Twilight over Moldavia
The woods near Delfin Castle
Caroline Moldoveanu flinched as the carriage hit a deep rut in the dirt road. The surrounding trees swayed in the gentle autumn breeze. Delfin Castle had just come into view, and she could make out the tall turrets in the distance, the flag of Moldavia proudly waving to them. If only her stomach would settle down!
The entire Carpathian entourage stopped. Her father, King Mikos of Carpathia, sighed, his face betraying his exasperation. It had been a long three-day journey from Ploiesti, Carpathia's capital, to Constanta. Within seconds, the door opened.
“I'm sorry, Your Highness, the wheel is loose. We'll need to tighten it,” said Max. He was her horse's groom and her horse, Tolstoy, was one helping to pull the carriage.
Her father grumbled as he got out of the coach. He was a tall man, a bit burly, but she loved him dearly, and she was proud of the fact they shared the same cerulean blue eyes. Her mother was of average height, with honey brown hair, the same as hers.
Caroline stepped out behind her mother, her eyes surveying the Moldavian woods. The trees were tall, familiar maples and birches, and they made her miss home a little less.
Mikos surveyed the damage to the wheel. “It shouldn't take long to fix.”
“Will we get to the castle by nightfall?” asked her mother. “Caroline needs time to…prepare.”
Caroline tried not to scrunch up her face. She had insisted on wearing riding pants for the journey, and her father indulged her. Her mother would have preferred her to wear a dress, but they were so uncomfortable when it came to traveling. Unfortunately, her mother was convinced Caroline was an ‘adventurous' spirit, and there was nothing Caroline could do now to dispel that.
“Yes, Aurora. Why don't you wait in the carriage?” he suggested.
She spied two coachmen along with Max walk back to one of the carriages. They began rifling through the leather utility bags hoisted on the frame.
“Are you coming back inside, Caroline?”
“I'll wait outside, Mther. The fresh air feels good.”
“Don't wander far,” her mother replied.
Caroline caught that familiar scolding glint in her mother's eyes. No doubt she would have preferred Edwina to enter into the Romanian unification marriage, but her older sister had died in a riding accident when Caroline was eight. That left her, the spoiled princess of Carpathia, to marry Stefan Sigmaringen, crown prince of Moldavia. Her heart began to nervously flutter again at the thought of Stefan.
As her father and coachmen set about to fix the wheel, she drifted away from the royal carriage. There were four coaches in her party and she made her way to the last one. Her eyes envisioned a tall man with a winsome smile – Stefan. He would be rugged and handsome. She pursed her lips as her mind lingered on her image of the handsome prince. He was a man now, and she hoped Stefan could see her for the woman she was, and not the thirteen-year-old spoiled brat she'd been when they last met in Ploiesti. How she longed to convince the man she was going to marry that she was different! She was more regal in bearing and definitely more…agreeable.
Wanting to calm her nerves, she reached inside the last coach and found her bags, pulling out her bow and arrow. She enjoyed shooting a bow and had won many competitions in Carpathia. Her mother frowned at the activity, but her father delighted in her accomplishments.
“Your highness!” came a loud whisper. “What are you doing?”
Caroline looked up. Her ladies, Mina and Adriana, looked at her through the window of the third coach.
“Shsh,” Caroline said, putting a finger to her lips. “I'm going to explore the woods of my new home.”
“Maybe you should wait,” suggested Mina.
“I'll be fine,” replied Caroline, as she darted past two welcoming maples into the woods. She loved Mina and Adriana like sisters. They had come to her when she was fourteen, and were the main reason she'd changed, teaching a spoiled brat the folly of her ways.
Caroline paused at the edge of woods, watching her father to make sure he wouldn't miss her too much. He was actually helping the coachman to fix the carriage. She smiled, thinking of how he'd gone to such lengths to support her in all her endeavors. He was a hard working man, and the people of Carpathia were fond of him. Despite the fact he was a king, she realized he'd won their people over by never skirting hard work and doing certain things for himself.
“It's Carpathian pride, Caroline. We're hard workers. Remember that about your people when you become Queen of Romania.”
Satisfied her father wouldn't miss her presence for too long, she darted into the wood line. The sun was in the mid sky, just over the green, leafy treetops; however, as her eyes followed the trees toward the ground, the leaves had started to turn. It was truly beautiful. She followed a natural path a little further into the woods, enjoying the crisp air on her skin, and the light chirping of robins overhead.
Her eyes scanned the woods. She couldn't wait to explore further. She loved being in nature – it invigorated her. Oh, what her mother would say!
“The prince might not fancy such an ‘adventurous' girl for a wife!”
“I hope Prince Stefan is willing to give me a chance – to prove I've changed,” she whispered out loud to herself, her eyes drifting toward the turrets of the castle.
It was then she spied a tender maple tree. The trunk was solid, yet small, and one branch, eye level, displayed a beautiful pattern of changing leaves. There was one rust colored one surrounded by gold ones. Deciding to take aim and challenge herself, she notched an arrow to her bow. After steadying her feet, she fired, fully expecting to hit her mark.
Stefan rode his horse through the woods near Delfin castle, Michael Bacau at his side. Michael was a year older than him, and Stefan thought of him as a brother. His parents were Michael's godparents, and they had raised him when Michael's own parents died.
Stefan smiled at his friend and motioned for him to follow him down a small riding trail near the castle.
“You're quiet today, Stefan,” Michael's deep voice said.
Stefan glanced at his brother. It never failed to amaze him how he could sound like his own father, Mihai Sigmaringen, the King of Moldavia.
“Perhaps I am nervous about meeting my bride,” Stefan confessed, as they slowly proceeded down the trail. Stefan admired the greenery, on the verge of autumn's change.
“Princess Caroline?” Michael chuckled. “I hear she has grown into a beautiful young woman.”
“Beauty is not just on the outside, Michael. It's on the inside, too.”
“You sound like Mother talking,” Michael teased.
Stefan noticed Michael's horse jerk a little, as if sensing something nearby, and Michael reached over to pat his flank, soothing him. Stefan lightly patted his horse, who looked calm.
“And what's wrong with that?” Stefan asked, his eyes cutting to his brother. “There's nothing wrong in wanting to fall in love with the woman I am to marry. I would be honored to make a love match. Our parents are a love match!”
“Now you definitely sound like Mother,” Michael teased. “How many times has she told you that?”
He pulled on the reins just a little and his horse stopped. Stefan did the same.
“Don't you want to fall in love, Michael?”
“It is not my destiny to love just one woman, like you, brother. I am not the crown prince of Moldavia,” Michael replied. He put his ear against his horse.
“Does Gold Dust hear something?” Stefan asked.
“Um…he senses something, I'm not quite sure what. Let's wait here a second,” Michael suggested, “and finish our talk.”
“Well, I would think you'd want to find one woman to love, like Father has found Mother,” Stefan continued.
“Why do you say that?” Michael asked.
Stefan felt a light, cool breeze sway by them. The leaves gently waved. He smiled. There was nothing he liked better than taking a ride and being outdoors to settle his restless heart.
“You and Father are practically brothers. You go fishing together all the time. You enjoy the same games; I know you admire him very much,” Stefan added. “Whether you believe it or not, you are influenced by him, so I can't imagine he hasn't rubbed off on you when it comes to love.”
“I am in no rush to fall in love, Stefan,” Michael replied. “I have a different life to lead from you. I am seriously considering attending university in London next year.”
“Aren't you a little old…?”
“What does it matter? I may be older than most of the students, but I want the adventure of going to a new place and seeing new things,” Michael replied. “While you settle into married life.”
Stefan sighed, running a hand through his thick, wavy hair. “Married life…with Caroline. I have so many doubts, worries…”
Michael raised an eyebrow. “Really? I do have it on good authority the princess has changed since you last saw her.”
“When I last saw Caroline, she took pleasure in teasing the servants and calling them names when they didn't comply immediately with her requests,” Stefan said. He felt his heart skip a beat at his memories. His family had traveled to Ploiesti in the summertime to officially seal the engagement. His betrothed, Caroline's sister, Edwina, had died in a riding accident. To fulfill the obligations of Romanian unification, Stefan was then engaged to Caroline at the tender age of thirteen, but when he met her, she was so spoiled, it frightened him. After all – that girl was going to be his wife, and dare he think it – she was nothing but a shrew. Was it true the girl had grown up into a woman?
“Stefan, I assure you, from what I've heard, the princess has changed. You should give her a chance. Daciana has excellent…friends who have shared this with me,” Michael replied, in a very reassuring tone of voice.
Stefan just shook his head. Michael was infinitely friendlier with the servants and staff in the castle than he was. Not that he didn't want to be, but his mother had always stressed to him that he was the crown prince, and he needed to be more formal with the staff. Daciana was the head cook of the castle, a little bit of an older lady, but Michael enjoyed her company. Stefan knew they were good friends. If only the reports of Caroline were true – that she'd changed! Enough of this inner turmoil. Stefan wanted to change the subject.
“Um,” he said. “Is it me, or has Father been acting a little strangely around Mother lately? Like a protective hawk?”
“He has, and I know why,” said Michael, turning red in the cheeks.
“Has Father confided in you and not me?” Stefan barked.
“No, I overheard a conversation I shouldn't have, I'm afraid,” Michael replied. “I was in the gardens with Sabrina when they walked out. I genuinely believe they thought no one was there. We hid behind a rose bush.”
“What were you doing with Sabrina?” Stefan asked. She was one of the seamstresses in the castle.
Michael looked at Stefan like he should know before continuing. “They are trying to have a baby.”
“Who? Mother and Father?”
“Yes. They seemed very happy about it…and then a little sad. You know Mother has had several miscarriages since your birth, Stefan, and they were talking about what they could do to ensure Mother didn't miscarry again,” Michael said.
Stefan cocked his head. He knew his parents were still of childbearing age. He wanted nothing for them but happiness, but still, to have a brother or sister so young! “I am surprised, but I hope it works out for them.”
“Stefan, they did not intend for anyone to hear. Sabrina has assured me she would say nothing. Let Father come to you on his own,” Michael implored. “And he will – he trusts you completely. I just got the impression it was a sensitive subject – for both of them.”
“I will keep this confidence, don't worry, Michael. Should we head back? The Carpathians should be here shortly,” suggested Stefan.
Michael nodded his head. Stefan began trotting off. It was then he felt a blast of cool air against his thigh and a light pain rip through his leg. He jerked on the reins of his horse, who immediately came to a stop.
“Your leg!” Michael cried.
Stefan looked down. His riding pants had been torn across the thigh, and he was bleeding. It was a superficial wound, just grazing the skin. Then he spied an arrow stuck center mass in the middle of a rust colored leaf.
“Oh, I am sorry!” came a high pitched female voice.
Stefan spun around, his eyes swiftly coming to rest upon the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Her cinnamon hair sparkled in the sunlight, and her blue eyes were full of warmth and concern. Her lithe figure practically made his heart stop in his chest.
“Caroline? Princess Caroline Moldoveanu?” he gasped, recognizing the features, pretty on a thirteen-year-old, now beautiful on a seventeen-year-old woman.
“Prince Stefan?” she gasped, her mouth opening wide. “I've shot you! You're bleeding!”
Stefan scrunched up his nose. She held a bow in her hand, and there was no doubt who delivered the arrow so true into the heart of the leaf.
“I am so sorry,” she stammered again, running to his horse. “Let me…”
Stefan watched as his fiancée pulled a blue scarf off her neck and wrapped it around his leg. He noticed that a gold crest of Carpathia had been embroidered on each end – no doubt the scarf was an heirloom - a possession to be prized. He swallowed at her touch.
She did not think twice about wrapping it around my leg!
Once secure around his thigh, she looked up into his eyes. “I swear, Prince Stefan, I was not trying to shoot you. I was trying for the rust colored leaf!”
He couldn't help but smile at her. Her looks were indeed stunning. Her cheekbones were perfect, and her lips were beautifully curved and very red.
“I'll be all right, Princess Caroline. It's just a flesh wound. Don't worry about it,” he replied. His eyes locked on hers, and he felt his blood rushing through his veins.
“I…don't want you to think…I was…purposely trying to hurt you…I…I…” she stammered and cast her eyes away from him.
Stefan jumped off his horse, wincing as his injured leg hit the ground. He grabbed her by the waist and cupped her chin with his hand.
“I believe you,” he said, his voice warm and reassuring. “If your arrow had not struck the leaf so precisely, then I might have cause for doubts, but I have none. Now it is your turn to believe me.”
“I do,” she swallowed.
How he wanted to steal a kiss then! Despite all his nervousness, his doubts, his own fears, he couldn't deny the sincerity coming from the woman in his arms. Still, he needed more. Slowly he withdrew from her and got on his horse, frowning as he did so to deal with the mild pain.
“Now, if you don't mind, I think I'll head back to the castle,” he said, turning his horse toward the direction of the turrets.
He spun around. “Yes?”
“Please don't say it was me who shot you! My mother would…and my father…he'd be…”
“You have my word, Princess Caroline. I will tell no one of our secret meeting. But I do have one question for you.”
“What are you doing in the woods? Shouldn't you be…elsewhere?” he asked, curious to her answer.
“We had to stop the carriage. The wheel was loose, so I thought…I'd explore,” she explained.
He smiled at that. His future bride knew how to use a bow, and she liked to explore. Two things they already had in common.
“Michael, escort the Princess back to her father and promise to say nothing,” Stefan instructed.
“I will,” answered Michael.
“I must be properly bandaged by the doctor,” Stefan chuckled, “so I can dance with you tonight, Princess.”
She pursed her lips. “Prince Stefan, I mean it! I did not intend to hit you.”
“I know,” he said, nodding his head and riding off, not quite knowing what to believe – only reveling in her sweet attention. Even now he could feel the tender touch of her hand on his thigh, her warmth, her…strength. She was changed, and he was determined to find out just what brought it all about.
Caroline watched Michael jump off his horse and take a spot beside her. He held the reins smoothly, and she got the impression he was an accomplished rider. They shared an awkward smile and Caroline began walking the way she came.
“Your name is…Michael?” she finally queried.
“Michael Bacau. I am the king's godson,” he replied.
“So that is how you know Prince Stefan?”
“My parents died when I was a baby,” said Michael. “The king and queen have raised me like their own son. They are my parents in my heart.”
“I see. You did not come to Ploiesti before…?” she inquired, noticing the sun had dipped lower in the sky. No doubt her father was almost done changing the wheel.
“No, I had broken my leg shortly before they went to Carpathia, so I stayed here,” he explained.
Caroline stopped and looked directly at him. He was a handsome man, tall and rugged. His hair was thick and wavy, with auburn highlights that seem to shine when the sun fell upon him. He had unusually expressive hazel eyes.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked.
“You look to be Stefan's true brother, that's all,” she replied. How uncanny. Stefan was maybe only an inch or two shorter, with the same auburn highlights, and sweet hazel eyes. Her fiancé was just as handsome and rugged.
“I have been told my mother looked much like the queen,” he answered, motioning toward the wood line.
Caroline fell in step beside him as his horse lightly brayed. She stopped again to look at his horse. Gently, she stroked the smooth, sleek flank and the horse nodded his head in approval.
“What is his name?”
“Gold Dust. You like horses?”
“Very much,” she answered.
“Well, then you and Stefan have that in common,” Michael answered.
Her face lit up. “Really? He enjoys riding?”
“I suspect you may have more in common with him than you think,” Michael continued. “Come, Princess, we should find your father. Why do you delay?”
She began walking as she looked at the ground. “I'm just…nervous, that's all. I can't believe my arrow hit him! He must think I
purposely did it!”
“Stefan is a man of his word. If he told you he believed your true intentions were to hit the leaf, then he meant that,” Michael insisted.
“Still, I won't be 100 percent assured until…”
“Until I see Prince Stefan again,” she replied.
Michael chuckled. “I assure you, Princess Caroline, Stefan is as nervous as you are.”
Caroline smiled, warmed by Michael's assurances. He was a very nice man. She couldn't believe that he was only the king's godson.
“Why didn't the king adopt you?” she blurted out, curious to know.
“Oh, he wanted to. He still wants to, and while I have thought about it, I think it wise I honor my parents by keeping their name. I understand they were good people, the king and queen's best friends, and this makes me feel close to them, despite the fact I never knew them.”
She bit her lip, walking past a small brush. “I'm coming, Father!”
The wheel must be fixed. He'd be mad at her for a couple of seconds, and then happy that she was all right. As for her mother, she'd probably tell her to put the bow and arrow away until after she exchanged marriage vows with Prince Stefan.
Nothing else was said between her and Michael, and within minutes, she peeked her head out from the trees alongside the road. Her father stood pacing in front of the wood line.
“There you are!”
“Father!” She ran into his arms and hugged him, watching his anger leave.
Michael and Gold Dust walked out of the woods behind her.
“Who is this?” Mikos barked, glaring at the young man.
Caroline spun around. “Michael Bacau. I met him in the woods. He says he's the king's godson.”
“Ah…yes,” said Mikos evenly. “Mihai speaks highly of you, boy. I think the last time I saw you, you were just a little boy of five.”
“At the unification meeting,” Michael replied with a smile. “Yes, I remember. I was fascinated with counting all the silverware.”
Mikos chuckled. “Yes, you were, boy.”
“I will accompany you to the castle,” Michael said. “The Princess said you had to tighten a wheel? Do you require any more assistance?”
“It's fixed now,” said Mikos, looking down at Caroline. She smiled back at him.
“Where's your scarf?”
Caroline swallowed, brushing back a stray tendril of hair that had flopped into her face. “Ah…I must have lost it in the woods, Father.”
He frowned. “Your mother knitted that for you! To remind you of home!”
Caroline winced. Her mother had. It was actually a very nice moment between her and her mother. What had she done with it? She pursed her lips! She'd wrapped Prince Stefan's leg with it. Her mother would never forgive her for being so careless!
“I will send a couple of stable hands into the woods to look for it before it gets dark,” Michael offered.
“Thank you,” replied Caroline.
“Go pack your bow and tell your mother you put the scarf with it. Hopefully, it's found in a timely manner. I don't want to upset her,” Mikos instructed.
Caroline nodded her head, raced to the back carriages, and swiftly returned. She followed her father into the royal coach and noticed that Michael fell alongside the coachmen of her entourage on his horse. He was a pleasant young man and she determined that she liked him very much.
“Who is that riding next to the coach?” asked her mother, once they were underway.
“Mihai's godson,” Mikos answered.
Caroline shifted nervously in her seat, as she peeked out the window.
“Michael Bacau? He's grown into a handsome young man,” Aurora said. “Caroline, put your head back in here. Where's your scarf?”
“I…ah…packed it,” she answered. Her mother's lips curved into a look of disapproval.
“Caroline, please try to be…agreeable tonight when you meet Mihai and Theresa,” said her mother.
“I will,” Caroline replied, wishing her mother would be more giving with her.
“And mind your manners around Theresa,” her mother continued. “She can be rather headstrong. I can only take her in small doses.”
“Aurora!” Mikos said, “What kind of advice is that! Caroline is going to live with them!”
Her mother frowned. “It is just my way of saying that Caroline must do her best to win's Stefan's heart. Theresa's a bit of a mother hen, and I don't want her interfering with that. I only want our daughter to find a happy marriage with the prince, that's all.”
Caroline reached out and squeezed her mother's hand. “I promise to be on my best behavior tonight, Mother.”
Aurora smiled and Caroline was glad to see it. Her mother was protective in her own way, maybe too much so. Both her parents were devastated by her sister's premature death, and they compensated by lavishing her, their only remaining child, with a lot of attention – perhaps too much attention for the time. Still, Caroline loved her parents and they loved her. Now, if only she could win Prince Stefan's heart…
© Copyright by SG Cardin 2005.