A/N: Thank you to everyone who has taken the time out to review. I am very happy to hear that you are liking what I am doing with the story so far. And hopefully we shall have Edward and Bella in the same place by the next chapter.
Disclaimer: Twilight and all of its characters there in belong to Stephenie Meyer.
Chapter Two – A Familiar Face
Charles was to have returned home today. We had expected him to arrive before midday, but midday came in went with no sign of his standard on the horizon. I paced anxiously, wondering what could have delayed him. A nagging voice in the back of my head thought he might have run into trouble on the route home. The acid in my stomach churned uncomfortably, but I had denied myself food. I saw that my portion was redistributed to the peasants, their work required physical strength – I did not.
Angela and Emily pleaded with me to eat something, but I refused. They had not the power to force me. I knew that I worried them, but I was beyond caring. This never ending storm was a blight upon the world. God was punishing us, that much was clear.
Just before sunset, a messenger arrived, racing through our gate on a black destrier. He bore the standard of the Prince. I rushed to the front doors of the keep to meet him.
"I come baring a message for the Lady Isabella." He announced when our yeoman Bertram questioned him.
"I am she." My voice sounded rougher than normal, but I dismissed it.
The man pressed a sealed scroll into my hands. I nodded my head to him in thanks.
"Bertram, see to it that Eric tends to his horse in the stables and that he is given food and shelter for the evening."
"My thanks, milady." The messenger said with a bow.
I retreated back inside the hall. I briefly considered reading the message in front of the fire, but decided that the privacy of my own chambers was preferable. In my haste to ascend the stairs, I neglected to gather my skirt in my hand and found myself stumbling, the wooden stairs rushing up to meet me. I placed my free hand in front of myself to brace for the impact when it came. I was not disappointed.
Shooting pain raced up my arm, and I cried out before I could stop myself. As I tried to push myself back to my feet, the pain roared once more, and I cradled my wrist against my chest, tears stinging my eyes.
Emily had heard my shout and came racing to my side. She gently took my wrist in her hands and inspected the damage. When I hissed out in pain from her feather light touch, she frowned.
"It appears to be broken, milady."
I cursed my clumsiness. I would never prove my usefulness. I was more trouble than I was worth. Thankfully it was my left hand that had suffered the injury, so I was still able to write.
Angela helped me to my bed chamber and disappeared to return only moments later with a bowl of clean water and some strips of linen. She washed away the blood from the scrapes on my palms, then gently began to wrap my wrist in the cloth.
"For now this will have to do, milady. In the morning we can send for a healer to set the bone properly."
"Very well. Thank you, Angela. Please be sure that the Prince's messenger is well taken care of. We do not need word of our ill hospitality reaching that Court. We may be poor, but we have our honor."
"Yes, milady. Shall I bring up your supper?" She asked hoping that I would agree.
"Give it to the children of servants and bring me a glass of warmed mead."
Angela nodded and shut my chamber door in her wake. Left to my own thoughts, I turned my attention to the sealed scroll sitting on my bed. It took a great deal of negotiating to break the seal one handed then unroll the parchment. I ended up having to weight down one end with the edge of my pillow so that I could read it. Charles's child like handwriting greeted me.
I trust that this letter finds you and the household in good health. I know that I had promised you I would return today. However, council business detains me. I know not how much longer my presence will be required here, and I know that you must feel lonely in my absence. I confess I also worry, as I have heard reports that the fighting on the Borderlands has intensified and sadly it appears taken a turn for the worse.
It is sad to say that I do not trust my own home to guard my precious daughter, but it is true. We have not the men, nor the defenses to see to your safety. And every day I am not there to watch over you, I worry, my Bells. That is why if you wish it, you may travel to Sir William's household and dwell there until my return. Sir William has been like a brother to me over the years and I am sure he will welcome you as his own daughter. I've sent a messenger on ahead to him as well, to let him know to expect your arrival.
Court society does not agree with me –It never has. I wish more than anything that our deliberations will end shortly, so I can return home. Take care of yourself, Isabella.
Sir Charles of Swan.
I frowned. What could possibly cause the council deliberations to go longer? Charles had already been gone for over a fortnight. Was the War becoming so severe that greater action must be taken? I hoped that it was not. Perhaps, they were deliberating about what to do in the wake of a bad harvest.
But whatever it was, it was clear that Charles did not expect to be home anytime soon or he would not have suggested I make the journey to Sir William's household. Sir William's estate was close enough to our own but would be a two days journey at least in these conditions. It was plain enough that Charles was telling me to go with out all out decreeing it. He was always loathe to force me into anything out of fear that he might lose me as he lost Renee.
However, Charles did not know the conditions at Swan Castle. If he did he would not ask me to abandon these people who looked to my family for guidance. I worried my lip between my teeth, not knowing what I should do. I stared at the paper until the letters lost all meaning and they were reduced to squiggles of ink on parchment.
That is how Angela found me when she returned with my mead.
"Milady Isabella, are you alright?" She asked worry apparent in her voice.
"I am not sure anymore, Angela."
Angela simply set the mead down on the side table and crouched before me taking my uninjured hand in her own.
"Whatever you need, Milady, I am here for you. Even if it is merely an ear to listen. You can trust that I will not betray your confidences to Jessica and the others."
"I received a letter from Sir Charles. The Council is keeping him indefinitely until some deliberation is sorted out. Due to his extended absence he has requested that I journey to Sir William's estate. He fears for my protection. But I cannot leave when I know not what will become of these innocent people. Sir Charles would only ask me to leave if a threat was imminent. If I run, I save myself and sacrifice them. If I stay, I will not necessarily help their fate, but I will stand with them and perhaps salvage their hope." My voice trailed off, cracking from the dryness of my throat.
Angela wordlessly pressed the cup of mead into my hands and I drank it obediently. The warm honey soothed my sore throat, and warmed my empty stomach.
"Milady, I think you should make the journey to Sir Willaim's estate. You will be safer there and you will remain close enough to Swan Castle should we have need of you. Bertram is a good man, and will be sure that the Castle is well maintained in your absence. And if you will allow it, I shall remain behind as well to see to it that the peasants are provided for."
"Thank you, Angela. You are a dear friend."
That night I hastily scrawled a note to Sir William informing him of my decision to join him at his estate. I decided I would rise early and pass the message along with the Prince's messenger for Blackpool was on the way to the Prince's castle. I included in my letter a request for a reply to insure that my presence was indeed welcome. He was my father's dearest friend. But I did not want to take his hospitable nature and his regard for my father for granted.
When I was satisfied with my message, I folded it neatly and sealed it, pressing my family crest into the still warm wax. I hoped I was doing the right thing, and if I was not, I hoped that God would have the grace to forgive me.
Three days after I sent my message to Sir William, I awoke to the sound of thunderous galloping against the cobblestones of the courtyard. From my window I could ascertain that four men, who were heavily armed, had arrived. I roused my maids asking them to dress me as quickly as possible.
My broken wrist made it nearly impossible to put on a dress by myself. Emily had selected a deep green velvet gown with golden trim that displayed my shoulders. I had thought it was too ornate for unknown guests, and when I went to protest she silenced me with one look.
"Milady, you know the Swan reputation is all that you have these days. Do Sir Charles proud and act like the Lady I know you can be," she said.
Even though her statement was harsh, she was right. I needed to make a favorable impression on whoever these guests might be. As soon as my hair was secured in a long plait down my back, I made my way down to the Great Hall where our visitors were no doubt waiting.
I found them sitting by the fire side, with warmed mead pressed into their hands. Bertram had seen to their comfort, for which I reminded myself I needed to thank him. I watched them for a moment without their knowledge. I could tell that even seated they were exceptionally tall men. Their tunics were travel worn, and they all carried large swords at their sides.
As I moved closer, Bertram noted my presence and announced me to the men.
"The Lady Isabella."
The men rose, and bowed their heads to me in greeting which I returned in kind.
"Gentleman, for what do I have the honor of your presence in my father's house?"
"Forgive us, my Lady. We must have preceded our messenger. Sir William has sent us to escort you to Blackpool so that your safety will be assured," The man in the center explained.
There was something familiar about him. The way his dark hair fell about his shoulders and his olive complexion. His goatee was something that puzzled me; it did not seem to fit his boyishly handsome face. The coat of arms labeled him as a knight, and I recognized them to be the Black family crest.
The name fell from my tongue before I even realized that I had said it.
"You remember me. I am quite surprised, when you last saw me I was barely six years old. You were ten if I recall." He moved closer to me, his eyes lighting up with an emotion I did not recognize.
"And now you are a knight," I said with a smile, "How is Sir Samuel?"
"He is quite well; at least he was when I left him in the Borderlands. I have returned home briefly at the request of my father. When we received your message, Sir William knew that you would be in need of an escort. And I, eager to see my old playmate, volunteered for the job."
Standing next to him I had to crane my neck to match his gaze, even when he himself was stooping to look me in the eye. It was unbelievably frustrating, and before I could stop myself I uttered, "How tall you've become."
Everyone around us laughed, and I felt myself blush a deep crimson in embarrassment. Jacob however seemed to find enjoyment in the color in my cheeks.
"And how beautiful you've become," he whispered.
I was not used to praise. I spent little time away from the castle, and most of my interactions with men came under Charles's watchful eye. Unsure of how I should respond to his comment, I simply asked to be introduced to the other men that journeyed with him.
I soon learned that their names were Embry, Paul and Tyler. Paul did not warm to me, but the others were jovial enough. We talked freely until suppertime, and I made sure that my guests ate first. Once I knew that they were comfortable, I set about distributing meals to the rest of the household.
I keenly felt Jacob's eyes following my form. Jessica smiled knowingly, and I chided her for it. Jacob was a very handsome man, and to be on the receiving end of his attentions lifted my spirits. Yet I was not about to bask in his flattery. I was still the daughter of Sir Charles and I had my honor to maintain.
When everyone else was fed, I rejoined my guests. Embry had apparently made a friend of Quil, for the hunting dog was wagging his tail excitedly beneath his feet begging for scraps. I kept my hands folded in my lap. The scent of the warm meat that my guests consumed hit my nose, and my stomach rumbled. I tried to conceal the noise with a cough but I had not been convincing enough.
"My lady, have you not eaten?" Jacob asked concern in his eyes.
"I had a bit of a light snack earlier and I would not want to overfill my stomach when I have a journey ahead of me tomorrow," I lied.
I do not think he believed me, but he chose not to press the matter for which I was thankful. Once Jacob explained to me the route of our travel, I excused myself on the pretense of being tired. I could only bring one lady's maid with me, and since Angela had volunteered to be my presence here, I decided that Emily's company would be the most beneficial.
I barely had the strength to climb the stairs, and nearly collapsed onto my bed when I arrived at my chambers. I knew that I could not afford to keep skipping meals so the others could have a full belly. Try as I might, I was not invincible.
"M'Lady," Jessica said causing my eyes to flutter open.
I noted that she was holding out a bowl of porridge to me.
"I know that you've been skipping meals because you don't want to take any food away from the rest of us. But you've got to eat something, especially before your journey."
I didn't make a move to take the bowl from her.
"Everyone downstairs has been fed; I didn't need to eat tonight. Go on then, build your strength back."
My body could not resist the lure of food any longer, and I found myself snatching the bowl from her hands and eating the lumpy porridge as if it were the finest venison.
"Thank you, Jessica."
She smiled at me and helped me undress. Before I knew it, I was fast asleep in my own bed. For the first time in nearly a month, I slept restfully on a full stomach.
I sat at the head of the large rectangular table which was occupied by the members of the Council. The Council was comprised of nobility, and those specifically that swore fealty to me alone. There were faces missing, and I knew that those men had either defected from the cause or were currently fighting the War on the battlefront.
My emerald eyes took in the debate before me. Even though I listened, I did not give them my full attention. There is only so much talk that one might take in a group of men who were in love with the sound of their own voice. The only man that looked as uncomfortable as me was Sir Charles who kept shifting in his seat.
"We've been here for nearly two months. That's time away from my land, and time away from my family. There must be a suitable choice, and we should not dilly dally here any longer than we have to. My Lord, you must make a decision."
The direct address came from Sir Mortimer, a dark haired man with a bushy mustache. Mortimer has always stood by my family, and I understood his unease at leaving his lands for so long.
I raised my hands index fingers to my lips with my hands folded before me. I had sat through days of debates, and then evenings of Carlisle's council. Even Emmett had suggested someone. All the voices were floating around my head and driving me mad.
"Please your Grace, I too like Sir Mortimer have been away from my lands too long. This weather has destroyed our harvests in the North and I cannot in good conscience allow my people to suffer in my absence. Nor can I abandon my daughter when the War is moving ever closer to our doorstep," Sir Charles said standing tall.
My ears twitched at Sir Charles's voice. In all his speech only one word stood apart: daughter. The quiet and faithful knight had an only child. He dwelled in the country as well. Alice's words of advice repeated in my head. In all of our deliberation the daughter of Sir Charles had never been brought into the discussion. And yet, his simple plea might have ended it once and for all.
I glanced to my right at Carlisle, who had raised one brow in confusion. Leaning toward him, I whispered in his ear.
"Sir Charles has a daughter. The seer told me to look for the child of a country knight, and Charles fits the bill. She is the one."
"But m'Lord, she will bring you no dowry and no alliances, perhaps you should reconsider Laur—" I cut him off.
"No. I can feel it. We shall petition Sir Charles for his daughter's hand in marriage. See to it that the proper negotiations are met."
Carlisle agreed but I could tell he was worried. And truth be told I was as well.
"I have reached my decision. You are all free to leave on the morrow."
The Hall was suddenly filled with the sounds of fabric rustling and benches being pushed back as the nobles all rose and filed out of the room. I could see Sir Charles following the throng before Carlisle pulled him aside. Sir Charles and Carlisle mutually respected one another, but it was plain as day that the country knight was confused as to why he was singled out.
Carlisle must have mentioned the petition of marriage for his daughter, because Sir Charles' head snapped in my direction and shot me a look that could kill. He argued with Carlisle, pointing his finger at my uncle, before storming out of the room.
"That went well," I said as Carlisle returned with slumped shoulders.
"He told me that he would see you castrated if the kingdom didn't depend on your ability to procreate."
I laughed aloud at that and Carlisle merely looked at me as if I was insane.
"Well Sir Charles will simply have to come to terms with the fact that I will be taking his daughter as a bride, regardless of if he is amiable to it or not. It is my birthright to pick any single woman of age within my kingdom as a bride. And I choose his daughter."
"But Edward, think rationally. You know nothing about this girl. Do not throw the future of the Kingdom away on the cryptic words of a Seer."
"That Seer has proven herself time and time again. I trust her wisdom with my life, Carlisle. The female child of the Swan household will join the Cullen line. She will give me the son that this Kingdom needs, you will see."
A/N: Please review and let me know what you think. I really love to hear your opinions! Thank you. - Jade