The Prowess of a Princess
From above on the wooden balcony, shaded with an azure blue canopy, Anna gazed down upon the dirt arena as knights and nobles of France gathered to show off their military and athletic prowess. Seated beside her, Henry on one side and on her other side, Matilda of Flanders. Others on the balcony included the Countess Adele and Baldwin with several of the clergy and the castle concierge.
While Henry held her hand, it was Matilda who held her ear, whispering gossip on all the men below. “See the man below with the red hair and red tunic. That’s Gosse. He fought side-by-side with the Henry at the battle of Val-ès-Dunes. The King was thrown from his horse and had to engage in hand-to-hand battle. Gosse was there to defend him. Handsome brut, isn’t he? I would love to consummate a marriage with him, but too bad he is below my status. Any of the men capture your eye?” she asking a tempting tone, already knowing the answer.
There was one, Raoul engaged with the other men, taking the tourney less than serious. “No,” Anna replied.
Matilda nudged her. “Come on. It’s alright. It’s alright to admire a handsome warrior.”
She stared Matilda in the eyes, playfully butting her head her forehead. “Are you trying to start gossip already?”
“No, my dear friend. Just curious.” Matilda gazed off to the field of men. “Men can have their muses, why can’t we have ours?”
Anna watched the men below throwing axes at watermelons. “What was the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes?” she asked in a whisper.
“Rebels threatened to overthrow William in Normandy. Henry supported him with his royal army. If you ask me, William’s a bastard. They should have just let the rebels overthrow him. It would have been better for France. Anyway, Henry has a soft spot for William as if he is his own son,” Matilda explained looking down at the war games below. “Many of the men below fought in the battle, Gosse, Raoul just to name a few.”
Gently squeezing Henry’s hand, she thought of the men whom have come into her life recently. Henry had a comfortable and civil manner, whereas men like William and Raoul lived with rugged impetuousness. She wondered was it purely the man’s nature or a reflection of their age. Raoul in his twenties, already two heirs to the several counties he had gained dominion. At such an early age, he had what many men longed for – a wealthy and politically connected wife, sons, land and money. He could afford a demeanor of cavalier. Henry, as king, still waiting for a son, still trying to protect his land and throne. Of course, his mannerism would reflect more care. Anna turned her head to the side, surprised to meet his gaze. He had been watching her. Could he read my mind? She wondered.
Seated high above the men engaged in pretend warfare, Anna realized there was little difference between France and her home country of Kiev. Men loved war. It was a game to them and above even the spoils of war and conquest, they loved the physical exertion of the sport…slashing cabbages on pikes, stabbing bags of grain, even hand-to-hand brawls offered passionate amusement. Archery skills now were on show, with bragging rights for those who hit the bullseye.
Other than Matilda, Anna felt as though she was watching with her parents, older and serious in demeanor, watching the below as if all childhood playfulness had long been vacated. Henry and Baldwin more interested in whispering about politics than the tournament below.
Despite not drawing an arrow during the hunt, Raoul demonstrated his archery prowess by beating every man he challenged. When it came time to draw on a new challenger, he rested his hand on William’s shoulder, yet shouted up to the balcony, “I challenge Princess Anna Yaraslonva!” he yelled from down below in the arena.
The entire field of men gazed up at her. She turned to face Countess Adele, who gave her a stern and scolding glare. Matilda reacted astounded, if not offended for her. However, it was Henry’s pat on her shoulder, which offered the fated punch to her solar plexus, which caused all the wind inside her to expel. “You have been challenged,” he said, standing from his seat. “The princess accepts your challenge!” Henry bellowed from above.
She could only imagine the incredulous stare on her face. Thoughts of embarrassment and murder arose in her mind as she walked down the plank steps to the arena. Why would Raoul do this to her? She wondered. What would possess him to make a spectacle of her? Did he know she couldn’t take her eyes off him? Did he feel her attraction? Regardless of the answer, it infuriated her.
As she walked into the arena, the crowd made way for her to enter. She didn’t remember who handed her a long bow and arrow, only that she grabbed them out of his hand. Without another thought, she drew back, and shot. The arrow pierced the lower ring on the target.
“Not bad, Princess,” Raoul replied patting his lower torso. “Just a little nervous as to what you are aiming for.”
She eyed him dangerously. “A good hunter always knows their exact mark.”
He nodded with a grunt. “Uh huh.” He set his aim, drawing back and shot, hitting the mark closer to the bullseye, but not quite hitting the mark.
While the crowd cheered, Anna desired to smack the smile off him. “Decent shot, but I see you too are off target,” she said to Raoul.
With the bow and arrow primed in her hand, she glanced up to the balcony and noticed the expressions of Henry and her elders. It was Henry who gave her poise and comfort. She took a deep breath, studied the target and her aim on Raoul’s arrow. She shot, hitting his arrow just below and slightly closer to the bullseye, a shot that gained her cheers and laughter from the crowd. Now it was her turn to look to Raoul with an impish grin. “Your turn, Count.”
He gazed down at her, never having a woman show him up so publicly. Despite the initial wave of anger and embarrassment that fluttered through, he released it with a laugh, and the second undulation which struck him was of physical stimulation.
“Raoul, I believe it’s your turn!” Henry shouted from the balcony.
Raoul readied his bow and arrow and quickly shot, his focus off, hitting only the upper outer ring of the target.
“I understand,” Anna taunted. “The pressure of success can be hard.” She pulled back on the bow, raising her arrow. She drew further back, lowering her bow methodically catching the center of the target. Bullseye.
The crowd erupted in cheers and for jeers as Raoul stepped up for his last shot. “Princess, you would do well to know who you are dealing with,” he said sternly. He pulled back on the bow, held it still for a few seconds and released with such power the arrow shot as a bullet hitting the bullseye directly next to Anna’s arrow. Once again, cheers sounded a deafening level.
He extended his hand to her, kneeling, and bowing his head. “It’s been an honor. It seems as though you have won the challenge.”
Anna looked down at Raoul, into his humble eyes, and at his wide grin. This moment, she lost control of her heart…and her mind. All of France disappeared. Pulling her attention back to her surroundings, she numbly turned to look up at Henry, who stood clapping in ovation of her victory.
“Your future queen!” Henry yelled to all. “Give me one man who won’t fight in her name!”
She looked back down at Raoul and at all the men…the nobles, the lords and serfs…all of whom were at her service and all of them whose hearts she had just won. The moment, not just amazed her, it stunned her, for as she was raised to believe service to a king meant domestic servitude, and yet it was her calm power and her physical prowess which had won the hearts of France, and all thanks to a roguish count, who had purposely gave her the opportunity to shine.