"Eleanor! Eleanor, where on earth are you, child?"
Eleanor scrabbled back a little further into her hiding place under the stairs leading out to the castle courtyard. She was going to wait the housekeeper out, and as soon as the coast was clear, she was going to make a dash for the castle gates, get on her horse—already saddled—and ride down to Turon alone.
Since the May Day celebrations and her crowning as Queen of the May, a strange restlessness had been keeping her awake at night. She found herself staring out across the valley, wondering what was on the other side of the mountains, and longing to see it all for herself, with no one at her side to hold her hand and direct her steps.
She was supposed to stay indoors and learn how to bake cakes. Yesterday, she had baked cakes that could be used as weapons. The day before, she had baked cakes that had inexplicably exploded when cut into. Eleanor could see no reason to think baking cakes today would have any happier results. She was going to do what she wanted to do, for the first time in her life, and if that meant translating the entire of Book of Job from Latin into Greek as punishment, so be it.
Count von Hesse was gone, on his way to Paris, and had been away almost a week and a half now. His letters from his journey indicated all was going well, and he expected to be in Paris in another week or so. Aside from rain and a pack of overly friendly, closely related dogs following the train of coaches for several miles, he had little to report. Eleanor was relieved when each letter arrived, and eagerly awaited the next, but with him gone, she wanted to spread her wings a little, when the consequences wouldn't be immediate.
She wanted freedom. Just a little. Was that so bad? Since the May Day celebrations, she had not been out of the castle walls. Count von Hesse had looked very unsettled when he heard of Eleanor's election as Queen of the May, and he had been particularly uneasy when she told him about seeing Constantine. Since the Count's departure, she had been under constant watch from Betsy, as though she was expected to do something truly horrible. What that might be, she didn't know. Perhaps he thought she would run away and join the gypsies.
Betsy would say freedom was entirely too dangerous for a girl her age. She would get the vapors, just thinking of all the dangers a girl of thirteen might encounter. But Eleanor wasn't afraid. She was a better rider than the worst bandits prowling the forest, and her horse was faster than their Coursers. Besides, as Count von Hesse's ward, she had his local cache to protect her. No one dared ever to bother her when she went to Turon. Granted, she had never gone alone to the town, but that was neither here nor there, she had decided. She could take care of herself. Her solitary forays into the forest had proven that, hadn't they? She had never once been molested or injured in any of those rides.
Staying hidden, and breathing quietly, she waited, hearing Betsy's footsteps on the landing directly above her. The housekeeper kept calling for several more minutes, finally clumping down the stairs and into the courtyard. Eleanor, dressed in her black cloak, shifted back a little more and kept still. "Where is that girl?" Betsy asked the walls, looking frustrated. Finally, she went back up the steps, mumbling under her breath, and Eleanor heard the door shut. Still, she waited, knowing Betsy was no fool. She listened for creaking wood, but heard nothing. Finally, she gingerly stepped down from her hiding place and looked up. The landing was clear.
Quickly, Eleanor moved along the wall beneath the main residence windows, stepping quietly until she finally made it to the gate. At a flat run, she raced out of the courtyard, rounded the corner and jumped astride her horse. The black Friesian—named Merlin—pawed the ground, eager to go, and she turned him, urging him forward along the deer path down the hill, off the carriageway. The horse stepped carefully, Eleanor speaking encouragingly to him as they made their way down the hillside toward Turon.
It took several minutes of careful riding, doing her best to keep out of sight of any of the guards on the battlements, before she finally made it to the bridge by The Drop. Once over the bridge, she set the horse to a steady canter and continued on, exhilarated at this new taste of freedom. Once at the gates of Turon, she tied her horse in the woods and walked slowly through town to the square and stopped, uncertain. She had planned to go to Turon alone, but what she intended to do while there had not actually been part of the plan itself. Sighing, she sat down on the edge of the fountain and splashed her feet in the water.
If she was going to rebel, she figured she ought to make it worth her while, she decided. She would… go for a walk. Alone.
Being early morning, Turon was quiet, with only a few local merchants bringing their wagons to the square to start setting up. A flower seller was hanging baskets from hooks on the eaves of his cart, and Eleanor went over to admire the flowers. Had she any money, she would have purchased a pot of geraniums, but she had only intended to just be alone in town, 'rebelling'. Finally she started walking along the cobbled streets, carefully avoiding being spotted by anyone familiar, and finally decided to venture outside town a little.
She walked through the fields near town, admiring the growing crops of wheat, barley, hopps and maize that were already growing tall and healthy, regularly nourished with weekly rains. She crumbled some oat grains into her hand and tasted them, and promptly spat them out, appalled at how horrible they tasted at this stage. Carefully tended farm gardens were teeming with all kinds of vegetables, and she caught the acrid smell of compost and manure and rich, loamy soil. The orchards were no longer blossoming, but were instead starting to put out green leaves and early fruit buds. For a little while, she stopped in a small group of bushes between some fields and picked some sweet berries, eating several before continuing on, feeling more cheerful.
Eleanor walked for some time, breathing in the clean air, until she realized she was a good distance from Turon and that 'rebelling' didn't necessarily mean she wanted to be this far from home, in vaguely unfamiliar territory.
Dissatisfied with this brand of freedom, Eleanor nonetheless continued walking along the dirt road, listening to birdsongs and feeling increasingly uneasy, her conscience beginning to dig at her. What if Betsy got into trouble for losing track of her? What if the men guarding the castle were punished for allowing her to slip out unnoticed? Those men had families to feed—what if her foolishness put them out of work?
Deciding she had had enough freedom for now, she turned back and started walking toward town again. She was halfway back to the north gates when she saw the gypsy encampment along the riverside, not far from the mill. Eleanor paused, watching as a group of men in colorful tunics led an attractive group of piebald horses over to a long line tied between trees and tied them before beginning to groom them. She started walking again, keeping a curious eye on the gypsies, and was almost to the city gates when she saw a woman in a deep purple velvet dress standing outside a wagon. The woman stared at her for a moment before coming toward her.
"You there… child. Do you want to hear your fortune?"
"Thank you, ma'am, but I have no money," Eleanor shook her head, remembering von Hesse telling her to avoid gypsies. They were dirty, lying, thieving scoundrels, all of them, he often said. The woman stepped closer to her, and Eleanor observed her curiously: she was tall and slender, with piercing blue eyes and smooth, soft-looking skin. She wore a black headscarf, with her long silver-touched black hair loose around her shoulders, and the dark purple dress she wore complemented her milky complexion. Large gold hoops and glittering rings decorated her ears and fingers, and around her trim waist hung a thick gold chain studded with what looked like precious jewels.
"No charge to you, m'lady. Come along. I will bring you no harm." She gestured toward a garishly painted wagon near the river.
"I… I shouldn't. I'm not permitted to… "
"What, you're afraid of what your fortune might be?" the woman asked, teasing.
"I am not afraid," Eleanor countered, offended. "I'm not afraid of anything. But fortune-telling is… witchcraft."
"Hardly. Just a bit of innocent fun. Come child, and you can take or leave the fortune as you please."
Eleanor paused, uncertain, before deciding that this might be just the sort of rebellion she ought to try her hand at. The woman waited, watching her carefully, and finally she stepped forward. "All right."
"Come on inside." She pulled down a short stepladder from the back of the wagon, and opened the ornately decorated door. Eleanor warily climbed up the steps and into the wagon. The woman climbed in after her, and went around a low, round table and sat down. "Sit," she told Eleanor, gesturing to a low cushion. Eleanor sank down onto the seat and drew in her breath.
The woman bent down and opened a box, retrieving a glass ball and setting it on the center of the table. She then produced a small porcelain cup and tipped several tealeaves into it. Finally, she produced an incense burner—a long brass box with suns, moons and stars cut out of it—and opened it, adding chips of scented charcoal inside. She lit the chips with a long match and closed the box, and the scent of something sweet and unfamiliar drifted around the tiny wagon.
"It's sandalwood. Do you like it?"
Eleanor shook her head, wrinkling her nose. "I'd be lying if I said I did."
The woman smiled, apparently pleased. "What is your name, child?"
"Eleanor Reeve," she answered quickly, startled.
"How old are you?"
"What is your birthday?"
"An Aquarius then. The water-bearer. Ruled by Saturn, with air as your element." A teakettle screeched behind the woman, startling Eleanor. The woman whirled around and snatched the kettle off the burner and poured the hot water into the cup. Steam rolled around her head for a moment, then she leaned over the cup, peering for a long time into the forms the tealeaves made. "I see… a crown."
Eleanor raised her eyebrows, but said nothing. However, her nerves were beginning to fray.
"A crown and… war. Much war, and much sorrow, and great love…yes, great, passionate love… and great triumph… " She frowned. "Many triumphs among the sorrows, but the love is always there, but…" She gazed into the cup again. "It will be with you always, but also… very far away. How very strange." She looked down into the cup.
"I…I was Queen of the May last month… "
"Perhaps that's it," the gypsy said softly, looking strangely shaken. She looked down at the forms in her teacup. "But this is a future crown… "
"Then… then I'll be Queen of the May next year, too."
"That has happened," the woman said. "But not often."
The air in the tiny room was thick, and the scent from the burner was making her feel light-headed. "I should go," Eleanor stood up. This was not the freedom or the rebellion she was seeking. This was simply terrifying, and she wanted to go home where she was safe.
The woman picked up
the ball and gazed into it before gasping and putting it down. "You are
going to be a queen!"
"That's impossible... I cannot be a queen. Princesses become queens by… by marrying kings. I'm just a peasant. I need to go."
"A queen, I say! A great, powerful queen, greatly loved by those loyal to you… and greatly feared by those who also hate you… " The woman looked up at Eleanor, who was on her feet, backing toward the door and scrabbling to turn the knob behind her. "No, child, do not be afraid," said the gypsy, coming around and clasping Eleanor's shoulders. "I have long had second sight—it is not from the Devil, no matter what anyone tells you. You have a great destiny. You must grasp hold of it when it presents itself. Don't you see? Your life isn't meant to be ordinary, child. You are destined for something beyond the Turon valley and the walls of von Hesse's castle and the destiny that is being selected for you. You must seize you own destiny!"
Eleanor shook her head fiercely, "No, no. I'm only a peasant." She finally turned, desperate, and opened the door. Scrambling down, she ran away from the wagon, up the grassy bank and back onto the dirt road. She ran toward the city gates, hearing the woman shouting at her.
"You are not just a peasant, Eleanor! You have another path! Take it!"
Eleanor splashed cold water on her face and tried to calm herself down. Why had she even spoken to that woman? That evil, wicked creature! Count von Hesse had told her—warned her very sharply to stay away from the gypsies in particular and strangers in general. She sat on the edge of the fountain, at first barely noting that some of the villagers were running into the square. She wiped her hands on her dress bodice and stood up, brow furrowing as she saw a group of soldiers that guarded the village walls coming toward the square.
"What's going on?" she asked one of them.
"Lacovians," one of the soldiers said. "A large force, just a few miles to the north and coming straight here. We must evacuate as many of the people from the city as we can, and begin a defense."
"What?" Eleanor gasped, horrified, any thought of the gypsy woman gone and replaced by cold fear.
"We've closed the north gates already." The knight looked down at her, brow furrowed. "Lady Eleanor? What on earth are you doing down here? Isn't Count von Hesse in France?"
"He… yes. I… uh… it doesn't matter. We must get everyone to the castle. Immediately!"
"The castle?" He looked up, toward the castle looming above Turon. "Yes. Of course. Go home, Lady Eleanor, and quickly! It's bad enough to face Lacovians, but I won't face an angry Count von Hesse if you are harmed! Go!"
"How many knights are in the village?" she asked him, keeping pace with him as he began walking quickly toward the southern gates.
"Twenty," he told her shortly and began yelling for everyone to go to the east gate and start toward Ravensburg. "Just twenty… damn it… men." He waylaid a young knight. "Go to each house and shop and tell everyone to start to the castle! Now! Hurry!"
"There are ten more knights at the castle, and a small force of about fifty foot soldiers," Eleanor told him. "About half of them are skilled archers."
"That's better than nothing, and as I said before, child, go home and tell the soldiers to make ready for a siege!"
She was already running toward the east gate.
Betsy stared at Eleanor, aghast. "Lacovians? Coming… here?"
"They'll be coming when they find the village empty," Eleanor told her. "The village is being evacuated now, and they'll be coming here for safety."
Betsy took this in, brown eyes snapping as she calculated all that needed to be done. "Where have you been?" she asked, staring down at Eleanor's dirty bare feet.
"I… snuck out this morning."
"Does it matter now, Betsy? At least we have spare time to get ready to defend the castle. We must gather all the men, and all the weapons we have and… "
"You, meanwhile, will go straight to your room and stay there!" Betsy snapped. "What if those men had found you? What if… dear God, they would have… oh God, go to your room now and remain there!"
Eleanor had no intention of obeying this time. She headed upstairs, but as soon as the Great Hall was chaotic enough, she rushed back down and toward the upper bailey and the castle armory. She slipped in while the soldiers dashed back and forth, dragging the pitch pots up the stairs to the battlements. In the armory, she gathered up arrows and her bow, and matches. Stepping back out into the bailey yard, she heard the sound of the portcullis rising and watched the villagers pouring in. She was relieved to see Martha, Alice and Mary, as well as many other familiar people, coming in. The Squire was puffing along beside his wife, who towered over him, and they were both trying to soothe their frightened children. The students, nuns and monks from the school and the church were bringing up the rear of the crowd of villagers, and Eleanor wondered how many of them there were, and where they would all stay until the Lacovians were driven away.
She refused to think of any other outcome—they would drive the Lacovians away. The castle had a ready water supply from the cold springs, and plenty of food stored in the lower bailey.
They would defeat the Lacovians. There was no other option.
Carrying her bow and arrows, she rushed up the wooden stairs to the ladder leading up to the trap door on the tower roof. The knights gathered there barely noticed her, and she quickly got to work preparing her own arrows, dipping the points into the pots of boiling pitch set against the battlements. She set each arrow against the wall, point up, and set her matches down with the box open, ready to snatch up and strike as needed. Then she rushed back downstairs, virtually unnoticed by the scrambling knights and soldiers, and paused at the bottom of the stairs to watch as the final stragglers from town were all but carried into the castle and the portcullis dropped. She listened as the drawbridge was raised, and the shouts of Captain Renner, the constable of the castle, as he told the knights to take their places at the battlements on the roof and the arrow loops in the towers.
There was no very wide path to the castle save from the east, where the carriageway sloped down to Turon. On the other three sides of the castle the cliffs were so steep that no siege engines could be brought up—there was but one possible approach by an attacker, and thus far, no army of any size had been able to take the castle, as the drawbridge over the moat could be pulled up to seal the castle's outer gates. Any approaching army could be seen coming from miles away, giving the castle occupants ample time to prepare a defense.
She heard Captain Renner shouting that he could see the Lacovian army coming up the carriageway. "Make ready!" he yelled. Eleanor rushed into the armor room and grabbed a helmet and some plating, and was just managing to wrestle herself into the smallest set of chain mail she could find when a knight shouted at her. "Come on, man, what are you doing? Get upstairs!"
Without delay, she rushed upstairs, climbing the ladder quickly, and scrambled to her place at the battlements, gathering her pitch-dipped arrows. Peeking between the crenellations, she saw the Lacovian army coming up the hill, flags flying, and her heart froze with fear: they were a sight to behold.
The Kingdom of Lacovia had, for more than a century, been determined to take not only Livonia but also the neighboring kingdoms of Gravonia and Havor, and only attrition, better-trained armies and pure luck had kept the three kingdoms from falling to them. The Lacovian army was extremely well disciplined, ferocious and ruthless, and they did not negotiate or give quarter. Once they took a town or a castle, they destroyed it completely, leaving nothing behind but burning rubble and dead bodies while carrying away anything of value. Eleanor had heard of their ferocity all her life, and knew they had wiped out her own home village and murdered her family. If they could not defeat an army on a battlefield—which, in fact, they rarely did—the Lacovians were just as apt to raid towns and villages in those three nations, raping, murdering and pillaging without mercy or conscience.
Pushing her fear aside, she scanned the leaders of the large force of soldiers, searching for higher-ranking knights and captains. She easily picked out the commanders of the force—they were the ones riding armored warhorses and wearing the red and green colors of Lacovia. Behind them were the foot soldiers, and behind them loomed the cavalry. She knew, from reading von Hesse's books, that it was important that no one begin firing arrows until the enemy was within range—about two hundred yards. So she and the soldiers waited, watching as the Lacovians drew up to the perimeter of the castle, archers taking up positions to the left and right of the main force of foot soldiers, while the cavalry stayed back, ready to move forward the moment the front gate was destroyed..
Eleanor peered over the wall again and watched as a large man on a huge warhorse rode forward, toward the castle gates. He raised his helmet visor, revealing a white-bearded, blotchy face and cruel, beady eyes.
"Surrender now and your lives will be spared. Do you want to risk such hell being unleashed on you today?"
She stared down at him, then grabbed her match, lit her arrowhead and took careful aim, crouching low, seeking out a vulnerable spot. His visor was still up, she realized, as he gazed smugly up at the small force of defenders of Ravensburg Castle. She pulled her helmet off, finding it far too heavy and intrusive. Standing, she settled the arrow, the acrid scent of burning pitch making her nose wrinkle, breathed out a prayer, and released.
No one—not the Lacovians, not Eleanor, and certainly no one else in the castle—was prepared to see the flaming arrow penetrate the Lacovian commander's forehead, piercing straight through. The foot soldiers in the front lines even heard the soft thunk of the still-burning steel arrowhead hitting the inside of the back of his helmet as it sliced through his skull. Blood and smoke spurted from his forehead, and his eyes were wide with surprise, but he was already dead, falling heavily to the side and bringing his horse down with him. The animal squealed in alarm and fell down hard, rolling over him before regaining its legs and standing up, the commander's foot still in one stirrup. The huge animal panicked and began bucking and kicking, trying to rid himself of the dead weight pulling him off balance, and it fell again, landing again on the dead man. The sound of crunching metal and cracking bones was sickening to all who heard it.
For a moment, the entire Lacovian army was silent, too stunned by this sudden change of fortunes to even react.
"We will return hell to you in double measure, you murdering bastards!" she heard one of the knights shout, and two others followed the arrow's trajectory back to her. She gasped in shock and horror, dropping down on the graveled roof and making the sign of the Cross. The other knights on the tower began shouting, issuing blood-curdling roars and epithets at a hated enemy.
"My God!" one of the knights shouted over the deafening noise, pointing at her. "The Lady Eleanor killed him!"
Eleanor didn't regard them—she could barely hear them over the roaring in her ears, and keeping low she crawled away from the wall toward the trap door. The castle defenders rained down more arrows on the Lacovians, who were suddenly in utter confusion. With their commander dead, they were falling back even as many more of them fell to the arrows flashing down on them from the battlements and arrow loops, and any arrows they managed to send back were caught in pans or bounced off the stone walls of the castle.
Many of the other knights lit their arrows aflame as well, and soon the carriageway was littered with Lacovian bodies as the invading force fell back in chaos. She heard a trumpet sounding retreat as she managed to get to her knees, and she vomited helplessly. Only a few arrows from below managed to make it up to the battlements, but none found a living target. A few bounced from the wall and rattled down, landing beside Eleanor, who blindly gathered them and handed them to one of the archers, who stared at her in astonishment.
She finally made it back to the trap door, forced it open and climbed down. She struggled to remove the armor and the chain mail, and once she had finally gotten it off, she raced down the stairs and across the bailey yard to the stairs leading up to the keep. In the courtyard at last, she rushed into the kitchen and past the women, who were all frantically stripping sheets to use for bandages. One of them looked quizzically at her. "Eleanor, child, what have you been doing out there?"
"I… I must go to my room."
"Aye, wee lassie, you should," the kitchen maid told her. "Good heavens, you're as white as a sheet!"
Eleanor said nothing
more and raced into the Great Hall and up the stairs to her room. She closed
the door, locking it with shaking hands, and looked around the room as though
she had never seen it before.
The walls had been painted with murals of woodlands, with flowers and butterflies giving the room a girlishness that lately had begun to grate on her nerves. She couldn't bear to paint over the lovely pictures, as Count von Hesse had commissioned a famous German artist to come paint it, but suddenly she wanted to move into another room, away from a life that no longer suited her.
Her childhood had ended that day, and she began to sob, curling up on her bed, knowing that she could never return to innocence again.
"There are so many bodies," Eleanor whispered, hugging herself and shivering. Betsy squeezed her, feeling little sympathy for the Lacovians—the people of Turon hadn't sent them invitations, after all—but knowing the wives and mothers of the dead soldiers would grieve for their losses, just as she had done. "That's the nature of war, dearest. Come on back inside and let the men take care of… them."
The commander she had killed was, Eleanor had learned, General Ludovic von Biron, a ferocious and merciless man who had ordered the destruction of several villages, and he had personally overseen the cold-blooded butchering of countless men, women and children once he took a town. He had recently been appointed commander of the entire Lacovian army, in fact, and with his ferocity he was said to be a superb strategist. His death would be a major blow to the Lacovians, one of the knights had said smugly.
Not one Livonian life had been lost, and not a single person in the castle had even been injured during the brief 'battle'. They counted two-hundred nine dead Lacovians, and the knights had quite a chore ahead of them to bury them all. A mass grave was being dug for them, and Father Ulrich said a brief, somewhat perfunctory prayer over their bodies as they were laid out, wrapped in burlap, to be tossed in when the grave was ready. At last report, the surviving Lacovians had limped back home, demoralized.
They would be back, of course. Eleanor knew that. They sent raiding parties into Livonia all the time, and would continue to harass her country, and would also do so to poor Havor to the northeast and to Gravonia to the west. Of the two, Gravonia was a nation already weakened by poverty, violence, ignorance and disease. She often heard that Gravonia was barely managing to repel the invasion attempts and would one day fall. This was not considered such a bad thing, to Livonians, as Gravonia and Livonia had been enemies for so long that no one could even remember what the original dispute had been about, and numerous skirmishes and battles had occurred between the nations.
Betsy had had a hard time wresting the story out of Eleanor. First it had been Eleanor's confession of going to Turon alone, and then she had finally admitted she had shot von Biron with her arrow, and later the knights confirmed that information, and began calling her their 'Little Warrior' and considered her a good luck charm. Betsy could see no smug satisfaction in the girl for having done it, and in a way she relieved to know the girl wasn't happy about killing anyone, even a Lacovian, but it was also frightening to see a girl of thirteen joining in a battle.
Frankly, Betsy looked forward to the Frenchwoman coming with Count von Hesse to start teaching the girl the gentler arts. She was going to have to keep a closer eye on Eleanor from now on, but she didn't look forward to telling von Hesse of what had happened. The girl's escape from the castle would be one thing, but the girl killing a general with her arrow was another entirely.
July melted into August, the summer heat making winter seem like a distant memory as the valley forests and fields turned vibrant shades of green and gold. Ravensburg Castle glittered above the valley, a vast, protective giant standing guard over Turon, and life quietly settled back into its normal routines. Eleanor's own routines continued as well, but as the summer wore on, she was alarmed to see she was growing taller and that she was starting to fill out at an alarming rate—her breasts were even larger, and her once thin, narrow body was becoming womanly, with a rounded, flat belly and gently curving hips above long, slender legs. Her arms were graceful, too, but well-muscled from regular practice with the bow and arrow, and her hair was deepening in shade to a rich, raven black.
Previously, Eleanor cared little for how she looked or what she wore. Now, she was more careful about her appearance, seeing to it that her hair was neatly brushed and arranged each morning before she left her room. She was more prone to wear flowers in her hair, too, which she would never have done before the May Day celebrations, and she became interested in wearing finer, more elegant clothes. The castle seamstresses thus began making her prettier, more feminine outfits out of silk instead of muslin and cotton, with fitted bodices, draping trains and bell-shaped sleeves, and she felt it necessary to wear a chemise and bodice to keep her breasts still.
She consulted her mother's books, too, on how to keep her skin clear and unblemished, and began to avoid the midday sun. Her mother's ideas on cleanliness and hygiene were very strange indeed—Margaret was very firm about how a woman should bathe daily with soap in hot water, keep her hair clean by way of washing it at least twice weekly with a mixture of warm water and beer before rinsing it with cold water until it 'squeaked', and to keep her teeth clean with various types of powdered herb pastes made from sage and bay leaves, with mint to keep her breath sweet. She insisted that hands be washed thoroughly before and after handling raw food of any kind and that regular exercise was essential to good health. She even had the notion that a pregnant woman ought to go walking daily, which was unheard of, and that anyone examining a pregnant woman or assisting in a delivery wash his hands thoroughly with hot water and soap.
Eleanor spent hours reading her mother's radical comments on hygiene and health. Margaret Reeve even had unusual views on sex and how to deal with men, and her ideas intrigued Eleanor. She believed that sex was actually fun, and that women couldn't expect men to be respectful toward them if they were disrespectful toward men. Her writings were, to Eleanor, almost like the Book of Proverbs, with comments that left her pondering:
No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.
If you've nothing to say, don't say it.
Kindness might not be remembered in this world, but it will last an eternity in the next.
There are no atheists in Hell.
During the Count's absence, Eleanor spent more time reading her mother's thoughts than almost anything else. Until then, she had not felt any true connection to the woman who had borne her. She still felt vaguely dissatisfied in knowing so little about her father, but everything she had ever heard of him had been positive: John Reeve had been a superb soldier and the finest maker of arms on the Continent. Apparently, however, he had been a man of few words and had never written any of his thoughts down. She had no clear memories of him—just vague images, particularly of his scratchy beard and dark eyebrows and his deep, rumbling voice. Her image of him was of a fierce, devoted protector, but at the same time she recalled he was very gentle with her and with her mother.
Betsy observed the changes in Eleanor, but held her tongue, knowing the girl was simply reacting normally to her own physical development. Even more, Eleanor was becoming quieter but less likely to daydream or forget what she was doing. Instead, she was doing better at cooking and sewing, and was even becoming rather good at embroidery. Still, she continued to read voraciously, and excelled at her weekly examinations. Her readings of her mother's books, however, were making her introspective and slightly melancholy.
With Count von Hesse still gone to France, Eleanor's lessons were moved to the evening hours, while her mornings—after chapel and devotions—were for her own amusements, at Betsy's order. She went riding on Merlin every morning after Mass, but never strayed beyond the The Drop, and Betsy often saw the girl sitting on the horse, looking out over the valley.
She was changing a great deal, Betsy thought as she stood in the kitchen, kneading out bread dough. The sweet, obedient, bouncy girl of yesterday was long gone and replaced by a polished young lady who knew her own mind and was forming her own opinions and ideas. Even more, she was a breathtaking beauty, unmatched by any girl in the valley. The fact that she was still unmarried and even unbetrothed was cause for some talk down in Turon, but Betsy was quick to point out to anyone who spoke of it that von Hesse was very particular about the girl's future and had no intention to see her married to just anyone.
No, the girl was going to marry well. Very well, Betsy thought, carefully forming the dough into a loaf and sliding it into the oven, wiping sweat from her forehead. Before he had left, he had told her that he was becoming less inclined toward taking her to Court in Styria, and Betsy had been relieved about that—the girl did not need exposure to the decadence of King Michael's court. Then again… how was Eleanor to meet any suitable young men if she wasn't placed in their paths? The finest, richest families of Livonia were at Court, and von Hesse had no intention of seeing the girl married to just some local bumpkin.
Eleanor came into the kitchen just then, and Betsy looked up at the girl, marveling at how lovely she was. Her recent growth spurt had brought her to almost two inches above her own height, and she wore a cream-yellow dress and slippers, with her hair down except for silky locks tied back into a knot and held with a knot of daisies from the garden.
"What will we be having for the nooning meal, Betsy?" Eleanor asked her. She sat down on a stool and snatched up an apple, biting into it.
"Cook is making your favorite: chicken and dumplings—I hope you're hungry!"
Eleanor nodded absently and continued eating her apple. Finally finished, she tossed the core out onto the composting heap and wandered out of the kitchen. Betsy sighed and leaned against the large center island, washing her hands, torn between following the girl to see if she could get her to talk or leaving her be. She sensed that Eleanor's excursion into Turon on the day of the attack had had an effect on her that had nothing whatever to do with the battle, and the girl was beginning to resist the restraints placed on her. One day, Betsy thought sadly, the chains that tied her to the castle and to Turon would be broken, but where she would go once loosed, she had no idea.
Eleanor rode Merlin slowly around the perimeter of the castle, not caring where the horse carried her. She knew every inch of the woods and fields around Ravensburg, and the land was a part of her very soul, but since the attack on the castle, she had been restless and unsettled. She was having trouble concentrating on her studies, though she had no trouble with her examinations. She preferred to read her mother's books and treatises in the Count's office about government, politics and economics, and her tutor was not teaching her such things, and neither was he spending any time talking to her about military strategy, but she was becoming more and more fascinated with that subject. The more she read, and the more she heard about her own soldier father, the more she felt she understood him.
Every time she tried to sleep at night, she heard that strange gypsy woman telling her she was going to be a queen, and not for the first time did Eleanor wish she didn't have such perfect recall. But she remembered every sound, every sight, every scent of that gypsy wagon, and every word still rattled around in her head, refusing to leave her alone or give her peace.
"You are destined for something beyond the Turon valley and the walls of von Hesse's castle and the destiny that is being selected for you. You must seize you own destiny."
Eleanor stopped Merlin and looked back at the castle. How had that woman known she lived in Count von Hesse's castle? She had never seen her before, and gypsies weren't allowed into town and were certainly not welcome on von Hesse lands. Where could that woman have learned such a thing? Eleanor didn't believe for a moment that the woman had second sight, but… how? How had she known anything about her?
She turned the horse toward the carriageway and boldly rode down the hill, not caring if the soldiers or Betsy saw her leaving. She had questions for that woman, and she wanted answers.
She skirted the town, riding around to the north walls and past the sawmill. Several people working in the fields stood up, watching her, but she ignored them, spurring Merlin along to where she knew the gypsy camp was. Once there, she reined the horse in and stopped, scanning the riverbanks.
There was no sign of the gypsy camp. Not even a trace—no wheel marks, no hoof prints… nothing. Frustrated, tears swelling in her eyes, she turned around and kicked Merlin into a gallop, racing back up the hill and to the castle gates. She dismounted in the courtyard, a stable boy taking the steaming horse away, and ran into the keep. Betsy called to her, but she ignored the housekeeper and raced up the stairs to her new bedroom. She didn't understand why, but once she was safely under her blankets, she began to weep, sobbing uncontrollably as the woman's words kept ringing in her ears until she wanted to scream them out of her memory.
Seize your destiny!
Betsy eyed Eleanor, the word coming into her head as she watched the woman-child picking listlessly at her meal. Yes, indeed, for the past few days, Eleanor was simply brittle. She never spoke unless spoken to, dutifully continued with her cooking and sewing lessons, improving daily at both disciplines. She listened to Father Ulrich's brief, comforting homilies each morning, but asked him no more questions. She went riding every morning after Mass, but never ventured beyond the edge of the woods, ate her meals in silence and continued with her studies until evening. She would then read a portion of the Scriptures and her mother's books, then her assigned lessons from her tutor. After that, she would eat a light meal, bathe, and retire to bed.
The housekeeper was relieved one day to look out and see the carriages coming up the path. She breathed out, prepared herself for what had to be said to the man, and went out into the courtyard to greet her lord and master. The rest of the servants soon came out into the courtyard as well, but Eleanor was nowhere to be seen, and Betsy decided that might be for the best for now.
The carriages trundled into the courtyard and von Hesse stepped out of the first, looking weary. He bowed to Betsy and looked around. "Where is Eleanor? I have several gifts for her."
"She's… in her room for now, sir. But I must speak to you."
He looked alarmed, his weariness forgotten. "What is it? Is something wrong? Is she ill?"
"You know she's never been ill a day in her life. No… something else has… happened."
The warden of the castle stepped forward. "Sir, she killed Ludovic von Biron!"
"Thank you, Captain Renner," Betsy said, annoyed.
"She what?" von Hesse said, barely keeping his voice low.
"Killed him dead as a brick, she did, and with one arrow straight to the bastard's forehead. Fool forgot to put his visor down and…"
"Wait, wait… stop!" von Hesse raised his hands. "Why was he even here?"
"Lacovians were attacking Turon," Renner volunteered further, despite Betsy wishing he would bloody well shut up. "Eleanor was apparently down there at the time and urged the soldiers in town to evacuate the village to the castle, which they did and very quickly, I might add, and she got up on the tower and shot him dead with her own arrow. We're all very proud of our little warrior, we are," Renner grinned. "A right wick little lass, she is. You'd have never thought it, seeing as she's always been a very sweet, pretty little thing, but…" Renner stopped at the thunderous expression on von Hesse's face and wavered before continuing. "We suffered no losses. Not one dead soldier or villager, and there was no damage to the village…"
"They attempted to attack the castle?" von Hesse asked, feeling his knees weaken. He looked around the courtyard, trying to imagine what might have happened if the castle had fallen. The murders… the rapes… dear God, he wanted to find his sweet Eleanor and hold her and never let her go. A pang in his heart made him need to sit down even more—he was going to have to let her go, if his negotiations in Paris proved fruitful.
"Yes, sir. But we drove them back. Two hundred nine dead Lacovians buried in the pit down near the river." Renner looked askance at Betsy, who wanted to strangle him.
"Thank you, Captain Renner. Would you please… uh… bring the soldiers down to the courtyard, that I might… congratulate them?"
"Yes, sir," Renner saluted and left, trotting away.
"What in the hell was Eleanor doing in Turon?" von Hesse hissed at Betsy. "Were you with her?"
"No, I was not."
"Who was with her, then? Harris? One of the kitchen maids?"
"No one, sir."
"She went alone?!"
"Yes, sir. She did."
"You let her go alone? To Turon? How many times have I told you to never let her go off the castle grounds alone?!"
"No, sir. She snuck out of the castle, and yes, I've heard you comment on the matter of her imprisonment here a few times."
von Hesse paled and for a moment Betsy wondered if he might either faint or throw up. Or both. Instead, he turned and shouted "Eleanor! Come down here this instant!"
"Frederick, please… do not shout at her. She saved many lives…"
"She rebelled against my rules!"
"All children eventually rebel. You rebelled, didn't you?"
"I was older and a boy!"
Oh for God's sake, Betsy thought. "That is hardly any difference. If she had not rebelled that day, many lives would have been snuffed out and Turon would be destroyed, this castle might not be here anymore and Eleanor would be dead. I'm not saying it was right for her to rebel, but the results weren't exactly disastrous and she has been perfectly well behaved since then. Too well behaved, actually…"
von Hesse somehow made it across the courtyard and sat down on the steps leading up to the keep door. Betsy waited a moment before hauling him back to his feet. As much as she disapproved of him for getting angry at Eleanor, she knew he shouldn't be in a position of weakness when the girl came out into the courtyard. She stood beside the Count, and he began to mumble.
Eleanor finally stepped out, wearing a soft blue silk dress, her hair pulled back. She bowed slightly to the Count, who stared back at her, dumbfounded.
"You're taller," he finally said.
"Yes, sir. I have… grown a bit."
"But not in good sense, I hear," he said. "You went alone to Turon?"
She stared down at her slippered feet. "I… did, sir. I am sorry."
"You will be punished for that, I can assure you," he finally said.
"Yes. All of Job, I suppose."
"Of course," she murmured softly. "I've already started."
"Meanwhile, come here, child." He opened his arms, and she stepped into them, letting herself be embraced tightly. He held her for a long time, turning away from Betsy so she wouldn't see his tears. He kissed her forehead and finally set her away from himself, looking at her carefully. "I also understand you've been taking part in battles."
"Just one battle, sir. I… "
"Killed a man."
"I had to, sir. He was going to kill… everyone."
"So I hear. Do you know who Ludovic von Biron was?"
"Commander of the Lacovian army," she said, rather gloomily.
"A vicious, fierce warrior. A legend in his own time."
"And yet you defeated him. Rather soundly."
"I only killed him. The soldiers did the rest of the… the killing." She looked up at the Count. "I remembered the Lacovians killing my mother and father and everyone in Teslo. I prayed to God to forgive me… "
"He will forgive. That's what He does, when you ask, and God does not punish folks for protecting their loved ones." von Hesse turned and gestured toward the coaches and wagons. "I want you to meet someone, Eleanor. Come along now…" He took her hand and led her down the steps and knocked on the door of the wagon directly behind the one he had ridden in. He opened the door and held out his hand, and a creamy white hand took his and he helped a lovely blonde woman out of the wagon. Eleanor looked at Betsy, bewildered, but the housekeeper shrugged.
"Eleanor, this is Mademoiselle Christiane Chastain de Melleraie, from the Ville de Chârost near Orléans. She is going to be your governess."
"Governess?" Eleanor managed. She stared at Mademoiselle de Melleraie, not sure what to make of her. She had honey-blonde hair and aquamarine eyes, with pale, creamy skin and a wide, humorous mouth. She was twenty-three, unmarried, extremely well educated and came from a fine old chevalier family, Eleanor would later learn. For now, she was merely a stranger and Eleanor was at a loss of how to respond to her.
"Do not worry, Eleanor. I am only to help you with your French manners, as well as your deportment and… how you say again, Comte de Hesse? Ah yes…les grâces féminines. In all other respects, I will encourage you to rebel as much as you desire."
von Hesse's brow furrowed at he stared at Mademoiselle de Melleraie. "What was that again?"
"Oh…I am sorry. My English is not always very… ah… good, non? I mean, I will encourage you to be a good, sweet, obedient little angel with a mind entirely your own, oui?" She smiled at Eleanor, who was still slightly taken aback, and she was even more uncertain when the Frenchwoman gave her a conspiratorial little wink.
"I know you and I will be very good friends, oui?"
Eleanor managed a nod, and Mademoiselle de Melleraie took her hands in hers and looked at her closely. "Ah, yes, you are very right, Comte de Hesse. She is lovely. Really, not much about her needs improvement. Her posture is excellent and her complexion…impeccable! She looks like a little queen, non?"
von Hesse swallowed. "Quite right. Just like a little queen."