Archive for April, 2020

My Books

New Book, Mailing List, and Other Updates

The e-book of Spindled has been set to publish and should start showing up at the various retailers soon. It’s already available at Amazon and Kobo.

I’ll keep posting chapters for those who want to keep reading that way.

I would say this is the fastest I’ve gotten a book published, since I really just started getting things in motion last week, but considering that I started drafting this book in 2007, it may actually be the longest time it took me to get something published.

Meanwhile, I’ve finally gotten around to starting a mailing list. People keep asking me if I have a mailing list, and I’ve resisted, but I’ve realized that it might be a good idea. The plan is to have a monthly newsletter that would have content similar to what’s in the blog — what I’m working on, some behind-the-scenes info on my books and their inspirations, what I’m reading, what I’m watching, maybe some insights into the writing process. Then there would also be reminder e-mails when there’s a new book coming out. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

I think after I’m done with the serial, I’m going to stick with doing blog posts just a couple of times a week (unless I’m inspired or have news). I don’t seem to have a huge blog readership, so it’s probably not the best use of my time to compose daily posts. I’m trying to focus my efforts on the most effective things, and if I put the number of words that go into the blog into books, I could probably write an additional book a year. For little daily updates, there’s Twitter, but otherwise, I’ll focus on putting meaty content in the newsletter and spend my daily time actually writing books. I’m doing occasional guest posts on writing at Fiction University, and I’ll be submitting some more posts on writing to the SFWA blog. That kind of thing broadens my audience because it’s not just going to people who already read my books.

So, that’s what I did yesterday — formatted a book, set up a mailing list service, and got a book published. Not bad for a day’s work.


Serial Chapter 14

Here’s the next chapter of the ongoing serial. The formatting may look a little different because of what I had to do to the file in order to turn it into an e-book. The book will be coming very soon. I’m formatting it now. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here.

Chapter Fourteen

The boat pulled up at a village just before dusk and the crew set up the stage. The area around the docks was crowded with people by the time the sun had set completely. Dawn felt the rush of adrenaline she got before every show, flooding her body with a wave of energy that would make her explode if she didn’t sing, dance, or find some other way to let it out. Performing wasn’t just fun for her. It was vital to her life.

She and the troupe gathered on stage behind the curtain, and at a signal from Huw, Jeremy and one of the other men pulled the rope to draw the curtain aside. The lanterns around the stage were so bright that Dawn couldn’t see much of the audience other than a general blob of people, but their applause was loud and enthusiastic. She put on her biggest smile as they began the initial group number.

After a few songs as a group, they rotated among soloists and smaller ensembles. Soon, it was time for Dawn and Will to perform. She’d never sung with another person with so little rehearsal—he’d heard the songs for the first time only hours ago—but that only made the performance more exciting for her. His voice had a maturity that fit better with her voice than anyone else she’d ever sung with. It wasn’t too hard to get into character and imagine herself singing to her beloved. She was just feeling truly romantic at a quiet moment in a song when a voice from the crowd shouted, “Dawn!”

She froze. The first thought to cross her mind was that whoever it was had totally broken the mood and ruined the song. But then she realized that she hadn’t been introduced by name. No one outside the crew should know who she was. At that moment, the curtain swished rapidly across the stage, and she hurriedly stepped back as it closed in front of her. She turned to see Jeremy still holding on to the curtain pull and staring at her, his face white.

She ran over to him. “Why did you do that?” she asked. “We were in the middle of a song.”

“Look,” he said, pointing to the shore. From his vantage point at the side of the stage, there was less light on the boat, and that made it easier to see the audience. There was a commotion on the dock, where someone seemed to be trying to shove through the crowd—someone wearing a big white collar.

Then the sky lit up. It was as though someone had pulled the moon a lot closer to the ground. A cool light flooded everything. Jeremy pulled Dawn back against the aft cabin, where there was still some shadow. “Dawn!” the voice cried again, and this time Dawn was sure it was Mariel. They’d found her, and they were coming after her.

A shadow loomed over them, and Dawn jumped before she realized it was Huw. “It sounds like someone is looking for you,” he said mildly, as though people interrupted his performances with magical light every day.

“Yes, and I don’t want to be found,” Dawn replied, surprised by how steady her voice sounded. “I escaped from those people, and I won’t go back.” She added, still not sure whether or not it was true, “They kidnapped me and took me away from my family. I finally figured out the truth and got away.”

He nodded and grinned. “Very well, then. I enjoy any opportunity to thwart those old crows.” He reached up and waved a hand, and the eerie light faded. He waved his hand again, and the dock became blurry, as though they were looking at it through thick glass. “Now, take her to my cabin.”

Jeremy and Dawn ran into Huw’s cabin, bolting the door behind them. “You don’t have to hold your breath,” Jeremy said after a while, a fond smile in his voice. He put his arm around her shoulders, and she let herself lean against him as she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “I don’t think they’ll hear you breathing.”

“With them? You never know.”

“Do you think it’s true, what you said to Huw about them?”

“I don’t know. They’re certainly coming after me.”

“Want me to go check?”

She didn’t want to be alone, and his arm around her was so very comforting, but she did want to know what was happening. “Won’t they recognize you?”

“Please! After all this time, they still call me ‘that boy.’” He took one of Huw’s hats and a cape from a hook on the wall. “And I’ll be in disguise. I’ll be right back.”

As she paced nervously while she waited for him, another thought occurred to her: What if the enchantresses had Lucy? The aunts had known something about Lucy’s disappearance, so maybe the other enchantresses’ men had brought the wrong girl back to this world. And that might mean that she, Dawn, was the one who was supposed to be with them.

There was a knock on the cabin door and Jeremy’s voice said, “It’s me.” She rushed to open the door. “They have a boat nearby, and the enchantresses are all over the docks,” he reported. “I couldn’t tell if the aunts were with them or on their own. Huw’s out there arguing with one of the aunts, trying to convince them it’s a case of mistaken identity and you’re his sister’s youngest daughter, just joining the troupe.”

“I thought of something while you were gone. What if it was the enchantresses who took Lucy?”

“Then she might be on their boat. Let’s find out.”

She reached out to stop him, but her fingers only brushed his sleeve as he left. Soon, there was a sharp rap on the door, and Dawn opened it to see Rhian. “Take off your dress,” Rhian said.


“Come on, we don’t have much time. Da’s out there trying to convince one of those enchantresses that she has you mistaken for somebody else. I get to play you.” She looked happy to be helping Dawn, which was a welcome change. Dawn hurried to pull off her dress.

Rhian stripped off her clothing and pulled Dawn’s dress on before leaving the cabin. Dawn reluctantly put on Rhian’s discarded dress so she wouldn’t be stuck sitting around in her underwear. The bodice was loose on her, and the skirt barely came to her ankles.

Waiting was incredibly frustrating. It seemed like everyone but her was involved in this scheme to protect her. Jeremy was out investigating, Huw was lying and doing magic, and Rhian was pretending to be the girl who’d performed. It didn’t help matters that her finger itched again, making her even more irritable. Dawn went to one of the portholes to try to look out. The glass was thick and wavy, which made it hard to see through, but the window did open. She nudged it open just enough to get a sliver of view, then ducked quickly when she noticed Mariel on the dock, talking with two other enchantresses. She cautiously peered out the window to watch what they did next. They met up with a larger group of enchantresses, and they all headed toward a boat. She ran to the aft porthole just in time to see Jeremy appear on the deck of a boat docked upstream. They were heading right toward him, and he’d be caught.


Sebastian couldn’t believe what he’d heard. “But–but I’m not dead,” he stammered. “I’m here, with the princess. Sergeant Fulk sent me to get her out of the dungeon. I’ve left the service of Lord Argus and returned home.”

“Lord Argus is a traitor,” the guard spat.

“I know. But being in his service allowed me to rescue the princess.”

“I take it this is the princess?”

The guard went over to the princess, eyeing her up and down. She stared at him defiantly and said, “What if we are who we say we are? How will it go for you if the duke finds out you kept us from him and tied us up? I know how it’ll go for you when I’m in my proper position. Speaking of which, what’s your name? I want to be sure to remember it.”

For a brief moment, it almost seemed like the guard would buckle under her threat, but then he stepped back with a laugh. “You, a princess?”

Her cheeks flushed bright red as she said, “I’ve got the royal insignia.”


“Hidden, of course, you moron. The witch and all her people are looking for me. Do you think I’d be wearing it openly? It’s called a disguise. Hello!”

Sebastian had to admit that she didn’t look much like a princess at the moment, in spite of her regal bearing and fierce words. She was filthy, her clothes were torn, and her hair was a rat’s nest. He imagined he looked no better after all their adventures. Even if he looked like his usual self, he doubted anyone would recognize him. When he’d left Grantley, he’d been a scrawny, freckle-faced child. He wasn’t even sure he’d recognize his own brother if he were brought to the duke’s tent. The one time he’d seen Geoffrey at court, he’d only known him by his ducal regalia.

The guard leaned closer to the princess and pawed at her clothing, searching for the insignia while taking full advantage of the opportunity to grope her. Sebastian strained against his captors. “Hands off her, you oaf!” he shouted, but the princess didn’t need his help. The man made the mistake of standing too close to her, and she suddenly raised her knee to strike him directly between the legs. He staggered away as one of the other men raised a hand to strike her. The thought of his princess being struck like some common scullery maid gave Sebastian the strength to break away from his captors and clout the knave with his bound hands.

The others came after him, and he fought wildly, striking out with his hands and feet. He heard the princess scream, “Sebastian!” and then his head exploded.

When he woke, he was in a tent, his back against the center pole, and his arms bound behind him, around the pole. His head throbbed and he could feel where every punch and kick had landed on his battered body. Worst of all, he was desperately thirsty.

“It’s about time,” a voice whispered nearby. “I was beginning to think you’d be out all night. Are you okay?” Only one person in all the land spoke like that, and his heart sang with joy that his princess was still with him.

“Okay?” he asked, not sure what that meant, but his throat was so dry that he barely made a sound.

“Oh, you poor thing, you must be really thirsty. Here.” A bowl was placed against his lips, and he drank greedily, emptying the bowl.

“What happened?” he asked once he felt able to speak.

“Well, you were arrested as a spy. Apparently they don’t think a girl could do anything like that—never mind the fact that public enemy number one is a woman—so they’re just making me work as a servant in the camp.” He bristled at the thought of her being enslaved, but she put a calming hand on his shoulder. “Easy there, tiger. You’re not gonna break yourself out that way, and I don’t need to you defend my honor. I’ve got things under control. Besides, this may be the safest place for me. If no one here thinks I’m the princess, no spy can rat me out, and I don’t think any of the witch’s people are going to get past the guards into the camp.”

Her hand left his shoulder, then a faint glow appeared in the tent as she lit her strange torch. “Now, let me take a look at you. I should probably check you for concussion, but there’s not much I could do about it here other than make you rest, and those ropes are doing a good job of that. You do have a nasty cut on your head, though.” She dabbed at his forehead with something cool and wet that stung when it touched the cut. He braced himself so he wouldn’t flinch at the pain.

While she worked, she talked. “I still have my knife, as they didn’t think to search me for weapons, and I bet I could get through these ropes, eventually. The problem is, if I get you loose, where would we go? You’d get re-captured right away, and they might just kill you on the spot instead of waiting for a trial and formal execution. We need to think of something else.”

“If only I had some way to prove who I am.”

She smoothed a bandage onto his head. “The photo I.D. is a marvelous invention. It would make things so much easier. But is there something only you and your brother would know?”

“Like what?”

“Was there something you called your brother when you were little and couldn’t say his real name? Or a favorite toy? You said he played with you. Was there some game you played? Did something happen while you were still at home that he might remember?”

“Give me a moment to think.” He’d spent most of the past ten years trying not to think about home. It didn’t help matters that she began washing his face with a damp cloth. Her touch was rather distracting.

“At least now we know why you haven’t heard from your family in all that time,” she said. “They think you’re dead. I bet that’s what Lord Argus told them.”

“Surely they’d have expected him to send the body home for a proper burial if I’d died under his care.”

“Good point. Still, I bet there was something like that going on.”

“Or maybe they don’t think I’m literally dead, but they’ve disowned me, so I’d be dead to them.”

She swatted him lightly on the shoulder, narrowly missing a bruise. “Don’t talk like that! And, anyway, would the guards assume you couldn’t possibly be who you said you were because you’d been disowned? That doesn’t make sense. No, this is probably your former master’s doing. He may even have told your brother you were dead after you rescued me to keep you from being able to go home for safety.”

What she didn’t say—and what he hoped she wouldn’t say—was that this wouldn’t explain why they’d had no contact with him over the years, why they’d never answered any letter he’d written.

He deliberately shifted his thoughts back to his early childhood, then blurted, “Fireblade!”


“It was Geoffrey’s toy sword, something an armsman made for him. When he got a real sword of his own, he gave Fireblade to me, with much ceremony.” Even in his current dire circumstances, he smiled at the memory. “To me, it was as good as being knighted. I’m sure he’d remember that.”

“Okay, Fireblade. Got it. Now I’d better get out of here and back to work before anyone notices I’m missing.” She rested her palm against his cheek and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything. I won’t let them do anything to you, I promise.” Her face was very close to his, and for a moment he both hoped and feared she’d kiss him. He’d said his farewells and closed that part of his heart. If she kissed him, he’d have to go through the pain of losing her as anything but the princess he was sworn to serve all over again.

She kissed his forehead, the way she might recognize any loyal servant, and the fact that she seemed to sense his inner struggle made him love her all the more.

Then she was gone, moving toward the tent flap. Before she disappeared into the night, she whispered, “Don’t struggle against those ropes, or your wrists are going to look like raw hamburger, and I’m running out of disinfectant.”

He wasn’t sure what hamburger was, but he thought he understood what she meant. She had enough to manage without having to worry about tending his wounds, so he forced himself to relax, as much as he could do so while knowing he faced a death sentence for merely doing his duty.

Continued in Chapter Fifteen. Or you can read the whole thing at once in the e-book.


Summer Hygge?

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been delving into the Scandinavian concept of hygge, or kos, which loosely translates to something related to coziness. To a large extent, it’s a coping mechanism for cold, dark winters. While it’s cold and dark outside, with very little daylight, they create a light, warm space inside with candles, fuzzy blankets, socks and sweaters, and warm beverages with hearty meals.

I am all about that kind of stuff, but around here, it’s just a way to celebrate cooler weather. There’s seldom any “coping” required to get through winter. That’s the time when we can go outdoors without bursting into flames, when we can walk in the woods without worrying about snakes. The time of year when we need a contrast with harsh weather outside is during the summer, when we face a few months of temperatures so hot that it’s not even safe to go outside in the daytime. We’re huddled inside with our air conditioners the way the Scandinavians have to retreat from harsh winters. That got me started thinking about what our seasonal brand of something like hygge would look like.

Probably blinds or curtains to shut out the harshest sunlight, whenever that happens. My windows face mostly to the east, so I need to block out morning sun. Fans are essential to create a cooling breeze. That would be the summer version of candles for creating atmosphere. Instead of a blanket, you’d have cotton slipcovers on the furniture to make it feel cooler. Instead of socks, bare feet. Instead of a sweater, a cotton sundress. Iced tea or other cool beverages, and salads and ice cream to eat. Fresh summer fruit served cold, like watermelon.

The social aspect would remain the same, with similar indoor activities like movie nights, games, or puzzles, just with cool foods instead of hot beverages and soups.

Maybe I should write the “Hygge, Y’all” book.

I have my own little rituals for welcoming cooler weather, like buying some kind of cozy clothing during the end-of-season sales and putting it away with my sweaters so I have something new when I get out the winter clothes, and I declare the first cool, rainy day of the season to be a holiday, a day to spend reading and drinking tea. But I don’t really need anything to get me excited about the coming of fall. I need some kind of celebration to make me excited about warm weather.

The trick is that we get warm weather scattered throughout the winter. There aren’t many days when you can’t go outside at all, so there really isn’t a “first warm day” to celebrate. I’ve spent afternoons on the patio in January. I could buy a sundress or a summer nightgown at the end of season sales and put it away with my summer clothes to have something new to look forward to. I could “celebrate” the first 100-degree day with ice cream (I don’t have ice cream often). I have a few dishes I only make during the summer, and I do enjoy having watermelon all the time. I don’t know if the swimming pool will be open this year, since they’ll be discouraging gatherings (we have a community pool), and I don’t know about the Friday fireworks at the lake because those draw crowds. It will depend on how things look by then. This really is likely to be a summer of huddling indoors. Since I’m at pretty high risk for complications (and the more we learn about this virus, the more it looks like no one can be entirely certain of getting through it unscathed), I’m going to be playing it safe for some time to come.


Serial Chapter 13

Here’s the next chapter of the ongoing serial novel. You can find chapter one here and the previous installment here.

Chapter Thirteen

      Dawn could hardly wait to rehearse with the troupe. They were far better than the group that had kidnapped her, and it didn’t take her long to learn their songs. Spink joined in, as well. The only downside was Rhian, who seemed determined not to like her. Her glare from across the boat grew even fiercer when Huw pulled Dawn aside after the rehearsal to suggest that she prepare a few solo numbers.

When life on the boat turned to chores, Dawn got laundry duty, and Rhian’s smirk as she dumped a pile of clothes and linens at Dawn’s feet told her this wasn’t a plum assignment. The aunts had never bought an automatic washer and dryer, so Dawn knew how to do laundry by hand. She was sorting through the pile of clothes to put together the next load when a voice roused her from her thoughts. It was a rich baritone that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Broadway stage. She looked up to see a young man pouring a bucket of river water into the laundry tub. He even looked the part of a leading man, with dark hair and broad shoulders. Some of the boys in the school choir were good, but she’d never sung with anyone like this. “You have a really nice voice,” she said.

“You’re one to talk, Miss Dawn,” he replied with a grin. “And it’s flattering that one who sings like you do might think so.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Will.”

“Hello, Will. I know some songs from my home that I think you could sing very well—some duets—if you’d like me to teach you, and if you’d like to sing with me. Are you interested?”


The next time Will brought a bucket to the laundry tub, she started teaching him by singing a song for him. She was sure this would be easier if she had a mobile phone so she could just play the songs for him. But she didn’t, not even back home. She didn’t have any of the electronics other kids used to listen to music. Her entire music collection consisted of the box of records and the old turntable that had been in the house when she and the aunts moved in. She’d always felt it was a stroke of fate or luck that the previous residents had apparently been musical theater fans. Would she have discovered her talents and her life’s ambition if they’d had a fondness for instrumental jazz, instead?

Will proved to be a quick study, and by the time Dawn was through with the laundry, she’d already taught him the main verses of four songs. They spent the time after chores were done practicing together. “What’s this, then?” Rhian asked as she passed them on the deck. “I thought you sang with the bird.”

“Excellent work, young Will,” Huw remarked from his seat nearby. That shut Rhian up immediately, and she sauntered away with one last glare tossed over her shoulder.

“Do you think it will help us be invited to perform at the coronation?” Dawn asked Huw.

“Could be, could be. What makes you so eager to sing at the coronation?”

Dawn felt her face growing warmer. She hated to lie, but she was afraid to tell Huw the truth about looking for Lucy and being directed by Spink to go to the castle. “Well, it’s a coronation. It’s a historic occasion,” she said.

“Oh, that it is,” he muttered.

“You don’t sound very happy about it.”

He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. “It’s not as though we have much choice in the matter. It’s a command performance by her wicked ladyship.” He grinned. “But the coin should be good, as everyone’s too scared to stay away from her big moment.” He rubbed his first two fingers against his thumb. “The audiences should be enormous—and looking to have their hearts lifted.”

“Who’s her wicked ladyship?” Dawn asked.

“What? You don’t know?”

“We’re not from around here.”

“Her ladyship is the witch Melantha,” Huw said. “She’s been scheming after that throne for years, and now she’s finally got it, what with the king and queen being out of the way and now the princess’s curse deadline nearing. She’s planning to crown herself, and of course it must be a coronation grander than the king himself had.”

“Oh,” Dawn breathed as she tried to figure out where this fit into the rest of the story. Had the witch been the one to kidnap Lucy? And were her aunts for or against the witch? Rhian had said something about the enchantresses not opposing the witch. Dawn couldn’t hold back a shudder as she realized that running from her aunts must have been the right instinct.

All this time, Spink had been sitting on a nearby railing, singing to himself and occasionally picking up words from their conversation. Suddenly, he burst out, “Melantha! I know that name! I’ve heard it before!”

“Yes, of course you have, little friend,” Huw said gently. “She rules the kingdom, for now. People talk of her all the time.”

“Is she at the castle?”

“She is now.”

“In a tall, tall tower?”

“Honestly, I have no idea.”

“Melantha in the tall, tall tower of the castle,” the bird sang cheerfully, as though it was an old, familiar song he had just remembered from childhood.

“I don’t suggest you add that song to your act,” Huw remarked with a twitch of his mustache. “I don’t think it would be very popular.”


      “I–I   don’t have any money,” Lucy squeaked to the troll looming over her.

“Then you will pay the toll with your flesh,” the troll replied. A green, damp, mossy-looking thing came out of its mouth and ran across its lips, and Lucy sincerely hoped it meant eating and not other ways it might mean “flesh.”

“I wouldn’t make much of a meal,” she replied, trying to bring her voice down an octave. “I wouldn’t even make a good appetizer. But there’s a really big guy coming not far behind me. You wouldn’t want to ruin your appetite with me. And, as a bonus, he looks like he might put up a fight, which could be good for some fun.”

“How big?” the troll asked, its eyes going glazed as its pitiful little brain tried to process the thought.

“Lots bigger than me. But he’ll be here any second now, so if you don’t let me go, he might be able to sneak by while you’re distracted with me.”

On cue, Sebastian stepped out of his hiding place and approached the bridge. The troll looked from Lucy to Sebastian, then took a step forward. That left just enough room for Lucy to slip past while the troll’s attention was focused on Sebastian. She paused to give Sebastian a quick thumbs up from behind the troll’s back before she headed across the bridge.

The bridge itself was almost scarier than the troll. It swayed with every step she took, and she could see water rushing over the rocks below from between the bridge’s boards. The advice not to look down did no good here. If she didn’t look down, she might miss a board and step right into a gap.

Behind her, she heard the troll boom, “I don’t take tolls.”

“I wasn’t planning to pay one,” Sebastian replied, sounding perfectly calm. The bridge shook violently, and Lucy had to get both hands around the rope handrail to keep from being tossed off. While she held on to the wildly swaying bridge, she turned to see what had happened. Sebastian was moving steadily toward the bridge, his sword held in front of him, and the troll had backed onto the bridge.

The troll stood, blocking the way, and Sebastian hit it in the middle with the hilt of his sword, then hit it on the head when it doubled over in response. The troll reached out and knocked Sebastian’s feet from under him. Lucy fought not to scream out loud when Sebastian came dangerously close to the edge of the gorge. She knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to remind the troll of her presence. Although it was difficult to tear her attention away from the fight, she forced herself to take advantage of the troll’s distraction and resume making her way across the bridge.

The bridge kept swaying and bucking, and she knew that meant the fight was still going on and had moved onto the bridge itself. “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” she muttered with each step she took, and she was definitely praying, not swearing. If she just made it across this bridge and if Sebastian made it past the troll, she promised not to whine about going to Sunday school. That was, if she ever got home so she could go to Sunday school.

At a particularly wild shake of the bridge, she turned around while clinging desperately to the rope and saw that Sebastian had made it around the troll and was on the bridge, between the troll and Lucy. The troll was still coming after him, but it was no longer in Sebastian’s way. Sebastian kicked at the troll, sending it reeling backward, which made the bridge shake again. It didn’t help matters when Sebastian started running across while the troll recovered. “Your highness, run! Hurry!” he called while he ran, the troll coming after him with a ferocious snarl.

Lucy had been picking her way carefully across, but then she noticed that Sebastian was putting away his sword and getting out his knife, and she suspected she knew what he had planned. Her ongoing prayer turned into a whimper as she forced herself to run. She wanted to kiss the ground when she reached the other side, but Sebastian shouted, “Start cutting!”

She got out her Swiss Army knife and began sawing away at one of the ropes, attacking a frayed spot. The dogs noticed what she was doing and gnawed on another rope. Sebastian was still a few feet away when she cut all the way through one rope, and he leapt for safety before immediately turning to help cut the other ropes. The ease with which they cut through the bridge’s supporting ropes made Lucy even more queasy about having just crossed that bridge.

The troll was almost upon them when the last rope broke, sending the bridge and the troll crashing down to bounce off the gorge wall into the river. Once the troll hit the river, it was hard to spot it among all the mossy rocks. Lucy wondered if any of those rocks were ex-trolls who’d suffered a similar fate. It was kind of a shame about the bridge, since she was sure losing it would be a major inconvenience to the people in the area, but if it went down that easily, it was probably for the best. Now maybe they could get a decent bridge without a troll.

“It worked,” she said, gasping for air as she leaned against Sebastian, still too shaky to be elated. “It really worked.” They’d just acted out a fairy tale. That could mean her story would have a happy ending, too. Or would it, given that she didn’t actually belong in that story?

“Excellent plan, your highness,” Sebastian said with a grin and a clap on her back before he settled his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. She couldn’t help but smile when she remembered that only the day before she’d had to order him to put his arm around her.

They stayed like that for a long time, catching their breath. Lucy would have been happy to stay like that for hours. With the troll gone and the bridge destroyed, she felt like they were safe, at least for a while, and she was really enjoying being that close to Sebastian. But they had a destination, and by the position of the sun she knew it was already well past noon. “We’d better get going,” she said. “Beating a troll doesn’t mean we get to take the rest of the day off.”

He chuckled, and leaning against him the way she was, she could feel his laughter rumbling in his chest. “Are you always this resilient?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been tested before. Not like this.”

“When I was sent to rescue the princess, I expected a great lady or a delicate beauty who would need careful handling.”

“And you got me, instead.”

“Yes, I was very fortunate.” A tickling feeling on her head told her he was playing with her hair. Oh, boy.

“You’re the princess this kingdom needs,” he continued, still twining her curls around his fingers. “You’re brave and resourceful, kind and good. People will rally around you. They’ll fight for you. And we will win back the kingdom.”

This would have been a good time to let him know she wasn’t really the princess. She didn’t think he’d dump her right there in the middle of nowhere. It even sounded like he liked her as herself and not just because he thought she was a princess.

On the other hand, how would he feel if he learned he’d given up his position, shed blood, and fought a troll for plain old Lucy Jordan?

Reluctantly, she pulled away from him and stood up before he had a chance to get to his feet and help her up. She pulled the straps of her backpack over her shoulders and said, “Well, which way?”

He shouldered his own pack and said, “Come on, it isn’t far now. Just over that next hill.” He pointed ahead, and the next hill didn’t quite fit her definition of “not far,” but she didn’t want him changing his mind about her being resilient, so she started walking.

Although she was exhausted and starving, her blisters had spawned blisters, her backpack seemed to gain five pounds every few minutes, and every single muscle in her body screamed in agony with every step, it was one of the best afternoons Lucy had ever spent. They must have fallen off the witch’s radar, since no one was actively chasing them, and that meant they could relax and just walk. Well, not relax entirely, as she was well aware that Sebastian and the dogs were keeping their eyes open, but at least they didn’t have to run.

And that meant they could talk. It was like spending an afternoon with Jeremy, except Sebastian occasionally took her hand or put his hand on her back, and he kept giving her those looks that made it clear that he was thinking about kissing her. He had finally dropped his guard with her, let himself forget about her being a princess. They were just two kids hanging out, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that she was trapped in a strange world where a wicked witch wanted her dead, it would have been fun.

Before she realized it, they’d reached the top of that hill Sebastian had pointed to. “We’re almost there,” he said, his voice rough enough that she wondered if she had some vitamin C cough drops in her backpack. With all the running around and sleeping outdoors and bad food, she wouldn’t be surprised if he was getting sick. She couldn’t have her protector slowed down by a cold. “My home is in this valley.”

“Thank God,” she said, meaning it intensely.

“We will make sure it is safe,” Larkin said, and he and Leila trotted off.

Once they were gone, Sebastian said, “I imagine that things will change once you’re in a place more worthy of your status. I don’t know what will happen then. You may no longer need me to guard you.”

“I’m sure I’ll still need a guard. That witch probably hasn’t given up.”

“But I may no longer be that guard. There are men far more experienced than I am who would be given that duty.”

Only then did she realize that he was trying to say good-bye, now while they were still alone together and before the fuss that was likely to come with showing up at his brother’s place. She gave him a hopeful smile. “Don’t I as a princess have some say about who my bodyguard is?”

He looked strangely sad as he said, “While a princess has a great deal of power, there is also a great deal of her life that is beyond her control. In a sense, you belong to your kingdom and the needs of the kingdom must come before personal desires.”

“That sucks!”

He laughed, losing the sad look for a moment, but only a moment. Then he was back to looking like he’d lost his best friend. “I believe, from what I’ve learned of you, that you will carry your title and serve your kingdom well.” He lowered his eyes, breaking eye contact, and whispered, “Before you have to live as a princess, I wanted to say. . .” Words didn’t come to him, so instead he leaned over and kissed her.

She went still with shock at first. Then she kissed him back, putting her arms around his neck and standing on her tiptoes so he didn’t have to bend over so much. Once she did that, he put his arms around her and pulled her against him. She wasn’t sure how long they made out, but eventually they stopped kissing and just held each other in a tight hug.

Finally, he loosened his hold and stepped away from her. He knelt in front of her, took her hand, brought it to his lips, and whispered, “My princess.” By this time, she was practically sobbing, and his eyes were suspiciously bright. She wanted to grab him and hug him again, but she got the feeling that his courtly gesture had been his way of reminding himself who she was (well, who he thought she was) and what his duty was. They were back in princess-and-protector mode, and she knew she’d only make things worse for him—and probably herself, too—if she tried to cross that line again. He got back to his feet just as the dogs returned.

“The armies have gathered,” Larkin reported. “The Grantley banner is at the head, so they are a friendly army. It should be safe.”

“The Loyalists must mean to challenge the witch before she can crown herself,” Sebastian said.

“It looks like you brought me to the right place,” Lucy said, forcing her voice to sound bright so she wouldn’t start crying again as soon as she spoke. “Now they’ll have a princess to offer as an alternative.” It took her a second to remember that she was only a pretend princess. She’d really let the role go to her head. Or maybe her brain was addled by all those kisses.

“We will leave you now, Highness, Lord,” Larkin said, bowing his head. “Our mission is complete.”

“Oh, can’t you come with us?” Lucy said, trying not to whine.

“We are not comfortable in large gatherings of men,” Leila said. “If there is a battle, we may join, but we do not go into human camps.”

Lucy wondered if it would be poor etiquette with talking animals to pet them. She settled for returning their bows and thanking them for their help, all while trying not to cry.

When they’d gone, Sebastian held his arm out to her and said, “Your highness?” She took his arm and let him escort her down the hill. He was so reserved with her that if her lips weren’t still tingling, she’d have wondered if she’d imagined the way he’d kissed her.

The sun was setting, and the light of campfires and torches ahead made the camp look warm and welcoming. Lucy was already looking forward to sitting in something that resembled a chair and sleeping on something that resembled a bed, maybe after eating a meal that wasn’t bread and cheese.

Before they reached the camp, though, a voice called out, “Halt!”

Several guards appeared, seemingly out of thin air, and surrounded them. “What is your business in this camp?” their leader asked.

“I need to see the Duke of Grantley,” Sebastian said.

“And who might you be?”

“I’m his brother, Sebastian.”

“Seize them!” the guard called out. As guards grabbed them, disarmed Sebastian, and bound their wrists with rough ropes, the lead guard came very close to Sebastian, practically spitting in his face, as he sneered, “Nice try, spy. But Lord Sebastian is dead.”

Continued in Chapter Fourteen.


Serial Chapter 12

It looks like there’s interest in a full book. I’ve ordered a cover and I’m working on proofreading the whole thing. I hope to have it available by the end of next week. I won’t bother with doing a pre-order phase. I’ll just have it go live as soon as it gets through the system. In the meantime, here’s chapter 12. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here.

Chapter Twelve

            “Wait a second,” Lucy sputtered at Sebastian. “You’re not sure your home is safe?

“I haven’t been there since I was a child. I was fostered out for training when I was seven, soon after my father died, and I haven’t seen or heard from my family since then. I’ve heard of my brother, especially lately. He was on the royal council under the king and queen. I even saw him once from a distance at court, but I haven’t spoken to him. His service to your parents makes me think you’ll be safe with him, but I don’t know how welcome I will be.” His last words had a snap of finality to them that made Lucy reluctant to ask further questions, even though she was dying of curiosity. Obviously, this was a sore point with him.

“Okay, we’ll go to your home,” she said softly. She squeezed his hand and added, “And if your brother is mean to you, he’ll have to answer to me.”

That earned her a half-hearted smile. “You are very good to me, your highness.”

“Hello! You’re the one saving my life left and right. You know, I think we make a pretty good team. We’re practically a TV show: He’s a brave squire, she’s a spunky princess. Together they fight crime!” He gave her a big “huh?” look, and she supposed he had no idea what she was talking about. “Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “There are just too many references there to explain. We’d be here all day, and we need to get a move on.”

She suppressed a whimper at the thought of walking again, but didn’t feel so bad when Sebastian groaned as he stood and shouldered his pack. After they emerged from their shelter, he went over to a thick tree trunk on the top of a nearby hill. “We need to head west, which would be, hmmm,” he studied the trunk, then turned to his left and pointed, “that way.”

As they walked in that direction, Lucy couldn’t resist throwing in a bit of knowledge she’d picked up from Jeremy’s Boy Scout handbooks. “Yeah, because the moss grows on the north side.”

He snapped his head around to look at her, a mixture of surprise and awe on his face. “You know that?”

“I’ve picked up a few things here and there. Remember, I didn’t grow up as a princess.”

“You are full of surprises,” he said, a goofy grin threatening to take over his face. He fought it back with what looked like a force of will. “You are a skilled healer, you can defend yourself with strange weapons, and you know something of woodcraft. What other skills have you learned during your exile?”

“Oh, I can do all sorts of useful and non-useful things.” She’d been fending for herself and even sometimes looking after her mom for most of her life, ever since her dad died. “I can cook—nothing gourmet, but I haven’t poisoned anyone yet. I make a killer ice cream sundae. I can sew. I even make most of my own clothes. I’m learning about historical and theatrical costuming, though I’m not sure how useful that is. I play the clarinet in the marching band. That’s also not very useful. Oh, and I’ve learned to fix a few things around the house.”

“Perhaps all princesses should grow up away from the castle. You’re better equipped to be queen than most rulers are.”

“I’m really not that unusual where I come from. Well, not everyone designs and makes their own clothes, and the historical and theatrical costuming obsession isn’t typical, but a lot of people where I grew up can do the kinds of things I do—or more. My friend Jeremy knows all sorts of wilderness survival stuff, and he can even replace buttons on his shirts, too.”

“Then we should make a policy of sending our future rulers to your world,” he said.

“I guess that means I’d have to send my kids away, then.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’m sorry, your highness.” His voice was somber, with a contrite tone.

She looked up to tell him it was okay, since they were only joking, and found herself looking into his eyes. Again, she had that feeling of her breath catching in her throat. They both looked away at the same time. She felt she should say something, but what?

She liked him, she realized. Liked liked him. Before, she’d certainly known he was good-looking, brave, and had an amazing body, but she hadn’t considered him as a potential romance candidate. He was like a TV star, someone she could admire from afar without ever thinking that she might actually go out with him. But now that she was getting to know him—and adversity was great for figuring out the kind of person someone was—she thought he was someone she’d like to know better, no matter how well she already knew him. This was the way she felt about Jeremy, that no matter how much time she spent with him, no matter how close they got, it wasn’t enough.

The reminder of Jeremy jolted her. He’d been there her whole life. She’d never imagined being with anyone but him. But he’d never looked at her the way Sebastian did. She glanced up at Sebastian and found him looking at her again, then they both hurried to look away. No, she wasn’t imagining it. He looked at her like he’d started noticing her as a girl, not just as a princess he was supposed to protect.

But what should she do about it? It wasn’t like they had much of a future together, since she was from a different world she wanted to go back to. He might look at her in a way that sent chills down her spine, but he hadn’t made any more moves than Jeremy had.

Her natural response to any emotional turmoil was to jabber, so she made a stab at starting a conversation. “Is fostering like sending you off to school?” The way he’d described it, it didn’t sound like a foster home in Lucy’s world. Then again, if his family didn’t have any contact with him, maybe he’d been taken out of a bad home and had just been too young to realize it.

“It is a common practice among the nobility,” he said. “A father or an older brother isn’t considered the best person to train a boy to be a knight. The best training requires an impartial teacher who is able to see a boy’s faults clearly and correct them. I don’t think my brother had the time to teach me, as he inherited the title and the lands and had an estate to run. He wouldn’t have been able to bring up a younger brother and train me properly. Lord Argus had a reputation for the strictest and best training. The teaching is much like a school, with book instruction, but also training in running a noble house, combat, horsemanship, and everything else that goes into being a knight.”

“But I guess you usually don’t lose all contact with your family while you’re in training, huh?” Lucy asked. Then something he said caught up with her. “Wait, you said a title?”

“Yes, my brother is Duke of Grantley.”

“So that would make you Lord Sebastian.”

“I suppose it does. But no one ever uses my title. Lord Argus forbade it. All the squires were supposed to be equal.”

“But you’re not working for Lord Argus anymore, my lord.” She gave him a mock curtsy, and he grinned in response.

She was about to ask him more about his family, but he changed the subject. “I wonder if Lord Argus has been working with the witch all along. I can’t believe I’ve been in the service of a traitor.”

“That doesn’t reflect on you, since you didn’t know.”

“Did Fulk know, though? I can’t imagine he would willingly work for a traitor.”

“Maybe he was a double agent, spying for the good guys while pretending to be the loyal sergeant.”

He shot her a suspicious look. “You know a great deal about subterfuge and espionage, your highness.”

“Oh, that. Yeah, I guess. I’ve seen a lot of spy movies because my friend Jeremy wants to be James Bond when he grows up.” His expression went from suspicious to confused. “I’m not even going to try to explain movies. You do have plays, though, right? Where people act out stories?”

“Yes, we do have those. I even got to see one once.”

Just one, once? Between that, his out-of-touch family, and all those scars, she got the feeling he’d lived the kind of life that people wrote books about and then went on talk shows to discuss their inspiring triumphs over tragedy. “Well, these are a kind of play, and spy stories are very popular for these plays. I’m sure in the real world spying is mostly boring stuff, but in fiction it’s very glamorous and exciting, with secret agents who travel all over the world and use high-tech devices to stop the bad guys. And, yeah, there’s always one of the bad guys who turns out to be working for the good guys, and usually a good guy who turns out to be working for the bad guys.”

“You go to these plays with your friend?”

If she wasn’t mistaken, he was showing distinct signs of jealousy. Did he have anything to worry about? She wasn’t sure, but she did know that instead of enjoying the idea of boys competing for her, she didn’t want him to think she was involved with someone else. “Jeremy’s my neighbor. We grew up together. He’s practically a brother to me.” How sadly true that was.

There was a definite decrease of tension in his face and shoulders. “It is good that you had someone to act as brother for you. I often wondered what it might have been like to grow up with a brother. I remember Geoffrey playing with me when I was very young.”

Ah, another tantalizing tidbit. “How much older is he?”

“I’m not sure. More than ten years, as he’d reached his majority when he inherited the title.”

“Then that’s a pretty good brother if he still took the time to play with you.”

He changed the subject again. “If Fulk isn’t the traitor, then I wonder who did alert the witch to our rendezvous location. Surely not that many people knew where we planned to take you.”

“It could have been anyone. Heck, since a lot of the animals around here talk, it could even have been an innocent-looking little songbird sitting in the window when people were making plans. We could be surrounded by spies here in the forest.”

They both came to a halt and turned to look at each other as the sickening realization hit. Lucy had said it as a joke, but it was a real possibility. Just then, there was a rustle in the underbrush nearby. Sebastian took Lucy’s hand, and together they ran. Lucy looked back over her shoulder and saw a puzzled-looking rabbit watching them. She couldn’t help but giggle, and when Sebastian turned around, he laughed, too.

“We’re now officially paranoid,” she said as she leaned against him, still shaking with laughter.

“I believe that is quite understandable in our situation,” he replied with a grin.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone the story of Sir Sebastian and the fluffy little bunny.”

“For all we know, the fluffy little bunny was an enemy spy who would have reported our location.”

“You know, I’m not sure I want to live in a world where fluffy little bunnies can be evil.” But there was no way to tell which forest creatures were on which side. They really could be surrounded by enemy spies.

“Humans would have to listen to animals for animals to be of much use as spies,” Leila muttered.

That brought up a whole new set of questions for Lucy, who’d wondered how talking animals fit into society, but she had a feeling that would be even touchier than asking Sebastian about his family. “We listen to you, Leila,” she said, resisting the urge to scratch the dog behind the ears. “Anyone who doesn’t is just stupid.”

She realized after they resumed walking that Sebastian hadn’t let go of her hand. Her heart pounded as she moved her hand in his so that their fingers laced. It was probably the closest she’d ever come to a bold, flirtatious move, and she wasn’t sure how he’d react. When he settled his hand into the new grasp and squeezed, she went momentarily dizzy.

It occurred to her as they walked that as the son and brother of a duke, he should be eligible husband material for a princess. But she wasn’t a princess, she reminded herself. She was a common girl from another world who couldn’t possibly snag the son of a duke. There was probably some daughter of a duke or earl who’d been set aside for him.

And it was all pointless, since she hoped to go return home. Back there, she had Jeremy, who had always been her best friend and who was bound to become something more, eventually. She tried to conjure up a picture of Jeremy in her head every time she looked over to see Sebastian. Especially when she saw Sebastian looking at her.

Larkin, who’d been scouting ahead, ran back to them, panting. “We are nearing the river,” he said.

“That means we’re getting closer,” Sebastian replied, then turned to Lucy. “Your highness, the way will become rougher and more difficult from here. My family’s estate is in the hills.” Returning his attention to Larkin, he asked, “Are we near enough to a crossing—one that will be safe?”

“There is a bridge ahead. While it does not appear that the witch’s men are watching the bridges here, I believe it may be a troll bridge.”

“Most of them are,” Sebastian said with a worried frown. “And it would be far too dangerous to try to ford the river. We’ll have to risk it.”

Lucy was about to ask just how expensive the toll could be when it occurred to her that Larkin had said troll bridge, not toll bridge. “Wait a second, you mean a troll under the bridge, like in the fairy tales?” Of course, neither of them knew what she meant because they weren’t fairy tales to them. They were current events. “Never mind. Just something I read.”

“I will look for the troll,” Larkin said, then disappeared into the trees.

The way had become rougher and rockier. Lucy felt like she was climbing instead of walking flat, and there were now more pine and fir trees than the hardwoods of the lower forest. Soon she could hear the distant rumble of water and realized what Sebastian meant about the river being too dangerous to wade across. It sounded like there was at least one waterfall.

Larkin came trotting back. “Troll,” he said.

Sebastian rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. “How big?” he asked.

“Big enough.”

Lucy could tell that Sebastian was weighing his options, from the way he frowned and kept glancing at her. Finally, she asked, “Okay, so what’s the deal here?”

“The trolls will sometimes allow people to pass with proper payment of a toll, but I know I don’t have the coin for that, and I have nothing of value that it would be safe to give up. Without payment, they take their toll in flesh.”

“You mean they eat people?”

“They’ll eat anything. I might be able to fight it if it came after me, but if it tried to get you, there wouldn’t be much I could do to stop it. I could hit it with my sword for hours, and it wouldn’t bother turning around until it finished with you.”

This really did sound like “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and that gave Lucy an idea. “Are these trolls all that bright?”

“They’re incredibly stupid,” Larkin said.

“Then we could try to trick it. There’s a tale in my world about tricking a troll into always thinking something bigger and more delicious is coming along. That way the smaller and weaker ones get by safely, and only the last fights the troll and wins.”

“It could work,” Leila said, tilting her head to one side. “They are very stupid.”

“Very well, then. We will try the princess’s plan,” Sebastian said with a nod.

They got closer to the river and hid behind some trees. The river wasn’t visible from there, mostly because it ran through a deep gorge. Lucy could hear the rumble of rushing water, but all she could see was a sheer cliff on the other side. While wading across was likely to be impossible, the bridge didn’t look much safer, even without a troll. It was a wooden suspension bridge, just a few boards strung together by fraying rope. There was only the slightest breath of a breeze, but the bridge still swayed in it. Lucy wasn’t fond of bridges at the best of times. She squeezed her eyes shut on the highway bridge across the Sabine River. This looked like the kind of thing she had nightmares about. She had to close her eyes or go for snacks during movie scenes about crossing bridges like this one.

Now she had to cross it herself, after getting past a troll? Not likely. She scanned the trees on the opposite bank, looking for one tall and strong enough that they might be able to toss a rope to so they could swing across, like in that scene in Star Wars. That had to be safer than the bridge, with or without a troll.

Not that there’d been any sign of a troll. There was just a large, mossy rock sitting next to the bridge.

“Your highness, what is your plan?” Sebastian asked.

Clutching her skirt so her hands wouldn’t shake, she said, “Well, first the smallest has to go. I guess that would be the dogs. When the troll tries to stop you, you tell it that you’re not worth eating, but someone larger is coming along soon. Then I’ll go and do the same. Then Sebastian, you come along and fight it. I’d guess knocking it off the bridge would be the best bet, but I’ll leave the fighting strategy up to you. But remember, I’ve never seen a troll before, so I have no idea if this will really work.”

“It does sound like something a troll might fall for,” Larkin growled.

“Then let’s do it,” Sebastian said.

The dogs approached the bridge, and as soon as they’d taken about three stops onto the boards, the rock unfolded into a roughly human-shaped creature a head taller than Sebastian and twice as broad. “You must pay my toll,” it boomed.

Leila bowed in a submissive posture and said, “We are but animals and have no money.”

“Then your toll will be your flesh.”

“We are hardly worth the effort, sir troll. But coming behind us is a person with far sweeter flesh.”

“A human?” Lucy was glad she couldn’t see the troll’s face from her hiding place because it sounded like the troll had just licked its lips. Ick.

“Yes, a human, coming very soon. You might miss her if you’re too busy with us.”

The troll turned back to the bridgehead, and the dogs scampered safely to the other side. That meant it was Lucy’s turn. Taking a deep, gulping breath, she eased her way out of the hiding place and approached the bridge. She tried skipping a few steps, like she was a carefree girl out for a stroll, but her legs were shaking so badly she nearly tripped and fell, so she gave that up and just walked.

“You must pay my toll to cross,” the troll boomed at her.

Suddenly, Lucy couldn’t help thinking that risking her life on the basis of something that happened in a fairy tale may not have been the best idea she ever had.

Continued in chapter 13.


Finding London Below

According to Twitter, it’s World Book Day, a holiday I’m keen on celebrating. It looks like there are people who dress up as favorite characters, but instead, I will share the story about a book I lived — before I read it. This is a tale about the time I found myself in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, visiting London Below.

It was the fall of 2001 and my second trip to England. I was visiting a friend who was spending a year as a pastor there. A rather large house in a London suburb came with the job, so she invited friends to come stay with her. When I arrived at Gatwick early in the morning after an overnight flight, the people at the ground transportation desk gave me an itinerary for the trip from the airport to the train station closest to my friend’s house, with a listing of which trains to take and which stations to go to for changing trains. They sold me a ticket for this trip that would work within the travel zones on the itinerary. I set out, a bit jet-lagged, but with great confidence, as I’m good with public transportation and had been to London before.

Things hit a big snag midway through the trip when the subway train I was on stopped abruptly between stations. After a few minutes, they announced that this line was being closed. They backed the train up to the previous station and made everyone get off.

I wasn’t sure what to do because my itinerary didn’t give any indication of alternate routes, and the maps didn’t show where else the train to my friend’s town would stop. I had to get to the station they gave me for that, but with the line they’d told me to take closed, I had no idea what to do. I was studying the map outside the station, trying to figure out what other combination of trains would work, when a man approached me and asked if I needed help.

I hadn’t yet read Neverwhere, but he was basically the Marquis de Carabas in “civilian” clothes. His mannerisms were right out of that book, and he even looked a lot like the way he was portrayed in the BBC miniseries version, though perhaps a bit shorter. I explained my situation and showed him the train station I was trying to get to, and he gallantly offered to escort me there. I hesitated, because putting yourself in the hands of a stranger in a strange city in a foreign country isn’t always the best idea, but he turned to the other commuters around us and said, “They’ll vouch for me. You can trust me.”

The funny thing was, they did. Busy people in central London stopped and said I could trust this guy. So I did, though I insisted on carrying my own luggage because I’m trusting, not stupid. And thus began a journey across London that I haven’t been able to replicate on any map. I know there were a couple of different trains involved, one high above ground, one below ground, with walks through neighborhoods in between. It was a very different London than I’d experienced in my previous trip, almost like I’d gone back in time. At times, it was like being in the 1940s (but without any bombing), at times more Victorian.

And everywhere we went, people knew this guy. It was like being escorted by some kind of popular king who was out and about in his realm, greeting his people with noblesse oblige. He spoke to everyone he passed, and they responded. It wasn’t even just generic greetings. He knew details about their lives and asked them about their families, knowing that one woman’s daughter had been sick, another woman’s mother was doing better after an illness, etc. We were apparently outside the zone where my ticket worked, since it wouldn’t open the turnstile in one of the Tube stations. This guy waved at the guy in the booth, who came over and opened the employee gate to let us in.

He got me to the entrance to the station I needed, and I thanked him. Then he said, “I knew I needed to help you because I could tell you were a lady — your ears aren’t pierced.” While I was still puzzling over that, he disappeared into the crowd and I went into the station to wait for my train.

About a year later, my book club read Neverwhere, and I had an eerie sense of recognition. It may have been a fantasy novel, but I felt like I’d been to that place and among those people.

I ended up using that sense of being a tourist in a strange city and falling into another world after a chance encounter when I wrote Make Mine Magic, though I went in a different direction with what that tourist discovered and the world she fell into.


Serial Chapter 11

Here’s the next part of the serial story. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here.

Would anyone be interested in an e-book of the whole story? I was thinking of putting it all together and putting it up for sale. I’ll still keep posting the chapters, but if you can’t wait for each installment, you could get it all at once, or if you wanted to re-read the whole thing straight through at the end, you could do that. Or you could just read it here. I’d have to see if I can find an apt pre-made cover and then format it all, so it might take a week or so to get it out there.

Chapter Eleven

            After a while, the sound of pursuit faded. The barking and howling dogs sounded more distant, and Lucy could no longer feel or hear the hoofbeats. Sebastian put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder, then bent so that his forehead rested on top of her head. He took long, deep, shuddering breaths, like he was fighting to get himself under control, and she clutched desperately at his shirt.

They stayed like that for what felt like hours. Then there was a rustle outside their shelter and they both tensed. “It’s me,” Larkin’s rough voice said, and they relaxed ever so slightly. “They seem to be gone, and their dogs aren’t helping them search. The baron is apparently not a very kind master.”

“What do you suggest?” Sebastian asked in a whisper. “Would it be best to stay here longer and move in the morning, or should we move only by night?”

“Stay here, then get into the forest just before sunrise. They should have given up the search by then.”

“I think the sun came up this morning around six, by my watch,” Lucy said. “So we’ll head out at four. It’s half past nine now.” Even with all that running and hiding, it was less than an hour since they’d entered that hall. It felt like much, much longer.

“You may sleep,” Larkin said. “We’ll keep guard.”

Lucy knew she needed to rest because the next day wasn’t going to be easy, but it was hard to settle down and get to sleep when she’d just been running for her life and armed men and a very pissed-off witch were hunting her. Sebastian didn’t seem to be resting any better than she was, so she whispered, “You were amazing. Lord Argus might be a traitor, but he taught you well.”

If she wasn’t mistaken, his heart started beating a little faster. “Lord Argus taught me nothing. It was his sergeant who taught me everything I know.” He sighed deeply. “And he might be a traitor, as well, since he sent me into a trap.”

“But he also sent you to rescue me. Why would he set you up to rescue me only to take me right to the witch, when I was already in the dungeon? Your old boss must have found out about it somehow.”

She guessed it was all still a sore spot, since he abruptly changed the subject. “What was that weapon you used? I believe that was the deciding factor in the battle.”

“Pepper spray. It burns the eyes. I have it for self-defense. We’re lucky my school is too small for them to bother searching backpacks for weapons, since it’s totally contraband. I’d almost forgotten I had it.”

“You acquitted yourself well in battle, your highness.” Lucy thought she detected a smile in his voice. “You have the makings of a warrior queen.”

They went quiet after that. She drifted off to sleep, still resting her head on his shoulder. She woke with a start, feeling like she’d overslept, but it was not quite four. Sebastian was still asleep. They were snuggled together in a position that would have been a bit too cozy for watching TV with parents in the room. Lucy was glad she woke up first and could pull away a little. He’d have probably been uncomfortable waking up with her in his arms. She suspected cuddling wasn’t part of the job description for a squire protecting a princess.

Her moving woke him up. “Is it time?” he asked, quickly removing his arm from her shoulders and avoiding her eyes as he stretched his back.

“Just about.”

A rustling outside put them both on high alert, but it was Leila. “I circled the area but see no sign of them. We should go now.”

Sebastian crawled out of the hole first, then sheathed his sword and held out a hand to help Lucy. The dogs led them upstream along the creek for a while. At a shallow point they crossed the stream and climbed up the opposite bank.

Soon, they were out of the trees and in the open fields again. They kept to the fence lines where they had some cover. Lucy lost count of how many pastures and fields they crossed that way. They didn’t see a sign of human life the entire time.

The slightest tint of pink was showing to the east when they entered the forest. Lucy felt a hint of relief at reaching cover, but they kept going, heading deeper and deeper into the woods. Lucy was so exhausted that it took all her strength just to pick up her feet and move them. Her muscles ached from running the night before, as well as from the night spent in such cramped quarters. She wanted to ask if they could stop and rest, but she didn’t want Sebastian to think she was a princess. Well, not that kind of princess, the kind who was pampered and spoiled. She needed him to think she was the kind of princess who was worth rescuing.

“We stop here to rest,” Leila said, and it took a while for the thought to make it from Lucy’s brain to her feet, so she actually walked a few steps beyond the cave-like shelter made of vines and brambles that Leila had found. The light in the shelter was dim, but she could tell that Sebastian was as tired as she was. He was pale and had dark smudges under his eyes. Oddly, that made him look even younger than usual, almost vulnerable, in spite of that sword he carried that she now knew he could use very well. It struck her for the first time that he was just a guy. She’d seen him as some kind of knight-in-shining-armor, fairy-tale-hero figure, but he wasn’t a superhero. He was strong and skilled, but he was a boy not much older than she was, and he was as tired and scared as she was.

She reached over and took his hand, giving him as strong a smile as she could muster. “Well, so far, so good.”

He gave her a half-hearted smile in response, then glanced down at where her hand rested on his. “So good?”

“They haven’t caught us.”


He shifted his shoulders, like he was trying to ease some tension, and his cloak fell back, revealing that his right sleeve was covered in drying blood. “Sebastian!” she yelped.

He glanced down, saw the blood, and went a little paler. “Oh,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too bad. It couldn’t be if I’ve barely noticed it.”

Lucy had never been one to get queasy about blood, but she suddenly felt wobbly. She’d kept her head through the whole fight and chase, but the sight of blood on his shirt was the last straw. She supposed it was because he’d been what held everything together, and if she lost him, she’d be in huge trouble—and it looked like she’d come dangerously close to losing him.

“I’d better take a look at that,” she said.

“It’s nothing.”

“Yeah, well, you’re too big for me to carry if you pass out, and it could get really ugly if it gets infected.” His blank look reminded her that his people hadn’t yet learned about stuff like germs and bacteria. “I can keep it from festering,” she clarified.

He moved a little more stiffly than someone who claimed to be feeling no pain should as he pulled off his tunic and his shirt. Lucy kept her eyes firmly focused on his injured arm instead of letting herself stare at his bare shoulders, but from what she could see in her peripheral vision, swinging a sword around was excellent for building strong muscles.

The cut on his arm was long and shallow, like a sword had just grazed him. “Looks like you got out of the way before they did any real damage,” she said. Because her main concern was infection, she got out her bottle of hand sanitizer and dribbled a thin line of it down the length of the cut. His breath went a little shallower, but otherwise he showed no sign of pain.

While he had his shirt off, she went to his other side to check the older arrow wound. He’d torn one stitch, but the others seemed to be holding, and she didn’t see any redness or puffiness that might indicate infection. She pulled out the torn stitch with the tweezers on her Swiss Army knife, then dabbed a little more hand sanitizer on the wound’s raw edges.

Only when she was through playing nurse did she let herself take a look at him. She’d expected to do a little drooling at his muscular chest and shoulders, but she was immediately distracted by the scars on his upper body. He had thin, raised white scars on his arms that looked like they’d come from previous injuries like the one she’d just tended. There were a couple of puckered marks on his back and just under his collarbone, and there were long, thin marks on his back that looked like welts from a switch. When he said he’d had worse, he really meant it. Either knight training was even rougher than she realized, or he’d had a particularly difficult life.

While she was still studying him, he looked up at her, and when their eyes met, her breath caught in her throat. Both of them immediately looked away, and he pulled his shirt and tunic back on. They avoided eye contact and touch while he shared out food from the provisions he’d bought in the market. She’d suggested that as part of their disguise, but it had turned out to be a lifesaver.

He wasn’t ever all that chatty, but now he was giving the phrase “strong, silent type” a whole new meaning. She supposed he had good reason to brood, since he’d discovered that his boss was a traitor and his mission had gone totally awry.

“I am afraid things will become much more difficult for us, your highness,” he said after he’d finished eating. “It appears that the witch’s people have discovered the signs and passwords the Loyalists use. Now I won’t be able to tell which places are safe for you.”

“Yeah, I can see where that could be an issue. But where do we go, if the place you were told to take me turned out to be a trap? Is there a plan B?”

He frowned, and she wasn’t sure if he was puzzling out what she meant by “plan B” or if he was thinking of a plan. Just as she was about to define “plan B” for him, he said, “We have to keep you away from the witch for a few more days, and then the curse will expire. She might not be as fearful about you then.”

“But I thought it already expired, on my sixteenth birthday, which was the day you rescued me from the dungeon.”

“No, your birthday is days from now. The witch is planning to crown herself then.”

“I guess there’s some kind of time lag between worlds. Any ideas for where we can hide out until maybe she’ll think she’s in the clear and might cut me some slack?”

“I have one idea for where we could go. I’m not entirely sure it would be safe for you, as I don’t know where they stand. But I can’t imagine they would side with the witch, and I would hope they would be willing to give me shelter. As I said, though, I don’t know for certain.”

“Where is it?”

“My home.”


            When Dawn woke in the female crew cabin on the showboat, she could hardly wait to start the day. It had been late when they got to the boat the night before, so she’d been hustled off to a bunk, but this marked her first day as a real professional performer. She was already singing to herself as she came out onto the deck.

“You’re born to this life, aren’t you?” She turned to see Huw leaning against the railing and smoking a pipe.

“I’m not sure what I’m born to. That’s what I’m trying to find out. But I do love singing.”

He chuckled again, even though she didn’t think she’d said anything funny. “I’ll have Rhian find you something to wear. That” —he waved at her outfit— “won’t do at all.” Only then did she realize that her cargo pants and shirt were totally out of place in this setting. Dawn was sure she and Jeremy had received some odd looks along the way, but she was so used to people giving her funny looks that she’d barely noticed.

Huw raised his voice and called out, “Rhian!”

A few minutes later, Rhian slinked her way around a corner, making it clear she was in no hurry. “Did you need me, Da?” she drawled lazily.

“Our newest cast member needs some wardrobe assistance. I thought you might be able to find Dawn here something nice to wear.”

Rhian’s expression darkened into a glare, and Dawn felt like her anger was directed at her rather than at her father. “Gwyn does costuming. I am a performer, not a member of the crew.”

“Gwyn can make a costume later,” Huw said mildly, as though he hadn’t even noticed how angry his daughter was. “But you have a trunk full of beautiful dresses I’ve bought for you, and Dawn needs something to wear tonight.”

“I didn’t know I’d be performing when I packed, so I brought all the wrong things,” Dawn put in, hoping that would make Rhian feel better. “I’d appreciate any help you could give me.”

Rhian studied her for a moment before saying, “You’re about my size—at least, in general.” She glanced down at her own voluptuous chest and smirked. “Some of my old clothes might suit you.” With a hitch of her shoulder, she gestured for Dawn to follow her into the aft cabin she shared with her father. There, she opened a big trunk and began pulling out clothes. “Let’s see, what’s the right look for you?” she muttered as she searched. “We don’t want you upstaging your bird friend by wearing anything too bright. Ah, here, this should do.” She held up a lacy, cream-colored dress that looked rather like a nightgown. “Try this on.”

She made no move to give Dawn any privacy while she changed, so Dawn just turned her back and pretended Rhian wasn’t there while she quickly slipped out of her clothes and pulled on the dress. Once she put it on, she liked it more than she expected. The neckline was higher than Rhian’s, much to Dawn’s relief. Even her aunts wouldn’t have found much to object to. “This is lovely,” she said. “Thank you.”

“You’ll do,” Rhian said with an appraising glance. “Besides, with your voice, you could perform in rags, and no one would care.”

“Oh, that’s so sweet of you to say,” Dawn said, giving her a quick hug.

Rhian smirked and went back to digging in the trunk. “Let’s see what else I can find for you. You’ll need at least one change of costume.”

Dawn examined herself as well as she could in the cabin’s slim, flyspecked mirror. “What do you do in the troupe, Rhian?” she asked.

“I am the star. I do the magic act.”

Dawn turned to look at her. “Magic? But isn’t this a musical troupe? How could a magic act headline a musical troupe?”

As soon as she said it, Dawn knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Rhian’s glare grew even darker as her eyes narrowed to the point her eyebrows met in the middle. She held up a closed fist, and Dawn took a quick step backward, but instead of swinging at her, Rhian opened her hand with her palm flat to reveal an egg. She broke the egg and pulled out a colored scarf that turned into a bird that vanished as it flew away. “When I can do that, I’m the star wherever I go,” she said.

Dawn applauded. “That’s wonderful. Did you want to be an Enchantress?”

“I have the talent, but they wouldn’t take me.” With a shrug she added, “I’d have no part of them now, anyway,” and went back to sorting through the trunk.

“Do you think they’re evil?”

“I don’t know what to think of them. No one does. They’re useless, more than anything. They have let the princess be cursed, the king and queen vanish, and the witch rule the kingdom. They seem to have their own agenda.” She handed Dawn another dress. “Try this one now.”

The next dress was a pale gray-blue that matched the top of Spink’s head. It was looser and less flattering than the other one, but the material was delicate and filmy, so that it flowed around Dawn’s body when she moved. “This would be a good dancing dress,” she remarked, trying to keep her voice steady so she wouldn’t betray how upset she was. She hadn’t wanted to believe her aunts could be bad, but they were part of this group that seemed to be helping the kingdom be taken over by a witch. What might have become of her if she hadn’t run away when she had? It was entirely possible that Lucy wasn’t in danger at all, that she’d been taken by people who thought they were rescuing Dawn from the enchantresses who’d kidnapped her.

Dawn had spent her life believing that people were basically good and trusting almost everyone she met, and no one had ever proved her wrong. Now, though, she wasn’t sure who she should trust.

Continued in Chapter 12.


Socializing (or Not)

The irony of the current stay-at-home situation is that this year, I was really planning on being more social. During the holidays, I was reading about the Danish concept of “hygge” (or, if you’re Norwegian, kos, though there are slightly different connotations). A lot of it is about coziness, a way of making dark, cold winters feel more pleasant by creating a contrast — candles, blankets, fuzzy socks, etc., while it’s cold and snowy or rainy outside. But there’s also a social element, getting together with a few good friends for dinner, games, puzzles, or just conversation. When it’s not winter, the same concept applies, but for hikes, cookouts, campfires, picnics, etc.

Reading that made me realize that it’s not that I’m anti-social. It’s that most of my social life is built around activities I don’t really enjoy. They involve big groups of 10 to as many as 30 (sometimes more) people getting together. Smaller conversation groups form, but that means there are a lot of simultaneous conversations going on so that the environment is noisy and chaotic. These are generally geeky folk, so they tend to be very passionate, and sometimes loud, about their interests. I literally have nightmares about being in this kind of environment. It’s no wonder that I flee fairly quickly, am utterly drained afterward, and dread the next gathering.

One-on-one get-togethers can be equally draining in a different way, depending on who the other person is and what the relationship is like. You have to be “on” the entire time instead of being able to sit back for a moment and let other people interact. According to the hygge book I read, 3-4 is considered optimum, and that makes sense. With that few people, there’s only one conversation going on at a time, so there’s less chaos, but the social interaction is spread over more people, so it’s not as draining as being with just one person and having to be more “on.”

So, my plan for the year was to cultivate more relationships and smaller groups or to do other social activities that work for me. I had a list of upcoming events I was going to try to get groups together to do. It’s the season for outdoor concerts and festivals. There were classic films at the old movie theater in a nearby town that would have made a good girls’ night out. I was getting my house in order so that I could host a few people at a time. I’d even reached out to a friend to go attend an event together. I was making progress.

And then the world shut down, so I’m back to my normal mode of not going anywhere or doing anything. I suppose when things start to ease up, those quiet evenings at home with a few friends who are also taking a lot of precautions will be about the only things we can do. It will be a long time before we feel safe in restaurants and movie theaters, and big gatherings of more than 10 people will be a bad idea for a while, but we might be able to manage a dinner and movie night at home. I’ve even found myself interested in games, and I’ve never been a gamer of any sort. By the time that sort of socializing becomes an option, I’ll have my house and patio really in order for hanging out with a few people.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the solitude, with the occasional phone call or video chat.


Serial Chapter 10

We’re just about to the halfway point of the ongoing serial story. If you want to start from the beginning, the first chapter is here, and you can find the previous chapter here.

Chapter Ten

            Sebastian and Lord Argus squared off, both of them holding swords ready. Lord Argus looked as amused as his scarred face allowed, like he didn’t see Sebastian as much of a threat. Lucy didn’t know how good Sebastian really was with a sword, but he was half a head taller than the other guy and considerably younger. Unless Lord Argus had mad skills, she’d bet on Sebastian. The problem was, there were a lot of other men there who were probably on the other side.

But that wasn’t the only problem. The witch was also there, and she was the one who had it in for Lucy. “It would appear that you disliked your accommodations at my castle, your highness, given your haste to leave.” the witch said with an icy smile.

Lucy supposed she should have been utterly terrified to face the woman who wanted her dead, but she was completely calm, in a weird sort of way, so that the rest of the world seemed to slow down, giving her plenty of time to think and react. “Um, hello! It wasn’t exactly the Ritz,” she said. “There was mold on the walls! And, besides, I got a better offer.”

By this time, all the men in the room had moved toward the door, their weapons out. Fortunately, their weapons were more of the pointy kind than the shooty kind, so they’d have to get close to Lucy and Sebastian to do any damage. Lucy knew they’d have been sunk if their enemies had guns or even bows and arrows.

Time slowed to a total standstill as Sebastian and his former master stood glaring at each other and all the other men surrounded them. Lucy took Sebastian’s knapsack off his shoulder, since it would probably make it harder for him to fight. Sebastian shouted, “Your highness, run!” and things started happening very fast.

Lucy rushed for the door, and there was a clang of swords next to her as Sebastian lunged at Lord Argus, which freed up a space for Lucy to duck through as Argus parried the blow and stepped forward to counterattack. The witch grabbed Lucy’s arm, and Lucy spun, swinging Sebastian’s knapsack. It connected with a dull thud and the witch went down, spewing curses. Swords continued to clang, and as Lucy caught her bearings to find the door again she saw Sebastian holding off two men while even more moved in on him. No matter how good a swordsman Sebastian was, he couldn’t fight all of them at once. Only in movies did the gang of bad guys conveniently attack the hero one at a time.

Forgetting momentarily about escaping, Lucy grabbed a handful of straw from the floor and threw it in the faces of the nearest men. That distracted them for a moment. Then the witch shouted, “Get her, and I want her alive!” That took a few of the men out of the fight with Sebastian but, unfortunately, it sent them after Lucy, who didn’t have a sword to fight them with.

Before they could get to her, Larkin howled and jumped at the neck of one of the men. Lucy clocked another upside the head with her backpack, grateful for her heavy history textbook. The household dogs got into the mix after Leila barked at them, not really fighting, but getting in the way so that some of the men couldn’t get to Lucy or back to the fight with Sebastian. Their howls and barks made the scene even crazier.

Sebastian was still fighting and doing quite well, as far as Lucy could tell. He still had all his limbs, which she thought was pretty good in a swordfight. “Highness, now!” Leila barked. The dog herded Lucy toward the door. She didn’t want to leave Sebastian, but then she saw that he was already backing his way to the door. She wasn’t sure he could hold off all those men long enough to make it. A couple of the men she’d hit with straw were hampered by sneezing fits and watery eyes, and that helped some. That reminded Lucy of her pepper spray.

She dug into her backpack as the witch regained her footing, her arms raised and her red-painted lips forming words. A glowing wave came toward Lucy, who couldn’t help but flinch, but it parted and went around her. At the same time, Dawn’s necklace grew so hot against her chest that she was sure it would cause a blister.

The witch screamed in frustration and raised her arms again. Fingers fumbling in haste, Lucy groped for the spray can. She found the slim cylinder in her backpack’s side pocket, made sure she was pointing it in the right direction, shouted, “Sebastian, duck! And close your eyes!” She sprayed for all she was worth, hitting the witch square in the eyes just as she started another spell. Melantha’s black eye makeup streamed down her face as she clawed at her eyes. Lucy turned to Lord Argus and kept spraying until the canister sputtered and gave one last, feeble “pfft,” then she threw it at the nearest man, hitting him in the temple, before running away.

Sebastian had hit the ground the moment Lucy shouted, and he crawled out of the room under the cloud of stinging gas. Anyone who ran into that cloud ended up coughing and hacking. Sebastian, the two dogs, and Lucy made it out the door, then ran at full speed across the courtyard. The guards at the gate looked like they were going to put up a fight, but Sebastian’s sword convinced them otherwise. Lucy didn’t pause in her running to see exactly what he did, but she thought she saw blood on his blade.

It wasn’t long before there was a noise behind them as all the conspirators and the witch came out of the house. They were still coughing and choking, but that wouldn’t stop them for long. “This way!” Larkin called out, and Sebastian, Lucy, and Leila followed him off the road and through a field. He and Leila jumped easily over the fences, while Lucy was able to slip between rails. Sebastian had to climb over.

Some of the pursuers were running on foot, while others paused to mount up. The mounted pursuers caught up quickly enough, but chose not to risk injury to their horses from jumping fences in the twilight darkness and had to look for a gate.

They weren’t quite at the real forest, but there was a small cluster of trees nearby. Larkin ran them right into it, down a hill to a stream. They ran along the stream bed until they reached a hollowed out space where the roots of a huge tree had been exposed. It was on the side of the hill that wouldn’t be immediately visible to their pursuers, and Lucy was pretty sure they were far enough ahead that their pursuers hadn’t even seen them go into the trees.

Sebastian shoved Lucy into the hollow and came in after her. The dogs crept back through the shadows, keeping watch. Lucy wanted to hold her breath to stay as quiet as possible, but she was breathing too hard to do so. She wasn’t used to running like that. Sebastian was breathing pretty hard, too. He not only had been running, but he’d done all that fighting before they escaped.

He kept his sword across his knees, ready just in case. The space was cramped, so Lucy was pressed up so tightly against Sebastian’s chest that she could hear his heart pounding. He was also shaking a little. Or maybe that was her. It was hard to tell when they were so close together.

The sound of barking dogs came nearer. The pursuers were right on top of them. Lucy closed her eyes, as if not being able to see them would make them unable to see her. It was childish, she knew, but at that point, she was willing to do anything to be safe. Soon, she could feel the hoofbeats as the riders went past. The pounding was louder and felt almost closer than Sebastian’s heartbeat. Lucy buried her face against his shoulder and prayed for all she was worth that they wouldn’t be discovered.


            Jeremy had planned on a hike that day, but this wasn’t the hike he’d planned. Instead of a troop of eager nine-year-olds learning the basics of woodcraft, he was with an odd assortment of minstrels and entertainers. They were armed, and they did seem to know where they were going, but they didn’t know much about navigating a forest, and their brightly colored clothes meant they didn’t exactly blend in. He could only hope the group that had taken Dawn was just as clueless. He couldn’t help but imagine a fierce rumble between the drama club and the choir.

It turned out that stealth wasn’t necessary, as they found the other group lounging in a small clearing and singing drunkenly. The worst tracker in history could have found them, and a small army could have crept up on them unnoticed. “So, Bertram,” Huw said wryly, “have you sunk so low as to have to kidnap new members? The rest of us hold auditions and must turn away far more than we take.”

Bertram jerked so suddenly at the sound of Huw’s voice that he fell off the log he was sitting on. “Ah, but you notice, we’re the ones with the secret weapon, and we’ll be the ones who perform at the coronation.”

Jeremy got the feeling the banter could go on all night, and he didn’t really care about minstrel politics. “Where’s Dawn?” he demanded.

“You must mean the secret weapon,” Bertram said. “You’ll not take her from us, Huw.”

Jeremy scanned the clearing, but there was no sight of Dawn, and in that scruffy bunch, she should have stood out. “What did you do with her?” he shouted, lunging at Bertram.

Huw held him back as he said mildly, “You seem to have misplaced the young lady.”

“Good riddance,” muttered one of the men. “She wouldn’t let us sing the bawdy songs, and she wanted us to bathe.”

Bertram staggered to his feet and reeled around the clearing. “She was just here. Where did she go?”

Jeremy strained against Huw’s grasp. He was taller, larger, and younger than the old minstrel, but Huw was stronger than he looked and Jeremy couldn’t break away. “Where is she, then?” he demanded, settling for shouting if he couldn’t hit something. The thought of Dawn alone in these woods with the sun setting was utterly terrifying, but then he remembered the way the Big Bad Wolf couldn’t bring himself to attack her and felt better. Even back home, people and animals couldn’t seem to help liking Dawn, but here that effect was intensified.

“Where might she have gone?” Huw asked.

He’d directed the question at Bertram, but it was Jeremy who answered, as he remembered the way Dawn had been acting all day. “She’ll head for the river. She seems to have a sense for that sort of thing.” He didn’t know how well magical things were accepted here, so he left out the part about her having a psychic link to her necklace. He might have accepted Huw’s help, but he was reluctant to share much personal information with anyone.

Jeremy didn’t have a psychic link to anything, but he did have a good sense of direction and knew how to get around in a forest, so he had no trouble leading Huw’s troupe back the way they’d come. It turned out that he didn’t have much reason to worry about how Huw would accept magic because as the daylight faded with sunset, Huw held out his hand, muttered an incantation, and a globe of pale light appeared above his hand. “That’s a neat trick,” Jeremy remarked.

“It is but simple magic,” Huw said with a shrug. “It’s nothing like what the enchantresses can do.”

After an hour or so of walking—far longer than it had taken to walk from the river to the kidnappers’ camp—Jeremy couldn’t help but wonder if his woodcraft skills didn’t work in this world. He was usually good at retracing his steps, and Huw’s light should have made it easy, but they were still lost, and probably walking in circles. Every time Jeremy felt like he’d regained his bearings, he ended up turned around again. If he’d been on water, he’d have figured they were caught in a current that was pulling them off course, but that couldn’t happen on land, could it?

“Now I wish we’d left a trail of bread crumbs,” he muttered as he tried once more to get his bearings. His compass had worked earlier, but now when he checked it, it spun wildly. There was something powerful enough to interfere with it, and none of his Boy Scout training had mentioned the effect of magic on a compass.

The trees thinned, and he hoped that meant they were nearing the river, even though he couldn’t hear or smell it. Then they stepped into a clearing. In the middle of it stood an odd little house, and his compass needle pointed straight at it. The man next to him made a hand sign that the other men repeated. Jeremy got the feeling it was meant to ward off evil. Huw quickly doused his hand light, but the house still glowed softly under its own power, beckoning with a welcoming warmth.

Jeremy recognized it right away. It was a gingerbread house, like the one his mother ordered every year from the town bakery to serve as a centerpiece for her Christmas party. He and Lucy had teased her about using the home of a cannibal witch as a Christmas decoration the year Lucy got a book of fairy tales for Christmas. Lucy had run over that afternoon to read him the story about Hansel and Gretl and the child-eating witch who lived in a gingerbread house. The way Huw and his men reacted to this house and the way it seemed to be at the center of a vortex pulling them toward it made Jeremy suspect that this house was the home of something equally nasty.

And if it had drawn them to it, it would have drawn Dawn on her way back to the river. She wouldn’t recognize the danger. She’d never heard of the Big Bad Wolf or either Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs, so chances were she also didn’t know about Hansel and Gretl or the dangerous allure of the gingerbread house.

He moved slowly and quietly toward the house, trying to remember how the story ended. How had they killed the witch and escaped? The men with him also moved forward. They didn’t seem to have much choice. If they tried to walk away, they’d just get pulled back here. They had to deal with whatever was in that house or they’d never get out of the woods.

Jeremy came to an abrupt halt when he heard a sound coming from the house. The man behind him bumped into him, but Jeremy was too focused on the sound to notice. It sounded like singing—Dawn singing. She was here, and she was still alive.

“That is your friend, is it not?” Huw whispered. Jeremy nodded. “We must free her. Legends have told of travelers and lost children who stray into the forest and never return.”

They edged closer to the house, and the singing became more distinct. In addition to Dawn’s voice, there was also the sound of sobbing and moaning. Another one of the witch’s prisoners?

Huw positioned them all around the door, then gestured to the largest man, who kicked the door in. They all rushed inside to see an old woman sitting in a rocking chair, sobbing her eyes out, while Dawn sang sad songs of heartbreak. Dawn broke off her song in mid-word when she saw the group burst in, and she ran to hug Jeremy. “Thank goodness you’re here! She wanted to put me in a cage, so I thought maybe if I sang sad songs to her, it would make her feel bad so she wouldn’t hurt me. I got through most of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon and the sadder songs from Phantom, and I’d had to resort to whatever country music I could remember.”

“How did you know she was dangerous?”

“She has a cage in her living room, and she tried to convince me it was her guest room.”

“Yeah, I could see where that might make you suspicious.” He put his arm around her waist to guide her out of the house, but once the music stopped, the witch jerked back to life.

“What are you doing in my house?” she screeched, having to stop a time or two to sniffle as tears continued dripping down her face. She smiled a toothless grin as she saw the roomful of brawny men. “Welcome, all you big, strong, delicious boys. You must be hungry. I have cake.”

Jeremy remembered the cage from the story—the witch had kept children in there to fatten them up. And wasn’t there something about tricking the nearly blind witch with a chicken bone so she’d think they weren’t fat enough yet? He saw the huge fireplace set into the wall, with a brick oven beside it. That was it! They’d shoved her into her own oven.

“I wouldn’t mind some cake,” he said. “I’m starving.”

Dawn clutched his arm. “Jeremy, no! Let’s just get away from here.”

He handed Dawn over to Huw and moved closer to the oven. “Is the cake warm? I like it best that way.” The witch perked up and limped her way across the room to the oven. For a moment, he felt bad about plotting the death of a little old lady who lived in a gingerbread house, but he reminded himself that she was the magical equivalent of an ant lion, creating an impossible-to-escape vortex to lure unsuspecting travelers to her home, where she kept them in a cage to fatten up until she ate them. Taking her out would be a public service, and, he reminded himself, possibly their only way to escape.

“Here, young man, I have fresh cake that should just be done.” She bent to open the oven door, and he rushed to give her a good push. It didn’t go quite as easily as it did in the story because she put up a good fight for such a scrawny little thing. A couple of the other men joined him when they realized what he was doing. She screamed curses at them, and pieces of the room’s candy decor came loose and flew at them, but they finally got her into the oven and slammed the door closed. They all took refuge under the heavy wooden table until lemon drops and peppermint discs quit flying, then they cautiously eased their way out from under the table.

The men all sighed with relief, but Dawn had tears in her eyes. “Maybe she was just a lonely old woman,” she said with a sniffle. “She did weep when I sang.”

Huw put a hand on her shoulder. “Miss, that witch has been killing people for years.”

“And she uses magic to lure people here. We might not have been able to get away if we hadn’t killed her,” Jeremy added. He got out his compass and saw that the arrow was once again pointing in a sane direction. “And now we can get back to the river.”

Dawn collected her backpack and they headed out by the light of Huw’s magic. Dawn walked close by Jeremy. “Who are these people?” she asked in a whisper.

“They’re a musical troupe. Remember that girl who was heckling you in the market? The older man is her father. They knew that Bertram guy must have kidnapped you, and they agreed to help if you’d join their troupe for the coronation. I hope you don’t mind that I committed you.”

“You mean I get to be part of a real performing group?” She bounced on her toes and clapped her hands in delight. Apparently, she didn’t mind at all. Then she frowned. “Are they any good?”

“I have no idea. I haven’t heard them perform. But they do have a good-sized boat that’s part stage, so it looks like they’re a profitable operation.”

“They can’t be worse than that other group. Oh, Jeremy, they were awful.” She danced over to Huw to thank him for helping Jeremy come to her rescue. Jeremy couldn’t help but notice that the men of the troupe had surrounded them. They weren’t taking any chances on Jeremy backing out of their agreement once he’d found Dawn. It looked like they were part of a traveling performing troupe, like it or not. Dawn liked it, obviously, but Jeremy felt like he’d just become a prisoner.

Continued in Chapter 11.


Serial Chapter Nine

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.

Chapter Nine

            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