Count Frederick von Hesse had faced vast armies of screaming, blue-painted Scots. He had endured war in England and had come away relatively unscathed, save injuries sustained from the weather and attempts at eating the food. He had gone through scrapes with neatness-obsessed Germans and squabbles with Italians that ended with far too much eating. He had seen it all. Yet here he was, standing in his great hall at Ravensburg Castle, completely flummoxed by a tiny three-year-old girl.
“What? What did you say, DeForet?”
“This child seems to be all that’s left of Teslo, Frederick. We couldn’t very well leave her there to starve, now could we?”
von Hesse looked down at the child, who was staring up at him with her startlingly blue eyes and gnawing resolutely on the edge of the heavy cloak someone had thrown around her tiny shoulders. She had a presence about her, at such an age, and stood with her back straight, head up, unafraid.
“Child, tell me your name.”
“Sir, you mean.”
“My name is Eleanor Reeve. Not Sir.”
DeForet looked like he might laugh, but a brief, sharp look from von Hesse made him swallow his grin and step forward. “She’s only three, Frederick. I’m sure she’s plenty of time to learn proper manners.”
“So, little Eleanor Reeve-Not-Sir, your father was the blacksmith in Teslo?”
She said nothing, just looked around the huge Great Hall, taking in the roaring fireplace and the innumerable antlered stag heads that covered one entire wall. Her eyes widened as she gazed at the gigantic, furious-looking stuffed bear standing near the fire. Higher up on the walls were several suits of armor and shields, and over the fireplace were pairs of swords, their grips decorated with priceless jewels, along with various other weapons. DeForet gestured to one of his knights, who carried the swords they had found with the child to von Hesse. “These were made by her father. John Reeve."
The Count flinched. “John Reeve,” he whispered. von Hesse picked up one of the swords and held it out, the firelight flashing on the polished steel, then he laid the blade across his finger, marveling at its perfect balance. “Flawless,” he whispered. “Reeve was an artist unparalleled.”
“And one hell of a fighting man. He was the best swordsman I’ve ever known,” DeForet said softly. “Not much for jousting, I’ll admit, but his mastery of the sword was astounding.”
“I suspect he died surrounded by sliced-up Lacovians,” von Hesse said softly, hoping the child didn’t overhear. But she hadn’t—she was still staring at the bear, and was inching toward it, her curiosity overcoming her fear.
“Aye. There were bodies around him.”
Prince Constantine, keeping out of the way until now, cleared his throat. “She had books with her, too.” He picked up one of the volumes and laid it on the table. “Full of all kinds of recipes for healing concoctions and the like. They’re rather interesting.” He shrugged. “For books about such things, I mean. I had no idea one could do so many things with tree bark.”
“Yes, yes,” von Hesse muttered, opening one of the books and looking down at the hand-written pages. “A rare woman indeed, who can read and write.” He smiled softly, running his fingers over the words. He flipped through the pages and was surprised to see what appeared to be a sort of family record.
I, Margaret Trueblood married John Reeve 24 April 1357 in Teslo, Livonia. John Reeve is the son of Sir William Reeve, Sheriff of Teslo, and Matilda Gray. He turned the page and his eyesight blurred through a haze of tears. Our first child, Eleanor Reeve, born 8 February 1358 in Teslo. A beautiful girl, strong and healthy. John is so pleased, and won’t hear anyone say he is disappointed. He went through the village today, despite the cold, telling everyone he has a daughter!
“And do a spot of thinking, too,” DeForet nodded, jerking von Hesse from his memories. Margaret Trueblood had never had much trouble thinking, von Hesse remembered. Frankly, she had thought too much. He studied the child, fully expecting her to flinch at the weight of his gaze, but she only stared back until her fascination with the bear drew her attention away again. A memory, painfully sweet, made the Count look away at last. Margaret Trueblood’s daughter. Did I really think I would never see the child? My God, she’s the image of her mother!
“Tell me, child, can you read yet?”
She pursed her lips briefly, still studying the bear. “Mama taught me my letters. She made me a board with letters on it."
“And some French.” She frowned, thinking. “Mon Français n’est pas très bon.”
von Hesse’s mouth twitched. Margaret’s French had been pretty bad, he remembered. She only knew certain rather colorful phrases and terms, and none that ought to be taught to a child, but she also had possessed an excellent sense of humor. “Did you learn any German?” he asked her.
“Mein Deutsch ist schrecklich,” the child answered, with a poor accent.
“Quite.” von Hesse looked at Prince Constantine, seeing a good deal of King Louis in him, and thankfully, little of Queen Marie. He was sturdier and stronger-looking than Crown Prince Philip, with a steely resolve in those dark green eyes that was encouraging and also vaguely unsettling. “Do you know your letters, young man?”
“Yes, sir. Of course.”
“And your French?”
“Why would I learn French? I don’t even like cheese.”
“Artless lad you have here, DeForet,” von Hesse muttered. “A bit too honest. You found the child?”
“I stumbled upon her,” Constantine shrugged. He lowered his voice. “I found her parents, too. The whole village was...wiped out. Lacovian monsters...”
“Yes, yes. All right then. Take her away from here and get her distracted. Play with her a bit.”
The young prince looked appalled. “Play...?”
“Yes. Surely you remember the games of your youth.”
Constantine stared at the little girl, who had gotten down on her knees to inspect the claws of the bear. She finally touched the claws, then rubbed the fur between her fingers. “Did you kill this bear?” she asked von Hesse, looking up at him through her chaotic mop of dark curls.
“My father did.”
“Did the bear hurt him?” She got up and walked back to face von Hesse, and he instinctively drew himself up to his full height, as if being inspected by a monarch. He forced himself to make his shoulders relax. Three years old!
“So why did he kill him?”
“Because... it was a bear,” von Hesse told her sharply. “It was killing livestock.”
The child pondered this, but her thoughts were interrupted by Constantine, who gestured for her to take his hand. “Would you like to play a game?”
“Yes. What kind of game?” she asked eagerly.
“How do you play?” she asked, eagerly taking his hand and letting him lead her away from the fire to a small alcove, where a tall window afforded them a view of the snow-laden valley below. The older men heard Constantine telling the girl how to play the game—it involved wooden blocks formed into a castle and marbles were shot at it, using the attacker’s thumb, until a wall was breached—and they all smiled at Eleanor’s piping voice disputing with the prince over how he had set up his castle defenses.
“I remember you brought Crown Prince Philip here two years ago. Now Constantine,” von Hesse said.
“Yes. Philip was quite talented, but Constantine is something else entirely. He has the makings of a great warrior.”
“A prodigy, is he?” von Hesse asked, smiling. “His father must be proud.”
DeForet snorted. “I doubt his father would notice. King Louis doesn’t pay much attention to Constantine, and Queen Marie is... she doesn’t seem to be concerned about him at all. When Philip left home for his training in Havor, she wept like a child. When Constantine left, she just said something about how he has a great interest in religion and that he hated his French and Latin lessons, and I saw no tears from that woman at his departing.”
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard. Philip mentioned that—it seemed to make him uncomfortable, being doted on while his younger brother is ignored.”
von Hesse nodded absently, glancing at the young prince, who was sitting weaver-style on the floor, facing the tiny girl, who was triumphantly gloating over having destroyed his ‘castle’. “It’s a relief to see that the two don’t resent each other.”
“You were lucky, that’s all,” Constantine said to Eleanor, looking down at his destroyed mini citadel. “I’m surprised you didn’t just come over and stomp on my blocks!”
“That would have been cheating,” Eleanor answered, and began building her own little model castle.
von Hesse nodded and went to the door to the kitchen, shoving it open and shouting “Agnetta! Go and get Betsy!” He turned back to look at the two children on the floor and couldn’t help but smile. This little snow sprite was his ward now, but he was grateful to have women in the house who would have some idea of how to tend to her.
Betsy had been Count von Hesse’s housekeeper for almost twenty years, even before the death of her husband in battle, and she was rarely surprised by anything anymore. Most days were quiet and uneventful, but when knights came tumbling into the castle, chaos tended to reign. They ate like pigs, threw bones on the floor, wiped their hands on the curtains and tapestries, drank all the ale that could be found and finally passed out, pissed as newts, while she and the other servants cleaned up the wreckage, dragged their soggy carcasses to the bedrooms upstairs, and got to work on repairing all the furniture.
Count von Hesse was, thankfully, a sensible man who rarely interfered in the day-to-day running of the household. Betsy and Harris, the count’s redoubtable English-born butler, kept the castle in good order at all times. Just hours after the castle being evacuated by the herd of steaming, grunting men, the hall would be swept clean and was back in order again, and von Hesse would only comment vaguely about how nice everything looked.
He was, Betsy always thought, the most unflappable man she had ever known.
She was inspecting the vegetable bins in the buttery and thinking about tonight’s menu when one of the servant girls came rushing in, looking agitated. Poor thing—she had only started working at the castle a week ago. “What is it, Agnetta?”
“There’s knights here! About ten of them, and they have a little girl with them!”
“Oh dear God, don’t tell me they’ve kidnapped someone.”
“No, ma’am. The whole village of Teslo was destroyed by the Lacovians and the poor little thing is all that’s left!”
Betsy stared at the young maid, momentarily taken aback, then wiped her hands, smoothing her skirts as she went into the Great Hall. She curtseyed quickly when she recognized DeForet, and puzzled at the sight of a handsome young boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen, but stopped in her tracks when she saw the child.
“Your Grace, what is going on here?” she asked, staring down at the girl in utter bewilderment. The child looked up at her from beside what looked like a little wooden castle that was surrounded by marble balls. Only one of the mini castle’s walls looked like it had been pushed in a little, and the boy glanced down at the castle and sighed.
“Betsy, this child is... uh... Eleanor Reeve. Her...uh... parents have been... done away with, sadly. You remember John Reeve and... and Margaret, yes?” Betsy’s eyes widened, but von Hesse went on briskly. “Eleanor, this is the castle housekeeper, Betsy Bolingbrooke.”
“Elizabeth Bolingbrooke, thank you, but everyone calls me Betsy.” She looked at the young boy. “And you are...?”
“Prince Constantine of Morvenia,” the boy answered gravely.
Betsy bobbed again, looking down at the child. Finally, she knelt down and examined the girl, wondering when she had had a good meal and why these stupid men hadn’t found her any warm clothes. Really, men ought not be allowed to tend to children this small, she thought. “Eleanor, are you hungry?”
Eleanor nodded. Betsy stood up. “Gentlemen, what has happened here? This child is all that remains of...”
“Teslo, yes,” DeForet told her.
“Eleanor, would you like something nice and warm to eat? Some stew, perhaps? Do you like lamb?”
“I don’t like deading the lambs,” Eleanor shook her head. “I won’t eat lamb or mutton.”
Betsy saw von Hesse’s mouth twitch, and she smiled. “All right then. We’ll have some nice beef stew then, with vegetables. You do eat your vegetables, don’t you?”
Eleanor frowned. “I don’t like vegetables, but Mama makes me eat them. But she gave up making me eat lamb.”
“Quite right.” Betsy took her hand. “Come along then, child, and we’ll have you in a nice warm nightgown and put some good warm food in your belly. How would you like that?”
“So long as it’s not lamb.”
Betsy gave the knights a hard look, and DeForet at least had enough sense to look chagrined, and she led the child out of the room.
“Of course I’ll take the child in,” von Hesse said wearily. “It would be unchristian of me not to.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” DeForet said. “I didn’t relish taking a child to Havor at this time of year. I don’t even like going there this time of year. God help us, it’s bloody cold here and even colder up there.”
“I suppose you and your men need a place to stay tonight. A blizzard is blowing in, I think, so there will be no traveling for a few days.” von Hesse looked at Prince Constantine. “Couldn’t breach her castle’s defenses, eh?”
Constantine shrugged. “I was going easy on her.”
“I’m sure,” von Hesse grinned.
“Ah, well, she’s John Reeve’s daughter,” DeForet grinned, cuffing Constantine’s shoulder. “Reeve’s father was a fine soldier in his own right, and if I recall he was made sheriff of Teslo some years ago. Reeve made the finest swords ever seen—I think he learned how from the Danes.”
“Aye, he did,” von Hesse nodded. “I… met John Reeve a few times. An excellent man, by all accounts, and I remember him being very happy to have fathered a child, even if it was only a daughter.”
“I’m sure he and Margaret planned to have more children.”
von Hesse paled slightly. “Yes. I’m sure they did.”
Betsy made sure the child emptied her bowl of beef stew and wasn’t surprised to see Eleanor’s eyelids drooping as she nibbled on a crust of bread. She had Agnetta run upstairs to find some warm bedclothes, and pulled the little girl into her lap and cuddled her, memories of motherhood washing over her. She thought of how lucky the child was to be so young and thus shielded in many ways from the tragedy that had just torn her world apart. She suspected that Eleanor would still have nightmares in the days and months to come, but if she was properly tended to and not forced to eat lamb, she would be just fine.
“I want my Mama. When is my Mama going to come get me?” Eleanor asked sleepily.
“Eleanor, your Mama isn’t going to come. She’s gone away forever.”
“What about my Papa? Is he going to come?”
“No, sweetie, he’s not. Eleanor, you’re going to live here now. You’re going to live in this castle, and Count von Hesse and I will take care of you from now on, all right?”
Eleanor played with her bare toes and pondered, which Betsy found interesting—she was only three and yet was clearly of above-average intelligence, and had a mind of her own. von Hesse was going to have an interesting time, raising this one.
“Mama said to take care of her books,” Eleanor said softly, her eyes drifting shut again. “They’re important books.”
“I’m sure they are, since they were your Mama’s, and now they’re yours.”
“And Papa’s swords and daggers.” Eleanor yawned.
Agnetta arrived with the bedclothes and the two women helped the child out of her rather dirty old dress and into the warm linen gown. “A bit long for her, but it’ll do for tonight,” Betsy said, smiling as Eleanor, asleep on her feet, nearly toppled over.
“Such a pretty little thing,” Agnetta said, smiling as Eleanor wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands and unsuccessfully resisted Betsy cleaning her face and hands with a warm, damp cloth. “You’d not think she was a peasant.”
Betsy glanced up at Agnetta. “No, you’d never think she was a peasant at all.”
“Do you say your prayers at night, Eleanor?” Betsy asked the child, settling her down onto the bed. The bed was far too large, and the poor child was practically sinking into it, but it was the only one available and comfortable enough. The servants had settled all the knights (ten of them!) into rooms and now the maids and Harris were downstairs, cleaning up after them. The next few days, what with the blizzard pounding the castle walls, was going to be rather busy.
“Um,” Eleanor answered. She made the sign of the Cross and folded her hands. “Bless Mama and Papa and… Count von Hesse and Conshan…Constantine, and Betsy. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.”
“Very good,” Betsy smiled, stroking the girl’s black curls. “Go on to sleep now, child.”
She was already asleep, her black curls forming a dark halo around her head, her long eyelashes brushing her cheeks—she looked like a little angel. Betsy blew out the candle and settled into the chair beside the bed, not willing to leave the child alone just yet, on her first night in a strange room, far from home. She didn’t let herself think of what the child might have seen and heard, but she suspected it had been beyond horrifying. Having witnessed Lacovian brutality herself, Betsy wasn’t immune to the nightmares those monsters could cause.
Finally satisfied that Eleanor was safely asleep for the time being, Betsy slipped out of the room. She was not surprised to see Count von Hesse standing at the end of the hall, staring miserably out the window into the night. Snow was blowing onto the window, accumulating a little before being blasted away by another powerful gust. Yet the thick glass didn’t rattle, and the castle stood firm, unimpressed by even the most ferocious storms.
“I suppose this was inevitable, wasn’t it?” von Hesse asked her, his voice bleak.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“That I would see the child. Margaret’s child.”
“Fate does twist about a bit, doesn’t it?”
“Cruelly.” He looked at Betsy, and she saw the misery in his eyes. He had done a good job of covering his shock, but Betsy could see the same pain in his eyes as she had seen five years ago. “And now she’s dead.”
“I am sorry, sir.”
“If she hadn’t married John Reeve, she would be alive. She would be safe. She would be here.”
Betsy didn’t want to rub salt in his wound, but the truth was rarely kind. “She chose him, sir. She loved him.”
“I loved her.”
“Damn it all to hell.” He turned away, staring blindly out at the storm. “I will send some of my own knights down to the village, when the storm breaks, to bury John and Margaret properly, together.”
“That’s a good and proper thing to do,” Betsy agreed. “And now you can take care of her daughter. She would be happy to know you’ve taken the child in. You can do this for her.”
He exhaled sharply, anger overcoming his grief. “And Margaret’s family… her bloody father wouldn’t even acknowledge her! The bastard!”
“We needn’t chew on that again, sir. It serves no purpose.”
“I ought to tell King Michael about his orphaned granddaughter. Ought to tell that conniving little… little… weasel what he’s done…or…what he should have done. How he ought to have been a man about it… but no, he used that poor woman and left her to bear a child alone, an outcast, and poor Margaret had to endure the taint of her mother’s…”
She touched his arm, stopping him. “Let it go, Frederick. She did.” Betsy said. She rarely called the Count by his Christian name, but the gap between master and servant had been closed long ago, and they knew each other’s secrets. There was little hidden between them.
“I will take care of the child,” von Hesse said firmly. “I will. I’ll see to her education and will find her a proper husband some day. I swear it will be so.”
Betsy smiled. “I think first we ought to get her hair untangled and teach her how to use a spoon. But we’ll get there eventually, I’m sure.”