pretty, " Kelric answered truthfully. But he was glad when it was
gone, and he could return his attention to his reassuring toy fleet.
Briony and the Queen retreated farther up the
beach start building the village, the queen yelping a bit when the
puppy stopped to vigorously shake the water from his sleek coat.
Kelric continued to pull his boats this way and
that for the next half-hour or so, but could not shake his uneasiness
about the little ship they'd seen. He glanced out to sea and was
relieved to find the horizon completely empty of boats. Instead, he
watched the waves several feet beyond the breakers. Just for a moment,
he saw a seal's dark sleek head break the surface. The seal watched
Daddy and the others at their water play for a minute or two before
ducking down and disappearing beneath the sea again. Gulls were flying
here and there in the pale blue sky, swift and effortless. From this
distance, Kelric thought them beautiful, and was always surprised when
he saw gulls closer up and saw how homely they could look.
What a beautiful thing it must be, to be able to
fly! Kelric held out his arms to either side and flapped
experimentally. Gulls just glided along, not looking as if they were
working at all, but flying must be more tiring than it looked. He
flapped harder and jumped up into the air, only to come down again
disappointingly fast. Kelric stuck his fists in his armpits and pumped
his elbows up and down with all his strength as he jumped up again -
and immediately returned to earth with a splash.
Mummy laughed again, very gently. "I'm
afraid it's no use, Kootik, my darling. People just aren't meant to
fly," she told him in a voice full of amusement.
"Why not?" Kelric was deeply
"We're too heavy, and our arms aren't
strong enough to lift us into the air," she told him. "Not
even when we're children. And we don't have nice big wings with
feathers like birds do, or a tail to balance us."
"Oh." Kelric felt foolish. He looked
up at where Briony sat with the queen, hoping that she hadn't noticed.
If she had, she'd tease him about trying to fly for weeks to come.
Fortunately his sister was far too interested in her own activities to
notice what he'd been doing. He noticed that whenever Stripes did
something clumsy, she immediately pretended she had not done it, and
stopped for a quick paw wash. He tilted his head back and began to
turn around in slow circles on the spot, watching the sky wheel around
and around him. He turned faster, holding his arms out to either side,
laughing as he spun. Then all at once he sat down hard and yelped as
an incoming wavelet soaked him to the waist. His landing caused a
small tidal wave, making a very choppy sea for the little Rhafallia
and all his smaller boats. Mummy helped him up at once. "You
really DID want to swim today didn't you, darling?" she sighed
indulgently. "And now you're about halfway there, at least in
terms of being wet. Do you want to go up to the Pavilion and change
into some dry clothes?"
Kelric nodded and squished up the beach beside
Mummy, towing his boats. The long string of boats was laid out in the
sun to dry off before they were put back in the basket. The dry sand
clumped unpleasantly on his feet, in between his toes and on mummy's
too, and his tunic left a little trail of wet drops in the sand behind
them. The tunic itself felt very cold against his legs, and set water
runnelling down his legs in an unpleasant way. Nevertheless, he and
Mummy paused to admire the village Briony and the queen had built. The
buildings were just low mounds in the sand set in neat rows, some of
them showing the mark of Briony's small starfish hands, others showing
the imprint of Araxie's longer slimmer fingers. Each house had been
decorated with the shells and little rocks the two had found earlier
along the water's edge. Just now both Briony and the queen were paving
the wide main "street" with little bits of flat white
shells, patting them into place at the base of the largest of the
mounds of sand.
"We built Rhemuth, see Mummy?" Briony
said proudly. She pointed a stubby forefinger at the central mound of
sand. "That's Rhemuth Castle."
"That's not a castle -- it just looks like
a big pile of sand!" Kelric objected.
"Kelric, hush!" Mummy scolded.
"Yes I see you have darling," she told
Briony, seeing her lower lip stick out ominously. "And this
street here with the white shells is the Avenue of the Kings, isn't
it? But where's the river?"
Briony pointed to a narrow ditch that had been
scooped out along the right hand edge of the sandy little city.
"There it is!"
"Oh yes, there it is. How silly of me not
to see it."
"There's no water in it, though,"
"It's just a pretend river," Briony
told him coolly, eyes half closed. "Don't you understand
anything, Kelric?" Her eyes widened again as she really looked at
him, and she put on a smile of purest evil glee.
"You have a wet bo-o-o-t-tom, you have a
wet bo-o-o-o-t-tom!" she sang, pointing at his dripping tunic.
"Are you looking forward to motherhood yet,
my lady?" Mummy asked the queen ruefully. "Or have my
delightful children cured you of the idea?"
Kelric glanced at the queen who had been quietly
laughing as she watched the whole thing. She was still laughing too
hard to speak, but shook her head no.
"I think I know two children who have spent
enough time in the hot sun and need some dry clothes and some
food," Mummy said. "Our midday meal should be ready by now I
The King and the other men had come back , and
were sitting about in their shirtsleeves in the pavilion, talking and
laughing while drying their wet hair with towels. Bishop Duncan was
polishing his ring against one shirtsleeve, his cross lying on the
straw matting at his feet. The servants moved among them, setting out
a large cloth and dishes of food.
"So Kelric you decided to go swimming after
all?" Daddy asked, grinning when he came into the pavilion hand
in hand with Mummy.
"Only from the waist down," Mummy said
smiling. "He was spinning around, and when he stopped, he felt so
dizzy, that he plopped right down in the water. We'll be back when his
lordship has had a change of clothes."
Kelric sniffed hungrily at the delicious smell
of roast chicken as Mummy led him toward a little curtained-off corner
of the pavilion. He willingly shed his clammy tunic and let Mummy
towel him off without wriggling before she pulled a clean green tunic
over his head. Breakfast was several hours behind him now, and he felt
very empty and eager to satisfy his hunger. He didn't even mind the
sting when Mummy brushed the now dry sand off his feet and ankles. She
let her own skirts fall back to their natural length and retied her
girdle before they rejoined the others.
Daddy and the King had installed themselves to
either side of the queen who was enthroned in a low sand chair. The
greyhound puppy too, had been toweled off and his damp, fuzzy coat
stood on end as he sat attentively at his mistress' side, watching the
food parade by, his black nose quivering. Another low chair had been
set out for Mummy. She glanced at the chair and then at the King in
question, but he smiled, shook his head and gestured for her to sit
down. Then the King grinned, beckoned to Kelric next and patted an
empty space of straw matting to his right, so that Kelric was
sandwiched between the King and Lord Dhugal. Briony sat on the other
side of the cloth between Bishop Duncan and Uncle Seandry.
"You didn't stay in the water for very
long, I must say," the queen told the King.
"The ocean is much colder here than it was
in Dunluce," the King explained, even as he picked out a chicken
drumstick and some slices of chicken breast and piled them up on a
trencher of day-old bread for Kelric.
"It's a month later in the season, and
we're a good bit farther north of Dunluce, you silly man," the
queen told the King tartly. "Of course the water was going to be
colder." But she smiled at him as she said it, and by the
expression on her face, Kelric knew she didn't think the King was
being at all silly.
"Oh, is that it?" his godfather
sounded disappointed. "I thought the water was colder because I
didn't have any blonde mermaids swimming with me." He looked at
the queen in a way that Kelric didn't understand completely, even
though he'd seen Daddy look at Mummy that way sometimes.
Once again Queen Araxie blushed very pink,
although she kept smiling.
"You _were_ swimming with Duke
Alaric," she pointed out. "If swimming with a fair haired
person is all that's needed."
"That's not at all the same." The King
grinned across at Daddy. "Alaric isn't -"
"I should very much hope I'm _not_ the
same," Daddy said with a playful growl, looking as if he'd
enjoyed the whole exchange between the royal pair. "No one has
ever compared me to a mermaid in my life."
"Or any other kind of maid," the King
replied, looking sly and amused.
"Did you really see a mermaid at Dunluce,
Godfather?" Kelric asked, amazed.
"Oh yes, and I swam with her several
times," the King assured him gravely.
"Only a King can hope to see a mermaid swim
in Dunluce Cove, and then only if he's alone and _very_ lucky,"
the queen told Kelric, her cheeks very flushed. She busied herself
with feeding her puppy a tidbit of chicken meat.
"I thought mermaids were only
pretend." Kelric knit his brows in puzzlement. As always with
adults, he was sure that there was some important part to this
conversation that he didn't quite understand and they did. The
amusement in Daddy's face was a sure give away.
"I saw a mermaid on this very beach not
long ago," Uncle Seandry said with a perfectly straight face as
he gave Briony a large, deep red strawberry.
"Really Uncle Seandry?" Briony
demanded, her eyes very round and curious. "What was she
"She was sitting on those rocks over there,
while she sang and looked out to sea," Uncle Seandry replied.
"Another strawberry, sweetheart?"
"Sean, you and your stories," Mummy
scolded, even while she laughed. "You _know_ the children believe
everything you say. Mermaids, indeed!"
"What happened to the Mermaid?" Briony
"She swam away."
"Is that _all_ she did?" Lord Dhugal
laughed as he tore off a hunk of fresh bread from the loaf Mummy
passed to him.
"We-ell, she did say she didn't much like
knights, and preferred sailors," Uncle Seandry said ruefully .
"Just as well Derry," the King
answered, laughing. "It would never have worked. Your mail would
"You couldn't have held your breath long
enough, either," Daddy pointed out. "And your Earldom isn't
even on the coast."
All the men laughed, even Bishop Duncan,
although he looked vaguely guilty.
"Ladies present, my lords," the queen
rebuked, but very mildly. "If you gentlemen can't behave, Lady
Richenda and the children and I will have to excuse ourselves."
Kelric caught his breath, knowing that he hadn't
understood the half of what had been said, but knew that he didn't
want to have to miss eating lunch with the men.
"I'm sorry, love. We'll be good," the
King said. He took the queen's slim hand in his own and kissed the
back of it and then the palm.
"Oh yes, I see how good you'll be,"
she teased softly, although she smiled down at him with warm, loving
eyes, and did not withdraw her hand from his.
All of a sudden, the question he'd wanted to ask
earlier came back to Kelric. He glanced over at Daddy who had a
mouthful of chicken at present. In any case, Daddy didn't appreciate
being asked lots of questions while he ate. So Kelric turned to Bishop
Duncan who was taking a swig of the pale yellow wine that accompanied
"Bishop Duncan, what's a 'carnal
Bishop Duncan's face turned bright red and he
choked on his cup of wine so hard that both Uncle Seandry and Daddy
had to pound him on the back as he spluttered. Briony watched with
very round blue eyes, as mystified as he was by the Bishop's reaction.
"Kelric Alain _Morgan_!" Mummy gasped
staring at him open mouthed, At least shesounded shocked rather than
angry as she had been yesterday when she'd caught him playing with the
breakfast honey. To Kelric's right Lord Dhugal had collapsed backward
on the straw matting, positively howling with laughter. Even the
King's face was bright red, and he was blinking rather fast. The
queen, blushing nearly as red, was stuffing the happy puppy's mouth
full of chicken.
Kelric was absolutely bewildered. Why did the
simplest questions set adults off this way?
"Ask your father!" Bishop Duncan
blurted when he could talk again. He blotted his watery eyes with one
full shirt sleeve.
** Coward**, Kelric heard Daddy say to Bishop
Duncan, although he wasn't certain he'd heard him say it aloud or just
mind to mind. Daddy was eyeing Bishop Duncan with both concern and
"Why Duncan, I'm amazed. I thought you
_liked_ explaining things to children," Daddy teased, looking on
the verge of a laughing fit.
"Some things should only be explained to
children by their parents," Bishop Duncan said dryly. Kelric was
relieved to see he was beginning to smile, though. He was afraid that
he'd truly offended Bishop Duncan.
"You, sit up!" Bishop ordered the
still howling Lord Dhugal. "Or I'll make _you_ explain to Kelric
about carnal levels."
Lord Dhugal worked his way up onto his elbows,
somewhat calmer although his face was still filled with hilarious
"But Father, what would I know about carnal
levels?" Lord Dhugal gasped. "I couldn't possibly explain it
to him - I'm a bishop's son and the last virgin knight in
"Nicely sidestepped, Dhugal," the King
said, beginning to laugh himself now.
"But surely _you'd_ like to explain about
carnal levels, My Prince?"
"Oh no, I couldn't possibly deprive you of
that honor, Alaric."
"None of you are going to explain them to
him quite yet," Mummy said firmly. "Kootik, you're far too
young to find out about-about that."