The Kingmaker


Everleigh

I am sixteen years old and I will die on the morning of my seventeenth birthday.

As tradition dictates, I will be sacrificed and my life’s blood will determine which one of my two brothers will be King.

My blood will kill one and crown one.

My name is Everleigh and I am the Kingmaker.


Lanorie

Because there’s less than a week till Everleigh’s seventeenth birthday, it’s the Kingmaker’s feast. It’s the biggest celebration I’ve ever seen and I’ve been with her since I was seven and she was nine.

The food – more dishes than I’ve ever seen, and they usually have a lot. This is something else, though. There’s a cooked duck with all the feathers pushed back in so it looks like it’s still alive and a peacock with his tail all fanned out.

Everleigh is eating and drinking like she hasn’t a worry in the world. I think I’d feel too sick if I was her. To be honest with you, I don’t know how she does it; she’s never miserable. If I knew someone was going to slit my throat in less than a week’s time I wouldn’t feel like a feast.

Ah, well, that’s that – she’s the Kingmaker as her aunt was before her. She’s a princess too so she gets the best of everything. Oh, you should see some of her clothes, the dresses and furs – fit for a Queen, never mind a princess. And her jewellery, you’ve never seen anything like it. One of the King’s favourites sent her an emerald the size of an egg.

She lets me have her cast-offs too – I’m the best dressed hand maiden this castle has ever seen.

I mean princess is one thing, but Kingmaker is something else. Everyone loves her, no one can take their eyes off her. It’s like everyone wants to make up for the fact that she’ll die so young.

Look at Addyson. She’s a princess too but no one cares about her. But then she’s got the curse on her, so maybe they would if she wasn’t cursed. We’ll never know that though, will we?

The curse? Oh, well her mother died in childbirth. It’s so unlucky, to start your life by ending another – it’s the worst thing. She’s cursed now. Of course, lots of women die during child birth, so all those children can’t be cursed, but little Addyson killed a Queen, see. A Queen is sacred. The King himself can hardly look at her. Her brothers are nice enough and Everleigh’s like a mother to her. But she probably won’t ever marry, nor have children of her own. What man would want to marry the cursed one? Poor Addyson. Of course, she doesn’t know any of that. She doesn’t understand why the King can’t stand the sight of her and bless her, she trails around after him, like one of the hounds trailing around Cook for some scraps. Poor girl.

Hang on, Everleigh’s caught my eye. I bet she wants topping up – the amount of wine she can put away – oof.

I was right; wine.

Oh, it’s just so fancy and lovely here tonight. I topped up her drink and then Millard caught my eye – that’s her brother, you know – one of the brothers who might be King. I reckon it’ll be him – Macsen’s too soft. Kings need to be strong and powerful – and you should see the muscles on Millard.

So, I topped him up too. Oh, he’s awfully handsome. He’s younger than Macsen but I bet it’ll be him. They don’t even look like brothers really, if you didn’t know you’d never be able to tell. Millard is more handsome. He is tall, with a mop of dark hair and dark eyes. Macsen is shorter and fatter, his hair is blonde like Addy’s and his eyes are a lighter brown than Millard’s. He’s not ugly but he’s not as pleasing on my eye as his brother.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes – this feast. So, I’m standing on the side of the great hall and, oh, it is great. When you walk in through the doors, the throne is straight ahead of you, but so far it would take you five minutes to get there. It’s full of tables and benches now but usually it’s a bit less crowded. The walls and the ceiling are painted with glorious pictures. It’s so beautiful. I’m on my tiptoes trying to see it all.

I’ve never seen a Kingmaker’s feast before and it is fancy. The main table’s enormous and covered in dishes of food and jugs of ale and wine, too much for any of them to eat – we’ll have a feast tonight in the kitchen, I tell you.

There are so many visitors here too – hundreds of people that I’ve never seen before. A Kingmaker’s feast is something to behold, apparently. It makes me sad and cross. We’ve always known it was coming, of course, but knowing it and being here are different. I feel sick all the time.

Everleigh’s face is flushed from wine, and she’s eating loads. She’s waving her spoon around as she talks to Macsen. She looks so lovely tonight. Lots of the King’s men have their eye on her, especially Brett. Not that there’s much point, though. Poor Everleigh, she’ll never marry, of course. What would be the point? She’ll be dead soon.

Oh, when I say it like that, so matter of fact – which it is – oh, it still makes me shiver. How can she live knowing she’ll die at such a young age? It would kill me.

I think this feast is quite sad really, celebrating the last days of her life. Cook said there’ll be a blessing later, not sure who does it though, probably the wise woman. Wait till you see her, oh she is creepy.

Well the entertainment has started, there’s singing now and it’s wonderful. There’s the usual crew, three of them. They sing and play for the King’s entertainment and it’s so good.

Hang on, summoned again.

Oh, cheeky Millard – he just patted me on my backside. He’ll be King for sure – I might not be Kingmaker, but you can just tell, can’t you?

Why not just make him King then? Indeed. It would spare Everleigh’s life, wouldn’t it?

No, the tradition of Kingmaker has been around forever. Every King is made by the Kingmaker. It’s always the first-born daughter that comes after at least two boys. That’s the one who holds the magic. Well, magic’s not my word – I’m not one for all that dilly dallying. But magic they say it is.

So, King Henry had his two boys and then Everleigh, and then Addyson. So Everleigh will die and so will one of the boys.

Oh, I don’t understand it all really. Apparently, the Kingmaker has the magic blood of the royal line in her. So, when she dies this magic passes on to one of her brothers. Whichever one survives drinking her life’s blood will be King. Eugh, I know – I love Everleigh but I wouldn’t want to drink her blood. They don’t drink much but it will kill one and crown the other.

Ah well. So, the singers have finished and now come the dancers. Soon they’ll all join in and well, to see Everleigh dance you’d think she hasn’t a care in the world.

I love dancing. We dance up a storm in the kitchen at night. I’m not allowed to dance here, of course, but I can’t stop my feet tapping.

I don’t sleep in with Everleigh – she likes her peace, so I leave her to it. It means I get to eat, dance and drink in the kitchen all night, so I’m happy.

Well, there’s something to see. The King is dancing. He doesn’t normally dance. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve seen it. And tonight, of all nights. He probably feels guilty.

Well, the mood’s a funny one. Macsen is his normal self; I can tell – nothing seems to bother him. Cook reckons he’s a little soft in the head, but that seems a bit harsh to me. He’s always smiling. And Millard seems happy enough too. He’s a born King, if you ask me. And our poor King Henry. Maybe he’s dancing to celebrate his last week as King. He’ll be shipped off somewhere when the new King is crowned. Not sure where they go, really. I’ll have to ask Cook.

Only thing is he’ll have to go by himself. Oh, poor man, he never got over the Queen dying like she did. Everleigh looks so much like her, and Addyson probably will as well. No wonder he can’t look at Addyson. It broke his heart when the Queen died.

What can I say? One daughter’s got the death curse on her and the other’s the Kingmaker. One boy will die and one will rule and the King’ll be sent elsewhere anyway.

Who would ever want to be King?

Anyway, he seems happy enough tonight. I like watching him dance. He looks younger. They’re good dancers, both of them. He adores Everleigh. Don’t know how he’ll cope when she dies, but what can he do? She is the Kingmaker. That’s what she was born to do.

I only asked her about it once – being Kingmaker, you know, and she was so matter of fact about it I didn’t ask again. There was no weeping or wailing, no tears. Not that I was hoping for any, of course. She just said: I am the Kingmaker, with a little shrug of her shoulders.

I suppose if you’ve known something since you were so young you wouldn’t even think to question it.

That’s what she said to Cook when Cook asked her too. She said, do you question why you are a cook and I’m a princess? Why one man is King and another a pauper? Why one new born child will die and one will live? How some can survive the black death and others will die almost instantly?

It’s true though. This world is a funny one – I think I’d rather be me than her. Poor Everleigh – she’s too lovely to die.

Well, I’m glad I’m just her handmaiden. Maybe once she’s gone, Millard will give me a job in the new royal household. Aye, he’ll be looking for a wife too. You never know my luck.

Oh, I can’t believe I even thought that. Don’t listen to me. I’m quite giddy with this wonderful night. The music, the laughter, the dancing – the spirits are high in everyone, not just me. Cook brought out a dish earlier and was dancing a jig with one of the stable boys, and she normally just hits them. The girls are grinning and the boys are laughing. The would-be Kings are relaxed and smiling. The King is as happy as I’ve ever seen him. And I see him every day.

And Everleigh.

Well, this girl who will die too soon is something else. All eyes are on her. She’s so lovely.

So, this is it. Less than a week to go. I can hardly believe it. It’ll fly by, I tell you.

Oh, hang on the King’s on his feet, Everleigh’s taken his arm. They’re going to the throne. Oh, he’s sitting down now. She’s kneeling in front of him. Hang on; I’m going to stand on my stool. She’s still kneeling on the floor and he’s still sitting.

I can’t see – I think someone’s come in to the hall – everyone’s looking but it’s too far away. Curse me for being short.

It’s the wise woman.

Ooh, I can’t help but shudder when I see her. She scares the life out of me. I avoid her at all costs. Whenever I pass her, wherever we are, I can’t meet her eyes. I did once, when I first came here and a shiver went right through me and I swear, all my hair stood on end.

She has the highest place in the court, except for the King and his children, but she’s a scary old thing, if you ask me.

She’s shuffling across to the throne. Her face is covered with the dark hood she always wears. She’s stopped in front of Everleigh.

Oh, I hope she’s not the one who sacrifices her. She’s enough to frighten someone half to death without raising a knife to them. I don’t like to ask Everleigh anything about it so I just nag Cook.

Everleigh’s head’s still down, her neck must be killing. The King is watching the wise woman. Her name’s Halfreda and I make it my life’s work to stay out of her way. I like the witch from the village better, Ginata. She’s so pretty. I try not to take much notice of Halfreda to be honest. She looks at me like she’s judging me. I keep right out of her way.

She’s put her hands on Everleigh’s head. Ooh, I did – I shivered again – I can’t help it.

Everleigh’s standing up now, everyone’s looking at her. Millard’s eyes are so wide. He’s smiling too. I bet he’s thinking he’ll be King.

Oh, what’s she doing now? She’s saying something but I can’t hear it, I’m too far away. Everleigh’s kneeling again and now the King is standing. He’s talking now.

I can hear mumbling but I can’t make out the words.

Oh, Millard and Macsen are going to the throne now. One’s standing either side of Everleigh. Halfreda has a hand on each head.

Everleigh just stood up. She’s got a hand on each of their heads now too. Ooh, they’re kneeling.

Oh, I don’t really know what it’s all about. Another question for Cook. No wonder she rolls her eyes when she sees me coming.

Ah well.

Now the singers are singing again and Everleigh’s hugging her father and her brothers.

Oh, they’re coming back to their seats. I think it’s all over with.

Well, it was a bit exciting. The countdown begins now I guess.

Less than one week until she’s dead. And then what?


1

The first time Everleigh’s mother, Isabella, Queen of the Realm, explained to Everleigh her duty, her role as Kingmaker, her cruel fate, she couldn’t stop crying. She started with silent tears, trailing down her beautiful face, as she explained both the age-old traditions and the potent magic that combined to make Everleigh’s life so special.

Then the sobs came, her whole body shaking, as she told Everleigh how she would live a short but very special, very important life.

Finally came the deep shuddering breaths as she fought to regain some control while she tried to make her daughter understand that she would die so that one of her brothers could become King.

Her father Henry, the King of the Realm, took over, letting her mother’s lady in waiting take her away and call the doctor for a sleeping draught. She was heavily pregnant and he wanted to spare her from too much upset.

Her father sat next to her; she was only five years old, and he told her about the magic that filled her blood, the sacred traditions that all Kings must follow, and the special, special little girl that she was.

When he asked her if she understood, if she felt okay with it all, she nodded, as she always did when her father asked her anything. She always wanted to please him.

He was the most important man in the whole Realm and he loved her. He sought out her company. He tried to make her laugh. She had always felt special because of him and she wanted him to love her more. So, she always dressed prettily. She always tried extra hard at her reading. She practised sewing for hours, pricking her thumb repeatedly, just to initial clothes for his birthday. She didn’t really understand what being Kingmaker meant. But she nodded, because that was what her father, the King, wanted.

Her day to day life didn’t change after they told her. She was only five so she spent most of her days playing. A nurse looked after her and her two brothers, Macsen and Millard, and together they would splash in the river, trail through the forest and ride horses.

Her mother, Isabella, looked pained every time she saw her and didn’t spend a lot of time with the three of them, because of the baby; everyone in the castle knew she was hoping for another little girl to replace Everleigh. But with her days filled with laughter and play Everleigh wasn’t bothered that much.

The three of them were extremely spoiled because they were the royal children. That was their privilege. If they wanted something, then they got it. Macsen didn’t want for much, Millard’s demands were extreme and Everleigh’s were somewhere in between.

Their father indulged them all completely, and Everleigh always got special treats that she hadn’t even asked for. Firstly, she was the only princess in the Realm, and secondly, she was Kingmaker. She was doubly special.

A month after Everleigh turned five Queen Isabella had given birth to a perfect baby daughter and died after complications but, as it does, life went on for the family and on her tenth birthday her father gave her an important book, enormous and leather bound, called The Kingmaker.

Everleigh sat in her chamber and flicked through the pages.

It had all the information behind the tradition of the Kingmaker and it also had a page for every Kingmaker through the history of the Realm, with their likeness and story, the date they were born and the date they were sacrificed.

On the last written page was her name, the date that she was born and the day that she would be sacrificed.

She hadn’t known that word. She was only ten.

It was times like that she had missed her mother the most. Without her to turn to she asked Nurse and she had told her: it was the offering of an animal, plant or human life, usually to please the gods.

When Everleigh asked what an offering was, Nurse got a little teary eyed and had run out of the room.

And then Everleigh asked her brothers.

She could still remember the look on both of their faces.

Macsen had looked wide eyed and frightened. He bit his lip, and tears filled his eyes. He took a step towards her, he was so much taller, almost grown at fifteen, and slipped an arm around her shoulders.

Millard’s reaction was completely different. His eyes were bright, but not with tears, Everleigh was only ten and hadn’t been able to read his expression. But she knew it wasn’t sorrow. He turned his mouth down and tried to look sad, but his eyes were shining with something else.

With the sad look plastered on his face, he stepped between Everleigh and Macsen, “You’re the Kingmaker. You are the offering. You will die and one of us will be King.” Millard had been thirteen at the time.

And so, it dawned on her.

And once it dawned on her, it became the very beat of her heart.

From that day forward her first thought upon waking was that she was going to die. Her last thought before going to sleep was that she was going to die – but not naturally or at the random hands of fate like other people. Her death was decided when they announced she was a girl born and not another boy. She would die at the hands of someone on the morning of her seventeenth birthday. It was decided.

Everything was coloured by her role as Kingmaker.

When her father disclosed the girls that her brothers would be betrothed to – should they live and rule, she couldn’t stop thinking that she would never be matched, that she would never dance in the arms of the man that she loved while he gazed lovingly in to her eyes.

Her role and her duty defined her so completely.

And now the countdown had really begun, less than one week left of her short, special life.


Halfreda

I have been sleeping so much more than normal. I believe the dreams are sending me messages. I have such a strong feeling about this one – stronger than I have ever had before; I think she might be the one.

I know what people think when they look at me, half of them revere me and half of them fear me.

I admit I exaggerate my persona but never ever my powers. My powers are real. I know things and I see things. I see things that haven’t happened yet but will happen. I know a person’s heart – I can see greatness and badness, trust or ill will. I know if someone is cursed before they tell me. I know if a woman is with child before she does. I know the private thoughts of people. Some people. Not everyone – some people are good at hiding their true self, blocking off the signals I pick up, but for the most part I can.

My persona is something else. I do have a little fun with the chanting – not all of which is strictly necessary. I enjoy staring at someone and then letting my eyes roll back in my head as if I have been overcome with some secret thing to do with them – that trick gets everyone in a fluster.

But I’m a good woman and a useful one. I do help the King. I use my powers to advise him. I use my knowledge to guide him and I have never shown him wrong. The Realm is peaceful and prosperous and I know that I have helped with that.

But my real purpose, the reason my teacher placed me here at the castle, has eluded me thus far. Through no fault of my own, I must add.

So, the blessing is over and here I am making up a future fire to see what I can see.

I’ve gathered the wood and started the fire, the flames licking upwards and warming my room. I’ve put all the necessary ingredients in to my bowl over the fire. The liquid is swirling. I’m trying to see if my hunch is correct. If I’m right about Everleigh.

Ah, I’m fed up of this puzzle. The fire will not show me anything, but does that mean I am wrong or that the future is too uncertain?

Where is my knowledge now?

Every time a Kingmaker comes to this final countdown in their life I intervene. Everleigh is the seventh Kingmaker I have known. That may give you an idea of my age I know, and yes, I am older than anyone I have ever met.

The teacher told me I will live until my life’s purpose is completed and my life’s purpose is to find the Kingmaker who is not the Kingmaker.

Does that even make sense?

When I met my teacher, I was only a teenager. I was rebelling against my power and trying to drown out my knowledge and gift with drink. Alcohol dulled the power and the voices inside me.

My teacher helped me, guided me and allowed me to live with my power, enjoying the help it gave me and embracing it fully. He also told me that I had been chosen for a special and important purpose.

He asked me if I had heard of the Kingmaker. Of course, I had – everyone had. The Kingmaker was a sacred tradition used to choose the new King of the Realm.

The teacher had been privy to a prophecy found years ago, which told of the one Kingmaker who would not die, she instead would rule as the Queen and the greatest ruler that the Realm had ever known.

I was to learn my craft and then go to the castle and work as a wise woman to assist the King. But every time the Kingmaker feast came around, I was to secretly meet the Kingmaker and test if she was the future Queen.

I have a feeling with this one that I’ve never had before. I’m more excited than I’ve been previously to test her. I’m nervous too. The one thing the teacher never told me was what happened next. If I found the Kingmaker who should be Queen, how did I convince anyone else?

My fire has let me down. I leave it to die and decide to finish for the night. After all, if she does as I’ve asked, I will meet Everleigh at the river at sunrise, which isn’t that far away.

I lay in my bed, watching the embers of the fire flicker away, and as I do I see a crown forming in the smoke. Is it a trick of my imagination or is it a sign?

I drift off to sleep pondering.


2

Everleigh leaves the feast with Addyson, her eyes are closing as she sits and her speech is sleepy. She lifts her up. “Come on sleepy head.”

Addyson snuggles closer to her sister, stealing her warmth and closing her eyes fully. “I don’t want you to die.” Her voice is a whisper, but Everleigh hears her; one tear rolling down her cheek. Her death only upsets her now in relation to how it will hurt others. She is resigned to it, but would love to spare her family the pain.

“Addy, baby, it’s always been coming. I wish I could stay with you. But you’ll be fine. Whichever of the boys is King will look after you even better than I do. I promise.”

“Stay with me.” Her voice is so quiet and Everleigh doesn’t know if she means now or forever. She lays her in her warm bed, a little maid already in place, and tucks her in. She won’t change her into night clothes and risk waking her fully, but kisses her forehead and her cheeks, resting her lips against her sweet soft skin, tears wetting her. She wipes them gently so as not to wake her. Poor little cursed Addyson. What would happen to her without her big sister to love and protect her? Everleigh is glad in a way that she will never know.

Lanorie has readied a bath for Everleigh while she is taking Addyson to bed. The feast will go on for hours, but as a young princess Everleigh has a curfew she must stick to, no matter what celebrations are going on at the castle. Macsen and Millard are still enjoying the feast, which seems unfair to Lanorie. Everleigh isn’t bothered, though.

“The boys always get to do more than me. It’s only because I insisted to mother that I learned to read, write, ride a horse and shoot an arrow that I did anything. Most princesses sew, sing and play the lute.”

Lanorie starts undressing her, unravelling the ties that do up her dress at the back. It’s a stunningly beautiful dress, made of shimmering red silk with panels of lace and satin. It’s not even one of her best dresses and it is breath taking. She undoes her necklace – a gold chain with a thick ruby hanging off it like a tear drop and takes off her bracelets and rings.

“Still, unfair if you ask me.”

Everleigh laughs. “I’d rather go to sleep. My feet are killing – I can’t believe father danced with me. He never dances. Oh, weren’t the singers great? I loved it.”

Lanorie holds Everleigh’s hand as she steps in to the bath. It is steaming hot and filled with fragrant petals. Lanorie grins. “It was the best party we’ve ever had, I’m just sad that-”

Everleigh interrupts her. “Don’t now Lanny. We know it’s coming. It’s fine.”

Lanorie purses her lips, nodding. Everleigh hates talking about her death, understandably. “Okay, how was the blessing then. I couldn’t see or hear a thing. How scary is Halfreda?”

Everleigh laughs and sinks a bit lower in the bath. She shakes her head, “Halfreda doesn’t scare me at all. She’s so clever and gentle.”

Lanorie shudders and shakes her head. “Is she the one who...?” She can’t finish the question.

Everleigh nods and closes her eyes. Halfreda is the one who will slit her throat and collect the sacrificial blood in two cups – one for each brother.

Lanorie shudders again and sits on the floor next to the tub. She trails her hand in the water, causing the petals to twirl and dance.

“Tell me about the blessing, then.”

Everleigh keeps her eyes closed. Maybe if she does, it will all go away? Be a bad dream. She thinks about the feast and the blessing.

The feast had been spectacular, even though it was strange to be an honoured guest at a feast that marked the almost end of your life.

The food, drink, singing and dancing had all been wonderful. Everleigh had almost forgotten why they were there. She had danced with her father and chatted with her brothers and drunk far too much wine.

Then her father had taken her arm and led her to the throne. She had felt as though this was her execution day.

The butterflies in her stomach had seemed to multiply and multiply until they filled her up and she could hardly breathe for their swooping.

She had to kneel on the floor, her head bent in supplication, while she waited to see what happened next.

“You’ll be fine, darling,” the King had whispered to her.

Everleigh had kept her head down and nodded. She didn’t know what to say. She might be fine now, but she wouldn’t be for long.

The next thing she had seen was the scruffy hem of Halfreda’s dress. Halfreda wasn’t too bothered with physical appearance and tended to wear the same dress and hooded cloak every day. Her hair was long and silver, always curled into a bun at the base of her neck and usually covered by the cloak’s hood. She always dressed in black and had the appearance of an old crow as she moved around the castle and the grounds.

“Child.” Halfreda’s voice had sounded as old as she looked. Everleigh wasn’t sure how old Halfreda was but she was certainly the oldest person in the castle. Even her lines had lines, her wrinkles had wrinkles.

Halfreda had put her hand on Everleigh’s head. She had flinched at the touch.

“Child, do not fear me.” Her voice was low and sounded like it came from far away. Like it came from her mouth and journeyed a thousand miles before it reached Everleigh’s ears. As though it saw wonders and dangers and sadness, happiness, joy and fear and then burdened by the world, whispered whatever she needed to say.

“Child, your job is a difficult one, but a special, sacred and important one. Rise up.”

Everleigh had stood as instructed but found her legs were wobbly.

“Rise Kingmaker. Rise history shaper, history maker. Rise Kingmaker.”

Halfreda had then moved around her, chanting low and strange words that Everleigh didn’t understand.

“Kneel.” Halfreda instructed her again and Everleigh did as she was told.

She could hear her father stand up from the throne and call Macsen and Millard forward.

Everleigh saw her brother’s feet but still didn’t raise her eyes.

“Rise, child,” Halfreda said and Everleigh stood. Halfreda had a hand on each of her brother’s heads. She took Everleigh’s hands and laid one on Macsen’s head and one Millard’s head.

Everleigh saw her life with her brothers as she touched them. Games they had played, trouble they had got in to, laughs, jokes, teasing and tears.

“Boys, kneel,” Halfreda said. And they did.

Halfreda had started chanting again in a different language. Everleigh kept her hands on her brother’s heads, feeling the soft warmth. She had never forgotten that her sacrifice would kill one of her brothers. What an awful curse being the Kingmaker was. She would die, one of them would die and her father would be pushed aside. The traditions of the Realm were so far beyond her comprehension it didn’t seem fair that she had to abide by them.

Eventually Halfreda’s droning had stopped and the boys had stood up. They had all embraced, the King included.

Before Everleigh had returned to her seat, Halfreda had gently touched her on her arm and said: “Meet me at the river at sunrise. Tell no one.”

Everleigh had been taken aback. Why would the wise woman need to see her alone? Was it part of the blessing? Or something else?

Everleigh opens her eyes and smiles at Lanorie – her maid and her friend. “It was okay.”

“What did she say?” Lanorie wants all the details to tell Cook later.

Everleigh shakes her head. “I don’t know. Mostly it was some funny language. Lots of chanting.”

Lanorie’s smile drops. Everleigh knows she is disappointed. “Sorry, Lanny, but it wasn’t that exciting.”

“Well, it looked exciting.”

Everleigh laughs and sits up and Lanorie washes her hair. One of the little maids has brought jugs of hot water for Lanorie to rinse Everleigh’s hair and the other one is warming her bedclothes by the fire.

Lanorie helps Everleigh out of the water and wraps her in a cloak to dry.

Everleigh yawns. “It’s been a long day.”

“We’ll get you dressed and leave you.” Lanorie nods to the two little maids. One brings a hairbrush and Lanorie starts brushing Everleigh’s long dark hair, letting the fire dry it as she does so. Then she dresses her in her warm nightclothes. Lastly, she pulls back the bed covers and takes out the hot bricks that have been warming it.

Everleigh lies down and tucks the covers up to her chin. Her room is warm now, but the fire will die out through the night. She loves her room. It is enormous, with an area to bathe, an area to sit and play instruments or cards and her bed. Her brothers both have several rooms that connect, one for sleeping, one for bathing, and one for everything else. Everleigh likes having one big space. Her room is bright and light.

Lanorie kisses Everleigh on her cheek and the two little maids curtsey deeply before backing out of the room.

“Good night, Everleigh, sleep well,”

“Thanks Lanny, you too,”

Lanorie closes the heavy door behind her and Everleigh turns on her side, snuggling deeper in to her blankets, enjoying the warm spots from the bricks, then smiling to herself that such a simple thing could bring her enjoyment when she has so little time left to live. She pushes the thought from her head as she always does. When anyone asks her about her life as the Kingmaker – or more accurately, her death – she always shrugs and tells them that she is what she is.

The truth is, if she questions it too closely, thinks about the reality, really thinks about Halfreda slitting her throat and her dying in front of a cheering crowd, she will go insane. The same way her mother did because she knew her first born daughter would die; she can’t let it happen to her. The way to cope, the only way to survive until they sacrifice her, is to dwell on it as little as possible.

Why cry and wail over the love she won’t experience, the first dance, the first kiss? Why upset herself wishing for a child to call her own? Why think of anything except the here and now. And the here and now is six days. She has six days to live. And then a woman she has always loved and trusted will kill her.

She shivers and turns over a few times, trying to get comfortable. Time to think of something else, anything else.

There is the gentlest of knocks and she knows who it is before he pushes the door open.

Will pokes his head around. “You’re in bed! The shame.”

Everleigh smiles. She is never to be alone with a man, but everyone accepts her friendship with Will; he is not judged as a threat to her reputation.

Will is the fool’s son, though not technically, as the fool is celibate, no woman would ever allow herself to fall in love with the fool; by the nature of his role he is ridiculed and never taken seriously. Will was abandoned as a baby at the fool’s front door and he hadn’t the heart to turn him away. He looked after him as his own, and Will is such a hoot, he is following in his father’s footsteps. He doesn’t dress like a fool yet, he just wears the castle livery most of the time, but he has a fool’s look. Everleigh can’t tell if it’s his eyes and the way they are just slightly too far apart, or his crazy wild curls, or just because she knows what he will be.

“How are you, sweetest pea?” He lopes to the bed and sits next to her. Everleigh sits up and lays her head on his shoulder.

“I’m okay. I feel nervous and sick and frightened more than I ever thought I would be. But I am determined to keep my head.”

Will snorts and Everleigh hits him on his arm, though she is smiling.

“I am determined to keep my head while I am sacrificed. I will be strong and make everyone proud. Won’t I? Oh Will, I’m so scared.”

Will puts his arms around her and holds her tightly. She is shuddering. “You will be brave and courageous and make everyone proud. Or-” He pulls back and looks at her face, “Or, you could run away with me.” His grey eyes are serious.

Everleigh smiles, tears slipping from her eyes, wetting them both. “Oh, Will. Don’t tempt me. I am so frightened. I know that it’s what I’ve been raised for and I’ve always known it was coming. But truthfully, now it’s so close I feel like I’ll die before then. My breath will just cease or my heart will just stop. How can I live with this before me?”

“So, run?”

“Run where and do what? I am a princess. I am known all over the Realm. I would be brought back in defeat and embarrassment. I must hold my head up high. I just hope that I can. Will you root for me? Can I look at your face in the crowd? A friendly face will give me courage.”

Will nods as he contemplates the horrific task she has just bequeathed him. He thinks he might die too, just throw himself upon Halfreda’s dagger. How can he live without his best friend?


Ginata

It’s been busy today. I’ve made a fortune. Three sleeping draughts, seven love potions, rat poison and some remedies for coughs and colds and headaches. I thought it would be quiet since it’s the day of the feast, but there’s been no rest.

I’ve closed the door for a while. I want to count my money and eat something before the afternoon rush. I get most of my visitors in the afternoon. I think people need to pluck up their courage before they come and see me. I think people feel nervous about what they don’t know and understand. They are nervous of putting their trust in me. Can I really do what I say I can? Can I really make someone fall in love with them, or ward off harm?

I think people realise the power of the poultice, the strength in a potion or a poison and it scares them. People need time to realise that they are desperate and willing to try anything.

It works for me.

My feet are resting on one chair while I sit on the other. I finish my food – a tender stew with the best lamb and potatoes. I’m lucky to be paid in coin and food, clothes and favours. After all, if I am paid in coin I have to go to the market to buy lamb. If I am paid in lamb it saves me a journey and I will earn while I am here. I cannot earn when I am away from my home and my work place buying lamb.

Everyone in the village and from around knows my little cottage. I keep it well. I keep myself well. I wash in the stream every morning, and between custom I sweep the floor, I wash the windows, I sew, I bake. I am never idle.

Idle people worry. Idle people make up the most of my custom. They sit and they worry. Then they stew. Then they panic. Then they realise that without my intervention they may never sleep again.

Idle people are idiots.

I am clever.

I have potions and poultices, brews and cordials, draughts and medicines, stimulants and tonics. If you need to sleep I can help, if you need to stay awake I can help. If you have an illness or affliction, a wound or a sore, I can help. If you need a tooth out I can dose you up and pull it out. If you need luck or love or even have someone to harm, I can and will help for the right coin.

I will give out a poison but I will not give out a death draught. If someone buys poison and kills with it, then that is their fear and not mine. But a death draught is a different thing – there is no other use for it. I cannot feign innocence if I sell a death draught.

So, my food finished I start tidying.

There is a knock at the door. Another idle person.

I open the door and fix my enigmatic but friendly smile on my face.

My idle visitor is coy. I presume it is a man because he is taller and broader than me. His cloak is down over his face though, and I don’t believe that he intends to look up.

“Miss.” His voice is rich and deep. A shiver goes through me. I don’t know if I like this customer.

He steps towards me as though he wants to enter – no customer ever enters my cottage. I do all my business on the bench outside. I step forward to block him and make him step back outside but he stands his ground. I look past him and his cloak and see a guard with him. The man is dressed as a peasant and tries to stand looking nonchalant but I recognise his bearing. He is leaning but isn’t stooped; he is not relaxed. He is on guard. Why would he be guarding this cloaked man?

I decide to let him in. I am curious. I step back and gesture with my arm for him to sit.

“Sir, how may I help you?”

Cloaked man coughs. I think he is trying to adjust his voice, make me unable to recognise it, which makes me alert; do I know this man and if I do, where from?

“I need something from you. I presume you don’t report any purchases to anyone?”

I know what he’s alluding to. He wants to know if I’ll tell on him if he buys something he shouldn’t. I don’t report to anyone. I work for myself and I answer to myself. But he doesn’t need to know that.

“I work within the bounds of the law, Sir, if that’s what you’re asking?”

“Excellent.” Cloaked man didn’t sound like he meant that to me.

“What are you after, Sir?”

“A little discretion, maybe,”

I see a little opportunity here. This man must have some funds to be able to bring a guard with him: one guard that I can see; masquerading though he is.

“Sir, I must work within the bounds of the law or else I am risking my livelihood. I would have to have some recompense for that risk.”

“Certainly, madam. I feel a fool for even asking you to risk your good name. However, needs must.”

“Certainly Sir. Thank you for understanding a poor woman’s predicament.”

“I need a death draught.” He is bold this cloaked stranger. I try to hide the intake of breath by clearing my throat. I am shocked. I have never been asked so forthrightly for something so awful. A death draught is an abomination.

“Sir, I cater for all sorts. But one of those, that draught, is not something I have here. It’s not something I could keep here. If it were to get in to the wrong hands...”

“Madam. Can you get me a death draught? For a reward?”

I try to think clearly, although the fear this cloaked man makes me feel, is clouding my thoughts. If a man will ask so boldly for a death draught, will he hurt me if I do not do his bidding? It’s possible, and I cannot risk an attack from this man or his cloaked friend.

I hate what I am saying but I nod. “Absolutely. I can make anything, draughts, tonics, medicines...” My voice trails off; what am I promising here and why?

“I will visit you again in four days. I need it and I will pay well. I am hoping for your silence. I leave this as a sweetener.”

The cloaked man hands me a small bag of coins and leaves. He closes the door behind him and I dart to the window to watch him leave. I keep my head low and watch him stalk past the guard, who follows him away, until I can’t see either of them anymore.

For all my confidence, I am no death draught maker. I don’t know what to do. I lock the front door and draw the drapes. I throw some more wood on to the fire and sit in front of it in my chair.

I need to think.

With my bag of coin in my hand I stare at the flames hoping an answer will come to me.

It does, Halfreda.


3

Everleigh waits a while after Will leaves and then pulls on her fleece lined boots. She puts two cloaks on over her nightclothes, both black, and goes to the door. She opens it a tiny bit and peeks out, keeping her body out of sight. If she sees one of the little maids she will ask them for some ale and they won’t see that she is dressed.

She is happy to be cautious and patient; after all she does this every night and hasn’t been caught yet, and with the end of her life firmly in her sights, she doesn’t have many nights left to do it.

There is no one in sight. She pulls her cloaks tight around her body and tucks her hair inside the hood. She pulls the hood low down over her eyes and keeps her head down, too. She hurries through the corridors to the closest door. She doesn’t meet anyone – they are all still enjoying the feast – her feast.

She takes the path leading away from the castle, away from the river and down to a large copse of trees. The earlier rain has left the air damp. She winds her way through tall, strong, old trees she doesn’t know the names of, until she finds her clearing.

Her mother’s clearing.

They buried her mother here, under the tallest, strongest, oldest oak in the forest and she knows that her brothers and her father all spend time here. She should have been sent into the river, pushed off the island, but the King couldn’t bear the thought of her being cold and alone.

Everleigh has seen her father here, as well as her brothers, and knows they are glad to have somewhere restful they can sit and grieve for their mother.

She realised several years after her mother died, probably around the age Addyson is now, that the best time to come here is at night. No one has ever interrupted her. She doesn’t know if anyone comes to visit and seeing her, leaves her to grieve in peace.

She would sit for a time – she doesn’t know how long. Sometimes she would talk to her mother, out loud, and once she’d unburdened herself she would head back to bed. Other times she would sit crying until the rain came or the morning sun. Sometimes she just enjoyed remembering her mother and reliving her memories of her.

Tonight, she speaks to her mother about the feast. She knows her mother will never answer and some days she doesn’t even believe that she can hear her. Other days she believes her mother’s spirit watches over her. Who knew?

Now with less than a week to go until she dies, she can feel her mother in the wind, in the air, in the light from the moon. She closes her eyes and thinks about her mother’s hugs, her mother’s face, her laugh, her smell.

She lies her head on a rock. Even though it has been raining through the day, under the tree is dry. Six days. Hardly any time, not enough time, to live, love, laugh, eat, drink, talk.

She will be dead soon.

She understands now that the knowledge of her role as Kingmaker drove her mother mad. She isn’t sure how she is still sane, when she knows what’s coming. Blind acceptance of her life and her role; what else could she do? Rally against her fate? Refuse to let Halfreda hurt her, turn the dagger back and kill everyone who tried to harm her? Run away?

She can hear the feast from where she is sitting, the music is loud and carries far beyond what it normally does. People from all over the Realm have come to see her die and are currently dancing up a storm in her name. It’s creepy, really. She isn’t even allowed to stay at her own party. It’s as though, without her there, they can all relax and enjoy themselves without the guilt of looking upon her face and knowing that they would cheer at her death. She closes her eyes and lets the music wash over her, taking away her maudlin thoughts.

Everleigh shakes herself awake. She’d drifted off to sleep and it’s much colder than before.

She stands up, stretching out her arms and legs. She is aching and stiff. She wraps her cloaks tighter around herself and starts towards the castle. Could she do what Will suggested and run away? Even as she lets her mind mull it over, she knows it is impossible. She must face her future. And her future is death.

She’s ready to sleep.

She heads out of the shelter of the trees, in to the heavy rain. She pulls her hood down and scurries forwards. She will be warm and dry soon. Her fire might still be burning, if not she’ll call one of the little maids to relight it.

Ahead, close to the castle she can see a figure, a man from the size and shape. She has no choice but to pass him. She hopes it isn’t one of her brothers; she doesn’t want to see anyone now. She doesn’t want to answer questions or let anyone know about her secret visits. She doesn’t want to risk sharing this time with anyone else.

As she gets closer she raises her head and looks up. It is a young man, but she doesn’t recognise him.

She keeps her gaze high as she walks towards him. She doesn’t want to look as though she’s doing anything she shouldn’t be. She walks tall and keeps a smile on her face.

As she gets closer, he turns to watch her. She doesn’t know him so she guesses he doesn’t know her, unless he’d been at her feast.

As she passes him, their eyes meet, she smiles and so does he. She keeps walking but can feel him watching her.

And as she turns the corner to go through the door, he is watching her still.

The cloaked figure paces the room. There is a fire burning and his guard, Wolf, is sitting, spit-polishing his boots.

“She will do it. She has to. She will.”

“If she does not we will make her.” The guard shrugs. There are ways of making people do what you want. Especially pretty, young girls. It was easy enough.

The cloaked figure nods. He is upset, which isn’t like him. He has less than a week; he should have organised himself sooner but he’d been wary: the fates are not to be messed with, it was an adage that everyone knew. And yet, maybe his fate was to question his fate and ensure the outcome that he so desperately wanted. He has great plans and a bold vision. He just needs to ensure that he is crowned.