Elijah Holmes glanced around Tippensdown Castle's entry yard from his mount. "Is everybody here?" he asked, more to himself than the people milling around. It was early November, and he and several other Tippensdown residents were preparing to depart for Myrridia's capital city of Rhennsbury. Elijah had mixed feelings about the trip. He was pleased to be attending the wedding of Myrridia's young king, Robert Claybourne, on Christmas morning, but he wouldn't mind skipping the War Council scheduled for the following day. The threat of war came from Elijah's immediate western neighbor, the Kingdom of Wyckendom, and he suspected that Tippensdown would be a likely target for invasion. The earldom had once been part of Wyckendom until Robert's father had annexed it several years ago.
Robert's sister, Allyson Claybourne, rode up to Elijah. "Everyone is ready," she said. "Father - I mean Bishop - Michael said he would meet us in front of the cathedral."
Elijah smiled fleetingly. He still thought of Michael as a priest too. "Is Alex here?" Allyson returned the smile and pointed. Prince Alexander Severinson of Wyckendom was mounting his horse nervously. He glanced up as he settled into the saddle and saw Elijah and Allyson looking in his direction. He forced a smile and saluted. He felt he was representing his kingdom at the royal wedding, even though he was doing it without his elder brother's permission. His brother, King Nicholas Severinson II, refused to maintain any diplomatic relations with Myrridia and had forbidden his younger brother from wearing the royal family's colors of purple and gold. Alexander was wearing black garb for riding, but he had his best royal surcoat in his saddlebag and planned to wear it to the wedding anyway, in spite of his brother's orders.
A man of middle years descended the castle stairs and joined Elijah. "Any final instructions, Earl?" he asked.
Elijah shook his head. "You're probably more qualified to run this place than I am, Guy," he said with a chuckle. Guy had been a faithful follower of Aldric Smithson, a formidable Dark Magic practitioner who nearly defeated Myrridia's archbishop, Edward Fitzroy, a few months prior. Guy accepted asylum in Tippensdown, since the earldom was a haven for Magicians of any type fleeing persecution. He'd once been ordained a priest, but was now more comfortable as the castle's steward. Elijah found no reason to doubt the man's loyalty to the earldom in the past few months and had no qualms about leaving him in charge of it now.
"I will contact you by mirror if anything untoward happens, Elijah," Guy promised.
Elijah nodded and set spurs to his mount. The castle's standard bearer followed suit, moving ahead of Elijah to lead the small party. Allyson spurred her mount to catch up with Elijah, and the pair rode side-by-side along the town's main street. As the party approached the cathedral, they slowed. Two men joined them.
Bishop Michael Pembroke was dressed in his familiar priest's cassock for the journey and was accompanied only by his assistant, Father Casper. Tippensdown's other resident priest, Father John, would remain in the town, to administer to the residents' spiritual needs in the bishop's absence. Michael was still adjusting to his new responsibilities and only tolerated Father Casper's presence as a necessity. He would have preferred to remain in Tippensdown, but his presence was required in Rhennsbury by his superior, Archbishop Fitzroy.
He now greeted Elijah and Allyson warmly, though his brown eyes remained sober. Like Elijah, he had conflicting feelings about the end of their journey, though his reasons were personal. He could expect to see Nicole Carpenter, the woman he loved, and the birth of her children by Aldric Smithson, who'd raped her during a Dark Magic ritual.
The party was quiet as they passed through the town and turned onto the main road leading to Rhennsbury. They planned to stop on the way and spend a few days at Foxhaven Castle, the ducal seat of Latham. They would then travel with Anselm DeLacey, the Duke of Latham, and his family and entourage the rest of the way to the capital.
* * *
Several days later and across the kingdom, nine-year-old Reginald Lattimore sulked in his saddle. He was in the company of his stepfather, Christopher McCabe, and an armed escort of a dozen men-at-arms from his home, Saelym Castle, the administrative center of the Duchy of Saelym. The party spent a week traveling from the castle to the duchy's eastern border, and they now waited for a group traveling to meet them from the neighboring Kingdom of Esterlyn. They'd spent the past two nights at a nearby inn, and Reginald was completely bored.
He was also freezing. It was the middle of November, and though the winter snows had not started, the weather had turned cold a few days ago. Dark gray clouds toward the west promised snow or sleet within the next couple of days.
He and Chris had had a strained relationship since Chris and Helen, Reginald's mother, returned to Saelym from Rhennsbury in September. At that time, Chris and Helen went immediately to the castle's schoolroom and spoke with Reginald and Eleanor, Reginald's seven-year-old sister. Reginald remembered the afternoon clearly. He'd been frightened by his parents' solemn faces and wondered what had happened during their prolonged absence at the kingdom's capital.
Helen went to both children immediately, while Chris remained at the door. Eleanor, confused, went into her mother's embrace, then started to go to her father. Helen held her arm firmly, holding out her other arm to Reginald. He hugged her dutifully, then stepped back, looking from one adult face to the other.
"Children, there is something you need to know," Helen began hesitantly. Reginald glanced at Chris, who still hadn't entered the room fully. He thought his father looked sad and older, which only served to confuse him the more.
"Mother, what has happened?" he asked. "What is wrong with Father?"
Chris looked down. Helen took a deep breath. "Reginald, Eleanor, this man is not your true father." She nodded toward Chris. "His name is Christopher, and he has substituted for your father for the past two years."
"What?" Reginald exclaimed. Eleanor stared from her mother to Chris, not fully understanding. "Where is Father?" Reginald demanded. "What has happened to him? Two years?"
Chris fully entered the room and put an arm around Helen's shoulders momentarily in support. "Reginald, your father died very suddenly and unexpectedly." He crouched down to speak on the boy's level. "I am not sure how much of this you can understand, but two years ago, Archbishop Edward Fitzroy," he paused while Reginald nodded his understanding of whom Chris was speaking, "asked me to stand in for your father because Edward feared Christian would be killed in an assassination attempt."
Eleanor's eyes widened.
"But, what -?" Reginald began.
"Christian died here, in Saelym Castle," Chris continued. "Elijah Holmes, you remember Elijah?" Both children nodded. "Elijah and I had just arrived here by Magic, and he, your mother and I decided to go on with the planned substitution. I was still going to return to my home after Christmas, but I -" Chris stopped as Reginald's expression changed from disbelief to anger.
"Why did you not tell us?" Reginald asked Helen and Chris.
"We thought the truth at the time would have upset you," Helen replied. "Chris stayed here in Saelym because he fell in love with me. I feel the same for him, and we married quietly a year ago Easter. Do not blame him, children, for I am equally guilty."
Eleanor looked at Chris shyly. "How do you feel about us?"
"I -" Chris seemed momentarily taken aback by the forthright question. "I care about the two of you, a lot. After two years, I feel like you are my children too."
Reginald smacked him in the arm. "Well, you are not my father! You never will be!" He fled the schoolroom.
He now hunched further into his saddle, watching his breath turn to mist in the chill air. His emotions had settled down since September, but he still resented Chris. He was also having difficulty accepting the fact that he was now the Duke of Saelym, in name if not in fact.
For his part, Chris had respected Reginald's feelings and kept some distance between them. He could understand the boy's reaction; Reginald had worshipped his warrior father. After Reginald left the schoolroom, Eleanor had walked over to Chris and held up her arms for him to lift her. A couple of tears slipped down his cheeks, but Eleanor brushed them away.
"I still love you, Chris," she said quietly "May I call you Father?"
"Of course, Ellie," Chris replied.
"He will come around," she added, with the conviction of childhood.
Shifting in the saddle, Chris saw that a traveling party now approached the border. A standard bearer rode at the head, with a guard captain. The standard displayed a golden dragon on a solid crimson background. Chris nudged his horse next to Reginald's.
"Here comes our new queen," he said quietly. Reginald nodded solemnly and moved his horse forward. Chris moved with him to the head of their party.
A fair-haired boy set spurs to his small mare and rode ahead of the approaching party with a shout. He wore a dark red wool cloak, lined with ermine fur, and Chris assumed he was the younger Prince of Esterlyn, Frederich DiStephane. He reined in his mount and let the two boys meet. Reginald was dressed in official Saelym colors - his surcoat was of black wool with a silver eagle on the chest, his cloak dark forest green wool with a sable lining. His brown hair and hazel eyes coordinated well with it, and Chris expected the boy to be a heartbreaker in a few more years.
The two young horsemen circled one another warily, each studying the other. A young woman spoke to the standard-bearer then urged her own mount forward. Chris recognized her from Robert Claybourne's coronation and raised his hand in greeting.
Princess Juliana DiStephane smiled slightly in recognition. She was dressed in a subdued riding habit of dark brown and a cloak of matching hue, lined with ermine. She pushed her hood back, revealing honey-colored tresses, several shades darker than the pale blonde of the boy who'd preceded her. Chris rode up to her.
"Welcome, Your Highness," he said. He gestured toward Reginald. Reginald and Frederich joined them. "May I present Reginald Lattimore, the Duke of Saelym?"
Juliana stared at Chris in confusion. Reginald bowed in his saddle. Frederich eyed him with interest.
"Are you not the duke?" Juliana asked.
"No, Princess. You mean that news has not reached Esterlyn?"
She shook her head. "If it has, I was not told."
"My name is Christopher McCabe, though most who know me call me Chris. It is a very long story, but Aldric Smithson exposed me as an impostor this past summer. It was less than pleasant." Chris's eyes darkened with pain at the memory, but he put it aside. "It is of little consequence. Your marriage to Robert is much more important."
Juliana inclined her head. "You are the man I met in Rhennsbury before Robert's coronation. I seem to remember thinking you did not match your reputation. What is your status in the duchy, then?"
"Helen and I are administering Saelym in Reginald's name." Chris paused. "Is this your younger brother, Frederich?"
"Aye." She turned in her saddle to face the boys, who were following the exchange.
Frederich grinned and bowed in the saddle "Frederich DiStephane of Esterlyn, your Grace. Would you care to race?"
Reginald tugged on his reins to turn his mare. "Last one to the inn is a rotten egg!" he shouted, giving his mount a kick. Frederich leaned forward and gave his mare her lead, whooping in enthusiasm.
"So much for the formalities," Juliana noted.
Chris smiled. "I daresay he has been bored enough since you left home. How many times did he ask, 'are we there yet'?"
Juliana laughed, though the mirth didn't reach all the way to her eyes. "A good dozen." She sobered.
Chris tugged on his own reins, urging his mount to a canter. "Something troubles you, Your Highness. Do you wish to discuss it?"
"There is not much to talk about, Lord Chris. My elder brother Wilhelm died about a fortnight before we began this journey. I thank you for young Reginald's boisterousness; 'tis a much needed distraction for Fred."
"My condolences. Did your brother suffer?"
Juliana looked down at her lap. "Aye, he suffered a great deal of pain during his final weeks. I had hoped he would last into the winter, but 'twas not to be." She raised her gaze, staring into the distant hills. "Methinks he may have lived a little longer if his physician had not insisted on bleeding him monthly up until the end."
Chris sucked in a breath. As a twenty-first century medical resident he had firm opinions about medieval health care. He doubted he could have done anything to help the youth, but he would have tried. "Do you need to talk to someone? A stranger?"
"Thank you for the offer. I may talk with Lady Helen about it. It feels so strange to be traveling to my wedding and be in mourning at the same time." She pushed her cloak back off her right shoulder and indicated the black wool armband. Chris nodded, knowing he had no words to help.