This is longer than I usually post, and goes right through a scene-break, but it’s still the right length because it takes us to a proper interesting end-point.
Oh, wait. Great – I just figured out how to fix that. I need to cut the end of the first scene off short, and shift stuff onto the start of the next scene. Then I’ll have a stronger narrative. That’s fantastic! I’m off to fix my mss right now!
… Maybe she was just a stranger, but on that calm face of hers, that look of distress seemed extreme.
Bewilderment, pain, and shock.
The other girls patted her. One more or less collapsed, ending up hugging Mere; another attached herself to one of Mere’s hands. It occurred to Christopher that of course the whole group had known each other since infancy. All castle children. He remembered random comments they’d made while riding—were they all the daughters of knights?
“Mere?” he said. “Are you sick?”
He helped her stand—she was oddly light on her feet, wavering in his hold. He guided her across the room and eased her down to perch on the edge of the bed.
Nobody said anything. That was just as odd.
A girl sitting on his bed at midnight. Having ten chaperones, some extremely young, certainly made it easier to keep that distraction away.
He backed off and sat in one of those overstuffed armchairs. It seemed like nobody was about to offer any explanations. The candle flickered, he watched Mere sitting there silent as the moon, and the rest of them began to bustle around, not saying a word. They fetched Mere a blanket. They poked up the coals in the hearth and rested an iron over them, to mull Mere a cup of wine. They laid a damp napkin over her forehead, and the one who had hugged her began to rub her back.
The redheads brought him a blanket too, and his own cup of hot spiced wine.
Mere’s voice sounded like a dream.
“There’s a secret that only the royal family and the knights know. We girls all come from the seven knightly families so we know too. But outsiders must never be told.”
Silence. “Does it have to do with Keys?” he said finally. “Who am I?”
Mere only shook her head. Her eyes were shut, but he could see how her lips were also shut in a firm determined line.
He waited and waited, but she didn’t answer.
After my guardians come, I’ll never see any of these girls again. Will I miss them? Then he thought, I don’t even know why I’m here.
At last he leaned back in the soft chair, and pulled the blanket over himself. He ended up pulling it right over his face too. Once he’d shut them all out, he could sleep again.
He slept, the royal chambers hushed around him, and none of the knights’ daughters made a sound, for fear of disturbing him … the boy, their charge, a treasure beyond price—worth more than all their lives together.
When she thought of it, Mere could barely breathe for fear.
How could they possibly keep him as safe as he needed to be?
He’d curled into a ball in the big chair that had been Prince Alexander’s, absurdly tucked up like a child with his head under the blanket. Mere’s imagination showed her Alexander sprawled large across the same chair, legs stretched out, fingers drumming in boredom—well, actually that was Alexane, but Prince Alexander and Princess Alexane were very alike. They looked alike, they acted alike. Both were prone to large emotions and large gestures, and neither ever thought to hide anything. The instant Alexane strode into a room, you knew exactly what she didn’t like.
That would never change, no matter that Alexane was now Crown.
Who could have guessed things would turn out this way?
She remembered the test that afternoon. Sir Percevale and the usually-kind Sir Balsam had driven them mercilessly, working them until Dimity could scarcely keep her feet and the rest of them were shaking with exhaustion. Then they’d been given real blades, live steel, and sent out to be tested. One by one. Mere had been last. She’d waited with the others, straining to hear something—had that been a muffled crash? a sudden scream? They couldn’t tell. And finally her turn had come, and she had gone out and walked down the long empty corridor, alone. “Go into the room at the end of the hall,” was all Sir Percevale would say.
The door to the room at the hall’s end had been left slightly ajar. She’d looked up, noticed something, and used her sword to knock down the wooden lath balanced atop the door. Tucking it under her arm, she’d gone into the room.
Afterward, Sir Inconnu told her about the others. Dimity had been knocked right off her feet, ending up with a bloody forehead. Pell and Mell had attacked the lath on the way down, and Seventh had slain it with such a wild stab that she broke her sword on the wall. Merriment hadn’t been able to make herself enter the room; she had burst into tears in the hall and refused to take another step. Defeated by her own panic.
What had been the point? Hours later, Mere still didn’t see it. Now she felt like Merriment, a victim of her own fear—of the terrified swift pace of her heart. She kept her head bent and clenched her fingers on the bed-curtains, crushing and twisting the fabric. Cousin Seventh had knocked apart the fire in the hearth, after mulling wine for everyone; it was dark again save for the one candle, now over on the floor next to Mell. It was cold too.
Shadows shifted in the far corners of the room. The light of one lone candle couldn’t do much against the dark.
The others had made a show out of going back to bed, never saying a word. Not even the littlest ones. Most of them were feigning sleep now, though Mere heard whispers from Pell and Mell’s corner. Such good little girls—they already knew their duty to the kingdom.
The boy had to be protected.
The boy had to feel safe and contented.
Mere kept her chin up. She was the oldest, so she had to be responsible for everyone. Even though Alexane—Crown now, she reminded herself—was actually older, it didn’t matter: Crown wasn’t here. So Mere was in authority and she had to be strong. But it was hard to feel strong just now … not when she could see every corner of the room as if in floods of light. Or when she could even see straight through the outer doors to the pair of knights standing guard out there; she could see inside the armor-chests across the room, and inside the drawers of the serving-cupboard, and inside the huge wardrobe too, as clear as day.
It was profoundly dizzying.
At last she straightened herself a little and whispered, “Pellmell?”
Pell and Mell rushed to her.
“I need help to walk …”
“Your eyes!” Pell whispered fiercely.
Mere knew what her eyes must look like, whited completely over, opaque. Later that would change, but this was the beginning.
The twins helped her stand. She could barely take a straight step; her legs were wobbly and her feet seemed far away, maybe in another country. Off on their own journey. Pell and Mell guided her to the door.
Her father Sir Gawaine stood guard just outside, with his great sword, drawn, held upright and point-down to the marble-tiled floor. His hands, folded over the pommel of the hilt, balanced the blade at parade rest. He wore his armor.
“Father?” she said.
Her father turned to look down at her, and froze. On the other side of the door, her uncle Marchmain also froze staring.
Mell eased the heavy door shut, so whatever they said, it would go unheard.
Mere knew all this but at the same time, she was going blind. No more looking into closed chests or through the garderobe door; everything alternately faded away and whited out. Still, she imagined the look of astonishment and pride on her father’s face. He’d deal with everything for a while, she knew.
“Daughter.” He tilted up her chin. “It’s the Eye of God.”
“I’m not worthy.” She had to confess it. “I failed the test this afternoon.”
From him and Uncle Marchmain, only silence. Her heart fell dismally. Then Marchmain chuckled, and she heard one of the knights slap the other on the back. Father said, “Ah, my heart. We’ve all taken that test. A simple test with a trapped doorway, but Inconnu said to me after, and I quote: ‘Only Mere spotted the trap, and evaded it instead of senselessly attacking. The quick eye and cool judgment needed in a knight-royal. She never fails to impress,’ and all afternoon, I’ve bragged about you to my fellow knights.”
She felt a vast, sweet joy dawn in her. “What next?” she asked, leaning into the circle of his arm.
“Now, darling, I’m taking you straight to the king.”
“It has begun,” she said.