Beau opened the door to the great hall and held it for us, a wide, contagious smile lighting up his whole face. His dark hair and bright blue eyes made him as handsome as a king in a story—or so I had heard the castle dairymaids whisper to each other. They blushed when he passed them in the courtyard and bid them good morrow.
Kaye and I were only twelve and mostly ordinary-looking. Nobody blushed at our greetings.
“Come on,” Kaye said, bounding through the open door into the hall, where a number of knights had already gathered. Some stood at attention—or dozed where they stood. Some sat, holding their heads and groaning over the early hour.
Kaye turned around, “Aren’t you coming, Reggie?”
I peeked into the hall. “Maybe I’m not invited,” I said. “The queen called a meeting of her knights. I’m not a knight like you.” I looked up at Beau, frowning. His two or three extra years made him two or three inches taller than Kaye and me. “And you’re the queen’s nephew, so of course she wants you there, but maybe I shouldn’t go in.”
Beau laughed. “Wherever we go, we go together.”
“That’s right,” Kaye said. “And you’re now a Royal Chronicler of Knox. How can you write down all our adventures if you’re not there from the very beginning?”
We entered the hall together.
Queen Vianne stood small and straight in the great hall of Castle Forte as her knights assembled. Her wide blue eyes searched the men’s faces, missing nothing. Shafts of early sunlight fresh from the horizon cut upward through the dim vaults of the room, streaking the dusty air with ribbons of floating gold. Drowsy deerhounds stretched curling pink tongues in enormous yawns before pushing their long noses deep into the rushes, hunting for half-buried morsels of last night’s feast.
Queen Vianne cleared her throat. “I need your help, knights of Knox. Alchir the tutor, who has been like a father to me, is traveling alone to join his daughter as she journeys here from Vinland. He’s in great danger. I want you knights to find him and protect him.”
“Is it bandits again?” Sir Griswald called out. Bandits plagued the roads of Knox.
“No, something far worse,” the queen replied. “The criminal Dworfurd has escaped from prison. As you all know, Sir Dworfurd broke into my rooms and burned some of the old king’s secret papers. I imprisoned Dworfurd and stripped him of both his knighthood and his land. Alchir is the unfortunate person who discovered Dworfurd burning the papers, and now that Dworfurd is free, I fear he may try to harm Alchir for revenge.”
“Aye, that sounds like Dworfurd,” one of the knights said out loud.
“Naw,” said another. “Sounds like Bragwayne. Dworfurd wouldn’t catch a cold unless Bragwayne told him to. Those knights from Abegnayle stick together.”
“Someday Dworfurd will crack,” said a third knight. “He won’t stand to be bossed all his life.”
“I’ve never met Bragwayne,” the queen said. “I don’t believe he’s been at court for some time.”
Sir Melchor chuckled. “Too true, Your Majesty. He ran out of here a year ago with his tail between his legs, whimpering about spooks. He lives in the north of Knox now, but he still orders Dworfurd around, even from a distance. You can bet on that. Bragwayne is a man with plans and Dworfurd is his pawn.”
Kaye, Beau, and I grinned at each other. We knew that Bragwayne’s spook had been an old woman named Agnes living inside the castle walls. The grin slid off my face when I remembered that Agnes claimed that Bragwayne and Dworfurd had caused the old king’s death. I shivered. These were dangerous men.
“What is your plan, Your Majesty?” another knight asked.
“I want you knights to search all roads leading south to Vinland in order to find Alchir and protect him, and if possible, recapture Dworfurd,” she said.
Kaye turned to me. “I hope the queen will let us go search for Alchir,” he said. In the dusky hall, his gingery hair looked as brown as mouse fur, but his green eyes shone bright with excitement.
“She’ll probably keep us here where it’s safe,” I said.
Kaye sighed. “I hope my father didn’t ask the queen to do that.” Sir Henry Balfour, the finest knight of Knox, had left that morning to return to the neighboring country of Eldridge, where he worked as a special advisor to the king. Kaye continued, saying, “I really want to find Alchir and help keep him safe. He’s a good man who deserves our help. And, if I do some good deeds outside the castle, the people of Knox can get to know me better. Then I’ll be a real person to them, not just some ridiculous child knight. Maybe they’ll even give me a knight’s name!”
“What’s a knight’s name?” I asked.
“It’s a name people give to knights that describes each one’s most famous quality. My father is called Sir Henry the Just because he’s known for being so fair. And Melchor is known as Sir Melchor the Strong. Sir Griswald is Sir Griswald the Patient. Even Dworfurd was called Dworfurd of the Hammer because of the crest on his shield.”
“Ooh, how about Sir Kaye the Magnificent?” I said.
“Or Sir Kaye the Smelly,” Beau said.
Kaye ignored Beau and shook his head at me. “No, that’s too grand. I was thinking of something like Sir Kaye the Bold.”
“That’s a good name,” I said. “How do you get people to call you that?”
“I don’t. They have to choose my knight’s name all by themselves. It will be interesting to see what they pick.”
“But they could call you anything! How would you like it if they started calling you Sir Kaye the Short? You’re shorter than all the other knights, and even if you grow up tall, the name might stick. You might become the tallest knight in Knox and they’ll always call you Sir Kaye the Short.”
He smiled. “I’ll have to hope that my bold deeds impress people more than my height.”
“Well, I hope they pick a good name for you,” I said.
“They will,” he said. “I’m sure of it. We just have to convince the queen to let us go search for Alchir.”
The queen’s low, clear voice drifted over the knights’ heads as she explained her plan. Suddenly a door slammed, like a furious wind had crashed it shut, and a girl’s shrill voice cried out “Vianne!”
The knot of knights around the queen broke, the way a rushing river hurls itself against a boulder and splits apart on either side of it.
The girl’s clear amber skin and alert face reminded me of Alchir, but underneath limp brown hair and heavy eyebrows her dark eyes snapped with anger. She wore a mud-stained dress and her filthy bare feet bled onto the rushes below.
She yelled again, “Vianne! Why didn’t you take care of my father? How could you bring him to this cold, awful country, and then not keep him safe? What kind of useless queen are you? You can’t take care of one person, let alone a whole kingdom! For that matter, you can’t even shut the gates of your castle. I walked right inside. No one stopped me.”
My mouth dropped open and Kaye looked shocked. How dare this dirty, ragged girl speak to the queen like this?
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