The Queen of the May

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Turon was, on any given day, a bustling town. With its cobbled streets, wide lanes and well-constructed buildings, it was one of the most prosperous cities in all Livonia. The private houses in town were thatch-roofed and made of wood or stone, depending on the wealth of their owners, but the shops were all, by edict of the king, made of stone with tile roofs. It was one of the few towns in Livonia with a school where any child could attend, as well as a small but well-regarded priory school run by Franciscan monks, with another advanced school for daughters of the nobility, which was run by an order of nuns. All children in the valley were required to learn to read, write and do a bit of arithmetic, while any child that showed interest in continuing their education could do so as long as their parents paid a fee to Count von Hesse, who was the chief sponsor of the priory school. His great-grandfather had provided the original funding for the school and the building of St Barnabus Church, and the von Hesse family continued the tradition.

The annual May Day festival brought large crowds of visitors to the town. The entire first week of May would see not only dances and feasts held in the town square, but also a jousting tournament and, to finish off the first day, the crowning of the King and Queen of the May. Because of these celebrations, as well as the annual Harvest Fair and the Frost Fairs, the town had a large, comfortable inn run by the Neal family. Squire Neal and his wife Clara were prosperous farmers and owned The Lodge, the largest house and property in the valley after the Count's lands, and it was on their property that the May Day festival and the jousting took place.

Eleanor had always enjoyed visiting the town. She knew its secrets well—all its little nooks and crannies where she could play hide-and-go-seek as a child, and now, she knew the best shops to buy little trinkets and the occasional sweet, though she cared little for candy. She could be blindfolded and walk straight from wherever she stood in town to the blacksmith's shop, the familiar and strangely comforting scent of the forge drawing her to it every day she visited Turon.

Betsy let Eleanor drag her to the town square, where the chief steward of Squire Neal read the proclamation announcing the beginning the fair, which would begin today and last until Saturday night. "Good ladies and gentlemen of Turon and the Turon Valley, and to our visitors from afar… we declare this fair open to all who would here honestly trade and cheerfully celebrate, and on behalf of His Majesty our Gracious King Michael we do set out these codes of conduct for the Fair: we do prohibit fighting and quarreling, and no man may bring with him into any of the Fair alleys any sort of battle weapon or means of doing harm to another. All participants in the market must buy and sell honestly and fairly, with true standard measurements, and that none buy or sell in comers, back sides, or hidden places, upon pain of forfeiture of all such goods and merchandise so bought and sold, and their bodies to imprisonment!"

As soon as the steward finished speaking, the Lord of the Manor clambered up onto the stand. He was a jolly, portly little man married to a woman who stood at least two feet taller than himself, and he had a streak of the ridiculous about him. Eleanor knew he was utterly without guile, however, and Martha Neal was his youngest daughter and one of her own closest friends. "Good ladies and gentlemen, we celebrate a happy start to our spring here in Turon and we have visitors here from as far away as Venice to buy and sell. We will, I'm sure, show them all due hospitality, and I do hope we all have a right merry time. I know I shall!"

There was approving laughter and applause, and the crowds dispersed to begin browsing through the alleys, which were divided into types of products being sold and set up with booths. She was curious about the Dutch flower sellers and their tulips, which she had never seen before. She examined bottles of olive oil being sold by Greek merchants and she practiced her German on the tradesman from Vienna, who couldn't seem to stop talking when she asked him a question in his language. She bought a bag of Spanish almonds to take to Count von Hesse, as they were his favorite, and then dragged Betsy to the livestock auction. She stayed away from the sheep, not wanting Betsy to get any ideas about trying to get her to eat mutton, and stroked the noses of fine Spanish warhorses and marveled at the beauty of a spirited chestnut stallion a knight had brought home from a trip to the Holy Land and was advertising as being available for breeding to local mares. "He will make fleet runners," he told Eleanor. "Not big clumsy warhorses, but race horses instead!"

By this time, Betsy was exhausted and wanted to go find her daughter and little grandson. Eleanor was only too happy to let her go, and promised to be on her best behavior. Once she was out of sight, however, she went off in search of Alice and Martha, and hoped Mary wouldn't be among them. She rather liked Mary, but the poor girl never seemed to know when to stop talking and it got exhausting to try and keep up with her, as she talked far too quickly.

She was pleased to see her two friends watching the May pole being raised up. They both greeted her enthusiastically and eyed the pole. It had several different-colored ribbons tied to an iron cross-piece at the top, and the ribbons blew gently in the breeze.

"What is that for?" Eleanor asked.

"You don't know?" Alice sighed. "Oh, right, you've not been to the May Day festival before. Every year, girls from the village dance 'round the pole and twist the ribbons 'round it until it's covered about halfway down. After that, a King and Queen of the May is selected by the highest-ranking nobleman and noblewoman at the fair and for the rest of the day, the Queen of the May can have anything she desires."

"Within reason," Martha said. "I doubt Papa will give you his manor." She was more studious and serious-minded than Alice, but just as boy-crazy. The fact that her mother wanted her to be a nun continued to be a subject best not discussed.

Eleanor shrugged and persuaded the girls to go peruse the wares of the merchants in the booths. At lunchtime they ate with everyone else in the square, and sat on the green watching jugglers and acrobats demonstrate their skills. She was becoming a little bored, however, and was about to go find Betsy when Mary Rhodes came bursting out of a crowd of villagers and waylaid them. "Come on! It's time for the May pole dance!"

Eleanor rolled her eyes. She wasn't interested in such a silly ritual, but Martha and Alice were eager to take part and she found herself being dragged along, protesting all the way. The Lord of the Manor clapped his hands for everyone's attention and ordered all the girls under the age of fifteen to come forward and take up a ribbon. Alice grabbed Eleanor and dragged her to the pole, and she glumly picked up a blue ribbon, feeling utterly foolish, and joined in the dancing around and around the pole.

It wasn't long before the May pole was wrapped in ribbons and Eleanor was dizzy from bouncing around in circles. She frankly wished she could go somewhere alone, throw up and lie down for a while. But Alice and Mary were dragging her up to the stands, where they would all line up and be judged.

"Why must people always drag me about? Alice, I don't want to do this! Let me go!"

"Don't be silly! This is fun! I was Queen of the May last year and it was wonderful—I got all the pear tarts I wanted!"

That sounded a lot more like a last meal before an execution, to Eleanor's mind, but she shut her mouth. The King of the May had to be selected first, and she was a little disgusted when the highest-ranking noblewoman—Lady Ulrica DeValle, an idiot in Eleanor's opinion—picked William Winters. Alice clasped her hands, delighted, and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to be selected Queen again. Eleanor closed her eyes, too, and tried to hide behind the slightly wider Martha Neal, who never missed a chance at a pear tart. Or any other meal, actually.

"We've a very high-ranking fellow here in town today," Squire Neal was shouting over the noise. "Aye, high-ranking indeed… His own Royal Highness the Prince Constantine of Morvenia himself!"

Eleanor peeked around Martha and saw Constantine, who looked like he had only just dismounted from his horse and was more than a little startled to be brought into this particular fray. He was standing beside Squire Neal and his brow furrowed, and he asked the Squire a question. The Squire smiled happily and nodded, giving him instructions of some kind, and Constantine looked up at the sky, praying for patience. He was wearing a black brigandine and tunic, and was quite sweaty from what had obviously been a very long day of hard riding.

"Your Royal Highness, who do you pick amongst our lovely girls to be Queen of the May?" Squire Neal asked him, his voice too loud, as usual. Eleanor tried again to duck behind Martha, but the Neal girl was on to her and stepped the other way, leaving her exposed to the prince's view. At first, she thought perhaps he hadn't seen her, but then she caught his gaze and felt her cheeks turning not just pink but red with embarrassment.

"That girl there," he said, pointing a mail-covered finger at her. "The Lady Eleanor Reeve. I can imagine no other as Queen of the May."

Everyone in the crowd looked at Eleanor, who wanted to crawl down underneath the stage and hide. Martha and Alice hugged her tightly, delighted, while Mary looked a little put out for a moment before she started jibbering again.

"You're Queen of the May, Eleanor! Queen of the May! Think of it—what do you want them to give you? Remember—anything you want is yours today!" Mary said excitedly. "Anything at all!"

"Again, within reason," Martha reminded her.

"All right. Can you please kill me?"

Her embarrassment continued, seasoned with Betsy being informed of this turn of events and showing up with her daughter and little grandson, looking absolutely tickled. Eleanor had to sit in a gilded chair and be carried aloft by the crowd to the center of the town square. There she and William Winters were crowned—he with a coronet made of oak leaves, and she with a tiara of ivy and flowers. She was also given a loose chain of gold, also decorated with flowers, to wear around her waist, and a brief moment of vanity allowed her to admit it flattered her recently curving middle and hips.

She then had to sit still and endure more flowers being tied into her hair, and she was handed a scepter made of solid silver, which was given to every Queen of the May. William was given an orb and a sword, and everyone paid homage to the King and Queen of the May. As soon as the ceremony was over, she desperately wanted to get up and get away, but escape was out of the question—she had to be presented with bouquets of flowers and various little gifts—trinkets and useless baubles that she had no interest in. Nonetheless, her training at least held her in good stead—she endured it all while smiling graciously and murmuring thanks to everyone as she became covered with more and more flowers, until she could only barely be seen in her flower-bedecked 'throne'.

William Winters seemed pleased to be seated next to her, and even tried to make conversation.

"You live up at the castle, don't you? You're Count von Hesse's bastard daughter or something?"

"I am not his daughter nor am I his or anyone else's bastard," Eleanor hissed, barely moving her lips. "I am His Grace's ward."

"Oh. I could have sworn Madge Rowlings said…"

"I'm surprised Madge Rowlings managed to say anything, as she can barely string three sensible words together!" Eleanor gasped as another bouquet of flowers landed in her lap, adding to the weight of dozens of other bouquets. "Please, could someone take these… these lovely flowers? They're getting a bit heavy…"

William Winters shrugged and went back to accepting homage. Someone finally did come and take all the flowers off Eleanor's lap, and the bevy of girls putting flowers in her hair finally left her alone. She looked around at the crowd staring at her, and spied Prince Constantine standing not far away, still looking tired but also somewhat amused. She narrowed her eyes at him, vowing revenge.

"Is there anything Your Majesty would like?" Squire Neal asked her. "Anything at all?"

An axe and Prince Constantine's head across a block, she thought. "Um… a peach tart?"

Freed of her flower crown and with her stomach full of unwanted peach tart, Eleanor escape from her 'court' for a moment and managed to catch up with Prince Constantine, who was lounging tiredly on the edge of the fountain in the center of the town square.

"I should smack you with my scepter!" she told him, and he only smiled slightly. Something was off, and she quickly forgot her own embarrassment and sat down. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"I had to leave Havor early… my father has died. I got the message four days ago and I've been riding hard since then. I only stopped… " He winced, rubbing his shoulder. "I only stopped here to change horses and got caught up in all this." He stretched his legs out, breathing in and exhaling slowly, obviously in some pain.

"Oh… I'm so sorry."

"My brother is King of Morvenia now."

"I'm sure he will be an excellent king," she said, not knowing what else to say.

"He will be. He's an excellent man." He looked at her, and she caught a bleakness in his eyes that she had never seen before, but he tried valiantly to be cheerful. "And you will be an excellent Queen of the May, Eleanor. I'm sure you'll be the best Turon has ever had."

She sighed, and briefly dipped her hands into the fountain water. "It must give you great pain, to have not been able to say goodbye," she finally managed. "I wish you all comfort."

He looked away, toward the south and his home, and stood. "The squire has begged me to stay and take part in the jousts. I can't very well say no—I've not told anyone about my father, and it would be rude to refuse…"

"You should refuse, though. Your brother needs you now."

"He'll manage another few hours. It will make no difference, and I can assure you that my mother does not want me there at all." He looked down at her. "Congratulations, Eleanor, on your elevation to the aristocracy. Be glad it's only for a day."

Constantine had received the message from Morvenia, saying his father was dead, and had left as soon as he could get his horse ready. He left behind his knights and Franco, had barely even said goodbye to the King and Queen and had ridden one horse almost to death to get over the mountains in the northern borders of Livonia. By the time he arrived in Turon, his second mount was barely able to make it to the livery, and now… now he was stuck, preparing for a joust.

He hated jousting, frankly. But it was what knights did, and he had been jousting since the age of twelve. He was an expert at it, and had never lost a match, though he had suffered quite a few blows over the years and had the scars to prove it. He let a young page help him with his padding, mail and his black armor, and let the boy attach his red and white ecranche, decorated with the Morvenian dragon, to his left shoulder. His armor-covered horse was brought up, and he climbed aboard with agility that surprised him still, after all these years. He accepted his lance, then his white-plumed helmet, shoving it over his head and smacking the visor down, wincing at his almost instantaneous headache. He always got headaches when he wore a helmet.

He rode out to the tiltyard and swung the horse around, facing his opponent, a knight in silver armor seated on a large, beautiful black horse. Constantine measured the man's height and weight, the angle of the man's ecranche (decorated with what looked a lot like a duck) and the degree of curve to his armor. He immediately found the weak spot—the knight's shield had been set too high, which meant that with good aim, he could use his lance to force the shield up into the knight's chin, sending him backwards and scoring two points, or knocking him clean off the horse for an immediate win.

He glanced at the stands, where a large crowd was gathered, and saw Eleanor being seated next to some weedy-looking boy in the middle of the stands and in the place of honor at the wall. She was holding up the silk handkerchief that would be dropped to signal the start of the match. He lowered the lance, angling it carefully across his horse's withers, and waited. Eleanor stood, and he could see she wasn't too thrilled about having to do this.

Hell, neither was he.

She dropped the handkerchief, and Constantine spurred his horse. The animal was well-trained, for he sprang forward eagerly without leaving him in the air, and charged along the tilt barrier, keeping a straight path. The other knight's horse almost leapt into the air before galloping heavily forward at a good clip, the knight's lance angled. Constantine measured each stride, despite being unfamiliar with the horse, and at the right moment leaned in toward the tilt barrier, gripping with his knees, and lowered the lance across his chest, angling its blunted tip and hitting the other knight beneath his shield and tipping up at the same time, knocking it into the other man's chin. The man went backwards, falling across the black horse's backside and tumbling into the deep dirt. Constantine's lance shuddered in his hand, but he managed to keep hold of it and finally reined his mount to a stop. He turned around, hoping to God the other man wasn't dead.

He was not. He was being helped up by his page, and the crowd was applauding enthusiastically, having enjoyed their sport. Constantine bowed slightly to them, and more deeply to the other man, who removed his helmet and was examined for any injuries. Save a bruised chin, he looked to be all right, and Constantine rode around to the stands, glad it was over. He didn't care how much Squire Neal begged, he would not take another challenge.

Eleanor's final part in the sport was to reward the winning knight with a gift of some kind. She fumbled around for a moment, then he saw her remove the blue silk ribbon from around her wrist. She waited for him to move his horse into the right position, facing her directly, and he lowered the lance to her and watched, transfixed, as she tied the ribbon to the tip. She had to stand to perform the task, and he swallowed at the sight of her gently curving hips and the promise of her breasts. For a moment, their eyes locked and he didn't move, until Squire Neal shouted, "To the victor goes the spoils!"

Constantine barely managed to keep his composure as the defeated knight handed him his horse's reins. He had won the animal fairly, but he had no need to wear out two horses on his journey, when he could change horses as soon as he crossed the border into Morvenia. Without a word, he moved his mount around until he was standing alongside the stands, and he handed the black stallion's reins to Eleanor.

"A gift to the Queen of the May," he said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, and lowered his voice for her. "God save the Queen."

Eleanor and Betsy walked home in the evening light, with Eleanor leading her new horse. Betsy kept quiet, knowing the girl was embarrassed by the day's events. But she had not missed that brief staring match between Eleanor and the prince, and she was trying to form the right words to say to the girl. It wasn't as though she wanted to discourage Eleanor from liking men, because if she didn't like them her life was going to be horribly unhappy. But there were men who were a little more complicated than others, and no man was more complicated, in her opinion, than Prince Constantine of Morvenia. Or at least when it came to the young girl talking softly to the black stallion loping along beside her. The horse was apparently happy with his new owner, as he kept rubbing his head against her arm and begging for the sugar cubes she had in her pocket.

"Eleanor, I think we need to… discuss a few things."

"What things?" Eleanor asked, stroking the horse's velvet nose. "Isn't he lovely, Betsy? He's a Friesian, from Holland. He's only six years old and as gentle as kitten, according to the knight who owned him. Do you think… do you think I ought to give him back?" she asked, looking at Betsy with a hopeful expression—she clearly wanted to keep the horse.

"Prince Constantine won him, and had the right to give him to whomever he pleased. But that's not important now. We need to discuss some… other matters."

"What other matters?" The horse began to nibble on Eleanor's hair, and she gently scolded him. "You sound so serious."

"I am serious. We have something serious to talk about."

"All right, what then?"

"Come sit," she said, gesturing to the grove, where fallen logs provided comfortable seating. Eleanor tied the horse to a tree branch and sat down, looking expectantly at Betsy. The housekeeper took a seat beside her and drew in her breath.

"Eleanor, you're getting… older, and more mature, and you're changing. Your mind and your… uh… body in particular."

The girl shot to her feet. "Oh dear God, Betsy, do we need to…"

"Yes, dearest. Sit."

Eleanor sat, clasping her hands in her lap, but her expression was best described as appalled.

"Those changes are nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. They're natural and as God wills. You're starting to have interest in… young men, aren't you?"

Eleanor's cheeks were flaming now, and she couldn't look at Betsy, but finally she nodded, being too honest to lie when asked a question.

"And in a particular young man, right? A bit… older, and more mature?"

"You mean William Winters? Good heavens, Betsy, he's as dumb as a spade and he's only a year older than me! Plus Alice likes him, for reasons that utterly baffle-…"

"No, I don't mean him at all. I mean… another young man. Him."

The girl's fingers clasped tighter and she couldn't look up.

"I know you admire him a great deal, Eleanor, but… he's… well, see, he's… the son of a king and king's sons don't… well, that sort of thing is out of the que-…" Betsy cleared her throat. "Someday, Eleanor, you will be married and you will have certain… duties and responsibilities aside from just running the household and ordering the servants and such. You will have to… to lie down with your husband. Do you know what that means?"

"It means making babies," Eleanor finally murmured, unable to look at anything but her tightly clasped hands.

"Yes. It does."

"Your daughter said it hurt. Having babies."

"It does. It's quite painful. I won't lie about that, and I'm sad to say many women don't survive the ordeal. But Eleanor, it is our lot in life and it's the only way anyone can have babies, and without it there would be no people at all, of course. But we need to talk about what actually makes the baby in the first place." She drew a shaky breath. "So I want you to listen and if you have questions, wait 'til I'm through to ask them, all right?"

At Eleanor's nod, Betsy told the girl the details of male and female anatomy, the mechanics of the act itself, and the process of pregnancy and childbirth. The young girl listened, wide-eyed, as Betsy elaborated on what happened between a man and his wife in the privacy of their bed, and when the older woman was finished, Eleanor sat silently, her blush having faded and replaced by her usual curiosity and eagerness to understand.

"Does it hurt?" she finally asked.

"Does what hurt?" Betsy asked, feeling her own cheeks getting a bit warm. The memories of her marriage to Will Bolingbrooke were flooding around her, and she thought again of how she had no regrets in her years with him—he had been the best and kindest of husbands, and an excellent lover. Their marriage had been happy and fruitful, and his death in battle, eighteen years ago, still caused a stab of pain through her heart. Her youngest child, Edith, hadn't known her father, but at least she had happy stories to hear of his generosity, his good humor and his courage.

"The… the first time."

"Oh. Yes, a little. Not as much as you'd think, though. It doesn't hurt again after that."

"But… how does it fit?" Eleanor asked, her voice barely a whisper. "I've seen the stallions and mares and the bulls and cows… they don't seem to have a good time at all. Well, the mares and cows don't…"

"It just does," Betsy finally said, remembering that she had asked Will the same question on their wedding night. He had shown her that it would indeed fit just fine, and she had ended up enjoying herself immensely from then on. "It will. And don't let anyone tell you that such things are shameful or sinful, Eleanor. Within the bounds of marriage, it is a good and… and even very… healthy thing to do and as the Scriptures say, the marriage bed is undefiled. So when you marry, child, do not be afraid, because I know the Count would not let you marry anyone who might misuse you. Do you have any more questions?"

"Why is Prince Constantine out of the question?" she asked softly, and looked down at her hands, her cheeks pinking again.

Poor child. Her first crush—at least she had good taste, Betsy conceded, and Constantine also clearly had good taste, too, because he liked Eleanor in return. She studied the girl, who was still in between childhood and womanhood, and still so innocent of the difficult world that awaited her, and smiled. She gently brushed a lock of dark hair off Eleanor's check and tucked it behind her ear. "Perhaps that's not the right term. But princes marry princesses. It is the way of the world. But I will not chastise you for liking him—he is the stuff of fairytales, and there is nothing wrong with admiring a good man." She stood up. "Now, come along and let's get home before the Count has a conniption fit."

The horse Constantine had borrowed in Turon had actually dropped dead when he was just a few miles away from Garon, the capital of Morvenia. Only a bit bruised up and winded, he walked to the nearest town, bought another horse outright and rode on, arriving at the palace gates just after midnight. He was so exhausted he wasn't sure he would be able to walk up the steps to the doors, and he wasn't too happy to be home anyway, particularly under these circumstances.

He dismounted, sighing miserably at how sweaty and rain-drenched his brigandine was, and knew he smelled unspeakable. He gave the weary animal over to a stable boy and walked under the archway into the courtyard, and he was surprised to see his brother Philip standing at the bottom of the steps. His exhaustion forgotten, he ran to his brother and they embraced, Philip actually lifting him off the cobblestones.

The new king of Morvenia put him down, held him away from himself and mussed his hair. "Good Lord, Constantine, you look like death served cold on a cracker."

"I feel like it, too."

"No doubt. You've been riding hard, I see. And you smell awful. Best get a bath and sleep first, then perhaps Mother will…"

"Is that Constantine?"

The two men turned back to look at Dowager Queen Marie, who was walking down the steps, followed by four of her ladies. She was a magnificent-looking, rather than beautiful, woman and she wore the authority of her position at all times, with her posture regal, her jaw set firmly, and her lack of humor making casual conversation of any kind impossible. She had borne the late King three children, with her only daughter Joanna dying at age seven, and she had attended a fete the day after her death. She was unsentimental, to say the least, and her hard glare at her younger son indicated that she was not in the mood to comfort him after the death of his father.

"I see you are home at last. Took your time getting here, too." She glowered, eyes narrowing as she sniffed. "You look hideous. Couldn't you have at least bathed before you got here?"

"I'm sorry, Mother," Constantine said, bowing to her. "It's very good to see you… too."

"The Court is in mourning, you know." She looked back at her ladies, all of whom were dressed in black. "We have delayed the King's funeral, of course, at your brother's insistence, though I hardly see why."

"Because he's Heir Presumptive, Mother," Philip said. "It would have been an insult to have the service without the heir to the throne present, and I believe we talked about this again just this morning."

"Both of you are so impertinent, and at such a time, after I lost my beloved husband," Marie said, glaring at them both. "Come along, ladies, we can go to bed at last, now my younger son has deigned to return home."

The two men waited until the five women were all back inside and the doors had been shut before Philip turned back to Constantine. "I'm sorry, brother. I thought she had gone to bed. She's been… very difficult these past few days."

"She just lost her beloved husband," Constantine said, removing his gloves and wincing as he flexed his sore hands.

"Yes, she's been bereft. The tears that flow from a stone are particularly touching to see. But how have you been?"

"I've been well," Constantine shrugged.

"Stayed in Turon again, I understand. Such a cold place in the winter and so beautiful otherwise."

"I stayed a while," Constantine answered, giving his brother a cautious look. Philip had a way of being on to anything he was up to, and knowing what was going on in his head. "Visiting… uh… Count von Hesse."

"Frederick von Hesse, eh? A fine man, he is." He clapped Constantine on the back. "Come on, brother, and get something to eat… but not before you bathe. Dear God, you smell like something that passed through the gut of a sick old woman."

"Thanks," Constantine said dryly.

"You're very welcome! Come along, we've got venison warming and good ale, and then it's tales of derring-do and state funerals!"

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