1.

Coronation complete, Everleigh – Queen of the Realm – faces her subjects for the first time and cannot stop the tears from running down her face.

She can hear trumpeters trumpeting, singers singing and musicians playing, while a thousand or more people bow before her.

It’s a heady feeling and a queasy feeling. All these people are her responsibility; she has to make the hard decisions that will keep her people safe.

She smiles as Archer takes her hand – her knight and first love, always by her side. She intends to keep it that way. The other side of her is her little sister; only eleven years old and cursed by ancient magic. Everleigh has vowed to keep her safe and happy, too. She has subjects to rule over and a sister to protect. She wants to do a good job of both.

The people form an aisle for Everleigh to walk through. She is aware of Archer scanning the crowds for danger, and when she glances to the side of Addyson, Ceryn is doing the same. Ceryn has quickly become one of Everleigh’s favourite people in the Realm. Feisty, smelly, sweary and utterly loyal and good beneath her grubby habits and foul mouth, initially she thought they would be enemies, and yet she has become so dear to her. She knows the feeling is mutual, because Ceryn is holding her sword, ready to fight or die for her new Queen.

The procession moves through the crowds, through the courtyard and in to the great hall. Cook has outdone herself, yet again, the food and ale a feast for the eyes.

Everleigh takes her seat on her throne, crown on her head and surveys the room.

The benches and seats around are taken up by visitors to the Realm and beyond. Important guests are seated closest to the dais, with the cheap seats further away.

Archer nods to Ceryn, who is standing at the door and she slips out of the hall. He watches the crowd, able to see every face.

“Where’s Ceryn going?” Everleigh asks.

“She’s just securing the perimeter. We’ve made sure no one in the hall has a weapon on them. And any of your brother’s men who made it out of the battle alive have been put in the tower.”

She glances at him, a small frown of concern on her face and he shakes his head. “No – we have to keep you safe. You are Queen now and it’s our job to look after you. I’ve spoken to the teacher and we’ll meet with your father’s general in the morning. You cannot be worried about your safety all the time.”

Everleigh takes a deep breath. Tomorrow, this feast will be over, the reality of her brother’s death will sink in and her new role will be as Queen of the Realm. But for tonight…a banquet and a celebration of her victory!

“Your majesty.” Everleigh looks up at Cook, presenting the first dish of the coronation feast for her to taste, a little maid by her side. A shy eyed, familiar little maid.

Everleigh jumps to her feet, a sob catching in her throat as she tries to speak. “Molly?”

The little maid steps forward, meets Everleigh’s eyes and nods.

“I thought you were-”

Cook interrupts. “I hid her away, your majesty. I hope you don’t mind. I knew your brother would kill her.”

Everleigh sinks onto her chair, her knees buckling. Both of her brothers spread so much destruction around in the last few weeks of their lives.

Macsen, her oldest brother, killed their father and would have killed her too and then Millard, her other brother, murdered Macsen and Halfreda, the wise woman who had looked after them all and loved them since they were born. He killed Lanorie, Everleigh’s handmaiden, then Ginata – Halfreda’s replacement. He’d murdered Finn, Della’s brother and finally Weaver, sweet, kind Weaver who was Archer and Ceryn’s best friend. There were others – men who fought for her who she didn’t even know. The destruction and death of the last few weeks has taken such a toll on Everleigh, on everybody.

And poor little Molly who had helped Everleigh twice had definitely been on Millard’s list of people to finish off. Everleigh is overwhelmed that she is alive. One good thing to come out of so much misery. “Cook. I would never blame you. What a wonderful thing you did. Oh, Molly I am so sorry I put you in harm’s way.”

Molly shakes her head to protest but cannot speak. She’s too in awe of her beautiful new Queen.

“Cook – my brothers did so many things wrong and I am more than glad that killing Molly wasn’t one of them. Too many people are no longer with us. I thank the gods that you are safe, Molly.”

Cook grins and gives Molly’s hair a ruffle. “Now get back to the kitchen. I want all the dishes out. People need feeding!”

Molly rushes off and Everleigh smiles at Archer. “I cannot believe she is alive. I thought Millard had killed her for sure.”

“I’m sure he wanted to.”

“I wish we could have saved everyone…”

“Not now, Everleigh. Not now.”

She nods, knowing he’s right. The Realm is watching her now and there will always be someone looking for signs of weakness. It’s the way of the world.

She takes a forkful of the dish Cook placed before her and raises it up. Everyone cheers. And as she takes a bite, they cheer even louder.

Ceryn slips back into the room and nods over at Archer who visibly relaxes; maybe he will be able to look after his Queen after all. Ceryn sits next to Will, shucking off a boot to scratch her foot. Everleigh looks appalled. “Ceryn!”

“What? I’ve got an itch.”

Everleigh shakes her head. Ceryn’s itchy feet are the least of her problems and she will never alter.

She has a whole Realm to worry about and even though she knows she cannot fret right now; small doubts continue to creep into her mind.

The great hall itself holds more than a hundred people. She sits at the head of them all, on her fancy throne, with her beautiful gown and her pretty crown, weighing heavy on her head, and she knows how she is feeling; like an imposter, like a little princess dressing up in the Queen’s furs. And it’s exactly what she is: a little princess.

Ruling the Realm was never a part of her future. Her future has been death since she was old enough to understand her role as Kingmaker.

Death was certain. Leaving her sister and one of her brothers behind was certain. Leaving her father to mourn the loss of her was certain. Being alive and in charge of a Realm full of people who would have no trust in her is daunting indeed. There has never been a Queen without her husband – the true ruler of the Realm – by her side. There has never been anyone as young as she in charge. How will she do it? How will she convince all her subjects that she is worthy of the title?

Queen.

A Realm full of people with their own pressing concerns who need her to lead them, guide them, guard them. They will have troubles they need to bring to her, squabbles she will have to help with, crimes to report. The task ahead of her is overwhelming. She cannot breathe for a second and then Archer passes her a goblet of wine and she slugs it down. Courage of some sort is needed at a time like this.

Will beckons for the musicians and they begin to play. The music drowns out Everleigh’s doubts, as he hoped it would and she feels herself begin to calm.

She has been through so much to get to where she is, to sit on her throne, crown on her head, Queen of the realm.

She cannot afford to lose it now. She cannot let it all be for nothing. If she must prove herself then she will do so. Daily if necessary. Continuously. Until the day every one of her subjects kneels before her – not because she expects them to, or because they are forced to out of tradition or fear but because they want to.

2.

For a day that started out with such uncertainty it ends just perfectly.

Everleigh is in Archer’s arms where she feels she belongs. She has held a merry court during her coronation celebrations and she is ready for the real work to begin tomorrow. She knows she will always have doubts but if no one else is aware of them then no one can comment on them or exploit them.

The teacher clears his throat interrupting their dance. “Queen. Excuse me for being presumptuous but there are certain things you must do – protocols that need to be followed.”

Reluctantly Archer lets his arms drop from her waist.

Everleigh smiles. This is the man who has replaced Halfreda in her mind. A mentor, a wise and kind guiding hand – someone she desperately needs as she heads blindly into her future. Her brothers spent so much time with their father – they sat in on council meetings, they made decisions about land, security, things she has no knowledge of and she knows she is lacking in more than just confidence. “Go on.”

“You must offer a thank you and goodnight to all who have attended before people can leave. Some will always slope off, but you will not have a mass exodus from the hall until you have spoken. Same in the morning – people do not begin to break fast until you are here. I have arranged three things for you and again, forgive me for being bold.”

“I need your help; I cannot be upset when you give it.”

He nods. “We have a meeting first thing with your father’s council. These are wise men and schooled in every area of the Realm. They will be invaluable to you…but I cannot imagine it will be easy. Next, the head of your father’s army – we have diminished numbers with all the bloodshed but there will be men who are loyal to you still, and I am sure Archer and Ceryn will want to be involved in that – but he will meet with you any time you are free. Lastly, I have asked your mother’s lady in waiting – Hailsee – to look after you. You don’t have Lanorie anymore and you need someone who understands what it is to be Queen – clothes, protocol, etiquette. She knows it all but will not patronise you. She was your mother’s absolute favourite.”

“Thank you, teacher. I have much to do I know but-”

“You can do it. And, please, call me Kenneth. I am more than a teacher now. I am a subject.”

“You are more than a subject.”

He takes one of her hands and kisses it. “Now if you can speak to your subjects maybe I can get to bed. I am old and tired you know.”

Everleigh weaves through the people who are dancing, drinking, eating, talking and stands before her throne. Archer bangs the table with a fist and Everleigh grins at him as silence falls around the great hall.

“Thank you for sharing my first evening as Queen with me. You are welcome to continue celebrating; you are equally as welcome to go to bed.”

“That’s welcome news, my Queen,” Della says touching her sleeve, before pulling back her hand. “Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t just touch you, I-”

“Della, it’s fine. Please. We can carry on as we were before – I want you at ease, not worrying about royal etiquette continuously. Addyson needs you by her side, relaxed and happy. And are you trying to tell me that my sister is tired?”

They turn to look at Addyson, feet tucked underneath her, head resting on the table, half asleep and obviously exhausted, only eleven and already been through so much. Everleigh melts when she looks at her – resolving again to keep her sister safe and happy all through her reign.

“Let me get Archer to escort you to her rooms.”

“Is there a need for that?”

“I think so. I am only just crowned – who knows how many idiots who still favour my brother roam the Realm, or indeed this castle. Archer believes they are all locked up, but I would never forgive myself if I put you or Addyson in danger through complacency now.”

Della nods, not just agreeing with her Queen because she should but because in the short time they have known each other they have seen eye to eye on so much. Her role, as she understands it, is to look after and nurture Addyson, but she also feels motherly towards Everleigh – alone in the world, all her family but one dead.

Archer is talking to Ceryn, interrupting her chatter with Will, and Everleigh beckons for him. Ceryn and Will follow and the four of them huddle together.

“Archer, please escort Addyson and Della to her rooms. Ceryn will you wait with me until he returns?”

“Of course.”

Will grins. “I’ll bid you goodnight my Queen and see you tomorrow. Goodnight Ceryn. Archer, may I walk with you?”

The two young men head out of the hall, Archer’s sword ready to protect the little princess should the need arise. He is pretty certain that they have cleared the castle of any immediate threat, and the men Weaver brought to fight for their new Queen have taken up guard around the perimeter. He is still cautious though as he leads them away from the hall.

***

Everleigh smiles at Ceryn. “Thank you for staying, looking after me.”

“I don’t want to be rude to you – you are a Queen now – but we need to be clear; I will protect you every single day, give my life to save yours, defend your honour, and so on, but if you keep thanking me all the time I’m going to poke you with the end of my sword. Gratitude makes me bashful which I hate and so I get grumpy. I’m grumpy enough as it is. I’ll take your thanks this one time, but I won’t hear it again.”

Everleigh cannot help but laugh and she quickly grabs Ceryn in a hug before she can wriggle away.

“I don’t want to be rude to you – you are handier with a sword than I will ever be – and I am thankful that you’re willing to protect me but if you don’t bath at least once a week and put on clean clothes daily, I will take your sword and poke you with it!”

They are both laughing now and Ceryn nods, trying to look solemn. “I promise to protect you and smell nice.”

Everleigh sits down on the edge of the dais, her legs hanging over the edge, not touching the floor Ceryn sits next to her, hand on her dagger.

“I cannot believe that this morning Will had a noose around his neck.”

“I will never be sorry that your brothers are dead. Macsen for killing your father and Millard for killing Weaver.”

They are silent for a moment remembering all that has happened in such a short space of time. So many things changed for ever, so many lives lost.

“I am glad of one thing: that you are staying here with me.”

“I will never leave. Unless you need me to go to war or something.”

“We are too young for this, don’t you think? Two little girls – a Queen and her protector?”

“I think so. But what else can we do? Slink away because we don’t have a tail between our legs and years on this Realm to fill us with unending wisdom. Age doesn’t mean you know anything that cannot be learned. Experience is only doing something many times – what if you’ve always done it wrong? We will be better – a true Queen, a fresh set of eyes on an old Realm. A new beginning. Think of all you could do.”

“I do, and it petrifies me.”

“Really? It should excite you, you can do anything. Go anywhere. Have anything. What’s so scary about that?”

“Everything.”

They are still smiling and chatting when Archer comes back in the room.

“All is well. They are both safe and I’ll station a guard outside their door.”

Ceryn stands up, stretching and scratching her belly as her tunic rides up. “I’ll do that. I’ll bring someone from outside. We have enough. Goodnight Queen. And you.” She pokes Archer with the toe of her boot and he laughs as she walks away, swinging her dagger.

He slips his arms around Everleigh and she rests her head on his shoulders. They stand still, the bustle of the great hall and the merry making going on around them forgotten, ignored, as though they are alone under the stars.

She can feel that he is tense, and she knows he will never relax fully while they are in public. Any time there is a threat to her or the smallest possibility of a threat he will be on guard. She likes it.

The castle was so unsafe when her brothers were alive, danger at every and any turn, her own brother trying to murder her; she finds she cannot relax in public either.

She is glad that she has her own room, a haven to retreat to, her bedroom since she was a tiny baby.

“My Queen.” The voice interrupting them is familiar to Everleigh and it dawns quickly on her that this is Hailsee, her mother’s lady in waiting. After her mother, Isabella, died giving birth to Addyson, Hailsee remained at court but without a proper role. The Queen had been so fond of her that the King could not bear to send her away. But Hailsee had been so fond of the Queen that she could not bear to look after little Addyson without breaking down in tears.

Now she smiles at Everleigh with real love and affection in her eyes, tears too.

Everleigh takes her hand and Hailsee curtseys. “My Queen, you are ever like your mother was.”

“Thank you.”

“I am humbled that Kenneth has asked me to look after you. It will be a joy for me after all these years to have a Queen to attend to.”

“I am glad to have someone who knows the role so well.”

“I met your mother off the ship, the day she sailed into the dock of this Realm and she was so young and scared and unsure. I hope I can love you and look after you as well as I hope I did her.”

“I am sure you will.”

Hailsee looks uncomfortable. “On that note, my Queen, it is time for me to take you to your room. The midnight hour is almost over, and you are still a young girl unwed…”

Her words trail off, she looks increasingly uncomfortable and Everleigh feels a small jolt of shock as she realises why.

She had planned to head to her private rooms, talk with Archer, enjoy some ale, a chat, a kiss, a cuddle, without any threat to either of their safety. She knows she will sleep alone until she is wedded, and she wants to sleep alone – she has enough to think about with her new responsibility without trying to plan a wedding, assuming Archer would even want to marry her, but…she shakes her head, her thoughts are scrambling. Of course, she cannot sit behind closed doors with a young man – not even a noble young man or a fellow royal – and canoodle like a normal teenager. She is anything but.

She nods at Hailsee and kisses Archer’s cheek. Their life has changed and so has the direction of their romance, for now. She can handle it and so will he. They are made to be together, inseparable, but she must think of her reputation and her role as Queen. They trump everything; even her desires.

3.

Archer nods at Hailsee and bows to his Queen – and his first love. “Let me escort you to your room my Queen. I will stand guard outside.”

“No Archer – you need sleep.”

“I’ll do shifts with Ceryn.”

“Just let Ceryn sleep in with me. She will keep me safe as well as you can.”

Archer looks a little upset but nods his acquiescence. He cannot argue with a Queen if he wanted to.

He walks by her side to the doors of the great hall, Hailsee one step behind them. Is this how their relationship will be now – always chaperoned, always under one watchful eye or another?

Archer steps out to check for safety first and is almost bowled over by Addyson. She is crying, her eyes wild, but she cannot speak, her mouth is open, but no sound comes out. Archer is immediately alert and looks beyond her – there is no one following her – no sign of Della.

“Addyson!” Everleigh’s voice is shrill with panic and at the sound of her sister’s voice Addyson collapses in to a heap at her feet. Everleigh drops down, gathers her up, forcing her chin up so she can see her face. Her eyes are rolling, her mouth still agape. “Addyson! What’s happened. Where’s Della?”

Archer gives a whistle and a young man with a dagger runs up to him. “Find Ceryn – she must be outside or near Addyson’s rooms – she had gone to fetch a guard. Go carefully!”

Archer turns back to the girls, his hand on his dagger, on high alert.

“Addyson, what’s happened? Where’s Della?”

Addyson cannot speak, she merely shakes her head, tears coursing down her face.

They hear the pounding of feet and Archer stands guard, ready to defend them all. “Archer!” Ceryn is calling his name as she barrels around the corner, bent over trying to catch her breath. “Della is dead.”

Addyson lets out a high-pitched keening sound – the first noise she has made.

Everleigh turns to Ceryn, pale faced. “How?”

“They have only been alone for minutes. Are you sure?” Archer’s expression is a mix of fury and misery and Ceryn looks the same.

“I took a guard to their door, it was open. Della was on the floor, dead. Stabbed through the heart.” She kneels next to Addyson and touches her hair. “I could see Addyson running away and I called her but then I heard a noise in the room. We caught him. The boy who did it.”

“Boy?” Everleigh’s voice is shaky.

“Boy. Twelve would be my guess. Two of the men are holding him. We’ll talk to him, interrogate him before we kill him.”

“Did he say anything? Did he mention the King?”

Before Everleigh took the throne that was rightfully hers, many attacks had been made in the name of the King – boys and men who were fighting for her brother. Or just fighting for the sake of it, happy for a cause – any cause.

Everleigh is sobbing, holding onto Addyson, looking at Archer with fear and pain on her face.

Ceryn shakes her head. “He hasn’t spoken a word. Probably because I slapped him across his face, made his lip bleed. Little git.”

“I cannot bear this. I thought...” Everleigh shakes her head. “I thought that once I was Queen things would change. The fear, the uncertainty, the mindless violence…I want a peaceful reign. Happy subjects not subjects who wish me and mine harm. How was he inside the castle if he posed such a threat.”

“He’s wearing your brother’s livery. But he is so young – he wouldn’t have been in his army. I wonder if he’s one of his pages. I’ll ask him.”

Everleigh nods, steely suddenly. Della represented hope to Addyson, someone who loved her because she chose to, not because she was obliged to. Everleigh had enjoyed watching her sister blossom under Della attentions and now she is dead. Another death and another disappointment for Addyson, and surely not an auspicious start to her reign.

“I will ask him. Hailsee and Addyson will come with me. Ceryn go and collect Will and the teacher and fetch this boy. I want all the people I love under one ceiling tonight, and every night until I am satisfied of our safety. Archer take us to the throne room.”

She kisses the top of Addyson’s head, who she is sure will never stop crying.

Nobody questions her; they all take their orders.

As she walks to the throne room – a smaller room where the King would address individuals and attend business – she feels her fury mount with each step. The people of the Realm will never take her seriously as Queen if a twelve-year old can kill someone she holds so dear, so easily. Addyson cannot walk, Hailsee is pretty much dragging her along.

She takes her seat, the throne a more elaborate and intricate version than the one in the main hall. This is where the King allowed his subjects to petition him or spend time in his company up close. He often met with visitors here; it’s a plush room, with comfortable seats and a huge carved, wooden table that the King would sit behind.

She sits behind it now and feels dwarfed.

Hailsee sits on the far side of the room, cradling Addyson. She has always struggled with this little princess. She knows it’s not her fault that the Queen died, but she cannot shake off her dislike. She may have to now and she does feel sympathy for her. Anyone would.

Everleigh watches the door, Archer standing behind her, his hand a comfort on her shoulder. She feels like he is grounding her, anchoring her.

Ceryn heads the procession as Will and the teacher follow her into the room. Will bows to Everleigh and then rushes to Addyson’s side. The teacher follows suit and hands Hailsee a small tonic to try to get Addyson to drink. The two guards hauling along the young boy who murdered Della bring up the rear. Ceryn slams the door behind them, her anger clear in every movement she makes.

She shoves the boy forward and he falls on to the floor. She kicks him.

Everleigh feels a strange mix of fury and pity as she looks at him. Kicked like a mischievous puppy but willing to take a life. He has to pay for that.

“What is your name, boy?” Her voice holds steady and all her friends are quietly proud of her. Archer squeezes her shoulder.

He doesn’t lift his head and she assumes it has dawned on him that despite his misplaced heroics this will not end well for him.

His voice shakes. “Jonath.”

“Jonath? You were one of Millard’s boys?”

His voice is a little louder. “I helped him before, to flee the castle. After he was attacked.” He sounds almost proud, and Everleigh wants to weep. The worst thing about a role like hers – any position of power – is the warped expressions of loyalty it can bring about. This boy thinks he has served his old master in some way, even though his old master is dead, even though he will now die.

“Can I kill him?” Ceryn asks, poking him with the end of her sword.

The boy winces, a snivelling, pathetic puppy now.

“No,” Everleigh’s voice is firm and though she feels sick, she knows this is the right thing to do. “I will kill him. I cannot hide behind the sword of another.”

The teacher steps forward, in front of the boy. “You do not need to…”

“I do. I want to be the kind of Queen who inspires confidence and loyalty and I want to look into the eyes of those who betray me as they pay the final price for that betrayal.”

She looks at the boy, rises off her throne and walks to his side. “Stand up, boy. Look at me.”

He takes his time but stands, but he cannot raise his gaze to meet hers.

“You will look at me willingly, or I will force you to.”

Slowly he looks up and she can see the expression of regret on his face. His eyes fill with tears. “You did a cruel, senseless thing tonight and you will pay with your life. I hope it was worth it.”

He shakes his head and sobs, begs for his life, as she takes the sword Ceryn proffers. She moves quickly, before she changes her mind, and stabs him straight in the heart. She turns away, without checking that he is dead – she has made her point and she knows Ceryn or Archer will ensure she has done a good enough job or finish him off for her. She has to go to her sister; she has to be by her side. She cannot bear for her to be in this pain after finding so much love and hope in Della’s arms.

Ceryn instructs the guards to take the dead boy to the Ashes, and Della’s body to the island. No one in this room will mourn his passing. They gather themselves together and move as a herd to Everleigh’s room. Little maids are told to bring pallets and bedding, food, ale, anything they can think of to get them through this night and make them all more comfortable.

They are all silent, an unhappy sick feeling shared by them all. What an awful, unimaginable end to such a lovely celebration. For every good thing that happens, a terrible thing comes along to spoil it. Everleigh feels like she may never be happy, never be safe, never find peace.

No one dares tell her not to find comfort in Archer’s arms and she sits in his embrace until she falls asleep. He lifts her up and settles her on her bed before taking position on a pallet at the end of her bed.

They do eventually sleep, even poor Addyson, tucked next to her sister and almost comatose with shock.

What will tomorrow bring? More unrest and murder or peace and joy?

They can only hope for the best.