Chapter 47: Memorials
“No, the last thing I want is for this to be some sort of major state occasion,” Eleanor told Alexander, glancing toward the door again.
Any moment now, Clothilde was due to arrive at Konigshaus, and the Queen knew her lady-in-waiting would have a few opinions on the matter of her upcoming marriage to Constantine of Morvenia. She could only hope the woman would be understanding—she did not know if she could handle a breach with her closest and dearest friend.
“I’m sure most folks in this country will wonder where the Queen Mother has gone, once they realize she has not come home in January,” the King pointed out carefully. “And they’ll be equally confused to learn she has married so soon after Papa’s death. The people of this kingdom might be more… understanding if they were to see you married in a grand fashion, particularly as Constantine is well-respected and greatly... feared. Some might not view the match as… ” He cleared his throat and seemed to have to force himself to continue. “Advantageous to us all.”
Eleanor sighed, knowing her son was still less than delighted with this turn of events. He had given his permission for the marriage, but he was still chaffing a little at the entire notion, and lately, when they spoke to each other, she felt as though he were talking to a foreign diplomat instead of his own mother. Her other sons had accepted the situation much more gracefully, she was relieved to see, but Alexander remained stiff and uncomfortable around Constantine. She wasn’t sure how her son and her fiancé could ever treat each other in any way besides formal courtesy.
“The people of this country are, fortunately, very forgiving and they know that Constantine is an excellent man,” she calmly reminded her son. She put aside her sewing, tired of the whole notion of needles, and folded her hands in her lap. Alexander shifted uneasily in his chair. “I can only pray that such an open-minded attitude can exist in our family.”
“I’m doing my best, Mama. But surely you understand my own position. My father has been dead for four months and... ” he rubbed his face. “It is a rather difficult adjustment.”
She gently clasped her son’s hands between her own.
“Sweetheart, I will never require you call Constantine ‘Papa’ or anything of the sort, and he understands how you feel, too, and I certainly won’t insist his children call me Mama—no one could ever replace Isabella. And we all had great respect for your father and we will never cast him aside or forget him, much less Isabella. Ever, and this isn’t just difficult for you, sweetheart. I know her children must feel unsettled, however well they seem to have accepted the matter.”
The young King bowed his head slightly and pursed his lips. “I miss him.”
“I know. I miss him, too, but… ”
“You have Constantine now.”
“And you have Elizabeth and your brothers and you will always have me.”
“Truly, Mama? I cannot imagine you having a great deal of time for us any more, once you marry Constantine and start having babies with him.”
“Have you made much time for me or your brothers since you ascended to the throne?” she asked, losing patience. At his hurt expression, she winced, ashamed of herself. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. That was uncalled for. But one can make time for anything if one chooses, and not even Constantine will keep me far away from my babies. Lord Beauchamp certainly couldn’t, and we know what happened to him.” She leaned forward and kissed her son’s cheek. “Please do not fret over all this, dearest. My marriage will not stop me being your mother.”
The King finally stood, bowed to her, and left her sitting by the fire. She sighed and rubbed her temples, then glanced up when Lorenzo appeared at her side. “Ma’am, the Lady Clothilde is here.”
Eleanor stood and faced her principal lady-in-waiting, whose nose was red from her cold. The older woman drew in her breath, sniffled, and curtseyed.
“Please, Clothilde, sit. You must be horribly tired.”
Clothilde took her seat opposite the Queen and folded her hands in her lap. “Not so much, ma’am—I rode in the coach, I didn’t push it.” At Eleanor’s snicker, she smiled. “My husband tells me you are marrying Prince Constantine.”
“I am, yes.”
“And that the King has given his consent.”
“Less than enthusiastically, I can assure you, and our respective children are all bit a rattled, to varying degrees, though I daresay Elizabeth is positively over the moon.”
“My James has even told me that you and the Prince are… have been… ” Clothilde shook her head. “I admit, ma’am, I am quite… no, it’s not that. I’m not surprised. I saw the way he looked at you last year, when he brought Elizabeth to Luvov.”
“H-how did he look at me?” Eleanor asked cautiously.
“The way a fat man looks at fried bacon.”
Eleanor had to purse her lips to keep from laughing. She cleared her throat and tried to be brisk. “Oh. I… ”
“His behavior was always umsichtig… eh… circumspect.”
“Yes. Constantine is an honorable man.”
“I suppose he is, if he has proposed marriage.”
“Yes. He is a good and decent man. But for all that, I can only hope you can give this marriage your blessing, Clothilde. As much as I love Constantine, I would be bereft if I were to lose your friendship over it. Just getting Alexander to give his consent was rather trying… ”
Clothilde smiled and rubbed her nose, sniffing and coughing a little. “That would be quite impossible, ma’am. You will never lose my friendship or my loyalty.”
Eleanor exhaled, relieved, and smiled. “And here I thought you would castigate me and then tell me to pull the hood up over my head when I went out walking.”
“It is not my duty to castigate you over anything that would bring you lasting happiness, ma’am, but it will always be my duty to see you keep your head dry.”
The Queen giggled, her excitement and relief overcoming any lingering nervousness. “I must ask you, Clothilde, if you would be my matron of honor. Constantine and I plan to marry at… ” she paused. “Perhaps I ought to start at the beginning.”
“The… beginning, ma’am?” Clothilde looked puzzled, and Eleanor carefully spread her hands on her lap.
“Yes. I suppose it’s time you heard it all.”
Clothilde and James sat together at the King’s table, briefly linking their fingers together before the King bowed his head to pray. Eleanor glanced across the table at her fiancé and caught his knowing little wink. Her son and Elizabeth were sitting together, any notion of precedence or protocol cast aside as usual. All twelve of their respective children, as well as the offspring of several courtiers, were also at the long table, heads bowed as Alexander gave the blessing, and they all tucked into their meals. There were moments of uneasy silence between the twelve children of hers and Constantine’s, but everyone was at least doing their best to be friendly towards each other.
Clothilde’s eyes were still a little watery but she was looking fairly cheerful otherwise. John Ellis and his son were also guests at the royal table, and John was telling Charlotte about how, as a child, he and his sisters were required to wear a sprig of holly under their chins while sitting, so that they always had perfect posture. “I can’t look at a holly bush without cringing,” he said, and Charlotte giggled.
“Papa doesn’t care if we have perfect posture, really, but Queen Marie gets terribly huffy when we so much as put our hands on the table.”
“I have heard that she is very diligent in maintaining order at all times,” Eleanor said tactfully. “Pray, Constantine, how is your dear Mama?”
“Dear Mama… ” Constantine shook his head. “What is the term for that? Oxy… oxy something.”
“Moron,” Eleanor said, nodding.
“You don’t have to be harsh. I didn’t get a sterling education, y’know.”
“No, I mean, it’s an oxymoron. A contradiction in terms, though I will not speak ill of your mother.”
“Wait ’til you meet her,” Prince Michael muttered.
“I look forward to it,” Eleanor said, laughing. “I do enjoy a challenge.”
“Grandmama is a vicious old cow,” Prince Leopold said, and immediately blushed with embarrassment, looking anxiously at his father, who only raised an eyebrow but did not rebuke him.
“That is unkind, Leopold,” Eleanor said gently, suddenly remembering Agnes’s description of her mother-in-law, so many years ago. “Some older people just stick to the way they were raised and have great trouble letting go. Being royal is very, very difficult, and remember she comes from a strictly old-fashioned court. In fact, I believe that in Austria, just littering is punishable by death.”
“She calls me ‘the child’, and I suspect she would still call me that even if I weren’t royal.” Charlotte said. “She regards me as though I were the dog or the cat.”
“And that is unkind,” Leopold said, lifting his head slightly and giving his father a rather bold look. “I don’t like it when she shouts at Charlotte or when she says Lady Rose isn’t good enough for Michael. I think Michael can decide that, and no one has a right to shout at Charlotte.”
“That’s true,” Constantine nodded. “No one can shout at Charlotte. I can’t even shout at Charlotte, as she’ll start crying and I don’t know how to handle a crying female.” He cleared his throat. “And if Michael wishes to make Rose his wife one day, then it will be so, as long as she likes the idea too.”
Michael, looking embarrassed and pleased at the same time, smiled slightly. “I think she would be a good Queen… and… and I like her a good deal, too.”
“Then I look forward to meeting her even more than I do your dear Grandmama, and I know I will like her a good deal.” Eleanor said, laughing merrily. “I seem to be joining a very interesting family.”
“When will the wedding be?” Charlotte asked eagerly. “I’ve never been to Livonia. Is Styria a very large town?”
“We will not go to Styria, sweetheart,” Eleanor said. “We have other plans. Do you recall meeting Count von Hesse? The Livonian ambassador to Gravonia?”
Charlotte looked puzzled, and Eleanor continued. “Your father and I will marry at his castle, which overlooks the Turon Valley.”
Constantine shifted uneasily in his seat, but he accepted Eleanor’s warning nod. She looked around the table, catching Alexander’s eye. Clothilde cleared her throat, and the Queen drew her breath.
“Ravensburg Castle is very dear to me, Charlotte, and I can think of no better place to marry your Papa.”
“Oh.” Charlotte’s brow furrowed, though she seemed to have no trouble with visiting Ravensburg. “Can all of us fit into its chapel?”
Eleanor sat at her writing desk, going over her letter to Queen Irene of Lacovia before finally folding and sealing it carefully with her own signet. She carefully removed the red wax from her stamp and traced her fingers over the exquisitely carved image of a dove. It held six arrows in its right foot and a dagger in the other, and had been a gift to her from Henry after Andrew’s birth. She smiled to herself, remembering Catherine Trueblood’s prophecy that she would be mother to six lions, and would see her son take his throne by means of violence and bloodshed. Her words had been of no comfort to her, at thirteen, and they were really of no comfort now. That Henry had had to die, just so Alexander could be king, was a sorrow she would forever hold in her heart, however much she loved Constantine. If Henry were still alive, she would still be his wife, and her every waking hour would be devoted to protecting him and her sons.
“Finishing writing?” Constantine asked her.
He was sitting by the fire, carefully stitching a hole in his youngest son’s shirt. Eleanor was amused to see that her future husband was actually quite good at sewing, though he wasn’t allowed near any attempts at embroidery. His stitches could be a tad rough sometimes, but they were always strong, if not straight. He had told her about Old Charlotte, who had taught him how to take care of himself. She had taught him not only how to mend his own clothes, but also how to cook his own meals. She rather looked forward to seeing if he was as good in the kitchen as he was in the bedroom.“I think so.” She settled the letter on the silver platter where all her correspondence was placed. Lorenzo would collect it tomorrow morning and see it was sent straight to Lacovia.
“Who are you writing to?”
“Queen Irene. I think she and I are becoming very good friends. She is already with child again, and King Richard insists on carrying her about as though she’s made of glass, the silly git, but she adores him just the same.” She pulled on her long, warm socks and shrugged her dressing gown off. The night was chilly and she had insisted Constantine also put on warm nightclothes, as she didn’t like leaving the fire burning. She watched her fiancé put the fire out and listened to him grumble a little as he pulled on his socks, remembering that Henry always griped about them, too. She climbed into bed and sighed contentedly when he climbed in beside her. “See now? No cold feet.”
“Not even on our wedding day,” he muttered tiredly. “I can’t believe Charlotte hit me in the face with that snowball.”
“Well, she did apologize.”
“After she stopped laughing and you insisted.”
“Still, she did apologize,” Eleanor said, doing her best to keep from giggling.
He gave her fanny a light slap. “Takes after her stepmother, I’m afraid.”
“I didn’t laugh when I hit you with that snowball.”
“I remember that day,” he said, pulling her into his arms and rubbing her back, knowing the chill was already setting in. “I remember feeling a strange twinge in my stomach, when I saw you, that I thought was entirely inappropriate, considering your age at the time.”
“Really?” She looked up at him, intrigued.
He closed his eyes, and Eleanor rested her head on his chest. “I think that, somehow, we were simply destined for each other.”
“I don’t believe in reading tea leaves or consulting mediums and the like… but maybe there is something to it after all. Somehow.”
He laughed. “If I recall the account of the creation, Eleanor, it only says ‘and He made the stars also’. Almost as an afterthought.”
She laughed softly, his chest hair tickling her nose. “Moses likely looked at the pagans around him who worshipped the stars and the planets and wanted to make sure the Hebrews knew the stars were really nothing more than lights in the sky, and that they were to worship God only. But I will accept that Catherine Trueblood—my grandmother—knew something beyond this plane. Who am I to argue?”
He only made a slight humming sound and she knew he was asleep. Sighing softly, Eleanor snuggled closer to him and was soon asleep as well, dreaming fitfully of her encounter with her grandmother outside Turon. The thought came to her, before finally settling into deep sleep, that she ought to find the old woman and try to mend some fences. To that end, she would ask Count von Hesse to seek her out, if he could be persuaded…
“Oh, calm down, Frederick. Why are you so rattled?”
Christiane took the letter and read it over, smiling in amusement before she handed it back to him. “If Eleanor has told her son all, and he has consented to her marrying Constantine, then by all means you will give the match your blessing as well. He already asked for her hand, long ago, and you gave your assent then. I can see no reason for him to go through that again, and besides, I would fear for his health if he fell in the river at this time of year.”
Count von Hesse frowned at his wife, then glanced at his two daughters, who were discussing the colors of some pieces of silk cloth they had recently received from Queen Eleanor. Madeleine and Helene were pretty, charming, sweet-natured girls and they had greeted the news of the Queen’s remarriage with great excitement. They were extremely eager to assist the Queen, who had been a great benefactress to them both, seeing they had been presented at Court in Styria and were provided with excellent dowries—he and Christiane had little to worry about in regards to seeing their daughters well-married one day, even though he had firmly put his foot down in refusing to see his girls married before they were eighteen.
“I admit I am quite… amazed,” von Hesse said. “That she would decide to marry again, so soon after Henry’s death… I suppose some folks might say it’s very improper.”
“She is well within her rights to marry again, whenever she pleases,” Christiane said. “Even without the King’s consent, though I’m relieved to hear he did give it. I would hate to see a marriage start amidst family strife. Henry was a kind and generous man and he would want to see Eleanor happy, too.” She stood and gestured for her daughters. “Oh, and you’ll be interested to know that Helene has attracted the attention of someone back at Court in Styria.”
“Dear God… not that!”
“I’m afraid so. With her good looks and vigorous health, plus the nice dowry you and Eleanor have provided for her, she is bound to attract young men, and fortunately she has attracted a very nice, decent sort of fellow.”
“Who?” Frederick asked, immediately worried. “Call me a selfish old ass, but I won’t see my poor daughter carried off by just anyone!”
“Even if he will be King of Livonia one day?” Christiane asked with a soft smile.
Count von Hesse looked even more bewildered. “The Crown Prince’s son?”
“Prince Peter, yes. A very good-natured young man, I think, and he speaks very kindly to Helene and is always courteous to her, and while she was visiting Court last summer he brought her a wasp’s nest as a present.” Christiane put her sewing down, awaiting his reaction, and she was amused to see him respond just as exactly as she thought.
“A wasp’s nest?”
She laughed. “Helene appeared to approve of it, even if I was a bit startled by the horrible thing. Seems she and Peter share an interest in bugs. The prince can look at a spider’s web and tell you just what kind of spider made it, even, and the two of them spend much time pouring over books about bugs and flowers and tiny creatures they find in the ponds around the royal palace, and he sent her a letter this morning where he talks about Pliny and some kind of beetle he found in the stables a few days ago… ” Christiane shook her head. “I don’t understand it either, Frederick, but young people must have things in common or they can’t manage a happy life together, and Prince Peter is very intelligent and… er… ” she cleared her throat delicately. “Manly. Big, strong, healthy lad, he is, and handsome, even if some say he is awkward.”
The Count scowled and watched his daughters go through the evening’s sewing. He had put his girls through the same rigorous education as Eleanor, and they both possessed sharp minds to match their beauty. Helene was dark-haired and green-eyed, while Madeleine was blonde and blue-eyed, and both girls were tall, elegant and, like their mother, fashionable and remarkably wise for their years. His only regret was that their intellectual powers were not being put to optimal use. Had they been boys, they would be given more freedom and would be great forces at Court and possibly even in the military. Instead, his sweet girls would have to always live at home, in their heads, and possibly subjected to bearing countless babies...
But if Helene married the future King of Livonia…
Good God, two of his daughters… Queens!
What would become of Madeleine, though?
“Stop worrying,” Christiane said with a smile. “Our youngest girl will be just fine. There are no young men sniffing about her yet, but I have followed your edict to the letter of keeping her off limits. Just don’t insist I purchase a large fighting dog to protect her. A young men’s ardor is soon cooled when his tackle is in a huge dog’s teeth.”
“When did you start reading minds?” he asked. Christiane kissed his cheek.
“I’ve never had to learn. I just see an issue has been solved and all I need to do is look to you to start worrying about the next, even when it hasn’t even presented itself yet.”
He frowned, wishing he had an answer for that, but he had none. “Well, you can’t deny… ” he started weakly.
“Not everything must be a problem, sweetheart,” she said with a laugh. “Why not see the next issue as an opportunity, or a chance to learn, or simply the next adventure? Learn to relax and take things as they come and you’re less likely to have so many headaches and stomach upsets. I’m just glad you aren’t losing your hair. Now… ” She turned and gestured to their daughters. “Come along, girls. It’s time for supper. Your Papa has some hard worr—… thinking to do.”
Helene and Madeleine trailed along behind their mother, only glancing at their father to smile at him before continuing to the great hall, where their meal awaited them. Count von Hesse frowned and looked down at the letter and Eleanor’s carefully-worded request, then nodded. “Opportunity, you say, dearest wife. Well then… we’ve one grand wedding to plan for my darling girl, and perhaps it will be a great opportunity as well.”
Count von Hesse pursed his lips, tamped down his own pride, and let his horse step forward into the campground. He cleared his throat and was greeted with the gazes of six large, rather intimidating gypsies. The men stared up at von Hesse, and he tightened his grip on the reins. “I am looking for Catherine Trueblood.”
The gypsies looked at each other, frowning. “What do you want with her?” one finally asked.
“Her granddaughter is to be married in a few days and her presence is requested.”
The men consulted briefly before finally sending one off to find her. von Hesse sat still on his horse, eyeing the remaining men, who eyed him with equal suspicion. He was relieved when Catherine Trueblood finally appeared, accompanied by an older man who briefly squeezed her hand before leaving. She lifted her chin and gazed up at him, and von Hesse couldn’t help but be amazed at the resemblance between Eleanor and this regal, strong-looking woman. “Catherine.”
“Count von Hesse,” she said, but did not even bob. He supposed he could let that go. They had never shared anything resembling a warm relationship. “You requested my presence.”
“Eleanor is remarrying, this coming Saturday. I think she would appreciate you attending.”
The older woman’s composure briefly slipped and she drew in her breath. “She is… remarrying?”
“You have no doubt heard of her husband’s shameful murder last year.”
“She is marrying Prince Constantine, heir presumptive to the throne of Morvenia.”
She looked stunned then. “So she will indeed be a Queen twice over. How remarkable.”
“She will be a marvelous Queen Consort in Morvenia, just as she was in Gravonia, though I hope her years in Morvenia will be far more peaceful.”
“I agree completely,” she nodded. “With my whole heart.”
von Hesse couldn’t keep from smiling. “Well, that would be a first.”
Catherine laughed. “I think so. Please… sir, come down and let me make you some tea. It was a long ride down here from Ravensburg.”
The Count dismounted and for the first time, Catherine curtsied to him. “I pray my granddaughter is in good health.”
“She is as healthy and strong as ever, and she is with child.”
She looked at him, astonished. “Truly? Well… I’m hardly one to judge her on that end. This Constantine fellow—he is called The Dragon all over Europe, is he not? I believe I saw him once—he is not a handsome man, as some would say, but he is an impressive sight.”
The Count nodded. “I was surprised when she wrote me of her betrothal and her pregnancy. She has not even told Constantine yet of the child. He has had to return to Morvenia to settle some business, and will arrive at Ravensburg on the wedding day. Knowing him, he will be right on time. At least this time we will not have to break his heart.”
She looked confused. “Come again?”
Count von Hesse paused, and she turned to look at him, and he sighed. “There is more to Eleanor’s story than you’ve heard, I suppose.”
“Your Grace, there is nothing I would love more than to finally know my granddaughter, and to hear her story would give me greater pleasure than I have ever known.”
Elizabeth sat in Eleanor’s bedroom at the royal palace in Luvov, looking in amazement at the Queen’s books. One was on cures for varying illnesses, while another was on tending to wounds and broken bones. A third went over matters of hygiene, and it fascinated the girl—her own mother would have delighted in such a book, as it gave credence to her own views on the importance of bathing regularly and taking good care of one’s teeth. She laughed softly—no wonder Alexander and his brothers all had such nice smiles and were lean and healthy, with good skin and pleasant breath. Eleanor remained very strict, too, on such things as washing hands before eating, keeping wounds scrupulously clean, and eating healthy foods. None of the princes ate to excess and their main indulgence for sweets was Lady Agnes’ shortbread biscuits.
“And what do you think of my books, Elizabeth?” Eleanor asked. She was seated by the fire, doing a bit of embroidery work on her wedding dress, while Lady Agnes worked diligently on repairing a little tear on a lace veil.
“They’re astonishing! I’ve never heard of such notions, and they make such good sense. I am amazed so few doctors think to keep their hands clean while attending to a birthing.”
Agnes, who was not aware of Eleanor’s origins, looked up. “I remember Your Majesty insisting my attendants keep clean while they delivered my children. Perhaps that’s why I never developed childbed fever and my babies are all so healthy.”
Eleanor smiled. “And you’ve no I idea, Agnes, how happy I am to see that. Childbirth is hard enough, so all should be done to ease a woman’s troubles during such an ordeal.”
Elizabeth’s smile faded as she thought of her main reason for being in Gravonia at all: bearing heirs to the kingdom’s throne. She swallowed nervously and resumed turning pages in Margaret Reeve’s writings on hygiene. Eleanor caught her future daughter-in-law’s grave expression and reminded herself to speak privately with the girl and try to ease her concerns. The young princess was the picture of vigorous health and was as strong as a little French mare, so as far as she could tell, and she would have little trouble conceiving and bearing children.
“Enough of talking about childbirth for now,” Eleanor said. “We should talk about the wedding. Agnes, you’re almost finished with the veil?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s lovely, isn’t it? I’m so glad it’s stayed in such good shape after all these years.”
The spider web-like lace veil was exquisite, and Agnes’s expert stitching had restored it to its former perfection. When Eleanor stood Agnes and Elizabeth began to carefully arrange the Queen’s hair before settling the simple silver and pearl tiara on her head. The Queen sat down again and Agnes began to carefully work the veil into the tiara, so that it was easy to pull down over Eleanor’s face and also be swept back without tearing the fragile threads. “So pretty!” Elizabeth said.
“And you will wear this veil, and this tiara if you like, on your own wedding day,” Eleanor said. “You’ve selected bridesmaids?”
“Lady Ellie, of course, and Lady Meg, and Lady Xenia. I think it would be very nice to invite Lady Rose Montgomery to come and stand as a bridesmaid, too, as she is so close to my brother.”
“So it’s that serious, is it? I will be interested in seeing the kind of girl who can catch the attention of your gruff brother.”
Elizabeth giggled. “She’s very strong-willed and is not afraid to voice her opinions. Michael rather likes that, I think. I mean, she’s nothing like our grandmother. Rose has strong opinions, but she also has tact and is kind.”
“I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy meeting your grandmother a great deal. She and Lady Agnes’s former mother-in-law must have been separated at birth,” Eleanor said, looking at Agnes, who laughed softly and began to carefully remove Eleanor’s tiara and veil. “As I said, I do enjoy a challenge.”
“You’ve had enough of challenges,” Agnes pointed out. “You had plenty when you came here, remember? So much cleaning up and straightening to do, and so many wicked people about to cope with, plus you had me and Harriet to contend with.”
Elizabeth looked confused. “Truly?”
“Oh, now, Agnes… I was perhaps not as observant as I should have been at first. I didn’t realize how difficult Harriet’s life was, and you… ”
“And I remain as fascinated with the great cheeses of Ullan as ever!” Agnes said, and the Queen burst into laughter.
“Agnes, at this stage in our friendship, I can honestly say that I will always enjoy hearing about your beloved Ullan and its marvelous cheeses.”
20 March 1394
Constantine reined his horse to a stop and looked up at the glittering, forbidding citadel of Ravensburg Castle and pursed his lips, frowning. His two attendants, both increasingly bewildered as to having ridden all the way into Gravonia’s Turon Valley for no known reason, looked up at the castle, brows furrowed. The prince looked back at them. “You’re both to stay here. Go into the village if you like and see to your horses and get a good meal.” He tossed small bags of coins to them. “Stay out of trouble, if you can.”
The men nodded and rode away. Constantine touched the blue silk ribbon around the hilt of his sword and rode on, finding the deer path and riding slowly up the hill, wary and eager at once. He paused briefly at the river and closed his eyes, easily bringing up the image of Eleanor, naked and wet in the moonlight, then kicked his horse into a gallop to cross the bridge and continue on to the castle gates. He dismounted and caught the attention of a guard.
“Who goes there?” the guard shouted down at him from the tower.
“Constantine of Morvenia. I’m here to see Count von Hesse.”
The guard nodded and began calling to his compatriots to raise the portcullis and open the gates. Within minutes, the prince was leading Lamman through the gates and into the courtyard, and he was surprised to see the cobbled yard was decorated with maypoles, boxes of flowers, a rose-choked arbor that led to the door of the chapel, and several people decked out in their finest kit. They all stood in silence, looking expectantly at him. He recognized old Betsy, her hair completely gray but her back as straight as ever, and couldn’t keep from grinning at her.
“My Lord,” she said, curtsying stiffly. “It is quite grand to see you.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Mrs Bolingbrooke. I hope you have good news for me today.”
“Aye, I do. My little lamb will meet you at the altar in the chapel.” She held out her hand, palm up, and he was amazed to see the ring he had left on the tombstone in the chapel graveyard, twenty years ago. He bowed to Betsy as he took the ring, and turned her hand over to kiss her knuckles. The old woman smiled at him and stretched up to kiss his cheek. “You take care of my little lamb or you’ll have me to contend with!”
“No army in the world would frighten me more, ma’am, so be assured her happiness is my only goal.” He nodded and strode forward. Betsy nodded, and he moved his sword to his right side, then he and took the dagger out of his boot, handing it absently to a soldier. The Prince paused briefly outside the chapel door, made the sign of the Cross and washed his hands in the font, then stepped inside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the muted light of the room, and then he continued down the center aisle.
Elizabeth, Charlotte, Prince Michael and Lady Clothilde were standing by the altar, along with two Gravonian knights, King Alexander and Prince Frederick, with Christiane and her two daughters. The men nodded slightly, and Constantine paced down the aisle. He met Alexander’s steady gaze, then finally extended his hand. The King took his hand, squeezing hard, but the older man didn’t even flinch. Alexander finally called it a draw and clapped his shoulder, almost smiling, and Constantine had to cover a snicker before turning to face the chapel doors.
After a few tense moments, the doors were pulled open and light poured into the chapel. Count von Hesse and Eleanor stepped into the chapel, and the Count covered Eleanor’s hand and looked down at her, smiling. “Are you ready, Goosey?”
“Of course I am,” she answered softly, briefly touching her belly. “And so is this little troublemaker.”
The Count looked down at her, as if ready to scold her as any father would, but he recovered himself quickly and led his daughter down the aisle.
Father Ulrich cleared his throat. “Who gives this woman in marriage?”
The Count swallowed and turned to face the doors, bracing himself for disappointment, and he exhaled in relief when Catherine Trueblood appeared in the doorway, curtsying low. “Her mother, her father and I do,” she said clearly. Eleanor looked back at her grandmother and nodded, dipping slightly in a respectful curtsey. Catherine moved silently into the chapel and took a seat in the back pew. The Queen turned back to face Father Ulrich and nodded. He looked a little confused for a moment, then continued with the ceremony, in his usual succinct manner.
“Do you wish to marry this man?”
Eleanor almost laughed. “Yes.”
“Do you wish to marry this woman?”
Constantine regained his composure quickly. “I do.”
“All right then. You are married, man and wife, to remain together for the remainder of your days, according to God’s holy ordinance. Have either of you any vows you wish to say?”
Constantine was briefly at a loss, but he was no man to shrink from a challenge, particularly if it would make Eleanor happy. “I vow before God to love and honor you, my wife; to be willing to lay down my life for you, and to spend my days seeing to your safety and happiness.”
Eleanor smiled. Father Ulrich cleared his throat and raised his eyebrow at Eleanor. She looked at Constantine and took his hands in hers. “Never entreat me to leave you, or to return from following after you, for wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God shall be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death ever parts me from you again.”
Constantine slipped the ring onto her finger, and the Queen blinked back tears, feeling twenty years falling away as she stood before the man she loved as, finally, his wife.
“You may kiss your bride,” Father Ulrich said.
“Damn right,” Constantine muttered, and pulled Eleanor to him, kissing her firmly and chastely, as they were in a church. She wrapped her arms around his neck and embraced him tightly, relief and joy bringing tears to her eyes.
“May God bless this union and grant unto it many strong children… ”
“One or two at the very most,” Constantine told the priest, putting Eleanor down. “I won’t wear her down in childbearing.”
Eleanor stood on her toes and whispered in his ear. “We’ve already got one on the way.”
“Hardly surprising,” Constantine said, nodding gravely. “Thank you, Father. Short weddings making for long marriages, or so I’ve heard.”
“In this case, I think you’re quite right,” Father Ulrich said, smiling. “But honestly, sir, I have trouble remembering all the rites. Gets bloody tiresome. I once did a baptismal blessing on someone who needed extreme unction. I’ll never live that one down.”
Eleanor was already laughing, and continued to laugh even as Constantine led her up the aisle, followed by the wedding party. A pair of soldiers opened the church doors and Eleanor and Constantine stepped out into the courtyard, and they were showered with rose petals from the bell tower above and a pair of white doves flew away. Tables had been set up in the courtyard and when everyone had taken their seats, Count von Hesse raised his glass.
“Today I rejoice to see my beloved daughter Eleanor happily married, and I am pleased to see her married to a good man who will treat her with utmost respect. God has blessed her already with a first, happy marriage to a man of excellent character and with whom she had six fine, strong sons. May God bless my daughter and His Royal Highness Prince Constantine with many years together also, and if He wills, may they have many children of their own, and I look forward to spoiling my grandchildren rotten!” The gathered celebrants laughed. “Eleanor, my sweet little Goosey, every day since you came to my home, I have called myself the most blessed father in the world, and whatever fate has in store for us all, I will thank God for the privilege of having you for a daughter.”
Tears stung in Eleanor’s eyes, and she clasped Constantine hand. Father Ulrich said a brief prayer and everyone tucked into a hearty meal of roasted chicken, vegetables and apple tarts. The bridal couple was focused largely on each other, while Alexander sat down beside Elizabeth, throwing protocol to the wind. “It was a very nice wedding.”
“It was,” she said, smiling happily. “It’s so good to see Papa and your mother so happy.”
The King nodded absently. “I’m just glad it’s done. Our own wedding is set for just two months from now, and we can finally focus on that.”
Elizabeth took his hand. “I can hardly wait,” she said.
“Do you forgive me for being so… difficult?”
“So long as your mother has, it is no business of mine,” she said softly. “And you were behaving normally, I think, considering your position and the potential for scandal… ”
“Mama told me this morning that she is already with child.”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh… well, that’s… not surprising, I guess.” At his appalled expression, she took his hand. “We have no right to judge them, Alexander. And it’ll be our brother or sister… which sounds strange, what with us being betrothed, but… I look forward to playing with any baby. I loved playing with my brothers and sister.”
Charlotte came rushing up and tugged on Elizabeth’s arm. “Come with me! Madeleine wants to show us the castle, and she says there’s all sorts of games to play.”
“See?” Elizabeth laughed, and kissed her fiancé’s cheek. She let her sister drag her away, and Alexander sat alone, watching the celebration whirling around him. Only members of the royal households of Gravonia and Morvenia, with some of their minders, were present, along with the Count’s household, and the event was more or less a secret, as no one else knew Eleanor’s true origins. The diplomatic party that had traveled with Eleanor had long gone on to Styria, and would return in two days. That gave the newlyweds only a brief honeymoon at the castle, then they would travel to Tygo and, finally, to Garon. Eleanor would finally meet her mother-in-law and would inspect her husband’s estates outside the city. All had agreed that they would live primarily at Tygo, at Koningshaus and Insel der Rosen, with trips up to Luvov when required.
Count von Hesse made his way over to the King’s table and bowed. “Might I sit?”
“Of course, sir.” Alexander stood and bowed his head respectfully. He had known Count von Hesse all his life, though for the majority he had not known the man was his grandfather. Just the same, the Count had been a kind and generous source of advice to him, and Alexander genuinely liked him. Getting to know him now, under such more intimate circumstances, was taking some getting used to it, but he was enjoying it just the same.
“I know this must have been a trying time for you, Alexander,” von Hesse said. “I’m guessing you think your mother’s remarriage could cause scandal, and you worry that Constantine or any children he and Eleanor have could contend for your throne.”
“I admit I worry on both counts,” Alexander said, sipping his ale. “That is my responsibility as King, though—to worry.”
“Quite true. Being in such a position as yours does lend itself to sleepless nights, and the protection of your family, your crown and your people will always be priority. But remember, son, that Constantine has little enthusiasm for his own future position as King of Morvenia, and for all his ferocity on the battlefield, he is putty in your mother’s hands and she would never countenance him or any son of theirs making a play for your throne. She risked all, and lost so much, to see you on your throne and she will not see you removed by anyone but God Himself. Be of good cheer, young man, and be glad for them both. They are happy now, after twenty years of being separated, and after all they have suffered and lost, they deserve happiness, don’t you think?”
“Everyone keeps saying that,” Alexander said, taking another draught of his ale.
“And they’re right, son.” von Hesse gave his shoulder a friendly squeeze. “Come now, Alexander. Remember the scriptures—laugh with those who laugh, mourn with those who mourn. Today is a day to laugh, and we can only hope to hold off mourning as long as possible.”
“I’ve done my mourning,” the King said, not liking that the pain of losing his father was no longer as strong as it had been. “I suppose I feel… upset that Mama does not mourn any longer, and resentful at times that my brothers are moving on, too… I am too, I admit.”
“And you should, son. Had her marriage been unhappy, or had she any real regrets about their life together, I suppose she would have reason to mourn. But her marriage to King Henry was happy, and she has little to regret in their relationship. They were faithful to each other, were united in their devotion to Gravonia and, most importantly, to you and your brothers. She has nothing to sorrow over any more. Let her heart--and yours--be glad.”
The King rubbed his face. “I know you’re right.”
“Of course I am. I do not blame you, though, for feeling a bit out of place these days.” He grinned and squeezed the King’s shoulder. “Do you think I got this old by being wrong about things? Just the same, I must still admit that I am terrible worrier in my own right.” The Count smiled at him, and stood. He was surprised to see Catherine Trueblood standing there, her rough-hewn companion at her side and a wary expression on her face. “Catherine.”
The King stood quickly and bowed, which startled Catherine.
“I have never been bowed to by a king.”
“You will have to become accustomed to displays of respect, ma’am,” Alexander said. Count von Hesse walked away, and the King gestured to the couple to sit down. “You are my great-grandmother, and I hope we can become good friends.”
Catherine could barely contain her pleasure at his words. She smiled and gestured to the man at her side. “This is my husband, Stefan.”
Alexander laughed for the first time in days. Not only did he have to contend with a stepfather, he now had to get to know a step great-grandfather. “A pleasure, sir. So, what do you think of this castle? My mother grew up here, you know. My stepsister is joining Lady Helene for a tour—perhaps we might all join them?
It was barely dawn, and Constantine would have rather stayed in bed at the castle, shagging his wife, but she had insisted he get up and dress so they could go down to the valley together.
“So this is to be my new lot in life? To be a henpecked husband?”
She laughed and finished arranging her hair, then lashed her breasts into a pair of velvet cups, held up with straps over her shoulders (invented by the surprisingly enterprising Agnes) and let him help her into her dark green dress. “Absolutely not. But we’ve only two days here and I wish to visit my old stomping grounds.”
“Stomping grounds? I’m not sure we ought to be seen in Turon, Eleanor.”
“Not there.” She started to pull her boots on but was stopped and sat down at his gentle command. Constantine carefully helped her into her boots. He laced them carefully, sliding his hand up her thigh and heading toward the obvious goal before being playfully slapped away. “Scoundrel. Come along. It’s not a short ride, but we will be back in time for breakfast.”
Constantine helped her up and they left the nuptial chamber, slipping downstairs as quietly as possible, tiptoeing past dozing guards at the door before finally making it out to the cobbled yard. “I would hide under the stairs here,” she said, pointing to the place where she had waited until Betsy gave up on finding her. She looked around the silent yard, then took Constantine’s hand and led him to the stables. She paused at the stall where dependable old Atlas had lived. Now her sweet-tempered mare Bella waited for her, ears pricked forward.
The prince saddled Lamman and then insisted on saddling Bella for her before helping her up into the saddle. “There’ll be no more riding for you once we go back to Tygo,” he said. “I won’t hear any arguments.”
“Oh, Constantine, don’t be silly.”
“I’ll be silly when it comes to my wife’s safety and happiness.”
“But you let me ride you.”
He growled affectionately at her and swung up into Lamman’s saddle. “Yes, but you’ve never fallen off me.”
“I have never fallen off anything, Constantine. So far as horses go, I’ve only ever been thrown.”
Constantine looked amused and followed her out of the yard and through the gates. They rode in companionable silence down the old deer path and through the thick woods, both listening to birdsong and the sound of the waterfall at The Drop. They clattered over the stone bridge and headed south, skirting the walled fields of small farms and vineyards, stopping to let their horses drink at a little creek that flowed into the Turon River. “Pol’s Creek,” she said, smiling. “I’ve been fishing here with the Count, but I never caught anything, as I never could stop asking him questions. He never caught much, either, when I was with him. Oh… a kingfisher!”
They watched the blue, white and gold bird as it positioned itself on a branch with the sun at its back. The bird preened, then sat perfectly still for several moments before diving into the water and coming back to the branch with a small fish in its beak. The bird smacked the fish on the branch a few times before swallowing it whole.
“Eleanor, where are we going?"
She smiled and reined the horse away from the creekside and continued southwards, Constantine following her along the path. They crossed another bridge and he had to kick Lamman into a quick trot to keep up with her. It was a long ride until Eleanor turned east, taking a slow path between plowed fields until finally she arrived at her destination. She dismounted and walked between a pair of crumbling gates. He dismounted as well and followed her into the weed-choked town square.
“Teslo,” she said softly.
He squeezed his eyes shut, remembering the day he and DeForet’s men had entered the ravaged village, to sights that no man wished to ever see. She paused in the center of the square, looking around until she spotted the anvil. Constantine stayed behind while she ran her fingers over it. After a few moments of inspecting the area around the anvil, she stepped out of the smithy and went to stand on the threshold of what had once been her home. “I was born here,” she said, looking back at him. “In this… house. I think there were flowers in windowboxes—red flowers… geraniums, I think.”
Constantine finally approached her. “Eleanor? Are you all right?”
“I want to have a memorial built here,” she said, looking back at him. “A stone cenotaph, perhaps, and I’ll pay for it. It would not be just for my parents, either. It must be for everyone who was here.”
“That’s a very good thing to do,” he said, slipping his arms around her waist and cradling her.
“I just wish I could really remember them. I can see them in my dreams, sometimes, and I remember my mother’s scent—lavender and wisteria, and my father’s beard. He gave me a spanking once for disobeying him and getting my dress dirty in the smithy, but I remember he held me afterward while I cried. I remember the scent of red-hot iron burning on horses’ hooves and the sound of tapping—I suppose my father was hammering nails into horseshoes, and I remember hearing him hammering on the anvil, too, making swords.”
Constantine squeezed her gently, and she tipped her head back, so that he could rest his chin on the top of her head. “We will raise a cenotaph here to them all, Eleanor. Your parents, though… they are buried in the village cemetery, you know.”
“I want to see their graves. Count von Hesse told me they are buried together.”
“Yes. He saw to it, Eleanor. For Margaret’s sake first, and for his admiration and respect for your father. Had it not been for them, you would not be here.”
They stood together in silence, neither needing to speak. The sun was rising, sending warmth and light to the ruined town square, and Eleanor smiled up at the soft blue sky, thanking God for her life, with all its joys and sorrows. Things had certainly not gone as she had planned, but now she was back home, at the doorway of the house where she was born, and she remembered her grandmother’s words about destiny.
She had come full circle, she supposed. God was in His heaven, her son was on his throne, and she was finally with the man she had always loved. She could only pray for God’s guidance, her family’s health and happiness, and to always know that whatever destiny held in store, she had nothing to fear.