Chapter Four : What Luck Is This?
Sleep had not come easily for the princess. So many thoughts and emotions were running through her head. She had tried falling asleep, then sitting up and reading, then attempting to write poetry, and even at one point pulled out her harp and attempted to practice. Regardless of what she did, she kept failing, because her thoughts would overwhelm her. After a while, she gave up, and thought about everything going on. Eleanor simply sat herself into the comfiest chair she had ever seen, which was plopped in the corner of her room opposite of the door. Her eyes rested on the moon as she felt the wind blow through the open window into her hair, and her emotions ran wild.
She was so angry. What right did Duke Phillip have to come to her palace and act like such an ass. She was so depressed. How could the commander of a kingdom’s army be so dull? Why did her best decision for protection have to be connected to Prince Alexander? She was so worried. After the first two men had arrived, could her last suitor be any worse? What if he was worse than the previous two? She was so confused. What was wrong with Sir Brandon, and what was going on with the two of them? She was so lost. What did she really want? What was she going to do?
In truth, she only had two real options, and of those two options, only one was viable. Either she followed her heart, or she agreed with her brain, and in this case, her brain was speaking on behalf of the kingdom. The kingdom would always come first. Eleanor would have to make an educated decision on what was best for the kingdom, and she knew that the best way to find that was to discuss it with her father. While the Queen would never show any opinion one way or another, her father could not hide his true emotions from Eleanor. He would guide her on her decision.
A rough breeze came through the window, and Eleanor closed her eyes and leaned into it, loving the feeling of the wind rushing around her face and lifting her hair slightly. There was something so freeing about it. The wind smelled like a mixture of the stables, wildflowers, and dying fires. It was a comforting smell.
A sound of scuffling reached her ears from the training yard, and Eleanor craned her head out of her window to get a look on who it was. She figured it had to be Prince Alexander – it was as though the man lived for training and warfare. It was a good quality in the commander of a military, but not in the man that could be her future king. She saw the man swinging a two handed sword viciously, his body swiftly and elegantly turning through poses. The man seriously was too much. Eleanor sat back down into her chair, then suddenly stiffened. Prince Alexander used a sword and shield. The only man she knew that used a two handed sword…
Jumping up from the chair, Eleanor shifted to the other side of her room to the window seat, which faced the training yard. Pulling open the curtains and opening the window, she sat down hard as she realized it was Sir Brandon training down below. It was as though he was one with the blade. She envied his ability to center himself, as that was why she seemed unable to master the art. While she could easily defend herself, Eleanor would never be a great swordswoman. Her mind was too full all the time to completely give herself to training.
Almost as though he knew that she was looking down at him, Sir Brandon stopped. Eleanor’s heart stopped with him, and she watched him turn to stare up at her. She couldn’t see his face from the distance, but she knew that his eyes were on her. He stood there for a moment, staring at her, before bowing low and then returning to his training. Eleanor smiled to herself and settled back in the window seat, simply watching him. She didn’t realize it, but her brain became free of all her fears and concerns, and she drifted to sleep, watching Sir Brandon train below.
• • •
Regardless of how bad he needed sleep, Brandon simply stared at the ceiling. His head was filled with thoughts of her. It was as though her soul possessed his mind. Was she still with the Duke? Was she in danger around him? Brandon could only pray that the answer to both of those questions was no.
Giving up on falling, Brandon grabbed his sword and headed down to the training yard. Perhaps down there, he could tire himself out enough that he would have to pass out and sleep. He felt stiff at first, as his body moved from form to form, and he almost considered the entire idea pointless. How could he become one with the blade when the only person he wanted to be one with barely even noticed him.
His eyes looked up at her room, and he saw no light or indication that anyone was there. Twisting back to his practicing, Brandon put all of his effort into it, forcing his muscles to relax as he moved. He needed sleep, and that meant he needed to wear himself out. Every step would have strength and power behind it with the speed and grace that he possessed.
Quickly becoming lost in his steps, Brandon began to notice that he was sweating. Stopping for a moment, he wiped the sweat from his forehead with his forearm, and turned back towards her room. Sitting there, in the window, was the angel he dreamed of. The light of the moon was shining onto her, and he could tell that she was looking down at him.
Staring at the beauty for a moment, Brandon bowed low before her, then rose again, and resumed training. His every step had a new purpose now. SHE was watching, and he had to be perfect. His eyes kept drifting up to her, but he continued working. After a while, he noticed that her head was drooped lower, and he chuckled, realizing she was asleep.
Running back up to his room from the training yard, Brandon fell back onto his bed, a chuckle on his lips. She had seen him. For just a few minutes, he had pretended that she was his lady, and he was her valiant knight. He was protecting and defending her as she looked down from her tower. For a little while, nothing else mattered but her.
• • •
“My lady? Princess Eleanor? My lady, please, another one has arrived.”
Eleanor felt herself being shaken awake, and woke up to Gayle leaning over her. Eleanor felt her back ache slightly as she stretched herself to wake up, still sitting in the window seat. The sun was already high, and she wondered how she had slept through the entire sunrise coming in directly through her window. A breakfast tray was sitting on her dressing table and the maids were already scurrying about, cleaning the room and pulling out dresses.
Rising from where she had been sitting, Eleanor took the few steps to the dressing table and sat down in the chair, yawning as she sat. Had she spent the entire night in the window seat? She must have, if she was waking up now. She saw that Gayle had at least closed the curtains somewhat so that she had some privacy while she was sleeping, but Eleanor already had her thoughts on the recent arrival. What surprises would the day have for her?
Eleanor yawned and poured herself a cup of tea and sipped at it for a moment before nibbling on a biscuit. Gayle was already working on her hair, braiding a few pieces and pinning it up. In the end, her hair was half up and half down, with the up part being in various braids that all twisted into a low bun above the down part. The dress that had been set out for her was a light blue, almost the color of the sky. It was rather similar to the dress she had worn the night before, only there was delicate blue lace over top of the white skirts that peaked out where the overdress split.
She was wearing a beautiful tiara today, with the metal twisting to appear like numerous flowers, with light blue stones in the middle of the flower petals. Her ears had studs with light blue stones in the center, and her necklace held a chain of matching flowers with blue stones. Eleanor slipped her feet into delicate blue slippers, and smiled at Gayle. She had to have a positive outlook on the day.
Eleanor dismissed her maids, knowing they had other duties, and finished her tea. It was still a little early to go rushing off, and while she was hoping for the best, she was not ready to have all of her dreams be crushed around her. She would enjoy a few moments of her morning alone.
After a few more nibbles on the biscuits, Eleanor sighed and rose from her seat. So much for her morning alone… the anxiety was killing her. She had to meet her last hope at saving the kingdom and not destroying herself in the process.
• • •
Brandon watched the young pages practicing with their wooden swords. One day, these boys would take their places as knights and guards for the crown… but until then, they were under Brandon’s watchful eyes. Today they were practicing basic blocks with a sword, and inevitably, someone was going to get hurt. Every few clicks of wood on wood led to a yelp or cry, but blood had yet to be spilled. Brandon simply observed.
When he was thoroughly satisfied with their training for the morning, Brandon dismissed them. Wanting to go and take a long bath to cleanse away his sweat before having to meet with the King, Brandon took a glance at the stables. It was a short ride to the pond nearby, and he knew that it would make his body feel better. He was still slightly sore from all of the energy he had put into his late night training, and the water was sure to wake him up as well.
It was a quick hop off of his horse and Brandon was already pulling off his shirt before his feet touched the ground. His boots were kicked off easily enough, and within moments he was naked and walking into the pond. For a brief moment his entire body was ice cold, and then he just relaxed. It was a wonderful feeling, and he rested in the water for a moment. The sound of trumpets came through the trees, announcing another arrival and Brandon groaned. Why did he even bother doing things for his own pleasure?
Jumping back out of the water, he pulled his clothes back on quickly and raced back to the training yard to get changed and head up to meet with the king, and presumably the last suitor. He did not look like his usual put together self, with his hair dripping water and his clothes stuck to his still wet skin, but he would rather look a mess in the yard than be late to the king.
What he stumbled upon, once entering the yard, would easily make it worthwhile to be late to the king. A man, well more a boy, in fine clothing befitting a noble, was having a hard time getting off of his horse. Every stable hand and guard nearby were having a hard time not laughing as they watched him try to throw his leg over the saddle to get down. How had the boy even gotten up there in the first place?
The stable hand beside him seemed to read Brandon’s mind, and leaned over to whisper that the boy had only gotten on his horse a few miles away, and had instead been riding in the carriage the whole way there. Apparently, the boy had not wanted to seem wimpy in not riding a horse. In Brandon’s mind, it would have been better if he had just stayed in the carriage.
Watching the boy struggle more, Brandon saw the red appearing on the poor lad’s cheeks. Raising himself up, Brandon began to shoo away all those that watched, and led the horse into the stables, regardless of the boy’s protests. The stable hands grouped around to see what Brandon would do, but he pointed at the door, and sternly told them to get out. They jumped at his words and left Brandon with the fool boy inside.
Brandon stepped back for a moment, glaring at the boy, who sat there looking around the stables. The only way that lad could get off the horse by himself was with a ladder, and there was not one easily around. He checked to see that no one could see them, then stepped up to the boy and grabbed his waist, lifting him down and setting his feet onto the ground. The boy glared at him in shock, but Brandon ignored it and turned to leave the stables. He could see that his horse was already being attended to.
“Excuse me, but who do you think you are?” The voice came from behind Brandon suddenly, and he turned back to eye the lad. The boy was standing up straight and tall, and Brandon now realized that perhaps he was a man, given that his voice did not match the image of anyone under 18.
Crossing his arms across his chest, Brandon shifted his weight onto his other foot and eyed the man. Whoever he was, he certainly must think himself important. “I am the person that got you off of your horse, which you should not have been riding in the first place. How did you get up there at all?”
The man’s cheeks colored as though he was a young girl, and it took all of Brandon’s self control to not burst out laughing. Who was this young man? He certainly did not belong here. Surely he had not come with the suitor. Was he coming to train as a knight? He wouldn’t last one day. He had to be a messenger of some sort, but a messenger that could not ride? And was so finely dressed?
The man looked down embarrassed and stared at his feet. “My advisors said that riding would make me look more regal. I used a chair to get up earlier.” Clearly the idiot advisors had no idea what they were saying. The man most likely had saddlesores, even from that short distance, given the awkward shifting and stretching he was doing for his legs.
The words that the boy had spoken washed over Brandon, and he felt as though he had jumped into the pond again. “Look more regal?” he asked, before seeing the man nod. It was all Brandon could do to not burst out laughing, and his small burst quickly turned into an awkward, forced cough. Oh man, was the Princess going to have a good laugh at this one. This had to be the last suitor. Eleanor could possibly marry a man that couldn’t even ride a horse?
Suddenly, the realization of that also washed over him. He had picked up perhaps the future king as though he was a young child. Even if he was not a king now, he was at least some sort of nobility, and high ranking to be one of Princess Eleanor’s suitors.
Bowing before the man, Brandon realized the best course of action would be to introduce himself. “I am Sir Brandon, Captain of the King’s Guard. Allow me to be the first to welcome you to the palace.” The boy eyed him warily before nodding to himself. Brandon could only imagine the thoughts running through the boy’s mind.
“Duke William Cademon of Aoind, in the kingdom of Agren.” Brandon nodded to himself. It made sense that someone from Agren would be in attendance. Given that there was already a prince from Bromaric and a duke from their own kingdom, Eleanor had to choose someone from that prosperous kingdom. Brandon just couldn’t imagine what she would think when she met this particular Duke.
“If you will excuse me, my Lord, I am due to meet with the king.” Brandon bowed low again, and ducked out of the stables quickly, leaving the boy Duke alone. So, the three suitors had arrived. Eleanor would soon be making a decision, and Brandon’s heart began to ache. He could tell her. It might not make a difference, but he could tell her the truth. Would she listen to all he had to say? If she returned his feelings, as he so longed for and hoped, would their love be enough to fix all of the problems? Would it just be better to let it go and continue to love her from afar and protect her?
Brandon shook his head as the thoughts clouded his mind. Why was he even considering telling her the truth? It would only lead to disaster and most likely his death. He could never tell her. His feet rushed to his room to change and prepare to meet with the king. He had to hurry, but only one thought ran through his mind. Brandon wanted to marry her.
• • •
It had been at least half of an hour, and still the Duke had no joined her. Eleanor had given up on staring out the window and had moved now to her piano. Playing softly, her fingers danced across the keys as she swayed with the music and kept her eyes shut to enjoy the sound. This particular song, she had played so many times, she knew entirely by heart. Her fingers almost ached to play it every time they touched the ivory keys, and she allowed them to glide across. It was a sad song, with words that matched that spoke of longing for a lost love. Eleanor would not sing along with the music, simply enjoying the melody that sang out from the keys.
As the song came to a close, she rested her fingers on her lap, keeping her eyes closed as she let the last sounds die out. Releasing the foot pedal, she heard a soft clap coming from the doorway. Looking up, she realized that a man had joined her. How had she not heard the door open and close? It was what happened sometimes when Eleanor played – she got so engrossed in the music, nothing else mattered. She colored slightly at the applause and smiled at the man that stood beside the door.
“That was absolutely enchanting,” the man said, returning her smile. “You played with such a grace… won’t you play more?” Eleanor laughed slightly to herself, before shaking her head no.
“I fear that if I play anymore, I will sit here until the moon has arrived to tell me good night. I think that I shall leave it at one song for today.”
The man nodded in response, and they both stared at each other awkwardly. She began to wonder who the man was, and hoped that he was perhaps the final suitor. He was tall and lanky, with dark hair that was short and almost spikey. His eyes were dark as well, and his face looked like he had not shaved in a few days. It almost looked attractive.
“I am Duke William,” he said suddenly, then stepped forward to bow low before her. Eleanor nodded. Of course he was. She should have known that no one else would have gotten past her guards. If the past few minutes were any indication, her luck was perhaps already turning.
Eleanor rose from the bench she was sitting on and gracefully curtsied before the man. “Welcome, Duke William. As you may have already guessed, I am Princess Eleanor. Welcome to my home.” She offered out her hand for him to kiss it, and he stared at it for a moment before jumping forward and awkwardly grabbing her hand to kiss it. He bent over it quickly before releasing her soft hand, like he had suddenly been burned. Ok, so perhaps she wasn’t that lucky. For a moment, he had almost seemed like a poet with his praise of her musicality, and now he could barely even seem to function in her presence.
Smiling softly, she beckoned to the sofa. “Won’t you have a seat?” she asked softly, before taking her place across from the sofa. He sat down in the chair awkwardly, then reached for the book that was sitting on the table. Without even opening it, he began to quote a poem. Eleanor was lost in his words for a moment, listening to him speak. It was one of her favorites.
The Duke finished his words, then looked away from her, as their eyes had been held together. His face was a bright red, and he returned the book to where it was sitting. The breath that Eleanor had been holding in was quickly released, and she gave him a warm smile. Suddenly, he was charming again. What in the world was wrong with the man, that he could recite a poem but not perform social graces?
“So you read poetry, do you Duke William? I am glad to know that I am not the only one that enjoys decorative words. I do believe that you may find delight in a number of the works that are in the bookshelves around this room.”
The Duke nodded quickly then rose from his chair to rush to one of them. Eleanor inwardly sighed. What was it with these men and taking her so literally? She had meant that he could look at them later, not while they were first meeting. Alexander had been the same about the training yards. Why were they so anxious to get away from her?
Raising from her seat and preparing to speak, a knock suddenly came at the door. “Come in,” she said quickly, not even turning to look. Whatever it was, she wanted to spend more time getting to know this Duke. He was the only one that she didn’t want to stab with frustration or run away from in fear.
“Princess?” The voice that came from the door made Eleanor turn quickly, and her heart stopped. It was Sir Brandon. She wanted to smile, or run away, or run to him, even if just to say hello. She noticed out of the corner of her eye that Duke William also turned to look at him, and at a glance she saw that the Duke was looking away awkwardly. She almost wanted to ask what that was all about, but she had a feeling that there was a better chance she would get the answer to that question out of Sir Brandon when they were away from the Duke.
“Good morning, Sir Brandon. What do you need?” she asked softly. Their eyes held together for a moment before he looked away. He almost looked nervous. Sir Brandon was never nervous around her.
“My lady, it is your father…”
The book that was in her hands quickly dropped to the floor, and she rushed towards the door. Stopping suddenly, she turned to the Duke. “Please, forgive me. You are welcome to take any book you see and keep it in your room during your stay. I shall see you later at dinner.”
Without looking back, Eleanor rushed out the door with Brandon behind her. They turned a corner and she felt him grab her arm suddenly. She turned to face him, and noticed that his face was white with fear. She worried that her face most likely looked the same. There was no way that Sir Brandon would interrupt her if her father was doing better. The only reason he would have come to her would be if her father was worsening, and she knew that there was not much more he could worsen before he was dead. She had been meaning to see her father in the afternoon. Now she wished that it had been her first stop of the day.
“Your mother is there with him.” Brandon began, and Eleanor could tell that he was having a hard time forming the words. “The physicians say that he does not have much longer. His fever finally broke, but now he is cold and cannot grow warm. Your mother… she is beside herself.”
Eleanor nodded. Her parents were a love match. They had been side by side for the past half century almost, and she knew that with her father’s passing, her mother would be inconsolable.
“Eleanor…” she did not even notice that he called her by name, without title. “You must be strong.” Brandon stared down at her, and she felt his finger touch her face softly to wipe away a tear that she did not even realize was running down her face. She raised her hand to touch the other side of her face, where another tear was running down. Unable to control herself, she closed her eyes and let her cheek rest against his hand.
They stood there for a moment before she pulled away and nodded. “I know, Brandon,” she said simply, before turning away from him. “Let’s go see my father.”
• • •
He continued following her down the hallway, now silent. He had touched her face. His hand still felt warm from the connection with her. They had called each other by their given names. It had seemed so natural. His heart was racing, and Brandon knew that the relationship between the Princess and her Knight Champion would never again be the same.