Chapter One : If Only Freedom Lasted
As the sun shone down on her face and the wind flowed through her hair, Eleanor spent a moment enjoying the day. Sitting atop of her mare, she simply breathed in the fresh air and felt the warmth of day across her skin. Kicking the heels of her boots slightly, Moonbeam began to prance forward again, before picking up a quick pace. Clenching her legs to the mare's body, Eleanor let her head roll back to feel the sun beat down a little longer before bringing herself forward again, sighing softly, and open her eyes.
Looking across the field of flowers, she smelled in the beautiful fragrance before leaning forward to stroke her hand slowly through Moonbeam's brownish mane. She would be needed soon back at the palace, but for just a moment, she would keep the time to herself. Coming back to where she had originally set out the basket, blanket, and Moonbeam's saddle, Eleanor let go of her grasp and patted the mare's back softly, before letting herself slide off onto the ground.
"Just a few minutes, girl," she said softly, before reaching down to grab an apple off of the blanket and feed it to Moonbeam. Moonbeam ate it happily before prancing in place in the sun. It made Eleanor laugh - even though her horse got to leave the stable daily, she still had so much energy. Her horse knew that the trees were her boundaries, and she frolicked off, showing her energy.
Flopping down onto the blanket, she grabbed the book she had been reading earlier and flipped to the last page she had been on. The Archarion Wars was from the point of view of the commander of her kingdom's army over nine centuries in the past. While it was not a most riveting read, Eleanor knew that she had to be ready to lead an army to battle, if and when the time arose. It had not been since the time of her father's father that all-out war had broken out on the borders, but things were growing restless.
Grabbing one of the flasks she had brought out, Eleanor took a nice long gulp, and grabbed at another apple. Taking a bite of it, she watched as Moonbeam stopped her prancing and dashed back. How could the horse always know when she had an apple in hand? Offering a bite of it to her horse, Eleanor watched as she snatched the entire thing and pranced off with it. "You are so selfish!" Eleanor said with a laugh, laughing even harder when Moonbeam sniffed at her before finishing the apple. The second most important thing to her horse after running: eating.
Taking one last sip of the flask before replacing the cap, Eleanor sighed and settled back for a moment, knowing that her time of solitude and silence would not last for long. It had been weeks since she had been alone for longer than an hour while awake, and even longer since she had had an entire morning free to herself. Of course, the council had protested, arguing that they required to meet one last time, and her mother had wanted to fuss over more dresses, and the head of her household wanted to perfect the meals, but after how much had already happened and with what was coming, she had said no.
Here she was, five hours later, still relaxing. At least one of her suitors was due to arrive today, and she knew that the other two would not be far behind. Regardless of her decision, there was so much she would gain, and so much she could lose. No one decision seemed to fit, and she was hoping that after meeting the men, her decision would become easier. It would have helped if she could offer a cousin or a sister to the men she did not choose, but she did not have even that. The only way that she could forge an alliance was by marrying herself off. It was a recipe for disaster.
Trying to clear her mind and stop thinking about it all, Eleanor reached out to the nearest wildflower and plucked it from the plant. Bringing the simple purple flower to her nose, she took a deep breath. Reaching for another nearby, she soon had a small bouquet of purple, yellow, pink, and white. Holding the bundle together with her fingers, she fished around in her hair for a random pin, knowing that they couldn't possibly be holding up any hair at this point. Taking the pin, she pushed it around the bundle, holding them together tightly. Letting her flowers rest on her chest, she stretched for a moment, knowing that the relaxation was coming to an end.
She was right, for within a few moments, the sound of another horse approaching filled her ears. Reaching her hand slowly for the sword that lay near her side, she waited till the rider approached before worrying about drawing it. Recognizing the rider, she released the jeweled hilt. She may not have been knight material, but she knew enough about a sword that she could defend herself well enough to not die. The lessons had been years ago, and when her arms stopped being trim and started becoming muscular, Eleanor had stepped away from the daily lessons. Now, she mainly wore the sword to show that she was more than just a diplomat and lawmaker, but also the future leader of the army.
The rider flung himself from his horse and bowed low before her, waiting for her to nod in response for him to rise and speak. As he saw her simple nod, the man rose from his bow, saying, "My lady, riders are approaching the city gates now. Your mother has requested you return with me to the palace, so that you can prepare to meet them."
Eleanor sighed to herself softly, knowing that she would think about this time fondly for the next few weeks. She would be lucky if she could return to this field within a months’ time, but she wasn't holding her breath.
Noticing that the knight was still standing there looking down at her, Eleanor patted the blanket beside her. The knight gave no sign of moving towards her, and she sighed, knowing that her mother had most likely given him strict order to return her to the castle immediately. Her mother would never know how long it had taken for Sir Brandon to find her, and at the end of the day, it was Eleanor’s voice that mattered most.
“Come, Sir Brandon. My mother shall never know how long it took for you to find me. At least allow me to finish this section of my book.”
The knight stared down at her for a moment before nodding and releasing the reigns of his horse. Eleanor sat the flowers to the side and flipped the book back open again. The wind blew by for a moment, and she brushed the hair back from her face as she attempted to pretend she was still reading. Sir Brandon did not sit, but he did watch her. She knew that her acting was not convincing him in the slightest.
Sighing, Eleanor snapped the book shut again and glared up at her guard. Grabbing the last apple off the blanket, she fed it to Moonbeam, before moving to rise. Sir Brandon rushed forward and offered her his hand, and she took it, rising gracefully, regardless of the boots. Dusting off the back of her riding pants, she began working on picking up her things.
The knight stepped forward to help her fold up the blanket while she prepared Moonbeam to be saddled. Eleanor hated that she had to put the blasted thing back on her white and brown mare, but it had to be done if she was to ride side saddle, like a Princess. She even had a skirt with her, simple, but she wore it over her riding pants. Even if those closest to her understood why she needed to ride astride, it was too much of a hassle to explain to others. Yes, a lady rode sidesaddle, but if she was riding into battle, or on the flip side away from it, she needed to ride hard, not gracefully.
Within a few minutes, everything was secured, and Sir Brandon offered Eleanor his hand to assist her in rising to the saddle. Rolling her eyes, Eleanor reached up to the pummel and pulled herself up. She was not a weak woman and would one day rule the kingdom as more than just a regent in her father's absence. But, it was required of the knight to offer his help all the same, and she would not hold that against him.
Glancing back at Sir Brandon, she saw that his jaw was set and he did not look happy. They were not around anyone that would critique him for not helping her, nor were they around any ladies of the court that would sniff at his lack of chivalry. Why should he worry about how she got up?
Eleanor smiled. Indeed, she was a woman that turned many heads and danced to her own song. If she followed the path that everyone else wanted to establish for her, she wouldn't be on the rise to the greatest ruler that her Kingdom had ever had. She wouldn't have so many men offering for her hand. She wouldn't have a counsel that listened to her opinion, and changes coming to the point that the people cheered out of gratitude rather than because they were forced.
Taking the reins, Eleanor clicked them once, and Moonbeam sped up, dashing past the knight that was still settling into his mount. "Come, Sir Brandon," she called back playfully. "I know you won't let a woman beat you!" She laughed and threw her head back, holding on tightly, then leaned forward again, letting Moonbeam run free. Within a few moments, the knight was by her side, grinning at her. They rode together, side by side, neither horse really inching forward, neither horse really falling back.
A few minutes later, the palace walls were in sight, and Eleanor pulled on the reins to slow Moonbeam down. Sir Brandon did the same, bowing his head slightly.
"My lady, you are still astride."
Waving him off, she lifted her leg over so that she was now riding sidesaddle and reached back to try and calm her hair down.
"If I may," he said, edging his horse closer, and pulling a few pieces of grass from her hair. He smiled awkwardly, and Eleanor gave him a soft smile in gratitude.
"Thank you," she said simply. Turning her attention back to the palace walls before her, she did not notice that the knight was still staring at her. Clicking the reins, Moonbeam moved forward slowly, taking her towards her responsibilities.
• • •
As Moonbeam approached the gates, Eleanor raised her head proudly and straightened her back. She knew the role expected of her. She knew what was at cost should she fail to be a suitable monarch. She could hear the pounding of Sir Brandon's horse behind her, as was suitable, and she wished for just a few moments that she had not raced him. Perhaps then she could have slowly made her way back, feeling like an actual person instead of the Princess.
The guards at the gate bowed low before her, both of them uttering, "My Lady," before rising slowly. Eleanor gave them both a simple nod in recognition, then rose her head to look straight forward. With her father so ill and bed ridden, and her mother being Queen by marriage alone, Eleanor was the future in her Kingdom's eyes. She had to always look the part. Her age was not important. The fact she was a woman was not important. She would look and act the part, to show strength behind the monarchy. Any sign of weakness, and she could lose a lot more than her mother's approval.
A stable boy came out to greet her, and for a split second, she almost hopped down from the horse. Glancing upwards towards her mother's rooms, she did not see Queen Isabella staring down at her. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that, instead, the Queen was staring down from Eleanor's rooms. Lovely.
Eleanor stayed on her horse, waiting until Sir Brandon came to stand beside her. He bowed before her, and she placed her hands on his shoulders, allowing for the knight to lift her daintily from Moonbeam. Eleanor let her hands fall from his shoulders, but Sir Brandon still held onto her waist, staring at her for a moment. Her chocolate brown eyes locked with his greenish-blue. Her hands rested gently on his forearms, and she raised her eyebrows at him, gripping his arms with her hands.
Sir Brandon let go of her suddenly, and looked away, a blush rising across his cheeks. Eleanor stared at him for a moment, wondering what had come over the knight. Why was he staring at her? Why hadn't he let go? There was only so much she could ignore... For over 10 years she had known him, and none of them had been simple. He had started off as a page that would never show off, but always performed well when she was also in the training yard. He had become her father's squire and always trained hard and showed his honor and training around her. When he had become a knight, he had asked for her favor in a tournament, and she had not denied it.
Any time they spoke, his eyes were on her. It was so much more than just keeping a watchful eye. Why did it have to be like this? He was a good knight, but there was no delicate way to say that his eyes following her had to stop. She had to continue ignoring his looks, and pretend as though there was nothing wrong. It was how she was raised. She could not forget all of her lessons and preparations just for a knight that stared at her.
"Are you alright, sir knight? You seemed to be lost in thought for a moment there."
Sir Brandon turned back towards her, but Eleanor could not hear his response, as the thundering sound of horses could be heard running towards her home. Knowing that it had to be one of the three arriving, Eleanor stepped around Sir Brandon and rushed towards the side door, needing a bath before meeting perhaps her future husband.
• • •
Brandon watched her go. His heart raced and his skin felt aflame where she had touched him, on his arms and on his shoulders. Why did he always have to be a damned fool around her. Why couldn't he ever say something intelligent or tell her of her beauty. Why couldn't he tell her that she was his reason for training so hard, and that his every free moment was spent reading whatever she had just finished, that he was always looking in her favorite places hoping to catch a glimpse of her, and that any time a message was needed to be sent to her, he jumped at the offer?
Why couldn't he tell her that he loved her?