Chapter Five : The Beginning Of The End
Eleanor had seemed so sure of herself as she walked through the hallways quickly, with Sir Brandon behind her. She knew that all of the strength she possessed was needed to keep herself in check, and she had been preparing herself the whole way for the worst. She had always known that the day would come that her father would die, and she would rule, and for the past few years, that day had been growing even closer as his health began to decline. All of the time of preparation, however, was completely useless as she arrived at the door to her father’s chamber.
Standing outside of the double doors, Eleanor stared at the handle for a moment. When one of the two guards went to open it, she stopped his hand with her own. The guard simply looked at her for a moment, and their eyes met. The man simply nodded and pulled his hand away to resume his previous stance. Eleanor was about to walk into what could be her last moments as princess, and moving into the next stage of her life was something that she needed to attack on her own time and terms.
She could feel Sir Brandon standing behind her, his presence a comfort. What she really wanted was to have a few more moments to draw on his strength, but time was wasting away quickly. Nodding to herself and taking a deep breath, Eleanor reached forward and grasped the handle to the door. It opened easily, regardless of the weight, and she placed a mask of calmness on her face once she saw the image inside.
The room that had once been filled with books and a writing desk was now a room of a single bed with a single chair beside it for her mother. The walls had tables covered in medicines and blankets. It looked entirely too much like a sick room, and not enough like the room of a monarch. Her mother sat gray faced in the chair beside the bed, both of her hands holding one of her father’s. All of the physicians stood to the side, as medicine had been unable to cure her father. A simple Healer, dressed in the classic robes, now stood over her father’s body, praying for guidance and cures from Nature. Eleanor knew it was no use. If the Goddess had not cleansed her father yet, she was not going to step in now.
Her father was the worst sight of all. The disease that had ravaged his body had left him a frail image of the strong man he had once been. A warrior first and diplomat second, he had led his army to numerous victories along the border. She had spent many days of her childhood watching him train and ride to war, spending the last moments before his departure upon his war horse or his shoulders. It was hard to imagine that this was the same man.
His thin frame was propped up on numerous pillows and his skin seemed to sag on his face, which was the only part of him exposed, save for the hand held by his wife, from under the blankets. His skin was very pale and his hair was roughly cut to keep from growing too long. The breaths that came out were harsh and ragged, and Eleanor prayed that they would not stop coming. His gray eyes opened slowly at the sound of the door, and when their eyes met, his eyes lit up for a moment.
Pulling his hand from his wife’s, King Juan made a motion with it. A physician walked up quickly with a goblet, and held it to his lips. The king took a few sips before leaning back from it. His mouth opened as though to speak, but all that came out was a few harsh coughs. Eleanor tried to not flinch in response.
“Child,” he said simply, in acknowledgement to her arrival. Queen Isabella looked up from where she had been sitting to see that her daughter arrived, and extended one of her now free hands to Eleanor. Eleanor walked to her mother quickly and took the outstretched hand before sitting gracefully on the edge of the bed. Her father reached forward to take first the open queen’s hand and then reached for Eleanor’s other hand. Eleanor reached her hand towards her father’s to save him the movement, and for a moment, the family sat there in silence.
Eleanor glanced at her mother, who’s eyes looked red and puffy, as though they had been crying. No tears came now, however, and Eleanor had to guess that her mother was all cried out. There was only so long that a woman could cry before there was simply nothing left except to wait. Even if her mother was done crying, Eleanor knew that her tears would soon be flowing.
“Out,” her father said simply. All of the physicians glanced around quickly before realizing that the dismissal was meant for them, and quickly hurried out of the room. They knew that they had failed and did not want to iccur the last wrath of a dying king. The Healer and Sir Brandon went to leave, and the king spoke again, this time with a little force.
The Healer jerked up from his praying then glanced at the three for a moment before turning quickly to leave. Eleanor watched the man leave to see that Sir Brandon was moving to go with him. As soon as the Healer stepped out, her father spoke again.
Sir Brandon stopped where he was standing and turned around to face the king. Eleanor wondered for a moment why her father was not also dismissing the knight, but she then realized that it most likely had to do with the security of the kingdom and the protection of his daughter.
“The door, lad.”
While Sir Brandon was far from a lad, he simply nodded and shut the door, leaving the royal family and the Captain of the Guard left in the room. It was eerily quiet, with Isabella staring at her husband, Juan closing his eyes and trying to breath, Brandon standing at the door watching the family, and Eleanor staring at her lap. She could not help it, as her eyes raised slowly and she looked over her left shoulder to see Sir Brandon watching her. His eyes darted away when he saw that she was looking back at him, but his eyes slowly looked up from the floor, and they stared at each other for a moment. She could almost feel his strength coming into her from just that look, and when her father started to cough again, her attention was brought back to the King.
Pulling her hands from where they were being held, Eleanor rose from where she was sitting and walked around the foot of the bed to pick up the goblet of water from where it had been left. Walking to the bed, she sat down on the edge and offered the cup to her father. He nodded, and she raised it slowly to his lips and let him drink his fill. When his head turned away from it, she rose again with the cup and moved to set it on the table.
“Oh, my beauty…” Eleanor almost jerked at the words she heard coming from her father, knowing that her parents were about to have one of the last intimate moments of their lives. She took a glance over her shoulder to see that her father’s hand was now on her mother’s cheek, and that her mother’s hand had moved to his cheek. She looked away, not wanting to intrude, and then took a glance at Sir Brandon as well. He seemed to have grown embarrassed as well, and was staring at the floor. Almost as though he knew that she was thinking of him, the knight looked up at her.
He was moving towards her, and Eleanor braced herself, longing to feel the warmth of his closeness. He stopped beside her at the table, turned away from the King and Queen, and they stood there, side by side. Neither of them spoke, nor did they move towards each other more, but Sir Brandon’s hand was but a finger width away from where her own rested. She thought about moving her hand to hold his, if only for a moment, but her father started coughing again.
Eleanor turned with the cup in hand quickly, and saw that her mother had fresh tears in her eyes. Moving to sit beside the bed, she raised the cup to her father’s lips and let him drink his fill again. She returned the cup to the table, and then took a glance to see that once again, her mother and father were staring at each other. Sir Brandon had shifted slightly, no longer facing completely away from the couple, but instead was facing her, his side towards the monarchs. Eleanor faced away from her parents, aware of the fact that the knight was so close, and wished more than anything that she would be allowed to mourn. Her strength would only last for so long.
Eleanor looked back again to see that her father was talking to her mother again, and she glanced at the cup, knowing he would be coughing again soon if he continued to try to talk.
“… always trusted…”
The words were coming slowly from her father. She hoped that the Goddess would allow him to finish them before she took him away for good.
“… our daughter…”
Eleanor stiffened at those words. What could her father have to say now about her? Did he forget that she was in the room? She so wanted to ask her father what her mother should trust her on, but the king would never answer a question with something he did not want to give away.
“… Trust her, whatever the decis-“
The hacking coughing interrupted the words he had been speaking, and the queen pulled back in horror, worrying that it was the end. How much longer could he continue like this? She was so scared of her father dying, but she was beginning to wish that his suffering would just end.
“Please, my love. Save your words. We have raised a strong and intelligent woman. I know that she will make the right decision.”
Eleanor stepped forward with the cup again, and her mother took it from her. The queen and the princess held their eyes on each other for a moment, and Eleanor offered a weak smile. She knew that her mother would always give her support, but this was the first decision that Eleanor was nervous about. Even in issues of policy, taxes, and diplomacy, she had always made the best decision for her people easily. Now, however, she was so confused.
Her father had finished taking another sip of water, and was now looking just over Eleanor’s shoulder. Her eyes followed his and she looked up to see that Sir Brandon, who was standing beside the princess quietly, was looking down at her, as though he was watching over her. He had not spoken the entire time in the room, and she was grateful for even just his presence.
Eleanor jerked out of her thoughts to see that her father was speaking again. The knight stepped past her to step beside the king and moved to bow, but the ruler waved him off with a flick of his hand.
“Listen to me, lad…”
Eleanor was scared her father would go into another fit of coughs as his words stopped, but she saw that he was instead taking a few more raspy breaths.
Sir Brandon nodded simply, and her father looked over at her for a moment before his attention returned to the knight.
“Care for her.”
Sir Brandon’s nod came a little slower this time, and she felt herself stiffen at those words.
“And follow your heart.”
Sir Brandon stiffened this time, but the nod still came.
“I know, lad.”
Sir Brandon stepped back from where he had been standing, and Eleanor could see the look of disbelief spread across his face, followed by confusion.
“All of it. I have known.”
Panic seemed to spread across Sir Brandon’s face, and their eyes met for a moment. What was it that her father knew? What was he keeping from her? Was it something so bad that she could not forgive Sir Brandon? Why would he not tell her?
She glanced at her mother to see if she knew, but Queen Isabella also looked somewhat confused. Their eyes met then, and her mother shrugged, as if to say that she had no idea what was going on between the two men.
“My king, forgive me.”
Sir Brandon’s face looked as though he was in shock and fear. What was it that he needed to ask forgiveness for? The king simply shook his head in response, but Sir Brandon did not relax any, leaving Eleanor to wonder. What secret was being kept from her? The king had never kept secrets from her, and had always shared every matter of state with her. He had been preparing her for the throne from the moment she had been born, and never once had there been anything odd or strange about the Captain of the Guard discussed between them.
“No, boy. There is nothing-“
The coughing finally returned, and the Queen returned the water to his lips, allowing him to drink the last from the cup. Eleanor turned and grabbed the pitcher from the table to refill the cup, and the king began to drink again.
“to forgive.” The last words he gasped out between sips. Sir Brandon’s face was filled with emotions, and Eleanor wanted to comfort him. He looked a cross between devastated and relieved, only filling more questions into her brain, but she knew that now was not the time.
Returning the pitcher to the table, Eleanor took a deep breath. The tears that she was aching to shed were threatening to run down her cheeks, and she couldn’t break down yet. If she had been born a man… if she had just been born a male, she wouldn’t have to marry so quickly. She would be stronger. She could lead the army herself. Things would be so different. Instead, she was young, about to take the throne, and unmarried, having to make a crucial decision alone. Perhaps it was selfish of her, but she wasn’t ready for her father to die.
Turning back around from the table, Eleanor saw that all eyes were on her. Silent tears were trickling down the Queen’s face, a sad look was spread across the King’s, and Sir Brandon looked on her with light worry. Knowing it was her turn to hear her father’s last wishes, she stepped towards the bed. Sitting gracefully upon the edge, she reached for her father’s hand and held it gently in one of her own.
Her father’s voice was filled with sadness. There was so much she wanted to ask him and so much she needed help with. Even when he had gotten ill and she had taken over most of the monarchy, she had still had his guidance and wisdom. None among the council were even half the leader that her father was, and without him to constantly look over her shoulder and helping guide her hand, she feared she would flop.
“So much I should tell you…”
Eleanor nodded, feeling the tears begin to well up again. She had never let her father see her cry in her entire life. Even when she fell as a little girl and hurt herself, she tried to always have a brave face in front of her father. She was ashamed that in his last moments, he would see her become weak.
“You are so strong...”
The king grasped at air again, but then pushed forward and continued with his words.
“… and I am so proud.”
A single tear slid down her cheek, and Eleanor nodded. It meant everything to her, to know that her father was proud. Everything his family had worked for, and everything he had worked for, was now resting upon her shoulders.
“I know, father, and I shall continue to make you proud.”
Eleanor gave her father a quick smile, and he gave her a sad one in return. The smile, however, gave her a flash back, to the last time he had returned from battle.
He had been so strong then, galloping in on his stallion in full armor. Her mother was not in the yard yet, and it was Eleanor there to greet him and the army first. He had jumped down from his horse in one swift moved and picked up his daughter, not quite ten, and swung her around before pulling her into a hug. The smile he had worn on his face then had brightened up Eleanor’s world. That was how she had to remember her father. Not like this.
“Do not be afraid to ask for help.”
Eleanor pulled back at those words, and realized that the king’s gaze was now on the figure standing off beside her. She looked away from her father and looked at Sir Brandon, who was standing protectively nearby, watching her. Their eyes met for a moment, before she turned back to her father.
“And always trust your heart.”
Eleanor nodded, and the coughing began again. Even after a few sips of water, the coughing could not be stopped, and Eleanor feared that the end had come. Eventually, the king coughed so hard, he fell back onto the pillow, and for a few moments, there was no sound at all. The queen gasped and pulled back in horror, but the sound of raspy breathing began again.
Her father did not rise to speak again, but his breathing was still there. It was the final stage of the disease… the living death. He would be like this for at least five days, never waking, but still breathing. The king would never again wake up.
Her mother cried softly, and Eleanor rose, leaving her mother there to mourn. She wanted to cry with her mother, but she knew that the woman would only want to be left alone. She let her eyes look up to Sir Brandon who stood silently, his face looking sad now.
“Come,” she said softly, and went to the door. Taking one last look over her shoulder at the King, she sent up a silent prayer to the Goddess to carry and protect him as he returned to the earth.
• • •
It destroyed him. Eleanor was always so strong, and now, when she should be mourning, she was being strong. Brandon knew that the king’s words would raise question between him and the Princess, but he prayed that he could avoid telling her the complete truth. She could never know the truth. The truth would just lead to more questions, and more answers, and the end result would be him leaving the kingdom. He couldn’t protect her if he was gone, and he had to protect her, above all else.
Following her silently, he opened the door for her and watched as the group huddled around the door dipped low, and one looked as though to move forward to pledge fealty. Shutting the door quickly behind himself so that the Queen would not see, Brandon glared at the man, making him recoil.
Eleanor looked to be in absolute shock and said nothing and made no movement. He had to get her out of here before the reality set in. He knew that she would not want anyone to see her cry, and the tears were welling up again.
“The King has entered the final stage of the illness. Make him comfortable. Send word… when it happens.”
The physicians and Healer nodded and went back into the room to comfort the dying king, and Brandon studied the silent princess beside him. She seemed to be off in another world, and he took her arm gently in his and began to lead her away. She followed, not making a sound, and as they turned the first corner away from the chambers, she crumpled to the floor.
Knowing that servants or guards could be anywhere, and the three suitors, Brandon bent down quickly and picked her up into his arms. She seemed to weigh nothing and gave no protest, simply sobbing into his shoulder and wrapping her arms around his neck. Brandon simply nodded, longing to run his hands through her braided hair to comfort her and hold her while she sobbed.
Stepping through a side door into a servant passageway, Brandon moved quickly. Any servants they came across, he yelled at to move, and they did as commanded, not saying a word about the woman he carried in his arms. He knew that the closest and easiest room they could access that would have no one inside was her study, and he made his way there quickly. The guards that stood outside of the room looked at him in shocked for a moment, but as soon as the crying reached their ears, they quickly opened the door and shut it behind Brandon.
Carrying her to the window seat, Brandon sat down, still holding her in his arms. Her head was still cradled against his chest and he began to stroke the sections of hair that were not pinned up. Her small frame was shaking from the force of her sobs and Brandon wished more than anything he could take away this pain. He wanted to destroy the man that had caused her this agony, but knew that it was impossible. Whoever it had been, Brandon would never get close enough.
Rocking her gently in his arms, Brandon pushed all thoughts of revenge out of his mind and simply held her. After a little while, her sobbing stopped, but she kept her face buried into his chest. Brandon made no move to remove her from that position and sat back against the pillows, holding the woman he loved.