The city was quiet and unsuspecting. It didn't occur to people to pause in their work to look out to sea. Nobody had the time to bother with such things. Mothers had children to care for, children who who were eager to fill their churning bellies with hot food. Day by day, people grew relaxed, unaware of the silent ticking of a clock.
One man felt the change. He was standing up on the city wall, watching the three little figures running and dancing on the beach, all girls.
He had allowed them some freedom. They had one guard with them, who was trying very hard not to look amused by their behaviour.
The man shifted on his feet, a muscle jumping in his jaw.
He wasn't comfortable with them only having one guard to accompany them, he should have sent more. Their father wouldn't be pleased if something happened. He hoped this dread he felt was only paranoia, or even boredom. As long as he wasn't right.
He glanced out to sea again, at the glittering blue waves. A shiver went through his spine.
"The tide is coming in. Isn't it?" Lydia didn't open her eyes when she spoke.
Briana sat up. Her brown eyes lit up with a spark of amusement. "Yes. If you don't sit up in a few moments then your dress will be drenched."
Lydia smiled, it was an odd little gap toothed quirk which lit up her pale face. A slight curl at the corner of her lips, as if she was seeing something they didn't.
Erin propped herself up on her elbows, her amusement growing as she observed. A small wave broke and foaming water crept up the sand. She didn't warn Lydia, instead she waited. It splashed over Lydia's feet and over her dress, making her screech like a startled bird and she bounced onto her feet. "I thought it would take a little bit longer than that!"
Erin stood up too, chuckling as she brushed sand off her dress. She held out her hand to Briana and motioned her sister to get up off the wet sand. "Briana did warn you."
"Oh I know." Lydia scrunched up her nose, tying her mess of curls into a bun at the nape of her neck.
"We'd best get inside," Briana was attempting to brush the wet sand off the hem of her dress. "I think it's dinner time."
Seagulls wheeled overhead, screeching with hungry eyes, desperate for scraps of food. The sloping path that led to the beach was one well worn. Their feet had trodden the path more times than any of them could count. Still, once the light faded, it was difficult to walk up it, without slipping, or catching a foot between two roots. Such a simple thing could quite easily break one of the girl's ankles. Their habit, from long experience, was to always return while the sun was still up.
The castle was already lit up with bright lanterns. Aside from the guards, scarcely anyone was in the courtyard. A sulky silence hung in the air as if the cooler evening had quelled the busy goings on. The two men at the gate nodded at them, not bothering with a formal greeting, which ordinarily would have been expected of them. Clearly they were too tired to care. It was late, they probably just wanted their dinner.
A tall man emerged from the darkness behind the double doors of the castle. He walked steadily, his shoulders square. His attire was simple, carefully tailored from thin leather which let him move easily. As always he had a dark red cloak around his shoulders. It was the only article of clothing that marked him as more than a common guard. Some thought it was strange that a man of his age held a position of such importance among the king's guard. Everyone who knew him, however, found that they respected him, or in some cases feared him. The captain of the King's guard, Graham, had proved time and time again that he was worthy of such a title.
"Princesses." He nodded to each of them in turn.
"Good evening captain." Erin curtsied half-heartedly. She also was to tired to worry about formality. Warm air wafted from inside, her stomach grumbled when the smell of roast meat and fresh bread reached her.
Graham smirked slightly when he noticed her expression. "Hurry. You should be ready for dinner by now."
They scurried past him, rushing to their rooms before anyone had time to scold them for such impertinent behaviour. They should have already been ready for dinner by this time. Their hair was bedraggled and their dresses drenched at the hems. Erin knew it was her fault for convincing her sisters to follow down the path to to lie in the sun, so the rumble of waves could shake the ground beneath them. Now they were going to be late.
The three of them were separated when they reached their rooms. Erin's maid, Jenny, looked distraught when she caught sight of her. "What have you done to yourself? Must you make everything so difficult for me?"
Erin was silent as Jenny scrubbed her down with potent soaps to hide the salty sea smell. She was quickly fitted into a clean dress, and her damp hair wash tightly plaited. She caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. A pale face with a straight straight nose and green eyes, eyes that held none of the freedom and joy she felt earlier.
Dinner was oddly quiet that night, Lydia and Briana were as serious looking as Erin felt. They too had the look of responsibility, no sign of urges to do anything wild or unexpected. Erin lifted her cup to her lips to hide a smile. She knew that Lydia only was keeping her silent demeanor so she could sneak food under the table for the dogs without drawing attention. Her father was somber. His expression unreadable as he pushed food around his plate. It was not unusual. He always had something to concern him. But her never let it get in the way. He always held his head high in a way that reminded her of Graham. It was a well practised posture, something that gave him authority without having to command it. Respect without asking for it. When he spoke the whole room grew quiet.
Sometimes Erin asked him to tell a tale after dinner. He rarely did, often shrugging and laughing saying he was no storyteller. Maybe he knew one tale, or two. But Erin knew, they all knew. When he told a story the castle would remember. He would tell stories that would make them break into stitches of laughter, or sometimes he would tell a tale that would make even the strongest man grow quiet. He rarely gave them a story, so when he did it was a gift. Something they could not take for granted. But his ability as a storyteller didn't let anyone underestimate him as their king. He was foremost a fighter.
Much to the surprise of their mother and nearly everyone in the castle. He had agreed to teach Erin and Lydia how to fight.
"No daughter of mine will leave these walls without the means to defend themselves." He had said to their mother. Erin loved him for it. She loved that he thought past what was right and acceptable and helped her to learn a valuable skill.
Today he looked slightly gray and tired. Erin smiled at him across the table, he didn't notice.
"Lydia! What are you doing?" Briana whispered once the chatter began to grow. She was always the one to follow the rules, as the oldest sister she felt she should be responsible for them, at least to a certain degree.
Lydia was quietly slipping a bun stuffed with meat onto the floor. Where one of their father's dogs was sitting, her mouth opened wide to reveal drool and shining white fangs
Erin laughed. "No he's not."
Lydia stuck her tongue out at Erin while grinning. "He is."
So the whole bun was gone in a flash, and the dog continued eyeing Lydia hungrily. Erin glared at him and pushed her plate of food out of his sight. He was drooling so much. But her father had always let them sit around at dinner time. One time he had tried to tie them up and they didn't look at him for a week. He loved them. So the dogs stayed, he didn't care what people said. Erin liked them, but she didn't give them scraps because she knew that would make her the center of their attention and earn her a drool covered skirt.
"Girls, behave." Erin felt the weight of their father's gaze, she glanced up and caught his eye, she knew that look. He was trying to say she was a young woman now, a princess no less. It was sometimes hard for him, only having daughters. He had always wanted a son. But so far they had none.
As it was, he had not made a decision on the matter, but Erin knew that eventually either the council would decide for him or he had to make a choice on who would be his heir. Both of her parents still silently prayed that they would have a son.
Her mother placed a hand on his shoulder, a small gesture. Everything will be fine.
Growing up Erin had heard the tale of how her mother and father met, as a child she had never understood their reluctance to share it. They would glance at each other, an odd look in their eyes. But in time she began to realise why they rarely told the story. It was hard for them to speak of something that even they could not make sense of. Her father still wondered about it, it was a mystery none of the castle had solved.
Erin remembered the story always started on a dark and rainy night. Her father had been a young man at the time, ready to ascend the throne. The guards had brought a young woman into the castle that night, she was drenched in rain and on the verge of death, wounds covering her body. Her father cared for her himself, visiting her every day. Until she made her slow recovery. But one day she asked her father. "What am I doing here?" She had no memory of who she was, where she had come from. And most importantly how she had been hurt. Every day after that her father asked if she remembered. She didn't for a very long time. But that didn't stop her father from falling for her. He married her and it was not until nearly six months after they married that her mother began to regain some of her memories. She was revealed to be the youngest daughter of a duke. She had disappeared from her home, giving no word to her family. When Erin was young she often fantasized about her mother being kidnapped by the fairies, or selkies. But she could see now, it wasn't something quite so magical, the scar it had inflicted on her mother was clear, her blue eyes often held a strange shadow. Something terrible had brought her mother to the castle that strange rainy night.
"Erin." Lydia jabbed her shoulder. "Father's going to say something."
"I know." She hissed.
"Great." She stuffed something in her mouth and then said something that Erin could not comprehend. Lydia's mouth was stuffed full.
"Say that again please Lydia."
She swallowed it all in one gulp. "You didn't look like you were paying much attention."
Erin laughed. "Don't talk with your mouth full and even if I wasn't paying attention I happen to remember that father already mentioned he would before dinner."
Lydia waited till their father turned to talk the man on his left to stick her tongue out and kept eating in a very unladylike way. Sometimes her and Briana joked about how their father had wanted a son but got Lydia instead. She had no inclination that she should act like a lady. When she was little she used to have mud fights with the young stable boys, she was very brutal and showed them no mercy whatsoever. They all complained about bruises afterwards, while she would walk in front of visiting lords and ladies with mud in her teeth, hair and eyes and with an extremely smug look on her face. One would think she looked so innocent with her wild curly hair twisted back into the closest thing it would be to tidy. She had a gap toothed smile and sparkling blue eyes, but she could be a devil. Their mother would have a lovely time trying to get her a husband. It wasn't that she unattractive. But she was very loud and could easily be rude without noticing.
Erin wasn't hungry, the meal was exceptional, as always, but tonight her stomach was churning.
Her father cleared his throat lightly. Erin instantly straightened her back, he looked serious, she tried to read his expression. Good news or bad?
"It seems we have no current cause for worry, we have received an offer of alliance from the Western Isles, the details will soon be confirmed, but that is trivial, all that matters now is that we are safe and secure."
The whole room seemed to stand still for a moment, then someone clapped, and the whole table followed suit. Lydia was grinning, her face filled with joy. Erin smiled in her direction, then she met Briana's eye. An offer of alliance, they both knew what that meant. Briana gave her a look that seemed to say: about time. Neither Briana nor Erin wanted to marry, but they knew it would be one of them, Lydia was far too young and untrained. She would not be picked. Erin felt her heart flip in her chest, as soon as dinner was finished her father would call the council and it would be decided. She was filled with a mixture of anticipation and fear. What if it was her?
All she did for the rest of the evening was roll her food around her plate, she jumped every time her father shifted slightly in his chair, why was he taking so long?
After another tense ten minutes or so, her father stood up and gestured that everyone may leave the table.
Lydia bounced up and ran over to Erin. "Erin, what great news! Mother and Father must be so happy."
"Indeed." Erin smiled.
"Aren't you happy?"
Erin felt sorry for her, she was so innocent. "Of course I am, but...you do know what this means, don't you?"
She frowned. "What do you mean?"
"One of us must be married."
Lydia laughed somewhat sarcastically. "Do you think I am a child, Erin? Of course I know that." She shook her head. "Gods, I thought you had some dreadful news for me."
"So you know?"
Lydia raised a brow. "I am only two years your junior, Erin. I am not a child."
Erin smiled, a snide remark about Lydia acting like one on the tip of her tongue.
"Girls." A deep voice rang out through the dining hall.
Her father was standing in the doorway to the council room, he looked impatient.
Erin bit her lip, holding back the smile that had already been creeping across her face. Lydia bowed her head and followed behind Erin, she was smiling a little, but otherwise in control.
Her mother was seated, her calm composure still in place, Graham was standing by the fire, along with two of her father's men at arms and by the window was Jonathan, her father's primary advisor.
Erin quickly scanned the room for Briana and felt relief wash over her when she saw her seated beside their mother.
Briana caught sight of Erin, she gave her a quick smile then turned her attention back to their father.
"You all know this was coming." Her father looked every bit a King, his jaw was set and his shoulders square, Erin saw a hint of dread in his eyes. "Lord Cruinn of Harwood has offered to take one of you three as his wife. This will secure our alliance with the Western Isles." There had been unrest in the West for as long as Erin could remember, it was a great thing to finally secure an alliance.
"He knows little of our family, except that I have three daughters." His shoulders slumped. "Lydia will not be going," Now he met Erin's eyes. "Your mother has made sure of this."
Lydia began to protest, but the King silenced her with a sharp hand gesture. "I believe that lord Cruinn Briana, you are the eldest," He turned to Briana. "You are also the most well trained, you will know how to be a good wife and care for Cruinn and his son."
Erin almost gasped. Son? Gods, how old was this man?
"Of course, father." Briana had barely flinched, she had expected this?
Suddenly Erin felt a wave of guilt, Briana had expected it.
"There is certain urgency regarding the matter, the wedding, regrettably, will take place in two weeks time."
Now Briana looked shocked, Erin bowed her head, she felt horrible, Briana only had two weeks to get used to the idea of leaving with her husband, and from what Erin could tell, he was not someone Briana would desire to be with.
"That is all the news that concerns you three." He gave them a half smile. "You may leave us."
Briana slowly rose, Erin saw her mother place a hand on her shoulder, they exchanged a look that Erin did not entirely understand.
"Goodnight father," Lydia was the first to speak, she bowed her head, curtsying low.
Erin and Briana followed suit.
The moonlight was streaming through the window, it was a freezing night and Erin's toes were cold and numb in her shoes, the winters had been getting harsher in the past few years. The fisherman were becoming anxious and the crops weren't allowed time to grow before the harsh frosts set in. Ice began to form so much earlier in the day. She hummed to herself as she lit the candles around her bed.
Jenny yawned loudly as she helped Erin into bed. "Erin, I think Briana wants to talk to you."
Erin eyed the door. A shadow was hovering on the outside. "Bree come in, I am in bed." She shouted as she leaped under her covers.
She heard Briana's laugh as she opened the door.
"Goodnight ladies." Jenny curtsied and left the room, closing the door with a soft click.
Erin patted the end of her bed. "Sit, what's wrong?"
Briana looked tired. "I just wanted to talk, I persuaded my maid to leave me, she won't tell."
Erin with a strange sense of pride to see Briana misbehaving just like her and Lydia did.
"Two weeks." Briana said flatly.
"That's not very long."
"I know," Briana sighed, "but I knew it was coming."
Erin wanted to say that she wished she could take Briana's place, but that would be a lie.
She was relieved it wasn't her. It was selfish, but true.
"We won't be able to see each other." It suddenly hit Erin. Briana was moving away, across the sea.
They would be lucky to see each other once a year.
"We can still write." Briana grabbed Erin's hands. "We can write every day."
Erin nodded. "I suppose it's just a side effect of growing up, we have to learn to live apart."
"We do." Briana paused for a moment, her green eyes lingered on the window and the cold moonlight streaming through. "They will find you a husband before long."
Erin nodded. "Maybe Cruinn won't be so bad?"
"He won't be bad, Erin." She turned her gaze to the window again. "It's just...I have no experience with caring for a child, and...oh Erin, what if his son is already a grown man? Would I be expected to treat him like a mother would?"
"Briana you will learn quickly, nobody will expect you to be a good housewife overnight."
"I suppose you're right." She hugged her shawl tighter. "I suppose
I'm just afraid, I'm afraid to grow up, Erin."
They both fell silent, the night air carried a biting chill, lanterns flickered in the courtyard.
The guards at the gate were tired, the cold was the only thing keeping them awake.
"I suppose we will never stop being afraid." Erin smiled. "A part of us will always want to cling to our childhood."
Briana smiled too. "True."
They were silent after that, a wedding was meant to be a joyous occasion, but neither Briana nor Erin could muster up the appropriate excitement. It felt far more like an ending that anything else.
Graham's sword smashed against Erin's shins. "Erin, you need to concentrate."
"I am." She growled.
He laughed lightly. "The tone of your voice suggests otherwise."
Erin felt sluggish, she was used to training with Graham, but today she couldn't manage to do anything other than block a couple of his blows.
It made her angry, she probably looked ridiculous in Graham's eyes.
"Don't patronize me." She jabbed her wooden sword into his ribs.
Lydia wandered into the dusty training area, Erin and Lydia had long since abandoned any idea that they were out of place.
The soldiers and Graham had learned to accept the fact that the Princesses would all receive training. Briana, of course would be far too busy with wedding preparations. She would not be training today.
"I'm here." Lydia grinned, her usually wild hair was strung into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, she was dressed in the same clothes as Erin.
Smooth leggings and a fine fashioned tunic.
"Great." Graham breathed. "You can spar with Emer for now."
Erin gave Lydia a pitying look.
Lydia scowled. "Of course I will."
Emer had been lounging against the wall, she strutted over to them at the mention of her name.
"Emer." Graham said briskly. "Spar with Lydia."
Emer was Graham's unofficial second, she had been recruited to assist with training the three of them.
Their father thought it would be more appropriate to have a woman training them and it also helped to spar with someone with a similar build, though Emer was far superior to them in almost all forms of fighting.
"Of course, Captain."
Lydia adopted a stronger stance, a wooden sword similar to Erin's in her hand.
"No, Lydia." Said Graham. "I want you to spar with no weapons, hand to hand."
Lydia looked crestfallen, they all knew why Graham wanted them to spar thusly, hand to hand combat was Lydia's weakest point.
She was fast enough, and fit enough, but the lack of a weapon made it easy for her to let her guard down.
Emer threw the first blow, her arms were long and Lydia's attempt to block her was useless, Emer's fist smacked against Lydia's ribs.
Graham observed them with a well practised scrutiny. He appeared unphased by Lydia's cry of pain.
After a few more blows to the ribs Lydia began to counter Emer's blows, she was in no way Emer's equal, but Graham had taught Lydia to use her size as an advantage.
After a few moments of Lydia doing nothing but counter blows, she finally caught Emer off guard and cracked her fist against her jaw.
Emer spat and blood trickled down her lips.
Lydia used the distraction to her advantage and managed to land another blow amd before Emer could react Lydia had pinned her to the ground.
"Well done, Lydia." Graham didn't smile, but Erin could see he was proud of her.
"She's getting better." Emer wandered over to them. "Though I hate to admit it."
"That she is." Graham smiled. "Now Erin, it's your turn."
"Graham." She whined. "I already sparred today."
"Yes, but that has led me to believe that you need more practise."
Erin sighed. "Fine."
Emer was all too eager to spar again, Erin was beginning to think she never ran out of energy.
Erin abandoned her wooden sword and wandered into the middle of the courtyard. Emer's lip was still bleeding, but it didn't seem to bother her, she still maintained her air of arrogance. "Show me what you've got, princess."
Erin scowled and swung her fist at Emer's ribs, it didn't even touch her, but in a matter of seconds Emer had twisted Erin's arm behind her back.
She thrashed and growled, but struggling only made it more painful.
"Let me go." She hissed.
Emer released her and Erin elbowed her in the ribs.
Graham and Lydia were sitting on the benches, in the shade. Lydia snorted with laughter every time Erin failed to hit Emer. It quickly became funny when you weren't the one in pain.
After Erin had had her face rubbed into the dirt for a third time, Graham finally let them stop.
"Erin, you need to learn to focus. Your anger hinders you."
"Well, practise is the only thing that will help you."
Erin didn't answer, there was an angry purple bruise on her arm, she didn't dare look at the rest of her body.
Lydia and Erin didn't want to have another round, and despite Emer's attitude she appeared to be tired.
"Captain." A deep voice rang out through the courtyard. It was Jonathan, her father's advisor.
Erin wanted to hear what they were saying, but their voices were hushed and she could only make out a few words, after a few moments Graham nodded to him.
Jonathan's straight backed figure quickly disappeared from the courtyard and Graham sighed. "That will have to be all for today. I have business with the King."
"Is something wrong?" Lydia instantly piped up.
"No, but your father has visitors he wishes me to greet at the border."
Lydia and Erin were both eager to get inside, they needed to wash the sweat and dirt off their bodies. Their visitors would be arriving by the evening and they had to be presentable.
During Erin's bath she noticed that the skin on her face was tender and hot, she hadn't realised how long she was out in the sun.
Jenny gave her a soothing cream, it didn't help with the colour of her face, but it helped with the pain. As she had expected she had bruises everywhere, Jenny was, as usual, understanding. She got Erin a dress with a high neckline, it was made of thin material so her bruised and burned skin was allowed to breath. Usually she would have not worried about covering her bruises, but they had guests.
"Erin, how come you're not sunburnt?"
Lydia squinted at her. "Oh I see, it's just not as bad as mine."
Lydia's entire face was a angry scarlet colour.
It seemed her maid had a similar idea to Erin, Lydia was wearing a high necked dress, with long sleeves. Oh, imagine the guests faces if they saw the princesses covered in bruises and brandishing weapons. It would be a scandal.
"We're lucky, Lydia."
She raised a brow. "How so?"
"We're lucky our parents allow us this much freedom."
"I suppose you're right," She murmured.
Erin saw the look in her eyes, that freedom would never be enough, Lydia would always crave more.
"You're welcome to come in." The king smiled crookedly. "There's no need to linger in the hall."
Lydia smirked and slowly wandered into their father's study. Erin knew exactly what she was up to. She wanted to linger in her father's study until the guests arrived, that way she would have a good chance of seeing them first. Erin had to pretend she was not also holding onto this hope.
"Oh Lydia!" Erin heard her mother exclaim. "Must you beat yourself up like this?"
Erin consciously pulled her sleeves down, she hoped to avoid similar criticism. "Afternoon, mother."
"Erin." Her mother smiled.
As always, the King's study was remarkably tidy. Every chair around the fireplace had a carefully straightened teal cover spread across it.
The curtains were a similar colour and today they were wide open, the afternoon sun streamed in, for the time they could pretend the weather was warm. They could feel the sun without the chilly afternoon breeze.
"Is Briana finished for today?" Erin tried not to let her mother see how much she wanted her to say yes.
"No," Her mother sounded tired. "Not yet."
Poor Briana. Erin could imagine how she felt, left out from the family. Pushed aside to be the possession of some stranger.
"She shouldn't be much longer, and it's almost dinner time, it would be unfair if she were to miss it."
All of her family seemed to be oddly silent, there was so much unsaid, so many feelings that none of them had the bravery to express.
It wasn't long before one of her father's guards scrambled into the study, the captain had returned with the king's visitors. They were quickly ushered from the King's study, much to the annoyance of Lydia.
"We can't be that much of a bother to them." She huffed.
"It could be something important, Lydia."
"Hmph, even so, I think we have a right to know."
"Not really." Erin laughed. "He has a right to keep things from us."
"Ooh." Lydia's eyes widened. "What if it's a suitor for you?"
"Don't be silly." Erin snorted. "It's too soon."
"It's never too soon." She wiggled her eyebrows. "I wonder if he's handsome."
It seemed Lydia had already decided who their mysterious visitor was. She craned her neck to see the door of their father's study.
Erin rolled her eyes, Lydia and her were in the hall, just out of sight of anyone who might enter the King's study.
"I know he's handsome." Lydia mused to herself. "I can feel it."
"Oh can you? Yes, I see it now, our father handpicked a handsome stranger to come take me away." She gave Lydia a sarcastic look.
"I'm sorry, but if father was finding me a suitor, it would be far more likely he would pick some old and fat Lord who happens to be politically advantageous."
Before Lydia could respond another voice broke the silence: "I never have understood what people see in you, Aidan." The voice drawled. "But, it's a bit of a stretch to call you fat."