I couldn't resist! This story popped into my head the other day and I couldn't shake it off. I have no idea beyond the first few chapters where it's going to go, or how long it's going to be.
This story is completely separate from "Welcome Back to Scanra" and "When the War Was Over" (although it could come after both of them). It follows on from Lady Knight about fifteen years later, with a whole new generation of Pages entering the Palace. And guess who the new Training Mistress is...?
Hope you enjoy! (P.s. This chapter has now been updated to remove the mistakes I had made. They were really annoying me!)
pps. I have updated this chapter for a third and (hopefully final!) time.
Nervously pulling at the hem of her tunic, Ella stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind her. Her palms were sweating. She wiped them on her breeches.
On either side of her, others were also exiting their rooms. She turned her head to study those closest to her. To her left was a boy a few inches taller than herself; stocky with sandy hair and freckles. His brown eyes looked as anxious as she felt.
The girl on her right was more interesting. She was much taller than Ella – though that was no mean feat in itself – with long hair tied back tightly in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her face was round with the small nose and almond shaped eyes of the people from the Yamani Islands. But this girl had dark brown hair, rather than the glossy black of the Yamanis, and her eyes were a startling green.
Catching Ella's eyes upon her, the tall girl smiled; another trait that separated her from the Yamanis, who tended to show no emotion. Ella blinked in surprise and quickly faced forward, feeling her cheeks heat in a blush.
Footsteps from further down the hall made her close her eyes and take a deep breath. This was it. If there was any time she could back out, it would be now. Her father would understand in his usual gentle way, but the thought of the things her mother would say made her cringe inwardly. However, it strengthened her resolve. She was here – she had fought hard to get here – and here she would stay.
If they allowed her to.
The footsteps had drawn closer and stopped. Ella opened her eyes.
She was met with a wall of fabric. Craning her neck backwards, Ella could not prevent her mouth from falling open in shock. She was used to feeling small. Her entire ten years so far had been spent looking up at even her younger cousins and the children of the servants.
The woman in front of her made a dwarf of all of them. She had heard the stories of course – who hadn't – but actually seeing the woman in the flesh was another matter. The fact that the man standing slightly behind her was actually taller and that a few of the more senior pages were not far off, made no difference.
Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan made all of them fade into the background. This was the woman Ella had dreamed of meeting since her older cousin Yanis had first whispered the stories to her. This was the woman Ella dreamed of being someday.
When she was eight years old and she had heard that the Lady Knight had just accepted Padraig haMinch's old post as Training Master – or Training Mistress – Ella had been beside herself with joy. Her dream of training to be a knight had just taken on an exciting new twist. Keladry of Mindelan herself would be responsible for her training during the four years she would be a page!
Ella had been in raptures, but her mother's reaction was very different; if not also very predictable.
"I will not allow it!" she had raged. "It's bad enough that you want to disgrace this family with these wanton ideas of charging about the country like a man, but now…" And here her mother had paused, her beautiful fair skin turning an ugly shade of red. "Now you expect me to still let you go, with that…that…that whore acting as your teacher. I will not allow it!"
Standing in the middle of the room that day, Ella had never wished harder in her life for the floor to swallow her whole. She had stared mutely at her dainty shoes, trying to let her mother's tirade just wash over her. It was difficult.
Her father had eventually stepped in. "Lorette. I have let many things slide here, but two things I will not abide. One is that use of language in front of our daughter. The second is you assuming that you have the final say in this household. I wish to remind you that you do not. If Ella wishes to train as a knight, if that is truly her heart's desire, then we will do nothing to prevent her."
Remembering that day sent a flush of warmth through Ella, remembering the loving, supportive look in her father's eyes, as her mother had huffed and stormed her way out of the room. Ever since then, any contact mother and daughter had was stony at best and positively icy at other times. Ella dealt with it by staying out of Lorette's way. It suited her just fine.
And now two years later she was finally here. The voice of the Lady Knight broke through her thoughts.
"Welcome new Pages." The woman's voice was calming and mellow. The youngsters bowed to her.
When Ella straightened, she craned her neck back to look at the Lady Knight's face. It was not the glamorous beauty she had imagined in her daydreams, but a plain face with brown hair cut short at her chin. The more she looked, however, Ella could see a certain feminine prettiness that was out of sync with the large muscular body that supported it. Freckles dusted a tanned, but delicate, nose that perched above full lips. Long lashes framed a pair of dreamy hazel eyes.
Keladry of Mindelan's face showed no emotion as she studied the pages. Not even when she looked at Ella.
She must know who I am, Ella thought to herself. She must have heard that by now.
If she had, the Lady Knight gave no indication. She was busy talking about how they needed sponsors. Ella stood there nervously as the other pages gave their names and were chosen by one of the older pages that flanked the Training Mistress.
"Your name and your fief?" asked Keladry of the girl on the right of Ella. The tall, brown haired man standing behind her gave a wide grin.
"Ryoku of Queenscove, My Lady," said the girl, smiling and bowing.
Ella thought she saw a glimmer of a smile on the Lady's lips, but it was gone as quickly as it was there. "And who will be Page Queenscove's sponsor?"
"If it please you, My Lady," said a boy, who had a similar nose to the tall man. "We are cousins after all."
The man raised an eyebrow. "Which one are you again? I start to lose track after a while."
"Gerard of Masbolle, Sir Nealan. I'm Renard's youngest."
"A Masbolle? Were you there last Midwinter?"
"When you and Uncle Dom had that..." Gerard paused and eyed the Lady Knight. "...competition? Yes, Sir Nealan."
"I'll talk to you about that later," muttered the Lady Knight under her breath. Sir Nealan chuckled.
"Very well then," concurred the Training Mistress. She turned her gaze to Ella. "Your name and fief?"
Swallowing in a suddenly very dry mouth, she replied, "Ellabelle of Brightleigh, My Lady."
There was a brief flurry of muttering from the older pages.
"Ellabelle? What sort of stupid name is that?"
"Wait, isn't she…?"
"But why is…"
"Quiet," said Keladry, in a soft but firm voice. As the pages composed themselves, she kept her hazel eyes trained on Ella. Belying their dreamy cast, those eyes seemed suddenly very piercing. "Who will sponsor Page Brightleigh?"
There was a short pause. People were shuffling their feet and not meeting her eyes. Ella sighed and looked at the floor. She should have known something like this would happen.
"I will, Lady Keladry."
Ella's head shot up as she looked at the speaker. He was one of the tallest pages; brawny with red curly hair and sparkling grey eyes.
"Cole of Kennan," there was a note in the Training Mistress's voice that Ella could not quite work out. "You are her sponsor then."
The sandy haired page on Ella's left – Thoras of Irismere – was the last page and sponsored by his cousin; Trianne of Vikison Lake, a tall, serious looking girl.
"For now then, we will make our way to the mess hall for lunch. This afternoon and tomorrow is your chance to get to know your sponsors and your way around the Palace. The day after that, the real work begins. And note," here the Lady Knight's voice took on a more severe tone. "I will not stand for bullying. This applies to both new and existing pages. If you are attempting to haze someone, I will find out about it and I will punish you severely. This is your only warning. Are we clear?"
"Yes Training Mistress," the older pages muttered sullenly. The new pages just blinked at her like frightened rabbits.
"Very good," Keladry's voice became lighter. "Then let us go for lunch!"
The older pages without young ones to sponsor bundled their way down the hall to get into the queue first. The new pages were slower, walking with their sponsors who pointed things out on the way.
Ella found herself at the back, with Ryoku, Thoras and their sponsors.
"Well, new pages," said Cole cheerfully. He had a booming voice for a thirteen year old and a mischievous grin. "Are you ready for the trials ahead?"
"More than ready," Ryoku shot back. "I've been waiting for this my whole life. Papa's told me so many stories I feel like I've lived them myself! And Gerry's been teaching me some things when he comes to visit in the summer."
"Nothing useful for page training mind you," remarked Gerard. "But plenty of pranks!"
"We'd better watch ourselves then!" laughed Cole, clapping Thoras so hard on the shoulder he stumbled. The boy looked terrified.
"Cole, don't do that to my cousin, or I'll trounce you again in the training yard," glowered Trianne.
"Aw, Trinny you know that was just luck. We'll have a real duel one day and I'll show you who's boss!" Cole winked at Ella. She permitted herself a small smile.
This only deepened Trianne's frown. "I don't know how you could show your face here, girl," she said, darkly. "I give it a week before the Training Mistress kicks you out."
Ella's smile died on her face. "I…I don't know what you mean…"
"Trin, leave it alone," muttered Cole.
"Why should I? Her family almost ruined any chances some of us have to be pages. Anyway, Cole, I thought you of all people would think more carefully about who you sponsor."
"Cole's right, Trianne, just leave it alone. Ellabelle's not responsible for her family," snapped Gerry.
The girl snorted, her brown eyes hard. "I don't supposed why you two would care about it or course. It's not like anyone would stop either of you from becoming a page. Some of us don't have that luxury. Come on Thoras, let's try and get a decent seat." And with that she stormed off, dragging her cousin by his arm.
The four of them stopped and watched them go.
"What," said Ryoku. "Was that all about?"
"Nothing," mumbled Ella. "It's just that I…"
"It doesn't matter," cut in Cole quickly. "It shouldn't matter. We're all in the same boat when we start here. Come on, if we don't hurry then all the decent food will be gone."
As the two older boys led the way, with Ryoku trotting between them asking questions at a hundred miles an hour, Ella dragged her feet.
I should have seen this coming, she thought. Father always said the Palace was a warren for gossip. I thought people wouldn't make the connection. I was wrong. I should have known people would hold it against me.
And the Lady Knight…what if she didn't know before but she does now? Could she throw me out? After all this time fighting to get here, could I be back home with mother's "I-told-you-so" look before I've even had my first lesson?
"Come on slow-poke!" shouted Cole back down the corridor. "I hope you're faster on the training ground!"
Ella sighed. She would just have to wait and see.