Short Story I wrote for Rachel

A Lady of Lakozia

By Edwin Stephens

©2011

Perhaps it is my brown eyes and hair, thinks Mistress Octavia Morgan. She sits on her comfortable, plain bed and tries to ignore the teasing of the other girls. Octavia’s best friend has been permitted to stay with her in the Pink Tower. Rose is fast asleep, no doubt dreaming of a prince slaying the four dragons in this chamber.

The Pink Tower is where the court of Lakozia houses women and girls. The tower was built by a King concerned his daughters would have to marry lowly knights before he could find them great princes. The top floor is where the current King’s mother lived, it is said she used to sit astride her great charger and knit while waiting for battle to start. It is also said of the Queen Dowager that she won her husband, the late king, in a tournament.

Octavia wanders out the chamber door onto the spiral stairs. She walks down the stairs to the Queen’s hall and is met by her mother. ‘Octavia, what are you doing about? Lady Lucinda Morgan asks.

‘I’m looking for adventure.’ Octavia says in a annoyed voice.

‘Find it in your dreams.’ Says a woman sitting by the fire. Octavia looks over and sees the Captain of the Pink Guard, Countess Victoria of Mount Jasmine. Octavia smiles and curtseys.

‘My apologies Countess, she is off to bed now.’ Lady Lucinda curtseys and pushes Octavia towards the stairs.

‘If Lady Cassandra is being her pleasant self, send her my regards.’ Says the Countess looking up from her book. She winks at Octavia who smiles and heads up the stairs.

Back in the chamber Lady Cassandra swooshes over to Octavia. Following are Ladies Matilda, Constance and Winifred. They all have giggles starting.

‘Pigs find you to ugly?’ Smirks Winifred.

‘You’d know, Winifred. Sounds like a horse and a farm hand.’ Says Constance with venom.

‘I’m sure they were very happy together.’ Says Octavia sitting on her bed.

‘You are so plain, at least Rose looks like she belongs with us.’ Says Lady Cassandra.

‘She is nobility.’ Says Winifred and Matilda nods.

‘Her grandfather has a title but mills grain. Her father is but a knight and her friends are peasants.’ Says Lady Cassandra angrily. ‘Mother says you are to be wed to a fish merchant from Silkland.’

‘Ever hear of the great Silkland knight?’ Asks Winifred.

‘No, no one has.’ Says Constance giggling.

Octavia leans forward so her little, iron wolf head pendant comes out of her dress. Cassandra grabs it and looks close.

‘Iron, lead must have been to dear for your family when they got you this.’ Cassandra says before Octavia snatches it back. She shoves the pendant and its leather chain back in its place close to her heart.

‘A man you were unworthy of washing shirts for gave me that. Also Countess Victoria sends her regards.’ Octavia smiles as the four wicked court girls go pale, then rush off to brush their hair.

Dawn peaks through the windows of Pink Tower causing a moan from Rose and a knock on the door. Lady Cassandra opens it and listens to the Queen Dowager’s messenger. The old woman has only one arm, losing the other fighting to protect her King. Octavia opens her eyes to see Cassandra over her with a deadly look.

‘Messenger for you?’ Shouts Constance in awe. Octavia ignores the question and gets up and goes to the door.

‘Lady Octavia, the King requests your presence in the council chamber.’ The messenger says without emotion. ‘Mistress Rose is to attend the Queen Dowager with her knitting needles.’

Rose springs out of bed and rushes into her best dress, grabs her needles and runs out the door and up the stairs.

‘Will she not take breakfast first?’ The messenger asks. Octavia shrugs and starts to dress. ‘Lady Octavia will bring the badge of her office.’ Says the messenger before leaving.

Octavia ignores the complaining court girls and rushes to her parents chambers. Only servants are there so she searches the stables. She is late catching her father before his morning ride so she heads to find her mother in her friend’s chambers.

As she heads down one of the castle corridors she meets the court girls laughing. ‘Looking for the one who pranked you?’ Asks Cassandra with malicious joy. Octavia forms a fist and moves in to use it.

‘Lady Octavia!’ Says a kind old voice behind her. ‘Lady Cassandra has the King’s protection. The same King awaits your presence at council.’ Octavia unclenches her fist and spins around to see the King’s Usher with his long white staff. All the girls curtsey as one.

‘I have no badge of office.’ Protests Octavia as the other girls become shocked.

‘The iron wolf’s head.’ Squeaks Matilda. Octavia pulls out the little iron pendant and holds it up to the Usher.

‘I was there when the old King gave it to you. You advised him to eat his peas and for the first time in his life he did.’ The Usher smiles and motions down the hall. ‘The new King also remembers and would like similar council.’

‘King Siors loves peas.’ Says Octavia.

‘Yes, it was he who ordered peas into everything King Siarl ate.’ The usher laughs as he leads Octavia away from the stunned court girls.

‘Lady Octavia Morgan of Barley Keep!’ Booms the Usher’s kind voice at the council chamber door. The King waves his hand to an empty chair that Octavia is helped into by servants. A goblet of lemon water is placed before Octavia, she nervously sips some.

Octavia looks around the table. The King sits opposite her in his throne, left of him is the High Marshal Duke of Saman, left to him is Baron Phillip the King’s physician. Right of Octavia sits Duke Manfred Guardian of Lupinia, Lukozia’s capital. On Octavia’s left is Baron Jakob, Marshal of the North, next to him is Count Hagar of the Southern Marches and Count Holst of Westfold. Right of the King is Octavia’s hero, her godmother and the King’s sister Princess Nora.

‘Now that you have examined every face on my council.’ Starts the King from behind his blond whiskers. ‘Can we begin?’ Octavia nods awkwardly and sets down her goblet, which is immediately refilled.

‘Bandits from the western marshlands have become to bold.’ Starts the High Marshal. He pauses to look at Octavia to see if she has grasped it.

‘Have you read the copies of Great Wars Chronicles and King’s Victory Tales I sent you?’ Asks Princess Nora with a smile.

‘Yes, your Royal Highness.’ Octavia says and gets a broad smile from her heroes scarred face.

‘Right, I apologize to you Lady Octavia. I assumed you, like most of my knights, couldn’t read.’ The High Marshal grins. ‘Now the good people of our King’s western lands are begging for help.’

‘This is hardly the discussion for a delicate girl.’ Barks Lord Jakob and others nod.

‘You are mounting an expedition to the west.’ Says Octavia boldly. ‘You need father’s men at arms and need to know how to deal with mother.’ Octavia gets frowns and smiles for that.

‘By the stars, I forgot about Lord Harold’s wife.’ Jokes the King. He stops when he sees the confusion on Octavia’s face. ‘I made your father Lord of Barley Keep.’

‘Mother can’t refuse that honour.’ Octavia laughs and the King joins in.

‘We ask your advice on other matters.’ Says the King frowning. ‘We can’t decide who to marry.’ Octavia gulps and lowers her gaze from the King’s eyes.

‘Princess Sofia of Darclen is a worthy match.’ Shouts Duke Manfred.

‘Not to mention the dowry of fifty fighting ships.’ Count Hagar says.

‘Princess Fleur of Baxonia is skinny but has an ample dowry.’ Says Lord Jakob coldly.

‘Your face says no to either of them.’ Declares Princess Nora.

‘Speak, my lady.’ Says the High Marshal.

‘Princess Milla of Silkland.’ Is all Octavia manages. She suddenly feels very uncomfortable as protests sound around the table.

‘Why is she here?’ Ask Lord Jakob angrily.

‘The King invited her.’ Says Princess Nora. She is answered with a grunt.

‘Why Princess Milla?’ Asks the King leaning forward.

‘Silkland is wealthy. Fish and trade.’ Count Hagar answers.

‘He means your army won’t starve.’ Octavia says and blushes. The King laughs and motions her to continue. ‘Your Majesty has the finest knights, the bravest army…’ Octavia is stopped by a wave of the King’s hand.

‘I have these men for telling me that.’ Says the King motioning to his council.

‘You have to little means to pay the army.’ Says Princess Nora smiling at Octavia.

‘Princess Milla will have a dowry larger than the others.’ Says Count Hagar cautiously. The King whips a piece of fruit at Count Hagar, who catches it and eats it.

‘Also, if you marry one of the other Princesses…’ Starts Princess Nora.

‘I’ll give the large dowry and means to feed an army to a rival.’ The King finishes. ‘I met Princess Milla a year ago on my travels to Silkland. I am pleased with your council and it is where I’ve been leaning all along.’

‘Now, what is my Lady’s advice on the west?’ Asks the High Marshal.

‘Send the King’s best.’ Says Octavia looking at Princess Nora.

‘Should I not go myself?’ Asks the King grinning at Octavia. She realizes he is looking for support to go.

‘Not until you have an heir.’ Octavia blurts out and quickly adds. ‘Your Majesty.’ She slaps a hand over her mouth and blushes.

‘Lousy subjects want me a prisoner in Lupinia.’ The King grumbles with a smirk. ‘I will ponder the council, thank you.’ With that the King sits back as the servants help people out of their chairs.

Octavia stands in her courtly best and feels warm, bored and very uncomfortable. The grand audience chamber is stuffed full of people petitioning the King, begging favours of the King or wanting to be noticed by the King.

The King’s Usher slams his white staff into the marble floor until the chamber falls silent. The King rises and clears his throat. Octavia’s mother prods her to stand straight.

‘I have heard council and have come to a grave decision.’ Octavia knows it is the expedition west being announced. She looks for Princess Nora but can’t see her. Something odd Octavia thinks.

‘I raise Sir Harold Morgan to Baron of Barley Keep, his squire and son is now Sir Michael. Count Holst I raise to Marquis of the West. They will take their companies west to deal with the barbaric villain’s laying west to our loyal subjects.’ The King pauses as he sees the confusion on many faces. Most of court hadn’t heard of, well, anything outside the capital’s curtain walls.

Octavia moves forward and searches again for Princess Nora. Octavia’s mother prods her and her younger brother Martin toward where her father and older brother are standing before the King. When the family are in a row before the King they kneel and receive the Royal blessings of their new life.

After the ceremonies making her father and Marquis Holst guardians of the west Octavia’s brother Michael is knighted. Out of the corner of her eye Octavia notices the look of disgust on Lady Cassandra’s face. Octavia holds back a laugh but the King notices anyway, she gets a Royal wink.

When the audience is over and the King rushes away to find relief form courtiers Octavia find herself standing in amongst the court girls she is chambered with. ‘Lady Octavia, how did you convince the King to raise your father?’ Asks Constance bitterly.

‘They were brothers in arms long before I was born. My father rode in the charge that recovered King Siarl’s body.’ Octavia remembers the old King being so kind to her, holding her on his knee telling stories his nana told him.

‘Cassandra, best get you and these ladies to the Pink Tower.’ Says Lord Jakob to his daughter.

‘Why father?’ Asks Cassandra.

‘A new knight always means lock up your maidens.’ Barks Princess Nora. Octavia spins to see her, is grabbed by her shoulders and shaken. ‘Because of your council I have been chosen to negotiate my brother’s marriage. I was to be leading the armies west!’ Octavia sees the anger in her heroes face. The Princess’s short blond hair is messy from her helmet, she was off jousting. Octavia pities her opponents.

‘Come Cassandra, not something young ladies need to see.’ Lord Jakob says pushing his daughter away.

‘Well Lady Octavia what do you say for yourself?’ Princess Nora shouts. All around are staring in awe.

‘Perhaps there will be pirates?’ Octavia says without thinking. The King starts laughing, having come to see his sister’s shouting. Princess Nora releases Octavia and messes up her hair. She shakes her head then hugs Octavia.

‘Pirates are known on the shipping routes between Lakozia and Silkland.’ Says the King strolling away. The court watches silently as Octavia and Princess Nora hug and laugh.

Rose is still furious. ‘I was going to be learning from the Dowager Queen!’ Rose slams her things into her trunk, while glaring at Octavia.

‘My father needs your father’s archers.’ Says Octavia folding her dresses, sort of. ‘Think of the adventures we’ll have!’

‘I don’t want adventures!’ Screams Rose. The court girls are laying on Cassandra’s bed watching the scene. They muffle their giggles in pillows to avoid another glare from Rose and Octavia. ‘I want to learn courtly things.’

‘And marry a handsome knight!’ Shouts Matilda.

‘If any will have her.’ Adds Cassandra and the court girls laugh loudly. Rose storms towards them but Octavia stops her.

‘First lesson of being a courtier. Have your servant do it.’ Octavia walks over to Cassandra and blackens her eye with a fist. Octavia then returns to Rose and curtseys. Everyone but Cassandra shares the laugh.

‘What goes on in here?’ Barks a gruff voice from the door. The girls turn to see the Dowager Queen and two Pink Guard standing in the door.

‘Girl stuff.’ Says Octavia finishing her packing. The Dowager winks and scolds with the same look.

‘Come girls, we will see the brave expedition off.’ The Dowager says before heading down the steps with her guards.

The girls follow as the servants arrive to take Rose and Octavia’s things down. Once in the court yard the court girls are summoned over by the Dowager and the court women. Rose and Octavia are escorted to some carriages laden with their families effects.

Octavia looks around for her father but only sees knights and Marquis Holst. ‘Marquis Holst, my lord.’ The old man with long white hair leans down so he can hear her. ‘Where may I find my father?’

‘Two hours ride along the west road.’ The Marquis says with incomplete, toothy grin. ‘I sent him and the archers earlier to reduce the size of the main force. He has my scouts ahead of him to be his eyes.’

‘No need to explain such matters to the girl.’ Says Lord Jakob walking over.

‘My father is the van of the expedition.’ Says Octavia and enjoys the grimace of disgust on Lord Jakob’s face. ‘Who will command the rear guard?’ Asks Octavia but the Marquis ignores her. Octavia turns to see the King approach, leading a fine grey horse.

‘Lady Octavia, lovely to see you this day.’ Octavia curtseys and smiles as the King speaks to her. ‘Please kneel.’ Octavia obeys as the King hands the reins to his groom.

The King lays his hands on Octavia’s head and clears his throat. ‘We name you, Lady Octavia, to be an advisor to our Council and to our realm.’ The King lifts her to her feet and smiles.

‘I accept, your Majesty.’ Is all Octavia can say.

‘Of course you do. No one turns down a King. Now Royal advisors must be mounted on a fine horse.’ The King takes the reins of the fine grey horse and hands them to Octavia.

‘Thank you majesty!’ Octavia squeaks and receives a warm smile. She rubs the nose of her horse.

‘Her name is Nike, may she convey you to victory.’ Says the King brushing Nike’s neck before turning to Marquis Holst. Octavia doesn’t hear the conversation but is soon nudged.

‘Yes?’ She says turning to see it is the King. ‘Your Majesty.’

‘The tack and saddle are yours, a gift from your godmother.’ Octavia smiles and curtseys again. ‘May we help you up?’ The King helps Octavia into her new saddle and then hands her riding cloak up. ‘Safe journey.’ The King shouts to the expedition before walking away from with his council.

‘She should ride side saddle.’ Demands Lord Jakob.

‘She should ride properly or in the carriage.’ Says Marquis Holst mounting his horse. ‘Thomas, lead us out.’ Thomas spurs his horse and follows the cobble stones out into the main city. Thomas’ scouting party follows him.

‘I thought your scouts were ahead of father?’ Asks Octavia riding up next to the Marquis. ‘Sorry, my lord.’ She catches herself and a look from her mother in the lead carriage.

‘Thomas is leading the second party. The first party of scouts are commanded by his father. So fear not for your father. Come we’ll ride the morning together.’ The Marquis motions Octavia to ride next to him out of the Royal precinct into the busy streets of Lupinia.

Octavia watches as Thomas, with his long black pony tale and black leather armour, rides towards them. Every day for the week long journey west Octavia has spent the morning riding at the head of the column with Marquis Holst. Octavia coughs in her hand and motions to Thomas. The Marquis stops his lecture on provisioning an army and nods to Thomas.

‘My lord, my lady, the baggage should be sent up that road.’ Thomas points to Octavia’s right. ‘A fortified inn is near the mill that is just visible.’ Thomas pauses, Octavia knows it is because she is here.

‘Continue.’ Says the Marquis urgently.

‘Just over the next rise you will see the burnt remains of villages. The vanguard…’ Thomas suddenly breaks and the Marquis rides over to wrap an arm around the boy.

‘My father?’ Octavia quietly asks.

‘Safe…’ Is all Thomas can say before breaking into sobs. Octavia hands him a handkerchief to dry his eyes.

‘My condolences Thomas.’ The Marquis says holding the boy close. Octavia places her hand on Thomas’ arm and squeezes gently.

‘My lady have my steward divert the baggage and the families down the road.’ Says the Marquis releasing Thomas. ‘Thomas, tell me everything.’

Octavia rides back as Thomas starts the details. She arrives at her mother’s carriage and stops as the steward is listening to Lady Lucinda complain again. The steward holds his hand up and the baggage convoy stops.

‘Yes, my lady?’ Asks the steward.

‘Just a minute Octavia I was discussing something with the steward.’ Lady Lucinda says angrily.

‘Thomas, the scout has returned. I think his father is felled in battle.’ Octavia says ignoring her mother’s scold. The steward goes grey.

‘Sir Michael!’ The steward shouts at Octavia’s brother who is now one of the Marquis’ knights.

‘Lord steward?’ Responds Michael riding forth with a grin.

‘Ride to the rear guard and tell them we form a defence position on the hill there.’ The steward points to an empty field above them.

‘Never get the wagons up.’ Says Lady Lucinda looking.

‘There is a fortified inn nearby. Thomas recommends it.’ Octavia says pointing to the road.

‘Very well, Sir Michael order the rearguard to send knights up the hill but the bulk should follow us to the inn.’ The steward says and Michael spurs his horse back down the long line of wagons.

‘Why listen to a scout boy?’ Asks Lady Lucinda but she is ignored.

‘My lady tell the Marquis his message is received. Then go with this purse to the inn and tell of our approach.’ Octavia is handed a large purse that she slips under her cloak.

The steward slaps Nike’s haunch as Octavia rides quickly to the Marquis to give the stewards message. ‘Thank you, my lady be careful.’ The Marquis says handing her his large dagger.

Octavia smiles and throws back her riding cloak. At her belt is a short sword. ‘Where did you get that?’ Asks Thomas grinning.

‘Stole it from my brother Martin. He’d make a better priest than a knight.’ Octavia says and gets a smirk from Thomas and the Marquis. She bows her head to them before riding off to the inn.

When she arrives at the inn a few minutes later she notices it is old and falling down. She turns suddenly and realizes two knights were sent with her. ‘Sir Gregory and Sir Andrew.’ Says the tall one with a sun on his shield, the other shield has a boar. The two knights crash into each other trying to help Octavia down. She pushes past them and ties her horse to the inn’s hitching post.

The inn has a gold swan over the door and smoke is rising from the chimney. Octavia rings the bell next to the gate and waits. Just as Sir Andrew is about to ring again a door in the gate opens.

‘Go away!’ Shouts a large man in an apron. ‘We got nothing but bandits!’ The man is about to close the door when Sir Gregory sticks his foot in.

‘We come on the King’s business!’ Shout Sir Gregory.

‘We need refuge for women and children!’ Shout Sir Andrew.

‘Bah!’ Is how the innkeeper responds. Octavia feels under her cloak and tries to count coins through the purse.

‘We have gold!’ Shouts Sir Gregory trying to push into the inn’s courtyard. The innkeeper snorts and spits.

‘Not enough, the wife and I want free of these bandits. That takes plenty of gold.’ The innkeeper manages to clear Sir Gregory’s foot and close the door. Sir Gregory and Sir Andrew prepare to knock down the heavy gate.

‘Stop!’ Octavia says quickly and to there shock the two knights obey a girl. ‘Your inn is the golden swan, I will trade my five golden swans for your one.’ Octavia shouts. The door opens again but a pitch fork encourages the knights to stay back.

‘What swans are these?’ Asks the inn keep and Octavia holds up five large gold coins. He smiles and reaches for them.

‘Six!’ Yells his wife rushing up to the door. Octavia hands her the five and fishes out a sixth without revealing the size of the purse. The wife grabs the coin and rushes off mumbling about what to take. The baffled innkeeper opens the gates to the new owners.

It is almost evening before the baggage manages to turn to the new road and travel to the inn. The steward is angry and yelling, the handlers are exhausted but Lady Lucinda is furious.

‘You’ve been alone with two knights all this time!’ Says Lady Lucinda when she sees her daughter with her escort drinking cider.

‘The innkeeper and his wife agreed to stay on until you arrived.’ Says Octavia between sips. ‘If you excuse me good sirs I will find my bed.’ The innkeepers wife leads her to the back where the owner’s rooms are. Lady Lucinda follows with her servant.

‘You can’t sleep here.’ Shouts Lady Lucinda as Octavia drops, still wearing her cloak, on the bed next to barrels of cider, wine and mead. Rose sticks her head into the room.

‘The Marquis wishes to see you.’ Rose says pointing to Octavia. LadyLucinda’s look has Rose add. ‘My lady.’

In the main room of the inn the Marquis is listening to a scout while knights sip drinks and spoon food. The scout sees Octavia, bows to her and leaves. ‘He brings news of the battle.

‘Is Thomas’ father harmed?’ Octavia asks quietly. The Marquis sadly nods.

‘He was a good friend and I shall miss him greatly. Now my steward tells me we have no innkeepers to assist our weary servants.’ The Marquis frowns.

‘They will stay until dawn to assist tonight.’ Octavia says with a yawn. She gets swatted from her mother.

‘Manners!’ Lady Lucinda says.

‘That was a great purse you received, far more than this inn is worth.’ The Marquis says glaring at Octavia.

‘I value this inn at no more than ten gold, less two for repairs.’ Says the steward walking over to sit next to the Marquis.

Octavia drops the still nearly full purse on the table and yawns again. ‘I got it for six my lords.’ The steward laughs with the Marquis and tired knights look to see.

The Marquis waves Rose over to his side where she curtseys like a court girl. ‘My Lord?’

‘Can you run a inn?’ Asks the Marquis winking at his steward.

Rose steps back in shock and covers her mouth. Her blond hair falling over her eyes. ‘I’m sure she can, far more diligent on learning to run a household than my daughter.’ Says Lady Lucinda nudging Octavia.

‘Very well than, Rose is in charge of running my new inn.’ Says the Marquis. ‘If you are half as skilled at this as your father is at archery I’ll be a very rich man.’ The Marquis and the steward laugh loudly as Rose needs to sit down.

‘Get up!’ Shouts Rose. After a week stuck in the inn Octavia has decided not to get up for her mother’s scolding. It is if she is back at court.

‘Why?’ Asks Octavia rolling away from the shutters that Rose is opening.

‘Your father, Lord Harold wishes to see you in the courtyard. Octavia springs out of bed and dresses quickly. ‘You won’t need riding clothes’ Rose says sadly.

‘We’ll see.’ Octavia rushes down the steps to the inn’s main room and the courtyard beyond.

‘What’s the rush my lady.’ Shouts a knight from the floor. The knights want to move on from the inn too.

‘Father, my lord!’ Octavia shouts as she enters the courtyard. Her father looks her up and down and frowns.

‘Is that my sons sword?’ He says shaking his head. ‘Return it at once my lady.’

‘Yeah, give it back!’ Shouts Martin from father’s side.

‘Sorry, at times I was the only person riding next to Marquis Holst.’ She says removing the scabbard from her belt. Martin takes the sword and scabbard in his arms and walks over to where a knight is waiting to teach him.

‘The Marquis has been known to protect himself.’ Jokes Sir Andrew and Sir Gregory nods. Octavia gives them a look inherited from her mother and the knights rush off to attend their horses.

‘I am to escort you to Barley Keep, where the Marquis wishes to question you.’ Lord Harold says motioning to Nike already saddled. Octavia leaps up on Nike before the knights can get there to help.

‘My lady will need this I think.’ Says the steward walking over with a sword. He hands it to Octavia who admires the sword’s gilded handle. ‘It was to go to the Marquis heir but alas he has none.’ The steward says sadly and then bows deeply.

‘I will thank him.’ Octavia says then fastens the scabbard to her belt. When she is finished her father, Sir Andrew and Sir Gregory are mounted and ready to escort her to Barley Keep.

After an hour on the road Octavia rides closer to her father. ‘Why are all the knights suddenly trying to help me?’

‘You are a beautiful young lady.’ Answers Lord Harold.

‘The court is full of much prettier girls.’ Says Octavia softly.

‘You have what none of the others have.’ Lord Harold watches as Octavia scrunches up her face to think.

‘The King’s ear.’ Octavia says finally.

‘They see a pretty lady from a family on the rise and friends at court. So they are trying to curry your favour.’

‘So I will speak for them at court.’ Octavia says and her father nods.

‘Lady Octavia?’ Asks Sir Andrew from behind her father.

‘Yes, Sir Andrew.’ Octavia asks not looking back.

‘Your friend Lady Rose, we were wondering…’ Sir Andrew is lost for further words.

‘I guess an inn is as good as friends at court.’ Jokes Octavia.

‘Sir Andrew wishes to know who her father is. I am wondering if you know how to use that blade.’ Asks Sir Gregory riding up next to her.

‘Princess Nora is her godmother.’ Says Lord Harold with pride. He pats Octavia on the shoulder.

‘Good, My Lord, my lady draw your blades and head for the keep.’ With that Sir Gregory spurs his horse ahead and jumps the stone fence into a field.

‘Where’s he going?’ Asks Sir Andrew as an arrow whizzes past his head. The second arrow clips his ear and the third misses as he spurs after Sir Gregory.

‘Knights hate archers.’ Lord Harold says as he and Octavia gallop to Barley Keep.

As dusk settles the gates of Barley Keep slam shut as a volley of arrows looses towards them. Sir Andrew collapses off his horse at the feet of Roger Newmill, Rose’s father. ‘He was asking after Rose.’ Says Octavia gingerly dismounting from a exhausted Nike.

‘Should I leave the arrow in then?’ Asks Roger with a laugh. He proceeds to pull a shaft from Sir Andrew’s dented armour. ‘No damage to him it seems.’

Grooms remove the horses as the Marquis rushes out of the small tower at the end of the courtyard. Octavia notices her new home needs masons, carpenters and stable hands. The courtyard has the broken tower at the end with a barracks and stables on one side. Opposite the stables are the kitchens, stores and servants quarters.

‘You made it!’ Cries the Marquis embracing Lord Harold. ‘We have arrows loosed at us since you left yesterday. Come sit council with me.’ The Marquis leads Lord Harold and Octavia to a damp little chamber atop of the tower. Octavia shivers as she looks out the arrow slit next to the empty fireplace.

‘Fire would burn this tower to the ground.’ Says Thomas sitting on a box.

‘Best have buckets of water and sand ready then.’ Says Octavia still staring out the arrow slit.

‘Yes, Thomas see to that.’ Says the Marquis. Thomas quickly leaves the room. ‘It is already done but we need privacy.’ The Marquis pours three goblets of wine and distributes them. ‘Tell her.’

‘The King is unaware of how bad it is here.’ Lord Harold starts as Octavia sits on Thomas’ box. ‘We have only one hundred men at arms, twenty five archers and fifty knights.’

‘Which are useless in marshlands. Barley keep is on a hill surrounded by barley farms. Surrounded by the river to the west and south and marshes to the north. A single strip of solid land connects us to the road.’ The Marquis says.

‘Why are you telling me this? I’m just a girl.’ Says Octavia becoming overwhelmed.

‘You did well today escaping the bandits.’ Says the Marquis.

‘I just rode Nike.’ Octavia protests.

‘I just rode Aislin.’ Lord Harold says holding his daughter’s hand. ‘I am a simple man at arms who can barely read or write.’

‘Where you have read Great Wars Chronicles and King’s Victory Tales. I admit, like most knights I never opened a book.’ The Marquis says regretfully.

‘What do these books say about our situation?’ Asks Lord Harold.

‘They both mention Barley Keep and that he who holds it must know the swamps.’ Octavia shakes as she sips her wine.

‘As I feared.’ Says the Marquis.

‘I don’t think we have enough gold.’ Says Lord Harold.

‘The inn might generate more when the baggage moves on.’ Says Octavia helpfully.

‘All with coin have fled south or east.’ Says Lord Harold. ‘We should find no help from those who are left.’

Octavia walks to the arrow slit and peers out. ‘Are those fires in the distance?’ She asks.

‘Yes, they don’t even hide their fires from us.’ Says Lord Harold.

‘In the morning those trees by the river should come down. Use them to make a pier.’ Says Octavia with a yawn.

‘My lady, we have no boats.’ The Marquis says into his cup.

‘They won’t know that for sure.’ Says Octavia.

‘Felling trees may cause them to think we are building some.’ Says Lord Harold.

After a few minutes of silence the night fills the room. As Lord Harold and Octavia light lamps the Marquis runs his fingers through his long white hair. He suddenly stands up and coughs. ‘Lady Octavia will ride with Thomas and his men to the priest and ask him questions of the area.’

‘We have tried to talk to him my lord.’ Says Lord Harold.

‘Lady Octavia may succeed where the King’s warrant fails.’ Says the Marquis. ‘There are peasant clothes in your chambers my lady. Use them and pose as a local woman who has lost her husband to the bandits.’ Octavia nods.

‘Thank you for the sword my lord. I nearly forgot my gratitude and manners.’ Octavia says and the Marquis smiles.

‘Wear the blade under your cloak.’ Is all the Marquis says for a long time. ‘My lady, would your mother be more comfortable back at court?’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Octavia says with a curtsey. ‘As will my friend Rose.’

‘Rose has been told to stay at the inn by her father. It is their inn now.’ Lord Harold says.

‘Granted for Captain Roger’s service.’ The Marquis adds.

‘She would be happier at court.’ Says Octavia.

‘Captain Roger forbids it.’ Lord Harold says. Both men notice Octavia’s frown.

‘Relax, I fully expect Captain Roger to be overruled by the Dowager. She is quite fond of Rose as she was of Rose’s mother.’ The Marquis says grinning.

‘Who was Rose’s mother?’ Asks Octavia.

‘That story must wait. Send Thomas up once you have escorted my lady to her chambers.’ The Marquis says. Octavia asks her father on the way to the next floor down but he shrugs and doesn’t know.

The Marquis insisted Thomas take no fewer than twenty of his scouts the next morning. Sir Andrew and Sir Gregory had to be restrained when they found out Octavia was leaving the keep. She walks down the causeway to the road and turns towards the chapel where Father Otto is the priest.

When the chapel is reached it is abandoned, as is the priest’s little house. The scouts search the area while Thomas visits his father’s grave in the cemetery. Octavia sits by the chapel wall and scans the marshes behind the cemetery. She hears something grumbling behind some trees so she wanders into the marsh.

She carefully walks on lumps of dry ground towards a clump of dead trees and the noise becomes louder. ‘You are no scout!’ Shouts a voice. Octavia pulls her knife and spins around. ‘A scout would pull a bigger blade.’

The hunched over man in green robes is holding a bowl of colourful mushrooms. His wispy white hair only covers his ears. ‘I am no scout.’ Says Octavia smiling.

‘Yet you travel with them.’ Says the man rubbing his long pointy nose.

‘Father Otto?’ Asks Octavia.

‘Only on Sundays, rest of the time I’m a wizard.’ Says the man cautiously.

‘How do I address a wizard properly?’ Asks Octavia and gets a sly smile.

‘Courtier in peasant garb I see. Should be laws against that.’ Says Father Otto bending for a mushroom by his feet.

‘My mother would agree to the law.’ Says Octavia. She bends over and picks a mushroom for Otto’s bowl.

‘So I’m Otto and you are?’ Asks Otto but scowls as he sees Octavia’s Wolf head pendant hanging out from under her bodice. ‘You are worse than a scout. A Pink Guard, be gone!’ Otto shouts and rushes off into the marsh. A scout catches him and slams him into a fallen tree trunk.

‘Retrieve his mushrooms.’ Orders Octavia and another scout obeys. ‘I’m Lady Octavia of Barley Keep, Lord Harold’s daughter.’ Octavia sees the Father look suddenly confused.

‘You are Lady Octavia?’ He says and Octavia motions for him to be released.

‘Yes, goddaughter to Princess Nora.’ Smiles Octavia and shaking the priest’s hand.

‘Then who has been taken from the Golden Swan?’ Asks Otto rubbing his nose. ‘Your sister perhaps, or one of Marquis Holst’s nieces? No his nieces would be much older.’

‘Where did you hear the story of her kidnapping?’ Asks Thomas. Octavia didn’t notice him arrive.

‘People do favours for the bandits in exchange for being left alone. The only way to survive in the marshes.’ Otto gulps and eats one of his mushrooms.

‘They tell you, why?’ Asks Octavia. He shakes his head and as he does Octavia notices a familiar chain. She yanks out the priests wolf head pendant.

‘I have been ignored in my advice for twenty years so no more.’ Otto says and hides his pendant.

‘You are the Royal Observer for this area.’ Says Thomas and Otto nods.

‘Confession is helpful but wizards have other methods. Do you like mushrooms? The little one I just ate is rare and the most delicious.’ Otto chuckles.

‘My father taught me about mushrooms.’ Says Thomas.

‘He was a brave man and a sad loss.’ Otto offers Octavia and the scouts some mushrooms but none are taken.

‘The only woman my age at the inn was Rose of Newmill.’ Says Octavia with concern.

‘Blond girl, fair featured and daughter to the famous archer?’ Otto asks quickly.

‘If they find their mistake.’ Thomas starts but Otto motions him to stop.

‘Leave at once and give no local your name. The bandits must believe they have a noble woman. I will spread the word that Rose is indeed noble but you are safe on the road with your mother.’ Father Otto hugs his mushroom bowl and runs to his home.

When Octavia, Thomas and the scouts return to Barley Keep the trees by the river are down. Lord Harold’s men at arms are building further defences, a pier in the river and some barges. Knight’s are practicing in the abandoned barley fields, except Sir Andrew and Sir Gregory watching the road.

The two knights ride up next to Octavia and bow. ‘Bad news my lady.’ Says Sir Gregory.

‘My friend Rose is taken by bandits.’ Octavia says looking up at Sir Andrew. ‘The priest knows.’ She adds.

‘Lady Rose is mistaken for the new lord’s daughter.’ Says Sir Gregory.

‘Do any of you know who her mother was? She died when Rose was born.’ Octavia says looking to the knight’s and the scouts.

‘Simple camp follower I suspect.’ Says Sir Gregory. Sir Andrew stops and draws his sword. ‘I will not duel you!’

‘It is forbidden by the King.’ Says Thomas.

‘She was a woman of quality as is her daughter.’ Shouts Sir Andrew. ‘Curse the one who suggested it to council to forbid duels.’

‘I did.’ Says Octavia shrugging.

‘My lady? Have you no sense of a knight’s honour?’ Ask Sir Gregory as Sir Andrew sheaths his sword.

‘None. I see no sense in a knight dying for honour when the King has enemies to fight.’ Octavia says and Thomas laughs.

‘Sir Andrew I apologize if I offended. I’m sure Lady Rose had a fine mother.’ Sir Gregory says and Sir Andrew bows.

‘The Dowager was fond of Rose’s mother, According to the Marquis.’ Says Octavia and her confusion spreads over the knights’ and Thomas’ faces. Lord Harold’s arrival with Nike and the scout horses prevents further discussion of Rose.

‘Lady Octavia, my daughter. Mount your horse and ride with these knights and scouts to the baggage. Tomorrow you return to court with your mother and brother.’ Lord Harold says loudly. He waves knights back on their horses to let Octavia mount herself.

‘I do not wish to return to the court.’ Octavia says but her father’s expression ends debate.

‘Sir Michael travel with your sister!’ Lord Harold says racing back to the castle with all the knights except Michael, Andrew and Gregory.

‘Why me?’ Asks Michael leading the party back to the road. No one responds for some time.

‘Sir Michael, stay with your lady sister.’ Says Thomas riding off with several of his scouts. He ascends a low hill where a red cloth dangles from a tree.

‘Danger?’ Asks Sir Gregory falling back to the rear of the party. Sir Andrew spurs past everyone to scout ahead.

‘Sister, how do I get invited to council? The King, the Marquis and our lord father all invite you before me.’ Michael say watching for a response.

‘What road is this?’ Asks Octavia quickly. She loosens her sword.

‘Marsh road.’ Says Michael.

‘Draw swords!’ Says Octavia and the scouts obey. Michael looks amused.

‘Octavia, there are no marshes here to jump out of. Just a name and a few hills.’ Says Michael chuckling.

‘These aren’t hills.’ Says a scout. He leads two scouts to the side of the road and up a hill.

‘I get invited to council because I’ve read the Great Wars Chronicles and King’s Victory Tales. Both mention the barrows along Marsh road are used to ambush travellers. A great King died on this road.’ Octavia says wishing she owned a shield.

‘Just up there in the dip is where King Cadfan the second perished.’ Says a scout raising his shield. Sir Michael raises his own shield and draws his broadsword. Arrows loose against the party from behind a low field wall but go wide.

Michael bellows a battle cry and charges his horse over the wall and starts hacking at fleeing bandits. ‘Don’t follow them!’ Octavia shouts and Michael oddly obeys his younger sister.

‘More from your books?’ Asks Michael catching up to Octavia as she leads the scouts down the road and then up toward a barrow with another red cloth hung from a pole.

‘Yes, they draw the escort away to chase archers leaving the main body vulnerable.’ Says Octavia over Nike’s panting. They quickly reach the top of the barrow as Thomas and his scouts catch up.

‘Where are the other two knights?’ Shouts Thomas scanning. Octavia looks back to see all the scouts are here but only one knight.

‘There!’ Shout a scout and everyone looks to see Sir Gregory defending Sir Andrew who has been felled from his charger.

‘You lead us Sir Michael!’ And Octavia charges down the barrow to relieve the knights who are swarmed with bandits wearing simple leather or captured armour. Michael pulls his hors as close to Octavia as he can but Nike is to swift for Michael to take the lead.

Octavia screams a battle cry and slams the hilt of her sword into a bandit. Leaps Nike into the centre of the skirmish and swings her sword wildly to drive bandits away from Sir Andrew and Sir Gregory. Michael smashes his large mace into a bandit sending the rest fleeing.

As Thomas and his scouts round some bandits up for questioning Octavia dismounts to check on Andrew’s wounds.

‘I’m fine my lady. Had much worse from Sir Gregory during practice.’ Sir Andrew says rising to check his horse.

‘So you knew about the barrows from books.’ Says Michael shaking his head and patting his charger.

‘Remind me to learn to read.’ Says Sir Gregory with a chuckle.

‘How is it possible?’ Asks Sir Andrew. ‘One minute I’ve checked behind the rocks, looked behind the wall and the next minute arrows and bandits swarm about.’

‘It isn’t in the books but perhaps we should investigate. Show me where you were when the ambush started.’ Octavia says and Sir Andrew leads them to the spot his helmet fell. They search until the scouts arrive with prisoners tied together.

‘I’ll lead some scouts back and hand over the prisoners.’ Says Michael and is gone before anyone protests.

‘Now it is dark and we only have half the party we started out with.’ Says Thomas scratching his head.

‘Here!’ Shouts a scout in the growing darkness. They walk over to see a large stone laying on its side and the scout peering into a dark hole. ‘Should I follow it?’ The scout asks Thomas who shakes his head.

‘We must get to the inn.’ Says Sir Gregory.

‘No torches.’ Says Octavia suddenly feeling like someone is watching her. ‘Send the scouts back tomorrow.’

The ride to the inn is tense as the party strains to see bandits in the dark. They quicken the pace as the glow from the inn’s windows is visible down the road. The gates are flung open and the steward ushers them in.

‘We feared the worse.’ Says the steward. ‘The bandit we captured said Barley Keep was attacked again last night.’

‘Just a few arrows.’ Says Sir Gregory dismounting.

‘What word of Lady Rose?’ Asks Sir Andrew of the steward.

‘Taken in a raid.’ Says Lady Lucinda rushing out to see her daughter. ‘Blood!’ She shouts when she sees Octavia’s clothes.

‘Not hers.’ Says Thomas pulling the steward aside to report.

‘What happened to Rose?’ Asks Octavia.

‘She was trying on your dress.’ Says Martin coming from the stables covered in straw. ‘I hid in the straw when I heard horses coming again.’ he explains.

‘He did the same last night. Saved him from being taken.’ Says Lady Lucinda picking straw from her son.

‘Scouts, let’s ride!’ Thomas says suddenly and remounts his horse. Lady Lucinda starts arguing with the steward about needing them for protection.

Octavia turns Nike and follows Thomas and the scouts out of the courtyard before anyone notices. She looks back expecting someone to yell but only hears the gates slam shut.

Octavia wakes to find herself sleeping on Nike’s rug and resting her head on the saddle. She looks around to see scouts watering horses and watching the horizon in the growing dawn. She moves her sword from on top of her and sits up.

‘You fell asleep on your horse.’ Says Thomas with a laugh. ‘We caught you just in time.’

‘Sorry, I should have stayed behind.’ Says Octavia standing.

‘Glad you didn’t, we could use someone who has the ability to read.’ Thomas says handing a soiled scrap of parchment to Octavia.

‘It says Lady Rose is our hostage and will be killed if Roger of Newmill doesn’t withdraw his archers.’ Octavia gulps and hides her tears.

‘That confirms our arrows are stinging.’ Says a scout handing Octavia a bowl of breakfast.

‘I have scout searching the hole we found. We will look for other holes in other barrows today.’ Says Thomas.

‘How many scouts do you have?’ Asks Octavia.

‘Ten left with Sir Michael leaving the remaining sixty with us.’ Says Thomas sitting opposite her to eat his breakfast.

‘It doesn’t seem like so many.’ Octavia says spooning porridge into her mouth.

‘Only twenty travel with me directly. The rest are doing their job of scouting and reporting back to Marquis Holst.’ Thomas says smiling.

‘Twenty is enough.’ Says Octavia slyly.

‘For what my lady?’ Asks Thomas.

‘Search the marshes for Rose. They must have left a trail.’ Octavia says eagerly.

‘They are to smart for that.’ Says the scout scooping porridge.

‘We could ask the priest. He should know his way around the marshes.’ Says Thomas. They finish their breakfast and ride towards the chapel. On the road they are met by Sir Andrew and Sir Gregory.

‘Our orders were to ride and protect you.’ Shouts Sir Gregory as they approach.

‘Who gave these orders?’ Asks Octavia.

‘Master Martin, your brother.’ Says Sir Andrew bowing from on top his horse.

‘Nothing was said of bringing her back?’ Asks Thomas laughing.

‘He wants her to tell him of this adventure.’ Says Sir Gregory.

They can not find the priest when they search the marshes around the chapel. The scouts question some men in a passing boat who say the priest went north to help some villagers. Octavia buys some new clothing the men were going to sell down river. She hides her long hair under a cap she buys as well.

‘You look like a boy.’ Says Sir Andrew when he sees her.

‘Better to sneak past the Marquis’ army. We go north to find the priest.’ Octavia says and the mount up and ride the road north.

‘This is the chapel road. Anything in those books about it?’ Asks Thomas.

‘It was called the North Ford road in the past.’ Says Octavia riding behind the others to pose as a servant.

‘There isn’t a north ford, just swamps. Scouts have checked it since we arrived.’ Says Sir Andrew.

‘All known ways across the river and out of the marshes are watched.’ Says Sir Gregory as they pass a group of men with old spears and pitchforks.

‘Looks like the Marquis has ordered out the levy.’ Says Sir Andrew.

‘No my lord we are volunteering.’ Says the leader of the men. ‘About time we stood up for ourselves.’

‘Any news of the missing lady?’ Asks another man.

Sir Andrew shakes his head and spurs on. The others follow leaving the men to themselves. As the sun climbs high they leave the road to go around Barley Keep to avoid being questioned by Lord Harold’s men.

The road becomes narrower and more overrun with green as they go north. It turns and twists as it gets closer to the mountains. The west range becomes visible to the travellers as the look into the distance. The marsh becomes thinner at the end of the road where the cold mountain waters rush into the marshes.

‘What brings you here?’ Asks Otto sitting on a rock by the river.

‘We seek to find Lady Rose.’ Says Sir Andrew harshly.

‘They will hear you coming with that clanking armour and loud horse.’ Otto says rising.

Octavia ignores the priest and moves her horse closer to the river. She leaps down onto a rock and bends down into the cold river. She places an arm under the rock she is standing on and grunts.

‘Find something?’ Asks Thomas.

‘The ford was a causeway built on these stone pylons.’ Says Octavia pointing to neatly arrayed carved stones in the river.

‘Yes, but the road came here before the causeway.’ Says Otto beaming at Octavia.

‘It was built on the ford?’ Asks Thomas.

‘Next to it. The causeway didn’t allow for horses.’ Otto says jumping down next to Octavia. He proceeds to walk across the river on a series of stones.

‘Hardly a ford.’ Says Sir Gregory.

‘We shall return to Barley Keep and report this.’ Says Thomas. ‘It is the only point we don’t watch.’

‘Ah, but I do and there was a few tracks here before you ruined them with your horses.’ Otto says sourly.

‘Where do they lead?’ asks Octavia crossing the river on the stones. Otto and Thomas follow her and nearly fall in when she stops suddenly.

‘Rose’s hair.’ Says Octavia finding a single strand hanging from a thorn bush.

‘Well done, most scouts would have missed that.’ Thomas says looking around the far bank. ‘Now where is the path through the marsh?’

‘Follow the hearts north to the lake.’ Says Otto pointing out a small stone heart in some long reeds. ‘This will take you as far as Lake Rook and a small fishing village where lake and marsh mix. I’ve travelled no further than that.’

‘We should send the knights and scouts back and go with just the two of us.’ Says Octavia finding a second stone heart hidden in an old log.

‘Why?’ Asks Sir Andrew bitterly.

‘The bigger the party the easier it will be to notice clues to their journey.’ Says Sir Gregory.

‘And the easier it will be to notice us.’ Says Thomas.

‘Four of us then.’ Says Sir Andrew removing their armour. Sir Gregory follows Sir Andrew’s lead and removes his armour.

‘Go no further along this route than the Lake Rook. Beyond it is doom and death.’ Says Otto emphasizing his words by banging the ground with his foot.

‘Sounds fun.’ Says Sir Gregory with a grin.

‘I thought West March Castle lay beyond the marsh? Situated to watch the mountain passes.’ Octavia says testing a soggy bit of earth.

‘It did but it is ruined beyond repair. It has been abandoned for a hundred years or more.’ Otto says cautiously.

‘Her books didn’t mention that?’ Asks Gregory scratching his head. ‘Feels weird without my helmet.’

‘Looks weird too.’ Says Thomas smiling. Gregory bows low.

‘Lead the way Thomas! We waste time.’ Shouts Andrew angrily.

After several days of tracking the bandits the trail grows cold. Sir Andrew holds up a scrap of fine cloth and scowls at the evening sky. ‘Not a clue since a piece of my lady’s dress.’

‘Actually she was wearing my dress.’ Says Octavia starting back towards where they found the cloth.

‘Stop, we can’t go back.’ Says Gregory quickly and quietly. He points into the growing darkness. ‘Fire behind us.’

‘Thomas?’ Asks Octavia of the scout.

‘That isn’t on the heart road.’ Thomas says straining to see the dim fire.

‘Must have turned off then. Could Rose have left a piece of your dress as a marker?’ Asks Sir Gregory.

‘Come, let us go back and take them.’ Sir Andrew says moving back down the road.

‘We are four, they are how many?’ Asks Octavia. ‘Thomas, what is their destination?’

‘The Lake Rook?’ Says Thomas shrugging.

‘A tower would be a good place to hold a hostage.’ Says Gregory. Gregory grabs Andrew’s cloak and points to the north west.

‘I’ll play no part in a cowardly ambush.’ Says Andrew pulling his cloak from Gregory’s grip.

‘You’d rather get everyone killed.’ Says Thomas.

‘Especially Rose.’ Adds Octavia.

‘We take and hold the Rook and then we ambush them.’ Says Gregory. ‘We’ve done it before, remember?’ He adds.

Andrew paces around for a few minutes and finally nods.

‘Come, I’ll find the way in the dark. Stay close’ Thomas says leading them through the darkness.

As dawn breaks the tired party spots smoke coming from a little hut. The village appears as light reflects from the lake. Octavia points out the round tower at the edge of village.

‘No smoke.’ Says Thomas carefully.

‘No, the bandits will not be back until tomorrow.’ Says a man coming toward them from the hut. ‘You looking to join the bandits?’ The man says with contempt.

‘Defeat them.’ Says Gregory throwing his chin up and chest out.

‘Will the villagers help us?’ Asks Octavia showing her wolf head pendant.

‘I will but the others fled when word reached us of an army marching this way.’ Says the fisherman chewing on a twig.

‘That would be Marquis Holst at Barley Keep.’ Says Thomas.

‘Barley Keep has an army too?’ Asks the fisherman. ‘I meant the one camped around the ruins of West March Castle.’

‘Who’s?’ Asks Andrew urgently.

‘King Tiberius of Darglen’s. You aren’t here to meet it?’ Asks the man seeing four faces drop.

‘Another war with Darglen.’ Says Thomas sadly.

‘And me without armour or horse.’ Complains Gregory.

‘Can you get a message to Barley Keep?’ Asks Octavia. The fisherman nods and points to his boat. ‘Tell the Marquis what you have told us.’

‘And ask for a garrison for Lake Rook.’ Adds Thomas. The fisherman nods and rushes off to his boat. ‘Let us look at our tower.’

After breaking down the rotting door the party inspects the forgotten tower. Octavia has Gregory and Andrew break open the armoury door while Thomas climbs to the top. They meet in the cramped room used as a great hall.

‘I found myself an axe and some maille.’ Says Octavia smiling in her new armour.

‘Bit of tough leather for you Thomas.’ Says Andrew handing the old armour over.

‘Nothing but rusty maille for us but better than… ah sorry my lady.’ Gregory says and Octavia laughs.

‘Also found a few spears and maces to help us defend this tower until aid arrives.’ Says Gregory handing out the weapons.

‘I found bows on the roof.’ Says Thomas and the two knights grimace. ‘Lucky for the two sirs only one for me and one for Octavia.’

‘Sir Andrew go to the fisherman’s hut and stoke his fire as if he is here. Sir Gregory start improving our meagre defences with what is at hand.’ Octavia says in her best impersonation of her father.

‘I’ll go watch the road from the top battlements.’ Says Thomas climbing the stairs again. The knights leave but point to a bed in the corner first. Octavia sleeps in her armour on the musty old bed.

As a mist approaches with the end of day Thomas nudges Octavia’s foot until she is awake. ‘Come they approach.’ Says Thomas quietly.

‘Bandits or Darglen?’ Asks Octavia rubbing her eyes.

‘Bandits and Rose.’ Smiles Thomas. ‘We’ve seen her.’ They descend to the bottom of the tower and are guided to their spot by Andrew.

The first two bandits come into the tower dragging Rose by her arms. The two skilled knights swiftly subdue the men as Octavia grabs Rose and leads her up the stairs. They look back as a loud crash slams the tower doors shut.

‘Rose, are you well?’ Asks Octavia removing her coiffe.

‘Lady Octavia?’ Rose screams and gives her friend a hug. ‘I tore your dress.’ Rose says sadly.

‘Good thing too.’ Says Gregory coming up to the great hall. Andrew follows and they barricade the door.

‘My lady Rose.’ Andrew says bowing.

‘Your father is an archer?’ Thomas says handing Rose the leather armour. She nods and accepts the armour. ‘Good I have found a third bow and knight’s are useless at archery.’

The two knights nod agreement as Rose follows Thomas and Octavia up to the top. Octavia looks down and sees the bandits picking up an old dug out canoe to use as a battering ram.

‘Hope it is rotten.’ Says Rose pointing it out.

‘Here.’ Says Thomas handing Octavia and Rose quivers and bows. ‘Make them count.’

‘Best put that on.’ Says Octavia replacing her coiffe and motioning to Rose’s armour. Rose obeys as the bandit leader starts yelling.

‘Are our fathers coming?’ Asks Rose looking odd in a court gown and leather armour.

‘We sent a fisherman to fetch help.’ Is all Octavia says as arrows start hammering the stone battlements.

Rose catches an arrow in her hand, notches it in her bow and looses it into a bandit’s helmet. ‘He didn’t want to wait for the ransom to be refused. The others made him.’ Rose says in an vengeful tone.

The bandits start hammering the tower door and soon their is a crack and cursing. ‘Rotten wood.’ Smiles Thomas slapping Octavia’s back. A bandit then yells to fire the tower, Thomas hits him in the chest.

‘We only want the girl!’ Shouts a bandit woman.

‘Which one!?!’ Shouts back Octavia. That has the bandits puzzled and arguing.

‘They will decide on both of you.’ Says Thomas.

‘Rose, who is your mother?’ Asks Octavia.

‘My father refuses to tell me. She died when I was born.’ Says Rose adjusting her ill fitting armour.

‘Apparently the Dowager dotes on you the way she doted on your mother.’ Says Octavia watching bandits arrive from the west.

The leader listens for a bit then looks up. ‘Lady Rose, come down and receive no harm. Darglen is marching this way. Because of your father they will be most unkind.’ He shouts quickly.

‘I’ll stay with my friends.’ Says Rose quietly. She then looses an arrow at the bandit leader hitting him in the leg.

‘So be it. May your deaths be quick!’ Shouts the leader and the bandits melt away into the marshes.

The five take turns watching for reinforcements and the enemy. After a week of seeing nothing but marsh, lake and wildlife a sail appears to the north. It arrives several hours later flying the banner of Lord Jakob, Marshal of the North. He disembarks at the fishing village with the fisherman and lady Cassandra.

‘This is your fault!’ Shouts Cassandra seeing Rose and Octavia. ‘The Dowager has ordered all of us to experience army camp life.’ Cassandra’s face is red with anger.

Octavia removes her coiffe and grins. Cassandra recognizes her and screeches. ‘How are you finding life with the army?’ Octavia asks politely.

‘Enough! Who is in command here?’ Shouts Lord Jakob storming to the tower.

‘My lady Octavia.’ Say Sir Gregory bowing.

‘Nonsense a girl can’t command a tower. Which of you knights are in charge?’ Lord Jakob barks at the two knights. They both point to Octavia and grin.

‘We’d follow my lady anywhere.’ Says Sir Gregory.

‘Why?’ Demands Lord Jakob harshly.

‘She saved our life and lead us to rescue lady Rose.’ Grins Sir Andrew barring the door to the Rook.

‘So you degrade yourselves following girls to save peasants.’ Scowls Lord Jakob.

‘All in a days work.’ Says Gregory standing next to Andrew.

‘Let me pass.’ Orders Lord Jakob and Octavia motions the knights aside. They all follow the lord up to the top. ‘Report boy!’ Lord Jakob shouts at Thomas looking west.

‘Who’s banners are those?’ Asks Cassandra looking where Thomas looks.

‘The King of Darglen’s host is at West March Castle. This is an advance party looking for a route through the marshes.’ Says Octavia. Cassandra looks at her in awe.

‘We must return to the ship quickly!’ Says Lord Jakob grabbing his daughter’s hand and rushing to the steps.

‘To abandon a fort is treason my lord.’ Says Sir Gregory harshly.

‘It is already abandoned!’ Shouts Lord Jakob.

‘We are here.’ Says Sir Andrew.

‘I will not leave my post.’ Says Rose readying her bow.

‘My Lord! We are cut off!’ Shouts one of Lord Jakob’s guards. The man rushes up the steps and bows. ‘The fisherman was right!’

‘I see that, escort us to the ship.’ The Lord barks, his face turning bright red. Rose looks at the ship.

‘The ship is leaving!’ Rose shouts and Cassandra rushes to her side to look.

‘Father! Why?’ Cassandra shout in terror.

‘That is why!’ Shouts Thomas and the fisherman at once. From behind an island another ship appears. Lord Jakob’s ship is to slow and is soon swarmed by armoured men in the livery of Darglen.

‘I now command this tower.’ Says Lord Jakob drawing his sword. His remaining guards rush up to the top with great noise.

‘My lord the bandits are surrounding the tower.’ Says the captain. The captain positions his five men at the battlements.

‘We can not hold against so many.’ Says Cassandra gasping. ‘There must be hundreds.’

‘Only a hundred by my count.’ Says Thomas.

‘We have but ten men.’ Scowls Lord Jakob.

‘And three women.’ Says Octavia.

‘Three?’ Asks Cassandra.

‘Lady Rose, lady Octavia and you, my lady.’ Says Thomas grinning. ‘Here, can you use a bow?’ Cassandra shakes her head.

‘No she can not.’ Says Lord Jakob. ‘We will have the women in the main hall. Cassandra moves to obey but stops when Rose looses an arrow.

‘Good shot!’ Says the captain.

‘Her father is an archer.’ Says Octavia then looses an arrow of her own.

‘I’ll put some pitch on the boil.’ Says the fisherman calmly then descends the steps.

‘I’ll help find more missiles.’ Cassandra decides and rushes down the steps.

Rose, Thomas and Octavia loose an arrow each as the enemy surround the keep looking for a way in. As three more men drop the commander bellows a withdrawal. The garrison of Lake Rook waits.

At noon a banner of truce is carried toward the tower. Lord Jakob and Octavia goes out to meet the enemy commander and his squire.

‘Lord Balfour, servant of King Tiberius.’ The tall colourful man bows.

‘Lord Jakob, marshal of the north, servant of King Siors of Lakozia.’ Says Lord Jakob stiffly.

‘And no doubt this boy is your faithful squire.’ Lord Balfour motions to Octavia who coughs into her chain maille glove.

‘This is Lady Octavia of Barley Keep.’ Says Lord Jakob dismissively.

‘My lady, we hear many tales of your father.’ Lord Balfour bows and smiles.

‘What brings you to Lakozia?’ Asks Lord Jakob.

‘We have had endless troubles with these lawless marshes. As there is no rule here my gracious King decided to provide some.’ Lord Balfour says with a sly grin.

‘Our good King will be reclaiming his West March Castle soon.’ Says Octavia before Lord Jakob can answer.

‘You let women speak for your realm?’ Asks Lord Balfour amusedly. ‘Perhaps it is why your King hasn’t marched west.’

‘He awaits his bride.’ Says Lord Jakob.

‘Woman belong in the bridal chamber, yes?’ Says Lord Balfour with a chuckle. ‘I had not heard Princess Sofia was to wed your King.’

‘Princess Milla was thought to be a more worthy bride.’ Says Lord Jakob smiling. Lord Balfour looks at his squire and frowns.

‘Princess Nora, my godmother, is fetching her to Lupinia now. Best tell your King to pray for the souls of pirates who meet her.’ Says Octavia threateningly.

Lord Balfour dumps his flag of truce and leads his squire to his men. Octavia follows Lord Jakob back into the tower and up the steps. Halfway to the top Lord Jakob turns on her and growls.

‘You may have royal patronage but that was foolish.’ Says Lord Jakob quietly.

‘Foolish to suggest the bandits and pirates are in King Tiberius’ employment? Even children of farmers know it to be likely.’ Octavia says staring Lord Jakob in the eye.

‘To your bow my lady. I have to defend this tower.’ Lord Jakob stomps up to the top.

‘What happened?’ Asks Cassandra. Her father ignores her so she asks Octavia.

‘We discussed the shipping perils between Silkland and Lupinia.’ Says Octavia readying her bow.

‘We have pitch boiling, loose stones and old unusable pots.’ Says the fisherman.

‘What is your name?’ Asks Rose.

‘Xavier my mother called me but I’m known as Trident to friends.’ Trident bows and smiles.

‘Trident, take a spear and help guard the second level.’ Says Octavia and Trident bows and heads down.

‘I command here!’ Shouts Lord Jakob.

‘Lady Octavia, what should I do?’ Asks Cassandra in a meek, terrified voice.

‘Throw stones at them.’ Says Octavia pointing to a pile.

‘You will go and hide.’ Says Lord Jakob to his daughter.

‘But father the Dowager said I would be banished from the Kingdom if I hid. No woman of Lakozia hides from battle.’ Cassandra says shaking. The twang of bow strings save her from Lord Jakob’s wrath.

A poorly made siege ladder slaps against the wall but Trident’s boiling pitch lights the wood on fire. The men lining up to climb the ladder escape the flaming black ooze as the ladder drops amongst them.

Lady Cassandra shouts an apology as her first rock slams into the helmet of a crossbowman about to shoot Lord Jakob. Her second stone dents Lord Balfour’s armour as one of Thomas’ arrows hits his shin.

A bolt opens Octavia’s right cheek but she looses another arrow. She notches another when Lord Jakob bellows to hold.

‘They are fleeing, save your arrows.’ Lord Jakob says as Cassandra tears a strip off her dress to tend Octavia’s wound. Lord Balfour leads his men away in the night leaving the small garrison relieved.

‘Ugh you look like Princess Nora.’ Says Lady Cassandra at breakfast.

‘You think?’ Octavia says beaming and touching her scar.

‘I didn’t mean it as a compliment.’ Says Cassandra turning her nose up at the fish stew. Sir Gregory, Sir Andrew and Thomas arrive in the main room and bow low.

‘We are ordered to escort the three lovely ladies to the ship.’ Says Sir Andrew looking at Rose asleep next to her bowl. Octavia elbows her awake.

‘I prefer the court to battle.’ Says Rose rubbing her eyes.

‘Agreed.’ Says Cassandra finishing her stew without swallowing. ‘At least I didn’t run and get myself banished.’

After a brief journey by ship and a ride to the Golden Swan Octavia sees the banners of her fathers men. She rides over to them and dismounts the horse loaned her. ‘Where is Nike?’ She asks her father’s groom and the man points to Nike.

‘Best see your father first my lady.’ The groom says bowing.

‘Where may I find him?’ Asks Octavia still in her armour.

‘With Princess Nora in the marquis.’ Says the groom but Octavia is already halfway there.

‘Princess Nora!’ Octavia says rushing into the great tent.

‘Out!’ Bellows Lord Jakob.

‘I am annoyed with you.’ Princess Nora says brushing her scar and pointing to Octavia’s ‘Nice one.’

‘What have I done to offend?’ Asks Octavia backing away.

‘Not one single pirate!’ Princess Nora says and runs over to hug Octavia.

‘It means they need the ships for an invasion.’ Says Marquis Holst with a snort.

‘With Baxonia weakened by invasion from the raiders we are a richer prize.’ Says Lord Harold patting his daughter on the back. ‘I will have your armour fixed and fitted.’ He says.

‘Indulgence, pure indulgence.’ Says Lord Jakob. ‘I grant your daughter skilled and knowledgable in war but let us end this silliness about girls acting like men.’

‘In that case Lord Jakob, take your daughter, your escort and return to your duties in the north.’ Says the Princess.

Octavia notices there is a third woman in the tent. The woman smiles at Octavia and curtseys. Octavia returns the curtsey with a smile. ‘May we present Lady Octavia of Barley Keep.’ Says Marquis Holst. ‘My lady I am honoured to present our future queen, Princess Milla of Silkland.’

‘Honoured your highness.’ Octavia says blushing.

‘As am I my lady.’ Says Princess Milla. ‘I spent the entire voyage hearing stories of this kingdom’s exceptional woman.’

‘Still here Lord Jakob?’ Asks Princess Nora. ‘Please escort the Princess to her tent.’ Lord Jakob obeys and follows Princess Milla.

‘Now ask her.’ Commands Princess Nora dropping in her chair.

‘You have a choice my lady Octavia. Do you wish to over see the construction of Lake Rook and the road through the northern marshes?’ Says Marquis Holst.

‘Or do you wish to serve me in the field as I reclaim my brother’s birth right.’ Says Princess Nora with a wink.

‘I wish to go with you to reclaim West March Castle!’ Says Octavia eagerly.

‘First get out of that armour and have it fitted and repaired.’ Says Lord Harold with a chuckle.

‘While you bathe I will have my taylor sew some clothes better suited to a woman of your station.’ Says Marquis Holst guiding her from the tent.

As the smith works her armour and the taylor sews Octavia slips into a lavish bath. Princess Milla and Princess Nora sneak in and pour scented oils on her head. ‘Much better!’ Says Princess Nora.

‘You had quite the stench.’ Says Princess Milla.

‘Your royal highnesses are to kind.’ Laughs Octavia rubbing herself clean with soap.

‘Yes, we are.’ Says Princess Nora splashing Octavia.

‘Do you know who Rose’s mother is?’ Asks Octavia suddenly.

‘Why not ask her?’ Says Princess Milla.

‘Because she has never been told.’ Says Princess Nora.

‘Then tell me.’ Says Rose arriving with more hot water. She pours the water on Octavia causing Octavia to jump from the heat. ‘Sorry, your royal highness.’

‘Should I leave you to discuss it?’ Asks Princess Milla.

‘No, I’ll tell you as it is why my brother isn’t already married. There were three friends who grew up together in the royal palace. One became captain of the Pink Guard, I received command of one of my father’s armies.’ Says Nora quietly. She helps Rose scrub Octavia’s back.

‘The third was Rose’s mother.’ Says Princess Milla smiling.

‘She was betrothed to my brother but fell in love with a young archer. Her father banished her so she lived a camp followers life. Upon her death Roger of Newmill was promoted to captain of Marquis Holst’s archers until he was added to the palace guard by my mother.’ Princess Nora wipes away a tear.

‘Countess Victoria’s sister.’ Says Octavia.

‘Lady Matilda was my mother?’ Says Rose crying. Princess Milla wraps an arm around Rose.

‘Yes, mother was always so fond of her.’ Princess Nora says smiling. ‘She awaits your return and has a new project for you to help with.’

‘Really?’ Asks Rose between sobs.

‘My wedding dress.’ Says Princess Milla hugging Rose. ‘Will you be one of my ladies in waiting?’

‘Yes your royal highness!’ Rose says with a screech of joy.

‘Unfortunately Lady Cassandra and her friends will be too.’ Says Octavia.

‘What do you wish to be?’ Asks Princess Milla.

‘A member of the Pink Guard.’ Says Octavia smiling.

‘Prove yourself like you have so far I’ll sew a pink cloak for you myself.’ Says Countess Victoria slipping in. ‘Your highnesses your guests await at dinner. Niece I wish to tell you more of your mother. Attend me after dinner.’ Rose curtseys and smiles.

‘Why haven’t I been told before?’ She asks holding a towel up for Octavia.

‘For that you must ask the Dowager. Until you were captured it was she who forbade it.’ Says Countess Victoria.

‘By the way, your father is now Sir Roger. He was heroic at the battle of Barley Keep.’ Says Princess Nora.

‘I missed a battle?’ Says Octavia disappointedly.

‘We can’t be at all of them.’ Says Princess Nora bitterly. ‘You may hear all about it at dinner but remember we ride west tomorrow.’

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