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Blog Entries posted by Christine

  1. Christine
    Chapter Three : Does It Get Any Better Than This?

    For a moment, Eleanor did not know what to do. She knew that she should follow the Prince as he trained and compliment him, but in truth, what she should do could be damned. What she wanted to do was jump astride Moonbeam and rush after Sir Brandon, even if just to stare in his eyes for a moment longer. Her heart still felt as though it was stopped from the few minutes before, and as she felt it suddenly beating hard in her chest, Eleanor knew her decision was already made.
    Rushing into the stables that Sir Brandon had just raced away from, Eleanor went to Moonbeam’s stall, pulled open the gate, and quickly slung herself up onto her mare’s back. Moonbeam almost seemed surprised, as Eleanor was normally at least in split skirts when she rode astride, but at that moment, nothing was more important to the princess than catching Sir Brandon. The stable hands looked at her in surprise, but Eleanor was too busy holding onto her horse’s mane and clicking her mouth to ride to even care what they thought of her.
    Moonbeam took off fast, almost as though she understood the urgency, and Eleanor tried to follow the land that looked recently disturbed. She quickly ended up in the field that she had spent her morning, and looked around to see if she saw anything of her knight. She could see nothing, but continued to ride hard, looking further into the tree line. Moonbeam pranced happily and continued around the field, but within a few minutes, Eleanor realized it was no use.
    Digging the heels of her slipper feet into Moonbeam’s side, the horse slowed down and then stopped, allowing Eleanor to slide off her back. Eleanor looked around again, wanting to call out, but also not wanting to make a fool of herself. What had she been thinking, riding out here in full jewelry and dress with no weapon or guard? It was yet another sign that she needed to get a check on herself before she made many more mistakes.
    Stroking her fingers over Moonbeam’s mane, Eleanor looked around one last time. Why had he been running so hard from her? And when she saw him, what would she say? Her mind was running with thoughts and emotions, but even with the conflict raging in her mind, Eleanor suddenly felt so alone. She felt a sudden nudge at her arm and turned to see Moonbeam rubbing against her, and Eleanor couldn’t help but to smile and climb back up onto her back. Somehow, her horse just knew.
    Eleanor clicked again, but kept Moonbeam from rushing back to the palace. Far too soon, she would be back to that place, making the worst decision of her life, and she was in no rush to get back there.
    Once she did get back, Eleanor went up to Gayle, who fussed over her muddy slippers and hem. She was quickly shifted into a simple yellow gown, much like the one she had worn earlier, only with less lace and ruffle. A page came while she was getting ready to let her know that, once again, her mother and father could not join her at dinner. Normally, it would not have bothered her, but this meant she would be alone with Prince Alexander.
    She kept hoping that the dinner would end faster. After a few attempts at getting a conversation going, Eleanor had given up and now just stared at the prince. He stared right back at her, and she knew that life had to be better than this. Was this what a married life with him would be like? While her parents were not perfect, they did have loving conversations and moments of stolen romance and secrets with each other. Would that not be possible for her?
    Her thoughts did not only dash to thoughts of marriage with the prince, however. They also went to Sir Brandon. It was taking all of her concentration and quite a few glasses of wine to attempt to erase all thoughts of him, but the liquid was only enhancing her desire to see him again and discuss what had occurred earlier in the day. As soon as the meal was over, she would send for him. It was the only way she could put her mind at rest.
    No sooner than the meal was done did she have a messenger rushing to his rooms. She rushed quickly from the table after sending the message up to her study, where she tried to bury herself in her books. It was, of course, no use. Thirty minutes passed, and she sent another message to Sir Brandon. She had already moved from a book at her desk to poems in the window seat, and still he did not come. An hour passed, and she sent another note, and was now simply staring down into the training yard.
    Where was he? Was he avoiding her? Was he completely disobeying an order? Or was he off somewhere else? The thoughts were killing her, and Eleanor sent another note, this time making certain the messenger searched everywhere. She knew she would not be able to sleep without seeing him first. Eventually, the candle wax began to drip and the lights were dimming, and Eleanor knew that it was time to give up.
    Slipping through the servant passages to avoid any sight of her mother or Prince Alexander, Eleanor ended up in her room and quickly slipped out of her dress. All of the servants, save for Gayle, were dismissed. Gayle helped her with her hair and jewelry, and then disappeared as well. All that Eleanor wanted was to be alone… or with Sir Brandon. She simply sat in front of her mirror and began brushing her hair to at least a hundred strokes.
    It was one of the few feminine rituals that she kept with, knowing that in later life, she would be glad she had. Her mother had the most beautiful and soft hair she had ever seen, and she brushed her hair every night 100 times. Eleanor would not be breaking that ritual any time soon.
    Her thoughts, however, were not on the softness of her hair nor on the number of passes the brush had made through her hair. Instead, her thoughts were occupied with Sir Brandon’s face. When they had seen each other in the training yards, the world stopped for a few moments. Eleanor had always known that there was some sort of bond between them, but suddenly there was a whole new light around him. Perhaps it was because she was looking at men as possible spouses instead of just her subjects, but the reason for the change did not matter.
    When he had seen her, it looked as though his face had lit up. She knew that her face had done the same, and paused for a moment in her brushing to lightly touch her cheeks. They were red again, simply from the thought of him. It was all because she had looked into his eyes. Never before had she allowed her eyes to catch his, but she had done it now twice in one day. No wonder she was going crazy. Eleanor could only hope that he had not seen the reaction his presence had caused in her.
    Knowing her hair was fully brushed, Eleanor slipped into bed with a book of poetry. It was not romantic, but it was almost a love for nature and the natural beauty of the outdoors. She wondered if Prince Alexander enjoyed poetry… she wondered even more if Sir Brandon enjoyed poetry.
    Her eyes somehow fell asleep while she was reading, but it was not long before there was a pounding on her door. Gayle appeared from her room through the side door to help Eleanor into her robe, and Eleanor rushed to the door, worried that it was about her father. Opening the door, she saw a messenger she had never seen before being held back by the guards.
    With a wave of her hand, the guards released the boy. “What is the meaning of this? The hour is late, so you had best have something important to tell me.” The boy looked at her as though he was scared, and Eleanor sighed, knowing she had been too harsh. As Gayle was always saying, she should not punish the messenger for the message. The boy was holding out a note with a shaking hand, and Eleanor took his hand in his and held it to steady it. The boy looked started, and Eleanor took the note and opened it to read the few words.
    It was enough to make Eleanor want to scream. She handed the note to Gayle, who simply looked at it and frowned. The two women stared at each other for a moment before Eleanor sighed. She would not be sleeping well tonight. “Tell that… man… that I will be down as soon as I am presentable.”
    The boy nodded and dashed off, leaving a very annoyed Eleanor and a slightly angry Gayle watching after him. “I swear, I will kill that man,” Eleanor muttered under her breath, and shut the door. Gayle was already busying herself, finding a simple green gown for Eleanor to wear. It was nothing special in the slightest, but it would work for pulling on without worrying about special corsets and undercoats.
    Eleanor pulled on a plain underskirt and the dress was pulled on over top, leaving Gayle with just a few ties to pull and buttons to snap. It took no time at all, and Gayle began working Eleanor’s soft hair into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. She took the simplest tiara from the jewelry box and placed it atop of Eleanor’s head, a single emerald in the center. This was all the effort she would put into this meeting.
    “Back to sleep with you, dearest Gayle. I fear that this shall take longer than I am willing to keep you awake, and I know that the morning shall come early and I shall not be too pleasant to deal with. Rest, now. I can take care of myself.”
    Gayle sighed and nodded, letting her mistress go. Before Eleanor reached the door, Gayle called out to her, saying, “Now, my lady, the benefits may be good, but remember, not all that seems good is good.” As if Eleanor needed to be reminded of that around Duke Phillip.

    • • •

    Of all the men that were seeking her hand in marriage, Duke Phillip was the only one that she had met before. He was also the one that she had the most reservations against marrying, and the one that she knew could help her kingdom in both military and trade. Eleanor knew that her first choice should have been Phillip, and she was scared that he knew that too. A marriage between the two of them was probably what most of the nobility were expecting. The fact that she had invited two others was more than likely a mere courtesy in their eyes.
    Phillip’s grandfather had made perhaps one of the most strategic marriages of her kingdom’s history in marrying the heiress to another dukedom. They had only one child, Phillip’s father, and Phillip himself was also an only child. He possessed the most land in the kingdom, including two large centers of trade, and in turn held more money than perhaps even the crown. His land was also perfectly bordered on the southern rim, far away from the northern borders that was plagued with wars.
    As for Phillip himself, he was a conceited, arrogant, selfish ass. He had plenty of good looks and thought of himself as a gift to all women. When he wasn’t drinking or gambling, he was whoring, and in the off chance he wasn’t doing that, he was insulting anyone beneath him, which seemed to mean most everyone. If their marriage was not the most strategic of all and if he had someone else to claim his title, Eleanor would have done away with him long ago. She prayed that he would at least be amicable in this situation. If she was lucky, he would wed her and go back to his estate, never to return.

    • • •

    Standing outside of her receiving room, Eleanor glared at the door, not wanting to go inside. She knew that he was waiting for her, and that the sooner she got it over with the better, but neither of those facts could push her to just open up the doors. He was banging around in there, and she could hear him letting books drop to the floor as he most likely dug through the bookshelf. Of all the times that her tongue needed to be still, this was certainly the most important.
    She reached her hand towards the door, ready to go inside, when she heard the sound of boots coming from down the hall. Turning, she saw a very tired and perturbed looking knight coming toward her, followed by a messenger, a servant, and a few other knights. When he grew closer, she could see that it was Sir Brandon. Stepping away from the door, she waited until he was close before she raised the candle so he could see it was her. Brandon raised his hand to stop everyone behind him and continued walking towards her, opening his mouth.
    Not wanting Phillip to know that she was outside his door, she raised her hand to stop him, and felt the warm air of his breath reach her fingers. Grabbing the sleeve of his shirt, she pulled him back down towards where he had come, out of earshot from the clearly annoyed Duke.
    Once they were far enough away, she released his sleeve, and looked up into his eyes. He looked somewhat angry, but the softness was escaping his hard features. Looking back down again, she sighed, not knowing what to say.
    He seemed to take it as an invitation to speak, and said, “What is all the noise, my lady? I got a knocking on my door saying there was an intruder. Is everything alright?”
    The way he said ‘my lady’ almost made her breath catch in her throat. She had noticed it before, that it was almost as though he put the emphasis on my, but right then, with that look on his face, it felt like so much more. Trying to brush away present thoughts, she returned her mind to the situation at hand. Ah, if only she could consider Duke Phillip an intruder, and have Sir Brandon throw him out.
    “It is Duke Phillip.” Sir Brandon looked almost as though he flinched. Everyone knew about the man. “He has arrived and is waiting to greet me.”
    Sir Brandon nodded, and they stood there in silence for a moment.
    “I saw you in the training yard earlier. You rode off. I needed to speak with you, but… where did you go?” Her voice was soft in speaking until the last few words, in which she tried to sound like a monarch, and not a woman. Brandon looked up at her for a moment before lowering his head again. His mouth looked as though he was trying to form words, but could not speak.
    “I- I went riding, my lady. I did not return until recently.” Eleanor nodded and accepted his answer. What more could she say to him? “If that is all, my lady, I will take my leave. Please, send for me if… you need my assistance.”
    Eleanor nodded again and watched as he bowed before her then walked away, his knights following him. She wished that she could go with him, but there was an issue she had to deal with before she could do as she pleased.

    • • •

    It took all of Brandon’s strength to walk away. She had invited Phillip Astendra, Duke of Thearith and Mirasa, to court? Was she considering marrying him? He was beyond enraged had the thought – he was absolutely livid. It was hard enough to imagine some foreign prince becoming king, but that man was beyond reason. He almost turned around and stormed into her study, ready to pulverize the man and accept the punishment. Eleanor deserved the best, and Phillip was by far the worst.
    He had seen it in her eyes. She did not want to see the man any more than Brandon wanted him in the palace, let alone the kingdom. He knew that he had to face the fact that she would choose the man that was best for the kingdom, but Eleanor was a selfless woman and would give up her own feelings for the good of all. While it was a noble trait in his monarch, it was a horrifying idea for the woman he cared about.
    He shouldn’t have avoided her after seeing her in the training yard. No matter how fast he had rode, he could hear her behind him, and had pushed to stay in the trees. Even from where he had sat along the tree line, he could see that she was looking for him. Why did she care where he went? Didn’t she have some prince to entertain?
    After she had ridden off, Brandon had stayed in the field long past dark, not wanting to run into her again. He knew it was wrong and cowardly, but he couldn’t bare the thought of seeing her on the arm of Prince. He would be a good match for the sake of military protection, but he was too stiff to make Eleanor happy. Of course, now that Brandon looked back at those earlier thoughts, he knew that Prince Alexander was a far better decision than Duke Phillip.
    Storming into his room, Brandon slammed the door behind himself so hard, he was certain the entire building had to be shaking. The rage that was within him would not calm down, and he could not stop himself as he grabbed the chair from beside his bed, picked it up, and threw it against the wall. The piece of furniture broke into many pieces, and Brandon turned to his wardrobe to take his anger out on that next. Slamming his fist into it, the wood cracked, leaving his balled up hand covered in cuts and already forming bruises.
    A knock came at the door and Brandon went to it furious, and opened it to see who it was. “WHAT!” he growled, to see it was simply a page. The boy looked scared out of his wits and was visibly shaking from having to stand in front of the fuming knight, and Brandon immediately softened. “What is it boy? Out with it.” His voice was much gentler this time around, but it did not hide the anger that was still built up.
    The boy stretched out his hand with a stack of notes in it, and Brandon took them as gently as he could, nodding at the boy. “Thank you, lad. Go on back to sleep. I shall be quiet now.” The boy nodded and ran off, leaving Brandon to mentally beat himself up over the situation.
    Regardless of how angry he was, the boy did not deserve the wrath that Brandon had taken out on him. It had been all that he had known as a boy. Any time something bad happened, anger was released from somewhere. That was not the time of man he had wanted to grow up to be, but it seemed as though it was the time of man he had become.
    Running his fingers through his hair as he sat down on his bed, Brandon began to read through the notes. They all seemed to say the same thing… Eleanor was looking for him. It just made Brandon feel even worse. While he had been out in that field, sulking and pitying himself, the woman that he pined for had needed him.
    Falling back onto the bed and groaning as he felt the pain in his hand, Brandon closed his eyes, hoping that sleep would come swiftly. How could the day have started so well, and ended so badly?

    • • •

    Nodding to the guards that stood on either side of the door to her library, Eleanor prepared herself to greet Phillip. As soon as the doors were opened, the man turned and looked at her shocked from his position beside her liquor cabinet. She saw that he had already cleared through one of her favorite bottles and was working on another. Smothering her anger, Eleanor put a smile on her face and went to see the man.
    “Oh, Phillip, I am so glad that you could join me here,” she said, a fake smile plastered across her face. No one could ever say that she wasn’t courteous.
    Duke Phillip took her outstretched hand in both of his and kissed it delicately, a similarly fake smile spreading across his face. “Of course, Princess Eleanor. I could never deny you the benefit of my presence when you request it.”
    It was enough to make Eleanor gag. She took her free hand and pressed it to her mouth, hoping that he had not noticed her moment of weakness, but the icy touch of his blue eyes told her that he had seen she was unhappy he was here. A real smile crept across his face now, almost as though he was enjoying seeing her uncomfortable.
    “Come, my Lord. Won’t you sit with me? We simply must catch up.” She really was going to be sick if she had to keep this up. All she could tell herself was to think of the benefits. All she really wanted, however, was to punch him in the nose.
    Duke Phillip finished topping off his glass before taking her hand and escorting her to the sofa. His blonde hair, which reached almost to his eyes normally, was slicked back with far too much grease. His attire looked wrinkled as though he had attacked her liquor cabinet without even changing from his riding clothes, and she could already smell the liquor pouring out of him. If he so much as glanced at her in an inappropriate way, the money and land could be damned – Sir Brandon could do as he chose with the man.
    Thoughts of Brandon took her away for a moment, but Eleanor was quickly brought back to reality as Phillip began to speak. Even his voice made her feel ill. Everything about him felt so wrong, and she knew that her marriage to him would be an unhappy one.
    Not caring about what he had to say, Eleanor interrupted him with a rather loud yawn. “Oh, my dear, please forgive me. I fear that I am quite tired. You know, my birthday ball is in two days, and I have just been so busy with planning.”
    Phillip looked as though he was fuming out of his ears at being interrupted, making Eleanor have a real smile on his face. Ah, how the tables had turned. He quickly composed himself, of course, and gave a quick nod and swallowed the rest of his drink.
    “But of course, Princess. I know that every woman must have her little amusements.”
    That comment almost earned him a slap, but Eleanor quickly rose from her seat, watching the slightly intoxicated Duke jump up as was required by decorum.
    “I trust that you can find your way to your room. And, if you cannot, I am certain that a guard would be more than willing to help you. Good night.”
    She turned before he could even speak, and as she stepped into the hallway, she could hear the sound of glass shattering against the wall. Had he truly thrown one of her glasses in anger? If he kept this up, money or no, he would not be staying in her palace for much longer, let alone her kingdom.
    Chapter Two

    Chapter Four

  2. Christine
    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.
    Chapter Three

    Chapter Five

  3. Christine
    I feel like I have been extra touchy lately. I'm too busy to be emotional, and I feel like I owe everyone an explanation why. Even more than that, I posted a LoA everywhere, but have still be around and didn't really tell anyone why. I figured I would just tell one group, but then I couldn't decide where to post it, and now I figure I might as well blog it.
    For those of you that don't know, my husband is in the Marines. He is about to be Deployed to Afghanistan. This will be his first time there, but his third deployment. The first deployment was to Iraq while we were dating and the second to Japan after we first got married. I've done this ball game before. I knew what to expect. It doesn't change the fact that I am emotional.
    I can't really give anyone any details, for the sake of security and all that, but I can say a few things. He isn't going over there to sit on the big base in A/C. Even Camp Leatherneck, which is a huge well known base, was recently attacked. No where in Afghanistan is safe. But, there are safer areas. Jon is not going there. He is an Ammunitions Technician, which basically means he orders ammo and makes sure everyone has what they need. If it goes boom, he makes sure it gets done. Part of this job is going to all of the various camps to count ammo and deliver. Going to various camps means driving. Driving in an area that is known for IEDs blowing up vehicles.
    Even more than that, we aren't ready for this deployment. In the past, there was plenty of time to breathe and relax. This time around, they have been having training still, up till the end of last week. We had the ball over the weekend, and he has been at work every day so far this week. How can he be expected to pack and get his guys all packed when he is still working 16 hours a day? This has left me to fumble through packing his things, and while I am a good Marine Wife, I am not a Marine. It has left me rather stressed and frazzled.
    So, this is why I am on LoA. I am still sort of here, but honestly, DM takes a back seat on a week like this. If I am on, I will take care of some things. I'll post. I'll hang out. But I can't promise anything. I know everyone loves and cares about me, but I really just need a few days to grieve. I hope to be back by the 8th, but really, who knows. My game plan at present is to close myself in with easy mac, hot dogs, oreos, and a crate of wine. When I reemerge from that, well, that'll be when I'm back.
    As always, Leelou and Aiel Heart can get hold of me. I swear, I don't know what I would do without them some days. It doesn't matter the distance, I know they love me and care and will take care of me. Other friends have been holding my hand as well, and I thank all of you for being so patient with me.
    Welp, I guess that's it then.


    - Christine -

  4. Christine
    Chapter Seven : I Was Hoping For Better...

    It was perhaps the most restful sleep Eleanor had had since her father had started falling ill. Her entire body was relaxed into her bed and she actually felt ready for the day. Whereas most mornings she had to drag herself from the bed, she found that this morning, she was up before Gayle had even brought up her tea. It was certainly a surprise, but Eleanor had a suspicion that it was because she felt at peace. She had made the first steps in having a strong and stable reign as Queen by raising Sir Brandon to a Lord and Council member. She just hoped that he had as much faith in himself as she did.
    When Gayle walked in with her morning tea tray, Eleanor was already sitting at her dressing table and had just finished brushing her own hair. Giving the woman a warm smile, Eleanor noted the look of shock on her maid’s face from seeing the princess awake of her own choice. Giggling softly, she went ahead and prepared her tea while Gayle went about pulling a dress out.
    Taking a small sip of the hot liquid, Eleanor savored the flavor for a moment before rising and letting Gayle pull the gown over her head. Whereas she normally wore gowns that were tight around the bodice with full skirts, Eleanor was instead wearing a dress that was tight around her bust and hung loose from there. She was going to have a long day with little time to worry about her wardrobe and would be walking about the castle trying to prepare. It was simply not a day to be wearing tight corsets and layers of undercoats. The sleeves were even loose, flaring gently from the shoulders, allowing her an ease of movements. Perhaps this would be the next fashion to catch on – Eleanor would gladly be the first to burn the tight bindings that normally held her.
    Gayle continued to prepare the princess by braiding her hair back in a long simple braid with a few wisps of hair slipping out. A simple tiara was placed delicately in her hair and Eleanor chose a simple set of diamond earring studs to complete the look. The rich purple of the gown with the simple but sparkling ornaments would remind everyone today that she was more than just a princess, but also the determined heir to the throne.
    Taking a few more sips of her tea before sliding into her slippers, Eleanor gave Gayle a nod to dismiss her and sat down for a moment at her window seat to relax. It was still a little early to head to the Council chambers. It was her right as future Queen to show up when she pleased, but showing up early would also allow the Councilors to question her decisions before she had time to properly announce them. She may have only seen Twenty years of life, but that was not enough of a reason to allow anyone to push her around. Her blood flowed with the blood of Kings and Queens of the past ages. Their strength was within her, and the Councilors could all be damned if they did not remember that fact.
    The training yard below her window looked alive with activity. Servants and pages were rushing about while Knights barked out orders. She noted that Lord Erstein was down below in full robes commanding the knights to hurry their work. Could he possibly suspect the new position that was coming to him? The man was more like an Uncle to her than just a simple Lord or knight, and she knew that no one deserved the honor greater than him. Regardless of her choice of husband, this was the man that she trusted to lead Venaramine to victory.
    When her father had been just a boy learning to use his sword for the first time, Erstein had been a squire to one of his uncles. He had been a guiding hand in helping the future king learn to use every manner of weapons. When the borders became overrun with enemies, the squire was quickly knighted by her grandfather for his fearless and wise moves upon the battlefield. It was no surprise that he continued training the soon-to-be Commander of the Army, and when her father had become King, Erstein was given a place of honor among his personal guard.
    No one was more loyal to her father than Sir Erstein. He was a valiant knight that continued training and teaching. When the border wars had erupted during her father’s time, he was the first to battle and the last to leave, making certain that no man was left behind to suffer a slow death alone. He was compassionate, fearless, wise, and just. His place as a Lord on the Council was one that she wished could continue, but there was no one alive that had his wisdom of commanding a battle field. Not even Prince Alexander had the amount of real combat expertise.
    It was why she had chosen Brandon to take his place on the Council. When Sir Erstein was raised to a Lord and settled into the palace, he had already found his next great student. At the time, the boy had been just a small lad, but was already showing promise. He had been a boy of no family or name and worked in the stables, Erstein had found him in the stable yard one night, attempting to swing one of the great practice swords. The King had been with him, and both agreed to allow the lad to train.
    The boy had worked harder than any page and trained harder than any squire. When the time had come for his training to conclude, the King allowed him to test for Knighthood, and so Sir Brandon had found his place in the world. Eleanor could still remember that day he had walked out victorious. Not much was known about the testing to become a knight save for those who were knights themselves, but a great feast was always held after the trials. Both her father and Lord Erstein had been proud of the boy that they had watched grow into a man.
    Now, that boy would follow in his adopted father’s feet and take a place among the council. No one had been trained in the ways of battle and leadership quite like him. After Sir Brandon’s training, Lord Erstein had taken no more pupils, instead continuing to teach the man. It was why he was such a large success as Captain of the King’s Guards. If he could not defend Eleanor and defend the castle against all attacks, then there was no one else that could. It was why she knew he was the best choice she had made in a while.
    Almost as though her thoughts were coming alive before her, she saw Brandon join Erstein in the training yard. He was dressed in his simple pants and loose shirt with his boots. He was soon to be a Lord, and yet he still dressed for comfort. She almost envied that he had the choice. The two men looked to be in conversation for a few moments before they both turned to walk inside the castle.
    Brandon paused for a moment, and Eleanor felt her breath catch in her throat. He turned and looked up and the window in which she was sitting. He made no other movement except to look towards her, and she did not move. Could he see her? Did he know that she had been thinking of him?
    She pulled back from the window and looked down into her lap, sighing. What was it about this man that had her so flustered? Why did he seem to dominate her thoughts? If she could remember her dreams, she was certain that he would dominate those as well. It had always been like this. She would see him, and for the next few days, she would keep her eyes open for him. Regardless, it would be weeks before she ever saw him again. Her father always had him so busy or else he would be off training. It was only since her father became ill that she saw the knight regularly.
    But once Sir Brandon became a normalcy in her life, she hadn’t thought too often on him. She was trying to block all thoughts and emotions and thought only on the tasks at hand. Of course, he had only ever seen her in the role of Princess. It had been since that day in the field… when he had seen her acting as herself. Since then, he had seemed to swarm her senses all over again, as they had when she was a child. It wasn’t something she should be worrying about, and yet here she was, allowing him to cloud her mind.
    Sipping down the last of her tea, Eleanor rose from her window seat completely and decided to head to her study. Within the castle, there were four towers. One of the towers belonged to the star gazers. Another tower was used for the keeping of the birds. A third tower had been her father’s personal study. It now sat undisturbed. The third tower belonged to her. The front two towers always belonged to the monarch and their heir. Once it became apparent that her parents would have no more children, she had been given the key. No one had access without her permission, even to clean, and not even her parents.
    The hallway between the stairs of both towers also lead to the Council chambers, which sat in the center. In this way, it allowed for the King and the heir to both come from their studies, without interruption from the palace below. Right of entry to even come up the stairs to this hall was given to only the guards, the Royal family, and the members of the Council. As the princess, she had a quick route to that stairwell.
    Nodding to the guards as she went, she climbed up the first set of stairs and nodded to the guards that stood before the Council chambers. Walking past, she heard no sound coming from the room. Good. That meant she had more than enough time to relax for a while in her study. She already knew that she would arrive, but she didn’t want to miss the meeting all together.
    Reaching the top of the next set of stairs, she saw that someone was sitting on the bench outside of her study. The two guards standing on either side of the study door were eyeing the guest warily, and when the person turned to face her, she knew why. What could Phillip possibly want this early in the morning? She was surprised that he was even awake at this hour, and clearly he had to be on a mission.
    Stopping where she was at the top of the stairs, her smile disappeared and she cross her arms across her chest and shifted her weight onto one side, staring down at the man. It took all of her patience to not order him removed from the castle, and for a moment, she considered ignoring him and just going to her office. By protocol, he could not speak to her until she had spoken to him. Perhaps, however, it would be better to just get it over with.
    “Phillip…” she said simply, and raised an eyebrow. “What do you need, why are you outside of my study, and how did you even get here in the first place?” He shouldn’t have even been able to access this level anyways…
    The Duke already had a sly smile across his face. “Come now, princess. I have my ways. I am a Duke of the Realm, and your future husband. I have every right to be here, and should have been allowed entry to the study.”
    Eleanor saw red. What right did he have to call himself her future husband. He and everyone else knew that she had three choices at the moment, and that all of them had an equal chance. And to presume that those facts alone should allow him entry to the most secure of areas… If he continued on with this behavior, she would have him thrown out.
    Taking in a deep breath, she walked towards the door of her study past Duke Phillip and opened up the door. Turning back to stare at the man, who was glaring at her, she sighed again. Her hand fell from the door handle and she twisted her body to face him.
    “If you have something to say, then say it now. I have matters to attend to this morning, and choosing a husband is not one of them.”
    Phillip looked a little off balance at his words, but of course the man quickly recovered. “Of course, Princess; I was simply wondering why I was not invited to the Council meeting. If I am to be King-“
    Her murderous glare stopped his words short. How did he know about the meeting? The messengers had been the most loyal to her and should have kept their mouths shut, as commanded. The councilors would not have shared their meeting with anyone, given that it was a matter of security. This meant someone was sharing her secrets. She would have to task Brandon with finding out who was the traitor.
    “Duke Phillip, if you want to remain in this castle past noon, then I strongly suggest you find your way back to your room, and stay there until you are summoned.”
    One of the guards beside her took the hint and stepped forward to escort Phillip away. The man looked ready to spit fire at her, and for a moment she wished that Brandon was beside her. He would have given her the strength to stare Phillip back down, but she simply turned away and walked into her office, slamming the door.
    The gall of that man, to demand to attend a Council meeting… Her mother had never attended a Council meeting unless invited. Why would she ever invite her husband? It was the responsibility of the monarch by blood to lead the meetings unless they chose to pass the reigns, and she would never give up that right to Phillip, should she choose him. She was regretting inviting him more and more, but hopefully after the meeting, he could be out of the castle and back to his home.
    Collapsing into her desk chair, she buried her face into her hands and groaned. Her morning had actually started off somewhat good, and now it just felt ruined. Just remembering that Phillip was in the country was enough to ruin a day, but having in only a few minutes away from her made her shiver. At least one of the Councilors had to have good news…
    A knock came on the door, and she groaned. How had Phillip managed to convince the guards to bring him back to her study? She knew that the man was determined, but this was becoming absurd. She rose from her desk and jerked open the door, ready to start yelling obscenities at the man, but was started to see that it was instead Lord Estein.
    Her face surely had to reflect shock, as the man also had shock on his face as well at her abrupt door opening. They stared at eachother for a moment while she tried to gather her bearings and then realized she had not invited him in.
    “Please, my Lord, come in and have a seat.”
    “Thank you, Princess. I promise to keep this brief.”
    The Lord followed her inside and took sat down in a chair in front of the desk. Sliding into her own chair, Eleanor eyed the man, waiting for him to speak.
    “Lord Erstein, if you have something to say, then please say it. You have always spoken your mind with my father, and I hope that you will continue to speak freely with me.”
    The man nodded and gave Eleanor a half smile. “Of course, Princess. If there is one thing you shall never want more of, it will be my opinion.”
    Eleanor returned the smile and nodded. Her father had often gone on and on about how Lord Erstein could never shut his mouth and stop giving constant critique and opinion. She had also heard her father say countless times that his opinions and friendship were invaluable to him.
    “What are you doing with Brandon?”
    The question shocked her for a moment, and Eleanor pulled back from how she had been leaning in a friendly manner toward the man. Of all the questions or reasons he could come to visit her for, this was not what she expected. Her face had to look the way that she felt – completely confused. What could the man possibly think she was doing with Sir Brandon that would prompt that question?
    “Come now, Eleanor. If you want honesty from me, then you should also return it to me. I have known you since the day you were born. I have watched you grow and become a beautiful young woman. I have seen you shed both blood and tears as you reached for your goals, so I am going to ask you this again. What are you doing with Brandon?”
    Eleanor stared at the man in shock, her jaw slightly dropped. What was she doing with Brandon? She had no idea what he was talking about. She stared at him for a moment, then noticed that her heart was racing.
    Slumping down in her chair, she shut her mouth and stared down into her lap. Her heart was racing at the thought of Brandon. She had been looking for ways to spend more time with him. When she had needed comfort, he was the person she turned towards for solace. She had moved beyond the line of a royal and her guard. Brandon had become her strength when things became tough, and she was now pulling the strings to keep him nearby.
    “I… I don’t really know. How could you tell?”
    She looked up slowly and was met with gentle, sad eyes. Lord Erstein reached his hand across the desk toward her and she took it, letting him comfort her.
    “There there, my dear child. I may be growing older in years, but I am still observant. It was kind of hard to miss that when your father grew worse, you and Brandon both disappeared. Add on the fact that you are raising him to a Lord and placing him on the Council, and of course the mess with him slamming a chair against the wall when Phillip arrived, it was rather obvious.”
    Eleanor stiffened at his last words. Brandon had destroyed a chair when Phillip had arrived? She had seen that the knight had been angry when the Duke had arrived, but she did not realize how angry until now. She felt a soft smile to go her lips, then brought her attention back to the Lord.
    “How about you tell me what in all is going on…”
    So Eleanor did. She started at the beginning, telling Erstein about how she had always noticed Brandon when she was growing up. How she always looked for him after seeing him. How she had been spending more time with him once her father grew ill. She even mentioned the moments in the training yard and her father’s words on his sick bed. Lord Erstein looked a little upset when she mentioned that they had fallen asleep together, but he relaxed more when she told him about how Brandon had been chivalrous and asked for forgiveness.
    “I don’t really know what in all is going between us. I feel so strong and confident when I am around him, and when he is not around, I miss him and wish that he was near. I fear that I am drawing all of my power from him, but at the same time, I need someone like that.” Lord Erstein suddenly looked uncomfortable, and Eleanor asked him why.
    “Eleanor… I think you should listen to what your father said. Follow your heart. Other than that, I don’t know what else to tell you, except that I agree, regardless, with your choice of placing Brandon in my open spot on the Council. He will serve you well and will speak freely with you, if you give him the chance. He is also a good man to protect you. I would not feel safe leaving the castle with anyone other than him by your side.”
    Eleanor nodded and smiled at his words. While she had had a great suspicion that was the way that the old man would feel, it was good all the same to be told she had made a wise decision.
    “I thought the same, my Lord. And now, I fear that your time is up, as we have a Council meeting to attend.”

    • • •

    On his knees, Brandon prayed. He prayed for guidance, and wisdom. He prayed for strength, and for victory. Most of all, he prayed for Eleanor. He prayed that she would trust him, and that he would not fail her. And even though he prayed, Brandon feared that his fervent wishes were falling on deaf ears. The Goddess would never listen to a man like him.
    Sighing in defeat, Brandon stayed down and buried his face into his hands. Even after Eleanor had dismissed him for the night, he could not return to his room. Instead, he had searched for sanctuary within the Temple. The Healers had come to his aid to see if he needed their Blessing, but he had instead asked for solitude. And so, that was how he spent his night. Even as the sun was peeking through the glass windows, he felt no better.
    "Sir Brandon, if I may have a word..."
    Brandon heard the voice behind him and turned to see who it was. He should not have been surprised as to who it was, however. No other Healer would have dared to bother the knight during his prayers.
    "Healer Dominic, of course. I was just finishing my prayers."
    The man nodded in response and stepped back, waiting for Brandon to rise. Brandon slowly rose and felt his knees crack slightly after being bent all night. He stretched them out for a moment before walking towards the Healer. The man looked half bent over with old age and was leaning heavily on his staff.
    Even though he had just risen from his knees, Brandon went to take a seat again on one of the benches and beckoned for Dominic to join him. The man was well known for being far wiser than he should be and was a predominant member of the Council. Even still, the man always wore the simple robes of a Healer and had no item that would show his rank as one of the chosen few to advise the monarch.
    "Does your heart feel lighter with the Blessing of the Goddess, my boy?"
    Brandon shook his head immediately to the Healer's question. "While I am certain that the Goddess listens to some, she did not come to me this night and lesson the burdens of my heart. I fear that my sleepless night shall have to be simply that, and I shall have to tackle my problems on my own."
    Dominic nodded in response and sat back on the bench. Brandon looked down from the man into his hands and sighed again. Brandon's lack of faith for himself had been a topic of much conversation between the two men for years. Dominic had always pushed the point that the Goddess listened to all those who searched for her guidance. Brandon believed that only the good received her Blessing. And no warrior was good, given how much death they caused.
    "Brandon, I will not continue to argue this point with you. I will, however, say this. Whatever has caused you to spend the night on your knees praying proves that you are a good man. An evil man would not pray to the Goddess for her guidance. I just wish you saw the good in you that everyone else did."
    Brandon shook his head no again. "I simply pray for the Kingdom and the King. My problems, as I have stated, are my burdens to bare alone. The Goddess will not support me in them, of that I am certain."
    Dominic gave him a sigh in response and rose from where he was sitting, leaning heavily on his staff. Brandon jumped up to help the old man to his feet then followed him as they moved slowly towards the doorway of the temple. For a few moments, they spoke of Brandon's recent training and the page training that Brandon was overseeing. No matter how busy the old man got, he still discussed the simple coming and going of the training yard.
    When they reached the main hallway, Brandon excused himself. He had to go clean up somewhat before going to the Council meeting. Dominic had not mentioned it, so Brandon kept it to himself. Perhaps the man did not know yet... or he was waiting for Brandon to bring his own doubts to voice before giving his wisdom. It seemed that all the great men around him were full of wisdom, and Brandon wished that he could say the same of himself. Instead, he was simply a man of action.
    All of his posessions were already packed when he reached his room. He had asked a servant to simply bundle up all of his belongings to make it easier to move into the castle. Now, he couldn't believe how few items he actually owned. Other than the books and clothes, all he had was his sword. He had never needed anything else.
    Splashing his face with water quickly and shaving his face, Brandon looked at his clothes for something to wear. He could put on his full uniform, but that reflected the rank of Captain, and he was not on duty. He could wear his armor, but this was a Council meeting after all, not battle. All that was left were his simple clothing. It suited him well enough, and even as a Lord, he would continue to dress as he really pleased. He needed to be comfortable and still able to move. Simple breeches, boots, and shirt it would be.
    Wearing clean clothes, he told a passing servant to take his things to his new room in the castle. He wasn't sad as he left the room he had held for the past six years since he had become a knight. It was just a room, and in the castle, he would be closer to Eleanor...
    Spotting Lord Erstein in the training yard, he went up to the man, who was wearing full robes. There was no way Brandon could ever dress like that. How would he protect his future queen in something that looked so heavy and bulky? Would she be offended that he did not dress like a Lord?
    Brandon spoke with his mentor for a few moments about the pages training. He also said nothing about Brandon taking his spot on the Council. Had they not been told, or were they simply avoiding the topic?
    Lord Erstein excused himself, and Brandon went to follow him, but felt a tug at his heart. Stopping, he turned and looked up towards Eleanor's window. The sun was reflecting on the glass, but he could still tell that someone was sitting on the window seat looking down. He knew that it was her.
    The shadow moved and Brandon stared for a moment longer before going to follow the Lord. Once they stepped inside the castle, Erstein dashed away while Brandon went to find something to eat in the kitchens. A biscuit later, he didn't know what to do but head for the Council chambers.
    Upon reaching the Council doors, Brandon was prepared to be turned away. He had never been inside the Council room except for when the King brought him to tell the Council some news about training or defense, but this was different. He was now a member of the group, or at least soon to be. Did people know? Would he be turned away? Had Eleanor made a mistake?
    The guards did not bat an eye as they moved to open the door for Brandon, and he gave a simple sigh of relief. The room was empty of people and he stared out the window, waiting for others to join him.

    • • •

    Reaching the bottom of the stairs with Lord Erstein just in front of her, Eleanor paused. She was nervous. Yes, she had been in numerous Council meetings before. Before her father had fallen ill, he had had her sit in to listen to what was occurring. Once he became ill, she had led the meetings in his place and taken back the notes to him. This was the first time, however, that she would lead a meeting without his guidance beforehand and him making the final decision.
    It made no difference. She was Princess Eleanor, heir to the throne of Venaramine, daughter of Kings, and Blessed by the Goddess herself. The Goddess would only allow a woman of great strength and wisdom to take the throne of any kingdom. She had to remember that she was Blessed. She would not fail her kingdom. She just had to show the Council that she was in control, and not let them overpower her.
    Lord Erstein turned back and gave her a single glance before continuing his walk down the hallway. She watched as Healer Dominic and Master Tirwin, the Councilor of Finances, walked up to the door together, chatting randomly. The booming laughter that came from their direction told her that Lord Bohen was already in the Council room. She always liked Lord Bohen. A lesser ranked Lord that held land near to the castle, his family passed down the roll of representing the nobility on the Council. That meant the only two she was not sure of were Brandon and Master Torrell. Master Torrell was the longest standing member of the Council as a representative of Law. He had turned down any rank of nobility numerous times over, simply wanting to spend his time in the library and the archives.
    When Lord Erstein reached the Council door, he turned back towards Eleanor and gave her a nod, letting her know that the other two were inside. She smiled to herself and began walking down the hall towards the door. With each step, she continued to tell herself to breathe. Reaching the door itself, she waited for the guards to open it. The men inside became visible to her and she put on a gentle smile and went to move inside.
    A commotion came from behind her and she turned to see what it was. If it was Duke Phillip again, she was going to smack him. He was not going to ruin her council meeting. The person it was, however, surprised her.
    "Prince Alexander? What is the matter?"
    With a wave of her hand, the guards let him pass. The Prince bowed low before her and then stared at the men that stood shocked behind her. She hadn't noticed that the Councilors had left the chamber room and come out to join her in the hallway. The Prince looked out of breath and rather upset.
    "Alexander. Look at me, not them. What is the matter?"
    The Prince jerked his head back to the Eleanor and she waited for his words. "It is my father. They attacked Bromaric and my father went out to the battle. They used an assassin and killed my father. Archaria killed my father."
    Eleanor stiffened at his words. Alexander was now second in line to the throne of Bromaric with his brother now taking up the place of King. She glanced back at the Councilors that stood there just as shocked as she felt. What could have possibly possessed the Archarion King to attack Bromaric. There was no way their fighting force could defeat them.
    "Alexander, listen to me. Venaramine is at your side in battle. Do not worry yourself on that fact. Do you need to return to your brother? You have my leave to travel as soon as you are ready, if you so choose."
    Alexander shook his head in shock and looked about to fall over. "No. No, I will stay here. For the sake of the treaty, I will stay here. Thank you, Princess."
    And just as suddenly as he arrived, Prince Alexander turned and walked back where he had come from. As soon as he was out of sight, the Councilors burst into discussion behind her. She watched the stairs that the Prince had disappeared down before turning on her feet. Once she was looking at them, the six men stopped all their talking and watched her.
    "Back into the Council chambers, my Lords. We have much to discuss."

    • • •

    "You all heard what Prince Alexander just said. Archaria has attacked Bromaric and the king is dead. There is nothing we can do at the current moment, so while I know it is forefront in our minds, there is other things that must be discussed first."
    The men were all sitting around the table while Eleanor stood at the head. The table was an odd shape, in that it was a half circle. The men of the council sat around the circular side while the monarch sat on the flat side, or stood in Eleanor's case. They all nodded in agreement before Eleanor turned to the first order of business.
    "Excellent. Now, I am certain you are all wondering why Sir Brandon is here, although you must all likely suspect the reason. Lord Erstein is now Commander of the Army and will lead us to victory against Archaria." No one made a sound but all of the men nodded. "Sir Brandon shall me taking his place on the Council and will be receiving the title of Lord and land in Equitan."
    All of the men nodded again and Brandon looked shocked. Of course he would be. Equitan had some of the richest and most prosperous land in the kingdom. It was a rich gift that she wanted her main protection to have.
    "For the time being, Commander Erstein will continue to join us in Council meetings, but he and Lord Brandon shall only have one vote between the two. Agreed?"
    All of the Councilors nodded their agreement, and she moved onto the next topics... the ones which pertained to herself and her father.
    "Master Torrell, you have the floor." The man looked up at her and nodded before rising and bowing low. Eleanor gracefully moved into her seat and felt the burn of eyes on her. She took a slow glance at Brandon and saw that his attention had not moved to the Councilor of Law and History. She moved her eyes back to Torrell, wishing she could vanish from Brandon's piercing stare.
    "Thank you, Princess, Councilors. Princess Eleanor has had me look into the law regarding her requirement to marry. King Juan had me previously look into the subject, but not in the depth of which the Princess had requested. I regret to inform you, however, that there is no way to budge in the slightest. The law states clearly that you must marry before you may be crowned. There is no budging in that fact. You must marry. You do not have to rule side by side, but you must marry. I am sorry, Princess."
    Eleanor nodded and lowered her head in defeat. She knew it was too much to hope for. Before a monarch could take the throne, they had to be married. That law applied to both men and women. She didn't know who in all pushed for that order, but right now, she was cursing it. And, she was not above the law, even as monarch.
    She nodded at the Councilor and he took his seat, taking a deep breath. "Of course, Master Torrell. I knew that would most likely be the result of your research, but thank you for looking all the same. Master Tirwin, you have the floor."
    The Master of Finance did not look like he wanted to rise from his chair, but did so all the same and bowed low before them all. He looked ready to speak but Eleanor cut off his words before they came.
    "Speak plainly, Master Tirwin. War is coming. Do we have the proper funds?"
    The man looked scared to death, and Eleanor gave a small cough. The man almost jumped at the sound, but then began to talk.
    "We can't go to war. We don't have the funds. Most of it has been depleted from trying to keep the economy afloat. The people will revolt if we raise the tax any higher. The only way we can defend our own borders is if..." His words stopped there, and she nodded at him, letting him take his seat.
    "The only way we can defend our borders is if I marry into money. I know."
    The silence that overtook the room was enough to make Eleanor want to weep again. She let her eyes fall for a moment then looked up again. Brandon was looking at her from across the table with a helpless look on his face. She wished that he could take her away from all of this, but instead, she was keeping him closer to her, so that he had to go through the trials with her. She wished to know what he was thinking, but instead looked away from him and rose from her chair slowly.
    "My father won't live a week."
    All of the Councilors looked up from where their eyes had wandered and she looked away from them.
    "Do not tell anyone. Healer Dominic will handle all of the preparations for his burial and my coronation. I know: I have to wed to take the throne. Do not worry. I shall make my decision in two days at my birthday event. The wedding shall be as soon as the service for my father has ended, followed by my coronation. Should anyone ask, the preparations are simply for my wedding. No other word of my father."
    The men all nodded and she stood behind her chair, her eyes resting on the seat of it. She wanted to shrink down into her dress and disappear, but instead, she had to go meet with the men that she might marry. The day truly could not get worse. Why had she woken up feeling so good only to feel destroyed?
    "Any other matters to discuss?" A soft murmur of 'No' came from the men and she sighed softly. "Commander Erstein and Lord Brandon shall be formally raised tonight at Dinner. I expect you to all be in attendance. Will the both of you please stay behind? The rest of you are dismissed."
    The other four men quickly left the room, leaving Eleanor with Erstein and Brandon. She glanced at them both for a moment, then couldn't stand being strong any longer once the door was shut. Sinking down into her chair, she buried her face into her hands, sobbing.
    Both men immediately jumped from their chairs, and she felt arms reach around her and hold her close. She knew immediately it was Brandon and leaned into his arms, letting her face bury into the curve of his neck meeting his shoulder. Another hand came to rest soothingly on her back, and she knew it was Erstein. She tried to sniffle back her tears and wiped them away. Both men looked down at her with concern and she shook her head no, continuing to wipe at her face.
    "No, no, I am fine. Just a moment of weakness is all. I am fine. Everything is alright."
    "No, Eleanor, you are not fine." Brandon's words shocked her and she pulled back in surprise. He looked at her fiercly and continued. "Everything is not alright, and you are allowed to show emotion when everything is hard."
    Brandon pulled her back into his arms and hugged her tight for a moment, but Eleanor was in shock. Where had that sudden burst come from? Even Erstein looked shocked for a moment, and when Brandon released Eleanor from his arms, he looked at them both awkwardly.
    "Princess, please forgive-"
    "No!" she gasped out, then burst into laughter. The old man beside her laughed as well, with Brandon looking at them as though they were crazy. "Please, do not apologize. You simply startled me, is all. I did not expect you to be so forceful about something. Alright then, I am not fine, and thank you for your support."
    Eleanor finished her laughter and wiped away the newly forming tears. Brandon rose from where he had been knelt beside her seat, and she rose from her chair as well, sighing for a moment to finish her laughter.
    "I needed that," she said with a smile. "I truly needed that."
    Brandon simply nodded in response, and she then turned to Lord Erstein. The man was still softly chuckling to himself, but when he saw the now determined look on her face, his laughter halted. "Commander, I think you know why I asked you to stay behind. I need you to start planning on joining forces with Bromaric. I will not stand by and watch our allies be attacked by our greatest enemy."
    "But, Princess, we do not have the funds. Are you truly considering marrying... for money? And if you marry for money, then why come to the rescue of an ally that will be lost without marriage?"
    Eleanor sighed and avoided Brandon's eyes while she formed her response to the commander of her army. "Now is not the time, my Lord Commander, to become selfish. If I must marry for the money, then that is what I shall do. As for an alliance with Bromaric, I think that it shall be well formed with our support in military matters, don't you agree?"
    Commander Erstein nodded in response, and she then turned to Brandon, who looked furious. "You may go, Commander. I need to speak with Lord Brandon for a moment."
    Erstein looked ready to not obey her command, and then turned anyways and left the room. Eleanor stared at Brandon for a moment, then spoke clearly and slowly.
    "They poisoned my father, and now they have killed the King of our greatest military ally. They will be back, Lord Brandon, and when they do, I want us to be ready. They will not kill me next."
    Chapter Six

    Chapter Eight

  5. Christine
    Chapter Six : Some Answers

    Eleanor opened her eyes slowly and realized it was dark outside. There were no candles lit, wherever she was, but the light of the moon was shining in the window. She realized that whatever she was sitting on, it was not a chair or a bed, and then noticed a hand holding onto her shoulder. There was an arm draped across her lap, holding her waist tight. She could hear a heartbeat against her ear, and looked up slowly to see the sleeping face of Sir Brandon.
    She tried to crane her neck back to look in the room, and realized that there was no way she could get up without waking the sleeping knight. She didn’t want to talk about her crying earlier, but she did want to know more about what her father had said. If she was about to become Queen, she needed those she trusted most around her. Eleanor knew that regardless of anything else, this was the man that she wanted to personally protect her.
    Another worrying thought came into her mind. What if he was embarrassed about falling asleep with her? What if he regretted bringing her here? Was he going to be mad or disappointed that she had shown a moment of weakness and cried? That thought only brought her more worry. Why did it matter if she disappointed him? The only person she had only worried about disappointing was her father. Was she just trying to look for someone else to please?
    And then, he shifted in his sleep. Whereas before she had been laying across his lap bridal shower with her head on his shoulder, she was now being held firmly against his chest with her butt sitting directly on his lap. His head and fallen forward and he seemed to breathing in the scent of her hair, and Eleanor longed to raise a hand and run her hands through his hair in response. She went to move her arm, then realized how stupid that was. He was asleep and surely didn’t realize who he was holding. Oh, but how she wished he was awake and repeating those actions.
    On cue, his breathing sped up some, and he seemed to wake up. She looked up slowly from where her eyes had fallen to his chest, and their eyes met. His face was not hard and emotionless, as it normally was. Instead, he looked down at her with the same face that she often saw on her father when he looked at her mother. It was a face of compassion, caring, and love.
    Neither of them spoke as he held her in his arms, and Eleanor could no longer resist. Almost as though her arm had a mind of its own, hear hand slowly moved from her lap to rest on his chest. Their eyes remained locked as her hand slowly slid up his chest to rest on his shoulder. The arm that was wrapped around her waist held her tighter, and she could feel his actual hand cupping her hip. Her hand continued to raise higher, delicately brushing his cheek, and his eyes closed suddenly. She watched as he leaned his face into her touch, and she felt her cheeks burning.
    As her hand left his cheek, it continued to ride higher until her fingertips were gracefully dancing across his temple. His eyes opened again, and the hand that held her shoulder flexed slightly and then tightened to hold her closer. As her fingers made their first contact with his hair, she felt him lean forward and burry his face into the mess that her hair was. It was glorious, feeling his face buried in her hair as her fingers stroked through his. They held each other for a moment like this, and it felt so natural.
    She could feel his kisses in her hair, and then suddenly she was no longer laying across his lap. Sir Brandon picked her up delicately in his arms and twisted his body so that his legs were no longer propped up on the window seat. He was now sitting there with her sitting in his lap, and she twisted her body so that she was facing him as best she could with all of her skirts. Her other hand reached up to run her fingers into his hair, and she could hear the clatter of pins hitting the floor as she felt his fingers running through her hair. Within moments, the pins all seemed to be gone, and his fingers were filled with her hair.
    They simply stared at each other, relishing in the feeling of the other person, before Eleanor realized what was going on and where she was. Her entire body stiffened, and she knew that Sir Brandon felt it too. His hands slid from her hair to rest down on her back, and he slowly pulled away from her, staring down into her eyes. Her fingers held onto his hair for a few moments longer before she looked away and let her hands fall.
    In one graceful move, Sir Brandon picked her back up again in his arms and rose from the seat, only to turn and place her back down. She was sitting where he had just sat as he went down onto one knee in front of her and bowed his head low. She simply stared down at him and he said nothing. The silence in the room was deafening.
    Eleanor sat there, her hands resting on her lap and her feet barely touching the floor. Her eyes rested on the back of Sir Brandon’s head. She wondered what he was thinking about. She knew that the only thing on her mind was the fact that she had slept in his arms and woken up to finally touch his hair. The hair on her skin prickled at the memory of him running his fingers through her hair, and she could see the pins that were scattered around the floor below her. Her lips had been so close to his that she could still feel his breath on her skin, and she remembered the slight smell of mint that had come from him.
    She didn’t know what to say, or what he was expecting. Sir Brandon looked as though he was swearing fealty to her or… he was awaiting judgment. He must think that she was going to punish him. But, what was there to punish him for? In her moment of weakness, he had rescued her. When she needed comfort, he had held her. When she had acted on her feelings, he had responded. There was no way in which she could be angry with him, except for the fact that he had dashed away so quickly.
    “Uh, m, um, Sir Brandon, please.” She stumbled to get out the words, not really knowing what to say. He looked up at her with shock written across his face. “Please, just stand up; don’t do that, please.”
    Sir Brandon jumped up quickly and stood before her, and they stared at each other for a moment before Eleanor jumped up too. They stood facing each other, so close she could feel the warmth coming from his skin, and she looked up into his eyes. If she had had trouble forming words before, it was impossible now.
    Her feet ached to raise up onto the tips of her toes so that she could just be closer to him, but her brain ordered them to instead turn, and she twisted away from the knight quickly and walked towards her desk. Keeping her back to him, she started pulling out random drawers. Unable to find what she needed, she went over to a small cabinet next. Searching throughout, she still could not find what she needed.
    Trying one last time, she went to the bookshelf and ran her hands behind a number of the smaller books. Her fingers touched glass, and Eleanor pulled out the bottle with a smile on her face, feeling victorious. Removing the lid quickly, she raised the bottle to her lips and took a quick gulp. The brandy burned as it slid down her throat.
    Turning to Sir Brandon, she saw the shock on his face. So she wasn’t exactly the most normal of Princesses... what did he want her to do, faint? She offered the bottle to him, and he took a large gulp before offering it back. She wanted to drink more of it until she could forget the horrid day, but if she didn’t have time to act like a woman, she certainly didn’t have time to become a drunk.
    Replacing the lid quickly, she set the bottle on her desk and thought about her next move. Sir Brandon opened his mouth as though to speak. She raised her hand quickly and gave him a look that stopped his lips, and she returned her hand back to her hips. Looking at him for a moment, she turned and looked at the bottle on her desk, then pivoted and looked at the door.
    Tossing some of her loose hair back over her shoulder, she marched over to the door and opened it. Two guards stood outside. She knew that she most likely looked a horrid mess, but they made no reaction as they turned to accept her order.
    “I require that someone goes and checks on my father. I want to know how his progress is and what preparations are being made. I also require food brought up.” She stopped and took a glance back at Brandon. “Two food trays brought up. After they come up, I am not to be disturbed unless it about my father.”
    The guards nodded and one of them dashed off to fulfill her requests. She shut the door and turned back to Brandon, who simply stared at her in shock. “Sit,” she commanded, and pointed at one of the two chairs sitting in front of her desk. He stared at her for another second longer before lowering himself into a chair. She nodded to herself simply and then grabbed the bottle again and took another drink. It wasn’t very classy of her to drink straight from the bottle, but right now, it sounded like a good idea.
    Realizing that she would need some messengers to send out letters she had to write, she went back to the door to see the single guard standing there. “I also need messengers, at least three of them. They are to all keep their mouths shut.” She shut the door again without waiting for a response and went to her desk.
    Brandon was eyeing her from the chair and she realized she still had the bottle of brandy in her hands. Offering it to him, she handed him the bottle again then went over to a bookshelf to search through the books. Finding the one she was looking for, she flipped through it quickly before coming upon the page she sought.
    Her eyes scanned quickly – she had grown up reading numerous documents, most of which were dull and boring – and she found the part that she wanted. There was no clause, no back way out. She had not expected her father to fall ill so fast, and she had to act quickly now.
    Pulling out the first piece of parchment, she sprawled a message to one of the councilmen that interpreted the law, requesting him search for some way to save her. Her second, third and fourth pieces of parchment called for a council meeting. Her fifth piece of parchment went to the councilman that monitored the royal funds.
    She next wrote out a note to the Royal planner to prepare for a coronation, and followed it with a quick notice to the Master of Training that all uniforms should be perfected. A note went to the Royal Tailor about a coronation gown and finally, she sent a note to the Royal Healer, notifying him of the upcoming ceremony.
    The food had come while she had been. Eleanor sealed the last of the notes and went to the door and handed them to each of the messengers. “Tell no one of this,” she said simply, then shut the door and went back to her desk.
    Sitting down, she sighed and flexed her hand. She could have used a scribe for that, but the less who knew, the better. Scribes were well known to be paid spies for others. If no one wrote for her, then no one would know her secrets. Letting her head roll back, she closed her eyes for a brief second before groaning and leaning forward.
    Her eyes opened to see Sir Brandon staring at her from across the desk. They were both silent, before she sighed again. Taking one of the trays that was sitting in front of her, she grabbed up a biscuit and began nibbling on it, wanting to keep herself busy so she wouldn’t have to talk to him. Throwing the biscuit down after a few bites, she sighed and turned back to the knight.
    “Well?” she asked. He had to know what she wanted to know. Her father was keeping some sort of secret about Sir Brandon from her, and she needed to know what it was.
    “Well what, my princess?” he asked softly. His face was a mask of pure calm, and Eleanor had to control herself before she burst into laughter. The man knew exactly what she was talking about.
    “What is it that my father knows, Sir Brandon? There is something you are keeping from me, and I will have it out of you.”
    Sir Brandon looked away from her, and his cheeks flushed. Perhaps out of all the questions she should be asking him, that was not the right one to start with. Regardless, it was the one she needed answered the most.
    “Brandon,” she said again, and his eyes snapped back to hers at the sound of just his name. “I won’t have secrets between the two of us. I have to have someone I can trust.”
    Brandon nodded in response and then groaned. His fingers ran through his hair and her fingers tingled in response, remembering the feeling. “Princess Eleanor, I just don’t know what to say,” he said in response. He was looking away from her when he spoke, but his attention came back as she moved back to her desk.
    “Brandon, I am about to become Queen. If there is something I need to know, you had best tell me now. Is the secret you keep from me dangerous?”
    Sir Brandon stared at her for a moment then shook his head slowly.
    “Are you a danger to me?”
    Sir Brandon shook his head again and their eyes remained locked.
    “Will you protect me, no matter what happens?”
    “Yes, my lady,” came the quick response.
    Whatever the secret was, it wasn’t coming out now. As long as she was safe, she would have to allow her father to keep it from her. The fact that there was some secrecy between them, especially on his death bed, burned both her pride and confidence, but it was just another thing she would have to let slide by.
    “Alright, then. I shall take your word for it. If my father can forgive you for it, then I can let it go… for now. We have much to discuss and it will be a late night, so please, eat.”
    • • •
    They ate in silence. Brandon kept stealing glances at her, wanting to tell her the truth. She should know. She had a right to know. Regardless of how badly he wanted to tell her, he knew that she would respond poorly. There was no way of avoiding that. He just had to keep his mouth shut. Like she had said, if her father still trusted him, then she could as well. He didn’t want to lie to her, but telling her the truth was going to end badly.
    “Sir Brandon.” Her words brought him from his own thoughts and he looked up from his soup to her beautiful brown eyes. “Please, excuse me, but I am going to be blunt with you. I have to be blunt with you.” He nodded quickly and set down his spoon.
    “Of course, my princess. I hope that you can always be blunt with me.” Brandon wished for much more than blunt speech between the two of them, but this showed she trusted him. It was more than he could have ever hoped for. She even knew that he was holding a secret, and yet was still trying to have honesty between the two of them.
    Eleanor seemed to be drawn into her thoughts, as her eyes were resting on her tray. Brandon wanted to reach his fingers out to graze her cheek or chin and bring those eyes to look into his again, but he feared the rejection that would accompany the meeting of their eyes. His luck already felt pushed for the day.
    “Sir Brandon, within a sennight, I will be queen. That fact gives me no pleasure. You, of all people, know the pain that I currently endure…” Her words trailed off, and finally her eyes rose from where they had been settled on her tray.
    Her eyes still looked red from the tears she had shed earlier, but there were no tears now. Instead, he saw the hardness that was so apparent in her father begin to slowly return to her face. She was trying to put on the look of the strong monarch, instead of the grieving daughter. In moments like these, he wished nothing more than to pull her into his arms and comfort her.
    “I will not allow for fear to plague my people. The border has not been safe for generations, but war is on the edge. More than ever, my knights must be prepared. This kingdom will not be filled with ravaged villages, farms destroyed, and families broken. I mean to end this quickly and sufficiently, should it begin. With the rise of a Queen to our throne, we will look vulnerable, and I will not be taken advantage of.”
    Brandon nodded to himself at her words. It had been many generations since a daughter had taken the throne. The last Queen to take the throne of her own right had taken it in a time of complete peace. While the economy had prospered and culture flourished, there had been no military struggles. Who was to know what would happen with Eleanor becoming Queen and how Archaria would react. The king was sure to take advantage of any perceived weakness.
    “Of course, my princess. I understa-“
    “No, Sir Brandon, I do not think you understand. War shall soon be upon us, and I may be quite alone in that venture.” Brandon stiffened at those words. Why would she be alone? She had to marry to take the throne. Surely she would wed the Prince of Bromaric. He could easily lead the knights to victory.
    “I have not yet chosen the future king, and while I fear for the safety of our kingdom, military is not the only aspect I must take into account. I wish it was the only trial that I must face, but it is one of many. I need the knights prepared, and I need someone to lead them.”
    If Brandon’s body had not already been tensed, he would be as stiff as a board now. Where were her words leading, and what did that have to do with his trust. He lost the courage to look at her any longer and glanced down back at his food. He dropped his hands from the tray and wiped his fingers clean on his pants, not knowing what to say.
    “I also need protection. There is no heir to the throne. Should I die, the nobility will be in an uproar, squabbling over the absurd, and allow Venaramine to be ripped apart by our enemies. To be perfectly honest, I do not know which is more important- the protection of the boarders, or the protection of the Queen.”
    Brandon looked up again and saw that Eleanor had let her gaze fall back onto her tray. This was one of those moments that he longed to hold her. He almost spoke to console her, but he could see her lips parting to speak again.
    “Sir Brandon, I am frightened. Frightened of what is to come, and what I cannot control. I need every soul that can be counted on to stand by my side. Perhaps I am selfish in this, but I need you to be beside me when the time comes. You have long served my father as the Captain of the King’s Guard, and you will continue on those duties in an increased scale.”
    “My father has always commanded the army. It has been the duty of the King for the past few generations. However, I cannot take that role. I need someone else, with the experience on the battlefield. I have decided to place Lord Erstein as Commander of the Army. His position on the council is important, but I need him on the battlefield far more. This will leave a vital role of the Council open.”
    Brandon nodded to himself absently. Lord Erstein was a good choice. He had long served as King Juan’s second-in-command and had led men in to battle and victory countless times. He was by far one of the most battle hardened warriors and there was no one better to lead the assault on the borders. In taking up the place of second-in-command, the Lord had also received a great estate near the border. He could easily lead an army from there while still resting in his old age. Should the princess have asked him, that would be his choice as well.
    Brandon saw her eyes reach his, and he realized the last of her words. This would leave the Council short one. There had always been five lords in the King’s council. There was a military strategist, a man that understood the laws and histories, someone trained in numbers and finances, a Healer from Goddess, and a representative of the Nobility. Was he asking for her help in choosing?
    “You are being raised from Captain of the King’s Guard to a member of the Council. You will receive a title of nobility and the rank of Lord. You will be second on the Council to me alone and second in the military to Commander Erstein. You will stay by my side to guide and assist me, as well as protect me.”
    All of his training could not prepare him for this moment. Brandon felt his jaw almost drop to the floor and stared at her in shock. Had she completely lost her mind? He could not become a Lord of the Realm. Why would she choose him to join the Council. He would be Second?
    A giggle interrupted his thoughts, and he realized that Eleanor was laughing at him. She couldn’t seem to control her laughter either, and was almost doubled over. Was this some sort of a joke? She continued laughing and eventually caught her breath while Brandon stared at her. He stumbled for words while she kept chuckling to herself.
    “My lady, are you-“ He couldn’t even ask. There was no way she could be certain of this decision. It was by far one of the worst decisions she could have ever made. There was no doubt in his mind now that his secret would have to remain that way.
    Her laughing finally slowed and she took a few sips of her drink before speaking. “Your face… oh…” She laughed a few more times before it seemed she was ready to speak again.
    “Forgive me. Your face was written with shock, and I could not help but to laugh. I think it might be the first time I have truly laughed in days.”
    The smile that was spread across her face with her beautiful sparkling brown eyes was enough to make Brandon forget for a moment what they had been discussing. For the first time in so long, she looked alive. Her cheeks were flush from the laughing and her smile was wide while her chest raised and fell as she began to breathe again. Nothing else mattered to him when he saw that smile.
    “Sir Bran- oh wait, no. My Lord Brandon, do you accept the position?” Her eyes looked full of hope, and he knew he could not deny her, regardless of all his reservations. He simply nodded, and her face broke into a wider grin. “Thank you. You will not regret this. I will not regret this. I need you now more than ever, my Lord.” The last words were accompanied with a sweet smile and he felt his heart skip a few beats.
    He felt his smile start to grow, and for the first time in so long, he was smiling as well. Their eyes held the others, and he felt his heart begin to race again. He wanted to reach his hand forward to hold hers which was resting on the desk, but he feared ruining the moment. She had made him a Lord and Second-in-Command. While it was not official until the ceremony, it was as good as done. He was no longer a simple knight. As a Lord, he could go somewhere in life. As a Lord, he could pursue the thing he wanted most…
    “Thank you,” he said simply, almost whispering out the words. She returned his smile and they both nodded to each other. Silence crept over them, and she suddenly looked away and let her hands fall to her lap. The moment seemed ruined and he wondered what was on her mind now.
    “Brandon…” his given name on her tongue made his heart jump again. “Now, more than ever, I need my friends. I fear that war is coming, and this decision I must make in but a few days will be one of the easiest I shall have to make. Your life is about to change with the role you are now taking, and I worry that it may not be for the better and that you will resent me for the responsibilities and charges I am placing upon you. I can trust no one else to be honest with me.”
    “My princess…” the words rolled off his tongue so easily. For so long, his heart had said the words MY princess, and he knew that the words from his mouth must sound the same. “you can trust in me.”
    Eleanor seemed to be drifting off to her thoughts again and simply nodded before rising from her chair. Brandon jumped up to do so as well. “I know. I know.” She gave him a soft smile before yawning to herself. Shaking her head as if she was trying to shake the sleep away, she gave him another soft smile.
    “Forget this. I will not drag you through policies and decision making this late. Go to bed, Brandon, and on the morrow, you shall move into your new rooms within the palace. I have already sent notice, but a council meeting shall be held after lunch. I expect you to be there. The official ceremony for yourself and Lord Erstein shall be held before dinner. We have another long day ahead of us.”
    Brandon simply nodded to himself and then bowed low as she turned and left the room. He stared at her for a moment and felt his heart race again. She had called him simply Brandon quite a few times tonight, and she trusted him. She trusted him enough to make him her second. She trusted him enough to make him a Lord. Never in his life would he have seen this happening, and now, he didn’t know what to do, except thank the Goddess for the good fortune that had happened upon him.

    • • •

    As soon as she was in her rooms again, Eleanor shut the door and leaned against her. Her heart was still racing. What had she done? She hadn’t planned on any of what had occurred, but the thoughts had dawned on her all the same while writing out notices for the next day. She needed someone around to protect her and guide her, and the only person that she truly wanted nearby, if not her father, was her ever watchful knight. Lord Brandon… it sounded beautiful to her ears.
    She also couldn’t forget the way he had said “My Lady” and “My Princess.” Eleanor had spoken with the same emphasis when she had called him “My Lord.” She knew that the simple flirtation between them was wrong and that her heart was simply searching for something steady given the rocky path that lay before her. What was she thinking, letting herself grow closer to the man?
    The thought that truly made her heart race, however, was not the thought of his words nor the sudden decisions she had made. Nay, they were not the thing that set her skin on fire, or even the blow that knocked the breath from her body. It was her thought that had occurred while she stared into his eyes. Her body had finally betrayed her in its desires. For in that moment, while she stared deep into his eyes, she had wanted nothing more than for his kiss.
    Chapter Five

    Chapter Seven

  6. Christine
    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.
    “You have…”
    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.
    “Protect her.”
    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.
    “Oh, Eleanor…”
    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.
    Chapter Four

    Chapter Six

  7. Christine
    Chapter Eight : Goddess, Save Me

    As Eleanor walked down the hallway towards the dining room with a cool smile on her lips, she felt her stomach instead twisting and turning. Of all the things that she needed to be doing right now, having lunch with the three suitors was not one of them. There were Lords to meet with, and petitioners to listen to. She had more reports from Bromaric on the death of the King, and she even wanted to spend a few moments with her father while he was still alive. She knew that as Queen her time would always be precious, but not even having a moment’s peace was growing tiring.
    When she walked into the dining room, she saw that all three men had already arrived, but were doing their best to not talk to each other. Duke William was sitting in a chair reading one of the books she recognized from her library. Prince Alexander was talking with a man that looked like his servant and reading over a few papers that she swore had the same seal that hers had coming from Bromaric. Duke Phillip had an empty glass of wine in one hand and was beckoning for a servant to refill it with the other. They barely even noticed her entry.
    She was, of course, slightly late. After the Council meeting had finished, she had gone straight to her study and immediately pulled all of the pins and ribbons from her hair. She needed to feel for a moment that she had some freedom in her life, and the woven strands of hair too closely signified the way that her life was already woven for her. With her hair free and waving softly over her shoulders, Eleanor had returned the simple tiara back atop her head. If Brandon thought anything odd of her change in hair style, he made no display of it.
    For a moment, she had thought about dismissing him while she was in this luncheon. There were plenty of guards and servants around, so she would be safe, and did not want to punish him by having him stand and watch her deal with the three suitors. At the same time, she also wanted his strength nearby for her to rely on. When she had almost not walked through the door into the Dining Room, however, her decision was made for her as he had been the one to escort her inside.
    Not even glancing at the men, Eleanor made her way to the head of the table. Brandon immediately moved to escort her to her seat, and once she reached the chair, she coughed slightly to grab the attention of the other diners. All three immediately turned towards the noise, and they all had mixed reactions. Alexander quickly looked away and dismissed the man he had been talking to. Phillip seemed to groan slightly and walked towards the table. William completely dropped his book and dashed to his seat.
    Brandon pulled the chair out for her, and Eleanor gave him a soft smile. As she sunk into her chair, she watched the other three men do the same. Alexander, as a Prince, sat to her right hand side. William, as a Foreign Lord, sat at her left hand, and Phillip sat on the other side of him. Brandon moved to take a place standing just behind the right side of her chair, always present if she needed anything.
    With a simple nod of her head to the nearest servant, Eleanor signaled the start of the meal. The glasses were immediately filled with wine and trays of meat and fruit were brought out and placed upon the table. Eleanor took only a few pieces of pork and sipped at her wine slowly. Baskets of bread and cheese were brought out quickly as well, and she took a few pieces of cheese. If she could succeed in keeping what was on her plate down, she would be happy. At present, however, her stomach felt ready to flip.
    The table was completely silent as they all idly ate their food, and Eleanor was ready to just rise from her seat and leave them all there. She had actual work to do, and dealing with the cause of the awkward silence that filled the room was the least of her priorities. She took a single glance back at Brandon, and he stepped forward immediately and bowed low so that his ear was at the same level of her lips. She licked her lips as she prepared to speak, and she watched his eyes dart towards her mouth quickly.
    Color came to her cheeks immediately, and she had to work to whisper out the words. “Lord Brandon, get me out of here,” she whispered softly, then jumped when a loud pounding came from across the room. She turned quickly and noted that Brandon’s hand immediately went to the sword that lay across his back, and the cheeks that were once red now became white.
    Duke Phillip had risen from his chair, his hand still lying flat on the table, and was glaring at Eleanor and Brandon. Brandon had released his hand from gripping the hilt of his sword and Eleanor gave him a simple shake of her head. The man stepped back and lowered his arm as Eleanor turned back to the now seething Duke.
    “Duke Phillip, is there something you wish to say?” she asked cooly. Her eyes had settled back onto her plate, as though she barely even noticed his sudden outburst. Eleanor raised her eyes to see that Prince Alexander had slightly risen from his chair. His hand was resting dangerously close to his sword hilt and his eyes were glaring at the risen Duke.
    Eleanor’s eyes then glanced at Duke William, who had also risen from his chair. Instead of looking angry, however, the man looked scared out of his wits, and was standing on the other side of his chair, close to Eleanor and her protection. Phillip still looked angry enough to destroy the table.
    “If there is not something you wish to say, then I strongly suggest that you sit down and eat your food.” The bite on her words sounded almost like a Mother snapping at a child throwing a tantrum, but the effect worked, and the Lord returned to his seat. Alexander did the same, although his hand was still resting on his sword, and William scooted his chair further from the angry man to his left.
    “Thank you, my Lord.”
    Eleanor glanced back at Brandon, who was still standing there taking in the scene looking as tense as ever. She gave a glance towards the door, then looked back at the man and shook her head slightly, to signify that she no longer wanted out of the room. She had to talk to the men sometime, and it was clear that emotions were starting to run high.
    Rising from her seat slowly, she shook her head as all three rose with her. They all returned to their seats slowly, and she rested the palms of her hands on the edge of the table and leaned her weight forward onto them. Some of her hair fell forward but she still continued to glare at the three men sitting around her.
    “My Lords, I will not lie to any of you. You all know why you are here, so I shall keep my words simple and make the truth plain to all of you. I must marry. You all three come with things that I need. All three of you desire an alliance with this crown and kingdom. My birthday is the day after tomorrow. I will be choosing then. After that point, if you are not chosen, an alliance will still be drawn up, if you and those you represent choose to move forward with it. Tomorrow, you will each have time spent with me. Until then, do not presume too much of yourself. None of you are my husband, yet, and none of you rule in my palace. Keep yourself respectful, or else see yourself out. I have no time for games.”
    None of the three men moved. They all just stared at her with their mouths wide opened, and she glared at each until she got a simple nod. Excellent. At least they now understood their place. And, she had given herself a deadline and let them all know to prepare to spend time with her.
    “Now, if you will excuse me, I have other matters to attend to. Lord Brandon, if you will-“ Her words were cut off by another slamming of a hand on the table. Unsurprisingly, it was Duke Phillip again. His words flowed from his mouth before she could even get over her shock and glare at him.
    “LORD Brandon? You have raised your father’s pet to a LORD?”
    “Phillip, sit down and silence your tongue before I cut it out.” Eleanor’s fist curled up into a ball, but she kept her anger in check. Her voice had a powerful tone in it, as did her glare, and he sat back down quickly and looked almost in fear of her. “LORD Brandon is now a member of the Council, and therefore holds a higher rank in the realm than you. Remember your betters before you speak again.”
    Turning on her feet, she gave Brandon a small glance before walking straight towards the door. The knight looked shocked but followed after her just as quickly. Once the doors to the Dining Room were shut behind them, Brandon immediately turned and grabbed Eleanor’s arm and turned her to face him. The guards that stood on either side of the door looked nervous, wondering if they should protect their Princess, or leave them in peace, given who the person grabbing her arm was. She waved them off with a single glance and then looked up at Brandon.
    “You cannot marry him. He would destroy the Kingdom, after he destroyed you.”
    Eleanor sighed. That was one of her many fears about marrying Phillip, but she needed the money he would bring. “I know, Brandon, but did you not hear what Tiirwin said?” Eleanor realized that they were standing in the middle of a well traversed hallway with servants and guards milling about. This was not something they should be discussing in public.
    “Lord Brandon, I have a dress fitting I must go to. We shall discuss this later, before the ceremony, alright?”
    Brandon looked like he had more to say, but he nodded his head anyway. “Of course, Princess, but we must discuss it.”
    She gave him a simple nod then looked around the hall for a moment. Seeing that the hallway was suddenly empty save for the two guards that were looking away from them, she reached her hand up slowly to Brandon’s cheek. Tracing his jawline slowly with her fingers, she thought about the feeling of his lips in her hair the night before. Had it only been one night since she had been safe and secure in his arms? She wondered for a moment what it would be like to be held in his arms again, and to feel his lips back in her hair.
    Brandon’s opposite hand had come up to delicately touch her arm. His fingers were warm against the sleeve of her dress and she thought about the feeling of his fingers touching her own bare skin. “I know, Brandon. I know what I risk. But I do not have much of a choice.”
    Her fingers lingered on his cheek for a moment longer before her arm fell to her side, and his fingers did the same. They stared for another long moment deep into the other’s eyes, and Eleanor wished that the moment would never end.
    “Eleanor, there you are, I have been-“ Eleanor turned to see her mother walking down the hallway. The Queen had paused in her words and steps upon seeing Eleanor and her knight standing together in the hallway, and Isabella eyed the two before speaking again. “Come, daughter. You are late for your dress fitting.”
    Eleanor nodded then glanced back at Brandon, who stared down at her sadly. “I shall see you at the ceremony, my Lord. Until then…” She turned and walked away from the knight, not even able to turn and look back at him.
    As soon as she was at her Mother’s side and out of sight of Lord Brandon, Eleanor grabbed the Queen’s arm and stopped them both in their steps. Isabella looked down at her daughter with sadness in her eyes, and Eleanor could see the redness that still surrounded them. “Mother, I don’t know what to do,” she whispered softly. Isabella just nodded in response.
    “I know, my child.”
    The two women spent a few moments in silence as they slowly began walking down the hallway, and the Queen slipped her arm into her daughter’s as they walked. With their arms link, Eleanor leaned her head to rest on her mother’s arm as she had so often when she was younger. The silence was not interrupted by anyone around them, and Eleanor feared to speak.
    “Mother, I am so sorry, about father.” The words were barely audible, but the Queen heard them all the same, and she nodded again.
    “Thank you, my dear. I am sorry as well, that this is being placed onto your shoulders so soon.” It was Eleanor’s turn to nod.
    They reached Eleanor’s receiving room in silence, where numerous dresses were placed around the room for the princess to try on. While it would be spoken that all of the dresses were to be for her selections for the ball and the ceremony that evening, Eleanor was also looking for the gown for when her father died. The tailor knew that she would need a wedding dress that would also fit a somber occasion, so there would be no need for too much secrecy, except from the servants assisting.
    Eventually selecting out three dresses, Eleanor dismissed the tailor and her assistants and beckoned for her mother to follow. The entire time while the fitting occurred, Queen Isabella had stood to the side and watched in silence, offering only a nod or a shake of her head to signify her opinions on various dresses. Both women were silent as they walked towards the guarded area of the Council hall, and as they approached the door to the inner Council chambers, Eleanor flicked her hand, signifying the guards away. They nodded simply and moved away from the door to take an opposite stand across the hallway. They could still guard without being right beside the door, and Eleanor wanted to know that her words could not be overheard.
    Walking into the Council doors, Eleanor shut the doors gently and turned to her mother, who looked on the point of exhaustion. The woman had most likely not slept in the past few weeks, and if she had, it was only due to absolute weariness. Eleanor almost wanted to keep her problems to herself, but she needed to talk about it with someone.
    “Please sit, mother. You look as if you are swaying where you stand.” The Queen simply nodded her head and did as told, sinking into one of the soft chairs. Eleanor walked to the other side of the table and stood watching her mother for a moment. The regal queen could not even look up from where her haunted eyes graced the floor.
    Slipping into her chair, Eleanor opened up her stack of papers and pulled out one which was covered with the writing from the Master of Finance. She needed to know how much her mother knew about the state of money in the kingdom, because depending on how much she knew would show how worried her father had been about it.
    Sliding the paper in front of her mother, the princess watched silently as the Queen picked up the paper and glanced over it quickly. Her eyes widened greatly, and Eleanor knew the answer to her question before she even asked it. The question came out in a simple whisper. “Did you know?”
    Immediately, the queen’s eyes shot up from the paper, her mouth opened slightly in surprise. Her eyes held for a moment before they looked back down at the paper again in shock. “Eleanor… what are you going to do?”
    Eleanor took the paper from her mother and returned it to the stack. This was bad. In all matters, her father shared with her mother. Things from a servant’s family member dying to matters of state and diplomacy had always been discussed between the couple. If her father had not shared the details, it meant that even he didn’t know what to do.
    Rising slowly from the chair, she looked down at her mother sadly. “There is more. Alexander’s father is dead. Archaria is to blame for yet another Royal death.” The queen’s shocked gasp in response almost made Eleanor flinch. She didn’t need any reminders of how bad the current situation was, and without her mother even controlling her emotions, it was just another reminder that things were progressively declining.
    “Eleanor, I do not-“ Her mother’s voice shook as she tried to speak, and the woman slid from the chair onto her knees, her face buried deep into her hands. Her words now came out in just a rasp of her voice. “By the Goddess, what shall we do?”
    The princess slid from around the table and sunk to her knees before her mother and wrapped her arms gently around the woman. The two hugged each other tightly as Eleanor fought back tears. She had been hopeful of finding solace within her mother, but the Queen was far too broken to be of any support now.
    “The Goddess will provide, mother, and I will do what I must.”
    • • •
    Within moments of Eleanor entering, the Temple had been completely cleared of anyone that was inside. Dominic had offered to stay with her, but she had simply shaken her head, wishing to be alone. Once the doors were shut, she looked around the place that she was now using for sanctuary. The Great Tree was directly before her, with short grass around it. The stones that lead up to the grassy area were cold beneath her bare feet as she slid her feet from her shoes and within a few seconds, she felt the earth and grass where stone had been a moment before. Her feet flexed for a moment as she lifted the hem of her dress, careful to get no dirt on the hem, and walked towards the base of the tree.
    Standing just beside it was a row of candles that Dominic had retrieved for her before disappearing. It was a row of ten candles, held specifically for the Royal family. A small bundle of matches lay beside it, ready to be lit from one of the candles that were still resting on the stone behind her. The candles themselves were all in a single holder that was resting on the ground.
    Taking a match, she went and lit it from one of the already lit candles and walked back up to the base of the tree. Folding up the front of her skirt, she sunk onto her knees so that the inside of her dress was all that touched the ground. There before the Great Tree that made every Temple a true temple to the Goddess, she lowered her head reverently, then looked to the candelabra beside her.
    Goddess, bestow me with wisdom.
    Goddess, grant me clarity.
    Goddess, favor me with your light.
    Goddess, show me your mercy.
    Goddess, make me strong.
    Goddess, weaken my enemies.
    The words came out easily enough, which she had repeated far too many times to remember. With each new request, she lit a single candle. It was not a prayer from the religion, nor was it one spoken by the Healers, but instead it was a prayer of her family. Many generations of Venaramine rulers had prayed the prayer, asking for help as they lead the kingdom.
    Goddess, protect my family.
    Goddess, heal my spirit.
    Goddess, guide my path.
    Her hand paused then, looking at the last candle, and a single tear rolled down her cheek. So many times she had prayed this prayer, and yet she did not feel full of wisdom. Her thoughts were still cloudy. Everything was falling around her. There was no mercy being given to her. She felt completely weak. All her enemies were growing stronger. Her father was dying, and her spirit was dying with him. Even the path she was taking seemed to be going nowhere except down.
    Goddess, give me your Blessing.
    Eleanor slowly lit the last candle, then blew out the match in her hand. She watched the ten flames flicker back and forth, and she looked back to see that someone had come in to join her. Brandon. She should have known that he would not leave her alone for long.
    After leaving her mother, she had gone up to her room and changed into the dress for the Ceremony. It was a deep red, darker than blood, with a curved neckline and small pearls for decoration. The bodice was tight around her frame and the skirts swept out at her hips. The sleeves were form fitting but not too tight. It was one of her favorite from all she had tried on, but not a royal purple she needed to wear for her coronation nor the white she had to wear for her birthday.
    After finishing dressing, she had slipped from her room and down to the Temple, not wanting to run into a suitor or anyone else that needed to discuss politics. She had no one to turn to for solace except the Goddess, so that was where she planned to spend a few moments before making certain the plans for the ceremony were complete.
    Looking back at the candles, she watched them burn. Eleanor didn’t know how long she stayed there, on her knees in simple thought, but a hand on her shoulder eventually brought her back to the present. Blinking a few times, she realized that they were over halfway burned. How had an hour passed so quickly?
    The hand on her shoulder disappeared and was replaced by a chin as an arm slowly wrapped around her waist. She knew without looking that it was Brandon. He pulled her back to lean against him, and she let her body melt against his for a moment. Neither of them spoke as they stayed there, both on their knees, with now both his arms wrapped around her waist.
    When the candles had burned down to the point of having almost no wick or wax left, Eleanor pulled away from Brandon and rose to her feet. Brandon did the same, and they both turned in silence away from the tree. Her feet slipped back into her slippers quickly before she walked across the rest of the stone and went to open up the door.
    A light breeze immediately greeted her as the door opened, and she stood there for a moment, soaking in the warmth of the sun that poured in. She felt a presence standing close behind her, and she glanced back to see Brandon with a solemn look.
    “I think, my Lord, that the ceremony will be starting soon.”
    Brandon nodded his head once. “Indeed, my Lady.”
    A silence came over them again for a moment before Eleanor reached out her hand and slipped it into the curve of his arm. He looked down at her, shocked for a moment, and she looked away, back towards the palace.
    “I think, my Lord, that we also need to have our talk. Will you please take a walk with me through the gardens?”
    Brandon did not respond as they began walking towards the nearby gardens. They did not speak as they passed by benches and fountains while making their way into the furthest back area. Guards stood on either side of this section, allowing only the Royal Family and their guests to enter. They both gave a slight nod as the pair of them stepped through the archway and Eleanor walked a few more steps before sitting down on the stone edge of a fountain.
    Brandon stood there for a moment before sinking down to sit beside her. Eleanor let her fingers trail across the water for a moment, her fingers brushing the petals of flowers that floated on the calm surface. The silence was not awkward, but peaceful. Even still, it could not last.
    “If I can somehow secure an alliance with Alexander that does not include marriage, then I will select William. By choosing William, I can get money and economy, and still have military support from Bromaric. If Alexander will not lend me his support, then I shall have to choose between him and Philip, but I cannot have a military alliance if I have no money to pay for the army. War with Bromaric, if it occurs, will wait till after we deal with Archaria, of that we can be certain.”
    She prayed that they would not have to come to blows with Bromaric at all. Any sort of war so soon after dealing with another enemy would surely end in disaster. She had confidence in her army, but this would be pushing them too far.
    “Philip has the money. Philip has the land with timber, marble, and iron. Philip also has the largest private army. The only negative of marrying Philip is Philip himself. That is the only reason I am even considering anyone else. I have to do what is right for the Kingdom, even if it will destroy me in the process.”
    Brandon’s hand came to rest on hers in the water, and her fingers stilled from their repetitive movements. Her hand felt warm in his, and she wished that things were simpler and she could truly make her own decision.
    “Princess... Eleanor… there is another option.”
    She looked up from where her eyes had been resting on their hands and sighed. “I have to marry to take the throne. I need military support to defend my kingdom. I need money and trade to keep my people fed and my army paid for. There is truly no other options available to me. Do you not think I have taken every effort to release myself from the bonds that are tightening around me?”
    Brandon nodded once, then pulled away from her, his hand going with him. Eleanor placed her hand in her lap and returned her eyes back to the water. Did Brandon think that she actually wanted to marry Philip? Why would he even suggest there was another way? What if he had something in mind?
    “Brandon?” He turned back to look at her from where he was standing a few paces away. “Is there another option?”
    His face seemed to twist for a moment as he turned away from her, and she could tell my his stance that he was deep in thought. For a moment, Eleanor wanted to rise from where she sat and go to him to give him comfort. His thoughts seemed to greatly bother him.
    When he did turn back, he took two quick steps towards where she sat. She rose then from her seat and stared up at him. The silence was deafening before he finally spoke. “There is another kingdom you could align yourself with. The King is childless and his brother is sure to take the throne. You would have no need for an army with this alliance and with those trade routes open and combined resources, economy would flourish again. You could marry the Prince of Archaria.”
    Eleanor felt her face go white for a second and she stared at him in shock. Was he honestly suggesting that she marry into the family that had killed her father? Marry the man that could have quite possibly called for the death of two kings? Had Brandon lost it, or did he truly hate Philip that much?
    Before she could help herself, Eleanor’s hand darted out and she slapped him across the face. He didn’t even move to stop her and just took the hit. No wonder he had been having such a difficult time speaking. Whatever she had been expecting him to say, that was certainly not it. Her fingers burned from the slap, and she raised her other hand to slap him across the other cheek. He was lucky she didn’t curl her hand up into a fist and actually punch him.
    This time, he caught her wrist with his hand, and his eyes looked sad. She realized then what she had done, and been about to repeat. He released her hand and she took a step back, covering her mouth with both hands in the process.
    “Oh Brandon, oh my, oh Brandon, I am so sorry,” she gasped out, then burst into tears. Unable to control her feet, she stepped forward and buried her face into his chest. Brandon was still for a moment before his arms wrapped around her, and he held her there while she cried. She kept whispering how sorry she was and begging for his forgiveness, but he said nothing.
    Finally, she pulled away from him and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Brandon, please say something. Please, I cannot stand this silence from you. Yell at me, hate me, whatever you must do, but just say something.”
    Brandon’s hand raised to her cheek lightly, and she reacted involuntarily as she leaned her head into his touch. “No, Eleanor. There is nothing to forgive. I should not have brought it up. I simply fear what this war and that man will do to you. It is I who must beg your forgiveness.”
    Eleanor burst into a fresh round of tears at his words and he pulled her back into his arms. He backed up to sit down on the stone ledge and pulled her down with him, letting her sit across his lap. She was greatful that they were in private so that no one could see them, and she sobbed harder into his chest, knowing that for a few moments she could let it all out.
    When Brandon finally released her from his arms, she felt cold, wishing that she could be wrapped up in them again. Wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, she started laughing from the way her reflection looked on the water. She needed to return to her rooms and clean up quickly before she went to the ceremony.
    Leaving Brandon in the garden behind her, she gave him a soft smile and went back to her room, knowing that she still had a long night ahead of her. If things could go her way, she would have spent the evening in the garden with Brandon, or even back in the Temple. His arms wrapped around her had been like a dream, and she didn’t want to let go of that dream yet.
    • • •
    He was a fool. An absolute fool. What had he been thinking, bringing up an idea of marriage to her enemy? He knew that that would never happen, ever. He had wanted to tell her that she could marry for love. He had wanted to tell her that she could marry him. He wanted to say that he would take her away from all of the pain around her, and let the nobles sort it out in their wake. He wanted to tell her that Philip would never hurt her as long as she would let him protect her. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her, that the feeling of her in his arms felt right, and that she would never cry or worry again if he could help it.
    Why had he mentioned Archaria? It had seemed like such a good idea, to just mention some other kingdom that she wasn't already looking into, but there was no real other options. Unmarried Lords were too few, and her coronation was only a few days away. It wasn't like Archaria would actually want to align with Venaramine, and there was definitely no way that the King would let his younger brother marry a future Queen and his greatest enemy.
    His face still burned from where her hand had slapped him, and he cursed himself silently for his own stupidity. He was lucky that was all she had done. By the Goddess, did she have fire inside of herself! The thought of it made his cheeks burn and he thought back to how Philip would destroy her spirit. He couldn't let that happen. No matter what occurred, there was no way that Brandon would let that spoiled boy destroy the woman he loved.
    Chapter Seven
    Chapter Nine
  8. Christine
    Chapter Two : A Step In A Different Direction

    Relaxing into the soft chair that matched her dressing table, Eleanor set her head back, allowing calmness to sweep over her as Gayle worked her magic in brushing out all of the knots and tangles that had accumulated during her ride earlier. Gayle had been her nurse since she was a baby and had long been a confidant. She was also the one that Eleanor relied upon to work wonders with her hair, choose her dresses, and match the jewelry to accompany. It was no wonder that Gayle always seemed to be with the Royal Dressmaker whenever Eleanor could not find her. The woman certainly had a gift when it came to decorating, whether it was in a home or on a person.
    The long brown hair quickly became two long braids, which was then twisted up in pins to form a beautiful braided bun on the back of Eleanor’s head. Gayle held up a mirror to show Eleanor the wonderful creation, and Eleanor gave the woman a smile of appreciation. Gayle disappeared to continue working on the ensemble, allowing Eleanor a moment to bury her face into her hands, wishing that she could escape this decision.
    Looking at her reflection in the mirror, Eleanor sighed again, ready to just get it over with. She was so anxious. What if the man was horrid? What if he didn't want to marry her? What if he was exactly what she needed? There were too many unanswered questions, and she feared that none of them would be answered for quite some time. She wished that she could just go to sleep and wake up, simply married to the right man with the kingdom in complete peace, but fortune would not allow her that.
    Eleanor felt cold metal touch her skin, and she realized that Gayle was hooking a necklace to her. It was a simple chain with a ruby that dangled just above her cleavage. The matching earrings came on next, also with a simple chain and ruby, and the beautiful tiara was slid into her hair and pinned on. The tiara was one of Eleanor’s favorites, as she had numerous in this style. The simple silver band held a few stones in it to match whatever she was wearing, and the stones in this tiara were, of course, rubies.
    “You are ready, my lady. Come, now, you must face this task head on, for waiting will only add more fear to your heart.”
    Eleanor sighed loudly, knowing that Gayle was right. The woman always seemed to be full of good advice, which was why Eleanor relied on her so much. Of course, just because the woman had good advice did not mean that she wanted to listen. Rising from her chair, Eleanor slipped her feet into the simple slippers that matched her gown. The slippers and her over skirt and bodice were both a rich deep blue, with the underskirt and sleeves a simple white. The entire look, paired with the rubies, gave Eleanor confidence, knowing that she looked beautiful. Gayle truly did have a gift.
    "Thank you, Gayle. You always do know how to make me look like a princess. And, just to note, I am not avoiding my fears. I am simply making certain that I am prepared to face them. Who even said that meeting him was a fear?"
    Eleanor eyed her maid for a second before they both burst out into laughter. Giving the woman’s hand a simple squeeze, Eleanor turned toward the door, took as deep a breath as her bodice would allow her, and walked out the door.

    • • •

    The doors opened to her personal receiving room, and Eleanor stepped in and took a look around. Whoever it was that had come to visit had not arrived yet. Good. That meant she had another few moments of freedom. She looked around the room, making certain that it was in perfect condition for visitors. Far too often she had come down to this sanctuary to relax away the constant demands of ruling a kingdom. Whereas her study was covered with tactical maps, trade agreements, books on war and law, and covered in various clutter, this room was neat and organized and filled with the things she loved best.
    Upon walking in, the wall to her left was covered in one long bookshelf; the shelf contained books of poetry, history, romance, and music. Opposite the door was numerous windows with window seats attached and covered in pillows for relaxing. To her right was a simple cabinet filled with liquor and glasses. Her mother might not approve of her drinking the hard stuff, but on occasion it was needed. In the corner beside the cabinet and the door was her piano, which gave her the greatest comfort of all. Eleanor wished that she was more accomplished at playing, but the moments that she could steal upon the beautiful instrument were some of her favorites.
    In the center of the room sat a long sofa with a simple table and three chairs facing towards the sofa around the table. It was there on the sofa that she plopped herself after grabbing a book of poetry from the bookshelf. Spending a moment flipping through the book, she sighed and set it beside herself before walking towards the windows. Looking outside, she allowed the feeling of the sun to warm on her face before looking down at the stables. She could see a few of the stable hands walking some of the horses, and noticed that Moonbeam was, as always, giving the poor boy a hard time. They were trying to guide her around, which Eleanor had learned quickly to not do. Moonbeam knew where to go and what to do, and Eleanor just went along for the ride. Attempting to control the horse always resulted on landing flat on her backside.
    A knock at the door pulled Eleanor from her thoughts and she glanced at the window, trying to see her reflection in the glass. Nodding in approval at her image, she moved from the window to one of the chairs and sat in it. Glancing at the book, she grabbed it in her hands and opened it up, wanting to look as though she had been reading. On second thought, the book was about poetry and would make her look weak. She slammed it shut and set it on the table as though it were a decoration, and then decided to instead be standing.
    “You may enter,” she said regally, and waited for the door to open.
    Expecting a man, she was disappointed when it was simply a servant. Eleanor sunk back into the chair as the woman curtseyed before her, and Eleanor gave her a nod, waiting to hear what she had to say.
    “My lady, would you care for tea?”
    Eleanor knew that she should probably call for some, as her guest might like some as well, but at the current moment, all she wanted was the liquid in the cabinet. Nodding her reply, the woman curtseyed again and left the room to go prepare a tea tray.
    Eleanor sighed again loudly and went to the cabinet, opening it to find a bottle of strong brown liquid. Opening the top to the brandy, she grabbed a glass and poured a little in. Replacing the lid, she picked the glass up in her hands, ready to down it, before setting the glass back down. On second thought, she was going to need more than one swallow. She poured a few more swallows into the glass before replacing the bottle in the cabinet and took a large gulp of the brandy.
    Swallowing it and cringing at the taste, she heard the door knock again. Thinking it was the maid, Eleanor invited the knocker in, and was surprised when it was instead a man. Eleanor was startled and immediately set her glass down. The man quickly bowed to her and she lowered herself into a graceful curtsey. After a moment, she rose from her position and the man did the same.
    Leaving the glass where she had placed it, Eleanor stepped towards him, elegantly looking up through her lashes. She did not know whether she should be looking at her feet, as she would with her father, or staring at him, as she would with any other man. Settling for somewhere in the middle, she got her first good look at him.
    He was strong. She could tell that much from just one glance. His muscles could easily be seen through the shirt and doublet he wore, and she noted that he was rather tall, although not so tall she would have to look up at him. His eyes were a deep green, almost like an emerald, and she noted that his hair, which was cut close to his head, was a few shades darker than her own. His jaw was strong, and his mouth looked set, almost as though he was a hard man. His face bore no scars, but she could see one on his neck and quite a few on his hands.
    As he took her hand into his, she noted that they were slightly rough, and she knew that whoever this suitor was, he was not one to think, but to take action. He dipped his head to kiss the top of her hand, and she noted that his lips barely touched her skin before he pulled back. She wrinkled her nose for a moment, wondering why he was so quick to stop touching her. His hand was warm, but other than that, his touch was nothing special.
    “Princess, I thank you for the invitation and warm reception I have received in your home. I am Prince Alexander, second son of the King of Bromaric.”
    Ah, he was the knight. That explained much already. She knew quite a bit about the Prince and his kingdom, and knew that he was quite possibly the greatest benefit to her kingdom’s safety. Bromaric was well known for her military. It seemed to be the only border country that could easily protect it and was well known for having the greatest army, the most advanced weaponry and armor, and perfect military tactics. An alliance with him would result in peace being kept along the borders and protecting her kingdom for many generations.
    As for the Prince himself, he was a well-known military commander. While other noblemen would simply assume the right to lead an army, he instead worked his way through the ranks, attained the rank of knight, and proved himself on the battlefield to eventually become the Commander of the King’s Cavalry. He was a battle hardened soldier and now the King was looking to form alliances by marrying off his sons.
    Beckoning her hand towards the sofa, Eleanor gave the man a warm and inviting smile. “I am so glad that you came, Prince Alexander. I have long been awaiting our introduction. Please, won’t you join me for some tea?”
    The prince offered her his arm and escorted her to the seats that were just a few steps away. It was as though he was following the guide to princely etiquette to the letter, but she wasn’t going to stop him. It was better than how she had seen some soldiers act. She took her seat all the same and he sat across from her. They eyed each other for a moment, and she wished that she could hear what he was thinking. There was so much running through her thoughts that she couldn’t make sense of it.
    In this kind of situation, what was there to say? Welcome to my palace, I need to get married, why should I marry you? She knew the reasons for marrying into the country. It was a well-known fact that she needed Bromaric’s military secrets, and an alliance would solidify the shaky neutrality that had been in place for only a few generations. Every time either army neared the border between the two, it was as though every breath was held, waiting to see if an attack would come. Eleanor needed secure borders.
    What she really needed to know was what would make him a great King. While she was the Queen by birthright, she needed a man to lead beside her. This was not her decision, of course. It was simply the law. And it was not a one sided law, either. The new monarch had to be married. The one with the royal blood ruled with the other being support, which meant she would not have to bow to her husband. Regardless, she wanted a strong man beside her, not one that would take over, nor one that would disappear after the wedding day.
    A knock came at the door to knock them both from their staring contest, and Eleanor jumped at the noise. The prince looked away from her towards the window, and they sat there awkwardly for a moment. They had been staring at each other for quite a few moments, and she feared that blood was rushing to her cheeks. How could she have let her thoughts run away from her?
    “You may enter,” she said simply, and was relieved to see the maid enter with the tea tray. The woman set it upon the table and went to the cupboard to clear away Eleanor’s brandy from earlier. “Leave it,” she said quickly, then waited till the maid left the room.
    Looking back at the Prince, she noticed that he was eyeing the tea tray oddly. How foolish of her; this man was neither a noble nor a woman that relished in the thoughts of relaxing. He was a battle hardened warrior – he would want something much stronger than tea, and so did she.
    "Would you like some tea, Prince Alexander, or would you prefer something a little... stronger?"
    The Prince looked up at her in surprise at the question, and she already knew what his response would be. “Stronger-“ Prince Alexander cleared his throat, as it seemed almost hoarse, before repeating himself. “Stronger, if you have anything, Princess.”
    Nodding to him, Eleanor rose from her seat and was delighted to see that he stood awkwardly as well. He did seem to have perfect manners. It was, however, not a requirement that he follow them while they were in private.
    “Please, my Lord, you do not need to stand every time I move. You will find that I do not often stay in the same place for long, and I would hate for you to trouble yourself.”
    Prince Alexander nodded, and she smiled again, moving towards the cabinet. Pulling the same bottle from it, she filled another glass halfway before replacing the bottle back inside. Taking both glasses back to her seat, she offered him his cup and took a small sip of her own.
    "While I do not normally prefer to drink liquor so early in the day, I know that this situation is certainly different from the normal. I find that having alcohol so easily at my disposal allows me to properly entertain whoever is visiting. I may be a Princess, but I am also the future ruler of this Kingdom."
    He gave her a simple nod. “I quite agree,” he said simply. Well, that was a start.

    • • •

    Brandon was completely lost in the moment as he swung his longsword with both hands, gripping to the hilt. His anger filled him and he attacked aggressively without giving the young knight any real chance of a moment’s rest. He was furious about his encounter earlier with Eleanor: how could he have allowed himself to hold her for so long? He knew better than to assist her for more than a moment and his cheeks would have burned had his blood not already been pumping through his body.
    The knight fell to the ground and Brandon was brought back to reality. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Brandon offered a hand down to the young man that was staring up in fear. He silently cursed himself, thinking of how foolish he was to have lost himself in his training. He was not small or weak and could easily hurt any that he sparred against. It was amazing that the lad had lasted as long as he did, but it did not change the fact that Brandon had lost control.
    The boy took his hand and Brandon pulled him back up to his feet. Shaking the boy’s hand, he released it and sheathed his sword. “You did good, lad. I am impressed you stood against me for so long.” The boy simply nodded in shock and let out a huge sigh. It was all Brandon could do to not laugh.
    Turning away from the boy and heading back to his room to wash up, his mind travelled back to Eleanor. He hadn't meant to hold her like that. Looking down at the beautiful woman in his arms, he had wanted to pull her much closer than she already was. He had wanted to brush back a few strands of hair from her face, and stare into her eyes without her looking away. His fingers still tingled from the feeling of her soft hair, and he cursed silently to himself as he trudged into his room.
    Slamming the door behind himself, Brandon took off his sword belt and leaned it up against the wall. His boots he kicked off his feet and he waited for the servant he had signaled as he walked in to bring bath water. It arrived quickly and Brandon finished pealing his clothes off before sinking into the water. It was one of the few perks of being a member of the King’s guard.
    Splashing water on his face and running his fingers through his hair, Brandon settled back for a moment, thinking about his predicament. The men always said that the best way to get a woman off your mind was liquor, cards, and a cheap woman. Nothing could help his situation. The only thing that would calm the raging storm within him was Eleanor.

    • • •

    “As you can easily see, my lord, we take great pride in our various achievements, be it in military or trade goods, as well as maintaining border and domestic peace. I must admit, of course, that our military is nothing in comparison to yours.”
    Eleanor took a sideways glance at the Prince on her arm, hoping that she would find some sort of pride within him. This was the fourth time she had complimented Bromaric to some form, and the most she had gotten was a nod. Once again, she got a nod, and Eleanor sighed again to herself. How was she supposed to get anywhere when the man hardly spoke or showed emotion?
    Looking down the long hallway, she smiled at some of the portraits and statues. While it was called a hallway, it was much more like a gallery, filled with various markings of achievements throughout the kingdom. There were paintings of past monarchs and military commanders, pedestals with trade discoveries on them, and various weapons all decorating the hallway.
    They reached the next long hallway, this one filled with portraits of kings on their horses with hunting animals to accompany. There were numerous animal heads that were mounted along the wall, and Eleanor took pride in this room. A few of the deer had been hunted down by Eleanor herself, with her taking the killing blow.
    "Do you like to hunt, my Lord?" she asked softly, hoping that perhaps she could finally have a common interest with the man. She noticed then that he was not beside her, and turned to see that he was standing at the door still. He was looking at all of the various heads on the wall, and she could not read his face.
    "Perhaps we could see the training yard.” It was not exactly what she expected to hear from him in response to her question, but if seeing the training yard would please him, then so be it. She just wished she could get some sort of real opinion from the man. He was solid on any sort of feelings or emotions and she knew that if they were to marry, she would need to find at least some sort of common ground. The benefits from a match would greatly benefit the kingdom, but she was not so certain that it would make her happy, or that he would even be a good king.
    "But, of course. Please, follow me."

    • • •

    Even after his relaxing bath, she was all he could think about. He wanted to possess her in mind, body, and soul, and the thought that she was currently with her future husband drove him wild with jealousy. He had to get out of the barracks and do something, but being around others would only worsen his mood. A ride through the countryside, to the field where she spent all her time, was the only real possibility for peace.
    Grabbing his sword from where it rested against the wall, he strapped it to his back over his simple clothes. The long sword had been his father’s and he much preferred it to the sword and shield he was often forced to wear in the field. It felt right, to hold the heavy weight in both hands and swing it back and forth. The simplicity of the weapon and the moves that accompanied it were what made the most sense to him.
    Making his way out of the barracks and down to the training yard, he saw the angel that had been plaguing his mind. She was a beautiful vision in her rich blue dress and her hair pinned up. It almost took his breath away to see her, so close, but so far. She looked pale, however, and he wanted to pull her into his arms and ask her what could possibly be the matter and promise to make it better.

    • • •

    Making their way into the yard, Eleanor thought for a brief moment about Sir Brandon. Was he out here training right now? Would she see him? She ran her eyes across the men that were training, but saw none that were even close to his height. She sighed again inwardly and continued beside Prince Alexander.
    Eleanor had completely run out of things to say. They apparently had absolutely nothing in common. She had tried discussing their kingdoms, discussing hunting, and was now trying her hand with her own military. Prince Alexander was looking around, and she could finally see a little light in his eyes. Perhaps they had finally hit the mark on his interest.
    Looking around again, she saw to her side the man she had been looking for just moments before. Sir Brandon was wearing simple breeches, his boots, a loose shirt, and his large sword across his back. It was so simple and rugged, yet she was drawn to the sight of him.

    • • •

    Against his better judgment, he took a step toward her then stopped as he saw what had caused her to be so pale. She was talking to a man about his height walking beside her. He had a warrior's stance, and he knew that this had to be one of her suitors. Jealousy filled him for a moment, but he calmed himself, knowing that he had no right to be jealous. She was the future Queen, and he was just a knight of the realm. She could never know the truth. She needed to marry for the kingdom.
    Wanting to turn away or run off, he glanced towards the stables, on the other side of Eleanor. There was no way he could get there without her noticing, and he almost hoped that she would see him. If he could be so close to her, to smell her lavender skin, it would drive him wild.
    He was staring at her, ready to make his move towards the stable, when he saw her look up and stop. For a brief moment their eyes met. Brandon could feel his face flushing, but he could not look away. He could see that her face flushed as well, and a wonderful breeze came by, and he could smell the lavender of her skin.

    • • •

    They held each other's eyes for a brief second, and she lost herself in that moment. He had always been a handsome man that had caught her eye, and she knew of the way he stared at her, but in this moment, the distance between them seemed so large, and she still felt she could run to him in a few seconds and not turn back.
    What was she doing with this Prince? Yes, it was the best thing for the Kingdom, but what about the best thing for her heart? The answer came as she felt the wind swirl around her, and she wished that their moment could last forever.
    The Prince spoke, and she turned her attention back to him. Was he allowed to train out here? That had to have been what he asked. "Of course, my Lord. You are a guest here and are welcome to make yourself quite at home."

    • • •

    The man beside her spoke, and she looked away from Brandon. The jealousy flared up in him again, but he took the opportunity to go to the stables. Running behind her quickly and dashing into the stables, he grabbed his horse, pulled him from his stall, and slid up onto his back, without even a saddle. Kicking his heels into the stallion's side, Brandon raced off, needing to get the brown eyed beauty from his mind.

    • • •

    Prince Alexander apparently took that to mean that he could start right then, as he had turned around and gone back into the castle. Turning her eyes back to where Brandon had been standing, she saw that he was gone, and turned around quickly to see where he was. She saw him come out of the stables on his horse, riding fast. Eleanor almost called out to him to stop, but she paused and watched him go. And for a brief moment, she felt sad.
    Chapter One

    Chapter Three

  9. Christine
    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?

    Chapter Two

  10. Christine
    Prologue : Making Decisions

    The candles that surrounded the room, her study, had been burning for hours, and the wax was dripping off onto the surrounding floor. The bookshelves on opposing walls that were normally perfectly organized were missing half of the books, as books were littered around the room, with maps and papers taking up most of the tables. Even the simple chairs had stacks of books placed on them, along with a few tea trays that had been idly forgotten. The wall with the door on it had a large map of the kingdom with surrounding area, and she had numerous notes pinned to it. The opposite wall had a large window with a window seat, and that was the only surface not covered in mess. The curtains were thrown open hastily, and the light of the moon was shining in to grant more light than the candles were. Staring had become absolutely tedious and pointless. Regardless of how hard she stared, Eleanor would not come to a conclusion just from staring at a list. In front of her was the most basic of all the information gathered.
    Walking over to the window, she stared out for a moment before climbing up onto the window seat on her knees, letting her elbows rest on the window sill. Her head fell into her hands, and she clenched her eyes for a moment, wishing that this burden was not hers to bear. Looking up from her hands, she brushed the stray hairs from her face, and stared out for a moment longer. The full moon's glow was illuminated across the lake to the North, and she could just barely make out the trees and field to the south. The road that led to the nearest village was underneath the moon, heading to the east, and she could see the last of the night lanterns being turned out. They were all relying on her, and she could not fail them.
    She could choose foreign protection and an alliance that would secure peace and block all attacks. She could choose foreign trade and a growth in commerce and prosperity. Or, she could choose a domestic bonding of two great families and an influx of wealth, power, and land. Every option had benefits. Every option missed something that another had.
    Spilling herself into the single chair in the room, Eleanor anchored her elbows on the table and buried her face into her hands. Squeezing her brown eyes shut for a moment, she opened them up to see the list again, hoping for some sort of revelation. Why had she been born an only child? Why did she have no siblings? Why did the only way to form a connection have to be herself? There was too much at stake to make the wrong choice, and it didn't even feel like she got to choose her future.
    Rising up again from the chair, she balanced herself with her palms pressed down on the table, bending forward to stare at the simple list. The long brown braid that was resting on her back fell forward, and she let it hang over her shoulder. Straightening back up, she idly picked at the stray hairs that had fallen out of the braid while her eyes starred at the basic words. This was getting her absolutely nowhere.
    Slamming her fist down on the table, Eleanor pursed her lips together and closed her eyes, silently whispering up a prayer for wisdom to support her. It was no use. She sunk back down into the chair, and called out for the guards that she knew were outside the door. They opened the doors quickly and bowed before her, awaiting her instructions.
    "Send for my mother," she said simply. They both bowed and closed the door as they stepped back into the hallway, and Eleanor could hear the sound of feet running away to carry the message.
    Her mother had always been the strong one that pushed for Eleanor's independence. When she was younger, Eleanor had loved that she could pursue whatever interest she had. When she wanted to learn to swing a sword, her mother had encouraged the king to purchase her a short sword she could wield. When Eleanor had wanted to take up foreign languages, her mother had sent for the best tutors. It was because of her mother that she was so accomplished.
    It was also because of her mother that this decision lay before her. Most monarchs would prepare weddings without even asking other's opinion. Her father had done it with some of his nobles. Why, then, had she not been treated the same? Couldn't she just leave it to her parents to make this decision? Her father was too ill to care anymore, although no one outside of the royal family knew that. Her mother had always cheered on her independence, and would give not even an eyebrow raise to help Eleanor with this decision.
    Eleanor walked to the small mirror that was just beside the window. It was not large, but she could see her entire face in it. Her brown eyes stared back almost without emotion, and she could see circles forming underneath her eyes. The light brown of her eyes matched the brown of her hair, and she tugged on the braid gently as it lay over her shoulder and between her breasts. Her chin was strong – one of the few facial features she had gotten from her father, as the rest was from her mother. She had to be calm. No matter how much she wanted to break down, she had to look strong. Yet, she did not feel strong.
    Tearing her eyes away from her own reflection, Eleanor stepped in front of the windows to take one last look outside. She wished she could become a bird, grow wings, and fly away. The responsibility was too heavy for one girl, and she feared that the decision she would have to make for the benefit of the kingdom would result on a heavy burden upon herself.
    A knock came at the door, and Eleanor turned quickly away from the mirror and said come. Her mother stepped into the room and closed the door behind herself. Eleanor sunk down into her chair again. She let her head hang forward for a moment and clenched her eyes shut, unable to look at her mother.
    "What is it, Eleanor? Have you made a decision, my dear?"
    Eleanor took a deep breath, knowing that her decision could change the fate of her land for future generations. For just a moment, she wished that she was not a princess. She wished that she was not the heir. And most of all, she wished that her father was not dying, leaving her to rule soon.
    "Indeed, mother."
    The air hung thick around her chair, and for just a moment, she considered just leaving the decision to chance… or even better, leaving it to her advisers. They had certainly argued about it enough before Eleanor had put her foot down and decided that the decision was hers alone to make.
    It was no use. Staring at the paper would change nothing.
    "Invite all three to court. I shall choose then who I shall take as my king."

    Chapter One

  11. Christine
    Chapter Nine : Oh What A Night

    "I will not wear it.”
    “Come now, Eleanor. You are Queen in all but name. You must wear it and embrace the woman you are becoming.”
    “I said I will not wear it. Take it back, Mother. Until father is dead, that is still yours. I will not wear it, no matter what you say.”
    “Eleanor, please, just be reasonable. You are presiding over the ceremony as the monarch, so you should look the part. No princess would be appointing a new commander nor appointing a new council member. You should wear the crown of a queen, not the tiara of a monarch.”
    “Mother, I will not wear your crown until I am crowned Queen. That is final. I am still a Princess, and will appear as such.” With those final words, Eleanor grabbed the crown from where it sat on top of her head and shoved it into her mother’s pleading hands. “Please. Let me be a Princess for another night. Just give me that.”
    The Queen stared down at the crown in her hands for another moment before giving a small nod and turning away from her daughter to return the crown to the box. Eleanor knew that her mother was trying to be helpful, but she simply wasn’t ready to take over as Queen. It was silly, as she had been ruling alone ever since her father became ill, but she wanted just a few more days to be the Kingdom’s beautiful princess, before she became the commanding queen.
    “Everyone leave,” Eleanor said softly, and everyone went to leave the room quickly. Her mother picked up the box and went to leave as well, but Eleanor grabbed her arm to stop her instead. Once all the doors were closed, she pulled her mother into a hug. “I am sorry, mother, but I am just not ready yet.”
    “I know, my dear. I know.” The queen was stroking her back like she had when she was a child, and Eleanor hugged her mother tighter. It was so hard, to be growing up so fast. She had thought it would be at least another 10 years if not more before she would have to take the throne, and yet here she was, only two-and-twenty, becoming Queen. Perhaps she should have been married sooner, or had more training, but all of that was the past now. All that mattered was she had to make the most of the time she had left as a Princess.
    “Will you help me finish getting ready?” Eleanor asked her mother as she pulled back, and the Queen gave her a small nod in response, accompanied with her gentle smile.
    Eleanor was already wearing her dress for the evening. The dress itself was blood red, with the underskirts and the decorative embroidery being white. The bodice was tight and the sleeves were slightly off the shoulder. At her hips, the dress split to reveal the bright skirts beneath, and the embroidery danced along the split up to her bosom. It was a dress made for a queen.
    The top half of her hair was twisted into a bundle with numerous ringlets falling down from it. The rest of her hair was flowing over her shoulders and back in gentle waves. The tiara that was slid into her hair was a bright silver with a single gem the color of carmine in the center. Her mother helped her to slide stud diamonds into each ear and then hooked the red and white gemmed necklace around her neck. The finishing touch was light color on her cheeks and lips.
    Staring at their reflection in the mirror, Eleanor studied herself before giving her mother a smile. She couldn’t believe how much they looked alike, but their coloring and hair were the same. The only difference was that Eleanor had her father’s dark eyes.
    “You look like a Queen, my beautiful daughter.”
    Eleanor turned on the chair and faced her mother. “I look like you, my beautiful mother.”
    The two women shared another hug before they went to leave the room together. The Queen went first to resume her place beside the dying King’s bed. As much as Eleanor asked her mother to join, the woman had said no and instead wished to spend a few more moments with the man she had loved for the past thirty years. Eleanor would not pressure her too hard away from his bedside.
    Stepping down the stairs, Eleanor kept telling herself to breathe. She had a long evening in a tight dress and needed to keep her cool. No matter what happened, she had to keep numerous secrets and wear a pretty smile without throwing all of the rules out the window and just doing as she pleased. She may have been born a princess, but she felt as though her life was held tighter than her stomach currently was.
    The walk down to the throne room was quiet as the halls seemed to be almost empty except for guards. Every noble was awaiting her arrival and every servant was preparing for the feast afterwards. It seemed to take forever, as she quickly placed one foot in front of the other, but eventually the double wooden doors that led to the grandest room of the castle came into view.
    The guards that stood on either side of the closed doors moved quickly to open them as she stood before them, and waited to be announced by the herald that stood by the door. Every person within the large room rose from their chairs and turned to face her. Keeping her shoulders back and her arms relaxed at her sides, she walked into the room, a soft smile on her face.
    Walking up the aisle, she saw that the three suitors were standing near to the front of the room, with their chairs being some of the closest. On the opposite side of the seating were the council members, save for Brandon and Lord Erstein. The two men for whom the ceremony was celebrating were standing before the three throne, both with a smile on their faces. Erstein looked proud, whereas Brandon looked… in awe? That could not possibly be correct.
    Walking between the two men, she went up to the throne and bowed her head for a moment before moving and taking the smaller chair to the left of the High Throne. That was still her father’s place while he was alive. The throne to the right was her mother’s. The spot that she took was that of the heir.
    Everyone took their seat after she did, and Brandon and Erstein knelt down before her. The words that Healer Dominic spoke passed through one ear and out the other as she watched the religious part of the ceremony take place.
    When it was finally her place to speak, she stepped first in front of Lord Erstein. Taking the thick chain from the servant beside her, she placed it over his head and let the chain rest across him. Only Dukes of the Realm could wear the heavy iron and jeweled chain across their breast. Next, she slid the fat ring onto the third finger of his right hand. This particular ring had to be dug out of storage, as it had been a long time since anyone other than the King commanded the army. No longer was he Lord Erstein, Marquees of Gweal.
    “Arise, Lord Commander Erstein, Duke of Gweal.”
    The man did so and took her outstretched hand to kiss it gracefully. He gave her a small fatherly wink before turning and stepping to the side so that Brandon could take the place he had just been kneeling upon. For Brandon, she took another ring, this one somewhat smaller in emblem, but the seal of Equitan sitting firmly in the middle. She slipped this onto the third finger of his left hand. From there, she took the cloak being offered to her and draped it across his shoulders. Anyone of nobility were given a red robe lined with white fur to signify their rank.
    Next, she took out the ring that Erstein had slipped to her earlier that day. It was the ring of a Council Member. She slid this onto the third finger of his right hand, and finally grabbed the rolled papers from the servant beside her. He was now a nobleman.
    “Arise, Lord Brandon, Marquees of Equitan.”
    Brandon looked up at her from his kneeled position and his eyes seemed to shine. She wanted for her eyes to shine back like his did, to show how proud she was of him, and how glad she was to have him at her side. She had so much more to say to him, and so many more things that she wanted to do for him. But not here, not in front of the court, and her suitors.
    He finally did rise, and gently kissed the top of her hand. It reminded her of how badly she wanted his kisses in her hair. Eleanor could already feel her face turning red, so she turned away from the Lord and walked back to her throne. Giving herself a moment to stop blushing, she turned to face the court and resumed her seat.
    “Now, let the feast begin!” She said, and the people began cheering and clapping. Quickly, the hall began to empty from the back first. It was always custom that the back of the room emptied first, moving towards the front. The back of the room held those of lesser ranks, whereas the higher nobility sat closest to the crown. This way, if the King had something to discuss with higher nobility, he could do so without completely dismissing anyone else.
    Soon enough, the only ones left in the room were the three suitors sitting to her left and the council sitting to her right. Eleanor rose from her seat and signaled to the guard to shut the doors again. Lord Erstein offered out his hand to help her down the steps and she took it and walked down slowly. Eyeing first the Council members, she then turned to face the three suitors.
    “Your Royal Grace Alexander,” he seemed to flinch for a moment at the reminder that his father was dead. “We intend to support you in this defense against the attack of Archaria.” The Prince nodded his head and looked somewhat relieve, even though he had already been told that.
    “Duke William, I feel that before anything continues, you need to know that Venaramine is preparing to go to war. Will that be a problem with you and yours?” The Duke paused for a moment before shaking his head no.
    “Duke Phillip, our kingdom is going to war. You will be called upon to take up arms regardless of your position. But, will you support the crown, in whatever way necessary?” Even Phillip seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, and nodded quickly.
    “Good. Now remember, what has just been said, stays here.” With those words, she walked towards the doors of the throne room with Erstein at her side, escorting her. She took a single glance back to see that Brandon was behind her with the Councilors and the suitors just behind. She was now at the lead of the final group to go to dinner, with the group being the highest rank in the realm. It was hard to believe sometimes that she would be leading them.

    • • •

    Dinner was going smoothly. It was often times lonely, sitting at the head table. Her father and mother’s chairs were so often empty. She looked across their seats to see Healer Dominic, Master Tirrwin, and Master Torrell engaged in a healthy discussion while leaning over Lord Bohen in between them, who seemed to have fallen asleep in his chair. Turning towards her left, she smiled, for in this meal she was not alone. Erstein sat beside her, with Brandon on the other side of him.
    Rising from her chair with a graceful smile, the room silenced as all eyes turn to her. “Please, allow me to make a toast. To the Lord Commander Erstein, and to the newest Council Member, Lord Brandon, we give you thanks in supporting our beautiful Venaramine, and hope that you continue with your support.”
    The court responded accordingly and she gave them both a smile before returning to her seat. She saw out of the corner of her eye that the suitors were all having their own interesting evening off beyond Brandon. William seemed to be buried in a book; if she wanted a king that would leave her alone, he would be the one. Alexander was glaring hardly around the room, and she wished to know what was going on in his strategic military mind.
    The man that caused her the most worry, however, was Phillip. He seemed to already be buried into his cup and continuously calling for more. Brandon met her eyes for a moment after he glanced towards the drunken Duke, and gave her a small nod before turning away from her. She prayed that the night would just continue and finish with no blood shed or anger.

    • • •

    Lord Brandon, Marquees of Equitan and Captain of the King’s Guard.
    Brandon truly liked the sound of it. After working so hard and for so long, he was being rewarded with a great honor of not only land, but also title and a place on the Council. It was a greater dream than any that a knight would have. He knew that he should not feel as proud as he was, but it was inevitable. Eleanor trusted him, and that was worth far more than the land or title.
    Phillip was also starting to cause an issue. The man truly needed to be punched and thrown out of the castle. He had been making snide remarks all evening about Eleanor and her choices, and if he continued to drink, then all secrets held by the realm would be released.
    Taking another glance towards Eleanor, Brandon had to work to catch his breath. She was absolutely beautiful, almost to the point that it hurt him. She could be his, if only he would be honest with her. He wanted to be honest with her, to tell her the truth. He needed her in his life, just like she needed him, even if she wasn’t honest with herself about that. Everything about her screamed at him that she was to be Queen: A beautiful, wonderful, amazing Queen. Even still, he wanted to make her all his.
    “So, what did you do to get the Princess to come and support you? Did you give her some support first?” The words were accompanied with a rough laugh, and Brandon jerked his head to see that Phillip was leaning over William to talk to Alexander, who looked completely uncomfortable. Brandon did not know how to respond – he was now a Lord and not just a Knight protecting his Queen. Did he still have a right to step in?
    “Oh, shut up Phillip. You know she will never pick an idiot like you, so why are you bothering to try and run us off?” Those words came from a voice that he had rarely heard, and he looked at William in shock. Had those bold words truly just come from that small, weak man? Even William looked to be in shock and was now stuttering out an apology.
    “Oh, shut it the both of you. She is preparing for a war that result in numerous losses. There is more important things for her to be worrying about than the three of us!” Brandon nodded to himself and tried to keep his eyes off the three men. If anyone was to have her, he hoped it would be Alexander. The man was a dedicated warrior and would be too devoted to his cause to worry about his new wife. She would be free to rule with Alexander leading her army. If only the man had money…
    The three continued to bicker, but Brandon attempted to ignore it. Phillip was slinging out drunk insults while William kept telling him to be quiet, and Alexander tried to do the impossible and speak reason to a man intoxicated beyond his wits’ end. He already knew that this was going to get far worse before it got better, and Brandon could only hope that the dinner would end before it got to that point.
    Thankfully, people were beginning to file out of the hall to take to their own rooms, and soon enough it was mainly just the High Table and their people filling the tables. Brandon could see that Eleanor was exhausted where she sat, and he wanted to escort her out before Phillip got completely out of control. She seemed to have noticed that Phillip was insulting her, but just looked too tired to care anymore.
    “Fine then, you can marry her, but a boy like you can’t take care of the real needs. I will take care of the heir and the rutting!”
    Brandon heard Eleanor gasp while he jerked his head to glare at Phillip, ready to step in and give the man the punch that he deserved, but it seemed that someone was already a step ahead of him. Alexander had jumped up from his seat with clenched fists, but it was William that had his arm drawn back. Before anyone else could move, William had already punched Phillip.
    Everyone stood there in shock, minus Phillip, who was on the floor, and William, who was clenching his hand tight against himself. Brandon had heard the distinct pop of breaking bones and knew that the hand would have to be bandaged. There was no blood coming from where Phillip had hit the floor and he moved forward to make certain the man was still alive.
    Some of Phillip’s men rushed forward but Brandon stepped in, as he seemed to be the only one that had any sense about them. “Take him back to his room and let him sleep it off. Don’t let him leave the room until morning.” The men eyed him for a second before nodding and taking Phillip off.
    “You idiot! You never wrap your thumb underneath your other fingers. Leave the thumb out next time!” Alexander was already looking at William’s hand, while William looked to be on the verge of tears. Eleanor had already fallen back down into her seat from where she had risen a moment before, anger and sadness written across her face. This was one of those moments that Brandon wished more than anything he could pull her into his arms and make everything better.
    He would destroy a thousand men for her. End nations and depose kings. He would do anything and everything for her. Of course, the one thing that he wanted most and she needed more than anything, he could not do. The Goddess was being cruel for pushing him into this fate, and it was destroying both of them.

    • • •

    Eleanor just sat in her chair in silence. She made no signals of acknowledgement to anyone that left the room and didn’t respond to any servant that moved towards her. She just sat there and waited for the silence. A tap on her shoulder brought her out of her thoughts and she turned, ready to yell at the person that dared interrupt her thinking.
    Looking up, she saw that it was Alexander. Her nerves immediately settled and she beckoned to the now empty chair beside her. Everyone else seemed to have gone save for the servants cleaning.
    “Princess Eleanor, I was wondering if I could speak with you, for a moment?” The Prince looked hopeful and Eleanor gave him a nod, allowing him to continue. She was now more curious than anything about what he wanted. “Royal Highness, I must-“
    “No,” Eleanor said simply, shaking her head. “Eleanor. Just Eleanor. Given the current predicament, I think that just Eleanor and just Alexander will be acceptable.”
    Alexander nodded slowly in response then relaxed back into his chair. He seemed to have stiffened when she interrupted him. “Eleanor, then. I wanted to thank you, for your support in this time of trial for my Kingdom.”
    Eleanor nodded her head for a moment before speaking. “Alexander, we share a common enemy, and now we share a common loss.” The prince stiffened beside her for a moment and Eleanor nodded again. “Yes, my father was poisoned as well. His, however, was not as swift. He has been wasting away for the past few weeks. I think it is the fact I am not married yet that he is still alive. He wants to make sure I am able to become Queen before he passes.”
    There was a silence between them for a moment, but it was not uncomfortable. Eleanor rested in her chair and just stared at the room around her when she felt a warm hand touch her. Jerking her head to look at Alexander’s hand holding hers, she looked up at the man.
    “Eleanor, I know you are stuck here. I think you need to know, I would not be a bad King. This is your kingdom. I would gladly lead your army to numerous victories as your champion. At the same time, if you come to Bromaric to support us against Archaria, you do not have to worry about a marital alliance. We would be sealed to each other with your support alone.”
    Eleanor nodded and looked away from Alexander, letting her hand stay in his. It wasn’t the same touch as Brandon’s. Alexander’s hands felt rough and harsh against hers. Brandon’s hand, while calloused, had seemed so gentle and nurturing. Brandon also wasn’t acceptable for marriage.
    “I know, Alexander. And I know that you would make a great King. I just fear that it doesn’t matter what I want, but instead will become what the Kingdom needs.”
    Alexander stiffened at her words and jerked his hand away. “Is that why he is still here?”
    There was no need to say who the he was. Everyone that did not know Council details were wondering why Phillip was still around. “I fear that I may have no other choice.”
    Alexander’s hand touched her cheek and she was reminded that his touch was not Brandon’s. She turned her face to look at his, and she saw that his face looked hard, like that of a military man again. “Eleanor, I swear to you now, if anything should happen with that man, I will come back and protect you. You need not fear him, should that be your choice.”
    “She doesn’t need to fear him. I will kill him before he ever hurts her.”
    Eleanor looked up to see Brandon standing behind Alexander. She wondered how long he had been there, and she pulled away from Alexander to look up at her newest Lord. Alexander had also turned to face Brandon and rose from his seat to grasp their forearms together, like those of military brothers.
    “I think that I shall hold you to that, Lord Brandon. That man does not deserve the honor that is most likely coming to him.”
    Eleanor wondered if Brandon had meant his words. Would he really kill a Duke to protect her? It seemed silly, to have that thought. He had promised to protect her, so why not protect her from the Duke?
    “No, Brandon,” she said softly. Both men jerked back to face her. “I must marry to take the throne, and you know that we need the funds. If anyone has to kill him, however, it will be me. I may be a woman, but I will not be taken advantage of.”
    Both men nodded in response and then Alexander bowed before her. “Now that that is settled, Princess, I think that I shall retire for the evening. Sleep well.” He leaned forward to take her hand and left a delicate kiss on the top of it. She nodded and watched the man leave before turning to look at Brandon.
    “How much did you overhear?” she asked softly, before stepping backwards and returning to her seat. Brandon stepped forward and took the chair that Alexander had occupied just a moment before, and sat down before turning to face her and respond.
    “I heard all of it. And we both meant what we said. Phillip will never hurt you, Eleanor.”
    She nodded for a moment before sighing. “I think I fear myself more than I fear him. Phillip is a small issue in the grand scheme. I have a kingdom to run and a war to prepare for. I fear more than anything that I will be a bad queen.”
    She felt a hand touch her cheek and immediately felt warmed. It was such a different response from Alexander’s touch, and she had to remind herself of the predicament she was in. The hand turned her face to look up at her loyal Knight. “Eleanor, of all the things you have to worry about, that should be the least. You will be the greatest Queen this kingdom has ever known. See yourself as I do, and you will know the words I speak are true.
    They stared at each other for a moment before Eleanor pulled away from his hand. She was marrying in two days, to someone other than him. She couldn’t do this to herself. It was torture being around him, and more than ever, she was reminded of all the feelings she had buried over the years. She had always felt a warmth around him, and when he had begun to blossom into a young man, she had felt the butterflies in her stomach while she grew into a young woman. Now that they were grown, she could ignore the feelings no longer, and yet, she could do nothing for them.
    “Brandon, I think I need to go,” she whispered, unable to tear her eyes away from his. His eyes looked so sad, and she wished more than ever she could kiss his eyelids so that he would open them with a smile across his face. She wanted to be the reason for his smile, as he so often seemed to be the reason for hers.
    “I know, but I do not want this night to end.”
    Eleanor fought with herself mentally for a moment before rising from her chair. “Then walk me back to my room, so that you may have a few moments longer.”

    • • •

    He needed her. Like he needed air, he needed to touch her. Just having her arm draped through his as he escorted her back to her room was not enough. Brandon wanted to run his fingers through her hair again, and to kiss her forehead gently while she traced her fingers over his chest. He wanted to have sweet moments like he had often seen the King and Queen having. He wanted to be her King, and when she looked at him sometimes, he thought that she wished it too.
    They walked slowly back to her chamber, not speaking at all, and too soon they reached the door. She flicked her hand for the guards to move down the hallway, and soon enough it was just the two of them. He didn’t know why she had dismissed the guards, but he was grateful to have a moment with her alone. Even though it had only been earlier that day, it had been far too long since it was just the two of them.
    “Brandon, I-“ she was speaking again, but Brandon stepped forward leaned down slightly to place a gentle kiss onto her forehead. Her skin was so soft and warm under his lips and he rested them there for a moment before he pulled away. She was looking up at him with the most beautiful, radiant smile across her face.
    Neither of them spoke as they stared at each other, and Brandon wanted to tell her everything. In that moment, all he wanted was to spend his life with her, and she needed to know that. She needed to know everything.
    His words were cut off by the door beside them opening. A servant – he thought the woman’s name was Gayle – stood there, and looked at them both with knowing eyes. He realized then that one of his arms had somehow slid around behind her back while the other was dangerously close to touching her hair.
    They pulled away from each other quickly before Eleanor gave him an apologetic smile. “I think this is good night, my Lord.”
    Brandon nodded then gave the servant a glare. “Indeed. Good night, Princess Eleanor.” He bowed low and waited for the door to shut before he turned and went to find the guards. Sending them back to their post, he rushed off to his new room in the castle, overjoyed.
    She had felt it too. For a moment, she had seemed to feel the love that he felt for her. He would tell her. As soon as they had a moment alone again, he would tell her. And hopefully, with a little luck, she would be his.

    • • •

    Gayle was rambling on about how she shouldn’t be caught alone with Brandon, but Eleanor didn't care. The skin on her forehead still felt warm from his kiss, and she felt as though she floated on air while she undressed and slipped into bed. His lips had been so warm and soft against her forehead, and when his arm had wrapped around her back, she thought she would fall over with delight.
    She loved him. At first, it had been a childhood dream, to marry a knight and live happily ever after. Then, she had told herself he was simply pleasing to look at. Eventually, he had become the valiant knight chosen to protect her. And somehow, along the way of growing up, she had fallen in love with him. It had taken all these years and the realization that she had to marry to have to finally face the truth, but face it she was. She was in love with Brandon.
    Chapter 8

    Chapter 10


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