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Hazel Katie

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King Malcom of Brucemuir, a suitable time after the death of his first wife, had sought a replacement who would “cheer us all up a wee bit.” He thus dis-commoded his household and five-year-old only daughter with a woman who was unlike the late queen in almost every respect. Queen Martha was dark, buxom, and energetic, where Queen Tovelise had been pale, slender, and serene. Her abiding frivolity might have been more “cheerful” than her predecessor’s thoughtful care for her people, but it had little else to recommend it.

However, as King Malcom philosophically told himself, there were far worse fates than managing a well-meaning, but silly, wife. He quietly hired a competent housekeeper to see to the domestic side of things and filled Queen Tovelise's place on the Privy Council with one of her aunts. Queen Martha had never aspired to those particular duties, and she settled down happily to enjoy wearing very fine clothes on all state occasions and attempting to make at least a few of the rooms in Castle Bruce more fashionable. She petted her husband when he was at home, and her daughter and stepdaughter when he was not. She, too, thought things could be far worse. The society was not what she had been used to in her native city of Piktenburg, but here she was Queen, while there she had been the widow of a Viscount’s second son, and with no great store of character or accomplishment to make up for her mediocre rank.

As far as King Malcom’s daughter Katherine was concerned, the best thing about her new situation was the arrival of a stepsister. Queen Martha’s first marriage, to one Sir Benjamin MacLaird, had produced a daughter only a little older than the princess.

Though this girl was, inconveniently, also named Katherine, King Malcom considered the acquisition of a suitable companion for his daughter to be one of the advantages of the match.

Some of the other courtiers had their doubts. Though they shared a name and good intentions, the two stepsisters were otherwise so unlike in appearance and temper as to make it a matter of wonder that they were related at all, even by marriage. The Princess Katherine was a sweet, shy, golden-haired beauty, a graceful dancer and a docile student, gentle with her playmates and always eager to soothe a hurt. The closest she ever came to losing her temper was uttering a bewildered, “That isnae kind,” if one of her friends teased another too sharply. Her new sister Katherine MacLaird, by contrast, had her mother's dark hair and eyes, and was bold and lively. She was quick at her studies, the better to get them over with as soon as possible and do something more interesting, and her dancing might better be described as “vigorous” than graceful. She lost her temper frequently and loudly, and her most common plaint was, “That isnae fair!” If the perpetrator of the unfairness was reasonably close to her in age, she would follow this up with a pinch or a blow, for emphasis.

Nonetheless, and despite their differing natures, the two of them grew to be great friends and learned to love each other better, perhaps, than their parents did. King Malcom's Katherine thought her new sister quite the most amazing creature she had ever beheld, a source of continual wonder. In turn, Queen Martha's Katherine wished to make a pet of every creature that crossed her path, from sowbugs to oxen (the sowbugs generally did not survive her affections), and had promptly made a pet of her new five-year-old Royal Stepsister as well, even going so far as to call her “kitten,” in private.

In public, the difficulty with the names took a little time to resolve. The girls could have been known by their middle names, but since the Honorable Miss MacLaird was Katherine Martha, after her mother, that would have also caused confusion. In the end, it was the late Queen Tovelise who provided a solution, at least in a manner of speaking. She had brought with her to Bruicemuir a number of her most loyal personal servants including a Nanny, and they, like she, were Dansk speakers who were unable to pronounce the “th” in “Katherine” and had always called the young Princess, “Katriner.” Trina, then, she became.

Queen Martha's daughter had had nursemaids from various of the Trullney Islands, who called her “Katie.” Queen Martha thought this a bit too common for the granddaughter of a Viscount, especially now that she was also the stepsister of a Princess, but Katie herself had no care for such things, especially at seven-and-a-half, so by the time either of them were expected to attend any formal occasions, they became Princess Trina and Mistress Katie, and they were all but inseparable.

By the time they were young women, Mistress Katie sang while Princess Trina played the harp. Princess Trina soothed the feelings of anyone Mistress Katie had wounded unthinkingly by her want of tact, while Katie in turn terrorized anyone who tried to bully or tease her gentle little sister. When the weather was fine enough, Trina painted the mountainous landscape from the castle balcony, accompanied by some of the castle gentlewomen, while Katie, usually accompanied by a guard but sometimes by a poacher, went rambling about that same landscape on her mule, learning whatever the crofters and the hunting masters would teach her about the wild plants and creatures that might be found in the woods and meadows nearby. Katie would bring some of those plants back to the “proper ladies” on the balcony to be immortalized in paint. When the weather was wet, as was more usually the case, the two lasses shared a fondness for exciting ballads and romantic lyrics, as well as music and dancing. All was well between them.

Until the Princess Trina turned sixteen.

Chapter Text

The Great Hall glittered and shone with its festival colors. Light from scores of candles was scattered and amplified by hundreds of drops of the cut glass that was the wealth– such as it was—of Brucemuir. More glass shone in the beads that accented the tapestries on the walls – the special ones that were only hung on holidays, their threads still tight and undamaged by damp, their colors unsmudged by smoke or dust. The people, too, were in their dress tartans, the colors bright enough to be jarring, according to Queen Martha, who preferred the subtler colors and swirling embroidery currently favored by the Frankish courts and just beginning to take the fashion in Piktenberg.

But Brucemuir was a fortnight’s travel from Piktenberg even by sea, and the fashions were a generation behind the times. The men wore either the guards’ Bruce Watch tartan, or their family pattern, in kilts, with wool plush jackets beneath dyed to match. The women wore dresses – also mostly of fine wool or linen – with broad lace collars making them look lower-cut than they actually were, and the family tartans draped to make a sort of blousy overskirt to the knees and a cape above. Even Queen Martha wore the Bruce tartan over her gown, though the gown itself was in the Piktenberger style, with tight sleeves embroidered with beads and ribbons rather than puffed ones trimmed with lace, and enough yardage in the skirt to clothe any other two ladies in the room. She had lamented all morning about how lax the attention to dress was in Brucemuir.

Which showed how much she knew, Katie thought sourly. Influences from Piktenberg might travel slowly, but just let her hear what happened if a lass had her tartan draped in a slightly wrong fashion, or too many ribbons in her braids, or too few, or a necklace of faceted, false-crystal beads if everyone else had a cane-worked pendant on a silver chain! Katie had heard these, and more. Kitten might call her “sister,” and her mother and stepfather treated them more-or-less equally (not that Katie had had a ball for her sixteenth birthday,) but the assumption among most of the court ladies was that The Honorable Miss MacLaird was fated to be the Princess of Brucemuir’s chief waiting-woman someday. Grania, the current maid, never tended to the pair of them without hinting that Katie should be learning more of her duties and taking a greater interest in it all. An hour or two of listening to that was just the thing to put you off your stride before heading into a room full of people, especially if more than half the people in the room were wearing some version of the gold, black, and green Bruce tartan and you were in MacLaird red. It wasn’t that MacLairds were unwelcome; it was just one more thing to make Katie feel singled-out and awkward. It didn’t help at all that she knew full well that if she said any of this aloud, everyone else would say she was worrying over nothing. She especially shouldn’t be worried tonight. It was her younger sister’s – stepsister’s — sixteenth birthday, and all eyes would be on her. They usually were, anyway.

Trina, just ahead of Katie as they came into the Hall in accordance with protocol, glanced back with an excited grin. Her new gown was the pale gold of her curling hair, which was tied up in white ribbons, and a new necklace of perfectly matched white pearls, which must have cost as much as all her other dower-jewels put together, lay against her slender, pale throat. Kitten was beautiful – breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful – she always had been. And she truly didn’t care. She spent just enough time in front of her mirror in the morning to make sure she didn’t miss a spot when she washed her face and that her collar was pinned on straight, and then ignored it for the rest of the day.

And while the King and Queen (and Grania) would have had something to say about it if she lent out any of her dower-jewels, Kitten was generous nearly to a fault with her more ordinary trinkets. Queen Martha complained about how often the Princess wore the same gowns, but when her wardrobe was expanded, she gave more gowns away. She was generous and kind and warmhearted and sweet and wise. Everyone loved her, Katie included. On the night of her Birthday Ball, Princess Trina shone among them all like the Queen she would someday be. Katie told herself that this was only right and fitting. Not for worlds would she wish to take it away from her. If only Trina wasn’t also the belle of all the other balls…

Oh, well. There was the feast to get through first, and feasts were easy. Trina and Katie were the only two people of either sex under the age of thirty at the high table, and no one would expect them to speak to anyone but each other. Since they had spent the whole day in each other’s company, together with the few other young women guests (now banished to the second table), they needn’t even be seen speaking together very much. As long as she managed not to spill anything, Katie could simply enjoy a good meal and listen to the conversation that bounced around her – a lot of it was interesting, at least for the first hour before the mead started to go to people’s heads. When men got too relaxed, they started retelling old hunting stories and making bawdy jokes, most of which Katie had heard before. But while they were still catching up on news or arguing politics, they were worth hearing.

The other nice thing about the stricter protocols on feast days was that Queen Martha always sat to the King’s right, with Trina and Katie to his left, which meant it was a little more difficult for her mother to nag Katie about not eating too much. This was rather a sore point, most days. Katie was, as the guardsmen and hostlers put it, “a brave strapping lass,” taller than Trina by a head and broader by at least half an ell. Unlike her mother, she didn’t need stays to give her a waist, at least not yet, but her bodices had a certain … structure to them all the same – they were designed to bear a load. And Katie was almost always hungry.

She led a fairly active life, after all. Even singing, which was one of the few things Queen Martha wanted her to do that Katie actually enjoyed, required real energy and disciplined muscles. And on feast days there would be dancing as well. Not even a wee little thing like Trina could do all that on the diet of a finch! Since Queen Martha worried that Katie would lose her figure before she was married, and thought besides that it was inelegant to be seen to have too many appetites of any sort, she would, on days when her husband wasn’t seated between them, spend as much of mealtime as she could spare from her other pursuits (such as holding forth on how the dish would have been cooked in Piktenberg), scolding her daughter about how much food she took.

So far, the only noticeable effect of Queen Martha’s nagging had been to alert some of the younger guards and merchentmen who would not otherwise have spared a thought for any plate but their own that there was something they could tease Katie about – carefully. It hadn’t been all that long ago that Katie’s first resort for any injury had been to inflict a bloody nose on the offender, and there were still stories about the Night Watch squad who had been given a cask of wine to share that had turned out to be mixed liberally with prune juice… Katie had sworn she wasn’t behind that one, but it didn’t hurt to be careful. But tonight the Queen was fully occupied by being seen to be a gracious hostess and a doting wife, and Katie was able to eat in peace.

The time immediately after supper wasn’t too bad, either. Many of Brucemuir’s best musicians had other duties as well – such as helping to clear the tables, or tending the guest’s horses, before they could put in an appearance in the Hall, and besides, it wouldn’t do to try and dance on a very full stomach, so for an hour or so after the tarts and cakes were cleared away, the party guests did the performing. There were dramatic recitations and music … sometimes the guardsmen would put on an exhibition match, though Queen Martha had decreed that that particular entertainment was not elegant enough for the Princess’s birthday feast.

In fact, most of the entertainers, Katie included, had been a little careful with their chosen offerings. It was common wisdom that to speak of something too often, or at the wrong time, was to summon it. On the day their Princess officially went from being a lass to being a lady, nobody wanted to invoke vengeful ghosts, tragic lovers, malicious warlocks, or kingdoms ravaged by loathsome beasts, even if the tale ended happily. So there were a few ballads about notable tourneys, and Quests for the hand of a fair maiden that placed the dangers faced by the Suitors a comfortable distance away from the maiden’s kingdom. Lady Agnes McGann, one of Trina’s friends who Katie also quite liked, very daringly chose a ballad in which a maid by the side of a road informed a mounted guardsman that all she wanted in the world lay between his legs, and ended up by stealing his horse.

Lady Agnes managed to present the song with such an air of innocence one might almost believe it had never occurred to her that the maidenly thief could have meant anything else, except that it was Agnes singing it. In the same mysterious way that all the young women decided simultaneously to wear their front hair in a single plait that dangled in front of the left ear, they had all decided that Lady Agnes was Destined for a Bad End. And Agnes had evidently decided that if no one would believe anything else of her, she might as well enjoy herself as well as she could. Katie felt obscurely sorry for her.

Several people chose the route Katie did, of performing lyric pieces that praised the beauty of Brucemuir’s mountains or the liveliness of its markets, without any story in them at all. It was a pleasant hour. Katie loved singing; no matter if she was showing off a new piece she had composed herself or joining in on the choruses for songs that had been sung over the cradles of the oldest folk in the Kingdom. And if her fellow performers were familiar instead of novel, they still performed well, and Katie had no difficulty applauding them.

The difficulty came as the tables were shoved up against the far wall, the musicians took their place on the dais that had held the high table, and the proper dance began. To Katie, it was as if the air had suddenly grown warmer and stuffier, all at once, and her hair suddenly felt heavy on her head, and her clothes too tight. She told herself it was only nerves, and pointless besides. No one here wished her ill, even if many thought her unimportant – well, she was unimportant, really. It was only a dance, and she liked to dance. But this wasn’t the first time she had felt that heaviness in the air, and she was starting to recognize a pattern … No! she told herself firmly. Leave off thinking about it – the more you think about it, the more you’ll notice things, and that will just feed the flames. Stay busy as you can and see if you can get through the night without thinking about yourself at all. 'Tis Kitten’s party, after all.

Determinedly, Katie stood up next to her sister as she joined the little flock of other young ladies near the fireplace at the end of the Hall. She greeted them all in turn: Lady Agnes, and the Dunfrees sisters, Morag and Bess, who were a year apart but looked and acted like twins, and The Honorable Rosie Beck, who was nearly as pretty as Trina was and thick as day-old porridge – Rosie really hadn’t understood the joke in Agnes’ song earlier – Felicity McHuff, whose jokes were always witty enough to set Katie laughing and often vicious enough that she felt a bit ashamed afterward, and four or five others. All of them, Katie couldn’t help noticing again, shorter than she was, or thinner, or most often both. They surrounded Trina in a little flutter of talk, offering their birthday congratulations, together with some good-natured teasing about how it would be a wedding next, and who would the lucky fellow be?

The talk flowed smoothly around them and Katie listened, wondering as she always did how they found so much to talk of, when it had been little more than a week since they had seen each other. In larger kingdoms, the landholders would have come to the capitol in the winter, after harvest was done, but in Brucemuir there were no great landholders – only hardscrabble crofters and quarrymen, guarded by roving patrols. All the high folk of Brucemuir already lived in Bruce Port. Lord Dunfrees and Sir McHuff oversaw two of the glassworks, and Agnes’ father, Duke McGann, was nominal landlord for half a mountainful of stone quarries but got most of his income from a salt refinery. The only people who came to Castle Bruce from more than a day’s travel away were merchants, sailors, and soldiers. Trina and Katie and the rest were outnumbered by young men three to one. Once the dancing began in earnest, they’d all be on their feet as much as they cared to be.

Meanwhile, they talked. It was bewildering; they weren’t talking about anything very much, but it all flowed in a way that Katie found hard to keep track of. By the time she had anything to say about anything, they had moved on to something else, leaving Katie feeling tongue-tied and stupid, and at the same time faintly contemptuous of the triviality of it all. This time, the main topic seemed to be one the Tourney ballads that had been sung earlier in the evening: who was more romantic? Sir Henry Pureheart, or Sir Donald the Sad? And who in Brucemuir was the most like which knight? Katie remarked that she liked how the poet had given Sir Henry a light, tripping meter and words with lots of broad ‘A’ sounds as if he were laughing, and that Sir Donald got a different rhythm and a lot of ‘O’s as if he were moaning, and got blank looks all around.

And when she said, “Tae be honest, I dinna care much for either of them. Sir Henry doesnae seem tae have a thought in his head beyond what his Mage tells him, and Sir Donald may be hurting inside, but his outside is always either sullen or drunk and rageful,” they all laughed politely, as if it were a joke that hadn’t quite come off. And then it was time to dance.

Katie’s first partner for the evening was Lieutenant Ian McBittern, of the Marine Guard – soldiers who went on the merchant vessels to keep the cargo safe from pirates. The McBitterns were some sort of cousin to the Bruces, and Ian’s brother was actually a landsknight to the King of Erne, across the channel. Lt. Ian himself was considered a likely candidate for Trina’s hand – just seasoned enough as a soldier and leader of men to make a decent king someday, with his travels giving him an extra handle on the workings of foreign politics. That was the theory, anyway. Katie asked him where he had been last, as they promenaded around the room. The first hour’s dancing would be rather decorous, and it was still possible to talk. As the weight of the feast got digested and the bottles of mead and whiskey emptied, things would get wilder.

“Fleurburg,” said Lt. McBittern. “There’s a new king there, and he’s ordered some sort of building project underway – so we were bringing great loads of fine granite and panes of glass, and also loads of salt – Fleurburg’s a river kingdom, so they haven’t much of that of their own.”

“What’s it like?” Katie had heard tales of an Order of Champions there, that trained the flower of knighthood into the kind of miracle workers you called on if a dragon was ravaging your kingdom, or a reclusive uncle turned out to be an evil sorcerer. She had heard the so-called “Glass Mountain Order” would even take women, and had wondered if she might try to go there someday. But then, she had also heard that there was a dragon there who had trained as a champion, so perhaps it was only another wild story.

She didn’t find out either way from Lt. McBittern. Fleurburg, to judge by his stories, consisted of a couple of good alehouses and half a dozen bad ones, all of which served as stage-sets for his own triumphs over rival lieutenants on other ships. Of the people who actually lived there, all Katie learned was that they were “cunning.” This was Lt. McBittern’s way of saying their merchants were as sharp as Brucemuir’s without actually giving the foreigners undue credit for being as clever as, say, himself. The king with building schemes was apparently of no interest whatsoever, although Katie had heard he and his brother together had rescued the kingdom from a host of demons, before he was crowned. By the time the dance ended and Lt. McBittern had taken his leave to join the small throng vying for a chance to dance with Trina, Katie had given up listening and was just wondering how someone could travel so far and still live in such a small world.

Her partner for the next dance was Arthur McGann, Agnes’ brother. Like his sister, he was charming, and rather than trying to find stories about stonemasonry and salt that would outdo the merchentmen’s tales, or the soldiers', he made a point of drawing Katie out. They had worked their way all the way down the row of couples in the reel before Katie noticed that he asked more questions about any activity that she did in Trina’s company, such as sewing or singing, or her memories of learning to get along with her stepsister all those years ago, and changed the subject whenever she started to talk of riding, or her early childhood in Piktenburg, or even a book that she had liked that Trina hadn’t cared for. And like the lieutenant, he let Katie go at the end of the dance and went to flirt with her sister.

It was the same with her next partner, and the one after that. It shouldnae be a surprise to me. Katie wasn't ugly, and she had a perfectly decent dowry, but she was also a sister to and source of information on a ravishing beauty whose dower was a whole kingdom – albeit a smallish one. The two were known to be close, and no single man under the age of forty-five would be on anything but his best behavior with Katie, but the more they drank, and the longer the dance went on, the more obvious it became that they were being charming to her so that she would speak well of them to Trina.

This was the part Katie hated. As the evening went on, the air grew heavier around her, and she felt as if she were watching herself through a window: not a Brucemuir window, but one of the ones from a Kingdom that had glassblowers but no plate glass, where the windows were made of tiny panes that rippled like a mountain burn. Through that window, she could see her dance steps getting – not clumsier, exactly, but still heavier and a little exaggerated, emphasizing the way she stood out from the daintier lasses. She could hear her voice getting louder, her jokes coming more often but becoming less funny, as she tried harder and harder to get someone to see her, Katie, not the Princess’s sister. She’d feel like a mule someone had shoved into a gown, by the end. And at the same time, a familiar nasty little voice in her head was getting louder – one that was sure that if Katie went over, grabbed Trina, shook her until her teeth rattled, pulled her hair, and kicked her into the immense hearth in the Great Hall, this would somehow fix things.

That voice was beginning to scare Katie. It seemed to come up more and more often, lately, when her sister was with her. And almost always it came with the prickly, before-a-storm heaviness that no one else felt in the air. She wondered, sometimes, if the voice belonged to an actual demon, or imp, or something, sitting on her shoulder. Katie imagined herself throttling the imp and kicking it into the fire instead of Trina.

It didn’t help. Every time her dancing partner’s eyes strayed in her sister’s direction, or Katie herself caught sight of Trina’s glowing pink cheeks and knew herself to be beet-red and dripping with sweat, she felt it sting like salt in a briar scratch, and that vicious little voice in her head that insisted it was all Trina’s fault got louder. Katie finally went to bed just before dawn, thinking to herself that truly, she didn’t mind if Trina married a prince out of a ballad, as noble and brave and clever and soulful as Sir Henry and Sir Donald rolled into one, if only she, Katie could have someone, too: someone nice enough that she could live with him, someone clever enough to keep up with her, or even someone who knew himself to be stupid but was willing to let Katie be clever on his behalf. It would be nice if the someone wasn’t a punishment to look at. But most of all, she prayed for someone who wanted Katie for herself, and didn’t care who her stepsister was.

Chapter Text

The family was sitting together after supper, with no attendants nearer than the next room, as King Malcom preferred they do every night that he was at home. He considered it his daily reward for being a King, this chance to be a husband and father and nothing else for an hour or two. Because Queen Martha preferred it so, these little family parties generally took place in her private sitting room, which was one of the most elegant chambers in Castle Bruce. The walls were polished wood, rather than plaster draped with tapestries, and there were gilt-framed paintings and fine pewter lamps and fashionable chairs. The only exception was the broad, square thing made of pine that King Malcom himself sat in, but he was built on a large plan and would have strained the powers of the finer furniture, so Queen Martha had made the best of things and embroidered the padded seat and back with a pattern of roses and snowdrops.

Now, King Malcom leaned back in this incongruous article and sipped from a goblet of watered mead. He could not enjoy such learned conversation with his second wife as he had with his first, but he did rather like to tease her. He said, “Nay, I cannae see my way to it this year. But I’ll be sure and add your list tae the things I bring back this trip.” He wrote on the palm of his hand with his finger. “Bonny brave gowns and a selection of second sons and nephews of good character for the twa lassies.”

“But that’s just the point! No one but a few of the second sons and Guard Captains and the like would be willing to come all that way back with you, and I daresay the gowns the girls can get here are good enough for them, but if we all went to Piktenburg and the girls were properly dressed, we could meet everybody!"

“I dinna think, my bonny, that they would meet everybody even with all the gowns in Piktenburg. ‘Tis only for courtesy’s sake that I’m called King, y' ken, and not Duke or Chieftain or some other thing. Were Brucemuir any easier tae get to, or any richer, some greater king – Andrew of Cullane, perhaps – would decide it was worth the trouble to collect taxes from us and chase the bandits away. As things are, even the bandits and the sea raiders ignore us most of the time. There’s enough places that have pearls and ivory and amber in their ports, instead of herring and skilled glassworkers, and silver in the hills, instead of fine building stone. In Piktenburg, you would be moving in circles only a little higher than the one you were in when I met you. No Crown Princes in that lot. And precious few titled heirs that are worth the earth it would take to bury them, even without taking their debts into account.”

“Oh!” cried Queen Martha with a forced little laugh, “I don’t imagine Crown Princes, though I daresay there may be a chance – anything might happen, after all. But if you’re a King by courtesy, surely they’ll be courteous enough to invite us to a few of the larger balls and the occasional musical evening – and you know Katie has a fine voice… No, I don’t hope for a Crown Prince, but I don’t think an Earl is beyond hope, and none of them would come up here to look for a wife when they’ve so many choices in Piktenburg, you know.”

“If they’ve so many choices, I dinna see that we need add twa more to them. And if they dinna wish tae come see this place, I dinna want them courting Trina. Her husband will need to be a good steward to Brucemuir, poor and plain as it is. She doesnae need a fellow who’ll gang racketing about the city trying tae win horse races against men twice as rich because they all had their schooling together.”

While their parents were talking thus, the two girls had been sitting a little away from the fire. Katie had drawn a chair directly underneath one of the wall sconces and was doing her best to ignore the conversation in favor of a new book of poems – one of several that had been passed on by Trina’s Aunt Nichola, whose husband Admiral Krakenlych picked them up on his travels. Trina, by one of the table lamps, had her charcoal and easel out and was taking advantage of Katie’s unaccustomed stillness by sketching her portrait. They were interrupted at these pursuits by Queen Martha, who was insisting that her husband had grossly wronged the students of Piktenburg College: “Such well-taught lads as they all are, and brought to learn a very fitting discipline and duty. There isn’t a one of them I would not be glad to see married to my Katie, and always allowing that I could have one or two really elegant gowns made for them, I would wager Katie and Trina against any young lady there. You’d not have any trouble captivating a Viscount, would you now, Katie?”

This appeal shattered the last of Katie’s small store of patience, and she sprang up, throwing her book to the carpet, and cried, “Oh, mother, how can ye be so gurt stupid!” And with a choked apology for her outburst, she ran from the room. Trina, after a bewildered minute and another, calmer apology to their parents, followed after her.

**********

Trina found her sister in the suite of rooms they shared, wrapped in a shawl and curled up in one corner of a sofa with her feet tucked under her, her face red from crying. It was not the first time this winter such a thing had happened, and Katie often would not say what was wrong. But Trina always asked, and tried to help if she could. It did often seem as though Queen Martha set her off more often than anybody, and Trina had a guess as to why that had nothing to do with her stepmother’s wits or their absence.

“Is it because you want tae gang tae Piktenburg?” she asked her sister, “Or because you dinna?”

Katie sighed and blew her nose. “Oh, I dinna ken. I’d like well enough tae journey tae Piktenburg, or even Dunhorne – just tae see something new. But not if I’m tae be stuck in parlors, chasing Earls.”

“I have noticed that you’ve seemed more…restless than usual, this winter.”

Katie gave a watery chuckle. “Cross as twa sticks, you mean.”

“Well…”

“Oh, Kitten! I hope ‘tis only the winter! Sometimes it feels like this… weight in the air, like just before a thunderstorm, as if it were suddenly extra work to breathe. Or as if my skin were shrinking tighter and tighter, ‘til I think I’m like to burst like a bottle of bad ale.”

Trina listened gravely. It was still a little surprising to her when Katie wanted her help or advice, or even turned to her for comfort. For such a long time, Katie had been her fearless and awe-inspiring, if irritatingly bossy, older sister. Only in the last year or three had Trina started to realize that she had strengths of her own, and that Katie looked up to her for some things as she looked up to Katie. It surprised her even more when she found, as now, that she had something to say.

“Well, maybe ‘tis not only that we cannae gang outdoors, but that you are growing intae your womanhood – you are eighteen, after all; some ladies are widowed by then – and you are feeling ready tae be your own person with your own husband and household. And at the same time, you do still love and care for Castle Bruce and your life as you ken it here, and you dinna want to leave it all behind. I feel something like that, when your mother talks of finding us husbands. I ken well enough that I’m likely tae be married sooner than later, tae some man that Father likes as his heir, and I’ve never even really been in love. It scares me, and at the same time I can feel a part of me … wanting …”

Katie nodded thoughtfully. “Could well be some of that. And I’ll tell you, however Mother stews that an Honorable Miss MacLaird who happens to be a Princess’s stepsister ought tae be more important than any other Honorable and even many ladies with titles of their own, I’m glad tae be thought too far from the throne tae be a worthwhile game piece. At least if I truly cannae bear a fellow, I’ll not have tae say yes to him for my country’s sake.”

Trina suppressed a shudder. “Well, I dinna blame you for feeling a bit itchy about it all, but I hope we can enjoy whatever time we have left together before… everything changes.”

“Aye, I want that as well. Sorry I’ve been such a shrew. You’ve been a perfect saint tae put up with me.”

“Naught of the sort! Your own good heart shows through, even when you’re in a temper and throwing books about. And speaking of books, which was the one you were reading this evening? One of the Lake Bards? Or one of the Princes Pretending to be Lake Bards?”

Katie managed a watery chuckle. “The second. Sir Robin of Tamshire has another book-length tale about lovelorn Knights and Doom tae bestow upon us all.”

“Oh, NO!”

“Oh, yes. I dinna ken how he finds the time. Besides never editing his work or even reading it over, that is. He spends twa pages in this one speaking of ‘Envy, foul as any Wild Boar’s tush.’ I ken well enough that envy can stink like pig farts, but I think he meant ‘tusk.’ Fair makes me pity whatever woodcutter supplied the pulp that went tae make the thing.”

“Oh, well. We cannae sorrow over much that a fellow who prints so many other good poets trots out his own work as well. ‘Twas Sir Robin’s press that brought out this one by Prince Hugh of Cullane, and Cullane’s work is far, far better than I thought it would be. ‘Tis as though, while all those other fellows were sitting up o’nights, reading each other’s books, he was ganging about talking to people and paying attention. ‘Tisnae so very gloomy and glum, either. Sir Robin all but apologizes for that in his forward. Brings up some guff about a Family Curse.”

Katie shrugged. “There may even be one. Cullane’s a near neighbor and buys a lot of glass, but Mother has never mentioned Prince Hugh or even his younger brother James as a possible husband for one of us, and that’s odd.”

It was Trina’s turn to shrug. “ ‘Tis none of our business, either way. Father’s made it clear time and again that Cullane is far above our touch. Here. I have the Prince’s book in my pocket, still – read it over and it might cheer you up a bit. I’m ganging back tae Father for a little time, since he’s to leave with the merchant fleet again in a fortnight, or so.” And Trina left her sister in their rooms, looking a little happier than she had been, at least for now. But if Katie was worried about the same things as Trina worried about, it wouldn’t last forever. Growing up was enough to terrify anyone.

**********

Katie stayed where she was, staring out the window at the dark, rather than trying to read the little book. Trina was so sweet and wise, and Katie felt lucky to have her for a sister, but at the same time … What is wrong with me?

More and more, it seemed like that weight she felt in the air sometimes was an actual demon sitting on her back and whispering in her ear. Every time she got that hemmed-in feeling, she’d start hearing her own voice in her head, commenting on whatever was going on, and it would have been much more comfortable to believe those comments came from some kind of fiend than to admit that, in the depths of her soul, Katie was as selfish and cruel as that little voice. The owner of that voice was certain that she, Katie, was ever so much cleverer and more deserving of – of whatever was available to deserve right then – than anybody else. Whenever things didn’t go her way, the voice knew it was because someone had it in for her and that they needed to be punished. The voice was sure that whatever Katie did was real and sincere and important, but that everyone else did things only to make an impression, and that any display of goodness was false and trivial. The voice was sure that everyone else was just as evil as she was.

Katie argued with it fiercely and unavailingly. Trina would bundle up a load of clothing and food to take to the alms-house, and Katie would catch herself thinking, “Oh, aren’t we holy and special then. You just want people to think you’re so douce and kind, but you’re careful tae wash your hair first,” even though she knew Trina’s kindness was real, and her vanity all but nonexistent. Katie had once seen Trina spend a whole Ball with a bit of parsley stuck between her perfect teeth. It wasn’t even as if Katie lacked anything she really wanted, except that Trina had it and she did not. Would anything make Lt. McBittern an interesting dance partner except that he would rather be dancing with Trina? But the voice would not be silenced, and the air in Castle Bruce seemed to grow more stifling every day. Envy, foul as a wild boar’s tush indeed.

Katie had been so worried about these repellant whispers from the bottom of her soul that she had gone to Pastor Scott for advice. He had offered comfort, but of a rather grim sort. “ “Tis one of the hard lessons of growing up,” he had said his face oddly yellowish in the light streaming through the stained glass in the kirk, “learning tae confront one’s own base and sinful nature. You mun realize, everyone, even unto thy stepsister, is capable of harboring such evil thoughts. That is what we mean when we say that mankind is fallen. The best that any of us can do is what you are already doing: recognize the evil within thyself and fight it with all thy might and main. And even then, as you have found, there will always be times when your strength fails you, and you fall into sin. It is only by the grace of God that any of us can lastingly prevail against our own evil natures. And only through His grace that we may be forgiven for the wrongs that we inevitably do. I shall pray for you. But it will never be easy.”

Well, Katie would fight. If she truly couldn’t bear to stay where she was, maybe she could join a Sisterhood somewhere – write hymns for them. Or maybe even talk King Malcom into sponsoring her at the Order of Champions at the Glass Mountain in Fleurburg. Assuming they really would take women as Champions-in-training there. However hard that might be, it would not be dull. And maybe as she learned how to defeat other sorts of evil, she could do something about that imp on her shoulder. If that was what it was. Meanwhile, she steadily reminded herself of all the things she loved about Trina, and forced herself to be logical whenever she felt ill-used. But Pastor Scott was right – it was not easy.

Chapter Text

Hugh of Cullane clutched his hair and took a deep breath, then blew it out through flapping lips like a horse's. He struck a line through the note he had just written on the library table and went back to scowling into space. The table was as long as Hugh was tall and topped with slate, and had a little drawer full of small pieces of chalk in wooden holders for writing on it. The Lord Chamberlain of Cullane had presented it to Hugh about four years ago as a birthday present, and was fond of saying that the savings in paper had paid for the table by the end of six months. Hugh wrote good poetry, everyone agreed, but he always seemed to need to do a great deal of scribbling, crossing out, drawing arrows from one line to another, and otherwise producing unreadable messes before he came out with anything worth keeping.

The table was currently about half-full of such notes: mostly outlines and lists, a couple of couplets, and off in the far-left corner, a quatrain that would be either the end of a sonnet or the refrain of a carol, Hugh wasn't sure which:

The twig I gave thee a great wood became,
The cup of water a sea;
What then will become of the love in my heart
When I give it all to thee?

The subject of the quatrain and the theoretical poem it came from was Fergus O'Doone's elopement with Ruddy Bess, the Giant's Daughter, and her father's pursuit of them. It was an exciting topic, full of all kinds of wonders and enchantment and romance, but Hugh couldn't write that poem yet, because he still didn't have a clear idea in mind for why any of the dramatis personae were doing what they did, or what they felt about it. Hugh's best work always seemed to start with somebody feeling something very strongly.

With a growl, Hugh wiped the set of random squiggles (one of them looked a bit like a duck) from the piece of table in front of him, wondering, as he always did partway through a large project, what had ever possessed him to begin it. Actually, of course, he knew. It was all Sir Robin of Tamshire's fault.

First of all, Sir Robin had wanted Hugh's next (and probably last, though Sir Robin was too tactful to mention the fact) book of poetry to be a little more conventional; which was to say, instead of being about the lives of crofters and sailors and the taste of good mutton sausage, he wanted a book full of Quests and Wonders and True Love and Sacrifice.

Although, come to think of it, Hugh had written a ballad with all those things in it in honor of Earnish Mike, who inhabited the Staggering Heron Tavern and would tell a new story about how he'd lost his leg for every drink you bought him, and Sir Robin hadn't much cared for it. But then, “I Used Tae Be a Soldier-Sailor-Miner-Caravanner” had been funny, and Sir Robin was not entirely in favor of funny. Not even when the sales for humorous broadsheets helped make up for the losses on works like Sir Robin's own Tragedie of Sir Ethelred. Rumor had it that Sir Robin had been reduced to giving away free copies of his latest work with every purchase equaling two crowns or more.

Hugh had actually found Sir Ethelred quite inspiring, and had told Sir Robin so. He supposed that “inspiration” was the word for wanting to snatch a book away from the author and do it over properly. Aflame to correct all the grievous problems with Sir Ethelred as a piece of literature, Hugh had agreed to do his own book-length Romance. He had decided to base it on the many tales of Fergus O'Doone, simply because Fergus' adventures had been his favorites when he was a small boy, and begun to plan how to do the thing properly, starting with the structure.

Sir Robin was fond of saying that it was possible to do things in a printed Romance that one could not do in a minstrels' ballad. By this, Sir Robin meant that he needn't compress his flowery language into the thirty or so stanzas that were the utmost that a minstrel would do on one song, and therefore needn't cut out the less interesting verses, as he never could bear to do – not in his own work, at least. Hugh had been gleeful for days when he realized that Sir Robin hadn't taken his idea far enough. Because you could have an utter hodgepodge of shorter poems, written in every style and verse form you knew, from the point of view of a dozen characters, and so long as you were careful with titles and arranging, people would treat them as being part of a larger work because they were all in the same book!

So Hugh had settled down happily to write poems from the Fergus O'Doone stories on his slate table. So far, he had only half-a-dozen that he considered “finished” enough to transfer to paper, and only two that he was really proud of: a solemn and really quite creepy chant that purported to be Ruddy Bess's magical spell for building a ladder of her own bones, and a sweet and unabashedly sentimental piece based on the episode where Fergus' father desperately tried to avoid having to give his firstborn to the Giant as he had promised by substituting the sons of various servants. Hugh had expanded it out a bit from the original three boys (including Fergus) to six, and given each laddie a stanza about how wonderful his father was. The Giant (and the audience) got to hear in turn how the Butler, the Butcher, the Huntsman, the Guard, and the Smith were each a King in their sons' eyes. Sir Robin had published that one as a broadsheet already, and Donal, the court minstrel, had set it to a tune and sung it at the birthday feast of Hugh's own father, King Andrew.

Somehow, though, the much more exciting episodes of Fergus' courtship and elopement were much harder to write about. Fergus himself was something of a cipher in the original Tales; all kinds of fascinating things happened to him, but he never actually did very much, except what other people told him to. Ruddy Bess, his Betrothed, was an enigma – a fearsomely powerful Sorceress who was willing for Fergus' sake to do amazing (and gruesome) feats of magic, run away from home, and eventually kill her own father. What Fergus had done to make this worthwhile was not very clear.

And the Giant, supposedly the villain of the piece, didn't act all that differently than any of King Andrew's courtiers might have. The Giant had adopted Fergus in exchange for doing a favor to the boy's father, and planned to marry him off to one of his daughters to secure the bloodline. When Fergus had then run away with a different daughter, and one who was betrothed to someone else to boot, the Giant had pursued them. Any man in Cullane would have done the same, and not a few of them would have thought themselves justified, as the Giant had, in trying to kill both members of the wayward couple that had so dishonored him.

All in all, it would be perfectly possible to write a sharp burlesque in which the Giant was a decent fellow, Ruddy Bess a mercenary harridan, and Fergus himself a henpecked coof who didn't dare say no to a female as formidable as Ruddy Bess. In fact, maybe Hugh should suggest the idea to old one-legged Earnish Mike, who would do a much better job of such a thing than he would. Sir Robin could print the broadsheet a few months after the book came out and make a better profit than Mike had ever seen. That way, Hugh could, indirectly, pay for a few more rounds of ale for Mike.

But Hugh didn't want to write a satire. When he had been a boy and Nanny Kirk had told him Fergus O'Doone stories, they had seemed to hold as much wonder and magic as all the rest of the world put together. Fergus and Ruddy Bess had seemed to hold all the power and freedom and passion that seemed just out of reach for an eight-year-old boy who still had to eat his porridge when Nanny told him to. In fact, they still seemed out of reach now, though Hugh could have whatever breakfast he liked. But those ideals still spoke to him, and that was what he wanted to put in this cycle of poems.

He was a long way from accomplishing that goal, as yet. Hugh sighed and added another note to the collection on the table: Gnt = Ct. O'Gr? That should be cryptic enough that no one else who might see it could use it to make trouble, but it would remind him to consider his father's Chancellor of the Exchequer as a model for the Giant's way of thinking. The Chancellor was one of those who would have thought the Giant's murder of his disobedient daughter and foster son to be entirely appropriate. The man viewed his own family as particularly valuable pieces of property, and considered it a betrayal, not only when one of them defied him, but even when they obeyed him unhappily; how dared they want different things than himself! Unfortunately, the Chancellor's daughters would not either of them do as a model for Ruddy Bess...

After another few minutes of fruitless scribbling, Hugh dropped the chalk and sprang to his feet. He would come back to his book later, when he'd got some of the cobwebs out of his mind. For now, he would go fetch his favorite dog for a run through the gardens. His brother, James, should be winding up his morning drills with the other knights and guardsmen about now; maybe he'd be willing to come along as well. There would be time to write later. At least, there was still a little bit of time...

**********

Just as he had supposed, Hugh found his brother leaving the guards' practice-ground. James was entirely happy to join Hugh for a quiet walk to wind down from the more strenuous exercises he had been involved in. They had a kennel-hand fetch Pepper, Hugh's favorite foxhound, and Ben, Jame's favorite mastiff. Like the two brothers, the two dogs got on well despite all their apparent differences. Moreover, they knew that a ramble with the two Princes and each other was a game, not a serious Hunt, and that they were free to bound about and play with each other without fear of a reprimand from the Kennel Master. They were delighted. However, the unbounded joy of the two hunting dogs would give the Head Groundskeeper heart-failure if they were allowed to romp in the pleasure gardens, so after a little discussion Hugh and James made for the King's Chase, a kennel-hand trailing discreetly behind them in case he might be needed.

The hunting preserve was more private than the pleasure gardens anyway, especially this time of year. None of the folk who had any official hunting rights on the Chase would be hunting in the nesting season, and even the poachers would rather catch a fat trout, sluggish in the burn still icy with snowmelt, than a scrawny rabbit, twice as nervous as usual with a burrow full of bunnies to provide for. Not to mention the possibility of running afoul of a wild sow with piglets. Mindful of the nervous creatures in the woods, the Princes kept to the widest path through the Chase.

Even the main path looked unusually tangled and weedy with new growth. Some of the side-trails had all but disappeared. Hugh wondered idly whether the foresters were letting the plants alone to give the game animals plenty of cover in nesting season, or whether it was simply that the unusually warm spring weather was causing the plants to burgeon beyond the abilities of the staff to keep up. If there were any poachers who preferred skinny rabbits to fat trout, the weeds would make an excellent cover for them.

Hugh himself was glad of the early warmth, even if the Landwarden and the keepers of the Kitchen Farm had been muttering darkly for weeks about the likely effect of a too-early thaw, especially if the rains came back later. Hugh supposed they were right, but all the same, he was glad to see one last bit of good weather before he ran out of time. He had been afraid that if the Spring held off as usual, his last few weeks outdoors would all have been cold and rain-soaked. As it was, he wished he could cast his boots off and go romping with the dogs. He'd loved going barefoot as a boy, when he could get away with it...

James, too, seemed to be harkening back to childhood. “Remember the summer you and I and William and everybody tried to dam the burn to make a swimming hole?” he asked suddenly, chuckling. “I don't think I've ever had anyone so angry with me as old Fogarty was, not before nor since.”

“Oh, aye!” Hugh chuckled in turn, even while another part of his brain noted that this was the fifth conversation he'd had in two days that started with “Remember?” People weren't saying “goodbye,” but they were saying goodbye. “I'd not thought of that in ages! We spent the whole of the morning on it, did we not? And then half the afternoon undoing all our work, with Fogarty bellowing at us the whole time for nearly ruining the trout run, and at Nanny Kirk for letting us. Poor woman.”

“Oh, that's right!” James cried, “I'd forgotten Nanny'd had a scolding as well. Doesn't seem quite fair, that she should bear the brunt of it when there were four or five nursemaids keeping eyes on their gaggle of boys.”

Hugh shrugged, “Never was any love lost between those two, even before they became Governess and Head Gamekeeper. Hi! Pepper! No!”

The conversation dropped while Hugh and the kennel-hand persuaded the dogs to leave the flyblown crow's corpse where they had found it. Once the temptation was safely past, Hugh asked, “D'you remember Alistair Sowbrig? Little sandy-haired lad?”

James knit his brows. “Kind of. He was here when we were eight or nine, isn't that right? He'd tag along and scarcely ever say boo, and sometimes he'd help us build a fort or dig for treasure, but usually he'd just kind of wander off after a while and we'd eventually find him watching ants. Why?”

“You don't remember him and me being particularly close, do you?”

“No.... I think he just followed us about because we'd not let Harry beat him up. But surely you'd ken better than I who your friends were?”

“One would think...” They walked on another minute in silence, watching the dogs play. Pepper bowled Ben over as often as Ben did Pepper, which made no sense since Ben was four times the foxhound’s size. No one watching him now would ever guess how ferocious the mastiff was when facing down a boar or a wolf.

“He wrote me a letter,” Hugh said finally. “Alistair. Or rather, Brother Deophilius; he's taken orders. He would've needed his Abbot's leave for it... 'twas four pages long, close-written from one edge to the other, all full of how I had been the dearest friend of his childhood, what it had meant to be one of my playfellows, how he treasured the memories still... I don't know what to think.”

“Huh,” said James. “Well, what I think is, 'tis a sad life the fellow had if his best friend was just the one who'd not chase him away. I hope Brother Deophilius has found better now.”

He looked sideways at his brother. “I also think 'tis not the first time I've heard someone praise you for help you gave without thinking anything of it, or even noticing. You'd have made a fine King, if you were born in any other place than Cullane.”

“Aach!” Hugh punched James affectionately in the shoulder and said nothing more, but he was moved by this unexpected declaration. It was the custom of the court to keep silence on any subject that touched the matter of the Royal Curse (which annoyed Hugh no end some days, but never mind) and that included any hint that there was anything at all odd about assuming the second son would inherit the throne. James would not be officially named as King's Heir until he turned twenty-one, which would be after Hugh had died, but everyone knew, which had allowed certain... allowances... to be made...

“Mind you,” James added, as if on cue, “I still think t'would have done no harm to have you train with the rest of us and earn your knighthood like everybody else, instead of gallivanting about gossiping with crofters and scribbling verses about it after.”

He looks just like Father when he says that, Hugh thought. James had his tam pulled down about his ears, completely covering the fox-red hair that he had inherited from their mother and throwing the gray eyes and square chin into prominence. James moved more like King Andrew than his brother did, too – it came of the very training he had just mentioned, leaving him with a warrior's muscles. Hugh wasn't weak, but he spent half the time at that kind of physical activity that his brother did.

James' grumble was an old one, and without heat. Hugh had a variety of stock answers for it, some lighter than others. This time, he chose the one that came the closest to the real reasons for the difference. “You're right,” he began, “It likely wouldn't have harmed anything. I doubt it would help much, as I've no talent at all for close fighting.”

“And 'tisn't as though all I was doing was indulging myself,” he went on. “I've served our people in my own way. After all, 'twas 'gossiping with crofters' that got us the word of that nest of ship-breakers old Laird Wyrmfell was harboring before things got really bad. And how I was able to keep the Fensfolk from rebelling over the new weirs and all in Breem – they believed me when I told them the watercourses would help the little folk as much as the great ones, and the Duke of Breem listened when I showed him it would pay in the long run to not try and take away the common lands at the same time. Besides that,” he concluded, “I'm not the idle weakling fellows like Harry like to say I am. I can still beat you in a footrace.”

“Think so, do you?” James laughed, and bounded away, with Hugh stretching his long legs to try and overtake him, and the two dogs racing beside them as if all four of them were mere pups again.

Chapter Text

Godmother Elena stormed out of the library, slamming the door behind her and muttering savagely to herself. “Narrow-minded, lazy, self-righteous, priggish – Oh! I am sorry!” This last was addressed to Rose, one of the four Brownie servants who kept the household going for her as she tended to the Kingdoms in her charge. Even at three feet tall, Rose was usually difficult to overlook, and when she all but tripped over her on the way out the door, Elena took it as a sign that she was seriously overwrought. “Rose, I am in a terrible temper this morning. I am going to see if Hob has bread to knead, and if he does not, perhaps I shall beat rugs or something until I have it out of my system. I daren’t try any magic when I’m like this.”

Rose accepted the apology gracefully. “Hob should be making bread or beating eggs or something about now. And your husband’s in the kitchen, too, cadging a tidbit after his sparring match this morning. If Hob can’t help you, perhaps Alexander can.” Rose was far too formal to actually wink at this, or even change her tone from one of considered helpfulness, but Elena knew she was being teased. But even if Rose were joking, the advice was good, so Elena took herself to the kitchen, where Hob, also amused, allowed the Godmother to dice vegetables for the evening’s soup.

“What is it that angers you so?” Hob asked after Elena had reduced a pile of turnips to bits.

“And why are you fuming here instead of turning them into something?” put in her husband, who was polishing off the last of yesterday’s bread, along with some cheese and cold roast mutton. Before he had become the Head of the Glass Mountain Order of Champions and married Godmother Elena, Alexander had been a spoiled second son of a king. Elena had met him while he was in the process of failing at his first quest and turned him into a donkey for a time; he was fond of saying it was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

“It’s another Godmother,” Elena said, answering both questions at once. “Hildegarde, called the Silver Fairy, though she’s no more fae than I am.” The others nodded understanding. Some few Godmothers were Fae and most were not, but when appearing in their public roles, they were all called “fairy,” and distinguished only by the color of their gowns. Elena herself was “the Rose Fairy.” Elena went on telling her household about Hildegarde.

“She keeps an eye on the Kingdoms in the Trullney Isles north of Bretagne. She put out a message generally among the mirror-servants that she had a nearly textbook False Bride and True Bride brewing up in one of her kingdoms, and did anyone know a Wise Beast who might be willing to be the True Bride’s protector? It’s quite common for the creature in question to get killed by the False Bride before the end of the Tale, so it’s a hard position to fill.”

“So she’s working on bringing about the Traditional happy ending, rather than trying to turn the Tale to another, then?” Hob asked. Elena was the ninth Godmother these brownies had worked with, and Elena often thought they could have done much of her work themselves, if called upon, except for the Tradition.

The Tradition was the guiding force behind all the magic in the Five Hundred Kingdoms, and all the strength and weight of it went toward the goal of making Tales come true. This could be wonderful, if you happened to be, say, the third son of a miller with only a tomcat to your name. But if you were a widow engaged in her second marriage and your husband had a daughter by his first marriage, then no matter how kindly and well-intentioned you were, the Tradition would try to push you into doing something so horrible that you ended up being punished by dancing to death in iron shoes heated red-hot. To say nothing of the Saintly Harlots, Little Match Girls, and Charming Best Friends who died by the dozen to give touching moments to the early lives of Heros who needed to come of age. The Tradition said Brownies were capable of amazing feats when it was a matter of unplowed fields, or shoes that needed mending, but there were no Tales of Brownies helping deserving orphans or providing wandering knights with magical weapons, and so the Brownies could not do what Elena could.

As a Godmother, Elena kept an eye on the Tales that were brewing in nearly a dozen different kingdoms and did her best to steer them in directions that would do the least damage for all involved. She disguised herself as a beggar and gave rewards to the Third Sons who shared their food with her, and made sure that put-upon stepdaughters had enough help and support to be able to win through to their own happy endings, instead of growing bitter and mean. If some little country girl was Traditionally fated to be eaten by a talking wolf, Elena made sure there was a Huntsman nearby to intervene in the nick of time, or if things lined up just right she might try to change the Tale to another one altogether.

It was hard work, and the Godmothers were spread thin. But as Hob had hinted, it was a bit unusual for a Godmother to be allowing a False Bride to carry her Tale out if there were any other alternative. If nothing else, the False Bride often did manage to kill the True Bride off before they reached the bridegroom’s kingdom, and then she sometimes went on to be the Wicked Sorceress in some other Tale further down the line.

“I was surprised, too,” said Elena to Hob. “So I went to the library and looked at my copy of Hildegarde’s commonplace book to get some background about the situation. Among other things, she’d copied the letter that the local Pastor had sent her about the girls in question, and I don’t know how she can be so blind! The trappings of a False Bride are there, sure enough – sweet, blonde Princess, older, dark-haired, willful Stepsister... they even have the same name! And the girls don’t know it yet but the King is considering betrothing the Princess to a distant Prince who has never met her or even seen a portrait...”

“But?” asked Alexander. As a Champion, he had to know the Tradition almost as well as Elena did. His interventions might be less subtle than hers – they usually involved challenging something to single combat, eventually – but knowing how to use the Tradition to his advantage was literally a matter of life and death to him.

“But,” said Elena, “the stepsister is fighting the Tradition tooth and nail. She and the princess have been best friends most of their lives and she doesn’t want to be jealous. She’s not even really sure she wants to be married. And more than that, she describes feeling ‘a weight in the air, like before a thunderstorm,’ when the jealousy is at its worst.”

Alexander sat up straighter. “She feels the Tradition pushing at her?”

“And is pushing back as hard as she knows how.”

"That would make her a potential Godmother herself, then, wouldn’t it? Or a Wicked Witch if someone doesn’t intervene in time and the pressure drives her mad. And Godmother Hildegarde isn’t trying to do anything about it?”

Alexander had hit the mark. No Godmother worth her salt would pass up an opportunity to train up new talent. Every last one of them had enough on her plate to keep her busy from dawn til nearly midnight year-round. Furthermore, godmothering was dangerous. If you spent all your time steering the Tradition away from the paths that gave power to Evil Sorcerers and Dark Magicians and Foul Usurpers and the like, well, some of them were bound to try to put a stop to you. Every Godmother had a duty to train up an apprentice or even two, if she were lucky enough to find more than one person who was suitable. If this Katie MacLaird could sense the pressure of magic on her own and had the will to fight it, she was a very good potential indeed. And even if it turned out that, for whatever reason, she wasn’t up to the challenges of the job, than Hildegarde shouldn’t be letting things go on like this. The other thing a Godmother needed to do was keep her own power topped up so that she could call on it at need, and that power came from unfinished Tales. If Katie wasn’t going to be an apprentice, and the Tradition was putting all that power into making her do something horrible, then Hildegard should be offering to siphon the power away from her, thereby easing the pressure on Katie, fueling the Godmother’s own spells, and ensuring that no Wicked magician got there first and harvested the power more roughly, and with no regard for Katie’s survival or sanity. But Hildegarde wasn’t doing that.

“Not a thing,” Elena confirmed. “She’s bound and determined to shepherd this along the False Bride path, complete, one hopes, with a Happy Ending – at least for the Princess. Though if my close friend and stepsister betrayed me, stole my husband, killed my helpers, and ended up dying a gruesome death, I don’t know that I would consider it a very happy outcome. I thought she might have just been a bit careless – had a lot on her plate and missed the signs, perhaps – so I sent her a note pointing out the False Bride looked like apprentice material to me. Do you know what she said? She said she was only forty-five and wouldn’t need an apprentice for another five or ten years, yet! And a not-very-subtle hint that perhaps I should mind my own business to go with it. As if it was guaranteed that she’d find one at the perfect moment!”

“And so you tripped over Rose in the hallway and chopped turnips ‘til the cutting board was gouged,” Hob concluded.

Alexander frowned. “I hate to say this, but this might be worse than simple pride and stupidity. If she isn’t trying to counter a Tale that’s so full of pain, and isn’t interested in salvaging a young woman who will otherwise be pushed toward the Dark Arts … well, I hate to suppose that even a mediocre Godmother might be turning to the bad, but…”

Elena felt her face grow cold, and Hob hurriedly shoved a chair under her before her knees gave way. “Dear God,” she whispered, and then managed to pull herself together a little. “Oh, I hope you’re wrong, my love. But we definitely should look into this further. I could bring it before the Grand Council, but I’d rather not go that far before we know more. And I’m going to need help. Hildegarde obviously doesn’t want to talk to me, and I don’t think I have the time to go about this subtly. I’ve got Questers to test in Waldenstein, and there’s a plague of rats in Bellville – I need to see if I can’t get a Wise Cat there before a Demon Piper shows up and makes away with the children…”

“If I were you, Godmother,” suggested Lily, the Garden Brownie, who had come in without Elena noticing, “I should see if Madame Arachnia was willing to take it on. If she has the time, no one else would be better suited to catch any signs that Hildegarde was Turning.”

“Oh. Oh, of course! Lily, you are absolutely right. It should have occurred to me at once.”

As far as the world at large knew, Madame Arachnia was an Evil Sorceress, complete with all-black wardrobe and haunted castle. Only the Godmothers knew the truth: that she wasn’t so much evil as contrary. She really enjoyed scaring the stuffing out of anyone who had gone astray and needed to be Redeemed, just so long as she didn’t actually have to do any serious harm. But she had trained as an Evil Sorceress, and knew from experience what it was like to start out on a Dark Path. And since, though willing to do favors for Godmothers, she was not one herself, she had a moment to call her own when she wanted one and would have the time to look into the matter of Hildegarde properly. On the other hand, there was no reason not to give her a little help… “I’ll talk to Randolph, too,” Elena decided. “It really isn’t done to ask one’s mirror-servant to spy on another Godmother, but I don’t think anything could stop them from gossiping amongst themselves. I’ll ask him to repeat anything he finds out about Hildegarde.” One way or another, whether she was Turning or simply having a bad month, it sounded like Hildegarde could use some attention. Elena and her friends would see that she got some.

**************

Godmother Elena didn’t know it, but she had an ally of sorts keeping a very close eye indeed upon the sisters in Brucemuir. Biddy Noone was not only the Royal Poulterer, as Queen Martha called her, or Henwife, as everyone else said. She was also, and more secretly, a Dark Witch. She had no interest in anybody’s Happy Ending, but she had even less interest in letting the Tale of the False Bride play out. If it did, both lasses would be sent out of the Kingdom entirely, to meet Princess Trina’s betrothed, taking their vast accumulation of Traditional power with them. And then Biddy Noone would lose her most convenient source of magic. Mistress Katie might even discover the Dark Arts herself, giving Biddy Noone yet another rival, and that would never do. She had considered stopping the Tale in its tracks by siphoning all the power away from Katie at once. The problem was, Brucemuirites were well aware of the signs that a Witch was about, and if one of the King’s daughters, even the Stepdaughter, died all of a sudden, or lost her wits, questions would be asked, Godmother Hildegarde would be consulted, and Biddy Noone would probably be lucky if she escaped with her life. Then, too, she could take that power only once. But if the Tale were changed to another one, one that would gather Questing princes and Third Sons and the like, well, there were possibilities.

To that end, Biddy Noone arranged to meet with Queen Martha in the henyard, ostensibly about perhaps acquiring some fantail doves to decorate the Pleasure Garden. The Queen’s ladies chose to hang back rather than enter the muddy and stinking henyard, and as soon as she and the Queen were outside of hearing distance for everyone except Biddy’s favorite black cock, which followed them, Biddy Noone began working her way to her real topic of interest. “So ye’ll no be ganging tae Piktenburg after all, then?”

Queen Martha blinked. “Not at once, certainly. King Malcom pointed out, and quite rightly too, that the spring weather is still quite chancy; not the best time for three ladies to take a sea voyage. So he will think about it while he journeys out among the island Chieftainships, and after a few weeks in their company I’m sure he’ll see all the advantage of giving the girls a chance at some-thing better.”

“A fine thing for ye and the lassies, then,” smiled Biddy Noone, secretly amazed that the Queen had said so much. Really, what kind of royalty confided in a henwife to this extent? The woman had no discretion at all. Which made it riskier for Biddy to include her in her current plots. All the same, the Tradition truly adored having a Wicked Stepmother involved; there would be plenty of extra power to be gained by having her help. Biddy would just have to use a little of that extra power to geas the woman into holding her tongue about anything important. For now, let Queen Martha keep chattering like one of Biddy Noone’s own hens. It made it all the easier to lead her about by the nose when she didn’t pay attention to what you were really saying.

The Queen was still nattering on about Piktenburg. “I don’t care at all for my own sake, you know. I’m sure I had my share of gaiety there when I was married to Sir Benjamin. But for the girls, now, to be sure! The clothes to be had in the city are better than anything we get here. And the music! And the paintings, and the entertainments! I’m sure it would be very good for them, indeed.”

“And the young lads! And even some fine gentlemen who are no longer sae verra young.” Biddy Noone winked.

Queen Martha took no offense. Biddy Noone was beginning to wonder what the woman had been before she married Sir Benjamin. She was fond enough of luxury, but Biddy had never met less of a stickler for rank. As long as one didn't defy her openly or shove her out of place in a procession, it seemed that the Queen simply assumed that she was being given her due honors.

“I must admit, I would not be sorry to see the girls courted by a better class of men than we usually see here. I know King Malcom wants someone nearby for his daughter because of needing an heir for the kingdom. But after all, there’s that cousin of his in Earne who could take care of Brucemuir very well if some foreign prince took a fancy to her. And of course, my Katie is the granddaughter of a viscount, and reasonably pretty, and accomplished besides. She rides, and sings, and she would do extraordinary tapestry work if she just applied herself a little better. She can read Acadian and Frankish, well, sort of, better than I can, anyway… we could be in with a very good set of people in Piktenburg.”

Biddy gritted her teeth. Lord, but it was difficult working with this stupid woman. She arranged her features into a conspiratorial smirk and considered, but rejected, nudging the Queen in the ribs – that would be too much of a liberty for even this creature to ignore, and besides, the ladies were still watching. “I’m thinking ye’d no mourn sae verra much an’ your ain Katie were tae find a husband who’d raise her above her stepsister?”

Queen Martha said what she always said whenever anyone hinted that she played favorites; Biddy could have recited it with her, and it wasn’t as though she spent that much time in the Queen’s presence. Biddy began working on her own beguilement spell, and the geas against revealing their plots to anyone else, as Queen Martha began the litany: she loved both girls equally. After twelve years of marriage, she looked on Princess Trina quite as her own daughter. If she sometimes seemed to favor Katie a little, it was only that she didn’t want her overshadowed – just because the younger sister had the higher rank, and was fair where Katie was dark, and had perhaps just a touch more address and countenance… At this point, Biddy interrupted her. “Well, as tae that, ma’am, ‘tis only right that things should be fair twixt the twa lassies. I daresay if there was a way tae do the thing, ye’d give Mistress Katie a half-share of the Princess’s beauty, tae have both the same. Or perhaps a wee bitty more than half, syn’ the Princess has the better rank, as ye say.”

“That’s it exactly, Biddy Noone. I just want things to be even.”

“Well, then,” Biddy cooed, gently steering Queen Martha away from the henyard and into the darker, smellier, but more private confines of the dovecote, “Happen I ken a way tae do that.”

“What? Nonsense!” The Queen’s outburst startled the pigeons – ordinary gray pigeons, these – and two or three of them flew up in her face and about her head. She would be lucky if her habit wasn’t marked as well. Just as well that even Queen Martha had better sense than to visit the Henwife in a court gown.

“Naught o’ the sort,” Biddy Noone replied, as soon as the birds had settled enough for her to make herself heard. “Just ye think on this. Suppose, just suppose, the Princess were tae … oh, say she offendit one of the Guid Neighbors, perhaps. The kind of thing that can happen tae most anyone, an they’re unlucky enough. Sometimes it doesnae tak' more than wandering intae a glen at the wrong time of year... Suppose the one she crossed cursed her for it, and left her marred and ugly.”

Queen Martha made a leap of logic that would have been surprising in someone so unsubtle, except that in this case, it showed Biddy Noone that the Queen had already been thinking along similar lines herself. Not that she would ever admit it. “You cannot seriously imagine I’d wish a curse onto one of my own daughters!” Her voice rose to such a shriek of shocked outrage that Biddy Noone worried for a moment that their voices might be heard outside henyard, where the ladies in waiting lived up to their title. But she had been sure the chickens would be noisy today – enough to cover up words, if not tone of voice. And since they were supposedly talking about rather expensive birds, a certain amount of outrage was to be expected.

“Hisst!” Biddy Noone shushed her, sounding enough like a snake to upset the birds all over again, after the Queen’s latest outburst. “Dinna fright my pretty doves. I dinna say naught of your wishes in the matter. All I said was, suppose for a minute that some dretful thing happened like I said, and the Princess lost her beauty. I ken well ye wouldnae wish such a thing on one you loved. But what would happen if she did? Surely there’d be a great hue and cry for a Hero tae come and break the curse, wouldna there?”

“Indeed, I daresay! We could hardly allow the poor thing to just stay accursed.”

“As ye say. Ye’d offer the lassie’s hand in marriage and the kingdom tae gang with it in time, tae whatever bold laddie broke the curse. ‘Tis how things are done, after all. And word would gang oot tae the princes and the lairds and the knights and all, of the famous beauty who’d been cursed. And they’d come here, tae try and break the curse and win the prize …

“Just think of all those fine, likely lads about the place, and of course they couldnae help but meet the poor Princess’s stepsister. The Princess wouldnae care tae be seen by just anyone, I’d think, but of course the rest of the family mun be seen about. ‘Tis only hospitable. So, all these fine lads about, and Katie amang them, and suppose, just suppose, that Katie were only the tiniest wee bit bonnier than she is now – nothing for anyone tae take note of, but, just slowly improving a wee bitty day by day – as if she were simply late coming intae her ain … Well, something mun come of that, ye ken.”

Biddy Noone watched closely as this idea slowly made its way through the visions of yards of fine fabric and pounds of jewelry and crowds of admirers that usually filled Queen Martha’s head, finally lodging itself in her tiny mind and taking root. Slowly, understanding bloomed in Her Majesty's eyes.

“Surely, the curse on Princess Trina would be lifted in time, wouldn’t it?”

“Och, Aye, not a doubt of it. In a year, or three, or seven, some fine deserving laddie would win her beauty back tae her, and her hand tae gang with.”

Or not. Though there were always things a particularly brave or clever hero could do to get around such strictures, Biddy planned that the curse would be broken when someone chopped the Princess’s head off with a single blow. It wouldn’t actually kill the Princess, but just try convincing her of that! Or her father. It would take a very long time for anyone to succeed at this Quest, and even longer if rumors got out that Questers who failed often didn’t return home … Biddy Noone saw possibilities there. Not that she intended to share any of those with the Queen. Let her think the whole thing was harmless.

“O’ course,” Biddy added thoughtfully, “sometimes ‘tis the third son of a cowherd who breaks the curse, rather than a Prince, but he’ll be a fine braw laddie o’ some kind or other, and the Princess will live Happily Ever After. She may even look back on this ordeal as a good thing, one day. Suffering builds character, so they say. But one way or another, Princess Trina will get a decent husband, and her stepsister a more than decent chance o’ the same.” This was the crucial moment – or one of them. Biddy had started saying “will,” instead of “would,” as if they had already started planning, rather than discussing a hypothetical situation.

Queen Martha took no notice. She was, while trying to pretend she wasn’t, imagining Princess Trina married to a deserving cowherd while Katie married a foreign Prince. “So, Trina would come to no lasting harm, then.”

“Nane at a'. And ‘twill be simple enough tae manage, with your help.” She led Queen Martha out of the dovecote again, but steered her away from the ladies, still. She wanted to make sure the woman heard all her instructions clearly. The black rooster met them at the door. Queen Martha didn’t notice this time, either.

“All ye mun do,” said Biddy, “is hae the Princess gang a-walking out-o’-doors in the mornings, before she gangs tae family prayers or breaks her fast. Be sure she doesnae have e’en a bite to eat, before she sits down tae table. Them as we will treat with –“ Biddy didn’t intend to treat with anyone but herself in this, but Queen Martha didn’t need to know that – “will be the stronger an she’s hungry. And one more thing.”

Now Biddy looked right into the Queen’s face, staring so hard the Queen found herself unable to even blink, while the black rooster flew up and settled itself on Her Majesty's shoulder, snaking its head about and suddenly looking much less like a silly chicken and much more like a collection of sharp claws, beak, and bad temper, waiting to strike. “You mun swear on your verra life that you willnae speak a single word of our plans tae any living soul. ‘Twould never do, tae have other folk hear of it and get the wrong ideas, now, would it? Ye cannae count on the likes o’ them tae see ye’re just making things even.”

“No,” murmured Queen Martha, “No, I quite see that.”

“Well, then, have we a bargain?”

“Yes, I … I suppose we do.”

“And do ye swear on your life, never tae tell a living soul?”

“Nary a soul, I swear it.”

“Well and good. And tae seal the bargain …” Biddy made a clucking noise and the black rooster launched himself from the Queen’s shoulder and landed in Biddy’s hands. She held him up to the Queen, and he gave her one hard, sideways bird-stare, and then bent his head slightly. “Gi’ a wee kiss to me auld black cock.”

At this, Martha remembered that she was a Queen, and drew herself up. “Oh really! I’ve given my word!”

“Aye, and now you mun seal it. He’ll be our witness.”

“Oh, very well.” And, wincing a little, Queen Martha bent her head forward and managed a very light, closed-mouthed peck on the top of the rooster’s head, to one side of that blood-red comb. But that was enough to settle the geas of silence on her. Biddy knew full well that without some magical help, the Queen’s idea of keeping a secret was to cast a fresh hint that something was up every half hour, with a coy giggle that “Oh, I mustn’t tell. But just you wait.” This geas would keep her as quiet on one subject as her own self-interest would have done, were she a clever woman.

“Well done, my dear,” chuckled Biddy. “And now ‘tis my turn.” Biddy was on much better terms with the cock than the Queen was. He stretched his neck to her, gaping his beak wide and thrusting out his worm-shaped tongue. Biddy met that tongue with her own and closed her lips briefly around the beak. Queen Martha let out a little squeak. “A bargain, sworn and sealed,” Biddy declared, letting her victim see that she was being laughed at, and then she steered the bewildered Queen back to her waiting ladies, chattering all the while about fantail doves, and making every show of awe and deference.

Chapter Text

Spring came, rainy and still cold, but the sun came up at half-past Lauds, instead of Prime. Katie felt worse and better by turns. The volume of poetry by the Prince from Cullane was a surprising amount of help. It was possibly the best thing Katie had read since she started reading, and it seemed like every other page put one of her most secret thoughts into words that Katie could never have found for herself. After she read it for the first time, she imagined Hugh of Cullane (or what she imagined he might look like) walking beside her when she went on her rambles, or listening to imaginary conversations as she worked at her calligraphy or her sewing. Just knowing that someone else out there thought the way she did was almost as good as having a real friend to talk to. It eased things amazingly.

In a funny way, the book made thing easier between Katie and the other young ladies, too. Even if Prince Hugh’s verse wasn’t full of Quests and True Loves and Dragons, having a favorite poet was very much the Done Thing among the young ladies of Brucemuir, and Katie felt a little less left out. She had even tried writing poetry of her own, but the results were pretty awful. The best of her stuff sounded like a poor imitation of “Three Craws sat upon the wa’.” She had given up on it fairly quickly.

The rest of her life was still a trial. Even with an easier time among their friends, Katie still spent half her time feeling like Trina’s big, awkward shadow, and the other half trying to duck Queen Martha’s attempts to make her into something more. Neither Katie nor Trina knew quite what to make of Queen Martha’s latest decree: “now that the weather is fine, girls, I expect you both to take some exercise in the mornings. Be up at Lauds, and we’ll all take a turn in the garden before prayers.”

It made no sense. For one thing, the weather was not fine. It was very cold and still, with low gray clouds that never seemed to move. That was an improvement over pouring rain, to be sure, but hardly worth getting up at dawn for. And none of the three were exactly confined indoors the rest of the day – Katie and Trina had a bit more to do with the day-to-day workings of the household than ladies of the same rank in richer kingdoms would have done, but they certainly weren’t stuck at a loom or in a stillroom, as some common lasses were, nor did “propriety” require that they do nothing more taxing than read or sew most of the time, as some other Princesses and ladies supposedly did. So why did the Queen suddenly decide they needed more exercise? And why not decree that it should take place after Nonne, or before Sext, or any other time?

“I dinna mind,” said Trina, philosophically, “The clouds make for dull days, but they make the sunrises bonny indeed. I mean tae watch as many as I may, that I may paint them the better.”

“I dinna mind either,” said Katie, “but what in the wide world ever gave her the notion? Think you she heard somewhere that all fine ladies walk in the mornings? And she missed the bit about how they all sleep past Tierce and live in warmer places than Brucemuir, besides?”

“An ‘tis that, ‘twill gang the way of the powdered hair within a fortnight, if not a week.”

The two sisters looked at each other and burst into giggles at the shared memory. Queen Martha had once thought it would be a fine thing if she and her daughters wore their hair powdered white and dressed with feathers and silk flowers on formal occasions, like courtiers around Ortraria and Fleurburg. This plan had hit several snags. They found out after the fact that the southerners used talc to powder their hair, and that the really elaborate fashions were wigs. If Queen Martha had known any of this beforehand, she had not let it faze her. Nor had she attached any importance to the fact that Fleurburg and Ortraria had warmer, drier climates than Brucemuir’s. They also had court dances that were notably slower and less strenuous.

Queen Martha and the lasses had powdered their real hair with flour. In the case of Queen Martha and Katie, whose hair was the color of walnut juice, it had taken a great deal of flour, and even then Katie's hair had looked prematurely gray, rather than spun-sugar white-blonde. And it had been raining. The three of them hadn’t had to go out in it, but all the guests came in with their cloaks wet and steaming in the heat of the Great Hall. And then the dancing started. The three ladies had to dance, and one simply could not get through that many reels without breaking a sweat. (Unless you were Trina. And Trina’s pale hair had required much less flour, anyway.) By the end of the evening, between one thing and another, Katie’s hair and her mother’s had set like glue. And of course, most of the guests were Northern Chieftains who knew little of the customs of the southern courts and cared less. They all thought the Queen’s ladies had had some sort of beauty potion in their hair that they’d forgotten to wash out beforehand, and that the whole thing was just too funny for words. Katie had been able to laugh about it at the time only with an effort. Now, a year later and with a fresh, ahem, hair-brained scheme afoot, it was a little easier. And it did seem likely that these morning walks would come to the same end, sooner or later.

In the meantime, at least they didn’t have to do anything to their hair. Grania had been pulled away to fill in for some of the housemaids, who were doing the work of the kitchen girls, who were lending a hand in the dairy while the dairymaids helped with the lambing. So the girls did each other's hair and dressed themselves. Katie tied Trina’s curls behind her head in a sort of tail, as usual, and Trina put Katie’s in its normal straightforward braid, and both of them got into their everyday dresses and their warmest shawls, patterned with their respective fathers’ hunting tartans. Trina was hungry, so they went out the back way, through the kitchen, to cadge a bit of leftover apple cake from last night’s supper. That was another irritating thing about Trina that wasn’t her fault: the way she could eat like a horse and still stay jimp and trim. Queen Martha never nagged Trina about how much she ate. But then, maybe Queen Martha was hoping Trina would get fat and give Katie a chance to be the pretty one.

As it turned out, the apple cake had all been eaten and the day’s bread was still in the ovens, but Mrs. Cook gave each young lady a round of crisp, nutty-flavored oatcake and a scraping of soft cheese on top – enough to be going on with. To neither Katie’s nor Trina’s surprise, Queen Martha was nowhere to be seen as they stepped away from the Orchard Gate and into the Pleasure Garden. It was all very well to plan to ape the fashionable world, but if it actually involved waking up early, well, that complicated things.

This time of year, there was little in the Pleasure Garden but twiggy shrubs, juniper hedges, and statues, so the two of them wandered back to the orchard. They were contented enough, flicking water at each other from the springy pussy-willows that grew near the little burn, pointing out rabbits running away in the undergrowth on the other side, where the orchard gave over to the wilder land of the King’s Chase, talking of nothing very much. They came to the High Fold, which sometimes held sheep, but not right at lambing time, because the Chase was too close by and there were sometimes wolves. They drifted apart after a time – Katie went to look out over the wall at the other fields below, and the road that led beyond them into the mountains and then over Staghorn Pass to Clydesmuir and beyond.

Some of the sailors and other travelers laughed at what Brucemuir folk called “mountains.” In the Trullneys, anything that took more than a day to climb was a “mountain.” In Njord, or Baritaria, or far-off Poonraj, the sailors said there were mountains so tall you couldn't see their tops from the valley floors: places where the “tree line” was not the place where oak forest gave way to pine and fir, but where the trees stopped growing altogether, and the air was cold and thin. Katie tried to imagine it. Perhaps if she married a merchant, she might travel with him, for a time? Or maybe an ambassador? That would be an adventure!

While Katie was woolgathering, Trina found a place where that same wall met the Orchard Wall, and the sun reflected on the stone had warmed the ground enough that a patch of crocuses, which everywhere else were just coming up, was actually blooming.

It was at this point that Biddy Noone came stumping up the path they had recently come down, lugging a basket toward the kitchen gardens and presumably to the kitchen beyond. She ducked a curtsey as she came upon Princess Trina. “Good day, Princess! Ye’re up wi’ the lark this morning.”

“Aye, I am that, Biddy Noone! That basket looks fair heavy. Please, let me help you carry it tae the kitchens.”

“ T’would be most kind, Princess.”

So Trina picked up the basket and headed back into the orchard, at Biddy Noone’s stolid pace. Halfway through the orchard, they stopped. “Och, but I’m getting old,” Biddy huffed. “I mun stop here a wee minute and get me breath.” So Trina set the basket down and helped Biddy settle herself on a flattish boulder that served as a bench. “Ah,” Biddy sighed, “ye’er a guid lassie, Princess. It seems all my pretty fowl have ta’en tae laying at once, and basket’s full near tae overflowing. Lift the lid and see thysel’ an ye like.”

Obligingly, Trina knelt and bent her head over the top of the egg basket, making polite admiring noises. In doing so, she turned her back on Biddy Noone who immediately picked up her walking stick and pointed it at the princess, letting her carefully formed curse roll down the stick until it landed on Trina’s head.

And bounced. Biddy gritted her teeth and gathered as much of the magic up again as she could, before it went splashing away or tried to backfire on her. The wench must have eaten something already this morning! The curse was a powerful one; it had to be to withstand Godmother Hildegarde’s inevitable intervention, but it had very specific requirements, and one of those was the kind of vulnerability that only came from hunger. Biddy would have to try this again tomorrow. Meanwhile … she sat back on the boulder and cackled gently, “There, dearie, we mun be getting on.” And the two of them made their ways on to the kitchen doors, where Biddy bade the Princess farewell, adding, “And tell my lady Queen I’ve the eggs a-setting, and they’ll hatch the sooner an she can keep the cupboard well snibbit.”

Trina promised to pass the message along, wondering bewilderedly if for some reason the dove eggs were being kept in Queen Martha’s rooms, that she should need to keep a cupboard closed. Then the bell rang for Prime, and it was time to join the rest of the household in the chapel for prayers, and then, finally, have breakfast.

*************

Godmother Elena stared intently into her mirror. It wasn’t her own face looking back at her. Madame Arachnia lived in far-off Bretagne, and unless one wished to spend a great deal of magic to travel there, the mirrors were the best way to keep in touch.

“I can see why you’re worried,” Arachnia was saying, “but I don’t think Hildegarde has gone to the bad. Yet. If she had, I would expect to see her deliberately steering the Tradition into tales like the False Bride, when she had something that could go just as easily into, say, the Sister Knights. I don’t see that. Nor do I see her neglecting the situations where the Tradition is gathering around a Tale that won’t come to fruition. There was an Ella Cinders in Ben High last year who couldn’t marry the local Laird because he’d married a Puddock Bride the year before; Hildegarde very cleverly made sure the lad that the girl really fancied was crowned Harvest King. They met at the dance on the village green, Hildegarde enchanted the girl’s shoes just as usual and steered the whole Tale into a nice, homely Happy Ending. But I do see a certain … reluctance to really fight the Tradition when everything is lining up. I can see her sheltering a Long Lost Heir, if called for, but maybe not taking the steps to make sure the Usurper never takes the throne in the first place. And even the really clever things like managing that Ella Cinders don’t give her much joy or pride. She just seems … resigned.”

“Hm.” Elena pondered this for a bit. “That sort of depression could lead to her going to the bad, though, if we don’t take steps.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Arachnia agreed, “You can imagine the sort of thing … you get resigned to the idea that things won’t always go your way, and then you resign yourself to a Peasant Princess ending up with a controlling bastard of a Prince and turning into a Patient Gretel … eventually you end up regretting that you have to kill a few First Sons to do your job right. You don’t even get to enjoy going to the bad!” Arachnia could, and did, enjoy her wickedness very much, so far as it went. She didn’t care to sacrifice small animals to strange powers, but being rude to royalty and scaring conceited would-be heroes? Oh, yes.

“It sounds like what she really needs is a holiday,” sighed Elena. “It’s too bad we’re all too busy to give her one. If she’d just take that poor False Bride as an apprentice, she’d have a little more time and energy to spare, but of course she won’t even consider it.”

“If she’s feeling as worn down as she seems to be, she probably can only see the work involved in training someone up.”

“Well, now that we know what we’re dealing with, we can do something about it. Thank you for looking into this, Arachnia.”

“Glad to help. For what it’s worth, Hildegarde didn’t used to be like this. When Princess Trina – that’s the True Bride – when her mother died, Hildegarde took steps to make sure King Malcom didn’t have to promise he’d only marry another woman if she were equally beautiful, or anything like that. So she was actively preventing a Manyfur, or – what’s the Trullney Islander version? Rashencoatie, that's it. And a Rashencoatie is just as horrible as a False Bride, when all’s said and done. So something’s changed in the last dozen years or so, even if it’s only that she’s gotten tired.”

“Well, I’ll see what we can do for her. Maybe we should offer up a job share, of sorts. If we can’t take a holiday, maybe a pair of Godmothers should switch places and take on each other’s problems for a month or so now and then. A change is good as a rest, and all that.”

“I don’t know,” said Arachnia. “The Traditional end to two people switching jobs is comic disasters on both sides, and a newfound appreciation for one’s appointed place. But it might be worth thinking about anyway.” And the conversation drifted into more abstract territory, until Elena reluctantly said goodbye and returned to her own duties.

Chapter Text

Out of respect for the proprieties, which declared that Royalty should show off their fine possessions as often as feasible, Prince Hugh had allowed himself to be closed up in a carriage decorated with the Royal Arms for the ride into the City. He was paying a visit to one of his closest friends (at least, the closest of those he could visit when “on duty” as Prince and not “gallivanting” as James had put it), the Dowager Countess of Shanter. The Dowager was a noted eccentric on some points, but those rules of Society that she did follow, she followed to the jot. That was part of how she got away with the oddities she did indulge in.

One of the most glaring of these was her adoption of the Vraimontish custom of seeing her friends in her bedroom. She spent a great deal of her day sitting up in her bed with a little four-legged tray over her knees, talking with visitors. If she were going out, she eventually got around to moving to her dressing-table and working at her toilette while she saw more visitors. If she were not going out, she would shuffle into the “morning room,” still in lace cap and wrapper, and stay there writing letters for much of the day.

Most of the more active elements of Cullane Society believed she was an invalid. This was not strictly the case. Nor was she quite as elderly as most people assumed she was. The Dowager was, in fact, only forty-five, and handsome in an upholstered sort of way. But unlike many of her age-mates, she made no attempt to hide the silver in her hair or the lines in her face. “They've not the least notion,” she was wont to say in her broad mountain accent, “how much freedom there is in being thought too old tae bother with. For a lady, at least. A young, handsome lady has all sorts of mustn'ts and shouldnaes hemming her in at every turn. If the men want her, they want to lock her up in a tower with all their other favorite things, and if they cannae lock her in a tower of stone, they'll lock her in a tower of rules. All so some other fellow cannae take her away. But an old one, well, that's another story. The rules dinnae vanish entirely, but they lose their urgency.”

So the Dowager wore a white mob cap like a granny's (though, not like a granny, hers was made of silk and trimmed with Earnish thread-lace) and wrapper, and stumped about her two rooms with a cane she did not need, and spoke as she wished. Her bedchamber and morning room together made up her “salon,” which was known throughout Cullane as the place to go for an aspiring writer or philosopher or political reformer. The Dowager Countess had very little interest in any realm outside the literary and the intellectual, (and in fact had adopted the custom of the “salon” because it gave her an excuse not to dress before Sext except on worship-days), but in the country of the mind she was a Queen.

Hugh thought the Dowager had done more to shape the tastes and ideals of a generation than any four of King Andrew's ministers. Certainly she was the one who had helped him hone his words until they struck as deeply as James' sword did, changing his poetry from a self-indulgence by a gloomy boy in his teens and into the sort of art that might live in people's hearts for centuries. Or not. Not every poet, not even every good poet, could be a Thomas Rattlesword. The rest of them were beloved for a decade or three, and then cast off by the younger folk in favor of some other good poet newly-arrived, and that was the way of the world. The fact remained: whatever became of his own work in years to come, he had the Dowager to thank for it, even more than Sir Robin of Tamshire and his printing press.

Hugh had heard a few rumors that he had her to thank for his introduction to certain other arts, more commonly associated with a bedchamber. This was not the case, but he had met the lady who was responsible at one of the Dowager's parties. She had left when her husband had been given a fellowship at Piktenburg University, and Hugh had been heartbroken for six weeks and sad for six more, written poems about all of it, and then realized he couldn't remember what color her eyes had been, and written a poem about that. It all seemed rather far away, now.

Today, when the footman announced him at the door of the salon, three ladies stood up from chairs around the bed and swept deep curtseys. The Dowager herself inclined her head gravely from her pile of pillows. Hugh recognized the two ladies on the left, who were holding papers in their hands, as the Dowager's friends, Lady Breem and Lady Stoneworth. Hugh did not know the name of the nervous looking lass to the right of the bed, but the sight of her white lace collar and black plush gown, not to mention the ink-stained hands that marked her as the likely author of the papers the others were holding, was enough to make his heart sink.

Ever since he'd put off a child's smock and donned his shirt and kilts, he had been surrounded by nobles who thought that being under a curse made him interesting. These were almost all ladies, mostly very young ones indeed, who sought him out and wanted to talk of nothing else but how sad and romantic it all was, and how they felt it all so deeply, it marked their very souls... In fact all of them, lasses and the few gentlemen both, seemed to spend a great deal of energy working up their emotions to a fever pitch, priding themselves on their “sensitivity,” like the Tender Princess who had been unable to sleep because she could feel a splinter in the bed slats under a straw tick and a dozen goose-down mattresses. Very few of these sensitive individuals appeared to have very much sensitivity toward anyone else's feelings, however.

They all wore black, for some reason, with bits of white lace, and when Hugh had been much younger himself he had actually enjoyed their attention. It was because of those ladies that he had started writing poetry, in fact. Now that his book had been printed it seemed there were even more of them about, all of whom felt like they understood just what he was saying, on the spiritual plane, you know... He tried not to be too impatient with them. He still remembered what he'd been like at that age, but it did get wearing.

Ah, Your Highness, my dear boy!” The dowager boomed, “What a delight! Allow me to present milady Marchioness Edmunda Stook, newly arrived from Cradford Place, Tamshire.”

Hugh bowed again toward the lass in black, who curtseyed, blushed, and stammered, “So pleased.”

“Edmunda is a great admirer of yours – of your poetry,” the Dowager continued. Her protegee blushed redder. Hugh suppressed irritation, both at the young lady, who hadn't really done anything to deserve it except resemble other young ladies, and at the Dowager herself, who looked to be indulging her cruel streak today. The young marchioness looked fixedly at the floor, and Hugh guessed that she wanted her admirations kept private until she got her feet under her. Well, he didn't have to indulge the Dowager in everything.

“I'm gratified,” he said, settling in a chair that one of the footmen had placed behind him, so that the ladies could be seated as well. “Have you any especial favorites, Lady Edmunda?”

“I-I-I-” the poor creature stammered, “I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but my name is Perdita, not Edmunda.”

“Tcha!” the Dowager barked, “I do apologize, my dear. I simply cannae manage to get my head about all these fussy, newfangled modern names. In my day, we were all Doris and Anne and Martha and Clare. And you might not think it,” she added in a mock-whisper that carried, if anything, further than her normal speaking voice, “but we managed tae have just as many adventures and tragic love stories and noble causes as all these Edmundas and Dulcibellas now.” Lady Perdita blinked and essayed a very shaky smile. Hugh's estimation of her rose slightly. The Dowager's speech had sounded like a pointed dig at somebody, and Lady Perdita was the likeliest target, but the lass had still managed to see the joke in it, even if she didn't think it was funny.

“Have you any favorite poems?” Hugh asked again. “Mine or someone else's, I'm not particular.” If the Dowager was taking enough of an interest in the little marchioness to tease her, then there was a good chance that talking about literature would help put her at her ease.

“Yes, Your Highness.” Lady Perdita was still gazing at her lap and blushing, but her voice had stopped shaking, “I simply adored 'For Those Awake from Matins tae Lauds.' It sends chills up my spine every time I read it.”

Hugh might have guessed. It seemed the ones who dressed in black with white lace all had the same two or three favorite poems; one of them was always “For Those Awake from Matins tae Lauds.” And they never recited the verses with the guards or the midwife, but always the ones with the owls, the Witch, the Lovers and the Poet himself.

They never liked “Ode tae Mutton Sausage.” Now, Hugh would be the first to admit that the very idea of writing a poem with a title like that was funny, but he had really been trying to say something with it; something about the amazing things that happened every day, like a pair of plump, clean hands turning the nasty wobbly bits inside a sheep into part of a delicious breakfast, and many other dirty, calloused hands working similar miracles with stone that became castles, and plants that became gardens... None of the ladies who “understood” him seemed to understand that part, although the Dowager Countess had seen it at once.

All he said aloud was, “That one does seem to have struck a chord.”

The Dowager hooted a laugh. “Never you mind, dearest,” she declared, all but poking him in the ribs, “One of these days we'll find you a bonnie lass who liked 'Ode tae Mutton Sausage.' Or at least, 'Tugg's Croft.' ”

I don't have so very many days left. But Hugh did not speak his thought aloud. Nor the one that followed: And that being the case, if the Dowager found such a lass, what would I do with her? It would not do any good to whine at the Dowager. The first set of poems he'd given her to look at, she'd cut out any phrase she deemed “self pitying” with a penknife and put them on one side of a little scale, with the remainder of the work (including the margins) on the other. The two sides had balanced.

The Dowager went on, “In addition tae kenning a good poem when she reads one, Lady Perdita here writes herself.” She waved one of the papers scattered about the bed. “Much of it is, frankly, terrible. But terrible in interesting and promising ways. Moreover, she is willing tae accept criticism and learn from it, which is all but unheard of.” The Dowager glanced kindly at her writhing protegee. “And she has been politely allowing me to needle her this last half-hour without snapping at me once, which means she is already learning how to handle a touchy patron – another useful skill. Gang along to the Morning Room, my dear,” she waved at the girl, “and relieve your feelings a bit to Sophy and Jean before we set to work again. I'll have His Highness read a bit, as well, and I, at least, will join you for tea and scones in a few minutes.”

Thus dismissed, the three ladies betook themselves to the next room, leaving the two old friends in private. The Dowager settled her shawl about her shoulders, heaved herself closer to the edge of the bed so that she could pat Hugh's hand. “Now, my lad, how goes it? Have you got Fergus O'Doone married off yet?”

Hugh sighed and shook his head. “No, I'm still stuck. At least I ken what the problem is, though, if not how to fix it.”

The older lady fixed him with a penetrating stare. “Oh?”

“I think so. 'Tis to do with the difference between being a person and being a Legend. I've had some practice at both, so... well. People have been going out of their ways, these last few weeks, to tell me how they remember me. Except for Sir Robin and the ones like Lady Perdita, there, 'tisn't the sort of thing you'd carve on a memorial or 'broider on a tapestry.”

Seeing the Dowager was about to chide him for self-pity again, Hugh changed tack slightly. “When I was a wee lad, some of the older courtiers would tell me stories of my grandfather, King Robert V. If I asked them, they'd tell about how he slew the Great Eagle of Fenporth, and the like. But if I just asked for stories, they'd talk of how his favorite song was “Sweet Nancy Dean,” and that he took great care cleaning his teeth with salt water after every meal, and that he couldn't bear the smell of cooked cabbage. Things like that. And when old Bessie Tug did me the honor of telling me about her boy who died, it was the same. I ken all the stories that made Fegus O'Doone a legend, but I don't know yet why anybody should love him.”

“Ah. Yes.” The Dowager sighed. “My late husband the count had a gap 'twixt his twa bottom front teeth. It didnae show when he spoke, but when we kissed....” She trailed off and sighed. “I dinna have any better advice for Fergus than to try on one detail and another like shirts, until you find the ones that fit. And,” she added, “I will do my best to make sure that any young ladies in black who come to me will hear about that slate-topped desk of yours, not to mention your favorite foxhound, as well as the Poet who was awake after Matins. And speaking of which...”

“You wanted me to read Lady Perdita's work?”

“You neednae trouble yourself. Just tell her 'tis plain she put her heart intae her work, as you always do. But I really should be getting back to her.”

************

For the second day in a row, Biddy Noone stumped slowly up the orchard path, toward the kitchen gardens. She went very slowly indeed, because she was, for all practical purposes, blind and deaf. She had put her sight and hearing into one of the pigeons, to spy on her quarry as soon as she came out the castle door, and most of her attention was there as well. The black cock served as a crude guide, pecking one leg or another if she started to stray too far from her direction, and she had her stick to lean on when she tripped. But it was worth it to be sure her curse would take when she came on the Princess, or to have warning that it wouldn’t before she spent too much more power. Until she managed to direct the Tradition in a way that more of the power circling the two stepsisters was easy for her to harvest – attached to wandering Princes on a Quest that might take them past the Henwife’s croft, for instance – she had little power to spare, and yesterday’s mistake had cost her. And sure enough, when the pigeon got within hearing of Princess Trina, the girl was complaining of hunger. Queen Martha must have given orders to the kitchen help.

“Truly,” Mistress Katie was saying, “I think ye mun be about tae grow another inch or twa. I dinna ken where ye put it all, otherwise.”

The Princess shrugged. “I dinna think so – I think ‘tis these early hours. Have you never noticed, on days when there’s been a dance the night before, or ee’n when we just use up an extra candle reading a book intae the wee hours, that you get hungrier? ‘Tis as though sleep were another kind of food.”

Katie shook her head. “I never noticed. But then, Mother has been keeping me on shortish rations these last months – says I mun watch my figure – so I’m hungry a lot. Which is why I’ve taken tae carrying this with me.” She pulled a bag out of her pocket the size of two or three closed fists. “Hazelnuts. And a few bits of dried apple. Keeps my guts from growling between meals, and a little gangs a long way. Have some?”

Trina accepted, protesting at the same time that Katie’s figure didn’t need such strict attention as the Queen seemed to think – “Just because you’re tall and braw and not little and twee—” and the conversation got, as far as Biddy was concerned, exceedingly boring. It was something about some poet or prince that Katie insisted she was not falling in love with. Besides, Biddy knew what she needed to know as soon as Princess Trina put that first hazelnut in her mouth. She would not try to cast the curse today. But she would still talk with the Princess. She wanted their meetings to be as ordinary a part of these early walks as putting on their shoes, and besides, if it looked like she was making an effort at casting the curse, it made her chances at success the next morning that much better. The Tradition liked threes. And Trina would bear Biddy’s word to her stepmother, and even that stupid woman would eventually find a way to keep the girl from breaking her fast too early.

Biddy was right. The next day, Queen Martha herself was with the two girls, also attired for walking, and the pigeon gave Biddy a lovely view of Katie’s bag being confiscated as soon as she took it out. Katie was indignant. “Truly, Mother, ‘tis only a half-dozen nuts. What harm can it do?”

“Don’t talk back to your elders, Katherine. Besides, you know as well as I do that we go fasting to morning prayers. Thus do we show our devotion to God is greater than our devotion to ourselves. After all,” Queen Martha finished the speech exactly as Pastor Scott always did, “We are men, with free will, and not beasts, slaves to the gross clay of our bodies.”

“I’m not a man,” Katie grumbled, “and when I gang tae morning service hungry, I spend the whole time thinking of breakfast. If I’ve eaten just half-a-handful of something, then I can listen and pay attention properly.”

“Katie! You wicked creature!” Queen Martha stopped dead on the path and grabbed her daughter by the arm. “Just you listen to your mother…” And while she stood there, lecturing her daughter, Princess Trina wandered ahead, out of sight of them both, and saw Biddy Noone. Biddy hurriedly pulled her “self” out of the pigeon and back to her own body. The cock made itself vanish at the same time. Had I chosen a cat for a familiar I could never hae kept my powers hidden this long, Biddy thought. No one is on the lookout for a magic chicken.

Good Morrow!” and the lass actually hiked up her skirt a few inches and ran to meet the henwife. “See, Biddy! Queen Martha walks with us this morning. If you wish to, you can give her news of the fantails yourself

Biddy chuckled. “Oh, I can do better than that, my chick. Just look what I have in my basket this morning!”

Trina gave an excited squeak and bent down to undo the lid on the basket, which turned to a shriek as Biddy’s old black cock leaped out and snapped his beak at her face. Biddy herself let out her breath in a single, barking, “Hah!” as the curse settled onto the Princess, melting her features and reshaping them, and doing the same to just a crucial wee bit of memory.

Chapter Text

Katie watched as Queen Martha, delivered of her lecture, swept back into the castle. She noted sourly that her mother had only stayed for half an hour’s “exercise,” and half of that had been spent standing still and berating her daughter. Katie was just wondering if she had time to sneak back to the kitchens to replace her lost bag of nuts when the air grew so heavy, so suddenly it was as though her demon had landed on her with a thump. Katie half-believed she had heard it cackle gleefully. Then she really did hear a blood-curdling wail and something ran smack into her.

“Katie!” the apparition panted, “Katie, look at me! I’ve been curshed! I dinna ken why, I dinna ken what tae do next, I cannae bvear tae think how Father will—“

“Trina?” It sounded like Trina. It was the right size, and it was Trina’s voice, more or less, though Katie hadn’t heard her sounding this shaky before, not even when she was ten and had thought the colony of swallows nesting in the guest room chimney at the Dunfrees home had been a banshee. It was Trina’s dress, though it hung oddly on a hunched back, and the movements were awkward. If this was Trina, than it had been a truly extraordinary curse, because there wasn’t even a hint of the Princess’s natural beauty left.

This poor lass reminded Katie of nothing so much as the obscene jokes that got told about lonely herdboys and their sheep. Her hair was still yellow, but a dull, stained-looking yellow, not shining gold, and it was so frizzy and matted it might as well be wool. Her eyes weren’t blue, but greenish – almost yellow – and they were set so wide they seemed to be looking in slightly different directions. The nose looked like it was half-melted into her face, and crooked teeth, also yellow, stuck out from under a harelip. There was hardly any chin to speak of – just a dewlap of neck that pouched down when she opened her mouth, but the ears stood out like jug handles. And there was the hunched back, and the hands and wrists were knobbly, though the hands were as well-kept as any other lady’s hands – the only calluses were from holding reins, and those were pumiced smooth. “Trina?” Katie asked again, “Is that you?”

The creature nodded, her face buried in Katie’s shoulder, and Katie instantly forgot she had ever wished her stepsister harm. Her thoughts had all scattered, and when they landed, it was in a new pattern. Katie found her head full of a terrible idea without having really thought of it first. And if the idea was right, they had no time to lose.

“We cannae be having with this,” Katie announced to the world at large. Her mind was – not whirling, but moving too fast for Katie to see how it was getting to where it went. It had been like this four years ago, when the sea raiders had decided to invade Bruce Harbor and the castle had been suddenly full of refugee townsfolk and wounded soldiers. Katie had found herself working beside the butcher’s wife in the improvised hospital, sewing a man’s gaping wound shut while the butcher and the cartwright bent all their combined strength into holding him down. Now, as then, there was no room to think of anything but the next thing to be done.

It was just a little time before Prime. Most of the household would be making their way to the kirk for prayers. Katie had Trina pull her shawl over her head and the two of them hurried into the castle and back to their rooms by the servants’ route – past the kitchens and the storerooms. Katie stopped at the wool closet and grabbed flannel petticoats and brown twill cloaks and skirts of the sort that were issued to Brucemuir under-servants. All good, warm stuff, but plain as plain could be. She wanted to stop at the kitchen as well, but that had better wait until later.

As they went along, Trina told Katie what had happened, as best she could. Between Katie’s frantic pace, her own panic, and the harelip, she had a hard time of it. But by the time they got to their own rooms, where Katie ruthlessly pulled out more warm clothing, and stuffed it into pillowcases, along with their workbags and the contents of both their jewelry boxes, Katie understood as much as Trina did. As far as Trina remembered, she had been heading down the orchard path to greet Biddy Noone, when a figure in a green, hooded cloak had stepped out from between two trees and cried, “There you are at last!” and the next thing Trina knew, it was as though a great heavy mask of wet clay had fixed itself to her face, and when she reached up to touch it, she felt warm flesh and bone, that hurt when she tried to pull it off.

“I cannae think for the life of me who would do shuch a thing, or why, and they shaid not a word,” Trina finished, and then … bleated, “Katie! What are you doing?” as Katie jerked the wool blankets off their maid Grania’s bed, leaving the down coverlets on their own beds alone, and began to roll them into as tight a bundle as she could manage, and stuffed them into yet another pillowcase.

Katie threw a bundle of clothing at her. “Get thyself intae that, quick as ye can, and take the pillowcases with you tae the stables. Fetch Spot and Bright, and get their tack if you can. If you cannae, I’ll help you as soon as I’ve been by the kitchens. We daren’t stay here, Kitten, not if we can possibly help it.”

Trina goggled at her slightly, but slowly began to step into flannel petticoats, not bothering to remove the ones she already wore. But the bewilderment on her face was plain to see, even as changed as her face was, and Katie forced herself to slow down long enough to explain.

“If we dinna ken who cursed tha, nor why, we dinna ken what else they might do that’s worse. But we ken well that they’re powerful enough to strike on your father’s home ground. It may—” she stopped and swallowed, “it may be even worse than that. After all, the curse struck when we were out walking before prayers, before we’d even broken our fast, and the only reason we were doing such a thing was because Mother decided it mun be so.”

“Oh, Katie!” There were tears welling in Trina’s new, rather bulgy green eyes. “She’s bvrought ush upf shince I was rising five! Surely you dinna think she would ushe me sho very ill?”

“Not on her ain. But if some great sorcerer has beguiled her somehow, does it matter what she thinks she’s about? And if she is beguiled, what safety have we here? The best I can think tae do for us both is to get us somewhere right away, somewhere our friends wouldnae think tae look for us, where we can wait –at least until King Malcom returns home next month.”

“Where, Katie?”

“Through the woods and over Staghorn Pass, tae start with. ‘Tis close enough that we should be able tae make our way to Clydesmuir, or at least some little hamlet on the way, by tomorrow. And since our best friends live along the coast, ‘tis less likely we’ll be looked for on that route so quickly. The search party will think I’ve had a fit of temper over some small thing and talked you into running away, as I did when I was nine – remember that?” Trina just looked at her. Katie flushed slightly. “Well, I suppose we are doing something like that now – but they’ll not think we mean anything much by it, and they’ll send messengers to the McGanns and the Becks and all before they think of the woods. If anyone does catch us up … we’ll have tae see if we can get them to help us, I guess.”

Trina stood as upright as her hunch would allow and dropped her pillowcases. She had two full ones and Katie only one, because Katie was going to raid the kitchens while Trina got the mules. “Why cannae we ashk them for helpf bvefore we run off intae danger and they have tae catch ush upf?” she demanded, “If we’ve pfut them through all that trouble, they’ll be moithered with ush, but if we ashk now, they’ll feel shorry for me.”

“Because,” Katie explained patiently – well, she was pretty sure she was being patient – “We dinna ken who the sorcerer has in their power, or who might pass on information without meaning tae, or who might get into trouble because they know something. If nobody kens where we’ve gone, and the sorcerer kens that nobody kens where we’ve gone, ‘tis safer for us than having tae wonder about every bite we eat and every hair that Grania cleans from our brushes. Moreover, ‘tis safer for all the good folk we leave behind us that the sorcerer might mistreat otherwise, if he thought they were hiding something."

She wasn't sure Trina was taking any of this in. The poor thing had caught a glance at herself in the mirror and was staring, dismayed. Katie shook her shoulder gently. “Do get on, Trina, ‘tis half past Prime already.”

Trina sniffled and picked up her bundles again, heading for the stables. Katie dashed into the kitchens, making for the storerooms at the back, but stopping to filch a smallish kettle that sat on the drainboard in the scullery. If everything went according to plan, they wouldn’t need to take too much food with them, because they could trade their jewelry along the way and do their share of work in one of the pilgrim trains that got underway each Spring. But there was no reason everything had to go right, was there? Katie took as much as she could carry of whatever she could find quickly – a huge, but half-empty, sack of oats, a bottle of spirits that they could trade or splash on small wounds to keep them from going bad and mix with water from wells they weren’t sure about, if they couldn’t boil it. A bottle of mead. Smaller sacks of dried apples and blueberries. And, of course, a sack the size of two loaves of bread full of hazel nuts. Katie knew right where to find that. For good measure, she refilled her pocket as well. She even took a moment to empty a small sack of peppercorns onto the shelf (carefully, so they didn’t spill too badly) and fill it with nuts instead, to replace the one her mother had taken from her.

She remembered a joke one of the cook’s lads had made, in between hauling wood and feeding the fires: “More proof that Mistress Katie should hae been born a man, it is. She never gangs nowhere withouten her nutsack!” He had laughed harder than the rest of the lads put together, so proud of his efforts that he’d scarcely noticed Cook whacking him with her ladle. Katie laughed now at the memory. The joke still wasn’t very funny, but the lad was: funny and human and ordinary, far from this strange new life she’d found herself in this morning.

Katie was still smiling slightly when she met Trina in the stable and helped her saddle and load their mules. As long as there were cooks and idiot hobbledehoys in the kitchen, the very worst couldn’t have happened yet. And somehow, they’d managed to get everything together in less than an hour. The bell in the kirk had rung as they loaded the mules, and they made it out of the courtyard just before the servants started making their ways back in. If their luck held, no one would realize they were gone before breakfast was served, at Tierce, and they would have another hour’s head start. If it didn’t hold… Katie would think of something.

************

For the first part of the ride, they concentrated on going as far as they could, as quickly as they could. Given the quality of even the main track through Staghorn Pass, this wasn’t very quickly, but no one came after them. It wasn’t until after Sext, when they’d stopped to water the mules and eat cheese and oatcake, that they began to speak to each other again about anything other than the next fifty feet of road.

“Katie,” Trina pleaded, “art tha sure we mun do it like thish?”

“Sure as Sunday prayers. We’ll gang as far as we can today. When we can do it safely, we’ll send word home of what’s become of us. But we’ve no hope of defeating a powerful sorcerer like this one except by surprise. If we stay, we stay in a trap.”

“Bvut where will we go?”

“Clydesmuir, first. We’ve no enemies that way. And if we get that far without being caught, we can join a pilgrim train at the kirk and be safe as twa young women traveling alone can be. I’ve in mind that we might stop in the Temple of St. Unweigh At Shanterburn, in Cullane, should we get so far. The Sisterhood there may be able to break your curse, and besides, they offer sanctuary to single women. If we mun, we can wait there ‘til King Malcom sends for us, and if the sorcerer finds us, they’ll have tae be strong enough tae act on blessed ground, and that’s harder tae manage even than Castle Bruce.”

Trina wrinkled her forehead. “That … shounds like it should do well enoupf. It willnae be very comfortabvle, but we shouldnae get killed. No bvandit would rob a pfilgrim train if there wash a merchant’sh caravan to be had wifin twa daysh’ travel. And Shaint Unweigh’sh ish a good notion ash well. Even if you’re jusht doing it tae gang tae Cullane and have a chanshe tae shee your favorite royal pfoet –”

Katie could have hugged her for trying to make jokes at a time like this, if they weren’t both riding mules. But Trina was going on, “You’re clever, Katie, how did you think of all of thish so fasht? Let alone sheeing how grave the danger wash in the first pflashe. I shupfoshe you’re right abvout that, even though running away feelsh tae me like a matter of eshcapfing a pfack of wolves bvy falling off a cliff.”

Katie shrugged. “Needs must,” she said, in answer to both questions – or all three, depending on how you counted. Someday, she might – she would confess to Trina that St Unweigh’s had been in her mind lately as a possible escape from things other than mysterious sorcerers with Royal connections. The Sisters had a library and a press, and a turtle hatchery, in addition to being a sort of boarding house for “half widows:” wives of soldiers and sailors whose husbands spent much of their time away, as well as the less respectable kind of “half widow” who simply couldn’t stand her husband, or never had a husband to start with. Katie had thought she might find a home there that was no more restrictive than life in Brucemuir, and that kept her out of danger of doing some harm to Trina, or her mother, if the demon on her back got to be too much for her to handle. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to be a nun, but it was easier to imagine than being a Lady Champion of the Order of Glass Mountain, which Katie had also considered. But that twitchy jealousy was so petty and mean in comparison to the danger that they faced now that Katie didn’t want to talk about it. Better to keep both their minds on the tasks at hand.

“We may want tae look for a place tae stop the night, Kitten. The Guard gets tae Clydesmuir in a day, but they all start at sunup and push their mounts hard, and get fresh ones the next morning. We’ve been ganging steadily, but not that fast, and if we can, we should take the time tae have a warm place to sleep, that isn’t too obvious from the road. I think ‘tis too early for bandits. They most of them stay nearer the valley towns ‘til after planting. But then, any bandits that are in the wood this early would be pretty desperate.”

Trina sighed. “Needs musht, then, as you shay. Now we’re shet on thish road, we mun get to Unweigh’sh ash quick as we may, unlesh one of Father’sh pfeople catchesh ush and bvrings ush home bvefore we can.”

Trina sounded faintly hopeful at this possibility. Katie supposed she couldn’t blame her. But at the same time, she thought her little sister would face this journey with the same dutiful courage she had used to face her marriage, which used to be the future that loomed the largest over her. Like her mule, Spot, Trina would go on until she dropped, just so long as … “Katie?”

“Yes, Kitten?”

“Think you the Shistersh will really ken the way to bvreak this curshe? I know ‘tish a pfetty thing, bveing ugly like thish, compfared to sho many other curshes, bvut even sho…”

… Just so long as she had a hope of some good to come at the end.

“Never tha worry, Kitten. If the Sisters dinna ken how, they’ll find out who does. You’ll be back to yourself as soon as may be, I promise.”

Katie had no business making such a promise, and they both knew it, but Trina seemed to take comfort in the declaration all the same. As they toiled their way up the switchbacks of Staghorn pass, their conversation came back to the same question and the same answer several times. If neither lass could be quite as sure as she pretended, neither of them was willing to give up that hope.

Chapter Text

Though she and Arachnia both worked steadily backwards through Godmother Hildegarde’s commonplace book, Elena hadn’t yet found any clue as to what had gone wrong with her colleague. A Godmother's commonplace book was kept for the benefit of other Godmothers: both those in other realms, who could keep up on events through the copies that magically appeared in their libraries, and those who would one day succeed her in her own kingdoms, who would need to know the precedents that she had set. Hildegarde, like many of the Trullney Islanders, was rather dour and reserved. And so she had scrupulously recorded anything she had done in her duties as a Godmother, but had been equally scrupulous about keeping her private feelings to herself. Thus it was Elena’s mirror-servant, Randolph, who brought her the next piece of news from the Northern Isles.

“You’ll never guess, Godmother, what has happened in Brucemuir!” The green, disembodied head in the mirror looked as eager as a puppy. Randolph loved gossip, and he had no inhibitions whatsoever.

Elena smiled. “Well then, you’d better just tell me.”

“The two girls have run away, both of them together! Godmother Hildegarde is quite bewildered.”

“Really!”

“Oh, yes. Her mirror servant, Theobald, told me all about it. In point of fact–” Randolph waggled his eyebrows significantly and lowered his voice, even though there was no one else around to overhear – “he wanted me to help him scry into the past, to see what happened. Theo’s a good soul but a little, well, slow,” Randolph confided. “Perhaps it’s because the Tradition of using Mirror Servants isn’t very strong in the Trullneys. Most people there haven’t heard of anything more sophisticated than a silver knife that turns red when someone far away is in danger, and the magicians mostly use Wise Beasts to gather their information.” In addition to having no inhibitions, Randolph had very few other ways of setting priorities. He was equally interested in anything Elena set him to watching, from weather patterns to court intrigues, and unless Elena or someone else stopped him, he would natter on happily about anything whatever that occurred to him.

“So…” Elena redirected him, “Did you help Theobald? Did you find out what had happened to set the girls running away?”

“Oh, yes, of course. A local Witch that Hildegarde somehow overlooked teamed up with the Stepmother to curse the Princess with ugliness. The Stepsister – the one that looked like a False Bride waiting to happen — said, and I quote, ‘we cannae be having wi’ this,’ and off they went. They mean to make it to a Temple halfway into the next Kingdom over, where, they hope, the Witch who placed the curse can’t get at them to do whatever it is she has in mind.”

Elena digested this for a time.

“Good,” she decided. “This witch seems to have turned the Tale from the False Bride to the Two Loyal Sisters – and what was she thinking, I wonder? Of course, there’s a good chance the elder girl will fall afoul of something-or-other and have to be rescued by the younger one, but it’s still better than a False Bride. Unless Hildegarde has truly gone to the bad, she should be giving them a bit more help from here out. And speaking of Hildegarde, did Theobald…”

"Oh, yes, Godmother. All I had to do was mention that she seemed a little down, and he gave me the whole story. It seems that she had got rather fond of the Knight of the White Eagle. The Knight disappeared on a quest to find a cure for Princess Ysabeau of Vraimont, and hasn’t been seen since.”

“That long ago! Ysabeau was cured not long after my father died, before I became a Godmother – my Horrid Stepmother was most put out at not being invited to the wedding, as I recall – so that’s at least ten or twelve years. Is Hildegarde still brooding about that?”

Randolph tilted his head to one side. Being without shoulders, that was the closest he could come to shrugging. “She’s not brooding, precisely. But Theo says she blamed herself for allowing herself to fall in love outside her Traditional role, and believes that losing the Knight was only what she deserved. She’s been throwing herself into her job more and more, with less and less regard for how she feels about anything, and she’s fought the Tradition a lot less, since then.”

“Oh, the poor thing! And of course, I’m famous among the Godmothers for marrying my Champion … no wonder she got touchy when it looked like I was meddling with her affairs. More and more, I think we need to pay attention to making sure our fellow Godmothers have the support they need – it’s easy to forget when we all have so much else on our plates, but I’m sure it would pay in the long run. I’d much rather meddle now, before she turns irredeemably bitter and we have an Evil Sorceress on our hands – especially an Evil Sorceress who knows so much about Godmothers.”

“Well,” said Randolph, “you don’t have to meddle in this Brucemuir business, at least. Hildegarde’s planning to help the two sisters get safely to their Temple – or at least to the Pilgrim caravan that goes to the Temple – and I daresay if she watches them that closely she may end up deciding to apprentice the older one after all.”

“That’s something, at least.” Elena stood up and stretched. “I do hope she finds an apprentice and the two get on like a house afire, or at least that she finds something for herself. Nobody can do this job on a sense of duty alone.”

**********

Katie proved to be right about one thing, at least; an hour before sunset, they were looking for a likely camping spot and they hadn’t so much as heard a hunting hound in the distance to suggest that the folk of Brucemuir were looking for them in the right direction. Katie had no spare energy for feeling smug, or even disappointed, about being right. They had been leading the mules since Sext to keep from tiring them too much, and she and Trina were both as tired as they could remember being. Katie’s calves ached like anything from climbing uphill for so long, and her arms from loading Spot and Bright and hanging on to Bright’s reins for balance. She could feel the odd squishing that meant she had at least one blister on each foot, and she and Trina and the mules were all thirsty. Staghorn Pass was full of muddy little rivulets but not much clear water. It was an effort even to think. For the last hour or more, Katie had had the same verse of the same song running through her head over and over:

A-ah the first craw
Couldnae find his Pa
Couldnae find his Pa
Couldnae find his Pa-a-ah
The first craw
Coulnae find his Pa
And so he flew a-way...

But she’d better start thinking now. Night would fall fast, with walls of granite mountain on all sides blocking the last of the sunlight. They couldn’t expect the long gloaming that came from the light reflecting off the sea. And there wasn’t any sign of any little village or even a croft where she and Trina could spend the night safely.

Katie was beginning to wonder if she hadn’t been a little too sure about the bandits who supposedly had no interest in Brucemuir. She had been planning to build a fire to ward away the wolves and any bears that were already awake, but what if that fire attracted a different sort of beast? And weren’t bandits supposed to be touchy about who trespassed on their territory? When they had stopped for luncheon earlier she had removed their jewelry from its pillowcase and she and Trina had hidden it more carefully under their clothes – some folded in a sort of belt made from a strip of linen and tied round their waists, the cheaper stuff in the hems of their petticoats – but then, bandits might very well be interested in what else lay under their clothes, even with Kitten cursed and ugly as she was.

“There’sh a bvit of wall or shomething just upf ahead,” Trina remarked dully. “I dinna think we’ll find a likelier shpot to resht bvefore full dark.”

Katie looked up. It took her a moment to wrench her tired brain from the question of whether it was worth while to teach Trina to point with her forefinger, like a crofter lass, instead of using her bladed hand, like a lady – probably it wasn’t – to look at the side of the road. The lengthening shadows of the trees were already making it harder to see ahead, but yes, that lumpy grayish darkness over there looked more like tumbled stones than anything else Katie could think of. From the shape of it, it wasn’t a wall, but a way-cairn, set to mark a side trail or the place where a trail had once been. There was a little gap in the trees that might be the start of a path, but the cairn, if that’s what it was, was far too shapeless to be in good repair. Come to that, though, an abandoned croft site might make a very good campsite indeed, if the trail was clear enough and the light lasted long enough…

The cairn moved. Katie nearly jumped out of her skin. As the sisters came nearer, it stood up and shuffled toward them, resolving itself in the last of the sunlight into a tiny old woman, gnarled as a heather root and dressed in dusty black rags. She stank powerfully of woodsmoke, and her hands and what could be seen of her face were almost gray.

“Please, good travelers,” this apparition begged, “have ye a bit of bread tae spare a poor widow? I’ve been a-searching of the wood all day and found nane so much as a mushroom or a stale chestnut, and I’m so nigh tae famished I’ve scarce the strength tae gang back hame.”

“Oh, you pfoor thing!” Trina cried, but Katie put a hand on her arm in warning. Not all gangs of bandits were made up of young men alone. And the ones that did have some sort of family life were the more likely to have people in their camps year-round.

“I would hae thought you’d have gone on long since,” Katie observed, at the same time fishing in her shawl – either for a weapon or the food the woman asked for, depending on how things went. “It cannae be the usual way of things, tae have folk on the road to beg of so late as this.” Katie tried to think. On the other hand, if there was a gang hidden in the woods, and they were clever enough to survive out here year-round, they were probably clever enough to negotiate with… but Katie and Trina had no way of stopping them from taking everything they had with them. A clever gang of bandits wouldn’t kill them if they could hold them for ransom and might not rape them, but it would still be better not to encounter them at all.

“Tha speaks true, good lass,” the woman creaked, “And I hadnae meant tae do more than rest by the way-cairn before I went hame. But when I saw you coming, with those twa mules looking sae well-kempt …” she trailed off, staring at Trina. “But maybe the mules are better off than the maids. That one looks fair as marred as I am, at less than half my age!”

“She’s ugly, but she’s neither deaf nor daft,” Katie said sharply. “Mind how thy mouth gangs, if you want bread in it.” And the woman cringed back and made apologetic noises.

“Indeed,” Trina spoke up, “We can share shomvthing with you, Mother, bvut…” and now her voice was full of naked longing, “ish your home very far from here? We were jusht looking for a pflashe to spfend the night.”

‘Tis hardly even a roof on it, syn’ the fire,” the crone replied, “but what I have you are welcome tae share. And blessings on ye for sharing what ye have in turn,” she added as Katie pulled out her sack of nuts and poured a few into her hands.

Despite appearances, the woman must have at least one or two teeth left, because the nuts didn’t seem to give her any trouble. Katie handed Bright’s lead to her, suggesting that she could lean on the beast for some extra support, and then she brought up the rear with Spot. This way, there was a mule between the old woman and Trina, in case she really was up to no good, and if she made off with the mule, well, they could still get along with Spot and the things Spot carried. It was only another day to Clydesmuir, and if all else failed, Katie supposed they could still go back home and risk whatever the mysterious sorcerer had in mind.

**************

The Staggering Heron hadn't been so jolly since the Feast of St. Torval. Hugh had given Mr. Taverner three crowns from the money he would otherwise have spent on a new hunting falcon to make sure that none of his guests went without a drink tonight when they wanted one. Now he was set to enjoy a proper birthday celebration with – he would not say “his real friends.” He had friends in the court who were just as dear to him; Sir Robin of Tamshire, for one, and the Dowager Countess. A party, then, with those of his friends who would not attend the official one tomorrow night, and probably would have avoided it even if they had been invited. But very good friends, nonetheless. And he trusted these particular friends to celebrate this particular birthday much better than the folk in the castle.

“They're trying to strike a middle way,” Hugh had explained to Sergeant Craig of the Castle Watch, who had first introduced Hugh to the denizens of the Heron some three years ago. “They don't want it to be so gloomy as to be a punishment to me, nor so frivolous as to seem disrespectful. So they're kind of pretending I'm to join a Solemn and Prestigious Order of some sort.”

At the time, Sgt. Craig had made no reply beyond a phlegmy snort. But a few days later he had invited Hugh to join his friends at the Staggering Heron for a “Soldiers' Wake.” “We has them before we gang tae war,” he'd explained, “Syn' we dinna ken if we'll hae the time later, and we all ken some of us will be a-mustering out for guid and a.' ” The idea had made perfect sense to Hugh, and so here he was at the Heron, drinking ale and singing sentimental songs with men who were as practiced as himself in facing death, if not more so, and swapping stories with the nearest of them while Pepper alternately curled up under his chair and nosed out to beg for scraps.

Many of the songs were poems Hugh himself had written, the words set to older tunes with varying degrees of success. This was, he knew, by way of being a tribute to himself, because on a normal night the only ones they bothered with were Earnish Mike's song, “I Used tae be a Soldier-sailor-miner-caravanner,” And the new one from the still-unfinished Fergus O'Doone book, “My father is King Enough for Me.” When he was in a brooding frame of mind, Hugh worried that his other efforts to write about commoners' lives with the same respect as Sir Robin gave to vanished heroes were about as true-to-life as those paintings of shepherdesses in pink hoopskirts that hung Queen Gwyn's sitting room. Maybe they were too long for people who didn't read. Or maybe just too new... Hugh wrenched himself back to the present. Someone had made the effort of getting this lot to learn a whole lot of Hugh's words, and they had meant it as a gift. The least Hugh could do was stop moping and listen properly.

Sgt. Craig was acting as seneschal tonight, which in this crowd meant nothing, except that when he deemed it fit, he would bang his tankard on the table and bellow, “QUIET!” in his parade-ground voice. Under Hugh's hand, Pepper flinched.

“Awreet!” the sergeant barked as the din around him settled down to a low mumble, “We are here taenight in honor of Guid Prince Hugh, who has been a friend tae us all these last three years or more, and listened tae all our best tales withoot a-calling us liars, and paid for mony a pint of ale, and nivver once told anyone how a lost battle could hae' been won, did we only do it his way. Taemorrow night, our Prince joins the Solemn and Press-teedge-ee-ous Order of Poor Fellows What've Been Buggered O'er by Folk they Nivver met. The Arms o' this Order are a fine box-bed, just big eno' for one, a fine linen sheet tae wrap up in, and a hole i' the groond tae hold it a.' ”

Their laughter at this joke marked the men in the tavern for soldiers, Hugh reflected, as surely as the scars on their faces and arms and the tattered regimental tartans that a few of them wore. One of the first things that had drawn him to this lot was the way they spoke of death and horror-- not as if it didn't matter, but as if it mattered no more than any other thing one might meet in the course of a day. They could be sentimental as anyone over a child or a love ballad, Hugh knew, but death and injury were simply things that happened.

This straightforward approach had much endeared them to Hugh, who had been tired of people tiptoeing around their doomed Prince before he had rightly understood what it was they were being so careful about. For all that his peers in the court had been trained as knights, and were supposed to be dauntless in the face of hardship and face violent death at the hands of an enemy with aplomb, the prospect of one of their number dying slowly, in his own home and surrounded by comforts, made them very uncomfortable indeed.

Hugh remembered how much work it had been to get Sir Robin to understand that, when you had known since you could talk that your life would be a short one, you simply took it into account and went on living. It wasn't something that improved by ignoring it. On the other hand, Hugh had more sympathy for the courtiers that tiptoed around the subject of his Curse than he did for the ones who thought it was the most interesting thing about him, like Lady Perdita and all the other young ladies in black.

Sgt. Craig was still talking-- something about how most soldiers were initiated into the Solemn Order of Poor Fellows by their first recruiting sergeant, but Hugh had been done over by his many times great-grandfather. Robin the Sorrowful was actually some sort of uncle, but there was no reason to point that out. “So our prince is unblooded and green as a goose,” the old soldier concluded, “but he's a funny skill wi' words. He'll listen tae iverything ye say, and then he'll write it a' doon, and once he does, what he writ is what ye said, and what ye said couldnae be said any other way. And tae prove it,” the sergeant shouted above the mounting roar, “Here's Earnish Mike, telling the same story he always has, in the words Prince Hugh wrote twa years back: the words that'll likely outlive the lad and even Auld Mike himsel –”

The rest was drowned out in a roar, as Earnish Mike heaved himself up on his pegleg and started in on “I Used tae be a Soldier-sailor-miner-caravanner.” Except most folk here just called it “Earnish Mike's Song.” At the Staggering Heron, Earnish Mike was the true royalty and the doomed and eccentric prince was merely a mascot. And that was another reason Hugh kept coming back.

…. And that is how I lost me leg, and Oh, 'tis I am sorry;
For I'd hae rather 'twas the foreman at the bottom o' that quarry...

Hugh had written half the song in one sitting, after a month of listening to Mike holding court. He'd had to make his way to the Heron very early one evening to catch the fellow when he was sober enough to listen to it being read and offer his opinion. Hugh had been as gratified by Earnish Mike's acceptance as Mike had been amazed by having anything of his put down in a book that would be read “by scholars and gentlefolk and all.” But he had been as stern an editor as the Dowager Countess in his own way, and it was Mike that had insisted on adding a few verses that Sir Robin had flatly refused to print:

...The job it cam' wi' lodgings, but it left me wi' the pox,
Sae I hied me tae the guidwife wi' a stall along the docks.
She said, 'I can cure ye, but I fear the price is high,
Tae tak' it ye mun leave behind your leg up tae the thigh.”
And that is how I lost me leg, tae just aboon the knee,
Though why the aud witch wanted it is more nor I can see.
I paid her price withoot complaint, and I gi' thee my word,
I'd hae gladly gi'en her both me legs, that I might keep the third!

The stories were Mike's. The words were Hugh's, though it was occasionally useful to pretend otherwise. Hugh told his mother and Pastor Stuart and any number of other dismayed courtiers, “we wrote it together,” and let them assume that the drunken old soldier had been responsible for whatever offended them. And Earnish Mike said, “we wrote it taegither,” when he introduced it to his friends at the Heron, and let them assume that Mike had been the brains of the operation, letting Hugh read bits of paper at him while he'd managed to bilk the innocent prince of a small fortune in ale.

Though he occasionally (much to the disapproval of the Dowager Countess) got to brooding about how his work would be remembered in years to come, Hugh never brooded about this one. It had been pure, wicked fun, sitting back in the smoke and fug of the Heron, drinking ale and doing his best to come up with lines that made Mike and the others laugh. If in the end it really was “Earnish Mike's Song,” and not Hugh's, that was only fitting, and probably a better gift to the old reprobate than all the pints of ale Hugh had ever bought him.

The whole tavern joined in on the last verse: one which had gotten Hugh into no end of trouble with Pastor Stuart. In this one, Mike got himself involved in some black magic. The lost leg was the one part of him that didn't make it over the threshold of the kirk in time, and the Evil One got hold of it and carried it away:

I went and asked the Pastor, but he said he didnae ken:
An 'tis Below, while I'm Above, will I feel it burning then?

After the song ended and Mike sat down, Hugh stood up and everyone quietened again. “Thank you, Mike,” Hugh began. He “And thank all of you for coming here this night, and for your friendship these last few years. 'Tis said every Curse brings its own blessings alongside, and one of my blessings has surely been that I had the freedom to racket about and meet good folk like you, instead of training all day to be my father's heir.”

What would he have been like, Hugh wondered, if he had spent his days in that training, as his brother James did? He would certainly know a great deal more about the mortice and tenons of taxes and treaties. The courtiers would say James knew more about how to lead – or in some cases just how to use – his fellow men. Hugh's opinion was that in their own way the commoners spent just as much time on politics and manipulation as the grander folk, even if the rituals were different and the stakes were lower. Not that the fate of a family couldn't loom just as large as the fate of a kingdom, provided it was your family.

“ 'Tis a blessing as well, I think,” He went on with his speech, “that I get to say farewell to all of you properly like this, and to say again, thank you. Thank you all.” Hugh had to wipe his eyes as he sat down. It had taken a long time for him to realize that it really was a blessing to see your end coming, to be able to make your peace with everyone you would be leaving behind and say what you wanted to say... At least he'd got through his thank-you speech without his voice giving out. When he really felt something strongly, he found it hard to speak above a whisper.

Someone shouted, “Three cheers for Prince Hugh!” and hands clapped his back, and Pepper nosed his hand again. Hugh smiled. He was touched, and sad that these nights at the Heron were coming to an end, and more afraid than he would admit to anyone but Pastor Stuart of what was coming next, but he was also grateful beyond measure to be where he was.

The evening wound down and the fellows who were the least able to hold their drinks stumbled out into the night or slid under tables. Hugh and Sgt. Craig sat drinking water and talking quietly. They would each in their own way be on duty tomorrow at Tierce, and were careful not to let themselves get anything south of tipsy. “I've told Tamshire to give my share of the profits from my book to Mr. Taverner there'” Hugh said. “He's to use them to give a pint of ale to any fellow from the Almshouse who can't pay for his own. Can you cipher well enough to keep an eye on the figures and keep him honest?”

It was Sgt. Craig's turn to wipe his eyes. “Aye, laddie, I can do that. 'Twill be a fine legacy.”

“Put it on my tombstone,” Hugh chuckled, “ 'Always guid for a pint.' It doesn't look like the Fergus book will be done with in time, but Tamshire might print it anyway, and if he does, and if it sells, it'll be the same arrangement.”

Pepper looked up suddenly and growled at a man who approached the table tentatively. Hugh looked followed the dog's gaze. He was pretty sure he knew the fellow, though he couldn't remember the name just now; one of the stable hands, was it? “Hush, Pepper,” he murmurred, “this fellow's all right.”

“Pardon my boldness,” the fellow said, “but I did hear tell you've an interest in tales of Fergus O'Doone?” at Hugh's nod, he went on, “It just so happens that the fellow I'm takin' this pair o' horses taenight claims his granddad marrit one o' Ruddy Bess's sisters. He's nane so far awa' that it would trouble you tae gang home again, after, if you'd like tae have a word?”

“You're sure he'd welcome a guest at this hour?”

“Och, aye, be right glad of it, he would.”

“Then I would like to meet him, if only to set up some other, better time to talk.” Some of the other Princes had lasted as much as a month, after all. There might be time to talk...

“I'll be saying farewell tae the pair of ye, then,” Sgt. Craig said, stretching, “Can ye be sure you'll see him safe home again?” He asked the groom. So the sergeant knew him too, Hugh thought.

“ 'Tis a promise,” the fellow said, with a brilliant smile that transformed his rather nondescript face, and all three of them left the Staggering Heron to go their ways: Sgt. Craig stumping up along the Castle Road, and Hugh mounting one of the groom's pair of tall, tar-black horses.

Chapter Text

By daylight, the remains of the charcoal burner’s croft looked even more pathetic. Katie didn’t see how Hilda was going to manage long enough for her remaining stack to burn down to a salable load, even if she and Trina left most of their food and a blanket or two with her. What little Katie knew of such things suggested that the stack was a week or two from done yet. As the three of them munched their porridge, she said as much.

“Listen, Mother Hilda, why not come along with us? We mean tae join a pilgrim train in Clydesmuir and make our way tae Shanterburn and St. Unweigh’s. Surely the Sisterhood would have some sort of work for you, if nothing better comes before then. And in the meantime, Trina and I could use a companion who kens what she’s about on the road, as we do not.”

Katie was already regretting not having taken any salt during her hasty raid of the kitchen yesterday. The porridge wanted it badly. Maybe Trina’s right. Maybe we should hae called on our friends for more help and risked whatever the sorcerer could hae learned or done in the meantime. Maybe I wasnae so very quick-thinking and clever. Maybe I was just panicked and popping off like a startled grouse in the woods. Aloud, all she said was, “I mun beg your pardon, good Mother, for being so sharp and suspicious of you last night. I was tired, of course, and I’d been worrying about bandits and the like all day. Truly, we’d be glad tae have you with us. You mun ken more than we do of the way from here to Clydesmuir. Or if you willnae join us, we’ll leave some of our supplies with you, tae make things easier.”

Hilda laughed. It was a surprisingly warm, rich sound for such an old woman. “Oh, there’s no need of that!” and her voice didn’t quaver at all. Hilda stood up, and Katie blinked. And then blinked again at a hale, middle-aged woman, more queenly than her mother had ever been, dressed in a splendid cloak of silver-gray velvet with a collar of white fur – too long for rabbit fur, Katie noted distractedly, what was it then? – And where had Hilda gone? “You have passed the test I set you and more, Princess, and Honorable Katherine. You were willing tae share what you had, you took a share in the work tae be done even though you were tired and used tae being waited on besides. You had enough respect for a poor old crofter tae give her a choice of how she wished to be helped. And you apologized for your own faults. Well done indeed!”

Katie realized her mouth was hanging open and nothing useful was coming out of it. She shut it and scrambled to her feet, managing a clumsy curtsey with muscles so sore from the day before and the cramped night's sleep that she could almost hear them creak and twang.

Trina, who had likewise scrambled to her feet, had not lost her silver tongue when she lost her beauty. She spoke, and it seemed she was starting to get the hang of enunciating around the harelip. “Truly, great lady, we are amazed that one such as yourself would think twa silly lasses like us tae bve worth teshting. So unready are we for the journey we have chosen that even the helpf of … of the woman we thought you were, would bve most welcome to us. I cannae say that I feel as though my shister and I have done so very well."

The woman chuckled gently. “Princess, I am called the Silver Fairy, and I serve as a Guardian of this realm, and of others. You may have heard some folk speak of a Fairy Godmother? I am she. Well do I ken the pair of you came in haste, and fleeing evil. Nor are you twa the first I have met who were doing so, nor the worst prepared. And so I say again, well done. And tae make the rest of your journey easier, though it still will not be easy, I have gifts for you.”

The lady walked over to Katie and fastened a silver pin on her cloak. It was shaped like a many-pointed star, with a clear, smooth drop of glass – or maybe it was a stone – in the center. “This pin will warn you if you are dealing with someone who cannae be trusted,” the Godmother explained. “If the person before you is simply a liar, a cheat, or a braggart, the silver will tarnish. If they actively mean you harm, the stone in the center will turn blood red. You earned this boon when you were willing to learn from an old beggar woman. Because you were willing to share your food,” she went on, “that bag of nuts you carry with you will never run out, unless you try tae sell them instead of sharing them with whomever asks. And because you worked like servants and treated a beggar woman like an equal, you have earned these.” The lady handed each sister a nut like a walnut, only nearly as large as a ripe plum. Katie looked at the wrinkles and creases in the shell of hers and thought she saw faces. “You will still need to work, and work hard,” the lady admonished, “and that is all to the good. But the day may come that you’ve the need tae be fine ladies again for a time. When that day comes, open your nuts.”

Katie and Trina thanked her humbly, tucking the nuts away in their petticoat pockets. “Now,” the Silver Fairy announced, “ ‘Tis time tae be away. You twa have more than half a day yet tae Clydesmuir. I wish you well.” And with that, there was a flash of light, as if the morning sun had caught a reflection on a glass window –though there were no windows here– and the Godmother vanished, leaving nothing behind her but a ruined cottage, a pair of walnut-sized bulges in their pockets, and the silver pin on Katie’s cloak. There weren’t even footprints on the ground where she had been standing.

“Well!” said Katie, “I never!”

****************

Clydesmuir was long and narrow, wedged up between the mountains and the road through them. Every building was at least two stories tall, and they were all built tight against each other. Even the inns had their stables huddled underneath the same roof as the rest of the building, and almost no yard at all. This early in the Spring, it wasn’t as full as it would be when the snow melted in the northern Chieftainships, but it was still busy and crowded, and smelled, if possible, even worse than Harbor Street in Brucemuir. There was no sea breeze to send the smell away, here. And no ocean to carry away night soil or other filth either. And caravanners smelled worse than sailors – at least, worse than the sailors who came to Castle Bruce. They told the same kind of jokes, though. Somehow, they weren’t so funny when it was just Katie and Trina there, with no hulking guardsman about to loom over anyone who looked like wanting to do more than joke.

In some ways, Katie felt, she was having to manage this without her sister, too, even though Trina was right beside her, and still with all her wits intact, though more than a bit shaken by everything that had happened. But the sister beside her wasn’t the Princess Katherine anymore.

Back in Brucemuir, when they were among people, usually it had been Trina who did all the talking. She was better at it, and she had more friends than Katie did, and usually it was easier just to stay by her side and listen. But Katie couldn’t do that here. For one thing, if Trina spoke, people stared at her as if the words had come from one of their mules. And everyone who spoke to Katie seemed to be working on the assumption that Trina was daft, or deaf, or both, as if she had ceased to be a person at all when she ceased to be pretty. So now, Katie had to be the one to talk to strangers. And do it in a way that didn’t get their backs up or put her and Trina in danger. ‘Tisn’t as though these are bad folk, she told herself sternly. Just talk to them.

But knowing how much was at stake made every conversation, even simple ones about where the kirk was, feel like trying to walk on a path that was half covered with loose pieces of shale. And Katie wondered if she was imagining the wariness she saw in people’s eyes when they looked at her and her sister. Women, especially young ones, usually didn’t travel the roads alone. And the ones who did were crofters. Even after two weary days on the road in their plainest clothes, nobody could mistake Katie or even the transformed Trina for a farm lass. On the other hand, Trina had told Katie more than once that if you acted wary, the person you were talking to would be wary about you. So maybe it was all Katie’s fault. This whole journey is my fault. Well, mine and the sorcerer’s. But definitely my responsibility. So I’ll do what I mun. And Katie took a deep breath and rang the bell at the door to the kirk.

It seemed like a very long time before the door creaked open. But then, in a town the size of this one, the pastor would be busy with a thousand things between Prime and Vespers. There would be all his duties in town, and all the travelers that came through would keep the kirk itself busy. Both the pilgrims and the caravanners would want to beg the help of the local Saint: Ennis the Wanderer, who had carried his father on his back from the ruins of one city and (eventually) founded another. All those travelers left offerings behind, so the building was nearly the size of the kirk in Brucemuir – the big one, not the Family Chapel that was Pastor Scott’s domain. Between the size of the kirk and the size of the parish, Katie wasn’t surprised that it took a while for the Sexton to answer the door.

They heard him before they saw him, singing in a slightly cracked voice that set Katie’s teeth on edge. He came around the corner of the kirk, a little bandy-legged fellow with mud-colored hair, jingling a huge bunch of keys in time to his song. Katie realized that she knew the tune, and it wasn’t a hymn:

A-ah the last craw
Wasnae there at a’
Wasnae there at a’
Wasnae there at a-a-ah…

He trailed off as he saw them. “Please, Sexton,” said Katie, “My sister and I are on a pilgrimage to St. Unweigh’s, in Shanterburn. We would like to water our mules by your well, and light a candle to the holy ones here before we gang on. And if you ken of anyone else in town who is bound the same way, I would like to know of it. We may want tae travel together.”

The sexton continued to peer at them, brows furrowed and panting slightly, not as if he were out of breath, just as if he had forgotten to breathe through his nose. “ ‘Tisn’t Unweigh here,” he said at last. “ ‘Tis Ennis. Ennis was a good man, he was. He was a king but he only had boats for a long time not land and his papa rode up on his shoulders."

Katie sighed inwardly. The sexton at Bruce Kirk had been a simpleton, too. In fact, Katie couldn’t recall ever once hearing or reading of a sexton who was right in the head. Perhaps it was because most kirksmen were kind and charitable, and would hire lunatics or fools when no one else would. If the pastor treated this fellow kindly, it was a good sign. And the pastor, when he came in, would know about pilgrim trains. “Ennis, yes,” she said aloud. “Can we water the mules at your well and then light a candle to St. Ennis?”

The sexton considered this. “She’s ugly.” He pointed at Trina.

“Yes,” Trina answered softly, “I am.”

The sexton nodded. “Me, too. I’m ugly.”

“I’m sure you’re a good man, all the shame. Else you wouldnae bve at the kirk, helpfing St. Ennish.”

“A good man. Like Ennis. But I cannae hae my papa ride on my back. He’s too big.” With that, the sexton opened the door wider, to let them in.

“Thank you, Sexton,” said Katie, “and where shall we take our beasts?”

“I’ll see to ‘em.”

Katie stole a glance at her cloak pin. Clearly, the man was no sage, and it probably wouldn’t do to ask him about the road to Shanterburn, but the pin still shone as if it were new-minted, so he could probably be trusted to actually care for the mules and leave the contents of their packs alone. “Thank you, Sexton. We’ll see the kirk, then, and light our candles.” And they switched places at the doorway, the two sisters going into the kirk, and the sexton coming out to take the mules’ leads.

The inside of the kirk was the most homelike place they’d been in two days. The smell was the same as the Brucemuir kirk, and the glass in the windows was Brucemuir glass, for all it was formed into pictures of St. Ennis instead of Simm the Fisher. Without having to think of anything much, Katie and Trina gave their habitual curtseys to the door saint, and dropped a half-copper apiece in the box to pay for their candles, and murmured the usual prayers to the Great Saints by the altar. As they had promised to do, they lit one to St. Ennis the Wanderer, too, asking him to bless their journey and also to watch over the sexton, who wandered in his wits if nowhere else.

By unspoken agreement, they settled on one of the listeners’ benches afterward, taking in the peace and the colored light from the windows. Katie supposed they should go back out into the market and ask there about pilgrim trains, and then come back to the kirk at Vespers. But she really didn’t want to, just yet, and Trina wasn’t making any moves in that direction either. They were both weary from their unaccustomed journey, and there would be many more markets ahead of them, and miles too.

Katie wondered if the sorcerer who had cast that curse would be following them along those miles, or trying to. The Temple of Unweigh should be safe, but what about the road going there? There would be holy folk in a pilgrim train, surely. Was a pilgrim train like a kirk, as far as wicked magic was concerned? Would it keep the sorcerer from doing anything worse? But if someone truly meant Trina ill – and someone obviously did – they wouldn't necessarily need magic to do a mischief... “We should use different names while we're traveling,” she said aloud. “ 'Twill be safer that way. I could call you 'Kitten,' as I used tae, if you'd like, or Kit for short... there are plenty of Katherines about of all ranks, after all.” Trina nodded, a bit absently. “I suppose I could be 'Kay' myself, even. After all, Grania has three brothers all named John because the same uncle stood Godfather tae all of them... no. Anyone who kens enough tae be looking for a dark sister and a fair one, both named Katherine, would ken tae listen for nicknames as well.”

“You could ushe your middle name.”

Katie stiffened. “I'll not be Martha. Not when mother may have... no.”

“Em, then. You've twa M's in your name, so 'tisnae a lie, quite. It sheems wrong, shomehow, tae lie on a pfilgrimage.”

Katie thought about it for a while. She didn't really feel like an Em. “Em” sounded retiring and closemouthed and gentle, and she was none of those things. Perhaps I'd best learn, though. The closemouthed part at least.

“All right,” she said, We'll be Em and Kit Mc... Mcwhat? McKine, like Grania? McClaver?”

“Hapfney.” Trina announced, decidedly.

“McHapney? Why McHapney? Who ever heard of anyone named McHapney?”

“Bvecause,” Trina recited solomnly, “Everybvody kens, if you're in for a Ha'pfenny, you're in for a crown.”

Katie found herself grinning. “So my own silly Kitten is still there, underneath that sad mask you've got stuck on you. I'm glad. McHapney it is, then, 'til we get tae St. Unweigh's and learn how tae break your curse.”

“You know, Katie– I mean, Em,” Trina murmured thoughtfully, “I’m shamed tae admit it, but ‘tis a far worse curse than I thought it would bve, tae bve ugly like this. A week pfast I’d hae sworn I cared nothing for my bveauty, and given it all away to some dowerless lassie who needed it more than I. I’d even hae said it was a bvurden I dinna want, espfecially since it seemed to vex your mother so. I always tried tae do as Pastor Scott bid us, and think little on my face and much on how as I could do my duties well, and be loving and kind. Even now I can think of many things I wouldnae choose tae do, tae get my bvonny looks bvack again. Bvut I didnae ken how much easier it is tae bve kind and loving and dutiful when you are bvonny and rich tae gang with it. All those pfeople in the town who look pfast me, and bveing so tired from riding… and I was near to slapfing that pfoor coof of a sexton when he pfointed at me … and ‘tis only half a day I’ve bveen among pfeople like this. Maybe I’m nae so good as I thought I was.”

Katie barked a surprised laugh. “Oh, Kitten! Mun I put on Pastor Scott’s voice and tell you that being good is no easy thing, and that if you’re only good when ‘tis easy, then you’re as wicked as anyone? I was half asleep at Prime, most mornings, and even I could recite that one.” And, to all the complaints that sweet Trina wasn’t making, Katie added, “ ‘Twill get better, I promise. Just you stick by me. We’ll see this through.”

Trina said nothing to this; she only sniffled and pulled herself up against her sister for a hug. Katie stroked her hair, and said, “gang on and cry, love. We’ve time and plenty, and the Saints have all seen worse. Maybe I’ll cry too, for anger at whoever did this. And we’ll stay here ‘til the sexton kicks us out, or until the pastor comes in and we can ask him for help. He might even have pen and paper, for us to send a letter to your father and tell him what’s become of us. He’ll send aid of some sort along, tae be sure. But we can rest before we do the next hard thing, and we’ll do what we mun when the time comes.” Katie wasn’t sure which one of them she was trying to reassure. Her sister merely cried harder, but then, she had the right to.

Chapter Text

It was fortunate for King Malcom’s peace of mind that he received both messages on the same day: the panicked one from his chief steward that his daughter and stepdaughter were missing, and the one from the missing Princess herself, explaining where they were running to, and why. The latter had been put in his hands by Godmother Hildegarde, the Silver Fairy, whose fantastical little pink-sailed boat had pulled up alongside his own just before they headed in to the next harbor for his next port of call in the Northern Straits. As usual, she had explained very little, simply saying that she would have some advice for him once he read the letter she carried, and then giving him the advice once he did.

There was plenty in that letter to cause worry, but at least there were things King Malcom could do about it. He promptly sent one of his most trusted knights to Shanterburn by the sea route, taking with him a sum of money to pay for the wayward lasses’ keep, and the knight’s wife to serve as lady-in-waiting to them. If the two Katherines had not made it to Shanterburn by the time Sir Martin had, then he was to head north along the pilgrim road until he found them. Sir and Lady Martin were both veterans of some of Katie’s earlier, equally impetuous schemes, and King Malcom hoped they could keep things from going too badly wrong. Really, he had to admit, as Katie’s queer starts went, this pilgrimage idea was relatively well thought-out. If King Malcom couldn’t identify this mysterious mage who had cursed his only daughter, then St. Unweigh’s was probably as safe a place for them to wait as any. Meanwhile, King Malcom himself returned home, to calm his people as well as he could, and to see if he could pry any sensible information out of his wife.

He found Brucemuir as he had expected, aswirl with rumor; much of it started by the second copy of Trina’s letter that had arrived at the castle. Officially, of course, it was for King Malcom’s eyes only, but naturally the Chief Steward had opened it in his absence, and inevitably the news it contained had not stayed secret. Rumor had identified Biddy Noone as one of the mischief-workers even before the letter had arrived, because she had chosen to depart for places unknown on the same day as the Princess and her sister disappeared. But since Trina remembered a stranger in the trees, and Katie apparently harbored extremely unfilial suspicions about her own mother, and both these tidbits had made their way into the court gossip mill, Castle Bruce was in near chaos when the King arrived. A few particularly excitable souls suspected Queen Martha, disguised, of being the mysterious stranger, despite all they knew of her subtlety and intelligence, or lack thereof. She might have been fooling everybody all this time, mightn’t she?

Queen Martha was even less helpful than usual in the crisis. King Malcom had made arrangements to talk with her privately, in her own chambers, to see if he could get any sense out of her, as so far she had said little more than, “I never imagined! I never could have imagined!” over and over again.

“You never imagined what, my bonny?” he began gently.

“I never imagined the girls would do such a thing!”

Not, King Malcom noticed, she never imagined that anyone would curse the princess. “What did you imagine they would do?”

“Why, nothing at all!”

Which might well be true, if she had had nothing to do with Biddy Noone or whoever else had done the thing, but it didn’t help King Malcom at the moment. Not for the first time, King Malcom wished his dear wife had just a little political sense. “Martha,” he tried again, “listen tae me. Trina writes that the reason Katie and she ran away, rather than summoning help, was that the curse struck in the early morning, when the twa lasses would hae been abed were it not for your orders that they gang a-walking before Prime every day, and Katie worries that you had something tae do with it all. Now, I grant you that to Katie, the likeliest seeming explanation for anything is the one that will give her an excuse to gang a-venturing, but I still would feel better if I kenned how you came tae order those morning walks.”

Queen Martha, who had been reclining on a pile of pillows on a couch, clasping her forehead, sat up straight in indignation. “I think it very wrong that you should say any such thing about my Katie. She is as good a girl as ever lived.”

King Malcom sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose briefly. “Her goodness is no' in doubt. Her judgment, I think, could do with just a wee bit of seasoning. But I am waiting tae hear about those walks.”

“I’m sure I never wanted anything but what was best for both our daughters.”

“Indeed, my bonny, I’m sure you never did. And how did these outings before Prime figure in tae what was best for them?”

“Well, for one thing, it made sure they were both of them awake and attentive for morning prayers.”

“Ah.” King Malcom cocked his head. “Was either lass troubled in that regard, before?”

Queen Martha’s fidgeted with the fringe of her shawl. “Not that I noticed, but it is better to be sure, you know.”

After a half-hour of similarly fruitless discussion, King Malcom finally had done. “Well, my bonny, this is a trying time for all of us. And I cannae help but think that you have not told me all that is weighing on your mind.”

“Oh, but my own little troubles are nothing, compared to the ones to do with the girls. I promise you, I shan’t complain of them to a living soul.”

“I hate tae hear you make a promise so foreign tae your nature. I recommend that, if you will not speak tae a person, you may yet relieve your feelings by telling them tae the woodstove in my bedchamber. ‘Tis a good old stove, and it has heard me say such things of my counselors and allies as tae make it burn the hotter. I doubt you could say anything tae shock it too badly.”

The queen wiped her eyes and attempted a chuckle. “Do you know, I think I will! This very moment!” And she sat up straighter and made as if to spring from her couch.

He smiled indulgently. “The chambermaid is laying a fresh fire, turning the bedclothes, and dusting everything this very minute. Give her half an hour and then talk tae the stove.”

In fact, it had been the Godmother who had suggested to King Malcom that his wife might talk to a stove if she would not talk to him. She had further recommended that he wait in the bed, with the curtains closed ‘round him, when she did so. This was the first time since his first wife’s funeral that the Godmother had seen fit to tell him much of anything, and he was not inclined to disobey. And just as she had predicted, as soon as Queen Martha thought she was no longer talking to “a living soul,” the whole story came pouring out. King Malcom was aghast.

It wasn’t only that his wife had conspired to curse his daughter. He was willing to believe that Biddy Noone had laid some beguilement on her to persuade her into wickedness. But her appalling bad judgment went far beyond that first decision. She had never asked how the curse could be broken. She had failed to get any guarantees at all that Biddy Noone would do as she said she would do and nothing worse, or even to protect her own safety if things went wrong. King Malcom had been dealing with politicians of various sorts long enough to feel that, if one had decided to do something wicked, one should do it properly, but Queen Martha had no more gift for intrigue than a nursing lamb.

And through the whole weary tale, the way she favored Katie became plainer and plainer. Though he had heard some of the gossip on this topic before, King Malcom had never seen anything much to worry him. When they were all together, most of Queen Martha’s attention had been for him, not their daughters, and he didn’t see much difference between her treatment of either one at those times. He’d taken her at her word when she said she loved them both the same, and ignored rumors to the contrary as being the sort of thing one might expect to hear about a Queen who was less popular than her predecessor.

Plainly, he had been wrong. Even now, when her foolishness had put the kingdom in grave danger and thrown the court into disarray, all her worries were for Katie. She worried that Katie would be killed or harmed in the travels she had undertaken, that Katie’s reputation would be ruined and spoil the “chance” Queen Martha had tried to give her with this stupid curse. It did not seem to bother her at all that Trina was facing these same dangers. It did not occur to her that King Malcom might be worried about his daughter. Or even that it might be wrong to curse a lass for nothing worse than being prettier than her stepsister.

When the Queen was repeating, for the thousandth time, that she had never imagined such a thing happening, King Malcom heaved himself out of the bed with a grunt. “I am glad you got that off your chest, my bonny. And I am glad that no one else heard you.” Queen Martha started, and spun around to face him, gulping like a fish.

King Malcom kept his voice very low and dry. He spoke slowly, to keep from sputtering with rage. “But since I have heard, there are certain things I mun do. Do you realize, you could be charged with treason for conspiring tae curse the king’s heir?” She squeaked, and sat down all of a heap on the floor, as if her knees had forgotten to hold her up. No, it seemed she had not thought of that.

“I dinna wish it tae come to that,” he went on, “Because I am fond of Katie, hasty though she is, and I was once fond of you. Moreover, ‘tis plain enough that you are a greater fool than you are a backstabber. Finally, the legal proceedings would take ages and be expensive, and executing a traitoress would frighten the rest of my Court intae uselessness, tae no good end. So I dinna mean tae charge you. But not for any reason tae do with you.”

The whole time King Malcom was giving this speech, Queen Martha flapped her hands helplessly in the air and worked her mouth as though searching for something to say. When she finally did manage to get words out, they had nothing to do with legalities. It seemed she hadn’t heard a word her husband had said after "treason."

“But,” she whimpered, “But it wasn’t treason! Nobody was to come to any harm at all. Even the Princess would only have been humbled a little…”

“Enough.” King Malcom thought if she said another word, he might lose his temper completely and have her drawn and quartered after all. And that wasn’t what he wanted to do. Well, he was pretty sure it wasn’t what he wanted to do. He drew himself to his full height and stood looming over her.

“Martha, you have allowed your natural preference for your blood daughter tae eclipse every other concern. In order tae give her a very doubtful ‘chance,’ you have flouted your duties as stepmother to Trina, and worse, your duties as Queen and Chatelaine of Brucemuir. You have allowed a person you kenned tae be a dark mage to hold power over you, and not only did you not report her, you allowed this person tae curse the Kingdom’s heir. And how do you ken that the curses would have stopped at skin-deep?” He could feel his anger growing hotter as he tried to make plain to her just how great the evil she had done really was, and he made himself stop and take a deep breath. Fool, not traitoress, he reminded himself, and managed to return to a tone that was merely stern and cold.

“Plainly, the duties I burdened you with have been too much for you. I shall relieve you of them. I will announce before the council today that you were duped by Biddy Noone, that you have been found unfit tae be Queen, and that you shall be Queen no longer. Because you meant well, or think you did, you will still be my wife.” Just at the moment, he no more wanted her as wife than as Queen. Imagining her fussing over and flattering him while she blithely worked to destroy his daughter made him sick. But that was a problem for later, when this first crisis was over. “You will still live here,” he went on, “with a household allowance and servants of your own, but you will be Consort, not Queen. In the unlikely event that you should bear me a son at our time of life,” even more unlikely now, he thought to himself, since now ‘tis more than age keeps us in separate beds o’nights, “he will be educated well and given a good start, but he will not be my heir. I will tell the Counselors this when I meet with them an hour hence. I will tell the assembled Court tonight at supper, and I will announce it again tomorrow at morning prayers, so the lesser folk will hear it. I expect you tae be there with me at each of these announcements. Your part will be tae apologize tae my people for your failures, acknowledge that you accept your change of position, and acknowledge the Crown Princess Katherine Dove Nicola Bruce as my heir and Queen In Waiting.”

Lady Martha, so stunned by the word “treason” and the anger of the husband she had thought of as “a sweet old dear” that she hardly noticed the loss of her title, nodded tearfully and allowed King Malcom to help her up into a chair with scarcely a sound.

Chapter Text

Compared with their hasty and terrified trip to Clydesmuir, life in the pilgrim train was comfortable. Compared to their old life, even for Katie who had thought herself hardy when she had compared herself with the other ladies in Brucemuir, life in the pilgrim train was as penitential as the sternest pastor might wish. They rode or walked all day, and then were expected to do various chores at the temples and kirks where they spent their nights, or at the camps they set up between towns. Katie had a new appreciation for what the crofters must go through. And they were doing only a part of the work that a crofter or a fisher would have to. After the first week or so, Katie found herself growing accustomed to the work. It didn't stop hurting, but she got used to being uncomfortable. Nonetheless, remembering to be reasonably polite to their fellow pilgrims was a more-or-less constant strain.

Trina still struggled. She found that the hunch in her back interfered with her breathing somehow, and she tired faster even than the other wellborn women in the train: a “half widow” to a sea captain and her cousin, taking refuge at the Temple as so many women did when their husbands could protect their reputations, but not much more, and a much younger lady, barely a lass, who was being sent to the Temple to be educated. The lass's governess was there supposedly to guard her charge's reputation, but seemed to have little interest in the lass or the Temple or anything else. The Governess spent much of her time sulking.

Katie had expected to find people like them among their traveling companions. Unweigh was a “women’s saint,” generally, thought to be helpful when men misused their power or authority. She was also known to be a favorite among the other sort of “half widow,” the one who had been abandoned by a man who hadn’t bothered to marry her first. Katie rather suspected that there were one or two of that sort in the train as well. But she hadn’t expected so many other sorts of people. There was an honest-to-goodness knight and his squire, planning to petition the saint for help with a usurper to the throne of the Prince that the Knight served. This was the first time Katie had heard of anyone asking Unweigh for help with an actual Despot, rather than a despotic husband or father. There were several religious sorts from other Orders, planning to visit the Abbess or the Temple library, and with only a passing interest in the saint. There was a lacemaker from Mittelstein (and what was she doing so far from home?) who had been named for the saint (She was called Frieda in Mittlestein; a much more sensible thing to call a baby than Unweigh). And there was a customs-clerk escorting his sister, and a silversmith who had been commissioned to do some work at the Temple, and a dozen others.

For the first week, they had all been occupied with telling each other about themselves and where they came from. Katie said as little as possible and listened as much as she could, in hopes that she could keep her tongue in check and avoid offending any of her traveling companions. Sometimes it worked better than others; it was horribly difficult not to point it out when someone was being hypocritical, or took one of the good seats near the fire more than three nights in a row...

Keeping quiet was safer for them, too. People looking at Trina assumed that she was going to join the Order because no one else would have her. Katie definitely preferred that their fellow pilgrims come up with their own, innocuous explanations for their presence in the train, rather than having to give the real one, which sounded daft as anything, or a made-up one that would probably be worse. Besides, as Trina pointed out to her, “Telling pfeopfle they're wrong just gives them a reason tae argue with you.” Katie began to hope that, except for the work, their time in the pilgrim train might be reasonably untroubled. Unfortunately, it turned out that not everyone in the train came up with the same explanation for why Katie and Trina had joined the train, and one of them looked to make a great deal of trouble indeed.

Brother Spurlin was a hedge-priest who joined the train on the third day out of Clydesmuir, as they camped outside a huddle of crofts that went by the unprepossessing name of Pigswell. Now, hedge-priests were not well thought of at the best of times. Everyone admitted, grudgingly, that it was a good thing that there were holy men who were willing to travel hard roads between tiny, poor hamlets and do services for folk who were too far away from the nearest kirk to go regularly. It was thanks to the hedge-priests that crofter babies got christened, and sometimes their parents got married on the same day, if it had been some months since the last time a hedge-priest came through. And then he'd shrive anyone who wanted shriving (which was almost everyone; otherwise your neighbors would talk), and take maybe a coin or two, if there were any in the village, or a little sack of grain, or a new pair of gloves if someone had the leather, and go on to the next little hamlet.

It wasn't exactly a rewarding life, even by kirksman standards, and the men who chose it tended to be as unmannerly and ignorant as the folk they served, and obstreperously self-righteous to boot. It took a certain kind of temperament, after all, to prefer life in a series of flea-bitten hovels, yet being the only holy man for miles around, to a life as one brother among many, with two good meals every day. Such a temperament did not make for an easy traveling companion.

Worse than that, Katie had an idea that Brother Spurlin might be the other kind of hedge-priest: the kind that turned his services into a kind of extortion, or maybe supplemented his income by attaching himself to a gang of bandits, offering absolution in exchange for a share of their loot. That sort would perform a marriage even if one of the couple had been tied hand-and-foot and knocked unconscious, and might have a whore pay her penance in trade. There was no way to tell by looking at Brother Spurlin if he was that sort, of course, but the Godmother's pin had turned black as wrought iron when he first brushed by Katie on his way to talk to the caravan master, and after he joined the pilgrims he seemed to attach himself almost exclusively to the younger women in the train. Including Katie.

It started barely half a day after they left Pigswell. The train had come to a stop to water the mules and horses. Katie had hopped down off Bright and helped Trina down off Spot, and Trina was tending to both beasts; they were easy-tempered enough that she could lead them to water without trouble, and it was one of the few needful things she could do. Katie had spotted a nice little cluster of edible shelf-mushrooms growing on a nearby tree and was gathering them, with the help of a knife she had traded her best garnet ear-drops for in Clydesmuir. And why I didnae think tae take a knife when I raided the kitchens at home....The knife she had bargained for was a good one, though, and it wasn't as if Katie had actually liked the ear-drops.

In a way, it was lucky that Brother Spurlin approached her from upwind, because she noticed the reek of musty cloth, onions, and sour ale before he spoke, and so was not startled when a friendly-sounding voice behind her said, “Your pardon mistress.”

Katie finished the cut she was making and tucked the freed mushroom into a loop of skirt that she had tied off to form a rough sort of pouch, and then turned to see Brother Spurlin standing there, his eyes cast humbly downward. “Might you spare a few of those hazelnuts you carry with you?”

Mindful of the Silver Fairy's warning that she must share her magical supply of hazelnuts with anyone who asked, Katie had contributed three handfuls to the evening porridge the night before in Pigswell, and offered a few more to the village-folk as part of the pilgrims' fee for the use of their grazing lands. She had taken care to offer most of them from the larger sack Bright carried, rather than the little, magical one. Then, as she was loading Bright in the morning, she had pretended to refill her little sack from the big one, while actually sneaking a pair of handfuls from the sack that never grew emptier to the one that did. Sharing what she had was one thing, but she didn't want her new traveling companions to think of her as “the one with the uncanny pouch.”

However, she was not the only one of the pilgrims to miss having a midday luncheon as she would at home, and on the ride to Pigswell, more than one had drawn up to “Em with the hazelnuts” and begged a few to ease the road. And now here was the noisesome Brother Spurlin, doing the same.

“Aye, Brother,” Katie said politely, and dug half a dozen from her pocket and handed them over.

Brother Spurlin took them with a little nod and a mumbled blessing, and then glanced sideways at the little bulge in her skirt where the newly collected shelf-mushrooms were. “I shouldnae hae thought one such as yourself would have any need tae forage.”

Katie tensed slightly. She'd done her best, in their hasty flight from home, to make herself and Trina look as ordinary as possible. And Brother Spurlin could see for himself that the supplies on their mules wouldn't last them all the way to Shanterburn without help. But of course a hedge-priest would ken better than anyone what real poverty looks like. And a hedge-priest who gangs with bandits would ken where tae look for hidden wealth... But surely he'd not try anything too overt in the middle of a throng of witnesses? Hoping she hadn't been tongue-tied for too suspiciously long a time, Katie shrugged. “ 'Tis a long way tae Shanter,” she said, “And pilgrims are supposed tae live on the bounty of God.”

Brother Spurlin attempted a warm chuckle. It came out a little gluey. “Most of them choose tae live off the bounty of their ain harvest, though. Even the lacemaker has a pack mule laden with oats and turnips tae follow behind her, but you twa do not. One might almost wonder if you were fleeing something.” and he looked up at her, his face all innocent curiosity.

Is this fellow working for the sorcerer? Katie wished abruptly and heartily that she and Trina had fled no further than the Great Kirk in Brucemuir. Surely if the Temple was safe from dark magic, then so was their own kirk...

Katie risked a sideways glance at her cloak pin. It was still nearly black, but the stone remained clear. So the fellow was nasty, but not planning anything yet. Besides, if the sorcerer was looking for them, there wasn't much Katie could do about it except make it hard for him to take them away. There were enough holy folk in the pilgrim train to fight any new curses. Suppose he sends the constables after us in one of the towns? He could claim we've run from our indentures, stolen jewelry... That was a problem for later.

“I didnae mean tae frighten you,” Brother Spurlin apologized.

Hah

“I only meant tae offer a kindly ear, if you'd troubles you didnae wish tae share with the company at large,” he insisted. His eyes dropped again. “After all, I am a man of God. And I think I can promise you that none of your troubles are things I've not heard before.”

Katie thought,Aye, no doubt. But whether you made them better or worse after you heard them... Aloud, all she said was, “Our people ken where we're bound,” or they would, when Trina's letter reached them, “but I dinna think either of my parents will ever be famous for thinking of everything.” That was true as far as it went. Katie's stepfather, King Malcom, was shrewd, but Katie's father Ben MacLaird, by all reports, had been vague about anything but horses, and of course Queen Martha never seemed to think of anything whatsoever.

Katie shook her head a little and glanced in the direction of the burn; she was relieved to see Trina just coming back. “My troubles are ordinary enough. I'm only here for my sister Kit's sake. I'll be seeing tae her, now she's seen tae the mules.” And she made her escape as gracefully as she could.

Trina chose to walk for a while, which surprised Katie a little until they got a way down the track and Trina drew close enough to murmur, “Sister, you want tae watch that Hedge-pfriest. I didnae like him a bit.”

“Nor did I,” Katie agreed, “nor did the Fairy's pin. He kept hinting that we were something other than we seemed and trying tae worm something out of me about what. He lives among such poor folk that anyone with twa mules looks rich tae him, and he'll likely try to blackmail us. Or sell information about us tae someone. Or both.”

“Or just steal shomething,” Trina suggested. “I'd keepf that pfin on the inside of my cloak from now on, if I were you. Bvut that wasnae what I meant.”

“Oh?” Trina was right about the pin, Katie realized with embarrassment. She should have thought of that ages ago. Wiping her forehead as if she were hot, Katie unpinned the cloak and tucked it about Bright's saddlebags, tucking the pin in her pocket at the same time. If anyone asked about it later, she'd say she'd sold it. Or just lost it.

“ 'Twas the way he looked on you,” Trina elaborated. “The whole time you were talking, he stared at your bvosom...”

Katie blinked, feeling her cheeks heat. She'd known he was looking downward, but it hadn't occurred to her that he was looking at...

“And bvefore he came upf tae you, he was watching you bvent over that tree stumpf, and looking at – at your....” Trina trailed off, blushing in her turn.

“I think,” Katie said distantly, “the word you are looking for is 'arse.' Many of Father's friends used it, if you will recall, especially after the mead had gone 'round a few times, and so did the married women, if there werenae men about tae hear them.”

Katie managed to stop herself before she began to expound in a scholarly manner on the most commonly discussed varieties, such as the Smooth, The Tight, and the Great Thundering, and wrenched her brain back to the real subject at hand: “Which is not tae say that Brother Spurlin looks tae be anything save twa kinds of nasty, at the least, and I am glad he has gone on tae talk tae Mistress Doone's governess. The old prune has been telling him all her troubles this past quarter-hour, and I wish them joy of each other.”

***************

It seemed the governess had not been profitable, however, because by midafternoon Brother Spurlin was back, plodding beside Katie while Trina rode, and reciting a doleful monologue about the weakness of women in the face of temptation, and the dangers travel posed to the souls of such a vulnerable lass as Katie. Katie made one or two attempts to look him in the eye, but his were fastened on, yes, quite definitely her chest. Trina, he ignored just as most folk did. Her ugly face seemed to consign her to the status of one more piece of baggage on the mule. Trina herself added to the impression by keeping her head wrapped in her shawl most of the time until nothing showed save her eyes.

Katie ignored the hedge-priest as well as she could. He was irritating, but so were the old blisters on her heels that had burst, and the new blisters on her toes that were forming because the bandages she had improvised for her heels had changed the way her shoes fit. And on top of that, her clothes felt like sailcloth: chafing her ankles as she plodded and clinging to her skin like a peculiarly heavy kind of glue. For the first time in her life, she found herself actually missing the stiff, starchy feel of newly laundered clothing. Though she had eventually grown used to putting aside last week's broken-in gown for a newly ironed, slightly shrunken and uncomfortable one every Sunday, never before had she truly understood what a luxury that discomfort was. 'Tis ironic, really. I'm working four times as hard and getting four times as dirty as I ever did at home, but now that my clothes actually need cleaning, 'tis out of my reach. At least they mostly smell of woodsmoke, and nothing worse.

“Mistress Em?” The wretched priest was right at her elbow, standing closer than even her dance partners at a ball.

“What!”

“Did ye not hear me? I was speaking of the ways a man might lead an unwary lass astray... I wondered if you'd had cause tae learn that first hand from one of your suitors?”

Katie surprised both of them by laughing. She'd been so afraid of him before it had set her flesh a-creep, wondering what he might winkle out, but it seemed the worst he could think of was that she'd had a lover! No wonder the wretched creature had decided to batten on the pilgrims, if that was all he knew of folk. Surely it took a better understanding than that to bully or charm one's living out of skinflint crofters... “Nay,” she said, finally, “I never had a suitor yet. They all favored Kitten.”

For the first time since he had started pacing beside them, Brother Spurlin looked up at Trina on her mule. Stared actually, watching as she took a sip of water from a flask. Trina had to tilt her head back like a bird's to keep it from dribbling out of the harelip, which made her shawl slip back, exposing her matted hair. The folds of shawl bunched up between her hunch and her neck, making her look less like a sheep than a turtle.

“Her dowry is much the larger,” Katie added, calmly.

Brother Spurlin turned back to her, not at all calmly. “Woe betide you,” he trumpeted, loudly enough to make the mules shy, “that you have so fallen intae wickedness that you would mock me. God will see that you pay for what you do tae His servant!”

“Aye, doubtless!” Katie snapped, “But you're not His bailiff. I'll thank you tae leave me tae travel my ain road, good or wicked. And leave off staring at my bosom!” she added, which remark was answered by a chuckle from someone up ahead of them.

The hedge-priest drew himself up. “Very well,” he intoned, “if you'll not hear good counsel when 'tis given unto ye, than gang ye tae your just reward. And I'll pray the Saint can reach thy wicked heart where I could not. I forgive you,” he added, and before Katie could respond to that outrageous statement, he went on, “for 'tis clear a devil has hold of thy tongue. If you ever wish tae come tae me humbly, and mindful of the wrongs ye have done, then ye shall have my blessing.” And he strode away toward the head of the train, leaving Katie grinding her teeth over all the things she wished she could say and knew she had best not.

For the next two hours, until it was time to make camp, various of the other pilgrims who had heard Katie or heard Brother Spurlin's account of her, came to remonstrate with her. However repulsive the hedge-priest was, he was a Kirksman, and he had been attending on her soul. The nun from St. Croom's and the Brother from Our Savior of the Bog both used the same aphorism in their chiding: “You mustn't assume that God mislikes all the same people you do.” Katie remembered that Pastor Scott had said the same thing to her, more than once, and wondered if it was written down somewhere. She had to admit that she was much better read in the matter of ballads and romances than she was in works of an improving nature.

She also had to admit that the kirksfolk had a point, though not the one they likely intended. Whatever Brother Spurlin had thought or hinted or threatened, he could have done much less to her had she kept her mouth shut and worked on earning the goodwill of her fellow-pilgrims. The stone in the center of the pin had indicated that he did not actively mean her harm when he had first forced himself into her notice. She could feel the pin now as a spot of heat in her pocket, and she didn't have to look at it to know that the stone was as red as fire. My evil nature is its ain punishment, she thought, and it seems it is still with me. Katie spent the rest of the day's hike going over the whole thing in her mind and thinking about what she should have said and done instead, and wondering just when she would have to apologize to the odious Brother Spurlin for losing her temper.

**********

The first thing to startle her out of her despond happened when Frieda the Lacemaker spoke to her as they were both visiting a little spinney that had been designated as the Women's Necessary. “Dot vas so funny, vot you said to der nasty little priestlink,” the other woman chuckled. “Ve manage Dese tinks much better in Mittelstein; our royal scholars have translated der Great Books in ter Frankische, for anyvun to read. Zo der churchmens, dey know dey are mens.”

“Really?” That had led to a fascinating conversation over a pile of turnips that needed peeling, about how things were done in Mittlestein. The Grand Duke had set aside a fund to set up a dame school in every village large enough to have a church, and every family was required to send at least one child there to learn to read and cipher. Even the commoners prided themselves on being learned.

“It does lead to more arguink,” Frieda admitted, “because evervun tinks dey are an expert. But alzo, ve haff become great inventors, in Mittelstein. Ve haff der most efficient sewers, der best seige veapons, der most accurate clocks... is very interestink place.” Katie could only agree.

Even more welcome than Frieda's overture of friendship was a second visit, after supper was over but before most people were ready to go to sleep. Katie was trying to arrange a pile of springy twigs and bracken into something that would be more comfortable for poor Kitten to sleep on, when yet another voice hailed her out of the twilight: “Mistress Em-with-the-'ayzlenuts, innit?”

The person who walked up was the squire who served the exiled knight. Katie assumed he wanted more nuts for something, but his hands were both full: the left held two tin mugs with handles, filled with something that steamed. The right held a roll of thick cloth, and there was a lidded basket dangling from an elbow. “Squire Floyd,” he introduced himself, as he plunked down onto his haunches next to the fallen log where Trina was sitting. “Oi've got summat for you. 'Ere – 'ave a sit-down by your crippled sister.”

The face and accent were pure Piktenberger – broad, cheerful, and lumpy as Katie's latest attempt at a mattress. He looked to be in his forties, at least, and that was surprising. Weren't squires a kind of apprentice knight? They were in Brucemuir. When Katie sat, the man thrust one of the mugs at her and handed the other to Trina. “This 'ere's me famous Tenderfoot Tisane,” he announced, “Willow bark, poppy paste, and a great whacking lot of dried bramble-berries and mint to 'ide the taste. Hain't nothing better for a good noit's sleep after a long day on the rowd.”

“Thank you kindly,” Katie said.

“I hain't done. This,” Squire Floyd unrolled the cloth to reveal a set of gleaming blades ranging in size from a handspan long to barely larger than a needle, “Is me barber-surgeon's kit for draining those blisters the pair of you 'as got, and this,” he dug in the basket under his arm and pulled out a box, “Is lint and cobwebs for bandaging up h'afterwards. Works a treat. Now. Off with them boots of yours.”

Katie began to stammer something appropriately grateful, and Squire Floyd interrupted her again. “It's loike this, see,” he said. “I've been a Squire for a mort o' years; never wanted to be a real knoight, naow indeed. Can you imagine someone writin' a Ballad of Sir Floyd? Me neither. So I just goes along on the Quests and things and take care o' the mules and the lodgings and all – more h'interestin' than bein' a caravanner and you 'ardly h'ever 'ave to do any foighting.”

The monlogue was soothing, Katie found, an interesting story to listen to while she didn't think about what the man was doing to her feet. “So I've served along of four or foive different knoights now – one retired, two got 'emselves killed, one was just a narsty piece o' work and I up and left him 'alfway up a mountain in Cordeluz – and after all that toime, I reckon I know a Maiden in Distress when I sees one. So 'ere I be, all set to offer succor.” He grinned.

“Well, thank you again!” said Katie, “I suppose had you killed a dragon or something, I'd likely feel more grateful than I do now, but I cannae imagine what that would be like. Kitten and I've a lot tae learn about life on the road.”

“You do,” Squire Floyd agreed as he moved on to Trina's feet, “but I'll see if I can give you a few 'ints now and again, if'n y'don't boite me 'ead off loike you did with that Spurlin character.”

“I'll do my best tae listen,” Katie promised, “but I do get viperish now and again, and I cannae always stop myself in time.” She sighed, “I suppose I'd better apologize tae Brother Spurlin. He's nasty, but he hadnae really done much of anything.”

"Don't,” the Squire advised. “He'll just think it's safe to bully you if you do. And there's this,” he added, “I've been watching you two a couple of days, now, and you've never once whined to the caravan marster about not 'aving some comfort or other, you've not moaned about these 'orrible blisters you got, you've not beat your mule more than reasonable. The only toime you've really lost your temper was at someone what was pushing 'imself at you and loike to abuse 'is h'authority, and that's the sort of thing a bloke could give a fellow a clout on the 'ead for, and no one would think the worse of him. So it looks to me loike you moight be worth 'elping. Ol' gloomy-puss over there --” he jerked his head at the Knight, who did indeed tend to the melancholic, “ 'e won't bestir 'imself for anything in petticoats save a proper damozel. Reads too many books in my opinion, and got 'is 'ead in the clouds, but that's wot 'e's got me for. There you are, lovey.”

Squire Floyd turned away from Katie's feet, now much more tidily bandaged, and toward the pile of bracken. Then he looked back over his shoulder and winked: “ And one more good thing about me bein' a squire: I ain't taken no knightly vows what mean oi can't hurt a priest what forgets 'imself."

Chapter Text

There were two kinds of mutton sausage on the plate. The slices off the hard, smoked one were flecked with little white nubbins of grease. The new, soft, liver sausages from the spring lambing were swollen against their tight, yellowish-white casings. Prick them with a knife and they oozed. The casings were tied off at the ends in little yellowish-white knots that looked like parchment, and the meat inside was nearly gray. Hugh swallowed hard and reached instead for a second slice of bread, slathered over with apple butter. The bread tasted like sawdust and plaster, but at least the apple butter was sweet, and he really ought to eat something...

Father and James, across the table from him, were looking at Hugh's plate with identical expressions of worry tinged with pity. Queen Gwynn had taken one look at him and run from the room, distraught. Hugh fought down a wave of irritation along with the nausea he felt from the smell of the liver sausage. They meant well; it wasn't their fault he'd not slept much the night before.

Chewing doggedly on his bread, Hugh tried to meet their gazes reassuringly. Neither one of them looked reassured. He tried to formulate something to say once he finished chewing, and found himself oddly struck by the overwhelming presence of the ears on the two men's heads. It was such a peculiar arrangement, when one thought of it, to have one's ears on the sides of one's head like that; hardly any other creature did, after all. And the ears were a funny shape, too. Hares, deer, horses, dogs... almost anything else had ears like the finest of white clay cups, or seashells, or like little silk flags. Human ears looked like dried mushrooms.

Discomfited, Hugh looked about the room. There were a few servants standing at the table and guards by the doors. They all had ears. Right there. Hugh suddenly realized he knew exactly what they would taste like – they would be slightly furry on the tongue like peaches, and crunch like the seaweed salad that fishwife had given him that one time. Hugh still hated the memory of how that salad had felt on his teeth. And it wasn't as if he'd even thought of wanting to eat anyone's ears.... he left the other half of his second slice of bread and apple butter on the plate and excused himself from the room. Perhaps today he'd get at least a little writing done. He heard a sigh behind him, and his irritation returned. How he longed to return to his true home! Nobody there bothered him with this horrible, clinging pity!

**********

The encounter with Brother Spurlin was not the last time Katie found herself vowing to keep her temper and think before she spoke. Nor the last time she broke the vow. But she persevered, and found it grew easier with time. She even felt she had made a few friends. Squire Floyd continued to offer a helpful hand now and again. Frieda the lacemaker, like Trina, was able to tease her about Prince Hugh the Poet being her “real” reason for wanting to journey to Cullane without making Katie feel worse. Katie found herself wondering if Pastor Scott had been mistaken, and she wasn’t really so very evil after all.

By the middle of the second week, Katie finally felt far enough away from the terrible jealousy that had plagued her for so long back in Brucemuir to talk about it with Trina. She chose a quiet, misty day when they were all fumbling their way down yet another set of switchbacks, leading their beasts. Going downhill afoot was easier than going uphill, or so Katie had always thought when she'd gone on a day's ramble in Brucemuir. Do it over and over a thousand times, though, and your shins and ankles ached to match the aches in your calves from going uphill the day before. And that was without considering the mud. The Shanter valley seemed to be having a wet spring. Or, given that one of the counties of Cullane was called “Fenmarsh,” maybe this was normal.

The two of them were nearly the last ones in line, slowed by Trina’s weakness and crooked limbs. The mist muffled everything, giving them an illusion of privacy (though Katie knew it was only an illusion and made sure to keep her voice low.) It was easier than she'd expected. Their life on the road was so different than their life in Brucemuir that “Katie MacLaird” and “Em McHapney” might have truly been different people.

“Trina” and “Kitten” had always been the same person, though, and she was horrified. “Why did you never say what was troubvling you?”

“And what could you have done about it, Kitten? Except tae feel sorry when you’d not done a thing tae feel sorry about? Even at the time I kenned perfectly well that ‘twas nothing but my own self making me so miserable. Pastor Scott told me then that the greatest enemy anyone had tae fight was their own evil nature. ‘Twas a bit disappointing, in its way. I’d much rather it had been some nasty wee imp, riding on my back and whispering evil words in my ear, as I half-fancied at first.”

“Well, then Pfastor Scott was wrong!” Trina protested hotly. “You’ve a fierce, hasty tempfer tae bve sure, bvut you’re not evil and never were! I like the impf better."

Katie chuckled. “Well, and so did I! Wasnae I just now saying so? But dinna let it fret thee too badly, Kitten. If that imp’s still with me at all, it isnae riding my back any more. ‘Tis just lurking about somewhere in the trees, waiting tae see if it might do me a mischief and poke me intae losing my temper at the end of a long day.” It was such a relief, to just have to be minding one’s manners and not one’s feelings. That had been the worst part of the previous winter back in Brucemuir: not that Katie couldn’t hold her temper, but that she felt things that she knew were wrong to feel.

After a long, plodding silence, Trina looked up suddenly and said, “What if we pfretended there was an impf?”

“What?” Trina was not devoid of imagination, but she and Katie hadn’t “pretended” anything together in years.

“Evil always loses some of its pfower when you pfut a name to it. You feel bvetter abvout all that restlessness and envy now you’ve told me abvout it, do you not?”

“Yes… but why— ”

“So name it, ‘impf!’ ” Trina’s smudged face was alight. “That way you neednae waste your time and energy feeling guilty abvout how evil you think you are. You just need tae face the impf as you would any other hazard on the road. And if you pficture it as a wee, pfathetic, ugly little thing, instead of some great shadowy Doom, then you neednae be afraid of it. You can laugh, instead. Do you see?”

Katie did see. More than that, if the imp were “a wee pathetic ugly little thing,” her pride became a weapon against it, rather than something it could use against her. That little piece of herself that had puffed up with self-importance at the thought of being Evil, or Doomed, like some Dark Lady in a ballad, could instead puff itself up about being above such petty little desires as a place nearer the fire. Bless Trina! Katie really should have told her what was bothering her earlier!

The two of them spent a giggly couple of hours deciding what Katie’s imaginary imp should look like. Trina even offered to see if she could acquire some paper in the next town and draw it, but by that time Katie could picture it just as clearly as she could the imaginary Prince Hugh she had taken so many walks with back in Brucemuir: her imp was about the size of a cat – large enough that she could feel its weight on her back, but small enough that she could throw it off again. It had great, huge eyes like an owl’s, and great, huge ears like a bat’s, so that it could hear and see reasons to feel insulted or cross when no one else saw anything at all. It had a beak like Admiral Krakenlych’s talking parrot, the better for whispering to Katie in her own voice. It had grabby fingers and toes like Aunt Nicola Krakenlych’s pet monkey, the better for clinging and pinching, and wings for hovering nearby, when it didn’t cling. Katie pictured it as being gray in color and rather froglike in texture, simply because the imps she was the most familiar with were the carved stone ones in the Brucemuir kirk. She gave it a frog’s puffed-out throat, while she was at it – for breathing hot, stuffy air at her. Katie contemplated her imaginary imp for the rest of the day’s walk, and she believed that henceforth, her worst ideas would always come to her in a voice that held the hint of a parrot’s squawk.

******

By the third week, as they wound themselves down into the Shanter Valley and the trees gave way to rolling meadows full of buttercups and boggy fens full of sedge, conversation among the travelers in the Pilgrim Train had begun to flag. The more peevish pilgrims had begun to spend a decidedly irreligious amount of time complaining about the food that was to be had, and the effect that burning peat instead of wood had on its flavor.

It was the customs-clerk who suggested that every one of them in the train should tell a tale to help pass the time. This worked well, as it seemed that everyone had a favorite tale to tell, and everyone had something to say about everyone else’s. And since the folk in the train came from all over the Trullney Isles and from all walks of life, Katie at least found that most of the tales were unfamiliar to her. The evening it came to be Katie’s turn, they had already had a rather sad romance from the knight, a harrowing ghost story from Brother Sprulin, who apparently stayed with the train because no-one wanted to risk sending him away, and, from Frieda, a story about a young woman and her elderly husband which proved that, curse or no curse, Trina still blushed a faint pink like the inside of a shell, while Katie still turned beet red from her collarbone to the roots of her hair.

After thinking about it for most of the day, Katie had decided to make her story one of Prince Hugh of Cullane’s ballads, that she had set to music over the winter. Trina was able to borrow a lap harp from one of the other travelers and accompany her, and after the first verse, someone joined in on a lute. The story in the ballad was a quiet, sweet one about an old crofter and his wife, still in love after “twa score years.” Not much happened in it beyond the crofter gathering wildflowers on Spring’s Eve morning. But even so, Katie’s audience seemed appreciative.

“You’ve a bonny voice, lass. Warms me up like a cup of spiced mead, it does,” sighed the clerk’s sister. Katie was surprised. Given the lady’s rather pointed comments on other stories, Katie would have guessed she would find the story too sentimental.

“The words are Prince Cullane’s innit?” asked Squire Floyd. “Aye, I thought so. But where did you find a tune that gows so well with 'em?”

“I wrote it myself,” Katie answered, “over last winter. And I am proud of it, so I’m glad it pleases you.”

“Did you really! That’s fine work. Went straight to me 'eart, it did.”

“Yes, you did that poem justice,” said one of the nuns. “I do like Cullane’s work. He’s a gift for letting God’s grace shine through simple things and showing them to be the treasures they are.”

“P’raps ‘tis that curse on the poor lad,” the smith rumbled. “If I kenned I’d not live tae see my twenty-second year, I’d likely treasure every drop of life I got.”

“Oh, there really is a curse, then?” Everyone looked at Trina. Even after all this time traveling with her, some of the pilgrims still seemed surprised every time she proved she had her wits about her. It made Katie want to bite someone, sometimes. “I’d heard of it, bvut it seems like so many pfoets would give their eyeteeth tae have something as exciting as a curse, that I didnae bvelieve it.”

“ ‘Tis a true curse, right enough,” the smith answered, “You never heard the tale? I’ve been thinking on it all day, what with Cullane being sae near now. And ‘tis a Curse Year, too, sad tae say.”

“No, I never did hear of it.”

“Well, maybe I’ll let the Doom of Cullane be my tale, then. I was wondering what I’d manage for that.”

“It all started long ago, when there was still a Sea Serpent in Loch Grendel, not that Loch Grendel has aught tae do with the Doom of Cullane. Robert the Second was king of Cullane then, and his son Robert the Third, what was called Robert the Sorrowful later because of what I’m about to tell you about, it was time for him to marry. Well, the Prince Robert, he takes it intae his head that he’ll not have any but the fairest maiden in the land. Cullane’s borders was a bit smaller then, and it were just about possible tae actually gang a-looking at each and every lass within them. So King Robert sends ‘round among the villages, ye ken, and of course there’s plenty of lassies shows up on their own, or their mothers sends them along, and by the end of a year, Prince Robert had himself the choice of half a dozen of the bonniest of them. Some were bouncing and some were little, some had gold hair and some had red, and some brown, but they were each of them very fine lasses indeed.

“Well, the day comes when he is tae make his choice, and Prince Robert comes up before them all with a seventh lady on his arm, what nobody hadn’t ever seen before. But ‘twas plain for all tae see hat she was the bonniest. She looked like the moon among a lot o' little rush-dip lamps. There was pictures of her once, but they was all burned later, but they still tells stories about what a beauty Lady Ninnoc was. Hair down tae her feet, she had, and fair as summer cream, but shining like silk. Her eyes was all deep purple-gray like clouds at sunset, and lips like berries and cheeks like roses in bloom. And they say she moved like a swan, except she had just a wee bitty of a limp in her left foot.

“It were a funny thing about that foot. When Prince Robert brought her before them all at the court that day, she was all in green silk set about with pearls, but she hadn’t no shoes on. And on the foot what limped, she had a silver chain, light and fine as anything, round her ankle. And there wasn’t nothing for that chain to jingle against – it were too tight for that, but people swore it jingled, all the same.

“Well, so that was Lady Ninnoc, and not a soul would argue but that she was the most beautiful, yet something wasnae right for all that. She never smiled, did Lady Ninnoc, and hardly never spoke. And if she did speak, it was that soft you couldnae hear her from more than an arm’s length away. And they do say, that after she and Prince Robert married, things went awry in Cullane. The pixies and the spriggans would plague travelers on the roads even by daylight, unless they carried a bit of rowan with them, or the like, and people heard music under the hills after moonrise, and horses would be all ridden to lather after being put safe in their stables at night, and all manner of uncanny things like that. And things went on like that until the day King Robert, as he was by that point, his father having stepped down, and Queen Ninnoc had a son. That very night the tricks stopped cold. But there was worse a-coming.

“On the new Prince’s name-day, as they all rode tae the kirk together, the ground like tae open up in front of the carriage and all manner of queer creatures come out. But they all bowed to one among them, who looked like any other knight in armor, except he wore his hair long and loose, and he’d a pair of stag’s horns on his brow, and his eyes glowed green like a cat’s at night, even in broad day as it was. And this one – the horned knight – he points at King Robert and he says, ‘You stole away the treasure of my kingdom and of my heart. And I will do the same tae you and yours for as long as I live. That boy you have with you will grow in strength and beauty and all good things until the day he turns twenty-one, and then he will waste away and die. And so will his first-born son, and all that come after them likewise, until one comes along who kens not tae take what isnae given.’

“Well, of course everyone was proper horrified, but no one could do much tae any purpose. It all come out just as the Horned One had said it would. The boy grew fine and strong, and everyone loved him who kenned him – they still sing songs about Bonny Prince Robin, hereabouts – but on the day of his twenty-first birthday, he looked like he’d not had a minute’s sleep the night before, and he wouldnae eat hardly a bite. And it grew worse and worse every day until he died, the night of the next new moon. That’s happened tae every first-born son of Cullane for twelve generations now. There’s always something about them like the current lad Hugh’s poetry, tae make them beloved above the common way. It always hurts when they go.

“And they do say, that on the day of Bonny Prince Robin’s funeral, his father King Robert knelt at his Queen’s feet and broke the chain ‘round her ankle with his own hands. And when he did, she smiled for the first time anyone ever saw and ran off light as a deer – nobody kenned where.”

As the smith finished his story, the other pilgrims began, as usual, to offer their own commentaries. Frieda the lacemaker wondered about Queen Ninnoc, and whether she had really been stolen, or just decided to have “ein little bit of fun,” and then got in over her head. The Customs Clerk was amazed that one royal line could have lasted out twelve generations with such a curse on it; “I’d have thought some cousin or something would hae taken over long since.”

“As tae that,” said the smith, “they tried it twice, that I ken of, that the King would step down in favor of some other one as soon as his son was born, trying tae spare the laddie’s life at cost of his title. And each time, both laddies died: the prince whose father stepped down, and the eldest of whoever had taken the throne. They do other things, now; sometimes they marry the prince off at fifteen or so, tae have him get an heir or twa of his own quick as may be. If there’s a younger brother, sometimes they just make sure he’s brought up tae be the heir, not the spare. Like Hugh’s brother James is now. In a funny sort of way, ‘tis a help tae the kingdom. Not many wants tae try and take a cursed throne by force. On t’other hand, the years that the curse strikes again always have bad harvests and other ill luck tae boot. They’ve actually started planning for them, with storerooms and all, tae see everyone through the worst.”

“I feel sorry for the Cullane brides,” put in a matronly weaver, “not that many a woman doesn’t lose a bairn or twa for each one that grows, but ‘twould make it harder yet tae see it coming from the start...” The conversation wound on until it was time to settle down on rush mats on the floor of the kirk for the night. But Katie didn’t say anything.

Chapter Text

“Our money’s running low,” said Katie. They had managed to spend very little of it until near the end of their journey. The pilgrims mostly ate at the temples and kirks, and found some service to do in exchange – anything from scrubbing floors to – for the customs clerk – writing letters. But just a few days short of their goal of Shanterburn, in Cullane City, they had run into trouble. As the weather had grown warmer and Spring made her way up higher into the mountains, the snowmelt had filled the Shanter to well past the flooding point. The great Shanter Bridge was three feet under fast-moving water. And the water was full of things like downed trees that could be doing no good to the structure it covered. Benlow Ford was, of course, not to be thought of. Cullane Abbey was full of refugees and had no room for the pilgrims, and the rest of the town was little better. Even space in the hayloft above the stable where Spot was kept cost dearly, and of course, they still needed to feed Spot, and themselves. Katie had sold Bright a few towns back, and gained a little more money and one less mouth to eat it up. She had gotten a good price, but it seemed everything was more expensive here.

It would have been better if they could sell Spot as well, but Trina simply was not strong enough to walk the long distances. Katie had been steeling herself to divest herself of whatever she couldn't carry in her own two hands and simply hoist Trina on her back with the rest, like St. Ennis, but Squire Floyd had talked her out of it. “You'll break your own health, and 'ers, too,” he told her bluntly. “Besides, the more you sell, the less you'll 'ave to protect yourselves with, and the more vulnerable you are, the more you're loike ta need a way of buggering off real quick-loike. Don't sell the mule until you at least get across the Shantur. Keep the mule 'til the very last.”

Squire Floyd and the Knight (Katie still wasn't sure what his given name was, and she could hardly address him as “Sir Gloomy-puss”) were turning aside to stay at a Laird's Great House some forty miles out of their way, where the Knight had promised to slay a great uncanny boar that was ruining the few fields that weren't too wet to plant. Katie had been tempted to go with them, but they could barely afford to get to Shanterburn as it was, and besides, what could they do at a Laird's house that a dozen people weren't already doing? Furthermore, the Knight had not taken to them nearly as warmly as Squire Floyd had and would not want their company.

Frida the lacemaker seemed to have vanished completely within a day of the pilgrim train being turned away from the kirk. Katie suspected she may have found herself some protection on terms that Katie was not yet ready to accept. I was a fool indeed tae think Kitten and I would ever be able tae make it all this way with no help but our own selves. We've had folk giving us advice and charity every step of the way from the time we met the Silver Fairy on the path. And now that that help had come to an end, they were doing badly indeed. Brooding willnae help, though, Katie reminded herself, mentally shoving her imaginary imp off her shoulders again. And we're still far from having nothing, as those poor flooded-out crofters in the Abbey do.

The magic bag of hazelnuts was still full, and Katie heeded the Silver Fairy’s warning, and shared them with anyone who asked. There were beggars in town who knew her for that, now. They called her “Mistress Hazelnuts” and Trina “Thy pet squirrel.” The beggars’ good will was welcome, but the two of them couldn’t live on hazelnuts alone – not healthily, anyway – and they couldn’t sell or trade them or the magic would run out. And on top of that, Trina had a cold.

“Can we sell more jewelry?” Trina had insisted that they sell hers before Katie’s, all except the pearl necklace and one or two other pieces that were so fine they might draw the wrong sort of attention. But Katie’s store was gone now too, except for her own best set, which was done in garnets and opals.

“We can,” Katie replied, “But I dinna think we should. ‘Tis only our dower pieces we have left, now. I dinna think anyone in town could pay a fair price even for one or twa of the pearls in your necklace, and I dinna think they would wish tae pay anything near a fair price on pretty stones when things are so bad and we’re so desperate. And St. Unweigh’s will want payment too – even the Sisters bring their dowers with them when they join – and we dinna ken when your father will be able to send help, or what kind of help he’ll send.”

“We’d bvest keepf trying to hire out, then.” Trina had tried offering herself as a fine seamstress at each of the dressmakers in town, but been turned away.

“I’ve been thinking on that,” said Katie, slowly. “I dinna ken that we’ll have much luck in town. Even the crofters who still have dry land tae till are sending their daughters intae the city to try and earn extra coin, and most of the jobs we might do are things they can do better. In a good year, and if we meant to stay past the time when the floods went down, we might find a merchant or someone with daughters who needed tutors, but as things are, the only one in town who might want to take either of us is the bawd. But it might be different at the castle.”

Trina grew pale. “Oh! Oh, Katie, we cannae! We cannae gang inviting ourselves in there at such a time – Pfrince Hugh is ailing already; do you truly mean tae pfush tae see him, just tae say how you like his pfoems? Even Queen Martha would have more tact than that!”

Katie's temper snapped. She could almost hear her imp shrieking along with her. For the first time in nearly a year, she grabbed Trina by her shoulders and shook her, hard. “Give o’er!” she shouted, “Do you really think I’m as daft as that? We’re not ‘inviting ourselves’ tae anything. We’ll not try tae see anyone higher than the housekeeper. I dinna mean even tae mention where we’re from or who our families are, any more than we’ve done hitherto. But there may be work at the castle, and if ganging there will keep you and me warm and fed until the floods gang down, I’ll not let anything stop me!”

Trina hung limp under her hand and sniffed, wiping her eyes when Katie let go of her. “Oh, Katie, I’m sorry! I wasnae thinking. Of course you dinna mean… I’m sorry.”

Katie sighed. “I shouldnae have flown at you like that, either. You’ve done nothing worse than think the way we were both taught tae think up ‘til three or four weeks ago. ‘Tis only that I was already thinking that, compared with this fix I’ve got us intae, hanging about with mother in Piktenburg and hoping for an invitation from our betters doesnae sound nearly as dreadful as it did once upon a time. And of course, it is my fault we’re here. We could hae stayed at home and risked the sorcerer. We could hae taken Grania with us, or some of the Guard, that we needn’t be friendless in a strange place. But no, I had tae go and bully you into following the first notion that came intae my head, and here we are.”

Trina wiped her nose again – her cold looked to be getting worse – and stood up as straight as her hunched back would allow. “Katie, are you listening tae yourself? You’ve bveen fretting over that since the day we left, and it does nae more good than me expfecting tae bve treated like a Pfrincess and then bveing disapfointed when I’m treated like a lackwit instead. Think, Katie: were it bvetter that we gang home, instead of onward, wouldnae the Silver Fairy have sent us bvack after that first night? If someone whose pfowers were as great as hers seemed tae bve thought we’d be bvetter off a-journeying than waiting, I’m not abvout tae say her nay.”

Katie blinked. That had never occurred to her, not once. And not a day had gone by when she hadn’t remembered their encounter with the Fairy, for one reason or another. “Trina, how is it that everyone says I’m the clever one?”

“You are. Only you’ve bveen so canny for so long that you dinna look for helpf where you can find it. Your thoughts go out like scouts, with the rest of the army so far bvehind you forget we’re on the same side. But even scouts do bvetter if they listen now and then."

“As I have tae keep reminding myself. Well, let’s gang and tell Mr. McCobb what we mean tae do. If they hire us on at the castle, we may not get a chance tae come back and tell him, and then he probably would sell Spot.”

**********

Castle Cullane was far grander than Castle Bruce. There were three main courtyards, instead of one – one for the Family and guests, one for the Guard, and one for the servants and tradesmen. The outer wall, which had a guarded gate, was nearly a mile from the main building, and as they wound their way to the servant’s court, Katie noticed that the grounds held several different pleasure gardens. There was one like the one at home, with carved fountains and juniper trimmed into tidy shapes, but also a hedge-maze, and a winding bower path with little nooks and climbing vines. Even given the warmer springs in the Shanter Valley, there must be a glasshouse somewhere for forcing blooms, judging by the number of flowers that were out. Katie mentally added up the number of gardeners that must be involved in all of this and came up with an answer that made her feel very small. Trina, beside her, had wrapped her face in the depths of her shawl ‘til you could hardly even see her eyes, and made no sound except the occasional sneeze.

It didn’t help that Mr. McCobb the stabler had looked so pitying when they told him what they intended. “Well,” he’d said, “They’ll give you one good meal, at the least. But if they send you away with only that, then dinna try ganging back the next day. You’ll have heard Prince Hugh’s been struck by that wasting curse o’ theirs. We wonder every day if this’ll be the last of it. I cannae think anyone up there is feeling sae very friendly just now.”

So Katie steeled herself for a long walk and little good at the end of it. But still, a small, cold part of herself observed, a funeral for a Crown Prince is a grand affair. They may need extra help. And Mr. McCobb had said, if they did get offered work, that he would vouch for them. Just so long as I can hold my tongue and my temper. I mun gang softly here.

Katie believed, or at least hoped, that she had learned a lot about getting on with other folk in their weeks with the pilgrim train. She knew she could do servants’ work, too. But there was doing servants’ work, and then there was being a servant. The pilgrims had, in theory at least, all been equals before God. Katie could speak to any of them whenever she felt like it, look any of them in the eye, and argue if they tried to push her about too much. A servant couldn’t do any of that, and Katie wasn’t sure how well she’d manage.

They finally arrived at the stableyard.

It was, as Katie had expected, humming with activity. Even with the floods curtailing travel and the prince’s illness limiting whatever entertainments were usual, there would be a thousand things to do in a place so large, and probably at least half-a-hundred people to do them, if not more. Katie waved at a fellow with a gardener’s hand fork stuck in the belt of his smock and his hands full of bread-and-cheese: “So please you, Master Gardener, but Ben McCobb said my sister and I should ask for Mrs. House?”

As the gardener jerked his head at a doorway, Katie remembered the rest of McCobb’s advice: “The head chatelaine’s always Mrs. House, whatever her name was before and no matter if she never had a husband. But if this one asks you for proof it was me who sent you, you can mention a time that a chambermaid called Maudlin Kinney finally had enough of a stableboy’s teasing and all but brained him with a slop pot – empty, thank the saints.” He had favored Katie with a broad wink and gone off chortling, but Katie hoped she wouldn’t have to take that particular piece of advice. Somehow, she doubted Mrs. House would find the story quite as funny as he did.

The door the gardener had indicated led to a busy kitchen. It would be fuller than usual at this hour, as others of the outdoor servants, like the gardeners, came to grab a bite to eat before the kitchen folk were too busy with the Family’s supper to spare them a moment. Katie repeated herself to a round-cheeked lad whose clean clothes probably meant he was a footboy, instead of a scullion, and then waited patiently as he ran off to fetch someone – possibly Mrs. House, possibly whichever large fellow was in charge of seeing people off. Or, given the size of this place, he may simply be ganging tae fetch someone who will fetch someone. Whoever he was getting, Katie waited for them to appear with a racing mind, rehearsing her opening speech over and over in her head.

Mrs. House appeared in front of her so suddenly Katie was hard-put not to start that speech in the middle. The woman looked like any other well-off crofter, except that she was tall enough to look Katie in the eye, which was unusual. Her apron and the coif that covered her hair were both white as cream and starched so crisply Katie wondered if they were made of paper, but she didn’t look bad-natured. Busy, yes, impatient, and probably grieving along with her employers for their dying son, but not malicious. That’s another way these weeks on the road have changed me, that I can tell the difference, now. “Well, lass?” Mrs. House barked, “And what has Ben McCobb sent me this time?”

Katie took a deep breath. “So please you, ma’am, I'm Katie MacLaird.” Her breath caught in her throat as she realized she had used her real name. Whatever had possessed her? But there was nothing for it but to go on. “My sister and I are pilgrims bound for St. Unweigh’s, but if we can, we mun work for our keep until the waters gang down and we can be on our way. Poor Kitten here is afflicted with a cold – ‘tisnae catching, or I’d have caught it by now, but she needs a proper rest in a warm bed. If you can give her a room, or a share of a room, I’m willing tae turn my hands to anything that’s needed tae pay for it, and you’ll have the use of hers as well when she’s better.”

Mrs. House scrutinized them both in silence for a long moment. Trina sneezed, and Mrs. House looked at her eyes, which were red. Katie half expected her to demand that the shawl be unwrapped and was wondering if she should say something about the harelip beforehand, but what the woman actually said was, “You’re gently bred, the pair of you.”

Perhaps she was looking at the work that went intae the shawl, and not the girl beneath it. “We are that,” Katie said aloud, “but not handless all the same. We’re both skilled with spindles and needles and looms, of course, and we’ve been doing for ourselves and our mules since we joined the pilgrim train. And our home isnae such a very fine one that anyone may be idle at shearing or harvest.” Katie and Trina hadn’t had to share in the fieldwork, of course, but they had had to do many other things for themselves as all the lower folk who worked indoors had been pressed into service. Katie spared a moment to wonder what they would have done had Grania been attending them as usual on the day the curse struck.

“Hm.” Mrs. House gave them both another long look up and down – judging the skill of the mends in their cloaks? Or something else? “So, Ben McCobb has your beasts, I’m guessing. And thinks them well-treated, or he’d not have helped you at all… Hmmm.” Mrs. House took a deep breath herself, and let it out in a sigh. “How are you at nursing, Mistress MacLaird?”

*********

I can scarce believe this. Mrs. House led the sisters to a tiny room in the servants’ wing with a cupboard-like box bed just wide enough for both of them, if they both lay on their sides, and then given them each a mug of something hot, that tasted of dried berries, spirits, and some bitter herb. “Sleeping draught,” she’d explained. ‘Twill help the ailing sister heal, and you’ll be taking the night watch, Katie, so ‘tis best if you can rest a while, now.”

And, of course, if we’re both drugged to sleep, we won’t be wandering about getting intae mischief. But surely, if Mrs. House trusted them that little, she wouldn’t be planning to leave Katie alone with the Prince? And that did seem to be the plan. No point in fretting now. Katie finished her mug and turned down the bed. Trina took a bit longer with hers; she had become more adept at working around the harelip, but she was still shy about baring her face in front of others. Mrs. House stayed to watch Katie help her sister into the bed and climb in herself, and then left, closing the door.

“So you get to meet your pfoet, after all, Katie,” Trina giggled sleepily as they settled down.

“Well, yes, in a way. He doesnae hear much of what’s said tae him, according tae Mrs. House. All those times I’ve wished I could go away from home and have adventures and meet a man who cared about the world beyond the end of his bill of lading … well, I mun learn to be more careful what I wish for, that’s all. But I dinna ken that I’m sorry, even for this much. Except for the way you were dragged in.”

“Do stopf bvegging my pfardon, Katie! Even I’m getting tired of it. Think on it this way: in twenty years, when we’re bvoth married with children near grown and only see each other once a year or so, we’ll sit bvy a fire and drink spficed mead and tell stories about our days on the pfilgrim train until everyone else is like tae tear their hair with bvoredom. ‘Twill bve much bvetter in memory than it is while we’re in the middle of it.”

“I expect you’re right, Trina. You usually are.”

“Of course I’m right. Sleepf, now.”

So they did.

Chapter Text

“He raves,” Mrs. House told Katie as they made their way along a broad hallway, “and tosses and turns, but he’s made no move to harm himself nor anyone else. You’ve naught to fear from him.”

Katie tried to listen attentively while not tripping over the slightly too-long skirts of the plain gown Mrs. House had given her (“Can't be smelling like a Pilgrim in the Upstairs Rooms” she'd said). Katie also had to squash the urge to goggle at the portraits they passed on the walls and the elaborate plasterwork scrolls that decorated the ceiling. Who spends this kind of money decorating a hallway? Or, no, she said it was a “gallery.” But it looks like a hallway… Keep your mind on your job, Katie! She was getting the prickly feeling that used to mean the imp was climbing onto her back again, and Katie was determined that she would not allow her temper to ruin things this time.

Mrs. House was giving her her orders, now: “Do what you can to keep the fever down, and get him to eat and drink if you can, but nobody will blame you if you can't manage it. There’s porridge there for him, and oatcake and cheese and pickles for you, and water in the pitcher…”And my bag of nuts, thought Katie, although just lately she’d eaten so many hazelnuts she thought she’d be growing a shell, next.

“Is there anything else you need?” asked Mrs. House.

Think, Katie! Pretend you were Grania or someone else with some common sense! Is there anything else you need? Aloud, she said, “I should like a basket of roving and a drop spindle, that I may keep my hands busy and be more wakeful thereby,” Katie replied aloud, “And if I may, has His Highness any favorite songs?”

“Songs?” Mrs. House looked blank.

“When my sister Trina is feverish, she says the thoughts gang ‘round and about in her head and tie themselves in knots. But if I sing, she says, she can let her mind follow along and not really think, and then sometimes she can rest the better.”

“Oh.” Mrs. House still looked blank, but after a minute, she said, “Well, I’d ask Old Nanny Kirk about songs before she leaves. She all but raised him as a lad and she’d likely know. And I’ll see about the handwork, but we’re a ways from shearing-time yet, and ‘tis too dim in the bedchamber for proper sewing.” They both fell silent a while longer as Katie tried to memorize the twists and turns they took. They climbed wooden stairs, plain stairs meant for servants, but wide enough for two or three people abreast. Even the main staircases in Castle Bruce were stone, and most of them were just wide enough for one man in armor to climb, though there were little alcoves in the walls where a body could stand if you heard someone coming in the other direction. Or where archers could kneel if the sea-raiders had come visiting.

As they came to the hall outside the Prince’s rooms, even their footsteps were silent, muffled by long rugs that were as finely patterned as some of weavings that hung on the walls in Castle Bruce. It certainly made it easy for Katie to act properly humble. I may have been “gently bred,” but I’d wager some of the ones who do servants’ work in this place were reared in finer houses; probably not the ones who are called servants, but the chamberlains and the Queen’s ladies, now… And the walls were covered in cloth, too, or wood panels, or bright paint, and they had strips of carved wood where the walls met the ceiling, which they all did square-on. The walls of Castle Bruce, under their hangings, were muffled in years’ worth of plaster and whitewash, until they seemed to be melting like soap in the wash, or carved out of the stone castle like Dwarves' tunnels. Katie tried to remember her father’s house in Piktenburg, when she was very small. It had looked more like this, hadn’t it? Or, it had been trying to look like this, anyway. Mrs. House tapped at a door and pushed it slightly open. They had come to Prince Hugh’s chamber at last.

The little dumpling of a woman who trotted up to them could only be Nanny Kirk. Mrs. House confirmed it by speaking to her. “Mistress McLaird will be taking the watch from Compline to Prime, Nanny, so you can have a proper rest. She says when she nursed her sister, she would sing and her sister found it calming, and wonders if His Highness has any favorites.”

This won a broad, gaptoothed smile from Nanny Kirk. “ ‘Tis a good, kind lass ye’ve found, then, Mrs. House. I dinna ken what he favors now, but when he was a wee bairnie he liked ‘Honey-Sweet Rose’ and ‘Yellow Grows the Broom.’ ” She chuckled, remembering. “And then I mind a time when neither him nor his brother would sit still for naught that didnae have pirates in it. But that came tae a stop when Hugh went a-seafaring the first time and the waves made him sick…”

Katie suspected that Nanny Kirk could happily have stood there reminiscing until the floods went down. To get things moving a bit, she said, “I ken ‘Honey-Sweet Rose’ and ‘Yellow Broom’ both, and a few others much like. Enough, anyway, tae gang on with for as long as I care tae without my throat being wearied.”

Nanny Kirk blinked, returning to a present when her “wee bairnie” was a good bit worse than seasick. “That’s good, then,” she said. “I’ll just show ye about, and have ye meet the Prince, and then I’ll away tae my bed.” Katie followed Nanny into the room, leaving Mrs. House at the door. As Katie had expected, given what these people did to mere hallways, the room was as richly decorated as the Throne Room in Castle Bruce, if not more so. The floor was covered in carpets thick as moss, with a fine bearskin draped over them near the tiled stove. All the chairs had embroidered pads on the seats and backs. The curtains were silk velvet, the walls were covered in linen fine as anything Katie had to wear, and judging by the shadows, there were more plasterwork scrolls on the ceiling. Judging by the smells, there was apple or pear wood burning in the little stove, and honey and spices in the porridge that was keeping warm atop it. Everything in the room, down to the kneeler pad on the prie-dieu in the corner, was dyed in deep, bright, colors – the blue and tan of the Cullane dress tartan.

Nanny Kirk brought her around to the other side of the bed, where the curtains were hanging open. The nearest chair had a little table beside it with a shaded lamp – whale oil, by the smell — and a tray with the promised ploughman’s luncheon on it. Nanny Kirk lifted the lamp, stirred the curtains, and Katie got her first look at Prince Hugh.

He was a shocking contrast to the richness of his surroundings and even his own fine linen shirt. His black hair was dull as ash, his skin pasty, and it was too tight against his bones. He’d not been shaved in a week or so. Put him down among the refugees at the kirk and he’d look handsome; he was well-grown, and the muscles in his chest stood out, with whatever padding of fat there had been melted away, but in a place that spoke of plenty as this room did, he was just… wrong. He thrashed restlessly from side to side, sometimes half opening his eyes, but never giving any sign that he saw Nanny and Katie standing there. Nanny addressed him all the same. “Your Highness, this is Katie. She’ll be tending tae tha’ tonight.” Prince Hugh gave no hint that he had heard. He turned over twice more, then propped himself up on his elbows and stared into the distance.

Nanny quickly held up the cup that stood on the little bedside table and put it to his lips, and he drank a sip or two. She tried to do the same with a spoonful of the porridge, and he reared backward, falling into the pillows again. “Cherry moya,” he snorted, every line of his wasted face expressing scorn, “Men go ban Anna. Pup pie, ah, Tam O’ Rhind.” He let out a hungry-sounding moan and turned his face toward them. “Men go,” he whimpered, “Men go!” And with another moan, he flipped himself over onto his stomach and clutched his hair, muttering, “Ban Anna, Tam O’Rhind! Coal, a coal, a coal…”

“Oh, he’s awa' again,” sighed Nanny Kirk. “He’ll gang on for ten minutes or sae and then fall back asleep.”

“Who’s Anna?” Katie whispered.

“We dinna ken. Early on we’d try telling him that she was gone, we’d seen her tae the borders…” she shrugged, defeated. “He’ll settle for a longer sleep near tae Matins. And I’m shamed tae say I’m glad ‘tis you and not I that mun watch. I dinna ken how much more I can bear.”

Awkwardly, Katie squeezed her shoulder in sympathy, and then the old woman was gone, and she was alone with Prince Hugh of Cullane. While he muttered incoherently, Katie took a few moments to set a few things in order. The rejected porridge went back on the stove; she’d be sure to give it a stir now and again. She ate a few bites of her own supper. On an impulse, she offered Prince Hugh bites of her own oatcake and cheese and pickles, to see if they were any better accepted than the porridge. They were not. She located the slop pot under the bed, and rehearsed in her mind the way to the nearest privy, in case it should need emptying before morning. She straightened the blankets that had been kicked half off the bed, and then, having run out of other things to do, sat down in the chair beside the bed and began to sing “Honey-Sweet Rose,” very softly. Prince Hugh still gave no sign that he heard her, but it seemed as if the tossing about was slowing down, and by the third verse, he seemed to be more truly asleep. When the song came to its end, she began “Yellow Broom.” She was going to miss that wool and spindle, long before Matins. Keeping her hands busy was one of the few ways she knew to make sitting still bearable for more than ten minutes or so at a time. Fortunately, singing was another.

Just look at me! she said to herself as she came to the end of “Yellow Broom” and checked the Prince’s neck for fever. Scarce a season ago I was dreaming of meeting Hugh the Poet. Sometimes, especially when I’d been reading that one sonnet, I even imagined joining him in his bedchamber… I should have been more specific, just as I told Trina. Though, to be honest, had she known about the curse, she might have dreamed of rescuing him somehow, or simply staying loyally by his side and hearing a noble deathbed speech in which he confessed his love for her… Bah. Well, ‘tis no sillier than some of the ballads the other lasses liked, however hard a blow it is tae my pride tae know myself the same kind of fool as they. Hey, ho, and here we go.

The fever didn’t seem to be too bad just then. Prince Hugh’s neck was clammy, though Katie couldn’t actually see any sweat in the lamplight. She could smell it, though, once she brought her hand back, and the smell worried her a little. There was a sourness to it that Katie had smelled before on people who were afraid, or in great pain, not those who were simply too warm or had just been in a sparring match. Could be that’s why I’m nervy myself, if I’ve been smelling that without kenning. She gave the porridge another stir and sat down again, to begin another song. If she still hadn’t got the Prince to eat any of it before he truly settled down to sleep – he was starting to twitch again, blast it all – then she would take it off the stove and let it congeal into a bannock. Some kitchen helper would slice it, fry it in lard, and be glad to eat it, afterward. Or perhaps this place was rich enough that cold porridge went to feed the pigs even when it was sweetened with honey, cream, and spices.

The Prince interrupted her by throwing himself upright, as if he woke from a nightmare, then falling back again, all without acknowledging Katie in any way. She tried offering the porridge first, and then the water, this time. It made no difference. He drank, but would not eat. Had anyone thought to put honey in the water? Or offer broth, or beer, or even the water the turnips had boiled in? If he was drinking but not eating, shouldn’t he be drinking something nourishing? He had gone back to his tossing and turning, without nonsensical mutters, this time. And the fever was worse when she checked. Katie sat back down and sang a long and, to her mind, rather tedious ballad, which did not so much calm the Prince as mark the time until he calmed himself. Katie sang the next song only in her head, to see if he slept for longer or shorter, if there was no other human voice in the room. As near as she could tell, it made no difference. She got up and stirred the porridge again.

As the night wore on, it did seem as though the Prince’s quiet periods lasted longer. Katie put the porridge aside and sang four songs to herself, instead of two, before she got up and checked him for fever, and he didn’t stir when she touched him. She suspected that Nanny Kirk had taken this time to rest herself, if she had been with him all day and night before now, but between the long, drugged nap in the afternoon and the strangeness of her current circumstances, Katie felt positively twitchy. She felt the imp’s breath in the close heat of the stove, and imagined it lurking in the shadows of the elaborate furniture. She stood by the curtained window, wishing she could open it for a breath of air in this stuffy room, or at least look outside, but no one wanted the Prince to be moon-struck as well as cursed. She did some careful, slow stretches – ones the guards and the ladies’ dancing master had both used – and concentrated on her breathing. Very faintly, she heard the bell ring for Matins.

Just as Katie was trying to decide whether she still heard the echo of the bell in truth, or only the memory of it in her own ears, Prince Hugh sat bolt upright and threw the covers off himself completely. Katie hurried back to the bed, muttering, “bother!” under her breath. Before she reached her post by the chair, the Prince had swung his legs over the side of the bed and hopped out as energetically as if he’d never been ill a day in his life. His anxious, despairing expression had turned into something more like … eagerness? He took two great strides to the clothes-chest at the end of the bed. If it weren’t the middle of the night, his actions would be almost normal. But when Katie croaked out, “Sir? Your Highness?” and waved her arms in front of his face, he reacted not at all. Nor did her tug at his shirtsleeve give her anything but stinging fingers as he jerked it out of her grasp again. He didn’t even seem to be trying to get away from her – just pulling his kilts up out of the trunk and giving them a shake. He might have been made of clockwork. Katie wondered if she should try something more forceful, like twisting his ear. He was still bent over the chest; she couldn’t knee him in the wedding tackle…

He pulled out a belt from the chest and began to buckle his kilt around his waist. Katie noticed distractedly that he seemed to fall in the middle of the Great Kilt Debate that was currently raging between the old men and the young ones at Brucemuir. Prince Hugh had had the pleats of his kilt sewn into place, so that he could don the thing quickly without actually needing to roll on the floor, but the skirt and the sash and the cape were still all of a piece, defined by folds and pins, not cuts. Well, and ‘tisnae as though a prince would be likely to have it all turned intae a coat and pantaloons, like a rebellious merchant’s son. His folk wouldnae stand for it. And why are you maundering about clothes, you daft creature? Shoulnae you be trying tae summon help? Since the Prince didn’t seem to notice her, Katie ran to the outer door of the chamber, sticking her head into the hallway to see if she could spot a guard or a footboy. Nothing. If he always fell asleep around midnight, probably everyone else did, too. Or it might be something more sinister… Prince Hugh barrelled past her and strode away down the hall. Kind Saints, he’s even got his boots on. Katie ran after him, hiking up the skirts of her borrowed gown as she went. If we pass anybody, I’ll scream for help. I daren’t let him gang off alone tae … whatever. I can only hope I dinna get too lost.

Wherever the Prince was headed, it didn’t seem to involve the “gallery.” And he didn’t seem to require a lantern. Katie stumbled behind him down two hallways and a set of pitch-dark stairs, praying that if he opened a door, she’d see it, and that the footing would stay even in the meantime. When the door did open at last, though, it was to bright moonlight – just a few days from full; not even the wispy clouds could hide it – and – the stableyard?

Yes, the stableyard. Abandoned and eerily still, like the hallways. Katie could smell the horses from here, together with smoke from the banked kitchen fires and wet greenery from the gardens. Katie inhaled great gulps of air in relief, and because she’d had to struggle to keep up with her charge this long. I dinna ken why they won’t open the window in the Prince’s room, at least during the day. Were I dying, I’d want tae see a last bit of weather, first… Now what’s he doing?

What he was doing was sticking his thumb and forefinger in his mouth, like a boy of ten, and letting out a clear, soft whistle. A little spotted foxhound came running to him out of the stables, wiggling ecstatically, and rolled over on his back on top of one of Prince Hugh’s boots. The prince offered a gentle nudge with the other boot – more a caress than a kick, and the dog leaped up and pranced around him, tale wagging and tongue hanging out. Strangely, the hound didn’t bark even once, as if it were one of the great, swift deerhounds that hunted by sight. Foxhounds were noisy. All that baying was one way to keep track of the rest of the pack as they crashed through the forests. But this one wasn’t. Katie looked up from the oddly-behaved dog and finally noticed the horse.

She didn’t know how she’d missed it. True, it seemed to be coal black, and it stood in the shadow of the courtyard wall, but even so! It must be some knight’s palfrey. It had hooves the size of dinner plates and was so tall that – oh, no. It was tall enough that Prince Hugh was using a mounting block to get atop his back. Dear Saints, now what do I do? She could try pulling him off the horse again, she supposed, if the horse cooperated. But surely a horse waiting for a cursed prince just after midnight was not at all likely to cooperate with her? She could run to the kitchens and try to wake someone. They might believe her, or they might decide the stranger was up to trouble after all. The Prince would be gone either way… but surely he would come back? The cursed princes of Cullane didn’t disappear, any of them. They all died in their beds. So maybe she should just go back to his room… if I can find it.

But if he was coming back later, where was he going now? Suppose she could find out? Prince Hugh hadn’t acted as if he’d noticed her, but the horse was looking at her. “Er, I’m with him,” Katie said to it. And then she stepped onto the mounting block herself.

The horse waited patiently as Katie settled herself behind the Prince and set her arms about his waist for balance, and started for the inner gates at a walk, but that didn’t stop Katie from cursing herself as six kinds of fool for daring the horse rather than running for help from the kitchen. This horse is a fae creature, you ken that already, Katie! They can run under water or over treetops, have they a mind tae, not to mention the company they keep… what’s so terrible about a sleepy kitchen boy that you decided to risk this instead? And after promising Trina you’d be careful, too! With a sinking feeling, Katie wondered if this had been another impulse from that half-believed-in imp. Since the day she and Trina had given that silly shape to her old fears and her baser instincts, Katie had got out of the habit of watching herself every minute in case she was about to do something wrong. Also, of course, tonight she’d been both tired and keyed up at the same time; not good for fighting impulses, wherever they came from. Wonderful. So having failed to make a murderess of me, now my imp wants me tae be a suicidally heedless young idiot. If I live through tonight, I’m going to have tae do better.

Fortunately, the horse didn’t seem inclined to do anything worse than canter through the woods of the hunting preserve without regard for the trails, which no sensible horse would attempt even in broad daylight. If there were uncanny things keeping pace with them, it was too dark to see even in the moonlight. Katie concentrated on keeping her seat and the feel of the Prince in her arms in front of her. It was a rather nice feeling, all told. Even half-starved, he was broad at the shoulders and on the tall side, and the air was washing away the fear-sweat reek that had filled the chamber. Definitely an improvement over wounded soldiers or slightly sozzled uncles, which were the only men she had held so since she’d started getting her moon’s blood at fourteen. She could wish that the Brucemuir balls allowed the close dances like the valz that were scandalizing Piktenburg, so that a spinterish stepsister might have more chances to… Stop it, Katie. Keep thy wits about thee.

The horse leapt over a low wall – Katie managed to keep her seat only because the Prince had shifted his weight in time to warn her to do the same – and actually slowed its pace a little, even though now they were in open pastureland. Katie looked about and caught a glimpse of the little foxhound, scrambling over the wall they had jumped. When it caught up with them, the horse sped up again.

Chapter Text

The horse slowed again about half a league further, as it approached a funny bump of a knowe in the middle of the meadows – about as tall as the kirk in Brucemuir, and perfectly round. It might be an ancient man-made barrow, rather than a natural thing. But whatever it was, it was where the horse was going. They all came to a stop at the foot of it, and Prince Hugh straightened up, took a deep breath, and spoke aloud for the first time since he’d stopped raving back in his chamber.

“Open, open green hill,” he said, “and let the Prince, his horse, and his hound enter.” There was a rumbling sound from the hill. Katie thought of the horse waiting for her and decided that if the Prince needed permission to be here, she should at least ask for her own sake, even if she decided to try and sneak about later.

“And let his lady enter too, please,” she said. She nearly sang the words, to keep her voice from either shaking or squeaking. Neither Prince Hugh nor the horse nor the hill gave any sign that they had heard. The foxhound looked up at her – or maybe at the Prince, and wagged its tail once. Prince Hugh swung down off the horse, and Katie followed nervously. The noises coming from the hill made her wonder if the ground was really stable enough to walk on. But the ground beneath their feet seemed unmoved. Katie could make out the closed white points of daisies in the moonlight, and they weren’t even trembling. The foxhound sniffed at her shoes thoughtfully and then went back to gazing at his master. The poor thing probably hadn’t seen him in daylight since the curse struck.

Meanwhile, the rumbling noise went on, and Katie realized with a start that the reason she could see the daisies wasn't that the moon had come out from the clouds. Instead, light was shining from the bottom of the hill in a widening line. The whole knowe was rising slowly in the air, like a chandelier being hauled aloft on its ropes! In the widening line of light, it seemed the knowe was supported by dozens of pillars, of a honey-colored stone that held the light like agate, except that agates never got that big, or like the milky glass they called “false opal.” When the hill had got high enough for it, the horse stepped forward, followed by the two humans and the dog.

Katie looked upward as they passed the pillars, to see what the bottom of the hill looked like – would there be worms crawling in the dirt above her head? But the she couldn’t see anything much. The dazzle of light made the shadows look blacker. She couldn’t see anything at all for three steps, and then they all stepped forward again, into a great shining dome that looked bigger than the hill that contained it.

They were instantly surrounded by a crowd of … well, “people” might go ‘round it without breaking, Katie supposed. They mostly sounded human, more or less. There were notes to the hum of the crowd like running water, or bells, or other things, but mostly, it seemed like any other passle of happy young folk, all talking at once. Katie heard one voice cry, “Hugh! Good tae see tha!” but couldn’t tell if it had been male or female. Someone took the horse away, or perhaps the horse took itself away; it was hard to tell in the middle of the press. Katie began to wonder if she might have turned invisible, somewhere in the course of this strange night. But then, it had sometimes seemed like that among Trina’s friends, too. And the foxhound seemed to be sticking to her, pressing its head into her skirts. So she hadn’t completely vanished away.

A crowd of fae, with Prince Hugh among them, drifted away toward the center of the dome, where Katie heard music playing. The dog started to follow them. For want of anything else to do, and because she was sure the Prince would be leaving this place sometime and she didn’t want to be left behind, so did Katie. At first glance, the fae around them looked like lairds and ladies, stepped out of a tapestry or a painting. They were dressed in silks bright as Brucemuir stained glass, and foaming lace and sparkling jewels, finer than any Katie had ever seen in real life, not even back in Piktenberg. A second look proved that Prince Hugh was the only other human in sight. Prince Hugh’s eyes had looked huge in his wasted face, but they looked nearly piggish in comparison with the ones in his companions’ faces, large as goose eggs, and deep and bright as the jewels they wore. Their skin shone like silk, or polished wood, or beeswax with a light behind it. They all had shining hair worn to the waist or lower, in a bewildering variety of tails and braids and curls, decorated with more jewelry, as well as feathers and ribbons and flowers that wouldn’t bloom above ground for months yet, and still other flowers that Katie had never seen. They all had sharp, fine bones that made Katie feel as oxlike as she ever had. And no human born had ever moved with that kind of grace, like the green weeds that waved gently and eternally under the water in the River Bruce.

Several of the ladies might have been the legendary Queen Ninnoc, Prince Hugh’s how-many-times Great Grandmother, or Aunt, or whatever she was. But if one of them was indeed the old Queen, then the smith hadn’t told them how cold that Queen’s beauty had been. Trina’s beauty had been a warm, kindly one that people wanted to get closer to. Even when she’d been feeling her worst and most jealous, Katie had felt that warmth and wanted to be a part of it. To be acknowledged as one of her circle. But the Fae ladies, far more splendid than Trina at her best, made her want to apologize and shrink away into nothing. As far as they were concerned, Katie was nothing, already. In addition, of course, to being big and clumsy as a walking cottage. At the parties at home, she had felt herself to be too loud, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, stepping in the wrong place, too much there. But among these creatures, Katie wasn’t sure she could say a word at all, might not be able to touch them even at her clumsiest, partly because they would simply drift out of the way, but also because she could not bring herself to lift a hand to try.

Looking a third time, Katie started to notice the strangenesses, not just the beauty. One of the exquisite creatures laughed, and showed teeth that were all of them pointed like a cat’s. Another wafted past her wearing what looked like light armor, but as he came close, she could see the breastplate was made entirely of lady-beetles. Live lady-beetles, moving about, sometimes flying away and coming back.

The place was as strange as the people. It was, she supposed, the Fair Folk’s equivalent to a Great Hall. It seemed to take up the whole hollowed-out inside of the knowe, or possibly even more space than that. The dome above her sparkled. She was put in mind of a rock that one of the quarrymen had brought to the castle once, which was simply lumpy and round on the outside, but inside was full of little crystals. Except those crystals had all been white, where these sparkled with every color of the rainbow. Katie looked about for lanterns of some sort – were the sparks in the ceiling glowing on their own, or were they reflections? But she couldn’t tell, because it seemed the air was full of lights in all colors, some moving like will-o’-the-wisps, some flashing and then gone, some holding steady but seeming to have no center to them. All together, they made a strange, twilit sort of atmosphere, in which it was perfectly possible to see almost anything, but nearly impossible to decide what color it was. The colored lights shifted too much, and it seemed to Katie that sometimes, when she was sure a lady’s gown, say, was bright orange, and then looked away and looked back, it had changed to bright blue. And if the dome was made of light, the floor, was made of shadow. Katie looked down at her feet, and saw beneath them an absolute, unreflective blackness that could have been charcoal or a yawning void. It felt vaguely springy under her feet – more solid than pine needles or leaf mast, more giving than wood. When she dragged her foot, there was no sound that could be heard above the general hubbub. It felt smoother than carpet.

Below the dome, wound around the columns that held it up, were garlands of flowers – huge and mostly unfamiliar. But Katie didn’t see any tapestries or carvings or any of the other things that decorated the Great Hall in Brucemuir. Was it because the crystal dome overhead would outshine (so to speak) any such thing? These are Fae. The least of them can make a handful of mud seem enough like gold coins tae fool a miner. Making a blanket of colored yarn look like a hunting party mun be easy as breathing. Perhaps that was the answer. There were no tapestries in this place for the same reason there were no crofter children’s rag dolls on display in Castle Bruce. Perhaps the great dome above was a sort of “tapestry,” an illusion worked by a particularly skilled Fae. How would Katie ever know?

Katie tripped over the foxhound before she managed to stumble onto the dance floor without noticing. Prince Hugh and his companions were already paired off and joining in. They held each other close, as if to dance the Frankish Valz, but it didn’t look like the Valz was what they were doing. Katie had heard that Faerie music was irresistible, but it was, she found, also very strange. The musicians who stood at one edge of the clear space under the center of the dome were playing instruments Katie had never seen before. There was a thing like a gourd wrapped in a beaded fishing net that seemed to be a kind of rattle, and reed pipes nearly as tall as the piper, and more reeds bound together in a frame being struck with mallets. There was a long-necked, stringed item that was neither a lute nor a fiddle. There was a pair of shining horns that drooped like foxglove flowers instead of standing out straight, and they were decorated with shining buttons all down their length. One busy creature that seemed to have an immense nose and no mouth whatsoever was playing several drums at once, but what were those things like giant brass dinner plates?

As one might expect when the instruments were so outlandish, the songs they played was also unfamiliar. Katie imagined trying to explain it to Trina, who understood music, and the closest thing she could compare it to were those sailors from Andalaz who had come in on some boat or other and given a performance of the songs from their homeland at the McGann house, one winter.

And really, it wasn’t even very much like that. If she didn’t try to think about it too hard, Katie found she could clap her hands to the rhythm and even count fours, but nobody would try to dance a reel or a schottische to something like this. It was catchy in its way, but where a good reel went straight to your feet and set them tapping and skipping, this music went to your spine. The other bystanders around the floor were bouncing their hips and wriggling their shoulders in time.

And the dancers on the floor were all … well, Pastor Scott would probably call it “abandoned.” Certainly they seemed to have left a lot of polite conventions behind them somewhere. Their actual behinds, though, were very much in evidence and in motion, including Prince Hugh’s. Gracious saints, he moved like a snake! A strong, well-built, and musical snake – which was certainly a change from men like Lt. McBittern who moved rather more like bulls… Katie felt her face heating. Even though there was no point in being embarrassed when nobody was looking at her and the light was too strange to see the color of her face anyway, she pulled her eyes and ears away from the dancers and started looking about again.

The next thing she noticed was the dais with the High Table, set up across the circle from the musicians. The head of the high table was surely the very same Horned Lord who had first cast the Curse of Cullane, be-antlered and stern in green-black armor like beetle’s wings. One mailed hand rested on the slender, pale hand of yet another stunning Fae woman – the queen of them all, surely – who was decked in a gown that looked like melted pearl, with curling pearl-colored hair probably down to her feet. Since she, like the Lord, was seated, the hair pooled on the floor around her instead. Both Lord and Lady wore the calm, remote expressions that most of the fae favored. Among the dancers were some who looked wild with glee, and elsewhere were others, even more frightening, who looked hungry (Katie took extra care to avoid them), but most of them treated what looked like a Festival to end all Festivals like the eighth sunny day in a row, after the shearing was done and there was nothing too pressing to do on a sunny day. Were they bored? Was all this music and splendor really a kind of chore, like setting up a loom, or combing a horse? Or perhaps they simply showed their emotions in ways other than their faces? Katie sighed. So many questions! And no way to have them answered, and if she had one of the great fae willing to listen, she’d be too afraid to ask, and if they answered, she’d have no way to know if they spoke true. And why did she need to know, anyway?

The music ended. Prince Hugh and some others clapped their hands wildly. Others yet trilled like crickets and held their hands up in the air, shaking them like leaves. The Lady on the dais nodded, slowly. The Horned Lord did nothing. Prince Hugh, chatting to his companion, made his way off the dance floor. Suddenly, the little foxhound gave a kind of yelp and ran after him, jumping and gamboling about his feet as though to trip him up, and all the time going on in a kind of whimpering mutter. Whatever the Prince was about, the dog didn’t like it.

And then Katie was able to pick out a few voices shrieking above the murmur of the crowd: “Cherry moooyy-ahs, sweet as new creeeeam!” howled one voice, and another called, “Ban Aaannas, I’ve Tam O’ Rhind and Ban Annas!” A third growled something about pup pie. Prince Hugh took a great booted stride over the distraught foxhound and headed toward the voices, his face full of naked longing.

Katie, still thinking that any minute now the fae would decide she was an interloper and, well, do something about it, began to follow. The dog noticed her and tugged her skirts back with a growl. “Hush!” she whispered to it, “I dinna mean tae touch anything or even its shadow, so long as I can help it, but I’m charged with watching over Prince Hugh, as it seems you are, and I must know what it is he raves about all day long in his bed.” The dog looked exceedingly doubtful at this, but stopped tugging at her skirt and merely paced alongside her again, still growling. Katie found herself thinking of her imp, again, except of course the imp would be urging her onward.

They came, as Katie was half expecting to by this point, to a little row of market stalls, nearly at the edge of the great dome. It seemed she had stumbled her way, not into a castle, but into a village square on a Fair Day. Or perhaps, for the uncanny folk, there was no difference. The stalls were made of the usual rough wood, or seemed so, but their decorations were still more splendid, in their way, than anything in Brucemuir. The uprights of the stalls glittered with more tiny colored lights, and more huge flowers and seashells that seemed to glow like lamps themselves, and bright silken ribbons flapped out over the crowd in a breeze that should not be blowing like that underground.

The stall-keepers were also richly, or at least brightly, dressed, but none of these were the impossibly beautiful creatures who had danced as if dancing was all there was in the world. These were little, goblin-like folk, with warty noses and bandy legs, and strangely colored hair or fur or feathers sticking out from their heads in all directions. Some had hunched backs, like her poor cursed sister. One had a cow’s tail poking out from a hole in his bright yellow trousers. Another was wearing a broad-brimmed hat that, on closer inspection, turned out to be a flat rock tied on with a ribbon, with several other rocks piled on top. They were unspeakably comical, but Katie was kept from laughing by her amazement at what they were selling. The smell reached her first. It was a delicious smell, a smell that filled the top of her nose and the back of her tongue and seemed to warm her all through. It reminded her of the smells you could get sometimes on a sunny day in Brucemuir, in the orchards, when there was just enough of a breeze to bring the smells of the late pears and maybe even the bramble thickets in to combine with the equally sweet smell of the just-ripe apples, but this smelled even richer and fruitier than that.

Katie felt her mouth watering and her insides melting with an entirely different desire than the one that had filled her when she was watching the dancers. She had been daydreaming about lamb for weeks as she ate oat porridge and hazelnuts and sometimes fish at kirks and temples and charitable households with the rest of the folk in the pilgrim train. And at the end of Spring, when nothing sweeter than sorrel was to be had except dried or preserved in honey, that goblin fruit smelled even better than a feast of roast lamb would have.

When she got close enough to see the stands, the fruit they were selling looked every bit as strange and delicious as it smelled. It seemed to come in all the colors of a sunset, from palest creamy yellow to orange-pink to dusky purple, and at first glance, Katie didn’t see a single item that was smaller than a large apple. People, including Prince Hugh, were bargaining at the stalls and walking away with the juice dripping down their chins as they bit into the luscious fruit. Katie saw a woman – she looked human, not fae – pull a string of perfectly matched pearls off her neck that was twice the length of the one that served as Trina’s dower, and trade it for half an orange-colored something the size of a roast pigeon with a core of shining black something elses that might have been sturgeon roe except that they were already in the center of the fruit as it was sliced open. Maybe they were pips of some kind. But the woman showed no sign of thinking she had a bad bargain, having just paid more than Katie could have gotten by selling her whole wardrobe.

The foxhound growled and butted his head against her, which brought Katie to herself a little. Right. I’d heard before this that a bite of faerie food would leave you pining, with no stomach for anything else again, and I’ve just seen the proof of it, listening tae Prince Hugh whimpering for the stuff. I daren’t so much as lick the juice off my hands, and I havenae the price of it if I did dare. Hold hard, Katie.

She let one hand scratch the dog’s head – he had his front paws up on her knee, now, which was very bad manners for a hunting dog but welcome all the same. Her other hand searched her pocket for the enchanted bag of hazelnuts, which would at least give her mouth something to do with all that saliva it was producing, and besides, it had been a rather long time since that bread-and-cheese back in the Prince’s sickroom. Like the dog, she kept watching Prince Hugh. How was he paying the goblin stallkeepers? He hadn’t draped himself with a fortune in jewels or arms, nor even gathered up extra lengths of cloth from the trunk he’d gotten his kilt from. Was the Horned Lord simply playing host, and letting him eat his fill without paying, for reasons of his own?

No, as it turned out. At the next stall, Prince Hugh pointed to a “cherry moya;” it looked like a green apple with a skin plated like a turtle shell, only much softer. Then he held out his open hand, and the goblin bit the palm, just below the thumb, and licked at the blood as it welled up. Then it bit down a second time and seemed to be taking a larger draught; Katie could see the creature’s throat working as it swallowed, and had to work to swallow the nuts in her own mouth that suddenly tasted of sawdust. Prince Hugh bowed slightly, with a polite smile, and then took hold of his precious fruit. As he turned away again, already peeling back the green skin and putting the “cherry moya” to his mouth, the polite mask had already slipped to show eagerness and maybe greed. Katie felt sick. The dog whimpered, perhaps in agreement. Katie watched Prince Hugh moving to another one of the stalls, where a shrill-voiced fellow with a green beard was selling, not coal, as he claimed, but some kind of bubbling drink. She turned her face away, focusing instead on the next person in line at the “cherry moya” stand. This was a fae, who paid for his purchase with a single white feather – longer and pointier than a goose quill and not otherwise immediately recognizable. The one after that handed over a withered-looking root. Prince Hugh, having made his way to the front of the press at the “coal” stall, was holding out his open palm again.

Up to this point, Katie had mostly felt a kind of horrified sorrow for Prince Hugh. She wouldn’t have said she was in love with him, as Trina’s friends had said when they were teasing her, but the poems the man had written had touched her deeply, and she had imagined that if she had talked to the poet, he would have understood things as no one else around her did. On her rambles about the hills in Brucemuir, and in the dark when she couldn’t sleep, she had talked in her mind to the Poet Prince and felt… well, felt the exact opposite of what she had felt at Trina’s sixteenth birthday ball. But tonight, watching as he followed a smiling fae back to the dance floor, still licking juice off his fingers, she discovered that what she felt now was anger.

Everybody knew better than to eat faerie food! Wee children who could barely talk knew better! And here was Prince Hugh, not only letting his life waste away for it in the classic style, but smiling like a gormless coof while he did it! Katie could almost hear Trina’s mild voice in her head, saying it might not be his fault; he might have been beguiled past all resisting by the servants of the implacable Horned Lord, but stubbornly, Katie found none of that mattered as much as being cheated of the wise companion she had dreamed this man to be as she’d read his book. She was angry and disgusted, and Trina’s voice in her mind was drowned out by the parrot-shriek of the imp, calling all Katie’s favorite insults down on the head of the cursed Prince.

Clearly, the “Curse of Cullane” wasn’t a curse at all, in the usual sense. There was no Great Enchantment holding the family in its coils. Instead, the fae chose their heirs as targets for beguilement, and each Prince in turn would spend his nights dancing, and eating uncanny food, and giving up his life’s blood to pay for it all. Unless and until, some day, one of the bloody fools had the sense to say “no.” All her life, out of duty, Katie had had to say “no” to things she dearly wanted, and she had almost no responsibilities at all, compared to a King’s heir! What kind of leaders was Cullane raising? Were they even trying to teach their sons to fight the “curse” any more? Because the other thing that everybody knew about curses was that all of them could be broken, if you knew the way…

The music began again and Katie found she had had enough of watching the Prince, duty or no duty. The foxhound had trailed back to the crowd by the dance floor – it was watching. And Prince Hugh clearly wasn’t going anywhere as long as the song lasted. Katie would look about herself instead and learn what she could, for whatever good it might do.

Chapter Text

Here on the “market” side of the dance and away from the “court,” there was more to watch. And there, under a fringe of tree roots that waved like willow branches, were a set of enormous toadstools that seemed to be set out as benches. Katie watched several groups of people, mostly fae but a few humans as well, sit on them for a while and then move on. They didn’t seem to be the purview of anyone in particular. So Katie sat on one herself and found it nicely springy, like a wicker chair with a cushion on top. The market crowed swirled by: creatures as odd and twisted as the tree roots above her head, tall grand folk in Court finery, figures entirely hidden by hooded cloaks or fluttering veils, all of them busy about their own purposes, which sometimes seemed familiar (as when they bargained at the stalls) and sometimes (here were four winged folk the size of swallows, carefully dropping acorns into a bluish goblet balanced on the head of a whitish goat) very strange indeed.

After she watched through three or four songs from the dance floor, Katie began to get the feeling that it was all a sort of game; that the stall keepers and their customers might just as well have been crofter children playing at being tinkers, selling “pots” made of bark to each other and paying with “coins” of yellow aspen leaves. In another ten minutes or an hour, the wares and the payment would both be forgotten in the mud as everyone lost interest and started a different game. Or perhaps it was a different sort of pretense – the kind a pair of spies might make, of “happening” upon each other in a marketplace, and by a few words sprinkled into an ordinary-sounding conversation, or maps folded in lengths of cloth, or gold hidden in a basket of turnips, set events in motion that would change lives and kingdoms. But in either case, whatever was going on was not what was going on.

She was just trying to pinpoint what it was that made her think that, when something brushed against her knee. Startled, Katie looked down into the shining eyes of a sweet-faced fae that looked for all the world like a bairn beween one and two years old, right down to the guileless expression and the firm grip on something-or-other in its other hand. There was no way to tell if it was a boy or girl – a plain shift covered its middle. Katie decided to assume it was a boy, for the sake of argument. He, then, had squeezable looking round limbs and fluffy hair like thistledown, and eyes that were huge even by fae standards, and tiny white teeth in his grinning mouth. Of course, there’s no real way tae ken if he’s truly a fae child or if he’s old as the sea. If he’s truly old and I treat him like a child, will he be offended? But the bairn, if it was one, had decided to come to Katie, and it would be worse than offensive to ignore him.

“Hello, there,” Katie said softly. That was a safe enough beginning. “Are you looking for someone?” Had it been a human baby, Katie would have asked, “where’s your mam?” but just in case this really was an ancient sage, that didn’t seem like the right thing to say. The bairn looked at her solemnly and began to chew on the thing he held in his other hand. At first glance, Katie thought it might be a longer-than-usual parsnip – it was pale, about an inch and a half wide at the end her new companion was chewing on, and it tapered slightly down its length – but the other end, Katie saw, came to a straight, needle-sharp, and most unparsniplike point. If someone bumped into the bairn at the wrong time, or if he suddenly sat down all of a piece the way human babies did, that point was sure to poke or scratch him somewhere, and possibly worse.

“That’s a fine … thing you have there,” Katie offered. The bairn, if it was one, continued to gaze and gnaw. “You look hungry. Would you like some nuts?” Katie got a few hazelnuts out of her pocket, wondering if she should mash them up a bit with something. No human child this age would be able to manage whole hazelnuts. But as soon as the wee fae saw the nuts, they were snatched out of Katie’s hand and devoured. Blinking, Katie pulled out a second handful, and a third. Both disappeared almost as quickly as the first had done. When she held out the fourth handful, instead of scarfing them down, the bairn took hold of some of them in its little fist, and then shoved the white thing that wasn’t a parsnip into her free hand. This freed up his other hand to grab a few more nuts. After which he toddled away, his sweet, babyish grin now decorated with mashed hazelnut.

Katie tried to watch him for a while, to see if he did have a mother or nurse nearby who would claim the wand, if that was what it was, but no one appeared before the bairn vanished in the crowd. So Katie turned her new prize in her hand. The wand was white, as near as she could tell in the strange light, nearly a foot long, and cool and hard as ivory. The wider end looked a bit ragged and broken off. A gentle spiral had been carved winding all the way up its length like thread on a spindle, only thicker. Even broken off as it seemed to be, it looked expensive, and Katie still wondered if some nursemaid was going to accost her and retrieve it from her.

When someone did come up to her, just as Katie was thinking of leaving her mushroom and heading back toward the dance floor, it was the last creature Katie would have imagined, even in this place of wonders. A knight, a human knight, in chain mail and a tabard embroidered with a white bird – probably an eagle, though it was such a stylized pattern it might have just as well have been a kite or a hawk. Even more amazing, the first thing this apparition did was kneel at Katie’s feet and begin pleading in a melodious high tenor, “Oh, good mistress, I beg of you, I swear I will do whatever I can to aid you in whatever quest brings you here, but let me have that piece of unicorn’s horn! The life of a Princess depends upon it!”

“Um,” said Katie, blinking.

“I freely admit,” said the knight, “that the horn is rightfully yours. You succeeded in finding it where I failed. All I ask is that, if you possibly can, you let me have the use of it. If it’s a matter of riches, I can make sure you are paid the horn’s worth and more. If it’s a matter of magic, I have the full support of Godmother Hil— Er, the Silver Fairy— in my Quest, and I can see to it that she helps you.”

“Look,” said Katie, slowly catching up with this latest development, and trying to get her brain to go beyond the cries of No! Mine! that she swore sounded more like the parrot than ever her imp had before. “Cannae we both make use of the horn? I wasnae looking for it when I came down here, and while I think I’ve a use for it, it wouldnae take more than a day – maybe only an hour – and then you could take it away after that.”

“In the normal way of things, you’d be right,” the knight replied. “The trouble is, this particular horn has been in the keeping of the Dark Fae for over a hundred years, and most of its power has drained away. You see how it looks sort of grayish instead of white?”

“In this shifting light, how can you tell?”

“If this horn were freshly taken, it would glow bright white even in a place like this. Frankly,” The knight confided, “I’m depending on the fact that Princess Ysabeau of Vraimont is a virgin girl, which should enhance its natural propensities just enough to break the one curse. And even then, that one cure may use the last of its power. That is why I beg of you, if you can resolve your own Quest by any other means, that you allow me to help you find those other means in exchange for the horn.”

“Wait a minute,” Katie interrupted, “The princess whose life you’re trying to save is Ysabeau of Vraimont?”

“Indeed.” The knight nodded vigorously and managed, even while still kneeling, to strike a dramatic pose. “She is wasting away of a strange and nameless illness, and nothing will avail to cure her save –“

“But she was rescued ages ago!” cried Katie, “Erik of Trondfjellen fetched water from the Well of Healing at the end of the world. I dinna ken all the details – I was only a lass – but there was something about a hive of bees…”

The knight’s round face went blank, and then looked stricken. “When was all this exactly?”

“Oh, ten or twelve years ago. I dinna recall now if it was the wedding or the christening of their firstborn that I heard about when I was nine, only that Trina and I and the guards’ laddies played Trolls and Njordishmen for the rest of that month.”

“Twelve years?” The knight bleated, sitting down abruptly and with a slight jingle of chain mail, “It can’t be twelve years! ‘Twas only last night that I came to the knowe! Even—Tell me, how long ago did Gavin the Hawk slay the kraken?”

“One hundred and forty five, come the Solstice next month.”

The knight slumped even further – quite a trick in armor, even light armor – and groaned. Katie grew worried. She knew the same tales everyone else did about people who spent a night, or a year, with the Fair Folk and came home to find their grandchildren were old and gray. But she had thought as long as she came and went with Prince Hugh she had nothing to worry about. He was in his bed in Castle Cullane every morning, so obviously he wasn’t being trapped in time that way. But really, there was no reason things had to work the same way for her as they did for him…

“I’ve been a proper nincompoop.” The knight grated, face completely buried in two mailed hands, “and it isn’t as though Hilda didn’t warn me! ‘Dinna take more than the one night under the hill,’ she said. ‘Dinna leave the Shining Dome and gang haring down tunnels,’ she said. But nooo, I had to be clever! I’ve failed my Quest and lost the Horn both, and serves me right!”

Katie interrupted this spate of self-recrimination (which reminded her of herself after other, admittedly lesser, disasters) to ask, “Beg pardon, but should I be worried for myself? I followed someone who I thought sure tae be out again by morning, and I can still see him; he’s not left yet… But I’d hate tae learn my poor sister thinks I abandoned her among strangers and under a curse.”

The knight stopped muttering and looked up. “Have you left the Dome at all? Or had anything to eat since you came in?”

Katie shook her head to the first question and replied to the second, “Only some nuts that I brought in with me.”

“You should be safe enough then. In fact, if you’ve any of those nuts left, you can bargain with them. Mortal food is highly prized here. You’ve heard of Brownies who’ll do a week’s worth of work in a night for the sake of a bowl of milk, have you not? Nearly all of them are like that to some degree.”

Katie decided not to explain why she wouldn’t be bargaining with the nuts. If she had to come back the next night, she might bring along her bread-and-pickles from supper. “Thank you for telling me,” she told the knight.

Think nothing of it,” the knight replied, finally standing up again, “I owe you a favor. Were it not for you, I’d likely still be blundering about in this place a century from now. Twelve years is bad enough, but at least I can leave and still find people I know when I get home.”

“What I need the most right now is advice,” Katie sighed, “Fae and curses and unicorn horns is all a bit beyond me. When I first saw this in the wee fae bairn’s hand, I thought it might be a parsnip. I ken well enough that the horns will purge poison … would it avail anything against Prince Hugh of Cullane’s hunger for goblin fruit?”

Her first thought had been that she could break the curse on her sister, who was, as Ysabeau of Vraimont had been, a virgin Princess under a curse. But if she could help Hugh instead, she had a duty to. As Trina would be the first to point out, breaking a death curse was more important than breaking an ugliness curse. And if she hadn’t been following Prince Hugh, Katie would never have even seen a unicorn’s horn, so she owed him there, too.

The knight frowned. “I doubt it. The fruit isn’t poisonous, exactly. And the fae that cursed him are the same ones as killed the unicorn, and without even a virgin to help them, if the stories are true. One sort of Horned Lord may defeat another, perhaps. And, of course, Prince Hugh’s almost certainly not a virgin, so that’s no help…”

“So is the horn only good against poison? Could it break a witch’s curse, say, if the victim was a virgin?”

The knight shrugged. “If the witch was a human, and not too very powerful, it might.”

“Well, then,” Katie smiled, “I call this horn the best bargain for a few hazelnuts that I ever saw.” As she said it, Katie wondered if this was enough of “sale” to break the spell on the bag of nuts so that it would not replenish itself. She decided that even if it did, it was worth it to have her sister returned to herself. Even though, in a way, ’twill be more dangerous traveling with a bonny sister than an ugly one.

“I wish you all good fortune on your Quest then, good lady,” the knight said, bowing.

“And to you on your next one, since it seems this one dinna gang as you wished it,” Katie responded, but then the music stopped again, and she lost track of the knight as she made sure she still knew where Prince Hugh was. She spotted him on his way back to the market again. She supposed it made sense that he’d want to eat every chance he got, if this was the only food he was able to eat at all. She looked down again at the piece of unicorn horn in her hand, thinking. So far, none of the fae except for the bairn had shown any interest in it, or in her. Were they truly so powerful that a piece of unicorn horn was of no more interest than a bit of knucklebone, given to a teething toddler? Well, that was a riddle she couldn’t solve tonight. She would keep the horn if she could. She turned possibilities over in her mind for a while, only vaguely aware of the phantasmagoria that continued to swirl around and about her.

The Prince’s dog ran back to her and put his front paws on her knee, whimpering. Katie looked up to see that Prince Hugh was wandering away from the market already, and stood up herself, slowly following the dog back toward the dance floor. How long had they been here, under the hill? In a mortal hall, two sets of dances with breaks after each would be about two hours, or maybe three. Of course, she couldn’t count on it being the same here, but if Prince Hugh was managing to return to his bed every morning before dawn, that might be about right. Besides, the fae tended to do things in threes, didn’t they? So this next set of dances was probably the last one for the night, and then they’d probably get back on the horse… Oh, Saints. Katie was going to need both hands to stay on the back of that horse. How was she going to get that horn home without impaling herself? It was too long for her pocket and too heavy to stick in her hair like a pin. She might be able to just set it in her belt, as Mrs. House did with her key ring, but Katie didn’t like the idea. Horseback riding, especially at the speeds the fae horse had favored, required the use of a lot of muscles in one’s back and seat. The tapered horn would be inclined to work itself loose, or poke her somewhere tender, or both. Katie dug another hazelnut out of her pocket and screwed it onto the point of the horn, like the button at the end of a fencing foil. It wouldn’t stop anything really serious, but it should at least prevent her from accidentally scratching herself with that needle-sharp tip.

After some thought, Katie reached behind her and pushed the horn, point downward, into her bodice along her spine, like the stick one of her governesses had used long ago to remind her to sit up straight. The wide, broken-off end of the horn dug a bit into her shoulders, but it wasn’t unbearable, and anything likely to dislodge it would probably put Katie past caring about such things. Better yet, her shawl would hide the lump it made in her dress without Katie having to think about it too much. She knew she was going to have to tell someone about this night, and soon, but she wanted it to be in a time and manner of her choosing, not trying to explain how she came across a unicorn horn as she played nursemaid in the middle of a castle all night. She especially didn’t want to lose the horn before she tried to break the curse on Trina, particularly since the knight had said it wouldn’t work on the Prince. His family would want to try it anyway, and that would just be heartbreaking to watch.

The musicians began another song that sounded awfully like the previous one to Katie. What would the Family do, when Katie told them what she had learned about the curse on their eldest son? Her own first thought was to try chaining him to the bed – with iron chains, to keep the fae from getting him out. But she was immediately struck by a vivid memory of a trapped wolf she had seen one winter, mad with pain and fury and fear, that had half-chewed through the leg that the snare held when their hunting party came upon it and put it out of its misery. The only real thing in the world to Prince Hugh now was the pull of the geas he was under. Stopping him from going under the hill would not break it; it would only make him use up his remaining strength the faster as he fought to follow the compulsion. What about some kind of counter-charm? Katie didn’t know how to work such a thing, but surely the King of Cullane could find someone… but wouldn’t anything like that already have been tried? If not on Prince Hugh than on one of the ones who had gone before?

I dinna think I will tell what happened tae the castle folk straight away, Katie decided, always assuming that I make it back there safely in the morning. I’ll talk with Kitten first. She’ll believe me where the castle folk might not, and she’s a good head on her shoulders. Is there anything I can tell them, that might do good straight away? I know what he’s raving about, now, as he thrashes about in his bed. Does he hear when we speak to him, then? Can I find a way tae tell him something that will ease him, even a little? …. He craves goblin fruit. He jerks his head back from porridge with cream as if it would scald him. Would he do the same for applesauce, I wonder? Katie was tired. She found herself thinking the same few thoughts over and over, as though her thoughts, too, were whirling around the dance floor with Prince Hugh, whose dazzling smile grew more desperate and his eyes more tired with every step he took.

Chapter Text

A cock-crow louder than a cannon shot shattered the air, jerking Katie out of her daze and seeming to shake the very lights of the glittering dome. Katie whipped her head about. The music stopped, and everyone was hurrying, in an orderly sort of way, like guards running to their posts when an alarm sounded. The foxhound tugged at Katie’s skirt with his teeth, and Katie followed him, hurrying after Prince Hugh, who seemed to know exactly where he was going. There was the horse, again, saddled and ready. The prince swung himself up without a mounting block, this time. And once again, the horse paused just long enough for Katie to scramble up as well before it took off—in an outright gallop this time – under the edge of the hill and into the trees of the castle hunting lands. It was still dark, to Katie’s eyes, but there was the slightest hint of grayness to the east– just enough to be able to tell where the land left off and the cloudy sky began – that meant dawn was not far off. The dairymaids and the bakers would be just waking now, and out and about their morning’s business within half an hour. But the stable yard of Castle Cullane was still empty when the horse clattered to a stop and Prince Hugh and Katie slid off.

Prince Hugh immediately ran into the castle, with Katie following him as best she could, panting too hard too curse aloud or even under her breath, as she badly wanted to do. Either the geas was still pulling him to work beyond his strength, or he had been amazingly fit when the curse struck, to still be able to run that fast after a night of dancing so hard and who knew how long eating nothing but fruit. Katie followed the sound of his footsteps, desperately afraid that she’d lose him entirely in some corner of the castle that she couldn’t find the way out of. But when the footsteps faded away entirely, Katie found herself in the corridor that led to the Prince’s corridor. She recognized a statue that she had nearly banged into as she followed Mrs. House all those hours ago, marveled again at how one could see every hair on the dog, and wondered again why the sculptor had chosen to depict it chewing at its haunch as if it had fleas.

Now that she knew where she was, she continued at a walk, slowly catching her breath. By the time she got to the Prince’s room, the Lauds bell was ringing, and Prince Hugh had undressed again (Katie looked in the trunk at the foot of the bed and found he had even folded his kilts correctly) and, from the smell of it, made use of the slop pot. He lay now in the bed as deeply asleep as a newborn bairn. Katie checked his pulse (still rapid – no surprise, really) and his brow (clammy with drying sweat but no fever) and then settled into the chair by the bed and allowed herself to go limp

.

The horn still dug itself into her back, just as the long-ago stick had done, but she didn’t care right now. At least it kept her from falling asleep, exhausted as she was. She didn’t want Nanny Kirk to find her dozing at her post, and she especially didn’t want to fall asleep until she was sure she had everything important from the night before securely in her memory. Already, the infectious rhythm of the dancing, which had all but drilled itself into her skull during the night, was fading away. And the faces of the fae women the Prince had danced with, and even the Queen and the Horned Lord on their thrones, were blurring together.

Firmly, Katie told the story over to herself – the horse, the hill opening up – the dancing, the goblin market with the strange fruit, Prince Hugh holding his hand out to be bitten, the wee fae bairn with the unicorn horn, and the knight who had told her what it was and what it could and couldn’t do. Prince Hugh’s false, charming smile, and the desperation it hid. Then she told it again, including what she could about what she had thought about it and what she might do next. She watched the sleeping Prince as the room slowly grew lighter – though not truly light – as a little of the dawn light made its way past the edges of the heavy curtains. Katie’s eyes burned with tiredness every time she blinked. She drank some water from the ewer by the bed, and told the story to herself again. She would not forget. She would not forget, and she would tell Kitten all about it before she went to bed, just as soon as she pulled the unicorn’s horn from the back of her bodice and used it to break that curse.

The bell rang for Prime. Katie stopped rehearsing what she was going to tell Trina and began to say her prayers instead – in a faint whisper, so as not to disturb the Prince. A tap on the door interrupted her about three-quarters of the way through. Apparently, Castle Cullane did not all gather together for morning prayers at Prime the way Castle Bruce did. Perhaps they met at Vespers instead. Or perhaps they did without altogether. Even in Castle Bruce, the gathering was required as much to make sure that everyone heard the important announcements, as to ensure pure souls. Castle Cullane was really too large a household for that kind of meeting to be useful, and the larger cities were famously less preoccupied with piety than the small ones.

While Katie gathered her muddled thoughts, the door swung open, revealing Nanny Kirk and a footboy who balanced a tray of bread and cheese on one arm and had a fresh pannekin of porridge dangling from the other. Behind them was a housemaid carrying a ewer full of water and a stack of clean washcloths. Only Nanny Kirk came in. Moving as quietly as they could, she and Katie handed the used towels and dirty crockery (including the slop pot) out the door and put the new things in their places. They even managed to shift the top sheet in the bed off the Prince and lay a new one down over him, and then the blankets on top. Nanny looked hard at him, and then beckoned Katie into the hall for a consultation. “Did he quiet down around Matins, as usual?”

“Yes…” Katie wasn’t sure what more she wanted to say about that. She owed these people the truth, but when and how was she to deliver it?

“Good. I wish he’d be able to manage a proper long sleep, but he’s like tae start tossing and turning again before the hour’s out, poor dear! No wonder he’s ailing. Even the crofters do better than five or six hours a night, excepting at lambing and harvest!”

More like twa hours a night, or three, Katie thought. Aloud, she said, “Your pardon mum, but something I thought I heard last night made me wonder… have you tried him on applesauce, or stewed plums or the like? I ken well they’re not as strengthening as oat porridge, but I should think anything we can get down him at this point is tae the good…”

Nanny Kirk looked thoughtful. “Not since he started with the raving and all,” she mused. “He’d take a bit now and then when he could still tell you sensibly (only ‘twasn’t sensible at all) that he wasnae hungry. And if he was asking for them, or only might have been, ‘tis well worth trying again. Jem!” She called to the laden footboy, “When you show mistress MacLaird tae the kitchen, bring back some of the applesauce, or some preserved pears, or berry jam, or the like.” She turned back to Katie. “Jem’ll show you tae breakfast, and after that someone’ll take you tae tha’ sister. Mrs. House says you’re both tae sleep yourselves out, and then send word to her. She’ll find things for the twa of you tae do, as you’re able. And you’re tae meet at the stableyard with the rest of the servants just before Vespers, tae gang in tae prayers.”

Katie thanked Nanny Kirk, and followed Jem away from the sickroom and the strangest night she had ever lived through.

********

Even in broad daylight, the little room where Katie and her sister had their bed was dark and damp, though the walls were whitewashed and the floor was clean. And Katie knew firsthand that the blankets in the little box bed were piled high enough to keep out the cold. Trina was still asleep – or possibly asleep again. Katie felt another wave of guilt and pity for the way she had tired her sister so on this endless journey. Even though Katie had been just as tired, and even though Trina had had a mule to ride for a week longer than Katie had, her younger sister seemed to have gained strength more slowly – not quite getting enough rest of a night to make up for the day before. Well, she was making up for lost time now. And, if luck was with them and the knight under the hill had been correct, she wouldn’t have the hunched back and the harelip complicating matters after this.

Katie set her candle down on a little shelf on the wall. After some rather complicated wriggling, she pulled the unicorn’s horn out from the back of her bodice. She pulled the nut off the tip, and after a shrug, ate it. Perhaps it was only a hazelnut guaranteed not to be poisonous, perhaps it was more than that. It would do her no harm, anyway. Then she moved to the head of the bed, where she could see the fuzzy tangle of Trina’s transformed hair and the crook of one arm under her head, and that was all. Katie held the horn out more-or less horizontally, as if she were knighting her sister – it seemed better than clutching it like a dagger she was about to murder someone with. Slowly, she lowered the point of the horn down until it just touched Trina’s head. It seemed to Katie that time slowed with her. Even in terror for her life on the back of that uncanny horse, she had never felt more awake and aware than she did now. In a way, it was like being back at one of those hated balls, feeling her imp circling, but no, the imp, if it was there at all, was simply watching her from a corner. Watching as it seemed the very air did.

Katie fancied she could feel that air stirring as Trina breathed, and as her own hand moved through it. She could feel the stones of the floor under her shoes and the air beneath the stones from the cellar below them. And the horn felt – not heavier, but as if it were the end of a lever with something heavy on the other end. It wasn’t heavy to hold, but it didn’t move as if Katie were the only one moving it. Katie looked at the space below her hand and saw a faint glow, bluish white against the red-gold rushlight, that formed an outline of a beautiful, small creature like a cross between a deer and a horse, that stood with its forelegs on the edge of the box bed, looking down at Trina. Even the finest glass could not make an image so transparent. The creature could have been fashioned out of a glowing soap bubble.

Together, Katie and the ghostly unicorn dipped the horn until it just pricked the skin of Trina’s scalp. There was a faint sound in the air, like the few seconds after the bells stopped ringing on a feast day. The soap-bubble unicorn ghost dissolved into a glowing mist that filled the room for a moment and then was completely gone the next, leaving Katie standing there with a piece of cold, broken-off bone, lifeless as a pebble in her hand, and looking at the silky, shining ringlets of her sister’s hair.

Trina stretched, and came awake slowly, blinking. She smiled her exquisite smile. Katie noted, with a pang of her old jealousy, that unlike any normal human who had spent a night and half a day curled up in bed, Trina didn’t have a single line in her face from the seam of a sheet or the fold of a pillowcase. But the spark of jealousy was well drowned in the flood of joy and relief that this curse, at least, had been well and truly broken. And she didnae have to marry some hero she’d never met before tae get free of it, either.

“Morning already, Katie? Hurry and get undressed and intae bed, while I’ve got the blankets all warm for you. I dinna ken what was in that posset Mrs. House had us drink, but I feel a thousand times better. My cold is entirely gone!”

“More than your cold, Kitten.” Katie bent to give her sister a hug, wanting to laugh and sing and dance at the same time. However dangerous and strange things were, she was in the midst of adventure and magic, and she felt things were coming even between her and her sister for the first time since Trina’s birthday. “We’ve no looking glass here, more’s the pity, but feel your face over!”

Obligingly, Trina put her hand to her mouth, as she did to cover the harelip when she ate. And her great blue eyes grew wider with wonder as she realized her mouth was whole again. With a delighted squeak, she ran her fingers over her newly silky hair and the nose that no longer seemed to melt into her face. She stretched again and wriggled her shoulders, free from the weight and stiffness of that hunched back. Finally, she leapt from the bed, dragging some of the covers with her, to sweep Katie in a return hug of her own, as they both let their joy overflow into delighted laughter and Trina gasped, “Katie! Oh, Katie!”

After the first spate of excitement had slowed a little, Trina asked her how she had broken the curse, while Katie took down her hair and stripped down to her chemise, ready to obey her restored Royal Highness and get into the warm bed. And once Katie had taken Trina’s place, she sat in the bed with the covers over her knees and told the whole story of how she had passed the night, while Trina dressed herself and tried to tie her hair up in a way that the curls wouldn’t escape a few minutes later.

Before Katie reached the end of the ride to the knowe, Trina had given up on her hair and simply sat beside Katie on the bed, listening. When Katie got to the part about the wee bairn who had taken her nuts and left her a treasure, Trina took the horn off the shelf where Katie had set it, and she listened to the rest of the tale while turning it over and over in her hands. Where it had been white as bone, now it was a pale, ashy gray. Katie thought the knight had been right, and whatever magic it had had was likely used up now.

When Katie finished her account with the ringing of the bell for Prime and Nanny Kirk's return, she asked her sister, “What should I do, Kitten? Surely the Prince’s folk have a right to ken about all of this, but will telling them do more harm than good? Will they even believe me? I cannae think why they should. Or one or both of us might get taken up as Black Witches, if things really went wrong… I suppose ‘tis foolishness tae face a faerie host beneath an enchanted knowe and then be so afraid of a few courtiers, but…” she trailed off.

Trina, bless her, didn’t tell Katie she was being foolish. “Do you think he’s like tae die in the next day or twa? The Prince, I mean.”

“Nay, I dinna think it likely. His heart might give out while he was dancing, but I think the fae would prevent it: He’s a guest of sorts under the knowe, after all. ‘Twould be very poor hospitality tae let him die there. Besides, all the other Cullane Princes died in their beds, and one has tae suppose that the Folk beneath the knowe wished it thus. He’s like tae starve, of course, but I dinna think that’ll take him much before a fortnight from now, even with all the dancing. He looks like a crofter near the end of a bad winter – naught tae spare, but still able tae help with the lambing.”

“Well then, Katie, I think we should wait one more night before you try and tell what you’ve learned. I’ll be put to work in the castle, Mrs. House said. I’m bound tae learn something useful from the other servants. And when you follow the Prince tonight – I ken well enough that no earthly thing could well stop you at this point, though I’ll worry terribly for you – you might see if you can bring something back with you: something you couldnae have stolen from anywhere nearby. Perhaps one of the flowers decorating the pillars? Something to show you’ve been somewhere strange. And tomorrow, we’ll talk again and we’ll ken better how tae get on.”

“Well and good, Kitten. And a good day to you. I suppose I mun try tae sleep, though I dinna ken how I can, with so many things whirling about in my head so. But you’d best get on tae Mrs. House.” And Katie wriggled herself down into the bed, and found that she was so tired that even her teeming thoughts couldn’t keep her awake.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until she was standing before the awe-inspiring Mrs. House, being looked over with the thoroughness that the Brucemuir cavalry captain used when he looked at a horse, that it occurred to Trina to worry whether anyone had gotten enough of a look at her the day before to notice how she had changed now. She had kept her head well-wrapped in her shawl for the most part, until they’d had to drink that sleeping draught, and even then, she’d stayed in the shadowed part of the room… But at the end of her long scrutiny, all Mrs. House had to say was, “Hm. No wonder your sister wanted you away from the inn. I promise none of the lads will bother you here. I take it you can sew? Plain good seams as well as fancy work?” At Trina’s nod, Mrs. House stepped back into her “office” and pulled a strip of tapestry -- one of over a dozen that hung on the wall behind her, or- no. They hung from the ceiling, and seemed to actually go up into the ceiling. The one Mrs. House pulled was embroidered with the word “laundry.” A bell tinkled somewhere.

A few minutes later, a tidy, red-faced girl stood at the door, and, at Mrs. House’s direction, led Trina away to a small, but well-lit room where she and three others were set to mending the clothes of the household. These weren’t the Family’s clothes, of course. Queen Gwynn’s ladies would see to most of those. But Cullane had an enormous number of servants, even the lowest of whom got two new suits of clothes a year, and many of them had formal livery on top of that, for occasions when they needed to be “on show” while serving the Family. They would be expected to take good care of their own clothes, of course, but the fact was, it made good sense to have the laundresses manage small repairs at the same time as they washed and mended all the sheets and blankets and curtains and most of the clothes. The stable lads, many of the gardeners, and even some of the footmen were bachelors but did not expect to remain so, and thus had never bothered to learn how to do tasks that they would eventually have a wife to do for them. Most of them would, unless prevented, wear the same smock or coat until it was stiff with dirt and worn to the woof. That, as one of the laundresses observed to Trina, was not the kind of appearance expected for a servant of Cullane Castle, even an under-gardener.

Trina agreed solemnly and set to work with a will. If these women were doing everyone’s mending, they were most likely talking to everyone as well. More importantly, it would be relatively easy to get them to talk about everyone as they worked. All Trina would have to do was listen, and listen a little more avidly when they were discussing something or someone she wanted to know more about. Trina was well-practiced in listening. She had done a good deal of it at home in Brucemuir, where young people did not speak in front of their elders unless spoken to – especially if one of the elders was Queen Martha, who didn’t much like Trina anyway, though she tried to hide it. She had done still more of it these last weeks, learning with some chagrin that even a lass with a newly-royal Stepmamma had more leeway in a conversation than one with a deformity. When she got back home to Brucemuir, Trina vowed, she would find some way to make life better for those that were truly built awry, and not just forced that way by a temporary spell – perhaps she should found a school?

It could wait, though. For now, Trina's station had changed yet again. The curse was broken and she would no longer be ignored by those who assumed any cripple was a half-wit as well. However, she was not a Princess either. She was a temporary servant, hidden away off the laundry room where her bonny looks would not set up uncomfortable currents among the rest of the household and her cold would not likely come back if she became overtired. All she was expected to do was help turn endless yards of bedsheets ends-to-middle, unpicking the central seam and turning the outer edges inward, so the linen would wear evenly. (One of the seamstresses had commented that she had heard tell of a Queen somewhere who was so touchy she could feel a pea through piles of mattresses, who hadn’t been able to bear that central seam and had insisted that her sheets be woven all-of-a-piece on a broad tapestry loom, instead of a narrower one for fine work. Each sheet had taken a full year to weave, by which time the last one was worn out. And several of the Royal Weavers had gone mad.)

As a newcomer, and being younger than the other seamstresses, who were mostly retired from more vigorous work elsewhere, Trina was the object of some curiosity at first. But she made herself as boring as possible. She was bound for Saint Unweigh’s, as soon as the floods went down. Her father had to be away a good deal, and thought Unweigh’s would be safer for her. She had been provided with a little traveling-money, not much because pilgrims weren’t supposed to have things too comfortable, but they hadn’t counted on the roads being as bad as they were, and Trina and her sister needed to work for their keep for a time if they could.

This led, as Trina had hoped it would, to a discussion of the floods generally. A woman called Meg, the oldest there, had been old enough to remember when King Andrew’s elder brother had died of the Curse. He had been a summer baby, and the disaster had taken the form of a drought. The rain hadn’t come in until the day after they buried him. “ ‘Tis the cruelest part of the curse of all, to my mind,” she said, “That the longer the Prince lingers, the more everyone suffers, himself included of course, ‘til you start tae wish him dead just tae have it over with. Nobody should have tae wish their ruler’s heir dead, especially not one as beloved as Merry James was.”

Another woman had a niece among the dairymaids who had had a falling-out with her sweetheart over the present Prince James. It seemed that since his brother’s birthday the younger Prince had curtailed his time training with the guards and going over accounts with the stewards and started spending much more of it with his parents the King and Queen. Bessie the dairymaid thought this showed he was a kind and considerate young man who wanted to be a comfort to them in their great sorrow. Bran the cowherd thought it meant he was a gallows-bird who was anxious to have his brother out of the way so that he could be publicly acknowledged as the King-In-Waiting, as he had known he someday would be, as soon as his brother died. The seamstresses chewed on the argument for quite some time, from this side and that. They agreed that Prince James was in a hard position any way you looked at it. He and Hugh had always gotten on well, as far as anybody knew, but, well, brothers…

Trina kept herself as quiet and unnoticed as possible. She hadn’t heard enough to come to any opinion of her own as to whether Prince James might have any villainy to him. But even if Prince James would be genuinely glad to see his brother cured, there would be factions among the courtiers and the upper servants, which might make it trickier for Katie to find the right person to tell her story and be believed. There didn’t even need to be any plotting, though there almost certainly was some of that. All it would take was people choosing to believe, or not, depending on what they secretly hoped would happen.

She wondered what Mrs. House thought of it all, but she didn’t dare wonder aloud. For one thing, she didn’t want to remind the gossips that she was there. For another, Trina was too new and too lowly to be able to presume to venture any guesses about what Mrs. House might think. If she mentioned such an authority at all, the other women would assume she was a snitch who was going to report on them. That would never do. Trina confined her remarks to “Oh, really?” and “Oh, really!” as the occasion called for, and sewed until she could barely see straight and her back felt ready to stiffen into a hunch all over again.

She got a chance to share what she had heard with Katie that evening, after the servants’ High Tea and before everyone gathered for Vespers. That was a busy hour for most of the household, as the cooks worked frantically to get the Family’s supper to a point where it could be left for a while without damage, but where everything would still be ready on time. The “on show” servants were washing their faces and freshening their livery for the evening’s work, and the “outside” folk were near the end of the working day and looking forward to bed. Trina remembered that the time from Lauds to Prime had been similarly busy at home. There really was no good time to stop the work of a big household for everyone – or almost everyone – to gather together. Trina supposed that the inconvenience was one way of showing God proper respect.

For herself and Katie, though, the Vespers service in the chapel had another benefit: it gave them their first glimpse of the rest of the Family. From their vantage among the servants, it wasn’t much more than a glimpse. With the evening light filtering through stained glass, and their faces turned away to the altar, there wasn’t much to see except clothing and shapes. The clothing was formal: Dress kilts, velvet coats, and, in a few cases, gold chains of office for the men, a velvet gown and a gold-embroidered snood for Queen Gwynn. The colors were somber, but no one in the Family or the Court was wearing black. Yet.

The Vespers service, like the Prime service back in Brucemuir, was fairly short – twenty minutes or so, and very rote and ritualized. It was a terrible place to try and get any idea of the people beneath the formal demeanor and dazzling clothes (Trina suppressed a stab of envy, looking at the gowns of some of the Queen’s younger ladies.) Prince James, dutiful or scheming, depending on who you asked, was a well-shaped youth about Katie’s age, with the flaming orange hair that was common among the people of Queen Gwynn’s native Baile Dunne, and his father’s great height. His face, the once or twice that Trina got a glimpse of it, was stiff-looking and blank. She hadn’t expected anything else, on such a public occasion. But she thought she had seen enough of his features to be able to recognize him again, if she needed to. If the younger Prince was truly wicked, he might try to get to Katie somehow; get her to give his brother a “medicine” to finish the faes’ work for them, for instance. The hair could be disguised, of course, but the height would be much harder, unless he had magical help. Trina would be alert for any aged, stooped–over folk who had an interest in Katie. And Katie herself still wore the Godmother’s silver pin. A liar wouldn’t get past her. Meantime, ritual or not, unrevealing or not, Trina watched the people below her and tried to learn what she could.

************

 

When she met Katie at Prince Hugh’s chamber door, Nanny Kirk looked considerably happier than she had the night before. She still wasn’t happy, of course – not with her “poor laddie” still dying of an ancient curse, but she no longer looked as if she were going to fall apart in the next strong gust of wind. And she greeted Katie with far more warmth than she had last night: “And here’s our new young nurse, and a fine one she is, forbye. ‘Twas a goodly notion you had, Mistress McLaird, of trying him on fruit instead of porridge. He looks nae better, and he sounds nae better, and he rests nae better, but I got three spoonful intae him for every one I managed yesterday. Even given that it’s applesauce, that don’t stick tae a body’s ribs, I call that an improvement. Not–” and her face came near to crumpling, “not that ‘tis enough tae keep him, even so. And he’ll still take nothing with more substance – not cream, nor broth, nor egg, nor cheese…”

A faint bell chimed in Katie’s mind. “I wonder…” she said, “When I’ve been at my hungriest, I found my nose grew keener. I could smell all kinds of things I normally cannae. And he mun be hungrier than ever I’ve been… I wonder if… suppose something like eggs-and-bacon smells as powerful tae him as the henyard and the pigpen smell tae us? Maybe he cannae bear it. So perhaps we need tae try a different tack. Since he’ll take fruit, I’ll try him on nuts, as well: I’ll grind some up a bit and mix them with the applesauce, to start with. Nuts are sustaining as anything. I’ve eaten so many since I started with the pilgrim train that the other folk started calling me Mistress Hazelnuts. But those same nuts kept me on my feet through a good long march, and I pray they’ll do the same for His Highness. And if he takes the nuts, then tomorrow we’ll maybe try pease porridge – done just in salt water, not broth. If he cannae take food from other creatures, we’ll see what plants will do for him.”

Katie realized she was starting to babble, and indeed, Nanny Kirk stared at her, a bit startled. But, “Well, aren’t you a one!” she said, admiringly. “And no wonder you’re bound for Unweigh’s if you’ve such a gift for seeing through a problem tae its end. Not tae mention a gift for hope, if you still have some of that for a young man who’s been bound tae die since before his great-granddad was born. You’ll be a gift tae the Sisterhood indeed. A fine Abbess some day, I daresay.”

Katie blushed at that and ducked into the Prince’s room. She wasn’t used to getting this kind of praise from anyone but Trina. Her mother and her governesses, the visiting merchants, even King Malcom – all of them had let her know, in their own ways, that she was too forward and heedless, too ready to try anything. And at the same time, that she was too earthy and practical to be a proper lady, even in such a small, provincial court as Brucemuir. But… welcome as the praise was, Katie no more wanted to be Abbess of Unweigh’s than she wanted to be Captain of the Guard of Brucemuir.

Or maybe being an Abbess might be all right, but she’d have to start off as a Sister, and Katie wasn’t sure she could handle that. She’d had weeks now of living like a Sister, along the Pilgrim Road, and she missed down-stuffed quilts and good sheets, not to mention being able to sit down when one was tired. Katie was ashamed to admit how “soft” her life had been in Brucemuir, even if it hadn’t been soft enough to suit her mother.

Of course, she had eventually gotten used to the discomforts of traveling. Especially since the plainness of their lives was offset by the heady freedom of being on her own, answerable to no one but Trina, who was quite used to submitting to her elder sister’s will in most things. The Temple Sisters were supposed to submit their wills to the Kirksmen, and they weren’t allowed to be in charge of anything until they had proven that they were humble enough not to resent never being in charge of anything. No, Abbess didn’t feel right to her. But then, what did she want? Just now, I want tae rescue my favorite poet from a curse. ‘Tis the right thing tae do, if I can, of course, and besides, those Fae courtiers put my back up. They’re like everything I hated about the ones at Brucemuir, only even worse. Except I dinna think any of them are as stupid as Lt. McBittern.

A tap on the door interrupted her thoughts, and Katie opened it to Jem the footboy, who handed her a plate of little nut tarts. They must have been left over from the Family's dinner, because there was no way such a thing could have been made special in the short time since Nanny Kirk could have reached the kitchens. Katie took the plate over to the tray by the bed, where she ate a bit of her own supper to make more room for them. Prince Hugh was tossing and turning, but wasn’t yet at the point where Katie could try to feed him. Instead, mindful of the prince’s refusal of cream, and thinking of the butter or lard that probably went into the tart crusts, Katie used the applesauce spoon to scoop the filling out of the tarts and into a sticky mound on the plate.

Then she ate the crusts herself, along with more cheese and pickles. She wasn’t really that hungry, but by the time she was hungry, Katie expected to be riding an enchanted horse into danger that was, literally, over her head. And after that… Katie shied away from trying to imagine stealing anything, even a flower, from the court of the Horned Lord, let alone explaining herself to Mrs. House the next day. She remembered Trina’s remark that in twenty years, they would be glad to remember the grand adventures they’d had when they were young. Always assuming we survive them.

What did Katie want to be in twenty years? Besides alive? It occurred to her that Mrs. House might be one possible answer… Katie could serve Trina and her new husband in Brucemuir, and Trina would be glad to let her. She’d have real responsibilities and real authority. She could use her mind and her practical skills. She could read poetry and sing in her spare time – not that there would be much of it. And unlike the Abbess at the Temple of St. Unweigh, the chatelaine of a castle could have a husband if she wanted one…

“Cola!” Prince Hugh demanded from the bed. “Papaya, tamarind, cherimoya, mango!” He sounded rather petulant, in point of fact. Like a small boy who wanted berry pie for supper and didn’t want to eat his bread-and-dripping first. Katie decided to try something, as long as she was trying things, and scooped up a large spoonful of the nut tart filling.

“You can have as much as you like as soon as the market opens, Prince Hugh,” she said, doing her best to imitate the firm, but kind, tones of her favorite governess from long ago, “But ‘tis only just gone Compline. Best you eat what’s before you, now, if you can. ‘Twill do you good, and I promise you’ll still have plenty of appetite for finer stuff when the time comes.” She held the spoon in front of his mouth.

He had given no sign of hearing her little speech, except for not interrupting her, but now he actually took hold of the spoon by the handle and ate the tart filling himself – rather hurriedly, as though he wanted to get it over with. Then he dropped the emptied spoon on the covers of the bed as if he had forgotten it was there, and Katie retrieved it. He accepted some applesauce when she spooned it into him, and sipped from the water cup, but made no more attempt to feed himself. Still, it was better than the night before. Not that ‘tis enough tae keep him, even so, Nanny Kirk’s sorrowful voice echoed in Katie’s ears.

But it was enough to keep him a little longer. Katie was of the mind that if he lived even an hour longer than the fae meant him to, it was well worth the trouble they were taking. Anything that counteracted the curse at all was a tool that might be used against the casters, some day. If it wasn’t enough to save Prince Hugh, it might be enough to save Prince James’ son… And even if Katie couldn’t manage to do more than give them a moment’s annoyance, she was going to give them that much. Anyone who would let a good man – by reputation at least, and definitely a good poet, which was rarer still – die in agony because of something that had happened twelve generations ago, however horrid… well they deserved what they got.

Except… except…You mun try tae see things from their point of view. No matter how strange or wrong they are. The voice in her memory was Trina’s, this time, gently talking Katie down from some fit of temper or other, as she had done over and over as they grew up. People do things for reasons, Katie, not just tae plague you –well, usually that isnae the only reason. If you ken why they do things, even if you think them wrong, you’ll ken what they’re likely tae do next. And then they willnae be as likely tae surprise you.” Trina had been much better about giving advice about how to get along in a court than Katie had been about following it. But she had practiced, and she had worked harder at it on the pilgrim train, where the stakes were higher and she had no rank to protect her.

So now, Katie tried to imagine why the Fae would carry their grudge for so very long. To start with, if Queen Ninnoc was stolen, that’s horrible enough.

It was horrible, and if they had stopped their persecution after Robin the Sorrowful, her abductor, had died, Katie would have no quarrel with them. But why keep on? It was hundreds of years ago!

Was it? From their point of view? The Knight had stayed under the hill for about twenty-four hours, while in the world above, twelve years passed. If that was the way things usually worked… Katie frowned furiously, trying to count by twelves on her fingers, and getting interrupted by another outburst from the prince. After she’d fed him another four bites of nuts and applesauce, Katie started again.

Say that each new Cullane heir was born twenty-four years apart. They weren’t, since many of the princes had married in their teens, but say they were. That was two days under the hill for each generation, which meant … As far as the Horned Lord and his Lady are concerned, Queen Ninnoc was kidnapped less than a month ago. Looked at like that, their implacable revenge made more sense. It still wasn’t fair, but it made sense. They might be persecuting the family for the same reason that the Master of the Hounds would geld the littermates of a dog that proved too vicious or stupid – to make sure the undesirable trait didn’t spread through a subsidiary line. Except that they weren’t stopping the Cullane family from having children; just watching them suffer. And some of their folk were drinking the Prince’s blood … Katie didn’t know a lot about magic, but surely they had to be getting some power out of that, beyond what one might get from, say, a slice of black-pudding? So they are truly very angry, and they truly have a reason to be, but they are using that as an excuse for a lot of pain and suffering that willnae fix anything. Fine. I can still hate them. And I’ll still do whatever I can tae stop them.

Another go-round with Prince Hugh, where even Katie’s chiding (“I ken well it feels like forever, Your Highness, but ‘tisnae even moonrise yet. Please do try tae take a bittie more of the applesauce”) only got one more bite into him. But every bite put off the time when he finally starved to death by a little longer. And Katie would win what she could.

Was it really winning, though? When every day the Prince lived was a day that the floods would keep his Kingdom’s crofters away from their homes and fields, and keep the spring crops from growing properly, and push everything to rack and ruin? Would it really be better to stop even trying to give him water? Or give him such a great whacking dose of poppy juice or the like that he died peacefully at last?

But the Family and the servants, Katie reminded herself as she washed off the remains of a spoonful of applesauce that had got more into the Prince’s ear than his mouth, didn’t seem to feel that way about it. Or they wouldn’t be so willing to try the things Katie suggested to keep him alive longer. So it seemed the people who had the right to make that decision had decided to fight, too. The smith said they’ve learnt to store grain and things away tae see people through the bad year when the Prince turns twenty-one. I suppose if he’s still lingering and suffering months from now, the questions will get sharper, but from the looks of things, he was weeks from dying even before I came in and started changing things. So I dinna need tae fret now that I’ve made things worse. Especially since as soon as the Matins-bell rings, I’ll have so many other things tae fret about. Katie finished her supper, re-wrapped her shawl so that it wouldn’t come loose when she went riding, took a quick trip down the hall to the privy and back, and made herself as ready as she could to follow Prince Hugh into the night.

Chapter Text

After she got off the black horse, Katie offered it a handful of nuts, which the horse whuffled up thoughtfully before it trotted away. She felt too restless for more watching. She had thought she felt her imp’s warm, heavy breath again in the close-curtained bedchamber. Since she knew more or less what the Prince would do, Katie left him to the foxhound and set about exploring the knowe more thoroughly. She followed the line of columns that held it up, making sure she stayed under the dome, and looked outward. Logically, of course, the view should be of the sheepfold they had just ridden through, but naturally no such thing was visible. There were dark little tunnels, of various sizes and heights, in walls that looked in some places like raw stone and in others like perfectly normal house walls. There were depths that were invisible behind soft, glowing mists.

The flowers that wound about the columns looked disappointingly ordinary. True, it was far too early in the year for honeysuckle and roses, and too far north for jasmine to grow outside a glasshouse, but there was nothing so strange it would prove that Katie had been among the fae. And while Katie might have been able to steal a comb from a passing fae’s hair, if she dared, she didn’t like the idea. She didn’t even really like the idea of stealing a flower. Not in this place where a white feather and a pearl necklace each bought the same piece of fruit. How would she have any idea what would be missed and what would not? But how else could she prove she had been here?

That would do! Katie jumped. The parrot-voice of the imp seemed to sound as much in her ears as in her head. She swore she could almost feel the tug of a little monkey-hand in her hair. She whipped her head about and saw nothing stranger than usual. I mun be ganging mad. Cautiously, she looked in the other direction, the one that the impossible paw had been indicating. One pair of columns framed a little slate terrace with a lake beyond. As Katie watched, a little rowboat came floating up and a handsome fae lord tied the mooring ropes to a ring on the terrace before handing his companion – a lady who looked human – out of the boat. There were other boats approaching. And growing in tubs on the terrace were a dozen graceful little trees with leaves that shone like cut glass-- no, brighter. They shone like diamonds. There was certainly nothing like that above ground! She had just shifted her weight to take a step onto the terrace when she remembered. Dinna leave the Shining Dome. Katie muttered a word forbidden to ladies of her rank at the imp and moved on, digging a handful of hazelnuts out of her pocket to munch on as she did.

A few columns further on, she was glad she had. The flowers changed to something she had never seen before – like lilies, but mottled like tortoiseshell, and growing on vines with feathery leaves like a willow’s. They seemed to glitter faintly in the changeable light. Katie took a step closer. That’s right! Gang up closer and take one of those! The voice was even more real this time. She could feel the tickle of moving air on her ear as the words sounded. Katie’s hand jerked. Her handful of nuts went flying. Three of them whizzed near the strange flowers, and the flowers reacted by stretching out to meet them. There were three audible snaps and the nuts disappeared. The flowers settled back into their former places. The one at eye level burped contentedly, and Katie could see the white teeth that ringed its center. She had a mental vision of what would have happened if she had bent in to smell one of them…

Shuddering, Katie looked around again, to see if any of the other nuts had hit someone or something that she ought to apologize to. No one seemed to be paying her any notice, but she noticed something. There were far fewer of the little floating lights in this part of the dome, and none of the dazzling lords and ladies from the dance or the market. The creatures that wandered here were all strange and twisted ones; her imp would have been right at home. And that creature just past the column could only be a Shellycoat, the sort that liked to lure unwary travelers… was it the Shellycoat’s voice she had heard? But the Shellycoat was in front of her, and the voice had been behind, and even now the familiar heaviness in the air seemed to be turning itself into an actual weight on her shoulders, taking the shape of very solid paws and legs… This is not a good place for me tae be.

Instead, Katie turned centerward, toward the brighter lights, and moved back to the dance floor. She wove herself in amongst the crowd a little, putting herself right at the edge of the floor. She could watch, and there were other watchers between her and any… thing that might have had its eyes on her in the more menacing part of the knowe. Of course, if humans arenae tae go there, there may be something to be learned in that darker quarter, but I think I’d best have better protection before I try – a Coat of Invisibility, perhaps.

Besides, it occurred to Katie that there might be things to be learned from the dance, just as much as the market. The dancing happened at the center of the knowe, after all, and the Horned Lord and his Lady oversaw it directly. Prince Hugh didn’t mention the dances when he raved, but he spent most of his time under the knowe dancing. Perhaps there was something in the music, or the steps, that were part of the pattern. That strange, engaging rhythm, for instance. If Katie could manage to remember how it went once she left the knowe, she might be able to sing some of her own songs to that rhythm. Would that bind him further, or help break the binding, she wondered – if something in the music was enough to keep a starving man out of the market for most of the night, it might help him endure the days as well. Or it might make things worse. If I can remember long enough, I can try. If it looks like I’m making things worse, I can stop. The rhythm would be the place to start. It seemed to be much the same from one song to the next, and besides, Katie could feel the pull of it. Try thinking, instead.

When she started to count beats in her head, Katie realized confusedly that it seemed to be the same one-and-two-and-three-and four as an ordinary straightforward reel. Why did it feel so different? After more counting, Katie realized that her shoulders were swaying to the ands, not the ground beat. And that at least one of the drums was emphasizing the off-beat as well. Was that why there were so many drums? So Katie watched the drummers for a while. One seemed to be playing a march, alternating between a deep, bass drum and a smaller one that rattled slightly, as if there were a handful of peas bouncing about inside it. Together, the low drum and the high one made a fine march: ONE two ONE two. The creature with the beaded gourd was making a hissing, rattling sound, and while it was still the same ONE-count, the gourd was hissing in triplets: ONE and-a TWO and-a ONE… The thing like two brass dinner plates was doing something else again: ONE, TWO off, ONE, TWO off... Put all together, the rhythms had the effect the waves on the shore, where the boom of the breakers and the hiss of the waves going out pulled against each other, only much faster. Well, Katie! There’s a pretty challenge for you – can you manage to set a song for three drummers or more, instead of one, and do it well enough to hear the drummers in the tune even if they arenae truly there? But she was pretty sure she had the rhythm down, now – all three of it. What else could she borrow? Did the songs have keys or chords in common?

“Would you like to dance, lady?”

Katie started, and then felt herself blushing her usual beet-red as she found herself looking up into Prince Hugh’s dazzling smile. The night was only half over, by her reckoning, and he’d had at least one trip to the market, so the worst of the exhaustion hadn’t set in. And the peculiar light hid the redness that must be in those lovely, black-lashed eyes. Not even faerie glamour could make that week’s growth of beard look anything but scruffy, but it did make his teeth seem very white… Katie had thought him well-looking enough when she had watched him from one place or another, but somehow having him look back made an enormous difference. And I’ve been staring at him off and on these last twa nights like that poor foxhound, thinking he didnae notice. Oh, saints! But there was nothing in his smile that suggested he was laughing at her the way the soldiers and the merchentmen had, and goodness knew Katie wasn’t likely to have missed it if there was. She swallowed, hard.

“I dinna ken how,” she said, “I’ve never danced aught but reels and schottiches and the like.”

“Then I’ll show you!” There still wasn’t any condescension in Prince Hugh’s smile. He was as eager to share his fun as a boy with a new ball. “Here. Put your right hand on my shoulder, and hold my other hand, good. Then step to the left, and then just touch your right toe down without shifting your weight. And then step to the right. Step-touch, step-touch, step – exactly! That’s really all you need – one can get fancier – touch, if you want – touch – but there’s no call for it. My name’s Hugh, by the way.”

“Yes, I know,” Katie thought she managed not to squeak, “I’ve read your poetry.” You do sound a proper fool! She berated herself. Surely he must be tired of impetuous young lassies gushing about his poems! “Er – I’m Katie MacLaird,” she added, belatedly.

Prince Hugh’s smile kept its warmth. “Have you, now, Katie? Well, if you liked what you read, or can pretend you did, then we’re sure to get on well for the next half-hour at least. My poems are the best of me. I probably work harder at them than any other thing, and I’m horribly proud of them.” He managed, while still dancing, to clench his jaw and puff out his chest like a bad actor playing Sir Gavin the Hawk, and then he winked. “Depending on what you liked about them, we may then find we have enough to get on with for another half-hour after that. Or if you prefer, I’ll turn dancing-master again, and we can think of nothing but our feet until the music stops and we can escape.”

Katie laughed. All those weeks back in Brucemuir, as she’d imagined talking with Prince Hugh, (a much broader, square-jawed, soldierly Prince Hugh in her imagination, altogether too much like Lt. McBittern,) she’d also tried to remind herself sternly that a man could write beautiful poetry and still be a coxcomb or a bully or a fussbudget or any number of unpleasant things. But the man with his arm about her waist now was her Prince Hugh, with the kindness that saw the great romance in an old crofter couple, and the humor that had composed a formal villanelle in praise of mutton sausage. And she had been talking, in her mind at least, with her Prince Hugh for a season or more. It was the easiest thing in the world!

“I do like them,” she said, step-touching away without even thinking of it, “I like how you really look and listen and notice things, and then you find the words tae show everybody how beautiful they are, like in your 'Ode tae Mutton Sausage.' ” Surely she was imagining the faint look of surprise on the Prince's face? It couldn't be an unusual thing for people to like about his work; Trina and even the nun in the Pilgrim train had said much the same thing.

“And I like how many of your poems are happy,” she went on. “Most of the famous court bards – even a lot of the crofter singers – it seems like they’re always in mourning for some grave thing or other. The one most of my sister’s friends favor, you’d think he was an orphaned tinker with the pox and leprosy both, he’s that gloomy.”

“Oh, I’ve written plenty of those myself,” Hugh smiled ruefully and shrugged, “But I was only thirteen, and I didn't have them printed. And later, when I knew what I was about with the writing, it seemed a waste to spend my time on such stuff, when I had so little left.”

So he had known about the curse, it seemed. But then, it would likely have been fair impossible to hide such a thing, after twelve generations. But he was going on. “I wish I’d kenned then what I do now.”

“What you do now?” Katie parroted.

Hugh nodded. “We’re not killed, we sons of Cullane. We’re taken to the fae realms, as Queen Ninnoc was taken from her home, and they leave a changeling behind in our place, that seems to die. But we are treated with honor, except for not being able leave again, just as she was.”

“Oh.” Katie fell silent, confused. I’ve heard of such things, and it makes a kind of sense … but I followed you here from the castle and back again. Or was it you? I suppose if you’ve been here the whole time and ‘tis the changeling that sickens, that would be why you look healthier than you did at home, but that would mean I’m following the changeling back and forth, and why would it -- or he – need to do that? Finally, she decided to just ask. “So, is it the changeling that gangs tae the castle every morning at cockcrow and comes back? Seems a roundabout way of managing it to me, but then, I’m not fae.”

Hugh’s hand on her back stiffened, but he didn’t miss a step, and he was still smiling. “Oh, no. That’s still me. The switch will happen soon, though – at the full moon is my guess, from what I’ve read about my ancestors’… changes.”

“They didnae tell you, then?”

And now his smile, too, was growing stiff. “There’s been no need to tell me anything. I realized it all on my own.”

“Oh.” Katie step-touched grimly, digesting this. As quickly as that, the enchanted feeling of ease, as if she could say anything and never put a foot wrong, had vanished. She might be back in Brucemuir, with any other partner who happened to be a little more tactful than usual, trying to brace herself for the inevitable moment when things went wrong. Wronger. It sounded to her as though the prince was fooling himself, and doing a pretty good job of it. And if, as she wanted to, she told him so in no uncertain terms, he would probably take it about as well as her mother ever had – he’d either spend the rest of the dance explaining angrily that he wasn’t wrong, or he would simply go rolling along as if he had never heard her at all. I wish Trina were here. She’s good at this sort of thing.

But should she even try to get through to him? If he had less than a month to live, and his delusions were giving him comfort, why try to puncture them? Except, as a poet, his clearsightedness was his great gift. If his poetry is the best of him, as he says, shouldnae he be allowed to be the best poet he can, for as long as he can?

The imp was growing more impossibly present with every step. There’s nothing there. Hugh’s hand would bump against it if there was. But she could feel sharp little claws, digging. This place is getting tae me, that’s all. The words in her head had nothing to do with envy, this time. Just impatience, stubbornness, and a selfish frustration with always having to ignore one’s own feelings, for the sake of someone else’s. And while she got a clear sense that her imp would agree with them, there was no parrot-squawk in the sound of them: I dinna want him tae feel better, if it means I have tae lie. I hate lying, and I’ve had to do far too many things I dinna like as it is. She mentally patted the imp on the head, and let herself keep prodding.

“You realized it on your own. So… did you meet, or see someone then? One of the others that got … taken? Bonny Prince Robin, perhaps?”

Hugh had stopped smiling. In a tone of strained patience, he replied, “I don't think so. Not to talk to, anyway. But it seems likely that they would be … changed, after all this time, and I might not ken who they were. Now –“ the smile snapped back into place with an almost audible click – “If you want to try something just a wee bit more complicated, you can alternate the step-touch with three quick steps back or forward, like this: Step-touch, stepstepstep. See?”

Well, that’s torn it. As always when she hurt someone else with her want of tact, Katie felt horrible and sad, afterward. And she couldn’t even apologize without making it worse. All she could do was allow Hugh to “turn dancing-master” as he had put it. I feel about as low as the soles of my shoes. Lower. That would mean I was dancing upside-down, would it not? It might explain a few things if I was.

But to Katie’s surprise, Hugh seemed disposed to try again. When the song ended and everybody clapped, instead of finding a new partner, he took her hands again, asking, “Tell me, Katie, if I wished to be sure of getting on well with you for half an hour, what should I talk of?”

Katie found herself smiling back, in spite of everything. “Music,” she answered promptly. “I sing, and I write tunes. If I can, I mean tae learn what I may from these dances here, and use them in my own work. Or maybe not. I dinna wish tae cast the wrong kind of spell on my audience, after all. Knowing how tae dance to it will be a great help, though. My feet are more likely tae remember than my ears, come morning.”

“Well, I’m glad to have been of service to you. And perhaps when the musicians take their rest I can wheedle you into singing something?” He whimpered, by all the saints, sounding just like his foxhound. But Katie could hear the laughter under it, and she laughed back. It looked like he had chosen to ignore or forget the uncomfortable parts of their conversation. Katie noted that they were both taking smaller steps, now – any less attention to the dance and they’d just be swaying in place.

“Gladly.” Katie let her own smile fade. “I am sorry if I spoke amiss before. I didnae mean tae…” hurt you “...pry.” She took a deep breath. “I do think it a pity, though, if you’ll see so many wondrous things beneath the knowe and I’ll never get to read the poems you write about them.”

Hugh shrugged. “I confess, these folk have some ways that take a bit of getting used to.”

I should think so! Katie thought, glancing at the puncture marks on the thumb of the hand that held hers, but Hugh was going on:

“And I shall miss mutton sausage, even with mangos at hand. But if you come to me again under the knowe, I’ll be happy to tell you every poem that comes to my mind, if you wish.”

Katie shook her head. “I’ll be gone from here, by then. Cullane is only a way-stop between home and… elsewhere, and I dinna think tae be here even another month.”

“You’ve traveled, then. That’s something I envy; I’ve been all about inside my own Kingdom, but never crossed the borders yet, not even to visit my friends who were schooled in Piktenburg. Though of course many sorts from other places have come to me. So tell me, where do you come from?”

“Brucemuir, to the north of here. Cullane buys our glass.”

“Ah. I have heard of the place, but I ken very little about it. What is it like, there?”

“Well…” Katie groped for words, “ ‘Tis grand, in its way, but very plain. There’s the high gray mountains with gray-purple heather and gray-green spruce, and there’s the low gray sea. And on a fair day, the sky’s so deep a blue you’d swear you could see the stars at midday, but when the fog or the clouds come, ‘tis very cold and lonely. The ground’s stony – good for quarries and not much else – trying tae grow anything but heather and gorse and spruce is harder even than mining or quarry work. ‘Tisn’t… ‘tisn’t a friendly-looking place, really. But you can look about you and see ‘twas God made it all, and not crofters…” As she concentrated, trying to picture her so-familiar world and put it in words, the weight of the imp began to fade. Katie barely noticed.

“The homes are grand and plain too. The walls inside the castle and the other great houses are plain white plaster, and the floors are slate. There are hangings on the walls, and those are mostly in shades of green.” Green dye is cheap – we can get it from the rockweed along the coast, or the burdocks in the meadows. Most of the good reds and oranges we have tae trade for. “But the rooms are tall, and, well, roomy. And of course, the windows are big, with clear plate-glass -- at least, they are on the walls that face the inner courtyards. The outer walls are very old and all they have are arrow-slits, and we dinna change that because the Sea Raiders still come a-calling now and again…

“My st– King Malcom says Brucemuir isnae a kingdom so much as a Duchy or a Countship that no greater king wants the trouble of claiming. I didnae ken what he meant ‘til I came to Cullane and saw folk eating with silver spoons from bowls you could almost see through” (The Abbot of Cullane, who had dined in the refectory the night the pilgrim train arrived, had done this; Katie thought it likely that the Royal Family did as well.) “Even the gentlefolk in Brucemuir carry a steel eating knife with a bone handle and a spoon of bone or horn when they gang a-visiting. And nobody dresses in silks – Even King Malcom’s folk are in wool and linen – but they wear their bright tartans, and in those green and white rooms, they glow like jewels.” It was, Katie thought, a mutton sausage sort of place.

Hugh listened gravely, and with his full attention. Katie felt as though he were seeing the steep hills and even the scraggy mohair goats on them as she did, and somehow that made the words come easier, almost as if she were talking to Trina. Katie didn’t think anyone except Trina and maybe Pastor Scott had listened to her for a very long time. Mother talks enough for six, and King Malcom says, “That’s nice dear,” and then gangs back tae his books and his chamberlin's reports, and the young fellows tell me how well I sing, or how bright my eyes are, and then talk of themselves and nothing else. None of them had listened. And Katie had felt herself getting louder, and blunter, and shriller, trying to make herself heard, and becoming less and less worthy of being heard. Tis grand, as I said it is, but also… confined.

“You describe it very well,” said Hugh, softly. Katie realized the music had stopped. Blushing, she let go of his arm and shoulder – a little too quickly. “Clearly you are no mean poet yourself,” he went on.

“What, me?” Katie’s face got even hotter. “No such of a thing! I’ve tried, and I cannae. My rhymes all jingle, the meter gangs awry, and even when I try using an old story, I cannae invent the bits that make it come alive. Nay, I’m glad tae read any one else’s good work, but dinna ask me tae write any.”

“If you will have it so,” Hugh replied, “but you’ve a gift with words, nonetheless.”

Katie started to say “thank you,” but she heard the foxhound howl somewhere behind her and suddenly realized they were on their way to the goblin fruit market, and what she actually said – shouted, really - was “Not this way!” At Hugh’s startled look, she added, “Not if you really want me to sing for you – ‘tis far too noisy here. I’ve some nuts with me, if you’re starving.” As you are, whether you ken it or no. Katie dug into her pocket and pulled out a few, offering them up.

Hugh smiled, took a nut politely, and obligingly turned away from the market. “I do want to hear you sing. More than ever, if a woman who speaks so well thinks singing is her better gift. Will that seat over there do, do you think?”

He was pointing to a mushroom that had sprouted near the entry to the lake terrace. Katie was sure it hadn’t been there when she’d last come this way, but it should be quiet enough to be able to sing and have him hear her there. She glanced through the archway and saw a full dozen little boats tied to the wall at the end of the terrace. But she asked Hugh to sit down, and piled as big a handful of nuts as she could get out of her pocket in one go beside him. He quirked an amused eyebrow at them, but didn’t say anything.

The little foxhound trotted up, wagging its tail. Hugh greeted him with a surprised, “Hullo, there, Pepper! What are you doing here?” And ran his hands affectionately over the ecstatically wriggling dog. That’s a sign I’m doing right, anyway, Katie thought, that the hound approves. As she chose her own place to stand and sing, Pepper calmed himself and collapsed with a doggy sigh on Hugh’s feet. Hugh smiled down at it and absently picked up a second nut.

Katie stood by one of the pillars, where there was a relatively steady light glowing, and took a deep breath. “If you’ll pardon my boldness, I should like tae do my setting of your poem, ‘Tugg’s Croft.’ ” It was one of the longer pieces she had ever written, and she wanted to keep him away from the market as long as she could. And it was a nice, earthy poem. It might remind him how much he loved the aboveground world and give him more will to fight the curse a little longer.

Besides, it was the best thing Katie had ever written. She was proud of it. The melody was simple enough that it didn’t sound strange to imagine some old crofter singing the words, but it varied enough on each repetition to deepen the emotion and make it strike home as Crofter Tugg picked flowers: first for his sweetheart, later for the grave of a child they’d had together and had to bury, and later still for the wedding of another child, and lastly for his wife who was his sweetheart still. The tiny corner of her mind that wasn’t singing noticed that Hugh was watching and listening intently, and that his hand brought one nut after another to his mouth without his seeming to notice. Katie came to the last chorus:

Oh, the bonny heather bloom
And the bright yellow broom
And the song of the lark, up aloft!
God willing, I do pray
’Tis still as ‘tis today
When I’m ta’en at last from Old Tugg’s Croft.

There was a stillness. Hugh swallowed the last nut he’d been chewing and looked up at her. “That was… perfect,” he breathed. “Everything I’d hoped to put into that poem, you’ve found it and made it … more. Thank you. I’m very, very glad you let me hear that.” His mood shifted a bit, and his smile reappeared- rather ruefully, this time. “I did try, once or twice, to set my own tunes to my words. I never managed anything that didn't sound like ‘Three cra’s sat upon the wa’. ’’ Katie giggled at the echo of her own thoughts, back home in Brucemuir when she’d been trying to write poetry. But Hugh was still going on. “I like your voice, too. Puts me in mind of warm velvet. All the ladies of Cullane have been mad for singing in the Baritarian style, lately. ‘Vibrato,’ they call it, but it sounds like spring toads or crickets to me and too much of it goes right up the back of my skull the same way.”

“Do they sing in Baritarian?”

“Some of them. I can't say I think it any improvement to hear a voice I don't care for singing words I can't make out, rather than ones I can.”

“Well,” said Katie, handing him more nuts, which he chewed as absentmindedly as before, “ ‘Tis not a fashion that’s come tae Brucemuir. For all there’s a decent port there, they – we – take tae these things slowly if at all. And when we do try tae ape the folk in the Southern Kingdoms, it usually gangs awry.” She went on to tell him about the disaster with the powdered hair. Perhaps he was right, and she did have more of a way with words than she had credited herself with, because by the end of it, he wasn’t just chuckling politely, he was actually half doubled over, clutching his stomach and whooping.

“Saints!” he gasped, “We should make a song of that some day, and have it printed in Piketenburg!” Hugh began to sing softly, to the tune of “My bonny lass she hath a rose,:”

“ ‘Twas on a Northern Winter’s night;
The rain was pouring down,
When the ladies wished tae dress their hair
As they do in the Frankish towns…”

He trailed off, frowning thoughtfully. “ ‘Twould be a challenge, to write it so ‘twas clear the nobles in the powdered wigs were the fools, more than the simpler folk that aped them.”

Katie shrugged. “We were fools, at least as much as the Franksmen were. And you want tae borrow a hornpipe, I think, not a chanty. I wish we had time tae write a song together all the same, but as it is, I’ll just save the tale for the day my daughter, or my niece, wants some fine city thing.”

Hugh’s answering smile was a little too bright. “If it turns out you’ve naught but sons and nephews, you’ve my leave tae tell them about the red-heeled boots I craved when I was fifteen, until I had to dance schottiches in them instead of sarabandes, and then had to walk two miles home in the mud when my horse went lame. I’d curled my hair, too, Saints preserve me – I wore it long back then.”

Katie was laughing almost as hard as Hugh had been. “Oh, I can just see it. Tell me—’’

But before she could ask if he’d had a plumed hat, too, she got a sudden reminder that, no matter how comfortably they were talking, Katie was no longer pacing the halls of Castle Bruce with an imaginary friend. A breathtaking fae lady, her face alight with delicious mischief and her figure gowned in some gauzy stuff fine enough that the outlines of her lissome body showed through it, came running up to the pair of them, crying “There you are! The music’s starting!” She laid a possessive hand on Hugh’s arm, sparing an instant to cast one cool glance at Katie that made her feel once again that she was big as an ox and impossibly grubby. Just that quickly, the veil fell over Hugh’s features again, and he was simply another charmed, blank-faced mortal, set to go dancing his life away. He sprang up so quickly Pepper let out an indignant yip, and hurried after his exquisite partner.

Katie looked at the empty toadstool. The nuts were all gone. The foxhound looked up at her, thumped its tail once, and made a noise that sounded like wauraurrararoo. “I'm with you there,” said Katie, and it trotted up to her and bumped her hand with its head. Katie sighed. “At least he’s had one round less of that demon fruit tonight,” she said to the dog. “And he’s had a good wee bit of honest food, and I’ve tried to wake up his brain a little… it should count for something, taken all together…” The dog whined, bumped her with its head once more, and followed its master into the crowd of fae.

Katie watched them go, and sighed again. She found she could still feel the pressure of Hugh’s hand on the small of her back, where it had rested during the dance. Step, touch, step-step-step, she reminded herself, and the three different rhythms layered on top of each other. That was the heart of the dances here. There ought to be something a lass who counted herself as a musician could do with that.

Oh, well. There was nothing to be gained by moping here by the terrace. She turned back to the market. Perhaps she could learn something more there while this last dance went on. Perhaps the wee fae bairn would come back, and give her some new grand, magical thing in exchange for a handful of nuts. Something that she could use as a weapon against its parents.

Chapter Text

Riding neck-or-nothing through the king’s orchards, clinging to Hugh’s – to Prince Hugh’s back, in the gray false dawn, Katie thought her head was so full of things it might well burst. There was the music, and the glimpses of the fae realms she’d seen, and that amazing long conversation with the cursed Prince, and then the market after that. The fae bairn hadn’t reappeared, but all the same she had learned… something. And she thought she might be able to use it. But first she needed to think. And she definitely needed to talk to Trina.

On her first trip to the market, when she had met the fae bairn and the knight, there had been so many strange things to look at that Katie had only a jumble of impressions: the rich, fruity smell of the place, the odd-looking goblin folk, of which next morning she found she had been unable to remember anything except that they had been odd-looking, the tiny lights swimming through the air, the fae who had paid for a mango with a white feather, and, over and over, the sharp teeth sinking themselves into Prince Hugh’s hand, and the blood welling up…

This time, she had watched more closely. She named the stallkeepers to herself: Stonehat, Goatfoot, Monkeytail, Greenbeard, Pigsnout, Hunch. Stonehat had sold papayas – shaped like huge, squashed pears with the seeds like fish roe in the center. Longtail sold bananas, shaped rather like yellow cucumbers, but growing in huge clusters as if they were the scales of some immense variety of pinecone. Greenbeard sold the apple-like cherimoyas, Goatfoot sold Prince Hugh’s beloved mangos – shaped like giant red-and-green eggs, golden and juicier than any pear inside. Pigsnout sold a dark, fizzy ale called “coal,” or maybe “kola,” and Hunch sold tamarind, which seemed to be a kind of dried bean pod, except that when people shelled them what was inside looked a little like jerked meat.

Once she had the stallkeepers placed in her head, Katie looked back at Stonehat’s stall to watch the customers. Stonehat was doing a brisk business, but was selling cherimoyas, not papayas. Confused, Katie looked back at Greenbeard, who was now selling bananas, and then back to Stonehat, who was just handing someone a cup of foaming “coal” ale. Katie tried three more times, just to be sure, and each time, the wares in Stonehat’s stall had changed. And the customers didn’t seem to take any notice.

Something very strange is afoot there, as if I didnae ken that already. Plainly, there was a lot of elfin glamourie at work in the market stalls. Perhaps those tempting-looking fruits were really enchanted mushrooms and elderberries and the like. If they were, and Katie could find out what they really were, she could try feeding the Prince with the same thing outside the knowe. Would ordinary elderberries do anything for a man who had been eating enchanted ones? Would even the things that had been enchanted do any good outside the knowe, or would their powers fade at dawn? If Katie could get her hands on some of the wares without tasting them herself…

She had watched the customers, looking to see if any of them paid with anything she might be able to offer. Besides the ones who paid in blood, of course. If the goal was to get out without being trapped, letting these people – creatures – whatever – get ahold of her blood seemed like a very bad idea indeed. So she had watched, and found little to help her; the few human ladies all seemed to pay with jewelry that was finer than anything Katie owned, or with blood or hair or other things that Katie did not wish to part with. But she had noticed something else. Every human at the market stalls ate or drank whatever they had bought as soon as it was put in their hands. But the fae who bought never ate it at all. In fact, all though all sorts of uncanny creatures had crowded the market square, the only ones who went to the stalls were the lords and ladies who had come from the dance, and most of them had had human companions in tow. Katie had seen only one fae put the goblin fruit in her mouth: one of the Ninnoc ladies fed bits of papaya to a strapping fellow in the McBreem tartan by putting the bits in her mouth and then kissing him.

Taken all together, it was enough to change Katie’s plans about how to try to break the geas on Prince Hugh. The music and dancing are still the heart of the place, I think. But it looks very much as though ‘tis the market that’s the spring in the trap. If I can get hold of some of the market goods without being trapped myself… well, I dinna ken what then. But something. It would be quite simple. Just so long as she didn’t mind risking her life, her sanity, and her immortal soul. I mun talk with Trina.

************** 

They had to steal the time to talk by skipping breakfast – now that Trina had gotten over her cold, there would be no question of a castle servant “sleeping herself out.” Trina, predictably, was gleeful when Katie described dancing with Prince Hugh, full of outraged pity when she learned how he was deluding himself about his likely fate, and absolutely appalled when Katie told her what she meant to do about it all.

“Katie! You cannae!”

“It needs doing, Trina, if this curse is ever tae be broken. Anything else I can think of is just borrowing time. And who else is there tae do it? Nanny Kirk? The Silver Fairy? Should Prince James follow his brother under the knowe and leave Cullane heirless if he fails?

Trina actually stamped her foot. “Any number of folk might try. Katie, this is not our fight, dinna you remember? We are ganging tae St. Unweigh’s, as soon as the floods ebb, where we will do what we may against whatever witch or sorcerer cast that curse on me. You’ve already done far more than your duty; now you should tell what you have learned of the knowe and the prince to Nanny Kirk and the Family. They’ll listen.”

“Will they? Do you think a week’s gone by since Hugh was born that they havenae heard from some quack or other who says they can save the prince if they’re paid enough? And now some stranger too poor to stable her mule comes in and says she’s really a king’s stepdaughter? They’ll have me clapped in irons in about twa ticks, and you with me as my accomplice. Even if they did believe me, what good would it do them? ‘Twould just be one more slim chance at a time that hope mun be even harder tae bear than grief. Not to mention all sorts of stupid counselors and people worrying about what Brucemuir will do if the Queen’s daughter gets herself killed in Cullane. No. I’ll not have this spoken of ‘til speaking will do something worthwhile.”

“But speaking now will do good, Katie! All you’ve learned already will be a great gift in itself! And once ‘tis better known, any number of people in Cullane can try tae take things further, instead of just you. And as you said your own self yesterday, if it doesnae serve to rescue Hugh, it may yet save the next Cullane heir after that… Katie? Why are you crying?” Trina put an arm around her sister’s shoulders, and in her gentlest voice, without a hint of teasing, asked, “Is it because you’ve fallen in love with him?”

“Nay…” Katie shook her head, but… Have I? Even now, I can feel the place on my back where his hand was, hear him saying, “that was… perfect,” when I finished singing… She tried again, “Were it half a year or more that I’d kenned him, instead of less than half a night, I might call it love, if I felt like this, but that isnae why I mun do this.”

“You have kenned him half a year, or at least a full season” Trina said patiently. “You’ve been reading his poetry for at least that long.”

Katie shook Trina’s hand off her shoulder impatiently. “His poems are only part of him. A good part, but not the whole. And I’m trying to tell you it doesnae matter. Call it love if you like; I willnae argue. But I would still have tae try and break this curse if he were ugly as a toad, stupid as Lt. McBittern, and smelled like the fish market in high summer. At least,” Katie admitted after hearing herself, “I like tae think so.”

She groped for words. This was the first time she had ever had to struggle to explain something important to Trina. There had been many times when she hadn’t wanted her sister to know what she was feeling, for one reason or another, but this was the first time she had tried to explain something and been afraid that Trina wouldn’t understand.

She tried again. “Remember you talked about looking back on this when we’re old? Twenty years from now, or thirty, when I’ve gone from St. Unweigh’s and come back again – half-widow tae some merchantman, perhaps, and my life is all penned ‘round with duties again, I’ll be telling the story of this journey ‘til everybody but myself is sick of hearing it. I’ll tell how once, when I was young, I went a-journeying. And when I did, I helped save my sister from a curse of ugliness and perhaps some worser fate. I used all my wits and strength that I didnae ken I had tae keep us both alive. We met a great lady disguised as a beggar, who gave us wondrous gifts, and I broke the curse with the help of a unicorn’s ghost, and I danced with an enchanted prince tae the sound of fae musicians. When I am telling this story,” Katie finished, “I dinna want tae end it by saying, ‘and then I spied on the evil in its lair and reported it tae the proper authorities.’ Do you see?”

Trina boggled at her. “You mean tae take all these dire risks for someone you admit you only barely ken, however much you like him, because ‘twill make a better story?”

“No!” Katie clenched her hands in frustration. “‘Tisnae the telling of the tale that matters to me. ‘Tis the… the work. This may well be the last time I’ve a task I can do where I can give everything I have, use all my talents and skills, even some parts of me that I’d never seen before now as anything but bad. And what I do will matter. So much of our life back home in Brucemuir was spent doing things that didnae matter, or that I was no good at, or both.” Who really needs a cushion embroidered with a picture of Sir Gavin and Lady Alizais and trimmed with lace? Does anyone but Lt. McBittern care whether I flatter him or not? But if I can learn how tae fight the Curse of Cullane, that’s a man’s life and the fate of a kingdom changed. And it needs someone canny and stubborn, someone who kens how tae keep herself in check when she wants things – Saints know I’ve had practice in that – even dancing and poetry-reading and songwriting turned out tae be helpful, talking tae Hugh!

Trina was still frowning. Katie tried again. “Do you remember telling me, Trina, how hard it was tae be the ugly wee hunchback everyone ignored, after a lifetime of being bonny and beloved and important, with people listening tae you and wanting your help? Imagine if instead, you’d been the hunchback all your life long, and then you got to be a heroine all of a sudden. Would you want tae give it up just because it was dangerous?”

Tears welled in Trina’s eyes. “Oh, Katie, it wasnae that bad at home, was it?”

“Not exactly. Not most of the time. But you were the only one who needed me for myself there. Even Mother really wanted me tae be someone else. It… it feels wrong tae give less than I have tae this. Do you see?”

“I do see that, Katie, I really do! But Katie, you cannae be expecting those creatures tae keep ignoring you while you try such things. They could tear you limb from limb and eat your bones, or hide you away for a thousand years, or even pay you in trade tae some even worser power! I cannae bear tae think of what they might do tae you. And if you dinna come back, I’ll be alone here in a strange place, kenning some horrible thing has happened tae you and that I’ll never know what…”

“Oh, Kitten,” Katie wrapped her sister in a hug. They were both crying now. “I dinna wish tae leave you, any more than you wish tae be left. And I ken well enough that I dinna ken what-all I’m letting myself in for. But I also ken that you dinna need me, now. Yes, you love me, you want me by you. But you dinna need me. You’ve grown as I have in our travels.

“Besides,” she added, “now the curse is broken, you’d need only tae open the walnut the Godmother Hildegarde gave you tae be Princess Katherine Dove Nicola Bruce again, fit tae demand a room and a place at the table and a carriage tae take you tae St. Unweigh’s as soon as may be. And you’ll marry well, and tell your children how you and your sister once went journeying…” Neither of them were able to talk at all for a while after that. They just held each other and sniffled until the bell rang for Tierce, which meant Trina was late for her work at the laundry. Katie yawned hugely, and Trina sighed.

“Sleep while you can, Katie. And I’ll help you as well as I may.”

 ******************

Godmother Hildegarde bit her tongue and breathed deeply as she watched Godmother Elena's face in the mirror. It wouldn't do to lose her temper with the interfering chit; Elena was only half Hildegarde's age and relatively new to her post, but she had nearly twice as much power and twice as many kingdoms in her care as Hildegarde did, and so she was the Senior Godmother of the two.

For now, at least, Hildegarde thought sourly. Personally, she thought it likely that the woman would fizzle out like a Baritarian Festival Candle some fine day. Especially if she insisted on sticking her nose into everyone else's business like this. It wasn't as if she were on the Grand Council! At least not yet. But she's the sort who would want tae be.

“....be doing something about that MacLaird girl from Brucemuir? Randolph says that Theobald says the Traditional power around her is as strong as it ever was, and the Twa Loyal Sisters Path is not so very far from the False Bride that we can count on her not turning jealous later. If she's destined to be a witch, Hilda, we want her on our side!”

“I am well aware of that, and I understand your concern. I am keeping a very close eye on the situation.” What Hildegarde wanted to say was, “I've done this job since you were learning tae piss in a pot! Leave me tae do it!” But of course, she wouldn't.

“Which wouldn't have been necessary if you'd just taken her on months ago, when the Princess turned sixteen. She might have been able to help us directly by now.”

“Perhaps,” said Hildegarde, unclenching her jaw with an effort, “but I had my reasons. As your gossiping mirror-servant may or may not have told you, the twa lasses have now involved themselves with the Curse of Cullane, as I intended they should.” (That was stretching the truth only a little. It hadn't been Hildegarde's first plan, but she'd woken up to the possibilities of it quickly.) “As you also may or may not be aware, this is Cullane's twelfth generation laboring under the curse. If we're tae break it at all, then 'tis now or never, for all practical purposes. We've passed three generations, and six, and nine, and a hundred years... if we cannae do something this time around, the misbegotten thing might gang on for a full thousand. Not that the kingdom is likely tae last so long. If Mistress MacLaird survives the next month – or even the next few nights – and if the Traditional power about her doesnae dissipate after Princess Trina rescues the Cursed Prince and Katie marries Prince James, then I can worry about that. It will keep. But Cullane mun come first! I've very little time left, and you nagging me when you've nae right tae is no' helping!”

Elena had the grace to look a bit ashamed. “Of course. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that you were neglecting your duties,”

Hah.

“I only thought you were concentrating so hard on the Cullane matter that some of the others had slipped your mind. But that is clearly not the case, and you are entirely correct that the curse takes precedence. I'll just tell Randolph to keep an eye on Earne, as you asked, and don't hesitate to let us all know if there's something more we can do.” The mirror went dark.

Hildegarde twitched the curtain shut angrily. “Entirely correct,” indeed! What right had the minx to judge her? Elena was notorious among the Godmothers as a firebrand and reformer, set to try and push and change the Tradition at every turn, and brashly heedless of how the Tradition was set to push back. She had even married a prince, which for Godmothers was a recipe for disaster. Granted he was a Champion as well, and Godmothers and Champions did tend to work together, but... Best not think about that right now. But just wait, Elena, until you lose your Champion!

And it wasn't as if Elena were that much more skilled a Godmother than Hildegarde. Granted, she oversaw more kingdoms, but all but one or two of them sat squarely in the center of one, or at most two, sets of Traditions. Not like the Trullney Islands.

'Tis both our greatest gift and our greatest curse. Hildegarde still remembered the lecture from her predecessor and mentor, Godmother Annabelle, the Coral Fairy. The Trullneys have been a crossroads for every sea-faring folk in this quarter of the world for over a thousand years. Our native folk have mixed with the Njordishmen of Trondfjellen and Drachtenthal, the Bretagners and the Ortrarians and the Piketenburgers... even a few Andalazzi and other southerners, back when the Trullneys were the furthest edge of the old Baritarian Empire. And all those different peoples left pieces of their Traditions behind. So if you'd an evil Dragon to deal with, you could choose between a mighty Hero sort, like Iron Johannes Von Drachtenthal, or a sly, clever fellow like Jack Ashputtle of Piktenburg. Of course, you also ended up with at least four different kinds of Evil Dragon.... Since the Baritarian Empire had left its Great Church behind when it retreated, it was even theoretically possible to dispatch a dragon with the help of a Saint. Holy magic in the Trullneys was strong enough that many of the Kirksfolk reported to the Godmother, just as the White Witches and Hedge Wizards did. Saints chose to intervene far more often than in, say, Fleurberg, but... Don't get me started on Saints, Annabelle had muttered darkly, on numerous occasions.

All of which meant that any given Tale under Godmother Hildegarde's watch had, for better or worse (almost always more worse than better) three or four times as many paths it could travel down as in any more landlocked realm. That made it truly nerve-wracking when a Tale was being pushed out of true as was the Tale of the two Katherines.

Fortunately, it looked like they'd gotten over the first hurdle and the Tradition had been willing to accept that the lasses were not following the usual pattern for Runaway Sisters. They were not disguising themselves as men, serving as squires to the Princes they were destined to marry, and being found out by the clever Queen. (Admittedly, Katie MacLaird would have been very hard- put to disguise herself as any kind of man.) That was something, at least.

Instead, things seemed to be following a pair of paths that usually worked well when put together: the Twa Loyal Brothers, and the Wasting Princess. Of course, this time, it was Twa Loyal Sisters – or stepsisters, but the lasses called themselves sisters, so that was all right – and a Wasting Prince, but the pattern was still a reasonably good fit, and anything that had a chance of breaking the Curse of Cullane was worth trying, especially in this, the Curse's twelfth generation. The Tradition liked twelves almost as much as it liked threes. Next time 'round, the Thirteenth, was also a possibility, but after that, the chances for Cullane would be very grim indeed for a very long time.

Hildegarde, like the other Godmothers in charge of the Trullneys before her, had spent many hours studying the Curse and trying to think of possible solutions. Curses always behaved exactly as they were worded, but those words could often be twisted to fit a situation other than the one the caster intended. The Horned Lord had cursed the Princes to die, (and without a Godmother there to turn the curse into one of sleep, die they did) “until one comes who will ken not tae take what isnae given.” Most people assumed that the “one” referred to some Prince unborn, but the other Godmothers believed that the “one” could be anyone, and Hildegarde agreed. Over the past few years, she had made a point of steering any youngster in the Trullneys who ran away from home toward Cullane, in hopes that one of them would slide into the Hero or Heroine role and manage to break the curse. Castle Cullane was developing a reputation for being willing to hire all sorts of riffraff and vagabonds from nowhere. Very few knew that Mrs. House was doing so at Hildegarde's orders. Princess Trina and her stepsister had looked like the best chance yet.

The problem was in the timing. Traditionally, what should happen next was that the older sibling should make some dire mistake – out of stubbornness, discourtesy, greed, or some combination – and the younger one would then have to complete the Quest and rescue the older sister and the Prince both. In the case of Cullane, there might not be time for all of that. Hildegarde’s original plan had been to send the two lasses there more quickly, using the “All Forests Are One” spell that every Godmother in the Five Hundred Kingdoms cast at least once a week. But since they’d found a pilgrim train to join instead of going on by themselves, she hadn’t been able to. It was one thing to send two young ladies who had never been more than a day’s ride from home and never seen a truly detailed map to a place that was many times as far away as they should have been able to travel in the available time. It was another thing to do it to two dozen folk of various ages and educations. Hildegarde had been almost angry at Miss MacLaird when she had decided on the Pilgrim Train, even though it had been a perfectly sensible thing to do. And then there had been still more delay when they decided to seek work in town instead of going straight to the castle. Hildegarde was still kicking herself over not having disguised herself as a beggar-woman again to give them a nudge in the right direction, but there were always so many emergencies...

That time in the pilgrim train had had an effect on the lasses, too. Katie was still stubborn and still wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for a diplomatic mission, but she had worked hard to learn from her mistakes and had made more friends than enemies. Hildegarde knew she ought to be glad of this – that kind of Redemption was something else she was supposed to oversee. But it was very complicated when the Redemption started up before the elder sibling had made her Traditional big mistake.

The lasses had still managed to arrive in Cullane only a little time after the Curse had struck. There might still have been time to pull everything off in the Traditional fashion. Hildegarde had rather expected Katie to disappear under the knowe the first night she followed Prince Hugh there, which would give Trina two full days and nights (with Hildegarde’s help) to rescue her and the Prince. But it seemed Katie was going to take a full three days to Fail, and that was very awkward. Hildegarde knew, as the sisters did not, that trying to rescue either Katie or the Prince or both after the full moon would be immensely more difficult. She would have said “impossible,” had Miss Katie not found a way to persuade a little human food into the cursed Prince Hugh. No one had ever managed that with one of the Cullane Princes before. So it was just barely possible that, with a little magical help, the Prince could be kept alive long enough for Trina to do what needed doing. After all, the Tradition loved rescues that happened just in the nick of time.

Of course, the Tradition also loved it when the rescue came just barely too late to do any good. Hildegarde sighed and sat down at her writing table, trying to compose a list of things she could do at this point and what she would need to take with her to make it happen.

I miss Rocky. The knight of the White Eagle had never been the most powerful of Champions, magically speaking, but it hadn't mattered. Rocky's flexible wits had danced through the snarled Traditions of the Trullneys while Hildegarde's own had gone plodding carefully, step by fumbling step. Rocky had been as vital to Hildegarde's work as the brownies who kept her house and the mirror-servant who watched where she could not. If only we hadn't fallen in love. Even twelve years later, Hildegarde remembered exactly how her heart had pounded at the sound of that warm, low voice singing “My Bonnie Love She Hath a Rose,” as equally warm hands had... But Rocky was gone: lost to the very same Dark Fae Court Hildegarde was preparing to face now, and lost there because of Hildegarde's advice. The Tradition simply had no place in it for women like Hildegarde to have Happy Endings.

The sight of that misbegotten piece of unicorn horn in Katie's hand that first night had driven the fact home, when Hildegard had watched it in her mirror. How Mistress MacLaird had come by the horn, she had no idea. Oh, she knew what the lass had told her sister, but since she couldn't scry into the Faerie knowe herself, she couldn't verify it. And Katie was the Stepsister. It was far, far more likely that she had stolen the horn and then lied about it later. And entirely like these particular Dark Fae to wait a little time before extracting their payment. They would probably wait until the third night and the third theft to do whatever nasty thing they had in mind. Given the amount of power gathered around the lass, ripe for the plucking, Hildegarde very much doubted it would be possible to save her, unless one of the Saints did decide to intervene.

Maybe I could hae saved her if I'd taken her in the way Elena suggested. But then there'd have been no chance of breaking the Curse of Cullane. A Godmother's duty is tae make the hard choices, when the Tradition gives nae good way out. Hildegarde would not shirk her duty. No matter how many painful memories it dredged up, no matter how much she found herself resenting the ones like Princess Trina who had a chance at the joy that she had been denied, and no matter how guilty she felt about the innocents she couldn't save.

Dear Heaven, but I am tired. Maybe she should take the irritating Elena’s advice and start looking for a ‘prentice. After she did what she could to salvage the situation in Cullane.

“Tam, Heather,” she summoned the two Brownies who kept house and garden for her, “Prepare my boat, please, and be ready tae keep an eye on things here for a time. I’m needed in Cullane, and it may be a fortnight or even a month if things truly gang awry.”

Chapter Text

The bell rang for Compline. Trina pulled her cloak closely around herself and stepped carefully down the path through the kitchen gardens, hurrying in the last of the twilight. It had been easier than she was afraid it would be, to slip past the guards on the High Wall. There were lookouts up top, but it seemed the really serious guards were at the Outer Wall. The gate was open. It seemed terribly lax to Trina, but then, the sea-raiders didn’t come to Cullane as they did to Bruce Port. Trina hurried on through the orchard gate, not wanting to light her little bit of candle until she truly had no choice. She had only the vaguest idea of where she was going: “through the pears and the walnuts, across the King’s Chase, and a smooth meadow with the knowe in the middle of it.” There was only one gate from the pear orchard that led to the walnuts, though it took Trina the last bit of daylight to find it. There was only one part of the walnut orchard that bordered on the woods, and it was not in a straight line from the pear gate. And Trina wasn’t really sure how far the King’s Chase ran in which direction. But Katie had said it was no more than ten minute’s canter on the uncanny horse, and that the mortal (so far as she could tell) foxhound was able to keep up without much trouble. That made it maybe five miles away, at a guess, and Trina had three and a half hours to find the place.

She’ll no' be alone this time, I vow it. As far as Trina was concerned, the biggest of Katie’s many flaws was that she always acted as if she were alone. All last winter, Trina had watched her sister hovering at the edges of dances and snowball wars and sewing parties like one of the dogs at the kitchen door, waiting for scraps. As if she wouldn’t have been perfectly welcome at the heart of things! And when trouble came, it had been just like Katie to decide they had to run away without even telling their maid, Grania, who would surely have been willing to help, Queen or no Queen.

Katie wasn’t stupid; she always had logical-sounding reasons for doing what she did, but she was very odd about people. Where Trina had been so terrified that first night in the wild woods that it had taken days to wear off completely, Katie had barely noticed the woods and gone all stiff and pale talking to that sweet little simpleminded Sexton in Clydesmuir, and to the Pastor after that, and the Waymaster in charge of the Pilgrim Train after that. All those nerves! And that had been with the Godmother’s silver pin to reassure her that these were all perfectly good, honest folk! Trina didn’t understand it at all.

Well, Katie had been getting better about that sort of thing lately. She hadn’t seemed to have any problem asking Mrs. House for a job, for instance. But it seemed when things got truly dire and dangerous, she fell back on old instincts. Maybe she’s right about not telling the Family, first, though. Even I can see where that could make things very complicated. But she shouldnae have left me behind! She was saying just this morning that I’m not a wee lassie any more!

But no. Katie had even argued when Trina insisted that Katie take her pearl necklace along with Katie’s own dower jewels, in case she needed to bargain with the fae court. And after she lost that argument, Katie had insisted that Trina keep the unicorn’s horn, which was still needle-sharp even if the magic in it was spent, which Trina was less than certain of. “Take the Godmother’s pin, too, Trina. I dinna need enchanted jewelry tonight tae ken I’m ganging among folk who wish me harm.”

Trina had given in and put both amulets in her cloak pocket, because Katie shouldn’t be wasting her energy arguing before she did what she meant to do. But Katie hadn’t thought to make her promise to stay behind, and now Trina pushed her way determinedly through the twilit wood.

It was still terrifying under the moonlit trees, even after all that traveling. True, the pilgrim train had gone through plenty of forests that were larger and (at least in theory) wilder than the King’s hunting preserve, which was only about two miles square. But in the pilgrim train, there had been fires, mules, and familiar faces. Here and now, there was only Trina and her candle, the trees in the moonlight, and Things. Trina knew there were Things this time. Wasn’t she here to help her sister deal with them? Under her cloak, Trina held the piece of unicorn horn like a dagger. Unless it was still more magical than anyone else seemed to think it was, it wasn’t the most effective of weapons. But it was better than nothing, and if anything tried to trouble Trina, she would kick up enough fight and fuss to trouble it back. That might be enough against at least the natural dangers like wolves. Against the uncanny ones… she had a sprig of rowan, and she could say her prayers, she supposed…

No sooner had she thought that than she heard a great crashing noise coming toward her through the woods. Deer could sound like that, when they were in enough of a hurry to go through shrubs instead of around them. And of course, there were all kinds of perfectly harmless things that could panic a deer, but still… Trina took a firmer grip on her piece of horn, shrugged her cloak back over her shoulders, and spun around, scanning the shadows for the source of the noise.

Before she could see anything, she realized the noise had words in it: “No!” the voice cried, “You mustn’t! Stop! Go back!” Trina’s first panicked thought was that it might be Katie, but it was nowhere near Matins yet. Besides, this voice didn’t sound like Katie. It wavered slightly, like a horse’s whinny. Katie didn’t do that even when she was terrified. Especially when she was terrified. Katie was always perfectly fine until it was all over, and then she’d collapse in a heap somewhere and cry for an hour. The crashing noises were still coming closer. Whatever was chasing whoever was yelling was not stopping or going back, it seemed. Trina blew out her candle stub and set it back in her pocket, and then readied the horn to strike at whatever it was if the chase came past her, and then a white blur came leaping out of the woods and landed very neatly at her feet.

The unicorn looked up at her, panting. Trina found her own breath caught in her throat. It was so beautiful! Tiny and delicate, no higher than Trina’s shoulder, it was as graceful as a deer. Yet its sleek, velvety haunches were plump and round as river rocks, not bony like a deer’s. She ached to pat them. Its mane was longer than a wild pony’s, and mane and beard both were so fine the ends seemed to disappear into a mist. The eyes, even in the moonlight, were as deep and soulful as a dog’s, only more beautiful, and the horn shone blue-white and semitransparent, like “false opal” glass.

And it spoke; Trina couldn’t quite see how. The lips moved, but not quite the way a human’s or even a horse’s would. Well, ‘tis a magical creature, after all. It probably can use magic to talk if it wills. “Please, fair maiden,” the unicorn begged, “you mustn’t go on, truly you mustn’t,” and then, in an abruptly different tone of voice, “I say, that’s a piece of Uncle Paragon’s horn! Wherever did you get that?”

Trina gathered her scattered wits. “My sister gave it me. She says one of the Folk under the knowe – a wee bairn, it seemed to her – gave it her in exchange for a handful of hazelnuts. She used it tae break a curse I was under, and then let me keep it. She didnae think there was any magic left in it.”

“Nearly none,” the unicorn agreed absently, “Is your sister a virgin too?”

“Er… yes…” Trina knew that of course unicorns were drawn to virgins, but she somehow had never imagined them actually discussing…

The unicorn sighed sentimentally. “Uncle Perry would have liked that.” His ears perked up a bit – something like a puppy’s. “My name is Argent. Can I put my head in your lap?”

Even in the hurry she was in, Trina found it tempting. Argent was so pretty, and he was all but wagging his tail in eagerness. But duty came first. “I’ve something I mun do,” she said, regretfully.

“Oh, no!” Argent’s ears drooped, and great crystal tears welled up in his liquid eyes. “Oh, please don’t go on! I don’t care who he is or how handsome and charming he is, it’s just not worth it! And it’s awfully early in the year, anyway. It won’t be warm enough until summer. Couldn’t you just stay with me, instead? Please?”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

Argent pouted. “It happens every year. All these lovely young people sneak into the woods after dark, and then when they leave, they aren’t virgins any more. It’s really too awful.”

“Ohhhh.” Trina choked on a giggle. It made a certain kind of sense, she supposed. “I’ve not come for that. Argent, please, can you show me the way through the wood tae the fairy knowe? My sister has gone there tae try and rescue Prince Hugh, and I mun help her if I can.”

Argent looked puzzled. “That’s silly,” he declared. “Prince Hugh doesn’t need rescuing from the knowe. The fae will put him out themselves at cockcrow. And he’ll not be going back, either. Tonight’s the full moon, and they always shut the knowe tight when the moon is waning. It’s rather a Dark Court, you understand, and they have a lot to do then. No time for dancing. And almost none of them are virgins. I don’t like them.”

Oh, no! Trina thought. That must be why the Cullane Princes always die in the dark of the moon. The geas makes them crave the goblin fruit tae the exclusion of everything else, and then when the moon begins tae wane, they take away the fruit… So if Katie fails tonight, no one else will be able to gang tae the knowe and help him. She shuddered.

None of these thoughts seemed to bother Argent in the least. But then Prince Hugh wasn’t a virgin. Since he’d written several poems about it, even Trina knew that. “Silly or no, my sister means tae follow the Prince tonight, and I wish tae be there when she does. Can you help me?”

Argent blinked a slow blink. “Of course I can! But they never come and fetch the Prince before midnight, and the knowe isn’t all that far away. Can I please put my head in your lap for now? Just for a little while?”

Trina thought about trying again to explain, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that when her tutor had listed unicorns among the Wise Beasts, he had been, well, stretching things a bit, to say the least. “All right,” she said at last, at which Argent did a gleeful little twinkling dance on his cloven hooves, “Just so long as you promise tae get me tae the knowe in time.” She lowered herself carefully onto the ground, feeling cool and damp beginning to soak into her skirt already. Argent was right. It was far to early in the season for – for what Argent had thought she was here for.

Argent didn’t seem to mind the chill at all, though. He flopped down with a happy-sounding “ooh” noise, and thumped his chin into her lap. He kept on making little pleasurable moans as she stroked his mane and ears and scratched his chin. Trina felt a little foolish at first, but then she started to relax. He might be silly, but Argent was very beautiful and magical, and as soon as she started petting him she no longer noticed the cold.

She didn’t think it had been more than twenty minutes – certainly it was nowhere near Matins yet, when Argent stopped mid-sigh and snapped his head up, ears pricked. “Hoofbeats!” he announced in a loud whisper.

“Already? But…”

The unicorn shook his head impatiently. “Not those hoofbeats. This is a mortal man!”

“Prince Hugh is a mortal—“

“Shh!”

When she was quiet, Trina could hear the hooves too. Moving at a cautious walk, as any sensible horse would after dark. And when she looked in the right direction, she could see the flicker of torchlight through the trees. Argent sprang to his feet, lowering his horn as if to charge at the newcomer, though Trina wasn’t quite sure what something that size could do to a warhorse. Well, except for hamstringing it, perhaps, or goring it in the belly... “Oh, it’s you,” said Argent.

The unicorn may have seen nothing surprising about running into Prince James in the woods after dark, in half-armor and carrying a torch, but Trina certainly did. Younger princes were often groomed to be Commander of the Army, of course, but Prince James? Who could fully expect to be Crown Prince and heir to the whole kingdom inside a month? On Night Guard duty? Well, maybe he had insomnia and had volunteered. Or maybe he was fully as conniving as that laundress’ ex-sweetheart had thought he was, and he was abetting the Fae, somehow. Argent didn’t ask. He trotted up with a cheery, “Hello, Prince! Good to see you! Would you like me to get Pearl? She’s awake.”

“No, please don’t.” The reply was rather stifled-sounding. Then the Prince started to ask all the questions Trina would very much have liked to ask him. “What’s going on out here? One of the lookouts told me he’d spotted the night nurse’s sister lurking by the gates after Vespers, and then there was a lantern or a candle or something moving through the orchards, and when I get to the place where we lost the light I find the servant girl and a unicorn! And ‘tis far too late for either of you to be wandering about in the dark.”

“It’s a full moon!” Argent protested hotly, “and unicorns don’t need to sleep as much as horses do!”

Prince James ignored him. “And don't think, my lassie, that you can wriggle out of explaining yourself just because this magical nitwit has taken a fancy to you. That just means nobody’s had you yet; it doesn't mean you’re not up to some mischief.”

Before Trina could answer him, or even think how she should answer him, Argent let out an indignant snort. “I’m getting Pearl!” he announced huffily, “You’re nice to her!” And he wheeled around and trotted off into the woods, leaving Trina alone with Prince James.

“Well, lassie?” he demanded.

Oh, help! thought Trina, What do I do now? If he was telling the truth about why he’s here, he might be able tae help, but if he means me harm… And Trina heard her sister’s voice in her mind. “Take the Godmother’s pin, too, Trina. I dinna need that tonight tae ken I’m ganging among folk who wish me harm.” Of course! She had stuck the pin in a cloak pocket and forgotten it. She dug in the pocket now, ignoring the prince’s warning of “Let me see your hands!” and pulled it out. The pin shone bright silver in the light of the moon and the prince’s torch, and the stone in the center was clear as rainwater. Trina nearly wept in relief. She could tell him the truth!

“Very sorry, Your Highness,” she began, carefully showing him her hands, and then dropping both the unicorn horn and the pin on the ground, thinking, I hope I can find them both again – maybe Argent would help. “I didnae mean tae frighten you or anybody, but, please, there is somewhere I mun be at Matins tonight. It may mean my sister’s life and your brother’s, too. Do you ken the way tae the Faerie Knowe? Katie said ‘twas a round hill a bit larger than a barn, stuck in the middle of a meadow, and it was somewhere nearby.”

She looked up at Prince James, waiting to see what he made of this. It was a long way up; either Cullane’s warhorses were half again the size of Brucemuir’s, or it made a much bigger difference than she’d thought to be seeing one from below instead of from a chair on a balcony. The Prince had a very mobile face, under his open half-helm of black leather. His ruddy eyebrows glinted in the firelight as they twisted into an expression that managed to be incredulous, thoughtful, and fierce, all at once. Trina heard him mutter something that sounded like, “fae in Round Barrow?” After a long pause, he appeared to come to a decision. “I think,” he began, but he was interrupted by Argent’s voice, growing louder as he came back to the clearing. “Oh, s’teeth,” growled Prince James, “he did fetch Pearl.”

The unicorn was gabbling away to somebody or other. Trina could make out, “…And she’s got the top end of Uncle Perry’s horn…”

Sighing, James pulled an ordinary hunting horn from where it hung on his saddle and blew a quick series of notes. “That’s the all-clear,” he explained. “So nobody else interrupts us before I understand exactly what’s toward here.”

Before he or Trina could say anything else, two silvery shapes trotted out of the woods toward them. One of them – Pearl? was saying, “Have her put it in the burn. It will purify the water there until it dissolves away entirely, and then his soul can finally rest… Jamie!” On the last word, the unicorn mare’s voice went up a full octave, suddenly sounding breathless. “Oh, Jamie! I’ve not seen you in ages! And never at night! What a treat!” Pearl squealed like an excited bairn and bounced up and down.

Prince James, abruptly even ruddier in the torchlight, sighed. “Yes, yes. Now listen. I’m going to get down off my horse, and this lassie and I and the twa of you are all taking a walk to the Round Barrow together. I dinna think miss… er… I dinna think she means any harm, but just in case, you, Pearl, will be my bodyguard. You, Argent, will be hers, just so she kens I’m not about to try anything either. And while we walk, she will tell us why she thinks her sister’s life hangs in the balance and what it has to do with Hugh, who last I heard was, though sick, safe in his bed over a mile from here.”

“Lovely! And a story, too! What fun!” Pearl kicked up her heels once more for good measure and then stiffened up and tried to look fierce, while still gazing adoringly at the Prince. Funny, Trina thought, when she was first talking I thought she wasnae nearly so featherbrained as the stallion, but as soon as she saw the prince… oh. She bit back a giggle.

The prince glared. He looked a lot less like the Heir of Cullane and a lot more like any other eighteen-year-old lad on night guard duty. “ ‘Tisnae funny,” he snarled.

Trina took a quick, deep breath. “No,” she answered seriously, “I ken well ‘tis not. I’m just a bit giddy, finding myself in the middle of a Tale, all of a sudden. I never in my life imagined I’d find myself in the company of a unicorn, much less twa of them.”

“You'd not be seeing twa now had Mrs. House waited just ten minutes more before she inspected the linen stores,” James muttered, glaring red-faced at the ground. Trina pretended she hadn’t heard. She stooped carefully and retrieved the horn and, after a minute’s looking, the pin, and stood up again.

“All right, miss… what is your name anyway? Let’s to the Barrow. And start talking.”

So Trina began. Having decided to keep her own difficulties with her stepmother out of it and focus on the parts most likely to interest Hugh’s brother, she started with the pilgrims’ arrival in Cullane and their own need for work, and her head cold, and she went on to explain what Katie had told her about what went on after the Matins bell rang. She left out most of the details of what Katie had seen under the hill, except for the ones directly to do with the Prince, and finished with Katie’s dangerous plan to try and steal the goblin fruit from the knowe without being caught by the geas herself. Trina kept her worries that maybe Katie had already been caught, and was just using the Prince as an excuse to keep going back, to herself. It might be true, but it was a problem for tomorrow. Assuming they all survived the night. She thought she had done a fairly good job of telling the tale, but …

“But that can’t be all of it!” Argent wailed, “You didn’t explain how a fae came to give her Uncle Perry’s horn, or what the curse on you was, or anything!”

“And you didn’t explain why you’re doing servants’ work at the castle – you smell like a princess! ” Pearl added. “Princesses don’t have to work!” Then she stopped. “Or is it Prentices that don’t have to work? I always get those two mixed up.”

“Enough.” Prince James managed to sound a great deal less like the awkward lad who had been embarrassed by unicorns and more like the commander he would one day be. “I appreciate that you were trying to tell the important parts, Mistress Trina, but I need the whole tale, not just the high points. At this stage, we’ve no way of kenning which details will be the vital ones.

“Now, I will douse my light, because we are nearly at the end of the wood, and we dinna wish to be so much in evidence when we come upon the barrow. We should find a place where we can watch the barrow without being seen too readily ourselves – there’s a stand of broom that might serve, if I remember aright – and then I want you to tell me, not the Tale of Katie and the Fae, or Katie and the Prince, but of Katie and Trina. Leave out nothing that you can remember that might help us. I want to know what you and your sister have to draw on, and where you are weak, and anything your Katie may have learned about the fae that you’ve not yet said. We’ve still more than an hour 'til Matins; there should be time. The more we ken before we act, the better our chances of acting well.”

So they found the stand of broom that Prince James had remembered and settled so that it screened them a little from the knowe, but they could still see. The horse wandered a little farther away and began to graze, and Trina and James and the unicorns settled down again, and Trina told her story one more time, watching the moon rise and feeling the night air grow stiller and cooler. This time, she started with King Malcom’s second wedding, and spoke until she ran out of words. This time, she found herself explaining her worries about Katie, who hadn’t been willing to admit she was in love and had such a hard time accepting help from anyone. Katie would be terribly angry if she ever heard that Trina had discussed her private matters with anyone, but better an angry Katie than a dead one.

Trina fell silent as they heard the Matins bell ringing faintly from the castle. She readied herself to move, and Prince James put a steadying hand on her arm. “We’ve a little time yet. My brother needs to dress himself, remember, and then there’s the ride out here. Listen. From what you have told me, I don't think we should follow them under the knowe. One of the things that is helping your sister keep her strength of will right now is that she thinks you will be safe no matter what happens. We mustn't take that from her.”

“But I cannae just do nothing,” Trina wailed.

“Shh! Watching isn't ‘nothing.’ At the very least, we’ll be witnesses to the truth of Katie’s account – at least some of it – and you ken perfectly well that no matter how tonight ends, at some point everybody will be having to make explanations to a lot of suspicious political types, and the more witnesses the better. I’m wishing now I’d not been so quick to send the rest of the guard back to the castle, but ‘tis too late to summon them now – at least for that. But if it looks like it might be needed, we have my Guardsman’s horn and the unicorns, all ready to summon help. And of course, we can pray.” Trina subsided, reluctantly.

“I do wonder,” James went on, “if that… independent streak of your sister’s might not be the sign of a Champion in the making. It rather sounds as though she’s at her best when she has no one to rely on but herself, and Champions do that sort of thing… In fact, one of the lads I trained with at Officer’s School was rather like that. It got him in a lot of trouble as a soldier, but now he’s at the Order of Glass Mountain and doing very well. If she likes, I could send Katie there, afterward, and I’m sure Donnal would stand mentor to her. Even if she doesn't care for the idea, though, we’ll not see her married off to some rich old boar-pig of a merchant, I promise. Even if she doesn't manage to save Hugh, Cullane will owe her that much.”

Trina didn’t say anything. Part of her wanted to scream at the blithe optimism that was disposing of Katie’s future career when she might not even live ‘til morning, but it was also comforting. Besides, maybe the only thing I can do tae help her now is believe in her. So Trina set herself to remembering every enemy Katie had ever triumphed over, from the snot-nosed gooseboy who had made Trina’s life such a misery that one week when she was only seven, to the looming specter of poverty and worse that had brought them to work at the castle. And she tried to imagine what Katie might become –A Lady Champion, or Prince Hugh’s queen, or some greater thing yet, tried to imagine it so clearly that the future had no choice but to obey her imagination. It almost worked, but then she heard the thunder of hoofbeats coming near her, and the air grew chill, and when Prince James put an arm about her shoulders, Trina didn’t know which of them he was trying to comfort.

Chapter Text

Katie had been afraid that, with so much at stake, waiting the hours from Compline to Matins would be unbearable, but that hadn’t been the case. There had been too much to do. First, she had wheedled Jem the Footboy into bringing her paper and ink. Jem, like Nanny Kirk, was so impressed with what Katie had managed to do in the way of feeding the Prince that he didn’t even ask her why.

So Katie was able, with much frowning and pacing, many interruptions to tend Hugh, and as little crossing-out as she could manage, to write down everything she had learned about Hugh and the Fae and the curse, including one or two tricks for getting him to eat that she hadn’t shared with Nanny Kirk because she hadn’t been able to without revealing too much, too soon. She even mentioned the mysterious Silver Fairy who had, inadvertently perhaps, sent Katie and Trina on this road, and might be some kind of help. There had been a little bit of room at the end of the second sheet to include a brief farewell to her parents and sister, assuring them of her love and begging their forgiveness for the many troubles she had given them. She’d blushed when she re-read it, but left it be; it would be one more reason to get back alive; if she did, nobody could read the letter and embarrass her.

And once that was done, Katie had had to get dressed. She had decided that, if she was going to brave the goblin market, she needed to look more like their usual sort of customer. It had seemed to her that the humans had all been gentlefolk, or dressed like them. So she’d had Trina braid her hair into a tight crown about her head – it looked very regal and had the added advantage of being hard to pull – and smuggled in the jewelry and the Godmother’s walnut under her everyday shawl. Then she had chosen a moment when Hugh appeared to be dozing, stepped around to the closed side of the bedcurtains just in case, and opened the nut.

There was a tuft of white inside, and when she pulled it out, it kept coming: yards and yards of shining white ballgown that shimmered with little rainbows like a soap bubble, even in the dim light, and lace that glimmered with little beads – surely they couldn’t be real rubies? Much to Katie’s relief, the pattern was enough like the ones that she was used to wearing that she found she could, with an effort, get into it without help. She’d been worried about having to do up her back buttons, but it buttoned in front, with the buttons hidden among more frothing lace. There were, alas, no slippers or stockings to go with the fine gown, but Katie didn’t mean to actually dance tonight. If she was lucky, no one would notice that the gossamer skirts were hiding bump-toed leather walking boots. Katie felt obscurely better. The gown was so beautiful, it helped her to feel beautiful as well. It probably helped that she couldn’t see how she actually looked and so couldn’t find some new flaw to fret about. I mean tae give my best tonight, and now I’ll look my best as well. But even well-designed dresses are hard to struggle into in the light of one candle on the other side of a curtained bed, and as far as Katie was concerned, the Matins bell had rung far too soon. And now there was no more time.

The hill opened. Katie slid off the black horse’s back and took a slow, steadying breath as the horse ambled away. Katie more than half suspected it of transforming itself into some other form and then rejoining the party for the night. Hugh turned slightly and noticed her. “Katie!” he smiled, “Good to see you!” Just as if she hadn’t spent the last four hours spooning food into him, holding wet cloths to his forehead, and then clinging to his waist as they both rode the black horse into the night. His smile was as friendly and open as ever as he held out a hand. “Would you like a dance?”

Katie looked hard into his face. The shadows under his eyes were deeper, the bones sharper. His beard was nearly long enough now to look sleek, instead of scruffy—Katie was faintly surprised at that, since most starvelings started to lose their hair. But then, these circumstances were… different. Was Katie imagining the faint pain-lines in his forehead? Was it a sign that, at some level, he knew things were not as he pretended they were? But there was no other indication that he saw anything in that incredible hall but Katie. And the intensity and the kindness of that gaze made her want to, well, made her want.

Yes, I want tae dance. I want tae hear more stories about when you were younger. I want tae set more of your poems tae music. I want tae feel your hands against my back, not just the back of my dress, and see how hairy you are under that fine shirt, and run my fingers through any hairs I find… Had Trina asked her again, was she in love with him, Katie would probably still have said “no,” but oh, if she were trying to fall in love, instead of trying not to, she wouldn’t have to try nearly so hard…

Hugh hadn’t seemed to mind Katie’s long silence, or the way she was staring at him. He’d just kept looking back, smiling gently. Katie closed her eyes briefly and gave herself a mental shake. “I’m sorry, Hugh, but I cannae dance with you tonight. I wish I could. But I’ve something else I mun do.”

Hugh looked genuinely saddened by this. He let his outstretched hand fall slowly back to his side. “I’ll not keep you from your duty, then,” he said. But promise me we’ll dance some other night? When you can?”

“I’ll do all I can tae make it so,” Katie promised. I’ll risk my life and soul tae make it so, risk leaving Trina among strangers, friendly though they may be, risk never seeing anything I care for ever again, including you. Now that she was actually doing this, Katie wasn’t sure any more that the reasons she had given Trina were the real ones. Not that she had lied, but … this wasn’t really a matter of principal. She just felt that she was doing the next thing to be done. But if I win, Hugh, I’ll claim that dance in your own Great Hall, in front of your own people, not these cold-hearted fae. And if, after that, you send me on tae St. Unweigh’s, I’ll gang there with memories worth keeping.

Katie rubbed her eyes to push the tears back where they belonged, and straightened her shoulders. The air under the knowe was not cold, but she felt strangely naked in the low-cut ballgown, though it was really no lower than the one she would have worn at home. She felt the slight coolness of her dower necklace of garnets and opals on her neck, and the weight of the little bag that dangled from her wrist – the plain linen of the hazelnut bag doubtless looked as odd as the boots hidden under her skirts, but there wasn’t a lot she could do about it.

And then, as she watched Hugh turn away and bow to one of the Ninnoc ladies before stepping on the dance floor, she felt something else. This time, there was no mistaking the thump of something landing on her back and clinging there for anything but real. Katie could feel the leathery, slightly pebbly texture of the creature’s skin against her bare shoulders, the hardness of the scrawny bones beneath, and the scrabble of blunt claws clinging to her neck and hair. She was absolutely certain that she was not the only one who heard her own voice berating the bespelled Hugh in a harpy shriek, “Go on then, you stupid, stupid hobbledehoy! Dance your life away with folk who see you as a cat sees a mouse and mean tae kill you in their own good time! You’ve become nothing but a toy, and serve you right!”

For a long, horrible moment, Hugh looked back over his shoulder and fixed great, pain-filled eyes on Katie, who stared back equally silently, torn between a desire to cry out that it hadn’t been her, (and it hadn’t been, her mouth had been closed!) and an equal desire to run away and hide somewhere. Then he turned away again, leaving Katie shaking with terror.

She hadn’t said that! But it had been her voice, coming from behind her head, with a shrieking note that could have been a parrot squawk. But there is no imp! Trina and I invented it on a long, dull day, as a joke! It has tae have been me! But she could feel its claws in her hair. Have I gone completely mad?

And then something inside her snapped. It was as if a cold wind ran through her and away, taking all her panic with it. I dinna care if I am mad or not. I cannae be having with this.

Carefully ignoring the clinging claws, Katie bent down to pet the whimpering foxhound. “There’s a good dog, Pepper,” she murmured, rubbing his ears and neck, “such a good, loyal dog. I hope you dinna mind if I borrow something of yours…”, and as she scratched and petted, she undid the buckle on the foxhound’s collar and slipped the bit of leather away into one hand. Then, as she had done the last two nights in a row, Katie wandered a little bit away from the dance floor and looked about her. This time, she was just looking for a bit of clear space where she could make her next move without bumping into anyone. She supposed she should have been worried about being overheard, too, but she was past caring about that now.

This early in the evening, it seemed nobody much wanted to rest on the mushroom benches under the dangling willow roots where the bairn had given Katie the unicorn horn. There was open floor between the benches; it would do. Katie stretched the leather collar between her hands. She took another deep breath to center herself, pictured the imp in her mind as clearly as she could, and moved.

Fast as an eyeblink, she brought her hands up and behind her head, scrabbling briefly at the back of the imp’s head, which was right where she had pictured it, before bringing her hands together under its chin with the foxhound’s collar looped around its neck. The imp let out a startled squawk. Once Katie was sure she had a firm grip, she jerked the imp up over her head, flipping it upside-down and slamming its back on the ground in front of her. Any mortal creature would have had its neck broken. No such luck with the imp, but it did blink at her, as if stunned.

Katie gave it no time to recover. As she crouched over it, she placed one knee on its scrawny chest and jerked the collar as tight as it would go before threading the leather through the buckle and fastening it properly. She gave the collar (and the imp) another shake for good measure, and then she spoke.

It wasn’t a scream, or a shout, or a bellow. Those were for people who hadn’t trained as singers and didn’t have anything better to use. Katie had. She addressed the imp in the tones that she used to raise hairs on the necks of people sitting in the far back seats in the Great Hall of Castle Bruce. Up close, that voice thrummed in the bones and drilled through the ears. It could break a wineglass and sounded like it might break a head. The imp, a mere ell from Katie’s face as she crouched over it, trembled and curled its limbs up against itself like a puppy bowled over by a larger dog.

“Hear me, my imp,” Katie declaimed, “you havenae done aught but plague me and try tae send my steps awry for the better part of a year, and I have had enough! You are not my master and never were, and I willnae do anything at all for your bidding, is that clear? Henceforth, you ugly, pathetic, wee Thing, ‘tis you will obey me. You’ll do as I tell you, not try tae tell me what tae do. You’ll speak the truth tae me. You’ll obey my commands and answer my questions, and you’ll not speak in my voice ever again unless I bid it! I gave you the shape you wear, I gave you the only pretence of power you ever had, and you are mine! Do you understand, my imp?”

The huge, pointy ears drooped. The eyes blinked pitifully, and the parrot beak opened on a single, quavering word: “Aye…”

“Will you obey me?” Katie demanded.

“Aye.”

“And cease trying tae do me harm?”

“Aye.”

“How do I ken you will keep your word?”

The imp gritted its beak and wrinkled its eyebrows, looking frustrated. “Look!” it squawked, scrabbling at the collar with both hands, “Your mark!”

Katie peered at the collar and blinked in surprise. The leather had been stamped with the royal seal and the dog’s name, “Pepper.” But in place of the Bear of Cullane there was now a spray of hazel leaves and three nuts. And the letters stamped into the leather now read, “Myimp.”

“Oh!” she breathed, and then, more firmly, “All right, Myimp, you can sit up now, if you like.”

The imp rolled over onto its belly and then sat up, still crouching a little like a frightened dog, and looked up at her. Katie sat down rather abruptly on one of the mushrooms. What have I done? She felt… strange. To begin with, she was elated. More than just the weight of the imp was off her shoulders, and Katie's heart felt so light it seemed she could fly up to the top of the glistening dome with barely an effort. She wanted to twirl in circles, laughing with wild, giddy joy at her victory.

Another part of her was terrified. She had an imp bound to her service. She wasn’t exactly sure how that had come about, but she knew perfectly well how dangerous it was. Treating with imps meant you were very close indeed to losing your soul to the Evil One; there were tales about the deaths of the greatest sorcerers in the Trullneys, how as they were laid in their resting places, a raven and a dove, or a white dog and a black cat, or some such pair of creatures, would come racing neck-and-neck to the tombstone, and sometimes one and sometimes the other got there first and carried the mage’s soul away. Treating with imps meant you didn’t dare put another foot wrong, for the rest of your life.

And more than either of these things, Katie was suddenly exhausted! She didn’t know how she found the energy to hold her head up and look at the creature. She felt sweat trickle behind her ears. Her chest felt all hollow, as if it might collapse like an empty bladder at any moment. From the way her muscles were trembling, she could have literally birthed this... thing, instead of… whatever it was she had done. It would have been wonderful to just sit there and do nothing for the rest of the night, at least, while she recovered. I dinna think that is one of my choices. But did one day more or less matter, for trying for the fruit? Well, there was one creature here she could ask, that she knew would answer truthfully.

“Imp, do you think—“

“Cannae think,” Myimp interrupted, drawing itself up and looking rather offended. “Feel. Know. Want.”

“Oh?” Katie asked, diverted, “What do you want?”

“Stories! Real stories!”

“Stories?” Katie couldn’t make any sense of it. “Why were you plaguing me so, then? What hae stories tae do with that?”

“Wicked Stepsister, Good Princess,” Myimp answered promptly. “Stories.”

Katie felt another flash of anger. “But those arenae real stories! Those are fireside tales, for children and poets tae play with. You poured all that bitterness intae my ears and made me fear I was running mad for that?”

“Want real stories!” Myimp insisted, sulkily.

Firmly, Katie took hold of herself. If Myimp was truly her servant, now, she wasn’t going to argue with it. “Well, you’re not getting that one,”” she told it. “If you find some other story you want, you can tell me about it and maybe, if you serve me well and if I feel like it, maybe I’ll help you. Maybe. Now,” she said, dragging the topic back to the one she’d had in mind to begin with, “Tell me: is it in my power tae break the Curse of Cullane?”

Myimp sighed. “Aye,” it croaked.

“Will it be in my power tae do so tomorrow night?”

“Nay.”

So much for getting a proper rest before she tried, then. “What is the key tae breaking the curse?”

“Fruit.”

“Am I right, then, that I mun bring some of the fruit from the market away from the hill for him?”

“Aye.”

Even though she’d been steeling herself to face the market for a full night and day, Katie winced inwardly. The task looked no easier and the risk no less for having won herself a new servant first… but maybe the new servant could help.

“Myimp, can you steal some of the fruit away and bring it tae me here?”

“Aye!” The imp jumped up eagerly, wagging its funny little stump of a tail. But there was something else lurking in its eyes…

Katie twigged it just in time to stop herself from saying the wrong thing. “And will stolen fruit work tae break the curse?” she asked.

The imp collapsed in a sulk. “Nay.”

“What about fruit that’s been bought and paid for, will that work?”

The imp was still sulking. “Aye.”

Katie had to admit she was rather proud of her own cleverness just then. “Can you bargain on my behalf?” she pressed.

“Nay.”

Well, that was too bad. “Can you think of anything else you might do that would help me?”

“Cannae think,” Myimp reminded her patiently.

“Oh, right.” And, she supposed, it would really be asking too much to expect Myimp to be particularly happy or eager to help her, after everything… but it would follow orders, it seemed. Katie rubbed her eyes and chewed a few nuts to quiet her fluttering stomach. Then she straightened up again and gave her orders: “Stop anyone or anything that’s trying tae kill or maim me, then, and otherwise keep out of my way until I’m safely out of the hill or until I call you by name, whichever comes first.”

“Aye.” And the creature flapped off into the shadows and disappeared, leaving Katie to gather her remaining wits and strength as best she could.

Chapter Text

Katie took one nut out of the bag, her fingers sliding past Trina’s pearl necklace and ear-drops, which were also inside, and slipped it into her mouth. She didn’t bite it. She had forced herself to eat as well as she could earlier, and she was so nervous even the smells of the market made her feel more sick than hungry, at the moment. But having something in her mouth would be a reminder not to open it. She didn’t want the wrong words coming out of her mouth, even without the imp’s help, and she really didn’t want the wrong things going into it. Then Katie wove her way into the market crowd. She thought she heard Pepper the foxhound howling behind her.

Her plan, such as it was, was to start with the things that were easily transportable, and that had seeds. If there was any correlation between what the market goods were and what they seemed to be, and if the glamourie left traces on the items that it touched, then a pea vine or the like grown from the seeds that had been enchanted might serve better than an ordinary one for keeping Hugh alive. Katie rather suspected the tamarinds that Monkeytail was selling of being enchanted peapods – they even looked like reddish, lumpy peapods that had somehow been turned the texture of dried fruit. People ate the pods and cast the seeds away. Katie had had some hope of saving herself an enormous amount of trouble and just picking up some of those cast-off seeds, but like the rinds of the cherimoyas and the peels of the bananas, there never seemed to be any on the ground, no matter how many were thrown there. And now Katie was at Monkeytail’s stall.

In addition to the tail, which he used as another hand, Monkeytail had sharp little teeth and fingernails as long as the tamarind pods he was selling. The fingernails would have looked disturbing on a full-sized human, and Monkeytail was no larger than a child of four. Katie didn’t know how he managed to do anything with his hands at all.

Even with all these sharp bits on display, he still managed to give her a grin that looked servile and wheedling. “Oho, pretty mistress!” he began his spiel, “I see you must be a lady of taste and refinement, and no little wisdom too, for ‘tis not every featherheaded fool can appreciate a humble tamarind when the market is so full of fine, juicy fruits that shine in the lights.” Katie shrugged slightly and gave him a closed-lipped smile. “But for those that ken it, the tamarind’s the finest of all. You can eat it plain, of course, or stew it in springwater for a drink that will quench the driest thirst under the sun or the moon, or mix it with rice and nuts…”

Katie knew what rice was only from books and hearsay – it didn’t grow in the Trullney Isles and nobody wanted to buy it when there were wheat and barley and oats to be had – and she wondered how far-flung the other human folk under the hill were, that Monkeytail would talk so casually of using it. The goblin was going on. “… And talk of the smell! Fine as wine from the best Baritarian grapes it is! Here! Have a sniff!” And he took a leap onto the table at the front of the stall and shoved one of the pods under her nose. It did smell marvelous. Mouthwatering, in fact. Katie swallowed, feeling the hazelnut pressed against the roof of her mouth.

All right then, she thought, night before last, a dozen hazelnuts bought me one used unicorn horn. Let’s see how many tamarind pods that is. She let her smile grow broader, still without parting her lips, and held out both hands. Her left hand was full hazelnuts. Even if the horn hadn’t been enough like “selling” them to break the spell that kept the bag magically full, this would be, but then, after tonight, no matter how things turned out, she wasn’t likely to need it to survive. With her right hand, she reached for the tamarind pods. Monkeytail’s eyes bulged, and he gave a great quivering sniff as one hand drifted toward the nuts, but then he caught himself and arranged his odd features into an expression of outrage.

“Oh, come now! Hazelnuts? For such fruit as only a few kings have been lucky enough to taste? It’s not as though every crofter’s wife had these in her back garden. It’s not even like the lemons that grow in Andalaz and the like, that cost the earth in a Northern market, but that a sailor might bring home to his best girl for almost nothing. You could travel half the world and still not find their equal.”

Katie shrugged and put the nuts back in her pocket. Monkeytail whimpered, very slightly. She then brought out the pearl ear-drops that matched Trina’s necklace. Monkeytail calmed down. He studied them with a great show of seriousness, but none of the longing he had showed the nuts. “Well,” he said, after a great many hms and ahs, “those are pretty. I’ll give you three pods for them.” Katie shook her head, more for the form of the bargain than out of any real objection. She closed her thumb over the ear-drops so that she could hold up seven fingers. “Oh, do be serious! Fine as they are, those pearls are no better than any mermaid or selchie could give me, and what I have is rarer than that. Besides, seven pods is more than anyone could eat at a time. Tamarinds are fine, but powerful-flavored they are. Here, try just the merest bit and see for yourself! And he scooped a bit of the pulpy pod onto one of his curving fingernails and thrust it up against Katie’s mouth.

She was ready for that. She reared her head backward and clamped her lips tight, adopting an expression of affronted disgust from her least favorite of her mother’s ladies-in-waiting. Imitating the same lady, Katie spun on her heel and stalked indignantly away to another stall.

This was Stonehat’s stall, and she was peddling cherimoyas at the moment, which were not only the size of apples, but also seemed to have more-or-less the same kind of seeds. Perhaps they were enchanted apples, and that was why Hugh would eat applesauce now, if pressed. Though Katie devoutly hoped that she could get more useful information than that out of the night’s adventure. Of course, fruit grown from enchanted apple seeds wouldn’t likely ripen in time to save him, but all the same… and if she couldn’t get hold of a cherimoya, she’d try a papaya – they had hundreds of seeds, unless they were actually enchanted pieces of salmon or something.

Katie’s lips prickled, where Monkeytail had rubbed the tamarind pulp. It was hard to remember not to lick them. It was also hard to not bite down on the nut in her mouth, but she would not do that, either. Pretend you’re back in Brucemuir, on a feast day. And the feast is all laid out on the table in front of you, but ‘tis old Fergus McFogg giving the speeches, and you daren’t open your mouth nor even roll your eyes ‘til he’s done…

Stonehat took a different tack than Monkeytail. She agreed promptly to fetch two cherimoyas in exchange for the pearl ear-drops and a dozen hazelnuts, but then took an incredible time to actually fetch the fruit. She was really quite entertaining to watch. Though only a little taller than Monkeytail, she kept her goods in string bags hanging from the uprights and the top beams of her stall. Human stallkeepers would do that sometimes if they had more things to sell than they had space on the ground or table, but Stonehat seemed to keep nothing within her reach at all. Whenever she needed to fetch something, she pulled an odd assortment of furniture out from behind her table.

There was a one-legged, “pedestal” table, a worn-looking, but carved and gilded, chair that might have come from a place like Cullane Castle except that not even the most tasteless of newly-rich merchants would have upholstered it in cloth patterned with orange and purple caterpillars eating blue and yellow daisies, a three-legged milking stool with the legs all slightly different lengths, a stuffed hassock… Stonehat would pile these items on top of each other in precarious-looking stacks, muttering fussily, and clamber up to reach the fruit.

Clambering involved hitching up ruffled skirts to reveal bony knees in mismatched socks, and making grand, one-handed gestures like a lady waving a scented handkerchief, and even more sweeping two-handed gestures that threatened to overbalance her and send her tumbling. Just to make things more difficult, it seemed that her hat, consisting as it did of three rounded rocks on top of a flat one, had no ribbons or other devices to hold it together or keep it on her head. It kept threatening to fall apart at any minute, so sometimes she would have to wriggle wildly to stay on whichever piece of furniture she had achieved while she clasped the errant rocks to her head.

One part of Katie wanted to dissolve in giggles at the sight. Had she been at home, she would have, but now… surely Stonehat hadn’t been so very clownish, the other two nights? And it was deliberate clowning, Katie was sure. She almost recognized the routine from one a troupe of acrobats had done at a Newlight ball in Brucemuir, a winter or two ago. All that was missing was the backflip off the top of the pile with the laden tray in one hand, and landing without spilling a thing. And that might be coming later. Katie let her lips and eyes smile in amusement, watching Stonehat, but it was dangerous, too, because she didn’t dare let those lips open in a laugh…

Thinking back over the last two nights, Katie remembered that Stonehat had usually had three or four tiny helpers, no larger than the palm of Katie’s hand, buzzing about her and doing most of the actual fetching of items from the hanging bags. Stonehat herself usually sat in the gilded chair behind the stall counter and did the bargaining. So where were her helpers now?

Stonehat, for reasons known only to herself, had chosen to pull only one cherimoya out of the string bag, when she finally achieved it, and then clambered down to start the whole process again with a second bag at a different corner, with the added complication of a fruit balanced among the stones on her hat. It seemed to Katie that the cherimoya was rolling about more than it should, too. The ones she had seen people eat had looked soft as custard and about as inclined to roll as a cow pat. She allowed herself an amused snort at one of Stonehat’s more spectacular wobbles and glanced to the side.

Ah. There were Stonehat’s little helpers! They were all hovering near Katie, staying just outside the range of her peripheral vision if she were watching Stonehat, but easy enough to see if one looked. And each one of them was holding something in its little hands – pieces of glistening fruit. When Katie had snorted her laughter and let her lips twitch, they had come swooping nearer, ready to pop that fruit into her mouth as soon as it opened. And then when she had disappointed them and kept her mouth closed, they had flitted backward again, to wait for their next chance. Katie’s stomach clenched. Here was proof, if any was needed, that the fae were perfectly well aware of what Katie was trying to do – at least that she was trying to buy fruit without letting the geas entangle her – and that they meant to do what they could to stop her. It made Katie shiver inside from head to foot. Who knew how far they would go if they chose? Would Myimp really be able to stop them?

On the other hand… Think like a smuggler. Any one of those wee helpers might be willing tae make a bargain their mistress is not. Slowly, and always keeping one eye on Stonehat, Katie reached into her bag of hazelnuts and pulled out a few. She tried to express, with a couple of surreptitious shakes of the hand and a cock of the head, that she would be happy to trade the nuts to any of the wee flying creatures if they were willing to fetch her what she wanted. Truth to tell, Katie would have been more than pleased to make away with nothing more than the chunk of banana that the nearest was carrying. Just so long as it went in her hand, not her mouth.

She became vaguely aware that the music had stopped. The market should be absolutely swarming, but no one seemed inclined to interrupt this little drama at the cherimoya stand. But then, the human folk who came to the market mostly had fae handlers who could steer them away from seeing anything the fae didn’t want them to see. For instance, a fruitseller who was doing her level best to avoid selling any fruit. Stonehat’s clowning was getting wilder with every passing minute. She had managed to somersault off the wobbling stack of furniture, land on her head with her bum in the air, and still catch the falling cherimoya and the bits of her hat as they plummeted down around her. Katie felt as though she ought to applaud.

None of Stonehat’s helpers had taken Katie’s bribe yet, but they kept making little swoops at the hand with the nuts in it, as if they couldn’t quite bear to pull themselves away. Katie found herself wondering if young fae were warned against human food as humans were warned against theirs. She slipped a few more nuts into what she was starting to think of as her bribing hand. Once again, Stonehat slipped and fell off her teetering tower of furniture, and this time the cherimoya landed on the ground with a splat. She’s really getting desperate, Katie thought. Something will break soon.

The break took the form of more customers moving in to surround the cherimoya stall. Fae, all of them. Katie heard an impossibly rich male voice from the crowd of them asking, “What’s put Mumblety Peggy in such a tither?” And then something landed in her open hand. Hurriedly, Katie glanced down; was someone taking her bribe at last? But the creature on her finger tips wasn’t one of Stonehat’s helpers. He was even smaller – only a little taller than Katie’s thumbnail was long, and the shiny black of a beetle. And he was – er – quite definitely male. And – er – interested in someone… surely not Katie?

“Ooooh!” squeaked this apparition. “What a braw great lassie! I’d be right glad tae diddle her pores, this very instant!” And he rubbed his teeny hands together greedily.

Ew. Katie jerked her hand out from underneath the lusty little insect, just barely managing not to say anything to it. He buzzed off immediately, but it didn’t make Katie feel any better to not know where he’d gone… ew....

“Never mind him,” said a new voice – the buttery one that had spoken out of the crowd a little time ago – “He’ll give you no more trouble; I’ll see to that.” Katie looked ‘round and found herself staring into the all-but glowing eyes of a fae lordling, as beautiful as the insect had been disgusting. If Hugh had been right about becoming something other instead of dying when the curse played out, then he might have ended up looking something like this one. The eyes were nearly the same color and shape, though grown even larger than Hugh’s illness could make his. The beard was grown into a soft, sleek pelt like an otter’s, with that wonderfully mobile mouth nestled in it like a slice of candied fruit, ready to be eaten. His hair tumbled down his back in shining curls. But his expression, compared to Hugh’s warmth, was just a little cool and remote, for all he looked at Katie as if she were the only lady in the room. Katie swallowed hard, nearly choking on the nut in her mouth, just to make sure her mouth wasn’t hanging open. The fae lord stood so close she could tell his breath smelled slightly spicy, like geranium leaves.

“Please don’t judge the wee creature too harshly, lady,” he was saying, “You can’t know how the passion and fire that burns in such as you draws at us. That wee importunate laddie could help himself no more than a moth at a candle flame, and I am in little better case myself. Did you come to this place dreaming of a lover, my lady?”

And somehow, without seeming to have moved at all, he was kneeling at Katie’s feet, with her empty hand held gently in both of his. “If you want it so, I am yours for all your life. I swear by my true name and my lord’s antlers. I’ll make as sweet, and gentle, and passionate a bridegroom as any you ever dreamed, all your life long. I’ll come to you in secret whenever you call me, and I promise, even if you are so unlucky as to have to marry against your will, not even your husband will ken nor guess what I do. I will be yours and yours alone. This fruit you bargain for is sweet,” and abruptly he was on his feet again, plucking a slice of papaya from one of Stonehat’s helpers with one graceful hand, “But the fruit I can give you…” and he ran the piece of papaya gently along Katie’s cheekbone, “… is sweeter yet.” And he tapped her lips gently. “If you want this,” he whispered, “If you want me, you need only say so. Or even nod.”

Katie took a quick, deep breath through her nose, trying to clear her swimming senses. She found she could almost feel that silken skin of his against her own, the tickle of his cloud of hair. She thought she could even feel the truth of his promise, that this amazing creature would indeed be her true lover, and gladly. Her insides wanted to melt, and her knees were trembling… she closed her eyes and shook her head. I faced a great evil in its lair… until someone gave me a better offer. No.

“Are you certain, lady?” The voice throbbed with grief. Katie held still. “I’ll not force myself on you further then. But if you change your mind, you can find me by the dancing floor.” And the smell of geraniums gradually faded away. Katie wiped her eyes with the back of the hand that held the hazelnuts and took another deep breath. Fruit.

The overwhelming wave of desire slowly ebbed, and Katie found she could still stand upright, and there was a backwash of questions bouncing about in her brain, now that her senses were calming down. Questions like, was it really the most one could ask for in a lover, that he could be all that one ever dreamed? Because one thing a dream-lover could never do was surprise you. He could say whatever you most wanted to hear, but not anything that you hadn’t thought of.

And you could change him as often as you liked, but he wouldn’t change you at all. Katie had seen her share of married couples in Brucemuir, of all sorts, happy and unhappy. And some of the ones who said they were happy were like her mother and King Malcom – they were each of them quite happy day by day, but it seemed… shallow somehow. But there were others – the McHuffs, for instance, mother and father to the sharp-witted Felicity, who seemed to spend most of their time bickering, but the bickering was like a kind of dance that kept them moving around each other. Neither cared who won the argument, whatever it was just then, because the argument was an excuse to relive and compare memories of times they had shared, and matters that they cared about… Katie thought that was a kind of happiness that she wouldn’t mind having, if it fell to her lot. And it was much harder to dream of that than of some uncanny lover who wanted to fulfill her every desire, and who might change his face and form like other men changed their socks, but would surely get boring after a while…

Katie shook herself. She needed to stop woolgathering and concentrate on what she had come for. Who knew what kind of opportunities she’d missed through her lack of attention? Not to mention the risk of forgetting and licking her lips… She was getting so tired of this. And the night wasn’t even half over yet!

Fortunately, or not, depending on how you looked at it, the fae had wearied of the stalemate, too. One of the wee flutterers made a swoop and landed on the top beam of Stonehat’s stall and inflated its little chest like a bullfrog. He let it all out again in a piercing shriek that must have been audible even over the musicians in the center of the knowe. “Hoy!” it bellowed, “Hooooy! The braw dark human lassie by Mumblety Peggy’s stall has got hazelnuts!”

Instantly, Katie was surrounded by a crowd of raucous fae: all six stallkeepers, dozens of the wee fliers, a young mob of toothy redcaps whose blood-soaked hats gave off a collective reek like a butchers’, tall lanky things with long green lugs of hair that looked like mobile willow trees, creatures as beautiful as the fae lordling that had tried to seduce her but somehow completely devoid of charm… and every single one of them was shouting and waving pieces of fruit.

Some of those pieces of fruit were getting smashed against her hair or her dress or her shoulders, and it was impossible to tell how much was deliberate and how much was because of the crowding. For the creatures were not all cooperating with each other; Katie could see sharp kicks and blows from knobbly elbows striking home as the fae tried to shove past each other to get to her. In the midst of the chaos, she was aware of a funny kind of relief. This kind of brawl was something she could understand. She had been painfully aware, this last hour or so, of how ill-equipped she was to outthink or outbargain the tricksy fae. But a straight-out fight like this just took quick instincts and stubborn, pigheaded endurance. It almost felt homey.

Slowly and deliberately, Katie pulled the bag of hazelnuts out of her pocket, and emptied it on top of Stonehat’s – Mumblety Peggy’s – stall counter. The magic had definitely run out; the nuts stopped coming out after about half a bagful, just as many as might have been left had Katie taken a handful or two out of an ordinary bag. On top of the nuts, Katie arranged Trina’s pearl necklace and ear-drops, and then took her own garnets and opals off her neck and added them to the pile. She indicated her treasures with a sweep of her hand, and then held both hands out, cupped, saying as plainly as she could without words, “Here, take all you want of this, and leave the payment in my hands.” All the bargaining and attempted trickery before had amounted to the same thing, after all. And in the end, it would work, or it wouldn’t.

The only immediate reaction from the swarm of fae was to yell louder as they waved things in her face. And then something tugged at her hair. And something else – something pointy – dug into her ribs. Someone hissed, “eat!” or maybe it was “cheat!” They weren’t trying to make her laugh any more. Now she had to keep from gasping in pain, or panting from her effort. Something clawed at one of her hands. Her legs, protected by the foaming petticoats of the godmother’s gown, were still relatively unscathed… One of the willow-tree things whipped its head about, lashing at her with its hair. It stung the back of her neck as any ordinary willow switch would have done. Oh, Trina! It looks as though they may end up tearing me limb from limb after all… Hurriedly, Katie clamped one hand over her nose and mouth, before some creature decided to pinch of her air supply and force her mouth open that way. With her other hand, she kept on trying to make grabs at the bits of fruit the fae were waving. Infuriatingly, she could feel the sticky juices in her ears and running down her neck, but her hand might as well have been waving in empty air – it didn’t touch so much as a leaf from the willow-things.

Strangely enough, though, and as badly as they were hurting her, they weren’t doing nearly as much damage as they could have. And cries she could make out over the general hullabaloo were still, some of them, hawkers’ praises of fine fruit for sale. Just as strangely, though many of the fae were looking longingly at the pile of hazelnuts, none of them had touched any yet. It was as if they were still trying to keep to the forms of a market bargain. Was it because the spell on the fruit needed consent, or at least a pretense of it, to work?

Another lash from a willow-thing cut her cheek and came dangerously near her eye. Where's Myimp in all this? But she had ordered Myimp to protect her from death or maiming- not from bruises and scratches. And she couldn't summon it if she didn't open her mouth. Oh, Katie! Can't you do anything right?

Some other creature shoved a slice of mango up against her face, and the juice got into the cut and made the stinging worse. Grimly, Katie snatched at the mango – to no avail. They were faster than midges in summer. She kept both hands up at her face, one still protecting her mouth and nose (tiny fingers scrabbled at that one, trying to pry it up) and the other trying to catch hold of one of the pieces of fruit. But, though she could see and feel and smell the stuff all about her, the fae still kept her prize out of her hands.

Pinches, blows that nearly knocked the breath out of her, scratches and stings. Katie still tried for the fruit, but she concentrated on breathing and on not crying too hard – she didn’t dare let her nose get clogged up. Three more hours, Katie, she promised herself. If I can keep this up for three more hours, ‘twill be cock-crow and then… but of course, she didn’t know what then. They might finally give her what she wanted. They might kick her out of the knowe for good and all, and empty-handed. Or, they might wait until cock-crow to drag her down into the depths of the knowe and finally sink those pointed teeth into her, as she had seen them do to Hugh over and over… This won’t last forever, Katie. Pretend you’re back in the forest, running into stray branches and rocks.

Someone tried to shove a slice of something up under Katie’s guarding hand and into her mouth. Whatever it was collapsed with a squish, leaving more stickiness on her face and hand but not even a seed that she could hold on to and take away with her. Pity they didnae try it with a tamarind pod. But then, of course they wouldnae.

Really, her only reason for hoping that they wouldn’t just tear her apart was that they hadn’t so far. Perhaps Myimp really was protecting her from the worst of the onslaught. But in that case, second-worst is plenty bad enough.

And they still hadn’t touched the pile of bribes on the stall table. Perhaps the fae are playing at market the way they play at riddles; once the pattern is set, they cannae step outside it. Shopkeepers willnae take a coin until the bargain is sealed. And while there’s plenty a brawl on market day, they dinna tear people limb from limb, either. It was a perfectly absurd comfort. But any hope is better than none. Just hang on ‘til cock-crow, and take hold of the fruit if you can. How long has it been now? She had no idea. She couldn’t hear the music over the howls of the swarm; did that mean they were at the end of the second set of the night? How much time had Katie spent dealing with Myimp, anyway?

It all went on happening. The small, cold part of Katie that stubbornly went on being logical no matter what happened knew that she wasn’t being hurt nearly as badly as she could be. She had seen men with battle-wounds and, once or twice, women in childbed, and she knew that this was nothing like that. But the constant onslaught of small hurts left little room in her head for anything but the pain, even so.

The possibility of actually seizing any of the fruit seemed more and more remote. Katie was getting tired, and slower thereby. Her arms ached from holding her hands up by her face for so long, and the rest of her ached with fighting the crowd. And the fae were not growing tired or slow. There were dozens of them, after all, and only one of her. Not to mention that most of them were inhumanly strong and quick to begin with. That was another thing that Katie had been afraid might happen that hadn’t, so far, that one or two of the very strong ones would simply pry her hands away from her face and open her jaws by main force. But it seems that one’s will does count for something here, though I dinna ken what.

She wondered if the abuse would stop if she stopped trying to take the fruit in her hands – not letting them make her eat any of it, but if simply covered her mouth with both hands and ran from the market and away? The idea was very tempting, right now. It would have been even more tempting if she hadn’t been surrounded on all sides by the fae... what she was doing now wasn’t working. What else was there?

Well, there was stone-hatted Mumblety Peggy’s stall, just a little way behind her. Katie started edging toward it, whenever there wasn’t a fae actually up against her on that side. She could get up against the table, and that would hamper her attackers’ movements at least a little – the little fliers could still get through, of course… and Mumblety Peggy had agreed to give her two cherimoyas for the two ear-drops. She hadn’t touched the jewelry yet, nor had any fruit changed hands, but the bargain stood, didn’t it? So maybe the solution was for Katie to do her own fetching from the hanging bags? The ear-drops were right there on the counter; Peggy could take them any time she was ready.

Clinging to a thread of real hope, for the first time in – how long had it been, anyway? Katie kept moving toward the stall, keeping one eye on it to make sure it didn’t move away from her, and also that she didn’t somehow manage to leave the dome and end up in one of the places where time ran differently. The fae didn’t seem to be making any special effort to stop her. The blows didn’t get any worse, and the words she could make out in the shrieking were still the same: “Eat!” “Take mine!” “Cheat!” “Sweet!” “Great Swine!”

Now the stall was at her back. Katie took a few deep breaths, doing her best to shut out all the chaos around her and decide exactly what she was going to do next. Then, all in one motion, and clamping her lips as tightly shut as she could, she whipped her hands down to push on the table and jumped up, landing with a slight scrabble with both her feet on the table-top, and one of the string bags in reach. Katie clawed at it, trying to find the opening at the top while the outraged howling around her grew louder and louder, and so many fliers buzzed around her, pinching and pulling her hair and kicking her with their tiny feet, that she was all but blind. But she had hold of the bag. She stretched up on her toes, trying to either get her hand into the bag properly or pull it down from its nail.

Something struck her in the gut, knocking the breath from her and sending her flying backward off the counter. Katie’s hand clenched on nothing at all, as she heard a cock crow, loud enough to be right in her ear – and she landed with a thump on the damp grass at the foot of the knowe as the cock crowed a second time. The glittering dome had been replaced by stars that shone against a velvet sky that was deep blue, now, instead of black, and lightening toward gray at one edge.

Chapter Text

Katie simply sat, dazed, for she didn’t know how long, looking down at the sad, stained ruin of the Godmother’s gorgeous dress. Somehow, I dinna think this was what she had in mind when she gave it me. Gradually, she realized that some of the twinkles in the grass were not dewdrops, but the jewelry she had brought with her. Slowly, she gathered it up. Her fingers encountered quite a few hazelnuts, too, and she gathered them as well. She finally bit down on the one she’d been holding in her mouth all night, and chewed and swallowed, and muttered a few choice oaths that she’d been wanting to loose for some time. The rest of the nuts, and the jewels, she tied up in a bedraggled flounce that had been torn loose from its gathering stitches.

Everything ached, including her head, but she slowly realized that the pounding noise was hoofbeats, and looked up to see the black horse galloping away. She felt a moment of panic and then sighed. It wasn’t as if she would have been able to just put her old clothes back on and pretend nothing had happened. Not with all these new scratches and bruises. She stood up, discovering several more sore spots, and made ready to trudge back along the path the horse had taken. Just now, she was glad that the remains of her fantastic gown hid a pair of walking boots, and not dance slippers. She remembered Hugh’s story about red-heeled riding boots, and smiled, despite everything. She started walking.

She’d only gone a few steps when something slammed into her, almost knocking her off her feet again. After a startled moment, Katie realized it was Trina, hugging her and gasping almost exactly as she had the day the curse had struck, all that time ago. She was even babbling in the same way, though, thank the Saints, happily this time: “Katie! Oh, Katie, you’re safe after all! We saw Prince Hugh ride away alone, and we were just terrified that you were still trapped in the knowe, or worse, but then I heard you and Argent smelled you, and—”

Before Katie could ask what her sister was doing there, or what an “Argent” was, another voice interrupted. “Trina, you can talk later. Katie needs to hie back to Cullane fast as may be to— to do whatever there is to be done. Here, Mistress MacLaird, you can ride Fleet. He’ll not gallop like that insane black nag, but he kens the road home well enough and he’ll be faster than walking.” Katie hadn’t even gotten herself turned around to look at this newcomer properly when a pair of hands grabbed her and boosted her onto the back of a horse – almost as large a horse as the fae mount, but with a worn-looking saddle and a very reassuring horsey smell.

Katie looked down at the man who had lifted her, and at her sister, and tried to think of something to say – something like, “but there’s nothing tae be done – I didnae get the fruit, after all.” She hadn’t got as far as the first word before the horse trotted off, and Katie concentrated on staying in the saddle for a while. Myimp didn't make things any easier by choosing that moment to land with a thump on her shoulders again. What was she going to do with the creature? Perhaps nothing for a while. Perhaps the Sisters at St. Unweigh's would have some idea. “Dinna let yourself be seen by anyone else until I say so,” Katie ordered. At the very least, she wouldn't have to explain it along with everything else. By the time she thought to wonder again what Trina had been doing by the knowe and who the young man was – she’d seen him somewhere, hadn’t she? – the walls of the castle were looming up, and the horse was making for the gates, which still stood open and unguarded, as far as she could see.

Lauds was ringing. The bakers and the dairy folk and the other early risers would be about their business soon, and there were probably watchmen somewhere about. Katie left the obliging horse standing in the stableyard and hurried through the kitchen doorway. She could smell smoke and raw dough coming from the kitchens as she hurried past, trying desperately to remember all the twists and turns that led to the prince’s rooms. She could grab Jem if she saw him, she supposed… but here was the “gallery.”

Katie sped up to nearly a run. There wasn’t much time ‘til Prime, and—well, there were going to be difficult explanations to give all day today, most likely, but she wanted to start with Hugh, whom she had not been able to save after all. She heard a few creaks and footsteps now, but by the time she got to the carpeted corridor outside his door, it was silent. No one would have the temerity to disturb the Family until nearly Tierce. The few servants about, including the ones who would come to the door with Nanny Kirk all too soon, would go as softly as they might.

The room was silent, too. Hugh was in the depths of the deep sleep he managed only immediately after returning from the knowe. Katie bent over him, more closely than she had dared before when he was like this, for fear of waking him when it was the last thing he needed, and saw that even now, there were faint tension lines in his forehead. Even in the depths of exhaustion, it seemed, he was not at peace. And the best Katie had been able to manage hadn’t won that peace for him. Maybe, with what she had learned, for his nephew, some day… but that was a cold comfort. He sighed, and muttered something inaudible. Katie thought it was “cherimoya” again, but she wasn’t sure. Tears pricked her eyes again, and this time she didn’t worry about them. No one was going to force her to eat anything while she sobbed, and her face was a mess already – a little more salt water wasn’t going to change anything. “I’m sorry, Hugh,” she whispered. “I did try, I really did. I wanted tae bring you something from the knowe for the daylight hours, and the Folk would put their wares nearly anywhere but into my hand, and I came away with nothing… I’m so sorry.”

She didn’t suppose he heard her. He hardly ever did seem to hear anything anybody said when he was like this. But the words needed saying, and if the other Cullanes decided to throw her in the dungeon after all… Well, that wasn’t too likely, she supposed. Bless Trina for fetching that young fellow with the horse, whoever he’d been; there’d be at least one witness who could say he’d seen the Prince leave the knowe, and Katie too. But some suspicious minister or other was bound to accuse her of being in league with the fae, and it would all get… political. And Hugh wouldn’t last much longer. So this still might be the last time she saw him alive… “I’m so sorry, Hugh.”

His face still didn’t move at all, and so Katie was completely unprepared when one of his arms did, whipping itself out of the covers as fast as the willow-things had lashed their hair, grabbing hold of Katie, and pulling her down beside him. The bed was just a little higher up than her waist, and this sudden attack left her bent over and balanced on the toes of one foot. While Katie was still trying to find her footing, Hugh’s other hand found the back of her head, and then he was kissing her full on the mouth.

Katie found herself incapable of doing anything whatsoever. She couldn’t have said if she was standing or sitting or had somehow got on the bed herself, but she knew her limbs had gone slack with surprise, and a great, tingling heat roared through the core of her like sparks up a chimney. Do you dream of lovers, lady? But any lingering desires she might have had for that fae lordling who had offered himself last night were overwhelmed and annihilated. I was right, the best I can dream of is nothing compared to the best there is! And then words were lost again in the feeling of Hugh’s lips on hers. He kissed her over and over, grazing her upper lip, just pecking the corners of her mouth, spending long, lingering moments in the hollows just under her cheekbones, tickling the hairs just in front of her ears with his tongue. Muzzily, Katie realized that some of the ringing in her ears was the bell for Prime. Hugh was kissing her eyelids, and running his tongue down her collarbone. Katie wondered whether she was going to melt or ignite. A faint message from one of her hands told her that it had found its way under Hugh’s shirt collar and was exploring his neck and shoulders, and that there were little curly hairs there that tickled nicely, and that the skin between the hairs was amazingly soft and smooth, compared to the men’s hands it had previously touched. All right, Hand. Carry on.

Now he was working his way slowly along her hairline. Katie realized with a sickening lurch that he wasn’t kissing her out of love. Or even because he wanted her. Oh, Saints, it’s that misbegotten fruit!

Of course. The fae swarm had smashed the stuff all over her face, trying to get at her mouth, and the juice had just stayed there, except where her tears had washed it away. It seemed Katie had managed to bring some of the goblin fruit with her, however unconventionally stored. And Hugh wanted the fruit above anything else in the world or out of it. Katie's internal fire went out as quickly as if a snowbank had fallen on top of it. She found herself wondering what had become of Nanny Kirk. She was usually here at the stroke of Prime and that had been, well, a time ago.

Hugh jerked away from her suddenly and sat upright, panting. Katie discovered that her legs still hung off the edge of the bed and that the floor was only a few inches below her feet, and she stood up to look at him. His eyes were wide and staring and brimming with tears, as her own had been not so long ago. “Burns!” he gasped, his voice gone high with pain. “Oh, it burns! Water, please! I need water!”

After a brief scramble, Katie managed to fill the cup on the nightstand and hand it to him. Hugh drained it in three gulps. “More!”

As Katie was lifting the pitcher a second time, she heard a familiar, and rather ominous, sound behind her. She dropped the cup on the carpet (sparing a moment's relief when it didn’t break) and instead pulled the basin out from under the pitcher and spun around quickly as she could manage. She got the basin into Hugh’s lap almost before he was spectacularly sick into it. Well, about half of it ended up in the basin, and the other half splashed onto her sleeve and her skirts, and a corner of the blanket. Katie re-positioned the basin a little and held Hugh’s hair back from his face with her clean hand, thinking, I really am no good at all with ballgowns. Hugh must have eaten a great deal of fruit in the course of the night for there to be this much … stuff… coming back up. It shone a dark, oily green-black in the lamplight. Katie supposed that was better than bright red. Dear Saints, have I poisoned him? If I were Nanny Kirk, coming in this moment, I would surely think so. The smell was also horrible, of course. As soon as she got a moment, Katie was going to find a window to open.

But it seemed Hugh wasn’t about to die just then. The spasms slowed, and eased, and for the last one or two, he was able to hold the bowl steady himself. And then he sat nearly upright, turned his head in Katie’s direction, and saw her. Katie ducked down and retrieved the cup she had dropped, and poured a little water into it. “Here,” she said. “Dinna try tae swallow this just yet. Swish it about in your mouth and spit it out again. ‘Twill take some of the taste away.”

He took the cup gravely, murmuring, “Katie,” and followed her instructions with a slightly puzzled expression.

“All right, then,” Katie said softly, “If you think you’ll do on your ain for a few minutes, I’ll take this mess away and tip it down the privy, so we dinna have tae keep smelling it. Here,” she ducked again and came up with the slop pot, “If your guts rebel again while I’m gone, you can use this. And Nanny Kirk will be here any minute, now. She’s usually here before this, and I dinna ken what’s keeping her.” It was strangely comforting to be talking quietly of such ordinary things, as if the man had nothing worse wrong with him than a hangover.

“Katie?” The voice came floating over her shoulder as she started to turn away with the basin, “This is my room at Cullane, is it not?”

She turned back. “Aye, H- yes, Your Highness.”

The worried look about his eyebrows deepened. “And you’re here?”

“Yes…” do you wish I wasnae?

“Do you… were you under the Knowe, as well?”

“Yes, your Highness. Mrs. House hired me tae keep an eye on you o’nights. So I followed you there, and back. Three times now, it’s been. I suppose I’ll gang again tonight, if it’s needful. Or maybe not,” she added thoughtfully, “The Fair Folk were none too pleased with me last night, and they might not let me in again.”

“Katie?”

“Yes?”

“Was I… kissing you, just now?”

She couldn’t look at him. And she couldn’t look down; she didn’t want to see inside the basin again.... There were plasterwork curlicues on the ceiling, after all... “Yes.”

He sighed. “Oh, good. I’ve been wanting tae do that.”

Something bitter that had nothing to do with the basin welled up in the back of Katie’s mouth. “Even when I havenae been doused in fruit juice, first?”

Hugh sat bolt upright and stared at her. “Fruit j- Put that down and sit here.” He twitched the dirtied blanket aside and swung his legs so that they dangled off the bed. “Dear Katie, what are you talking about?”

“Mangos,” said Katie, staring back. “Cherimoyas and papayas. You dinna remember?” Katie shook her head, and then obediently set the basin down on the seat of the chair beside the bed. “I’ve seen you give your own heart’s blood tae a green-bearded goblin for the sake of the fruit he sold. And I’ve heard you crying for more when you were back in your bed and there was none to be had… I wanted to bring – and they’d smash it on my face but they’d put nothing whole in my hands…” she had to stop. She didn’t want to cry again yet. Later, when she was in her little room with Trina. She could cry then.

“You… I do remember. I remember thinking I’d never had such delicious fare in my life, but – well, I think I remember it tasted sort of like vinegar pie, but then, most fruit does, sort of… I don't want any now. I could fancy a mutton sausage, though.” Hugh shrugged, lightly, and then went still as he heard his own words. “I don't… want to go back!” It came out in an amazed whisper. “I remember – I think I remember, fine lords and ladies and lights and music and the goblin market, but… and I remember you singing, and that story about powdering your hair, and I want to hear more about – Brucemuir, was it? But all the rest of it… I don't want it! I don't- Katie! I’m free!” He was still whispering, as if he were afraid to say the words aloud.

He had looked so handsome under the knowe, when his smile had masked exhaustion and fear, but that smile to this one was… well, vinegar pie to fresh ripe apples. And he’d said he wanted to talk to her again… hadn’t he? Katie felt the tears spill over. Hope and joy and relief, on top of everything else she was feeling, were too much.

Hugh was instantly solicitous and worried, asking her what was wrong and please don’t cry, my dear, taking hold of her shoulders gently, running his fingers ever so lightly along what he said was a bruise on her cheek – Katie wasn’t aware of having one, but then, she’d been busy – and Katie kept crying. She managed to get a word out here and there, in answer to questions he put: yes, she’d faced the goblins, yes, that was where the bruises had come from, probably, yes, Hugh, I did it for you… but mostly, she cried, while the part of her that had been cool and logical all the long night under the knowe let itself relax and enjoy the feel of his arms around her, and the love and the wonder in his voice.

They were still sitting there, and the reeking basin was still in the chair, when Nanny Kirk came in at last, at the head of a whole crowd of people: King Andrew and Queen Gwynn, Prince James and Trina, Mrs. House, Jem the footboy, and even, to Katie’s amazement, the Silver Fairy, who looked a little bewildered. After the first babble and jubilations were over, Katie understood that Trina– or Trina and James, as it had been James who'd lifted her on the other horse that morning– had gone to the others and told them everything they knew, and in the midst of the telling and retelling of it all, the Godmother had put in an appearance, though she hadn’t quite said why, and all of that together was what had kept Nanny Kirk from her post so long.

They went on talking and laughing and explaining things all out of order, Katie with the rest, until Hugh raised his voice above the others and said, “Have done, will you! We’ve time enough and more for tales, but I want breakfast first. Nanny, Mrs. House, our poor Katie here has to be worn to shreds, and she needs a bath and a gown that nobody’s been sick on. Jem, take that godawful basin away, will you? And tell Garth I need a shave. And somebody bring me a plate of mutton sausage!”

Chapter Text

The bath had been absolute Heaven. Mrs. House herself had attended Katie, washing her hair four times! The first with fine Andalazzi olive oil soap, and then with apple vinegar to bring out the ruddy lights in it, and egg whites after that to make it shine, and finally with a tincture of chamomile, to no other purpose so far as Katie knew than to prevent her hair from smelling like a ploughman's luncheon. After that, while her hair dried, Mrs. House rubbed Katie's assorted injuries with salve that smelled of juniper berries.

Admittedly, at the beginning there had been a moment that Katie suspected Mrs. House had found almost as embarrassing as she had, where Mrs. House had wrung one of Katie's hands in both of hers and whispered, “Thank you,” with her sourly formal expression melted into one of naked emotion. Katie hadn't quite known what to say; "you're welcome" didn't seem quite right, under the circumstances. But after that, Mrs. House had gone back to being very proper and dignified, and had simply seen to it that Katie did not want for any further comforts, including many that had not been Katie's usual lot even back home in Brucemuir, such as soft towels that had been wrapped around a hot brick to keep them warm while she bathed.

There had also been another dose of that sleeping-draught, calculated to ensure that Katie got a proper rest, but also that she was awake to meet with the rest of the Family for a late tea, wearing a gown borrowed from one of Queen Gwynn's stouter ladies-in-waiting. The gown was much finer than anything Katie actually owned, but it was an expensive shade of lilac that Katie knew did not suit her at all, even without taking the bruises into account. Once again, she was glad not to have to look at herself in a mirror.

Taking tea with the Family had been awkward, too, though not as much as those first few moments with Mrs. House. It wasn't a very formal Tea; so Katie didn't have to worry about how Cullane manners might differ from Brucemuir ones, and besides, Trina was there. But once again, Katie was the center of attention and not entirely sure what to do about it. Mostly, she kept quiet and let the others talk.

Trina was as sweet and gracious as ever, and always ready to come up with the right phrase to smooth out a bump in the conversation. At every opportunity, she told them about all the amazing things Katie had done, starting long before they had run away from home, and including everything since. Hugh was equally happy to talk about all he remembered of the time they had had together under the knowe, when he wasn't busy making up for lost time and eating an enormous lot of cold meat and jam tarts and things. At least I ken no one else is taking any notice of what I eat, Katie thought, They're all watching Hugh.

When Hugh wasn't talking, he kept gazing fondly at Katie, which made her feel rather warm and trembly. But Katie still kept waiting for something to go wrong. She found herself in sympathy with Pepper, the foxhound, who had wandered around the “Breakfast Parlor,” sniffing dubiously, before more-or-less gluing himself to Hugh's leg for the rest of the hour.

“He's not been inside the castle before,” Hugh had explained. “Pepper's a kennel dog. He'd not be here now, were it not for the Silver Fairy. She vouched that he'd not relieve himself on anything expensive. Said she'd 'had a word' with the poor fellow, and that he'd done greater service when he followed me under the hill than we kenned.” Katie, remembering what had become of Pepper's collar, could only agree that the loyal dog deserved to be rewarded, but she suspected Pepper was like herself in feeling that being with Hugh was a fine reward, but that being with Hugh in the Breakfast Parlor was something of a mixed blessing.

Really, the problem had been that everyone had been so very happy and relieved, and Katie had felt that she should be as well, but she just couldn't quite manage it. Her nap that morning after the bath meant that she no longer felt as though she might blow apart like a dandelion-clock in a strong wind, but the world still loomed large and dangerous, with every decision seeming like too much to manage, as happened when she was very tired. And besides that there was still the much more literal looming of Myimp. The creature had chosen to hang like a bat from one of the wall sconces during the tea, just within Katie's view. No-one else looked in that direction, so Katie couldn't guess whether it was invisible to all eyes but hers, or just very, very good at hiding in plain sight. Or maybe I really am mad, and I'm the only one who can see it because it isnae truly there at all. Now that was a comforting thought.

All in all, that well-intentioned “informal tea,” doubtless meant to put the guests at their ease before plunging into the many public celebrations that the ending of the Curse of Cullane would entail, had left Katie feeling lost and entirely out of her depth, even with the comfort of Hugh and her sister there beside her. And now the three of them and Prince James were going to meet in the “Sun Room” with the Silver Fairy. Katie couldn't imagine what that might be about, but somehow she knew it was going to be important, and she was unable to believe it was going to be good news.

 **********

The “Sun Room” proved to be an austere (by Cullane Castle standards) chamber, painted in yellow-and-white, with a floor of Baritarian marble, and more marble statues standing about on little pedestals. The furniture was also Baritarian, which meant the couches and chairs had elaborately carved legs and padded arms but no backs. The real showpiece of the room was the view out onto a balcony overlooking one of the Pleasure Gardens, and the sun that shone through huge windows of Brucemuir glass. The glass was the really expensive stuff, Katie noted, with the individual panes each nearly a foot square. Only a few mirrors were made larger than that, and only on special order. Trina had one of those in her dowry. The view outside the window was a bit damp and muddy, just now, but the sky was warm and blue for the first time since Katie and Trina had arrived in Cullane, and the “Sun room” was living up to its name.

The Silver Fairy sat up very straight on one of the couches, with her back to the windows. Katie and Trina sat down next to each other on the couch that had been pulled up to face her, and Prince Hugh and James chose chairs to either side. Hugh pulled his close enough to Katie that they could touch hands, though neither of them made any move to do so. Pepper skittered briefly on the marble floor, and chose not to explore the Sun Room further. He made his way to a spot between Hugh and Katie, toenails clicking, and then curled up tightly, looking a bit resentful. Katie looked around hurriedly for Myimp but didn't see it. She was just wondering whether that was good or bad when she felt an already-familiar leathery paw grab her ankle from under the chair. Pepper glared briefly in the same direction. Katie suppressed a shudder.

The Silver Fairy took a deep breath and let it out again. Somehow, she looked older than Katie remembered from that morning in Staghorn Pass, and smaller, and much less sure of herself. “Your Highnesses,” she began, nodding to Hugh, James, and Trina each in turn, “Honorable Mistress MacLaird, I am the latest in a long succession of Fairy Godmothers who have had the duty of looking after the welfare of the Kingdoms of the Trullney Islands, and 'tis a great honor indeed tae be the one tae see the end of the Curse of Cullane. I could have wished-- well. Best tae take this in proper order. Truth tae tell, we've a bit of a tangle on our hands, and I think I'd better begin by taking a page from El-- The Rose Fairy's book, and explaining a few things that usually only other Godmothers have any knowledge of.”

There followed a very full half-hour in which they all learned, and tried to understand, how all their lives had been shaped and reshaped by the Tradition. Katie was fascinated, angered, and frightened by turns, as she realized just how many of her personal difficulties had behind them this blind, faceless... force that wanted above all things that they should all fit their lives into stricter, albeit stranger, confines than even Queen Martha had ever desired. Although, the existence of the Tradition might explain a few things about Myimp... Was that what the creature had meant by “Want real stories?”

Sweet Trina saw only the good side of their new knowledge. “So, really, my Stepmother didnae hate me at all! She was just too foolish and weak-willed tae fight the Tradition! And I told you it wasnae that you were evil-natured, Katie! Now, you see for yourself how good you mun really be, that you've been able to resist the push tae become a Wicked Stepsister all this time!”

“I fear 'tisnae quite as simple as that, Kitten,” Katie said, her voice shaking a little. She leaned forward and hauled Myimp out from its hiding place under the couch. “Here, you. Make yourself visible tae everyone. Now.” She plunked the creature down on her lap and watched everyone’s faces.

The Silver Fairy blinked, and her eyebrows rose nearly to her hairline. Trina gasped, protesting faintly, “but... but we made him up!”

“Out of what?” Prince James muttered, rearing backward until he nearly pitched himself off his chair. Pepper made a peculiar noise somewhere between a growl and a yelp, sniffed at Katie and Myimp, and then sneezed violently and scrabbled away to the other side of Hugh's legs.

Hugh leaned forward. “What a fascinating creature!” He stretched a hand out to touch one of its front paws gently. “May I?” He addressed his question to Katie and Myimp equally. Katie shrugged, and Myimp inclined its head, tucking its beak out of the way and presenting the backs of its ears, which Hugh scratched. Myimp made a little cooing sound.

Katie looked up at the Silver Fairy again. “Does the Tradition make imps?”

The Godmother visibly pulled herself together. “The Tradition certainly shapes magical beings very strongly... and certain beings tend tae live in places where there are stories told about them,” she said, “but in this particular case I rather suspect... come stand by the window a minute.”

Katie set Myimp on the floor, muttering, “stay,” and did as she was bidden.

The Silver Fairy stood next to her and pointed to the sunlight streaming across the floor. “See there, Katie? You dinna cast a shadow.”

It was true. In the bright light, the Godmother's shadow on the marble floor was so black and sharp-edged it might have been cut out of paper. But at Katie's feet, the light glowed uninterrupted.

“That... is unsettling,” Prince Hugh admitted.

Tae say the least, Katie agreed silently. The hollow feeling in her chest grew more pronounced. Does this mean I've already lost my soul?

But the Silver Fairy was still calm. “Call that... creature... over here, please,” she directed.

“Come here, Myimp,” Katie parroted dully. It came along the ground, hopping like a coney, only taking to the air at the very end, to flap itself up and settle on her shoulders. At the same time as Katie felt the familiar weight land, her shadow blinked into place on the floor. The shadow revealed no hint of the load she was carrying on her back. Myimp, it seemed, had no shadow of its own, only hers.

“Just as I suspected!” the Silver Fairy declared with a satisfied nod. She led Katie back to their seats again. “You asked what the imp was made of, Prince James. Mostly, it seems, it was made out of Katie. She's had a whacking great weight of Traditional power building up about her, trying tae force her intae becoming a False Bride, or some other thing. And she's started tae shape that power according tae her will. She's a Witch in the making. Or, given the amount of power, a Sorceress. I've been expecting some signs of this since almost before she left Brucemuir, although I admit,” she added, glancing sideways at Myimp, who was preening a strand of Katie's hair in its beak, “I've never before seen or heard of a sorceress or anyone else manifesting their power in quite that fashion.”

“Sorceress?” All four of them said the word more-or-less at the same time. Katie stopped goggling first only because she had already had that thought of it once before, when she first claimed mastery over Myimp. But even she found it hard to believe that she was any such thing.

“Yes, indeed,” said the Silver Fairy, “and that brings us 'round tae the thing I meant tae speak about tae the four of you. But we're getting a bit wrong-side-to. Again.” The Godmother sighed. “I'd meant tae start by apologizing, because I should have taken Katie for a 'prentice half a year ago, as soon as it became plain that she had the will tae fight the Tradition when it tried tae make a False Bride of her. But since I didnae... Katie – well, all of you, really, – have done amazingly well, but the Tradition is dangerously stressed right now. 'Tis like a spring that cannae be wound any tighter without breaking, and if it breaks, 'twill fly in pieces and do twice as much damage as it might do by unwinding. Fixing the problem will be hard on all of you, and for that I am sorry indeed.”

I wasnae meant for Hugh. Katie found the certainty there, as solidly and suddenly as that other terrible certainty, all those months ago, that her mother had had something to do with Trina's curse. I was meant tae be the False Bride. I wonder... the Tales always make the False Bride sound mercenary and cold-hearted, but have there been other False Brides who simply loved the Bridegroom and wanted tae be with him?

“Hugh, Katie,” the Silver Fairy's voice was very gentle and her face was sad, “the pair of you have fallen in love because she saved your life and broke the Curse, and the Tradition always wants a dramatic rescue tae lead to a wedding. Or at least an elopement.”

Myimp startled everybody briefly by suddenly closing its eyes, clasping its hands and trilling, “Truuuuue Looove....” making them all laugh. If the Tradition was happy, then so was Myimp.

The Tradition. Of course. Katie remembered the relief she had felt when it had seemed Hugh card for her for her own sake, and not the goblin fruit juice on her face. But it seems it was the fruit after all, in a roundabout way.

“The problem,” the Godmother went on, “is that having the elder Stepsister wed the Prince, especially when the younger one has been doing servant's work in the castle, is like tae shove the Tale right back intae the False Bride path. On top of that, James was raised tae think he would inherit the Kingdom when his brother died, and now that his brother is going tae live, he's a Foul Usurper just waiting tae happen. I know you dinna intend any such thing, Prince James,” she added hurriedly, “but the Tradition will push you that way. If you wed Trina, she and Hugh will still fall in love later and it will drive you mad. If you wed Katie, she'll turn intae the bitter, shrewish elder sister and urge you on intae the most horrible acts for her sake.

“And tae top it all off,” she continued, “we have Katie coming intae her powers as a Sorceress. Now personally, I'm delighted with this because the Fairy Godmothers and other Good Mages can always use more help, and Katie looks like a real gem. But there is simply no place in the Tradition for a Queen who works magic and isnae evil. Sorceress-Queens play favorites among their sons, make life miserable for their daughters-in-law, and kill their grandchildren outright. We cannae have Katie ganging down that path. So,” she concluded, “I'm hoping that Katie will be willing, when the celebrating winds down, tae come away with me and begin her training, and leave Cullane tae sort itself out in a better fashion than it will if she stays.”

There was a long silence. Katie found herself incapable of thinking more than three words in a row, and instead simply looked at everyone else's faces. The Godmother's was grave. Prince James mostly looked confused, and Trina indignant – on whose behalf? Katie's? Why? Hugh... Hugh was scowling ferociously at nothing. Was he angry? Katie herself felt mostly bleak. She supposed she could fight this new thing, as she had fought her mother's plans for her, and Trina's curse, and Myimp, and the host under the knowe. But I'm tired. And covered in bruises. And going away and being a Sorceress didn't sound bad. But oh, Hugh...

As if she had heard Katie's thoughts, the Silver Fairy said, still gently, “I ken well the pain of losing a love tae the Tradition. But I promise you, you will be much happier as a Sorceress than you would be as a Queen. There is no work more satisfying, really and truly. And of course, the more of us there are doing the work, the more likely we can act in time tae keep some other dark-haired Stepsister from having tae suffer what you have.”

The Godmother didn't entirely sound as if she believed what she was saying herself. But it didn't really matter. Not if Katie's other choice was to spend her life as she had the last year. Katie blinked hard, and then wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She couldn't tell if she was weeping, or if they were just watering from weariness. “Yes, Godmother,” she said, quietly, “I'll gang with you.”

“No!” Trina and Hugh both said the word at the same time. Or rather, Trina shouted it in furious protest, and Hugh breathed it, still staring into space, with the scowl slowly easing into wide eyes and a very small smile.

“You cannae just give up, Katie!” Trina insisted, “Not after all you've done! 'Tisnae fair! You've broken twa curses in twa days without any help from anyone at all. You can be a wonderful Queen if you want tae be, and... and bother the Tradition! We'll help you get 'round it, all of us!” And Trina glared at the Silver Fairy. If the Silver Fairy wasn't willing to be one of the ones that helped, the glare said, there would be Consequences.

Katie shook her head, staring down into the wide eyes of Myimp where it crouched on the floor. “You dinna ken what 'tis like, Trina, tae have tae turn your will against yourself every second of every day, wondering when you'll fail...”

Hugh blinked, and sat up a bit straighter. “Katie,” he said, “how big a man is your father?”

“What?” Katie wondered if perhaps he had left some of his wits behind him under the knowe. “Which one?”

“King Malcom, who raised you. Is he a large fellow?” Hugh persisted.

“What has that tae do with anything? But yes, he's huge. Six-foot-nine and nearly twenty stone in weight.”

“And is your mother tall, as you are?”

“Yes...”

“Perfect!” Hugh's smile broadened and brightened.

“What are you on about?” His brother demanded.

Hugh blinked again, and seemed to see the others about him for the first time. “Oh.” He turned slightly pink. “Sorry. I was just thinking, you see, and I wanted tae see how much I could make fit... James, you remember before the curse struck I was working on a cycle of poems about Fergus O'Doone? Well, I was. And that's our missing precedent for a good sorceress who went on tae be a good queen: Fergus' wife, who saved his skin more than once with her magical powers. And for that matter, she began by rebelling against a wicked parent who tried tae harm one who should have been under their protection. Ruddy Bess, the Giant's daughter.”

Prince James said, “Oh,” in a way that suggested that the sentence he was not saying afterward was something along the lines of, "that explains what my scatterbrained brother was on about, anyway, but what has it to do with us?"

The Godmother also said, “oh,” but rather more slowly and thoughtfully.

“Who?” said Trina and Katie together.

“You've no Fergus O'Doone stories in Brucemuir?” Hugh asked them, “we've dozens. In the most famous one, Ruddy Bess saves him from her father the giant and then gangs on to marry him. And if she could do a tenth of the things the tales credit her with, then she was a sorceress to be reckoned with.”

“I admit,” said the Silver Fairy thoughtfully, “I hadnae considered the Giant's Daughter among the tales we might make fit this situation. But 'tis a path that has dangers of its own. The Giant's Daughter Path is sort of a branch of a much broader road we call the Questing Beauty, where the lady mun suffer a number of trials before she and her True Love can wed.”

“There is that,” Hugh acknowledged. “Things like taking a long journey afoot, doing servant's work and living on charity, like a pilgrim..” Hugh's expression was growing very mischievous. “Or like spending three nights by her True Love's bedside, without him kenning who she is or even taking notice that she's there.” He wrinkled his forehead in mock puzzlement over sparkling eyes. “Now why does that sound familiar?”

The Silver Fairy chuckled ruefully. “It seems 'tis my day for being humbled,” she said. “My apprentice – I think you will be that, Katie, whatever else you decide tae take on – demonstrates a magical working greater than anything I've ever done in my life,” and she nodded at Myimp, “and then her lover the Bard shows himself tae be a better scholar of the Tradition than I am. What say you, Katie? Shall we make a Giant's Daughter of you?”

Myimp let out a melodious whistle. “I like!” it announced.

Trina giggled and clapped her hands. Prince James smiled, looking a bit lost. Hugh stopped smiling at all, but simply looked at Katie and waited.

Katie looked back for a long time, wiping her eyes twice more – she was getting very tired of crying; it felt like she'd been crying all day – before she took a deep breath and said, “No.”

Hugh pulled back as quickly as if she'd slapped him, and looked just as hurt. Katie heard Trina's voice next to her, saying “Oh, for pity's sake!” in a much more exasperated tone than Trina ever used.

Katie went on quickly, before the tears took over again. “It isnae because I dinna care for you,” she insisted, “but you didnae choose tae love me; you only do because the Tradition wants it so. Well, I didnae spend the night facing down a host of evil fae tae spring you from one trap just tae have you land in another. I'll gang away with the Godmother as she offered, and I'll have real work tae do, as I wanted, and you'll be f-free...” She gulped and searched among her unfamiliar skirts for a pocket with a handkerchief. She was so tired of crying.

Katie wasn't sure how she'd expected Hugh to react to her speech. She certainly hadn't expected him to turn to Trina and ask, in a voice almost as exasperated as Trina's had been, “Is she always like this?”

Trina rolled her eyes in response. “Only when she wants something very badly and is afraid she might get it,” was her astonishing answer. Katie looked back and forth from one to the other, feeling as lost as Prince James had looked.

“Afraid she'll – I suppose I can see how that might happen...” Hugh started scowling into space again. It was beginning to look as if he made terrible faces whenever he was thinking hard. This time, though, he came out of his brown study much more quickly. “All right!” He sprang to his feet. “Tell me if I understand aright, Katie: 'Tis your belief that I'd not feel anything for you were it not for the Tradition, and you'd have me choose freely, as if there had never been a curse at all, is that right?”

Katie nodded. Hugh became very brisk. “Well, then, I needs must go a-searching as most Princes do. Or their ministers, more often, but we might as well begin with what we have. Now.” He bowed to Trina – a brisk, official-business bow, not a courtly sweep – and addressed her. “Your Highness Princess Katherine Bruce, as your father's heir, are you prepared to speak for him on a matter of some import?”

Trina dimpled, but replied, “certainly,” and schooled her expression into one of stiff solemnity.

“Cullane needs a bride for the Crown Prince, who is just now come of age. Any young ladies in your court who might suit?”

“Well,” said Trina, “There's my stepsister, the Honorable Katherine Martha MacLaird. She hasnae any lands of her own, but she's got a fair dowry, and besides that she's a Sorceress-in-training. Always good tae have a magician or twa at your disposal, you ken.”

Hugh took an imaginary notepad out of his belt-pouch and began to write on it with one finger. “Hmmm,” he said, “sounds promising. What's her temper like?”

“Quick and fierce.”

“Her mind?”

“Also quick and fierce.”

“And her sense of right and wrong?”

“Likewise.”

“How about her loyalty? It would never do to have a Sorceress turn against one, after all.”

“Her loyalty is all but unshakable. A body would really have tae do something horrible tae lose it once she gives it.”

“What about her will generally?”

“The same. She's stubborn as a burdock root.”

“Sounds a bit of a rough diamond,” Hugh observed, doubtfully. “Do you really think she'd make a good Queen?”

“Well now,” said Trina, “ 'Twould depend a great deal on what sort of King she'd have. If your Crown Prince is a bluff, soldierly sort who needs a diplomat tae ease his way among Polite Society,” and she twinkled briefly in Prince James' direction, “then you'd be better off with someone more like, well, like me. But if you've got a fellow who's maybe a bit dreamy and impractical, she's got her feet on the ground and she's good at seeing a problem through tae its end. But she understands poetry and the like and wouldnae turn all contemptuous and shrewish at a dreamer as some would. The important thing that her Lord Husband would need tae do is treat her with the same respect as he would any other counselor or Court Magician, not like a brood-mare. If he can do that, he'll get himself a good helpmeet.”

“And would she serve his people well?”

“I think so. Her first thought would be for individual people she loves, not the country as a whole, but she'll serve Justice, as she sees it, before she'll serve anyone else, even one she loves.”

“Well then,” Prince Hugh said, briskly, “She sounds worth a trial, at any rate. If she and I can meet face to face, and if we find each other easy to talk to, and maybe have a pastime or two in common, then she might do very well indeed.” He returned to his seat and looked at Katie, who was blushing furiously and mentally sputtering. “Was that the sort of thing you had in mind?” he asked.

Katie shook her head, not in denial so much as simple confusion, and opened and shut her mouth twice without saying anything. It wasn't what she'd had in mind, but what was?

“The thing is, Honorable Katherine, that you are right in a way,” Hugh said. “I didn't choose to feel as I do for you, and I may have no say in whether my love lasts or no. But 'tisn't as though anybody does choose to fall in love. Men of my class seldom choose a bride for themselves. But there are still choices we make. No matter if 'tis a lover, an enemy, or even a footman, we decide whether we will do the work of learning how to talk and listen to he people in our lives, what we will share of ourselves and how, and how much we will allow them to change us. Everything I have learned of you, of what you have done and what those close to you,” he nodded at Trina, “have to say of you, it all makes me think you are something very much out of the common way, and worth whatever effort it would take to have you in my life and let you change it.”

He leaned forward over the arm of his chair, bringing his face closer than it had been at any time since he stopped kissing her. “Leaving out what I feel, as you say you want me to, I can choose that work freely, and will, if you agree. What do you choose?”

Pepper whimpered slightly and thumped his tail against Katie's feet. Katie found she still couldn't speak. She could barely breathe. She unclenched her fingers from the arm of the couch and reached out one hand, setting it atop Hugh's, where it lay on the arm of his chair. He set his other hand on top of hers. “Well then!” he whispered, with yet another sort of smile, this one very gentle, and Katie found she needn't say anything after all.

She couldn't have said how long they just sat there, smiling witlessly at each other before Trina, with a rare streak of humor, asked, “Godmother, do you suppose that what I did with that little interview was enough like Saving the Elder Sister from a Grave Mistake tae satisfy the Tradition and leave us alone tae enjoy our Happy Ending?”

The Silver Fairy chuckled. “I couldnae say, child. But it seems Katie has given the Tradition a voice of its own, of a sort, when she poured so much of it intae that creature, there. We can just ask. What say you, Myimp?”

The creature’s only immediate response was to begin humming like a hive of bees, and then it jumped into the air with a flap of its wings. It hovered there, still humming, screwed its eyes shut, and puffed out its cheeks. Its grayish skin grew purple with some great effort, and then seemed to break out in whitish pustules. Ew, Katie thought. The humming grew louder, and the white spots changed shape to become prickles, and then grew further and began to open, to Katie's amazement, into soft, fluttering feathers that seemed to glow in the sunlight. The ones on its chest and face were so downy they looked almost like pale-gold fur. The wing-feathers, and the crest that sprang up from between its ears, and the even more amazing plumes that were tripling the length of its stubby tail, were a riot of green and blue and gold and red. The humming turned to singing, a wordless, spiraling trill like the song of a thrush. Myimp, no longer at all ugly, landed on the head of one of the marble statues and spread its wings again in a gesture of pure joy. “Happily,” it caroled, “happily, happily ever after!”

Chapter Text

The bright little boat beached itself on the moonlit shore just below Godmother Hildegarde’s croft. As she stepped out, the boat started to shrink, its festive carvings and paint blurring into bumps and spots, the sails vanishing altogether. By the time she turned around and stooped to pick it up, it was a seashell again. Hildegarde yawned hugely as she slipped the shell in her pocket. It had been a tiring couple of weeks. Still, they had been far less frightening and dangerous than she had expected when she had gone to Cullane, if far more bewildering, and the ball had been a simple delight. She always did like a good party. This one, celebrating the end of the floods, and the end to the Curse of Cullane, and the betrothal of Prince Hugh and The Honorable Katherine Martha MacLaird, had been the most joyous celebration Hildegarde could remember in years.

If she herself was feeling fair flummoxed and more than a little chagrined to see how much the Tradition had yielded to the will of this particular False Bride in the making, well, that wasn’t anything the people who weren’t Godmothers knew very much about, nor did they need to. Even the somewhat Lenten food hadn’t worried anyone. Normally, Cullane wouldn’t have stooped to serve rabbit and salt herring at such a grand occasion, even if the High Table had lamb, but it was the start of the growing season, and even the things that could be gathered fresh this early were in short supply because of the floods. The later crops would be planted in a fresh layer of river mud, though, and the harvest should be more than enough to see everybody through the winter.

But any thought about what might be on people’s plates was eclipsed by the entertainments. Hildegarde herself would treasure the memory of Pepper and Myimp romping about the corners of the ballroom like the best of playmates. The courtiers were given to understand that Myimp was some exotic beastie that one of the Brucemuir sailors had given Katie, and the creature's more esoteric functions, though rumored, were not spoken of openly.

A more formal entertainment had been the performance of a new ballad Prince Hugh had written, telling the Tale of his Katie for all to hear and remember. If it grew as popular as his earlier work, it might be enough to carve a new Traditional path, and make the way a little easier for some other dark-haired Stepsister down the road. Godmother Hildegarde had taken it upon herself to make sure King Malcom and Lady Martha had been able to attend; she'd fetched them herself in her magical cockle-boat, that went through water as quickly as a witch's broom went through the air.

She'd had a dizzying amount of magic to work with – not only from the Tradition itself, that wanted its Happy Ending done right, but from the local Fae Lady of Light and her court, some of whom also attended the ball. It seemed Katie had done them an inadvertent favor when she broke the Curse. The Horned Lord’s vow to persecute the Cullane family all his life had backfired. When the curse ended, it had struck him a deathly blow, leaving the Dark Court weakened and in disarray, much to the satisfaction of more benign fae. The Lady’s own people had made Katie a replacement for her ruined ballgown, finer even than the Brownie work that had gone into the first one. Both she and Trina, who wore the dress from her own walnut, had chosen to wear their tartans draped over their gowns in the old Brucemuir fashion. The ladies of Cullane had had enough sense to find the effect charming.

Hildergarde's duty of shepherding King Malcom and Lady Martha to, and through, the festivities had admittedly been a little onerous. It was too much to hope that anyone would find Katie’s mother to be charming, but nobody was rude to her face, and she herself had forgotten all her troubles and regrets in the glow of seeing such a great match made for her daughter. “You see, my darling,” Hildegarde had heard her say to King Malcom more than once, “everything did turn out all right in the end. I knew it would.”

Whatever he might think of his wife's logic, King Malcom himself was more than satisfied. He was immensely proud of the way both lasses had handled themselves, however unwise he thought of their decision to run away in the first place, and besides, this was a grand chance to form better allegiances with Cullane. He quite liked the idea of Prince James as a husband for his Trina, and unless he missed his guess, Trina liked it as well. And he suspected it would suit King Andrew to have his younger son ruling a kingdom of his own, even a small one, rather than hanging about his brother’s court and remembering how he had been raised to expect it would be his…

Godmother Hildegarde made a note to keep an eye on that situation. The Tradition would still be trying to push James or one of his sons in the direction of Foul Usurper, and of course Hugh had a lot of catching up to do in learning how to run a kingdom. However, Hildegarde was sure that Cullane's new Sorceress-Queen was more than ready do a little pushing back. Stubborn Katie would bend her ferocious will to the task of guiding the Tradition the direction she wanted, and wise Trina would be helping in her own way, even if she didn’t do magic.

Already, Hugh the Poet and Katie the Songstress were planning to work together to propagate some Tales of fraternal loyalty to counteract any stories of jealous siblings, and James himself would do what he could to cast himself as the Traditional Good Younger Brother. Hugh was bound to make some mistakes that James could help him out of… But all of that was a problem for another day.

Tomorrow, the two Royal families would be making a ride to the Temple of St. Unweigh, so that the lasses could finish their pilgrimage at last, and the Cullanes could give thanks to the Saint whose temple had brought the lasses to them. And Hildegarde would have another dozen Tales in another half-dozen Kingdoms to oversee. And the Dark Witch, Biddy Noone, to hunt down. Not to mention the search for an Apprentice to begin in earnest. The disaster she'd almost made of Cullane made it plain to her that she needed a rest, or at least some more help. Hildegarde trudged up the steps to the door of her croft, firmly setting aside her worries until she could get a good night's sleep.

Heather the Brownie met her at the door, with a respectful expression belied by eyes that twinkled even more brightly and mischievously than usual. “Your pardon, Godmother, I ken well you mun be worn tae a frazzle, but there’s someone here who says she mun speak with you at once. I’ve put her in the parlor, and I’ll fetch you some tea.”

Hildegarde sighed. “All right, Heather. Thank you.” She handed her wrap to the Brownie and started to make her way slowly through her front hall. The front hall looked like the Great Room of the plain little croft her house appeared to be; the rooms leading off it didn’t show at all from the outside. Since Heather had put the guest in the parlor, she must be something out of the ordinary. Hildegarde heard conversation from the parlor door. One of the voices was Heather’s husband, Tam. The other was… impossible!

“I truly cannot believe what a fool I made of myself,” it was saying, “It isn’t as though I could have married Princess Ysabeau, after all.” And then there was that unmistakable laugh – low, husky, more tenor than alto… it couldn’t be…

“Roxana?”

At the sound of the Godmother’s voice, the tall, redheaded woman turned around. Her chain mail clinked slightly. Hildegarde stared at her for a moment. When she looked, she could see that the Lady Knight had a few lines around her eyes now, and among all the red hairs were a few – a very few – that were as white as the eagle embroidered on her tabard. But the smile was unchanged, and it lit up her face.

“Hilda my darling!” she crowed, “You’ve not changed by a hair, I swear it. And here am I, fresh out of trouble I got into by ignoring your advice again; can you possibly forgive me?”

“Oh, Rocky, I’ve missed you sideways!” And for the first time in twelve years, Godmother Hildegarde found herself swept up in the arms of her beloved Champion.