Prince Constantine was relieved to be away from home.
He realized that such a sentiment was not exactly natural, but home was such a source of stress for him that however unnatural it was, he relished any opportunity to leave. His parents' thinly veiled hostility toward each other and their lack of interest in him, save for criticism, had become part of his daily life, like eating or drinking. As a child, he had been bewildered by their disdain for him, and fortunately had Philip to shield him from their constant barbs, but not even Philip could make that bitterness go away entirely, however much the Crown Prince took his side. Frankly, Constantine didn't really like it that Philip felt any need to defend him at all.
Yes, indeed, he was glad to be away from home. Any place was better. Even Livonia, despite this wearying cold.
He didn't like the horse was riding, either. The stallion was headshy and tended to nip at him, and the animal had apparently been shod rather badly, because his gait was awkward. Five days of riding, heading northwards out of Morvenia, and the prince was sore, tired and, he admitted, a little touchy. The six knights traveling with him were keeping their distance, and he felt obligated to make amends to them somehow, so he intended to stop in the Turon Valley for the Frost Fair and let the men off their leads to indulge in a little frivolity.
He was extremely relieved to finally see the Turon River in the valley below, the ice-bound river a thin, shining silver-blue thread winding gently through the blindingly white snow. He urged the recalcitrant horse down the gently sloping hill and knew the knights were following him, and envied them their steadier mounts. He glanced back at the young page that had been placed under his care, and smirked a little, remembering how eager he had been, ten years ago, to ride into battle. The boy—a sturdy lad named Franco—would learn soon enough, he thought, feeling a twinge of melancholy.
Ten years felt like a lifetime now. Ten years of traveling around the Continent, living as a soldier of fortune, had taken their toll on Constantine. He had been in more battles than he cared to remember, and the sights and sounds and smells of war had not proven as enchanting as he had thought they would be. He was prone to nightmares now, if he could sleep at all, and no amount of booty won in battle could make those demons fade away.
He had become a rich man in the past few years, with the spoils of war, along with horses and armor won in jousting tournaments, all being added to his coffers, and he had never lost a battle. Not one. Not even a draw. He had a way of leading men into the fray, fighting right alongside them, enduring pains and wounds as one of them, and for that he had earned their respect and loyalty. Constantine had made a name for himself on the battlefield and on the tilt-yard: his prowess with the sword and bow was legendary, and he was an excellent strategist. Even more so, he was known for a streak of compassion toward the men he had defeated, allowing them to go home alive and rarely demanding ransoms except for enemies that caused him too much trouble.
Still, his ferocity was much feared. Even the Lacovians believed and trembled, when it came to Constantine of Morvenia, and he was glad to hear of that. After what they had done to Philip, two years ago, he had made sure his brother's tormenters had suffered much before their all-too-timely deaths.
His eyes narrowed, the sunlight reflecting off the snow, and he heard the clank of visors being pushed down to shield the other knights' eyes. He wasn't sure he wanted to go riding down into the valley with his knights looking battle-ready for a village festival, but that was better than blundering into Turon sunblinded and bumping into things. He pushed his own visor down with his sword, wincing at his pounding headache. He took a moment to straighten the chainmail under his gauntlets and shifted in his saddle, mumbling under his breath about a sore ass being an apparent requirement of a soldier, and continued on, his men following in single file behind him.
Count von Hesse looked around at the various booths set up on the ice, and breathed in the scent of roasting beef and rosemary. He glanced back at Betsy, who was walking carefully despite the copious amounts of straw that had been spread out all over the solid-frozen river, and he couldn't help but smile. Poor woman—one fall, two years ago, had rendered her unhappy around ice. Granted, she had fallen through the ice…
His smile widened when he looked at Eleanor, who was letting Betsy use her as a crutch. She was walking confidently along, eagerly peering into the booths and looking for anything interesting, and only going slowly out of deference to the housekeeper. The girl, a robust, healthy thirteen year old with skin as fair and clear as the day she had arrived at his castle, was glowing with energy and excitement. She was eager to join in the festivities—the Frost Fair looked like it might last a few days, what with the skies being so clear and blue lately, with no storms in sight. There would be ice-skating and a village dance and various snow- and ice-related sports going on, he was sure—including the inevitable snowball fight. The only sport that couldn't happen in these conditions was jousting, and he was frankly glad of that. One more sharp jousting pole to his chest and von Hesse wasn't sure he would be able to get up again.
"Your Lordship, we're glad to see you here with your household," one of the local worthies told von Hesse, bowing deeply, simpering a bit. Eleanor, wrapped in her sky-blue winter cloak, her head uncovered, bobbed a polite curtsy to the burgher, while Betsy murmured something that sounded like 'I'd rather be back home in front of the bloody fire'.
"Aye, and we're happy to be here. Don't concern yourself with us, though. Go on with your celebrations. You've all earned it. It has been a hard winter."
"Yes, sire, it has." The man bowed again and rushed away. Eleanor steered Betsy to a thick patch of straw and snatched von Hesse's hand.
"Can I go skating? Please?"
"Not yet, Goosey," he said, pulling her cloak hood up over her head again, not liking that her ears were red from the cold. "The skating is at nightfall. They string up lights along the river, where it's thickest. Then you can skate, but only if I'm there to keep an eye on you. Betsy won't go out on smooth ice, you know." He looked at his housekeeper, who scowled at him.
Eleanor looked around, bouncing on her heels, impatient to do something exciting after a long, dull winter holed up in the castle. He had often worried that a girl so young and energetic would go stir-crazy, doing nothing but reading and taking lessons in every subject he could think of, but she seemed to relish each lesson and each examination. In the past ten years, he had crammed as much information as possible into her head, and the results were astonishing to say the least. She already spoke fluent French, German, Spanish, Italian and Latin, and over the winter had meticulously translated the entire Gospel of Mark from Latin into English, with almost no help from von Hesse. Tutors had been hired from as far away as London to teach the girl history, mathematics, geography and languages, and she excelled at everything. One of the men who been tasked with teaching her mathematics had told von Hesse that she had a mind comparable to the finest scholars he had ever known.
But as much as her mind was developing, it was good for her to get out of the castle schoolroom and into the fresh air to do a bit of healthy screaming and hurling snowballs. She rushed past him, eagerly perusing the wares of a woman selling silk ribbons and little bouquets of dried flowers. "Oh, this blue ribbon is so pretty!" she said, holding it up to the light. It matched her cloak perfectly.
von Hesse dropped a coin into the woman's hand and nodded to Eleanor. "Take it then, child, and go see if you can find any girls your age to play with. Be careful of any dark patches of ice and…" But she was already gone, racing away. He knew Eleanor had befriended a few girls in Turon, last summer, and he was glad to see she was relatively popular among them. No one seemed aware of her past—she was, to everyone in Turon, merely Count von Hesse's ward, and thus likely to have a few drops of blue blood in her veins.
More than a few, von Hesse thought, but pushed the twinge of bitterness aside and looked at Betsy, who was looking less than delighted at being out on the ice. "My feet are surely going to be frozen right off!" she hissed at him.
"You should have stuffed straw into your shoes, like someone with sense," he replied with a cheeky grin.
"Bugger off," she muttered, and he snickered. She fluffed her skirts, huffing, and he knew she would serve radishes at supper tonight, as she knew he hated them. He moved over to a group of Turon's burghers and began chatting with them about last summer's overwhelming crops and the price of a bush hog. He was looking over the shoulder of Turon's mayor when he saw the group of knights riding through the village gates, and for a moment, his heart froze in his chest. Then he saw the red Morvenian flags, decorated with white dragons, and breathed a sigh of relief. He wondered who they all were—he knew many of the higher-ranking Morvenian soldiers, but it was rare for them to visit the Turon Valley at this time of year.
The one riding a rather grumpy-looking gray horse removed his helmet and swung out of the saddle, pausing briefly to loosen the cinch and call for some water. The other knights followed suit, tending first to their horses before their own comfort.
Good God, that's Prince Constantine, von Hesse thought. He started toward the younger man, and when the prince saw him, he nodded. Not bursting with friendliness, certainly, but the prince was never rude or dismissive, von Hesse thought. Constantine was even known for his charity toward the poor, and for never missing Sunday Mass. Those two qualities were quite surprising, considering his upbringing.
"Count von Hesse," Constantine said, removing his horse's bridle and tying a tom fool's knot around the steaming animal's neck. He filled his helmet with warm water and let the horse take a few sips before offering the helmet to his page, who did the same for his weary-looking mount. "It's been some time since we've been here. I hope we won't cause any disruption to the festival."
"Certainly not. You and your men are more than welcome here."
"Good. I'm going to hope someone has made hot wassail. I'm in no mood for ale."
"Aye, I'm sure there's a pot on the fire in the public house."
"Perhaps I'll buy you a cup then. Franco, tend to my horse and yours, then go do a bit of running about. Stay away from the black ice and keep out of trouble."
The young page, delighted to do anything for his hero and mentor, nodded and went to work at allowing the horses small sips of water until they were properly cooled out. von Hesse followed Constantine into the makeshift public house, quietly admiring the young man's ability to carry almost sixty pounds worth of armor. The prince was not overly large, after all—probably about six feet tall, wide-shouldered and strong, but not bulky. He carried a Viking-made sword in his scabbard and von Hesse knew that under his armor plating he wore thick, warm clothes and heavy chain mail, yet he moved quite easily, showing no sign of being worn down.
von Hesse was grateful, yet again, to have retired long ago from the battlefield. He doubted he could carry all that weight about and not get a splitting headache.
The Prince waved away an offer of free ale and requested wassail instead, dropping coins on the table.
"It's been a while since you've been up here. How are your brother and your parents?"
"Good," Constantine answered, gratefully sipping the hot, sweet liquid and letting the warmth slide down his throat and into his belly, finally spreading into his chilled bones. He emptied the cup and called for a refill.
"I'm pleased to hear that."
Constantine glanced at his knights, who were tucking into their ale but would, he knew, only become more and more goofily amiable as the night progressed, and never violent. He did not tolerate drunkenness among his men, nor did he allow them to mistreat women or children, much less peasants. One caught doing either was immediately ousted from his band and sent home in shame. Thus, he was pleased to have a large number of excellent men under his command, and the group riding with him today were his very best—battlefield-tried soldiers, all honorable and generally well-behaved, and as loyal to one another as brothers.
He and von Hesse spent the next hour catching up a little, but von Hesse was worried about Eleanor and decided that he had best get outside and see what she was up to. Constantine remained seated at the trestle table, sipping from a cup of ale and eating bread, ignoring the glances of the barmaids. After a while, the knights stumbled out into the cold, laughing and giving each other friendly shoves along the way, and he sat back against the table, wondering if he could get a room at the inn in Turon and just sleep.
Eleanor tied on her ice skates while Betsy watched, knowing the housekeeper was trying to keep from issuing a dozen warnings about being careful and to not get wet in the snow and to make sure to sit down and rest sometimes lest she catch a cold, and to drink wassail to keep her bones warm. Once she had the skates on, she stood, briefly tottering, before gliding out onto the ice. Betsy sighed and clutched the straw.
"Stop worrying so, Betsy," Eleanor called. "I'm fine." She skated in a smooth circle, getting her balance before trying anything daring.
"You'll break an ankle, I'm sure of it," Betsy fretted.
"You know I'm as strong as a little French mare, Betsy. You ought to try skating, too. It's fun!" To prove her point, Eleanor executed a perfect spin, which nearly sent Betsy into a spasm.
"Good God, child, don't do that while I can see you!"
Eleanor just laughed and started to skate toward the middle of the river, where the lit candles had been arranged and several couples were gliding sedately along, while children dashed about, laughing. She didn't see another girl skating toward her, however, and collided with her. The other girl fell onto the ice, yelping in pain, but her pain was soon forgotten and replaced with outrage. Eleanor managed to keep on her feet, however, and stopped, looking down at the girl with concern.
"You knocked me over!" the girl shrieked at Eleanor. "Stupid, clumsy oaf!"
"I didn't mean to," Eleanor said. "I didn't see you. I'm sorry. Are you all right?"
"Of course you didn't see me, you filthy peasant, and you should be sorry, as I'm your better!" The girl got up, dusting powdery ice off her clothes. She studied Eleanor for a moment. "Oh, I know you. You're that dirty little orphan from down at Teslo. My papa told me about you."
Eleanor's hackles rose, her cheeks flaming as everyone stopped skating and stared at her. The other girl skated a little closer, but Eleanor still kept her voice low, trying to maintain her good manners. "I am not a filthy peasant and I said I was sorry for knocking you down."
"Yes, you are a filthy peasant. Your father was some stupid blacksmith and your mother was a witch. That's what my papa said!"
"Then your papa is very obviously a nitwit," Eleanor snapped back, her good manners trumped by her need to defend parents' honor.
The girl—a blonde whose meager attractiveness was marred by an ugly sneer—glared at Eleanor. "Are you saying my papa is a liar?"
"I am hardly surprised that you did not understand my phrasing, considering you've inherited your beloved papa's intellect," Eleanor answered her. "I said he was a nitwit. You said he was a liar. So we are both in perfect agreement. He is both."
The girl's face became even uglier. "He said your mother and your grandmother were both whores!"
Betsy was getting up, braving the ice to come to Eleanor's rescue, but the girl needed no defending. The girl bent down, snatched up some snow and quickly formed it into a hard ball, then threw it at the blonde. But the other girl moved quickly, squeaking in alarm, and the snowball flew over her head and smacked into the forehead of Prince Constantine of Morvenia, who had been watching the altercation from the pub door.
The prince rocked briefly on his heels and saw purple stars flashing around his eyes, then wiped the snow away. The hostile girl skated away, feigning innocence, and Eleanor stood still, hands covering her mouth as she stared at the prince. Betsy gasped and started toward him, but Eleanor couldn't move. The other skaters were also still, shocked into silence.
Constantine closed his eyes briefly, opened them again and calculated the ball's trajectory to its thrower. His gaze settled on Eleanor, who swallowed, terrified, but still didn't move.
"Well," he said. "Excellent aim. Got any spears you'd like to throw? I seem to be a fine target."
He wiped away the rest of the snow and ran a hand through his hair. "No harm done. Go on. It's nothing."
Count von Hesse came around the corner then, and saw Eleanor standing there, still looking horrified, and looked at Prince Constantine, who had a strange red mark on his forehead. "Good God, Constantine, don't tell me you got into a brawl."
Constantine shrugged. "No. No one said anything derogatory about Southern Morvenia. I was smacked in the forehead with a snowball thrown by this young girl here," he gestured toward Eleanor.
von Hesse stared at Eleanor, whose eyes were starting to brim with tears by then. "I didn't mean to… I was going… the girl was saying… she said my mother was a whore!"
"Who said that?" von Hesse demanded, immediately outraged.
"A nasty little blonde girl that Eleanor accidentally knocked over! As if people don't fall over on the ice all the time!" Betsy offered, glaring at the crowd, many of whom nodded in agreement, while others only looked embarrassed. "Probably a bloody Lacovian! She was saying the most awful things to Eleanor. Vicious, hateful things!"
"And so you threw a snowball at her?" von Hesse asked Eleanor, more than a little surprised. Eleanor had a temper, but she had never before resorted to violence to resolve a conflict.
"I… I could take her insults, but when she said that about my mother and father and my grandmother…" A tear ran down her cheek, and von Hesse wanted to find that blonde demon child and thrash her to within an inch of her life.
"I can attest to the girl's statement, Frederick. The other girl was saying some very vicious things. If anyone's to be punished, it should be that bat-faced little blonde thing," Constantine said, pointing out the girl, who was trying to hide behind a group of other children, none of whom looked inclined to protect her. "Eh… I only had one cup of ale and I was already getting sleepy. A snowball to the forehead will help me sleep much better, I'm sure."
"Eleanor, apologize to the prince," von Hesse said, gently taking her arm and pulling her along on her skates to the prince. Constantine rolled his eyes, exasperated.
Head bowed, the picture of contrition, Eleanor murmured, "I'm very sorry, sir."
"Like I said, it's nothing. Do I know you?" he asked Eleanor, who looked up at him with her startling blue eyes, and he flinched slightly, a strange sensation shooting through him, like a sharp shock of electricity. He shoved the feeling away quickly, alarmed and bewildered by it.
"This is Eleanor Reeve. The child you and Leopold DeForet rescued in Teslo, ten years ago," von Hesse told him.
"The years have been better to you than they have been to me. Your aim is even better than mine. But you ought to pick your battles a little more wisely. Bat-faced little girls are nothing compared to the monsters outside this valley." Constantine told her. He adjusted his gloves a little, nodded and walked away.
Constantine wasn't surprised to find there were no rooms available at the inn in town. He was appalled when the innkeeper offered to oust some visitors to the valley out of their room for his sake, and flatly refused such a thing. Exhausted, his headache not getting any better, he went down to the livery stable to see about his horse, and took the animal to the blacksmith's forge and spoke briefly with the man about redoing the horse's shoeing tomorrow. After agreeing on payment, he went back to the livery, removed his armor and chainmail (after the usual struggle with the hooks) and put on a warm cloak before walking back out to the river. He found an unoccupied hay bale and sat down, not minding the cold so much now. A bonfire had been built on the riverside and villagers were dancing around it, many of them obviously in their cups but all in a jolly mood. Cups of hot wassail were passed around and he eagerly took one, drinking it slowly and watching everyone having a good time.
He spotted Eleanor Reeve with Count von Hesse, and frowned, remembering the day he had found her. She was thirteen now, and he was surprised that she was unmarried. Most girls of her age and class were married, and many even had a baby by now, but he recalled hearing that von Hesse had some unusual ideas about things, and perhaps that was one of them: that a girl ought to be allowed to grow up a bit before being shoved into the marriage bed.
She was a pretty little thing. She had been at the age of three, he remembered, and she showed promise of blossoming into a beautiful woman now—von Hesse wouldn't have much trouble finding her a suitable husband. He rubbed his forehead, thinking about her aim, and started when she looked over at him. She finally stepped closer to him. "I am sorry I hit you, sir."
"Do not concern yourself. I've been hit with arrows and swords in my life. A snowball is a feather compared to that. Where did you learn how to throw so well?"
"Count von Hesse… " She looked back at her guardian, who was talking with the mayor of Turon. "He has taught me how to throw a dagger."
"I see. A dagger? Shouldn't you be learning how to sew?"
"I sew with a hot needle and scorched thread, according to Betsy," Eleanor said, with not a little shame.
For the first time in many months, Constantine laughed out loud. "Really? You're that bad?"
"I'm terrible at sewing. And I burn everything I try to cook. I start cooking something and I get distracted, reading a book or suchlike and… whatever I was cooking gets ruined."
"Well, I'm not much of a cook myself. I can roast whatever I've killed on a spit, for dinner, but don't put me in charge of your cakes. But I can sew. I have to repair my own clothes, you see. Necessity usually breeds skill."
Eleanor smiled, and he didn't miss her looking curiously at the scar on his left cheek.
"Battle wound," he said. "In Spain. I don't even remember what the fight was about."
"Oh." She considered a moment. "You've been in many battles?"
"More than I care to remember. So you can handle a dagger? What about a sword? Can you pick up a sword?"
"Count von Hesse lets me practice with one of the swords my father made. It's light but very strong."
"A good Viking sword, yes." Constantine gestured for Eleanor to sit down beside him, and she did so with no apparent misgivings. She had changed back into her warm, fur-lined winter boots, and the only sign she gave of still being quite young was to kick at the straw a little. "Are you good with it? The sword, I mean?"
"Yes. Sort of." She shrugged and rubbed her hands together, shivering a little in the cold. "Betsy says it's not proper to learn how to use a sword, or to practice with my bow and arrow, but I like it, so the Count lets me."
"I take it he lets you do quite a bit of what you like."
She shrugged. "Not always. He still wants me to learn Greek, and I don't like it at all." Count von Hesse turned away from the group of villagers and looked curiously at Eleanor and Constantine. Finally, he walked over and gestured to Eleanor, who stood up quickly, smoothing her skirts and executing a flawless curtsy to the prince, who had never gotten used to receiving any kind of homage from anyone. The girl walked away, soon joining in the dancing around the fire.
"Did you find a room at the inn?" von Hesse asked him.
"No. All taken. I suppose I'll sleep in the livery. I'll just avoid the wet straw… "
"Nonsense. You can stay at the castle. You can ride up in the cart with us, if you don't mind leaving now. Betsy's exhausted but the other servants are staying overnight in the village with their families."
The prince was fairly relieved to be invited to stay at Ravensburg. He hadn't been very eager to sleep in a stall. Not on such a cold night. He suspected he would have woken up covered with cats.
Eleanor objected, albeit sleepily, to having to leave, but obeyed the Count just the same. After saying goodbye to her friends, she climbed into the small cart and settled down between two bales of hay, tying her skates blades together and wrapping her cloak tightly around herself, pulling her hood down over her head and wiggling into the straw like a kitten. Constantine refused to take Betsy's seat on the box and instead settled down opposite the girl, watching her curiously as she played with a blue silk ribbon. She tied it around her wrist and leaned back, closing her eyes, and she was soon asleep, undisturbed by the rather rough ride. Constantine tipped his head back and looked up at the blanket of stars, marveling at their brilliance. The moon was huge and bright, providing ample light along the path up to the castle, the Count and Betsy squabbling cheerfully. Constantine looked at Eleanor, asleep and still innocent to the harshness of the world beyond the valley, and for the first time in many months, he felt utterly at peace.