Damsel in Wartime - Chapter 6

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"46,47, 48-" Elara muttered to herself.
 
"Do you think they'll actually get married?" Sybil had asked in a hushed tone sometime during the second day of travel. Despite their best efforts, Sybil and Alicent had failed to keep their conversation private.
 
"49, 50, 51, 52-" Elara remained focused on her counting.
 
"I don't know" Alicent replied "What would they talk about? They don't even speak the same language"
 
"53, 54-"
 
"I doubt they'll spend much time talking" Sybil giggled "They say Catalina is really pretty"
 
Alicent scoffed. "Maybe for a foreigner"
 
"55-" Elara paused. She wondered whether the jumble of chain mail in the mud was one body or two.
 
The Princess' travel party had come across the aftermath of a battle on their journey, and Elara had taken to counting the number of casualties.
 
In the mud lay countless soldiers belonging to each faction. Elara could tell who was sworn to which king by their colors.
 
King Sigurd's men were clad in blue and Prince Olmund's men were clad in green.
 
"56, 57, 58, 59-" Elara wanted to look away but for some reason, she kept her eyes scanning the field. The men were missing their boots and swords.
 
"The prince should just marry you" Elara heard Sybil say which caused the other girl to smile.
 
Alicent agreed, "he should right?"
 
It was all wishful thinking anyway. Prince Olmund's attachment to the foreign Princess Catalina was almost entirely political. While the two had met once in childhood, it had been many years since they last laid eyes on one another.
 
No, both parties had something the other wanted. Prince Olmund had a legitimate claim to his country's throne and King Luis, Catalina's father had many riches and soldiers.
 
"60," Elara paused to take a breath. There was no end to the dead. "61, 62 63-" She urged herself to turn and look away.
 
"Well you can have him," Sybil told her friend "I have my sights elsewhere"
 
"Who?" Alicent asked leaning in slightly.
 
"Just an old friend" Sybil blushed.
 
"Tell me" Alicent pressed.
 
"Lord Beorn" Sybil whispered.
 
Elara hadn't meant to follow their conversation but it was impossible not to in the confined space.
 
"Beorn?" Alicent echoed the name "The Grand Marshal"
 
Sybil blushed then nodded.
 
"I heard he wants nothing to do with women" Alicent turned away disappointed.
 
"Because he's waiting for me" Sybil replied.
 
"Well, if you're sure" Alicent chuckled.
 
Somewhere during the girls' conversation, Elara had lost track of the numbers and given up. It was just as well. She breathed a sigh of relief that she was finally able to turn away.
 
Instead, she pretended to be aloof while listening to the girls ramble on about some royal attachment or another. Any details she could gather about the court could prove to be important when they arrived. And without any interruptions to their journey, they had already made great progress, crossing into Olmund's territory sometime last night.
 
With the battlefield behind them, they were once again treated to untainted views of the countryside. The empty fields of grass and trees were eventually replaced with isolated farmsteads that reminded her of Maud and her daughters. It seemed so long ago now.
 
Would she ever see them again, she wondered.
 
As time passed and the horses trotted further and further, Elara came to realize that the procession was amassing an audience. An audience that grew exponentially whenever they passed through a village.
 
The peasants would leave whatever they were doing to stand and watch the carriages pass. Some people even followed, walking closely behind as they talked and cheered about the Princess' arrival.
 
At first, Elara had been worried, in her experience, common folk never took kindly to royalty. She'd heard the way people back in his village talked about King Sigurd.
 
She worried that the crowd might turn sour at any moment. But even as they amassed followers too many to count, the atmosphere remained calm and even filled with Joy.
 
They loved the Princess and cheered after her. Some threw flowers as they passed.
 
Elara watched both girls in front of her closely. Pleased would have been an understatement.
 
As the procession approached the city, Elara began to understand just how much love and adoration the people of this city had for Prince Olmund, the man they believed to be their rightful ruler.
 
No, in this city, he was King Olmund.
 
Shops in the market quickly closed as people poured into the street to get a glimpse of their princess.
 
What had she done to deserve this much love and adoration except be born, Elara wondered.
 
Alicent and Sybil received similar treatment as they had taken to waving out the carriage window.
 
'Would they still cheer if they knew just how terrible these girls were?' Elara wondered.
 
Their perfect smiles directed at the peasants made Elara wonder whether the girls were as bad as she thought them to be. After all, despite her fears, the journey had been relatively painless.
 
Moments Alicent and Sybil hadn't spent engulfed in the beautiful scenery, they'd spent engulfed in their conversation. Other than a few backhanded comments directed at her, they'd pretty much left her alone.
 
Elara thought to wave just like the girls did but was quickly reminded that she was not like them. She wasn't nobility. No, she had more in common with the people outside the carriage than in. Lies had gotten her here.
 
Elara caught her first glimpse at Olmund's castle as the carriages made the final turn onto a street lined with trees with leaves of the most beautiful yellow color. The crowd had been halted just before that point, that was as far as they were allowed.
 
Elara was caught in a haze of wonder as the party made their final approach. The white castle was unlike anything she'd ever seen before, it felt like something out of a dream.
 
Alicent and Sybil jumped ecstatically in their seats. This was a much different experience from dreary Moat Lynden.
 
The castle grounds were littered with noblemen and women dressed in beautiful silks, all of whom were gathering at the castle's main entrance to witness the Princess' arrival.
 
The messaging across all of King Sigurd's territories made it seem like Prince Olmund was hosting nothing more than a small rebellion. This was anything but.
 
The young prince had the support of his nobles as much as the love of his people.
 
The carriages came to a final halt and soon the doors to the carriages were opened allowing the women to make their much-anticipated appearance.
 
Alicent and Sybil hurried out into the sunlight desperate to be welcomed to their new home. Elara, ever more reserved took her time preparing herself.
 
"Watch closely," she whispered to herself with eyes closed "Make notes, report back"
 
She had to be careful not to get swept away by the finery. If she betrayed her mission, she couldn't bear to think of what Cedric would do to Thurstan.
 
And despite getting more comfortable being this person, her plan remained to eventually go back to being Wulfric.
 
"My lady," she heard a voice from outside the carriage "do you require assistance?"
 
She followed the voice and found its owner, a well-meaning soldier.
 
"Yes, please" she replied playing off her late exit.
 
The man graciously outstretched his hand which she took. His rigid hand enveloped hers wasting no time leading her out into the warm sunlight.
 
"Thank you, sir," she said with a smile.
 
"My pleasure, my lady" he replied after letting go of her hand. He made a quick gesture in the direction of the coachman who in turn brought the exhausted horses to action once more.
 
As quickly as he'd arrived, the good soldier was away leaving Elara in the middle of several guests who were busy paying their respects to the princess.
 
There were so many faces, all of them presumably important but Elara was at a loss of who they were.
 
She had a lot of work to do.
 
Princess Aurelia and her four girls were led into the beautiful castle and towards the throne room. The inside of Olmund's castle was even more magnificent than the outside. Precious metals and fabrics lined the white and gold walls.
 
It was hard to believe that only a few years ago, Olmund had nothing more than his uncle allowed. Some would say, he still had nothing.
 
Everything in sight, the castle, the soldiers, the support, all of it was bankrolled by a few wealthy local and international allies. All of whom would surely expect a sizable reward when he becomes king. One such ally was King Luis who among other things, expected his daughter to become Queen for his efforts.
 
The way King Sigurd saw it, the boy was auctioning off the country.
 
The doors to the throne room were opened and Princess Aurelia and her four ladies were guided through. Members of the court had taken their positions forming lines on either side of the room.
 
On the throne sat King Olmund, he looked younger than Elara had expected. Despite nearing thirty years of age, he hadn't seen much of life having been locked away in a castle or another for most of it.
 
He wore his hair long, reaching his shoulder. His beard was scanty and existed mostly as patches which resulted in an awkward appearance for someone so affluent.
 
Elara ceased her approach when the other girls did, allowing Princess Aurelia to proceed alone to the foot of the throne.
 
"Your Majesty" Aurelia spoke first after a brief silence between the two siblings.
 
Olmund stood suddenly, closed the distance, and hugged his sister. Elara couldn't have been sure, but she thought she might have seen the Princess flinch in the moments just before the hug.
 
"My dearest sister, how I have missed you so" Olmund spoke loudly enough for the court to hear.
 
"I have missed you too" She replied. She looked older than him despite being three years younger.
 
"Damn our uncle," Olmund said after separating. "He did not hurt you, did he?"
 
"N-" Aurelia had begun to speak but stopped when her brother continued.
 
"Marrying you to that oaf," Olmund stepped away almost as if he was now addressing the court. "oh how you must have suffered"
 
Once again, it looked to Elara that the Princess had tensed up at his words.
 
"Lord Eadric treated me well" Aurelia corrected.
 
Olmund scoffed, "I will have him punished for laying his filthy hands on you when I take my place"
 
Aurelia struggled to hide her embarrassment.
 
"I promise to regain your honor when I take his head on the field of battle" Olmund proclaimed. "Would this please you?"
 
"Yes, Your Majesty" Aurelia replied with her head turned away.
 
"And who are these?" Olmund quickly turned his attention to the girls who stood behind his sister.
 
Aurelia just as quickly recomposed herself and introduced her ladies.
 
"My trusted ladies-in-waiting. Aoife, Alicent, Sybil, and Elara." she answered "I could not have survived these trying years without their loyal companionship"
 
The girls bowed to the king and prayed desperately for his approval. Elara's mission quite possibly could have ended right then at his whim.
 
What would Cedric do then, she wondered? If she was relieved of her position through no fault of her own, would he still blame her?
 
"Then they are most welcome in this court. Thank you for taking such good care of my sister. Your loyalty will be rewarded" He proclaimed.
 
For a moment, Elara's eyes met Olmund's and he seemed to linger on her gaze as he spoke.

"A feast!" Olmund proclaimed to his court "Tonight we celebrate the arrival of my dear sister and her companions."

"You are very kind, Your Majesty" she bowed to her brother. Elara thought it odd how she addressed her brother as if she were just another subject. She couldn't imagine being so cold and distant with her brothers.

Once again, she thought about what they would have thought about her if they could see her now. Would they commend her for surviving and finding herself in the presence of a king, or would they condemn her for so easily throwing away the person she'd been?

"That is not all," He continued "I ask that you all join me tomorrow morning for a hunt to celebrate my sister's return"

"Unfortunately, I am exhausted from my journey. I am afraid I won't be able to join you" She spoke loud enough for everyone to hear.

"Nonsense" he quickly dismissed her "The hunt is in your honor, after all. You must participate"

"You know how I feel about your hunts" the Princess spoke privately and in a hushed voice but Elara's keen ear could just make it out. "Don't force me to do this"

"I need you by my side now more than ever. We must put up a united front" he spoke in the same hushed tone.

Without waiting for her response, he addressed the court once more, "My dear sister is fatigued. Show her to her chambers" He clapped twice to signify an end to the proceedings.

Princess Aurelia moved to say something else but decided against it. Following a small nod, she walked away from him and back towards the girls who parted to allow her a way through. She looked upset.

As the Princess, her party turned and followed closely behind. The group remained quiet even as they were shown to their new rooms.

=^..^=

"Oh Elara, isn't this beautiful?" Aoife had exclaimed upon entry into their new room. It was a magnificent space and Elara could scarcely believe that she was going to live there.

"It's beautiful" Elara replied wide-eyed. Like much of the castle, it kept its white and gold aesthetic with the most beautiful and intricate patterns along the walls. Unlike the room at Moat Lynden, this one had very large windows that allowed a lot of natural light and a view of the city.

Elara stared out the window, entirely consumed by the view. Right below her, she could see the palace gardens where numerous aristocrats walked and discussed. Unfortunately, she couldn't hear anything from so high up.

Farther still and beyond the castle grounds, stood a thousand homes and shops that belonged to the people of this city. If she focused her eyes enough, she could just make out individual figures going about their daily lives.

"Are we allowed to go down there? Into the city?" Elara turned around to ask but was met with a view of Aoife stripped down to her undergarments. Her dress and corset were already tossed haphazardly on the single but very large bed in the room. Despite already being used to the sight, Elara turned away. It still made her feel guilty.

"What?" Aoife asked.

"You're undressed already" Elara answered.

"Yes, and why aren't you?" Aoife followed up "We've been wearing those corsets for two days. Don't you feel sore?" Aoife added as she plopped onto the bed, stretching happily.

Before Elara could answer, there had been a knock on the door.

A moment later, a middle-aged woman walked through the door. To Elara, she looked wise and experienced with much to say. The woman's entrance had caused Aoife to rise once again, instantly missing the sweet embrace of the soft bed.

"Pardon me, my ladies, I have been instructed to prepare your gowns for the King's feast tonight" The woman spoke "May I take your measurements?"

"Of course" Aoife answered, "Whatever you need".

The woman unveiled a long, thin piece of fabric and made her way towards the already-undressed girl. She wrapped the fabric around Aoife and made a mark on it at the point where it had completely encircled her waist. She repeated the process for her shoulders, bust, hips, and arms before communicating that she was satisfied.

She stowed away the fabric before unveiling another. It was Elara's turn.

"Could I ask you to remove your clothes, my lady?" The woman asked politely.

Elara froze. She glanced at her friend and back to the woman.

"Can't you take the measurements as I am?" Elara asked unsure of what to do.

"Apologies, mistress" Aoife chimed in before the woman could respond. "She's very shy"

Aoife made her way towards Elara who was beginning to feel trapped and rubbed her shoulder softly.

"It's just us here" She assured her. "I promised there's nothing to be ashamed of. Go ahead" she said convincingly.

"She can retain her undergarments if she wishes" The woman added.

Feeling completely out of choices and with no way out, she began stripping reluctantly. Soon the dress and corset were off and both women could see that she was as flat as a washboard.

Aoife's face radiated nothing but compassion and once again, there was no indication that she'd uncovered Elara's secret so Elara slowly began to set her mind at ease. Finally, she removed her underskirt and when she was down to nothing but her chemise and breeches, she presented herself to the women.

All things considered, the rest went painlessly enough.

=^..^=

That evening, Elara and Aoife admired themselves in their new gowns. Many times already, Elara had caught herself giggling at something her friend had said. She was quickly finding how easy it was to lose herself in this made-up identity. It was too easy to be this person.

She could feel the excitement around the castle and it had a similar effect on her as well. There was a light rumble around the grounds as the guests arrived. From her window, she could see members of nobility dressed in their finest silks but still, dwarfed by how beautiful Aoife told her she looked. It didn't feel bad, and that scared her.

"Ready?" Aoife asked with a bright smile on her face. It was contagious.

"Yes," Elara smiled.

In a quick motion, Aoife grabbed Elara's hand and hurried her out of their room. Out in the corridor, Elara could get a better sense of just how much chatter was going on in and around the castle. They followed the path they'd been led down earlier until they reached a servant.

"The Great Hall is just that way, my ladies" They were informed.

They wasted no time. It sounded to them like the party had already begun.

Walking through the massive doors, Elara was completely in awe. Many chandeliers held oil lamps that illuminated the hall and gave it a mystical glow. The light that reflected off the polished metals and ornaments scattered around the room made everything shine and twinkle.

Elara had never seen the like.

"Elara, come" Aoife urged her forward.

It took some effort to find their table towards the front of the room, a place reserved for the guests of honor. The only higher honor was the richly adorned table where the King would sit with his sister by his side.

At their table, Elara met Alicent and Sybil for the first time since they arrived earlier in the day. They looked beautiful as well, so she said so.

"You look beautiful," she told them shyly as she took a seat beside Aoife.

Alicent didn't respond having been caught off guard by the compliment.

"You too" Sybil replied seemingly unsure about whether to be civil or not.

"You should see Her Highness" Alicent finally spoke and quickly turned away.

Elara recognized that the statement had been intended to hurt her but she felt too good to care. Earlier in the day, a servant had been sent by the Princess to retrieve Aoife and her alone.

It turned out Aoife, Alicent and Sybil had been called to attend to the Princess and Elara had been intentionally excluded once again. Of course, Elara knew why, but to the other girls, it seemed the Princess had shunned the new girl for reasons unknown, soon after her arrival. A bad place to be in for any lady-in-waiting.

"Are you okay?" Aoife whispered to her.

She smiled in response. Elara knew the truth. She wasn't here to win the Princess' approval, she was here to gather information and to that end, an opportunity would soon present itself.

=^..^=

The opportunity would come as the feast had begun winding down. As expected, the Royal siblings had arrived not long after Elara's entry kicking off the feast.

There had been music and dancing, performances by bards and jesters, there had even been a play reenacting one of their father's victories. Most importantly, there had been an impossible amount of food, remnants of which Olmund had pledged to feed to the people.

She'd had men and women take an interest in her, receiving long stares from several members of the court and even from the King himself.

Elara had had her fun, but when the King was approached by an unknown man and had something whispered in his ear, it was time to get work.

The King's expression had turned sour quickly which had captured her attention. The man had led the King out of the hall and back into the corridor.

"I need some fresh air" Elara informed the girls and quickly got to her feet.

Quickly making sure that she had no one else's attention, she casually walked down the corridor where she'd last seen the King. She followed the trailing voices until the roar of the feast faded.

At the end of one such corridor, she saw Olmund make one last turn and quickly followed. On the other side, she came face to face with a man who was directly in her face. Elara's heart skipped a beat.

"Uh-hello" She spoke nervously as they stood inches from each other and he wasn't giving her a way through.

She studied him, he was dressed too finely to be just anyone. His dark hair and beard were both kept short but Elara could admit that it suited him perfectly. Everything about him suited him perfectly.

Elara swallowed uneasily. His face was perfectly sculpted.

"Sorry-" She began to speak but he interrupted her.

"What are you doing here?" he asked taking a menacing step forward.

Elara's heart skipped another beat. She was in trouble.

=^..^=
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Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

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Comments

All that glitters . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

. . . is most definitely NOT gold! Wolf has walked into a complete serpent’s lair, and doesn’t have the first idea of how to fit in — much less be a spy. What on earth was Cedric thinking?

Really enjoying the twists and turns, Emma!

Emma

Thank you!

Emma's picture

I'm glad you're enjoying it. Next chapter coming soon.

Not Given A Chance

joannebarbarella's picture

Elara is being treated as if she has the plague by everyone except Aoife. How she can gain information is anybody's guess.

It also seems as if the relationship between Aurelia and Olmund is not all that cordial.