Here’s the next chapter (which might look familiar if you saw the last installment soon after I posted it since I skipped a chapter and then corrected it). If you’re just stumbling upon this serial story, the first chapter is here. If you got the wrong chapter the last time or missed the previous installment, you can find it here. Or if you just want to read the book, the e-book is available.
Lucy found herself re-thinking Sebastian’s idea about sticking to her role the next morning when she learned she was expected to give the army a pep talk. It would have been really nice if somebody had warned her so she could have written a good rah-rah speech. She wished she could remember any of those rousing Shakespearian speeches from English class. Unfortunately, all that came to mind were football cheers, and she wasn’t sure that telling the troops to Go! Fight! Win! and push onward to V-I-C-T-O-R-Y was going to cut it. Maybe a famous speech from history would work, like something Churchill said during World War II, but she couldn’t remember much beyond something about blood and tears. Maybe her history teacher was right about Lucy needing to pay more attention in class.
They put her on a big, white horse and arranged the skirts of her red dress carefully to drape around the horse. Harald was on a steel gray horse beside her, and Sebastian and his brother rode together at the head of the procession. They came to a hilltop overlooking the camp, and there were a lot of soldiers there, a whole ocean of men. When they saw Lucy, they all cheered. She must have made quite a sight, wearing that bright red dress and sitting on that white horse. That was about all they would have been able to see from that distance. Then the procession rode down into the valley toward the troops. Geoffrey stood in his stirrups and shouted, “We march today, and this is why you march!” He gestured toward Lucy, and the cheers started again.
He nodded at her, and she figured that was her cue. Too bad she still hadn’t thought of anything to say. “Um, well, hi,” she started, then winced at how lame it sounded. They couldn’t have known that she didn’t grow up as a princess, and they weren’t here to fight for an American teenager. So, she tried again. “Until a few days ago, I didn’t know who or what I was. I didn’t know about my home or my heritage. Now I know that my home is this wonderful kingdom, and I’m honored to have so many brave soldiers fighting for me.”
Now she was getting into it, so she raised her voice and went on. “But you’re not really fighting for me. You’re fighting for yourselves, and for the opportunity for your families to live in a happy, safe place. You’re fighting for your kingdom. You’re fighting for your homes. You’re fighting for each other. And because you’re fighting for these things you love so much, I know you’ll fight your hardest.” Then because she simply couldn’t resist, she added, “Go! Fight! Win! And on to victory!”
She almost fell off her horse when they shouted back, “Go! Fight! Win!”
“Yay, team,” she muttered under her breath. That wasn’t half bad for something she did on the fly, but she hoped nobody wrote it down and made kids memorize it in school. Maybe if the opportunity came up, she’d have to teach them the one about “push ’em back, push ’em back, waaaaay back.” It was kind of scary how well football cheers applied to war. She’d only have to change words when there was a specific mention of the ball or a touchdown.
After Lucy’s pep talk, Geoffrey led her up and down the ranks for a while so that more of the soldiers could get a good look at her. She did a royal wave, and she had to work hard not to burst into giggles when the soldiers shouted “Go! Fight! Win!” at her.
Then the army took off to march on the castle. Harald and Sebastian were in the group assigned to stay with Lucy. She got the impression Sebastian was supposedly the military leader, probably because of his position, but he had an older man beside him who seemed to be the one really giving the orders.
While they waited for their time to head out, Sebastian brought the older man over to Lucy. “Your highness,” he said with a twitch of his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, “may I present to you Sergeant Fulk? He was my mentor, who trained me for knighthood.”
Fulk bowed his head to Lucy. She couldn’t tell quite how old he was because the combination of scars and sun damage made him look ancient, while his body was as trim and toned as Sebastian’s. “Your highness. That was quite a speech you gave.”
“Thank you. And it seems I must thank you for my life. If you trained Sebastian, you made it possible for him to keep me safe.”
“He was a good student, your highness.”
“I didn’t expect you to be here,” Sebastian said to him. “I was worried that Lord Argus might have done something after you sent me away.”
Fulk spat on the ground, then quickly said, “Forgive me, your highness.” To Sebastian, he said, “I stayed as long as I did only because you needed me. Once I got you safely away, why would I continue serving a traitor?”
“When this is over, I’m sure my brother would welcome you to his service.”
Finally, it was time to head out, once the army was thoroughly on their way. They kept a slower pace, probably because Lucy was such a novice rider and riding sidesaddle. They reached the road down which the men who’d kidnapped her had brought her on that first day. Lucy could barely believe it had only been a few days ago, so much had changed. She had changed so much. She had to gulp back a sob when they reached that tiny village where the soldiers had attacked the people for trying to help her. The people lined the road once more, but there were far fewer of them, and some of those who were there carried signs of what the soldiers had done, with bandages and bruises. It broke Lucy’s heart that it had all been for nothing, since she wasn’t the true princess, and they hadn’t been able to stop the guards from taking her, but she forced herself to put on a brave face. They all looked so proud and happy to see her alive and free that she was sure they didn’t want to see their princess weeping. She put on a fake beauty-queen smile and waved at them as she and her escort rode through the town, while making a mental note to tell someone to send food and maybe some other goods to this village.
They finally came to a spot overlooking the river and bridge. From there, they could see the capital city and the castle, but there were no obvious signs of fighting, other than the lack of guards on the bridge.
Sebastian helped Lucy off her horse and led her to a sheltered spot. Before they could speak to each other, Harald cried out in a surprisingly girly scream. “Dogs! Wild dogs! Attacking us! The witch must have sent them!” he yelled, flailing wildly.
Lucy and Sebastian whirled to see what was happening, and Lucy immediately squealed for joy. “Leila! Larkin!” she called out, hitching up her skirts and running toward the dogs. “You’re back!”
“We heard from other animals that an army was gathering, so we were sure we’d find you coming this way,” Larkin said. His voice was gruff, but his tail wagged wildly.
“We really missed you both,” Lucy said.
Harald approached cautiously. “They . . . they talk!” he blurted.
“What, you don’t have talking animals in your kingdom?” Lucy asked.
“None that I would associate with.”
“Your loss,” she said with a shrug. “Leila and Larkin, this is Prince Harald of Ernstmead. Ignore him.”
They went back to their vantage point to watch the battle, and having Leila next to her made Lucy feel a lot better about waiting for her next big move as a princess.
It looked like the Loyalists were winning. At least, no one was retreating. The troops were supposed to signal when it was time for Lucy and her group to make a triumphant appearance. The idea was that the sight of the princess would rally the townspeople to the cause and make it easier to take the castle and capture or kill the witch.
Lucy hated the waiting, especially when she knew that people were out there being hurt and maybe even killed not too far away, and they were doing it in part because of her. That was the part of being a princess they didn’t put in the storybooks.
Dawn made it to the top of the main staircase, surprised that she’d yet to run into a guard. Apparently, they were all out defending the castle and weren’t so worried about what might happen inside. At the wide landing, there were two more staircases on either side. Dawn didn’t even have to pause to know which way she should go, the pull was so strong. She headed straight to the staircase on the left. That led to a corridor, which she followed to another staircase. The staircases gradually became narrower and narrower as she went higher. Eventually, she realized she must be in Spink’s tall, tall tower when she reached a spiral staircase that hugged the outer wall.
By this time, the pull was so strong she felt she could let it carry her up like an elevator but, unfortunately, she had to climb the stairs. She passed the occasional door along the way as the staircase flattened out to a narrow landing, but the pull continued to drag her up the stairs.
The stairs ended at a door that stood ever so slightly ajar, beckoning her to come inside. She gave it a gentle push, and it opened wide into a circular room. There were windows all around, letting a lot of light in. It was a pleasant room that would be ideal for reading on a lazy afternoon.
Then Dawn saw that the room was occupied. A richly dressed woman sat in a chair by one window. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude,” Dawn said, backing toward the door.
The woman gave her a smile. “You’re not intruding at all, my dear. Please come in.”
Dawn took a tentative step further into the room. She felt like this was the right place, but Lucy was nowhere in sight. This didn’t even look like a place where a prisoner might be kept. It looked more like a lady’s chamber.
“Were you looking for something?” the woman asked. Her voice was deep, the kind of woman’s voice that could sing tenor parts.
“I–I thought I was, but perhaps I was mistaken.”
The woman smiled again, but this time her smile wasn’t quite as warm. It had an icy edge to it. “And perhaps you weren’t.”
“You’re in the castle! In the tall, tall tower!” a familiar voice said from the other side of the room, and Dawn whirled to see Spink sitting in a window.
“Spink! What are you doing here?” she said.
“He’s doing his duty,” the woman said. “Fulfilling a family obligation. Not in quite the way I planned, but that has actually worked out for the best.”
The bird flew across the room to perch on the back of the woman’s chair. “I brought the girl from far, far away to the castle,” he chirped as he ruffled his feathers to puff up his chest.
Dawn shook her head in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
“That doesn’t matter,” the woman said. “Or it won’t, very soon, if you’re who I believe you are, and that would certainly explain why things didn’t work properly before. I should have known then.”
Dawn’s mouth went dry. Even though the woman hadn’t said or done anything threatening, she had the strangest feeling that she was in terrible danger. She’d walked into a trap, and the silly little bird had helped set it up. But the most important thing to Dawn at the moment was something the woman had said. “Who do you believe I am?” she asked.
The woman leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. “Tell me, my dear, is there anything that compels you, anything you feel you absolutely must do?”
Dawn realized she’d been rubbing her finger against her skirt. She needed to touch something to make that pain go away. As if acting on its own, her hand rose and seemed to lead the way across the room. She followed helplessly behind it over to where a spinning wheel sat. A spinning wheel? All this time, she’d thought her necklace was calling to her, but it was a spinning wheel? That made no sense.
She’d never seen a real spinning wheel outside an illustration in a school book. She raised her hand to touch it but hesitated as a memory surfaced. When the bird had sung about the tall, tall tower, he’d sung about Melantha, the witch. She was with the witch in a tower room.
But while she’d been remembering, her hand was still moving. Before she realized what was happening, she’d touched the spinning wheel, and then everything went black.
After what felt to Lucy like hours of waiting, a horn blew and a flag waved from the city wall across the river. It was time to ride to the castle. A squad of Loyalist soldiers met them inside the city walls, along with a group of women wearing black dresses with white collars. They looked like Dawn’s aunts. A second glance told Lucy that three of them were Dawn’s aunts. She was glad she’d told Sebastian the truth about who she was. Otherwise, this could have been awkward if the aunts recognized her.
But they didn’t show any sign of recognizing her. They bowed to her, even as the men with her bowed to the women. “Your highness, we put ourselves and our talents at your disposal,” the lead woman—Dawn’s Aunt Mariel, if Lucy wasn’t mistaken—said. Lucy could have sworn that Mariel winked at her ever so slightly.
“Thank you,” Lucy said. She assumed the women with the aunts were the rest of the enchantresses Sebastian had mentioned.
“You are well, your highness?” Mariel asked, and now Lucy was sure there was a twinkle in her eye.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I’m okay.”
“Report!” Sebastian barked to the men who’d met them.
“Most of the city has been secured, my lord, and we’re battering the castle gates.”
“You may leave the gates to us,” Mariel said. Moving as precisely as a marching band, all the women in black turned and flowed up the street toward the castle. At Sebastian’s signal, Lucy and the troops followed them.
There didn’t seem to be much bloodshed in the streets. The only bodies wore the witch’s livery. Lucy wasn’t sure how many of them had been killed by the Loyalist army. The people of the city looked like they’d done their fair share of the fighting. Some of them were still out in the streets, carrying whatever they could use as a weapon. At least a couple of enemy soldiers had been brought down by housewives swinging heavy iron skillets.
The people lining the streets cheered when Lucy’s procession passed. Some of them had tears running down their faces, but they were grinning, so Lucy assumed they were tears of joy. People began throwing things, and at first she ducked, but then she realized they were throwing flowers. Now she knew how the homecoming queen must feel, except, to be honest, she didn’t think people were really all that excited to see the homecoming queen pass by in the parade. Lucy hadn’t ever seen anyone cry about that.
With all the flags and banners for the coronation, the whole thing had a festive atmosphere. It was easy to forget that not too long ago there had been fighting in these streets, and there was still fighting going on ahead. But Lucy didn’t want to ruin the day for these people by looking grim, so she put on her biggest smile and busted out the royal wave again. She felt a little like a cheat, taking their cheers when she wasn’t really the princess, but then again, she was the one with the soldiers in the battle zone, which meant she’d earned some of those cheers.
They reached the castle gates, where the rest of the army had the castle surrounded. Geoffrey supervised troops hammering at the gates with a battering ram. Sebastian called out to his brother to stop, then gestured toward the enchantresses. Geoffrey nodded and ordered his men to stand back. The women lined up in front of the gates, joined hands, and soon the gates swung open on their own. “Levitation isn’t that complicated,” Dawn’s Aunt Miriam explained. “All we had to do was levitate the bar on the other side.”
“Melantha must be sidetracked,” Mariel said. “She should have had a protective spell on that.”
Geoffrey led the army into the castle courtyard while Sebastian, Lucy, Harald, and the enchantresses stayed behind. Lucy winced at the sound of clanging swords and the occasional cry of pain or anger. She didn’t know how well-defended the castle grounds would be, so she had no idea how long to expect the battle to last. “How do you think it’s going?” she asked Sebastian.
“They’ll tell us when it’s safe for you to enter,” he replied.
“I will find out, highness,” Larkin said. He ran through the gate, then returned moments later. “There is still resistance, but the Loyalist forces are prevailing. The area will be secured soon enough.”
Lucy was just about to send the dogs in again when Fulk came out and bowed to Sebastian. “The castle courtyard is secured, my lord.” At Sebastian’s signal, they rode through the castle gates. The doors of the castle itself stood open.
Just then, though, there was a crackling noise, followed by a rumbling sound as snaky tendrils rose up the castle walls. Sebastian jumped off his horse and called to his soldiers, but the vines had already covered the castle doors before they reached them. As the flowering vines grew up the castle walls, the lower portions matured into thick ropes of thorns. Soon, the entire castle was encased in thorny vines.
“She seems to have that much of a protective spell,” Sebastian muttered.
Lucy shook her head. This was very, very familiar, and she wasn’t sure it had anything to do with defending the castle. When she realized where she’d heard of this sort of thing, her heart rose into her throat, then sank into her stomach, where it settled like a rock. She turned to the aunts. “Dawn isn’t here, is she?” The looks on their faces told her she wasn’t wrong about what the thorns meant. They were part of the curse. Dawn was inside that castle, and she’d touched the spindle, so now she was out cold until they found a true love to kiss her. The problem was, as far as Lucy knew, there wasn’t even a boy Dawn liked. Unless Dawn had managed to meet and fall for someone between the time Lucy had last seen her and now, they’d have to find a guy who was turned on by unconscious chicks.
Of course, whether that would work depended on how, exactly, “true love” was defined. Was it someone Dawn loved, or someone who loved Dawn? And did it have to be mutual? Or was it about potential or destiny, so that it was the first kiss from the person Dawn was meant to be with, even if they hadn’t met before? Something told Lucy that nobody had thought through either the curse or the counter curse. Not much about it made sense.
Then she realized they had a bigger problem than that. Right now, the witch must know who the real princess was, and she had the real princess, helpless and unconscious, in her clutches. “We need to get in there, now!” she said.
Sebastian, Fulk, and several of the soldiers were already at work, hacking at the vines over the doors with swords and knives. Lucy signaled for one of the other soldiers to help her off her horse, and she went over to the aunts. “What is Dawn doing here? I thought she’d be safe as long as the witch didn’t know she had the wrong girl.”
Matilda put a calming hand on Lucy’s arm. “She seems to have come looking for you. We built a portal in the garden shed to bring her home after her birthday safely passed, and she found it. She’s with that boy.” In aunt speak, “that boy” was Jeremy. At least Dawn wasn’t here in this crazy world alone. “It does seem that you know, though.”
“Yeah, because I know my fairy tales. This is “Sleeping Beauty.” But she has no idea who or what she is, does she?” Lucy asked.
“We were going to tell her.”
“It’s a little late for that, huh? If she’d known, she wouldn’t have walked into this.” Without waiting for an answer, she turned, gathered her trailing skirts, and headed toward where the men were still trying to get through the doors. They’d managed to create a gap wide enough for the dogs to slip through. Then they cut through the rest of the vines.
“Your highness,” Sebastian called out, and Lucy joined them, along with the aunts.
Harald hung back. “I will wait until the castle is secured,” he said. “Better to make a grand entrance at just the right moment, don’t you think?”
Lucy rolled her eyes before running into the castle. “You seem to know what the vines signify,” Sebastian said to her.
“They mean my friend Dawn is here, and she’s touched the spindle. We have to get to her.”
“Where would she be?”
Everything else about the fairy tale had been true, more or less, so Lucy hoped one more crucial detail would also track. “The tallest tower,” she said. “That’s the most likely place. Do you know how to get up there?”
He nodded and led the charge up the grand staircase. When they reached the landing, a voice called out, “Lucy?” and someone caught her in a big hug. “You’re here! You’re safe!” Only when he released her and backed away did she see that it was Jeremy, and then she grabbed him and hugged him.
“Wow, that’s a new look on you,” he said when she let him go.
“Yeah, well, it’s a long story and we don’t have time to get into it now. We need to find Dawn.”
He noticed the aunts and jolted. “Get away from them, Luce,” he said. “They’ve been chasing us the whole way. They aren’t who they said they were, and they’ve been holding Dawn prisoner all this time.”
“We have not!” Matilda said indignantly.
“We were protecting her,” Mariel added. “And we wouldn’t have this trouble now if you hadn’t been so busy running from us. We even tried to keep you from being asked to perform at the coronation.”
“I knew that was you!” Jeremy cried out.
“And there we go with another long story or two,” Lucy said to Jeremy. “Bottom line: Dawn’s in trouble, it’s not from the aunts, and we have to get to her, fast.”
“Come on, this way,” Sebastian called out from the top of the stairs to their left. Jeremy followed the group making their way toward the tower.
He tried to catch up as they ran. “Could you give me at least a hint about what’s going on here?”
“It’s ‘Sleeping Beauty.’”
“Come on, I’m sure I made you watch that one with me when we were little. Evil witch/fairy/whatever curses infant princess to prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and die before sunset on her sixteenth birthday. Good fairies/enchantresses/whatever alter the curse to sleep, then take princess off to safety where no one will know she’s a princess. Except, apparently, they went as far as another world.” He still looked blank, so she added, “The princess’s name is Aurora, which means dawn.”
“Oh,” he said, finally getting it. “So the aunts are . . .”
“Yeah, the good enchantresses.”
“And Dawn is . . .”
“A fairy-tale princess.”
“But Dawn already had her sixteenth birthday.”
“In our world. But apparently there’s a time lag, or else the calendars are off. Today’s our birthday here.”
“And so she’s going to prick her finger and sleep?”
“She already has. We had to hack our way through thorny vines to get in here, and that’s a sign that the curse has kicked in.”
“So, where do you fit in?”
“Everyone thinks I’m the princess, since I’m the one they took because I was wearing Dawn’s necklace. Dawn would have been perfectly safe if you’d stayed home.”
“We were trying to help you! And Dawn was very, very determined.”
At the top of the next flight of stairs, they met the last of the resistance. The corridor was heavily guarded, which was a pretty good sign that something important was somewhere down that hallway. Leading the guard was Lord Argus, himself.
Continued in Chapter 19.