Tongue caught firmly between his teeth, Blair focused on the enticing braid of hair flowing down the back of his babysitter’s neck. The gold flecked ribbon holding the neat highland braid was merely an added extra.
The toddler chortled under his breath as he gripped the leg of a chair and pulled himself to his wobbly feet. To little eyes, Laird Jamie suddenly looked miles away. The page was sitting cross-legged, hunching over a sketch pad, drawing with a fine charcoal pencil. He was wrapped up in his own little world.
Eyes gleaming, Blair let go of the chair leg and rocked precariously. Then arms outstretched, the toddler staggered forwards in a controlled fall towards his goal. Jamie almost turned as Blair plastered himself against his protector’s back, chubby little hands clutching.
“Hey, Blair.” Jamie craned his head, glancing over his shoulder at the prince.
With a gleeful ‘hee’, Blair grabbed the short braid and tugged.
“Ow!” Jamie winced, trying futilely to grab the toddler, braid and to not overturn.
“Dim!” Blair carolled and yanked.
“You little brat.”
Blair simply chortled and hung off the braid.
Jamie reached around, grabbing the prince, and then rolled them both onto their sides. Blair reacted to the change in position with a wail and tugged harder. Wriggling, Jamie managed to pull hair and attached hands around so he could pry at the fingers wrapped tightly in his hair.
“I’ll tickle you,” the laird threatened. “I will, I promise.” He finally got free and neatly rolled away and into a sitting position.
Blair’s bottom lip quivered and his eyes filled with tears.
“None of that,” Jamie chastised, poking him in the centre of his chest. “It hurts, Blair. Hurts.”
“Urts.” Blair tried.
“Yes, sore.” Jamie emphasised his words with another poke.
Blair promptly burst into tears; something that Jamie had no defence against. He planted his face into Jim’s tunic and wailed out his misery.
“It’s okay,” Jamie stroked his back carefully. “Just don’t do it again.”
“Nooooo.” Blair sniffled.
“Hey, Jim.” Rafe poked his head around the doorway, and seeing that the prince’s nanny wasn’t in the room, he slipped inside. “We’re going down to the water screw to play, you wanna come?”
Jamie looked down at the sobbing mite. “I can’t; I’m watching the prince.”
“Lady Carolyn is coming, she got away from her chaperone.”
“Girls?” Jamie huffed.
“Yeah,” the slightly older page enthused. He pulled out a bag of rock candy from behind his back.
Blair turned abruptly from his sobbing lament. “Weetis?”
Rafe immediately crouched and held out a lump of the sweet confectionery.
“No,” Jamie hissed. “He’s a pain in the bum when he eats sugar.”
Blair snatched it from Rafe’s hand and promptly stuffed it in his mouth.
“No.” Jamie deftly twisted Blair on his lap and hooked a finger in the toddler’s mouth. Baby teeth gnawed gamely on fingers. Blair coughed, splattering his clean tunic with soft fudge. But he managed to swallow most of the sweet.
Blair was going to be an absolute nightmare by the evening. Ancient Nanny Pill wouldn’t be able to contain his sugar fuelled glee.
“Ewww.” Rafe backed away. “It’s going to be fun. We’ll be at the north water screw.”
Blair slid off his lap and onto his hands and knees.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Jamie said despondently as he saw that Blair had crawled – with sticky hands – over his sketchpad.
As the Queen’s page, Jamie spent the better part of his day at the Queen’s side ready to do her bidding. As a d’Ellison Jamie had a greater responsibility than the average page, he was entrusted with documents and important messages to trot back and forth to the council.
He held a sheaf of wax sealed papers to take to the Prime Minister as he jogged along the corridor to the Council Chambers.
“Dim.” Blair stood wobbling at the far end of the corridor. He held a lanky cat clasped against his chest, its hind legs stretched almost to the floor. Incredibly, the cat wasn’t complaining about the treatment and was purring loudly.
“Why aren’t you with Nanny Pill?”
Blair smiled showing his few stubby, white baby teeth.
“By the Goddess,” Jamie grated. What was he supposed to do? Leave the prince in the corridor or get the papers to the council? There was really no decision. Carefully, he tucked the rolled up parchments under his arm and picked up the prince – cat and all.
“How did you get out of the nursery?”
Blair ignored the question, content on fingering the d’Ellison house brooch on Jamie’s tunic. Jim rolled his shoulder; knowing that Blair’s next act would be to gum on it.
The cat decided that enough was enough and jumped down. The prince immediately began wailing; Jamie vowed to kill Rafe for giving the prince sugar.
If he got the prince to bed quickly, he might be able get to the sealed compact to the council before he was missed.
“Come on, it’s time for bed.”
“No, no, no, bad Jim. Bad Jim. Cat. Cat. Cat. My cat.” Blair kicked out, and the compact sailed forth straight across the hall, bounced on the stone tiles and skidded into the corner. Blair brightened up immediately.
“’Gain. Do ‘gain.”
Swearing words that he had learned from Rafe, Jim darted after the precious document. Bending, he reached down to pick it up. A large hand snatched it away from his fingertips.
“Boy, what are you doing?”
Jamie stood to better face the Prime Minister, even if he did only come up to the forbidding man’s waist.
“I dropped the parchment, sir. I was picking it up,” he finished unnecessarily.
“You shouldn’t be playing with Prince Blair.”
“I wasn’t, sir; he got out of the nursery. I was returning him to bed.”
“Don’t lie, boy.” The Prime Minster rapped him sharply on the head with the tail end of the scroll.
The echo of pain reverberated up and down his body from toes to his scalp. He could have sworn that the Minister had driven pins into the top of his head with the parchment.
Blair rested his head on Jim’s shoulder.
The laird came back to himself. They were standing alone in the corridor, only the tip tap of Prime Minister Zeller’s steel shod heels sounding on the stone cobbles away around the corner spoke of his presence.
Blair yawned mightily.
“I expect that I should get you to bed.”
“No,” Blair said mutinously.
Blair might say that he wasn’t tired, but he settled against Jim without any further whining.
The page hall was filled with tired pages drooped over their breakfasts. Jim, who had gone to bed at the back of , was slightly more alert than his fellow pages. Rafe’s round face was pasty white and he looked as if he was getting a spot on the tip of his nose. Jamie pushed his nut porridge around his bowl as the hubbub of his fellow pages washed over his head.
They had had a great time playing in the water screw until after moon rise, eating pilfered cup cakes and sweet pies, sipping on cider until Henri had sent them all to bed.
Jamie yawned widely, he had been walking widdershins around the nursery with a cantankerous babe who refused to settle.
Rafe smiled greasily at him, his chubby cheeks smeared with butter, “I kissed Ammie,” he whispered.
Jamie grimaced, why would anyone want to kiss a girl – let alone Ammie?
Rafe’s greasy grin turned cat-supercilious.
Jim concentrated on shovelling cold porridge into his mouth, ignoring his friend.
“Today’s duties are as follows…” Henri, the head page, stood at the head of the trestle table.
The well-trained pages subsided, attentive, cheeky faces turned to the oldest page.
“Lord James is for the Queen.”
Davy Lash tutt-tutted loudly, and then turned as pale as grey, slime tossed snow as Jamie glared at him. The assignments passed as normal apart from Rafe. Jamie wondered at the omission. Rafe was usually sent to the scribe – they got on like a house on fire – both loved reading and sweets.
The boy sat straight in his chair.
“Your antics in the water screw did not go unnoticed. Who knew such a tub of lard could climb so high?”
The sniggers at Henri’s words rolled around the table.
“I’m just well covered. It’s to keep me warm.” Rafe basked in the laughter.
“Minister Illford asks that you attend him.”
You could have cut the air with a knife; the minister served the Queen in the hidden matters of the sinister left hand.
“The Royal Assassin?” Rafe squeaked.
“The Royal Assassin,” Henri confirmed.
“Oh….” Rafe set his buttered bread and jam back on the table. “Oh.”
“You best go wash your face and then see your Lord,” Henri said kindly.
Face blank with shock, only the butter giving him any colour, Rafe crept from the hall.
Jamie watched him with a heavy heart, he doubted he’d see his friend again.
“Dim!” Happy hands grabbed Jamie’s legs.
Jamie crouched down to the crawling baby’s level. “I’m attending Her Majesty; I cannot play with you, Blair.”
“Me Jim.” Blair grinned widely, showing his widely spaced baby teeth.
“No, I can’t.”
The door behind the young laird opened and the Queen in all her finery coasted into the antechamber.
“Blair, how did you get away from Nanny Pill?”
“Jim,” Blair simply responded. He tugged on Jamie’s stockings stretching the material. Face crumbled in concentration, hanging onto the fabric of Jamie’s tights, Blair hauled himself onto wobbly legs. He was ecstatic that he succeeded and it was glorious to see.
“Oh, was your Jamie here?” the Queen said conversationally.
“Your Majesty, I didn’t…”
“Hush, young Jamie. It’s to be expected that my son will seek you out.” Queen Naomi knelt in a swirl of blue velvet.
“Mammy.” Blair flung both arms around Jamie’s legs as he grinned at his mother.
“If I present you to Lord Pyper will you be a good little boy?”
Blair evidently considered her words, his brow furrowing.
“You’ll be good?” Queen Naomi prodded.
“Me Good,” Blair proclaimed.
“You’re always good, Darling. Good enough to eat.” She swooped her son into her arms. Blair chortled happily as she nuzzled his neck.
“Let’s present my favourite boy to Lord Pyper.” She stood.
“Your Majesty?” Jamie asked.
Queen Naomi glanced at her son who was now watching the page as if he was his whole world. Her expression deliberately segued into a happy smile. Jamie’s nascent sentinel senses tagged a sudden cooling in the Queen’s skin. He didn’t understand it, but the frigidness was mirrored in her eyes. The Queen suddenly smiled an absolutely radiant smile.
“No, Jamie. I think it best you wait outside and direct Lord Illford to my meeting chamber.” She turned abruptly and Blair was shielded from view, but Jamie likened that he felt Blair reach out.
“I have sweet jellies from the Hidden Lands,” Naomi told her son.
Sweeties were always the way to Blair’s heart.
‘The Queen – I think – doesn’t like me,’ Jamie thought sadly.
Rafe did drop off the edge of the citadel. Jamie never even got the chance to say goodbye. The page decided that he had dreamt that the Queen didn’t like him anymore, as the next day he was assigned to her side as usual.
He missed Rafe, his fellow page had a prankster’s heart and pulled him into many a scrape but he was fun to be around.
Jamie sighed deeply. The Queen was overseeing the Lords’ Court, both Highborn Lairds and the lowest oaknut picker came to hear the Queen’s judgement from high matters of state to the position of fencing. Three candlemarks of each day were devoted to the Lords’ Court. The Queen’s seneschal chose those who could have an audience with her majesty, but the last half candlemark was devoted to those who caught the Queen’s eye.
Jamie wasn’t too sure how she chose, but occasionally he felt the chime of a distant low bell tickling the hairs on the back of his neck and he wondered if Danu, the Earth Mother, spoke to her. The folk who spoke during the last part of the Lords’ Court always needed to be heard.
His role in the Queen’s court was to stand at Her Majesty’s side and look proud. The secretary and the seneschal dealt with any paperwork that arose. Jamie found it rather boring. His eyes wandered around the court dwelling on the standards of the grand houses hanging above his head. The house of d’Ellison was paramount. In the light draughts dancing in the rafters of the high ceiling, the standard unfurled and the embroidered Cat in the centre of the flag seemed to stalk this way and that as if watching over the house flags beneath.
Jamie grinned, he wouldn’t put it past his grandfather to have bespelled the flag to do just that.
A bang of the heavy oak doors slamming open against the stone walls of the hall broke Jamie’s absent musings. His mouth fell open as the Queen’s Sentinel, his grandfather, stalked down the centre of the hall. Silence fell in his wake.
The Queen’s Sentinel was a shining light of a man. His once blond hair had bleached to a stark white on the night of the Old King’s death. Coupled with an equally white pair of eyebrows and a face constructed of chiselled planes he was an altogether remote figure.
Ellis d’Ellison came to an abrupt halt at the Queen’s feet and dropped smoothly to his knees.
“Ellis.” The music of Naomi’s voice filled Jamie’s ears. “You need not bow.”
Smiling, she rose from her throne and gracefully joined her Sentinel on the marble floor.
“Lord Ellis,” she said formally, “to what do we owe this pleasure?” She enclosed Ellis’ hands in her tiny ones. With a subtle nudge they rose together to their feet, still hand in hand.
“I came to speak to you of your favourite page.”
“Jamie?” All eyes in the hall turned to the young page. He stood tall as a bright blush touched his cheeks.
“It is time for James to return home to à Bheallaich Donne. I have acquired tutors for him.”
Queen Naomi scowled. “My pages are taught most zealously.”
“He is of the Sentinel, he needs to learn the Arts,” Ellis countered.
“He is my favourite page.”
“As it should be.” Ellis appeared profoundly uncomfortable as he looked into the Queen’s clear eyes.
Neither looked away, locked in an unfathomable gaze, almost a fight of sorts, but over what they fought Jamie did not understand.
“It is Jamie’s decision,” the Queen announced loudly.
Jamie’s thoughts ran rampant. He had been at the castle citadel since his seventh birthday. Serving first the seneschal and then the Queen, in another year or so he would be the head page -- when Henri returned home to the Hidden Lands.
His attention turned – inevitably – to Prince Blair playing happily on the padded quilt beside the Queen’s throne. He had pulled off his booties and was examining his toes.
The prince needed him.
“James needs to be schooled in matters of Logic, of the Arts, of Mastery of Men…”
“He can learn those skills at the citadel.”
“Can he?” Ellis refuted.
No more standing around at the Queen’s side. No more running messages. No more getting caned by the Prime Minister for the smallest infraction.
“Page duties will take up the lion’s share of his time; all his hours need to be devoted to learning.”
“He is a child, it is an age before he becomes the Sentinel, assuming that he even will! His father stands between him and the Sentinel, he could be a father himself before he is called.”
“Who knows when the flame of time will gutter and die?”
“Have you had a premonition?” Naomi interrupted. Brusquely, she glowered at the court who were watching the tete á tete with open mouthed enjoyment. The meetings of the Queen and Queen’s Sentinel were always incendiary.
“Court is adjourned. Out!” Naomi directed with a sweep of her arm. “Out!”
She didn’t watch them dutifully file out. Blair looked up, finally disturbed from his toe contemplation. He toppled softly onto his side. Unconcerned, he gamely flopped over onto his stomach, tucked his knees under him and set off at a speedy crawl. Nanny Pill, sagging in the rocking chair by his side, snored on oblivious.
Jamie darted from his post and caught him before he tumbled headfirst off the throne plinth.
“Bright. Shiny.” Blair made grasping hands at Lord Ellis, reaching out as Jamie tucked him against his hip.
“Don’t play with it, Darling,” Queen Naomi said without looking as Blair seemed to grab something from the very air and clutch it against his chest.
Jamie carefully unfurled the pudgy fingers but his paw was empty.
“Gone.” Blair snatched, but missed whatever had caught his eye.
“I have dreamt nothing, my Queen.” Ellis was saying. “But I…”
“Feel?” Naomi supplied archly.
“Feel,” Ellis said begrudgingly, “that Jamie should come home.”
Queen Naomi wrenched her hand free from Ellis’ grip.
“You want your grandson back in your fold.”
“And that is a bad thing? I can teach him things that no other can know.”
“You should be teaching William.” Naomi’s voice had the ring of judgement.
“My son has chosen to travel, Naomi,” Ellis said deliberately. “I know not where or when he shall return. If the Goddess wants him to be Guardian, she hasn’t spoken of it to me.”
An unspoken question arched between them. Naomi slowly shook her head.
“Perhaps, Ellis, the missing piece of his soul that William searches for is outside Acharn.”
“Mayhap. His search may be paramount, but he isn’t here to learn.”
‘This is rather fascinating,’ Jamie thought breathlessly, but he didn’t know what they were talking about. He plucked Blair’s fingers from where they played with his embroidered badge.
“Leave it alone, Blair, or the seamstress will have my guts for garters.”
“Jamie, my boy?”
Jamie focussed immediately on his grandfather.
“Do you wish to return home to Ellis Donan to study with Kelson, Wolfe and myself as befitting a son of the Ellis Clan. Or do you wish to remain a page attending the Queen?”
“Oh, that isn’t fair.” Naomi batted her Sentinel’s shoulder and then stormed up the shallow stairs to the pedestal on which her throne sat. She flounced heavily onto the silk cushions. “You, sir, would never make a diplomat.”
“That is not my role.” Ellis’ lip quirked in a smile.
“Thank the Goddess.” Naomi beckoned Jamie closer.
Hesitantly, the young laird ventured to her side. Blair immediately leaned out of his arms, demanding that his mother take him.
Naomi settled sideways on her throne, cupping her son in the folds of her skirts.
“It is simple, James. I want you and your grandfather wants you. What do you want?”
“Oh,” Jamie was quite flummoxed.
“Yes?” Naomi prodded gently.
“My grandfather wishes to teach me things that are important,” Jamie said slowly. “And you, Your Majesty, wishes that I serve you. Might…might I better serve you if I learn what my grandfather wishes for me to learn?”
“Now, that is a diplomat.” Naomi pursed her lips and stared down her nose at them both.
“Your Majesty…” Jamie began concerned.
“No. No.” Naomi waved him into silence. “Your point is sound and well thought out. You have my leave to go.”
“Now, Your Majesty?” Jamie asked. ‘Straight away?’ He wasn’t ready.
“Perhaps it would be for the best.”
“But what about Blair?” Jamie demanded.
On hearing his name, Blair poked his head from under his mother’s skirts and yelled, “Peek a boo!”
Naomi’s chiming laugh echoed through the hall.
“My son will be safe.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Jamie said with something close to reproach.
“Grandson!” Ellis snapped.
But James was of the House of Ellison; he could and would speak his mind when he had to. “Nanny Pill is too old to look after the Prince. See--” He pointed at the old woman, who still slumbered in her rocking chair, “--she sleeps her days away.”
“Nanny Pill was old when she was my nanny.” Queen Naomi sighed. “She maybe getting on in years, but…”
“Please, Your Majesty, pension her off and assign a new nurse. She is getting old and--” Jamie felt such a heel, ”--getting confused. Please, My Lady, at the very least assign an under nanny to watch over the prince.”
Naomi peered suspiciously at the toothless crone. “Perhaps it is for the best.”
Jamie breathed a sigh of relief. “I think that you will be doing her a service.”
“It will be so; the trainee chatelaine is schooled in nursery matters.” Naomi turned her attention to other concerns. “So when will you go?” He question was directed at Ellis.
“A ship leaves from Aberwell on the morrow’s evening tide. We should leave before noon.”
“So soon?” Naomi looked to her son, snuggled comfortably on her lap. “You have only just got here.”
“The winter storms on the
“It is to be a bad winter?”
“Aye, as bad as the winter of your Grandmother’s Night Reign.”
“You’ve seen the signs?” Naomi asked unnecessarily.
“Well, then we have lots to do: people to inform; crops to harvest; alarums to be rang and food to
“I will spread the warning in the
Naomi turned her bright gaze to her page. “Perhaps it would be best if you go and pack. I look forward to seeing you again in my court.”
He was dismissed. His stomach clenched, this morning he had only contemplated serving the Queen and
Prince and avoiding the Prime Minister, and now he was to return home to learn at his Grandfather’s knee. He didn’t know which was preferable.
Jamie blinked. “Yes, Grandfather?”
“You have been dismissed, son.”
“Oh!” Jamie bowed deeply to his Queen and Prince. He was going. He was really going. Bowing once again, he backed slowly away to the next part of his life.