Authors: Laura Anne Gilman
who came through when needed
The sunlight filtered down through the large window that dominated…
“And so, sire, I must protest at this plan, even…
Gerard paid no attention to dignity or manners on his…
“How did you know to come here?” Gerard asked his…
“So what did Arthur say when you told him where…
“I think I preferred leaving without fanfare,” Newt said, frustration…
There were waves crashing outside, white-capped waters dashing into and…
“Oh. My. Lord.”
The morning of the fifth day after her abduction, Ailis…
“Blast it, Merlin! I need more information! How can I…
Ailis had spent the night twisting and turning in the…
“You have been very patient,” Morgain said. Ailis jumped in…
The air smelled of warm horseflesh and dry straw, with…
“Three touches of air to a dose of water, and…”
Ailis felt uneasy. Since the shadow-figure confronted her in the…
“Show me Morgain’s home,” Gerard uttered in frustration as they…
Their return to the village was much less impressive than…
“Why aren’t there any protections?” Newt wondered out loud.
The three were quickly taken prisoner by ghostly servants summoned…
Ailis led them up a short flight of stairs to…
“Gahhhh!” Merlin glared at the three of them, then carefully…
“This,” Gerard said in satisfaction. “Now this is how you’re…
he sunlight filtered down through the large window that dominated the room at the top of the Queen’s Tower; its glass was the clearest and finest that craftsmen could make. Only the best was offered to the Queen of Camelot, Guinevere, and her court.
Today that court, fifteen ladies-in-waiting, chosen for their good breeding, fine manners, and gracious speech, was scattered about the room, sitting on cushioned benches or padded chairs pushed together for better gossiping. They worked at their stitchery and listened to a musician playing a lute quietly off in the corner. The queen sat in the center of the solar on a simple high-backed wooden chair that was practically hidden by the long purple folds of her skirt. Two maids held up brocaded fabrics for her consideration,
while a master craftsman stood off to one side, awaiting her decision.
“Oh, dear. Allison,
have you been thinking to let your threads become so…tangled?”
The woman speaking to her was Caitrin. The eldest daughter of one of the queen’s cousins, she was sweet-faced—but with the soul of a viper and a tongue as poisonous.
Ailis, still not used to the unfamiliar twist on her name that the ladies-in-waiting had given her, looked up from her embroidery. The soft, blue thread had indeed become less a field of flowers than a mess of knots in the fabric she was working on. A woman sitting on the chair nearest to her giggled, then hid her smile behind one hand and looked away when Ailis glared at her.
Ailis suppressed her instinctive response to Caitrin’s usual cruelty, and merely bent her head back down to her work.
Calm. Be calm.
She hadn’t asked to be lifted from the life of a servant, any more than she had asked to become a servant in the first place. She had little to say in her own affairs since her parents had died in a battle in the early years of Arthur’s reign. But when she and her friends, Newt and Gerard, had broken the sleep-spell cast by the sorceress Morgain,
the queen had decided that Ailis deserved a better future. Gerard, a squire, had also been rewarded. He was given the opportunity to ride out with the great Quest to find the Holy Grail—the very Quest that Morgain’s spell had been designed to prevent.
But they never asked me what I wanted,
she thought, many times since she had been sent here.
Being taught needlework, or how to read out loud in a properly modulated voice, wasn’t such a bad thing. It was certainly better than carrying pitchers and platters, which had been her place before. And serving at her queen’s side was better than scrubbing floors, which would have been her fate had she been born to a servant’s life, rather than coming to it as an orphaned child. But no matter how nice the surroundings, how light the work, the truth was that she had less freedom now than ever before.
Only Newt, safe in the stable with his beloved horses, had avoided having his life turned completely upside down. Some days Ailis thought that he had been the more fortunate one.
Ailis looked around the room, careful not to make eye contact with Lady Caitrin, who was still lurking like a vulture waiting to pluck some reaction from her victim. In truth, some of the ladies-in-waiting
who served the queen had made Ailis’s new life almost enjoyable, calling her “pet” and making a fuss over her the way she thought her mother might have, if her mother had lived.
But then there were the ladies like Caitrin, who thought she was still nothing more than a serving girl with too many liberties.
They never asked me what I wanted,
she thought again, but refused to let the sigh she felt building inside her find release. It would be ungrateful, ill-bred. It would prove Caitrin right. Besides, what
she want? Ailis didn’t know…exactly.
With a soft whisper of skirts, one of the women gently nudged Ailis over on her bench and sat down beside her. “Here. Let me help.”
Ailis handed her stitchery over to Lady Roslyn with relief. The older girl had come with Lady Guinevere’s entourage when Guinevere had married Arthur. She had always been kind, even when Ailis was merely a serving girl.
“Ah.” Roslyn nodded sagely, handing the needlework back. “You’re pulling too hard when you come back up through the fabric. Sweetness, don’t let Caitrin worry at you. You’ll find the manner of it, soon enough.”
Ailis didn’t want to find the manner of it—not of embroidery and not of the company of these women.
There were days when Ailis felt like she needed to run, screaming, back to the servants’ quarters where she didn’t feel quite so vulnerable, so very much a target, so dratted restless. She wanted to be out of the sweetly scented, sunlight-filled chamber, with its comfortable cushions and young minstrels, and its inhabitants—friendly and otherwise.
She was suffocating, unable to breathe in her pretty new dress, her hair now tied up under a simple veil that wrapped modestly around her neck instead of her former long russet braid hanging free over her shoulder.
Just that morning, the queen had spoken of setting Ailis up with a suitable match; nothing too high for her comfort, but a marriage where she would be the mistress of her own home. She would be matched with a good-stock knight perhaps; a man who could make much of himself and his name with hard work and skill.
Ailis knew she should be grateful. And she was. But something inside her was dying every day she sat with these women, listening to them gossip. Weeks
ago she had ridden on a magical race against time that led her across England in order to save her king. She had worn boy’s trousers under her skirt for ease of movement, and matched verbal wits with Merlin, the greatest enchanter ever. She had bargained with bandits, and even faced down Morgain Le Fay, the king’s sorceress half-sister. Ailis still had nightmares about that—horrible dreams in which rather than discovering the secret to Morgain’s spell-casting, rather than escaping the sorceress’s otherworld home on the Isle of Apples, she and Gerard and Newt had been caught by magic and locked forever in a windowless, doorless cell made of stone.
They had gotten lucky. No matter how often Merlin might say that luck was merely the stars aligning themselves with one’s own preparedness, Ailis knew: They had gotten lucky.
Her luck ended there, though.
From that fateful moment when Morgain’s spell had put every adult in Camelot into a dreamless sleep, everything in Ailis’s life had changed.
had changed. And now Ailis needed more than days spent in a protected solar, no matter how easeful. She needed air. And she needed to find out what was going on in the rest of the castle! The great Quest for
the Holy Grail had been postponed, after Morgain’s sleep-spell ended. At the last contact she had had with Gerard, he told her and Newt that the Quest would be leaving Camelot soon—as soon as the Knights of the Round Table settled who would participate, and who would stay to protect the castle. He was still to go, although he did not know with which knights, or where he might be sent.
Ailis had been locked up with the ladies since then, and she couldn’t discover anything more from the same giggly gossip, which never mentioned specifics, much less the fate of one specific lowly squire. It was driving her mad, not knowing what was happening with Gerard or with Newt. They had all gotten so close, only to be broken apart so easily—it hurt. Even more so because she didn’t know if
were thinking or worrying about her at all.
“Ah, bother.” A petulant voice broke into her thoughts. “I’m out of linen thread.”
“I’ll go fetch more,” Ailis said, happy at the chance to go for a walk. Her shoulders tensed, wanting so badly to be out of there. But she smiled sweetly, projecting an intentional, innocent eagerness to please that had Lady Sharyn smiling back at her.
“Thank you, my dear. Gracelan, the chatelaine,
has a packet set aside for me of this particular color.” It was a soft green, the color of new leaves in spring. The thread must have cost a fortune, which was why it was kept under the castle housekeeper’s key.
“If it please my lady, I’ll go now,” Ailis said, slipping from her cushion near the queen’s chair. She paused long enough to make a curtsey to Queen Guinevere, who looked up from her consultation with a dressmaker and nodded her absentminded permission for the girl to leave.
“Thank you, your grace,” she said, dropping another curtsey and hurrying as quickly as she could across the wooden floor of the solar, while still taking approved ladylike steps. Her steps had never been very long, especially compared to the great lengths Newt and Gerard could cover, but now she was supposed to go even more slowly. “A lady must never walk, but glide,” the dance instructor had told her and the other girls new to Guinevere’s service. “Glide as you move. Do not swing your arms, but hold them gently at your sides, and glide.”
She was a person, not a swan, for the pity of heaven! People
. People even occasionally ran. But not ladies. Never ladies.
“Bah,” she said under her breath, not loud enough
for anyone to hear. Ladies did not say “bah,” either.
As the solar was up high in the Queen’s Tower, it caught the sunlight all day. The stairway down to the main level was a circular thing cut out of stone, with steps more shallow than elsewhere. It might simply have been sized small, for a woman’s foot, but something, some twitch of intuition honed by her earlier adventures, told Ailis there was more to it than that.
The narrow width and the shallow steps would make it nigh impossible for a man in armor to climb these stairs. And if such a man were to make it this far, he would have no room in which to swing his sword or draw a bow.
Thoughts like these made Ailis so uncomfortable in the company of the ladies-in-waiting. Not only did she know a world beyond the pampered, cushioned solar, but she knew what lay beyond the harder, but still sheltered, life of a castle servant.
Ailis was different. And she noticed things. Things gently bred, gently raised ladies were not meant to notice. Not to mention the fact that, sometimes, a voice sounded in the depths of her head, giving her advice and leading her to conclusions a simple serving girl might not otherwise reach. That had been why she had followed Gerard and Newt when they
set off to find Merlin to lift the sleep-spell. She had heard that voice in her head, that voice that gave advice and pointed the way to answers; the voice that sounded much like Merlin the Enchanter. Even though Merlin never said anything to her directly to confirm that he had been the one speaking to her, who else could it have been?
But since the time the three had broken the spell and returned Arthur and his court to wakefulness, that voice had been painfully absent from her life. It might be because Merlin was simply preoccupied, trying to escape from the house of ice they had been forced to leave him in, trapped by his former student Nimue. Or perhaps he had tired of Ailis. Perhaps he had decided that the queen’s favor and a well-placed marriage was the highest Ailis should aspire to, and she did not need the aid of an enchanter for that.
In truth, Ailis wasn’t sure how she felt about marriage. Or enchanters. She did not know what she wanted out of life. She wasn’t sure how she felt about anything anymore, except that she wanted more than what the queen’s court was offering her.
No small amount of that dissatisfaction came from the fact that, when the trio had confronted
Morgain, the sorceress had called Ailis a witch-child. A witch! Her?
Magic was unnatural, for all that it was useful. It was fine for Merlin, who
magic, a creature of the Old Gods, the ones who had ruled these lands before the Romans came. He might serve Arthur, a Christian king, now, but his allegiances were to the fairy world. Ailis, on the other hand, was a mortal, a God-fearing mortal who valued her soul as it was. The thought of magic having anything to do with
was an uneasy one. It made people look at you strangely. Or step back in fear. Or call you names.
At the same time, she missed hearing Merlin’s voice in the back of her head. She missed the warm glow she felt simply being around the talismans the three friends had collected on their quest. She missed feeling special.
“Want what you can’t have, can’t have what you want. You are a thankless child, Ailis, you are,” she told herself, in a very poor imitation of Caitrin’s voice. Then she looked around guiltily, although there was no way anyone could have heard her.
Having reached the bottom of the circular stairwell, Ailis started down the main hallway, then hesitated in her ladylike steps. It would take her forever,
walking so sedately through the main halls.
Looking around, she noted only a few servants, none of them familiar to her, and one page, who gave a cheeky smile as he dashed past on some errand or another. Reaching up to tug at her hair, forgetting for a moment that it was no longer hanging freely over her shoulder, she came to a decision. Picking up the hem of her skirts in one hand so she could move more easily, she turned left into the smaller side-hallway the page had come out from, and took that, instead of the main corridor.
Walking with her own natural stride, Ailis could cover the distance in far less time. The secondary halls were servants’ territory. Anyone who saw her here would be unlikely to reprimand her for moving in such an unseemly manner, or—worse yet—carry accusatory tales back to the solar. It felt like freedom, as much as she might expect to find, for at least a short time.
“And if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll see someone who can tell me what’s been going on!” Her voice carried farther in the stone hallway than she had expected. She jumped a little at the echo, then giggled at herself. Such a brave warrior she was, startled at her own voice!
She tried to mimic Newt’s rangier style of walking as best she could, pulling the memory of it from her mind with surprising ease. He tilted forward a little, like so, and kept his hands in his pockets. She had no pockets in her skirt, of course, but she fisted her hands at her sides and bent at the elbows, just as he did. Odd that she could remember his walk so clearly when his face was a blur of raggedly cut hair and dark eyes in an otherwise unremarkable structure.