The sun slipped between the leaves to glint and shine upon the window panes. Slanting light glittered and danced across the feast laid upon the great hall table. The hall that should have been full and bursting with merriment stood empty. Instruments lay abandoned in the balcony above her and chaos reigned in the house. Elinor stood in the shadow beside the window. She clutched the bouquet as she watched the milling men and horses beyond. One of those faceless men, mounted and adorned from head to toe in mail and leather was her intended. She glanced at the elegantly laid table and sighed as her mother entered through the main doors.
“Elinor. Come, you must wish them well.”
“But mother it is bad luck to see me in my wedding dress.”
“When they return your new gown will be finished and you can wear that. It is more important for him to have your image as he leaves.”
“Mama, this is political, I doubt he will care much.”
Her mother, a fierce woman with flaming red hair and dark brown eyes set her fists on her hips.
“Now, Elinor. Political or not you can’t let the young man go off to battle without seeing his bride to be. He needs something to fight for darling.”
Elinor stepped from the shadow and moved toward her mother.
“That didn’t seem to help Benjamin.”
She whispered and saw a brief softening of her mother’s mouth.
“I’m sorry darling.”
She took Elinor’s hand and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. Her fingertips lingered on Elinor’s cheek for a moment and Elinor felt her throat catch. This was the second time she’d watched a man ride off for battle, this time before she’d even married him.
Elinor followed, carefully lifting the front of her long blue and gold brocaded gown to avoid ruining the hem. The hard soles of her slippers cracked against the stone in the twisting corridor. The sound of impatient horses and the metallic rustle of chainmail greeted them in the the entry. Elinor took a deep breath before following her mother into the blinding sunlight. She blinked in the sudden brightness and found herself faced with the chaos of men and beasts milling in preparation for bloody battle.
Her father and mother stood to one side, father was speaking to the Duke’s messenger who had flown into their home that morning with the call to arms. They had been preparing to leave for the Abbey that adjoined the Castle. Studying the flurry of activity Elinor wondered which of the helmeted men was her intended, Thomas. Several of the men were already mounted and issuing orders to the others. He was likely among them since only the messenger was speaking with her father. She paused a little apart from her mother and father. It was not right for her to join the conversation as she was yet unmarried.
A man strode across the courtyard carrying a shield across one shoulder and strapped high on his arm. Elinor’s breath caught in her throat. His gait was sure and steady, no trace of haste or worry in his frame. It was her stranger. She clutched the bouquet tighter in her hand and watched as he swung into the saddle of a sturdy bay that waited with flared nostrils and attentive ears. He adjusted his sword and checked his reins then looked up. Their eyes met and she drew a tense breath.
In the clear light she could see his eyes were not pale green, but clear hazel. They were as direct as they had been yestermorn. She could not see his face beneath the helmet but she knew it was him when he tipped his head before nudging his horse to the fore of the line. Elinor moved without thinking to the edge of the flagstone entrance, trying to keep him in sight. He sat his horse at the fore conversing with the other already mounted men, her brother’s red painted helm among them. Others began to fall into line behind them.
Elinor squeezed the bouquet even tighter as the messenger joined them. Her stranger spun his horse in a tight circle to view the gathered men. His eyes caught hers again for a brief moment and she felt a blush creep across her face. He wasn’t her intended, what was she doing? The host moved out on signal from the messenger. Her embarrassment lasted but a moment, as they turned the corner of the path Elinor rushed back into the castle. She flew to the far window of the Great Hall that overlooked the gate approach. He passed below her lattice window and was gone.
She stumbled back from the window and sank into one of the ornate wooden chairs that surrounded the great table. Resting her chin in her hand she looked at the feast. Her wedding feast. Would she preside over one again? Or would she bury another man before his time? Would she ever see her stranger again? Lowering her face into her palms Elinor sent a silent prayer to any listening deities to watch over him.
Standing she walked back to the window and watched the tips of the standards disappear beyond the castle gate. The sunlight filtered through the leaves and Elinor examined the glittering light on her wedding bouquet. Pale pink hydrangeas and lovely pale peach roses shimmered in that shaft of light, mocking her aching heart with their beauty. She dropped them on the window sill and blinked. Three bright drops of blood stood against the pale skin of her palm and three unclipped thorns shone red with her blood.
She hadn’t felt their bite.
“I’m glad you got to see him. He’ll come back my dear, this wedding is but postponed.”
Elinor closed her fist to hide the bright spots of blood and looked at her father.
“But I haven’t seen him father.”
Her father’s brows drew together.
“My dear you watched him leave like he was the last man on this green earth. You saw him.”
Elinor pressed her fist into her belly. He couldn’t mean.
“Father. Was he the man that bore a shield upon his shoulder and arm?”
He nodded and Elinor felt panic flutter inside her breast as it had the morning Benjamin had left her. No. Not again. Not again.