I posted this story a couple of years ago and was delighted with the response it received. Since then I've been continuously editing it so this is an improved version of the book I started writing when I was 16. It's now five years later and I've finished it thanks to all your enthusiasm!

It follows the story of a girl called Elfia (and no, it's nothing to do with elves!) as she becomes a woman and a lady-in-waiting at the court of a kingdom in the middle of war. She becomes the central character in a tale of politics, treachery, intrigue, war, family and love. It's a sort of realistic fairy tale set in an imaginary country- with lots of influences from Shakespeare. There's no magic or dragons- it's much more of a nitty-gritty fantasy novel that deals with the normal sort of things that people worry about but please try it, whatever your taste is!

It's been a very long project for me but worth every minute. It's the ultimate escapism and I've thrown everything into it. The characters are almost real to me now- I know what the material of Elfia's dress feels like and what she can see from her window…it's quite sad how real they've become. I hope I've conveyed enough of them to you that you can almost feel the same

I am trying to improve it more and more and so please do give me as many ideas, comments and criticisms as you can possibly think of. Above all…enjoy!

Lady In Waiting

Chapter 1- Aboard the Skylark

I have a weakness for sunsets. I always imagine I am a sensible sort of girl with a practical head on my shoulders, and yet every time I slouch against the stern rail as I do now, staring out into the sunset as it creeps slowly towards its ocean bed, I always find myself thinking in a decided sort of manner, that there is never enough time for dreaming. It seems that every day my dreams are constrained to these few moments, as the rich golden disc slips beneath the clouds and sinks slowly into the sea. How is it that just this one part of the day is so perfectly balanced? - the beauty and calm of the sun, contrasting with the vibrantly alive waters beneath it. These instances are always guaranteed to transform my day. I am no longer a sailor's daughter with a brief reprieve from her chores, I am a lady and my mother's beloved daughter. In these few moments, she is almost alive next to me, and not merely the distant memory of a young girl who crouches beside her in terror at the creaking of the ship's sides. During these precious moments, when it is just the sun, the deck rail and I, I'm whoever I want to be. Oh if only knew…

It was a question that was becoming more confusing every day and I wished that the sun would not be in such a hurry to dive into the water because there was much in my head to unravel and as always the end of His day was the end of mine for as the last crackling rays disappeared, I heard my father shouting

'Elfia, go below now.'

'But Father, it's so pretty up on deck.' I turned to see him bearing down on me with a determined look on his face.

'No Elfia, I want you down in the hold where I know you're safe. The storms are on their way.'

I wanted to point out that I was a woman now and could do as pleased but that would have sounded more childishly petulant than ever and it was not worth arguing with my father so I simply smiled beseechingly. It was to no avail although his voice was softened.

'You are so like your mother.'

'You always say that!

'I know. Maybe it's just that I'm not used to seeing you in her dress.'

'It's still so beautiful isn't it?' I felt extremely grown up now that I had come of age. The privileges and rights of finally being able to wear a woman's dress, which made all the difference between being treated like an adult and being ordered around like a child, were still sinking in.

My mother had died giving birth to my younger sister when I was just four years old. I'd like to think that I do look like her and act like her, and my father tells me how similar we are all the time, but whether I truly do resemble her, I don't know. I certainly seem to have her dark hair and small stocky frame, but under the surface there had to be more that we shared.

'So like her, apart from that tattoo of course,' he said, reaching out to run his fingers across the nape of my neck. 'She never had that, with her not being Silverwood.'

My mother had come from a bustling port in the neighbouring country of Nearguard. She had met my father on his travels years before and followed him home to our land.

The Captain had only recently applied my tattoo during the voyage, another traditional custom to mark the onset of adulthood. The nape of my neck was marked with the Silverwood crest, a tiny circle with a fir tree inside. It had not hurt as much as I had feared nor as much as my elder brother's had teased and I often found myself looking at it. I loved seeing it there; it was a badge that I belonged, an identity, and for a girl whose mother had been from another country, it made a huge difference to me – I felt I was truly Silverwood for the first time in my life. I was not ashamed of my connections but whilst the two countries had once been friendly, recently relations had begun to turn nasty and there had even been talk of war.

Only recently having come of age it still struck me as strange that before my birthday no man even glanced at me but after I donned the dress of a woman, suddenly they all noticed me when I passed. I suppose I was quite pretty but not in the native way because my mother's people are small and dark, whereas the people of Silverwood tend to be much taller with thick, curly, reddish or chestnut-brown hair like my father. But in spite of my dark hair and although I was half barbarian, men still thought of me as Silverwood and for that I was grateful. All the same, the staring eyes and hungry glances of some men made me feel extremely vulnerable and ill at ease. Somehow, larking around with my pack of brothers was a whole lot less threatening than a conversation with some of the sailors. I fervently hoped that they were not searching for a wife, for my father would agree to give me to any sailor, if only to keep me aboard ship for life, secure in a livelihood he loved and understood! I wasn't sure what I wanted but I felt there was more to see in the world than ships, voyages and trading. Whatever his plans for me were, he would frown when he saw my brothers teasing me (threatening to throw me overboard was almost a daily occurrence for Mafeti), and would remind them with a stiff voice that I was a woman now and expected to behave like one. As a result I had recently found myself spending less time with my brothers in favour of the three other women aboard; Aletta, Captain Masek's new wife; Leanna, the wife of one of the officers; and Mara her mother. Leanna was only one year older than me but I often felt left out when they all talked of men and husbands. It seemed I would never fit in with the women until I had been married. I sighed, for I wasn't sure I was altogether ready to be wedded and bedded to any man that took a fancy to me. Surely there was more to life?

'Go below now!' My father said again, cutting into my thoughts like the 'Skylark' plunged through the sea. 'And send some relief up here for the night watch,' he sighed. 'Where are your brothers when I need them?'

I watched fondly as he disappeared. My father had always been a sailor and so ever since I was a small girl my family had always spent days at a time aboard ship. My eldest brother Gaius was fast on his way to becoming a ship's officer and determined to follow my father's profession onto the sea. After Gaius come my brothers Mafeti and Cairn, followed by myself, and then lastly my sister, Amelia.

After the death of my mother, my father had found work at the harbour and we had a small house in Thayla, our countries capital. My childhood seemed to have passed extremely quickly. Gaius, eight years my senior, was charged with taking care of us but if I remember correctly he would often give in to my brothers and let us chase around the streets and run wild across the beaches at any opportunity. My father also tried to enforce my mother's ideals and insisted on our being schooled well, so I can read and write unlike most of the other city children. As we grew up my brothers began to form an almost exact group of opposites. I myself enjoyed reading, but Cairn became completely devoted to studying at a young age and through this path he was quickly apprenticed to a diplomat with a post at Thurc, a large town on the other side of the country. After he left, and Gaius and Mafeti began to long for the sea, my father decided that it was time we moved on. It was just after my sister had turned fourteen and I was approaching adulthood that my he found work for us aboard the merchant ship 'Skylark'. Amelia was too young to accompany us; a trading ship is no place for a fourteen-year-old girl, and so Father insisted that she remain at school. Even at fourteen she is a silly creature, prone to vain whims and fancies, with a love of pretty things, so I could see that she was better off staying with Izzia, Gaius' new wife. But I freely admit that I judge her harshly -she is still only young and simply enjoys the hustle and bustle of the town.

Izzi works as a seamstress in Thayla Castle, the seat of our Royal Family and the central hub of political activity and government for our people. We had not known her long before she entered our family but she is an easygoing woman who adores my brother as much as I do. He is the sort of brother I shall always want; always ready to listen and have time for me, as well as being kind and loyal (although I will admit that like me he has our mother's stubborn streak.) I could tell that he hated leaving his new wife scarcely six moons after their wedding but this voyage would promote him to an officer and the opportunity could not be wasted. Mafeti is the exact opposite to Gaius in every way; he believes a strong arm solves problems rather than discussion, which he considers 'womanish'. Hot headed and impulsive but is loyal and will always be true to his king and country; he makes a good sailor though he longs to be a soldier.

Another good sailor suddenly appeared in front of me, in the form of a tall red-headed man, and gave a ridiculous courtly bow.

'May I escort you to your chambers, fair Lady Elfia.' I laughed and took the proffered hand.

'My father sent you didn't he?'

'I'm afraid so. Someone it seems, must put you to bed,' he grinned.

'Ah well,' I sighed, 'I suppose if someone's got to do it, it may as well be you.'

I was almost shocked to hear myself flirting with Borfa so blatantly but of all the men on board, it was he that I felt most comfortable with. I liked his merry, twinkling eyes and the silly grin he always wore upon his face. He was tall and handsome with chestnut curly hair, bleached by the sun and reaching down past his jaw- the traditional style for a Silverwood man. He wore a red sleeveless tunic, a pair of sturdy but well-worn brown boots and a loose dark green cloak. As we walked to the entrance of the hold I was conscious how strong his arm felt with my slim hand upon it.

'So tell me, Lady Elfia. What do you do with yourself in Thayla? Are you are talented as well as beautiful.'

I felt my cheeks going red and looked around to see if anyone was watching.

'Don't worry, no one heard!' he reassured me, smiling at my nervousness.

'I make nets,' I said awkwardly and then cursed myself. What sort of clumsy answer was that?

'An excellent trade,' he nodded.

'Not really,' I admitted. 'But it passes the time. My father says I may as well make myself useful!'

'I'm sure,' he said with a smile, 'that when we get back home, as a woman, you will have many more important occupations than making nets.'

I floundered for a witty enough retort to this but as we reached the foot of the ladder and were walking towards my berth the ship suddenly jolted. The lights went out and it seemed the storm was indeed approaching. I tripped and, feeling myself go sprawling, reached out for something. Suddenly I felt strong hands grip me, haul me up and then powerful arms reaching around me. I felt my heart beating as I wrapped my arms around him and then I realized that it was his heart that I could hear, pumping next to my ear. How long would we have stood there motionless? I would not have moved for anything. I was truly content until a cry shattered the peace.

'Land Ahoy!' shouted Captain Masek's voice from above.

'Sorry Elfia, I've got to go up on deck,' Borfa whispered excitedly as he guided me safely to my bed then and then there was nothing but cold empty air where he had been. Desperately trying to sleep I found that I remained mulling things over long into the night. Was Borfa the man to convince me that marriage wouldn't be so bad an option?

I awoke early as the hold was bustling with activity and I recalled the Captain's news; Land! I had mostly enjoyed the voyage and it was a change from the confines of the city even if it was hard and demanding work but I hoped that our destination had finally been reached. It was time to finally get off the Skylark; lovely though she was, one could get tired of her confines after so long. It would be grand to feel land beneath my feet at last. Naturally we had stopped at a couple of little islands on the way but I had not had much time to explore and always had to be back on board ship at nightfall unlike the men who were free to wander as they pleased.

We had been travelling for many leagues all the way to Santis, a rich and prosperous island far to the east of our land. It was the first time any of my family had ever visited the island and we were very curious and excited about the place so I couldn't wait to explore. I hoped I wouldn't have too many duties to fulfil today. There were few spaces on the ship for women and so we were expected to behave like the men but clean, sew, cook and mend as well. It was an exhausting way of life!

I dressed quickly in my finest dress, lilac and embroidered with flowers around the hem; once it had belonged to my mother. I also wore my best golden girdle as I didn't want the Santians to think we Silverwood were a barbaric nation! Having only just come of age I actually only owned two summer dresses but no one here needed to know that! My other was a pale green but it was much plainer. I combed my hair, proud to wear my curly black locks down for once; on board the ship I had to tie my it back all the time as it got in the way too much. To be honest though, I wasn't just dressing up for the Santians- oh no, there was a certain young officer on board that I wanted a chance to impress! From some of the sailors, attention was as unwelcome as the plague but from Borfa, it did make me feel warm inside.

The Captain smiled at Leanna and I in our childish eagerness to explore the new island and said that we were excused from any chores that day and were free to wander round the marketplace so long as we were back on board by sunset to help prepare the meal. For a while I forgot Borfa as we raced down the gangplank eagerly surveying the new land. It was truly beautiful and the sun beamed down all over the city and the rolling green hills behind while the familiar salty sea breeze kept us from overheating in the hot sun. At each step we witnessed some new miracle and right up to sunset our eyes were wide with wonder. First to amaze us was the harbour with each wooden ship bearing a figurehead crafted from gold or silver. The masts were also wrapped in silver with paints colouring magnificent woven patterns all the way up each one.

Next we came to the outer wall of the city which was made from yellow sandstone so it also looked like it was built from bricks of dusty gold. The riches of the city shone everywhere and compared with the grubby and cluttered back streets of Thayla it was the most incredible place we had ever been. We entered through the South Gate and saw the walls were thicker than any I had ever seen; a man with arms outstretched could not have reached beyond either side. On the battlements above us smartly clad foot soldiers in blue and gold lined the walls. They carried huge circular shields with the Santian emblem emblazed in gold- an eagle flying through a crown. We saw the gates to the King's Gardens and the long pathway that lead up to the Palace itself, a white castle on the hillside covered with golden domes and cupolas. The place seemed to me something out of a dreamland and I imagined each hallway inside must be lined with rubies, diamonds and other precious stones. There were many sentries on guard on the road up to the castle and I wondered if the Captain had been allowed past them all; maybe he would tell his wife Aletta what it was like inside and then she could tell us later on.

In spite of all these riches, it was the market that impressed us the most. The many bright stalls selling things that were new and old to us were a source of constant fascination from those selling dresses and veils to the food stalls with many delicacies we had not even heard of, let alone tasted. There were stalls selling beads, buttons, jewels, to adorn no less than princesses; rolls of coloured fabrics to make any costume imaginable; weaponsmiths selling everything from sturdy swords to items so complex that I could not fathom how they worked; even charms and potions to enchant or bewitch! The country must indeed be a wealthy and prosperous one. Throughout the day I saw no one who looked poor or deprived, there was no sign of disease and all was clean and free from the filth and muck that constantly laid claim to our land. Instead of reeking of fish or smoke, the air was intoxicating; full of spices and incense. I wished that I had some money to buy a gift for my sister and Kelia, my friend back home, but we did not have any and I couldn't ask my father for some either as he only had Silverwood coins. Because of our lack of funds we could only look at the market stalls but for me, only used to the few traders at Thayla, it was enough just to be there.

When the great bell in the town square tolled for sunset, the traders packed up their stalls and Leanna and I ran back to the ship. I felt quite faint and out of breath as we hurried along the quay; we'd got lost in the maze of streets and almost thought we wouldn't get back on time. Luckily though, it was still light as we scrambled up the gangplank. In the galley we met Mara and Aletta who had been stocking up on food for the feast that night as well as the long voyage back. The Captain had given them plenty of Santian money to refill the hold with a whole range of delicious delicacies. We sat down and began to prepare food for the feast; it would be the first day in a long while that we would eat well and have food that was fresh and tasty. Recently all we had eaten were shipcakes; horrible little biscuits made from rye and other nutrients that kept well over long journeys. By the time we came to eat them they had been so dry and hard so that if one had been thrown I swear it could have knocked someone unconscious!

My mouth was watering as I dressed the roast rabbit and laid it on a wooden platter. Next to me Leanna was peeling fruits, some of which I had never seen before. Aletta and Mara were gutting smoked fish, a chore I always hated and was pleased to escape. Suddenly the Captain appeared; he was cheery man who could always laugh and joke yet was ruthlessly strict and organised when time required.

'Ladies, I wish to show my gratitude for all the work you've done for me on this ship.' He tossed us all a little bundle and I heard the chink of coin as a small lilac drawstring purse fell into my lap. 'Spend it in the market while we are here; you will not get such a good selection of goods for a long while.' When he had gone we opened the purses and found thirty Santian bronze coins! We sat and marvelled over this generosity; as women accompanying the sailors we had not expected to receive any payment.

'This is wonderful,' exclaimed Leanna excitedly, 'Now I can by a new pair of sandals; Yacob said I didn't need any!'

I looked at her feet and the scraps of leather that barely clung to her feet. I made up my mind to get a small gift for my friend Kelia and sister Amelia – she was quite spoilt enough but I felt sorry for her, left at home whilst we all went travelling. I wasn't sure how much thirty bronze coins would buy but I intended to make the most of my two remaining days. It was no use at home and Father would probably take it away from me so I had to spend it whilst I had the chance!

We gathered on the deck for the start of the feast. Everyone was exhausted from all the preparations but looking forward to the food and the ale and the dancing immensely. I wasn't sure which I was most excited about! The Captain stood at the helm and held up his hands for quiet.

'At last we have arrived. It has been a nearly two season's journey and no easy trip but now thanks to good sailing and the will of the Gods we have arrived safely. I think, if no one scorns the idea we will stay here for a while longer. Do you want to leave tomorrow or wait two days?'

There were shouts from the crew of 'Stay! Stay!'

'Very well,' he agreed, 'but for now, let's eat! We have a fine feast ahead of us thanks to the hard work of the women.' More raucous cheering broke out but the Captain shushed them, 'That's enough talk, I know you are hungry so go ahead and eat and then we will have music and dancing.' And with that he stepped down to join us by the food and we all advanced upon the delicious looking spread.

I sat with Leanna but we did not speak much as the food took all our attention. I adored the little pieces of smoked carp whilst her favourite was the lamb. Yacob, her husband, came and sat with us and offered us some Santian ale that tasted very different from our home brewed beer and I wasn't sure I liked but drank anyway. Leanna declined another cup and admitted to me that she thought she might be with child.

'This time I am almost sure!' she exclaimed happily and Yacob looked at me proudly,

'Isn't the news wonderful?' he grinned and then took her arm and asked, 'Come, dance with me?' She assented and followed to the makeshift dance floor where three sailors were playing a well-known dancing tune with pipes and a drum. Several crew members were dancing and clapping but I was left alone to my thoughts, wondering whether Leanna actually was pregnant and what she would do now. They looked very content and I hoped for the happiness of both of them that it was not a false alarm. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder and I looked up to see Borfa standing over me.

'Will you join me in a dance, Elfia?' he asked and I grinned and jumped to my feet, noticing that he still towered above me. I was small for Silverwood women and he was a tall man so the height difference was noticeable but I found I quite liked it; I felt protected. He led me over to the deck and I began to join in and tap my feet to the music. We moved well together and Borfa moved well in time, much better than I had expected him to. The ale had made my head spin a bit though, and I felt quite dizzy as he whirled me around in the circle of torches.

After a while we became exhausted and laughing together we withdrew to a corner of the deck.

'You know what I would like now?' he asked with a playful smile.

'Tell me?' I asked, wondering what he was hinting at; surely he wasn't going to kiss me in front of all these people!

'A quick swim to cool off,' he said mischievously.

I was relieved it was not as I had thought but then suddenly realized what he wanted and blushed with embarrassment.

'What's wrong?' he asked concerned, the cheeky grin erased for a moment.

'I…er, cannot swim.' I said simply.

'In that case I shall have to teach you. We'll go tomorrow.'

'Oh, thank you. I've always wanted too be able to.' I smiled sweetly at him then looked around and saw Gaius watching with a smile on his face. I looked down at the deck embarrassed in front of my big brother in spite of our closeness. He would tease me about Borfa, I could tell.

Eventually the Captain banged on the drum for quiet.

'I'm afraid the celebrations must be called to a halt. We don't want our few days in this new land wasted by sleeping all morning and then waking with such terrible pains in our heads that we can't enjoy the city.'

By the raucous shouts coming from some of the crew I guessed it was too late a warning for some.

'Come,' he finished, 'all down below except Yacob who is on the watch, to be relieved at sunrise by Mafeti. Let us leave this peaceful city to slumber silently- to bed with you all.'

He herded everyone down into the hold and I was carried with the wave of people, to my berth where I promptly collapsed from exhaustion and fell asleep almost immediately.

I awoke early and the rest of the hold was silent but for a few contented snores that occasionally rang out. I reached into my basket of possessions for my green dress and put it on hurriedly. Stepping as quietly as I could I tried to leave unobserved but luck was not with me. Gaius opened his eyes lazily,

'Going to find Officer Borfa?' he teased. I evaded the question, wondering what Gaius really thought of him.

'Do you like him? I know so little about him.' It was true. He seemed nice enough but I didn't really know him at all.

'Elfia,' my brother answered patiently, 'I have come to like him as a good friend. He is a kind man,' and then he winked, 'and he will make a good husband one day!' I gave a wry smile at this advice and asked nervously,

'Is father up to something?'

'How do you mean?'

'Marrying me off?' I said quickly.

'Oh no!' he said laughing. 'He did mention that it would be awfully good if you got yourself a husband so soon, but he's not going to force you into anything!'

'That's good to know,' I said.

'He did say something about having some ideas of people back home that might want a wife…'

'Oh Gaius don't let him do anything stupid!'

'I've told you; he's not selling you to the highest bidder. Don't worry so! Anyway, it seems you've got your eye on one already by the looks of things!' he said with a smirk.

'Goodbye Gaius!' I said and hurried out before my face gave away how unprepared I was for such a comment.

On the top deck I waited for Borfa whilst watching the gulls swooping for fish. Thoughts were circling inside my head like the seabirds. Was I really ready to be married? I liked Borfa very much but to be his wife? I had only been a woman for a short while and he was the only man I had known outside my childhood. Surely we had just been having fun together. Yes, maybe I was imagining things…he knew as little about me as I knew about him. But then I knew some men who didn't need to know their wives that well. All they wanted was a complacent and obedient woman with good hips for childbearing, who could keep their house, feed them well and warm their bed. They weren't looking for more. I realized that I could see myself fulfilling a role as his wife; it would not be that difficult especially on a ship but maybe a bit longer before I took on such responsibilities would be better. And yet if he did ask me… what would I say?

The deck began to bustle as people emerged somewhat sleepily from the hold then set off to explore the new island in small groups. Borfa came towards me brandishing a basket containing remnants of last nights feast.

'Ready to go?' he asked cheerily.

We set off along the harbour and then, instead of entering the walled city as I had done the day before, made our way around the rocky headland. We scrambled clumsily over rocks, which was no easy task in my sandals compared with Borfa's sturdy boots, and then laughing, raced across short sandy stretches whilst the waves were out. Suddenly we emerged at a beautiful sandy cove. I stopped and gasped at the sight for no Silverwood coast ever looked as breathtakingly lovely as this. I sat on the sandy floor as if it were made of gold and too precious to touch. Borfa was thinking the same; 'It's so beautiful,' he said and then looked at me and winked, 'Like you, Elfia!' I gave a wry smile at such blatant flattery though secretly it pleased me immensely.

'Let's swim!' he announced and I took off my dress and stood awkwardly in my shift, as I was sure he could see right through the thin material. He however, looked incredibly good and his strong chest, tanned from the outdoor life, was rippled with muscle from the strenuous work. I realized I was staring a little too intensely so I blushed again and walked into the warm sea.

Borfa taught me well that summer morning. By the end I could stay afloat reasonably well, although I'm sure spluttering and splashing as I was, it couldn't have been very dignified. When we emerged dripping from the water, I was exhausted and more than ready for the food. We sat and munched the crispy bread and fish in silence, but the quiet didn't seem to matter as we just enjoyed each others company without the need for words. Then suddenly as if to make up for the silence we started talking rapidly discovering each others history and lives before the 'Skylark'. Borfa told me of his childhood in a small village on the Northern Peninsula.

'I never knew my real mother, or father either for that matter. I was brought up by Captain Masek's father and raised as his much younger brother. I suppose I will never really know who my mother was, all I know was that she most have been quite wealthy as my baby's swaddling was made from rich cloth, but either she didn't want me or she couldn't keep me. Of my father I know even less; my name apparently means 'Son of the Birds' and it was all that I was brought to Masek's home with. I often wonder why she called me that but I'll never know now.'

I felt pangs of sympathy for the big man, I had always had a big family that was my own and although my mother had died when I was young, I still remembered her and knew that, as then her only daughter, I was special to her.

Borfa's life had been quiet and uneventful, the household had moved closer to Thayla after the death of Masek's father and they had settled there, near to the busy harbour where Borfa and Masek had found their trade.

'We are very close still,' he told me. 'And even after he found a wife he still had time for me and I know I am welcome in his house until I find a wife of my own.'

I smiled shyly and he took my hands and looked at me with such earnestness I had never seen before. 'Elfia, may I ask your father for you? I have been struck by you since I first saw you. I am falling in love with you – will you be my wife?'

I felt a wave of dizziness; so my thoughts had been true. The sight of the tall man looking at me in such a mixture of awe and tenderness made me decide.

'Yes you may I ask my father for me,' I replied, the words stumbling out of my mouth where they had meant to flow smoothly. 'I would be happy to be your wife.' He reached out and held me, his arms so strong that I was almost crushed. I was sure I had made the right decision. Borfa was a kind and generous man and a good friend to my father and brothers. He seemed to adore me and he was pleasing to be with. Also, I admitted to myself, he was very handsome. I wasn't sure if I was in love with him but he was a likeable man with whom I would gladly spend my days.

He took my arm and we walked back along the coast. It was with a much contented silence we walked until we rounded the last headland and came in sight of the 'Skylark'.

'Wait Elfia,' he said softly, 'before we get back there is something I must do.' I smiled nervously and he gently put his lips to mine. It was just a small kiss but it signified much; an agreement, a seal between us, and every word spoken, said in a single moment.

I sat on my bunk daydreaming and unconsciously tying knots in my girdle. I couldn't wait to tell Gaius and Leanna the news even though I knew they would tease me. When I saw Kelia at home I would already be married, having left Silverwood shore's as a child – oh how exciting it was!

'Elfia, Elfia!' my father's voice rang out. I suddenly panicked – what if he had refused him? But my relief was short lived when I saw the animated look on his face. 'Elfia, I have had an offer of marriage for you from officer Borfa. How about that? I have of course accepted him, but only if you are in agreement. I know you like him though, I've seen that look in your eye. Has he asked you himself?'

'Yes, Father. He has asked me and I am happy to accept.'

He hugged me tight.

'Ah my little Elfia, grown up and just like her mother, soon to have a family of her own. I feel so very old although I will confess that I was hoping you'd find yourself a husband soon!' He was interrupted as Gaius ran in,

'I just heard the news! Oh sister how marvellous.' He too threw his arms around me. My father chuckled and left us to talk together. 'My dear sister to be wedded; and to a great friend as well. When is it to be?'

'Soon I think.' I blushed, 'Borfa said he didn't want to wait long.'

Gaius chuckled. 'I see why not; you are very beautiful, sister.' I must have looked embarrassed again because he grinned, 'You know you must never be embarrassed in front of me.' He kissed my forehead and I screwed up my nose in pretend disgust. 'He'll never want you looking like that,' he teased and I gave him a friendly clout.

'Hey Gaius, do you have designs on my bride?' A shout came from the other end of the galley. Borfa and Gaius laughed together and gave each other friendly punches also, as men often do. I left to find Leanna and some female company.

The market was bustling as we picked our way to the veil stall the following and final day of our stay in Santis. Borfa seemed to insist on spending money on me. We had already purchased marriage chains; all couples had a matching symbol carved onto a small stone and wore it on a leather thong around their necks until the day they died. Borfa had selected a fish as our symbol to remind us of this trip and the time we had spent both on and in the water. The next symbol of the marital state was the veil. All married women had a veil that they were supposed to wear at all times. On board a ship it got in the way so the three other women rarely bothered but in Thayla and the other bigger towns it was more customary and on days of celebration it was compulsory. The veil could be any colour except of course black, which was reserved for widows. We looked at the endless rolls of fabric in fascination. What colours! What patterns! Surely when I arrived back in Thayla I would stand out as the most beautiful women in the town. I had a wonderful afternoon picking my veil and in the end chose cream coloured gauze bordered with gold in spiral patterns. The sheen glittered in the sunlight and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever held. Borfa bought it out of his pay and I felt guilty that he should spend so much money on me. He buried his nose in my hair and said, 'Please, let me.' I was won over immediately. Afterwards I bought a bracelet for Amelia and another for my friend Kelia and then a tiny vial of scent for myself. The vendor assured me it could bewitch a man so strongly that he could think of nothing but the wearer. I laughed at the story but bought the musky smelling scent anyway.

'It only cost two bronze coins,' I told Borfa but omitted the part about how it bewitched men deciding that I might surprise him one day!

'Well, I know how a woman likes to smell nice,' he said smiling and we walked back to the ship, my veil, neatly folded, tucked under his arm while I rested on the other.

I awoke the following morning to the normal hustle and bustle of the ship. It seemed quieter and there was a strained atmosphere. Awakening fully I realized why; we were leaving today. None of the crew wanted to depart yet, these three days had been so rich and full, all we had ahead of us now were moons aboard the 'Skylark'. I chided the dear old ship unfairly I knew, but after Santis, after Santis there was nothing to look forward to on the ship. Except of course- how could I forget? - my wedding and new life as Borfa's wife. In any case, we had to leave in order to get home before the winter; the open seas were no place for a small merchant vessel in a Silverwood winter.

We spent the morning loading the supplies of food, fresh water and ale. For the first part of the journey at least, we would eat well. By the end, well, I dreaded to think. At least we would make a couple of stops to take fresh supplies. As I passed the crates along the chain a feather caught in the wind, whirled around my head and stuck in my hair. I took it in my hands and looked at the beautiful jade treasure. I thought that maybe it was a token from one of our gods. It had been too long since I had been involved in any ceremonies and one of the things I noticed most aboard the ship was the prominent lack of religion. Aboard was a small shrine to the White Lady, goddess of the sea, but nothing to our other three gods and I was looking forward to getting back to the city where there were proper temples and religious festivals.

'Hello, beautiful,' Borfa's voice whispered in my ear. I turned to see him smiling and he kissed my forehead and whispered longingly, 'Two more days and you will be my wife.'

'The Captain has agreed then,' I asked excitedly.

'Oh yes, and there will be a feast and music and dancing and excitement for all. He thinks the sooner we are wed the better; it will lend the men some morale.'

He wound his arms around me affectionately and I knew I too awaited our marriage eagerly. I had left home a child and now I was to be returning a wife!

The whole crew watched somewhat mournfully as Santis faded from view; it was if we grieved for it like a homeland although no one had spent more than three days there. When it was gone from sight however, we all turned our views towards Silverwood – and home!'

'May the White Lady guide us back safely,' the Captain announced solemnly and we all prayed that she would.