We’re getting close to the end! Here’s the latest installment. If you want to start at the beginning, you can find it here. You can find the previous installment here. For information on getting the whole thing as an e-book, go here.
Sebastian and Fulk drew their swords almost simultaneously, and the rest of their men followed their lead. “Lucy,” Sebastian said very softly, “The stairs to the tower are behind the door at the end of the corridor. When you get the opportunity, go. We will hold them here as long as we can.”
“Gotcha,” she said, then added, “Thanks.” There was so much more she wanted to say to him, but there wasn’t time, and she refused to let herself believe she wouldn’t have another chance.
She, Jeremy, the dogs, and the aunts moved aside, leaving the way clear for the battle that was bound to start as soon as everyone quit staring at each other. “So, you’re challenging me, are you, boy?” Argus asked Sebastian with a sneer.
“Um, hello?” Sebastian replied. He’d apparently picked up a thing or two from Lucy over the past few days. “You’re working for the witch and you’ve betrayed your kingdom. And you were using me to threaten my brother while keeping me away from my family. Of course I’m challenging you.”
Lucy held her breath as Sebastian lunged at Lord Argus, kicking off the battle. In the previous fights, Lucy hadn’t had a chance to really watch Sebastian in action, since she was preoccupied with saving herself. He was good. Not that she knew much about swordfighting, beyond having seen The Princess Bride a few times, but he moved quickly and gracefully, and he swung his sword in slight, controlled movements.
“Who’s Sir Galahad?” Jeremy asked.
“His name’s Sebastian, and he’s the reason I’m still alive,” Lucy replied.
The sound of steel hitting steel was awfully loud in that hallway. It rang and echoed, which made it hard to think. Sebastian managed to push Lord Argus back a few steps. Some of the castle guards noticed their leader in trouble and went to help him. That left a gap down one side of the hallway. “There’s our chance, let’s go!” Lucy said and took off past the fighting, forcing herself not to look to see how Sebastian was doing against all those men.
Jeremy, Leila, and the aunts came with her. The door stood open, and beyond it was a spiraling staircase. “Oh, joy, more stairs,” Lucy said, panting. Leila ran past her and started up the stairs. The aunts gently moved Lucy out of the way before heading upward. Jeremy and Lucy brought up the rear.
The door at the top of the stairs was already open, and the group cautiously eased their way into the chamber. The first thing Lucy saw was Dawn lying on a four-poster bed. She looked like she’d been laid out for a funeral. Lucy desperately hoped the part about the curse being changed from death to sleep was true. A small reddish bird with a blue-gray head sat on the pillow by Dawn’s head, whistling mournfully. Lucy wasn’t surprised that Dawn had already made animal friends in this world. The witch, again in that fabulous red dress, stood over Dawn, her back to the door.
Jeremy froze, staring at Dawn’s lifeless body. The color drained from his face until he was as pale as she was. He snarled, “Spink?” and the bird buried its head under a wing.
Before Lucy could ask what that was about, the witch turned and saw them. “Oh, there you are. I’m sorry, but all your efforts to protect her came to nothing in the end. And to think, you even exiled yourselves. But I have won! The king and queen are missing, and the princess is dead, so the throne is mine!” She gestured triumphantly at Dawn.
“That doesn’t make you queen,” Lucy said. “I mean, just because you think you’ve got squatter’s rights, it doesn’t mean that the princess being out of the way means you rule.”
“But I am the one sitting on the throne.”
“Not at the moment,” Lucy pointed out. “And all your people have been defeated. Give it up, sister. It’s over.”
“Who will you put on the throne, though? You don’t have a king, queen, or princess.”
“Yes, we have,” a voice said from the doorway. Lucy turned around to see a sweaty and exhausted Sebastian standing there. He gestured toward Lucy. “We have a princess the people have already accepted, thanks to your capture and pursuit of her. You’ve vouched for her, yourself.”
“But she isn’t the real princess!”
“The only people who know that are here in this room,” Mariel said.
“And do you think anyone’s going to believe you if you claim otherwise?” Lucy added.
Lucy expected a witty response, but the witch instead raised her arms over her head and started to shimmer. Leila leapt at her, and both of them disappeared. While they were all still staring at the place where the witch had been, the door to the chamber slammed shut. Sebastian immediately went to open it, but he couldn’t. “It’s sealed,” he said.
Mariel went over there and waved her hands around the door. “It’s enchanted,” she reported, “and I can’t break it.”
“Wow, that was like she had a trap door,” Jeremy said.
Miriam was busy studying the spot where the witch had disappeared. “She did. A magical one. I think I can make it work for us.”
“Good, then get us out of here,” Lucy said. “We’ve got to stop her before she crowns herself, and with both the real princess and the one everyone thinks is the princess locked up here, she can do that.”
Miriam shook her head. “I’m afraid we can only get ourselves through magically. We wouldn’t be able to take you.”
“Leila went through with Melantha,” Lucy pointed out.
“But it’s Melantha’s escape hatch. It opens readily for her. We’d have to force it to work, and it wouldn’t be safe to try to take anyone else.”
“Then go. Make sure you stop her.”
Matilda wrapped her hands around Lucy’s. “We will send help.”
“Talk to my brother, the Duke of Grantley,” Sebastian said. “He should be in charge.”
One by one, the aunts each went over to the magical trapdoor, then disappeared, leaving Lucy, Sebastian, Jeremy, and the unconscious Dawn alone in the tower chamber. Jeremy, still horribly pale, went to Dawn’s side. “I take it you beat Lord Argus,” Lucy said to Sebastian.
He looked extremely satisfied as he said, “Yes, I did. My men and Fulk are guarding the tower entrance.”
“You didn’t . . .”
“No, he’s still alive, a prisoner. I want him to face justice for his treachery.”
“There’s nothing I need to sew up, is there?”
“Not that I can tell at the moment. The pains usually strike later.” He glanced over at the unconscious princess, and his face took on a more somber expression as he took Lucy’s hand and said, “I know you didn’t want to do this, but you may have to play the princess for us a while longer, until we can find the king and queen or otherwise secure the succession.”
“What? You mean you think she’s really dead?”
“I swear, fairy tales should be required reading, even for boys.”
“I know fairy tales. Just not the princess ones.”
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “According to all the tales, the good enchantresses modified the curse so that she’s only in a death-like sleep.” Of course, Disney movies weren’t necessarily documentaries, so she could have been wrong. Dawn did look like she was carved out of wax.
“How do we wake her up?” Jeremy asked.
“That’s where it gets tricky. Some of the stories said she slept for a hundred years, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I mean, that would be a really silly curse modification, don’t you think? Sleeping for a hundred years wouldn’t be much better than dying. Generally, though, waking requires the first kiss of true love. And, wow, that explains why the aunts wouldn’t let her date and got very jumpy about her being around boys. If you need a first kiss to save your life, then you’d best not throw it away on some high school jerk. The trick is defining ‘true love.’ Dawn doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
“We could find Prince Harald once we get out of here,” Sebastian suggested. “He is her betrothed.”
“Her WHAT?” Jeremy asked, looking suspiciously red in the face.
“He’s from the neighboring kingdom. The parents made a marriage arrangement when the kids were babies to create an alliance,” Lucy explained to Jeremy, then turned to Sebastian. “But I refuse to consider that he might meet any definition of true love. That guy’s more likely to put you in a coma than get you out of one.” She turned back to Jeremy. “Trust me, he’s a real jerk. And I don’t think the alliance is such a great idea, not done that way, so I bet the betrothal can be broken somehow.”
Jeremy was getting redder and redder, which was weird because he’d never been someone who embarrassed easily. “While you’re taking traitors prisoner, here’s one you might want to consider,” he said. “The bird who sold us out.”
The bird flew to a windowsill on the other side of the room, well out of Jeremy’s reach, which Lucy thought was wise. From the look in Jeremy’s eyes, she got the feeling he’d have been perfectly willing to snap the bird’s neck. “I didn’t know she would be hurt!” the bird whimpered. “I just did what my mother told me to do. She never said Melantha was bad or that she’d hurt the girl from far away. I was only supposed to tell Melantha she was here. She was supposed to stay at the garden, only I got confused and brought her here.”
Lucy went over to a window and looked out. The ground was very, very far below, far enough to make her dizzy. “It looks like the Rapunzel solution won’t work. I don’t have enough hair to get out the window.” She ignored the boys’ blank looks. If they didn’t know their fairy tales, that was their problem.
“Do you smell smoke?” Sebastian asked after a while.
Lucy tested the air and said, “Yeah, maybe.”
“I smell it,” Jeremy said.
Sebastian went over to the door and sniffed around the edges, then pressed his hands against the wood. “The smoke does seem to be in the stairs, but the door isn’t warm, so the fire isn’t too close.”
Lucy gestured toward the windows. “At least we won’t die of smoke inhalation.”
“But it won’t be good for us when the tower burns through and collapses under us,” Jeremy said. He turned to the bird. “Here’s a chance for you to redeem yourself, Spink. I need you to go find Huw in the throne room and tell him we need help. Tell him the tower’s on fire and we’re at the top.” The bird immediately perked up and took off through a window. “The aunts wouldn’t know about the fire,” Jeremy explained. “The people we’ve been traveling with have some magic of their own. Of course, that depends on whether that stupid bird will remember what he’s doing by the time he gets to the throne room. If he can find the throne room.”
Sebastian paced the middle of the room, frowning in thought. “There are rumors about this tower,” he said. “Some think Melantha lived here secretly for years, or else came here often after cursing the princess and before she got rid of the king and queen and took over the castle herself. The stairs were guarded, so she couldn’t have made it up here that way.”
Lucy gestured to where Melantha and the aunts had vanished. “Um, remember the magical trap door?”
“That wouldn’t have worked then. There were protections in place that kept magic from being used in the castle without anyone knowing about it. A spell like that would have brought the court enchantresses here in a heartbeat.”
“So what you’re saying is you think there’s a secret passage?”
“There’s a fire below us,” Jeremy reminded them.
“The fire is in the stairwell. If the passage runs elsewhere, we might still be able to get past it, but we’d have to find the passage quickly,” Jeremy said.
“What are we waiting for?” Lucy asked. “Let’s get to it.”
The three of them took the room apart, pulling aside the wall hangings between windows and prying at floorboards. Finally, there was just one place in the room they hadn’t searched: the floor under the bed where Dawn lay. The two boys shoved the bed aside to reveal a square of carpet under where the bed had been. Lucy considered that as good as a sign saying, “Secret passage here!” and she ran over to pull the carpet back. Sure enough, there was a section of floorboards that didn’t quite match the rest of the floor.
Sebastian pried up the trap door with his sword. Beneath the door was a narrow tunnel with a ladder running down one wall. It reminded Lucy of a manhole. “We have to go all the way down the tower on that ladder?” Lucy asked, trying not to whine.
“The passage should have access to other rooms on the way down,” Sebastian said. “We only need to get past the fire, and then we can use the stairs. My main concern is how we will carry the princess out. The tunnel is too narrow to carry her over anyone’s shoulders. Perhaps we could find a way to strap her to my back.”
Jeremy cleared his throat, and the other two turned to look at him. Turning redder than ever, he said, “Don’t you think it would be easier if she could move herself?” He went to the bed, leaned over Dawn and kissed her lightly on the lips.
The color gradually returned to Dawn’s face and her eyes opened. Lucy thought she might faint, or maybe throw up. Jeremy was Dawn’s true love? Really? But she always thought he was meant to be with her. The thought sent a stab through her heart. For a split second, she hated Dawn. She hated her for being beautiful and talented and most especially for being the one Jeremy noticed when he didn’t seem to realize Lucy was a girl, even though he’d known her all his life. Had this been going on behind her back the whole time? Had her two best friends been conspiring against her?
But when she looked at Sebastian, her sanity returned. She knew she didn’t feel for Jeremy what she felt for Sebastian, and she wouldn’t feel that way, even if she and Jeremy went back to their own world and she had to leave Sebastian behind forever.
Dawn sat up slowly, rubbing her forehead. “What happened?” she asked, looking and sounding a little shaky. She blinked, focused her eyes, and saw Lucy. “Lucy! You’re okay! But what are you doing here?”
“It’s a very long story,” the three of them said all at once.
“We’ll explain once we get you out of here,” Lucy added.
“Can you walk?” Jeremy asked.
“I, I think so.”
“I will go first,” Sebastian said, stepping through the opening and starting down the ladder. “Leave the entrance open. That will ensure we get some fresh air.” Lucy wrapped her train around her arm before following him. Dawn came after her, and Jeremy brought up the rear.
The witch must have been really desperate to have a hideaway in the castle if she’d been willing to go up and down this ladder, Lucy thought as she felt for each step with her toes. She tried not to think about how far down the passage went. When they’d been on the ladder for several minutes, it grew uncomfortably warm in the passage. Lucy held her breath until the air cooled, hoping the fire hadn’t yet burned through the wall between the stairs and the passage.
She wasn’t sure her arms would hold her on the ladder much longer when Sebastian called out from below, “Stop there. I’ll see if we can get through this doorway.” Lucy heard the sound of a door opening, and soon the air smelled a little fresher. Sebastian’s voice called again. “It appears to be safe. Lucy, come down to where I am.”
She reached the level of the door and discovered that there was a three-foot gap between the ladder and the doorway that led into a room. That was a gap over what seemed to be a bottomless drop. Sebastian stood in the doorway and held his hand out to Lucy. “I’ve got you. You’ll be safe,” he assured her. She took a deep breath and jumped for it. He caught her and pulled her into the room. He then brought in Dawn and Jeremy.
There was the slightest smell of smoke coming from the door on the other side of the room. “Will it be safe to use the stairs?” Jeremy asked. “It seems pretty smoky out there.”
“Smoke rises,” Lucy said. “Remember, stop, drop, and roll!”
The stairwell was a little smoky, but it beat going down a ladder, so Lucy wasn’t complaining, and it got better the closer they got to the bottom. Still with her skirt wrapped around her arm, she followed Sebastian in running down the stairs. Jeremy came behind, guiding a still shaky Dawn. Lucy tried not to think too much about that. She loved her friends and wanted them to be happy, of course, but she couldn’t help but wonder what had gone on since she’d disappeared—that was, if it hadn’t been going on all along. Was that why Jeremy had never made a move on her?
Sebastian reached the tower entrance and held up a hand to tell them to stay back and be quiet. He peered outside, then signaled for them to join him. In the corridor, Fulk, Larkin, and several soldiers stood guard. “The tower’s on fire,” Sebastian reported. “We need to get a firefighting crew up there before it burns through and collapses on top of the castle.”
“I’ll see to it, my lord,” Fulk said with a bow.
“Have one of your men do it. I need you with me.” He took off down the corridor, toward the stairs, and the others followed. On the main staircase that led to the throne room entrance, they ran into a group of Geoffrey’s soldiers. “What’s the situation?” Sebastian asked their leader.
“My lord, the throne room was shut off not long ago. We can’t get in, and we presume no one in there can get out.”
“Who is in there?”
“His grace the duke, many of his men, and I believe Prince Harald, as well.”
“Yeah, he’ll be real useful in a crisis,” Lucy muttered under her breath. “He might be the one we have to stop from crowning himself.”
“There are musicians in there, too,” Dawn said. “All the performers brought here for the coronation celebration.”
“We believe the witch is in there,” Sebastian said. “She must have sealed the throne room until she can crown herself. But I wonder . . .” his voice trailed off as he frowned in thought. “There’s one doorway she might not have sealed. This way!” He turned and ran back up the stairs, then ran his hands over a section of paneling. “There’s a minstrel’s gallery here somewhere, and it hasn’t been used in years, so she might not know about it.”
He must have hit the right spot because the door slid open, revealing a dark, dusty velvet curtain. Sebastian pushed the curtain aside to reveal a balcony overlooking the throne room. He gestured for the soldiers to stay outside, and he, Lucy, Dawn, and Jeremy crawled onto the balcony, staying below the railing and peering between the slats.
The witch stood in front of her throne, in mid argument with Geoffrey and the aunts. Lucy noticed that there was a distinctly bite-shaped hole in the fabulous red dress, courtesy of Leila, who sat on alert at Geoffrey’s feet. “If you do not wish me to be queen, whom do you support as ruler?” Melantha said. “Why, if I am not mistaken, if the king, queen, and princess are all gone, then aren’t you, as the kingdom’s ranking duke, one of the candidates for the throne? Your grace, you aren’t staging a coup to seize power for yourself, are you?”
“I am restoring the throne to its rightful holder and removing the usurper,” he said tightly.
“And which rightful holder would that be?” She gave a giggly little laugh, which sounded odd in her deep voice. “You haven’t found the king and queen, have you?”
“But I have found the princess.”
Melantha looked around, her expression all wide-eyed innocence. “Then where is she? Are you sure she’s even alive? And are you sure you have the right princess?” A rumble in the crowd followed her statement.
“We’d better give him a princess,” Lucy whispered to Sebastian, “or this could get ugly.”
In the heavy silence that came as the crowd waited for Geoffrey’s response, a high-pitched voice trilled, “The tower’s on fire! We have to rescue them!”
The little bird who’d been in the tower had finally found the throne room and flown through a window. The mention of fire set off a panic in the crowd as all the performers and other coronation attendees ran for the sealed doors. “That stupid bird,” Jeremy muttered.
“But he created a diversion,” Dawn said.
Sebastian apparently agreed, for he signaled the troops outside to come in and head down the spiral staircase from the gallery to the throne room. In all the commotion, no one noticed a squad of soldiers joining the crowd. Sebastian, Lucy, Jeremy, Dawn, and Larkin followed them and kept to the shadows under the minstrels’ gallery.
In spite of their stealth, the aunts noticed them. Miriam remained with Geoffrey and the other enchantresses, but the other two wove their way through the panicking crowd to reach Dawn. “There you are!” Matilda said, grabbing her into a hug. “You’re safe!”
Dawn tried to pull away, but Jeremy stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, they aren’t out to get you. We had them all wrong.”
“But what—” Dawn started to ask.
Miriam interrupted her, “She’s awake. How did that—”
“We’ll talk later,” Lucy said, cutting in. “For now, what do we do?”
Mariel glanced between Lucy and Dawn. “We need to give the duke his princess and get this situation under control.” She frowned at Sebastian. “You’re the younger Sinclair boy, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lucy noticed Dawn and Jeremy exchanging a surprised look and wondered what that was about.
Mariel nodded, still frowning. “Take our princess to your brother.” She gestured with her head toward Lucy.
Sebastian took Lucy’s arm and led her toward the front of the throne room. Their soldiers cleared a path for them through the crowd. “But I’m not the real princess,” Lucy protested as they walked. She glanced back over her shoulder at Dawn. “And we have the real princess now.”
“You’re the one the troops have seen, and you’re the one Geoffrey has seen. That’s important. Now is not the time for a new princess to present herself.”
Lucy did not like this. How could she take Dawn’s position when Dawn was right there? And how could she hope to pull this off if the witch already knew she wasn’t the real princess? But there was no escape, with the throne ahead of her, soldiers on either side of her, and all the exits sealed. To get through this and save the kingdom, she’d have to play princess as though her life depended on it.
Continued in Chapter 20.