Before the morning was half gone, the familiar presence of the ocean had dropped out of sight behind us. The tinge of unease I felt by its absence on the horizon was soon replaced by an awe of the unending green countryside ahead. However, Aunt Kate's reprimand was swift when I stuck my head out the coach to study it, "Abby! What would your mama and papa think to see you behave so?"
Papa would have laughed, I thought. He was the kind to pull me close, rumpling my hair, whenever I had done something truly outrageous. Mama would have been the one shaking her head at me, just as Aunt Kate was doing. For a moment, the image of the woman facing me on the opposite side of the carriage blended with the other, that existed now only in my mind. Then they both blurred out of existence.
"Don't cry," my aunt said, tiredly. "I didn't mean to sound so harsh. Of course you may look out the window." But I only shook my head.
By our third day together in the carriage, we were easier with each other. The constant rocking of our vehicle was numbing, though Aunt Kate tried to keep me amused with stories about my new playmate. Prince Bartholomew was the only surviving son of King Phillip and Queen Margaret, and had been born the year after my Uncle Stephan's death. "There aren't many his age about the palace and he's often very lonely," Aunt Kate said, "I think he will be very glad to see you come."
"Lonely? But he's a prince!"
"True enough," she smiled, "but sometimes princes can be the loneliest of us all." I was about to question her strange statement when the carriage lurched forward, the horses beginning to pick up speed. "King's Hill," she explained. "When we reach the top, we'll be able to see the palace."
All thoughts of the prince flew out of my head. Forced to grip the velvet cushion to keep from flying off my seat, I strained out the window for my first glimpse. The palace appeared for an instant. I had a brief impression of white stone walls and a few turrets and flags bathed in pink sunset before the carriage plunged into a valley and it disappeared behind another hill, but that quick glance had shown me everything I had always imagined Aunt Kate's fairy-tale home to be. "We should be there within the hour," she pronounced satisfactorily.
Each hill from then on grew progressively smaller, the view from each giving me a tantalizing glimpse of my new home, until the hills were hardly more than a series of bumps. We rattled over one last stone bridge, and the palace's outer walls loomed over us.
Our arrival was near sunset, just late enough in the day for the main gate to have been closed. Aunt Kate announced our identity before the armored knight above the gate would raise the portcullis. As the creaky gate rose to permit us entry, I saw that the other side of the wall was a flurry of activity. A trio of squires fended lances on a spot of lawn to our right. Pages ran through the courtyard, yelling, "make way!" Dogs chased cats underneath the heels of knights walking into the stables. Chambermaids dumped washing water out of windows, shouting crude jokes back and forth to each other as they did.
As the natural light in the courtyard dimmed, lights popped up in each of the palace's many windows. I wondered if there really were people lighting fires in all of those rooms, or if the palace simply glowed from some kind of magic.
How could anyone, especially a prince, be lonely in a place such as this?
The driver helped Aunt Kate out of the carriage. "Come along, Abby," she turned back to help me down, but before I could decide whether or not to jump into her waiting arms, she was distracted by a man approaching, calling out her name.
"Edward!" her face lit as she saw him.
"Good e'en to you, m'lady," he bowed. "Her Majesty has been asking after your arrival — I've just been sent to see if I could find what's delayed you."
"One of our horses went lame this morning — Surely nothing is the matter?"
The knight's teeth gleamed through his dark beard, "Well, I can't be saying that, but Lady Ella says His Highness has been in a rare mood ever since he heard you were returning with, erm..." He raised a hairy eyebrow in my direction.
Aunt Kate sighed and beckoned me. "Come, Abby. We must hurry — the queen waits to meet us."
"The queen?" I gasped. "Me?"
"Yes, the queen. Her Majesty wishes to approve of you before you're allowed in the nursery with her son. So come quickly now, and be on your best behavior."
My voice had sounded very small and meek, even to myself, as I clung to the frame of the carriage. I was not sure what the queen needed to approve. And I didn't know what to make of the barrel-chested man standing there beside my aunt.
Aunt Kate must have seen my insecurity, for her face softened and she held out her hand, "Ah, forgive me, Abby. You must first be introduced to our kinsman — Sir Edward de Coville, this is my niece, Abigail — Abby, Sir Edward — your Uncle Stephan's cousin."
Sir Edward leaned into a courteous bow, "At your service, Mistress Abigail."
He still seemed uncommonly large, but no one had ever called me "Mistress Abigail" nor bowed to me that way before. I suddenly fancied myself quite grown up. It was enough to gather my courage to take Aunt Kate's hand and climb out of the carriage.
The knight smiled briefly at me before turning his attention once more to my aunt. "Well, m'lady, shall I go inform the queen of your arrival?"
"Please do," she answered his smile. "Abby and I will be along in a moment." She watched him walk off a ways, then knelt at my side. With a critical eye, she smoothed back a piece of hair that had fallen into my face and flounced out my wrinkled skirts.
Her quick preparations only formed a knot in my belly. "What if Queen Margaret doesn't like me? Will she send me away again, without you?"
Aunt Kate sighed, but her lips curled as she paused in the middle of shaking out her own skirts. "Abby, the queen will find nothing to fault you for — but we must not keep her waiting. Come along, now." She offered me her hand again and squeezed it tight.
A nearby pageboy, who appeared a year or two my elder, appraised me condescendingly before Aunt Kate ordered him to escort us to the queen's chambers. He gave her a nod and complied in brisk fashion, avoiding the main entrance that loomed over us in favor of a smaller door tucked away to the right. He led us through a succession of dark corridors and stairs until we came to a massive oaken door that looked no different than dozens of others we had just passed. He rapped on it. His hail was answered by a lady in a brocade similar to my aunt's. "Lady Kate!" she exclaimed, ignoring the boy completely. She beckoned us to enter. "Her Majesty is happy to know you've arrived!"
I had thought my aunt wore the finest clothing in the world until I saw Queen Margaret. She stood motionless on a platform in front of the looking glass, while her ladies draped her in silk and furs. One lady fastened a solid-looking gold collar around her neck while another sorted through a coffer of elaborate rings, searching for the right ones to adorn Her Majesty's stubby fingers. But all her glamor could not hide the queen's matronly figure. She still had the remains of youthful beauty, but the face under the gold tiara was round and bored, even when she caught sight of us. Little in her expression gave any credence to what her lady has told us at the door.
"Lady Kate," the queen acknowledged in a slightly nasal voice.
"Your Majesty," Aunt Kate curtseyed.
"This is the girl, I take it?"
Aunt Kate bobbed, "Yes, Your Majesty. May I present my niece, Abigail le Marchand." She threw me a dark look, but I remained straight-backed, unaware of my rudeness. The queen's eyes narrowed, but gave no sign of what she was thinking about this breech in protocol. I only knew I wanted to hide behind Aunt Kate's skirts as the queen fixed her eyes on me, but didn't dare.
"Abigail," Her Majesty spoke, "How old are you?"
I held up six fingers, for I could not make my lips obey. "Hmmph. Well, that's just the right age to be a friend to Tholly," she judged. "I trust you'll be a good girl and behave when you are with him?"
I nodded and the queen addressed Aunt Kate, "See she receives a more suitable gown." Then she waved her hand to dismiss us and turned away. I wondered what was wrong with my own gown, it was the finest I had, after all, but before I could ask, Aunt Kate curtseyed to the queen's back and led me out of her chambers, down through a dizzying amount of corridor and stair until we had arrived at the door to the nursery.
Aunt Kate's domain was not just one room, of course, but a whole set of chambers centered around a greatroom and hearth. As we entered, the only occupant in sight was a slender boy about my height, who was facing away from us, charging up to a tall castle of blocks in the corner of the room on a white wooden steed. "Surrender the princess, or prepare to face defeat!" he challenged, raising sword high.
Aunt Kate cleared her throat, "Your Highness."
Prince Bartholomew stopped charging. "Lady Kate!" he exclaimed, dismounting to run over and embrace her legs. "You were gone much longer than you said you were going to be."
She patted the head buried in her skirts. "It couldn't be helped. But look, I've brought you a new playmate." With her free hand, she steered me forward.
A lock of dark brown hair had fallen into the prince's eyes. He wiped it away as he inspected my person. He stood tall and straight, no longer a soldier, but a statesman, his face taking on almost a comical seriousness, but I immediately liked the earnest way about him.
"Your Highness," Aunt Kate repeated, curtseying. "May I present my niece, Abby."
The boy nodded cordially to his guardian, but frowned at me. I wondered what I had done that he disliked me so already, but he did not let me wonder the question long. Tapping my shoulder he whispered, "You're supposed to curtsey."
This was a new thought. I blinked and looked straight across into his eyes, "Why?"
He stepped back. The way his dark eyes moved, I could see his mind working. I'm sure no one had ever asked him that question before; he had been bowed and curtseyed to his whole life and never given it a thought.
An answer finally came to him. "'Because I'm a prince, and you're my nurse's niece," he said, almost offhand.
It seemed a shallow answer to me, but I accepted it. He would know better than I. "All right," I said, giving my best imitation of Aunt Kate's curtsey. Though, after rising, I shook my head. "I still don't understand why."
"It's just the way things are," he shrugged, dismissing the whole thing. "Do you want to play? You can be the princess locked up in the tower and I'll come to your rescue."
"Does a princess have to curtsey to you?"
He paused, skeptically tilting his head to the right. "I suppose not." He grabbed my hand and urged me to the nearby toys. "Come on." Following his lead, I stepping over the block castle walls and crawling through the entryway of the block fortress inside them. My hero remounted his charger, looking at me expectantly.
"You have to call for help," he finally said. "The evil witch has you locked up in the tower and you have to call for your knight to rescue you."
"Oh," I said, finding my way into the role. "Help me, please — Oh, help me — The evil witch has locked me away!"
"Better," he pronounced, before bouncing up and down on his wooden steed and shouting, "I'll save you, sweet princess! That witch is no match for me!"
After riding to my rescue for a while, he dismounted and ran over to the castle. With a swipe of his arm, the block wall fell down and his other hand reached for mine. I clambered out of the fortress, knocking the rest of it down behind me, and followed him back to his steed. With my arms about his waist, we bounced along together for a moment. Then, he had to stop and give the evil witch's henchmen a blow from his sword. I directed a few well-placed kicks in their direction, as well.
The rest of my rescue went without incident until he groaned, "Oh no!"
"We forgot to kill the witch. She'll try and kidnap you again."
I gave his middle a quick squeeze, "But you'll protect me, won't you?"
"I'll try — but — Oh no!" He pretended to fall off the horse. "She has me!"
"No she doesn't!" I cried, jumping after him. I gave the imaginary witch a few more kicks before the prince breathed a great sigh.
He speculatively looked up at me from his position on the floor, "I've never met a girl who could kill a witch before," he declared, and then leapt to his feet, urging, "Come on — Let's do it again."
By bedtime, we had rebuilt the witch's lair, even adding a few turrets at my suggestion, and my new friend had lost all his romantic luster. From then on, the prince was simply, "Tholly." It was unimaginable that I could call him "Your Highness," or even, "Bartholomew." By the time Aunt Kate came to call us to our midday meal on my second day at the palace, Tholly casually told me that I no longer needed to curtsey before him. "Though you still must if you meet my royal mother or father, you know," he reminded me.
"I know," I threw him a look, and when I glanced up, I could have sworn I saw the traces of a small smile playing at the corners of Aunt Kate's mouth too.
The next few weeks were filled with riotous moments in the nursery. Tholly had never had a playmate his own age before, and I found him a much more agreeable companion than any of the Cunningham brood had ever been. He freely shared his toys with me, although when we played separately, he made it clear he had the first choice amongst them. The nursery, with its tops, blocks and intricately carved wooden horses, was such a fairyland compared to what the children of my neighborhood played with that I scarcely minded. Most of our play had been confined to chase and tag games that required only hands and feet.
On one occasion, Tholly and I killed the evil witch by tumbling every block in the room on top of her while shouting at the top of our lungs. Our screams brought both of Aunt Kate's subordinates and all of the on-duty chambermaids running from the other parts of the nursery in terror.
Aunt Kate had to wave them away with assurances that no one was torturing the prince. She had watched the whole scene unfold from the window seat at the end of the room while she embroidered. The others had glanced uneasily around the room, but when they saw Tholly live and whole for themselves, they slowly drifted back to their work.
It was one of Aunt Kate's nights off, and she had left us to the care of Lady Ella and Lady Rosaline for the quiet hour before bedtime. The maids turned down the bedding in Tholly's chamber next door while I sat perched on the nursery window seat, looking over the nightly bustle in the courtyard.
I heaved a sigh, wishing I could escape, just for an hour. How dreary those few rooms had become after I'd explored them over and over again for weeks on end!
"What?" Tholly answered from across the room. He lay sprawled by the hearth, knocking his set of chessmen together so they resembled two armies in a real battle.
I waved at the people and livestock down in the courtyard. "I wish I could leave."
"The palace?" he said, jerking upright.
"No, silly, just the nursery. I've been here such a long time, and haven't seen anything."
He exhaled and muttered something about "not much to see" before returning to his chessmen.
"Fine for you to say," I resumed my vigil by the window, "You've seen it all hundreds of times!" As the words slipped out, I realized I wasn't all that sure they were true. To my knowledge, Tholly hadn't left the nursery once since my arrival. I had only counted a handful of visitors in that month's time, including Sir Edward, who usually came laden with sweetmeats, and, twice, Queen Margaret, who spoke to Tholly for a few moments, then patted him on the head before making her way down to dinner with the king.
Having abandoned his game, Tholly came over and kneeled on the bench beside me. "Do you want to see my favorite spot in the whole world?" he asked seriously. "You mustn't tell anyone — but I'll show where it is if you if you want to come."
"What about Lady Ella and Rosaline?"
"They'll never know." He was already halfway to the nursery door, but paused to glance over his shoulder in their direction. "I go all the time on your aunt's night off, and I'm always back before they miss me."
Alone, I would have been paralyzed with fear attempting to navigate through the labyrinth of palace corridors, but my trust in Tholly's navigation was absolute. He braved the darkness that swallowed up the tall ceilings of the first floor corridors like one of those brave fairy tale princes who could storm a castle and kill a dragon.
At last, he led me to an unlit spiral staircase behind one of the gilded doors off the main thoroughfare. "It's too dark!" I cried out after stubbing my toe where the first stone step met the floor. By that time, it seemed as if we had been gone hours, and I was growing tired, and just a little bit frightened.
"Shh! You don't need to see. Just take my hand. I know the way."
I tightened my fingers around his, and followed him around as we twisted up the narrow steps. At first, I thought the faint gleam I saw bouncing off the walls was simply my eyes adjusting to the dark, but then the light took on the shape of a door frame,and he quickened his pace. We stepped out onto some sort of empty gallery that seemed so close to the roof of the palace that I might have reached up to touch it if I had stood on my toes. Far below the balustrade, hundreds of candles lit a massive rectangular hall, their light reflecting off the marble floor and making merry shadows dance across the sloped ceiling.
"Where...?" I began to ask, but Tholly shushed me again, pointing down to the cluster of men gathered at the platform in front of the throne on the far end of the room. Their voices carried up to our perch, though their words ran together as they bounced around the cavernous space. Just as we settled in to watch the proceedings, the man on the throne stood up and began to speak. Tholly leaned against the balustrade. "That's my Papa with his council," he whispered to me, unblinking. "I come here, just to see him, sometimes."
I stared at the figure on the throne with new interest. King Phillip had dark hair, just like Tholly. He wore a beard and a crown — but it was impossible to discern much more about his person from such a distance. I turned to Tholly, to ask him if we should make haste to return to the nursery, now that we had seen what we came to see, but I stopped when I saw the hungry expression in his eyes. He looked as if the very sound of his father's voice was a gift to be savored.
It occurred to me, then, that perhaps Tholly was, in his own way, just as orphaned as I. And, perhaps his way of being orphaned was even worse than my own. Impulsively, I wrapped my arms around his waist and squeezed tightly.
It told me much about his mood that he did not protest.