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.