed by her ladies, who were all carrying pillows and blankets.
"What has happened?" Joanna asked, rushing forward and taking her son's hand in hers. "Paul? Sweetheart, we have several warm blankets and we will make you comfortable. All will be well, darling boy… " The Queen Mother looked down at her son's still hand and frowned. "Paul? Paul?!"
Irene said nothing, and allowed her mother-in-law to shove her aside as Joanna stretched out across her dead son's body, screaming. Irene went to John and picked him up, cooing at her son and smiling as he screeched and tried to grab her hair. She turned and saw Richard standing in the doorway. "He's gone."
Richard stepped into the room and looked down at the dead king, sighing as Joanna continued wailing. Finally, annoyed, he went over and pulled Joanna off the bed. "Stop it, woman, and get out before you get John screaming too."
"You dare tell me what to do?" Joanna hissed, wiping away her tears. "I am Queen Mother of Lacovia and that baby is my grandson and he… "
"He's not your grandson, you vicious bitch," Irene said, barely even raising her voice and cuddling her son. "From henceforth, he will grow up in a loving household, and he'll be taught to show compassion and kindness, and even more, he'll learn how to be a decent human being, which means he will grow up far away from you." She gestured to two guards standing outside the door. "Take her to her rooms and lock her in there until we decide what to do with her."
Joanna moved to slap Irene, but Richard stepped between them. "Strike her, Joanna, and I'll have you beheaded within the hour, do you hear me?"
The Queen Mother looked between her daughter-in-law and her son's cousin, and her face twisted into an ugly sneer. "You lay down with this… this poetry-reading ass?" she hissed. "You had my beautiful son and you took up with… "
Irene had to fight off the urge to simply punch her mother-in-law in the face. Richard stepped between them, his back to Irene, and he stared the old Queen Mother down.
"You should hear some of the ditties they sing about you, Joanna. About that handsome archer you befriended that summer while your husband was in Saxony. Remember him? I wouldn't push my luck too much if I were you, woman." He gestured to a guard standing outside the door. "Take her to her rooms."
Joanna was dragged protesting from the room, and when they were finally alone, Irene settled John back into his cradle and moved into Richard's arms, sighing with relief as he embraced her. "Do we actually have a future now?" she asked him, looking out toward the poverty-ravaged city of Rumon.
"We must pray for God's help," Richard told her. "The future is blind, but with His help, perhaps we can finally make a start."
Constantine kept an eye on Beauchamp as the defeated man walked in front of him. He otherwise let himself relax a little, wincing at his battle wounds—he had taken a few blows in hand-to-hand fights with a few of the mercenaries, but he was more or less in good shape for a forty-five year old man who had seen more than his fair share of battles. He poked Beauchamp to continue on into a little village a few miles north of Luvov, and he watched some of the peasants coming out of their houses, watching warily as they passed through.
"This man murdered King Henry and tried to usurp the throne," Constantine called, and Beauchamp momentarily stopped, but the Morvenian prince nudged him again with the tip of his sword. "Tell them your crimes, Charles," he said.
Beauchamp seemed incapable of speech, and the villagers glared at him. It was not surprising when a rotten onion hit him in the face, followed by a truly disgusting rotted turnip. Constantine almost laughed, remembering Philip's rant about how God clearly considered turnips to be a mistake, as He had buried them deep in the earth where no sensible person would look for them. Look at this, Gabriel. Does this look edible?
Constantine nudged Beauchamp again and he continued walking, rotten fruit and vegetables hitting him, along with bitter invective from the villagers, until he passed through the southern gates.
"I think we could move a little faster, Charlie," Constantine said. "Run a bit, eh? I'm sure we can keep up with you."
Beauchamp turned and glared at him, but he said nothing and began running. Constantine urged Lamman into a trot and amused himself with watching a murderer endure a bit of exercise and humiliation.
Eleanor kept her thoughts to herself as Alexander reviewed his soldiers, all of whom seemed to heartily approve of their King. Frederick rode beside his brother, looking quite cheerful despite a few battle wounds of his own, and she said a silent prayer of thanks that her babies were both safe, if somewhat scratched up. She supposed that was to be expected, but it still made her heart hurt to see the scar on Alexander's cheek and the arrow shaft still sticking out of Frederick's left shoulder. They had passed their first real test with flying colors and she was immensely proud of them.
The Queen finally stepped out of her tent and allowed Lord Hallam to assist her onto a horse. She looked down at James and saw his angry scowl. "Oh, come now, James. Please don't be cross."
"If I can ever get my heart to stop pounding, perhaps I'll consider being calm," he said. "Just the same, I knew you would leave."
"Then why be angry?" she said, looking across the way at the assembled Gravonian army. The men were waiting to be dismissed, and she was sure they were all itching for a huge celebration of their victory. Past them, she saw soldiers digging a hole into which the dead mercenaries would be pitched—they had shown no respect for the lives of the people they were attacking, and were being showed the same degree of courtesy. Eleanor couldn't make herself feel much sympathy for them or even their families—they had chosen this path and surely understood the consequences.
Hallam led her horse over to the line of archers and knights waiting for their final review before being released. Alexander drew up in front of them. "Your service and devotion are appreciated more than you can know, and be assured that each of you will be rewarded. God bless you all, and may He give you each His blessings of peace, prosperity and health."
The soldiers responded with loud shouts of "God save the King!" and approving roars. When Eleanor appeared at Alexander's side, their roars grew even louder, and Alexander grinned at his mother.
"God save the Queen," he said, having to shout over the noise. Eleanor smiled and kissed her son on the cheek, and did the same to Frederick, muttering over the arrow shaft still in his shoulder. Her second son shrugged, grinning, and she rolled her eyes. She smiled at the soldiers and waited until they were quiet.
"I know your celebrations will last through the night," she said, raising her voice, and the soldiers all laughed. "To that end, you are all invited to a banquet tonight at the palace, and we pray you will bring your wives and your little ones—you and your families will be our honored guests."
Alexander raised his eyebrows, but he looked pleased with the notion. "Aye, and we will provide much food and some wine!"
The soldiers laughed again and began shouting "God save the King!" again. Alexander looked pleased and turned to his mother.
"I hope the household can return to Luvov before nightfall."
"I will send for them immediately," she said. "Your brothers are, I'm sure, very concerned, though I'm sure Agnes has soothed them with shortbread and tales of giant wheels of cheese."
Eleanor breathed out when she stepped through the palace gates and stood in the southern courtyard. Various men were rushing about, seeking out any leftover Lacovians or mercenaries that might still be on the grounds or in the city, and as such she was guarded by Hallam's two strapping sons. Neither of them would leave her side, however much she tried to assure them she was perfectly safe. She continued on into the palace, the two young men on either side, and paused in the Great Hall, looking up at the portrait of King Henry on his warhorse. She smiled up at him, tears brimming in her eyes, and continued on, amused by the flurry of servants and soldiers already returning armor and shields to their places on the walls.
The large room had not suffered any damage, and she looked at the long dining table and the huge fireplace, where a fire had already been built. Palace guards were posted at every door, and as she passed through each room she paused to greet each man and thanked him for his devotion to the royal family. Servants were returning to the palace and setting up the banqueting hall for a sumptuous feast, and no one was grumbling a bit about the short notice. Eleanor knew that everything would be ready when the soldiers arrived with their families, and that the celebration would last well past dawn.
She continued down the hallway to the Presence Chamber and was greeted by Lorenzo and old Boris, who was stooped now with age and cares but was as sharp-eyed as ever. She greeted both men with a kiss on the cheek. She smiled brightly when she saw Sir Niall Lassiter directing men to set up tables and chairs in the banqueting hall, and she made him stop long enough to thank and kiss him, too, and after he mumbled an embarrassed "It was my honor, ma'am", he rushed away.
"Your Majesty, your throne is back in place," Boris told her gravely. "Be assured no Lacovian touched it or the King's throne." He gestured to her silver and gold-covered ivory throne, and Eleanor almost laughed—it would be as uncomfortable as ever, no matter what royal posterior had sat upon it. Just the same, she moved quietly to the chair and sat down, shifting a little to minimize the ache that would soon start in her lower back and spread to her hips. The chair looked magnificent, but it was a killer to her spine.
She watched two knights carry the King's throne into the room and settle it beside her. She said nothing and sat back in the chair, gripping the armrests and wondering where Constantine was—had he captured Beauchamp, or had that murderer managed to escape across the border?
Was Constantine all right? Dear God, if something happened to him…
"Madame, you must come see," Lorenzo said, rushing into the room. She looked up at him, brow furrowed.
"What is it? Have my children arrived?"
"Not yet, ma'am. I have sent couriers to Pontrefact and they should be here shortly. But outside… there's quite a tumult in the city, ma'am."
"Oh, dear God… the Lacovians aren't attacking… ?"
"No, ma'am. Come." Lorenzo held out his hand and assisted her back to her feet and led her out of the palace to the south-facing balcony, which looked out over Luvov's main thoroughfare. She peered down at the long street, which divided the city evenly, and watched in astonishment as Charles Beauchamp walked ahead of Constantine, who was astride Lamman. Citizens of Luvov were hurling all manner of filth at Beauchamp—rotten vegetables and fruit, the contents of chamber pots, and handfuls of mud and manure, and many were calling him every name they could think of and inventing a few more. Constantine was doing nothing to stop them from venting their rage, but he occasionally made a warning gesture to an over-enthusiastic person who looked like he intended to mete out more severe justice.
At the palace gates, Constantine dismounted from Lamman and dragged Beauchamp into the courtyard. Guards closed the gates behind him after leading Lamman in, and Eleanor turned and went back to the Presence Chamber. "See he is cleaned up—I don't wish to smell him, nor should he be allowed to trail filth into this palace again," she told Lorenzo.
"Aye, ma'am." Lorenzo bowed and started to leave.
"Wait. I want Alexander to issue his decision on how to deal with Lord Beauchamp—he is King now and the decision is his, not mine. Clean him up and lock him in the Tower Gate." She paused, drumming her fingers on the armrest. "Has anyone seen or heard from Lord Gavin Despencer yet?"
"Find him, please, and bring him to me."
"The King! The King!"
Alexander paused, momentarily confused when he heard the shouts of acclamation from the crowds gathered along King's Walk. He looked back at Frederick, whose grave expression seemed out of place, but then the surgeons had put him through hell removing that arrowhead from his shoulder. Alexander wished they had been wise enough to consult his mother's books on how to tend to wounds. He looked back at the cheering crowds lining the street, and he urged his horse forward at a slow walk. Behind him, his brother and the entire Gravonian army marched, black and gold flags flying. Philip had refused to join in the triumphant return to the city, stating that it was Alexander who ruled Gravonia, and it was his army that had saved the country, not Morvenia's.
From archways and windows above, women were throwing flowers and rose petals before the King and shouting "God save the King!" again and again, many girls were rushing out to present the soldiers with flowers, and they were spreading garlands of flowers around the horses' necks and kissing the men, who were accepting their welcome with grins and blushes. Little children skittered about, getting in the way and earning friendly warnings from Alexander to step aside lest they be trampled.
At the palace gates, Alexander stopped his horse and dismounted, glad to stretch his legs a bit, and he turned as an old woman approached him. When she tried to curtsey to him, he wouldn't allow it and bowed to her instead.
"A dove, Your Majesty. I gave one to your Mum twenty years ago, and to your future bride, too."
The young king smiled at the old woman. "Our mother named her dove Pax, and she spoke of receiving him from a very kind woman on the day she arrived here in Luvov. It has long been one of her fondest memories."
The old woman smiled, showing a few remaining teeth. "It was my honor then, sir, and it is again." She carefully handed Alexander the white dove, and again attempted to curtsey, and again Alexander refused to let her try such a thing.
"See this woman returns safely to her home and see she is well-provided for," Alexander ordered one of his knights, who stepped forward, bowing to the old woman. Alexander examined the dove, which was white with a black mark on the back of its neck. He took his horse's bit and nodded, and the palace gates were pulled open and he led his knights into the courtyard. The king looked around and was pleased to see his mother standing in the doorway. He walked quickly to her and bowed, still holding the dove, and Eleanor put aside all protocol and propriety by embracing her son tightly and kissing his cheek. She did the same to Frederick, who picked her up and spun her around a few times, to the amusement of Alexander and his knights. When Alexander showed her the dove, she wavered for a moment, then burst into tears and sobbed helplessly against his breastplate.
Constantine shoved Beauchamp through the infamous Traitor's Gate at the end of the bridge passing over the Narke, Gravonia's widest river. He didn't miss the look of horror that crossed Beauchamp's face when they passed under the gatehouse, and he greeted the two guards at the doors with a nod and a scowl. "Murderer and traitor."
The guards glowered at Beauchamp but said nothing. They pushed the wide, black-painted doors open and grabbed the chains that still held Beauchamp's wrists together. They hauled him along the long hallway, toward the cells that looked out over the wide river and opened the cell at the end, that afforded no view of the river at all but instead gave its occupant a clear view of the corner of the palace green, where an executioner's block already stood shielded from public view. Constantine wondered, briefly, if Beauchamp would be given such courtesy as a nobleman, but knew that was not a matter into which he could toss his two cents. He turned back along the hallway, not terribly interested in staying in such a dark, gloomy place.
"Your Highness, sir, we got a message from the Queen's major domo, asking if we knew where Lord Gavin Despencer was. He's here—in the third cell from the end there." The guard pointed at a red doorway. "Apparently Beauchamp had him locked in there the day he and his men arrived here at the palace and he's been rusticating in there since… he seems to have gone mad."
Constantine raised an eyebrow. "Who is he?"
"We don't know exactly. Just that he's here. Would you mind telling Her Majesty? We've orders not to leave here until… " He made a vague gesture toward Traitor's Gate, where Beauchamp's head was sure to be displayed on a pike in a few days' time.
Constantine nodded. "I'll tell her." He continued down the hall and stopped at the red door, peering inside through the bars. A young man was kneeling in the straw, holding a dead rat in his hand and smiling. He looked up at Constantine and scrambled to his feet. Madness lit his eyes and he scrabbled forward on bare feet, grinning.
"I executed him, see. For treason and for fouling the King's water. Bad boy, that rat. Bad, bad boy."
Despencer held up the dead rat, which was dangling from a tiny noose. Constantine took a step back and Despencer giggled.
"Tell Lady Juliet I shall see her anon… two weeks, perhaps, and we will be married very soon after I finish executing the other traitors here. Bad boys, they all are. Fouling the water and the food… bad boys. Bad, bad boys."
Constantine nodded, and suddenly Despencer dropped the rat and lunged forward, trying to grab Constantine through the bars, but the prince moved away too quickly. Despencer grabbed hold of the bars and began weeping. "I'm sorry. Tell them I'm sorry. I was so stupid. So stupid. Stupid stupid stupid stupid…. King Harry is dead because of me. Burton didn't do it. He left. Went home. He wouldn't take part." He looked at Constantine. "My only friend. And I messed it all up. Stupid stupid stupid stupid… "
The prince didn't know what to say. Gavin continued talking in a sing-song voice, and resumed issuing death sentences to the rats he decided were guilty of various crimes. The young man scrabbled away and dove back into his pile of straw, sitting still for a moment before suddenly pouncing forward like a cat and catching a large rat. He grinned as he tied a noose, made from a piece of cloth from his own shirt, around the squealing creature's neck and held it up, dangling the dying animal as it thrashed helplessly and was finally still.
Constantine felt his stomach rise and turned away, needing to get back out into the light before such madness enveloped him.
"Do you think she really joined in the battle?" Frederick asked Alexander.
"I don't know. Constantine seemed to think she had." He turned as the door opened and Boris stepped in.
"Your Majesty, His Royal Highness the Prince Constantine of Morvenia."
Constantine strode into the room, expression dark, and he bowed to Alexander. "Beauchamp is in a cell in the Tower Gate," he said.
"And Lord Gavin Despencer?"
"He was in the tower already," Constantine said. "Apparently Beauchamp threw him in there, but I'm not entirely sure why. He keeps jibbering about someone named Juliet and that he's sorry and he keeps executing rats for treason. The Queen demands he be brought to her, but he is not… I think he's gone mad."
Alexander nodded, looking thoughtful, and gestured for Boris to go and find the Queen. Then he looked at Constantine, bracing himself before asking the question he had been wanting to ask since he had seen the prince shout at his mother. But just then Lorenzo pulled the doors open, grinning happily, and stepped inside. "Your Majesty, the household, the princes and the Princess Elizabeth have all arrived here safely." Lorenzo stepped aside and was embraced heartily by his daughter Ellie and then by Agnes and their other children, and the rest of the royal household came pouring into the Presence Chamber. The younger princes greeted Alexander and Frederick with embraces and manful whacks on each other's backs. Elizabeth trailed in last, and she greeted her father with a shy bow of the head.
"What, no hug for your grumpy old Papa?" he asked, smiling a little through his gloom.
She embraced him, fighting back tears, and he felt his own eyes stinging as he held her—his eldest child and the first he was going to have to give up, in another year. "I was so frightened," she admitted when he set her back down on her feet. "I did my best not to show it, but I was… Alexander!" She rushed up the steps to the throne, where Alexander now stood receiving greetings from his courtiers, and she jumped into his arms, hugging him fiercely. The King picked her up and spun her around, the girl laughing with joy to be reunited with her fiancé. Constantine frowned and remembered Count von Hesse's words: Lover versus father, lover wins.
Everyone in the room fell silent suddenly, and Alexander settled Elizabeth on her feet. Eleanor was standing in the doorway, the picture of regal calm and heartbreakingly beautiful in black and diamonds, but Constantine could see the same fire in her eyes. She nonetheless smiled warmly at Elizabeth and kissed the girl's cheeks. "Poor thing—I hope your journey here from Pontrefact was more pleasant than the journey there."
"I knew I was coming home, ma'am, so it was very pleasant indeed," Elizabeth smiled. She looked at her father and caught his stricken expression, but there was no taking that statement back. She was home, where she belonged. "Ellie and the princes and I were all very jolly."
"Good," Eleanor said, smiling. "Now, I believe it's almost time for the banquet to begin. Alexander, please stay here with me for now. We have some business to take care of."
That was a subtle hint for everyone but the King to leave. Eleanor sat down on her throne, muttering something about poor Elizabeth's future back troubles, and Alexander sat down beside her. He watched Constantine pause in the doorway, looking at Eleanor, but the man finally turned and left the room, Boris closing the doors and leaving the King and the Dowager Queen alone.
"You're wanting to see Lord Despencer, I take it."
"He needs to answer for his sins," Eleanor said.
"Prince Constantine says he has gone mad in the tower."
Eleanor frowned. She looked down at her clenched fists and drew in her breath. "So you would show him mercy?"
"To a person no longer in his right mind? Perhaps."
"How much mercy did he show your father?" Eleanor asked sharply.
"Despencer is well known for being a fool, mad or not, Mama. He possibly had no idea of what was going to happen, and whatever Beauchamp's agents told him were lies, I'm sure."
She huffed angrily and inhaled when Boris knocked on the doors. "Come," Alexander called, and the doors opened. Lord Despencer was prodded, somewhat gently, into the room by his two guards. The young man was unkempt, wild-eyed and even paler than usual.
"Lord Gavin Despencer, do you know where you are?" Alexander asked.
"The palace," Despencer nodded, looking around the elegantly appointed room. "Where is the King? Is he ailing?"
"I am the king now, Lord Gavin. My father King Henry is dead. Lord Beauchamp murdered him."
Despencer looked confused. "But… but he was taken to Lacovia. He is being held for ransom. That's… that's what Lord Beauchamp's man told me."
Alexander looked at his mother, raising his eyebrows, and she pursed her lips.
"What man?" Eleanor finally asked.
"Skinny fellow with fuzzy hair. Walked with a limp. Had a lisp." Despencer smiled maniacally at the Queen. "So pretty. Nice breasts."
"Thank you, Lord Gavin," Eleanor said dryly.
"Not at all saggy. You had six babies and yet you're still perky."
Alexander swore under his breath, then leaned forward. "Lord Gavin Despencer, you will return to your father's home and remain under his care and watch for the remainder of your life. If you outlive him, you will be placed under royal supervision in a place to be determined by the King at that time. Do you understand me?"
"Can I marry Lady Juliet?" Spencer asked hopefully.
"No, you may not," Alexander said, looking at his mother, who sighed. "She is to marry Sir Niall Lassiter next week."
"What of my friend Lord Barton? Is he going to be confined at home?"
"Was he complicit in your crimes?" Alexander asked.
"He told me not to do it. He went home. He said I was a fool. He was right. Stupid, stupid, stupid… "
"Then he is guilty of nothing and needs only to stay away from Court and from you and I'm sure he will be quite prosperous. If he can learn to stop eating so much, he might even be able to fit through a door, too." Alexander gestured to the guards. "Take him to his father's house and see his family is given instructions on the conditions of his confinement."
The guards collected Lord Gavin and led him from the room. Eleanor frowned but said nothing. Alexander sat back in his seat, then looked at his mother. "Mama, who is John Reeve?"
Her blue eyes darkened and she looked down at her hands for a long time. Finally, she looked at her eldest son and took his hand in hers. "Sweetheart, I have a story to tell you, and the ending will be entirely up to you."