Our Gracious Queen

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Showdowns and News

6 January 1375

The christening of Crown Prince Alexander went fairly smoothly, with Lord Hallam selected to stand as godfather to the little future King, while Countess Cecily was selected to stand as godmother. Eleanor was dismayed by Henry's request to the Countess, but she knew it would be unwise to cause family discord and let the matter go. Nonetheless, she wasn't happy to see the Countess at the christening and wasn't keen on letting the acid-tongued old biddy hold her baby during the christening itself.

The little prince yowled indignantly when the holy water was dribbled on his forehead, but he settled down as soon as Eleanor retrieved him from Cecily's arms. She could tell her week-old son was hungry and once she was finally alone in a little room off the chapel she nursed him, pleased to know she was able to supply plenty of milk. His red, mottled appearance at birth was long gone, replaced by the healthy, almost golden skin of a vigorously healthy and robust baby, and he had a head of nearly black, curling hair and long black eyelashes, and his eyes were as blue as Eleanor's. It was noted that he had Henry's nose and mouth, and was all in all a very good-looking child.

The ride back to the palace was slowed a bit by enthusiastically cheering crowds, and Eleanor made sure to wave and smile at folks on each side of the road as they drove by. Alexander fell asleep in his mother's arms, not bothered by all the noise, and once in the palace she settled him down in his cradle, which was situated on her side of the bed. He was already sleeping through most of the night, waking at around five in the morning to demand breakfast.

Her ladies were astonished that Eleanor was so soon up and about. She had found no good reason to lie in bed and rusticate just because she had had a baby, and besides, she was quite energetic, having recovered quickly from the birth. Within just three days of Alexander's birth, she had resumed her daily walks with Lady Clothilde, who approved of her exercising and commented that the Queen was already getting her figure back.

Eleanor fell asleep in the rocking chair beside Alexander's crib, and was awakened by her son's loud demand for his supper. She was already learning his different cries—he had one for when he was objecting against sleepiness, and separate cries for when he was hungry or wet, and another for when he just wanted her to hold him. She gently picked him up and let him suckle her finger until she was ready to give him her breast, and finally settled in, relaxing as he nursed.

Lady Agnes and Lady Harriet entered the room quietly, and Eleanor leveled a cool stare at them both, daring them to even attempt to say a word against her nursing her own child. She closed her eyes after a bit, feeling she had put them both firmly in their place, when another woman entered the room.

"Your Majesty, this is Lady Beauchamp," Harriet said.

Eleanor nodded politely to the woman. Lady Alice Beauchamp was an attractive woman in her late thirties, being blonde, blue-eyed and full-figured, with an air of authority about her. She curtseyed to the Queen, who said nothing and smiled at her son, who had stopped sucking and was making soft little sounds of contentment. Eleanor gently settled him on her shoulder and began to tap his back, waiting for the sound of his belch. He rarely spat up, and he did her proud again today and she cuddled him before getting up to put him back in his cradle.

Lady Beauchamp studied the baby for a moment, then moved forward to take him from the cradle. At first, Eleanor was too surprised to even speak, then she stood, moving to block the woman, but her delayed reaction was too late. "What are you doing?" she demanded angrily.

"I'm taking the prince to his wet nurse, ma'am. A very proper lady has been found to tend him, Your Majesty," the woman said, picking Alexander up and settling him to her shoulder. "Do not fret, ma'am. You will see your son at least twice daily, and… "

"Put my son back in his cradle this instant!" Eleanor snapped.

"Ma'am, there is no need to worry. You will see him… "

"I said put him back in his cradle now!" Eleanor snarled.

"Your Majesty, this is how things are done. Royal babies are never nursed by their mothers—it is considered unhealthy for the child and undignified for a woman of royal blood. We have only allowed your nursing of him to go on so long because of your… heightened emotional state, but… really, ma'am, you must see reason now."

"AM I OR AM I NOT THE QUEEN?!" Eleanor shouted. Alexander began to cry, fitfully at first, but he seemed to recognize that the wrong person was holding him, because he began screaming, not in fear but in rage, his eyes squeezed shut and his tiny fists shaking to indicate a full-blown tantrum.

Lady Beauchamp looked around the room, apparently surprised at Eleanor's reaction. "Ma'am, the King approved… "

"I don't care who approved of this. I do not approve. I am the Queen, that is my son, and if you do not return him to me this instant I will have you arrested for attempting to kidnap the Crown Prince!"

Lady Beauchamp handed the screaming baby to Eleanor and stepped back, eyes wide with shock.

"You will never touch my son again, do you understand me? Or any other child God sees fit to bless me with! Now get out!"

"Ma'am, you must understand… " Lady Beauchamp started again, in a wheedling tone, as if she were trying to reason with a lunatic.

"Get out! All of you!" Eleanor said firmly, keeping her voice low and soft, but the three women staring at her recognized a dangerous mother lion when they saw one and they all curtseyed deeply before leaving the room. Eleanor thought it odd when Lady Harriet looked back at her and nodded before closing the door, but her chief concern was calming Alexander down. She crooned to him, swaying from side to side (he hated being bounced) and stroking his back until he finally stopped shrieking and went back to sleep.

"Never again," she said to him. "Never again will anyone touch you without my permission, my beautiful boy. I will never let anyone hurt you. They don't know what they're in for if they try."

"Surely you want the Queen to recover more quickly from the birthing," Lord Beauchamp told Henry.

"Of course I do, but she gets so upset when anyone tries to take the baby from her. She lets me hold him, of course, but even then I'm nervous about it and that makes her nervous. I don't like seeing her nervous, much less unhappy. If I had the baby taken from her, she'd be miserable."

The hunting party had stopped in the Royal Forest, everyone relaxing and eating the nooning meal under a vast oak tree while the dogs chased each other around and the King's gentlemen cheerfully bickered.

"She would do better, I think, without nursing a baby and being up every few hours to tend to him. Let the child be tended by a wet nurse, sir. It would be better for everyone, all around." Beauchamp cut another piece of ham and ate it, watching the King's expression carefully. He knew Henry was besotted by the Queen, but it was time the man was weaned off that woman. "That's how my own children were raised, and it's how we were raised, too, and my wife can find a very suitable lady to tend to the Crown Prince."

"I don't know, Charles. The prince is thriving under Eleanor's care—do either of us recall happy childhoods while tended by wet nurses and seeing our mothers twice a day? God Almighty, it's bloody cold out here!" Henry stood up, agitated. "Eleanor and I will discuss it."

Beauchamp nearly broke his crossbow in two, he was so furious. Whenever Henry spoke with the Queen about anything, he ended up agreeing with her! Sometimes, Beauchamp wanted to try and bring up charges of witchcraft against the bitch—but he knew Henry would defend his wife. As far as the King was concerned, Eleanor could do no wrong.

"Of course, sir."

"What were we hunting again?" Henry asked distractedly. "Oh, yes, hares. Let's call it a day, shall we? I'm hoping to get back to the palace before too long. Eleanor is going to teach me how to change Alexander's nappy. Can you believe that? Me, changing dirty nappies! But I can say, Charles, that fatherhood rather agrees with me." He clapped his cousin on the back. "Everything these days seems unusual, but you know, it's not bad. Not bad at all." He grinned and walked away, calling for his horse.

"That does sound… very unusual, sir," Beauchamp muttered. He gnawed on his ham and fumed. "Very unusual indeed."

Henry chewed nervously on his lip as Eleanor told him of the incident from earlier that day, and he glanced at Lady Harriet and Lady Agnes, not sure what to do. Finally, he leaned forward a bit. "Eleanor, do you… think that Alexander is doing well under your care?"

"Yes, he is," Eleanor said, holding her son to her shoulder and gently stroking his back. "He's in excellent health and I have plenty of milk."

"But royal children have always been tended by wet nurses, Eleanor." He did not look or sound convinced of his own argument.

"Did it never occur to you, Henry, that royal babies failed to thrive because of that ridiculous and unhealthy practice?"

The King sighed. "Eleanor, everyone keeps saying that it would be best for you to let a… nurse tend to Alexander. You would still see him regularly… "

"Twice daily, Lady Beauchamp told me. How is that to help form a lasting bond between mother and child? Tell me how, exactly. Parents should tend to their own children, royal or not. I will not hand my baby over to anyone. I will not, tradition be damned."

Henry fidgeted nervously. He was not good at coping with familial conflict, and Eleanor's eyes were welling with tears. Frankly, he wanted to get away from the whole matter as soon as he could. Finally, he stood. "We shall discuss the matter at a later time. Until then, dearest, you will continue to nurse the prince. Good day to you all, ladies." He bowed quickly and left the Presence Chamber. Lady Agnes swallowed, clearly frightened, and Lady Harriet watched Eleanor croon softly to her baby.

"It is very… unpleasant indeed, to hand your child over to someone else," Harriet finally said.

"Yes. And I will not do it."

"But you shouldn't defy the king, if he decides a wet nurse is better for the prince."

"I will defy him if need be," Eleanor said. She lifted her chin a little and glared at Harriet. "I will defy the Devil himself, if required. I did not carry this child around in my womb for nine months to just hand him off to someone else to nurse and care for. He's my son and it will take an army of devils to take him from me."

Lady Harriet couldn't help but admire the girl's resolve. She wished she had half as much backbone—she rarely spent time with her own two sons, because she had obeyed her husband's demand that they be raised among men, rather than some stupid woman, and they had been fed by wet nurses, too. But Eleanor didn't yet know what desperation was, or what fear could do to a person when true tests came.

"Then I recommend you petition God to send you an army of angels, ma'am, as you will need one."

February 1374

"Your Majesty, the Livonian ambassador and his retinue are here," Boris told Eleanor, who nodded and gestured that she was ready to receive her visitors.

Henry was out hunting, and would not arrive back at the palace until late in the afternoon, so she had time to speak with the diplomats and with Count von Hesse… at last. The doors were opened and the Livonian ambassador, Lord Devereaux, and two other men entered the room, with Count von Hesse last to come in. Eleanor maintained perfect regal dignity, sitting in the newly-built silver and gold Consort's Throne that her husband had had made and placed next to his own in the Presence Chamber.

Crown Prince Alexander was sleeping comfortably in his cradle, Lady Agnes tasked with keeping it gently rocking. Eleanor still found the woman as dull as porridge, but she found her at least somewhat trustworthy, and she never disobeyed her. She would not, however, allow Lady Harriet to touch the little prince, much less the odious Lady Alice Beauchamp, who had apparently reported Eleanor's intransigence to the King over the 'Wet Nurse Incident', as it was being called.

Across Gravonia, the festivals and joyful celebrations commemorating the birth of a male heir to the throne were heartfelt, and Eleanor had received hundreds of gifts from the common people. She had made a point of personally writing out thank you notes to everyone who sent a gift, as well as letters of thanks to each town and village for their prayers on her behalf. Henry was good at the public spectacle of royalty, Lord Hallam had told Eleanor one afternoon, but Eleanor was proving to be a master of public relations, and the royal family's popularity was proof of that. Even more, diplomatic relations between Gravonia and her neighbors were improving almost daily. The appointment of a Livonian ambassador to Gravonia, for the first time in almost a hundred years, was proof enough of that.

"Lord Devereaux, Lord Bennett, Lord Peterson and Count Frederick von Hesse, ma'am," Boris said.

"It is a great pleasure to have you all here," Eleanor said. The two companions of Lord Devereaux were, she had been told, new to the Livonian diplomatic corps and had never seen Princess Eleanor before she had left home. The four men all bowed to her—a sight that she still had trouble adjusting to. Particularly when it was Count von Hesse.

"We are very pleased to be here, too, Your Majesty. We do come with gifts." Lord Devereaux gestured and a pair of servants came lurching forward, carrying a heavy chest and set it down in front of the Queen. They opened it and revealed several beautiful pieces of mother-of-pearl and abalone jewelry, as well as exquisite gold and silver plate and other glittering baubles. Eleanor smiled, pleased, and drew in her breath as Count von Hesse stepped forward.

"If it pleases Your Majesty, I am also delighted to present you with a very fine Friesian horse, as a gift from your grandfather, His Majesty the King of Livonia. The animal awaits you in the palace courtyard."

"A Friesian horse, you say, sir? I am very pleased. Thank you."

He had brought Merlin to her! Her hands trembled a little and her eyes stung with tears, but she remained composed as further gifts were brought for her and King Henry. She asked the men questions about their homes and families in Livonia, and if their accommodations in Luvov were comfortable. Finally, she asked to see the horse, and carried Alexander with her out to the courtyard, after having Agnes wrap the baby in warm blankets. She saw Count von Hesse staring with wide, wondering eyes at her son and she smiled at him.

"Sir, would you perhaps like to hold the future King of Gravonia?"

The Count swallowed nervously and finally nodded. She softly told him to support the baby's head and handed the infant to him. The little prince, settled comfortably in the crook of von Hesse's arm, stared up at the man and made no objections. Eleanor wanted to ask the Count a thousand questions, but those had to wait. She wanted, now, for the man who was father to her to get to know her son—his first grandson.

"He's beautiful, Your Majesty," the Count finally said. "You must be very proud."

"Yes, he is and I am. He is utterly perfect. Well, usually—when he's screaming bloody murder and demanding a meal at the crack of dawn, he's not quite so lovely, but even then I adore him."

The other diplomats continued on to where the black horse was standing, and Eleanor anxiously asked the Count, "How is Christiane?"

"She is in her confinement as we speak. The doctors have insisted she stay in bed and be quiet."

"Oh, poor Christiane," Eleanor said softly. "I suspect she hates being confined."

"Yes, but she is doing her best to obey." He gently handed the sleeping baby back to Eleanor. Alexander snuffled a bit and whimpered before settling down again. "I fear for her terribly."

"I have been praying for her," Eleanor said, before they joined the Livonian diplomats in the courtyard. She smiled when she saw Merlin, and the horse immediately began nickering for sugar cubes. Eleanor extracted a few from her pocket and stroked the stallion's nose as he ate his treats. "It's so good to see you again, Merlin," she whispered to the stallion and smiled at von Hesse. "Thank you, Your Grace, for this kind gift. He is a wonderful reminder of my own dear home."

King Henry returned in time for supper and was pleased with the gifts from Eleanor's home country, particularly with Merlin. He even tried dropping hints that he had always wanted a Friesian warhorse, but Eleanor pretended to be obtuse and declared that she looked forward to riding him when Alexander was a little older.

Finally, when supper was over and Henry went off to chat with the ambassador, Eleanor sat down next to Count von Hesse in one of the alcoves in the Great Hall, where a window afforded them a view of the city. Embracing him was out of the question, of course, but just seeing him made her want to dance with joy.

"You were very clever, selecting Betsy to be your midwife," he said, keeping his voice low.

"How is she?"

"She at Christiane's side, 'round the clock. She's fine—you know she loves nothing more than playing mother hen."

Eleanor smiled. "Yes. I don't know if I could have gotten through the birthing without her."

"Are you well, Goosey?"

"I'm quite well. Henry is the best and kindest of husbands and he loves little Alexander—he's even trying to learn how to change nappies, though he's awful at it, but he's even getting good at holding him and talking to him quietly. You know Henry has a loud voice—it's all a learning experience for him."

"Does he treat you well, though? Has he ever… "

"Hit me? Dear God, sir, you actually think I would have tolerated such a thing? No, Henry has never even raised his hand to me, much less his voice. He's a fierce warrior, but with me he is as gentle as a lamb."

von Hesse sighed, not wanting to know any details about Henry's 'gentleness'. "I must admit to worrying about you. Constantly."

"I do not mind that, sir, but you must not worry any more. I am doing very well here."

"And what do you think of the Gravonian royal family?" he asked, keeping an eye on anyone who might come too near.

"Count von Arklow, I have found, is a friendly man but his mother is another kind all together, and you can almost taste her loathing for me. Lord Beauchamp despises me, though he tries to hide it. He even sent his wife to try and take Alexander away and put him on a wet nurse."

"People want crowns, Eleanor," von Hesse warned her. "Some men truly believe they are entitled to one, and will do anything to get it. It's not what you may want to hear, Goosey, but some men are even willing to harm little children to get a throne. It's happened before, and it will happen again."

She shuddered at the very thought—she did not want to even consider the notion that the Beauchamps were eager to put Alexander to a wet nurse who would not take proper care of her son, but the possibility was there, and it terrified her. After a while, she glanced around the Great Hall, which was full of courtiers, and she realized that she really couldn't trust anyone outside hers and her husband's immediate circle—if a midwife could be bought, who else might be willing to betray her? Hiding her fear, she smiled at von Hesse and stood, accepting his bow before going to Agnes to collect Alexander and go back upstairs. She had plenty of thinking to do, and many decisions to make.

Eleanor was relieved to hear, on 15 February, that Christiane had safely delivered a healthy baby girl, though the labor had been long and agonizing not just for her but for the child's father. von Hesse had quietly married his lover four days earlier, with his wife allowed to stand up only for the ceremony, which was performed by a discreet and trustworthy priest that Eleanor found for them. As everyone at Court believed the Count and Christiane had been married for well over a year—Eleanor being as good at planting gossip as any woman in Luvov—she sent the Count her congratulations and a request to stand as godmother to the newborn.

She insisted that the baby, named Helene after Christiane's own mother, be christened at the church nearest their rented home, instead of forcing her to make the customary trip to St Michael's Cathedral. Crowds of people gathered to see the Queen walk up the steps into the humble little chapel, and Eleanor was delighted to see her mentor and friend. However, she was distressed to see Christiane looking so tired and worn..

Just the same, the christening went well. Eleanor was delighted to hold the tiny slip of a girl in her arms. "I do, with great pleasure, agree to stand as a source of encouragement to this child, Lady Helene von Hesse, and may God bless her in her goings and her comings, and may God bless her parents as well, and may she be a blessing and comfort to them in turn." She handed the baby back to Christiane, who smiled and handed the baby to the Count, who stared down at his little daughter in delighted amazement.

Allowed a few moments alone, Eleanor was able to talk briefly with Christiane, and was pleased to see her mentor and friend in good spirits, even if she did look very tired. "Here in Gravonia, I am Countess von Hesse," she told Eleanor. "No one seems to know… "

"And they won't. What business is it of theirs, anyway? I have a bit of my own grist to apply to the rumor mill, Christiane, and it is easy to make people think certain things." She smoothed her hands on her skirt. "Though I do think it's barbaric that you cannot be called Countess in Livonia."

"It is of no matter," Christiane said, smiling. "It is not important to me. I am Frederick's wife and the mother of his child. I have all that I need—what better title is there than 'wife' to such a good man and 'Mama' to such a beautiful baby?"

Eleanor certainly couldn't argue with that point.

After the small, very low-key celebration at von Hesse's house, Eleanor returned to the palace and nursed Alexander until he was satisfied and she lay down, settling her son down beside her in the bed and dozing. She heard the clatter of Henry's boots on the stairs and gave her husband a warning look when he came in. The King quietly came around to her side and kissed her and Alexander, then sat down and began undoing his boots. "We had a fine day of hunting, Eleanor. I bagged six big hares and Beauchamp got three."

"That's very good," Eleanor said with a smile. "But be sure not to deplete the royal forest—remember there are people who are also hunting hares and partridges to feed their families over the winter."

"Aye, yes. I saw at least six men out in the forest today, and they all had been successful." He grinned at her—the Queen's idea of opening the royal forests two days a week, so that anyone could hunt for food in safety, had been immensely popular. "And how are you doing this fine day, beloved?"

"I'm feeling just fine. I attended the christening of Count von Hesse's little daughter Helene." It still amazed her that the Count was the father of a child, at fifty-four, but the tender and loving way he looked at Christiane made Eleanor suspect that they might try for another one day. "Such a beautiful baby, and the new Countess is charming."

"Aye, I've heard." He finally got his boots off and stretched, yawning. "Perhaps I might join you for a nap, sweetheart?"

"I wouldn't mind a bit," she smiled. Henry went around to his side of the bed and climbed in, gently slipping his arm around her waist and slowly sliding his hand up to cup her breast. "Henry… "

"When can we make love again?" he asked her, nuzzling her neck. "I'm about to go mad."

"Soon," she said softly. "I will consult with the doctor."

Henry continued to caress Eleanor, even with the baby sleeping in their bed. She sighed, liking the way he touched her, and relishing the fact that he desired her. Finally, she moved away, gently carrying Alexander back to his cradle before removing her gown and climbing back into bed with her husband, who was practically leering at her. He sighed happily when she snuggled into his arms, rubbing her body gently against his, but she knew he was a little frustrated, and frankly, she was eager to resume having fun in bed with him again. Ardent caresses and heated kisses were not entirely satisfying, and Eleanor had to disagree with Clothilde about being too tired for sex—she had never felt more energetic.

"Can I taste your milk?" he asked her softly, almost shyly, curling a lock of her hair around his fingers.

"Of course you may."

He lowered his head and tasted, and lifted his head to gaze wonderingly into her eyes. "It tastes… almost sweet. Not quite, but… what a lucky child Alexander is, to have the most beautiful woman in the world as his mother."

"I will definitely speak with the doctor tomorrow," she said, slipping her arms around his neck as he kissed her passionately. He smiled at her and began to lovingly caress her, whispering undying love and gratefulness to her.

"I love watching you nurse our son," Henry said softly, gently kissing her breasts. She ran her fingers through his hair and sighed, relaxing.

"Then I can assume you will not make me give him to a wet nurse?" she asked him.

"Aye, you will tend to him. To him and any other child God grants us. I can refuse you nothing, darling. Nothing at all."

She smiled as he rolled over onto his back, and settled her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat. "Oh," he said suddenly. "I heard some very interesting news today, from Morvenia."

"What news?" she asked, rising up on her elbow to look at him.

"Prince Constantine of Morvenia married Isabella of Navarre—on the day Alexander was born, no less!"

Eleanor felt something tear in her chest, but she somehow managed to maintain her composure. "Oh. That's very interesting."

"Yes, I suppose so. What with King Philip having never married, it's essential that Constantine marry and father children. He'll get sons, I'm sure of that." Henry kissed Eleanor's temple, tenderly stroking her hair. "I can't imagine him with a bunch of daughters to contend with. Imagine trying to find husbands for the daughters of a dragon!" He chuckled and hugged his wife, not noticing that she had begun to tremble.

"No. No, I can't imagine that, either," Eleanor said softly, resting her head on her husband's chest and listening to his steady heartbeat as she felt her own heart breaking into a thousand pieces.

When she was sure he was asleep, Eleanor got out of bed, put on her gown and slipped into her robe. She checked Alexander, smiling at him as he slept, then silently left the room and went into her private sitting room. She went to the window and looked out at the gloomy February day, the earlier snow turning into bleak, miserable sleet—winter was coming to an end, and spring was coming. She could see the fields beyond the palace were finally turning green, and further to the west the clouds were starting to disperse, giving her a clear view of the horizon for the first time in almost three months. Sitting down on the window seat, she pulled her knees up, wrapped her arms around them and let her tears flow.

"Dear God," she whispered, wiping her eyes. "Please… please let him be safe… let him be happy… even though I will never see him again, let him be happy, and… " She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing herself to accept the marriage of the man she loved, and to always want the best for him. "Please see he loves Isabella—he needs someone to love, and to love him. Give him healthy children, Father, and please grant him peace."

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