Here’s the latest installment of the serial story. I hope people are enjoying it (I’m not even sure how many people are reading it). If you’re just stumbling upon it, chapter one is here, and you can find the previous chapter here.
Sebastian would have been much more comfortable in the forest than on the road. He felt exposed with nowhere to go for cover. It didn’t help that his sword hung wrapped in burlap on his back where it would take him precious seconds to get to it instead of in its scabbard at his side where he could draw it in a heartbeat. But the princess was correct that they were more conspicuous sneaking through the woods.
As he walked, he glanced over his shoulder every so often to make sure they weren’t being followed. Although the princess’s ruse appeared to have worked, there was a part of him that expected to see the witch’s men coming after them.
“Would you relax?” The sound startled him, and he turned to see the princess looking up at him, her hands on her hips. “You’re so jumpy you’re making me jumpy.”
“I’m sorry, your highness.”
“Do you think someone is following us? Or do you think we’ll be recognized if someone sees us on the road?”
“I don’t know. They don’t seem to be watching the roads anymore, so the search may have moved on. They didn’t recognize us in that village, but it is possible that we might meet someone who knows me well enough to recognize me, no matter how I’m dressed.”
“Are you really that well-known?”
“Probably not to anyone we happen to encounter on the road, but I’m likely quite familiar to the people who would be looking for you. I’ve spent most of my life around the court and even trained with some of the royal guards, some of whom now work for the witch.”
“Well, then, it sounds like you’re the liability here.” He was fairly certain she meant it as a joke, given that her eyes sparkled with dry humor, but he couldn’t help but flinch because, joke or not, she was right. She must have noticed his flinch, for she put her hand on his arm and added, “I’m kidding. I know I couldn’t get through this without you, and I don’t know who else I’d be willing to trust.”
“You do trust me?”
“I figure if you wanted to hurt me, you’d have left me in that dungeon in the first place.” Then she grinned and added, “Unless, of course, you want me for your own nefarious reasons. Say, you aren’t an agent of our enemy kingdom, are you?”
He couldn’t help but smile. “I can assure you I am not. And do you always jest about important matters?”
“All the time,” she assured him. “I guess you could call it my coping mechanism. If I weren’t making jokes, I’d be aware of how serious the situation is, and then I’d be freaking out. Would you prefer me to make a few wisecracks, or would you rather be stuck with a swooning damsel in distress?”
“Would the damsel in distress be quiet?”
As soon as he said it, he feared he’d gone too far and presumed too much to speak to a princess that way, but she laughed out loud. “Oh, no, definitely not. She’d be screaming her head off, and you wouldn’t dare stick a sock in a princess’s mouth to keep her quiet.”
“In that case, I will tolerate the joking.”
“You should do that more often,” she said.
“Do what, your highness?”
“Smile. It looks good on you. Are you usually so serious, or is it just this whole life-or-death mission thing?”
He looked away from her so she couldn’t see his eyes. “I can appreciate a good jest, but I’ve had precious little opportunity.”
“Well, stick with me, and I’ll keep you laughing,” she said, hooking her arm through his and giving his hand an encouraging squeeze.
He couldn’t resist turning back to look at her. “I shall hold you to that.” The legends said the Enchantresses had gifted her magically so that all would love her, and now he understood how that worked. It wasn’t so much that people were compelled toward her as that she had a gift for making people feel at ease and for making them laugh. Those qualities made her utterly irresistible.
“I see you escaped notice,” a gruff voice said, making both Sebastian and the princess jump. It was Larkin and Leila joining them, but Sebastian cursed himself inwardly. He’d allowed himself to be distracted by joking with the princess, and if it hadn’t been allies joining them, he might not have been able to protect her. The presence of the dogs was reassuring, though. Their senses were far keener than his, so they should be able to warn him of danger.
By late afternoon, when the dogs said they were nearing their destination, Sebastian decided that safety was more important than his disguise. When they stopped to rest, he took the bundle off his back, unwrapped the sword, and attached the scabbard to its rightful place on his belt. “You know how to use that thing?” the princess asked as she emptied pebbles from her shoes.
“I’ve spent my life training to use it,” he replied, trying not to sound like he was boasting. “I am to be knighted this winter on my eighteenth birthday. Or, I was to have been. Leaving my master’s employ so abruptly may change the situation.”
“Yeah, but you did it to save the kingdom, so yay for you. You’ll probably get knighted and get a medal. Because, hello, I think I outrank your master.”
He couldn’t hold back a smile as he helped her to her feet. She’d done it again. She’d managed to make him feel better about the situation. It was truly a rare gift that she had, and he was sorry that he soon would have to part from her, once he turned her over to the Loyalist leaders.
The sky was just starting to darken when they rounded a curve in the road and a smallish, rustic castle appeared ahead of them. “We are here,” Larkin announced. When they drew closer, Sebastian saw that the blue-edged handkerchief that signaled a Loyalist sympathizer hung in one of the narrow windows that overlooked the gate.
A pair of guards stood in the gateway. They came to attention as Sebastian and the princess approached, and one called out, “Long live the king!”
“And also his queen,” Sebastian responded.
“What is your business here?”
“I was told to come here. Sergeant Fulk sent me.”
The guard’s attitude changed completely. He grinned from ear to ear, and both he and his colleague gave the princess an appraising look. Sebastian wanted to chastise them for ogling her that way, but he knew this was neither the time nor the place. “We’ve been expecting you,” the guard said. “Come with me.” The guard led them across the courtyard to the house tucked against the back castle wall, where he banged on the door. “They’re here,” he called out.
A minute or two later, there was a sound like the door was being unbolted. It opened to show a gray-haired man with a stony, disapproving face. The princess edged closer to Sebastian.
“Ah, the Sinclair boy, and our lovely little princess with him. So, you did succeed,” the man said with a glare. “Well, what are you waiting for? Get inside.”
The inside of the house was dark, and it took a moment for Sebastian’s eyes to adjust to the dim light. There weren’t many windows, with the back of the hall being up against the castle wall, and the front windows were in shade at this time of day. There were torches on the walls and a fire in a hearth at the end of the hall. The shadows made it hard to tell how many people were there, but Sebastian guessed about ten. They were all sitting around a long dining table near the fire.
The men all stood and moved forward as Sebastian and the princess entered the hall. When they drew closer, Sebastian saw that Lord Argus, his master, led the group. Sebastian let himself relax. He hadn’t been certain if Lord Argus had remained at court as an agent of the Loyalists or if he served Melantha, since Sebastian had always received his orders on behalf of the Loyalists from Fulk, but Argus’s presence at the rendesvous meant he must be on the right side. Lord Argus must have ordered Fulk to give Sebastian the mission, which meant Sebastian hadn’t dishonorably abandoned his position. “Your highness, may I present my former master, Lord Argus,” Sebastian said.
But then someone else stepped out of the shadows—a woman. It was the witch Melantha, Sebastian realized with a sinking heart. They’d been betrayed, and he’d served a traitor. Without hesitation, he drew his sword and faced his master.
The people who’d carried Dawn away hadn’t spoken the entire time, so she was trapped in eerie silence and darkness. She was fairly certain her aunts were involved. Who else here would have an interest in her? Her captors were fairly gentle with her, aside from keeping a bag over her head, and that kept her from being too frightened. If they meant her harm, they’d have actually harmed her.
Once the boat landed, there was a short walk, and then they sat her on the ground. She mentally prepared an explanation to give to her aunts as to why she’d gone away and was avoiding them, then someone yanked the bag off her head.
Instead of facing a group of women in black dresses with white collars, she saw a grubby group of men. “Oh!” she said in surprise. “But who are you?”
“We’re Bertram’s Bards, that’s who, you fool,” snarled one of the men, but another cuffed him in the back of the head.
“Be civil to our guest,” that man said. With a flourish and a bow, he added, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Bertram the Bard, and these scoundrels are my troupe.”
“You’re professional performers?” Dawn asked. She’d never met a real professional musician before, aside from perhaps her choir teacher.
“That we are, miss.”
“Why did you kidnap me?”
“Kidnappin’s such an ugly word. Consider this a pre-emptive hirin’, if you please.”
“You want me to join your troupe?”
“That’d be the gist of it, yes. I heard ye singin’ in the marketplace, and I thought to meself, ‘Meself,’ I says, ‘Yon lady would sure to be our ticket to perform at the coronation, and that would be our ticket to fame and fortune.’ And so, we snatched you up before any of those other groups could get to ye.”
“The coronation? At the castle?” Aside from the fact that she’d been kidnapped, Dawn could scarcely believe her good fortune. Now she wouldn’t have to worry about buying passage downriver. If only Jeremy were there, but at least he had the money she’d earned already, and perhaps she could send one of the men to find him.
“That indeed, miss.”
“Then we’d better start practicing. We’ll need to work me into your act, and I have some songs I want to teach you. Who’s your best baritone?”
The men all looked at each other. “Baritone?” Bertram asked.
“Oh, perhaps it’s different here. I suppose some of you play instruments, but the others must sing, right?” They looked at each other again and then nodded. “When you sing harmony, some of you must sing the high parts, and some the low parts, and then there would be some in between.” They still seemed confused, so she said, “Maybe it would be easiest if you performed for me, and then I can decide better what we should do. Go on, play something for me.”
One of the men took a battered mandolin out of a sack, and another had a drum. A third man had a tin whistle. The one with the whistle played a note, then the one with the mandolin began strumming. Bertram and another man joined in, singing what Dawn soon realized was a very bawdy song. She felt her face growing warm just listening to it. “No more, please!” she cried out. “Don’t you have any nicer songs? I can’t sing something like that.”
They started another song, and she soon realized that they were hopelessly out of tune. The whistle and the mandolin were playing in entirely different keys, and the singers didn’t even seem to be listening to the accompaniment. “Oh, this won’t do at all!” she cried out when they finished the song. It would take a miracle for this group to get invited to perform anywhere, let alone at a coronation. Bertram had a decent voice, but a tin ear. The others had great enthusiasm without much talent. She suspected they could only make money because their lyrics were so naughty.
“What’s wrong, miss?” Bertram asked.
“I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps we could start by picking a key. You, play a chord,” she instructed the mandolin player. He obliged, then she told the whistle to play a note. That note wasn’t anywhere in the chord, so she made him go up the scale until he hit a note that fit. All the men grinned like it was a great revelation. “See, doesn’t that sound better?” she asked. “Now, let’s try singing something that fits.” She taught them a simple song the choir teacher used as a warm-up, and soon she had them almost sounding like a group. After at least an hour of practice, they had one song worth performing.
“Takin’ you may have been the best decision I ever made, miss,” Bertram said with a grin. “But it’s time to rest and eat. We’ll need to head back to town soon enough to find a tavern for performing tonight.”
“A short break, maybe. We don’t want to strain our voices. We can focus on image while we rest.”
“Well, look at yourselves. You’re rough and filthy, no offense. But would you invite yourselves into a castle, honestly?”
They looked each other up and down, and Bertram said sheepishly, “No, perhaps not.”
“You’ll all need baths and a shave and some clean clothes. I wish my friend Lucy were here. She could design us some nice costumes so we would really look like a group.”
They didn’t seem very enthusiastic about that, but she assumed they were just tired. They also didn’t want to get back to work when they finished their meal, insisting on passing a wineskin around their circle. She tried teaching Bertram one of her favorite musical theater duets, but he wasn’t very interested, and the drunker he got, the less interested he became. Soon, all the men had fallen asleep, and it was only the middle of the afternoon. She supposed they must be in the habit of napping during the day if they performed late at night.
After a few minutes of watching them sleep, she realized that they’d left her entirely unguarded. She wouldn’t have minded staying with them if they could have helped her reach her goal, but quite clearly that was never going to happen. She’d have to find something else. Maybe another troupe with actual musical skill would take her on.
Moving as quietly as she could, she picked up her backpack and tiptoed away from the group. She froze and held her breath when one of the men rolled over, but he went right back to sleep. Soon, she was deep into the woods and well away from them. The only problem was, she had no idea where she was or which direction she should go. Having her head covered while they brought her there meant she didn’t know how to get back. She reassured herself that the animals in this world were friendly, and some could even talk to humans, so she was sure to find someone who could guide her at least to the river, if not all the way back to the town. She might even be able to find a bird willing to go to the town and find Jeremy for her. The animals being so drawn to her at home could sometimes be annoying, but here it was actually rather useful.
However, this area of the forest didn’t seem to have any animals in it. No squirrels scampered from tree branch to tree branch, no rabbits hopped through the undergrowth, and no birds sang overhead. There was nobody to offer her directions. Absently rubbing her itchy finger against her pants leg, she realized that she still felt that strong tug that had brought her through the portal and to the river. If she followed that tug, she could find the river again and follow it upstream to the town where Jeremy was.
Having a plan made her feel so much better. She closed her eyes and waited for the pulling sensation, let herself sway in that direction and took a step forward. Once she knew the right direction, she opened her eyes and headed out.
She hadn’t walked long before she came to a clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a little cottage. There was something odd, and yet familiar, about it. It reminded her of Christmas, for some reason, and then she remembered that she and Lucy had once tried to make a gingerbread house. The picture on the kit had looked much like this. The house they’d made had turned out to be something else entirely, but they’d had a good time.
Anyone who lived in a house like that had to be of a festive or whimsical spirit, and perhaps they could give her directions. She went up the front walk, which was lined by what looked like large lollipops, and knocked on the front door.
An old woman, stooped so she was bent almost double over her walking cane, opened the door, squinted at her, and smiled a toothless smile. “Why, good day, young miss,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“I got lost in the woods when some men took me away from the town—that’s a long story, but I got away from them. Now I was hoping you might be able to point me to the river or the quickest route to the town. I think I know the general direction, but I thought it might be easier to ask for help.”
“Oh, I can certainly direct you to town, but you don’t want to go there now. It will be dark soon enough, and these woods are no place for a young lady like yourself to be alone after dark.”
“Is it nearly dark? It’s hard to tell in the forest, and I must have lost track of time.” Dawn was fairly sure the animals wouldn’t harm her, but she didn’t want to run into Bertram and his men again. They might not be happy with her leaving their troupe so abruptly.
“You are welcome to stay the night with me, young miss. I get terribly lonely alone in the woods, and few ever come to visit me. We’ll have a nice dinner and a good night’s rest, and tomorrow you’ll be ready to travel.”
Dawn hesitated. Jeremy was sure to be worried. But she also didn’t like the idea of being alone in the woods at night. This seemed like a nice enough lady and, after all, she lived in a cottage that looked like a gingerbread house. Dawn couldn’t imagine that a truly wicked person would have a house like this. “I would appreciate your hospitality. I can help with the cooking, or do the dishes after dinner.”
“Oh, no need of that. You’ll be my guest.” The woman ushered her inside and made her take a seat at a small wooden table. “I hope you’re hungry. You look like you could use a little more flesh on those bones.” She dished up a thick stew, with a slab of bread smeared on both sides with butter alongside it. “Be sure to save room for dessert,” the woman added with a grin.
While she ate, Dawn studied her surroundings. The cottage was simple, but it was decorated with whimsical candy-land touches that went with the outside of the house—stained-glass windows that looked like they were made of hard candy, support pillars on either side of the fireplace that looked like peppermint sticks, and an ottoman in front of a rocking chair that looked just like a giant gumdrop. The only thing that didn’t fit was the large cage at the back of the room.
“What kind of pet do you have?” Dawn asked with a gesture toward the cage.
The woman looked up sharply from slicing a cake. “Pet?” she asked.
“Well, you’ve got a cage …”
The woman gave a cackling laugh. “Oh, that’s not a cage. It’s the best I could do to create a guest room. You see, I sleep in the bed over there, and when I have company, they don’t always want to share a room. I throw a blanket over that frame, and there’s a guest room with privacy.”
“That’s a very clever idea.” Dawn wasn’t sure she believed the woman, even if it was uncharitable of her to distrust her hostess. A lattice framework over the top should be enough to support a blanket to create a tent-like room. It wouldn’t need bars on the sides or a door. If the woman had talked about having a big dog that needed a kennel, she’d have believed that, but explaining away a cage as a guest room? That made even Dawn suspicious, and Lucy always said she was too trusting.
The old woman insisted on her taking second helpings of dessert and tried to give her some candy after that, but Dawn insisted she couldn’t eat another bite. “I’d be happy to help you clean up,” she said. “I feel bad dropping in and eating your food.”
“Oh, never you mind about that, young miss. As I said, I’m glad of the company. You should just go to sleep in my nice little guest room. I’m sure you could use the rest.”
Dawn most certainly did not want to go into that cage. She needed to delay that as long as possible. Her aunts usually went to sleep before she did, so perhaps if she stalled long enough, this woman would drift off. “But I feel like I should repay you,” she said. “I know! I can sing for you.”
“Sing for me?” the woman asked, a hint of suspicion in her voice.
“Everyone says I have a lovely voice. Back home, my aunts make me sing to them while they go about their work. I’m going to be a professional singer someday.”
“I suppose a song or two wouldn’t hurt.” The woman settled into her rocking chair and put her feet up on that gumdrop ottoman.
Dawn dredged up every slow, sad song in her repertoire and sang as if her life depended on it because she was afraid it did.
Continued in Chapter 10