This story takes place in a savage time, when nations rose and fell outside the view of historians concerned with empires and eras. Yet even in the untold chapters of the human story, a theme prevails -- the mystery of how souls find their like.
As a youth in his dirty country village, Roland of Magister never dreamed he'd earn a knight's title. Standing in the procession of soldiers advancing toward the throne of Dunsbrook, he wondered at how life had brought him to this circumstance.
Born a commoner, Roland endured a laborious childhood tilling the fields of his family's small farm. Once he reached adolescence, his body grew to massive proportions, a change quickly noticed by the regional magistrate. At the age of fourteen, Roland was assumed into military service. Over the next five years, he matured into a monstrous adult, club-like arms dangling heavily off his sloping shoulders and trunk-like legs extending from beneath his hulking torso. By the time he was chosen for knighthood just shy of his twentieth birthday, Roland's colossal form was feared and respected on battlefields throughout the monarchy.
So it was with great surprise that Queen Eleanor got her first look at the boyish face atop Roland's fearsome bulk. It seemed a child stood inside the adult's armor.
Like the other soldiers chosen for knighthood, Roland felt lost about how to behave in the presence of royalty. Their anxiety was unnecessary. In wartime, battlefield attrition made the anointing of new knights a necessity rather than a rarity. The king had lost many of his finest leaders in recent skirmishes, leaving him no choice but to elevate those soldiers who demonstrated the greatest boldness.
Roland easily met that prerequisite. In five years, he had gained an intimidating reputation for his ability to wade through combatants with his broad-bladed battleaxe. It was said that at the Battle of Thrombor, his fury was so hellacious that the craven Prince Feston withdrew from the fray rather than risk a confrontation with Roland.
Queen Eleanor felt sure the giant with a babe's face was the Roland of whom she had heard such awed descriptions. He stood a fist taller than any other soldier, his height accentuated by his posture. While the other fighters looked cowed by the pomp of the moment, Roland held himself proudly. No, not proudly, Eleanor thought to herself. Without shame.
Standing twenty yards from the monarchs' thrones in the great hall of a decaying castle, Roland never contemplated looking directly at the queen. He kept his eyes dead ahead, on the royal colors filling the enormous banner over the thrones.
He certainly wanted to look at her. The songs and parables about Eleanor's beauty had stoked the imagination of the kingdom since her marriage two years previous. She was a distant cousin of the king, one of those rarified creatures who, it seemed to commoners, were hatched in some faraway palace, then bred to perfection before their public unveiling. When King Mikk debuted his bride-to-be in a ceremony at the royal castle, onlookers among both the nobility and the servant class gasped at the sight of her.
A tall, lean woman whose lithe physique defied the voluptuous norm of the day, Eleanor had pale skin that glowed like the moon on a winter night. Her long, thick black hair, usually worn in a decorative braid, shone like silk from an eastern land. The green eyes that royal poets so cheaply likened to emeralds glistened with such life that the comparison to earthly gems was insufficient for capturing their sparkle. And the sensual, ripe lips that provoked jealous whispers among ladies of the court were like the tender petals of some exotic flower. More than any gold or bauble, Eleanor was the finest treasure her husband possessed.
Or so Roland imagined. His simple mind had conjured a vivid image of the queen, piecing together the descriptions contained in every song sung after a battle, every tale spun around a fire. Ever since he encountered the lore that a kind glance from Queen Eleanor ensured a knight's survival in his next battle, Roland had been infatuated with the mystery of a woman who bewitched a nation.
As musicians raised their trumpets to announce the entrance of the king into the hall, Roland righted his posture and prepared for his fleeting encounter with the royal couple. He understood the protocol -- step forward, receive a brief benediction and a tap to the shoulder with a ceremonial sword -- yet he still wondered if fate would grant him one of the queen's storied glances.
King Mikk strode into the hall amid a throng of sycophants, waving them away like insects. A short, fat man of fifty years with a white-flecked beard and small, black eyes, he passed hissing flatulence when he raised his stumpy leg toward the throne platform. The attendant charged with holding the trail of his velvet cloak frowned in reaction to the odor, then immediately regained his composure. Roland marveled at the interplay of grandeur and vulgarity, stifling a laugh.
And then, as Roland watched Mikk plop lazily into the throne that was too big for his tiny blob of a body, it happened. Roland looked at Queen Eleanor.
Later, when he replayed the moment in his mind, he convinced himself he gazed her way by accident. But at the moment it happened, all Roland knew was green. The green of those eyes. The green of the open ocean, of fields growing wild, of a forest caught in a swaying wind. The green of life.
For the instant in which Roland's eyes met those of his queen, he lost himself in the depth of her.
She turned away so quickly Roland felt sure she hadn't noticed his look. He sighed, believing he'd simply made the mistake of glancing across the hall at the same time she did. Roland's relief was considerable, because everyone knew the penalty for looking in the eyes of King Mikk's ethereal bride was death.
The attendant who had seen to Mikk's cloak moved to his next duty, holding out the ceremonial sword. The king placed a loose hand on the hilt, and the attendant nodded for the first soldier to approach. Once the soldier was in place, Mikk emptily recited a short speech about duty and honor. After the soldier knelt beneath the sword, the attendant guided the flat of the blade to his shoulder. The king didn't bother to grip the hilt; his leisurely grasp was sufficient to legitimize the ceremony.
Moments later, after the soldiers ahead of Roland had received their laurels, Roland knelt beneath the sword, keenly aware that his heart was beating so fast it threatened to burst from his chest. Because there, amid the king's fetid emissions, was a wafting hint of the queen's floral perfume. And there, barely visible in the soft periphery of his vision, was the red of her royal robe. Even as Roland bowed his head and awaited a light tap on his shoulder, he quaked with the desire to see if her beauty was as magical as it had seemed during their fleeting contact.
But he dared not. Instead, he listened to the king's bored whine. "Rise, Sir Roland of Magister."
Magister, Roland thought. Were his parents even still there? His father, the coarse farmer who strode out to the fields every morning with a massive scythe slung over his broad shoulders? His mother, the dull woman whose skin was as pockmarked as the potatoes she pulled from the ground? Magister. What would the plain people of Magister make of the idea that one of their own was now a knight of the realm?
Roland's attempts to busy his mind with these thoughts were defeated by a soft sound that issued like a kiss blown into the wind. "Roland of Magister," the strong, honeyed voice spoke.
"The queen favors you, boy," the king barked. "Honor her with your eyes or lose them."
Roland nodded toward the king, raised his brow until he looked at Queen Eleanor in her regal finery. She was everything he had imagined, everything he had glimpsed. In that moment, she was simply everything.
"Battle well," she said plainly, her gossamer features betraying no discernible emotion.
"Well, on with you, boy," the king said. "That's all the fortune we have today for the likes of you."
Roland looked to his feet and ignored the laughter that filled the hall, then strode to his place among the other knights standing ceremoniously against a tapestry depicting King Mikk's coronation. Roland fixed his posture as straight as he could, puffed out his chest, and jutted his chin, trying to remember what life felt like before he, like so many before him, surrendered to the thrall of Queen Eleanor.
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Excerpted from "The Mourning Queen" by Peter Hanson
© 2006 Peter Hanson. All rights reserved.