So, I'm back! The usual excuses - but this chapter was an odd one, which once I started seemed to take on a life of it's own (more so than usual).

Anyhow, I had a lovely review from Moon-Goddessxx who brought up an excellent point about the timeline in my story - Ella's squire years to be exact. I was wondering if anyone would comment on it, because it took me a long time to work it out in my own head (please feel completely free to skip this explanation - it's going to be quite boring!)

Basically, I'm working on the assumption that Tamora Pierce's page training ran along similar lines to real life academic years. Since I am in the UK, ours run from September to August (with summer holidays starting at the end of July for six weeks). In my story, Ella started her page training at ten, as do most other pages, but she is at the older end of the academic year, with her birthday being around November time (so she turned eleven a few months into training) - unlike Kel in the original stories, who turned eleven during the summer camping trip - making her, I assume, one of the youngest pages.

I'm also working on the assumption that, since the Ordeal is at Midwinter, but the academic page year ends at the beginning of September, there are a few months extra to account for. So this means that you are actually a Squire for four years and...about four months (if Midwinter correlates to Christmas time...which in my head it does). This also means that despite Ella being ten when she started page training, as she is one of the older ones in her year group she will be nineteen when she goes through her Ordeal. (This is literally the only similarity I share with my OC - I have my birthday way before Christmas, while many of my friends who were in the same year/grade as me at school are still to have theirs - a great source of amusement to them to tease me about how old I'm getting. Sob.)

Have I massively overcomplicated that? Most certainly. But I wanted to highlight the fact Ella is so small, despite being a good six months or more older than Ro and her other year-mates. However, that then left me with the timeline conundrum. I hope that explains it now. Also, I'm sure I read somewhere that there was a missing year in the book "Squire" - maybe this explains it? Who knows?! I'm shutting up now...I hope you enjoy this and I'm hoping (hoping) to get another chapter up before next week! (Will wonders never cease!)

54

A week after the battle, Ella stood nervously before the king and queen. Lady Keladry had insisted she go in alone to the royal chambers, to speak on behalf of her mother. She was sixteen, a squire with an excellent reputation – speaking to her monarchs should be something she could handle.

As she bowed to King Jonathan and Queen Thayet, Ella's knees felt like water. She was dressed in her best tunic in Mindelan colours, her hair clean and carefully brushed so it skimmed her shoulders in a silvery waterfall. None of that could hide the mottled bruising that covered the left side of her face still, making her expression look a little lopsided.

"Squire Ellabelle of Brightleigh," King Jonathon said; a kind smile on his face. "It's not often we get a chance to speak to you in person, yet we hear a lot about your exploits. We are very impressed young lady."

Ella felt herself blushing and tried to keep her voice steady as she replied, "Thank you, Your Majesties. And thank you for agreeing to speak to me on such short notice." She kept her fingers twined together behind her back – partly to stop her hands from shaking, but also to resist the urge to put her hand over her mouth when she spoke. Her missing tooth wasn't that noticeable; as everyone kept telling her. Ella knew they were right (she had spent a good hour in front of the mirror making sure of it) but she still felt hugely self-conscious.

"What can we do for you, Ella?" asked Queen Thayet, folding her hands on her silken skirts. Ella had seen portraits of the queen in her younger days and even now, in her sixties, the woman retained a beauty that age had only added character and wisdom to. It wasn't helping Ella feel any better about her own appearance.

"It…it's a rather odd request, Your Majesties…" stumbling over her words, Ella told them as briefly as she could the situation with her mother.

The monarchs' faces remained impassive. Only when she had finished, did King Jonathan shift in his chair, tapping a thoughtful finger against his lips. "An odd request indeed, Squire. My rulings are not so easily overturned you know."

Ella swallowed nervously. Had she gone too far?

"However, this is an appeal that comes from a good heart," the King continued, smiling at her. "So, this once, I will acquiesce to it. Stone Mountain as you know, is still under the Crown's protection until we find a suitable heir to take it over." Ella almost missed the brief glance that passed between King and Queen. "So it would be impossible for us to allow her back there. Brightleigh could be an option, but I think neither you nor I would want to disrupt the happiness of newly-weds with the appearance of an ex-wife."

"Goddess no! Your Majesty," Ella's cheeks became even redder.

"I would accept her, as one of my ladies-in-waiting," Queen Thayet put in suddenly. "A minor one, the Queen's Ladies are still considered as rather militaristic and the competition for places is fierce amongst the younger girls. But as one of the older ladies who serve in my outer chambers, Lorette may find some peace and solace. I hear she is a dab hand at tapestry making too, which will help her to fit in."

"Are you sure, my dear?" asked Jonathan, placing his hand on his wife's. "You did not have much dealing with Ella's mother before. I fear your…personalities may clash a little."

Ella thought the King's choice of words were the politest she'd ever heard to describe her mother. "If it helps, Your Majesties, she does seem to have changed in the last year and a half. I think she would be so grateful for such a position that she wouldn't be…difficult."

"Oh, I think I can handle her in any case," grinned Thayet, suddenly looking more mischievous than regal. In that moment Ella saw the woman behind the crown – the one who had fought for her country and her king. "Send her to me on the third bell this afternoon Ella. I'll be in my parlour. We can hash out the details then."

Overwhelmed with gratitude to her monarchs, Ella bowed deeply to them. "I am in your debt, Your Majesties."

"Nonsense," Jonathan waved his hand airily. "We will be calling on you much in the future Squire. This is the least we can do." He nodded his head towards her, dismissing her.

As Ella backed out of the chamber, she hoped he – or more likely the Queen – wouldn't be regretting those words. And nor would she.

Stopping on the way back to her room, Ella poked her head into Lady Kel's office to apprise her of the news. The Lady Knight seemed surprised by the offer, but pleased that the Queen had been so generous in her help.

Taking her leave from her knight mistress, Ella squared her shoulders before entering her own quarters.

Lorette was sat in the chair by the fire, reading a book. Her appearance had improved a little over the last week – decent food had started to fill her face back out already and put colour in her cheeks. Ella had dug out some of her 'emergency' dresses – she barely wore them, but apparently it was always worth having one or two lying around. Until the Midwinter season, Ella had never known why that was the case but, remembering the amount of handsome young men who had asked her to dance, she was starting to think dresses weren't all bad. With a heavy heart, Ella had offered her mother the beautiful dress Lady Kel had gifted her for her birthday. To Ella's surprise, Lorette had graciously turned it down, picking one of the plain (and slightly mothball smelling) ones from the back of Ella's wardrobe.

"The days of finery are over for me," Lorette had said, sadly, stroking a finger down the dusky blue fabric of the birthday gown. "But it is a beautiful dress. I would like to have seen you in it."

Lorette was currently in a drab grey gown of Ella's; one that she had originally picked out to spite her mother with its plainness. It fit Lorette relatively well – she and Ella were of a height these days – and with her white hair woven into a neat plait around her head she looked demure and motherly, just as Ella had always wanted her to be.

But the last few days had been testing. Lorette had been sharing Ella's small room in the Palace. Ella had given her mother her own bed – a knight's courtesy demanded it – and was sleeping on a little foldaway bed borrowed from the servants' quarters. The atmosphere between them was no longer hostile, as it had been for most of Ella's life, but tense and strained. They were being so polite to one another, Ella's face was starting to ache from the lack of expression she forced on it at all times. It made her wonder quite how Lady Kel – and indeed the whole Yamani nation – managed it. She had coped by making sure she wasn't in her room much for the last week; Lady Kel had expressed surprise when, the day after arriving back from dealing with the Scanrans, Ella had wanted to practise her jousting.

"Don't you want a few days rest?" the Lady Knight had asked. "Mithros knows I do! Besides, I don't think adding to your bruises is going to be a very good idea at the moment…" She had tailed off, seeing the expression on Ella's face. "However, I do have an awful lot of paperwork that I need some help with. It may take us most of the next couple of days."

Ella had never been so grateful to be bored to tears with supply logistics and reports in all her life. But it wasn't a long term solution. Finding her mother a place with the Queen was, and Ella hoped that it would add to the rickety bridge that was slowly being built between them.

As Lorette looked up from her book, Ella took a deep breath and started to explain.

xxx

Four months later.

The weather had blessed them for the day, with soaring blue spring skies and wonderfully mild temperatures.

Kel had originally wanted a small wedding. She hadn't wanted fuss or to spend an obscene amount of money on a ceremony that would fly past in one day. But somehow, the whole thing had been hijacked by her friends and her family, by Dom's friends and family. The amount of people invited had grown so that only the huge Palace temple would do to fit everyone in – the King and Queen graciously said she could use it for her special day, with only a minimal donation needed to the Mithran priests. The little after-gathering to celebrate her joining with Dom had escalated to require one of the ballrooms.

"You shouldn't be so popular then, should you?" Dom had said to her several weeks before, planting a kiss on her forehead as it creased trying to sift through the mountains of replies. As Kel protested, Dom had shaken his head with a chuckle. "Oh no, Protector of the Small, don't blame me for this fiasco. Only about twenty percent of those replies are for me!"

And now it was the morning of the big day. Kel stood in front of the full length mirror in her room, staring at the person looking out at her.

The dress had nearly caused a full scale row between Lalasa and her, with Kel point-blank refusing to wear white.

"But, My Lady, it's your first – and Goddess bless us, hopefully your only – wedding. You should wear white!"

"I most certainly shouldn't Lalasa," Kel had argued, very aware of the fact Ella was in the room with them. Her ears had grown very hot. "White is symbolic of something which I am not and I don't want to give tongues a reason to wag more than they will be already."

They had eventually reached a compromise. The dress Kel was currently wearing was such a deep cream as to be almost called brown, but the shade suited her colouring, bringing out similar tones in her hair and making her hazel eyes seem almost green. The dress itself was cleverly cut to enhance Kel's meagre curves without being scandalous or cutting off her air supply. The long sleeves slimmed down her muscular arms, while the skirt was just the right length that she did not have to wear heeled shoes, merely silken slippers of the same colour. Her face had been subtly but artfully coloured by Princess Shinkokami and her shoulder length hair had been twisted and pinned up, a few strands curled and framing her face. She had elected not to wear a veil – a decision she was starting to regret as nerves were taking hold, making her Yamani mask very difficult to maintain – and instead wore a delicate crown of spring flowers in cream and peach, matching the bouquet she held in shaky hands.

"You look beautiful Auntie Kel!" exclaimed Ro as she burst into Kel's rooms, trailed by Ella. The girls were wearing matching gowns of a deep rosy pink, the same as Princess Shinkokami, Kel's maid of honour.

Kel looked back at herself in the mirror. For a fleeting moment, she believed Ro – she did look beautiful.

As Ro went to speak to the Princess, Ella sidled up to Kel, her own bouquet of cream flowers held loosely by her side. "You do look lovely, My Lady, but…you don't look very…happy…"

Kel blinked at that and tried to force a smile. It trembled on her lips for a moment, before falling away again. She swallowed in a very dry throat. "I'm…I'm just a little nervous."

That was the understatement of the century. Kel was terrified. Of the ceremony, yes, of the hundreds of people whose eyes were going to be fixed upon her walking down that impossibly long aisle, who were going to be straining forward to hear her every response to the vows. Give her a battle, give her an army to command or make a speech to – anything except this pageantry which was already causing tongues to wag around the Palace. She was used to gossip, she didn't care what people said about her any more, hadn't done for a long time…but that didn't mean she had to like it.

But there was more to it than that. At thirty-eight years of age, Kel was finally giving up her freedom, her independence. After thirty-eight years, twenty-seven of them as a warrior of the realm in one capacity or another, Kel was finally stepping into the world of tradition and womanhood. She was becoming a wife. What would that really mean for her? To tie herself so closely to another person? Realistically, she knew Dom would never make her do anything she didn't want to; he would never make her give up her shield, give up fighting for the realm, give up anything she had spent twenty-seven years of her life working for. But what about herself? What would marriage make her give up? Dom wanted to be a father and Kel wanted to be a mother – she did and that was a revelation that surprised her a little as she had never been broody – and time was ticking away on that front. If she and Dom wanted children of their own, they would need to do it soon. Could she be like the Lioness, bear children and leave them to go and risk her life in battles far away, knowing every time she kissed them goodbye, it could be the last? Could she do that? And Dom... Ever since their engagement, every time one of them had gone to sort out local bandits, or Spidren sightings, or Hurrocks on the rampage, her heart had filled with ten times the worry it used to. Dom would be retiring from active duty after their marriage, but she wouldn't. Could she really put him through that again and again?

"Lady Kel?" Ella's voice broke through her thoughts. Kel came back to herself and saw the little squire's face looking up at her with concern scrunching her pretty features. Glancing at herself in the mirror, Kel noticed that she had gone pale under her makeup and her bouquet was quivering rather violently.

"Ella…I'm not sure I can do this!" she whispered, finding it suddenly very hard to breathe.

The squire glanced over her shoulder. Shinkokami was busy fixing Ro's hair, which had come loose of its braid. Princess Lianokami, the fourth of Kel's bridesmaids, had finally turned up and was retying the ribbon around her flowers. Lalasa was busily tidying up the room. All other maids and women had been sent away as the ceremony approached.

Ella considered Kel with a serious expression on her face, keeping her voice low. "You don't have to, if you don't want to."

That was not the response Kel had been expecting. Her exclamation came out as a squeak. Clearing her throat, Kel tried again. "What? Aren't you meant to be telling me to pull myself together and that this will be the happiest day of my life?" she hissed.

"If that's what you want me to say, then sure. But if you want to get out of this, I will cause a distraction and give you time to leg it to the stables, saddle your horse and ride like the minions of Chaos themselves were after you. If you're not happy with the idea of this marriage, then don't do it. Goddess knows I've seen too many awful marriages in my family already to be faced with another one."

For a moment Kel simply stared at Ella, who looked back at her frankly from large sky-blue eyes.

"Of course…" Ella continued. "Captain Domitan is a good man. He loves you. He would be absolutely devastated if you left him. But he would understand, I think, eventually. And Sir Nealan would support you in any decision you make, you know he would. If it was the right decision for you."

In her mind's eyes, Kel saw Dom's face, a face she loved so much, a face she trusted with her life. She saw the hurt and confusion on that face if she didn't show up today. That same hurt and confusion twisted her own heart at the thought of leaving him. How could she ever consider it?

She took a deep breath, held it, and then slowly released it through her nose, giving Ella a proper smile and a nod. "I'm ready."

"Good!" said Princess Shimkokami, making Kel jump slightly. She hadn't heard the older woman come up behind her. "Because I believe we have to leave now if we are to be only fashionably late and not embarrassingly so." The Princess appraised Kel with her dark eyes. "You look a little nervous. It is to be expected on your big day – I was petrified before mine."

"I've heard it's normal for brides to get the jitters before the big day. Grooms too – Cousin Dom's probably shi- …ahem, probably feeling really nervous himself as well," amended Ro, catching Kel's raised eyebrows and pointed glance towards the Princesses.

"Come on Lady Kel," piped up Ella. "Pull yourself together. This is meant to be the happiest day of your life, after all."

Kel laughed at that and shook her head. "You're right, Ella. Let's go."

xxx

It was just after midnight when Ella fell into her bed, not even bothering to take off her now smudged face paint or unwind the braids from her hair. Her feet hurt from standing all day and dancing. Her stomach hurt from too much food. All in all, it had been a brilliant day.

Despite the wobble Lady Kel had gone through just before the ceremony, she walked down the aisle of the temple with her head held high. Lord Raoul was accompanying her in the place of her father. The bridesmaids tailed after them; Shinkokami and Lianokami first, Ella and Ro bringing up the rear. At the altar, Captain Domitan had been looking very handsome – even Ella had to admit, for an older person – in a billowing white shirt under a dusky blue tunic. Mindelan colours, to symbolise their union.

Ella hadn't really listened to the words of the Mithran priest – instead she had watched Lady Kel's face. The expression on it (or rather, lack of, to start with) had changed and softened through the vows. For a moment, Ella realised, for the two of them, nothing else had existed except each other. That was love, Ella thought, remembering a similar look on the faces of her father and Aunt Evaline on their wedding day. Sometimes Ro and Cole looked at each other like that.

Had she and Gerry ever looked at each other with that expression? Had the world ever disappeared around them? No, Ella thought, she'd remember if it had, she was sure. It had never been love between them, just two young teenagers exploring changing feelings and relationships.

Would she, Ella, ever find something that powerful, the sort of thing Lady Kel and Domitan now had?

As Ella lay in bed, exhausted and exhilarated from the long day, she was surprised to find herself not worried about it. She was only sixteen. Lady Kel hadn't found that true someone until her late thirties. Dom was in his late forties. There was plenty of time for Ella to find someone, if that someone even existed. For now, she was happy that the people in her life were happy – Lady Kel, her father, Ro, even her mother to a certain extent, who had seemed to settle in without too much hassle into the Queen's ladies-in-waiting.

Besides, there was still the small issue of her remaining squire years to go, which seemed to be falling away almost too quickly. It was for the best if Ella concentrated all her efforts on getting to and through the Ordeal and worry about true love after that.

Yawning widely and feeling herself drift towards sleep, Ella hoped that the Chamber or any of her other nightmares would not feature in her dreams that night – she wanted to hang on to her happiness for just a little while longer.