Damsel in Wartime - Chapter 11

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Elara pulled at the bowstring and aimed at the target in front of her. She took great care to keep her arm steady before letting the arrow fly. It whistled threw the air before lodging itself at the bottom edge of the wooden target.

She turned joyfully to Beorn who stood on the adjacent track, and jumped and squealed in delight. The arrow was still a good distance away from the bullseye but it was the first time, one of her arrows hadn't simply plopped hopelessly in the dirt.

Elara wasn't sure but she thought she could see a hint of pride in his eyes, after all, he'd taught her everything she knew.

It had been several weeks since that night with the King and in that time, things had progressed between her and Beorn. The time they both spent at the archery range provided much-needed solace from the trials of both their lives.

For Elara, shooting arrows into a target was the only time she felt anything like the boy she was once. When she nocked her bow, pulled at the string, and let the arrow fly was the only time she felt like Wulfric was still alive.

For Beorn, it let him take his mind off the rigors of His Majesty's war. Elara's repeated interruptions of his private sessions had been curious at first but he'd found himself looking forward to these moments as the weeks went back.

He purposefully held back a smile as the girl jumped happily after hitting the target for the first time. He knew he shouldn't encourage her advances. She belonged to the King and was therefore she was untouchable by the likes of him although he wanted nothing more than to touch her.

He wanted to tell her she'd done a wonderful job teaching herself the way of the bow simply by watching him but instead, he turned away. Their involvement would spell nothing but trouble.

No, he would have to be content with these moments at the range. He readied his bow for another shot, adjusting his body in the way he knew her form lacked. She readied her bow and followed his every move.

Together, they pulled at their bowstrings and let their arrows fly into their respective targets.

As for Olmund, he had grown more and more dependent on her company and summoned her to his chambers more often than not. His threats had had the intended effect of scaring her into subservience and it had managed that for a few days before Elara's behaviour changed.

She was showing a dismissiveness of his authority that he hadn't experienced even from his own sibling. Only last night, he'd summoned her to his chambers and she'd greeted him without averting her gaze like she normally would.

"You asked to see me, Your Majesty" she'd spoken without waiting to be addressed.

"Yes," he'd replied clearing his throat, "have there been any more letters from my supporters?" he asked. The last one had arrived some time ago and had been thoroughly beneficial in routing Sigurd's army.

"Not yet, sire" She replied. She did her best to hide her smile from him. It was clear that the King had grown dependent on Cedric's letters and as the messenger, the letters in turn gave her a sense of safety.

"You wouldn't keep them from me, would you Elara?"

"I would never, Your Majesty" She bowed her head for the first time that evening.

Olmund's expression softened as he invited her to take her usual seat following her response.

"Please," he gestured to the cup he'd just filled with wine, "Have a drink with me"

As Elara sat and thanked him, she could immediately tell the cup of wine in his hand wasn't his first, far from it.

"You shouldn't invite me to your chambers so often," she cautioned him, "People are talking"

With how much time the two seemingly spent with one another, they had quickly become a topic of conversation throughout the castle.

"I pay them no mind, and neither should you" he brushed passed her concerns and took a sip of his wine. "I am their King and I will not be subject to their scrutiny"

"A good King cares what his people think of him" The words left her lips before she'd had the chance to stop them.

"Are you saying I'm not a good King?" Olmund asked her.

'Yes!' she screamed the words in her head.

"I'm saying, your new bride arrives soon. You should at least pretend to think of no one but her" Elara reasoned. She was thankful that Olmund wasn't reacting poorly to what she'd said.

"Tomorrow" Olmund informed her, "Princess Catalina arrives tomorrow"

The expression on his face told Elara that there was nothing but disinterest where the foreign princess was concerned. From past conversations, she knew he was more interested in the army she was bringing with her. She worried Catalina wouldn't be her salvation from the King's attention like she'd hoped.

"Does that make you jealous?" Olmund spoke in response to the worry on Elara's face.

"Of her? No. If anything I pity her" Once again, the words left her lips prematurely, and to her surprise, Olmund only laughed in response.

She forced a smile to keep the mood between them light.

"Are you excited about her arrival?" Elara asked him. She figured it couldn't hurt to gain clarity about Olmund's intentions where Catalina was concerned. If only to have something to report back the next time Gawen made his appearance.

Olmund scoffed, "I think we have enough princesses. My sister is enough of a handful already. My engagement to Catalina is simply a means to win my throne"

"Do you not get along with your sister?" Elara asked. She wasn't sure whether it was bravery or stupidity, but Olmund's recent openness with her spurred her on.

There was little more terrifying than letting your guard down. That was what Olmund thought to himself as he thought as he prepared to answer her question.

"There was a time we trusted each other entirely," He explained, "Until she betrayed me"

"What did she do?" Elara asked.

He studied Elara as she waited patiently for his answer. She'd changed so very much in the short time he'd known her. She'd grown confident and more assertive the past few weeks and perhaps he should have found this behavior dangerous, but instead, it amused him.

If only she was a real woman.

"She chose my uncle over me" Olmund answered just before bringing his cup to his lips.

There was a silence between the two as Elara took in the words. The pain in his eyes was clear as he finished the wine in his cup and poured himself another. She didn't rush him, he continued when he was ready.

"When I was rescued from my uncle, she could have come with me. We were together, but she ran," He continued, "She is my sister and I loved her but she ran back to my uncle! Alerted him to the rescue effort!" Elara grew tense as Olmund's voice began to rise.

"The man that stole MY throne, and she chose him over me!" Olmund yelled.

Elara gripped the base of her cup in fear. She quickly realized she wasn't as secure in the protection the letters offered as she thought.

"I'm sorry" Olmund apologized. It was the first time he'd ever done that.

The memory of last night caused her arms to shake causing the arrow to fly wildly off target. Her fingers shook from the stress just as they had the previous night. Beorn looked at her with worry so she flashed a small smile in his direction.

She bowed to him as she made her exit from the range and he returned the gesture in kind.

=^..^=

The entire court gathered outside the castle that afternoon to greet Catalina as her carriage approached. Unlike Elara's arrival with the Princess, Olmund was also present watching the horse-drawn golden carriages slow to a halt.

Olmund smiled brightly as Catalina was helped out of the carriage, a juxtaposition from his mood last night.

Elara was in awe of Catalina's appearance. She was so beautiful, with much darker skin than hers and long dark brown hair. The sun's rays almost glistened as they touched her skin. She had long, cat-like eyes and full lips, tall and slender. Elara felt jealous as she looked around the audience and they appeared equally in awe.

"May I present Her Royal Highness, Princess Catalina" the now familiar envoy proclaimed at the top of his lungs.

She bent her knees and lowered her body while delicately holding portions of her dress in between long fingers. It was a unique bow that struck Elara as Ethereal in nature.

Olmund bowed his head in response.

"Hello," She spoke, her words distorted by a heavy accent. Still, her voice was beautiful and soothing. The perfect woman, Elara thought.

Princess Aurelia's words came to Elara's mind, 'She's a pretty thing and Olmund breaks pretty things'.

The girl stood no chance.

"You stand in the presence of King Olmund" Podan proclaimed.

"Let us not stand on ceremony" Olmund smiled, Elara couldn't tell if it was genuine, "Today is a joyous day indeed. I am finally united with the beautiful, Catalina. You are most welcome, Princess"

He was putting on a good show, Elara thought to herself.

The entire audience waited in silence as the envoy spoke to her in that strange, foreign language. When he was finished, Catalina smiled a bright smile at Olmund and replied in that same thick accent, "Thank you, Your Majesty"

As it turned out, Catalina's need to learn the language had been greatly exaggerated as she already had good command over the grammar and vocabulary, she simply had a difficult time understanding the manner and quickness in which people of Olmund's kingdom spoke with each word melting into the next almost in a slur.

Elara had quickly picked this up as Catalina was introduced to the other members of the Royal household and when it came her turn to greet the Princess, she spoke slower and made sure to enunciate her words.

"Welcome Princess" Elara said following a standard bow. She'd had to resist the urge to bow in the stylish manner Catalina had done earlier for fear of giving her the impression of mockery.

"Thank you" Catalina matched her tone and pace, "May I know your name?"

"Elara, Your Highness"

The words had caught the Princess off-guard because she seemed to freeze for a moment.

"Are you alright?" Elara thoughtfully asked, careful not to speak too quickly.

"Yes, thank you" Catalina replied with a quick smile, "You are very beautiful" she added.

Elara blushed, "Thank you. You are too, of course"

"I hope- we are good friends" Catalina forced.

"I hope so too" Elara replied having had no trouble understanding what she had been trying to say. She found that she sympathised with the Princess who must have felt overwhelmed. Not too long ago, she too had been brought to this unfamiliar place. She at least had grown up speaking the language.

Elara had been the last one among Aurelia's ladies to be introduced to the Princess so when they were through, she was ferried to another group eager to make her acquaintance.

Upon conclusion of introductions, Olmund announced that there was to be a ball that evening to celebrate Catalina's arrival. She was allowed to get some much-needed rest from her journey, and Elara and the other girls hurried back to their rooms to prepare.

=^..^=

"How does this look?" Elara asked as she added a dye made from berries to her lips to give them a beautiful reddish color. Elara turned away from her reflection in the polished metal disc, a very expensive gift she'd received from Olmund. She turned apprehensively to face the other girls in the room.

"It's pretty" Aoife told her, "You're improving"

"Thank you" Elara smiled. She wished there was a way she could thank her roommate for diligently teaching how about the various dyes, pigments, chalks, and charcoals and how they could be used to enhance a woman's appearance.

"Yes, I'm sure Lord Beorn will be enchanted when he sees you tonight" Sybil commented.

"You shouldn't be so jealous, Sybil. It's unbecoming." Alicent added as she admired her reflection in the polished metal Elara had just handed to her.

"I am not jealous" Sybil quickly argued.

"Oh? So you're not upset he only has eyes for her?" Alicent asked with a smirk.

"He doesn't have eyes for me" Elara protested.

"Oh please, we aren't blind," Alicent said before adding a touch of pigment to her cheeks, "You have the best eligible bachelor in this court wrapped around your finger"

"That is not true!" Elara blushed, "Nothing is going on between us"

Alicent rolled her eyes and kept her focus on her beautiful reflection.

"It doesn't look like nothing when you spend hours together at the range" Sybil chimed in, "Pretending you like archery? How shameless"

Alicent sighed, "We know you wish you'd thought of it first"

Sybil pouted in response.

"I'm not pretending," Elara said simply which led to a moment's silence between the group. "When I shoot, it's the only time I feel like I have any control"

"The situation with the King hasn't improved?" Aoife asked with her usual worry, "Why does he keep summoning you?"

'I am a spy that's helping him with the war' Elara thought to herself but knew she could never actually say the words.

"I keep asking myself that" She answered. Over the past weeks, it had become easier and easier to lie.

"I don't get it" Sybil sounded frustrated, "Why does everyone keep throwing themselves at you? You're flat as a washboard. You're like a little boy!"

"Sybil!" Aoife quickly chastised her.

"It's true" Sybil added quietly.

"Don't listen to her" Aoife turned to face her roommate, "You're just a late bloomer, that's all"

"She isn't a child anymore" Alicent responded while still blending the pigment across her face, "I'm afraid that's all the growing she's going to do"

"She could try getting pregnant, that might help" Sybil chimed in.

"I'm sitting right here" Elara let the exhaustion show on her face. She'd grown closer to the other girls in the time she's been here. There's conversations had become a daily occurrence.

Still, other than Thurstan, these girls were the only friends she'd ever had. It was unfortunate that their friendship was built on several lies stacked on one another.

"How does it feel to fuck a King?" Alicent looked up from her reflection for the first time in some time.

"We don't-- fuck" Elara blushed at the vulgar word.

"I don't believe that for one second" Alicent quickly dismissed her, "It's okay, you can tell us?"

"We really don't" Elara repeated, "We haven't done anything like that"

"So what do you do every night?" Sybil asked.

"Talk mostly"

"As if you're that interesting" Sybil retorted.

"Really? Nothing at all?" Alicent asked.

"We kissed once, but that's it"

"That doesn't sound so bad" Sybil chimed in again, "You make it sound like being around him is torture"

"I'm sure it's complicated" Aoife once again came to her defense.

"Have you girls ever done it? You know--" Elara asked shyly after a pause. Her curiosity about the acts men and women performed together had gotten the best of her.

Sybil shrugged and then looked to Alicent who didn't respond.

"I haven't either" Aoife added. It was to be expected. After all, a proper noble marriage expected the woman to be unsullied. If Elara had been a noble lady, her reputation as the King's pet might have been a cause for concern.

All three girls looked to Alicent who hid behind the polished metal disc.

"Don't tell anyone" Alicent answered simply.

"You've done it?" Sybil asked incredulously.

Alicent hurriedly shushed her friend.

"With who?" Aoife asked curiously. "We won't tell anyone, right girls?"

Elara and Sybil nodded quickly.

There was a part of Alicent that wanted to say the words and speak the name, a part of her that desperately wanted to trust her friends with her secret.

"I don't want to talk about it," She said before turning back to her makeup. It was her secret and hers alone.

=^..^=

The four ladies walked closely behind Princess Aurelia as she made her entrance into the Great Hall. They were desperately trying to suppress their giggling over something Sybil had muttered about a particularly tardy guest.

"Girls, pay attention" Aurelia cautioned them as they came in full view of the other guests.

They looked at each other, smiled, and stifled their laughs. Elara had to cover her mouth with her hands to do so.

The princess engaged in greetings with the arrived guests while they followed close behind. Elara's eyes scanned the room for Beorn and found him glancing in her direction. She wanted to smile or even wave at him but thought better of it.

As she looked away, she wondered what he thought of her dress. His preferences might have come up as she chose the pink dress, not that she would ever admit as much.

"He's coming this way" Aoife whispered. The other girls had also noticed his approach and giggled.

Elara looked up panicked and found Beorn bowing to the Princess.

"Your Highness" his voice was clear even amidst the overbearing chatter.

"My lord" Princess Aurelia replied, "I trust you are enjoying yourself"

"Now that I am in your presence, I am" He replied with a charming smile. His gaze would only occassionally switch to Elara who stood shyly behind the Princess.

"You flatter me" The Princess laughed at the compliment.

They looked good together. While Olmund expected his sister to marry into a neighboring country's nobility to strengthen alliances, it wasn't unusual for such marriages to occur locally as rewards for outstanding service. In that case, Lord Beorn would have been as good a match as any.

"You have your army now. Are you going to give my brother victory?" Princess Aurelia asked him.

"We have had a series of breakthroughs recently, it's true," Beorn explained, "And with the reinforcements, a decisive victory in the near future can be expected"

"Good, good" Elara heard the Princess say, "You have served my brother exceptionally"

"I serve you as well, Your Highness" Beorn corrected, "Just as my father served yours"

"I am grateful for your service, my lord. As I'm sure, so is the King"

Lord Beorn bowed to the Princess one more time before turning to leave. It had taken a conscious effort on his part to keep his eyes away from Elara. She looked divine. Very few women had ever occupied his mind as she had, certainly none as thoroughly as her.

=^..^=

Sometime later, the King arrived with his new bride-to-be and the hall was quiet for the first time that evening.

Olmund spoke only a few words to some nobles before taking to the front of the hall.

"My lords!" He spoke loudly. The hall was so silent, Elara could hear the tiniest shuffling or throat clearing. The audience looked intently at Olmund as he continued his speech.

"Tonight, we gather to celebrate a most momentous occasion— the arrival of Princess Catalina. Her presence here signifies not merely the joining of two great houses, but the dawn of a powerful alliance between our two Kingdoms."

"She has traveled a great distance to be with us here today. Like me, she possesses a commitment to our unified strength and prosperity."

"Together, we stand as an unbreakable force against our enemies, my uncle and the traitors who stand by his side. They will learn the price of their treachery and defiance. Our victory is inevitable now and it will be absolute."

Olmund took a menacing step forward, "The time for mercy is over. The time has come for my usurping uncle to face the consequences of his actions. I promise you, my loyal subjects, that this war will be over soon".

Elara's eyes remained on Catalina who stood at the front of the room and wondered what she thought of the man that was to be her husband.

=^..^=

"Your Highness" Elara walked up to Princess Catalina when the opportunity arose. Aurelia had finally dismissed the girls allowing them to do some mingling of her own. The others had chosen to spend that time talking to whatever handsome nobles remained, Elara had chosen a different path.

"Lady Elara" Catalina smiled at her.

"You remember my name," Elara asked surprised. Catalina must have been bombarded by so many names and titles during the earlier introductions and wouldn't have been surprised if she'd forgotten.

"Of course, I remember" That same thick accent came through. It was so unique and mysterious.

"You look beautiful" Elara marveled at the dress that seemed to be made out of a thousand feathers, unlike anything she'd seen the noble ladies of her country wear.

"Thank you" She beamed "You are beautiful as well"

"Thank you"

Their conversation was simple but Elara felt it was genuine. At least, she hoped it was.

"I am here for you if you need anything" Elara spoke slowly and concisely.

Catalina looked to be wrestling with some thoughts for a moment but when she decided on a course of action, she reached forward and touched Elara's hand. "Can we speak after?" she asked.

Elara was taken aback but nodded her agreement.

"After" Catalina repeated.

"Okay," Elara said softly.

Catalina thanked her and left, leaving Elara entirely confused about what that was about. Eventually, she decided to put it out of her mind and simply enjoy the ball.

=^..^=

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Thanks for reading as always.

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Comments

After…….

D. Eden's picture

An ominous request.

Almost up there with, “We need to talk……..”

D. Eden

Dum Vivimus, Vivamus

Conflicting loyalties

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Elara needs to figure out where her loyalties lie. She is there because Cedric has her friend’s life in his hands. But Cedric supports Olmund, and Elara knows he’s a monster. The Princess she ostensibly serves knows this too. Yet she is falling for Beorn, who is Olmund’s right hand. Now, she is offering Catalina friendship? How will that work?

Great story, Emma!

Emma

The Spy

joannebarbarella's picture

Who hasn't even been given the chance to come in from the cold. Poor Elara is rudderless, without any clear directions, and at the mercy of the most powerful sociopath in the land.

Let's hope Catalina will provide some light.

I'm really enjoying the intrigue, Emma.