Chapter Eleven : Maybe This Will Be Easy

Eleanor was glad that Gayle had been able to find her dress, but that was just about the only thing that she was glad about. Phillip had woken up, and sent her at least 10 messages. She had only read three before she stopped reading. They all said the same thing, that he would be delighted to spend the whole day with her so she wouldn't be bored with the other two men. What a pretentious… ass! The man was full of himself, to be certain, and she was ready to just be done with him… if she could be.

Now, rushing down to the stable, she had far too much on her mind, and wasn't looking where she was going. Colliding with another figure, she took a few steps back to steady herself, and saw it was her mother. Before she could even speak, the Queen had grasped her arm and was pulling her the way that she had come from. They had stepped into one of the many rooms of the Queen, and with a small flick of her wrist, Eleanor's mother dismissed all the servants within.

Eleanor walked towards the window and looked out it, down onto the training yard below. Once the room was empty, she was the first to speak. "Mother, I am already late as it is to meet with Alexander. If it is not too important, can it wait until later, perhaps?"

Her mother said nothing, and Eleanor turned to face the woman, and was greeted with a glare. The Queen stared at her, anger written in her face and eyes, and Eleanor looked at her in shock. What had she done that her mother was so mad, she wouldn't even speak.

"What is it, mother? Why do you look so angry?" For a brief second, Eleanor wondered if her mother had heard about her moment with Brandon the night before.

"He insulted you, in front of the whole court, after getting himself drunk." With those few words, Eleanor knew who her mother was talking about. Before she could speak up and clarify that it was hardly the whole court, her mother spoke again. "I don't care what sort of benefits he brings, if your father was able, he would strip him of title and rank and throw him out."

Eleanor sighed and plopped down into the window seat beside her. "Mother, if father was still in charge, then we would not be at our current predicament. That being said, things cannot be helped. I need at least his support. And, if I don't marry him, then who will I marry? The man that is too obsessed with his sword to know any law? Or the man too obsessed with his books to acknowledge people?"

The Queen was silent for a moment, so Eleanor continued. "Face it, mother. If I didn't have this horrid law to follow, everyone would agree that I remain unmarried until someone more suitable became available. Or, not marry at all."

Isabelle's eyebrow raised at the last statement, and thoughts of Brandon rushed into Eleanor's mind again. If she wasn't going to marry the three before her, she knew who she wanted to marry…

"Even still, Eleanor," the words brought her from her thoughts, "you will be seen as weak. At least someone defended your honor, but it should have been you that stood up and reprimanded him, not a foreign Lord."

Eleanor rose from her seat and walked to her mother, hard lines now etched across her face. She was to become Queen. Her mother was Queen by marriage. She would not be reprimanded by the woman for doing the best she could.

"I am going to suggest you choose your next words wisely, Mother." The title came off in a bite. "I have already stated that Phillip will know his place before he leaves here, and I intend to stand by that promise. The only person that seems to think I am weak is you. Now, return to father's bedside. Your time with him is short enough."

Eleanor turned from her mother and walked out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her. Guards and servants seemed to jump at the noise and look at her, and Eleanor didn't even have a moment's rest to regret the words she had just spoken. Her mother had always had her best interest in mind. And, she had spoken truth about Phillip.

Sighing, Eleanor turned towards where she had been walking before and made quick steps, knowing she was late enough as is. She had an alliance to solidify and knew that Alexander had military planning to begin. She was in for a busy lunch.

• • •

"How could he have gone missing? There were guards outside of his door and I saw him myself less than an hour ago. He is too high up to escape through the window!"

Brandon glared at the men in front of him and then turned away in disgust throwing the gloves he had in his hands down onto the table beside him. Of all the idiots to be guarding the door, why did it have to be the two that didn't seem to know which way was up?

"Just, find him. And as soon as you do, take him back to his room and keep him there while you find me. I will be down training. And for the love of the Goddess, don't lose him again!"

The men quickly took that as a dismissal and left the room quickly, leaving Brandon standing there angry. Alexander was getting ready to leave for his lunch with Eleanor, and he had wanted to follow them and watch from afar. While he knew that Eleanor was safe with the Duke, he wanted to know what the man would say.

Of course, now that Phillip was missing, he had to stay nearby until the man was found again. Brandon couldn't just let the idiot roam around the castle without at least a guard nearby to watch his every move. The man was a wandering catastrophe, and when he finally made his fatal mistake, Brandon would make certain that the man was removed from the castle, and Eleanor's life.

Changing his shirt to something less tight and grabbing his sword up from the corner of the room, he headed down to the training yards, ready to at least get some practice in. It had seemed like years since he had held a sword in his hands, even though it had only been a day. He needed to feel his muscles tighten with each swing, and to push all his energy into each move. Perhaps, then, he could finally relax.

No one spoke to him as he moved through the castle. It seemed as though everyone saw the anger written across his face, even though Brandon was a man that knew how to hide his emotions. Was he that obvious when it came to his views on Phillip? Or, was it just because it had to do with Eleanor, the one person that truly made him feel anything?

A group of guards came through, most likely looking for Phillip, and immediately parted to let Brandon walk through. Standing on the other side of the guards was a man that he had not expected to see, and the man was looking directly at him. "Healer Dominic, how can I help you this morning?"

Brandon had paused in front of the Healer and beckoned for the man to walk with him as he continued his journey. "My Lord Brandon, if I could have a word…"

He nodded his head and kept walking, ready to hear what the man had to say. Dominic instead stopped in his walking and spoke again. "… Alone, if you please."

Brandon paused in his steps and turned back to look at the man and nodded once before looking around for somewhere they could step into. Guards and servants seemed to be everywhere, but Brandon knew where a bit of solace could be found – in Eleanor's receiving room. She would be with Alexander by now, and it was only a flight up stairs up and two rooms down from their current location.

The men walked in silence and when they read the door to the room, Brandon stepped to the guards to ask that no one was inside. Receiving confirmation, Brandon stepped in and shut the door tightly behind the healer. "So, what is it Dominic? What can you not discuss in public?"

Dominic looked somewhat awkward where he stood, and began wringing his hands together. The tension of the room went up tenfold with that one act and Brandon began to fear for the worst. Eleanor was supposed to be safe with Alexander! What had happened to her? The fear coursed through his body and he tried with all his might to not attack the man and demand answers.

The silence felt like it was killing him. Brandon couldn't resist it anymore and grabbed Dominic by the top of his robes and pulled the man towards him. "Spit it out, old man. Whatever it is, it can't be any worse than what my mind is beginning to assume!"

The action made Dominic even more nervous, and a look of terror crossed his face. Perhaps it was out of shock. or even just fear, but the words finally came from the man's mouth. "You need to leave, Branten Modarachi, before Eleanor finds out."

The words struck Brandon full force into his stomach and he took a step back, dropping his grip on Dominic in the process. His mind started reeling and he truly felt he was going to be sick. Dominic looked to have turned white in front of him, and Brandon once again had to wonder how the King had found out. Dominic had sworn to never tell, but still the king knew.

Turning away from Dominic, Brandon looked for something to hit. All he wanted at that moment was to slam his fist through something until he felt better. He had enough to worry about as it was, without letting Eleanor know the truth. Would Dominic tell her? Had he been the one that told her father?

Turning back and taking two fast steps to Dominic, Brandon straightened himself to his full height and glared at the man. "Did you tell the King?"

Dominic shook his head no, and Brandon felt more confusion enter him. No one else knew, so how did the King know?

"Are you going to tell Eleanor?"

Dominic paused for a moment, then shook his head no while opening his mouth to speak. "Brandon, if you intend on staying here, you should tell her, before she finds out from someone else."

Brandon grabbed the man by the top of his robes again and pulled him close. "Eleanor does not need to know, and if you don't tell her, then she won't find out. And never repeat that name again. That man is dead, and if I ever hear that name on Eleanor's lips, you shall be the first I come looking for."

Brandon released the man from his hold and stepped away, anger slowly receding. Dominic looked horrified and Brandon began to regret his actions. Dominic had held his secrets for years, so why would he break confidence now? Had the man been threatening him, as Brandon had originally assumed, or was he instead just advising caution?

"Dominic, please, forgive my anger. I am so worried for Eleanor as it is, that your words caused me to fear you had turned on me. You have been my longest friend and advisor, save for perhaps the Lord Commander, and I have only told you my secret."

Dominic nodded, then straightened up and fixed his robes. "Brandon, I would never betray your trust, so long as your actions are still honorable. I know that your heart and allegiance lies with the Princess, but I fear too often for your own safety, as that seems to be your last priority."

Brandon nodded, thinking to himself. The words that the Healer spoke were true, but he didn't want to admit to it. Instead, he shifted back to thoughts on who knew the truth. "Dominic, King Juan told me the other day he knew my secret, and that he forgave me. Eleanor tried to ask me about it later, nut I diverted the conversation. She trusts that I will tell her eventually, but how did the King find out?"

Dominic seemed to ponder his words for a moment before speaking. "The king has long known things that surprise all of us. If you are thinking that someone betrayed you, I would suggest to think otherwise. The clues are all there, and the king is - was - a smart man. If he forgives you, then perhaps Eleanor will as well. You still need to tell her, though."

Brandon walked away from his friend, ready to leave the room and clear his mind of all thoughts and worries in the training yard. He paused at the door, and turned back for a moment. "I... I cannot. If I tell her the truth... Dominic, she will send me away. I cannot protect her if I am not here. Someone else will take my place and they will mean to harm her. It is better she never fully trust me because I don't share my secrets than she be dead. And I will not let her die."

• • •

"Master Dominic, how lovely to see you!" It was rare that Eleanor ever saw the man outside of official meetings and the Sanctuary, so seeing him in passing in the hallways was a rare treat. She knew she was already late but intended to stop to speak with the man, but as soon as Dominic saw her, he bowed, then turned and disappeared in the same direction he had come from. How odd.

Waving off their encounter in the hallway for something she would question Dominic about later, she continued down the stairwell she had been traveling down until she reached the doorway. The scent of horses and earth reached her nose and she smiled once she stepped out into the sunlight and felt the warmth touch her skin. Leaning her head back and closing her eyes, she enjoyed the feeling for a few moments, not wanting anything to interrupt her peace.

"My Royal Princess."

Eleanor opened her eyes to see Alexander bowed low before her, as though they were at a ball, or in some sort of ceremony. She almost spoke up to question him about his actions when she saw him look up with a lopsided grin and a twinkle in his eye. She decided to play along with his game and gave him a smile in return.

"Your Royal Grace."

She dipped down low in her curtsy before him, spreading her split riding skirts as best she could while lowering herself fully. She released one side of her skirts to slide a hand into Alexander's outstretched hand, and they rose up together. Eleanor stepped forward from where she had been lowered and slid her hand from his to loop her arm through his. They began a slow pace together as they made their way towards the stables. She could already see Moonbeam ready beside a large warhorse. Moonbeam didn't even seem to notice.

"So, your royal grace, tell me: what are your plans for us for the next few hours?"

Alexander chuckled in response at the formalities and pleasantries she was showing. Truly, it made it all the more comical because they both knew that neither of them enjoyed what decorum required of those amongst the nobility.

"Well, your highness, I was hoping that I could please you with a ride to a delightful field nearby, followed by a picnic, and then concluding with something stronger than tea."

Eleanor almost busted out laughing at his words, remembering that just two days before, she had shocked him by being the Princess that was not afraid to drink liquor. Truly, it was a pity she could not marry him, as she could relax around him, they could joke, and his military prowess was required for her kingdom to succeed. Unfortunately, he did not have the money that she needed to support an army, and if she had him for a husband, she knew that their love would never grow beyond that of friends. For a brief moment, Brandon slipped into her mind, but she ignored the thought.

"That sounds absolutely marvelous, Grand Duke. Please, won't you lead the way?"

Alexander gave her a warm smile and they approached their horses. Eleanor pulled her arm from Alexander's and gently stroked Moonbeam's nose. She turned towards the man to comment on his horse when she realized that he was no longer beside her, but instead walking away from her. She followed his path with her eyes, and when she saw his destination, her heart caught in her throat. She was not prepared for this, especially while she was trying to deal with the three suitors.

Her feet moved her forward while her heart raced and her cheeks blushed. Alexander and Brandon had just reached each other and were talking in hushed tones, but Brandon eyes were smoldering as they burned into her. She gave him a small smile in return and made her way slowly to the two men, although she wanted instead to run to them and ask what had given Alexander the scowl across his face. Both men stopped speaking when she was a pace away and turned to look at her.

"Good Morning, Lord Brandon. Is everything alright?"

Brandon bowed low before her, and she reached forward with her hand to cup his chin. It was an automatic reaction, one which she hoped no one else noticed, and raised his chin slightly, indicating for him to rise. Her fingers lingered longer than they should as she touched his clean shaved face. The night before, there had been a light stubble.

Neither men spoke, but just continued to stare at her. The formalities and pleasantries were gone in her voice when she spoke again, demanding to know what had them both looking so annoyed... and questioning her with their eyes.

"Brandon, Alexander, what is wrong?" All of the emphasis came out on the what, and both of them seemed to flinch at the word. "Or is it a who?"

The men looked at each other for a moment before Brandon nodded and Alexander groaned. "If you think your reaction was bad, hers will be far worse... or she will just wave us off and tell us we are fool men."

Brandon flicked his eyes back to her and licked his lips before speaking, as though they were dry. Eleanor could feel her cheeks start to burn as her eyes lingered on his lips. She could still remember the feel of them on her skin the night before and longed more than anything to feel those lips again. She wanted to run her finger across them, and feel them trail over her skin, before their lips met-

"Eleanor, it's Phillip." Brandon's words pulled her from her thoughts, and this only made her want to blush all the more. "The guards that are watching him can't find him."

Her eyes now moved from his lips to look back and forth at their faces. She didn't say a word as she just stared at them for a moment, and when Alexander made a move towards her, she raised a hand to make him halt.

"You were wrong. I won't react badly, nor will I call you both fools for worrying. Neither of you are nursemaids, so I do not expect you to watch over or worry about him like one. Let Phillip roam, and when he makes a mistake- which he always does- I shall handle it, the way I have been dying to."

Brandon opened his mouth to speak but she rose her other hand to stop him. Now she had both hands raised, each in direction of a different man, and she quickly dropped them back to her sides. Both men seemed to take that as a sign that they could speak, and she raised her hands back up just as quickly.

"Have your guards follow him, if you must. Don't let him go into anywhere too private. But, if he tries to do something stupid, then let him. And have them follow from afar. I want Phillip to think he is free to do as he chooses. Besides, who will he hurt? I won't be here, so the worst he could do is hurt himself.

The men glanced at each other, and then they both nodded. Brandon looked as though he had more to say, but she eyed him for a moment, her look hard. Now was not the time for him to become overly protective of her. "Excellent. Alexander, please go check on the horses to make certain they are ready."

Alexander bowed his head slightly, and took a moment to nod sideways at Brandon. They seemed to have become friends in the short time that Alexander had been there, and it made her wonder if Brandon knew that he was no longer a real possibility for her. As though she had no control of her own thoughts, her mind began to imagine Brandon fighting the suitors to win her hand in marriage. It was a wonderful idea, although also impractical.

• • •

Once Alexander was far enough away out of hearing range, Eleanor lowered her hands. Brandon gave her a hard stare, as though he did not understand the gesture. "You seem to have something to say, Brandon. You might as well say it now."

At those words, Brandon took a step forward and grabbed her arm. His grip was firm but not too tight, and he pulled her towards the wall and put his back to it, as though he was trying to look for all danger around them. She also noted that this meant no one could come close enough to overhear them speak plainly to each other.

"Remove him from your choices, Eleanor. He is not an option. I will not stand by and watch you marry him."

It felt like a dagger through her heart. So, she was allowed to marry other men, just not the men that he disliked. How suitable, for the man that she wanted most to choose the one she would have. As if he really had a choice in the matter anyways.

"Brandon, you know why he is here, and why we need him. He would bring a large gain to this kingdom. We all know that if it wasn't for his rude behavior, I would already be his wife. This isn't up for discussion. I have to do what is best for my kingdom."

She turned to leave, but Brandon grabbed her other arm and pulled her towards him. They were entirely too close, for propriety's sake, and he twisted their bodies, putting her back against the wall and him bending down over her. For a moment, she thought that he would kiss her, but when she looked up at his face, she instead saw the pain. Like her marrying Phillip would hurt him.

"Eleanor, I can't-" his words broke off, and it seemed as though he was struggling to keep himself together. "What about what's best for you? Why can't you choose what's best for you?"

The silence that came between them then was maddening. She wanted to say something about the past few nights, or really what had been going on since he came to the castle, all those years before. She wanted to ask him what was best, and if that included him. But she didn't have the courage to speak up.

"What's best for me, Brandon?"

All she wanted was to hear him say that he was best for her. If she heard those words from his lips, she would be the happiest woman alive. She would figure out some way to have him. All things were possible with the love she had long held for him.

"The thing you want most, Eleanor. What do you want most?"

The words were on the tip of her tongue. Her body felt on fire from having his hands on her arms, and his lips were close enough to hers that she could feel his breath touching her skin. She could close the gap in half a second, and seal the rift that had long been between them. But she couldn't do it. If he didn't feel the same way, she would lose his friendship forever. She couldn't lose him by her side.

"I want Archaria to fall. That's what I want most. I want the entire Royal family destroyed, all of the nobles brought before me on bended knee, and every Archarian peasant to praise my name for releasing me from the tyranny that controls them. I want revenge for my father, and for Alexander's father. Nothing could make me happier."

That was the biggest lie she had ever told. Oh, she did want Archaria to fall, and for their King to pay, but if Brandon asked her to leave all of this behind, it would take all her will power to say no. One kiss from him, and her will power would be gone. She wanted him most. Not a long, bloody war.

His face seemed to fall, as though those were not the words he had wanted to hear. Instead, he stepped back. and bowed low before her. "Your wish shall be answered, my princess."

Eleanor thought he said more, but Brandon rose and quickly turned, then walked away. She stood with her back against the wall, suddenly catching the breath she had been gasping at a few seconds before. He had been so close, she could still smell him. She should have told him the truth. He should know the truth.

"Princess Eleanor, are you coming?"

The words brought her back into reality, and she looked up to see Alexander holding both their horses by the reins. She gave him a quick smile and brushed out her skirts, before walking towards him. He helped her up onto her horse, and she gave him another smile as he gallantly leaped atop his own. She couldn't think about Brandon now. She had an alliance to form.

• • •

Brandon continued walking away from her, not able to look back. If he looked back at her, with his heart still racing, and her cheeks still flushed, he would kiss her. It had been aching in every bone of his body, to tell her how much he loved her. To tell her that he would make everything alright. That he would, somehow, someway, prepare Venaramine for a war. That he would supply all of the gold, and deal with Philip. He wanted to make everything right, for her.

But he couldn't do it. He knew that nothing he could do would make things perfectly alright. And that fact was what had him now grabbing the practice swords from two nearby squires. They were joking around and rough housing, where they should be preparing. A war was coming, and these boys were acting like, well, boys. He needed men on the border, not boys.

"Do you think this is a game? That hitting each other back and forth is for fun? Have you ever used a sword for anything other than attracting girls?" The words were coming out louder, the more he spoke, until the end, when he was biting off each word. "Pathetic, both of you. You wouldn't last a day on the border."

He threw the swords back at the two boys, and walked to the weapons rack that sat nearby, with dull blades and wooden weapons sitting on it, ready for use. He took two practice swords off the rack, not even testing to see if they were heavy enough for him, and turned back to the boys. With a sword in each hand, he faced them, as they stared back, wide eyed. Brandon had always been a patient teacher, but now, he was angry.

"Attack me." Neither boy moved, and this just upset Brandon even more. "Attack me, you idiots, or I shall attack you both."

One of the boys, a tall lanky boy called Luke, took a step forward, while the other took a step back. Brandon had given them enough warning, and stepped forward, swinging the sword in his right hand to hit it harshly against the boy nearest him. The lad barely had time to steady himself for the blow before it hit, but that didn't stop him from taking a few steps back from the pure strength in the blow. Brandon twisted his body and went back for a second attack, but the boy fell back onto the ground.

His companion now stepped forward, saving Luke from taking a beating from the wooden sword. While they wouldn't cut, they would leave a nasty bruise that would remind them both to practice more.

The boy facing him now was a bit larger than Luke, although shorter than Brandon by a half and a half. Wes seemed to have composed himself in the few seconds he had stepped back, and now had his sword raised in both hands, ready to attack him.

Brandon didn't waste a moment, and started attacking Wes with the sword in his left hand, while keeping the one in his right aimed at Luke. They shifted slowly, and as the attacks became wilder from the boy, Brandon began using both swords to block the attacks. It was easy enough, and when Luke joined Wes in front of him, he got into an easy movement. He wanted to slam their heads in, but it would be a better lesson if they thought they had a chance first.

He could have said something. He SHOULD have said something. She looked like she wanted it to. She looked as though being near him had her heart racing and her body shaking. She looked the way that he always felt around her - or was that just his imagination? He was second guessing himself again, and it was driving him crazy.

Unable to contain his rage anymore, Brandon brought the swords together in front of him and swept them out with all the strength he had, knocking the swords from both of the boy's hands. They looked shocked for a moment, but they regained their senses once Brandon hit them with a sword. Both hits went to the back of their legs, as though Brandon was sweeping them towards him.

As both boys hit their backs on the ground, Brandon threw his two swords down on top of them and stood between them. Both boys were panting, but Brandon hardly even felt his heart race. Nothing again would be able to make his heart race like Eleanor did.

"Devote yourself to your training, or you shall die. Both of you, go get cleaned up and report to the kitchens. If you are going to act like young maidens, then you shall work with them. And don't think to flirt or smile your way out of work. Those women can teach you how to truly dedicate yourselves, so badly, you will beg to fight me again. NOW GO!"

Both boys scrambled to their feet and ran off, leaving Brandon watching them run away. He had been a little harsh on them, but they deserved it. War was coming, and they would all die if they weren't ready. All of this could be avoided, if only… if only…

• • •

"So, will you do it, Alexander? Will you ally yourself with me? Will Bromaric and Venaramine finally be allies?"

Eleanor had just spent the entire ride to the field, and half the meal, telling him all the reasons why they should be allied. It went from the small things, like the fact that the Southern half of the region would be allied (with Agren as well), to the need to increase trade, and even to the fact that she had ports, while technically he was landlocked. Then it spread into the fact of War coming, and that they had the best generals, while she had the most people. An alliance between them would help them to win the war and save their kingdoms, while hopefully preventing any outbreak of war afterwards.

Alexander hadn't said a word the entire time, just stared at her. It was becoming a little awkward, but she didn't have anything else to say. Perhaps this was a waste of time. What could he possibly be thinking about? They had discussed a possible alliance the night before, and she had seemed to tell him then that she would not marry him. Was he upset now, to learn that there was still no chance? He had promised to even protect her from Phillip. Why did he hesitate now?

"Alexander? Can you please say something? Show me you were listening?"

And Alexander started to laugh. It was a deep, rich throaty laugh that reminded Eleanor of her father. And she just stared at him, not knowing how to respond. What, in all that she had said, been so funny?

"Eleanor, in one of the letters my brother sent me that included the news, he told me to secure an alliance with you at any cost. I already responded last night, stating that an alliance had been secured. I told you, little one, I would protect you, and so I shall!"

As if the matter was settled, Alexander settled onto the blankets that were laid out in the field, and opened up a basket he had brought with them. Digging through, he seemed to be searching for something, and smiled when he found it. A flask came out of the basket, and he offered it to her after he took a sip himself.

Eleanor just stood there, staring at him in shock. Why were men so difficult? Could he have not stopped her when she started? And why had he laughed at her? This was their kingdoms they were talking about. She couldn't just laugh about their future.

"Come now, Eleanor. Drink."

"Why?"

Alexander suddenly got a horrified look on his face. "You… you actually need a reason to drink?"

At those words, Eleanor wanted to burst into laughter, but not because his statement was funny. She needed reasons not to drink these days. Not the other way around.

"Why are you protecting me? And why are we out here, if you know you won't be King?"

Alexander sat up at those words, and replaced the lid on the bottle. The man seemed to be fumbling for his words, and she was reminded of the Prince that had arrived two days before. Had it truly only been two days? How had she become so relaxed with him already? And what a change had come over him, once he seemed to realize he didn't have to marry her.

He looked up at her, ready to speak, then glanced back down again, and picked up the bottle, which had been sitting in front of him. Unplugging the lid, he took another big gulp, and when he offered it to Eleanor, she took it this time. After a few sips, she handed it back to Alexander, then used both hands to pull her skirts up against her while she sat down on her knees.

It took a few minutes for her to spread her skirts properly and get comfortable, but Alexander seemed glad to have a few more minutes to prepare himself to answer her question. Once she was finally settled, and he had another sip of the now half empty flask, he looked her up at her, paused for a moment, then nodded to himself.

"How much of Bromaric history do you know?"

Seriously? That's what he was building up to saying? She just wanted to know why he had suddenly become her protector, and he wanted to discuss history?

"I know as much as is written, I guess."

"Years, Eleanor. How far back have you studied?"

Another odd question. She gave him a puzzled look, then decided to just humor him, and start answering the questions, without trying to decipher his hidden meaning. Men were just confusing, and there was no point in exhausting herself trying to figure him out.

"I was taught in detail to at least five generations before the Archarian Wars, for all five of the Cape Enclave. I have read documents, however, as far back as… well, I guess as far back since the start of the latest Age. Granted, a thousand years is a long time ago, and the records kept from the start of the age is weak, but I have read all that I can get my hands on."

Alexander was staring at her, his face blank, and then spoke again. "Eleanor, how much have you actually studied the start of Bromaric?"

She pulled back her face, and forgot that she had promised herself to not wonder where he was going with this talk. She was part of the nobility, and had always known she would be queen. She had been taught and studied far more than most ever would. She knew all there was to know, about Venaramine, Archaria, Bromaric, Petara, and Agren.

She stumbled through the words, trying to remember all she could about the start. There had to be something more to it. What she knew wasn't going to answer his question.

"Let's see here. At the end of the last Age, there were four clans that found themselves left from hiding at and defending the Great Tree in Petara. The land was weak, and the five clans split, based on their knowledge from Sevind. Archarians went into the mountains to mine, west of Petara and North of here, while the Agrenians went to the South of the tree, South East of here. All those of farming origin came here to Venaramine, South West of the tree. The Bromaricans wanted to defend the Enclave, as a whole, but those that were left, that wanted to stay near the tree, didn't want violence to stay. So, the warriors went just below the mountains, north of the Agren coast, and established themselves there."

Alexander continued to stare at her, as though waiting for more, and she continued with the history lesson, as best she could manage. It was hard, trying to pull out just details for one Kingdom, when it had always been that she studied them as a whole, or just her own history.

"Bromaric kept to themselves, but sent out fighting groups to each of the Kingdoms as was needed, to train and protect. They were most prominently needed in Agren, for protection from raiders, and along the Eastern most border of the Cape, to protect from Sevind. You chose no sides in disputes, and when the Archarian Wars broke out, Bromaric withdrew entirely. After the Wars, you established yourselves as open to none and would offer no help."

Alexander nodded then took another sip from the flask. At this rate, the bottle would be empty in no time. She reached forward and took it from his lips, where he was raising it for another gulp. He looked at her, annoyed for a moment, then groaned when she arched one eyebrow.

"Alright, so you know the basics. But, do you know much about the previous Age?"

At those words, Eleanor opened up both her eyes, wide, and stared at Alexander. Nothing was known of the previous Age. Granted, there were always rumors, of how man and beast had lived together, and when the Goddess and Nature played a greater role. And then, there were the rumors that life still existed like that across the river, into Sevind. But, Sevind was always dangerous, and that river would never be crossed in Eleanor's lifetime. She was glad to let a dead kingdom lay there. Who knew what chaos went on over there.

"Alexander, do not tell me that you are about to give me a handful of old wives tales. I wanted to know why you protect me, not a history lesson."

Alexander glared at her for a moment, then groaned again.

"Fine, then you want it broken it down? Who was your Mother?"

Honestly, men would all be the death of her. They made absolutely no sense. First questions about the origins of Bromaric, and now he was asking who her mother was?

"My mother is Queen Isabella, wife of Juan, King of Venar-"

"No, not who she is, but who she was. Before your father."

Eleanor tilted her head to the side, staring at him for a moment. "My mother was the eldest daughter of Pritin, second son of the Great Healer Harin."

"So, the blood of the Great Healers flows in you, correct?"

Eleanor stared at him again for a moment, and then nodded her head. "Yes. The fact is well known, that I have the blood of the Healers."

Alexander nodded and got up from his seat, going to his horse. He came back with his sword and scabbard, which he had left attached to his belt and hanging from the pommel. While he had not had his sword nearby, she was certain that he had numerous knives stored about his person. And, his body was a great weapon as well.

Alexander unsheathed the sword an inch, and showed her the symbols etched into the steal. "And what does that say, Princess Eleanor, daughter of Kings and Healers?"

She leaned forward, and stumbled with the words. The letters were slightly different than she was used to, and she could only guess that the sword was near as old as the Age.

"Sword and Shield of the Mother." Alexander nodded, sheathed his sword, and set it beside him. She just stared at him, trying to figure out what it meant. It couldn't possibly mean what she was thinking. Sword and Shield meant attacking for and defending, while the Mother, would mean the Goddess. That would in turn mean the Healers. But, no one would ever harm a Healer.

"So, that's why you're protecting me? Because you have a sword that tells you to protect Healers?"

Alexander burst into laughter at her words, so much so to the point that he was having a hard time catching his breath as she continued to stare at him. The man made absolutely no sense. This was why women should be in all powerful roles, and men should stay in the role of muscle.

"Well, is it? Or is there some other reason you show me a sword that has strange letters on it?"

Alexander slowed his laughing and reached for the flask. She held it away from him, wanting her answer. He stopped laughing and gave her fake shocked look that she withheld the alcohol, but finally spoke.

"Eleanor, I show you a weapon from a previous Age, and that's all you make of it? You think I am doing what my sword tells me to do?"

Eleanor dropped the flask. Did he just say it was from the previous Age? But, nothing lasted through from the last Age. Everything that had come from Sevind was destroyed when each of the kingdoms were established. Nothing was left, as they were paving a new way. Then, how did he have this sword?

"Eleanor, why else do you think Bromaric has been so secluded? Be honest now, if we wanted to attack your kingdom, do you really think you would stand a chance? Bromaric has been in numerous skirmishes, but we never leave our own land. We are honor bound to protect the Five Kingdoms."

Eleanor just stared at him, and Alexander continued.

"You cannot tell anyone of this, Eleanor. Only those of Bromaric blood know, and even then, it is not known except by those that pick up the sword for Bromaric only. "

She nodded, and stared at him wide eyed.

"In the last Age, the Bromarican Warriors were the greatest. They were the fastest, the strongest, the most agile, the most versatile, and more than anything else, they were the best geared and the best trained. No one could stand against us, but no one really had to. Our duty was to protecting the Great Tree and all those who followed her. When the last Age was coming to a close, our Warriors gathered those they protected around the Great Tree, and defended them till the end."

Eleanor was unable to breathe, listening to him. No one ever knew what happened before the start of this Age, except that this was a New Age, and there had been many before. A new Age started whenever a man or a group did something great, whether for the good or the bad. In the case of the last Age, it was bad. Sevind had tried to destroyed the Goddess and her followers, and that was why they brought nothing with them from the past. They were starting a new Age with a clean slate.

"Once the Mountains were deemed unpassable and the river was too deep for any to cross, the Bromarican Warriors were not needed to protect and defend the religion. When the Healers sent us away, wanting a peaceful life, we did leave, but we did not forget. And so, the Bromarican Warriors have still been training, awaiting the day when we would be needed again. When the Healers needed us for protection."

She had to wonder how far back Bromaric knew the history. If they had one sword, then who was to say there wasn't more. Or perhaps, armor? Maybe a few books, or ledgers? She would give anything for one look in the Royal library.

"So, you protect me because the Bromaricans are honor bound to protect Healers. But, I am not a Healer. You do not have to protect me."

Alexander let a tiny smile slip onto his face as she finally handed back the flask. "No, Eleanor, you are not. But you carry the blood of Healers. And, more than that, once the Archarians are out of Bromaric, we cannot pursue further. That is up to you. It is through your vengeance that I shall get my personal revenge."

Eleanor nodded and accepted the bottle when he handed it back. How many sips had they had? They were small, as the opening itself was small, but the bottle seemed near to empty. She would need to eat something, for certain, before they left this field, else the alcohol would go straight to her head.

"Alexander, how far back does your knowledge go? The end of the Last Age? Further?"

Alexander had a large smile across his face now, and shook his head slightly at her excited questions. "Goddess help me, I could be flayed alive for what I tell you. Eleanor, we know the History for the past five Ages."

• • •

All Brandon wanted at that moment was to go jump into the nearby pond and let himself cool down, until all the pent up rage and anger were gone. Unfortunately, he could not do that. He knew that Alexander had taken her out to the field she was always riding in. The same field that had a pond in the middle. The only pond nearby. And there was no way he could face her right now.

So instead of taking a swim, he had settled on a bucket of water of his head and sat down on a bench, watching the squires train, while he polished his sword and scabbard. He had to look perfect tonight. This would be his first real event as a Lord, and even more so, as a Councilor. He wouldn't embarrass Eleanor.

Phillip, on the other hand, was likely to embarrass her tonight. He had finally gotten word that the man had been found, trying to enter Eleanor's garden. Brandon had said it was ok, as long as the man was watched from afar by guards. He was receiving updates every time the man moved to a different place, but so far, the man was just walking around, by himself, speaking to no one.

Brandon knew that something sinister was being plotted in the Duke's head, but there was nothing he could do. Eleanor wanted to deal with it herself. While he respected that she was ready to stand up and defend herself, he was also a little hurt that he couldn't protect her. She had bigger things to worry about than that idiot.

"Sir Brandon, no, Lord Brandon. Excuse me, Lord Brandon, do you have a moment?"

Brandon twisted his body and looked over his shoulder to see who was calling out to him. The man looked scared to death, standing in the middle of a training yard, and Brandon couldn't blame him. A five year old boy with a stick could injure the man. Of course, that did not stop Brandon from rising from his seat.

"Your Grace. Of course, how can I help you?" Brandon went to bow before the man, but William waved him off and sat down beside where Brandon had been sitting. Brandon sat down beside him and set the sword aside.

"Please, just William. I was wondering if I could talk to you. About something personal."

If the Duke had anything to say about Eleanor, Brandon thought he might break the man's nose. "Of course, your-William. What is it you wanted to talk about?"

William seemed to get really antsy in his seat, and stood up. Brandon watched the man as he paced back and forth for a moment, as if deep in thought. As soon as he seemed ready to speak, the man would then drop his head again, as if he had talked himself out of it. Brandon was ready to yell and just tell the man to speak already, when finally, the words came out.

"I am not a hard man, Brandon. I was raised in luxury, taught to make money and send others to do my dirty work. I hadn't even ridden a horse before coming here. Nor had I ever thought of it before. And now, I am envious of this bond that you and the Grand Duke have formed."

Brandon just stared in silence, waiting for the man to continue. He still hadn't established what he wanted yet.

"I know it is because you are both war trained men, while I am not. And I had never thought of using a weapon before, until last night, with Phillip."

Brandon couldn't help it. He burst into laughter, thinking of the shock he had felt, watching William punch Phillip. William had seemed to of broken his hand, and Phillip had been knocked out cold. All in all, the entire situation was unreal, but William had shown himself to be a real man.

"Please, do not laugh at me, Brandon. I know that it was a weak punch-" Brandon laughed harder "-and I want to be stronger. Teach me how to use a sword?"

Brandon stopped laughing at those words. The man wanted a sword lesson? That's what this was about? "You have never been taught to use a sword before?"

William shook his head no, and looked rather sheepish about it. "My father tried to get me to learn, but I held it once, had someone tap it, and I fled from the entire idea. But, it's not right, for a man to not know how to use a sword. At least teach me the basics?"

Brandon stared at the man for a moment, then beckoned to a nearby page. The boy ran up, and Brandon handed the lad his sword and gave him instructions to take it directly to his room. William watched silently as Brandon walked to weapons rack and pulled off two practice swords.

"I think we can teach you a few things, your grace."

• • •

"How could a secret this big have lasted over a thousand years? There is no way that any secret could be so closely guarded."

Alexander just laughed. "We just know the military histories. Why the breaking happened. What is, or was, in Sevind. And we know some of the technology. The real history? That would be kept by the Great Healer in Petara."

Eleanor blanched at his words. "Do you think that my Mother knows?"

"No, I doubt it. It seems as though only those that are closest to the throne know the real details. I know because if my brother dies, I become king. Your mother's father likely knows, but only because he was his Elder brother's heir for years. And now, you know, but Eleanor, this is one of the greatest secrets of the entire Cape."

Eleanor wished they hadn't finished off the flask. She needed a drink to deal with all these details. Somehow, everything she had ever known was now changed.

"What I wouldn't give to have access to all of the Histories…" she mused aloud, to herself.

"Eleanor, the knowledge in those libraries aren't important. What is important is this – War destroys. It is what has destroyed every age in the past. A war is like fire. It burns and destroys everything in it's path. You can stop it in the beginning, but when it grows too big, you just have to let it go until everything is destroyed, and all that's left is the ashes, from which you must rebuild. And war between Archaria and Venaramine could easily break the Cape."

Eleanor had always known, deep down, that another Great War could destroy the five kingdoms. Having it said aloud, however, felt like a smack to the face. She stared at Alexander for a moment, then buried her face into her hands.

"Alexander, I don't know what else to do. Everyone is expecting for me to be strong, and if I roll over and let them Archaria will trample us all. They are trying to take over the entire Cape. They have been killing innocent people along the border. They killed my father and yours. I know that another war could put us all in jeopardy, but is the alternative any better? We have to at least try and stand up against them."

He nodded and didn't say anything for a moment. Eleanor reached over to the basket beside him and pulled out a piece of bread. Splitting it in half, she handed a piece to him and forced herself to swallow some of the soft insides. She had to eat something. With all she had drank, and all she had left to do for the day, she couldn't let this buzz continue.

"What are you going to do about Brandon?"

Eleanor jerked her head up from her thoughts. She felt her face go completely white, and then her cheeks began to burn. Alexander just laughed.

"I'm serious, Eleanor. What are you going to do about him? The man is clearly in love with you, and the more I see you around him, the more I think you love him back."

Yes, her cheeks were definitely on fire now. She tried to stuff another piece of bread into her mouth, so she wouldn't have to answer.

"I don't know why you even bothered bringing the three of us here. You should marry Brandon. He would be a good husband to you, as well as a good King. The fact that you love each other is a bonus."

She felt her face go white again at those words. The bread was dropped into her lap, forgotten, and she tried to ignore his words. An apple was sticking up from in the basket, and Eleanor reached over to grab it.

"Come on, you can't tell me that you haven't thought of it. The love he has for you, it cannot be new. He must have loved you for years. And you are not a woman that would love lightly. How long have you loved him?"

Eleanor ignored his words and stood up, the apple in hand. Walking over to Moonbeam, who was grazing on the nearby grass, she took out her knife and cut the apple into four pieces. And the scent of the juicy fruit, Moonbeam raised her head and walked up to Eleanor. She offered out a piece of the fruit, and her horse snatched it up quickly.

"If you worry about marrying a man that you raised to nobility, do not fear. Your council seem to love and respect you, and you would have the support of my Kingdom. With a little convincing, I am certain that William would lend his support as well."

Eleanor fed Moonbeam another slice, followed by the third. The fourth sat on her outstretched hand, but instead of taking it, the mare reached her head forward and rubbed her face against Eleanor's. They held for a moment like that, before the horse finally took the last piece of apple. Wiping the juices off her hand, she turned back to Alexander, who had risen from where he was standing.

"The Royal treasury is broke, Alexander. All the money that we currently have is from Phillip. These past three years have been bad harvests, and we had to pay for the food from Agren and more money for the mines. Phillip did well along the coast, and has all of the money in the Kingdom. Without him, I can't arm, feed, and pay soldiers. If I can't do that, then I can barely even defend my country, let alone lead an attack against our enemy. I can do nothing without Phillip."

Alexander just stared at her in shock. There was a silence between them, and Eleanor was ready to turn away again when he finally spoke. "Then why haven't you already announced your betrothal to him and sent Brandon away?"

Eleanor looked down at her feet, almost ashamed. "I keep hoping that a miracle will occur. That money will rain down from the sky, Phillip will be generous and give me all of his gold, and Brandon will finally say something. Say that he loves me. Because, honestly Alexander, I have enough pressure on me. If I were to lose my only true friend that I have here, my closest guard, and my war Councilor, I think I would go insane."

Alexander just nodded and stepped up beside her. He took her hand, and gave it a small kiss on the back. Eleanor gave him a tiny smile, to show her gratitude, but she now felt depressed. Thinking about Brandon, and knowing that her miracle would never come, broke her heart.

"Let's get you back, Princess. I do believe that you have another meeting this afternoon."