“Whenever you are ready, your Highness.”
By Eleanor’s preference, that would be never. By preference she would have had no part in this stupid game of slight and counter slight. The King of Scot’s amusement would only be increased by her dragging her heels; he’d be the victor if she showed how deeply this humiliated her. One hand resting lightly on her skirts so her rapid motion wouldn’t disrupt the flow of the material too badly, Eleanor took a decisive step forward, and kept on going until she was alone with Anne’s grandmother in the space curtained off from the eyes of the witnesses. Let him think she barely cared. Total nonchalance was impossible, and would be damaging in itself if they thought her so lacking in modesty as to be unaffected.
So much for her promise to herself never to endure this again. If anything the testing was worse this time. The Queen Mother had cold hands, and there was the – justified - fear she might prod too hard and destroy the proof she was examining, leaving Eleanor in a position that could only be described as lousy in the extreme. Her demand for friendly witnesses hadn’t only been another of her return strikes against the king; if the worst happened she could call out and they would come and see the blood, and could then swear in her support. Strangely dislocated pain flared, seeming to come from nothing, a void where there was no feeling normally. And ended, before the sensation of unpleasant pressure could turn to one of tearing.
“She is honest,” Anne’s grandmother pronounced. Eleanor didn’t care much for the double meaning of the words.
Scrambling upright and off the bench, Eleanor righted her clothes, trying and failing miserably not to appear in a hurry.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Malcolm. For once his voice didn’t swing high when it cracked, instead diving very low. “But she’s so old! What the fuck is she – some sort of nun!?”
Knowing her face was flaming and equally aware that she could do nothing about it, Eleanor rejoined her witnesses. Anne and Hawise gave her sympathetic looks which only made her shame burn brighter. The Archbishop of Glasgow was – praise be! – too intent on the young prince to take any notice of her.
“She is unmarried,” the archbishop said, “as she has proven. So all is as it should be.”
The prince snorted. “There’s a world outside the cloisters, you know. A real one. Not some boring version dreamed up by a prudish old man who never even got so much as a damned kiss in his life because he was too arse-ugly to earn one and too weak to force one. Hell, even nuns have more fun than my cousin of England, it appears.”
“Impious brat!” The Archbishop’s hand rose to his heavy crucifix.
“Ah, well, I am the Nefastus. Devil spawned, red-haired, and all that.”
“When you roast in hell you will learn the error of your ways.” With a bow the churchman departed.
The boy muttered, “And when I’m king he’ll learn the meaning of poverty.” His roving eyes lit on Eleanor; he propped a hand on one skinny hip near his dagger hilt. “Well, just goes to show those stupid little tarts who sob they lost their maidenhead while doing something harmless like riding are lying little sluts after all. Or riding in an unorthodox manner. Or riding the groom.”
Anne’s hand shot to her mouth. “Malcolm!”
“It’s true. Or she’d,” he jerked his head at Eleanor, “be about to be shipped back to that Trempwick man. After all she’s supposed to have endured surely her maidenhead would have broken on its own if such things were actually possible.”
“It is possible,” stated the grandmother calmly. “Some are more fragile than others. However, if the majority broke on their own we would not consider them to be the proof of a virgin.”
“Really?” Malcolm tapped his fingers on his gold encrusted belt, affecting a pose of deep and philosophical thought. “How very fascinating. I should do a survey. How many maidens do you think I’d need for respectable results? Fifty? More? And, just as importantly, how am I going to measure how tough the barrier is-”
The boy took not a blind bit of notice of his father. “I mean, I can’t just scribble down that number six took a lot of effort to get into, but number eleven was easy, can I now?”
In a roar far more respectable than Eleanor had expected of him, the King of Scots ordered, “Enough, Malcolm!”
“Enough?” The boy gestured at Eleanor, the motion jerky with anger. “Enough? We bloody well went far past enough long ago, like I said to you before you started this. Don’t like where this disgusting spectacle has gone? Blame yourself, you wretched old fool! Her sworn word should have been bloody more than enough.” The boy’s nostrils flared; all the air he sucked in was expelled in a single vehement sentence. “She’s fucking royalty, you bloody shit of a honourless whoreson!”
The king matched his son’s noisy intake of breath. Unlike his son he didn’t need it to refill his lungs. “One more word and I shall have someone thrash you until you cannot stand for a week.”
Malcolm spat at his father’s feet. “Someone. Never do your own work, do you?”
“Considerably more than one word, Malcolm.”
Lips contorted and peeled back from his teeth in what might loosely be termed a furious grin, Malcolm spat again. “You’re making one fat mistake after another, aiming for the wrong damned target. I’ve told you, we should-”
“You will leave now, or you shall be dragged.”
Anne leaned close to Eleanor and whispered, “Happened before now.”
Fists clenched, right hand hovering midway to his dagger’s hilt, Malcolm spat a third time, turned on his heel and stalked away.
On returning to her own suite of rooms Eleanor found unwelcome news. One of the guards posted in the antechamber tugged his forelock. “Prince Malcolm’s waiting within, your Highness. Wants to talk with you, he says, but no more would he say.”
Fulk was away; she’d timed this debacle to take place while he was engaged in one of his thrice-weekly training sessions. What he didn’t know he couldn’t get upset over.
“Stay alert,” she commanded. “Enter if you hear anything … unusual.”
Anne said, “I doubt he would do anything dreadful here.” After a pause she added, “Probably. Anyway, I will stay with you, and Hawise.”
Feeling considerably less reassured than she had half a minute ago, Eleanor went through into the solar.
Malcolm sprawled in the best fireside chair, one of her borrowed books spread on his lap. He looked up at her appearance. “Ah. About bloody time.” He shut the cover of the book with a clap and dropped it onto the floor; the thud made Eleanor wince and wonder how she could explain any dents to the owner.
Standing tight in at Eleanor’s right hand side Anne glared at her brother. “Aren’t you supposed to be off being beaten or something?”
Malcolm waved a careless hand. “I’m the future king. Alwin and I’ve got an understanding. He likes having a future.” Pulling himself upright with the arms of the chair, the boy focused on Eleanor, quite seriously. “There’s how out of it the old man is. Doesn’t know. Like he doesn’t know that wife he hates likes him about equally, and has a lover. He doesn’t know loads of things.”
Or he might, and find it judicious to allow things to remain as they were so long as all was discreet, thus preserving the status quo and avoiding public embarrassment. By his own declaration the king had not the least interest in getting children from the woman and preferred to have nothing to do with her.
Malcolm’s hand rose, one finger aimed at Hawise. “She can piss off. What I’ve to say is for the right ears only. Anne can stay, I suppose. To protect you from the evil princeling.” He parroted the last bit in a stupid imitation of a child’s whining.
Eleanor nodded at Hawise; the maid departed.
Eleanor seated herself in one of the window seats, some distance from Malcolm and between him and the door. “What do you want?”
“Oh, quite a lot, actually.” The boy ticked off points on the fingers of one hand. “The old man dead and myself in his place, my enemies lying slain in pools of their own blood, a few hundred women to play with, endless riches, Scotland made into the greatest kingdom in Christendom … And if you want more unusual and personal wishes,” Swapping to his other hand he counted, “A fine fully grown man’s body instead of this gawky thing, an end to this cursed bloody voice breaking, a proper beard just so I can shave the bloody thing off and make a fashion of not looking like a sleepy goat, a war in which to prove my valour and skill at arms and chance to do so without the old man holding me back and whining because he knows I’ll do better than he ever could.” The slender shoulders rose and fell. “There’s a load more, but I won’t bore you. No. I’m far more interested in sorting out this bloody disaster.”
Anne said, “I did not think you did works of charity.” From the way the girl clung to Eleanor’s side she couldn’t tell if she were offering protection from her brother or seeking it.
“I don’t.” Malcolm frowned, hammered at his chest with a fist, and belched loudly. “God damned bloody fish. Gives me wind. A plague on Lent, the church, God, and the whole fucking lot! But anyway, all this toying about my father’s doing serves no one, not even him, if he’d the brains to see it. It disgraces us, disgraces you, makes me sick right to my bloody core. And he’s going to keep at it as long as he can.”
The King of Scots had made another ridiculous attempt at a treaty again after Malcolm had left. Eleanor had rejected it and countered with one of her own, demanding he do homage to Hugh as her brother’s vassal and make Scotland a client kingdom paying a punishing yearly tribute. This, predictably, had been refused, and the king had repeated a phrase Eleanor was beginning to loathe: that they would talk at the proper time. “I had thought that obvious.”
“He won’t go to war,” Malcolm said bluntly. “Not personally, and not happily otherwise. He’s a craven. Lost what little heart he had back when your father defeated him and scarred his face. So you’re wasting your time. Me? I’ll go, and men will follow. My father won’t be able to stop me, not when half the lords support me, and they will, for they’re as sick of his cowardice as I. Given the chance of glory, battle and spoils they’ll come. You’ll have your army, and your ally. Hell, I’ll even swear to peace between us afterwards – I’ve other scores I can be settling. Denmark, for example; see how they like being pillaged. The piddly little islands which have fragmented away from our control. I could conquer some of Ireland. And I’ll bring down that Trempwick too; damned man needs to die for what he’s claimed about you. Except there’s this: I won’t do shit to help your bastard half-brother. I’m not helping some creature crawl where he doesn’t belong. Claim your rightful inheritance.”
“The crown is Hugh’s by right. I will not take it from him.”
“Damn you!” Malcolm pounded a fist on the chair’s arm. “Mouthing the same old dutiful crap! He’s a bastard, you’re the only one of your family around and suitable, so it’s yours. Take it! Hell, even if you don’t want to deal with me you’ll have a damned sight better time of it dealing with the old man if you’re his equal. He wouldn’t piss the Queen of England about like this. No. He’d be out to scramble for what he could, realistically, not stupidly like he is now.”
“I have given him a week. At the end of that time I am leaving. He will not allow this chance to slip past him; whatever weakness England has now is but passing, and when all is right we shall remember Scotland scorned us.”
Malcolm stood, pushing his hair out of his eyes with both hands. “So you’re still being stupid. Seems I’m surrounded by idiots. No matter. Maybe in a few days you’ll be ready to see sense. Because you need us. Oh, you might manage without us, but only if you want a civil war which drags on for ages and does damage it’ll take years and more to recover from. And then that’s before you consider the outcome; might be that the wrong party wins, mightn’t it now?”
Such a delightful young man, that Malcolm
Avernite: Hmm, to me Hugh is finally beginning to get better again. He started out alright, went GAH! inducing, and now evolution is beginning to bring him back to being tolerable. A few months ago in their time even the thought of using the Germans like that would have had him gabbering away for forgiveness. He’s getting harder, and angry.
As for Nell, I would say I agree but then she would be unhappy with her frog. I know which side my bread is buttered on.
Rhialto: Thank you. I am now fighting fit. Or would be if I wasn’t such a wimpy frog; I don’t have the muscle to fight.
Igaworker: Ah, indeed. But the question is how high and at what cost?
Phargle: Hehe! I admit I also smiled the moment Jocelyn vomited his way onto the page.