The Queen of the May

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Winter tiptoed into the Turon Valley in the same manner as always, briefly tricking everyone into thinking the season would be quiet and gentle, but most veterans of the valleys long, bitter winters knew better and began preparing themselves for the coming onslaught. The first snows were indeed beautiful, with blankets of white covering every surface and thin, intricate patterns of ice forming on the edges of the river.
No one was deceived, of course, and reinforced their houses and barns for the ferocious winds, sleet and snow that would soon come. Farmers set up snow breaks and repaired walls, and everyone made sure their house walls were solid and able to keep out the cold.
By mid-November, the first storms blew in, piling vast amounts of snow through the valley. The river began to freeze over, but slowly, with rafts of thin ice floating down the river. Eagles gathered on the rafts to eat their catches of fish before beginning their migrations to the south, and they were joined by waterfowl seeking their last full meals before they too began their long trips to warmer climes. Eleanor knew that when the moorhens and rooks left the Turon Valley, the real storms would begin, and on her last ride down to the river, she saw no travelling birds at all—winter was coming, with only hardy crows and hawks remaining in the valley, seeming unconcerned with the fiercest storms.
Christmas Day came during a ferocious blizzard, and Eleanor was happy to join in decorating the castle for the holiday. She and Betsy spent hours hanging wreaths from each window. Count von Hesse raised a vast tree in the Great Hall and the household spent hours decorating it with ornaments made of exquisite Viennese blown glass orbs and candles—his family had brought the tradition of setting up a tree with them from Germany, many years ago, and Eleanor could not smell pine without thinking of Christmas at Ravensburg. On Christmas morning the candles on the tree were finally lit, making the orbs flash and glimmer, and gifts were formally exchanged. The Count presented Eleanor with her own light suit of armor, which amused her a great deal, as well as a tiara of silver filigree studded with diamonds and pearls.
The New Year was celebrated quietly, with steady snow falling, until the castle courtyard was covered with five feet of snow before nightfall. No one ventured outdoors for almost the entire month of January, and February blew in with a savagery no one was prepared for, with even more snow piling into the valley, so that the castle courtyard was soon under eight feet of the stuff, and then a shower of sleet covered that with a two-inch thick sheet of solid ice.
During brief breaks in the storm, castle servants went to the roofs to shovel snow off, to ward off possible collapse under its weight.The stables and storehouses were all fortunately connected with inner passageways, and life within the castle continued as usual, and even during the wild storms no one in the house was cold or hungry. The Count worried about the residents of the village and the farmers, so he was relieved to see smoke rising from chimneys after every storm—people were at least managing to scrape by while confined to their homes.
Eleanor's fourteenth birthday came during a break in the storm, and she was delighted to see sunlight pouring in her windows. Without bothering to dress, except for a long cotton chemise and the silk robe the Count had given her the previous Christmas, she rushed downstairs to the Great Hall. Count von Hesse was seated by the fire, reading a book, and he clapped it shut, smiling at her.
"Well, Goosey, you're fourteen today. Quite a little woman, now, I see."
"I am," she said, curtseying to him. He rolled his eyes—he needed to disavow her of the notion that she needed to always do that for him. He was her father, not her master.
"And what do you want for your birthday?" he asked, hugging her tightly, cuddling her. It never ceased to amaze him, to think that until she came along, he had never cosseted or spoiled, much less cuddled, any creature he had ever known. Not even favorite dogs. Yet for Eleanor, he would gladly give up his life and his fortune to see her happy.
"Nothing at all. I'm just glad the sun has come out. That is quite good enough."
"Yes, but the sun is hardly a gift from me. Today, Goosey, you shall receive a gift of my making: no lessons, save Father Ulrich's homily, and you shall not be required to dress properly or wear any headdresses."
"That is a wonderful gift, sir," she said, laughing. "But what will I do without any lessons?"
"I don't know. Whatever you wish."
"Then we shall sit in front of the fire and eat bread with our knives until we cut ourselves!" Eleanor said excitedly, remembering those quiet evenings of her early childhood with the Count, when they would bake pieces of bread over the fire and eat them with butter and honey.
"That sounds like a perfect birthday, though you will receive a gift or two this evening," he agreed. He called for bread dough and the long roasting forks, and she sat on the floor by his chair and they ate bread, talking with him about nothing and everything until time for the nooning meal. Christiane, allowed to sleep late for the first time in almost a year, took full advantage of such a chance and didn't appear until midday. She congratulated Eleanor on her birthday and sat down, saying she was ravenous, and the household enjoyed a jolly meal by the fire. That night, von Hesse presented her a pair of emerald earrings that had been his mother's, and a silver vanity set of hairbrushes, combs and a mirror that he had purchased for her in Paris.
The following day, another blizzard crashed mercilessly into the valley, and Eleanor's lessons resumed as the wind howled and threatened futilely against the castle walls. She was no longer studying mathematics or geography, much less languages—the Count was determined to teach her on matters of politics, diplomacy and economics. As such, she spent hours in his office, listening to him as he explained the intrigues of the French Court, as well as how government operated and how economics worked.
March came in quietly, with no more snow and the temperatures rising each day. Eleanor was reading Caesar's Gallic Wars one morning when she heard the sharp, echoing crack of the ice breaking on the river. She looked out the window at the white valley below and sympathized with the villagers—the blizzards this season had been so bad that a Frost Fair had been out of the question, and now the ice was melting, so there wouldn't even be ice-skating.
Count von Hesse's ancestors had been wise to make the center of the courtyard concave, so that rain water and melting snow poured down the set of long grates and into water cisterns under the castle. Besides the springs and the well, the castle residents were never short of clean water for drinking and bathing, and the animals, gardens and fields were also well supplied, with plenty to spare for when rains were not as frequent during the summer. Also, water was easily drained from the roofs during rainstorms and when the snow melted. In the lower levels of the vast pile of the citadel, the water from the roofs was carried by pipes to the laundry, and von Hesse had developed a sewer system for the castle that carried waste water to a portion of his property already cursed with bad soil, thus preventing awful smells. Some years ago the Count had even hired a man from Vienna to install hot and cold water taps for the kitchens and water closets, which was extremely innovative and also earned him high praise from the staff. Ravensburg Castle was indeed one of the very few residences in all Livonia to have running water.
Eleanor sat at the window overlooking the courtyard, watching as melted snow poured down into the line of grates. The sun was out in full force, the skies clear and brilliantly blue. She wondered if this was a false spring—another storm could come blowing in any time, killing the tiny buds that were starting to form on the fruit trees. Still, she felt restless, eager to finally get outside again, but when she looked across the room she saw Maggie and Ulrica standing there, as watchful as ever.
Sighing, she got down from her window seat and went in search of Betsy. Christiane had come down with a stomach ailment and was in bed for the day, and the housekeeper was in charge. The Count had ridden down to Turon to see how the townspeople had fared during the hard winter, but intended to return by the following morning. Betsy was kneading bread dough when Eleanor came into the kitchen, followed by her ladies, and smiled at the young woman. "Well, little woman, how are you this lovely day?"
Eleanor shrugged. "The snow is melting—there aren't even any icicles left on the eaves."
"I've noticed that, and I think Courtland, down at the gate also noticed the other day when the last one nearly pierced right through him." She formed her dough into a loaf and shoved it into the oven, glad to be rid of it for now. She glanced at Maggie and Ulrica, then at Eleanor. "You've grown a bit over the winter, I see."
Eleanor looked down, noticing her bodice stretching a little. Why wouldn't her breasts stop growing? Christiane had asked the seamstresses to begin making her new bodices, but as it was winter and Eleanor wasn't venturing away from the castle, it had been decided that such alterations could wait until spring.
"It's so tiresome," Eleanor said. "People are always looking at my chest."
Betsy glanced at the girl. Not people in general, she thought. Men in particular were looking at the developing girl. The castle guards were apt to stare at her, and Christiane had to be diligent about keeping the girl properly covered until her bodices were altered. Betsy did not hold a man's natural reaction to a pretty girl against him, but care had to be taken.
Particularly since the girl was going to be Queen of France someday. The very thought boggled Betsy's mind—her sweet girl, a queen! Until she left, though, she was determined to protect her from any man's natural reaction, however honorable he might be. She knew the castle guards were good men, and most were married, but they were men and…
Betsy pushed the thought away. Nowadays, she and Christiane agreed that Maggie and Ulrica's presence with the girl, when she was allowed to go to Turon, was a good thing. Eleanor was of a different mind on that matter, but the two women agreed that she should remain innocent of how men thought of her until it was time for her to leave home forever.
"I wish I could go riding," Eleanor said, picking up an apple, examining it and finding it unsuitable. She put it down and propped her chin in her hands, sitting on a stool and kicking her feet. "The snow is melted, mostly, and not at all deep."

Maggie and Ulrica looked less than thrilled. Neither of them was good with horses and they hated riding. Christiane was an uncertain horsewoman at best, and she was ailing. Betsy looked sympathetically at the girl—it wasn't fair to keep her cooped up in the castle, when the weather was so lovely. She moved closer to the girl and spoke without moving her lips, her back to the two ladies. "I will distract Nit and Twit for a moment, but you will have to move quickly."

Eleanor's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Beg pardon?"

Betsy turned and started to say something to Maggie and Ulrica, but instead gasped, pointed toward the door and shrieked "Rat!"

The two ladies-in-waiting screamed in horror, clutching each other, and when Betsy indicated that the rat was closing in on them from the direction of the door, they both fled from the room, still screaming. Eleanor was momentarily taken aback, but realized what Betsy was doing and quickly scampered out the garden door, landing in the mud but not minding a bit. She was outside in the light, and regardless of the consequences, she was going to go for a ride alone for the first time in what seemed like forever.

Constantine stopped his horse, listening.

The sound of melting snow dripping was fairly distracting. The weather was getting warmer by the moment, so that he really wished he could stop and remove his thick winter clothes and mail, but he knew the night could be cold. It was either endure being uncomfortable now or freeze to death tonight. As it was, he was tired, itchy and short-tempered.

The fact that he was traveling alone was unusual, but he was heading home after a long fall and winter in Havor. The Lacovians had been extremely bothersome, making raids into Havor during snowstorms, adding to everyone's misery and killing many people along the way. Constantine and his knights had done some damage to them, and had finally drawn them into a full-scale battle just after the first of February, and had soundly thrashed them and sent them running back home.

He wasn't eager to return to Garon, though. His brother was busy all the time with the business of ruling Morvenia, and his mother was as cold as ever, constantly berating him for offenses real and imagined. Lately, he had been thinking about building an estate of his own outside the capital city, and had put out a few inquiries on the matter, but so far there was no land for sale. He was determined to keep looking, though—there was no way he was going to live in the palace with his mother about, however much he loved his brother.

The prince stopped his horse when he heard the sound of a twig snapping. The sense that he was no longer alone raised the hairs on the back of his neck and he breathed in the air, tensing. He turned just as the arrow pierced through his shoulder, the force of the strike sending him reeling back, almost causing him to fall from his horse. Nonetheless, natural strength and experience helped him manage to pull himself back up and he grabbed the reins, turning toward where the arrow had come. He was not surprised to see two knights charging toward him, both wearing Lacovian red and green. "Damn," he muttered under his breath, unsheathing his sword.

The larger of the two knights reached him first, charging at him at full speed, and Constantine ducked down to avoid the man's attempt at beheading him with his sword, but he had no time to deliver his own blow—for now, he had to stay alive before executing a proper defense.

Constantine let himself drop from his horse, disengaging from the stirrups and sending the animal away with a whack to the backside. The other knight came at Constantine, and the prince swung his sword in a hard downward arc, cutting through the Lacovian mount's leg, bringing the animal down, screaming in agony and crushing the fallen knight under its writhing body as it rolled over him. The frantic horse tried to rise, but fell on his rider again, still screaming. He heard the nauseating sound of bones and metal crushing, and saw blood gushing from the man's mouth as he convulsed in his death throes.

Constantine turned back to face his first attacker, and wasn't surprised to see he was nowhere in sight.

Excruciating pain made him to need to stop to catch his breath. He knew better than to try and remove the arrow—it had pierced through his pauldron and mail, and was buried deep into his left shoulder, and he could see the shaft sticking out at a disheartening angle. Removal was going to be hell. Still, he needed both arms to fight, and he grasped his sword, hating that he was getting blood on the blue silk ribbon on the hilt.

He began trying to steady his breathing, and was whistling for his horse when the first attacker came galloping toward him again, swinging a morning star over his head. Constantine dodged away from him, smacking clumsily into a tree, and his vision blurred. He was losing blood, he realized, and fast. He kept to his feet, though, and turned back to see the Lacovian knight coming toward him again, roaring loudly. Constantine moved quickly when his attacker got close enough, grabbing the man by the leg and pulling hard, dragging him off his mount, the animal squealing and running away as his rider's star-pointed steel rowel dug into its flesh, cutting its belly as Constantine dragged him off. The effort caused the prince to nearly fall, but he kept his feet and staggered back to the tree, needing it for support yet again.

The knight was on his feet far more quickly than Constantine expected—apparently he was young and quite fit, and the fall hadn't even winded him. He unsheathed a long, fearsome-looking steel sword and prepared for battle, his shield up, and he threw away the morning star. Constantine had no shield—only his sword and his dagger—and his helmet was giving him a headache. He removed it, tossing it aside, and pulled his arming cap off, but his headache remained and his vision was blurring even more, but he instinctively kept moving, not giving his assailant a clear target.

Constantine easily parried the knight's first sword thrust, and pushed him off, but the other man was back quickly, pivoting and hitting him hard in the right thigh, crushing the plating and he felt the sharp metal slice his skin. But he was made of sterner stuff than that—he let himself fall and slammed the edge of his sword into the other man's plated knee even as he hit the ground. He heard the man's scream of pain and closed his eyes as his attacker went down on his side, his sword falling from his raised hand and landing a few feet away. Constantine struggled back to his feet, watching his attacker turn over to begin trying to crawl away, reaching for his sword, his injured knee turned at a sickening angle.

"Please don't make me kill you," Constantine warned him. But the Lacovian knight did not heed, and grabbed the sword hilt and began to try to turn over. The Prince moved quickly, slamming the point of his sword into the back of the man's neck, killing him instantly. He pulled his bloodied sword out and stood, gasping for breath, before staggering back to the tree, using it again to stay upright.

"Oh God, please forgive me," he whispered, seeing blood pouring out of his shoulder wound, and his stomach lurched, but there was nothing to throw up. The wound on his thigh was just as painful, but at least he wasn't seeing blood… yet. He stood there for what seemed like an eternity, trying to remain upright, but he knew he was weakening—when had he last eaten? Yesterday afternoon? He was suddenly terribly thirsty, and frankly wanted to lie down and sleep.

He whistled for his horse, and a few moments later the steady animal came trotting to him, and snuffled at his hands. "Sorry, Amiel, no sugar cubes today," he told the big grey. "But if you'd be so kind as to… to… take me to shelter, I'll see if I can find any for you."

Wearily, he looked back at the dead bodies lying on the forest floor, and led the horse over to the still-struggling horse he had crippled. One swift, merciful stab ended the horse's suffering, and he collected the other man's charger. Using a tree stump as a mounting block, he climbed back astride Amiel, gasping in pain, and turned back in the direction he had been going, drops of blood pouring from his shoulder and leg, staining the grey horse's coat and pristine snow.

Eleanor enjoyed riding through the woods, listening to birds singing and the roar of the river—the ice was melting very fast and the river was flooding a good bit, but so far no harm was being done to the local farmers' fields. She observed small herds of deer moving quietly through the woods, obviously delighted to be finding grass coming up through the thin blanket of snow, and she was pleased to see that many of the does were leading wobbling fawns—spring was definitely here, and she knew the storms had ceased. The winter had been hard, but it had been shorter than usual.

She dismounted and searched for crocuses and snowdrops, and was pleased to find many where the sun was breaking through the canopy. She picked a few for Betsy, wanting to show her gratefulness to her old co-conspirator for helping her escape for a while. She was carefully wrapping a little nosegay with long blades of grass when she heard a strange sound—rather like a moan, only very weak. She looked around, listening carefully, and zeroed in on its source. She began walking quickly toward it, leading Merlin, and was horrified at what she saw in the middle of a small clearing.

A man, wearing dark armor, was slumped over the pommel of a large grey warhorse. Another horse stood nearby, cropping at new grass. The man's cape had been torn and was being used to wrap around a wound on his thigh. Eleanor rushed to the horse, ducking under its head and almost screamed in horror when she recognized him.

"Oh my God… Prince Constantine!"

He was pale, and blood covered his chest and arm, and had stained his horse's shoulder. His eyes opened briefly, but they were unfocused as he tried to look at her, and he dropped his head again, unconscious. Eleanor immediately mounted Merlin, grabbed the grey war horse's reins and pulled him along behind her, leaving the other horse to fend for itself for now. She could only hope he would stay on the horse, because she knew she could never carry him and fifty pounds of armor to the castle.

The household servants were astonished when Eleanor rode into the courtyard, shouting for help, and came running. When they saw the wounded prince, and the extent of his injuries, they carefully took him down from his mount and laid him on the cobbles, removing his plating first and then began removing his mail. Betsy looked up at Eleanor, realizing what the girl was about to see.

"Eleanor, please go inside."

"I don't faint at the sight of blood," Eleanor objected.

"Do as I say now, sweetheart. Go."

Hating being useless, Eleanor turned and went into the kitchen, sitting down on the stool and sighing, feeling miserable. She could only wait now…

No, she decided. She had her mother's books—they were full of recipes and concoctions for treating wounds and illnesses, and perhaps there would be one that would help him. She dashed out into the Great Hall, thought about calling for one of the maids to go and get her books for her, but decided that she would know better which ones to consult. She headed upstairs to her room and searched through her shelves until she found the right volumes.

Eleanor was back downstairs in the Great Hall when the servants carried Constantine in on a litter. He had been stripped naked, and a blanket was laid across his middle. Eleanor felt her cheeks pinking as she remembered what Betsy had told her about a man's anatomy, but she put those thoughts aside and followed the servants into a room in the eastern side of the castle, where a bed had been set up for unexpected guests.

The prince was still and silent as the servants began examining his wounds. Eleanor stepped forward. "His wounds must be kept clean," she said. "You must all wash your hands before you even touch him. Go… now!"

Betsy looked up at Eleanor. "Child, you must not… "

"You too, Betsy. His wounds must be clean. Spotlessly clean, and so must the hands of anyone tending to him. Please, Betsy… my mother's books say so!"

The housekeeper studied the girl in silence and finally left the room. Eleanor waited, not touching him, until Betsy returned, holding up her hands to show they were clean. Eleanor rushed out to the kitchen and instructed the servants to use hot water and soap as they washed, as her mother's books said, and joined them, scrubbing her hands clean. She followed them back to the room and watched as Betsy carefully cleaned the wound on his thigh, but the most worrisome wound was the arrow still protruding from his shoulder.

"How shall we get it out?" one of the servant girls whispered.

Eleanor stepped forward and asked one of the men to hold the prince up so she could see his back. The arrowhead was sticking out the back, having made an ugly wound on its exit. She swallowed. "We will need to break the shaft there and then pull it out the front."

"What if it wakes him?" one of the kitchen maids whispered. "I have heard stories… such screaming and pain… "

Eleanor knew that could happen, but there was no time at all for worrying about such things—it had to be done. Quickly, as Constantine was still being held up, she took out her little dagger, cut the arrowhead off as straight across and close to the steel point as she could and ordered one of the men to pull the shaft out. "Slowly, if he doesn't wake. If he does wake, pull it out quickly. Pull!"

The shaft was pulled out bit by bit, the prince's eyes opening slightly as he cried out in pain, but he did not regain full consciousness. More blood began pouring from the wound, but Eleanor had the servants pour hot water in and around it and had them apply steady pressure until the bleeding stopped. "The wound must be kept clean, always," she ordered, and demanded fresh, spotlessly clean strips of linen to wrap over it, and more were brought in to use when the bandages were changed. She read aloud from her mother's book as they worked. "The bandages must be changed every few hours, and the wound kept clean. Gangrene and infection must be avoided scrupulously, and the patient's spirits must be kept up. He must be kept away from all forms of sickness—tell Christiane to say away until she is well—and as soon as he is able, he must begin to move about so as not to let the injury weaken him."

Constantine's wounded leg was wrapped up in clean linen strips as well, but the wound was not as serious, and soon he stopped bleeding. Eleanor insisted Constantine's upper body be elevated slightly, and after some careful positioning of pillows and a brief argument over how to position his arm, the prince looked like he might be at least a little comfortable.

Betsy left the room to consult with Harris, and the other servants left as well, leaving Eleanor alone with the prince. She began to clean his face, neck and chest with a warm, wet cloth, noting that his uncontrollable hair had small streaks of grey at the temples, and he had a new, small scar through his left eyebrow. His eyes opened suddenly and he looked at her, confused and slightly unfocused.

"Where am I?" he asked, his voice hoarse.

"You are safe now," she told him softly.

"Safe-… did I die? Are you one of the angels?"

"No, silly. You didn't die. You aren't going to die for a very, very long time." She pressed the back of her hand to his forehead as Betsy came in. "No fever, either. We must make sure you don't get a fever—that's very important. Are you in much pain?"

"I've damn sure felt better," he said. His eyes were starting to drift shut. "God, I'm so tired."

"You've lost quite a bit of blood, sir."

He looked at her again, first at her eyes, then her mouth and finally her chest. Swallowing, he looked down and saw he was naked save a cloth across his middle. "Dear God, please stop this torture or I will go mad," he gasped, dropping his head back onto the pillows.

"Torture?" She looked down the length of his body and wondered why the cloth was tented up that way.

He put his head back, wincing, and closed his eyes tightly, cursing softly. Betsy touched Eleanor's shoulder. "Go on and get something to eat, child. Go. Do as I say."

Not feeling at all like a child any more, Eleanor left the room, but not before glancing back at the prince, wondering. Betsy sat down beside the prince's bed, thinking yet again of the natural reaction of a healthy man to a beautiful girl. Or, she thought, the reaction of a wounded, besotted young man to an utterly breathtaking girl.

Count von Hesse returned the following morning from his trip to Turon and was informed of Prince Constantine's arrival at the castle and how he had been found. Eleanor was a little surprised when Maggie and Ulrica did not inform him on how she had come upon him, reporting instead that 'castle servants' had stumbled upon him in the woods. She finally spoke to them after the nooning meal.

"Why did you not tell the Count?" she asked. "You know that Betsy helped me escape… "

Maggie and Ulrica Paulet were sisters, both over thirty and unmarried, and while not unattractive, the bloom of their youth had faded. They were both quiet, soft-spoken, obedient and unimaginative, but there was no deceit or guile in either of them, and though Eleanor didn't like having them trailing behind her all the time, she knew they were trustworthy, and she did appreciate their kindness. Ulrica was the one most likely to speak, being only slightly less shy than her older sister.

"We were out of the room," she said. "We did not see you escape, so how can we report on something we did not see?" With that, she returned to her sewing. Eleanor left them to their chores and slipped down the hallway to Constantine's room. He was still propped up on his pillows, and sleeping. Glancing around, she checked his forehead and cheeks and was pleased to find him still cool. His wounds were not bleeding any more, and someone had pulled a pair of black pants on him, but his chest was still bare.

She had never liked hairy men, finding over-hirsute men somewhat disturbing, in that they reminded her of bears. Constantine was not overly furry, she noted, but had dark, curly, soft-looking hair across his chest, and a thin line of dark hair divided his hard belly and disappeared under his pants. She wondered how that hair would feel against her fingertips, and immediately felt ashamed of herself and sat back in her chair. Then she snatched up a clean white cloth and dipped it in the wash basin, squeezing it out carefully before beginning to gently wipe his shoulders and chest, knowing the little room was warm.

Cheeks pink, she dared to look up at his face and was startled to see his eyes open, and he was staring at her, green eyes intense, hands gripping the sheets beneath him.

"Lady Eleanor."

She sat down, dropping the cloth. "How you feeling, sir?"

He grimaced. "Not overly wonderful, I admit, but at least I'm not dead." He tried to shift a little, and winced from the pain in his shoulder. "I understand you found me in the woods. Am I right?"

"Yes. I did. I was… out riding."

"Alone? Isn't it dangerous for a girl your age to be riding alone?"

"The only danger I seem to have been in was getting your blood on my clothes."

His gaze dropped to her mouth, his expression softening just a little, and she felt her cheeks getting even warmer. He looked away and stared at the barred window of the little room.

"I am very relieved that I did find you, sir. It would have been very sad if Constantine the Dragon had died alone in the woods," she said softly, and snatched up the washcloth, fluffing it out and stretching it across her lap.

"Aye, it probably would have only been sad for a few people. Perhaps not the Lacovians." He dropped his head back on his pillows. "Am I wrong, or did that woman you were with, last time we met, say you were going to France?"

"Year after next," she said, nodding. She clasped her hands together. "I am going to marry… someone there."

He looked at her again. "He will be getting a remarkable wife."

She could do nothing about her red cheeks, any more than she could stop her heart from beating so fast. "I can only hope to please my husband."

"Oh, he'll be pleased all right," he muttered, looking at the window again. "He'll be bloody well delighted, I suspect. You're… fourteen now, right?"


"I hope the Count has chosen wisely for you."

Betsy appeared at the door and cleared her throat. Eleanor shot to her feet and rushed from the room. Betsy took the seat by the bed. "Your Highness."

"Mrs. Bolingbrooke."

"I hope you are not planting any… ideas in that girl's head," she said.

"What ideas?" he asked sharply.

"Don't be coy, sir. You are not a fool and neither am I."

I feel like one, he told himself. "I can assure you, ma'am, that I have no… that I am not… I do not have intentions of causing trouble. Lady Eleanor is going to France, isn't she? She'll be marrying some member of the aristocracy there."

"Something like that," Betsy said. "Sleep, sir. You need to heal properly before we can let you go home." She stood up, shaking imaginary dirt off her apron. "And we hope you heal very quickly indeed."

Count von Hesse visited Constantine only a few times while he was bedridden, politely welcoming him to stay as long as he required, but the prince could tell the nobleman wanted him out of the castle and gone as soon as possible. Betsy was the only person who was in his room regularly, changing his bandages and saying very little. Eleanor was apparently barred from visiting him anymore, and he cursed and thanked the Count at the same time for that.

Dear God, she was beautiful. Unlike anything he had ever seen in his life. That thick skein of silky black hair and that lovely, almost angelic face and those heart-stopping blue eyes and her pale, flawless skin…

And that body. Lord in heaven, what was he supposed to do around her now? He had never seen such an exquisitely formed figure before, and those breasts… all in all, she was beyond his endurance, and he could only hope Betsy remained diligent in her protection of the girl.

Wincing from pain that had nothing to do with his wounds, he looked up at the ceiling and begged God to make him blind to Eleanor. She was pre-contracted to another man now, and there was an end to it.

Contracted or not, she was still the stuff of fantasies, and those fantasies had not been sweet, innocent little daydreams. Her youth and inexperience did not prevent her from invading his dreams since the day he had awakened and found her leaning over him, cooling his skin with a washcloth. She had not been aware that she had been so close, her lovely breasts just inches from his face as she tended to him. He had had to grip the sheets to keep from reaching up to touch her.

As if she hadn't starred in a few of his dreams before, he thought, cursing himself. He still didn't dally with young girls, and was extremely picky about the women he did dally with, and they had been few and far between—his life as a soldier curtailed the pursuit of women for the most part. Most women, he had realized long ago, feared him. Perhaps it was his ferocious reputation as a soldier, or maybe it was his black armor and his general… dourness, but the few women he had bedded had seemed intimidated by him, and he didn't want that in a lover or in a wife. He wanted a wife he could at last talk to and who felt comfortable around him.

Wife. He sighed and looked at the ceiling. He was going to have to marry, whether he frightened his wife or not. Philip would never marry, and so Constantine was the last hope of the royal family, save a cousin or two that no one considered reasonable alternatives for the succession. He had to find a suitable wife, preferably from among the aristocracy of Morvenia, though a foreign bride was hardly out of the question. He was not exactly sure how he might sell himself as husband material—he had been a warrior all his life, and he honestly didn't want his wife to be lonely and neglected because of his all-too-frequent absences.

It all required more thought. How he expected to think clearly while at Ravensburg, however, he didn't know. He was going to have to leave as soon as he could. There was no other option.

Count von Hesse kept a watchful eye on Prince Constantine when the younger man hobbled out of his room on a crutch, making his way down the passage and out into the Great Hall. The Morvenian was an impressive sight, even when injured and barely able to eat soup. In the past few years, he seemed to have become wider across the chest, and stronger, and his reputation on the battlefield made him a formidable opponent, well earning the title 'The Dragon'.

von Hesse's knights had found the bodies of the two knights that had attacked him in the woods, and he was not a little impressed that despite his grave injuries, Constantine had still managed to ride a good ten miles through the Turon Valley to von Hesse lands. Dragon, indeed. The man was unstoppable. Other generals often said Constantine was as relentless as he was brilliant, and that once he set a goal, he stopped at nothing to attain it. He had destroyed huge, strong armies with smaller forces, and part of that was because he was a natural leader who fought alongside his men and set an example of cool, steady resolve. If some commanders said he was a little on the cold side, von Hesse suspected much of that was due to how Constantine had been raised, but the prince was clearly not cold toward Eleanor. Quite the opposite, in fact, according to Betsy.

The prince sat down at the table, wincing only a little, and politely thanked a maidservant for his bowl of soup and loaf of bread. von Hesse said the blessing and they ate in relatively companionable silence, but the Count was wary. Betsy's concerns about Constantine's reaction to Eleanor were well-founded. As such, he had to be kept away from the girl..

Yet another thought was starting to come to him, however, in the days during the prince's recovery. He glanced at the young man—he would be twenty-four in August, if he recalled, and was still unmarried. Better yet, he was strong and healthy, intelligent if not as superbly educated as Eleanor, and would one day occupy the throne of one of the most powerful, wealthy and influential nations in Europe.

"You seem to be moving a little better, Your Highness," von Hesse said kindly. "You're feeling well?"

"Better every day," Constantine said. "I'll be on my way home in a few more days, I'll wager."

"Aye, probably," the Count nodded, taking a bite of his bread. "I'm sure your brother will be glad to see you home. As time goes on, you'll be given more responsibilities in the government of Morvenia, I think, as Heir Presumptive."

"Probably." Constantine eagerly drank some water. "Not that I relish it any more than I do the idea of being king."

"Crowns do not allow much peace of mind," the Count agreed.

"They're just hats to let the rain in," the prince muttered, draining the last of his water and politely asking for a refill. "Had Philip not suffered his… misfortune, I wouldn't have to worry about it at all."

"Still, 'King Constantine the third of Morvenia' has a certain ring to it," von Hesse smiled. "You will make a fine ruler."

"Far in the future, I hope. I don't want the position, but I will do my best when I rise to it," the prince looked at him sideways, brow furrowing. "You seem strangely interested in my future role."

"Merely pointing out facts and points of interest along the way," the Count shrugged. "Considering you're the last available prince of your family, you'll need to marry and breed heirs."

"I'm afraid so. Babies do not, as I believed as a child, come up in the cabbage patch."

The Count laughed. "Aye, quite true." He put his spoon down. "Very true."

He said nothing more as Constantine finished his meal. He accepted the prince's request to leave the table and watched him limp away, supported on his crutch, and sat still, thinking. Finally he rose, thanked the servants for the meal and went to his study. He sat at his desk for some time before getting out paper and his quill and began writing.

To the Most Noble Prince de Montpensier,

I must respectfully withdraw my offer of the hand of my Ward, the Lady Eleanor Reeve, Heiress of the County of Hesse in the Kingdom of Livonia, as circumstances have arisen that would make the union unsuitable.

Eleanor was unhappy that she was not permitted to spend any time with Constantine. The friendship she had formed with him, in the last two years, seemed to have been cut off completely and she wasn't even allowed to take meals with him and the Count. By the end of March, he was healed enough to begin preparing to leave for Morvenia, and she hadn't spoken to him once since the day she had washed him.

Perhaps that was it, she wondered. She had behaved indecently, but how could Betsy have known if her thoughts were improper? She hadn't done anything that she wouldn't have done for anyone else… though, frankly, she had enjoyed touching him a little more than perhaps was proper. Not that bare skin had come in contact with bare skin, except when she had touched his forehead to check for fever.

She was in her room, reading a treatise the Count had written for her on diplomacy and court etiquette when she heard von Hesse calling her to come downstairs. Quickly, before Maggie or Ulrica could react, she rushed out of the room and down the stairs, forgetting about how she should walk slowly down stairs, to give an impression of 'unhurried elegance'. She was brought to a halt at the landing by the sight of the Count and Prince Constantine standing with their backs to the fire. Drawing in her breath, she walked smoothly to them and curtseyed to them both.

"The prince is leaving today, Eleanor," the Count said.

"Oh." She looked at Constantine, who could not meet her gaze. "I wish you a safe journey, my lord."

"He will be returning next spring," the Count said. "That is, if he is pleased to do so." He looked at Constantine, whose brow furrowed.

"I… uh… would be pleased to visit next spring."

"Quite good. And perhaps you'll stay as our guest through the summer. It would be a great honor to us all."

The prince looked at Eleanor, who was too surprised to speak. Betsy, standing not far away, was also apparently taken aback.

"I would be… very delighted to stay here as your guest, Count von Hesse, for as long as my brother's Council will allow. Th-…thank you."

"Good. That's all settled. Go on then, be away with you. Godspeed and all safety to you, and send my salutations to your brother King Philip and your dear mother. Eleanor…?" He gestured to her, but she was at a loss. She blinked and executed another graceful curtsey. Her bodices had recently been altered, but she was still quite distracting to any healthy young man, particularly as she was now showing more décolletage and was wearing a silver necklace that was set rather low, a ruby-studded cross hanging almost between her tightly-bound breasts.

Constantine was a very healthy young man, the Count noticed. The prince barely managed to drag his eyes away, and looked into her eyes. "I will see you next… next spring, Eleanor."

"I will be very happy to see you again, sir."

For a moment, they were both still and silent, staring at each other in mutual bemusement until the Count cleared his throat and nodded, barking out orders to his knights and making everyone jump. Servants snatched up Constantine's belongings—his armor was packed away and he was dressed in a leather gambeson, doublet, shirt and pants, with light mail beneath for added protection against attack. Two of the Count's own knights were to ride with him to the Morvenian border, despite his objections, and the three men strode out of the hall and out into the courtyard. von Hesse watched the young prince easily swing astride his grey warhorse, and it was then that he noticed the blue silk ribbon tied around the hilt of his sword.

He saluted the prince and watched him and the knights ride away. Looking up at the blue sky, he smiled, greatly pleased with his decision. His darling girl could find no one more worthy, and if his plans worked out, she would still be a queen some day, as he believed God willed.

Yes. This was the right path indeed.

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