Her Highness

Once, the Five Kingdoms of Albion had been at peace, but that peace had started to shatter when the Court of Camelot was broken by the treachery and evil of one Knight, Mordred, and his greed for power.
Now, it’s been almost ten years since Mordred slew Arthur Pendragon at Camlann, ten years since Ygraine and Duran fled Camelot in search of safety. It’s been six years since Mordred found and captured them.
But Ygraine Pendragon is bordering on twenty years old, and she is through with the whole of Albion thinking her and her brother are dead. She is the daughter of the great King Arthur, and she is done with allowing her cousin to sit on the Throne of Camelot, the throne which he usurped.
When bonds are broken, betrayal occurs, hard decisions are made, and lives are lost, who will lose and who will conquer? How will the Princess, a lost heir to Camelot, fair when this become more than just an effort to rid the Kingdoms of Mordred, and instead become a war between light and dark?

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22. 19

 

 

 

 

19

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It had taken ten minutes to weave through the main streets of the city. As we’d gotten closer to the castle, the buildings had gotten bigger and more beautiful, with elegant porticoes fashioned from marble (which contrasted nicely with the dark stone) and statues, and the roads had become clearer with only a faint trace of snow, though snow did cap the roofs and windowsills.

    The buildings had stopped a few metres away from the castle moat, now completely frozen over, leaving a strip of snow covered cobbles. The bridge that led to the gatehouse had statues of long-dead Kings at intervals on the parapet.

    The castle was dark stone, now covered in a dusting of snow, built on a large chunk of land that angled upwards so that it had a sheer rock face down to the where the rivers met to form Lake Aven and it’s small stretch of rocky beach, which could be accessed by the slate steps on the furthest west side of the castle walls. There were two courtyards in the castle, the main one with the stables that led to the army buildings, and the private one for the residents.

    We were in the second courtyard, having settled our horses in the stables and given our bags to the servants to take to our chambers. The ground beneath our feet was stone with a well in the centre. Two walls had porticoes, and the other two had rows of shuttered glass windows, and there was a set of stairs carved into the longest window side leading to the shortest portico side.

    I stood just beside the well, staring up at the walls. In the centre of the shortest portico side was the Royal Coat of Arms of Lothian, with the badge of the Lot family—a barbican—on a shield held up by two bears, and along the bottom was the family motto: ‘We Will Never Bend’.

    We were awaiting the presence of one of the castle residents to welcome us in. It will probably be Aoifa, I thought, and I would be happy if it was.

    A piece of something white floating down from the air caught my attention, and I craned my head to see that flurries of snow were starting to fall, only noticeable due to them contrasting with the dark stone because the sky was completely white with heavy, fluffy clouds. I held my hand out to catch a snowflake as they fell faster and heavier, before moving away from the well and spinning slowly, never taking my eyes off of the sky.

    “Come spin with me, Cyrus,” I said, stretching my hand out to him. He just shook his head and stayed where he was, leant against one of the walls. “It’s snowing and you’re stood there like you’re trying to shrink away from it.”

    “Perhaps I am,” he murmured, one corner of his mouth turning upwards.

    Robert pushed himself off the wall and walked over to stand in front of me. He bowed and held his hand out for me. “May I have this dance, Your Highness?”

    I giggled. “You may,” I said and took his hand. Immediately he spun me, and we carried on spinning at a modest speed, the snowflakes becoming slightly blurry as they fell around us more thickly. For those few moments, as we laughed and spun and Cyrus smiled from where he stood, everything was innocent and perfect and fun, and then—

    “Fireball!” a familiar voice called out. I stopped spinning immediately, freezing in my place as my body shook slightly. “Ygraine, are you alright?” the voice spoke again after what seemed like an eternity. I forced myself to move my head, a cold shiver running down my back, and glanced up at the stairs in a mixture of shock and incredulity. Stood near the top of the steps was an all too familiar person, his now chin-length dark hair covered in snowflakes and his hazel eyes watching me.

    But how can you be here? You . . . you died. I . . . I watched you die. How?

    “Lochru,” I whispered, moving away from Robert and taking a few steps forward. A few steps forward to a man who couldn’t possibly be here. “My Lochru?”

    “Who else would I be?” he asked and descended the remaining steps, stopping at the bottom with a smile on his face. From the short distance I could see that his skin was as tanned as it had been when I’d seen him last, but there was also a deep scar that marred his left cheek. Even with the scar he hadn’t changed all that much, just grown into his body—though his jaw line was a little harder and there were dark circles under his eyes.

   “But . . .” I murmured, my eyes-widening. “But . . . you died. Six years ago, you died.”

    His brow creased. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t,” he said. “Well . . . I was one-hundred percent sure, but now I’m only ninety-eight percent sure.”

    I shook my head. My eyes were prickling. “You died in my arms. I watched you die. I—I don’t understand. You died when Mordred found our camp—”

    “A lot of people died that night, my parents included,” he murmured as he took steps forward, sadness washing over his face, “but all I got was this damn scar.” He gestured to his face. “Mordred took you, he slammed the pommel of his sword down on your head to knock you out, and I—I couldn’t save you.” His voice broke on those lasts words.

    I stared at him for a long moment before realisation struck me. “Mordred,” I murmured, and anger bubbled up inside of me. “He must have tampered with my memories of that awful night, to make me think that you’d died. I don’t know why . . . probably to emotionally hurt me, but . . . I find I don’t care.”

    “Ygraine . . .”

    I let the anger wash out of me, and smiled before charging forward. My arms wrapped around him as soon as my body collided with his. I buried my face in the crook of his neck to hide the tears falling down my face. I twisted handfuls of his cape into my fists, pulled him closer than he already was as his own arms wound around my back under my cloak, his fingertips running soothing circles in the space between my shoulder blades as I shook.

    “I thought you were dead,” I whispered again, my voice muffled by his scarf.

    “I thought I’d never see you again,” he murmured and I felt him press his face into my hair. He’d grown up to be a head-and-a-half taller than me.

    “And I am very confused—”

    There was the sound of someone getting slapped about the head, followed by a sharp, “Robert!”

    Lochru slowly untangled himself from me and glanced over my shoulder. “How rude of you, fireball, to not introduce me to your friends?”

    I gave a laugh, though it was a little strangled due to my sniffling, and wiped underneath my eyes and nose before turning. Robert and Cyrus were stood leant against the well, flurries of snow turning their dark hair white, with curious expressions on their faces. I gestured with the palm of my hand to the both of them as I said, “Lochru, this is Cyrus and Robert,” and then gestured back to Lochru as I added, “Cyrus, Robert—this is Lochru, my best friend.”

    “Who you thought was dead for six years?” Robert asked, eyebrows raised.

    I nodded. “But, obviously he’s not, and I cannot even begin to say how relieved I am.” I turned back to him and clasped his hands in mine, smiling up at him. “You and I need to catch up. And don’t even think of trying to get out of it.”

    He groaned, though I knew it was only a mock groan. “Whatever you say, fireball.”

    I knew I was going to spend the rest of the day, if not all the days to come, staring at him so that he wouldn’t disappear, but I didn’t care and it didn’t seem like he did either because he was smiling down at me, and it was a brilliant smile that made my heart swell in my chest. I felt innocently happy.

    My best friend was alive, and I was in Lothian, and everything was alright.

    “Should we go inside before we all catch a cold?” Lochru asked without taking his eyes away from mine.

    “Yes, please,” Robert said. “I take it there is a fire going?”

    “There are two in the council chamber, which is where everyone is meeting.”

    I saw Robert run past me and up the stairs out of the corner of my eye, and then leant over the first portico. “If you three don’t get moving, I’m leaving without you to try and get some feeling back into my hands.”

    I laughed once more and tore my eyes away from Lochru, dropping one of his hands but keeping a hold of the other. “We’re coming. And, Robert, you don’t even know your way around the castle; you’d just get yourself lost.” I pulled Lochru with me, using my free hand to pull up the skirts of my dress just enough for ease of ascent up the steps, glancing behind me when I was halfway to see that Cyrus was stood at the bottom, a hesitant expression on his face.

    “You two wait inside,” I said and pulled away from Lochru, hopping down the steps once they’d gone inside to stop in front of Cyrus. “What’s the matter?” I asked, lifting a hand to move the longer strands of his hair from his face.

    He looked at me, eyes the bluest of blue, and shook his head. “Nothing. I . . . I just haven’t seen you as happy as you’ve just been now, in all the few weeks I’ve known you. I . . . I don’t know, it just makes me happy to see you happy.”

    I smiled and took a hold of his hand, pressed our palms together and laced my fingers through his. “A lot has happened today, and I know we cannot ever forget those events—not properly—but we’re here, and we have cause to be happy.”

    “I . . . I guess I just thought that when we got here, nothing would change. I mean, obviously it would because you have a battle and all that to plan with your cousin, reunions to make . . . but your best friend is, in actual fact, alive when you thought he was dead and I—”

    “Is that a hint of jealously I detect there, Cyrus Edmunds?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

    His eyes widened and he shook his head. “What? No. No, of course not.”

    I tipped my head back slightly and let out a laugh. “Relax, Cyrus, I’m only teasing. That’s what friends do, they tease,” I said and dropped his hand, moving to his side and looping my arm through his. “Now let’s get inside and in front of a fire before we contract a vicious cold from this snow, I did not dress for snow—I’m wearing heeled shoes! No one wears heeled shoes in snow! My feet are freezing!”

    He patted my hand with his free one sympathetically. “I could stay out here; I’ve never had a cold.”

    “You’ve never had a cold?”

    “Never.”

    “How have you never had a cold?”

    Cyrus simply shrugged and pulled me with him up the steps and to the double doors, which were fashioned out of dark oak with three great fleur de lis hinges on both. Above the door, peeking out of the groove, was the forth portcullis of the castle. It loomed precariously overhead, the points deadly sharpened, and even though I knew it wouldn’t suddenly drop down I still hurried Cyrus inside and shut the door behind myself.

    Before us was a modestly wide and long hallway, the dark stone walls covered by tapestries and heraldic flags and hung with torches at intervals. Lochru was leant against one of the walls, whilst Robert was studying a flag with a look of pure concentration on his face.

    “Whose badge is this?” Robert asked. In the centre of the black flag was a three-legged triskelion woven in gold, two black arrows crossed in the centre.

    “Gawain’s,” I answered as I walked towards him, reaching with my hand to brush my fingertips across a tapestry depicting an old King and Queen sat on their thrones. “To my cousin, it means that no matter what happens, he will always be standing. All nobility and royalty have heraldic badges.”

    “How come you don’t have a badge?”

    “I was kind of unable to discover mine,” I said and moved to stand a little further down the corridor, in front of Aoifa’s badge—a crowned bluebell on a rose coloured background. “There’s this book with the names of every single member of the nobility and royalty in it, this thick volume that no matter how many pages are added it stays the same depth. No one knows where it comes from, or when it was created, but it is magik and when a person comes of age—sixteen—it simple appears so that a person may find out what their badge is.”

    “I’ve heard of that, distantly,” Cyrus murmured. “It works with blood magik, doesn’t it?”

    “I wouldn’t go as far as to say blood magik,” Lochru murmured. “But, fundamentally, yes.”

    “It works with blood,” I said. “You take a knife and cut across your palm, allowing your blood to drop and pool on the page with your name. From what I was told by my father when I was little, the blood moves into the centre of the page, disappears momentarily, and then reappears and moves in curls and swirls to form the badge.”

    “And how does this magik book decide on heraldic badges?” Robert inquired.

    “It’s said that it determines a badge depending on background, personality and a person’s future, as well as choosing something which symbolises the person as a being, as a species.”

    “Species?”

    “Wrong choice of word. I mean, say a person is magik then they’re badge will be something that represents and reflects magik.”

    The double doors right at the end of the corridor opened abruptly, and out slipped a slender, tall figure. The figure was a woman, dressed in a flowing dress of deep red silk with translucent poet sleeves, a black and gold girdle hanging from her hips and stopping just above the hem, and around her neck was a chunky black fur scarf. Her dark brown hair was held behind the back of the fur scarf, but I could see the waves that went down just above her waist, and she wore a simple golden circlet with a single ruby stone in the centre on her head.

    The left side of her face was marred by a straight scar that went from the side of her mouth to just below her hairline. But she was still the most beautiful woman in the whole of Albion.

    “Aoifa,” I breathed and a smile split my face. Aoifa. The Queen of Lothian. My cousin’s wife. Mother to Gawain’s two sons. No, more than a queen or a wife or a mother—because she was only seven years older than me, she was the closest I had to an older sister.

    “Ygraine!” she cried out, clasping her hands before releasing them and running towards me, her arms enveloping me in a hug. I wrapped my arms around her back, allowing myself to bury my face in the fur that tickled my skin, before she pulled back, her hands moving so that her fingertips tipped up my chin. “Oh, my darling Ygraine, how you’ve grown. Step into the light so I can have a better look at you.”

    I did as she said, taking a couple of steps sideways so I was under the light of a torch. It was still a little cold in the corridor even with the small warmth of the firelight, but I took my cloak off regardless and held it out towards Lochru. He took it and gave me a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes.

    “My, how fair you’ve grown to be,” Aoifa murmured, turning my head slightly as her dark blue eyes scanned over me. “Though you do look tired. Oh, what am I talking about? Of course you’re tired. Tired from your journey, tired from hiding. But you’re here now, your safe, and Mordred will never capture you again!”

    I nodded and though I knew it was stupid to ask, because if he were here it would have doubtless been him instead of Lochru who would have greeted us. But I still asked regardless. “Have you had any news from my brother?”

    The way both Aoifa and Lochru’s face turned from smiles to the opposite at the same time was answer enough. It was Lochru who spoke first, his eyes sad. “No, fireball, we haven’t,” he whispered, and now his nickname for me, which usually was usually teasing and laughable, took on a sombre tone.

    “I am sorry, sweet darling,” Aoifa murmured, her voice taking on the soft tone parents used when telling their child that their beloved pet had just died. I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes for a second, resisting the urge to cry because I couldn’t, before dropping them to my side again. I couldn’t cry, not here. Crying was kept for when you’re alone, and you can sob into a blanket and release silent screams of anguish. And I had to be strong.

    “Ygraine,” Cyrus whispered. “It’ll all be fine, you’ll see. Your brother is going to be alive and fine. It’s all going to be fine. And you’ll be reunited with him again.”

    I stared down at the floor. I will not cry. “You don’t know that,” I barely whispered.

    I cannot cry. I will not cry. I must be strong.

    I will be strong. I will not cry. I must not cry. I must be strong.

    “You’re right, we don’t know that,” came Lochru’s voice, calm and collected. “But hope is the most precious thing we have.”

    I did not speak for what seemed like the longest time ever, just concentrated on my breathing as I was aware of the four of them waiting for my response. Finally I lifted my head from its downwards position and stared straight ahead at the double doors. “Well, are we just going to stand here in this chilly corridor? I thought I was to meet my cousin, the king.”

    A small smile crept on to Aoifa’s beautiful face. “Right this way,” she said and took my hand in hers, leading me down the corridor whilst the other three followed silently behind.

    I would grieve, for lack of a better word, for the absence of my brother when I was alone and had no expectations to uphold. When I had no expectations to myself to uphold.

    The dark oak doors opened from the inside just before we reached them, revealing the large space beyond. The walls were dark stone, with beams of dark oak running up the length every so often and meeting overhead in thick rafters, and in the centre of the two longest walls—opposite each other—were two huge fireplaces jutting out from the walls slightly and tapestries above both mantelpieces. The floor was wood and there were benches around the edges of the room. In the centre was a long table fashioned from a dark wood, with eight chairs along either length and a larger chair at either end.

    I was expecting a full room, with all chairs occupied by several sirs from both Gawain’s court and ones who might have escaped Camelot, but the reality was much different: there were only four other people in the room. And two of those were children, who were both boys and attacking each with wooden swords: the elder one, Lovell, was around six years old with a mop of dark brown hair, whilst the younger, Ewan, was—I think—three and had wild light brown hair.

    Lovell and Ewan were Gawain and Aofia’s two sons.

    My eyes rested on a broad-shouldered man who was leaning against the chair at the far end of the table. His dark hair fell just short of his shoulders in an unbroken sheet, and he sported a trimmed beard. I felt Aoifa squeeze my hand before releasing it, and I watched her walk over to the man, who followed her movements with adoration in his dark eyes. Then he lifted those eyes so that they fell on me, and I saw the dark circles underneath.

    Have you not slept? I glanced at Lochru out of the corner of my eye momentarily, at the shadows under his eyes. Have none of you slept?

    There was a rustling behind me. I turned to see Cyrus and Robert both bowing low. I stifled a laugh and turned back forward, smiling before I gave a small curtsey. “Hello, Gawain,” I said.

    “Ygraine,” he replied warmly. Over the years Gawain and I had built up a close relationship, but one that respected personal space and kept anything like hugs to our significant others and immediate family. Or, in my case, friends, since I was lacking both a significant other and immediate family at the moment. “You can stand now, both of you,” he added to Cyrus and Robert. “We were expecting only one other travelling with Ygraine, but there is a spare room that is being quickly prepared.”

    “I think, after travelling across Albion, we’d all be grateful for a couple of cushions and a few blankets.”

    “Nonsense,” Aoifa said as she moved to split her sons apart, who were on their way to taking each other’s arm off with the wooden swords, and picked Ewan up. “You will have your own bed chambers. Ygraine, yours will be the largest.”

    “Now, I think introductions are in order,” said Gawain as he moved away from the chair. “I already know one of your names, because Ygraine wrote it in her letter. So which of you is the young Warlock named Cyrus?”

    Before Cyrus could step forward, or introduce himself, the man who was turned away from us near the fire to my left—who’d I’d all but forgotten about, if I’m being perfectly honest, because he’d been so quiet—whispered Cyrus’s name. I recognised the voice immediately; I would have even if a hundred years had passed.

    My palms felt suddenly slick with sweat. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was him repeating Cyrus’s name—it set me on edge somehow.

    I knew who it was before they turned around, slowly, almost melodramatically, but I couldn’t help but stare at the man.

    Nor could I stop myself from breathing “Merlin”, a mixture of relief and anger lathering my voice, at the exact same time as Cyrus murmured one word that shook me right to the core:

    “Father?” 

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A/N: dun, dun, DUN . . .

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