This story is by Michelle Carey-Riehle and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I’d rather die than marry someone I don’t know.”
“You don’t mean that Breann. “You have a duty to your country and your king. There isn’t enough money in the kingdom’s coffers to fund my army. If I don’t pay them they may seek the leadership and wages of another, possibly a captain of a mercenary army. I have no other option but to take the offer from Navarre’s King Antoine. He will finance my army in exchange for you marrying his son Sebastian.”
Breann could feel her cheeks burn with rage as she argued with her uncle, King Harold, about her pending arranged marriage.
“You swore to uphold my father’s wish, allowing me to marry whomever I choose, and now you are going back on that word because you have no money to pay your army. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Breann, arranged marriages have been happening for centuries. You are not the first person to marry someone that you hardly know and you won’t be the last. I am most certain that if your father were here he would agree that this union needs to take place for the greater good of the kingdom.”
“That’s a lie!” Breann said, clenching her fists. My father would never use me as a pawn in a chess game!”
“This is the last time we will have this conversation, you are going to marry Prince Sebastian in the evening on the last day of the winter season. Now leave me so I can attend to more pressing matters!”
Breann stormed out of the Great Hall of Bolton Castle, trying to collect her thoughts and formulate a plan. As she stood beyond the huge doors that lead into the hall, she thought about how much she used to love this place.
Open flames sit at the bottom of each of the eight granite columns wrapping the hall in a warm radiance. The carved symmetric patterns on the sloping ceiling dance in the flickering light. Between each ribbon banner that hangs on the wall, stands a tall candle that illuminates the murals of war heroes below them. Huge open windows adorn each side draped in baroque fabric with the same colors as the banners. It’s been said by some who have visited from other kingdoms to be one of the grandest halls. Not to her anymore. Now every time Breann entered through the doors of the hall, she felt sick to her stomach about the ceremony that would take place there at the end of the season.
Over my dead body, she thought. How could he do this to me? Doesn’t my father’s wish mean anything? Not now apparently, with the kingdom near bankruptcy.
Breann understood all too well that a marriage union was sometimes just a mere transaction between two powerful parties. She had seen so many of her friends and family married off to men they barely knew and whisked away from their home in order to strike an alliance or gain some currency. Until now, she felt lucky not to have to marry someone she did not know. She had pledged her love to another; the man who rescued her from certain death the day bandits attacked her family carriage as it traveled to the castle to celebrate the autumn harvest.
Her mind drifted to the day her beloved Eldred had rescued her. Bandits struck the driver of the carriage down with one shot of an arrow and slit the throat of the footman riding on the back. Her father understood immediately what was happening and instructed Breann to hide in a secret compartment in the side of the carriage and to not make a sound. As he stepped through the door Breann heard him draw his sword. She did not remember much after that, only fragments of the sound of swords clashing, a swish of an arrow and then the sound of horses galloping away. When she decided it was safe to peek out of the compartment her heart sank in despair as she saw her father lying on the ground near the carriage. Eldred happened to be traveling to the castle as well, not far behind and found Breann standing in the doorway of the carriage as he approached the area on horseback. He looked so regal on his white stallion. His long straight blond hair hung gently down past his shoulders. His eyes were hazel with a glimmer of green in the middle. A subtle scar reached from the bottom of the right cheekbone, running towards the right side of his lips and ending on his right cheek. Even at that young age, something stirred within her, something that grew over the years into a fierce and passionate love.
Now their future together was in jeopardy and she needed to get word to him fast. Breann quickly rushed back to her room and crafted a letter using a cipher in order to disguise the real subject; a plan for Eldred to meet her beyond the castle wall two days before the wedding ceremony. With a little over nine days before the last day of the season, she should have enough time to get the message to him in his homeland and for him to travel to Bolton Castle. She melted the red wax onto the folded letter, pressed her seal to secure her coded message and had it swiftly sent by a messenger.
Breann received word back a day later that Eldred would meet her at the proposed time. For the next several days she avoided any confrontation with her uncle and if she did see him in the castle corridors she curtsied and smiled as she quickly walked by. No need to rant about the situation when it will never take place, she thought to herself.
When the day finally arrived for Breann to leave the castle and meet Eldred, King Harold summoned her to the Great Hall. She was leery but did not think it too odd since the castle and its occupants were busy preparing for the wedding and that her uncle must want to make sure she is ready to travel with Prince Sebastian after the ceremony.
She was ready. She had all of her trunks pack with the clothes that she would never wear again and another small satchel with just enough clothing and essentials to get her by until she and Eldred figured out a more detailed plan for the rest of their lives. In the short term, they would settle in a small village where neither of them would be recognized and claim to be married.
As she entered the hall, she quickly realized why her uncle wanted to see her. In the corner, in chains was Eldred, bloodied and beaten.
“Uncle, how could you?” Breann cried, as she tried to run to Eldred but was stopped by two of her own guardsmen.
“How could I, you ask? You are the one who tried to deceive me and plunge this kingdom into ruin. Have you no shame? Have you no sympathy for the people of this great land?” How could you be so selfish? Take him to the dungeon and lock her in her quarters until the hour of the wedding!” King Harold barked to his guardsmen.
“No please uncle, spare him! Eldred, I am sorry, I love you! Please, please don’t do this uncle!” Breann pleaded, through her sobs.
“This ends now, Breann. Your lover will be dealt with swiftly and you will be married and life will go on!”
Breann broke free of her captures.
“If I can’t marry my true love then I’d rather be dead!” she screamed, as she ran towards the huge open windows on the other side of the Great Hall.