Here’s chapter four of the serial story I’m posting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here. I think this might be my favorite part of the whole book. Enjoy!
A whole squad of guards surrounded Lucy as they marched her down the hall, the one guard holding her arm so tightly she was sure she’d be black and blue later. They went on for what felt like forever, up lots of steps and down lots of hallways, until they got to something that looked like a throne room. The room was big and long, with a high, vaulted ceiling. Banners hung from the wooden beams. Torches along the walls provided a dim, flickering light as the sunlight from outside faded.
At the end of the room on a raised platform sat two big, golden thrones surrounded by more torches. On one of the thrones sat a woman wearing a long dress of red shiny material that was so dark it was almost black, like dried blood. The red only showed when the light hit it just right, and then it was like the dress caught on fire. Lucy told herself that if she lived through this and got a prom date (which would probably require two separate miracles), she would make herself a dress like that for prom.
As she got closer to the throne, she could see that the woman wasn’t nearly beautiful enough to work that dress. She could have been, but Lucy realized her mom was right when she said “pretty is as pretty does,” because while this woman had beautiful features—aside from what looked like an overuse of Botox—there was still something ugly in her expression that ruined her whole look.
“Bring her to me,” the woman said. The guards formed a corridor, down which the one guard led Lucy. When they got to the front of the platform, he shoved her onto her knees and took one step back. The woman stood, which made the light do some amazing things on her dress. As scared as she was, Lucy found herself thinking about how fantastic that dress would look under a disco ball or with strobe lights. Focusing on that irrelevant detail kept her from completely losing her cool.
The woman came to loom over Lucy, and up close she was older than she looked at first. It wasn’t so much that she’d gone crazy with the Botox as it was that she’d filled in the creases with powder, and she’d used baby powder instead of skin-toned or even translucent powder, so her face was stark white. Her eyebrows had been plucked to thin lines, her eyes were rimmed in harsh black liner, and her red lipstick totally clashed with the red of her dress. Fabulous dress aside, girlfriend was seriously in need of a makeover, Lucy thought.
“So, here you are, after all these years, just as I foretold,” the woman said. Her voice was deep, almost masculine.
“Uh, foretold?” Lucy asked, her heart pounding so hard she could practically hear it.
The woman ignored the question. “I declared on the day of your christening that before the sun set on your sixteenth birthday, you would die.”
“But, I’m Baptist, and we don’t do christenings,” Lucy said. “We just do infant dedications.”
The woman glared at her, and Lucy wished she’d kept her mouth shut. “You dare to interrupt me with your talk of strange customs from the world where you’ve been hidden? I was there on that day. I know what happened. You cannot lie to me. Now,” she declared triumphantly, raising her arms above her head, “it has finally come to pass. And here is the instrument of your doom, the way I foretold it.” With a graceful gesture that made the loose sleeves of her dress shimmer, she pointed to a spinning wheel that stood beside her throne.
A spinning wheel as the instrument of doom? There was something very familiar about that. While Lucy was still working it out, the guard grabbed her arm, dragged her to her feet, and marched her up onto the platform.
The woman looked at her like she was waiting for Lucy to do something. Lucy gave her what she hoped was the universal gesture and facial expression for “And …?”
“Follow your compulsion!” the woman shouted. “Don’t try to fight it. I am stronger than you, and I will win in the end.”
Worrying that she was going to get herself slapped at any moment, Lucy asked, “Compulsion?”
Some of the woman’s triumph wilted. “You don’t feel compelled to do anything? Nothing calls to you or draws you?”
You mean, other than the exit? Lucy wanted to say, but she thought better of it. “No, ma’am.”
The woman sighed. “It was an old spell. It’s bound to have faded.” She pulled herself together and repeated, “And now, the moment of my triumph.” She raised her arms, cackled and shouted, “Touch it! Touch the spindle!”
With a shrug, Lucy reached out and touched the tip of her finger to the part of the spinning wheel the woman was pointing to. It stung a little, and Lucy pulled her hand back to suck on her finger. The room hung frozen for a second, with everyone there holding their breath. They all seemed to be waiting for something to happen.
But nothing did. The crazy woman looked at Lucy, and veins popped out in her neck and forehead. “What?” she shrieked. “What is this? Why is nothing happening?” She swept over to Lucy, grabbed her wrists, and pulled Lucy’s hands up to her face so she could see the drop of blood on the tip of Lucy’s finger. “You were supposed to die! Don’t you feel faint, or lightheaded? The world’s not going dark, is it?”
“No, not really. I’m kind of freaked out, I’ll admit, but I feel fine.” Then because the woman seemed very angry about that, and her being angry was probably not good for Lucy’s continued well-being, Lucy added, “My finger hurts,” as if that made up for her not dying.
The woman whirled to face her guards. “She was supposed to die. I, myself, cast the spell so that before the sun set on her sixteenth birthday, the Princess Aurora would prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die, and then the kingdom would truly be mine.”
That was when Lucy realized why all this sounded familiar. It was Sleeping Beauty. The evil witch, fairy, or whatever had cursed the princess to prick her finger and die—though death by spinning wheel seemed like a really odd way to off someone. That was as bad as some of the things James Bond villains came up with. But, supposedly, one of the good fairies had changed that so the princess would only sleep until true love’s first kiss woke her. And, at least in the Disney version, the good fairies had then taken the princess off into hiding to protect her until she turned sixteen.
But there was one tiny problem with this. It may have been Lucy’s sixteenth birthday, but she wasn’t Princess Aurora. She wasn’t a princess of any kind. She hadn’t even been elected a homecoming duchess.
“Are you sure you got the right girl?” the witch asked her guards. “Those enchantresses are quite clever, and they hid her so well that I never found her until now.”
“She’s wearing the royal insignia,” the guard pointed out.
The witch stepped closer to Lucy, raised Lucy’s chin with one bony finger, and peered at Dawn’s necklace without touching it. “Yes, she does have the royal insignia. Perhaps we must wait for the proper time for the spindle. There are five more days. Return her to the dungeon.”
Only as the guard grabbed her and dragged her away did Lucy make the connection that should have been obvious. “Aurora” meant “dawn,” and it was Dawn’s necklace.
Which meant that her best friend was Sleeping Beauty.
The guards threw her back into her cell. Now that there wasn’t even the slightest hint of sunlight coming through the window, the cell was dark and spooky, with the faint light coming from the torches in the corridor doing more to cast shadows than to actually illuminate anything. Lucy paced while she assessed the situation as rationally as she could. She was, apparently, trapped in a storybook world. It was a place where animals—birds, at least—could talk and where the fairy tales from Lucy’s world were current events. Sleeping Beauty was still wide awake and hadn’t been anywhere near the fatal spindle yet. In fact, she might never go near the fatal spindle since she was, as far as Lucy knew, still safely in Texas, where no one had the slightest idea who she was. It was Lucy who was stuck living out the story.
Would it still be a Sleeping Beauty story if the beauty never went to sleep? And wasn’t particularly beautiful?
There was a noise outside the cell door, and Lucy shrank into the shadows, worried that the evil witch had figured out a way to make her own prophecy come true and had sent the guards back for her. The figure that appeared at the barred door was a young man, maybe a few years older than Lucy, as far as she could tell in the torchlight, and he didn’t wear a guard’s uniform.
“Shhh!” he hissed as she took a tentative step out of the shadows. Moving like he was trying to be really quiet, he took a big iron key from a pouch on his belt and unlocked the cell door. Then he knelt in the doorway and bowed his head. “Your highness.”
Lucy wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond to that. Did she thank someone who was bowing to her, and would he stay like that forever until she told him it was okay for him to get up?
“Who are you?” she asked. She figured that sounded royal enough, while still being a pretty important question.
He raised his head to look at her. He was rather cute, with wavy brown hair that was a little long on top and cut really short around his ears and at the back of his neck. He wore a sword at his belt and a green-and-black surcoat with a coat of arms on it that would make a great Camelot costume if she ever got home to volunteer as costume designer for the show. “I am Sebastian Sinclair, your highness, a squire to Lord Argus. The Loyalists sent me to rescue you.”
She liked the idea of rescue, but how did she know she could trust him? It wasn’t like she could ask for a photo ID to be sure of who he was. “What’s a Loyalist?” she asked.
“We oppose the witch and want to restore the royal family. Most important at this moment, we need to save your life.”
Her mom would kill her for running off with a stranger, but better a stranger who seemed nice and who was at least pretending to be friendly than a stranger who’d already said she planned to kill her. “Okay, then,” she said, “let’s get out of here.” She grabbed her backpack and headed for the door.
He stood and caught her by the elbow. “Caution, your highness.” He took off his cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders. It had come to just below his knees, but on Lucy it nearly reached the ground. She pulled the hood up and let it drape over her face. He stepped ahead of her into the hallway and looked around before holding his hand out to her. She took it and they hurried down the corridor, walking quickly, but not so quickly that it looked suspiciously like they were breaking out of prison.
Sebastian seemed to know his way around the castle. He never hesitated to turn down a hallway or go up a flight of stairs. He was pretty tall, and Lucy was very much not, so she had to practically run to keep up with his long legs. He must have been known—and maybe even important, or at least working for someone important—because everyone they passed nodded at him. Some even bowed their heads or bobbed little curtseys at him. They were in the lower levels of the castle, where the kitchens and laundry rooms were, so most of the people they met were servants. Lucy had a feeling the evil witch who ran this place wasn’t exactly up for boss of the year, so even if these people had suspected Sebastian was breaking out with a prisoner, she doubted they’d have tried to stop him.
They finally came out into the stables. “Do you mind riding double, your highness?” he asked as he untied a big chestnut horse. “I am afraid two missing horses might arouse more suspicion.”
“That’s fine with me,” she said. She had ridden horses before, but only old nags on her granddad’s farm, so she didn’t think she was up to riding for her life, if it came to that.
He pulled himself easily up into the saddle, then held a hand down to her. She put one foot on top of his boot where it rested in the stirrup, and from there he lifted her to sit in front of him in the saddle. She moved her backpack around to rest in her lap. “This may be less comfortable for you, your highness,” he said as he wrapped one arm around her waist, “but this way, you aren’t visible to anyone following us.” She couldn’t complain about being held against the rock-hard body of a cute guy. That wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to her every day. Or ever, really.
He kicked the horse into motion and they rode to the castle gates. She held her breath as they went under the big arch, waiting for someone to shout about an escaped prisoner, but no one said anything. They rode through the town, heading straight for the bridge. That seemed like the next hurdle, as it was a drawbridge, and one word from the witch could block the only route out of town that Lucy had noticed.
But the bridge was down, and nobody stopped them from crossing. Sebastian kept the horse at a casual pace even though she wished they could go faster. They’d just landed on the road on the other side when someone behind them shouted. Lucy turned and saw a giant fireball on the castle’s highest tower. It must have been a signal. Without cell phones or walkie-talkies, that was probably the best they could do. The guards on the far side of the river immediately went into pursuit.
Sebastian gave the horse a good kick and held Lucy tighter. The horse took off, and she was glad Sebastian was holding her so tight—now not so much because he was hot but because falling off the horse would have been a disaster. They had a head start, but it sounded like more guards were joining the chase. She hoped Sebastian knew where he was going and had a safe destination in mind because she doubted the poor horse could keep going very long at that speed carrying both of them.
Something whizzed by in the air, and she couldn’t help but flinch. “Arrows,” Sebastian said.
Now she was really glad he hadn’t made her ride behind him. She’d have been an easy target. But that meant his reasonably broad back was now the target, and he was the one who knew how to ride and—she hoped—where they were going.
A pack of dogs ran toward Sebastian and Lucy from the woods. Now would have been a really good time to have Dawn there, since she could tame even the meanest stray with a single word. But the dogs went right past them, running at the pursuers. Along with them were some deer and foxes. Lucy could have sworn she heard someone say, “Keep going to the camp, we’ll hold them off,” as they passed, but she didn’t see any people in that bunch.
The line of trees loomed ahead in the darkness. Sebastian suddenly jerked in the saddle and nearly lost his grip on Lucy. She grabbed the saddle with one hand and caught his arm with the other. He didn’t seem to be in danger of falling, since like a good rider, he was holding on with his knees, but she didn’t want to take any chances. “Are you hurt?” she asked as she hung on for dear life.
“I’m fine,” he said, but his voice sounded tight and a little breathless.
The sound of pursuit was farther behind as they passed the first trees, and the horse slowed gradually to a walk. It was hard to run full-speed in deep woods like these, and they weren’t on any established road or path. Lucy figured the horse was pretty tired, too.
“This way, sir,” a voice from way down below on the forest floor said. In the darkness, she couldn’t see who or what it was, but Sebastian trusted it and followed.
Now she was fairly certain that something was wrong because Sebastian’s breathing was ragged. “Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked.
“It’s nothing,” he said, but she could hear the pain in his voice.
It occurred to her that he’d been hurt for her sake. He’d put himself on the line for her. She supposed that was as good a way as any to prove she could trust him. To be more precise, he’d put himself on the line for the princess, for Aurora—for Dawn, who’d thought she was only playing royalty on the stage.
That brought up the question of what she should tell him. What would he and these Loyalists of his do if they discovered Lucy wasn’t the princess? Would they just ditch her, or would they help her find her way back home? Meanwhile, there was the witch, who was convinced Lucy was Aurora. She wasn’t going to stop looking for the girl she thought was the princess, and Lucy would need protection. Normally, Lucy was totally anti-lying, but these seemed like special circumstances.
The horse had to fight its way through an area of thicker underbrush, with vines hanging from the tree branches above. At least one little branch caught Lucy in the face. She’d have had a nice welt if the cloak hood hadn’t absorbed the worst of it. Finally, they reached a clearing and stopped. “Here we are, sir,” that same chipper voice said from below.
“Thank you, Cotton,” Sebastian said. Lucy still couldn’t see who he was talking to. He dismounted, and she quickly slid out of the saddle on her own so he wouldn’t have to help her. When he staggered and caught himself on the bridle, Lucy knew she was right. He was hurt.
It would have helped if there was more light, but it was fully night now, and all they had was whatever moonlight filtered through the trees. She got the mini flashlight out of her backpack and shone it on Sebastian, illuminating the arrow sticking out of the back of his shoulder. “We’ve got to get you to a doctor,” she said.
“We’ll tend to it momentarily,” he replied. “But first, I must see to the horse.” He raised his voice. “Is there water?”
That same voice said from somewhere around Lucy’s feet, “There’s a stream nearby, sir.” She looked down and saw a fluffy little cottontail bunny.
“I’ll deal with the horse,” Lucy said. “You, sit.”
Apparently, it was impossible for him to disobey a direct order from royalty. “Yes, your highness,” he said wearily, and not at all sarcastically, as he sat at the base of a tree. I guess it’s good to be the princess, Lucy thought.
“I’ll go with her,” another voice said, and she saw a fox walking beside her. She wasn’t sure what good it would do if the bad guys attacked, but at least it should be able to bite them in the ankle, she figured.
She led the horse over to where she heard rushing water and let it drink while she tried to rub it down as best she could with the cloak wrapped around her hand. That was what she remembered having to do when she helped her granddad with his horses. As she watched the horse drink, she realized she hadn’t had anything to drink since lunchtime, and that was hours ago.
Making sure she was upstream from where the horse was drinking so she wouldn’t get horse spit in her water, she knelt beside the stream and scooped some up in her hand, but then realized it was probably full of worse than horse spit. This would be a really bad time and place to get a case of Montezuma’s Revenge, so she let the water fall back into the stream and hoped Sebastian had brought provisions. Then again, any provisions he’d brought probably were scooped out of streams just like this one. She hoped they didn’t have amebas in storybook worlds.
When she brought the horse back to the clearing, Sebastian had made a small fire. She switched off her flashlight and stuck it in the front pocket of her jeans. He was struggling to remove his surcoat, but was hampered by the arrow.
“Let me help you with that,” she said. She removed the horse’s halter and left it to graze on whatever it could find on the forest floor, then went to help Sebastian. Under the surcoat, he wore a heavy leather vest, which must have offered some protection, but the arrow had hit his shoulder just where the vest ended. His sleeve was dark with blood. It was a good thing Lucy wasn’t squeamish.
“Okay, I think we need to get the arrow out,” she said, trying to sound more sure than she felt. Her mom had taught her basic first aid, but she hadn’t covered arrow wounds. Lucy bet it was like any puncture wound. This one didn’t look deep enough that he’d bleed to death if she removed the arrow, and besides, emergency rooms were probably pretty rare in this place, so leaving it in wasn’t an option.
She took the Swiss Army knife Jeremy had given her for Christmas last year our of her backpack’s inner pocket, opened it, and ran the blade through a flame a few times. She opened the scissors tool and cut Sebastian’s shirt around the arrow so she could see the wound itself. It would have helped if some of these talking critters had opposable thumbs and could hold a flashlight so she could see what she was doing. Or maybe they could help. Squirrels could hold nuts, right?
“I don’t suppose any of your friends could hold my light,” she said.
“Chatters!” Cotton called, and there was a skittering sound from above.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah! I can help! I can help!” It was a squirrel, eagerly rubbing its paws together.
Feeling like she was trapped in a surreal nightmare, Lucy switched on the flashlight and handed it to the squirrel. “Hold it so the light shines on his wound, okay?”
“I’m happy to serve, highness. It’s a great honor!”
“And I appreciate it,” she said before the squirrel could go on. She’d always figured those things would be real chatterboxes if they could talk. She turned back to Sebastian. “I imagine this is going to hurt like crazy.”
“It will. It always does. But I know I can bear the pain.”
She had to fight very hard not to roll her eyes. He sounded just like Jeremy, playing macho when it was something potentially serious, and if he was anything like Jeremy, he’d take to his bed and expect to be waited on hand and foot at the first sign of the sniffles.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” she said. She took a deep breath to steady herself and tried to forget that she was about to cut into human flesh, then slipped the knife in next to the arrow, trying to loosen it so it wouldn’t do so much damage when she pulled it out. Sebastian hissed between clenched teeth but managed to stay perfectly still. “Now I’m going to pull it out, so brace yourself. On three—one, two.” On two, she grabbed the arrow and gave it a sharp pull. He started a yelp but bit it off. She checked the arrow, and sure enough, it looked like the head was all there.
“I thought you said on three,” he said, his voice shaking.
“I figured it would be easier on you if you weren’t expecting it. You’d tense up on three, and that would have made things even worse.”
He gazed up at her with something that looked like wonder, even through the tension of pain on his face. “The place where you’ve been must be truly terrible if you’ve gained so much knowledge about treating arrow wounds, your highness.”
“Are you kidding? This was my very first. But my friend Jeremy used to get bad splinters climbing over the fence between our back yards, so I got a lot of practice pulling those out. This was just on a larger scale.” Thinking of Jeremy again gave her a pang. Would she ever see him again? Surely he’d know by now she was missing, since she’d missed her own birthday party, and he hadn’t had the chance to give her that surprise he’d promised.
But for the time being, she had another guy to deal with. The wound wasn’t bleeding as badly as she’d feared it might, so she didn’t think he’d pass out or go into shock, but infection was a distinct possibility, and she didn’t think he could get a penicillin shot to clear that up in this world. She did, however, have something in her backpack that might help. She opened the outer pocket and found the bottle of hand sanitizer that her germophobic nurse mother insisted she use before eating in the school cafeteria and after being anywhere near a school bathroom. She also had an emergency sewing kit since, thanks to her skill at sewing, she was the go-to girl in the class for ripped hems and loose buttons.
“This may sting a bit,” she warned Sebastian as she prepared to squirt the sanitizer on his wound. He braced himself and barely flinched. This was one tough guy, she thought. The macho bit may not have been posturing, after all. “And now let me see if I can sew this up for you. I’ve never sewn human flesh before. Well, not intentionally. I did have one minor hemming-related incident.” She was really impressed with the way he stayed totally still and let her work. By focusing on how strong and brave he was, and on how incredibly solid the muscle under the skin she was working on was, she managed not to throw up while sticking a needle repeatedly into his flesh.
“It’ll probably leave a scar,” she told him as she finished and covered the wound with one of the larger bandages from the first-aid kid her mother insisted she carry, “but it’s not bleeding too badly anymore.”
“Thank you, your highness. I am in your debt.”
“Um, hello? You got hurt rescuing me from that dungeon. I’m the one who owes you. Thank you for that, by the way.”
There was a rustle in the underbrush nearby, and Sebastian’s hand went straight for his sword. Lucy tried not to swoon at the idea of being with a man who carried a sword and knew how to use it. Then she remembered the squirrel holding the flashlight. If someone was coming, that light was high enough to be visible from a distance. She reached up and said, “Thanks, Chatters, you did great.”
The squirrel put the light back in her hand, and she quickly switched it off. She had no idea how long the battery would last, and she doubted they had Wal-Marts anywhere nearby where she could buy a replacement. “I did great! I did great!” the squirrel said excitedly, until Sebastian gave it a glare and it immediately scampered into a hole in the tree trunk.
Sebastian stood slowly, not making any noise, and moved in front of Lucy. The rustling grew louder and closer, and she tried not to whimper. What if they’d gone through all this, only to be caught again?