Once Upon a Time: Chronicles of Acharn.
filled with fond respect for Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm Brothers and a dollop of Terry Pratchett
The story came about simply because a little friend wanted a night time story…
Once upon a time a long, long time ago, the Chieftain of the Northern Lands faced down the evil Magician Brack with the help of his Sentinel. After aeons of oppression the people of the Land celebrated their deliverance by elevating their chief to King. The Sentinel stood by the King’s side and protected him as he sought to secure their new Land. Together no force of evil could defeat them. And the House of Sandburg ruled with honour and a caring hand with the assistance of the Sentinels of d’Ellison for a millennia.
Presenting His Royal Highness, Prince Blair
‘Blair was a very lonely little prince. Plenty of people wanted to be his friend but only because he was the prince and not because he was a nice person. When he grew up he was going to be king; and he knew that it would probably be worse then.’
Blair rubbed his nose with the cuff of his worn tunic. He snuggled further into his alcove with his book. The small nook was a perfect size for a small prince, and if he retreated to the right and to the back of the alcove by the loophole windows, it would take a man with a long arm to winkle him out.
His D’neirf kit, ‘Leya, cuddling close into this hip, purred. Absently, Blair scratched the kit’s ears. ‘Leya was his one true friend, a little jet-black catling. The D'neirf could almost be considered a kitten since she didn't seem to be growing up. It probably had something to so with the fact that there was only one family of D’neirf kits in the castle... inbreeding don't’cha know. His Royal Mother, Queen Naomi, said that the kits were a symbol of what happened when you married too close within the Royal Family -- that and your teeth dropping out.
burrowed further into his pile of cushions listening with half an ear for the
librarian, Seah, who had popped out of the library for a moment. He liked
books, especially the fantasy series about the strange warrior in the mythical
In honesty, Blair was the loneliest of princes, but he didn’t know enough to understand loneliness. All he knew was that there was something missing and he hadn’t found it in his books.
light cough interrupted him and Blair looked up into very icy blue eyes. He
stared up at the stalwart man through a veil of tumbled curls. Blair gnawed on
his thumbnail. His ever-so precise tutor had taught him the heraldry of the
"The librarian went to the privy," Blair said tremulously. "Seah will be back in a little while."
He stuck his nose back in his book and pretended to read until the big man went away.
He was such a little bookworm that he probably would have missed the attentions of a possible friend.
Pensive, Blair carefully stroked his kit’s ears. The young laird had retreated from the library, his eyes flashing glacial fire. Blair could not guess why the big man was angry. All he had said was that the librarian was away.
"What do you think, ‘Leya?" he asked the kit.
She batted her good eye as she essayed a shrug, her other eye had never quite worked properly.
Blair struggled to his feet, kit in one hand and massive tome in another. He was at a quandary. The library no longer seemed like a refuge – since big burly lairds could come in and interrupt him. They never normally came into the bastion of study. The morning sunlight shafting through the library’s stained glass windows beckoned. On tiptoes, he crept to the bookstack beneath, and then viewing the heights with trepidation, he set ‘Leya on the highest shelf he could reach. Painfully, he climbed up the stacks moving first kit then book until he reached the top.
Determined, he crawled across the stack, opened the small window and crept onto the garret. It was precarious. Heart in his mouth, he inched towards a flat piece of roof, partially protected by an overhang. The morning sun had warmed the corner to a comfortable temperature. ‘Leya mewled once and then settled down purring contentedly.
He was engrossed in his book – happily lost in the whimsical story of a Giant called Fi-Fie-Fum when he heard shouting. Carefully, so as not to damage his beloved book, he set it down.
Cross-legged, Blair viewed his domain. He could spy on the entire castle. It wasn’t the highest point in the castle. The turret towers afforded a better view, but he could see straight into the courtyard. The great hall and the kitchen windows were on the south and west walls. In the hall, through the windows, he could see the maids bustling through their day.
castle was a sprawling warren built over a thousand years. He knew from his
lessons that the castle sat atop of a mountain called Goodrich. The castle
stood sentinel, protecting the
The ladies were sunning themselves in the solar watching the young Lords practising armed combat in the central courtyard.
That must have been where the shouting came from.
Into their midst strode Laird Jamie.
Tiny squires scattered before him as he arrowed towards Lord Lash. His sword flashed in his hand promising murder.
Prince Blair’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t like Lord Lash; he was too proud of himself. He always wore the most fashionable of clothes and he liked to tease. And he was two-faced. Blair blushed; when he had been the most littlest of princes toddling in the great hall looking for his mummy, Lord Lash had caught him up in the folds of a smelly bag and locked him in the dungeons. He had eventually managed to crawl out of the bag. Scared and faced with the old spider bewebbed rack, he had wet himself.
Lord Lash got yelled at after the bodyguards had found him. But everyone had looked very disappointed when they realised that he had soiled his nappy.
A howl echoed off the castle walls. Laird Jamie stood over Lash who was coiled in a ball at his feet.
Blair was too far away to hear anything other than overtones of anger. Laird Jamie jabbed his sword at the prissily dressed Lash.
‘Wow,’ Blair thought. ‘The laird is big enough to pick on bullies.’
He didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
Blair crept forwards over the roof, trying to overhear. The tiles under his fingers were wet and slimy. The D’neirf kit at his side meowed a question.
"I just want to see what’s happening. I am the Prince, you know. I’m supposed to know what’s about. Well, that’s what the tutor says."
He crawled forwards another step.
It was inevitable.
With a single ‘eeeeeeeeeeeek’ he tumbled head over heels and over the edge of the roof.
Curiosity killed the cat
Scrabbling as if a kit he managed to grab the sharp edge of the gutter. He swung helplessly, unable to reach up and grip with his other hand.
There was a horrified shout from beneath him. Staring transfixed down between his little narrow feet he could see the palace militia looking up at him, horrified. For some weird reason Lord Lash held his sword point upwards.
Jamie growled at the man and smacked him over the head. Lash dropped to the ground poleaxed.
Frightened out of his wits, Blair froze. His fingers locked.
He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, he was so scared. The D’neirf kit meowed and batted his hand with a delicate talon. Then with an elegant sniff, ‘Leya turned and left.
He was abandoned. His heart sank to new depths. Nobody loved him.
Beneath him the guards ran backwards and forwards trying to figure out what to do. His Grace the Duke of Rafe ran into Sa’Leem Henri and they fell over each other squawking. Librarian Seah with the Duchess Michelle were fighting with an unwieldy ladder while the men were beside themselves.
There was an ominous creak and the gutter gave way.
Rock hard fingers wrapped around his wrist before he had fallen even a hairsbreadth. He was suspended, the wind whistling in his ears. With the kind of strength that bordered on the supernatural, he was hauled upwards. Dangling by one arm he stared into the concerned blue eyes of Laird Jamie. A slow, devastating smile crossed the laird’s face. Timorously, Blair smiled back at his saviour.
‘Leya was perched on the top of Jamie’s head, clinging to his ears with needle sharp claws. She looked very satisfied with herself.
"I’ve got you and I won’t let you go," Jamie promised.
Strong arms held him against the expanse of a broad chest. Prince Blair lay, quiescent, as the laird made his way back over the roof. He was tucked in the fold of plaid over the laird’s chest, safe and secure as Jamie made his way, sure-footed, over the rooftops.
Jamie crouched down next to the library window. "Here he is…"
Blair didn’t protest as he was passed through the window into the waiting arms of the librarian. Her soft curly hair smelled sweet against his cheek as she held him. But it was for just a moment and then he was passed down into the care of the physician.
The physician didn’t give him a cuddle. She set him on the library table and then shook her finger under his nose.
"Did you hurt yourself?"
Meekly, Blair held up his hand showing her a scrape.
"Poor thing." Cynthia Louise patted his face and neck and ran her fingers down his arms. He had another scrape on his knee.
Blair submitted to her poking and prodding.
"He’s fine," Cindy announced to the throng of people staring at them. "Nothing that a bath and a good night’s sleep won’t cure. Where’s his nursemaid?"
"I’ll take him," Duchess Michelle said. She was one of Queen Naomi’s ladies-in-waiting. She normally looked after his mama. "When the bodyguard saw his Highness in danger, one guard went looking for Lady Cassandra. Cassie turned out to be asleep in her bed, when she should have been watching his Highness. She had been drinking."
Everyone oooohed in mannerly dismay. Rafe said something behind his hand to Sa’Leem Henri, who nodded wisely.
‘Leya, sitting on top of one of the stacks, meowed as she licked her paws with a forked tongue. For some peculiar reason she looked very pleased with herself.
Everyone sitting comfortably? So where were we? Why was Cassie being so nasty to the young prince? Would you be scared in a castle where Lash lived? Questions, questions, questions.
Prince Blair sat waist deep in warm soapy water. He grabbed a handful of bubbles and blew. Perfect spheres floated through the air. One touched the Duchess Michelle’s hair and disappeared in a sparkle.
Cassie always gave him cold baths. Warm baths were much more fun.
Duchess Michelle knelt beside the bath and rubbed a soapy flannel over his face.
"Your mama’s in conference with his majesty, the Wizard Sultan Simon Siddiq’Banks."
"Oh." Blair let the bubbles fall back in the water. "Will she be finished soon?"
"Soon," Michelle soothed. She dropped a kiss on his head, just like mama.
The D’neirf perched on the edge of the bath, reached down and patted the water. Her face screwed up and she jumped off the bath and disappeared.
"‘Leya!" Blair howled but she was out of the door and away.
"Shush." Michelle stroked his cheek. "Cats don’t like water. She’ll be back."
"Milady?" An unfamiliar voice called from the other room. "The Queen requires your presence."
"One moment, Maya. I’m seeing to Prince Blair."
Blair wiggled a wet, soapy, slippery ball as the duchess lifted him out of the bath. She set him down on a fur in front of the glowing log fire. He laughed as she tickled him with a soft towel.
"You’re much nicer than Cassie," he said as she dried his curls.
"Why’s that?" Her Grace asked as she knelt beside him.
"Cassie wasn’t nice," Blair said with typical childlike non-explanation.
"Your Grace, the Queen insisted. She wants you to ‘read’ his Majesty Siddiq’Banks."
Lady Michelle rubbed him dry briskly and then directed him to sit on the footstool beside the fire. The poultice that she smeared on his cut knee and hand smelled of milt and spiders’ webs. She carefully wrapped both in white cloths.
"Time for bed."
"NO!" Blair objected. It was not time for bed; even if he had had an exciting day. "’Leya’s not here."
"Your Grace!" Maya sounded upset.
"Tell her majesty that I will be there as soon as I settle her son. It will have no impact on when I read the Wizard Sultan – assuming that I can. The treaty will not be signed until tomorrow."
She wrestled him into new soft, footed pyjamas, picked him up, bracing him against one hip and then carried him to his suite.
Gather around the campfire and cuddle up close. Are you listening? Well, if you remember, the evil Cassie had been ousted and Blair was safe and warm with a new caregiver. But who or what is responsible for this horrible state of affairs...?
The Story continues….
Blair bounced on the bed. He looked up through curling lashes at his new nurse. He essayed another little bounce.
The Lady Michelle’s eyebrow rose and a smile skipped across her lips. She squashed it.
"Bedtime, Prince Blair."
"D’neirf’s not here. Can’t sleep. Simply, can’t sleep. No ‘Leya. Sad turn of affairs." He sighed dramatically.
The Duchess pulled back the covers. Reluctantly, Blair crawled over the quilt.
"Oh, by The Sentinel!" the Duchess blasphemed. "You cannot sleep in this bed!"
Blair was plucked from the grimy blankets, braced once more against her hip. He looked down at the bed, trying to see what had upset her. Her hand was clasped over his eyes and he was carried from the room.
"What’s the matter?" he asked plaintively.
She set him down on his feet outside in the corridor. The cold stones bit his toes. The duchess looked annoyed but almost hurt; what was the matter?
"My Lady, what is the problem?"
Both prince and duchess turned to see Laird Jamie striding down the corridor. His hand rested casually against his sword hilt.
"James, my boy, will you look after the prince? I need to speak with the Queen."
Blair allowed himself to be picked up and passed over to the tall Lord. The warrior held him easily with one arm beneath his legs, keeping his other hand free. Blair fingered the gay plaid wrapped around the Lord’s shoulders. A bright brooch caught his eye. The wolf motif was beautifully wrought from a juniper’s horn.
"What is the problem?"
"Prince Blair’s had his bath – he just needs to sleep in another room." She stared at him pointedly.
Confused, Jamie nodded. Seeing his acquiescence, she briskly bounded down the corridor, holding her skirts high (displaying her ankles – shock horror). With a frantic skip step, she turned down another corridor and was out of sight.
Jamie shrugged, moving Blair. He had never been part of a shrug before; he liked it.
"What happened?" the laird ventured.
Blair shrugged and was disappointed when the laird didn’t move.
The warrior cast a, quite frankly, curious look into the room….
"If I put you down, could you just stand here for a moment?" Jamie crouched, setting him on the floor.
Blair said at his beguiling best. Projecting utter innocence, he clasped his
hands behind his back and stared into the crouching laird’s eyes. The warrior’s
eyes were a blinding blue like the glacial lakes in the
Incredibly, the laird fell for it.
Blair crept behind him back into his bedchamber. The four poster bed was hidden behind the royal purple drapes. Laird Jamie had his sword out. Blair’s soft footie pyjamas made no noise. He kept his hands clasped over his mouth, holding his breath.
Jamie moved forward with cat-like precision. Gingerly, he pushed back the blankets with the point of his sword.
Jamie leapt backwards, barely missing the prince.
"What? What? What is it?" Blair said eagerly.
"How did you do that?" Jamie demanded. "I should have heard you."
Blair blinked, confused by the question.
The laird scooped him up, and swung him over one shoulder. Blair got a clear view of the bed from his perch as they bolted from the room.
It looked like a large black spider’s web.
They ran pell-mell down the corridor. Maya squealed and fell back into the privy as they pushed by her. Blair could hear her yelling very long, convoluted words long after they should have been out of earshot.
Indefatigable, Jamie dashed up a spiral staircase, taking the stairs three at a time. A door swung open before them and then slammed shut a hairsbreadth behind them as they slipped through.
Blair was dumped on the spartan bed in the corner. It was so hard he didn’t even bounce once.
"Lock the door!"
Blair watched fascinated as the key turned in the lock of its own accord.
There was a whisper of an answer that Blair didn’t catch. He listened with all his heart and soul and heard…
Jamie was breathing harshly and there were bright pink spots high on his cheekbones. And he was standing very, very still.
"What’s wrong?" Blair asked, very quietly. He clambered off the bed and stopped beside the deathly still laird. He was staring away into the faerie lands. Blair patted his protector’s hand, but he remained stock-still.
::He’s in the Goddess’ hand:: came the whisper.
"I don’t understand." He looked around for the source of the voice. "Are you a ghost?"
"What’s it like being a ghost?"
::JIM:: The spirit directed his attention back to the frozen warrior.
Blair reached up and rubbed the laird’s stomach. There was no response. "Is he poorly?"
::The Goddess has taken him away to soothe his hurts. You can bring him back::
"What’s hurt?" Blair said practically.
::His ears. He listens too hard::
Blair mulled over that for a heartbeat. Then his practical nature at the fore, he pulled across the only chair in the room to the young laird’s side. He stood on it, reached up and clasped his hands over the warrior’s hurting ears.
"I had earache once," Blair said conversationally. "Mama gave me a cuddle. She put warm oil in my ear. Do you have any oil? Should I give him a cuddle?"
::Talk to him::
"But I’ve got my hands over his ears," he said logically.
::Talk to him the same way you’re talking to me::
::HIYA:: Blair thought loudly.
A pain filled shudder passed along the laird’s long frame.
::Hullo:: he modulated his ‘voice’. ::Can you hear me?::
"Whrrr?" the laird breathed.
::You ran away? Why did you run away? Why are we here?:: Despite his best attempts he couldn’t help a tiny whine.
"Ssshhhh." The warrior focused on him immediately. His pale blue eyes softened.
Blair pulled his hands down and nibbled on his thumbnail, waiting for the laird to speak.
Since he was standing on the chair, Jamie didn’t have to crouch to look at him. It was nice the way that Jamie looked at him when he talked to him.
"You’re safe here. I’ll protect you and Becky will help."
An ethereal kiss touched his cheek.
Jamie picked him up and set him on the edge of the hard bed. He watched as the laird pulled back the old, soft sheets.
"Ups a daisy." Jamie smiled.
Obediently, Blair climbed in. He allowed the big warrior to tuck in the blankets.
"Why?" Blair twisted his fingers through the laird’s jerkin and gripped. "Why are you scared? Why is it bad? What’s the matter?"
"NO," Blair said defiantly.
Reluctantly, Jamie settled beside the bed, still allowing Blair to hold onto the sleeve.
"Sometimes people want to hurt princes."
"Like the elves?" Blair questioned.
"Elves? Elves don’t hurt people. They’re step beyond and to the left. Might tease, might be hard to understand…" Jamie shrugged, confused.
"Bad elves?" Blair clarified.
Blair nodded eagerly.
"Who told you about the DhuSidhe? The Bad Elves," Jamie clarified.
‘Oh, dear.’ Blair curled up in a ball. Cassie had told him never to tell mama about the stories. Did that include big warriors?
"Blair? Your Highness?" The soft entreaty made him uncurl.
"Cassie made me promise! She said I shouldn’t tell. She said bad things would happen!"
Jamie went as white as a sheet. His eyes narrowed. There was dark cloud of fury hanging over his head. Blair watched it seethe with wide scared eyes.
"No, no, no," Jamie responded instantly. "I’m not annoyed at you. I’m annoyed at Cassie."
Jamie’s teeth ground together audibly in the tiny chamber.
"Blair." With a single finger, Jamie gently touched his chin and lifted until their eyes met. "Cassie was bad. She shouldn’t have told you scary stories. You don’t do that to little boys…"
"I’m almost six!" Blair pouted.
Jamie nodded and the dark cloud lightened.
"There are certain things you don’t do until you’re old enough. I haven’t been told the keywords to the d’Ellison’s archives – I’m not old enough." Jamie thumped his chest. "When I’m twenty one, my father will pass on the magic that Grandfather Ellis passed to him when he was twenty one. If I was given the keywords now, it could be very dangerous. My father has the responsibility not to tell me the keywords no matter how much he wants to give up their weight. For Cassie to tell you about the DhuSidhe meant that she disavowed her responsibilities. And that means that she was bad."
That was a lot to think about, Blair reflected pensively. Robyn said that he was cleverer than the humans would guess, and all they would see was a little boy.
"Robyn said that Cassie was rotten. I told the bodyguard but he laughed. Cassie spanked me."
"Robyn?" Jamie’s brow furrowed as tried to remember the names of the castle maids and other staff.
"The oak in the courtyard," Blair supplied.
"You talk to trees?" Jamie said incredulously.
"Nobody believes," Blair said petulantly. "I *talked* to you."
Ooooh, the plot thickens. Who set the Veb in the prince’s bed? Why did Cassie tell Prince Blair nasty stories? Well, if you all snuggle down and listen I will continue the story…
Presenting Lord James, Laird Jamie of the Ellison Clan
Tutors from far flung corners of the lands outside the fealty of Queen Naomi had taught him such diverse topics as astronomy to the physicians’ doctrines. He had little inclination to learn the arcane and mystical, but he had achieved a measure of competence, otherwise he would not be a d’Ellison.
He had been twelve years old when the Queen had gifted the Land with an heir. At the time, page in her service, he had watched over the royal crib while she had dealt with affairs of state. Nanny Pill, the royal nurse, had been getting on in years, and had been essentially useless.
With her cackling advice he had learnt to change breech cloths, soothe greeting babies and, when the prince had started to toddle, develop eyes in the back of his head. Watching over his younger brother had not prepared him for looking after an active toddler with the curiosity of a bag full of kittens.
Then Lord Ellis had called him back to the estate to continue training under his vigilant eye. He had no qualms about speaking to the Queen on the eve of his departure. Informing her majesty of the borderline senility of the young prince’s royal nurse had been a necessity, since he was leaving. The Queen had been beside herself, retiring the nurse and assigning the trainee chatelaine, Cassandra, to care for the prince. The laird had left for home without a backward glance.
His Lord had decreed that he should return to court and learn politics at the heart of the Land after his eighteenth birthday. Dutifully, he had obeyed. Members of the court flocked to his side, drawn to his confidence and prospects. They meant little to him. They didn’t want him, they only wanted pieces of him.
The young prince didn’t remember him. In fact trying to get a word out of the prince was a bit like trying to get blood from a stone. The only thing that the prince talked to was the warped little D’neirf kit, ‘Leya. How the prince had found and been adopted by one of the habitually secretive kits was a mystery. That the crown prince was a repressed mouse was disturbing, more so was the fact that this was unremarked upon. The Queen had been distant since he had returned from the highlands. When the Wizard Sultan arrived, she had practically entered solitude. A few of the wags in court had spoken about the uncommon amount of time the two rulers had spent together.
There was something amiss in the court. His nascent gifts made his skin crawl as if spiders walked over his skin. When he reached his prime, he would be initiated into the Sect of the Sentinel. That was three years hence. Three years before he would take on the mantle of The Sentinel, protectors of the lands of Acharn. As ancestral protectors of the kingdom it was the d’Ellisons’ responsibility to get to the root of the evil hanging like a sword of Damocles over the Queen and, of course, the Prince. Most disturbing was that his father, William, and his Grandfather, Ellis, had not returned to court. If something threatened the Land they should have been aware of the menace.
Troubled, he had taken to walking the corridors at night and interrogating the servants at every opportunity. On one hand he was sure that there was evil afoot, on the other he knew that if the Queen, and by default the Land, was in danger, the d’Ellisons should have descended on the court. Their very absence meant that there was no threat. His senses told him otherwise. And the conflict disturbed him.
Everyone comfortable? If you remember Jamie had rescued the prince from something horrible – even though he really shouldn’t have gone into the room... But I digress... The boys had ran pell-mell to the Laird Jamie’s strangely spartan room.
Now the laird sat beside the young prince trying to soothe the child when he felt little more than a child himself.
Blair’s truculent pout, verging on the edge of tears, touched his quick.
"I believe you." He did, he didn’t understand but he believed the young prince.
The glistening eyes brightened. Blair shifted on the bed. "Robyn is very wise. She tells me lots of stuff. Maybe she’ll know what the black thingy was?"
"In my bed."
The blood turned to ice water in his veins. The Veb had terrified him, and he had run like a rabbit. At least he had protected his charge. A Veb – he had believed that the art of creating the blood curse had been lost when the Mage Brack had died a thousand years past.
"Why were you scared?" The innocent question emasculated him.
"I wasn’t scared," Jamie said tightly. "They make you sick if you get too close to them."
"Oh," somehow the child put a wealth of meaning into that single utterance.
"The duchess told me to look after you. It is my duty to protect you. To stay near a Veb would have meant that I would have failed my duty."
"Oh." Blair cocked his head to the side and peered up at him through a veil of tumbled curls.
"Stop that!" Jamie said indignantly.
An incredible grin crossed the prince’s face. All teeth and gums, there was a luminosity in the smile that he hadn’t seen in the weeks since he returned. The child had smiled like that when he had been a toddler, getting into new things, teasing the cats and playing in the armoury with the model siege engines.
"JIM!" Blair shrieked.
Blair stood up and planted his chubby hands on Jamie’s lightly stubbled cheeks. The prince leaned forwards until their foreheads almost touched. The dark blue eyes scrutinised his face. Memories flared in the little round face.
"You’re Jim!" The voice turned soft and hurt. "You went away."
"My grandfather wanted me to go home." Arrogance warred with discipline and bowed to truth. Thirteen year old heirs weren’t supposed to nanny baby princes, even when the heirs’ grandfathers taught them duty and honour at the knee. A portion of his soul railed against his grandfather’s order to return, knowing that his place was at Blair’s side, another portion had enjoyed returning to the classroom and the company of his peers.
"You left me with Cassie," came the accusation.
"I didn’t know," Jim whispered.
Blair released him, and folded back onto the bed. "I want ‘Leya." He turned to face the wall.
"I’m sorry." He said to the hunched back. Tentatively, he reached out. The prince shrugged away from his touch. Carefully, he gripped a tense shoulder and drew Blair onto his back. Tears streaked unchecked from the corners of the prince’s eyes, flowing into the hair at his temples.
"I’m sorry." Jim pulled the resisting body into his embrace. The child’s fists drummed against his chest. The laird allowed the abuse. Blair sobbed wildly – heartfelt, soul destroying sobs. The thumps became gradually weaker as the prince exhausted himself. A final wail heralded his collapse against the neophyte sentinel’s chest.
"You went away," Blair whispered.
"Shush." Jim stroked the prince’s hair. Hot tears soaked his tabard. Slowly, the cold and tense body warmed. Snuffling softly, Blair fell asleep, pillowed on his shoulder.
A soft knock interrupted his reflections. Carefully, Jim settled the child on the bed. Blair murmured fitfully and then snuggled down. Cat soft, Jim padded to the door, drawing his sword with a silent whisper.
"Becky?" he hissed.
He felt a cold breath of wind pass his cheek and ooze through the door.
"Eeeek." Rafe’s distinctive accent identified him. "Someone pinched my bum!" He sounded very affronted.
Smiling, Jim threw open the doorway. Unnerved, Rafe was on his tiptoes scanning the staircase for his attacker. Sa’Leem Henri had draped himself decoratively over the banister watched his antics with a superior, knowing smile. Henri put on airs and graces as he had a few years on Jamie, those seven years brought maturity, he proclaimed.
"Greetings." Henri performed a sweeping bow. "The small prince is in your care?"
Jamie nodded into the chamber, but did not step away from the doorway.
"The duchess said that you were looking after the prince. Inshalla. She said to tell you that the webs had been severed." Henri shrugged, apparently unaware of the ramifications of the message, and unconcerned. The laird saw through his façade. As adjutant to the Wizard Sultan, the heir to d’Ellison knew that the same tutors had taught them. One did not survive the lessons of Kelson and Wolfe without learning; they would have taken it as a personal affront. During his lessons, Kelson and Wolfe had often held up Henri’s expertise in the mystical arts, conversing with low elementals or high elementals and command of alchemy as an example for Jamie to attain.
"And?" Jim drawled. His sword tip bobbed with an easy, snake-like rhythm.
"New rooms have been set up for the prince. You are to take him to the Rose Suite."
Rooms hereto reserved for the prince when he came of age. They had been King Bran of the House of Sandburg’s personal quarters before his death. They stood in the heart of the castle. Bespelled and protected by enchantment they provided a formidable refuge. The inner court was taking the threat to the prince seriously.
"So be it."
Trusting Henri with his life, Jim turned his back and re-entered his quiet, stark, peaceful room. His small sojourn was over, he would have to take his place at the prince’s side before he reached the age of consent – at least until his father arrived.
The child was deeply and profoundly asleep. Jim lifted his charge, holding his sleep-limp body against his chest. Blair’s head rolled neatly into the crook between Jamie’s shoulder and neck – warm, moist breath brushed his skin. An involuntary smile touched Jim’s lips.
"He’ll get cold," Henri said, concerned. He was such a sop.
Jim endured as the Sa’Leem tucked a worn blanket around the prince’s shoulders.
"How do you expect me to use my sword?" the laird said practically.
"That’s what we’re here for." Rafe spun his assassin’s blade in the air. Little would get by the Duke of Rafe.
Rafe sauntered down the corridor, swinging his hips. His stiletto danced across his fingers, gleaming in the guttering torch light. A dashing figure, swathed in black velvet, he was an assassin of the finest pedigree. His crushed velvet jodhpurs moved seamlessly into his black suede thigh boots. His tabard of finest velvet was scrolled with black embroidery. Many seamstresses had been driven insane to sew the intricate stitches. The ruff at his throat was dagger silk. He was an artist’s vision.
"Rafe?" Henri, keeping watch at Jamie’s back, spoke.
"Yes, Sa’Leem?" The assassin scanned the corridor.
They passed through three guarded doors into the private suite of rooms. A balcony in the bedchamber overlooked an arboretum. The inner garden was a peaceful place. It drew the nascent sentinel, still holding his charge, to the sugar glass window. A cherry tree, heavy with pollen, filled the air with its scent. Elaborate patterns were combed in the sand beneath the central tree.
"James?" Rafe whispered softly.
The laird smiled as the deadly assassin opened the drapes surrounding Blair’s new four poster bed. Rafe, Duke of Rafe, assassin to the council of Acharn, fluffed up the pillows and pulled back the quilt. He patted the clean sheets enticingly.
Henri prowled around the room, his scimitar poking into wardrobes and beneath the bed. Eventually he withdrew to the far corner of the room and sheathed his weapon. Crossing his arms he made like some kind of exotic statue, his silk caftans flowing against his trews.
"And he calls me a poser," Rafe muttered.
"I heard that, Bertram," Henri said mockingly.
Jamie managed to twist off the worn blanket, allowing it to fall to the floor. Prince Blair was a dead weight on his shoulder. Only his chest moved as he breathed deeply and rhythmically. Practised, Jamie shifted him into his arms, supporting his head. The child mumbled, flinging an arm against the laird.
"Feck!" Rafe swore. He yanked the quilt back further.
Jamie saw a streak of black. Moving without thinking, he somersaulted backwards, tucking and rolling with the prince clasped firmly in his arms. The Sa'Leem flowed across the floor, standing between the laird and the bed. His curved sword carved elaborate patterns in the air, part magic and part defence.
As sinuous as a snake, Rafe pursued the flash of black. He flowed over the mattress, daggers poised. Lithely, he dropped onto his stomach and slithered beneath the bed.
Swear words echoed from under the bed.
Blair mumbled and awoke. He pushed sleepily against the laird’s neck as he stretched.
"’Leya?" he grumbled.
Rafe erupted from beneath the bed, missing a black tail by a fraction. Almost faster than the eye could see, the black shape streaked by Henri, avoiding the downward stroke of his sword with a taunting hiss.
The D’neirf launched itself into its pet’s arms.
"’Leya!" Blair squealed, rocking and hugging and squeezing his companion. Sighing deeply, Jamie found his feet and stood, lifting both Blair and the kit.
"Some assassin," Henri said teasingly as he helped Rafe to his feet.
"I saw a black thing move – what did you expect me to do?" Rafe defended himself.
Blair was wide awake, regarding him with inquisitive eyes. He twisted in Jamie’s arms, demanding to look around. Jamie kept a firm grip. The kit leaped from the prince’s arms onto the bed. Its tail held high it padded over the bed, sniffing. Once it had completed a circuit it settled on one of the pillows curling up into an impossibly tight ball. The D’neirf exuded utter superiority.
"Down?" Blair requested.
"Bed," Jamie responded.
Blair’s face screwed up. Before he could protest the laird dropped him in the centre of the quilts. The child looked up at him sullenly.
"Not tired," he whinged truculently. The way he rubbed his eye with clenched fist, said that he was telling an untruth.
"Not tired?" Henri plumped himself down beside the prince. "But you’ve had such a long day. You were on the roof and you hung on the gutter like an acrobat." The Sa’Leem touched the light bandage protecting his scraped palm. "Then you went on an adventure with a sentinel – all the way up to his eyrie."
Henri now had the child’s complete attention.
"Oh, you didn’t know that Big Jamie here is a sentinel? Well, he will be when he grows up. He’ll be able to see better than an eagle, scent prey like a wolf, have hearing to listen to a seamstress’ pin drop at the other side of the castle, taste poisons floating in the air and detect the finest weaves by a simple touch."
James William Forest d’Ellison heir to the House of Ellison rolled his eyes heavenward.
"If you lie back I’ll tell you a story," Henri bargained.
The prince weighed his options, perceptive in the face of Henri, Rafe and the laird standing over him, he settled for the story.
Jamie set himself next to the balcony windows and half listened to the improbable story about a sentinel and a dragon who breathed chocolate fudge sauce. The young prince seemed to be enjoying it, seemed because Jim was pretty sure that whatever anyone saw in the prince was exactly what the prince wanted them to see. Where the five year old had learnt such manipulation was a mystery, although Jim put the blame firmly in Cassie’s lap. Being opaque to that degree implied a certain level of intelligence that was rather scary in a child. Even now, although Blair seemed entranced, he had not clambered onto the knee that Henri so blatantly offered. Instead he settled back on the mound of pillows, his arms wrapped around ‘Leya so that the kit was impossibly squished. Despite the abuse, the D’neirf wasn’t complaining. She should have rendered his skin with her sharp claws. Jim’s ears attested to how sharp those claws were.
If Jim could convince Henri that evil was afoot, then Rafe would follow just to make sure that he wasn’t missing anything. With both the Sa’Leem wielding his mystical abilities and the assassin’s stylish method of dealing out mayhem, Jim was pretty sure that he would be able to get to the bottom of the mystery. Or maybe he could convince the pair to watch over the prince while he investigated? It was his mystery after all, wasn’t it – he ought to find the evil doers?
"Finally," Henri exhaled.
Blair slept with the utter relaxation that only the very young could display. Head tucked down, he melded into the pillows. His grip on the kit had loosened. Unwisely, Henri reached down to remove the D’neirf.
"OW!" A narrow line of red rose on the back of his hand.
The kit licked its talon with a forked tongue.
"By the Goddess," Rafe exclaimed, flapping his wrist foppishly. "Do you *have* a death wish? The damn thing will take your head off, as soon as look at it."
"So what next?" Henri rubbed his hands together ignoring the scratch.
"Next?" Jim echoed.
"Yes. What is our plan of attack?"
"Uhm," Jim muttered intelligently.
"I assume you have one. You’ve been trained in strategy." Rafe balanced his weight on one hip and crossed his arms, posing.
Jim refused to react to the blatant body language. Rafe was in a snit because he hadn’t caught the D’neirf.
Henri raised a finger.
"We," Jim amended, "go and talk to the Duchess. She found the Veb. I assume that she dealt with it when she returned to Blair’s rooms with the required paraphernalia. She might have an idea who set it."
"We should also find out everything that we can about the woman Cassie," Henri added.
"Why?" Rafe’s voice whined.
"Good point, Sa’Leem. Why, Bertram?" Jim focussed on his peer. "Because I think that she had an agenda that involved corrupting the prince in the long term."
"Intriguing." Henri turned to look at the innocent figure sprawled over the pillows. The D’neirf stared back at him, daring them to come any closer.
"What do you mean?" Rafe’s stiletto was now dancing over his knuckles, as he pretended to be upset.
"If she hated her position as Royal Nanny she could have easily delegated her duties to a junior nanny and simply managed the Royal Nursery. Yet, she didn’t and based on what Blair has told me, and what I’ve seen since I returned to court, she did not like her charge. In addition," Jim was in his element, controlling the situation, "she’s been deliberately telling him nasty stories, stories that gave him nightmares and stories he’d been told not to tell anyone about."
"Black tales?" Henri queried. He was still staring at the prince.
"We should talk to her," Rafe offered. "I know that she has been dismissed from service to the crown. But surely she can’t have gone far?"
"Good idea. You, Rafe, talk to her, play with your stilettos while you do it." Jamie bared his teeth.
"Hmmm." Henri moved back to the bed. The kit rose, its back arched, hair spiking. "I’m not going to hurt him."
‘Leya simply spat.
"I promise. You may sit on my shoulder while I cast the enchantment and then you can inflict… grievous bodily harm if I do anything against the prince."
The kit seemed to consider the option, then with claws extended she ran up his silk robes. She paused a moment at his thickset waist hissing derisively, and then continued her pin sharp way up to his shoulder. Talons extended, she settled comfortably. Tears welled in the Sa’Leem’s eyes.
"Remind me never to do that again."
"All right," Rafe’s voice smiled.
"What *are* you going to do?" Ellison gritted out.
"I’m going to see if the darkness has claimed his soul."
Henri gestured and the room’s oil lamps darkened. He brought his other hand up, curled as if around a ball. Head bowed he began to chant. The D’neirf sat on his shoulder as still as a statue. The laird followed the spell, he knew it, but he could not wield it with the grace that the Sa’Leem was displaying.
A crystal white light shimmered over Blair’s body. Jim watched entranced as it coalesced over his heart. The ball of white flame expanded into an ethereal figure. The androgynous form wavered and then changed, wrapping itself in a cowled robe. Long, shoulder length curls framed a pointy face. It was difficult to judge any colouring since the figure was translucent. But warm cerulean eyes watched them. The laird recognised those eyes.
Henri aborted an automatic bow, curtailed by a sharp claw settling on his ear.
"Greetings, My Lady," Henri intoned.
"Eh? Who is it?" Rafe muttered.
"It is the Earth Mother," Henri said quietly before Jim could speak.
"But it’s a *boy*, isn’t it?" Rafe asked befuddled.
"But it’s Blair, sort of?" Jim was frankly confused, he thought that the spell was supposed to bring forth a representation of the child’s soul.
"Everyone has a feminine and a masculine side. It’s not always so obvious. But the King is tied to the Land in ways that we can’t understand. Naomi would have offered his afterbirth to the Earth on the day that he was born. The Earth recognises him."
"Surely it’s a good sign that she’s made an appearance. She’s hardly going to appear if he’s been corrupted," Rafe said winsomely.
The form wavered again, filling out subtly and growing a few inches. Between one blink and another the narrow face was defined by a goatee. The hair took on a lustrous sheen reflecting the low lights in a myriad of browns, honeys and chestnut. The robes glowed richly. This was a magician of the highest calibre. Winds caressed the form, tossing the hair aside as if a thousand air sprites played. Air elementals paid homage to the man. A storm wizard.
‘That pointy beard looks positively machiavellian,’ Jim thought.
Henri gasped; the representations weren’t supposed to speak.
Jim stepped forwards, literally and figuratively. "We called you forth to see if the child has been affected by the machinations of Lady Cassandra Wells."
The storm wizard looked down and his face softened. The sharp chin melded into a more blocky visage and the beard whispered away. The curls shortened, gaining life and energy. The very image of the late King Sandburg smiled paternally at his younger self.
*Nothing that the love of a good friend can’t cure*
The old king changed into a younger more elfin version. The androgynous form played just beneath the skin. Abruptly it froze and raising an arm threateningly, it intoned,
The white light flared and in its place stood the young prince. Still dressed in his purple footie pyjamas, he floated above his recumbent body. His thumb crept into his mouth, slowly he curled sideways and drifted down to join his body.
The threesome stared, stunned into silence as Blair slept the sleep of the innocent.
"Er, so, like, what did that mean?" Rafe volunteered to break the hush.
"That did not work the way it was supposed to," Henri said indignantly.
"’Nothing that the love of a good friend can’t cure’," Jim said getting straight to the crux of the matter. "So Cassie has hurt our prince’s soul. Bitch."
"Yes, but he has not been turned to the darkside." Henri kept one eye firmly on the D’neirf, still sitting with feline superiority on his shoulder. She rested a sheathed paw on his ear.
"We’ll just have to make sure that the evil ones don’t get their claws on him," Jim growled.
"I don’t think that it’s that simple," Henri said wisely. "The seeds have been planted. We have to make sure that they don’t grow in fertile ground."
"Very profound," Rafe snipped, tossing his ponytail over his shoulder. "What the feck’s that supposed to mean?"
"I prescribe doses of tender, loving care."
"Oh." A blush touched Jim’s ears. "Who?"
Henri’s face screwed up in concentration. "His mama would be the obvious choice. But she’s busy being mother to the kingdom."
"Surely this is more important," Rafe objected.
Henri’s eyes darted this way and that, before he spoke treason. "I would have thought so. But who are we, as mere serfs to our respective monarchs, to understand their responsibilities? The Wizard Sultan rarely sleeps and has little time to spend with his son, Daryl."
"The Duchess? She’s very nice?" Rafe smiled widely.
"I think..." Jim began. "I think... that I... No... Yes, the Duchess is a very good idea. I think that she has taken him under her wing." Stumbling to a halt, he gazed at the sleeping boy.
"Yes, let’s go and talk to the Duchess." Henri stalked towards the doorway, muttering under his breath. Jim should have been able to hear, but he wasn’t listening.
"We can tell her," Rafe caught up with the Wizard Sultan’s adjutant, "not to let him grow a beard when he gets older. It does absolutely nothing for him."
Gather around the campfire. So more nastiness is afoot. But we’ve met some new heroes: the Assassin Rafe and the Adjutant to the Wizard Sultan, Henri. And we still haven’t found out what Cassie’s evil plan was. But more importantly, where is Blair’s mama?
Blair finds a new niche
Blair awoke in an amazingly big bed. The D’neirf was asleep on the pillow next to his head so everything was fine. He pushed back the quilt and sat up. The early morning sunlight shafting through the balcony windows had woken him.
The bed was gianormous. The quilt, properly covered in Royal purple, felt like a cloud. The sheets were crisp and embroidered at the edges was the same royal crest that adorned his pyjamas. Cassie had never let him wear the proper pyjamas because he was naughty.
‘Leya opened her good eye and yawned at him.
"Look!" Blair caught the kit up in his arms and showed her the rest of the room. There were eight windows leading to the balcony, which was covered with flowering vines. The velvet drapes on either side of the windows reached the floor. There was a massive fireplace, filled with pot plants in the summer rather than glowing flames. Warriors were carved into the fireplace stone. On top of the mantelpiece was a large music box.
Blair clambered off the tall bed, and dropped to the carpeted floor. He crossed to the fireplace. A large portrait hung over the fire. A benevolent looking man smiled down at him – Blair was sure that he winked at him for a moment. A cascade of curls was pulled back from the man’s face, but a few escaped. Blair pulled at his own short bouncy curls. They were the same colour. The man wore the royal purple, so he had to be a king. He had also added a yellow sash and bottle green and cobalt tunic.
"Are you my Daddy?"
The portrait didn’t answer. He’d have to go to the library and ask the librarian, Seah. Bored with the painting, he turned to the wardrobe. It smelled a bit strange, sort of sweet and spicy. Clothes were hung high up, but yanking at their hems pulled them off their hangers. They fell on his head. Swathed in lots of clothes, Blair began to play.
‘Leya thought that the brown ochre tunic with the intricate knot work worked with the purple sleep suite, especially when coupled with the red short boots that went past his knees. The plumed hat drifted over his eyes. Blair pushed it back, blowing the peacock feather out of his face.
"I’ve never seen anyone with a feather in their hat."
"Oh, a long time ago?"
He looked at himself in the mirror that covered the entire back door of the wardrobe. The green tricorn hat looked great.
"I’m hungry, shall we go get something to eat?"
The sun had lifted its skirts completely over the west wall so the castle would be starting to wake up. That meant that someone would be in the kitchen. Stumbling a bit in his large boots, Blair studied the door. The doorknob was, of course, out of reach. It yielded to the chair trick. Jumping down from the wooden chair, Blair pushed it out of the way and dragged the heavy wooden door open.
There was a short, panelled corridor leading to another door that had no handle. Stymied, Blair glared up at it. How did you open a door without a handle?
The D’neirf hissed and spat at the door. Raising her tail at the locked door, she padded back down the corridor. Blair obediently followed her into the bedchamber. He watched as she jumped onto the mantelpiece and pawed the music box.
The entire fireplace swung backwards out of the room. A black, impenetrable shadow appeared on the east side. The kit leapt down, and with a beckoning meow disappeared through the crack.
Blair paused a moment, chewing his lip, and then scurried after her.
The fireplace closed behind them. It was pitch black. The D’neirf brushed against his legs soothingly. It was dark, really dark; he didn’t know if he liked it really, truly and absolutely dark. Globes of light flared.
The lights hovered above the floor, interspersed along the corridor at regular intervals. It was a soft yellow light that made the secret passage look a lot less scary.
"Did you do that?" Blair toddled after the kit in his over large boots.
::Hello, Prince Blair::
"Becky!" If he squinted he could almost see a young woman. She seemed to be wearing a cuirass and a metal breastplate. Squinting he could just about see pteriges--leather strips sewn into a protective skirt--overlying a pristine white tunic. No matter how much he concentrated he couldn’t make out her face.
::What are you doing here?::
"I want brekkie."
::Oh, well, the kitchens are this way::
An ethereal touch gripped his hand. Skipping – as best he could in his new boots – Blair danced along at her side.
"Are you a warrior?"
::Yes, I keep watch over the castle::
The ghost passed through a stone wall, and then stopped before Blair could be dragged after her. She poked her head out of a brick.
::I forgot, we have to go the long way ‘round::
"We can try it that way," Blair said eagerly.
::I think not::
"I’m never allowed to have any fun."
::You’re investigating the secret passages, isn’t that fun?::
"Well, I suppose so," he said reluctantly. "It would be more fun to walk through walls."
A shimmering laugh passed through him--it tickled.
"Dunno," Blair said absently. ‘Leya had turned down a flight of stairs. One of the lights floated away from the wall and dogged their footsteps, illuminating the steps.
"That’s clever, how does it know how to do that?" He squatted down and poked the cool light with a fingertip.
::It recognises the grandson of its creator:: Becky explained.
::Your grandfather, for whom you were named after. King Blair was a wizard. He used to explore these passages. He always complained about his torches going out so he magicked up the glows::
"Don’t they get bored sitting here waiting in the dark?"
::No, they don’t think; they do::
Well, that didn’t make any sense. Blair set the thought aside to mull over later. He picked his way down the stairs, dragging Becky after him. The stairways, corridors and passageways wound this way and that until he didn’t know if he was coming or going. If the kit or Becky hadn’t been with him he would have become lost.
The D’neirf stopped before an unremarkable piece of wall.
::The kitchen. There’s a latch in that knot hole::
Blair crouched down and poked his finger in the hole. A tiny button moved as he wiggled his finger. With a tired groan four stones swung into the passage.
"Are you coming?" Blair asked, but the ghost had already disappeared.
On hands and knees, he crawled through the opening. The stones swung shut as soon as he was clear. He knew where he was. He was sitting under the giant wooden table on the west wall of the castle kitchens. Prepared food was kept on the heavy table before being carried to the great hall by the pages.
The head cook was busy directing the baker and his assistant. Through the kitchen scullery door, Blair could see one of the assistants collecting eggs from the castle hens storing them in her pinafore. Another maid was churning butter. A familiar face in the kitchen, Blair didn’t gather any attention.
The old kitchen dame was sitting by the fire, stirring porridge in the cauldron. She had been the head cook until she had become blind with old age. A font of herbal wisdom and in matters of preparing food, she retained her position in emeritus, guiding her great-granddaughter, the current head cook. She also knew where the sweeties were kept.
The crone smiled at him. "Hello, my darling. Have you come for breakfast?"
The old lady thought that he was one of the pages or something. "I couldn’t get you any flowers; they moved me to a new room. It’s nicer than the old one. And I had a hot bath yesterday. And I got new clothes. They smell spicy."
The herbalist leaned forwards and sniffed. "Turin – it’s the old king’s favourite scent. And," she sniffed again, "moth bane. Where did you find the clothes, my darling?"
"In the wardrobe."
"Are you supposed to be wearing them?"
Blair shrugged, unconcerned. "I’m hungry."
"You’re always hungry." She smiled, her face like a wrinkled currant. Deftly, she ladled out a bowl of the porridge and dolloped a generous portion of honey into the oats.
Blair took his customary position at her side and began to eat.
"So have you had any adventures?"
"Uhuh! I met a ghost and a… a …"
"Take it slow, my love."
"A sentinel," Blair said the word properly. "Although he’s not a… sentinel, yet. He’ll be a… sentinel when he’s bigger. He took me to his… eyrie. Henri called it an eyrie. I thought that eagles lived in eyries?"
"Sentinels like to live high up so they can watch over the kingdom with their eagle eyes."
"I used to know the sentinel when I was little, but he had to go away. I just met the ghost, though. She’s nice. She showed me how to get here through the secret passages. They were good. There was balls of light."
The herbalist smiled and ruffled his curls. "Secret passages, eh?"
"Yeth," Blair said eagerly, around a mouthful of honey and oats. "I think that you can walk through all the castle through the passages. You get there from my room. Did I tell you about my new room? There’s a garden. I haven’t explored it yet. There might be herbs. I’ll bring them to you and you can tell me about them. There’s a big tree with cherry blossom."
"A cherry tree? A tree with sand at the bottom?"
"Uhuh." Blair finished the porridge and pushed the empty bowl into her hands. There was a hunk of warm bread and a crock of butter on the main kitchen table. He hauled himself onto a stool and helped himself.
"You shouldn’t go into King Sandburg’s rooms without permission."
"I gots permission."
"Well, make sure that you finish cleaning it before someone realises you’ve been playing there."
"I always clean my room before Cassie realises that I’ve been playing with her things." He snaffled some strawberry jam for his next hunk of bread. "I put spiders in her ointment jar once."
A clunk caught his attention. The kit had its head stuck in the buttermilk jug.
"Child, get your cat out of the jug, and throw out the rest of the milk."
Giggling, Blair extracted the kit from the jug. Rich milk coated the D’neirf’s muzzle and whiskers. A self-satisfied smirk was plastered – along with the buttermilk – over the kit’s face.
"She hasn’t finished her milk."
"I don’t care a rat’s ass, she shouldn’t be in the jug. If she comes over here I’ll smack her bare bottom."
Following her orders he dumped the spoiled milk in the sink. ‘Leya sighed audibly and sniffing, snuck out the scullery door on her own business.
"I have to go now, Mags. The tutor will want me for Letters. I want to read my story book before."
"You look after yourself, my pet. Have you had enough to eat?" She held out a honey cake.
Grinning, Blair tucked the cake in his tunic for later. "Fanks. See you tomorrow?"
"I’ll be here, darling. Eggs, tomorrow?"
"Dippy bread with cream and sugar?"
"Only for you."
Blair stood on his tiptoes and planted a kiss on her leathery cheek. "Bye, Mags."
Everyone comfortable around the campfire? Snuggly and warm? So Blair scurries along the wainscoting of the castle ignored by all the staff – a strange turn of affairs for the Prince Royal. But our lonely little prince has friends. And most importantly he now has Jamie.
Jamie discovers that protecting the Prince Royal is difficult
"Where the FECK is he!"
The guard cringed, none had been as surprised as he when they had discovered an empty bedchamber. Laird Jamie was incandescent with fury.
Rafe prowled around the room. "There is no evidence of foul play." He climbed over the balcony and dropped down into the garden below.
"Did you hear anything?" Jim spat at the guard.
"No, My Lord." He hung his head in shame.
Casting the fool aside, Jim made his own scrutiny of the room. There was a pile of unused clothes dumped on the floor beside the open closet. A distinctive scent tickled Jim’s nostrils. He didn’t recognise it, but the moth bane made him sneeze.
"What are you standing here for," he hollered at the guard. "Go alert the staff and bodyguard that Prince Blair is missing. *Now*, man!"
The guard almost teleported in his haste to obey.
"I want someone on every exit from the castle. Alert the local militia," he yelled after the guard.
"Nobody’s been down here, Ellison," Rafe called from below. The assassin shimmied up the vines and back onto the balcony.
"They’re not supposed to hold an adult’s weight." Jim scowled.
"I’m an assassin; that’s practically a staircase."
"Guard!" Jim roared.
Another drone entered, he kept his gaze rooted the floor. "Yes, My Lord."
"You and a gardener pull down these vines. You will make it impossible for *anyone* to climb up into the prince’s rooms."
"Yes, My Lord."
The budding sentinel began to pace across the room, in long devouring strides. "I don’t believe this. I don’t believe this."
The unfortunate guard glanced at Rafe and then bolted from the room.
"We should go and look for him," the assassin said softly.
"And where do you recommend?" Jim snarled instantly, his glacial glare pierced the assassin.
"Well, my first port of call would be the library. He’s rather fond of books."
Suddenly Rafe was alone in the room. The laird moved with impressive speed when fraught.
"What an emotional young man," Rafe said conversationally to the portrait above the fire. "He’d never make an assassin."
Jamie ran as if the hounds of seven hells were on his heels. He pounded through the corridors, alarming pages and squires as he went. An ancient dowager admired his form as he bolted passed her. He had ran this way yesterday; when the prince had fallen off the roof. The spiral staircase leading to the tower library twisted his senses. Primed and ready he burst through the library door, flinging it open.
"Do you mind!" the librarian snarled. "What is it with you folk? Why can’t you follow simple instructions? This is a library. You’re supposed to be quiet. That’s ‘quiet’ as in with little or no sound or motion – it’s an adjective. It’s hardly complicated."
She gently slammed down her book and glared over her glasses. Jim allowed himself to be distracted by her dark curly hair, so like the young prince’s.
"Laird? Jamie?" Her voice insinuated into his consciousness.
Confused, Jamie backed away. He hadn’t under gone the trials; he shouldn’t be having spells. This was very unusual. His spirit sang for his grandfather so far away in the Highlands. He would know what to do.
"Is the prince here?" Jim grated out.
"Yes, he’s in the stacks."
The hackles rose on the back of Jim’s neck. He was going to whale the tar out of the boy for scaring him so badly. He pushed the librarian aside.
"Excuse me," she said sharply.
"I apologise, My Lady." Jim pasted on an insincere smile. "Prince Blair was missing from his bedchamber. We were concerned."
"He’s been here every morning since he learnt how to read. If people took any interest they would know that. By the Goddess, someone could take over the Land and no one would notice," Seah groused.
The young sentinel focused on her. It was a strange way of putting it. Seah cocked her head to the side and stared right back at him.
"Do you have a mystical arts section?"
"Oh." Jim shook his head. He had to find the prince.
"Of course, we do!" She rolled her eyes heavenward. "You’re in the Crown Library. We have the finest private selection of texts in the seven countries."
"Fine. I’ll be back later to ask you some questions about a Veb."
"If I can be of assistance. That’s what I’m here for."
"I now have to find the prince," Jim announced.
The librarian pointed over her shoulder. "Check the window alcove, there’s a pile of cushions he likes to sit on."
Jim crept through the stacks. A tiny voice mumbled somewhere ahead of him. He turned at the far end of the bookshelves and saw a vision. The prince wore the most appalling mismatch of clothes. He sat cross-legged on a mound of pillows and an enormous book was draped over his knees. The long feather on his emerald green, desperately old fashioned hat tickled his nose. It bobbed as he breathed.
He looked up and chirped, "Hi, Jim."
It was impossible to remain angry in the face of such a picture.
"What are you wearing?" He squatted next to his charge.
"I found them in the wardrobe. Nice, aren’t they?"
"I prefer more neutral colours myself." The laird brushed his soft, nubbly silk tunic and even his kilt was a weave of restrained and conservative colours. "Everyone’s looking for you."
"Why?" Blair said simply. "I don’t have to be at Letters until the second chime rings."
Jim was stymied; he suddenly realised that he didn’t want to tell the prince about the vague feelings that drove him. How could he? The prince was only a child; therefore, he had to be protected.
"You’ve got a new nanny now. You surprised her when you weren’t in your room, when I came to collect you for breakfast."
"You’re my nanny?" Blair asked perplexed.
"No." Jim closed his eyes as he revised his sentence. "No, I’m not your nanny. But I came to collect you for breakfast in the great hall."
"I don’t go to breakfast. Mags gives me some porridge in the kitchen."
"Well, things are going to change now. You’re not in the hands of Cassie. You’re under the protection of Henri, Rafe and myself."
"What about ‘Leya and Becky and Robyn and…"
"Well, yes, I’m sure that they’ll help." In command, Jim took the book away. Blair grabbed for it and missed. The title of the book caught Jim’s eye: ‘Trolls, brownies and little people.’
"I haven’t finished that!" Blair protested.
The laird turned the book over in his hands allowing it to fall open as it may. "Why are you going to Letters, if you’re reading? Or are you just looking at the pictures?"
Blair stood up and leaned against his shoulder. He reached down, running a small finger along a sentence.
"…the best way to a… appease (that means keep happy – I think) a brownie is to leave a bwol… bowl of milk beside the fire, late at night."
Amazed, Jim chose another page, he offered it to the prince.
The child chortled. "… the sons of Bor made the dwarves. The leader of the dwarves is called Mod…Mod…." Blair peeped at him appealingly through his long lashes.
"Mogsognir," Jamie supplied.
"Good. Good. Good." The prince beamed. "Stay. Stay. Stay." He patted him with his splayed hands, pushing him towards the cushions. Jim yielded, settling in the alcove.
Blair darted to the nearest stack and back before Jim could protest. He held a tiny book. Eagerly, he presented it to the laird.
"Big words. Help," he ordered, almost imperiously.
Stunned, Jim could only watch as the prince tucked in close beside him. Reaching over, he opened the book, found his page and pointed.
"What’s that word? What’s it mean?"
Rafe moved stealthily along the book stacks, honing in on the soft voices. Pulling out a little mirror, he angled it so he could see around a corner.
Two heads, one golden and the other chestnut were bowed over a book. The laird smiled as he turned over a page. The little boy leaned over his lap, pointing.
Contentment oozed off them in waves.
Echoing their smiles, Rafe retreated. He had to tell Henri that the prince had been found and tell the bodyguards and militia to stand down.
The prince had found his Sentinel; today was a day of celebration.
Twirling his stiletto over his fingers, he worked his way silently around the stacks. He came to an abrupt halt as he came face to face with the librarian, Seah.
"Milady?" He bowed.
"Lord Rafe, you found them?"
"Yes, they are sequestered happily. I believe that the prince has found his Sentinel and the Sentinel has found his Guide."
Seah peered over his shoulder. "So young? That is indeed ominous."
"Ominous?" Rafe echoed. "In what way?"
"The prince is a baby and the Sentinel is little more than a child – only destiny would bring them together before they are able to handle their gifts." She turned away, back to her books.
"I don’t understand."
She stopped and craned her head over her shoulder. "Why have they been brought together now, rather than at the agreed-upon time when the Heir to the House of d’Ellison takes on the mantle of Sentinel and the Prince becomes the Head of Acharn?"
"I don’t know," Rafe muttered.
"Neither do I."
End Chapter I.
Magic is afoot. What great horror hovers on the edge of the Land that demands that the protectors of Acharn join before the appointed time?
"So a Veb – tell me about it," Jim flashed a devastatingly enchanting smile at the librarian. The effect was spoilt as he reached down and caught his charge by the scruff of his neck and hauled him onto the stool beside him.
"I’m bored!" Blair drummed his heels against the chair, irritatingly.
The prince had the attention span of a toddler on moon juice.
"Can we read this book now?" He held up a book entitled the Maths of Magic.
‘Oh, Goddess, I’ve created a monster,’ Jim wailed inwardly.
"A Veb is an unearthly creature created by the dread spells of the Mage Brack." Seah leaned over the table, peering over her imported pince-nez at them. "The art was lost a thousand years ago. Unless Brack has been alive all that time or re-incarnated, I don’t know how the spell could have been reborn."
"Are you sure?"
"Someone could have found his grimoire. But that doesn’t really help you."
Blair decides he’s…
"I’m bored!" Prince Blair wiggled out of the Heir Jamie’s grasp; if he wasn’t going to play with him he’d find someone else.
"Ooooh!" As if his very boredom had called her up ‘Leya appeared. The D’neirf had cream coating her whiskers. ‘Leya rubbed his ankles affectionately. Blair picked up his bestest friend in the whole world. The D’neirf glared balefully at the pair of adults leaning over the table. Blair could practically read the D’neirf’s mind. He tucked her head against his neck and listened to her purr as they plotted.
Blair remembered Jamie from when he had been just a little baby. Jamie was a good boy. Jamie never got into trouble.
Little demon horns of mischief were hidden under his curly hair.
Blair quietly sidled towards the stacks. Jamie was deep in discussion with the dark haired librarian. ‘Leya meowed an option.
Blair retrieved a bag of marbles from one of his caches on the library shelves. Carefully and with great precision, he laid them on the hard wooden floor. Once they were set to ‘Leya’s instructions, he ran away on short little legs – cackling gleefully.
The resultant thud as Big Jamie’s bottom hit the floor was most satisfying.
The tale of the princess and the pea had taken on a whole new meaning
"Come back here, you little brat!"
Blair spotted a wee knot in the wooden panelling. At ‘Leya’s encouragement, he poked his finger in the wall and the secret door swung open. It closed behind him just before the irate nascent sentinel rushed by the entrance.
The D’neirf jumped out of his arms and brushed up against one of the mage lights. The illumination showed a long corridor ending in a spiral staircase. Blair padded after the D’neirf
The D’neirf obviously knew all about the secret passages.
"Why didn’t you tell me about ‘em before?" he asked.
‘Leya gave him an inscrutable look – so sphinx-like he couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Muttering under his breath, he padded after his friend.
"If you luvved me; you would have tooold me. I’m big; I wouldn’t have got into trouble."
He ducked under an iron maiden (complete with perfectly clean skeleton) as he followed the kit into the bowels of the castle.
They emerged from the wall that juxtaposed the castle orchard. Blair grinned – a wide cheeky grin – he would remember this route! On sturdy legs he ran out over the grass towards the large oak tree that dominated the orchard.
"Robyn!" he called at the bottom of the tree. "Robyn?"
The wood dryad started to detach herself from a thick branch above his head. Her bark-like skin melded seamlessly with the tree. Blair watched entranced as her large, liquid brown eyes opened.
"Prince," she greeted.
Blair held out his arms and chortled as she lifted him up onto the oak branch.
"What are you doing?"
"Am playing hide and seek."
"Shouldn’t you be at Letters?"
"No, Jamie said: if I can read why am I at Letters? I can read," he finished proudly.
"Jamie’s my new nanny – but he said that he isn’t my nanny but he is. He acts like my nanny."
‘Leya, claws pinsharp, gracefully scaled the tree. She regally accepted a stroke from the wood dryad. The kit and dryad shared a long glance.
"What are you talking about? What are you talking about?" Blair bounced up and down on his seat. The fine branches of the Oak moved to create a net under the child.
"The D’neirf tells me that your new nanny is to be the next Sentinel of Acharn."
"Yeah – but he’s not very good at it… he does this staring thing." Blair gazed to the side and stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth, pretending to drool.
The kit and the dryad were deep in conversation and were not listening. Normally, Robyn answered all his question and told him stories. Bored, Blair decided to check on the acorns at the top of the tree. Slowly and surely he began to climb up the trunk.
The branches rustled beneath him as he climbed higher and higher. He would catch it off Danbush, the Gamekeeper, if he was caught. The buds at the top of the tree were sweet and if he asked nicely Robyn’s friend would give him a couple of soft acorns to suck. He climbed higher than he had ever climbed before. The tree beneath his hands felt worried. He stopped and bestowed an absent pat.
"What’s the matter? Are you poorly sick? Shall I tell Robyn?"
A squigel ducked out of its hollow and chittered at him. Its litter, clustered protectively behind it, blinked up at him.
"Shall I bring your babies some acorns?"
There was a bushel of acorns clustered at the end of a tapering branch. They looked very succulent – just what little baby squigels needed.
Inch by inch he crawled along the branch.
"You little BUGGER!" a harsh voice yelled.
Surprised, Blair slipped. Long branches scrabbled at his shirt and a handful of twigs caught his wrist. He heard a high pitched shriek as the twigs shredded, failing to break his fall. He fell another body length and a network of branches slithered beneath him. His plummeting descent slowed as the web of leaves held then broke. The slim branches weaved their net tighter, trying to break his fall. Robyn appeared out of nowhere as the last twig gave way. Her long bony fingers almost caught his wrist as he fell out of the canopy and there were no more branches to catch him.
He hit the ground with a bone breaking thump. The breath was forced from his body.
"You little..." Danbush, the gamekeeper, reached down to pick him up by the scruff of his neck.
Danbush was ripped away from his side. A primeval roar filled his ears; Blair almost had an accident in his underpants. The gamekeeper’s strawberry red nose and piggy brown eyes were replaced by Jim’s ice blue eyes and a fine straight nose.
"Don’t move," Jamie said. Gentle hands coasted over his head and down his neck. "Where does it hurt?"
Blair bit his bottom lip trying to be brave. "Mama?"
"Ssssh, it’s okay; I’m here."
Jamie was as angry as the towering demon of Siemyn. The prince was incorrigible. He couldn’t understand where the brat had gone. He stormed around the castle, until he remembered that the prince liked the orchard and he had an imaginary friend living in one of the trees. The laird ran out into the orchard as the old, cantankerous treeman yelled at someone in his beloved tree.
Jamie’s hawk like gaze saw the tiny prince in the highest branches. The boy fell. Jim ran as fast as the cheetahs of Namime, trying vainly, impossibly, to catch the boy before he could reach the ground.
For a heartbeat he thought that he was going to make it. Somehow, the prince caught the branches but the branches shredded and he fell.
The unmistakable crack of a bone splintering echoed in his ears. His skin shivered in sympathy. The idiot gamekeeper reached down to grab the prince. Jamie flung him aside with a roar for his presumptuousness.
"Don’t move," Jamie ordered. The laird slid to his knees at his prince’s side. He held his breath as he ran his fingers over Blair’s head and his delicate neck. "Where does it hurt?"
Big, fat tears welled in the sapphire blue eyes. "Mama?"
"Ssssh, it’s okay; I’m here."
"I wants my mama."
"Where does it hurt?"
"His arm is broken," a soft voice informed him.
Shocked at the soft voice, Jamie looked up. An ethereal woman, oak nut brown, covered in delicate tattoos that resembled bark stood at the base of the tree trunk. Her oak leaf gown shifted in the gentle breeze. She didn’t move away from the oak, keeping in contact with the gnarly bark at all times.
Blair’s right hand was twisted under his flank. Jamie carefully checked his backbone, feeling each ridge of bone before he gently rolled his prince onto his back.
"Hurts," he whimpered.
"Oh, dear." The bone was indeed broken; Blair’s arm was at a funny angle. "You’re lucky that you didn’t break your neck."
But now wasn’t the time for remonstrations, the little prince was hurting. The child blinked up at him obviously shocked and in pain. Jim gently felt his legs, while he believed the dryad he was determined to check it out himself. He unbuttoned the prince’s embroidered tunic and with the utmost care tucked the broken limb against his ribs. Buttoning the tunic back up gave the arm support.
"I know, Cynthia Louise will make it all better." For added support, he fastened his belt around the boy’s skinny torso. Only then did he scoop his prince up in his arms.
"I didn’t realise that it was the prince," Danbush wailed suddenly.
Jamie scowled. "Would it matter if it was the weest page? You’re an idiot, man. Who yells at a small boy climbing in the highest branches of a tree?"
"I meant no harm to the prince."
Jamie had more immediate concerns than dealing with the gamekeeper.
"I know. Ssssssh. I will look after you."
"I’m sorry," Danbush began again.
Jamie levelled a glacial glare at the florid little man. "I will find you later and speak to you."
Jamie kept the young prince on his lap as the court physician did arcane things to the child’s arm.
"Mama?" Blair whispered.
"Queen Naomi is signing the Treaty with the Sultan, she’ll be here soon."
His eyes were big and impossibly black from the painkilling draught that Cynthia Louise had made him drink. Jim glanced at Blair’s arm. The skin shifted as the splintered bones realigned. Cindy bowed over the limb, her blond hair falling in her eyes. A soft glow emanated from his arm and, impossibly, Jamie could see the bone fragments within the casement of flesh and blood melding.
"You’re mending the bone," he said incredulously.
"It is a nasty break. If he ever wants to hold a sword – the job needs to be done and properly."
A trickle of perspiration fell from her nose.
"Stop." Blair wept and turned his face into Jamie’s tunic.
"Sssshh, tis almost done, my prince."
"Can’t you put him to sleep?"
"Not, yet." Cindy gazed levelly at the young laird. "Prince Blair, can you wiggle your fingers for me?"
"No. It hurts."
The physician nodded at Jamie and then looked pointedly at the prince.
Jamie got the message. "Can you do it for me, Blair? Just a little wiggle? Wiggle it, just a little bit."
Blair rolled his head back on Jamie’s chest and pouted up at him under a glowering brow. "Hurts," he said sullenly.
Jamie pouted back at him. "Wiggle."
There was a glimmering of a smile on those pouty little lips. Then looking at his arm as if it belonged to someone else, Blair wiggled his fingers a fraction.
"Good boy." Cynthia Louise placed her palm on his forehead and Blair relaxed into an immediate healing sleep. "Hold him steady, I want to brace his wrist and elbow."
"Have you not healed him?" Jamie’s highland accent came through strongly.
"I have put everything back where it is supposed to be and it will be as good as new in a few weeks – but it still needs a few weeks help. And this little scamp will benefit from a brace to remind him of what happens when you climb in trees."
Jamie looked affectionately at his charge, draped over his lap. Prince Blair remained deeply asleep as the physician supported his arm with padded splints and wrapped it firmly. Jamie remained stock-still as she dealt with the blooming bruises on Blair’s shoulder and hip.
"How far did he fall?"
"It was very strange – it was almost as if the tree tried to catch him." He didn’t want to speak of the dryad in the oak tree. It was amazing; there was a dryad in the castle orchard. The world was very large and he had barely touched it.
"As well as can be," Cindy announced. She kissed Blair’s upturned nose. "Put him to bed, he’s to sleep until tea, wake him, and then he can have hot chocolate and a bowl of oatmeal. Then he is to go straight back to sleep. I will check on you both."
Jamie wrote the instructions on his heart. The physician finished packing away her equipment.
"I will tell her majesty that her son will be fine," there was no censure in her tone. But Jamie felt it for her. How could a mother leave her son in the hands of strangers? Even if she were the Queen of Acharn? It was wrong. Blair was an empathic boy; he needed nurturing. Cassie had already poisoned his soul: he needed love, unconditional love, if he was to heal.
Jamie thanked the physician kindly and then carried his prince back to his suite. He dismissed the prince’s new nanny, with a mental note to check with Rafe to make sure that she was trustworthy. He would have preferred that the Duchess Michelle looked after the boy, but apparently she had duties to the Queen.
Simmering with anger, he undressed Blair and slipped him under the warm blankets. Then he sat at the bottom of the bed. The prince could have been killed because of a moment of inattention. His skin crawled at the thought of the near miss. He was off kilter and uneasy. His senses pinged, demanding action and retribution, but there was nothing that he could mete out his anger upon.
He hadn’t found out any more about the Veb. He didn’t know who had employed Cassandra.
"Idiot!" he hissed. Why hadn’t he yet spoken to the evil witch? All he knew was that she had been dismissed. He was half way to the door before he stopped. He could not leave the prince unattended.
Wrenching the door open, he ordered, "Get me the Sa’Leem Henri and the Duke of Rafe – NOW!"
The guard quivered in the face of the fiery wrath of the heir to the northern mountains and then bolted. Jim made a mental note of his alacrity and remembered to mention to the man’s superior that he had left his post.
Growling, Jamie paced back to Blair’s bedside. He caught a glance of his reflection as he crossed the room. He almost didn’t recognise the figure. His brow was furrowed and he was sure that he saw the Cat playing under his skin.
This couldn’t be happening. His father, William, held the gifts of the Sentinel, while his grandfather wielded them. If he saw the Cat it meant… he didn’t know what it meant. All he knew was it wasn’t… right.
Grandfather Ellison and Lord William should have responded to the feelings that he, a mere heir, could no longer ignore. They should be here.
A gentle tap disturbed his pointless contemplations. Rafe poked his head through the door and then crept into the suite with Henri on his heels.
"You called?" he drawled.
"How’s the prince?" Henri padded to the boy’s side. "Poor little Precious," he glommed.
Blair slept deeply, his arm resting on a satin cushion. Henri tenderly stroked his forehead, ruffling his short curls. The sheets were creased slightly so he straightened them. Then he plumped up the pillows on either side of Blair’s head.
"Have you spoken to Cassandra?" Jamie demanded, getting straight to the point. He had already ensured that Prince Blair was perfectly comfortable and he was offended that Henri was mussing up his perfect sheets.
Rafe jerked his chin, gesturing to the balcony.
They closed the stained glass doors so they wouldn’t disturb the prince. Listening very carefully, Jamie ascertained that no one was within earshot.
"The Lady Cassandra is dead." Rafe dropped his bombshell.
"What? How? I don’t…" Jamie’s mouth fell open.
"She was found hung in her quarters. The Queen’s ministers believe that she took her own life."
"Which idiots believe that?" Jamie demanded.
"Lash, Trevellyan and The Zeller."
"Chancellor Lash obviously takes after his son, he’s a complete tosser," Jamie said succinctly. "But I expected better of The Zeller. What about the rest of the ministers?"
"They were witnessing the treaty," Rafe reported. "In seclusion."
"Henri," Jamie began. "If the treaty’s been signed, can you possibly tell us why the Queen and the Sultan have been in dialogue and for so long?
Sa’Leem Henri shrugged refusing to be drawn.
"Not to put too fine a point on it, Jamie, you’re not yet at the age of majority," Henri said from his lofty age of twenty odd years.
"Do you know, Rafe?"
Rafe found something of sudden interest the old king’s garden. "No, not officially."
"So you do."
"I didn’t say that."
Jamie looked down his fine nose at them. "Does it have an impact on what has happened to the prince?"
"Er… yes." Henri said, then he relented, his brown eyes sincere. "I do not know the whole details of the treaty. They spoke of trade and a cultural exchange and of… clandestine matters."
"A threat to the kingdom?"
"Mayhap." Henri spread his hands.
"Rafe, can you send a message to Bruncladhic and inform my father and grandfather that they are needed."
"Yes, I will send my best messenger. Kincaid is to be trusted."
"Excellent." It was as if a weight was lifted from Jamie’s shoulders; he wanted his grandfather. "I will not leave the prince alone. We need to know more about the Lady Cassandra. Rafe, tell your man Kincaid. Henri, find who found the bitch dead in her cell and who employed her."
Henri bowed deeply, flourishing. "Your wish is my command."
Jamie fired a gimlet glare.
Rafe pared his nails with his stiletto. "So happy day, we all know what we need to do. I’ll go speak with Kincaid." Purely to irritate the Sentinel, Rafe jumped over the balcony, scurrying down the stone wall as if it were a ladder. "Still haven’t lost my touch." He brushed off his velvet jodhpurs. "It’s a highway, Lord Jamie – you’d best set the wards when you retire for the night."
Jamie scowled at the assassin, even as he mentally ran through the intricacies of the protective spells. He allowed Henri to shepherd him back into the prince’s bedroom.
"I will find out who hired the Lady Cassandra. It should be simple; the Duchess Michelle will know."
"I will guard the prince."
As Henri left, Jamie distinctly heard him say, "Why am I not surprised."
Oooooh, there are more players in the game. So many familiar names in the Royal Court and all of them evil? Oh dear, will Jamie’s message get to his father and grandfather if Kincaid is the messenger? Who dispatched Cassie, corrupter of innocent souls?
Jamie uncurled from the bottom of the bed as his charge moved. Blair had awoken around dinner, tearful and sore. Cynthia Louise had given him a sleeping draught and he had fallen asleep before he had finished his porridge. He had slept peacefully throughout the night, barely stirring.
Jamie crouched beside the bed, so he was a mere hand span from the child’s curly hair.
"Good morning, my prince," he cajoled.
Blair’s eyes opened a fraction. "Go ‘way."
"Oh, none of that." Jim snatched back the quilt.
"Nooo." Blair curled around his sore arm.
"Sssssh." Jamie gathered him up. He was warm and smelled of freshly baked bread and chocolate. Blair snuggled in and Jamie experienced anew the passionate dedication he felt for the prince. The guardian retrieved Cynthia Louise’s painkilling draught from the bedside table.
They had missed bath time the night before.
He carried him through to the bathing room. He had given the new nanny leave to enter the outer rooms of the suite, but not to associate with the child.
The ceramic bath was filled with lightly steaming water. Jamie, as suspicious as a D’neirf, sniffed the water but could only smell water, he tested the temperature with his little finger and deemed it perfect.
"Don’t want a baf, my arm hurts," Blair said sullenly.
Jamie sat on the side of the bath with the prince on his lap, in fits and starts he managed to get Blair to take a few mouthfuls of the honey sweetened herb juice. Blair dragged it out, knowing that the dreaded bath was next.
Jamie was not to be gainsaid. He set the prince on the commode and stripped him from his purple sleep suit, carefully avoiding jostling his arm.
Blair sat in the warm shallow water, surly as heck, as Jamie ran a soapy sponge over his back, neck and front. Jamie viewed the luxuriant curls with some trepidation; his own short hair was much easier to look after. He only got soap in his charge’s forehead once and Blair seemed to eventually enjoy himself as he floated on his back in the water, his arm cradled on a towel on his tummy.
Once he was clean to a Sentinel’s stringent standards, Jim sat him upright and filled the bath a tad higher with warm water.
Grabbing a little bucket and sponge ball he dropped them in the bath. Jamie let Blair play with his bath toys, after threatening him with cold porridge for breakfast if he got his poorly arm wet. With one eye on his charge, he washed himself, a cat’s lick and a polish.
Getting Blair out of the bath was as hard as getting him in. But the Sentinel persisted, and got him dressed in a sumptuous black velvet doublet and a matching knee length hose. Jamie bent down and tied the rosette garters around the prince’s knees.
"Baby clothes. Baby clothes," Blair protested. "Only babies wear these. Am almost six."
Jamie pinned the royal crest on his lacy collar. "It’s so people know who you are. You can’t wear pages’ clothes. You are not a page; you are the Prince of the Crown."
Ignoring his protests, Jamie checked Blair’s broken arm; his fingers were slightly swollen. He tucked Blair’s arm in a sling. Seeing the imminent explosion in Blair’s eyes, he crouched until they were face to face.
"You have to keep this on your arm. It will help."
He then wrestled on the prince’s matching booties. Standing back, Jamie was impressed by the changes that he had wrought. The child no longer looked like a scruffy page. The black velvet attire was elegant and showed the prince’s station. ‘The hair…’ he thought. He wasn’t too sure if he could do anything about the child’s hair unless he cut it off. The curls were riotous, but they had an appealing charm.
He was fairly sure that there were some demon horns lurking under those locks.
"Come." He picked up Blair, easily supporting him by one arm under his bottom.
"Where are we going?"
"Mags said that she was going to make dippy bread."
"You will eat with me in the great hall."
"I will get you dippy bread."
What had he let himself in for?
Blair couldn’t decide if he liked being carried. Jamie-Jim seemed to like carrying him. But the Laird of the High Mountains was a bossy cat and took him where he didn’t want to go. The kitchens were warm and cosy, and Mags taught him about herbs and spices. The library was more fun, but you got food in the kitchens.
There were lots of people in the main hall. They were the men and women who were inflated with self importance. He scowled at Chancellor Lash and his slimy son as Jamie set him on a chair with a cushion. He felt a little bit more charitable to Jim when he waved away the high chair that a page rushed forward with.
There were lots of people around the table who he didn’t know. But it was the giant sitting opposite that caught his eye. He had a coal black statue of a man standing behind him, who only wore a silver-metal loincloth. The giant was swathed in the bonniest of fabrics – colourful golds and reds and ochres – much prettier than black.
Jamie liked black.
Jamie was boring.
Jamie put a bowl of porridge in front of him.
He really didn’t like Jamie.
"You promised." He pushed away the bowl of hot oats.
"Ah…the eggy bread." He stood and addressed the throng around the table. "Excuse me."
His footsteps echoed across the great hall. Suddenly Blair was the centre of attention and he definitely didn’t like that. He scowled at the wrinkly old men and women. Rafe was at the far end of the table and he wiggled his fingers at him. The ancient Lord Malú smiled at him and then returned to his discussion with his young Lady. Almost as if Malú ordered it the other Lords and Ladies dismissed him from their thoughts and began to talk.
Blair liked the wrapped up towel on top of the giant’s head. The big shiny jewel in the middle of his towel reflected the hall illumination. If he squinted he could see his reflection and he was sure that it waved. The giant was wearing a dress – it looked like a dress, with a long night robe on top.
Blair slithered off his chair and crawled under the table. The giant’s feet were bare and he had leather straps criss-crossing them. And yes, he was wearing a dress. Blair fingered the satiny material – it felt very nice. There was more than one dress; he wore layers and layers.
Blair looked up into the giant’s eyes. He had poked his head under the tablecloth. He had a nice smile.
"You’re wearing a dress. Why are you wearing a dress? It’s nice, but doesn’t it get in the way?"
"I’m not really wearing a dress," he said gently.
"It looks like a dress."
The giant fingered the long sleeves poking out of his shorter sleeved over tunic. "This is the zupan, woven from the finest silks with the most intricate embroidery. I wear a caftan over my zupan. All the men in my Land wear these ‘dresses.’" He chortled.
"Why? Do the girls wear trews?"
"No. My Land is very hot, it is better to wear loose clothes."
"But you’re in Acharn, it rains here."
"True, but I am used to these clothes. Other clothes feel strange."
"Jamie made me wear smart clothes. I liked my old clothes."
"Jamie is your protector, you should do what he tells you."
"So why aren’t you wearing a tunic and trews?" Blair asked cannily.
"Nobody told me not to wear the clothes that I like."
The giant smiled, his teeth a brilliant white against the dark of his skin. He had a diamond embedded in his front tooth.
"I am pleased to meet you, Prince Blair." He held out his hand.
Blair reached out with his bad arm and winced. He knew his manners; he had to shake the giant’s hand. But his arm hurt. The giant smiled at him and leaned down to ruffle his hair. Then, despite his mass, the giant ducked under the table. Sitting cross-legged, he had to bend his neck to fit under the table. The table lifted up a little bit as he wiggled, trying to get comfortable.
"My name is Simon – I’m visiting your mother."
"Have you seen mama? I haven’t for ages and ages." He scrambled on to his knees and rested a hand on Simon’s thigh.
"I saw your mother last night. She is… thinking about what we talked about."
"What did you talk about?"
"We were talking about becoming friends."
"How can you talk about becoming friends? You’re friends or not. I got friends." He sidled forwards, and whispered very quietly, "I don’t like Lord Lash, he’s nasty and his daddy’s slimy. Do you like my mama?"
"Yes, your mama is very nice."
"So you’re friends already?"
"So mama doesn’t have to think. She can visit me?"
Giant Simon bit his bottom lip. "Soon I hope."
"That’s what everyone says – I just want my mama."
"WHERE IS THE PRINCE!" The bellow filled the room.
"That’s Jim," Blair said conversationally.
Simon chortled. "Perhaps you should go to him?"
"RAFE!" There was a deep growl. "I left him in your charge."
The tablecloth lifted and Jamie peered beneath the table. "Honoured Sultan Siddiq’Banks." He nodded respectfully at the giant. "I was concerned."
"Blair and I were just getting to know each other."
"This is Simon not Siddiq."
"My prince, may I cordially introduce you to the Wizard Sultan Simon Siddiq’Banks."
Blair scrambled to his feet, his curls just brushing the underside of the table and formally bowed as he had been taught, over his poorly arm.
"I am very pleased to meet you, Your Majesty."
"And I am pleased to meet you, Your Highness." Simon inclined his head.
"Come out, Prince Blair – you’ll get your clean clothes dirty."
Blair shuffled towards the laird, dragging his feet. "Simon gets to wear what he wants to because no one tells him what to do."
"Really." Jim reached under the table and dragged him out. "I brought you eggy bread, didn’t I?"
Blair really couldn’t argue with that. It was nice looking eggy bread too – golden and thick. He plopped down on his cushion and dove in. Around a mouthful of bread, he stared at the ministers and the Lords and Ladies. Some looked disapproving and others were smiling.
The Wizard Sultan was grinning openly as he sat back in his seat.
"So, my prince, what are you going to do today?"
Blair cast a leery glance at the laird sitting ramrod straight beside him. "I gots Letters, I think. Even though I can read. Then I can hide in the library and read what the tutor thinks I can’t read. Then I have dinner and go to bed."
Simon’s brow screwed up, flummoxed. He reached into his robes and drew out a pair of magic lenses and set them on his nose. "And that is your day?"
"Unless he runs off to play with his friends," Jamie said waspishly.
The kit jumped onto the table and then sidled onto his lap.
"Where have you been? I fell out of the tree – you weren’t there!" Blair said reproachfully.
‘Leya nuzzled his swollen fingers very lightly. The kit looked up at him and blinked her good eye, asking for forgiveness.
"That kit should not be at the table." Chancellor Lash carped.
Blair glared at the sallow man with his robin hood hair – long on one side and combed over his shiny skull – a sort of ‘take from the rich and give to the poor.’ His son, with his long blond hair pulled back in the rat’s tail was equally unappealing.
"’Leya is allowed," Blair proclaimed.
"Child…" he began nasally.
"The kit stays," the prince snarled.
The Lashes looked very shocked at his words. Blair glared at the other diners – they were staring at him as if they had picked up a puppy and found a rottweiler at their throats. The Zeller smiled paternally at him. Conversation surged around the table not one person discussing his words or his bad manners. Blair quite liked it – he had raised his voice and they had not told him off.
"But the D’neirf is not allowed on the table," Jamie interrupted thoughts, and his tone brooked no argument.
Blair felt the seed of anger rising again. He read some of Seah’s spell books he knew how to do…
Jim gazed at him levelly. "We can discuss this back in your suite. But temper tantrums will get you nowhere. And I’ll be very disappointed."
That took the wind out of his sails. Confused, Blair saw Siddiq Simon nodding. ‘Leya offered her own interpretation of what was happening, but he didn’t understand what she was saying.
Blair grabbed his goblet of buttermilk and stuck his nose in it. "Jamie Bossy Cat," he muttered.
The kit meowed. Blair cocked his head to the side and listened closely. He grabbed the feelings as if holding misty clouds in the palm of his hand. "Becky?" he asked.
‘Leya gently licked his sore fingers again – they felt better already.
Jamie was reaching down with a napkin to wipe his chin.
"No. Am big – I can read." Blair set his goblet aside and grabbed the cloth. "Becky wants to talk. To Jim?" he asked the kit.
"What?" Jamie darted a glance at Simon and then at the other people around the table.
"Becky want to talk to us." He rubbed his mouth with the fine cloth.
"I heard you the first time." Jamie bent to listen closely. "How do you know?"
"How?" Jamie reached out to the D’neirf and she regally allowed him to scratch under her chin. "Really?"
"Just know. Tis true. Pwomise."
The court had deemed them of no interest and were ignoring them. Blair liked the word ‘deemed’ it had a nice ring to it. Simon, in his golden dress, was watching them through his magic lenses. The statue behind him seemed to be listening too. ‘Leya meowed, jumped off his lap and arrowed out of the dining hall.
"If you’ll excuse us," Jamie stood. "I’ve remembered that a new member of staff requires some instructions."
Jamie reached for him.
"Can walk." Blair felt obstreperous.
Jamie held out his hand, Blair pondered then let Jamie hold his hand. If it made the laird feel better he was willing to put up with holding hands. It was better than the reins that Cassie had insisted on tying him in when they went out on walks around the battlements late at night.
He tucked his hand further into Jim’s palm and the laird smiled, his smile was like the sun breaking out from behind a grey cloud. Prince Blair let the laird tug him off his chair and across the Great Hall in ‘Leya’s wake.
"Laird Jamie." Simon caught up with him. Blair watched, amazed as the black statue followed.
"Yes, Your Majesty?"
Simon was a nice warm brown colour, in fact he looked like a faerie brownie, albeit a very big brownie. The statue was black like the night sky. Blair pulled his hand from Jamie’s grasp and skirted around Simon to stop before the moving statue – maybe it was a golem?
The statue was ignoring him. Curious, Blair walked around the statue. He couldn’t see any key to wind it up. And there weren’t any joins. He licked his fingers and rubbed the statue’s thigh vigorously. Black paint came off on his palm.
Blair smiled ingenuously up at Giant Simon.
"My Chosen Warrior Joel Nabweh is honoured that you find him so very interesting, but asks if you could leave his camouflage alone."
"Why’s he painted?" Blair held up his hand.
"So he can merge with the shadows."
"Why does he want to merge with shadows?"
"To view those who do not want to be seen."
"What are the people who don’t want to be seen, doing?"
"Because…" Simon looked helplessly at Jamie.
Jamie shrugged his shoulders.
"Do you always ask questions?" Simon sounded exasperated.
"Why?" he responded, more interested in why Joel Nabweh only wore a slivery black loincloth. It almost looked like a breech clout.
"’Why’ should be his middle name," Simon said in an aside to the laird.
"Joel." Blair tugged the bodyguard’s loincloth and finally prompted a reaction.
The man grabbed his loincloth and sighed at him, exasperated. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"Aren’t you cold? Perhaps it would be easier if you wore black clothes? If you go out when it rains, do you run?"
"A veritable font of questions," Simon noted.
"You said it."
"He should be encouraged – he should have tutors."
"He’s only five, it can wait a while." Jim gently countered the Wizard Sultan’s words. "I will teach him."
"I disagree – he should be guided."
Blair stopped tormenting the bodyguard. Jamie and Simon were talking about him. Simon thought that he should be guided? He wasn’t too sure what that meant. He didn’t like the sound of that. Cassie had said something about ‘guiding’, she had said that it was a bad thing. Guides were horrible, the worst sorts of nasty demons – Cassie had said.
‘Leya spat arching her back, hissing at an unseen foe. Jamie spun on his heel, scanning the room around him. Simon lifted his arms, his robe sleeves fell back revealing his hands wreathed in golden light.
Joel unsheathed his scimitar. Blair was promptly distracted – where had he hidden that gianormous long scimitar? He just wore a little dinky cloth.
"I felt a threat," Jamie and Simon said simultaneously.
"It was ephemeral," the budding sentinel finally grated out.
The Zeller and Chancellor Lash were striding across the wooden floor to their side.
"What happened?" The Zeller intoned. His strange mirror-like eyes assessed them.
"Something moved in the worlds beyond ken," Simon drew himself upright and stared down his nose at the ministers. Chancellor Lash looked away but The Zeller met his gaze evenly.
"A threat to the Queen?" The Zeller asked.
"Mama?" Blair piped up.
Jamie immediately crouched at his side. "No, my prince. I did not sense that your mother was in danger. It was a… future threat?" He looked to the Wizard Sultan for confirmation.
"I agree, Laird Jamie. But I do not know in what form the threat will take. I felt almost as if…"
"Someone had died," Jamie supplied as he straightened into a standing position.
"Or a decision of important ramifications had been made." Simon shook his head. "No, not that… but similar."
‘Leya meowed gently reminding Blair that Becky wanted to see them. He left the adults arguing in the corridor. The D’neirf walked by a wall with one of the little knotholes which opened a secret door.
Pausing by it, Blair asked, "Not going in the passages?"
‘Leya continued down the corridor. Blair pouted; the passages were fun.
"Hey!" Jamie came running down the corridor his kilts flying. His face was suffused with blood and the pulse at his temple was hammering. "Don’t run off."
"I didn’t run," Blair protested. "I was going to see Becs."
Jamie huffed loudly and reset his plaid across his shoulders with firm angry motions. "You’re going to give me grey hairs before I’m twenty."
"Really?" Blair squinted up at the laird’s golden hair; he couldn’t see any grey.
An unintentional smile crossed Jamie’s face. Laughing, at some unknown joke, Jamie held out his hand. Blair reached up and let him curl his fingers around his palm.
"Where is Becky?"
"I dunno, I was going to your eyrie."
Jamie shook his head and continued laughing.
There wasn’t a lot in his room to entertain the little prince. Jamie opened the trunk at the bottom of his bed and pulled out some old toys that his gillie had inadvertently packed when he had returned to court. There was a rather mangled cuddly wolf that had listened to many a trauma.
"This is Jammy – I’ve had him a very long time."
"Why?" Blair poked it with his finger.
"Just one of those things." Jim really couldn’t think of a good reason. "Most people have a cuddly toy."
"I had some, they’re in a cupboard, Cassie said so they don’t get dirty." His chubby hand brushed the balding fur.
"They’re supposed to get dirty." He turned in a circle scrutinising his room. "So, no Becky."
Blair nodded, more interested in showing Jammy to ‘Leya. The kit batted its cloth nose. Blair jerked the toy back and ‘Leya pounced on its tail. Realising that the prince was occupied for the moment, he decided to take advantage of the lull.
"I’m going to take a bath. Blair?"
"All right, Jim," he said absently and dropped Jammy on ‘Leya. The kit spun on her back and clamped her claws around the toy’s head. A tug of war began.
Jamie locked the door to his quarters and took the key into the en suite bathroom hoping to foil any escape attempts.
Rainwater filled a cistern above his rooms. The pure water soothed his nerves better than any other source in the castle, including the palace well. Mentally reviewing the firespell, he made sure he had all the details and intricacies before he cast and warmed the water above his head.
Knowing that his prince would only remain distracted for a short time, he kept on ear firmly honed in on the child as he washed. Still listening – Blair was telling some involved tale to the toy – he shaved his jaw. The child had quite an imagination. The tale was a fairly accurate retelling of how the She Wolf Fenedra created Acharn. What Blair didn’t know, he made up.
Jim threw his grubby plaid into the washing hopper. He pulled on a clean cotton ghillie shirt and debated on whether to wear the great kilt or his little kilt.
Blair’s narrative stopped. Jim darted back into his room. The prince looked up as Jim appeared, he was curled up on the laird’s narrow bed with Jammy and ‘Leya. There didn’t look like there was a mischievous bone in his body.
Keeping one eye firmly on Prince Mischief he selected his fealeadh beg from closet and wrapped it around his narrow waist.
"That’s different from your other kilt," Blair noted, as Jamie secured the buckles at his hip and then pinned the folds with his house pin where the tartan gaped.
"This is the fealeadh beg – the little kilt. It’s more appropriate for running around the castle than the feileadh mhor – the kilt I drape over my shoulder." It was also a pain to get into, he had to lay out the skein of material on the floor on top of a belt and set the pleats by hand. Then he had to lie on top of it before belting it around his waist. He was sure Blair would find the whole process fascinating.
He selected a well tailored doublet to accompany the kilt.
"Your kilt’s wonky."
Jim grumbled and resituated his kilt so it rested on his knees, precisely.
"Can I have a kilt?"
"When you’re eighteen." Jamie sat on his bed beside the prince and pulled on his socks and tucked his Sgian Dubh by his calf.
"Why not now?"
"Just the rules, I suppose." Jim slumped on the bed beside the prince. "I’ll tell you what, I’ll ask the Seamstress, Lady Linda. She can cut down one of my kilts."
Blair brightened up considerably. "Can I have a purse too?"
"It’s a sporran." Jamie belted the sporran around his waist.
"Spo-rr-an. You put your keepsakes in it – to keep them safe."
"Oooh!" Blair suddenly straightened. His already wide eyes opened considerably.
"What!" Jamie bounced to his feet, drawing his dirk.
"Becky," Jim breathed a sigh of relief.
"Hi, Becky." Blair slithered off the bed, and toddled across the room, Jammy tucked under his good arm and ‘Leya at his heels. He stopped beside the dresser and looked up.
Jamie crossed to his side, and crouched beside him. "Can you see Becky, Blair?"
"Yes." Blair cocked his head to the side, and almost hid a mischievous glint behind a veil of curls. "You can’t?"
"No." Jim reached out and brushed the curls aside. "I can hear her, though."
"I wants her to teach me how to walk through walls."
"I don’t think Becky will do that, will you?"
::No:: Becky replied smartly.
"You wanted to talk to us?"
::Yes, Laird Jamie, you need to go down to the dungeons, but tonight… late… when the castle sleeps. And you need to watch yourself, there is evil afoot in the castle. You need to take some Elvenberry sap with you, too::
::I do not know. I am only the messenger:: And with that cryptic comment, Jim felt her ethereal presence whisper away.
"Oooo." Blair was joggling on the spot, quivering with anticipation. "It’s an adventure."
"Oh, no," Jamie said emphatically. "You’ll be asleep in your suite."
"No.no.no.no.no." Blair shook his head, vigorously, his curls flying wildly. "She told me too!"
"Prince Blair, you will not. The message was for me. I would be failing my responsibilities to you, if I allowed you to become involved in this matter."
In the face of such stubbornness, Jim knew that extreme measures would be called for, both Rafe and Henri, would be watching Prince Blair tonight.
"Tis not fair," Blair grumped.
Jamie mocked scowled back at him, resisting the temptation to tell him that ‘such was life.’
"Elvenberry sap. I wonder what Elvenberry sap is?" Jamie mused. What did one do with Elvenberry sap?
"I knows someone who will know."
Jamie regarded Prince Mischief. The child smirked up at him, rocking on his heels merrily.
"You’re not five, are you? You’re the reincarnation of King Sandburg."
"I’m kidding." Jamie scooped Blair up, and nestled him against his chest. "Your grandfather was still alive when you were born – you cannot be his reincarnation."
"I’m bright," Blair proclaimed. "Seah says so. Robyn say so, Mags says so. I know things."
"So, my little genius, who will know about Elvenberry sap?"
"Robyn!" Blair bounced in his arms.
Jim hung his head in shame, of course – the Tree Dryad would indeed know.
Danbush saw them coming and ran away and hid in his shed. The oak leaves shivered as they approached. The canopy seemed to reach down to shelter them from view. Jamie marvelled at the dappled sunlight streaming through the leaves and branches. There was a myriad of colours, some of which he had never known existed. In the highest branches a squigel jumped from acorn to acorn harvesting them for its babes. The top of the tree was nigh on one hundred steps above his head. He could no longer gainsay his gifts – he was now a Sentinel. A fist of fear clenched in his stomach. He didn’t hold the key, how could he wield the gifts?
Two brown doe-like eyes blinked down at them. Slowly, Robyn eased away from her tree, limbs becoming visible and distinct from the bark. Jamie knew his legends but he didn’t know if the dryad was an extension of the tree or a separate entity.
"Your Highness." Robyn pulled Blair into the lower branches. "Bad prince; you should not have climbed so high."
"Sorry." Blair pillowed his head against her breast. "Did I hurt you?"
"No damage that can’t be repaired." Her twig like fingers brushed Blair’s swollen fingers sticking out from his brace.
Below them, Jamie judged that jumping to grab the branch above his head and swinging up by wrapping his legs around the lowest branch might work. He hated climbing in a kilt.
Jamie checked for any maids or young ladies sunning themselves in the orchard, seeing that it was all clear – he jumped. The branch beside him moved to help, and he swung his leg to haul himself up with little effort.
"You can climb," Blair said gleefully, from his comfortable position on Robyn’s lap.
Jamie wiggled into a relatively comfortable position, shifting his kilt beneath his thighs, protecting them from the rough bark.
"Even in a kilt."
The dryad smiled inscrutably.
"Greetings, I am James William Forest d’Ellison of the House of Ellison, Heir to the Northern Mountains." He bowed his head, all the while keeping a firm grip on the branch.
"Robyn, advisor in matters of Danu to the Royal Family of Acharn."
"My name is Blair, just Blair," he piped up.
Both Dryad and Sentinel laughed.
"You are: His Royal Highness Prince Blair Nechtan Finn of the House of Sandburg-Bran, Holder of the Keys to the Weardian, Heir to the Lands of Acharn and Protector of the People."
"That’s my name? Coor, that’s a big name."
"You’ll grow into it." Jim ruffled his curls, then turned his attention to matters at hand. "Milady, I wonder what you can tell me of Elvenberry sap and where we could get some?"
"Tis a restorative, it brings life and vitality. I do not have any. But Mags in the kitchen may if you are very, very lucky. It is a rare and otherworldly elixir."
"Mags?" Jim asked.
"Mags is the old head cook. She’s a--" Blair concentrated, "--a herbalist. She teaches me."
"Life and vitality," Jim mused. A ghost wanted a potion that brought life and vitality. Or there was someone in the dungeons who needed Elvenberry?
"Elvenberry has another use – it can be a soporific, if the burnt fumes are inhaled."
"You learn something new every day."
"I do!" Blair chirped.
Holding Blair’s hand firmly, Jamie ventured into the kitchens for the second time in one day, when previously he had never ventured into the servants’ domain. Dinner was being prepared and the scents were divine. The hustle and bustle threatened to overwhelm him.
"Mags." Blair tried to leave the Sentinel’s side. Jamie came back to himself and held the prince firmly.
"Sweetie." An ancient crone turned milky eyes in their direction. "Who is your friend?"
Blair dragged him through the mess of cooks all working with military precision. One man paused in kneading a ball of dough and turned white on realising that royalty had entered the kitchens. He dropped his bread and scurried out to the oven room.
"This is," Blair took a deep breath. "James William Forest d’Ellison of the House of Ellison, Heir to the Northern Mountains."
"Child, are you in trouble?" Tapping her stick against the stone floor, she picked her way unerringly to their side.
Jim felt himself assessed by her blind eyes and he found himself wanting. It wasn’t a sensation he was familiar with. Canting her head to the side, Mags sniffed, crouched with a speed belying her age and ran knowing fingers over the prince, stopping at the brace.
"I smell willow draught – are you in pain, child? Did you break your arm? Who mended it?"
Jamie held firm as Mags’ fingers enveloped his wrist and attempted to break his grip on the prince.
"Cindy Lou mended it. It was proper broke, it was all in pieces." Blair leaned forward conspiratorially. "I saw all the little spiky bits. Cindy Lou made them glow gold and put them back together."
Horrified, Mags caught his arm in her hands and bowed over the brace. Jamie felt a stir of herbal magic.
"It is perfectly done."
"The Court Physician is the premier physician of the Land," Jamie said evenly.
"Sweetie, the Court Physician healed thee?"
"Cindy Lou mended it."
"Thank you for looking after him, sir." Mags fixed him with a horribly intense glare.
"Thank you, for looking after Prince Blair."
"He helps me, sir. And he’s the brightest little soul I have ever met," Mags said passionately. "He deserves better than being a page at his young age. I know that his duties are few but he should be at home with his mummy… Prince Blair?" Mags’ fingers found the royal crest at Blair’s collar.
"Prince Blair Nechtan Finn of the House of Sandburg-Bran, Holder of the Keys to the Weardian, Heir to the Lands of Acharn and Protector of the People," Blair recounted. "It’s a big name, Blair is easier to say."
"Granny! The Laird Jamie…Ooops."
"That’s my great granddaughter, Matilde Louise, the Head Cook."
The much younger woman, who bore no resemblance whatsoever to her granny, curtseyed deeply. "My Lord, how may I help you?"
"I wish to speak to your granny, thank you."
"Mags?" Blair sidled up to the herbalist’s side. "Can I have a honey cake? I’m hungry."
She snorted and then laughed a rib tickling laugh. "Of course, you can, sweetie." She took his good hand and led him over to the fire. "You can indeed have a honey cake."
"Milord?" Matilde Louise curtseyed again, her long skirts brushing the stone cobbled floor. "May I help you?"
Jamie looked at Blair happily ensconced on Mags’ lap and devouring a honey cake. Blair had friends; friends that had looked out for him when he had been at home in his beautiful Highlands, learning at Kelso and Wolfe’s knee. He should have been here for the prince too. Protecting him from Cassie. What had that bitch poisoned the child’s mind with?
"Sire?" Matilde asked again.
Jamie coughed, covering his unease. "Your grandmother is a herbalist?"
"Yes, milord. A true herb witch."
"Has she taught you?"
"Yes, milord, some of the art."
"Would you have any Elvenberry sap?"
Matilde’s brow furrowed as she thought. "It is a powerful linctus, sire," she said tentatively.
"Do you have any?"
Reluctantly, she drew a heavy wrought iron key from her bodice. "I have a small vial."
"I require it." He held out his hand.
"It is a rare and powerful. I… cannot… simply give it to you. It is dangerous."
"Tell me how it is administered. I will not abuse it," Jim grated, standing tall, attempting to cow the woman.
"It is in the interests of Acharn that I procure this ‘Elvenberry sap’, I insist."
Shaking her head, she padded over to the slate dressed cold room. The young woman was patently unnerved by his presence, but was not blindly going to give up the drug. Jamie dogged her heels as she unlocked a small metal crafted cabinet. In her hand she held a tiny glass vial. It was dark blue, only as long as his index finger. The liquid inside glowed to his sentinel eyes.
"Milord." She kept her fingers wrapped around the vial. "An adult can take no more than two drops in a day or he will drop into a stupor and never awaken. You cannot abuse it."
"And if I burnt it."
Her eyes narrowed. "Five drops over a fire – and then do not inhale if you do not want to sleep for a night and a day."
"So be it." He held out his hand.
She held the vial to her breast, almost daring him to take it. Then unwillingly she relinquished it into his care.
"I give you the word of a Sentinel that I will not misuse it."
Her eyes widened at his declaration. "Milord, your gifts? They have woken?"
Jamie refused to be drawn and immediately turned on his heel exiting the room.
She ran to his side. "Sire, if you have come into your gifts take only one drop, perhaps even less. Please, sire, only one drop."
"I understand. Two drops for a mundane and one drop for a sentinel."
"That’s rude!" Blair yelled from the safety of the fireplace. "That’s a rude word! Jimmy said a rude word."
Jamie hung his head, grimaced, and then controlled his expression by pure force of effort.
"Jimmy said a rude word," Blair continued sing-song. "Jimmy said a rude word."
Blair grinned up at him, his curls tumbling around his face. "Jimmy said a rude word." He rolled around on Mags’ lap, laughing uproariously.
Jamie resisted the temptation to bite his knuckles in frustration. "Yes, my prince, that was very bad of me. I should not call people mundanes."
"Mundanes. Tossers. Bints…" Blair sang.
"Prince Blair!" Jamie snapped.
Blair clapped a hand over his mouth, but said in an aside to Mags, "How come he can say rude things?"
"Because," Mags said quietly, "he’s big."
"True." Jamie plucked the prince from Mags’ knee. "But that is the way the world turns."
"Still not fair." Blair twisted in his arms. "Did you get the Elvenberry?"
"Elvenberry?" the ancient herbalist asked sharply.
"I have sworn the oath of The Sentinel that I will not misuse it. It is a matter of great importance that I have the potion," Jamie addressed the woman.
"Becky, she’s the guardian of the castle and a ghost, sez that Jim needs it because there is evil afoot in the castle." Blair supplied helpfully. "I think nasty Chancellor Lash and his nasty son Lash are in it – ‘cos bad things happen when they’re around. And also the DhuSidhe and Filbog ‘cos they live in dungeons and Jamie has to go to the dungeons but he won’t let me go because I’m little. Which isn’t fair – ‘cos I’m bright. And you know, I don’t like Minister Trevellyan ‘cos he smells."
Jamie’s mouth dropped open. Mags and Matilde were staring at the prince with shocked expressions on their faces.
"Not a word of this to anyone," Jamie blurted.
The two herbalists nodded emphatically.
The other members of the kitchen staff were deliberately not listening.
Jamie nodded at the two women then bolted.
Gather closer around the campfire. Listen, things are happening. Ghosts with messages from the unknown. Secret assignations in the dungeons. And why does Jamie need Elvenberry sap?
Jamie chased Blair around the suite, determined to wear him out so he would fall asleep and not get involved in the night time activities. If an adult had broken his arm he would have retreated to bed and moaned, but the healing powers of a child allowed Prince Blair to bounce back to health. Jamie dreaded to think what Blair would be like as an adolescent. His own thirteenth birthday had been a time of much rebellion, whinging and evil doing.
Blair started throwing cushions at him.
The child certainly had a pure unabashed appreciation of life.
Jamie gently lobbed them back at him. Blair was laughing, a laugh which begged you to join in. The D’neirf kit had retreated to the top of the wardrobe and was watching them. Jamie pounced onto the bed and caught Blair, lightly tickling his sides.
"No!" Blair howled. And Jamie let him wiggle away.
Blair attacked, bouncing on his chest. Jamie dropped onto the mattress, allowing the prince to pin him to the bed. His little chubby hand inexpertly tried to tickle; Jamie laughed anyway.
Blair flopped onto Jamie’s chest, panting for breath.
"Had enough?" Jamie sat up.
"No!" Blair proclaimed, but he stayed sprawled on his tummy.
"Uhmmm, time for a bath." Jamie gathered the prince up. A warm bath and a cup of milky hot chocolate would put the prince to sleep.
As the moon slipped beyond the highland mountains on the horizon, an absolutely knackered Jamie deftly slipped a sleepy Prince Blair into bed. Blair had been indefatigable, but had finally succumbed to a story and a draught of Cindy Lou’s potion for his arm. The prince curled around his new friend, the cuddly wolf called Jammy, as ‘Leya snuggled in behind his knees. Blair yawned, showing a wiggly front tooth. His eyes slipped shut and then he was asleep.
Jamie carefully tucked the warm quilt around his charge. The child’s breathing was deep and steady – he was deeply asleep. A light tap on the door announced Henri and Rafe’s entrance into the royal suite.
Jamie held his fingers to his lips. "Shhhhh," he whispered.
Henri cocked his finger, beckoning Jamie into the antechamber. Jamie double-checked the balcony window before slipping into the other room.
"What did you find out about the Lady Cassandra?"
"The Duchess Michelle was most helpful," Rafe began. "It seems that she was sponsored by Chancellor Lash."
"Lash?" Jamie hissed.
"Yes, Chancellor Lash and the Lady was known to associate with his son, Davy," Henri added.
"How do you know this?" Jamie asked.
"I spoke with the pages. One should never underestimate pages; they are a font of information," Rafe said sagely.
"The fact that Chancellor Lash was her sponsor provides us with no real evidence," Jamie spoke out loud.
"True," but Henri’s tone rebuked his disheartened words, "but to place a corrupt person so close to the prince requires time and effort and wealth – we must have a veritable nest of snakes amidst the castle."
"I fear that that is true." Jamie moved over to the fireplace, leaning tiredly against it. "Did Kincaid take my message to my grandfather?"
"I gave it to the messenger myself," Rafe said. "He left first thing."
"If he rides fast and changes horses at the way stations, and then catches a ship at New Castle he should arrive at Bruncladhic in the next seven days. It will take another seven days for my father and grandfather to reach the capital. I think we have to continue our investigations."
"As if you could just sit back and wait for your grandfather to arrive." Henri laughed.
Jamie had the grace to look abashed. If he weren’t careful the two older Lords would guess that he had a mission planned for the eve.
"Can you watch the prince for a candle mark?" he asked. "I need to get something from my room." Keep the lies simple; that had been the first thing he had learned from his grandfather.
"To be sure." Rafe sagged onto an armchair beside the fire. A stiletto appeared as if by magic and he began to pare his fingernails.
Henri bowed. "No one shall pass us."
Jamie looked at the dapperly dressed Lord Assassin and the Adjutant to the Wizard Sultan, both of whom were well trained and the heirs of their respective families.
"I think it would be wise if you stayed in his bedroom."
"Ah." Rafe laughed depreciatively. "I suppose you’re right. He is a devious little so-and-so and he is liable to sneak away. You know, the prince would make a good assassin; I could recommend to the council that he be trained. The earlier you start training the better…"
"No! He is a child, he should enjoy his childhood for as long as possible." Jamie put his foot down.
"You are right." Rafe sighed, wisely. "There are some things that no one should learn."
Dressed in the darkest blacks shrouding his distinctive plaid, Jamie hugged the shadows. His nascent sentinel abilities searched the lay of the land. The reverberating echoes of the abandoned dungeons threatened to overwhelm him. Jamie bit the soft flesh of his thumb, forcing focus.
The ever present drip-drip of the water running down the walls grated down his backbone as if nails rasping across a blackboard. He craned his head, to look over the parapet, into the dungeon courtyard below. The cells surrounding the square exercise area were empty. No prisoners lay in manacles. But torches guttered in their holders. There should not have been any lights. The dungeons were abandoned to storage and cargo at the decree of Queen Catherine, Prince Blair’s great-great-grandmother. The criminals and warmongers were educated until they were ‘cured’ on the Isle of Schooling and the Druids of Acharn nursed the insane.
The dungeons should have been abandoned.
Obviously they were not.
Jamie pulled his hood over his golden hair. He would get to the bottom of this if it killed him. He would protect the prince and, ostensibly, the Land.
Hugging the walls, Jamie crept toward a soft murmuring. Voices spoke in hushed tones. Nothing good was afoot.
Jamie tried to focus, but he could not understand the words. His control was poor. His heart in his mouth he crept forward. He concentrated with all his heart and soul, he had to protect the prince.
He heard that clearly. His hearing locked onto his charge’s name and his sight followed. Around the corner, in an abandoned cell, he could see no less than six cowled figures, a coven of evil, clustered around a flaming brazier.
"Jamie may yet thwart our plans."
"How? He is a child himself," another voice said dismissing him as a threat.
"I think that his gifts have been awoken." The voice was male, hoarse and roughened by time.
"How?" another snapped.
His heart in his mouth, Jamie crept towards the voices, skirting the walls. He recognised one, he could not believe it. By the Goddess his world was ending. This could not be happening.
"He bonded with the prince," the first voice spoke, the one that he knew so very well.
"How? Cassie corrupted the brat. He no more wants to be a guide, than I do." That voice was unknown.
"If the prince dies our victory is assured."
Jamie barrelled around the corner. "Father! How can you say such a thing?" he demanded.
William Judas Iubdan d’Ellison inheritor to the House of Ellison slowly turned to stare at his son. "You should not be here."
The other five cowled figures slowly turned. His sentinel sight catalysed, Jamie was appalled to recognise The Zeller and Chancellor Lash standing with his father. And he could have sworn that the portly man toward the back of the assembly room was Lord Trevellyan.
‘By the Goddess, the whole council is corrupt!’
One figure, whom he did not recognise, raised a hand. "Kill him."
End Chapter II.
Do you remember what happened last? Jamie’s Father is part of the evil cadre but we still don’t know what they’re planning. Cassie’s goal was to corrupt the prince and prevent him from ever becoming the guide to the Sentinel. Has she succeeded?
His father drew his sword.
Jamie’s thoughts stuttered to a halt. His father had actually obeyed the order. He would have simply stood and stared except for the Mage at his father’s side. Energies churned about the skeletally thin man. Circling tighter and tighter they found their focus in his soul dead eyes. Lightning arched.
Jamie ducked and made to flee, the bolt missed him by a hairsbreadth.
"Get him!" A female voice screamed.
‘Lords and ladies!’ He ran knowing that the hounds of seven hells were at his heels. The upper level of cells were too exposed; he had to find cover from the Wild Strike Mage. Another bolt of lightning gouged a lump of rock from the dungeon wall by his head. Jamie vaulted over the parapet into the dungeon courtyard below. He dropped lightly, rolling into a ball to break his fall.
It was still too open. He had played here as a page and he knew that the dark doorway ahead of him led to the prison infirmary. Dodging and ducking he ran pell-mell towards escape.
Another lightning strike charged through the air. The wave of burnt air threw him forwards through the door. Rolling smoothly to his feet he chanced a look over his shoulder. The Wild Strike Mage rode the ball of lightning to the dungeon floor. The cadaverous looking man raised his hands in preparation to throw another spell.
A harsh voice began the intricate incantation leading to a firestorm.
If the spell was exploded in the corridor he would be burnt to a crisp. Jamie froze; there was no escape. The Zeller appeared behind the Mage, his macabre grin mocking – anticipating his death.
Jamie knew that he was going to die and the prince would be next.
But a sentinel couldn’t miss the stench of the castle sewers. The drains filtered through the castle, the many threads coming together in a larger channel exiting at the base of the castle.
‘Where?’ Jamie looked to the left and the right, his sentinel eyes expanding to scan the dark world around him.
A dark hole, darker than the corridor around him led to – by the sound of it – churning water. Jamie didn’t hesitate. The smell was beyond belief. Anywhere else in the castle the sewer drain would have been covered – but in the dungeons it was a mere slop hole.
Jamie jumped through it, feet together. The slime caking the walls aided his passage.
"No! Don’t let him escape."
His last glance as he slid out of reach was The Zeller’s sword in a downward stroke missing his head by a mere fraction.
Blair’s left alone
Blair woke up because his arm was hurting. He opened one eye, since there was a horrible grating noise and if it was a monster he didn’t want to let it know that he was awake ‘cos it would jump on him and eat him up. Sa’Leem Henri was draped over a chair beside his bed, his head tipped back as he snored and snored and snored. There was a long person curled up at the bottom of the bed. Curious, Blair sat up and realised that the Duke of Rafe was asleep on top of his quilt.
Then Blair realised that there was a gaping hole in his room – no Jim.
"Hey, Sweetie." Rafe was awake in an instant.
"Jamie? Where’s Jamie?"
"Jamie went to his room to get something. He asked us to stay here."
"No Jim," Blair said mutinously.
"You’re right; no Jamie – but we’re here, aren’t we as good?"
"No Jim." Blair kicked off his patchwork quilt, crawled to the edge of the high bed and dropped onto the floor. "Where’s Jim?"
He padded over to the garderobe, but Jim wasn’t there. Lord Rafe shadowed him as he checked the wardrobe and the walk-in closet. The music box on top of the fireplace caught his attention. The D’neirf had opened the passage behind the fire by pawing the box. But Blair couldn’t reach it.
‘Leya, curled up on a pillow, peeked out from under her tail. She meowed.
"The dungeons?" Blair asked the D’neirf. The castle ghost had told them to go to the dungeons.
"What about the dungeons?" Rafe crouched beside him, so that they were level.
"Becky told Jamie to go to the dungeons, ‘cos there’s evil afoot in the castle. She said to take Elvenberry sap. I was supposed to go too."
Rafe gripped his shoulders. "Tell me again."
Blair sighed at the obtuseness of adults. "Becky told Jamie to go to the dungeons, ‘cos there’s evil afoot in the castle. She said to take Elvenberry sap. I was supposed to go too."
Henri, still decorously draped over his chair, snorted and then blinked. Licking his lips, he sat up. "What’s happening?"
"Becky told Jamie to go to the dungeons, ‘cos there’s evil afoot in the castle. She said to take Elvenberry sap. I was supposed to go too," Blair said again.
Henri jerked upright in his chair. "What?"
"Shhh!" Rafe hissed over his shoulder at the older man, and then turned his attention back to Blair. "Who is Becky?"
"Becky’s a friend."
Rafe gritted his teeth. "Does she work in the castle?"
Blair shook his head.
"She’s not in the castle?"
"No." Blair shook his head, again
"Blair, tell us who Becky is, how you met her and what she told you."
Sighing deeply, Blair began. "Becky’s guardian of the castle and a ghost. I can see her but Jamie can only hear her. I met her in Jamie’s eyrie, when Jamie took me there after we saw the Veb. What was the other question?"
"Ghost? You saw a ghost."
"Yeth, and Jamie only hears it." Blair smirked. "Jamie was peeved when he found out that I can see her. I can’t see her properly but she wears old clothes like in the pictures in the old gallery. You know the big one along the wall beside the fire where the warrior’s got a long flaming sword and she’s facing down the Hordes of Delsha?"
It was Rafe’s turn to nod.
"Tis a costume like that."
"So what did she tell you?" Henri asked refusing to be side tracked.
"Becky told Jamie to go to the dungeons, ‘cos there’s evil afoot in the castle. She said to take Elvenberry sap. I was supposed to go too."
"And nothing else?" Henri was now crouched beside Rafe.
"That’s all she said. No no. no. no. that’s not true. She said that she was only the messenger. Then she went poof and disappeared."
Rafe fired an adult glare at Henri. Blair didn’t like it when they started passing messages that way. They weren’t any words for him to suss. But Henri was scared, he could tell that; the lights he saw around people -- that didn’t quite flash in his eyes but in his head -- were spiky and swaying like dried grass in a thunderstorm.
Rafe was different, Rafe was always shiny sliver or smiley, Blair couldn’t read him.
But that was fine, there were other ways to figure out what the big people were up too.
"Feck!" Henri said succinctly.
Blair perked up; they had come to a decision. Maybe now they would go down to the dungeons and find Jamie. He grabbed Jammy from the bed and tucked her under his arm. ‘Leya twined around his feet waiting on the adults to get their act together.
"What about the prince?" Rafe asked.
‘No,’ Blair thought, ‘they’re not going to leave me out.’
"Who? The Duchess Michelle is with the Queen; she cannot be disturbed."
"Is there nobody else in the castle we can trust?"
"My honoured Master, the Lord Sultan."
"Oh, great, way to look like a secure and uncorrupted royal court."
"Where were you born? I’ve never been to an uncorrupted royal court."
"You know, I don’t like him. He’s too emotionless."
"We can’t take the prince with us."
Blair started towards the door. If he was lucky perhaps they had left the door without the handle open, and then he would be able to find Jim.
"Ah a ah!" Henri caught the prince by his collar and swung him against his hip.
"HURTS!" Blair wailed.
Henri dropped him like a hot potato. The Sa’Leem had trapped his poorly arm against his side.
"Oh, I’m so sorry! I am so sorry!"
Blair sniffled; that had hurt… lots.
"Oh, I’m so sorry." Henri chucked him under the chin, trying to entice a smile. "Can I see?"
The Sa’Leem looked really sorry. Blair peered at him through his curls. It was kind of strange; Henri was really upset. Why? Blair sniffled and then added another sniffle for good measure. He curled his good arm over his sore arm. He chanced yet another sniffle – Henri was very contrite. Maybe they would take him down to the dungeons?
"Oh, poor little pet," Rafe fretted. The assassin left their side and rifled through the bottles on the cabinet beside the bed. He picked up the honey draught that Cindy Lou had given Blair.
"Here you are, pet." Rafe scooped him up, sitting him on his lap and offered the purple bottle.
"No." Blair pushed it away.
"Just a sip, it will help."
"Come on, drink it for Rafe," Henri cajoled.
"His fingers are a bit pudgy," the adjutant addressed Rafe.
"Jamie said that the bones in his arm were shattered. It was a nasty break; I’d expect it to be swollen."
"Come on, Blair, just a sip. The herbs will bring the swelling down."
Blair sighed deeply, and took a mouthful of the strange liquid. It evaporated on his tongue before it drained down his throat. His ears burned pinkly. Rafe gave him another mouthful before he could stop him. He dribbled some but swallowed most.
"Want Jamie," he worried.
"We’ll find him," Rafe vowed.
Blair glanced hopefully at the assassin. "Pwomise?"
"Ssssssh." Rafe enveloped him in a blanket, tucking it around his body. He couldn’t wiggle, he couldn’t move. His nose felt numb. He yawned into Rafe’s chest. Sleepy lassitude swept over him.
Rafe carried the prince from bedroom, wrapped like a baby in swaddling.
Simon joins the tale.
The Lord and Master of the Secret Lands to the East looked up as his aide entered his suite with the Royal Assassin of Acharn. The Duke of Rafe held a wrapped bundle topped with a tumble of chestnut curls in his arms. Curious, Simon pushed his glasses further up his nose with his finger. The blurred form resolved into Prince Blair. Unspotted by Rafe, although Henri was no doubt aware of its presence, a minor air elemental fluttered by Rafe’s shoulder gazing fondly at the prince.
Simon placed his nibbed feather in its inkpot.
"Sire." Henri bowed deeply. He straightened, chewing his bottom lip nervously.
"Henri, why are you here? Do you not realise the time? Prince Blair should be in bed. Explain?"
"The Laird Jamie is missing. Before we search for him we wish to leave the prince in a safe place."
Simon sat back in his leather backed chair as his adjutant spun some lurid tale about the young laird investigating the death of the Lady Cassandra, and potentially the whole court, culminating in a secret assignation in the dungeons. And the only witness to this insanity was the tiny prince.
The Sultan had some inkling about what was afoot in the court and Lands of Acharn as did the Queen Naomi. He and his entourage had journeyed to the green lands to help and advise his former love while she was indisposed. That the Heir to the Northern Mountains and the next Sentinel in the famed line of d’Ellison was on quest could be interpreted as both a good and a bad sign. If the threat was sufficient to garner a sentinel’s interest it was indeed serious but if a sentinel was involved, the strongest force in Acharn had been invoked.
Simon pushed away from his table. "Go find Laird Jamie."
"The prince, My Lord?" Rafe asked.
Simon accepted the sleepy bundle. It had been a long time since he had held a baby. His son Daryl was a cliché ridden, angsty argumentative teenager. Cuddles were not on the agenda.
"Jamie," Blair mumbled sleepily. "Gone."
Simon jerked his head towards the door, giving the two men his permission to leave. They did so with alacrity, bouncing off each other as they fought to get through the door.
"Well, it’s just you and me, son. Are you going to behave?"
The mischievous prince had the gall to look innocent.
"Have you seen--" Blair yawned again, "--my mama?"
"Your mama’s got a lot on her mind."
"Want mama. Want Jamie."
"Ssssssh." For the first time in his life he was baby-sitting and the first order of business was to put the child to bed. The flighty air elemental tweaking Blair’s curls read the Sultan’s solemn expression and rode the winds out of the room following Rafe and Henri. It paused by a protective rune carved into the lintel, swirling in a ball of winds its form almost indistinguishable. With a sound that suspiciously sounded like a laugh, it darted through the doorway. Simon’s protective wards snapped up behind the elemental. The being had entered with Rafe and Henri, no other elemental beings would be able to enter the Wizard Sultan’s suite unless he allowed it.
Joel uncurled from the darkest corner of the room where he had been standing guard. "Do you require assistance, Sire?"
"We have a guest. Turn back the blankets on the bed in the spare suite. No, Lord Rafe and Henri are correct, there are…" He glanced down at the little prince who was listening to every word. "My room."
Joel bowed with the grace of a panther.
"Right, little boy, back to bed."
A surly cast overtook Blair’s sleepy expression.
Simon gazed back evenly at the child, and then hefted him higher in his arms. "Bed."
Wrapped in the blanket was a cuddly toy wolf. He tucked Blair and the toy in the centre of his enormous bed and sat on the edge. Only a single lantern illuminated the room. Blair’s eyes were filled with trepidation. A bedtime story was called for to put a little boy to sleep.
"I met your mama when I was twenty-two, she was the same age as Jamie. She’d run away from home. Your grandfather had all the armies of the Land looking for her."
"Mama ran away? Why?"
"She wanted to see the world. She took a horse from the castle stables and rode like the wind always following the rising sun. But your mother went on her own and she didn’t tell anyone where she was going. She didn’t take any supplies. When she was crossing the Hammergeld a band of rebels captured her."
"Mama," Blair whispered half-horrified.
"Not to worry; the story has a happy ending. Your mama escaped using her wiles and set off on foot over the Desert Plains of Hammer. She was found by travellers heading back home to my land – the Secret Lands to the East. They nursed her back to health, because she’d almost died of thirst. The caravan passed through Olland and the Steppes until they reached my Land. I’ve been the Sultan of Hannahanna since I was nine years old. Your mother was in the market when I saw her and recognising that she wasn’t from Hannahanna I… invited her back to my palace."
"Did you have a party?"
Simon chose his words very carefully. "Yes, we had a party. I got to know your mama very well. She became my best friend. She had only visited one season when Jamie’s grandfather with his legion tracked your mama to my city. I didn’t want your mama to leave. But Naomi convinced me that it was for the best that she left with d’Ellison, otherwise there would be a disagreement between her people and mine. She wanted to see more of the world. And I knew that she had responsibilities and that d’Ellison would teach her what she needed to know about being the Queen of Acharn."
"Like Jamie and me?"
"Yes, like you and Jamie."
"When I grow up will I be Queen?"
"No, boys are princes and they grow up to be kings. Girls are princesses and they grow up to be queens."
"Are they different?"
"Ah, a, ah." Simon waggled a finger under his nose. "You only get one story and then little princes go to bed."
Tucking the covers around the child and the cuddly toy, he ensured that they wouldn’t be getting out or turning over in bed. He lowered the lantern wick until a soothing glow filled the room.
"But you said you were making friends with mama?" Blair whispered. "But you were friends."
"Oh." Simon stopped en route to the door. "I didn’t want her to leave Hannahanna. Your Mama wanted to go home, preferably via outer Patta Shu. We’re friends but we haven’t seen each other for a long, long time. We had to make friends again."
"I want my mama."
"I know," Simon said softly. "And I am doing every thing I can to ensure that she can come back to you."
A sodden figure clawed his way up the muddy bank. James William Forest d’Ellison heir to the House of Ellison collapsed halfway out of the river, coughing up slimy water. Fingers clenched in the soft mud, he tried, futilely, to haul himself another hairsbreadth out of the raging river.
He did not succeed.
His skin crawled, responding to the slimy, horrible matter he had swum through during his escape from the castle. The castle sewer system had been an assault on his senses. He was sure that he had lost himself in the grey space feared by all sentinels.
Exhaustion swamped him.
The sun had risen higher when he opened his eyes once more. Abruptly awake, but disorientated, he pushed up on his elbows and promptly fell back into the raging torrent he had barely escaped. The river channelled all of the run off from the castle crags above. Over the aeons, water had washed away the massive stones in the centre of the channel. Although ancient legend said that the King of Acharn had gouged out the river using ancient magicks during his final battle with the Mage Brack.
Jamie dragged off his black tunic casting it over his head to make a balloon. He clung to the float as the torrent washed him further down the river. And away from his prince.
His body felt like a leaden weight. The mass of his feileadh mhor threatened to drag him under, but the great kilt would be invaluable when he reached the shore. One could not survive in the Great Forest of Acharn just wearing a long ghillie shirt. A dull numbing pain in his ankle reverberated up his leg. His ankle was either broken or sprained. It must have happened when he escaped from the cadre.
Jamie had flung himself down the sewer chute, out down the waterfall and into the river to escape certain death. He tried to tell himself that he had had no choice. But he had left the prince alone.
His heart clenched. His charge. His prince. And he realised belatedly, his Guide.
He tried to kick, to propel himself over to the side. White hot agony laced up his leg, threatening to send him into unconsciousness. Stunned, he held on to his float and was propelled another furlong from the castle. On the lower plains the river would slow, but he would be many miles from the castle.
He swore loudly and expressively at length.
The sun rose. Impressively, he had slept or more likely, he admitted bitterly, drifted into the dark abyss. The water had slowed. He could no longer see the castle over his shoulder. He was many miles from the prince.
He had failed his duty.
Kicking with his good leg, he swam to the side. He picked a sloping edge, beaching himself on the muddy sand. Inch by inch he dragged himself out of the water. Once clear, he gave into the luxury of simply curling up on the sand.
His ankle throbbed with the beating of his heart and the dull throb between his ears formed a painful counterpoint.
But he had no time to rest; he had to get back to the castle. The entire council was corrupt. They also had a Wild Strike Mage in their group. He struggled onto his knees. Then he remembered, and his heart sank -- his father was in the evil cadre. It was unbelievable. William Judas Iubdan d’Ellison inheritor to the House of Ellison was a Sentinel Sinister. The shame would be felt to the hundredth generation.
"Grandfather!" he cried.
Desolate, he collapsed back onto the sand. Was his grandfather even alive? If William had turned – would he have gone as far to kill his rival and incidentally his father?
He had to warn his grandfather.
Focussing, he turned his thoughts inwards, he was adept but preferred not to touch on those magics drilled into him by his tutors.
The pain overwhelmed his concentration. Pushing the pain away, he tried to access the magic.
The sun had reached its zenith when he came back to himself.
"Danu," he swore as he thudded his forehead against the wet sand. He had completely lost his focus. With his father’s betrayal he had lost the discipline to wield what talents he possessed.
"Goddess," he prayed, but he could think of no other invocations. The true import was that he had left the prince alone, but his grandfather was an adult he could protect himself.
Jamie staggered to his feet and promptly crumpled as his broken ankle gave way.
"GRANDFATHER, HEAR ME! PROTECT THE PRINCE!"
Somewhere at the edge of Acharn, he felt Ellis John Forest d’Ellison gaze out of his turret window at the storm clouds glowering over the mountain Sgurr na Bannachdich.
"Chamberlain, alert my legion."
"Yes!" Jamie thanked the heavens above. Fuelled by terror and guilt he had found the strength to alert The Sentinel. Vigour leached away from his bones, and he sank, stunned, back on the cold sand.
Using his Sgian Dubh, Jim slit the edge of the black tunic he had used to hide his plaid. He set the makeshift bandages aside along with two straight branches. After taking a deep breath he straightened his ankle.
His scream echoed through the leaves.
"That hurt so much."
Sweat dripped off his nose as he braced his ankle. He allowed himself a moment’s rest before he slid out of his great kilt and twisted the excess water from the heavy material. Laboriously, on hand and knee, he laid it out on the sand and clumsily set the pleats. As he lay on the tartan and belted his house plaid around his waist, he forced himself to remember that come nightfall he would value the heavy kilt. He set the intricate folds so they rested mid-knee and secured the plaid over his shoulder with his juniper wolf brooch
He took stock of his supplies, his dirk was long gone, lost in the rapids, but his Sgian Dubh – his black knife – rested in his knee sock. He traced the signet of the pommel that held the clan mark of the Ellisons. He would succeed. He would return to the castle and ensure that the prince was safe. With great deliberation he crawled towards the tree line. In the trees he found a sturdy branch and hauled himself to his feet.
Slowly, arduously, he made his way upstream back to the castle.
Blair peeked around the edge of the door. His chestnut curls tousled about his face. Simon, ensconced by the fire, in his leather armchair glanced at him over a large journal. Unaware that he was observed, Blair made another furtive scan of the room.
He squinted at the corner, where Simon knew that Joel stood camouflaged. The damnable cat twisted around his ankles. Blair scampered across the floor towards the window, his toy wolf tucked under his arm.
The prince froze halfway to the doors.
He turned and his tongue peeked between his teeth. "Hello?" he lisped.
"Good morning," Simon responded politely.
Blair glanced at the doors, resignation in his eyes, and then he scampered over to Simon’s side. He peered over Simon’s elbow at the large journal.
"What are you reading?"
"The journal of the Mage Brack."
"He was a bad man." Tongue still caught between his teeth, Blair scaled the heights of Simon’s armchair and clambered onto his lap.
"I can read," Blair announced. "Sandburg," he read, "that’s one of my names. King Sandburg fought the Mage Brack on the pin… pinnic…?"
"Pinnacle – it’s the summit of a mountain."
"Fank you." Mercurially, Blair’s attention moved on. "Where’s Jamie?"
"I don’t know."
Blair leaned back on Simon’s lap to gaze up at his face. "He went to the dungeons."
"I know. Henri and Lord Rafe told me. They looked for him and couldn’t find him."
"Jamie’s gone?" Blair asked worriedly. "That’s wrong."
"Why are you reading a book? Why aren’t you looking for Jamie?"
"In a book?" Blair turned over a page but he couldn’t see Jamie hidden in the pages.
"Brack was a Mage, I thought I might find a spell."
"To find Jamie?"
"Look more!" Blair ordered. He patted the pages insistently.
"I will, but you should go and get dressed. Joel will dress you and take you to breakfast."
Simon’s eyes narrowed as Blair looked to the shadows where his bodyguard stood concealed. No one should have seen the master of the hidden skills. But the prince was still a child; he had not learned how to overlook the obvious.
Blair scrambled off his lap, his scabby toy wolf still tucked under his arm. He headed directly to Joel’s hidey-hole, reached up, grabbed the bodyguard’s hand and tugged him out of his corner.
"Come on, I want eggs. I’m not wearing baby clothes. I want a kilt. I’ll let you meet Mags. You’ll like Mags. Mags is a herbalist. She has a daughter who’s a herbalist too. I think you should wear black – ‘cos then you won’t get cold."
Joel shot Simon a frankly horrified stare as a five year old dynamo towed him out of the suite.
Blair explored his new suite. He liked all the weird and wonderful things that Simon had dotted around his rooms. There were some little figures playing musical instruments on Simon’s dresser. One of them even danced. A tickling sound of chiming bells drew him to an engraved box. It was a pretty box -- purple burnished wood with green edging that had angular patterns the like of which he had never seen.
He picked it up between his two hands and carefully transferred it over to Simon’s big bed. Setting it onto the plush quilt, he kicked off his velvet booties and clambered up after it. Cross-legged, he studied the box.
The lid lifted and the sides fell away. A perfect quartz sphere, the breadth of his outstretched hand, rose, to levitate just before his eyes.
Blair’s mouth fell open in pure joy. His mama had one of these; it was a magic tool, not to be played with – ever.
He tapped the crystal with his finger. "Where’s Jim?"
Within the depths sparkles stirred. Two motes came together and then another two. A picture formed. An eagle’s eye swooped over a dark, evergreen forest. Trees loomed closer as the view moved down, down, down beneath the canopy.
Plaid, a sharp contrast against the green of the forest, caught his eye.
The laird struggled through the dense undergrowth, bracing one hand against bark as he stumbled against the trees. Jamie was covered from head to foot in dirt. There was a cut on his forehead that bled bright red blood.
The laird froze, then looked up. Blair saw Jamie mouth his name and lift a hand up to cup the sky. Jamie’s face filled the globe. But Sentinel eyes couldn’t see him.
"Jamie?" Blair waved vigorously.
The laird’s brow furrowed. He scanned to the left and to the right. Then sighing deeply, he turned away and continued picking his painful way through the forest.
The ball fell, bouncing on the comforter.
"You made it go away!" Blair barked at the Sultan.
"None of that, young man." Simon waved a finger under his nose.
"Jamie was there. You made him go." Blair picked up the ball and shook it. He squinted into the depths. "Jamie?"
"How did you open that box?" Simon plucked the sphere from his palm. "It’s bespelled."
"I told it to open."
Simon squatted down next to him on the bed. Blair shuffled back against the headboard as the Wizard Sultan passed his hand over the ball. He muttered an invocation and not a single mote twisted. Sighing heavily, Simon set it aside.
"Child, has Jamie tested you?"
More ‘adult’ questions, they were always interested in the ‘testing.’ Blair was more interested in Jammy and ‘Leya.
"Blair, has Jamie tested you?" Simon’s voice was sharp. "Blair?"
"No." He shook his head. "Jamie sez that I’m five not fifteen. Minister Zeller said that I should be ‘tested’ but Jamie sez I have to have now ‘cos I won’t have it later. I didn’t understand when he said that, though."
Blair cut suspicious eyes at the Sultan as he raised both hands.
"Jamie said NO." Blair backed away.
Simon screeched as the D’neirf landed squarely on the back of his neck. The door burst open as Joel launched himself through. Scimitar flashing, he streaked across the floor. Hands scrabbling behind his head, Simon tried to grab the kit.
"Sire, hold still." Setting his scimitar aside, Joel wielded his serrated knife.
The D’neirf hissed mockingly, it jumped to the floor. Joel reacted with shocking swiftness bringing his knife down. A sudden pop filled their ears as ‘Leya disappeared in mid-air.
"By the Sentinel!" Joel swore as he gouged a hole in the carpet.
"By my grandfather’s mistress!" Simon cussed.
"What’s a mistress?" Blair asked.
"Your scabby cat disappeared."
"’Leya’s not a cat. ‘Leya’s a D’neirf; they’re special."
"’Leya does that all the time. I haven’t figured out how, though. She twists something in her head and goes sideways into the dreaming place."
"The cat is a mage?" Simon’s mouth fell open. "Where did it go, Joel? Has it reappeared?"
"No, Lord Sultan." The bodyguard crouched down to scrutinise the room.
Simon resorted to magical means. Sparkles danced around his head as he wove a new spell. One twinkle spun and arrowed away, on a direct line of sight from the D’neirf’s point of departure. Blair scrambled after it, he really wanted to figure out how ‘Leya used the portals.
The prince froze – Simon had a commanding voice. The Wizard Sultan squatted down so they could see each other eye to eye.
"The D’neirf opened the box?"
Blair weighed the pros and cons of the question. He planted his good hand on his chest and stated, "Yeth."
Inwardly, he added, ‘the music box.’
"What did you see?"
"Jim’s in the woods. He’s got a hurt foot and a cut on his head."
"Do you know where?"
"Oh." Blair hung his head in shame; he didn’t know where Jamie was.
"It’s all right, son." Simon tweaked his nose. "We know that he’s alive. What sort of trees were they?"
"Green ones," Blair supplied helpfully.
Simon smiled tightly. "Did you see the leaves?"
Blair nodded, curls bobbing in his eyes.
"What kind were they?"
"Dunno." He cocked his head to the side. "They were different sorts of trees and lots of different leaves, broad ones, spiky ones and – yes, I remember – oaks. I saw a proper Oak. I know what an oak looks like."
"Sounds like the trees on the plains forests before you get to the castle escarpment," Simon said thinking out loud. "How did the laird get down there?"
"Can we look for Jim, please?" Blair wrapped his fingers around the golden sash across Simon’s chest and tugged insistently.
"I will send Joel Nabweh with a detachment of my guard to look for Laird Jamie." He waved his hand and Joel bowed and exited the room.
"Can we look as well?"
"We have to stay here and protect your mother."
"Mama?" Blair pounced on his words like a kitten on string. "Why do we have to protect Mama? Is Mama in trouble from Chancellor Lash and Lord Trevellyan too?"
"Why do you single out Chancellor Lash and Lord Trevellyan?"
"’Cos they’re bad men. Chancellor Lash isn’t happy and that makes him hate people."
"And Lord Trevellyan?" The Wizard Sultan rocked back on his heels considering his words.
"He smells bad."
Simon snorted. "That’s hardly a reason to dislike the man."
"He smells real bad," Blair said seriously. "What about mama? I want to see mama. I’ve been really, really good and I want to see mama."
"Son," Simon began. The very gravity of his manner made collywobbles run up and down Blair’s back. "Your mama’s… not very well. She sleeps a lot, all day and all the night."
"Mama!" Aghast, Blair jiggled Simon’s arm. "Mama’s poorly sick? Is she going to die like grandfather?"
"No, son, I won’t let that happen."
"You promise?" Blair stared into Simon’s brown eyes looking for certainty.
He could not lie. "I will do my best."
"I want mama!" Crying, Blair bolted from the Simon’s side, running for the door. It had another infernally high handle. Simon plucked him up as he tried to reach the knob.
"No.no.no.no.no. I demand – Cassie said I could demand – I demand to see mama!" He clenched his good fist and banged against the Wizard Sultan’s head.
Simon caught Blair’s fist and tucked it against his side. "I will take you to your mama."
Ah ha! And thus one secret has been revealed. But what is the evil cadre up to? Will Jamie return to the castle in time before the pot boils over?
Jamie’s ankle gave way for the fifth time in an hour. He tumbled down an embankment, fetching up in a muddy ditch. Fuming, he pulled himself back up to the deer trail above on his hands and knees. He had no idea where he was apart from somewhere in the Great Forest of Acharn. The deer trail had appeared before his eyes. Jamie had distrusted the coincidence but he had no choice. Walking through the deep undergrowth with his broken ankle and increasingly blurred vision was nigh on impossible.
The Great Forest had never been managed like the woods on the southern plains or the lower reaches of his Northern Mountain, Sgurr na Bannachdich. A few copse folk harvested fallen branches, mushrooms, nuts and the such, but logging was forbidden. Thus trekking through the forest was difficult.
The path forked. At a quandary he slumped to the earth. One route would probably led to water. He licked his lips unconsciously. The other probably led to the lair of – and Jamie sniffed – a boar.
Jamie gritted his teeth; boars were dangerous. An adult boar could easily kill a grown man. Several had been known to become man killers. Why couldn’t it have been a clan of wolves? Wolves were much more reasonable. Unable to struggle through the dense scrub, he found his feet and picked his way down the trail leaning on his makeshift crutch. Some two hundred weary steps later the trail widened. A mishmash of tracks told him that he was indeed on the way to water. Many animals used the trail, including, Jamie was surprised to see – by the distinctive cloven tracks – a unicorn.
Hopeful, he staggered forward. If the unicorn had cleansed the water ahead it might have healing properties. At the very least he could soak his agonisingly painful ankle in the waters.
He broke through the undergrowth into a glade framing a natural pool. The heathers and grasses around the pool were flattened by the passage of many feet, but the sun had dried the earth to a hard platter. The water sparkled enticingly. Still wary, he edged forward. He wanted the water, but with a boar in the vicinity he also wanted a boar spear.
Startled, a rabbit bolted for its burrow as he limped along. Swearing words that would have made his prince dance with glee he struggled the last few steps to the pool. With a deep heartfelt sigh he plopped down to the earth and dunked his head straight into the waters.
It felt divine.
He jerked upright, sloshing water on the bank.
"Who’s there?" He scanned the surroundings. There was no interloper but he had heard the voice clearly. Eyes narrowed he scrutinised every nook and cranny from the little rocks hemming the pool to the shrubs bordering the glade. Belatedly, he realised that someone with fingers and thumbs came to the forest glade; the stones around the pool were too even, all of the same type and set with precision.
"Hello," he ventured.
The water of the pool rippled, concentric circles journeyed to the edge and bounced back to meet back in the centre. The water became unnaturally still like a mirror. But there was no reflection. Tentatively, Jamie peered into the depths. A face framed with sea green hair stared up at him. The being’s eyes were elf-like, canted at the edges and framed with lustrous lashes. Jamie watched as lizard membranes brushed over the jade eyes.
It was a water elf.
The elemental being smiled at him and nodded.
‘Can you read my mind?’ Jamie thought loudly.
::Yes, and there is no need to shout::
::I am Killash of the Keren::
Accepting the gift of the real name of a fey and the trust it entailed, Jamie reciprocated. ‘I am James William Forest d’Ellison heir to the House of Ellison.’
They now shared names, one could death spell the other.
::Your clan is one which does the Land much honour. We are indebted to you and yours::
"Ah." A gentle blush touched Jamie’s fair features. "Uhm, thank you. I haven’t managed to acquit myself as the Sentinel of Acharn but I hope to continue as my forefathers…" Jamie’s voice trailed off, remembering that his father was the basest of men – a traitor to his oaths and realm.
"You speak falsely." Killash’s spoken voice was surprisingly deep contrast to her inner voice.
Jamie watched amazed as the water elf rose from the water. She was taller by easily a head and as slender as a willow. The grass green hair tumbled in a smooth waterfall around her shoulders and then brushed the mirror like surface of the water. She wore a gown of water swirling, chiming rapids.
"I do not tell lies!" Jamie protested.
"My apologies. I meant that you are a true heir of your grandfather filled with honour, bravery, courage and the soul of a Blessed Protector. You are a Sentinel."
Jim glared at the elf. "This is very flattering, but…" he grated to a halt, frustrated. "Can you help me? The prince is vulnerable; there is a cadre of evil in the castle and here I am in the middle of nowhere!"
"And what of the Queen?"
"What of the Queen?" Jamie asked confused. The Queen was so busy that she had no time for her tiny son. The damn treaty took up all of her time. Jamie knew that his grandfather – filled with duty – would understand.
"Is not the Queen at risk?"
Flummoxed, Jamie realised that the elf was correct. The Queen! He shook his head, tiredly, he knew intellectually that the Queen was in great danger, but his heart and soul called out to the child prince.
"The prince has nobody. The Queen has the Wizard Sultan and the Duchess Michelle." He cast his eyes heavenwards. "Please can you set me on the way to the castle? I *need* to get back. They are in danger. The prince is in danger."
"Come to me." She held out her transparent arms.
Jamie balked; tales of drownings at the hands of water sprites were not unusual.
His newborn senses did not help him, how could he tell if an elemental was lying to him? Her heart beat to a different syncopated rhythm. He was her thrall. Reluctant, but an unrealised trust made him reach out.
She drew him into the depths. Warmth enveloped him, easing away the pain in his bones. He was sure that he slept, but when he emerged from the water the sun above him had not moved.
The pain in his ankle was no longer pure, unadulterated agony and his thoughts were crystal clear. He must have addled his brains when he had been tossed down the mountain rapids.
The water swirled around his body as he treaded water. "I thank thee, Milady."
"It is an honour. And I can help you further." She pointed to the edge of the glade, water droplets shimmering from her fingers. A light grey wolf crept from beneath a willow. It bowed its head, acknowledging the Sentinel of Acharn.
"This is Tay. He will help you, take you to the edge of Quercus robur and set you on your way to the castle."
"Quercus robur?" Jamie asked, still treading water.
"This is Quercus robur." Her gaze encompassed the forest.
"Oh, it has another name."
Killash of the Keren cast a leery eye at him.
"Right." Jamie bowed his head. Realisation struck him. "I have the true name of the forest."
"Yes." Killash slowly sank back into the depths. "Use it well in your magicks."
Jamie was alone in the sunlit glade. Strangely peaceful, he paddled to the shore and crawled back onto the dry grass. The wolf had moved to the edge. It smiled up at him, tongue lolling from the side of its mouth.
"So you’re going to help me save the Land?"
The wolf laughed.
More protectors stand against the evil threatening the Land of Acharn. But will our heroes find the source of the threat?
Blair is told the awful secret
"Mama?" Blair touched her cold hand. "Mama?"
Blair turned moist blue eyes up to the Wizard Sultan at his side. Simon gritted his teeth, the words on his lips stayed unspoken. Confused at the pain he felt all around him, Blair looked back to his mama. She lay on a soft byre draped in royal purple. Her head was supported on a flat tasselled cushion. Duchess Michele, on the opposite side of the strange bed, patted the thin kevlar sheet keeping his mama warm.
Mama’s hair was brushed until it shined; the Duchess Michelle was looking after her. Blair knew that she was his mama’s favourite lady-in-waiting.
Queen Naomi slept on.
"What’s the matter with mama?" he asked piteously.
"Oh, my darling." The Duchess swooped down and enfolded him in a much needed hug. She cuddled him close. "Your mama has been bewitched. We’ll break the spell, I promise – it will just take a small while."
Mama’s eyes were closed, she just looked like she was sleeping – but the bright light of her being was dull and cloudy. Mama was normally so bright he basked in her warmth like a happy lizard in sunlight.
"Mama?" He leaned out of the Duchess’ hold to grip the Queen’s shoulder. "Please, mama, wake up." He shook her hesitantly.
She slept on.
Blair burrowed his face into Michelle’s neck and sobbed.
Simon tries to help
Simon sat Blair on the footstool beside his leather armchair. He crouched at the child’s level. The young prince’s normal enthusiasm was missing. Even his curls seemed droopy. A gossamer winged elemental, floating by his shoulder, gazed up at the Sultan sadly before whipping up the chimney.
Simon chucked Blair under the chin, but he couldn’t even garner a tiny little smile.
"What’s the matter with mama?"
"I don’t know," Simon said seriously, "yet."
"Is she going to die like grandfather? I think that my daddy died too. Mama never talks about him."
Simon rocked back on his heels as he considered his next words. "I don’t know about your daddy and your grandfather. Your mama had a spell put on her; she slept a little bit longer every day and felt a little bit more tired. The Duchess Michelle guessed that it was magic but they couldn’t figure out what kind of magic. Michelle asked me to come and help because I am your mama’s friend."
"I bet the Lashes did it."
"Because they smell bad?"
"No." Blair growled and showed his baby teeth. "That’s Lord Trevellyan. ‘Cos of the dead places in them where the maggots churn."
The imagery made his stomach turn. Simon knew with a certainty borne of experience that the prince was d’Ellison’s Guide. That the child was meant to guide a sentinel meant that he possessed empathy in spades. What other gifts did he possess? Magick seemed to encircle him, but he didn’t use it consciously. Intelligence, to be sure, and a curious mix of guilelessness and guile.
How did a child recognise the darkness in others? How did he have the knowledge to recognise evil? This was most definitely an old soul sitting before him. He had a wisdom beyond his years, but it was still tempered by his lack of experience. Mystical texts stated that only in the direst of personal circumstances did the immortal soul behind the mask of physical being interact with the world.
‘What has this child suffered?’ Simon wondered.
"No Jim. Mama’s poorly – this is bad." Blair was worrying at his bottom lip, looking every inch his five years.
"I know, but I promise you that I will do my best to find Jamie and heal your mama and find out what’s happening."
Blair shuffled off the footstool and toddled over to the windows. He placed his small palm on the glass. "Bad things are going to happen, aren’t they?"
Simon stood behind him, towering over the child. Avuncular feelings surged through him, but somehow he knew that the prince would not let him hold him.
"Here’s Jammy." Simon nudged Blair’s shoulder with the mock wolf.
"Fank you." Blair nuzzled the toy. "Jamie gave him to me, he said that he used to tell him stories. Cassie wouldn’t let me have any cuddly toys. She said they’s make me soft."
"But Jamie has a cuddly toy and he’s a big boy."
"Ooooh." Blair looked up at him, opened mouthed. Simon could practically see thoughts and connections converging in his canny little mind. "Cassie lied didn’t she? She lied a lot."
"I think so. I think she was…" Simon strove for a suitable description for a clever but, regardless of his gifts, still small boy.
"Nasty," Blair supplied sagely.
"Yes, nasty, good word."
"So elves won’t come and eat me up if I become a… a… guide?"
Simon dropped to his knees in front of the child. Blair backed up against the windows. His thumb planted itself unerringly in his mouth.
"Blair, what did she say to you?"
Jammy’s head was squashed under his arm and his chin was tucked down to hide his eyes under his droopy ringlets.
"Oh, my poor little boy." Simon reached out, but stopped just short of touching the prince’s bowed head. "What did Cassie say to you?"
"Nothing," Blair said around his thumb.
"If you don’t tell me what she said I can’t tell you if she lied."
"All big people lie, you do it all the time. Sometimes you do it on purpose. Other times you just do it without even thinking. You say things that you don’t mean. Why don’t you say what you mean? Mama lies, she said she’d never leave."
"I know, Blair. Big people tell little lies, middling lies and big, nasty lies – trying to figure out who’s lying and when you’re being lied to is one of the most important things in the whole world. Jamie has never lied to you. He’ll never lie to you. I think Cassie lied to you a lot, and you have to tell people what she said or you will never know the truth."
"Jamie’s not here to tell."
"I know. Will I do? I promise." He held his hand over his heart. "I promise to tell you the truth."
Blair lifted his head. Sapphire blue eyes judged him. Storm winds ruffled his curls. Whatever magics this child wielded they were serious indeed.
"She said that when the night fell the goblins were going to come and kill everyone. And the Goblin Queen would rule forever. And if I did become a guide ‘cos I was meebe a guide, I would be the worst of them all. I’d be nasty and horrible and I’d never see Mama again."
"Really?" Simon managed.
"Yes, guides eat slugs and snails and worms." Blair looked to the left then right and leaned forward conspiratorially. "I ate a worm once and it just tasted wiggly. I didn’t grow any horns."
Simon managed not to grimace. "So you know that Cassie lied?"
"Oh. Yes! Yes! I ate worms and I didn’t grow horns."
Simon’s smile was purely unintentional. "She told you a lot of bad things about guides didn’t she?"
"Guides help other people. They mostly help the Sentinels. They’re intelligent and thoughtful and gentle. Guides are the nicest people in the world."
"Really? Am a guide?"
"I think so."
"But…" Blair had a seriousness that belied his age. "I like being naughty." A mischievous smile broke out on his face.
"Well," Simon echoed Blair’s smile despite his best efforts. "’Naughty’ and ‘Bad’ are two entirely different things."
"Yes, but you should try to be good."
Despite everything that had and was probably going to happen, Simon laughed. Prince Mischief; Simon had heard Jamie’s nickname for the Royal Heir.
"Now, I think that your mama was bespelled. That means that I think that some bad people cast a spell on her. I need to find out who did this so I can make her better. I have to read my books and look around the castle. So Rafe and Henri are going to look after you."
"What about Jamie?"
"Joel took some of my guards to the base of the castle to look for him. He has my orb – they will find him." Simon finally gave into the impulse and ruffled Blair’s gossamer curls.
"I know that you want to help," Simon interrupted. "But it would be better if you stayed here. I have had Rhonda, my mistress, bring you some toys to play with."
"I thinks you should take Rafe and Henri with you."
"Why?" Simon was intrigued to know what the child thought.
"’Cos it’s all starting to happen and you’ve sent away Joel who usually looks after you."
"Ah, but I am the Wizard Sultan of Hannahanna. I am not to be underestimated."
"What does that mean?"
"It means, my young friend, that I am a very clever person – just like you. Come." Simon guided Blair away from the windows and back into his bedroom. Rhonda had set out a mass of coloured bricks, pens and crayons, parchment and books on a small table. "Rafe is very good at drawing, he can show you how."
Blair sat down by the table and grabbed a block, appearing very unimpressed. "I want to help you."
"You can help me by keeping safe. Jamie would have me hung, drawn and quartered if I allowed you to come to harm."
"What’s that mean?"
"It’s not nice. It’s worse than brussel sprouts."
"Yes, worse than brussel sprouts."
A delicate knock interrupted them. Henri entered the room. "You called, Lord Sultan?"
"Yes, I am leaving the young prince in your care. There is, as you said so succinctly last night, danger afoot. We need to find out what is happening."
"But Joel has gone to the plain below the escarpment, you are unguarded," Henri protested, crossing his arms in consternation.
"Ah, but as I told our young friend: I am the Wizard Sultan of Hannahanna," Simon said haughtily. "Sa’Leem Henri, I leave the young prince in your charge, do you accept this duty?"
"Yes, Sire." Henri bowed.
Simon drew the hood of his satin robe over his dark hair. He turned to the door. "Behave yourself, young friend."
Blair ran across the carpet intent on reaching Simon’s side. Henri caught the back of his tunic and brought him to a halt.
Blair scuffed his feet on the floor angrily, but Henri kept a hold of the squirming child.
An uncommon emotion clenched its fist around the Sultan’s heart.
"You have to be careful."
Jamie’s adventure continues
Jamie staggered and fell against a tree with a rough bark. He slithered to the ground and simply curled up at the base. He was exhausted. He was so very, very, very tired. The wolf was indefatigable, loping through the thick undergrowth of the forest. But Jamie only had two legs.
Tay skidded to a halt and twisted to peer over his shoulder. Dutifully, he padded back to the Sentinel’s side, plonked himself down on his haunches and stared.
"I bet Blair would understand you. You’re a beautiful animal." Tentatively, he reached out and patted Tay’s head. "I’m so very tired; but it’s only been a day."
The sun was setting and the green world around him was turning sable. The moon, Cirribis, was ascending. He could only hope that his sentinel eyes would allow him to continue, assuming that he could manage to get to his feet.
Tay fixed his amber eyes on the Sentinel. What was the message that the guardian of the forest was trying to convey? The wolf rolled his head to the side and then pushed his nose against Jamie’s sporran.
"What?" Jamie shifted backwards.
The wolf followed determinably nudging the leather pouch.
Tay huffed loudly.
"Okay. Okay. Okay." Jim dumped the contents of his sporran on the grass.
There was nothing special, a chunk of fudge that he was hoarding, a small knife, handkerchief, a statue of Danu and the vial of Elvenberry sap.
"Ah!" Jamie pounced on the vial. The herbalist said that it was both a stimulant and a soporific. He held the finger length vial trying desperately to remember the herbalist’s instructions. As a sentinel he knew that he had to be careful. His grandfather had drummed that into him as a bairn.
"Burning it makes people sleep and drinking it makes you go. It was one drop… one drop for energy."
He viewed the vial with trepidation. Somehow taking the Elvenberry seemed like a difficult decision. Becky had told him to secure the vial but to this end – to drug himself? To help him return to the castle to save the prince and Acharn?
The revelation was painful in its intensity.
"I should have thrown the vial in the brazier. The smoke would have knocked them out."
"I’m an idiot!"
Swearing under his breath, Jamie carefully dripped a single drop on his tongue. Still grumbling he waited for the Elvenberry to work its magic.
The rush was subtle, moving through his veins. His exhaustion drained away. Jamie exulted, rose to his feet and continued running, trailing the wolf.
Blair goes on an adventure
Blair lay in his new big bed. His arm was hurting, Henri had kissed it better, and it had helped a little but it was still sore. The moon cast silvery light over the castle ramparts. It was late and most of the castle would be asleep – it was time to go see Robyn. He dropped to the floor and crawled quietly to the bedroom door, it was slightly ajar.
Rafe and Henri were sitting beside Simon’s flickering fire playing cards. Blair ducked back into the bedroom. After his bath, Rafe had laid out his next day clothes. Jamie had trained him well; more silly velvet, princey, lacy, ruffly clothes. He grabbed the leather shoes and pulled them over his footie pyjamas.
He absently patted Jammy on his head and then scurried over to the wooden wardrobe in the alcove beside the bed. When he had been playing hide and seek with the Assassin he had hidden in the wardrobe. In the back was a knot that opened a secret door. The entire castle was riddled with the passages.
‘Leya was busy with D’neirf business so he was on his own. Blair stuck his finger in the knot. The door slipped back with a tiny little squeak. Blair bit his lip, hoping that his babysitters would ignore the noise. He slipped through the dark crack and waited until it closed behind him. As the door closed the mage lights rose from the floor and glowed.
"We have to go down to the orchard."
The orchard was down, so he had to find a way down. That was easy, there were lots of staircases and chutes. A mage light hovered at his shoulder. But they didn’t help; just shone bright light as he wandered down the corridor.
It didn’t take him very long to figure out that he was lost. Becky or ‘Leya usually helped him in passages. The light bobbed beside a spiral staircase. Going down was the right idea. It was a rickety stair. Blair resorted to shuffling down on his bottom as it creaked ominously. Two steps disintegrated behind him. Grandfather Blair should have magicked up some woodworking gnomes to look after the stairs as well as the lights.
The corridor at the bottom of the staircase was short, suddenly twisting away after a few body lengths. A sharp laugh caught his attention. Blair scurried along a wall hunting for a knothole. People were laughing. People normally didn’t laugh in the castle. They were serious and miserable.
He didn’t find a knothole, but he found a crack in the wood panelling. He squinted and peered through the hole. It was a small room. There were only two people in the room, a lady and a man. The man was wrapped in dark rags and the lady hidden in a scaly green cowled cloak. The man scared him; he didn’t glow. There was no sense of life, like the glow around Robyn’s Oak tree or Jamie. He was like a gaping maw filled with foetid breath. Blair’s fingers crept into his mouth as he watched. The man scared him; he was dead.
"So, Bracket, have your spells found the Sentinel?"
"The forest protects him," he grated.
"I didn’t drag you back here to give me feeble excuses. Find the Sentinel or I’ll send you back to your grave."
"Yes, Mistress." Bracket bowed, but he wasn’t cowed.
"Do not antagonise me, minion, else you will taste the magics of the Goblin Queen." A pale white hand emerged from the enshrouding cloak. The fingers were long and decked in talon length green nails.
Blair clapped his hand over his mouth to stop a terrified squeak. The Goblin Queen was coming for him, just like Cassie had said she would.
"Yes, Mistress, and the prince?"
"I will have him."
Blair didn’t wait to hear anything else. He ran down the corridor away from the Goblin Queen and the dead man. The light hurried to keep up. He had to find Simon or Robyn or Henri or Mags or Rafe or Jamie.
"’Leya!" He shrieked. "’Leya." The D’neirf would help him get out of the passages. He ran into a wall and bounced back onto his bottom. Stunned, he started to cry. He wanted his mama.
He cried himself out, sobbing until his nose turned red and his eyes felt swollen and heavy. Slowly, he found his feet and began to pick his way along the corridor looking for knots in the wooden panelling or a hole in a stone block.
High up on the wall, he saw another gnarly wood knot. Balancing on tiptoes, he reached up and pushed his finger against the trigger point. Three panels retracted into the stone wall, making a breach wide enough for a boy to sneak through.
Blair emerged behind an empty set of armour standing guard in the main foyer.
The castle chatelaine was at the far end directing two maids who were wielding dusters. The lady in charge of the castle was a bit of an ogre in all senses of the word. Her great-grandmother had come from one of the Northern Clan of barbarians. Her hair was as fiery as her temper. You didn’t argue with Mistress Teal and you weren’t cheeky. The maids were directed to the oriel windows to clean out the old wax from the melted candles.
Blair looked to the barred doors leading to the inner ward. The portcullis was beyond and the drawbridge. But the oak post was too heavy for him to lift. There was no escape; the Goblin Queen was going to get him. Taking a deep breath, Blair ran as fast as his legs could carry him to the marble staircase dominating the foyer. The steps were high and deep. Blair struggled up the first flight and ducked behind the newel post on the half landing.
"You little brat!"
Blair spun on his heels to see Rafe striding down the stairs taking them two at a time. He jumped down onto the landing.
The maids stopped working and stared up at them.
"Rafe!" He flung himself at the dapperly dressed assassin. Rafe, instinctively, caught and lifted him up until they faced each other eye to eye.
"If you were anyone else I’d smack your bottom. I’m bloody well tempted to do it."
"I saw the Goblin Queen and a d… de…de… dead man!" Blair wailed.
Below them the maids gasped.
"It’s nothing," Rafe said pompously to them. "Go back to work. Now."
"You heard the Duke of Rafe, girls," Mistress Teal rapped sharply, "back to work. Your Grace, may I help you? I think that his Highness should be in bed."
"Yes, little boys who sleepwalk should be in bed."
"I didn’t…" Blair began to protest.
Blair glowered, he didn’t like being told to shush. "I saw the Goblin Queen, she’s real just like Cassie said. She’s gonna take over the Land. She’s got long green nails and she’s evil. And she wants me!" he finished stridently.
"Amazing imagination," Rafe said tightly.
Mistress Teal had joined them on the half landing. "Your Grace, his mother was the same way as a child. Princess Naomi drove her father King Blair to distraction."
"Yes, Your Highness, your mother was good when she was little."
"You’re not listening. There’s bad people in the castle. There’s a Goblin Queen and a dead man walking."
"Oh dear, what a bad dream." Rafe ruffled his curls.
Blair lunged at his fingers, incensed enough to try and bite them. "There’s bad people in the castle. Uncle Simon! Uncle Simon!" he shrieked.
"Child, you’ll wake the dead."
Blair’s eyes widened horrified. "More?"
"Well, no," Mistress Teal flustered. "It’s just a figure of speech, Your Highness."
"But he was dead." Blair said mutinously.
"Your Grace, it’s past third watch, the prince should be in bed."
"Yes, you’re right, Mistress. I shall put him to bed and ensure he stays there."
Rafe hefted the prince over his shoulder and started up the next set of marble stairs to the upper levels.
"Good night, Your Grace."
"Good night, Mistress Teal."
She bowed and returned to the foyer.
Blair punched Rafe between his shoulder blades. "You’re not listening to me. Nobody listens to me. There was a dead man."
"I’m listening, but you should be in bed."
"See – you’re not listening." Blair squirmed around trying to face forwards, forcing Rafe to stop climbing the stairs. With Rafe practically juggling him, Blair managed to get a leg around the assassin’s neck. Holding onto the Rafe’s ears, he hauled himself upright.
"Sit still, Blair!"
Scrabbling for purchase, Blair clamped his hands in Rafe’s hair.
Black smoke billowed at the head of the stairs. Simon stepped out of the bank of smoke. "Care to explain what you’re doing?"
"Uncle Simon." Blair launched himself off Rafe trusting Simon to catch him. "There’s a bad man and he’s dead and the Goblin Queen’s wif him."
"Your Majesty." Rafe ducked his head in an abbreviated bow as he smoothed down his messed hair. "I don’t think this is the best place to discuss the matter."
Simon looked down the staircase to the foyer and the maids – who knew who else was listening?
Henri rubbed Blair’s face with a damp cloth washing away his dried tears. Blair protested weakly as the adjutant wrestled him out of his purple pyjamas and into an over large tunic in lieu of a clean set of nightwear.
"There’s a dead man. A dead, dead man. He was evil." Blair’s voice dropped. "The Goblin Queen said she brought him back."
"Precious, nobody can raise the dead. The spells were lost a long time ago when the first King of Acharn defeated the Mage Brack."
Simon leaned against the mantelpiece, gnawing his thumbnail as he thought. "The Veb in the prince’s bed was one of the lost spells of Brack."
"You believe me?" Blair jumped down from the four poster bed, his bare feet slapping against the wooden floor.
Simon looked down at him. "This dead man, what did he look like?"
"He was rotten and in rags and he didn’t have any...." Blair’s face scrunched up. "There’s no big words for it. He didn’t have…" Blair waved his pudgy hand over Simon’s stomach.
Rafe sauntered into the suite, interrupting them. "I didn’t find anything and I’ve been over the castle, quite thoroughly, I might add."
"Rafe’s silver and swirly." Blair crossed to the Assassin’s side. "It sticks out about here." He held his hand a finger length from Rafe’s hip. "Yours is--" Blair squinted at the Wizard Sultan. "--yellow but grey across your eyebrows."
Simon’s eyes widened. "What colour am I now?" He inhaled deeply and bowed his head.
"Ooooh, you’re like a rainbow. That’s pretty. How did you do that? Can you show me how?" Blair ran back to Simon’s side and poked his finger in the red thundercloud cascading down his silken robe. He tried to catch a handful and came away with silver threads that whispered away into nothing.
"Whoa." Henri sat upright on the bed. "He can see auras."
"Is that what they’re called?" Blair opened his hand. "They’re pretty."
"It’s important, Blair; this man didn’t have an aura?" Simon crouched at his side, intently listening to his every word.
"Nope, not even black."
"When you say Lord Trevellyan ‘smells real bad’ do you mean to your nose or in your head?"
"In my head. He makes my stomach churn."
"Chancellor Lash and Lord Lash, but they’re different – maggot and wormy. But they change. They’re…." Blair gave up because there were no words. "Lash sucks out other people’s… auras. He took Clarissa’s, he wanted mine but it was too big."
"Clarissa?" Simon asked. "Big?"
"Kitchen maid, she died last year. She threw herself off the castle escarpment," Rafe volunteered from the doorway.
"She didn’t have anything left, she was empty."
"How do you know that, Precious?" Henri joined Simon, crouching and listening. It was a strange feeling, Blair was not too sure if he liked being the centre of attention.
"Cassie and me were on the ramparts. We watched."
Simon scowled, a deep line formed between his eyebrows. His dark eyes flashed liquid fire.
"Cassie took me on the ramparts a lot, especially when it was dark. Davy Lash was there, he held her and sucked away her brightness and then she walked away. I never saw her again. Clarissa was nice, she gave me a lollipop once."
"Protopath?" Henri ventured.
"What’s a protopath?" Blair asked.
"It’s someone who can eat souls," Simon said very seriously. "Lord Lash tried to take your brightness?"
"Yes, he wrapped me in a bag and took me to the dungeons. I was only little then. He put his hand on my head. But there was a dazzlin’ flash of light and he burnt his hand and the guards came and took me back to the nursery and Nanny Pill."
Simon turned away abruptly. Blair watched wide eyed as he punched the window pane, smashing it into a thousand fragments.
Blair squeaked and Henri rushed to reassure him. "He’s not angry at you. He’s angry at Lord Lash."
"Is he going to tell him off?"
"Yes." Simon carefully extracted his fist from the window frame. He gestured with his undamaged hand at the broken glass. The fragments leaped back into the frame running together as if water. A final sliver melded with the flowing glass. Grimacing, the Wizard Sultan wrapped a handkerchief around his cut hand. "Yes, I will be speaking to Lord Lash and Chancellor Lash and Lord Trevellyan."
"Do you think that they are behind the enchantment of the Queen?" Rafe asked seriously.
"It’s likely. But perhaps it is not magic. Perhaps the Lashes are stealing her soul, piece by piece?" Simon mused.
"What about The Goblin Queen and Bracket?"
They all froze. Slowly, with the grinding long-drawn-out slowness of a mountain glacier, they turned as one to face Blair. Rafe swallowed once. He darted a glance at the other two men.
"Bracket?" he ventured.
Blair nodded, his ringlets falling in his eyes. "She called him Bracket."
"We’re in a lot of trouble, aren’t we?" Rafe said with false lightness.
"The Lashes, Trevellyan and the Goblin Queen plus Mage Brack back from the dead," Simon intoned.
"Yes, I think we are in a lot of trouble." Rafe had turned as white as a sheet. "Someone has found Mage Brack’s grimoires."
"Bet the Goblin Queen has them," Blair said helpfully.
Simon pinched the bridge of his nose. "But who is the Goblin Queen?"
End Chapter III.
Gather closer and huddle together or else the demons that stalk around the campfire will get you. The Goblin Queen has entered the fray. But who is the Goblin Queen?
Simon regarded the other members of the royal court as they broke their fast. They were an unappealing group. Reborn with the wisdom of a child, Simon could see the true evil in their souls. The Chancellor and his spawn watched the denizens around the table, cataloguing their peers. Knowing that they were the antitheses of empaths, Simon could now read in their actions their true natures. Lord Lash had focussed his attention on Lord Malú’s daughter. Invoking a spell with the slight twist of his fingers, Simon bestowed protection on the young woman.
"Good Morning, Your Highness. You’re looking very smart today." The Zeller stood behind Prince Blair, his cold expression for once disturbingly avuncular.
Blair scowled up at the minister.
"Rafe’s more worse than Jamie." Blair fingered the lace ruff around his cuff.
"It’s a very smart jacket." The Zeller rested a heavy hand on the shoulder of Blair’s embroidered doublet.
"Go away, you’re a nasty man."
The Zeller chortled. "That’s not a very nice thing to say."
"I agree," Simon said from his seat across the wide table. "I think you should apologise."
Blair glowered at the Wizard Sultan.
He shuffled on his chair leaving his nut porridge. "No," the boy said sullenly.
"Blair, apologise to the Prime Minister," Simon commanded.
"No. Am the prince; I don’t have too." With an almighty push, Blair thrust his cold porridge across the table into Simon’s lap. As Simon squawked, Blair wriggled off his cushioned chair and then pushed The Zeller aside. The Prime Minister made a half-hearted attempt to grab his shoulder.
"’Leya!" the prince called.
The D’neirf kit appeared in mid-air, dropping to the floor beside the prince. Blair ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
Simon’s last glimpse was of Prince Mischief darting through the double doors and away from his protection.
The D’neirf led him immediately to a passageway. Without hesitation, Blair triggered the secret door beneath a heavy marble table. The corridor beyond the hallway was as cobwebby as the other passages but the lights were waiting for him. ‘Leya took him straight through another secret passage within the passage and down a spiral staircase. The kit knew what he was planning. Unerringly, he was shown a new route to the orchard. He emerged on the opposite side of the little wood. Pausing momentarily, he cast the cobwebs from his chestnut curls.
"Robyn? Robyn?" Pumping his little legs, he ran as fast as he could across the grass towards the big oak tree. The dryad was waiting for him, her eyes filled with knowledge. She drew him to her breast and together they climbed into the middle branches.
Robyn set him in a fork in the trunk on moss covered branches. The D’neirf occupied herself stalking through the higher branches teasing the squigels.
"Where is your protector?"
"He’s lost. Becky told him to go to the dungeons and he never came back. I saw him in Simon’s crystal ball in lots of trees."
Robyn looked inwards, her dark eyes turning introspective. "He is within Quercus robur. The Great Forest protects him. He is on his way here. He is safe."
"Yes!" Blair bounced on his seat. A branch immediately dropped down and wrapped around his waist. Blair patted it absently. "I won’t fall, honest."
"Better see that you don’t, Prince Mischief."
"That’s what Jamie calls me."
"Tis a name that suits you."
"Perhaps." Blair smiled showing his teeth. He saw an image of a man in Robyn’s opalescent eyes. He had high cheekbones, full lips and wild storm-tossed curls. Blair recognised the man as himself. But most importantly he wore a great kilt made of Laird Jamie’s distinctive plaid.
"You’re a deep little boy, aren’t you." It was not a question. "An old soul rises within you. Helps you…."
Blair shrugged, disinterested in Robyn’s speculation, he wanted to find out more about his mama.
"I gots a question," Blair announced.
Robyn leaned forwards listening carefully.
"Mama’s poorly sick. The Duchess Michelle and Uncle Simon think that she’s got a magic spell on her."
"I have felt the stench of unease within the castle."
Blair nodded. "Maybe it’s not magic, though?"
"Ah, you think that your Mama might be ill?"
"Or a potion."
"I dunno, but Cindy Lou would have spotted if Mama was poorly and Duchess Michelle couldn’t figure out what spell made Mama sleep, so that leaves herbs."
"I can’t leave Miles." She patted the rough bark of her oak tree. "Mags and Matilde will be able to help you."
"Yes!" Blair exulted, already wriggling free of the branch around his waist.
Robyn wrapped her long fingers around his arms. "I’ll help you down."
"Aw, I’m a big boy."
"A big boy with a broken arm." She tapped the splint.
Rolling his eyes heavenward, Blair accepted her help down the tree. As his toes hit the ground he set off running towards another secret passage.
"Be careful!" Robyn called out.
Jamie loped with the ease of a wolf, moving through the undergrowth as if he was born to it. A family of badgers poked their heads out from their den as he passed. Grinning, he jumped over their heads, acknowledging their welcome calls. Tay’s furry tail disappeared beneath a fallen tree trunk. Jamie hurdled over the fungi covered trunk. The trail that they now ran along was a wolf track, shared by none other than the wolves and their friends. Jamie ducked under a low hanging branch and then vaulted over another fallen trunk. Green light filtered through the canopy above. The world around him sang with health and vitality. Jamie felt reborn; if he had not had to return to the castle swiftly he would have happily stayed with the forest.
Tay came to an abrupt halt, his claws scrabbling on the grassy floor. Jim slid over the wet grass to stop at his side.
"What is it?" he whispered.
The wolf pointed with its muzzle to the path beyond. Sensing the unspoken command, the Sentinel released the reins on his sense of hearing. Footsteps moved on the trail ahead of them. Heavy footsteps so that meant they were people who did not know how to walk through the forest with care and precision. Instinctively, he allowed his sight to lock on.
He almost laughed out loud. Poor Joel was picking his wet way through the undergrowth. He did not look like a happy soul. His black camouflage had long since been rinsed away by the night time rain and the morning mist. He wore damp, clammy, form fitting robes. The Wizard Sultan’s guards looked equally unhappy.
"It is Joel Nabweh, the Wizard Sultan’s bodyguard."
Tay shrugged inscrutably.
"I can join the secret man or continue onto the castle with you?" Jamie questioned.
The wolf bounded off their trail and into the low lying scrub. Hurrying to keep up, Jamie ducked around a sprawling rhododendron bush. The wolf’s bushy tail disappeared between two rocks guarding a gully. Jumping from rock to rock, Jamie moved soundlessly to intercept the small party.
Regardless of his care, Joel heard his approach. The Wizard Sultan’s warrior held his scimitar primed to attack or defend.
The wolf was tucked beside a rock, hiding under a small overhang watching the group of soldiers. Jamie emerged from the bushes further up the trail. He kept his hands out in the open.
Joel inclined his head. "We have been looking for you, milord."
"You have found me," Jamie said perfunctorily. "Is the prince safe?"
"The prince is in the care of my master, the Wizard Sultan."
"How did that come about?" Jamie finally picked his way down the deer track. He nodded to Joel’s soldiers, acknowledging their wary professionalism.
"His Grace the Duke of Rafe and H decided that they needed help, wisely."
An involuntary smile flittered across Jamie’s chiselled features. "They were indeed wise to trust your master." He drew Joel away from his listening soldiers with a gesture.
"The Zeller, Lord Trevellyan, the Lashes and a Mage – who I suspect is resurrected from the dead – are part of an evil cadre plotting to wrest the Land from the Queen’s grasp," Jamie said without preamble. "I saw them in the dungeons scheming. There was another with them. I think she was a woman. If, for whatever reasons, I fail to get back to the castle, you have to get this information to the Queen and whoever in the council has not been corrupted." He drew his Sgian Dubh from his sock. "This is the sign of my Clan. If you hold it you speak with the Sentinel’s honour. I lay a geas upon you, Joel Nabweh, to speak the truth to the Queen, do you accept this weight?"
Joel paused, allowing the Sentinel to see that he understood the gravity of the situation and the promise that taking the ‘dagger black’ would entail. That to speak falsely would prompt dire action went unspoken.
Jamie ducked his head in a taut bow.
Joel accepted the Sgian Dubh with an equally curtailed bow.
"How far are we from the castle?"
"We have travelled a day and a night, marching at some four times the pace of an untrained man."
"Your men and women are tired." Indeed, the soldiers from the Secret Lands had taken the opportunity to sprawl on either side of the trail. Two watched for their comrades.
"Why are you not?"
"I took Elvenberry sap. It gives great vigour if taken wisely. Abuse it and you die," Jamie said ghoulishly. He pulled the tiny vial from his sporran and held it before the warrior. "I can’t take anymore until near sundown. I have sufficient stamina to continue running until then. Are you coming with me or following later?"
Joel’s dark gaze encompassed both man and vial, judging them equally. He plucked the vial from Jamie’s outstretched fingers.
"What is the dosage?"
"Do you have heightened senses?" Jamie responded.
"My sense of taste is uncommonly acute, but that may be from practice." He patted his firm stomach.
"Ah." Jamie pursed his lips as he concentrated. "Just take one drop," he said wisely.
Incongruously, Joel stuck his tongue out and allowed a single drop to fall. He shivered along the length of his body as the potion worked its magic.
"What a charge."
"Intoxicating, isn’t it. I think, though, we’re going to feel like the inside of a sewer when it wears off."
Joel grimaced. "That is an image that I’d prefer you hadn’t shared."
"Tell your men to follow at their own speed," Jamie ordered. "We will go ahead. A companion will join us as soon as we are out of sight of your men. He is a wolf."
Without further ado he began to lope down the trail. Even though he wasn’t looking, he knew that the Wizard Sultan’s bodyguard was scowling at him, but the man was obeying his orders.
It had taken Joel a night and a day to reach him. Mentally calculating, Jamie estimated that they would reach the base of the castle escarpment as the sun set. He picked up his pace; time was of the essence.
Tay jumped onto the trail ahead of him. The wolf paused long enough to howl and then joined him.
Blair snuck between two guards’ legs and darted down the flight of stairs leading to the kitchens. He wiggled around the baker who nearly dropped his tray of freshly baked bread.
"Mags!" He flung himself into the old woman’s arms. Despite her blindness she caught him.
"What is it, sweetie?"
Blair stood on her lap, so he could look her in the eye.
"Mama’s poorly sick. She sleeps all the time. Cindy Lou cannae figure out what the matter is and neither can Uncle Simon. I figures that she might be poisoned and the Lashes might have been really nasty to her. Can you help mama?"
Surprised, Mags blinked, her milky pupils momentarily hidden by veined lids. "Matilde!"
The young woman immediately left the cauldron of broth she was preparing for the midday meal. Her forehead creased in concern, she darted a glance at the staff who were listening curiously.
"Back to work," she directed, with a click of her fingers.
Chastised, the cooks and pastry-bakers returned to their chores.
"Blair… The prince says that the Queen is ill. No one knows what is the matter."
"Your Highness, the physician is well versed in the herbalists’ arts."
"Mebbe, but Robyn said that she might have lots of things wrong. A bit what Simon said and a bit what Cindy Lou said. A bit of herbs, a bit of spells and a bit of soul sucking. You have to all work together."
Deep in thought, Matilde chewed on her bottom lip. Then with great deliberation she brushed away the flour sprinkled on her apron and straightened her long skirts.
"Your Highness, we will go see your mother."
"Yes." He squirmed off Mags’ lap, and in the same movement caught her hand to tug her after him. "Careful, Mags, Popo’s left his butter churn by the rolling table." The prince directed the old woman around the wooden churn.
The younger herbalist left their side to dart into the cold room. She re-emerged with a large square box.
"What’s that? Tell me what that is, Matty?"
"It’s my medicine chest."
"Is that going to help Mama?"
"I hope so."
Blair kept very quiet as Mags and Matilde consulted with Cindy Lou. Their heads were close as they spoke of matters he didn’t quite understand. He thought that they liked the dryad’s idea. The Wizard Sultan was drawing a chalk circle around mama’s bed. Each word seemed to take forever and he had to keep checking his book.
Blair didn’t recognise the writing since it was more squiggly than real writing.
"What are you doing?"
"I’m drawing a protective circle to try to keep her safe. When your mama first became ill, we cast a mage shield on her. But we’re trying something new that is more powerful."
"Was Robyn right?"
"We don’t know, Blair. But Cynthia thinks she might be getting a bad cold. That might be because of the spell making her sleep all the time. But your mama isn’t eating anymore, so we don’t know how any herbs might be administered."
"What does ‘adminstered’ mean?"
"Administered means how the bad medicine was given to her." Simon pointed to Mags who was sniffing mama’s perfumes and creams on her bedside table.
"Here, Simon." The Duchess Michelle knelt in a swirl of blue velvet skirts. She angled a leather bound tome to allow the Sultan to see the pages. "The Tpol Text says that the word for protection ‘pre’tekt’ should be spelt ‘pretekf.’"
Blair could see that everyone was so very busy. He stepped carefully over Simon’s intricate drawing. Cindy was now sitting at the head of mama’s bed, muttering an incantation. Blair reached up and clasped his mother’s cold hand.
"Everyone’s trying to help you, mama. You have to get well."
Not even her fingers twitched. He wanted her to get up and hug him, to tuck him in bed and tell him stories. He wanted his mama back.
"Here!" Matilde exulted. She held up the vial of sage oil used to perfume the Queen’s toilet water. "This contains an emulsion of Fhemlock."
"What does Fhemlock do?" Simon asked.
"It slows the beat of the heart and depresses the breathing, while sage is a tonic to the stomach, kidneys and liver. One is not normally used with the other. It shouldn’t be here."
"The Queen is developing pneumonia; Fhemlock is contraindicated. In fact it is dangerous." Cindy paused in her spell casting. "The progression of the Queen’s illness is strange, it moves too fast."
"Here," Mags spoke. The ancient herbalist held out a bristly hairbrush. "The oil coating on this brush is supposed to make your hair shiny, but it contains Joram."
"Joram?" Simon rocked back on his heels. "Joram is a mineral used in the genus of portal spells. The mirror-like shards of the marble reflects images of the other planes. It makes no sense to add it to hair oil."
"Synergy," Duchess Michelle announced.
"Eh? What?" Mags asked from the dresser. "You speak of the subtle magics?"
"Yes, where one thing on its own is safe but mixed with another substance or substances it can have a deleterious effect. The dosage is also important."
"When youngsters hears sick voices in their heads, if they eat mackerel oil twice daily they get better, but if they eat less there is no improvement," Matilde supplied.
"This is uncommonly wicked," Mags growled.
"Who could devise such a plan?"
"I think we should move the Queen to another room," the Duchess said suddenly. "Everything she owns should be burnt and replaced. Spell components are inexplicably melded with supposedly safe herbs, her creams and lotions are tainted…"
"Is it safe to move her?" Simon directed his question to the physician.
"She hangs to life by a thread, but if there are many factors operating here making her ill, in the long run it would be best to move her."
"Did you hear that, mama?" Blair whispered, still at his post holding on to her hand." We’re going to take you away from all the things that make you poorly."
"Where should we move her to?" Matilde asked.
"Jamie’s eyrie. It’s really clean and there’s lots of rainwater," Blair piped up. "He couldn’t have anything nasty or he’d be ill too."
"The child’s a genius." Cindy bestowed a kiss on his cheek. "You’re a clever little boy."
"Am bright; Robyn says so." For once Blair basked in the attention.
"It’s defensible as well," Simon mused. Suiting actions to words, he scooped up the Queen in his arms as easily as lifting a child. "We tell no one. You, My Lady Duchess, use your protective magics to guard the Queen. Physician, heal her sicknesses. Mags, Matilde, purge her body of these toxins. And I will find out who did this."
Hope comes to the Land of Acharn. The Queen’s people work together. The Sentinel approaches the castle at all speed assisted by the protector of the Great Forest, Quercus robur. But a Sword of Damocles still hangs…
Blair sat on the bottom stair drumming his heels against the riser. The ladies had taken his mama upstairs to Jamie’s safe place. He was keeping guard; he wasn’t going to let anyone go the eyrie and hurt his mama.
Blair looked up from contemplating his toes. "Hiya, Seah."
The librarian’s brow furrowed. "I’ve missed you, you haven’t been in the library for a few days."
"I hurt my arm." Blair wriggled it out of his sling. "Cindy Lou made it mostly better. And there’s been lots of horrible things happening."
"Like what?" Seah joined him on the stair, pulling her knees up against her chest.
"Oh, nasty things. There’s some bad people in the castle. But am not allowed to tell you anymore." Blair leaned against her trustingly. "You’ve got lots of books in the library. Have you ever read anything about the Goblin Queen?"
The world around him suddenly flared with a greenish tinge. In response, a frisson of black terror ran up all the knobs along Blair’s spine. He looked to the left and the right, but couldn’t find the source of the nasty glow. Then with a blink it disappeared. Blair huffed silently; he had not liked that greasy light in the slightest.
"Oh, yes, I know everything about the Goblin Queen," Seah said softly, distracting him from his search.
"Really?" Surprised, Blair shifted away from the librarian. "Why?"
Seah rose to her feet. She towered over him. Blair shuffled along the step. Green light frittered across his vision, scaly and malevolent. Inch by inch he moved until he banged against the wall. A pool of lurid olive light curdled at the librarian’s feet. Tendrils reached out touching the world around her.
It wasn’t healthy.
Seah’s smile was macabre. Terrified, Blair watched the nasty tendrils creep back into the librarian until she shone just like Rafe – happy and smiley.
It was all a lie.
"Uncle Simon!" He shrieked. She swooped down on him, enveloping him in her green lined cape.
Jamie came to an abrupt halt. His world had suddenly shifted. Nausea stomped through his stomach with hobnailed boots. He staggered off the track, to lean against a tree trunk.
"Lord Jamie." Joel caught his elbow. "Are you reacting to the Elvenberry sap?"
"No." Jamie drew in a harsh sounding breath. "It’s the prince."
"What has happened?"
Jim focused outwards, trying vainly to find his charge. "Something has happened to Prince Blair. We must hurry!"
Fear gave him a sudden burst of energy. The low branches on the trees seemed to move out of his way. He was convinced that one shifted its roots off the trail. Tay kept up, his muscles straining. Harsh puffing indicated that the bodyguard was falling behind. Jamie did not wait; the prince was in great danger. Water splashed beneath his feet as he ploughed through a shallow stream.
Jamie fell backwards as the water elemental surged upwards. The cold mountain fed water shocked him to the core. For a moment he couldn’t hear the elf speaking. Her mouth opened in a soundless scream.
"The Goblin Queen has the prince; all is lost. She will gain control over the Land through the heir to the Land. Danu herself will not be able to gainsay the evil one’s demands…"
"What can I do? The Goblin Queen? Who is the Goblin Queen? How can I stop her?"
"She walks in legend as the Dark Mage’s progenitor. She taught Brack – cursed be his name – all that he knows. The Land has been uneasy of late but now it screams that the Goblin Queen shall gain ascendancy."
Jamie stumbled to his feet, half falling in the water before standing upright. "How can I stop her?"
Killash of the Keren folded her hands against her breast, disquiet emanating from her in tiny waves. "I do not know," she uttered, eventually.
"Nothing?" the Sentinel demanded.
Behind him, he heard Joel reach the edge of the water and come to an abrupt halt. "Ye Al-Lat!"
"Stay back," Jamie ordered, holding his arm out behind him.
"Goblins are creatures of the earth," Killash began. "But unlike the dwarves they see only evil and want conquest over what they perceive to be weak."
"How does that help me? Don’t give me any of that elfin fey inscrutability – just tell me how to kill her."
Killash glared at him, her eyes turning the flinty blue of an arctic glacier. "I speak in your tongue, not all the words exist to pass my meaning to you. The goblins are creatures of the earth and that may help you as I -- a water elemental -- help you." With those words, affronted, Killash merged with the rippling river water and was washed away.
"Look!" Jamie gritted his teeth. "I’m sorry I offended you."
"The elven beings are notable for being capricious," Joel offered.
"Thank you," Jamie snapped caustically, "you’re not helping."
Standing knee deep in freezing cold water, his kilt soaked beyond all recovery, some bitch of a goblin had stolen his prince -- Jamie was one seriously enraged Sentinel.
Simon discovers the passageways
Simon picked his way carefully down the spiral staircase from Ellison’s turret. The risers and treads were set at different heights and depths to catch the unwary. It would take a cat-footed man to run up or down without taking a fall. Simon turned the last section and was greeted by an empty stair.
He had left the prince sitting on the bottom stair with two guards stationed at either end of the short corridor guarding him. At each end of the corridor sat a small pile of ash. Of the prince there was no sign.
Unconsciously, Simon growled, even the village wassack could guess that the prince had been taken. If the child had ran off, the guards would have alerted him. He had left the prince on the stair as he knew that the women would have needed to strip and clean the Queen. He hadn’t wanted her son to see her naked.
‘I should have kept the child in my sight.’
The first order of business was to find Blair. His fingers twisted, influencing the unseen air elementals that danced around him. They had seen nothing, in fact they had run away in fear from something that they refused to look at. A soundless shriek echoed in his ears as the fickle beings screamed away on cold winds.
Simon tried to speak with the earth elementals beneath his feet. An ancient being in the stone rolled, shifting him as if tossed in an earthquake. It didn’t speak, but turned away, diamond tears seeping from bereft eyes.
He smashed the side of his fist against the wall in anger. His magics allowed him to manipulate, but he had no talent to control – it was a geas set upon him at puberty to remind him that he served his people rather than subjugated them.
The elementals were uneasy – he did not want to call on a fire elemental if they too were in such a state. The prince had an affinity with air. They were upset but perhaps they would lead him to the prince? A sudden hiss heralded the displacement of air of a portal. ‘Leya, Blair’s D’neirf, popped into view and dropped easily to the ground.
"Cat, where is the prince?" Simon demanded.
The kit sniffed elegantly and then paced to the far wall skirting around a pile of ash. She planted herself down beside the stones and wrapped her tail around her paws.
"What is it?" Simon crouched by the kit as she pointed her nose towards the candle alcove.
Simon scanned the stones but he couldn’t see anything unusual; no convenient streaks of blood or tufts of curly hair caught between stones.
The kit hissed and then leaped up into the alcove and practically put her nose against a stone beside the wrought iron candleholder. The Wizard Sultan scrutinised the alcove more closely but he still couldn’t see anything extraordinary. Sighing dramatically, ‘Leya planted her paw with great deliberation on a stone. Cocking her head to the side, she looked to her paw and then the Sultan.
Simon squinted, there was something there. He couldn’t make it out, but he could feel the mystical energies. A distinct signature tickled his senses. He could feel the prince. No, that wasn’t quite right, he could feel the House of Sandburg-Bran. There was something spelled here that only the blood of the First King Blair could see. Simon doubted that even a sentinel would be able to find it and only a blood royal would be able to trigger, what he assumed, was a secret doorway.
His family had ruled Hannahanna for as long as the family of King Blair had ruled Acharn, perhaps it would recognise his sovereignty? He waved his hand over the faintly emanating mystic nexus. He wasn’t that surprised when nothing happened.
"Blair triggered a secret passage?" Simon asked.
The D’neirf meowed an affirmative and then, amazingly, looked expectant.
"Blair and someone else went through the passage?"
‘Leya purred in satisfaction. She bowed deeply to the Wizard, as much as a D’neirf would bow, then she vanished – simply whispering away.
"Cat, your prince needs you," Simon berated.
‘Leya’s whiskers and supercilious grin appeared, smiling inscrutably, before again vanishing.
Simon kicked the wall; he hated dealing with – what he belatedly recognised – was a higher elemental being. The damn D’neirf probably was an avatar of Danu unable to affect things directly. Actually directing him to the secret passage probably contravened its Goddess’ wishes. The D’neirf seem unrepentant. Given the seriousness of the situation he was on the kit’s side. The Land’s Higher Elementals were involving themselves in people’s affairs and the Base Elements – Air and Earth – and, no doubt, Water with Fire, were distressed.
The prince had been taken. The heir to the Land was in bodily danger.
"Ai Al-Lat," he swore and then struck the wall with the force of his being. The stones exploded out of the wall, showering along the corridor. He stood in the middle of the windstorm unscathed. As the stones and ashes settled a dark gaping hole was revealed.
Simon clicked his fingers and a mage light appeared, hovering above his outstretched palm. Its light spilled into the passage revealing a set of long narrow footprints accompanied by tiny ones in ancient dust.
Time was of the essence but venturing into the passage without preparation was insanity.
::Henri come to me and bring your little friend::
::Sire? You mean Rafe?::
::Yes. I am at the north tower at the base of Ellison’s turret. Bring weapons and your spell supplies::
::Oooh, what’s happened?::
::The prince has been taken::
::Indeed and the Land’s elemental guardians are petrified::
Unable to stand around doing nothing, he set wards around the base of the turret preventing all from entering where he had secured the Queen. He had set the final touch to the spell when Henri and Rafe barrelled around the corner. The assassin was decked from head to foot in sable leathers. A crossbow poked out from behind his back. There were leather scabbards strapped to his arms and legs. He held a needle like rapier in his right hand and a stiletto in his left.
Henri had dispensed with his long silken zupan and its layered caftans. He wore peasant garb, a short jerkin resting just above his knees and a mantle of Acharn design. His satchel of spell components was slung over his shoulder.
"We are ready, Sire."
"I see that." He gestured at the rent in the wall. "A woman – I presume from the footsteps – has taken the prince into the castle’s secret passages. Her presence is masked from my spell casting; she is a powerful mage."
"Bollocks!" Rafe swore. "I wish Jamie was here. I wish his father and grandfather were here too."
Henri poked his head in the hole. "Can we take Duchess Michelle? She’s an accomplished sorcerer."
"She is protecting the Queen."
Rafe took point and Henri protected their rear. The Wizard Sultan’s mage lights sent spiders and crawlies scuttling into the wainscoting as they ventured forwards.
Henri sighed quietly. "I, too, wish that Jamie were here."
"The fact that neither his father or grandfather are here is worrying," Simon muttered.
"I sent a trusted aide to alert the Sentinel of Acharn, Jamie’s grandfather, that we had problems."
"That you had to do that, Lord Rafe, is a concern all to itself," Simon said sagely. "Ellis d’Ellison should have been here a week ago yesterday. In fact he should have been here when Henri and I arrived. That he wasn’t here meant that I underestimated the situation, I decided that it wasn’t serious."
"Maybe he is here and keeping a low profile?" Rafe offered.
"He would have come to the Queen," Simon disagreed, "and then I would have seen him."
"Ellis is Jamie’s grandfather?" Henri asked for clarification. "And the Queen’s Sentinel? Jamie belongs to Blair? Who is Jamie’s father’s guide? The Queen for both senior Sentinels?"
"King Blair, Naomi’s father, was bound to Ellis. When the King died, William was away on the Steppes speaking with the Shamans. Ellis was going to commit suicide and to prevent Ellis following his Guide into death the Queen chose to become his guide. William has never had a guide. He’s depended on disciplines he learnt on the Steppes."
"Without a guide William could become a twisted…" Rafe said slowly, hating his blasphemous words, "sentinel."
The trio stopped to look at each other, words went unspoken, until Henri ventured, "Ellis believes that Jamie’s looking after the Queen?"
"Jamie is too young. He shouldn’t be wielding the gifts." Simon grimaced. "Ellis is either dead or he sent William to look after the Queen."
Rafe continued tiptoeing down the corridor. "William’s not here and Jamie developed his acute senses early."
"A response to the threat to Acharn."
"I keep expecting to hear scary organ music," Rafe grumbled as he turned a corner.
Jamie returns to the castle
Jamie risked another drop of the Elvenberry before sunset. Running like the northern wind, he left the Wizard Sultan’s bodyguard far behind him. He emerged from the Great Forest onto the plain beneath the castle escarpment. On top of the escarpment the Royal Castle stood sentinel over the Land. Squinting, he focussed on his own turret. He could almost hear voices. He thought he recognised the Duchess Michelle’s distinctive southern accent. The drawbridges on the east and south walls were down, resting on the entry ports carved at the top of narrow spires. The spires had been hewn in the last ice age from the mountain face. If the drawbridges to the castle proper were down, the militia were not on alert.
The sun touched the horizon and, galvanised, Jamie began to run up the steps of the spiral staircase gouged inside the pinnacle of rock. It spiralled upwards to reach the drawbridge above. The wolf snaked up the narrow steps behind him.
The prince was in danger.
Blair was in danger.
His Guide was in danger.
The litany rang in his head spurring him onwards. He was going to rip the Goblin Queen’s soul from her body and cast it into the abyss. He was oblivious to the demands of his body, concerned only with saving the prince. He was focussed, blind only to that goal.
He paused on the final landing waiting for the guards in the protective stone barbican above to acknowledge his presence.
"Who goes there?"
"Lord James William d’Ellison of the House of Ellison, Heir to the Northern Mountains," Jamie rapped out.
Tay barked a question.
"Stay here and guard my back. Howl if evil tries to enter the citadel. I will hear you no matter where I am in the castle."
The wolf barked an affirmative.
The laird clambered up the last steps and out of the hollowed out staircase into the barbican. The guards raised their pikes to chest level.
Jamie glared at them. "I am His Royal Highness’ Sentinel, lower those weapons."
The guards dithered; then reacting to the dire retribution they saw in the Sentinel’s eyes, obeyed. "Yes, milord."
"Has my grandfather arrived at the castle?"
"No, milord," the younger guard answered respectfully.
"Have you seen my father, Lord William?"
As soldiers they would know both commanders of the royal legions.
"No, Lord James."
"Allow no one and I mean no one to leave. That includes both the Queen and the Prime Minster, The Zeller. You--" he pointed to the senior guard, "--find your commander and tell him to seal the castle including the inner staircase."
"Sire, he won’t listen to me, a lowly…"
Jamie gritted his teeth, he didn’t have time for this. He had spent many hours assisting his grandfather and commanding his legion, albeit on controlled expeditions; he was familiar with the protocols and passwords.
"Tell your commander… Kinson," he remembered, "that the password is ‘Yellow Modus’ – and that I expect him to obey."
Jim stalked toward the two guards, fully aware that if Kinson had been corrupted the order wouldn’t be carried out. They retreated in his wake.
"Raise the portcullis," he called ahead as he crossed the drawbridge.
The clanking of the chain announced the retraction of the heavy metal gate. The entire drawbridge shook and Jamie was reminded of the hundred yards beneath his feet.
"Milord?" A savvier captain bowed as he ducked under the partly open gate. Jamie recognised the older woman as one of his grandfather’s aides. Her hair was shorter than his own and her muscles were twice as corded. She could, and had, easily wrestled him into knots on several occasions.
"Why are you here, Coran? You should be with Lord Ellison? When did you return from Eilean Ellis?"
"I was visiting my family at Chaykin while on furlough, I had had enough of my younger brother and I decided to re-supply before I headed up north."
"Whom does the commander serve, the Queen or the Ministers?" Jamie asked, he had hoped that she had been ordered by his grandfather to return to the Royal Castle.
"The Queen," Coran rapped smartly, "as do I."
Her heartbeat remained steady and trustworthy.
The older guard rushed by the Sentinel and straight into the commander’s office. The headquarters was tucked in a secure position under the stone curtain wall on the southern face.
"Good. Seal this gate allow no one to pass. If anyone tries to leave, turn them back. If they disagree throw them in the dungeons or kill them, use your judgement."
Coran paled but drew herself to attention.
"Be aware that a Wild Strike Mage may attempt to leave. You can’t miss him – he looks like a corpse."
The Commander’s office door opened and lamp light spilled onto the cobblestone floor of the outer ward.
"Lord James?" the Commander called.
"You have your orders. Seal the castle." Jamie had no time for the man. He continued through the second portcullis to the inner ward, knowing that Kinson was following his orders. His senses were honed, as crystal perfect as they had ever been.
The main foyer was empty except for suits of armour. Jamie paused long enough to liberate one of the suits of its broad sword. He hefted the long sword easily. Smiting was the order of the day and his father would be the first to be served a portion of well honed steel.
Halfway across the foyer he paused, suddenly realising that he did not know where the prince was hidden. He had stupidly assumed that he was still in the castle. He was reacting without thinking. His grandfather would likely be ashamed of him.
Taking a deep breath as he had been taught, he centred himself, as if for spell casting. He allowed his senses to quest outwards, looking for an innocent little boy with a sense of mischief. Ghostly extensions of his hands felt their way over the castle as his enhanced eyesight searched for the boy.
He would recognise that voice anywhere. But where was it coming from? It seemed to spring from deep within the castle.
The walls? It seemed to come from the walls. He sniffed and picked up Prince Blair’s faint scent. The small boy didn’t really have base odour like adults, he smelled more like chocolate and soap and health. But beneath the familiar sense of the prince was the sour stench of fear and salty tears.
Jim tracked it unerringly, straight to the wall behind the suit of armour. There had to be some kind of passage, but even Sentinel eyes couldn’t make it out. It had to be magic, spelled to camouflage it. Unhesitatingly, he thrust his broadsword between two wooden panels and began to lever it back and forth. His arms master would have been appalled.
The wood cracked, splintering in two to reveal a passage beyond.
Blair twisted in the Goblin Queen’s grip as she dragged him through the passages. He scuffed his feet in the dust.
"Jamie’s coming and he’s going to see to you. You’re in trouble."
Seah stopped on her heel, she lifted him up by his good arm and shook him until his teeth rattled. He wanted Jamie and he wanted Jamie now. She dumped him back on his feet jarring him. The Goblin Queen’s long, pale fingers almost wrapped twice around his wrist.
"Hear me, brat." She leaned into his face. "Your Jamie will die."
"No!" Blair kicked her in the shin as hard as possible.
She didn’t flinch, but her smooth skin and dark curls seemed to flicker and Blair saw in that magic instant silken green hair and scaly flesh. Cackling at his ineffectual attempts, Seah scooped him up, holding him under her arm.
"I’m going to rule the Land through you. I am going to take the blood of the rulers and none shall gainsay me. Danu will not be able to defy me, as I will be the true ruler."
"Your mama can’t help you. She no longer fulfils her responsibilities. She is no longer the Queen. You are the heir. You are the next in line. Your soul is innocent. Your blood is bound to the Land. Your blood will assure my ascension."
"Jamie!" Blair began to scream. A hand that looked smooth but felt rough was clamped over his mouth. He screamed into her palm, his muffled wails going unheard.
Jamie followed his prince. Sentinel eyes saw every nook and cranny of the passages and picked up a single small person’s footprints. The prince had passed here at some point; the salty tears were still detectable but they were not recently shed. But his ears led him always downwards to the prince and the footprints indicated that he had exited through the passage in the foyer.
"That little bag of mischief’s been using the passages forever," Jamie realised.
He continued onwards, pausing halfway down a twisted corridor. The prince had stood by a crack in the panels for some time based on the shuffling imprints. Jamie squatted and peered through the hole. The room beyond was dark and smelt of sulphur and aconite. A brazier smouldered in the corner. Bottles, scrolls, a single skull and a wealth of vials were stacked on shelves along one wall. It was a mage’s cauldron room, where he cast his secret spells. Jamie had thought that he knew every corner of the castle, but he hadn’t found this room. His sentinel senses should have picked up the stench of evil magics.
Time was of the essence, he couldn’t afford to peer into a mage’s web; he had to find the prince. He continued hunting. Scents criss-crossing with hearing almost sent him up a flight of stairs, but the siren voice of his Guide drew him away from the old trail and downwards.
Some of the inner staircases he descended were half rotten, but he could pick his way safely. He exulted in his abilities. Why were they held in check until he was of age?
"Jamie’s coming and he’s going to see to you. You’re in trouble."
He was close, that sounded as if he was directly above the prince. But the echoes in the stone castle were confusing. Slowing his pace, Jim catfooted forwards towards an alcove.
Taking a deep breath, he listened closely….
"…Wake up, damn you!"
Pain flared up his cheek as his head was rocked to the side by the force of an open handed slap. He brought his hand up to retaliate and some – infidel – grabbed his wrist to stop him punching into oblivion the one who dared to touch him.
"Jamie, stop it."
"Henri?" Jamie’s mouth fell open stupidly. "What are you doing here?"
"We’re looking for Prince Blair." Rafe flailed his hand foppishly. "The boy’s been kidnapped."
"What?" Jamie gritted his teeth in consternation. "I went to the grey place didn’t I? I almost had them. Stupid senses," he railed.
Drawing in a hideously long drawn breath, he strove for calm. The Wizard Sultan, Sa’Leem Henri and the Assassin of Acharn stood in a tight semicircle around him.
"The prince has been taken," the Wizard Sultan said without preamble. "Do you know where?"
"No. But the Goblin Queen has him." Wincing, Jamie manipulated his jaw. "Why did you hit me?"
"We’ve been yelling at you for a candle mark. You didn’t respond to soft cajoling," the Sultan said pithily. "So it’s the Goblin Queen who took Blair. I should have guessed."
"You weren’t to know, Sire," Henri said softly.
"What do you know of the Goblin Queen?" Jamie demanded.
"She isn’t working alone." Simon pointed curtly down the corridor. "I’ll tell you as we go."
And the story all comes together
The lower room, below the dungeons, was as old as time. Ice had been caught when the mountain formed in the first aeons. The pocket of steam had erupted like a volcano hollowing out an immense chamber. The first settlement on the mountain had worshiped the Dragon Nish that lived in the cavern. The next culture, the Blue People, had filled in the hole to prevent the evil one escaping. The third people had retreated in the wake of the ice age that claimed their entire land. The Sages that returned worshiped their gods on the summit and knew that the hollow was a geological phenomenon revealed by the retreating ice. The barbarians that took their place bore the residual memories of their forefathers and believed that evil resided in the depths and covered the channel to the hollow. Its presence was lost in time and the hole further covered as people after people lived and died on the escarpment.
The cavern had been consecrated to evil.
Blair sat in the dead centre within a circle of candles.
The dripping of wax from the candles measured time. He watched as the Goblin Queen cast aside the illusion of the librarian. Dark curls so like his own changed. The burnished shine of mahogany gave way to jade green. Pale skin so typical of the people of Acharn grew scales. And she grew taller and taller. It was Seah under the changes but it was Queen Seah of the Goblins of the Underworld.
Other people moved beyond the candles. The Lashes laughed, feeding off his terror – he knew them, they were almost normal. The Zeller watched with his pale eyes saying nothing. Trevellyan was scared; Blair could see choppy waves of spiky unease scurrying over his blobby frame.
He knew that the Goblin Queen was going to do something really horrible to Trevellyan. Blair closed his eyes and planted his palms over his face.
As if thinking about it made it happen he heard a high pitched wail and a squishy crunch. Blair kept his hands firmly over his eyes, relying on his other senses. There was a big empty spot standing behind the lurid green of the Goblin Queen. The dead man was hovering at Seah’s shoulder as the Lashes sucked up Trevellyan’s grubby soul.
Blair opened his fingers a sliver and peered through. He had never before seen the man who had spoken. He was tall with dark blond hair shot through with silvery strands. His face was lined, warped by something dark feasting on his soul. He was a warrior, lean of muscle long and tall. The warrior’s eyes were a blinding blue like the glacial lakes in the kingdom of Chun.
Blair had seen those eyes in another’s face. "Jamie?" he ventured.
A feeling – which Blair couldn’t identify – ran roughshod over the man’s face.
"No, I am William." Setting his sword aside, he crouched.
"You’re Jamie’s daddy."
"Yes," William said slowly.
"Is Jamie coming?" Blair dropped his hands and looked around, hoping that the laird had arrived. "Why are you here? These are nasty, bad people."
"I know, child." A travesty of a smile turned his lips upwards.
Blair leaned close to the candles to better peer at the man on the other side of the guttering flames.
"There’s a hole inside of you and there’s a thing… it’s got no eyes… living there."
William seemed to shrink. "There was nobody to fill the hole so something else took up residence."
"What does that mean?" Blair asked curiously, he stood to better peer at the old man.
"It means that I’m damned."
"All the time?" Blair asked innocently.
William jerked backwards. "All the time. All the time."
Muttering to himself, the man rose abruptly to his feet and retreated to the far edge of the cavern. Blair shuffled closer to the candles, thinking maybe he could jump over them and run away. The little person dancing in the flame shook his head, tossing flares up into the air, and pointed at the dead man watching.
The dead man scared him more than anyone else.
Blair gnawed on his thumb, hoping that Jamie would come and get him.
Lord William kept looking at the crack in the wall where they had entered the cavern. He’d then look at the Goblin Queen and almost say something. The dead man had noted Jamie’s father’s unease.
Blair felt a warm thrum in his tummy. Jamie was coming. Jamie was coming. Fear replaced the buoyant feeling as the dead man spoke quietly to Seah.
"It’s time," the Goblin Queen announced. She stalked towards him flexing her talon like hands.
"The moon hasn’t risen," The Zeller countered angrily, "it’s too early."
"The Sentinel of Acharn is coming," Chancellor Lash cackled.
"The real one." Young Lash cocked his head at William standing up against the wall, and smiled maliciously.
William raised his finger in an easy salute.
"It is his blood that’s important, not when we take it." The Goblin Queen stepped into the circle of flame.
Blair backed away to the far edge of the circle. The candles flared, the little beings telling him not to try to escape or they would have to burn him.
"Leave me alone. Jamie!"
Seah called out, "Now is the time. Now is the time. The time that I become the true Queen of Acharn. The Goblins will oust your people and feast on your flesh. Evil will rule triumphant. Your blood shall seal Danu to my will." She threw back her head and laughed.
Blair ran, regardless of the flames. The Goblin Queen caught him before he ran a foot. Clenching her hand around his throat, she lifted him, thrusting him into the air.
Blair kicked vainly at her arm, but her scaly skin protected her against attack. She simply laughed.
"Jamie! Jamie!" he whispered around the hand about his neck. He scrabbled ineffectually at her arm.
A soft whisper foreshadowed the Goblin Queen drawing a dagger as long as his leg. She held it playfully, manipulating it to some unknown rhythm. The serrated edges reflected the flickering candlelight.
"Ay, yan é hu. Ay, yan é hu. Ay, yan é hu," she chanted. "A dui a feyh du."
The cavern began to vibrate, shuddering with the force of her words. The Goblin Queen’s minions scurried to the walls as a crack split the earth. Light was swallowed by the depths. A sleepy moan filled the cavern as something beyond their sight was awoken.
"Danu, hear me," Seah crooned. "I take the true king’s heart blood and sanctify my ascension. A dui a feyh du. O sn yhr ilmy oné."
Seah raised her knife.
"Jamie!" Blair wriggled in her grasp hoping for his Sentinel.
Deliverance arrived, boiling into the cavern in the form of Laird Jamie, the Wizard Sultan, the Assassin Rafe and Henri.
The crack in the floor separated them from the Goblin Queen and her captive.
"Stop!" Jamie screamed his voice reverberating across the cavern.
"You’re too late. I’ll have his blood."
The razor sharp knife was brought up in a slow purposeful arch, honing in on a small heart. Seah’s grin was machiavellian as she enjoyed the abject fear on the Sentinel’s face.
Futilely, knowing in the final instance that he was too far away, Jamie began to run.
The Goblin Queen’s taunting cackle joined Jamie’s desperate scream, echoing amongst the stalactites clinging to the ceiling.
"No." William reached up and caught her hand staying her evil stroke.
"How dare you," Seah snarled. Her lip curled at his presumption.
"He is only a child," William said desperately.
The knife turned and neatly skewered the twisted sentinel from navel to spine.
Jamie flung himself across the gap to save his prince. He leaped the last dash, smacking into the Goblin Queen. All four fell to the hard earth. Limbs tangled and the Goblin Queen tried to gain the upper hand. Jamie, his concentration split, tried to get the prince out of harm’s way and deal with the demon.
Rafe flowed across the cavern intercepting The Zeller who was rushing to the Queen’s assistance.
"Perhaps we’ve met," Rafe said with perfect false politeness. "I’m the Assassin of Acharn, I protect the Land. Normally covertly--" Rafe parried The Zeller’s attack, "--but I’m more than willing to act in an obvious manner." He launched a whirlwind offensive, forcing the minister backwards and away from the prince and Sentinel.
Simon stalked purposely across the cavern. The Mage stepped out from a shadow. Malevolent energies curdled around him, focussing on his hands.
Simon bowed his head in curt acknowledgement. "I am the Wizard Sultan of Hannahanna. I challenge you to a Sorcerers’ Duel."
"I am Bracket, Mage of the Dark Arts. I accept." A lightning bolt boiled across the cave heading towards the Sultan.
Henri smiled toothily at the two Lashes as they slunk in his direction. "Hi."
"Happy man." Chancellor Lash combed a greasy curl behind his ear. "People like you, don’t they, Sa’Leem Henri. You’re a nice, happy person. What you see is what you get."
"No deceptions." Davy Lash’s fingers twitched in anticipation. "You’ll make a nice new friend."
Simon caught the lightning strike between his outstretched hands and fired it back at the Mage. The cavern was showered with sparks as it coruscated off the shield Brack formed between them. Simon followed through with another attack, a sharp spike to shatter Brack’s shield. But the evil Mage was ready, counterattacking with a hurricane blast of winds. The Wizard Sultan was bowled off his feet. Hail pummelled his body.
The Zeller was a superlative swordsman. He was so adept that Rafe realised that The Zeller was also a trained assassin. They played back and forth testing each others’ defences. They had shared the same teachers.
"Why did you leave the guild?" Rafe asked conversationally as he eluded a lunge.
"What makes you think that I’ve left the guild?" The Zeller scored a hit on Rafe’s shoulder. "First blood to me. If you surrender I’ll make your death painless."
"Ha!" Rafe reciprocated, slashing The Zeller’s cheek. The Minister evaded his next attack by the skin of his teeth. Rafe followed through with his attack and suddenly realised that he had overreached himself.
Henry faced down the two Lashes. They circled around him trying to break through his defences. The adjutant wielded both sword and magic in a desperate defence. Both trying to suck away his essence at once was debilitating.
‘How to defeat them?’
They craved completion. A completion that they would never find by stealing souls. Years and years of study didn’t supply any idea of how to defeat the soul stealers.
Davy Lash slipped under Henri’s arm and planted a hand on his forehead. The adjutant shrieked and doubly so when the Chancellor joined his son.
Jamie struggled to free the prince as the Goblin Queen brought her magicks to bear. As he rolled them away from his father’s prone form, Seah recited unknown words. A sear of soul churning pain ripped through his skin threatening to send him into the grey abyss.
"Jim?" Blair whimpered.
The Sentinel came back to himself. He had indeed lost himself in the grey place. Seah now stood over him, her arm wrapped around the prince’s neck as her knife bit his skin.
"You’ve lost, Sentinel, your pathetic little Guide is going to die and I am going to rule forever."
Oh, a cliff hanger… Should I continue? Is everyone comfortable hiding behind the couch? All appears to be lost. The prince is in the Goblin Queen’s hands.
Simon hid within a bank of smoke and rolled away from Brack’s shards of ice fire. Flexing his will, he enveloped Brack in the smoke. An aeon’s worth of texts called Brack the most powerful mage that had ever lived. Yet if he were the greatest, why did he bow down to the Goblin Queen? When he had faced the First King Blair he had headed an army bent on bringing about the second ice age. Simon could only hope that the resurrected Mage was a fragment of his former self.
He slowly picked his way through the smokes wishing for sentinel senses. The prince had said that he seen a dead man with no soul. Simon faced a revenant – a vengeful spirit. He had to send Brack back to the other plane.
‘A spell of life?’ he mused as he crept through the fog. ‘Or better yet…’
Simon drew his scimitar and honed in on the gaping void bereft of life before him. Holding his breath, he lifted his sword high. Lightning flared as Brack tried to find him. Pungent fog crackled in the air. The smoke around him began to tingle as the magick charged the fine fog.
Brack stood before him, vainly questing for his adversary. Simon slid silently over the stone floor. He drew his scimitar back in a soundless curve. Brack realised the threat and turned to meet it, energies arching from his hands as Simon brought his scimitar down in a clean sweep.
The Mage’s head parted from his body with nary a whisper.
Rafe tumbled over The Zeller’s sword missing emasculation by a hairsbreadth. Moving like quicksilver, Zeller followed. Rolling, Rafe avoided the minister’s downward blow. He planted his hands on the cold ground and somersaulted out of The Zeller’s reach. Tumbling, like a gymnast, he immediately bounced back firing both feet against The Zeller’s chest, throwing him to the floor. A sword skittered away falling into the abyss in the centre of the cavern. The Royal Assassin of Acharn crouched over the Prime Minister looking into his cold eyes. There was no mercy in that gaze. Rafe drew his secondary dagger from its arm sheath and slipped it under The Zeller’s rib cage.
Blood pooled under The Zeller as Rafe turned away to help his friend, Henri.
Henri rocked to the horror as the Lashes tried to steal his very being. Horror upon horror thrummed through him, his worst nightmare castrated any resolution. To be soul dead was to be never reborn in his Goddess’ Arms. The stars would march across the heavens and he would never see his companions through his next lives.
"Goddess," he implored. "Al-Lat."
The answer came to him as he beseeched his Goddess. The evil ones could not take the prince, as his soul was too bright, too innocent. He opened himself to Al-Lat, prayed for her help to protect the innocents of the Lands of Acharn. He had faith; he would be a vessel for her goodness.
"Whoops." Rafe brought the hilt of his sword down on the back of Chancellor Lash’s head. The man dropped to the ground like a disconnected puppet.
"Oh." Henri responded in kind and punched Davy between the eyes. Lash joined his father on the floor. Rafe flicked his sword back over in his hand and levelled the blade at the Chancellor’s throat.
"I should kill him."
"Maybe, but I’m going to help Jamie." Henri stamped down on Lash, accidentally on purpose, as he rushed to help the Sentinel.
Jamie and the Goblin Queen faced each other, circling warily. The prince was silent in her arms, beyond tears, not even sobbing.
Jamie curled his fingers around the hilt of his broadsword. The stand-off galled him, he could see no way out. He promised himself if she hurt the prince she would never live long enough to ascend to the Crown. But she was not going to shed one drop of the prince’s blood, that he vowed.
He preferred to wield his sword rather than depend on magicks, but a straightforward attack would seal the prince’s fate. Goblins, what worked best against goblins? He thought frantically but nothing came to mind. She stepped back, her knife never leaving Blair’s throat. Jamie matched her move in a precarious dance of death.
The child was mute, his eyes pleading.
Jamie faced a goblin. Goblins were creatures of the earth. Killash’s words came to him from out of nowhere. ‘The goblins are creatures of the earth and that may help you as I -- a water elemental -- help you.’
Elves and elementals were notably capricious. Fickle and erratic one had to trawl the meaning from their words. Earth, Fire, Air and Water were the four base elements. Air fuelled Fire and Earth put out Fire… His thoughts skittered as he strove to find a solution.
Killash had given him the answer: Water. But how?
His fingers slowly unpeeled from the hilt of his broadsword, one by one. The broadsword fell to the earth. Seah’s eyes narrowed, confused by his actions. Jamie stood straight, bringing his hands upwards he began to chant, calling on the mage gifts he rarely plumbed.
The Goblin Queen backed away, and without a moment’s hesitation in his spell, Jamie stepped forwards mirroring her movements. As they danced he drew the moisture from the seeping stalactites. A bubble coalesced between his hands. The silvery surface reflected the scene in distorted curves. The Goblin Queen watched it like a mesmerised snake.
Blair suddenly kicked out, wailing. He grabbed at her hand.
Jamie threw the water into her face and launched himself at the pair. Where the water touched the Goblin Queen’s skin smoke rose, scalding her.
"The child dies now!" Seah shrieked into his face as they wrestled.
Without a thought he thrust his hand between the blade and Blair’s neck as she drew back the blade in preparation to strike. Flesh parted and blood spurted. But the prince was unmarked. The serrated knife tore into Jamie’s arm, sawing back and forth.
No longer held by the Goblin Queen, Blair dropped away, falling at their feet. He tangled up the Queen’s legs. There was no beauty in their fight, only a determination to end it. Seah stumbled – half blinded by the scalding water. Implacable, Jamie kept forcing her back, oblivious to his wounds.
"Be gone, Bitch Queen!" With an almighty shove, he propelled her out over the chasm.
Seah flailed her arms wildly. Magical forces kindled around her as she struggled to prevent her fall. Astounded, Jamie watched, without realising it his mouth fell open. She hung suspended, laughing, over the chasm.
"You think you can defeat me so easily, Sentinel? I will have the prince." She gestured at Blair sprawled, precariously, on the edge of the abyss.
Before she could wrangle a spell, Jim snatched the child out of harm’s reach.
"Jamie. Jamie. Jamie," Blair whimpered, clinging to the laird’s neck.
"You’ll never take him," Jamie threw at the Queen.
Seah began to chant. Horrified, Jamie recognised the blood hex; the bespelled elementals would shred everyone in the cavern, apart from the caster in the eye of the bloody storm. She would get her blood regardless of his efforts. Futilely, he hunched around the prince, determined to protect him with the last bit of his body.
His skin began to tingle, but not with, Jamie felt, the unspeakable evil of Queen’s dread spell. A force moved, the like of which he had never felt. Blair felt it too and quivered in the laird’s one-handed grip.
Irrepressibly, Blair wriggled in his grasp and peered over his shoulder. Jamie couldn’t help but turn to look, trapped like a fly in amber.
Elemental winds tossed Seah’s hair as fire beings twisted around her feet and the mark of water healed from her face. She was calling on the elemental forces of Acharn to do her bidding. But she had not taken the prince’s blood. The blood on her blade was the Sentinel’s and the Mother force disturbed within the chasm rose at her presumptive demands.
"Hide your eyes!" Simon screamed. A message that Henri echoed.
Jamie flung himself to the earth, curling over the prince. Winds tugged at his body as the firestorm scorched his back. The ground began to quake and a hideous cracking filled his ears. The air around them moved and his ears seemed to fill. A thing of great form was filling the cavern, pushing the air to the corners of the room. Its very presence threatened to drive one insane.
Blair rolled into a tight ball, muttering, "Mama," very softly.
The earth quaked beneath them. An almighty clang deafened the Sentinel. The Goblin Queen’s scream reverberated through the stones. Jamie could have easily lain on the ground forever, but Blair began to wiggle. Exhausted beyond belief, Jamie sat upright, rocking back on his heels.
The Goblin Queen had gone.
The chasm was sealed as if it had never been. Simon picked himself up and brushed off his silk robes. He gingerly crept to where the rent had been and scrutinised the ground closely. Henri and Rafe helped each other up and tottered over to the Wizard Sultan almost as if they feared to cross the cavern to reach the Sentinel and prince without Simon’s saying it was safe.
"Is she dead?" Blair asked softly, he was trying to be brave but his bottom lip was quivering.
"I think Danu took her," Jamie whispered.
Blood pooled around them, seeping from the slash in his arm with every beat of his heart. They had succeeded, but the weight of success was almost too hard to bear. Jamie did not turn his head to look at his father’s body. He had nothing left to give, he had given his all; Jamie toppled backwards unconscious before he hit ground.
End Chapter IV.
Are you still sitting comfortably? It’s been such a long story… And now we can write the happy ending for our adventurers. We need to tie up the loose ends and have a celebration. Don’t you just hate it when a story simply stops?
Jamie awoke. While he was resting on the purest of silk sheets, he could still feel every thread. His head throbbed with each tiny breath that he inhaled.
He actually needed a shave for the first time in his life.
Taking stock, he noted the royal purple sheets and sumptuous four poster bed. The delicious scent of ripe cherries wafted through an open window; he was in Blair’s suite of rooms. He didn’t dare move a fraction, knowing that he would hurt beyond belief.
Without moving his head, he let his sense of hearing probe the room. A very quiet person was sitting somewhere in the room. Sound frittered in and out. He sensed no threat, but curiosity teased the cat. He tried to roll over but aches and pain flared into agony. Breathing deeply, he settled for moving his aching head on the pillow.
Blair was sitting cross-legged in a shaft of sunlight shining through the balcony windows. He was dressed in the finest royal blue velvet doublet and hose so the Sentinel guessed that some time had passed. The glass doors were open slightly, allowing a gentle breeze to ruffle his unruly curls. He played quietly with toy soldiers. His discarded velvet booties appeared to be standing in as the toy soldiers’ fort. One toy dressed in white, sporting a golden coronet, was drubbing a black coated Firbolg. Blair stopped banging the hero against the baddie and looked profoundly disgruntled. With a spastic throw, he tried to fling the mock Goblin Queen out of the window. She bounced off the window frame and fell back into the room. Blair scuttled after her. He picked her up and succeeded in launching her into the garden below.
He stood there his shoulders hunched, uncommonly old for his few years.
"Blair?" Jamie croaked.
The child spun on his heel.
"Jim!" he shrieked joyously. He ran towards him and stopped short of jumping on the bed.
"Hurts?" he asked quietly. "Cindy Lou said not to touch you."
Timidly, he climbed onto the bed. He crouched on the far edge, a gulf stood between the Sentinel and the Guide.
"Why," Jamie asked through gritted teeth, "did Cindy Lou say you shouldn’t touch me?"
The prince’s brow furrowed. "‘Cos you’re sore. You took the Elvenberry sap an’ Cindy said that made you ‘busy?’" Blair hazarded.
"Sensitive?" Jamie supplied. The warp and weft of the silk sheets were physically painful.
"Dunno. She said," and Blair was obviously quoting, "’while focussed on his goal of rescuing the prince, the young sentinel utilised his senses with great precision. However, the Elvenberry burnt up every last shred of the resources in his body. The resultant exhaustion coupled with the massive blood loss from his wound means that over stimulation is inevitable.’ What’s that mean, Jamie?"
"It means when you stay up late you eventually have to go to bed."
"Oh, you bled everywhere." He waved his hand at Jamie’s arm, his concern evident.
The Sentinel craned his head to look at his arm. It rested on a plush cushion and was swathed in linen bandages. The arm felt divorced from his body. And he was happy to leave it that way.
"We’ve got matching bandages." Blair held up his splinted arm.
Blair shuffled a handbreadth closer.
"What happened next?" Jamie asked softly.
"Simon and Henri carried you upstairs and brought you here so Cindy Lou could look after you."
"Your suite? Why not my rooms?"
"Mama’s in your room ‘cos it’s clean and my rooms have always been sealed, so they’re safe, Rafe says."
"Ah," Jamie said knowledgeably. He was not entirely sure what had transpired since he left the castle, but he would find out soon. It was hard trying to draw out a confused little boy and give him a modicum of comfort, when he felt so fecking young himself. His father was dead…
"Is Jammy looking after you?" Blair pointed in the vicinity of Jamie’s shoulder.
Jamie glanced to the left, embracing the distraction. His old favoured toy was carefully tucked in his blankets. The well loved face brought a measure of comfort.
"I said he should be with you while you got better. Cindy said it was a good idea."
"Thank you. Where’s your ‘Leya?"
Blair shrugged. "I dunno, doing D’neirf things. She comes when she can ‘cos she’s not allowed most of the time. Are you still sore?"
Blair shuffled a fraction closer. "Rafe’s looking for the bad people. Him and Henri think that there might be some more bad people. Simon said I should stay with you and help you. Cindy, Michelle, Mags and Matty are with mama. Joel’s outside watching after us."
"Good old Joel."
"I like Joel; he’s nice." Slowly and surely, Blair had finally reached his side. A warm, chubby hand rested shyly on his shoulder.
"Hey, it’s going to be fine, Blair, I promise."
"Pwomise?" he lisped in his trembling unease.
"I promise," Jamie said simply.
He patted the mattress and then held up his arm enticingly. Plainly distrustful, Blair hesitated. All the wages of many evils rested on the child’s narrow shoulders.
"They’ve all gone, Blair. They’ll never hurt you again."
He held a fragile trust in his hands. The Goblin Queen, Cassie, The Zeller, Trevellyan, the Lashes and his father would not be allowed to destroy the prince.
Blair pursed his lips, filling his cheeks with air, then he nodded, once, a short sharp nod. Plainly ready to bolt, he shuffled a tad closer and then under Jamie’s arm. With the patience of a falconer with a fledgling, Jamie handled his prince. Tense, Blair rested his head on Jamie’s shoulder. The laird allowed his arm to rest alongside Blair’s back, not hemming him in.
The prince sighed deeply, relaxing into his embrace. Awake one moment and asleep the next, he must have fought against sleep, no doubt to keep nightmares away, throughout the debacle. The Sentinel vowed to guard his charge’s dreams.
Yawning, Jamie stared up at the plush velvet drapes. Every bone in his body ached except where a small head rested. Tentatively, he moved his arm to cup Blair’s shoulders.
The pain began to drain away
"Let me through."
Jamie cracked open a heavy eyelid. Blair was a dead weight resting against his shoulder, still deeply asleep. The Sentinel had no intention of moving any time soon.
He recognised the voice. His grandfather had finally arrived.
Yes, Lord Ellison had arrived and was demanding to be obeyed. Joel was unyielding, refusing to allow him to enter the Rose Suite.
"My grandson is inside."
"I do not know you, milord. You may not enter."
Good old Joel, what a man. Not many people would stand up to Ellis d’Ellison when he had that glint in his eye.
"Here." Jamie heard the soft snick of a blade and realised that his grandfather was drawing his Sgian Dubh. "This will tell all that I am the Sentinel of Acharn. The Queen’s Sentinel."
Jamie thought he heard a shading of disquiet in his voice.
"Hold it, while I see my grandson."
Unparalleled, the bodyguard of Wizard Sultan now held all the signets of the Sentinels of Acharn. Then he remembered that his father would have a ‘dagger black,’ he would have to remember to retrieve it. The hollow feeling in his gut grew anew.
Each door into the Rose Suite opened. The final door opened and Ellis stood at the threshold. He hadn’t changed, he was still tall, his face lined with creases from the sun and wind and his eyes a piercing blue. His grandfather and father were often mistaken as brothers.
"Grandson," he whispered in deference to the slumbering prince.
"Grandfather." Jamie nodded infinitesimally.
Ellis crossed the last step. His wintry eyes took in every jot. Then, surprising Jim beyond belief, he leaned down and planted a dry kiss on his forehead.
"I’m proud of you."
"Oh, Danu," Jamie croaked. He rested his cheek on the soft cap of curls tucked up against his neck and fought back tears. "Father is dead... He died saving the prince."
"I know, the Sultan… Simon told me everything."
"Why didn’t you come months ago?" he almost wailed.
"William was here." Ellis’ skin turned grey. "I thought…" he couldn’t finish.
"I don’t know what made him do it. I never suspected he was even here."
Ellis sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. "We’re not infallible." He laughed without humour. "I had dreams; I didn’t understand them. Until I heard your call, I ignored their portent, thinking that for once I’d let William handle the Queen. I thought maybe they’d bond."
"So you knew something was amiss?" Jamie said icily.
Ellis fixed him with an equally frigid glare. "There’s always something feckin’ well amiss, grandson. Welcome to the Sect of the Sentinel."
"How?" Jamie made an unthinking attempt to sit up. Blair muttered sleepily and Jamie relaxed immediately back in his pillows. "Why did they awaken? I don’t hold the key."
"Your key is currently draped across your shoulder," Ellis said with affection. "And you were obviously needed." The tones of bereavement were back in his voice.
"The prince: ‘His Royal Highness Prince Blair Nechtan Finn of the House of Sandburg-Bran, Holder of the Keys to the Weardian, Heir to the Lands of Acharn and Protector of the People.’ Weardian? It’s an old word for sentinel, isn’t it?"
"Do sentinels always find their guides in the royal family?" Jamie bit his lip. His grandfather had had a guide in the late King Blair. He remembered with the poor recall of a child, the dark shroud around his island home when the king had died. He hated to remind the old man of his loss.
Ellis took a deep breath, weighing his words with great care. "Normally, yes, but not always. Your great great-grandmother found her guide in a shepherdess. We can always make a choice."
"So father could have found a guide outside the royal family?"
Ellis clasped his hands together. "If he had looked."
"I don’t understand."
Ellis appeared uncommonly wise. "I think it is fear that prevents us from sometimes finding our guides."
"I need to know why father did it. Why he betrayed the Land and then in the last moment saved the prince. It doesn’t make any sense," his voice rose stridently.
"Jamie?" Blair grumbled, sleepily. He pushed off Jamie’s shoulder and sat upright. "Who?" he demanded glaring at the Queen’s Sentinel.
"This is my grandfather, Lord Ellison."
Blair rubbed his nose drowsily, and simply scowled at the old man.
"Good afternoon, Your Highness."
"Jamie’s poorly sick; you have to go away," the Prince ordered.
Ellis’ eyebrows rose into his hairline, no easy feat.
"Am looking after him. You go away."
Jamie canted his head to the side, moderately amused by his Guide’s obdurate behaviour. "It’s all right, Blair."
Blair found his feet, balancing on the feather mattress. "You can’t have him. He has to stay. He’s not going." The child’s hackles were up and he was growling like a wolf cub.
A flush coloured Lord Ellison’s cheeks. He was rarely yelled at by the Lords and Ladies of the realm – in fact nobody raised their voice in his presence. The Sentinel was the one with the sharp temper and caustic wit.
"Your Highness, when I last called Jamie home, it was to teach him things that he needs to help you best…"
"Promise? Never again?" Blair interrupted.
"Blair?" Jamie distracted the prince from an answer that the honourable Lord Ellison could not help but give him. It was likely that in the future the Queen’s Sentinel would call him away from the prince’s side to better serve both the prince and the Land, but he could swear that Blair would never be alone ever again.
"Jamie will stay with you for a long time," Ellis said with perfect honesty. A restrained smile crossed his face tinted with a little bit of jealousy.
"Grandfather?" Jamie began.
"No, son." Ellis rose from the bed, pausing just long enough to rest a hand on his shoulder. "I’m going to visit the Queen; if she’s able, we have a lot to talk about."
He bowed to the prince. Blair watched him leave with a truculent expression, and sighed happily when he closed the door behind him.
Jamie rolled his eyes heavenward. "That wasn’t very nice of you, Prince Blair."
He blinked innocently. "What?"
"He’s my grandfather, he’s important to me. But you reminded him of someone he tries to forget about everyday."
"Don’t understand," Blair grumbled. He shifted off the bed and jumped down, his bare feet slapping against the wooden floor. He moved back to his toys by the window.
"I don’t think you did it on purpose." Jamie debated on whether or not to get out of bed. He decided to stay flat on the mattress. Apparently Blair didn’t want to share him with anyone, including Jamie’s own grandfather. Given the circumstances of the last few days, not to mention the time that Blair had spent under Cassie’s tender care, Jamie was willing to indulge him. In all honesty, Jamie was pretty sure he didn’t want to share his Guide with anyone, including his grandfather.
It was a sobering thought; he had indeed found his guide and he had already shown what happened to people who tried to take him away.
The prince, who was busy lying on his tummy talking to a white garbed toy soldier, ignored him.
He looked up at Jamie. "This is you." He wiggled the toy. "Rafe sez I should play with the soldiers and talk to them. He gave them to me."
"Which one’s Rafe?"
Blair selected another soldier. The toy was exquisitely carved in black mahogany and painted in fine gold lines. The prince held it up for Jamie to see.
Displaying the astounding flexibility only a child could show, he twisted round and shuffled onto his bottom. Scrabbling under the armchair in the corner of the room, he pulled out a bald teddy bear with a potbelly and only one eye.
"Rafe said this was Henri."
"Will you play with me, Jamie?" Blair asked hopefully.
Worn beyond belief, but unwilling to disappoint his prince, Jamie simply patted the feather bed. "You’ll have to bring the soldiers to me."
"I don’t wanna play soldiers. Nasty soldiers and sharp knives. Not nice." He dragged out a box from the armchair. It was obviously his hiding place. All his toys were kept safe and out of view. "Let’s play checkers, nothing nasty happens when you play checkers."
A lesson learned
Blair leaned across Jamie’s bed, balancing on his elbows. The laird had been given a painkilling draught and he was sleeping with his mouth wide open. A tiny snore escaped. Jamie was fast, fast asleep -- in the Land of Nod, as Blair’s mama would say. The line between Jamie’s eyebrows had whispered away to nothing. His bandaged arm rested on his tummy on top of the quilt. He looked very comfortable.
Smiling, Blair patted the laird’s shoulder and slithered off the mattress. Jamie was happy but Blair was bored.
"’Leya," he whispered. "’Leya."
A subtle pop and the D’neirf appeared mid-air and dropped to the wooden floor.
"’Leya." He scooped her up and hugged her close, squishing her against his chest. "I missed you. Where did you go?"
The D’neirf shrunk in on herself. A faint touch on his mind reminded him of his mama in a snit.
"Oooh, you in trouble?"
‘Leya blinked her eye, good-naturedly.
"But you helped!" Blair’s voice rose dramatically. "Why are you in trouble? I don’t understand, Jamie said Danu saved us."
On the bed, Jamie muttered disjointedly. Blair shushed immediately, dropping ‘Leya and clapping his hands over his mouth.
"That’s not fair," Blair hissed through his fingers. "She helped; she took Seah ‘cos she was bad. Why are you in trouble?"
The feeling that came through was the succinct and to the point: ‘mothers.’ Blair sighed in an agreement.
"I havenae seen mama, but Cindy Lou says that she’s getting better. Uncle Simon and everyone are keeping her safe in Jamie’s room. I’m looking after Jamie," he said proudly.
The D’neirf jumped up on the headboard and peered at the sleeping Laird.
"I’m a bit bored, though," Blair admitted. "But I promised not to leave the room," he huffed.
‘Leya craned her head round to stare at him levelly.
Tutting, Blair moved over to the window. "I was just thinking it. But I did promise. Jamie would come after me, wouldn’t he, and that would make him more poorly sick. Cindy said I was to look after him and he’d miss me if I weren’t here, even if he was asleep. I’ve got ‘responsibilities.’ I’m still bored, though," he finished introspectively.
Meowing in commiseration, the D’neirf jumped off the bed. She slinked her way over to the balcony windows and waited purposely. Knowing her intentions, Blair padded to her side.
"We could sit in the sun, couldn’t we? We’d still sort of be in the room."
Very carefully, he pushed open the glass door and crept onto the balcony, without disturbing the sleeping laird. The inner garden was blooming, almost as if it knew that the threat to the Land was defeated. Fat luscious cherries hung on the tree in the centre of the garden.
"Oooh; they look nice, don’t they. Can’t get down." Blair picked at the splint on his arm. His fingers weren’t even swollen, but Cindy wouldn’t let him take off the bandages. "Not allowed."
Carefully, he unravelled the knot holding the splint. He resorted to his teeth once or twice, but eventually his arm was free. He wiggled his fingers since they felt sort of strange, as if they didn’t fit properly.
"Cherries," he intoned, he liked cherries.
‘Leya hissed, her yellow eye seemed to glare. Sighing, the prince looked back to the sleeping Sentinel, he was fidgeting a little bit and his feet were moving beneath the covers. Defeated by a new sense of responsibility, Blair sat down. Poking his legs through the decorative pillars he let them dangle.
"Bored," he announced.
The cherry tree rustled. Entranced, Blair watched as a branch dripping with succulent berries reached over to him.
"Hello." He held out cupped hands and a bunch of cherries dropped onto his palms. "Thank you."
He munched on one blissfully, offering another to the D’neirf. ‘Leya sniffed; cherries weren’t really her cup of tea.
The branches rustled, Blair watched rapt as twigs twisted to form a mouth and leaves formed lips and cheeks. Shiny black cherries became lustrous eyes. The figure sort of looked like Robyn, but was a golem made of bits of the tree.
"Hello, Robyn. I thought you couldn’t leave Miles?"
"I haven’t really. All trees are one. The cherry tree is helping me speak to you. Miles doesn’t mind."
"Is that how you knew that Jim was in the Great Forest?"
"Danu saved us."
Robyn smiled and passed over another handful of cherries. "You are blessed."
"Yeah, I like cherries too."
The leaves shivered with gentle laughter. A faint shimmer in the bow of the trunk caught his eye. Focusing, he saw the castle guardian, Becky, sitting between the big branches.
"Hey, Becky, are you and Robyn friends?"
::Hello. Yes, indeed, Robyn and I are friends::
"Why didn’t you tell Jamie everything, instead of making him lost?"
Blair leaned out into the garden to grab an offered cherry.
::I didn’t know everything. The Mage had protections which prevented me from getting into the dungeons, so I knew that something was happening::
"Danu didn’t tell you to send Jamie?"
::No:: Becky said slowly. ::I thought Danu wouldn’t mind me giving you a… little help::
Becky’s wraith form shivered, disappearing from view. Robyn handed across another spray of cherries, and Blair lost track of the conversation. He entertained himself spitting out the cherrystones, seeing how far he could propel them.
"So why can’t you, and ‘Leya and Becky tell me everything?" he finally asked around a mouthful of sweet cherries.
"Choice? What does that mean?"
"Little prince, you would hate it if I told you that you would understand when you get older."
Blair cocked his head to the side, trying to glean some idea of what she spoke. "I don’t understand."
"The world is built on certain beliefs and laws. They aren’t immutable…"
"What does immu... immu… mean?"
The twig mouth moved in a gentle smile. "Can’t be changed. But for the most times these guidelines are adhered to."
"You’re using big words deliberately," Blair accused.
"True." Robyn changed tack. "You don’t like wearing the clothes that Jamie chooses for you."
Blair went along with the apparent change in subject. "No, they’re silly and uncomfortable."
"Why does he make you wear them?"
His bottom lip stuck out as he pondered. "I dunno. He says that they ‘reflect my station.’"
"What does that mean?"
"I dunno. I think so people know who I am."
"So why do you wear them?"
"’Cos Jamie likes these ones."
"It’s a silly rule isn’t it?"
"Yes." Blair nodded emphatically.
"But, if you were lost in the dungeons and a guard found you, he’d know who you are and be able to return you to your mother."
"That happened when I was little. But I’m big now, so I know who I am. I don’t need to wear princey clothes."
"You don’t make this easy do you?" Robyn whispered introspectively. "Your clothes are a good thing or a bad thing depending on the situation. The rules that allow the Avatars of Danu to help can seem to be a good or middling or bad thing. Some Avatars are more lax in their interpretation of the guidelines of Danu than others."
‘Leya twisted around and licked her hip, with casual insolence.
"When you are older you’ll be able to choose your own clothes."
"Like Simon," Blair said eagerly. "No one tells him what to wear."
"Even if his feet get cold in his sandals. Hannahanna is a hot country so he would be a lot more comfortable if he wore boots while in Acharn. But that’s digressing."
"In the name of Danu, what are you two talking about?" Jamie staggered onto the balcony, his bare legs poking out from under his shirt. He plonked down beside the prince, manoeuvring his legs out between the balcony pillars so they too dangled.
"Robyn’s trying to ‘plain why they didn’t tell us what was happening."
Jamie nodded respectfully to the Dryad of Acharn and gratefully accepted a handful of cherries.
"To be honest, all I knew was that something was amiss within the Land of Acharn. I did not know its source." The extension of Robyn shrugged, rustling the entire tree. "I’m trying to explain why Danu waited until the last possible moment to save you. Perhaps you, Lord James, can explain matters of theology and philosophy. Danu respects her children, be they High Avatars or tiny bairns, but she doesn’t tell them what to do. She allows them to choose."
"But she’s not adverse to lending a helping hand when it is necessary?" Jamie offered.
"Indeed, when it is necessary," she put a peculiar emphasis on the final word.
"I don’t want to go!" Blair squalled. He stamped his feet well on his way to a pure, unadulterated tantrum.
"You will go and you will wear the clothes that Rafe laid on the bed," Jamie said flatly.
"No." Blair confounded the Sentinel by dropping on his knees and crawling under the large four poster bed.
"Blair, your presence at the royal court is required."
Moving like an arthritic old man, Jamie bent down on his hands and knees. He peered under the bed. Blair had tucked himself in the far corner well out of reach. Curled in a ball, the prince had wrapped his arms around his knees.
"Blair," Jamie said tiredly. "The Lords and Ladies of the Land need to see that the succession is safe. That means that you have to be seen. Your presence at the trial is required, you’ll only be there for the indictment – then you can come back here to play."
"I don’t get to watch?" Blair’s sapphire eyes flashed fire.
"Make your mind up, Chief. Do you want to go or not?"
Huffing angrily, vexed by the insanity found in adults, Blair crawled out from under the bed.
"Oh, look at you; you’re all dusty."
Blair accepted with poor grace a bath. He was less than impressed when he was wrestled into a royal purple doublet and hose, even though Jamie pointed out to him, that he too had to wear his smart clothes. Rafe had to put the final touches to Jamie’s finest doublet, as one handed he couldn’t tie the silk ruff around his throat.
Eventually, they made it to the royal court. The circular hall was filled to capacity, the clans of the Highlands were rowdy in their northern quarter and the lowland Lords in the southern quarter were equally noisy. The Ocean faring clans of the Western Isles faced the eastern farmers and they too added to the clamour.
Jamie kept his hand firmly on Blair’s shoulder as they entered the deafening throng. The first lady to see them stood. Lady Cassilde waved imperiously for her family to stand. Their movement alerted the other eastern families. The western sailors followed. The northern clans were last to stand.
"What are they doing?" Blair whispered for sentinel ears.
"They are paying you homage."
"Because you are a brave little prince."
"Am not little."
"Fine, you’re a big prince."
"What’s ‘homage’ mean?"
Jamie bit his bottom lip to stop from smiling outright. "Bow," he directed.
Blair’s face scrunched up mutinously, but then defying his first instincts, he executed a perfect princely bow, not too deep and not too shallow. Jamie echoed his obeisance.
Blair gawked at everyone, marvelling at the different people. There was one man on the northern dais who was even taller than Simon. He had hair the colour of living flame and a barrel of a chest. Jamie directed him to a seat in the inner circle, padded with a purple cushion. Blair hefted himself onto the seat, slapping at Jamie’s helping hand.
"Why does everyone in that part of the room wear kilts?" he asked ingenuously and loud enough for most to hear.
"People in the north wear kilts."
"Because, Prince Blair," the giant boomed. "They are useful as a blanket, a towel, a tent or a stretcher." His laughter echoed around the hall, as contagious as a common cold.
Silence reigned once more as Lord Ellison entered the Council Chamber. He stood at the entrance, almost deliberately impressive as he scanned the crowd. Once assured of their honesty, he stepped aside. Queen Naomi, appearing wraithlike, entered regally into the hall.
"Mama!" Blair shot forward as if fired from a cannon. "Mama!"
Queen Naomi dropped to her knees, arms outstretched. Blair flung himself into her arms, not even aware of Lord Ellison subtly bracing her.
"Mama, I missed you so much." He peppered her face with kisses. Queen Naomi responded in kind, stroking his chestnut curls.
"I thought," Jamie said in an aside, "that the Queen was unable to appear and that was why Prince Blair had to make an appearance."
"She insisted." Lord Ellison shrugged. "She compromised, stating she will stay only for the reading of the charges and the appointment of the new minister."
The host of clans were quiet watching the reunion. Even a few hardy souls appeared moved.
Lord Ellison bent forwards. "Perhaps it is time to take a seat."
Jamie heard Queen Naomi whisper very quietly, "I still feel a little fragile, sweetie, I can’t lift you up."
Blair backed away as if burnt. Jamie moved to intercept, masking Blair’s horrified expression from the watching clans.
Queen Naomi took his chubby face between her hands. "I’m almost better, darling. I’m here. You just have to be careful."
Blair glued himself to her hip, as Lord Ellison helped her rise. Together they crossed the hall, the Queen settled herself regally on a chaise longue. Whilst it was apparent that she was ill, the message was received that she was capable. Blair settled next to her, snuggling. The Queen’s Sentinel took a guarding position at her back. Jamie stood next to his grandfather, his hand resting on his dirk concealed in his fealeadh beg.
Blair was watching the proceedings with great interest; now that he had his mama, waves of relaxed contentment rolled off him, soothing those in his immediate vicinity. It was apparent to the laird that he would have to at least begin to teach the rudiments of shielding magic to the young prince, sooner rather than later. In the meantime it promised to make a no doubt chaotic council meeting a lot easier.
Blair was waving to the nobility he recognised. The Assassin of Acharn – who had taken his place with the Lords of the Western Isles – waggled his fingers. The Wizard Sultan and his Adjutant sat watching the proceedings from a segregated box separating the northern clans and eastern farmers.
Lord Ellison took his place in the inner circle, in the northern face opposite Lord Malú of the Lowlands. He did not sit.
"Come to order," he spoke evenly, his voice cutting through the hubbub of conversations.
"I speak on behalf of her Royal Highness, Queen Naomi. As you can no doubt see, there are members of the Council of Acharn that are not present, these Lords and Ladies are in custody. There had been treason committed against the Queen. A plot to wrest the Crown from the hands of the Sandburgs has been foiled, as have several murder attempts including one most insidious."
Ellison rode the pandemonium as if fighting a wild stallion. Most were aware that evil was afoot, a few were determined to ferment further discord. Jamie noted that the younger brother of Chancellor Lash would need to be watched.
"The inner cadre against Her Royal Highness consisted of: The Zeller, Lord William Ellison, Lord Trevellyan of Piob Mhor and Chancellor Lash with his son, David Monaghan. Members of the inner council who supported The Zeller’s plans are as follows…"
Jamie listened in awe as Lord Ellison listed the other council members who had gone along with The Goblin Queen’s insane plan. His grandfather had indeed been busy while he had been on his sick bed. However, nothing was said of the true threat of the Goblin Queen.
Jamie waited until the council had listened to the profusion of charges laid at the feet of the perpetrators. He knew that the Lashes and the seven other Lords and Ladies who had been implicated would be brought into the chamber to be judged by their peers.
During the pause while the rambunctious council members absorbed the charges, he extricated the prince from his mother’s grasp. Blair, despite being newly reunited with his mama, was bored beyond belief. Jamie directed the prince from the hall with a hand on his shoulder.
"What’s going to happen?" Blair stage whispered as soon as the tall oak doors closed behind them.
Jim didn’t want Blair to witness the proceedings nor did he want him to be in the presence of the Lashes ever again. "The new minister, my grandfather, will listen to the evidence against the Lashes and the Lords Botan, Illium, nic Deovid, the Sheriff Duncan and the Ladies Madeline, Sarah and Amantha. Then he will pass judgement."
Jamie wondered how much the bright little boy understood.
"Let’s go to the kitchens," Blair said emphatically. "I think we deserve a honey cake. We can get a haunch of beef for your wolf friend Tay and visit him in the orchard. He’s been talking to Robyn."
"It sounds like a good plan."
Blair held his hand out, his expression expectant. Jamie realised that for the first time Blair was offering his embrace, previously Jamie had waited patiently for the prince to accept his grip. He carefully enfolded the tiny hand in his palm and squeezed gently. Blair squeezed back and a sunny grin broke out on his impish face. Swinging their clasped hands together, they sauntered down the corridor, their thoughts not on evil Lords and Ladies but how they could finagle honey cakes from Mags the cook.
Blair squealed happily running around the great hall. The plaids of his tiny kilt streamed out behind him. A tousled headed child, formally decked out in velvet and lace chased after him. Ancient Lord Malú froze like a statue as they skirted around him, intent on their game of chase. Jamie almost moved to intercept, until he realised the Lord was quite safe, unless he moved. Blair ducked to the side and his new friend chased him across the hall and behind one of the suits of armour standing guard along the wall.
"Who’s the little red head?" Jamie asked Rafe who was sprawled beside him on the low couch.
"Daniel, my older sister’s boy. I thought Blair would benefit from a friend his own age. If he spends too much time with adults he’ll become serious." He smiled at his own joke.
"Don’t worry, Jamie. Daniel’s cut from the same cloth as Blair. A little bookworm."
"Why am I not reassured?"
With Daniel hot on his heels, Blair darted between the dancers who were weaving their way through an intricate dance in the centre of the hall. The celebration in honour of those who had delivered Acharn from the forces of darkness was going well. Jamie watched the proceedings, striving for a cynical air but not succeeding. Vast quantities of food had been consumed during the banquet along with mead and fine wines. Jamie had begged off the rounds of dances using his arm and weariness as an excuse. There were a bevy of ladies watching him from across the hall waiting for him to show the slightest interest.
Blair squealed, his happiness echoing through the rafters above. The candles and flowers decking the hall seemed to glow brighter, responding to his glee.
With an almighty leap, the prince flung himself onto the soft couch that his mother reclined on. Cindy, at her side, moved to intercept him. A slight gesture from the Queen stayed her hand.
"Mama!" Suddenly still and restrained, he carefully entwined his arms around the recuperating Queen’s neck.
Even though she had been removed from the plethora of herbs and malevolent poisons making her ill and the subtle magicks inhabiting her chambers, the Queen was making a slow recovery. But every day saw a tiny improvement. True recovery was many months in the future but she was still determined to see her people and to let her people see that she was alive and well, as she had in the council chamber.
Incandescent, Blair snuggled in against his mama. The pendulum of his being that swung between a clutching demand for security and defensive arrogance, seemed to swing to those extremes a little less every day.
Rafe’s nephew screeched to a halt in front of the Queen’s couch. Jamie could practically see him making the connection between his new friend and her majesty.
"Can Blair play some more?" He made a practised little bow.
Queen Naomi craned her head to the side to regard her son. "I don’t know, do you want to?"
"Juice first, please."
"Would you like some, young Daniel?"
The red head nodded shyly.
She clicked her fingers and three goblets of refreshing cloudberry juice were delivered adroitly. Jamie watched as Blair and Daniel sat on the edge of the chaise longue swinging their legs, drinking juice, as happy as clams in the mud.
"I think you’re right, Your Grace," Jamie said sagely.
"Eh?" Rafe was watching three nubile young things dancing a trio.
"Blair and Daniel, I think he will benefit from a friend his age. I don’t like the thought of him being alone."
Rafe dragged his gaze away from the lassies. "Yes, that’s why I asked his guardian to bring him to the citadel. Excuse me, I’m going to dance with Susn."
Jamie shook his head as Rafe sauntered towards Lady Anne’s daughter. The debutantes clustered around the rakish assassin and he lapped up their attention.
"You don’t want to dance?"
Jamie was disturbed from his contemplations by a distinctive voice. The Wizard Sultan ducked his head in acknowledgement. He held two goblets, one of which he offered to the laird.
"May I sit?" he raised an eyebrow.
Jamie stuttered, "Of course, Sire." He bounced to his feet and conducted the Wizard Sultan to his seat.
"I think you can call me Simon, Jamie."
"Of course, Sire."
Simon shook his head. "You acquitted yourself very well, I hope that your grandfather has told you how proud he is of you."
A faint blush touched Jamie’s fair cheeks. "Yes," he said tightly.
"Good." He handed across one of the goblets. "This is a subtle nectar from my home. I think you’ll enjoy it."
Jamie couldn’t find the bad manners to refuse. The liquor felt more than it tasted. Very strange; it seem to evaporate on his tongue.
"How are you feeling, Jamie?"
"My arm’s almost healed."
"I didn’t mean that." Simon peered at him over his magic lenses.
"Oh? Oh?" Jamie unconsciously looked to the right and the left. "You mean the… sentinel gifts?"
"Yes," Simon drawled.
"I don’t really know if I am supposed to use them." Jamie stared at his grandfather standing guard behind the Queen and the prince. As far as he was aware, Ellis had not left the Queen’s side since she had awoken from her enchanted stupor. His grandfather was exuding guilt. "I mean it’s not as if I have reached the age of reason or been given the keys. That’s not accurate – Blair is my key."
Jamie gritted his teeth in frustration. The plaintive tone in his voice had betrayed his unease.
"You should talk to your grandfather."
"I will after the celebration."
"Yes," Jamie said shortly. He knew that he had lessons to learn regarding his gifts. But unlike his father he had a guide. How could he justify his father’s actions? What had led him to work with the Goblin Queen? Was it purely that he hadn’t found a guide? That he hadn’t looked for a guide?
In that instance he was so very angry he wanted to spit.
"Jamie?" Simon asked curiously.
Would he ever understand what had driven his father? In that last instance he had saved the prince. Was it that a sentinel couldn’t kill a potential guide? Were sentinels that weak that they couldn’t understand honour without a guide? Yet in the last instance his honour had been intact. It was so very tragic.
"What did they hope to achieve?" Jamie asked. "The Goblin Queen wanted to oust the people… that included The Zeller and the Lashes so why help her?"
"I don’t think the Lashes are sane, who understands their motivations. Where did the Council send them?"
"They’ve gone to the Druids to be cured," Jamie supplied, even though he knew the Wizard Sultan was fully aware of the soul stealers’ fate.
"Trevellyan was an ass. And Brack was the Goblin Queen’s minion brought from the dead. I doubt they had much thought behind them. Thankfully, we only faced a revenant of the Mage Brack. Facing a reincarnated Brack with all his gifts would be scary beyond all thought."
"Who knows? I think he is the worst of them all. He was an intelligent, evidently sane man willing to destroy us all."
"Perhaps you’re right we will never understand their motivations," Jamie grumbled.
Jamie’s gaze drifted to the prince, he had finished his juice and he and Daniel were back to running wild around the room. Duchess Michelle caught them before they could duck under the long table holding dainties and victuals for the celebrants. She drew the boys into a dance, teaching them the steps in the intricate dance.
Simon relaxed onto his cushions. "So what do your gifts tell you?"
Jamie realised that the Wizard Sultan was not going to let him pass the onus of his gifts back to his grandfather. He supposed that his double-be-damned sense of responsibility wouldn’t allow him to. Jamie focussed on the prince, instinctively knowing that he would be able to perceive a threat to the child easier than to the Land.
"I feel contentment," Jamie blurted. He took another draught of the Sultan’s peculiar nectar.
"Good." Simon wriggled until he was comfortable on the couch. He interlaced his fingers together and rested his joined hands on his stomach. "I guess my job is done."
"Does that mean that you’re going to go back to Hannahanna?"
Simon shrugged his shoulders. "Eventually."
"Jamie. Jamie. Jamie." Blair weaved between the ceilidh dancers. He slid to a halt before the laird and the Sultan.
"Michelle said the next dance is going to be a set. That means we have to have three girls and three boys. Come on." He grabbed Jamie’s hand and tugged him to his feet.
The laird was dragged into the centre of the hall where the newly elevated Lady Matilde and the premier physician of the Land stood with Duchess Michelle. Blair’s new friend was waiting with the ladies. Jamie was drawn into the group. He had intended to be a wallflower throughout the night, but it looked like his prince was determined to make him join in the celebration.
Jamie was summarily partnered with Duchess Michelle. He bowed deeply as she curtsied. Watching like a hawk, Blair copied – bobbing to his partner Matilde. Daniel bowed deeply to Cindy Lou. The music started and the lively rhythm made feet dance and toes tap. Blair grinned up at him, his curls tousled around his happy, cheeky face. Jamie couldn’t help but realise that this was a memory that he would remember and cherish.
It was a perfect moment.
P.S. They all lived happily ever after.
Disclaimer: no Seahs were hurt in the writing of this missive