Enamored by Jody Hedlund

Chapter1

Elinor

“Whom do youchoose as your husband?” The king leaned closer to me in our spectator box. “Surely amongst so many gallant noblemen you have your sights affixed on one by now.”

“I would that I did, Your Majesty.” The melee unfolded in the tournament field before us, but I took no pleasure in watching grown men fight, even with blunt weapons. “I fear the choosing is more difficult than I expected.”

For a man of fifty years, the king maintained an aura of strength and purpose in his large, muscular frame as well as a benevolent spirit that had earned him the enduring title Ulrik the Good.

I prayed his benevolence would hold fast toward me, but as he rubbed his fingers through the light-brown hair of his beard, I sensed his patience was running thin.

I shifted in my cushioned seat, the pleasant warmth of the autumn day suddenly stifling and the gold laces at the sides of my gown constricting me. “I regret I have not yet developed fondness in my heart for any of the men—”

Queen Inge’s touch on my arm halted me. In the chair on my other side, she wore a stunning blue velvet gown and a circlet with a sheer veil covering her blond hair. Though she wasn’t my mother by birth, I was glad we shared the same hair coloring. The resemblance allowed the populace to accept me as a daughter of the king and queen when I was really only their niece.

The queen leveled a censuring look at her husband before she patted my arm. “You need not apologize, Elinor. The king knows how difficult this royal courtship tradition is.”

He raked a gaze over the queen. “I had no trouble selecting you from amongst the dozen noblewomen who came to court me.”

The queen smiled, her cheeks turning rosy at the king’s compliment. “Even so, you must be patient with Elinor. She wants to choose wisely.”

The king released a long sigh. The golden crown circling his head tilted precariously, as if to remind me of the precarious nature of the transfer of authority.

I wouldn’t assume the full rulership of Norvegia until after the king’s death—hopefully, not for many years into the future. Nevertheless, upon my eighteenth birthday in two days, the time would come for me to be crowned the heir apparent.

According to royal tradition, the naming of the heir to the throne was contingent upon the successor becoming betrothed to either a royal or noble bloodline from within Norvegia to prevent undue influences from other countries infiltrating the ruling class. The successor was also highly encouraged to make a heart match to ensure a strong marriage.

The twelve most eligible men or women were invited to the capital city for a weeklong courtship process. The festivities culminated in the eighteenth birthday feast, where the royal princess or prince officially chose a heart match.

In theory, the courtship tradition was reasonable and fair. I might not have complete freedom in whom I married, but at least I was given some say in the matter.

However, I had not developed fondness for any of the twelve noblemen during the past week. Now I felt the king’s frustration, for it matched my own.

If only we didn’t have the added pressure from King Canute of neighboring Swaine. While our ambassadors had clarified Norvegia’s long-held tradition to the young Swainian king, he’d asked for my hand in marriage anyway, insisting we would co-rule our countries side by side, that he had no intention of usurping my authority in Norvegia.

As my birthday drew nearer, the threats from Swaine and King Canute had steadily mounted. But King Ulrik and his advisors hadn’t bowed to the pressure. The weeklong royal courtship had commenced as planned, and now my future husband was among those fighting in the mock battle before us.

“I beseech you not to worry, Your Majesty.” I spoke with as much confidence as I could muster. “I shall surely develop fondness erelong.” I had done little else over the past days but spend time with the men, praying I would be able to pick the worthiest candidate and develop a heart match with him.

The king motioned toward his cupbearer, who quickly approached with a chalice of mead. “You always have thought deeply, Elinor, an excellent quality for a leader. But this week you must let go of the need to analyze everything and allow your feelings to grow.”

“I shall try, Your Majesty.”

A cheer arose from the crowds of nobility sitting in open stands along the fence line as well as from the commoners who watched at cordoned-off areas. The level field sat to the east of the city limits, where the terrain flattened into fertile farmland. I was used to seeing the sprawling eastern land from the castle turret every morn and was more interested in taking in my surroundings than in the melee.

Nevertheless, I attempted to concentrate on the dozen men fitted in armor from their great helms down to their chausses covering their leather ankle boots. The clank of sword against sword as well as the clashing of weapons against shields rang in the air.

The knights deserved my attention and utmost respect. After all, they were performing for me to demonstrate their strength and courage, and in so doing, prove themselves worthy to be my husband.

“Lord Torvald Wahlburg, Your Majesty.” Rasmus bent down with another update. “He’s eliminated his third opponent.” The Royal Sage stood behind the king’s chair, his usual scholarly black robe draped with a purple embroidered stole designating him as one of the seven Royal Sages. His black cap circled his head but was long and hung down one side, coming to a tasseled tip.

The king nodded toward the fierce knight swinging his sword at another opponent. “What about Torvald, Elinor? He would make a good husband, would he not?”

“He is indeed a worthy man.” But he had not captured my affection. Truthfully, he had not even tried, unlike the other noblemen. I could only conclude he had no aspiration to marry me and become the future king of Norvegia.

“He is the best.” The king took a drink of mead. “The best after Sir Ansgar, of course.”

Though I willed myself not to gaze at the knights congregated below the spectator box where we sat, I couldn’t help myself. My attention strayed too oft to Sir Ansgar, much to my embarrassment. Outfitted in chain mail and a gambeson, he stood amidst his companions, tall and strong, holding himself with the bearing of a man who feared nothing.

Even though Sir Ansgar was among the Knights of Brethren and had earned the position of Grand Marshal, the highest knight in all the land, he was but a commoner, the third son of a chieftain, and not eligible for consideration as candidate for the future king.

His lowly birthright didn’t make him any less appealing to me and nearly every other young maiden in the kingdom. With his light-brown hair, warm brown eyes, and chiseled features, he was a handsome man. And he was renowned for his great victories in battle.

“It is settled,” the king said. “You feel some affection for Torvald. You shall marry him.”

“You cannot decide, Ulrik.” The queen’s interjection was firm but gentle. “’Tis Elinor’s choice to make and hers alone.”

“Yes, but Torvald is an excellent swordsman and is most suitable.” The king nodded at the young knight knocking another nobleman’s feet from under him.

I knew better than to protest outright. Instead, using a more tactful approach with the king would work better. “What if Kristoffer is more suitable, Your Majesty? After all, he won the joust yesterday.”

“Excellent point.”

“Or perhaps Sigfrid is the best. He defeated his opponents in archery.”

The king nodded, his gaze alighting on each of the young knights as I listed them. “You are astute as always, Elinor. I suggest you continue to get to know them all.”

“That is a wise decision, Your Majesty.”

“What say you, Rasmus? Do you have words of wisdom for the princess?”

Rasmus bowed his head, then met my gaze steadily. “She is wise to show the world she is choosing carefully. Let us pray King Canute hears of her caution and accepts her selection.”

I heard what Rasmus wasn’t saying, that King Canute could very well reject my decision and wage war against Norvegia to claim me for himself.

Rasmus pursed his lips and then scanned the distant harbor of Vordinberg and the sea beyond as he’d done throughout the festivities this week.

What was he looking for?

Vessels of all shapes and sizes crowded the waterfront, some with sails aloft but most at rest. The turquoise water gleamed with midday sunshine, revealing the depths that descended so endlessly that never was a sunken ship or lost item ever recovered along Norvegia’s southern coast. Offshore several hundred feet, numerous islands protected the capital city from wind and waves, making Ostby Sound a safe harbor and Vordinberg one of the richest port cities in the world.

I saw naught that was out of the usual. Naught that should cause Rasmus to fret. Was he afraid King Canute would attack by sea? Surely not. Swaine had far less coastline and lacked the ship-building industry and fleet that Norvegia possessed. The neighboring country wouldn’t dare try a sea invasion, not against Norvegia’s naval superiority.

The noise from the crowds crescendoed again as more knights succumbed to their opponents and fell to the ground in surrender. In a final move, Torvald swung his sword, bringing down the remaining opponents wearing the blue heraldry, leaving only those in red standing.

As the trumpet blast signaled the end of the melee, the king pushed up from his seat, his velvet cloak flapping in the breeze drifting from the sea, the air laden with the scent of fish and brine.

I rose from my position of honor between the king and queen. The crowd continued to cheer for the victors, but as royalty we remained neutral in our display of emotion, as was the custom in the tournaments.

Torvald was the first to extend a hand to the men he’d defeated, lifting first one and then another to his feet. His team did likewise, extending grace to those who’d lost. When finally, the dozen noblemen were standing, the winners approached the edge of the field in front of our raised seats.

The men removed their great helms and bowed their heads. I didn’t need the game master’s whispered remarks to know which of the noblemen was the champion. Even so, I listened and accepted the holy laurel I was to place upon the winner’s head. Although the king usually did the crowning, this week the duty belonged to me.

“I congratulate each of you on your feats of valor.” My voice rang out over the now-silent spectators. All eyes were fixed upon me, including those of Ansgar, facing the royal seats only a few feet away.

“One man has demonstrated unyielding courage in the face of adversity. His gallantry was evident on the battlefield today.” I paused and let my gaze linger on each bent head, wondering as I had a hundred times already during the past week, why Providence had chosen me to become the next ruler of the great northern country of Norvegia and not someone else.

Although I had spent my entire life preparing for the task of reigning, a small part of me had always hoped the king and queen would have a child of their own to fulfill the obligation.

Alas, Providence had not supplied a substitute. Now upon the cusp of adulthood, I could no longer deny the reality of my destiny—that I would become the ruling queen of this nation.

I pushed aside my reservations and continued. “Thus, in honor of his noble enterprise and his combat to glorify the king, I crown Lord Torvald Wahlburg as the victor of the melee.”

Cheers rose into the air. Torvald was the decisive winner. Should he also be the decisive winner of my hand in marriage? Could I somehow conjure feelings of affection for this man?

The Knights of Brethren standing below us parted ways, making room for Torvald to approach the raised seating box. When he took his place directly below us, I stepped to the railing.

Grit and dirt and grass from the melee coated his armor. Perspiration flattened his dark hair to his head. A slight scar on his cheek confirmed that this brave knight fought as heartily in a real battle as he had today in this mock tournament.

Torvald was a brave and good man. I had no doubt of that. But would his bravery and his goodness be enough to satisfy me if he were to become my husband? And would I satisfy him?

I settled the laurel upon his head, then stood back.

As was the custom, he removed his leather gauntlet and held it out to me as a token of his devotion.

Although his face remained expressionless, his eyes relayed a message I could read all too well. He did not relish this exchange between us.

Perhaps he did not wish to be king any more than I wished to be queen. But he was doing his duty just as I was.

I accepted his glove and brought it to my lips. I brushed a kiss upon it, tasting the dust of battle. Then as custom demanded, I lifted the glove into the air and waved it grandly.

The crowd surged to their feet shouting and clapping and whistling. I did not deceive myself into thinking their accolades were for me. Yes, they accepted me as the next in line to the throne. But ’twas no secret the people of Norvegia loved Torvald. Almost as much as they loved Ansgar.

Torvald was also one of the ten Knights of Brethren. As prestigious as the king’s knights were, only titled firstborn sons of nobility who were in line to inherit their family’s estates could participate in the courtship week, thus enhancing the king’s lands and coffers through the marriage union.

I fought to keep a smile in place as I lowered the glove and tucked it into the golden circlet belt riding low on my hips. I nodded one final time to Torvald before I spun away, letting all pretense dissolve.

The queen slipped her hand into the crook of my arm and squeezed gently. “’Tis time for you to begin preparations for tonight’s ball.” Although I had not expressed my concerns, the kindness in her eyes told me she understood the heavy weight upon my heart.

As the queen and I crossed to the stairs, my ladies-in-waiting hastened to follow. The women who attended me were my closest companions. They were more thrilled with the weeklong celebration than I was, and their excited chatter had filled my chambers in recent weeks.

At a shout and commotion from beyond the bystanders, Rasmus paused in speaking to the king, his keen eyes homing in on several riders galloping toward the competition field, black cloaks billowing in the wind behind them.

“Who is approaching, Rasmus?” The king followed the Sage’s gaze.

“Maxim, Your Majesty.”

Maxim? My heartbeat stuttered to a stop, as did my feet, and I clutched at the railing to keep from stumbling.

The queen also halted, her fingers tightening on my arm. “Maxim is home?”

I searched the riders, looking for Maxim’s familiar form—his bony shoulders, lanky body, and hair as black as a winter night. But with hoods shielding the riders’ faces, I saw none who reminded me of Maxim.

As they reined in, the now-silent crowd watched them. Rasmus focused on the tallest of the three as they dismounted. For just a moment, I glimpsed something sharp in Rasmus’s eyes before his expression schooled into one of usual passivity.

The taller man strode forward with a confident step and proud bearing. As he drew near the royal spectator box, Ansgar and the other Knights of Brethren raised their swords in warning. The newcomer seemed as though he had no intention of stopping and only did so when the tip of Ansgar’s sword pressed against his chest.

Without flinching, the newcomer tugged away his hood and let it fall to his back.

My pulse started up at double the speed. It was Maxim. Home. After ten years, two months, and twenty-eight days. Yes, I had been counting how long he’d been gone, although angrily.

“Maxim.” The queen’s whisper contained a note of excitement. I had become her daughter, but Maxim had been the son she’d never had, and she’d loved him dearly.

As Maxim lifted his face, I sucked in a startled breath. Gone was the boy with thin, sallow cheeks and a toothy grin. In his place was a darkly handsome man. His shoulder-length hair was wavy and unruly. His skin was swarthy and his features rugged with a layer of scruff covering his chin and jaw. His expression was hard and unfriendly, and his dark brows furrowed.

“Your Majesty,” Rasmus said. “May I present to you my son, Maxim Gandrud. You may remember him from his childhood.”

“Yes, I do.” The king eyed Maxim with wariness.

Who could forget the intelligent boy who had grown up alongside me in the king’s household?

“Your Majesty.” Maxim’s voice rang out with an authority that sent prickles of more surprise over my skin. “I am your humble servant.” He had changed much in the years of his absence. So much so I could not reconcile this man with my childhood best friend.

Rasmus narrowed his eyes upon Maxim, scrutinizing his only son from his head down to his leather boots, laced up his legs with twine. “I called him home to begin his Erudite training.”

“Very good, Rasmus.” The king finished his study of Maxim and seemed satisfied. “I have no doubt someday he will follow in your footsteps and become a Royal Sage.”

“He has many years of training ahead of him, Your Majesty.”

“Of course.” The king’s gaze flitted to the queen, taking in the eagerness of her expression. “We are celebrating the princess’s courtship week. You will join us for the remainder of the festivities, Maxim. I know the queen would like that.”

The queen smiled at her husband, her eyes radiating her gratefulness.

Maxim bowed his head in subservience. “I would be honored, Your Majesty.”

The king glanced in my direction. “You do remember Elinor, do you not?”

I held my breath and waited for Maxim to look at me for the first time in ten years. What would he think? Would he recognize me? Or would he find me so changed that he wouldn’t be able to hide his surprise?

“I do remember the princess, Your Majesty.” Maxim bowed his head. “I pray her choice of a husband will bring happiness to all the land.”

My nerves tightened with anticipation. What would this reunion with Maxim be like? I’d waited so long for it that I’d lost hope it would ever happen.

Maxim raised his head, but he didn’t spare me a glance and instead kept his focus solely upon the king. Almost as if I wasn’t there. Almost as if he didn’t care.

The spark of indignation that had festered for years flamed inside my chest. He had not once in all the time he’d been gone visited or replied to the many letters I’d written to him. The day Rasmus sent him away was the last I’d heard from him.

An ache swiftly pushed into my throat. I finally had to acknowledge what I’d suspected for years, what I’d tried to ignore.

Maxim no longer cared about me.

When the queen moved down the steps to depart, I tore my attention from him and allowed her to lead me away, vowing to extricate him from my thoughts once and for all, the same way he’d cut me out of his.