Excerpt from Saving Eleanor

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Ellen's picture

Copyright 2009, Ellen A. Wilkin He arrived mid-evening in the center of the king's woods outside the palace wall. The brief glow of his entrance melted into the darkness behind him, and he was wrapped in shadow as he lay on the ground, still as a dark lump of clothes. The limbs of the trees around him shook silver in the starlight. An owl, blinking wide in astonishment cried, "Who?"
After a moment, he rose. Shakily, he looked around him and, as if he remembered who he was, he felt at his belt and drew out a round gold object. He held it up against the starlight and he smiled in satisfaction. He pulled a small knife from his belt and marked the closest tree facing north with a letter. He returned the knife to his belt and moved quietly through the woods. At intervals, he pulled out the knife and marked again with the same letter. Finally, he came to the woods' edge. He pulled a flask from his pocket. He twisted off the cap, which he placed back in the pocket. From a flap on his belt he removed a capsule and dumped the powder within it into the contents of the flask. He re-capped it and repeated this procedure with several other flasks. He drew out his knife once more and slashed the nearest tree again with his sign. He drew a deep breath and then stepped into the park. The moist shroud that hung about the castle grounds would be good cover all the way to the castle door. The palace sat atop one steep hill, but in the lee of a second rise, which was not as steep as the first. It was often surrounded by mists as the warm air from the southern shore carried moisture north, and then cooled as it found the dank air above the Thames. Sometimes the palace disappeared altogether in the fog.
He emerged from the fog as he climbed the hill. Now for the dangerous part. Within sight of the guards at the gate, he tripped, sanked to his knees and swayed. "Oh, mairsee dotes and doisee dotes! An' li'tle lamseedivee!" then he laughed as he struggled to get back up again.
"Aye! Who goest there!" a voice shouted. Two men in mail shirts and helms ran toward him, their swords outstretched. He stood, swayed, and held out the flask to them.
"Greetings, friends! Would thee like to share some tibble?"
"Aw! Thou are drunk. On thy way. This is now the King's palace. He and his queen were crowned in the Abbey this morn, and reside here because the 'minster castle royal rooms were destroyed, probably by the likes of you, takin' orders from the Usurper, Stephen!"
The other guard stepped toward the weaving man, "Artemis, be quiet. This man hast mead." He took the flask, sniffed it, then held it to his lips as he flung his head back. "Yar! That's good." He handed the flask to Artemis, who looked at it warily, put it to his lips and sipped, then flung his head back as the other guard had. He took a long sip and when he was done, he dragged his hand across his mouth and nodded.
"Yeah. Not bad."
"I have more," the dark stranger said as he opened his coat. The upper halves of more flasks were visible above the black fabric of his cloak pockets.
"John, we ought to get back. The other guards will notice our absence," Artemis said.
John looked back over his shoulder at the castle and armored men pacing back and forth in front of the gate. He gestured toward them. "Yo!"
Several more guards came rushing down the hill. "What is it? Have you captured a prisoner? Is he a spy?" said one.
"Not at all! We have just found a fresh source of mead!" The gaggle of new guards surrounded the dark man and three of them grabbed flasks from his hands.
Artemis quailed. "John, we ought to get back. We have left the King and Queen bereft of guard. This is the great Eleanor of Aquitaine we are talking about, not to mention the significant Henry of Anjou, now, By the Grace of God, King and Queen of England."
"Aw! I don't think so much of 'er. Marryin' 'Enry within a few months after annulling King Louis on the basis of consanguinity! When it was Louis who had the better case agin her. He had no son by her, did he?"
"Come on, Artemis. Are you French or are you English?"
"Me mother was French, bless her soul. She was an angel."
"Oh, Lord, 'ere we go."
"I am distantly related to Louis, you know. He was destined for the church, bein' the younger brother 'n all, but his brother dies, you see. Philip died and left Lous the heir. So he had to be taken out of the church, but you might be able to take the man outta the church, but you canno' take the church outta the man!"
"Aye! I have heard it told as you say," responded one of the three other guards who had snatched a flask. "But he hathe not what it takes to handle a queen of her breadth." He turned and nudged his closest companion, who was reaching for the flask as the main waved it in emphasis. "Right, Mandrake?"
"Absolutely, Bartholomew," Mandrake responded and lunged for the flask. Capturing it with his fingers, he pulled it out of Bartholomew's hands. "Henry du Anjou is a much better match," he said as he took a great swig of the mead.
"Aye. 'Enry wasted Stephen's England battling to reclaim the throne in the name of his madder. And her royal highness, Queen Eleanor, has produced an heir to the throne!" John said
"That's righ'," Bartholomew replied. "Littl' Will'm, not even werain' britches yet."
Artemis grabbed the flask that John held and said, "I heard that the news of old Stephen's death crossed the channel whilst Henry was in the in the midst of taking a vassal's castle. He wanted the kingdom of England so badly that he want back to wastin' until he was quite satisfied in the destruction before he sailed back to England."
"How do you know so much of what is happening in France?" asked Bartholomew.
"My brother-in-law works the docks. He was there when 'Enry's ship came in. He got a chance to kibble with the crew at the Weighed Anchor before they set sail the next morn'."
"Not everyone is sorry we have such a king as 'Enry!" Bellowed John. He was getting quite drunk and loud. "The new king and queen were led in triumph through the devastated streets on the way to 'Minster."
"Aye!" agreed Artemis. ""Enry had laid them waste during his war against Stephen."
"What?" said Mandrake. "You do not think that 'Enry had a right to do what he could to overthrow that usurper?"
"I am sayin' he has a funny attitude to a country he supposedly loves - tearing it apart - before claiming the crown."
"Why, you!" Mandrake handed his flask back to Bartholomew and swung a fist at Artemis. Soon the rest of the guards joined in and the night was full of "oofs!" "ughs!" "Take that's" and "arfs!"
As the guards sparred, the dark figure slid back into the fog and then oozed up the first hill toward the castle. It was lucky for him that the royal castle at Westminster was in such a dilapidated state and the king and queen were forced to stay in Surrey. This Saxon palace was not only less grand than Westminster, but it's reinforcements against the enemy were practically nil. It had no moat and it's walls were only 2 meters thick when most castles built after it were 4 meters thick. The castle, set into the lea as it was, rose only 40 meters above its ramparts. Yet, its natural defense of fen and fog served it and the dark man well. The hill above the castle protected it from invaders from the east, but, if one could see through the fog, one could just walk in the front door from the south. The fog hugged the ground where it was thick as molasses. He could barely see two meters in front of him, although above his head, it was a clear and the stars blazed over head. He checked his compass. Yes. According to it, he was still headed in the correct direction.
The dark man crept toward the low wall of the castle, to the tower that he hoped housed Eleanor. The tower wall, although not very impressive, did rise above the layer of ground fog. Its balcony was only about thirty meters high. The man stood and watched for a moment. The castle was very still. He could still hear the sounds of the carousing guards down the hill. There was light spilling over the balustrade. A shadow crossed the light and then a figure appeared at the balcony edge, leaned on one elbow, and looked up at the stars. She was red-headed and clad in a blue-white gown that glowed like star shine. She was still as a stone angel carved into the rock of the balcony. The man looked up to follow the woman's gaze. The stars were bright and numerous - an unnatural sight to someone like him who had grown up in a 21st century eastern-European city with belching factories on each block and high rises crowding upward so that the sky was barely visible. The brightness of a 12th century sky now blinded him and he blinked, shading his eyes with his hand. As he stared upward, a white flash appeared in the corner of his vision. He turned his head but could only see white light and black darkness. No detail. He looked away and watched from the corner of his eye again, and saw movement. A falling star! It's tail streaked behind it as it fell from the sky. It was a sign. .
He shook his head to clear the bright image from his sight, remembering why he was there. The travel across 9 centuries must have fatigued him. He refocused on the balcony, but the white-clad figure was gone.
The dark man hurriedly pulled a hook from his waist and wound the rope attached to it around his arm. He swung the hook in a great circle. Once. Twice. Three times. He then flung it high and over his head. The hook arched into the night air above his head, twinkling in the star light. He paused and listened. No sounds from the balcony. He grabbed the trailing end of the rope and hauled himself up hand-over-hand, shimmying his way up the stone wall. The night air grew colder as he pulled himself up. The man's fingerless gloves did nothing to keep his joints from stiffening in the lowering temperatures and he often had to grip the rope twice before he felt sure that he had a good hold that would take his weight. In this way, he slowly climbed up to the balcony. When he was almost to the top, he looked back down the park and saw that the guards were still quite distracted. Those that were not outright sleeping were leaning against the castle walls, watching the stars in wonder or perhaps just stupid with drink. The dark man leapt onto the floor of the balcony in a crouch and stopped. Eleanor stood mere meters from him with her back to him. She turned swiftly as if shot. He froze. Her ivory skin was vibrant with the warmth of her blood, and her hair flamed around her face. He was more distracted by her beauty than he expected.
"Who art thou?" Eleanor asked with wide eyes.
The man straightened up and looked warily around him. Seeing no one near, he bowed slowly, then pulled a small bouquet of flowers from underneath his vest. He walked a step nearer and placed them at her feet. A look of curiosity replaced her initial untrusting expression. "I have come to take you away."
Eleanor laughed suddenly, a delightfully rich sound.
Encouraged, the man continued, "Henry does not have your best interests at heart, my queen. He will lock you up to prevent you from carrying out your purpose."
Eleanor sucked in her breath. Her face grew ashen. She place a hand on the table behind her to steady herself. "Are you from the duchy of Aquitaine? What doest thou know of my Henry and of me?" She shook her head slightly as if she hoped to wake herself from a dream. Without waiting for an answer, she stepped to the drapes that separated the balcony from her room inside the tower. He followed her glance and saw a bell pull hanging beside the drapery.
With sudden decision, he rushed to her side and grabbed her arm. Eleanor cried out. "I must speak with you," he said softly. But he was afraid that his eagerness had begun to overtake him. He swallowed and counted to three. He did not want his excitement to push him too far. He knew what he must say. "I have spent many years abroad, dearest queen, fighting in the Crusades. I was there with you and King Louis, as part of the Scottish contingent. My Scottish cousins helped me to learn English and French. I am afraid my English is poor. And as you can hear, my French… Ach!" He now shrugged and held out his arms towards her.
Eleanor's green eyes glowed. Her whole body seemed frozen in the moment as she gazed at him. He found himself frozen, too. She lowered her head and then raised it again, her face now a smooth mask of disdain. "What is your name?" As she spoke, she reached for the drape cord and pulled, and before he could answer her, a merry tinkling filled the room as the small bells swung up and then fell back into place. The dark man bowed, hiding his disappointment.
As Eleanor turned away from him to walk back into the tower, he grabbed her arm again and drew her to him and kissed her. When he drew back, she was looking at him wonderingly. Footsteps sounded outside. Eleanor turned her head toward the door to the stair. A huge, bandy-legged, red-bearded youth lunged at him. Henry.
The dark man ran for the balcony, grabbed the rope, and rushed down, hand over hand. Henry came to the balcony and pulled on the rope with both brawny arms, drawing the dark man back up the wall. The chroniclers did not exaggerate about how strong he was. The dark man kept climbing down, but he made no headway against Henry. Henry had dragged the dark man almost back to the top of the balcony. The man looked down and then let go of the rope, landing with most of his weight on his left ankle. He cried out, but struggled to his feet and limped to a nearby linden tree.
The dark man looked back at the castle. Henry was leaning over the balcony and shaking his fist. "Guards! Guards! You useless pieces of filfth!" Beside Henry, next to where his large ringed hand leaned against the stone of the balcony edge, was the dark man's hook. And his rope. It was clear that he would not be able to access Eleanor from the balcony again. Henry climbed over the balustrade, swinging one great bowed leg after the other, and grabbed the rope with his great hands. The dark man looked down the slope toward the guards. They still lay about in a tumbled heap. None were standing. And none were responding to Henry's hails. But Henry was making good progress down the rope despite his bulk. The dark man stumbled down the slope as fast as he could, back to the coordinates in the woods that defined the rendezvous point.
He walked along the woods edge for quite some time looking for his mark. Finally he spied the last mark he made at the edge of the park, where it met the trees. He placed his hand on it just as he stepped inside the woods, then let go as he began to jog through the trees southward. He continued to limp as quickly as he could, expecting at any moment to see another one of his marks. "There!" he found himself saying out loud as he saw the next one, which put him back on track. And then there! His final mark. As he approached the white bark of the tree with his final sign on it, the woods slowly grew silver and the letter on the nearest tree began to glow.
"P," it read like an emblem of the gods.
He stepped inside the wave of light and he was gone with a flicker and then darkness.
Copyright 2009, Ellen A. Wilkin

Ever learning, Everlasting