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.