“The queen is coming, make way for the queen!”
Danil spun around, lowering the wooden sword he was about to swing at Addvar’s head. Maybe Addvar hadn’t heard, because he whacked Danil in the back with his own weapon.
“Ow, cut it out!” Danil said. “Didn’t you hear the queen is coming? And look, there’s Lydia. Hurry, or we’ll miss them!”
Word had reached Dragon Bridge two days before that the queen and her companions had captured the murderer. That had meant renewed freedom for Danil, after more weeks spent indoors. “I’ll not have you out and about with a killer on the loose,” his mother had said, even as the murders had moved on to Morthal and Dawnstar and beyond. “No,” she said every time he pleaded for his freedom, “not until they capture those Khajiits.”
And then it turned out not to be Khajiits at all, but a Breton. And Khajiits had helped capture him! They were already singing songs about it at the tavern, even though only a few weeks before the entire town had been ready to put every Khajiit’s head on a pike. The world of adults was confusing.
Queen Deirdre had made a great speech in Whiterun calling for unity among all Skyrim’s peoples, and just yesterday messengers had arrived in town, posting bills with the text of the speech wherever they could. Danil had tried to read it but it was filled with words like amity, Aldmeri Dominion, Thalmor, treachery, and reconciliation.
All he knew was, now that the manhunt was over, it wouldn’t be long before the queen and her entourage passed through town on the way to Solitude. So he and Addvar had taken their post on the hill above town, with a clear view of the bridge over the Karth River and beyond. They’d passed their time by practicing their sword skills, but they’d become so preoccupied that now they’d nearly missed the queen entirely.
“Come on!” Danil said, running down the hill.
They reached the main road through town just as the procession stopped in front of the Four Shields Tavern, where Faida was waiting with saddle cups for the queen and her companions. In front were the bannermen, followed by four guards all arrayed in sashes with the queen’s sigil. Then the four companions: the queen, this time dressed in a fine silk shirt and trousers, not the mage’s robes that had hidden her features the last time he’d seen her. Her blond hair with the braids on either side of her face shone in the sunlight. Sitting her horse close to Lydia’s, passing a saddle cup back and forth, she seemed happier and less worried than back in the spring. And there was Lydia herself, looking less stoic and fearsome this time, now wearing just a padded gambeson rather than full steel armor.
Next to them, the Khajiit mage — J’zargo, he knew from the new songs — said something he couldn’t hear. Lydia replied with a severe look. But then she broke out in a smile and all four laughed. Brelyna, the Dunmer mage, looked rather angry with her red eyes. He’d never seen a Dunmer before. But she smiled and laughed, too, and placed a hand on J’zargo’s shoulder. The four looked quite companionable, and what he wouldn’t have given to be in their midst!
“Okay, I’m going!” Danil said.
“No, wait,” said Addvar, clutching at his sleeve, but it was too late.
He ran out into the road and between the horses of the guards in front. The horses skittered and one guard exclaimed in surprise, but they did nothing to stop him as he approached the queen and her companions.
Dropping to one knee, he drew his wooden sword from his belt and dug its point into the cobbled road, both hands resting on the hilt. “My queen, I, Danil of Dragon Bridge, offer you my fealty and service, from this day forward, until your Grace release me, or death take me, or the world shall end. Thus I swear by the Eight and by the Three.”
Addvar ran up and knelt beside him. “And thus I, Addvar of Dragon Bridge, also swear by the Nine, my Queen.”
All was silent for a moment as Danil kept his eyes on the ground. At last he heard Queen Deirdre dismounting. He dared to look up, and now she was standing over him, smiling. Behind her, Lydia still sat her horse, towering over them like a mountain.
“Such strong young lads,” the queen said, “both Breton and Nord. What do you think, Lydia, do we have room for them in the Royal Guard?”
“Aye, my Queen, for lads such as these, we’ll make room.”
The queen stood over them for a moment longer, but didn’t ask them to rise. Instead she knelt down before them on both knees, her expression now serious.
“Tell me, Danil, Addvar, what do you like to do when you’re not hitting each other with those swords?”
“Well,” said Danil, gulping. “Sometimes my mother makes me gather berries for her. But I don’t really like it.”
“And sometimes,” Addvar said hesitantly, “sometimes we have twig boat races in the Karth River.”
Silly Addvar! Twig boat races were for babes, not brave young warriors. How would the queen ever accept their service now?
But the queen smiled and said, “That sounds like fun. I wish I could join you.” Then she put a hand over Danil’s where it still rested on the hilt of his sword. She held his gaze, and he thought he saw a great sadness in her eyes. He was too young to name it wistfulness. “I truly appreciate your loyalty and your enthusiasm. But do not be so quick to throw away the doings of childhood. Too soon you will be grown and then, Akatosh willing, you’ll have years and years to be an adult, with all the cares and responsibilities that go with it. You won’t always have a mother who needs you to pick berries, and you won’t always have time for something as simple as a twig boat race. Do you understand?”
Danil nodded, though he wasn’t sure he did, and so did Addvar.
“Then, in a few years, when you’re grown and strong, and if you still wish to enter my service, you may come before me and I’ll gladly accept.”
The queen stood and bade them rise. Then, instead of knighting them with their own swords, she gave each a hug, a hug Danil would remember for the rest of his life.
The queen remounted and Danil looked over to see his and Addvar’s mothers beckoning to them impatiently. “Get out of there!” his mother hissed.
He watched the queen’s procession until it went out of sight around the bend in the road. Then he didn’t know what he felt. He’d spoken to the queen! She’d even touched him! But then she’d treated him like a child. Why couldn’t she see that he was nearly grown, nearly ready to fight great battles on her behalf? He wasn’t too young to become a squire, or a page, or a messenger boy at the castle.
But he could be patient. He imagined a Royal Guardsman would need great stores of patience to keep watch over the queen. It wouldn’t all be glorious battles with dragons and draugr and High Elves.
And besides, he still had to get Addvar back for that unguarded hit he’d taken earlier. He spun on his friend. “Raise your weapon, vile usurper! You’ll die for insulting my queen!”
“Hey,” his friend said, “I’m the one defending the queen’s honor, not you!” Addvar blocked his first blow, then countered with a thrust that nearly got him in the chest.
“Boys, boys!” said his mother. “Take that out of the high street before you hit someone or get run over by a horse.”
Danil laughed as he chased Addvar down toward the Karth River. Maybe they’d have a twig boat race once they got tired of the swords.
After all, he couldn’t ignore his queen’s very first command.