Archive for serial


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.


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


Serial Chapter Eight

Here’s the next chapter in my ongoing serial story. You can find chapter one here and the previous chapter here.

Chapter Eight

            There was a shout from the other side of the market square, and the three aunts ran toward Dawn and Jeremy. “I can’t let them catch me!” Dawn cried.

“They may not be bad,” he argued. “They may be trying to help.”

“But I’m not ready to go back.”

She’d hoped to blend into the crowd, but her audience scattered as soon as they saw the black-clad women. That made her sure that the enchantresses were to be feared. The sour-faced woman who’d loudly criticized Dawn looked both angry and afraid. When the enchantresses came near her, she shoved over a stall, sending piles of fruit crashing down to block the aisle between her and the enchantresses, then she ran the other direction. Before the fruit hit the ground, it floated up and back onto the stall, which had righted itself.

Dawn almost forgot to take advantage of the distraction and run away. Had her aunts always been able to do that?

“Dawn!” Two voices called her name simultaneously, Jeremy on one side and Mariel on the other. She ran to Jeremy.

He pulled her into a butcher’s stall, where they hid behind the counter. It was difficult crouching on the bloody ground without actually touching the ground any more than was absolutely necessary. The sound of commotion neared the stall, and they darted out again.

By this time, the chase and the activity of all those enchantresses had caused a general panic in the market. Merchants were shutting up booths or hiding, while shoppers ran in every direction. The rest of the enchantresses had got into the search, and it was hard to tell them apart while running.

Dawn and Jeremy ran to the end of an aisle, a trio of enchantresses hot on their heels, only to round the corner and find themselves face-to-face with another trio. “Are they multiplying?” Jeremy muttered, then cried out, “This way!” and dashed between two booths. Dawn ran after him, and the two groups of women clogged the narrow gap between booths as they all tried to rush through at the same time.

A tug on Dawn’s shirt yanked her backward. She thought one of the enchantresses had caught her, but it turned out to be a merchant. “I’ve got her, my ladies!” he called to the enchantresses while Dawn struggled to escape his grasp. Something flew through the air over Dawn’s head, there was a loud “Ow!” from behind her, and she was suddenly free.

“Run, love, go on, get away!” a woman at a nearby booth urged as she hefted a green apple in her hand. Dawn immediately ran to catch up with Jeremy as the woman threw the apple at Dawn’s former captor.

Around the next corner, Dawn and Jeremy found themselves at a baker’s booth. Behind the booth were several large baskets. “Get in!” Jeremy cried out, and they both jumped into baskets, pulling the cloth coverings over themselves.

Hidden that way, Dawn couldn’t tell what was happening in the market, but from the sound of things, the search continued. There were pops and mild explosions, shouts, and the patter of frantic footsteps. She heard a familiar voice say, “She was just here. But where did she go?” It was Mariel.

“The bigger question is where is she planning to go,” Miriam said.

“She’s going after her friend, obviously,” Matilda said.

“But how does she know where to go?” Mariel asked.

“She’s a smart girl,” Matilda said. “And she is sixteen now. Perhaps she’s started to get a sense of who she really is. This is her world, after all.”

“I don’t see them anywhere,” Miriam said. “It looked like she was with that boy, so she’s not here alone. I don’t think they can have gone too far.”

They continued talking, their voices growing fainter. Gradually, the noise in the marketplace died down. Someone pulled aside the cloth over Dawn’s basket. She ducked, but then recognized Jeremy standing over her. “I think the coast is clear,” he said.

She crawled out of the basket. Jeremy’s face, hair, and clothes were streaked with flour, and she was sure she looked just as bad. “Did you hear what they said?”

“Yeah, they’re still going to look for you, so come on.”

“Not just that—they said this is my world.”

“I thought you’d figured that out already.”

The baker noticed them and shouted at them for being in his baskets. Other merchants began to move toward them from around the marketplace, and they didn’t look happy. “How are you going to pay for the damaged goods?” one asked.

Dawn looked to Jeremy to see if he had a plan. “Run!” he shouted. The two of them took off down the aisle, a mob of angry merchants behind them. They both ran, harder than ever, for a side street leading away from the marketplace.

Jeremy wove in and out of alleys, then dove behind a cart, calling for Dawn to follow him. They crouched there, wedged between the cart and a stone wall, until the merchants ran past. They eased their way out of their hiding place and went back the way the merchants had come. Instead of running, they moved slowly and cautiously, Jeremy leading the way and making sure it was safe before they went farther. He motioned for Dawn to stay put while he ducked around a corner, and while she waited for him to return, someone grabbed her, something went over her head, and everything went dark.


            Lucy was afraid she’d faint from anxiety when a guard stopped the wagon. “Where have you come from?” the guard asked the woman driving the wagon.

“The woodcutter’s hut in the forest, good sir.”

“What are you carrying?”

“Wood, of course. I’m late getting to market this morning because I had to tend to a sick horse.”

“Have you seen a boy and a girl in the woods?”

Lucy suddenly had an almost irresistible urge to intone, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” but she bit her lip before she could giggle at the thought. It would have been nice if the woman had a few Jedi mind tricks up her sleeve, but Lucy was willing to settle for her being a good liar.

“I haven’t seen a soul other than my husband in days,” the woman said with a sigh. “Even you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

The guard laughed and apparently waved her on because the wagon started moving again. Soon, the noise level outside the wagon increased, along with the smell. This world might not smell as bad as she’d expect a real medieval place to, Lucy thought, but it was still pretty obvious that there were a lot of horses around.

The wagon stopped again in a slightly quieter spot, and the layer of wood above Lucy’s head was shoved aside. She sat up and stretched her cramped muscles as Sebastian did the same, then he jumped out of the wagon and helped her out. “Thank you so much,” Lucy said to the woman. “You’re a lifesaver.” On impulse, she stood on tiptoes and kissed the woman’s cheek. Tears sprang to the woman’s eyes, and Lucy felt her own eyes watering at the idea she could have such a strong impact on someone else.

She and Sebastian shouldered their respective packs and moved to the edge of the alley as the woman drove her cart out the other way. When the crowd on the street outside the alley grew thicker, they left the alley and let themselves blend in.

It was a market day in the village, so there were plenty of people serving as cover. It looked like the social event of the week, with people from the surrounding countryside catching up with their friends. The village itself was even smaller than her home town, but with a market square in the middle and a haphazard cluster of buildings around it.

There were also a lot of black-clad soldiers in the village, scanning the crowd. The hiss of breath from next to her told her Sebastian had also noticed them. She elbowed him in the ribs. “Relax. There’s nothing about us that stands out in the crowd. All we have to do is blend in.”

She studied the other people in the marketplace for a moment, then reached over and put Sebastian’s arm around her shoulders and snuggled up against him. “What?” he blurted.

Keeping her voice low, she said, “They’re looking for a princess and a squire whose mission is to keep her safe, right?”

“Exactly.” He tried to move his arm, but she reached up and held his hand.

“So, they’d never imagine that the squire would dare get so familiar with a princess, or that she’d let him. Therefore, if we act all inappropriate, then obviously we can’t be the people they’re looking for. And don’t worry, I won’t have you beheaded for getting overly familiar with me. In fact, I’m making it a royal order.”

He stopped trying to move his arm and even settled it more comfortably around her. She tried to channel the popular girls at school who engaged in PDA in the halls between classes as she thought of how a girlfriend might act with her boyfriend. She leaned her head against his shoulder and wondered if he’d drop dead of a heart attack if she put her arm around his waist.

Even though it wasn’t exactly her idea of fun to walk right past all those soldiers who were looking for her, it also wasn’t exactly torture to do it this way. She’d never had a boyfriend, so she’d never had a boy’s arm around her like this before, and it felt really nice. She felt safe and protected.

Sebastian surprised her by giving her shoulder a squeeze. “I think it’s working,” he whispered in her ear. “They aren’t giving us a second look.”

She faked a girlish giggle, as though he’d just whispered a sweet nothing. “See, I told you. Now we need to get the rest of the way through the marketplace and out of the village. Do you have any money on you?”

“I have some coins. Why?”

“Because it would look kind of silly for us to go to the village on market day and not buy anything. It’ll probably be easier for us to get past any guards on our way out if we’ve bought something.”

“You are very good at subterfuge.”

“It comes from having seen every spy movie ever made, thanks to my friend Jeremy.” She smiled at the thought of telling Jeremy how she pulled this off.

Sebastian bought a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese. Once he had his purchases stowed in his pack, he put his arm back around Lucy and they headed toward the road out of town. There were more guards on the road, standing where they could scan the crowds as they entered and left the village. Lucy felt their eyes on her, even as she tried to tell herself that their cover was good. She noticed a guard staring at her, and she moistened her lips and winked at him as she held eye contact with him for a long moment. Surely he’d assume that a fugitive princess would never draw attention to herself that way.

It must have worked, for he made no move to stop them. Sebastian quickened his pace so they fell in with a knot of people leaving the village with baskets of goods. Lucy held her breath as they approached the edge of the village, where there were even more guards watching the road. She tried her best not to look nervous, even though her heart pounded in her chest. Sebastian had her shoulder in a death grip, and she could feel the tension in his body.

But the guards didn’t stop them. It had worked! She forced herself to keep walking and not show any sign of celebrating while they were still in sight. Only when they’d rounded a bend and gone down a hill so that the village was no longer visible did she turn and throw her arms around Sebastian’s neck.

“We did it!” she cried out. He surprised her by spinning her around in triumph, but then he remembered himself, put her down, and stepped away.

“That was a very good plan, your highness,” he said with a bow. “I am more used to a direct fight. I confess I’m not so comfortable with sneaking around.”

“You did fine. Now we just need the dogs to join us and lead us to that rendezvous.”


            Jeremy came back to tell Dawn the coast was clear, but she was gone. He looked up and down the alley, but saw only a group of men carrying a bundle toward the docks. “Dawn?” he called out softly, but there was no response. He retraced their steps, glancing down each side street. She’d vanished into thin air. Normally, he’d consider that to be hyperbole, but in a place where portals could take people to other worlds and animals talked, he wasn’t so sure it hadn’t happened literally. He had no idea what the aunts and their gang could do.

He turned slowly back to where he’d seen that group of men. Unless … It might not have been magic at all, just a garden-variety kidnapping. He sprinted down the alley and came out onto the docks just in time to see a small boat pulling away into the current and heading downstream. He didn’t see Dawn with them, but she could have been the bundle they’d been carrying. Or he could be imagining things and the enchantresses really had zapped her away.

“She was supposed to go to the river!” a voice chirped overhead.

He stifled a groan. “Where were you in all the excitement?” he asked Spink.

“I was afraid of the ladies in black, so I hid. They might try to stop me.”

“Well, you were a lot of help. Did you see what happened to Dawn?”


“The girl from far, far away.”

“I hid. But I found you. Where is the girl from far, far away? She was supposed to go to the castle.”

Clearly the bird would be of little help, and he wasn’t sure who else in this crazy place might be. The marketplace was probably a bad idea, unless he wanted to be captured by a merchant and turned into an indentured servant to pay off the damages from the chase. The boat that might or might not be carrying a kidnapped Dawn was heading rapidly downstream. He pondered the idea of jumping onto one of the other moored boats and shouting, “Follow that boat!” but he couldn’t imagine that being very effective. He’d probably get thrown overboard.

“Did you lose your pretty friend?”

He spun to see a group of colorfully dressed people. Among them was the girl who’d heckled Dawn’s performance. At the head of the group was an older man with a bushy mustache on a face that looked like it had been carved out of a tree.

“We got separated,” Jeremy said. “Did you see her?”

“If you think she’s in yon boat” —the man gestured with his chin— “I’d know who has her. That would be Bertram and his gang. They know they don’t stand a chance of performing at the coronation without a little help, and your friend does have a lovely voice.”

“What, she got kidnapped to be part of a band?”

The man shrugged. “I’ll wager that every performer in the marketplace was planning to offer her a place in his troupe. Bertram wouldn’t be able to pay, so he resorted to kidnapping. But don’t worry, they won’t get far, not in that boat. They’ll have to put in for the evening.”

“Could you help me find her?”

“And what would be in it for us?”

“Well, you’d get her in your troupe, and you wouldn’t even have to pay, she’d be so grateful for being rescued.” In fact, he had a feeling that between being given transportation to the castle and a chance to perform in front of an audience, Dawn might be willing to pay them.

“We don’t need the likes of her in our troupe,” the sour-faced girl said. “We do fine on our own.”

“Hush, Rhian,” the man said, then added with a wink, “my daughter, and she’s just like her mother, may she rest peacefully. Needless to say, she’s not the one of us with a sweet voice. But she is right that we don’t need an extra member. I wasn’t planning to make an offer. I simply enjoy hearing good music when I come across it.”

“We do have the bird as part of the act,” Jeremy said, his desperation rising. “And I could make myself useful on your boat. I’m a hard worker, and I have a lot of skills.” The man didn’t look like that impressed him, so Jeremy thought frantically of anything that might tip the balance. If this group wouldn’t help, he might have to resort to going to the aunts, and Dawn would never forgive him for that.

He tried to think of something he had that he might be able to trade. His backpack was full of modern American necessities. Then he recalled something from history class. If this world was anything like his world, the people of medieval Europe wouldn’t ever have experienced chocolate. “I do have this,” he said, pulling a small bag of M&Ms out of his backpack. He opened it, ate one himself, then passed it around the group. “Try one.” Each person took a piece of candy, and they all went wide-eyed as soon as they ate it. “And I have more treats like this to share.”

“He comes with us. We will help him find his friend,” Rhian said instantly, licking her lips.

The man chuckled. “It looks like we will help you, and you’ll be part of our crew then.” He held out a hand. “I’m Huw.”

Jeremy shook his hand. “I’m Jeremy, this is Spink, and my missing friend is Dawn. Thank you for your help. You won’t regret it.” Jeremy sincerely hoped he hadn’t sold Dawn down the river—literally—but he didn’t stand a chance of finding her without help, and as much as he’d urged Dawn to talk to her aunts, he didn’t look forward to facing them himself after losing her.

Huw led him to their boat, which looked like a floating stage, with a long, flat middle deck and two higher decks on either end. A framework on the middle deck looked like it was in the right position to hold a stage curtain and a rear curtain, and there were footlights along the side railing. Jeremy had heard of showboats where traveling performers played in a theater on a boat, but this boat would likely pull up along a riverbank and play to an audience on the bank. A sign on the side of the boat announced The North Country Minstrels, with the name of the group painted in flowing script, surrounded by smaller paintings of various musical instruments.

Huw gathered a group of men, and they and Jeremy set off in a dinghy, rowing downriver to move faster than the current. He just hoped it was fast enough to catch up with the people who’d taken Dawn.

Continued in Chapter Nine.


Serial Story Part Seven

Here’s the next chapter in the ongoing serial story. You can find part one here and the previous part here. I just realized this weekend while watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that I’ve written a portal fantasy with a heroine named Lucy. It really wasn’t meant as an homage to the Narnia books. I just happen to like the name “Lucy.” It seems like a good fit for a girl-next-door type from a small town, and I had a great aunt named Lucy. I also named Katie’s niece in the Enchanted, Inc. books Lucy.

Chapter Seven

            The animals scattered, and Dawn turned to see a big, gray wolf running its tongue across its fangs.

“Oh!” Dawn cried out, backing up. Next to her, Jeremy picked up a tree branch and brandished it like a sword.

The wolf just leered at Dawn. “Now, where did you come from, little girl?” he asked.

“She came from far, far away,” Spink chirped, flying loops in the air over the wolf. The wolf reared on his hind legs and swatted the bird with one paw. Without thinking, Dawn dove forward and picked up the bird before the wolf could pounce on it.

“Bad wolf!” she shouted.

“Yes, I am,” he replied in a voice that was almost a purr. “I see my reputation precedes me.” He stalked around Dawn, but never came close to her. In her palm, Spink trembled. Jeremy stood by with his tree branch.

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Dawn scolded the wolf.

“You are my size,” he replied.

“But you aren’t going after me. You’re going after this little bird, you big meanie.”

The wolf stopped pacing and stared at her. “You’re right. Why is that?” Dawn held her breath, realizing she’d practically invited him to attack her. He cocked his head to one side and asked, “Who are you? What are you, that I can’t bring myself to bite you?” His tail began wagging, and he whirled in horror. “No! What sorcery is this?” He turned and ran away, back into the depths of the forest.

“Not by the hair of my chinny chin-chin,” Jeremy muttered.

“What?” Dawn asked.

“I believe that may have been the Big, Bad Wolf. But is he the one who goes after girls in red capes or the one who demolishes pigs’ houses?”

“What are you talking about?”

“They’re fairy tales. Didn’t your aunts ever read to you or tell you stories about Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs?”

“No, I don’t think so. But what does that have to do with this?”

“Well, we’re in a place where animals talk, which is something that happens in stories. And that wolf was right out of a story. I’m just saying, it’s something to think about.”

“Don’t be silly, Jeremy.” She turned her attention to the quivering bird in her palm. “Are you all right, Spink?”

“The wolf is gone?”

“Yes, I believe he’s gone. Can you lead us to the river?”

He took flight again. “This way!”

“And remember, we don’t have wings,” Jeremy reminded him as they went after him.

They soon learned that following a bird was a real challenge. It had no concept of walking and easily flew over obstacles that stopped or slowed the humans. Almost immediately, it crossed a deep gulley that probably held a stream during rainy times. Dawn and Jeremy had to carefully pick their way down the steep slope and crawl up the opposite slope. By the time they reached the top, the bird was nowhere to be seen. “Good riddance,” Jeremy muttered, but Dawn worried about losing their guide.

They came to a road after about a half hour of walking, and it wasn’t long before a walled town came into view. The closer they came to the town, the more crowded the road became. No one was guarding the gate into the town, which was good, since Dawn didn’t have a passport, and she didn’t think it would do much good here. “Well, we’re here,” Jeremy said when they entered the town. “Now what?”

“We find out the situation, of course.” They followed the crowd from the road to the market square. It looked a lot like the farmers’ market back home, except with more live animals. “The market should be a good place to ask questions,” Dawn said. “People will be here from all around.”

“What question do you intend to ask? I mean, are you just going to walk up to someone and ask where the castle is?”

“Why not? We are from far away, after all. That seems like something strangers might ask.” Before Jeremy could argue, Dawn walked up to the nearest stall, where a bored-looking young man sat staring into space. “Excuse me,” she said, “but we’re strangers here, and I was wondering if you could help me.” She gave him her best smile, and he immediately perked up.

“How might I be of service?” he asked.

“Do you know where we might find the castle?”

“There’s no castle near this town, not unless you count the enchantresses’ abbey.”

“But isn’t there a castle on the river?”

“You mean the castle where the king and queen were? That’s several days downriver. I suppose you came for the coronation.”

Dawn was about to ask about the coronation when Jeremy stepped in and said, “Of course. We wouldn’t want to miss it. We came from very far away to see it. Thank you for your help.” He took Dawn’s arm and steered her away.

“I was going to ask him more questions,” she protested. “He was very helpful.”

“Yeah, I know he was, but us coming here for the coronation is a perfect cover story, and we don’t want to blow our chance to say we’ve come for the coronation by asking what coronation they’re talking about. Now, don’t you think it’s an interesting coincidence that there happens to be a coronation going on at the castle some bird was ordered to bring you to, right at the time someone kidnaps Lucy?”

“But what connection could there be?”

“Maybe we should ask your aunts.” Without waiting for her to reply, he took her arm and led her out of the market, back toward the town gate.

She didn’t have a logical answer, but the moment they started moving away, she felt that tug again, the one that had drawn her through the portal. Now it pulled her in another direction, away from where they were walking. “No!” she said, a little more loudly and forcefully than she intended. “This feels wrong.” Pulling her arm out of Jeremy’s grasp, she turned and let herself walk in the direction of the tug.

He came after her. “What’s going on with you?”

She wasn’t sure she could explain, not in words. “I feel like we need to go this way.”

“What makes you think so?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I just feel it. Maybe I’m connected to my necklace that Lucy’s wearing, and I’m drawn to that.”

He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You’ve got a magical link? Really?”

She put her hands on her hips and looked up at him. “We got here by walking through a portal in my garden shed, and the animals talk here. Is my being able to feel my necklace any weirder than that?”

He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay. So, where does your magical Spidey sense tell you to go?”

“I’m leading you there. Now, come on.”

She chose one of the side streets leading away from the market square in the opposite direction from the gate. Soon the smell of the area changed, taking on a damp, mildewed scent. They were approaching water: the river. Sure enough, the street led to the riverside wharf, where rows of boats were tied up.

“There you are!” a familiar voice said. Spink sat on a railing. “I knew you’d find the river.”

Jeremy groaned under his breath, but Dawn couldn’t help smiling. “It’s good to see you, Spink. But if you want us to follow you, you need to remember to wait for us.”

“The castle’s on the river,” the bird said.

“Yes, we know,” Dawn replied. “We understand it’s a few days downriver. So I guess we need to find a boat going downriver.”

“How?” Jeremy asked. “We don’t have money to buy passage. Somehow, I doubt they take dollars, and I don’t think even American Express has a currency exchange here.”

“We earn the money,” she said simply, leading him back to the market square.

“And how do you intend to do that?”

“I’m going to sing. I don’t suppose you have a hat or some other kind of container to collect money.”

He pulled his Scout cap out of his backpack and put it on the ground in front of her, and she tried to think of something to sing. She settled on one of her favorite solos from The Phantom of the Opera. It was nice and showy, with plenty of high notes and a bit of ornamentation at the end. Back home, it was considered a clichéd audition song, but here, no one would have ever heard it. She hoped they’d be impressed.

While she sang, she tried to watch the reaction of the people in the marketplace without losing her concentration. Some of the shoppers stopped to turn and listen. Others only paused before going back to what they’d been doing. At the end of the first song, a couple of people tossed coins into Jeremy’s hat. He picked up the hat and waded into the crowd. “Surely that was worth a little something,” he said. “Have you ever heard anyone sing like that?”

She launched into another song, and Spink landed on her shoulder and joined her, singing a descant in counterpoint to her melody. That brought more people over to listen and put more coins into Jeremy’s hat. After a couple more songs, she took a break to sip some of the bottled water Jeremy had brought.

“I think we’re doing pretty well,” he said, “though I don’t know what these coins are worth. For all I know, we’ve got enough for a cup of coffee—and the non-Starbucks kind, at that. But it does seem to be working.”

That gave her more energy to sing even better. She’d sung solos in the school choir and had played roles in musicals that gave her solo numbers, but she’d never had a solo performance—though she supposed it wasn’t a true solo with Spink there, unless he would be considered an accompanist. Whether or not she earned enough money for passage downriver to the capital, she was having the time of her life. The crowds around her grew, and they were an appreciative audience, aside from one sour-faced young woman who stood near the back.

“Ah, she’s nothing special,” the woman called out in the middle of a song. “Just another little songbird, and I’m not talking about the one with wings.” A few others in the audience laughed, but the rest turned to glare while those nearest the woman shushed her. Dawn forced herself to ignore the distraction and keep singing.

She got so caught up in her music and in the response from the people closest to her that she lost track of the rest of the marketplace until Jeremy tapped her on the shoulder between songs.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” he whispered, “but look over there.”

She looked beyond the audience gathered around her and saw that a group of women in black dresses with white collars had entered the marketplace. The one in front made eye contact with Dawn and headed right for her. Her aunts had found her!


            Both Sebastian and their hostess looked at Lucy like she was insane for saying that she and Sebastian shouldn’t be the ones to travel. “But, your highness, you have to be the one to arrive at the rendezvous,” Sebastian said.

“I know that,” she said, trying not to snap. “But we don’t need to be the ones they see along the way.” He still looked blank. Then it occurred to her that he’d probably never gone on the run before, and he’d certainly never seen a movie about going on the run, so he probably had no idea that people who went on the run had to change their appearance to get past their pursuers. But if he hadn’t heard of that idea, then their enemies hadn’t, either, and that might give her an advantage. “They’re looking specifically for us, right? I mean, since you went missing at the same time I escaped, I’m pretty sure they’ve figured out that you’re the guy who let me go, and those soldiers were looking for a guy and a girl.”

“Yes, I’m sure they know to look for me.”

“Then look at us! You’re wearing livery, for crying out loud. You might as well be wearing your name on your back in giant letters. And I’m pretty sure there’s no one around here dressed like I am. You could spot us a mile away. But there are only a few people who’ve actually seen my face. I don’t know how well-known you are, but I bet that if I changed clothes and did something different with my hair, I could walk right past almost anyone searching for me without them knowing.” That was another benefit to this world being so backward: There weren’t any photos of her to distribute and no television or computer networks for distributing them. The searchers would have to go by vague descriptions, and the general public would know nothing at all. Based on what she’d seen so far, Lucy doubted most of the people would join in the search for the escaped princess.

Apparently, Sebastian caught on, for he immediately unfastened his belt and pulled his surcoat off over his head. “Do you still recognize me, your highness?” he asked with a smile.

“I might be able to pick you out of a lineup. But then, I know you pretty well.” She turned to their hostess. “I don’t suppose you have any old clothes you could lend us. Well, give us, since I doubt we’d be able to get them back to you, but if I live through this, I promise to pay you back.” She might not be able to live up to that promise, since she wasn’t the real princess, but she knew Dawn would be willing to carry it out.

“But of course, your highness. I still have some of my daughter’s old clothes, from when she was a girl, and I believe I have an old tunic of my husband’s that would fit you, sir. It is my humble duty as your loyal subject to give you anything you ask.” With several bows, she backed away to a chest at the side of the room. Lucy was really uncomfortable with all this groveling. She imagined this must be what might happen if Prince William dropped in on a random home in England, only without the paparazzi. And if the prince asked to borrow a pair of jeans.

Lucy found herself ridiculously excited as the woman brought out a carefully folded bundle of clothes. As dire as her circumstances were, costumes were sure to make everything better. This would be her chance to wear authentic medieval clothing. The woman handed Sebastian a roughly woven tunic and Lucy a larger bundle of clothes. He looked at Lucy, ducked his head, and said, “I will change outside.”

As soon as he was gone, she eagerly unfolded the bundle. The outfit was peasant garb—a long, loose light dress with tight sleeves and a heavier overdress that went on top of it. It was hard to judge the time period from the design—probably no later than Fourteenth Century, though with peasant clothing, it was hard to tell. And there was no guarantee that their time periods matched Lucy’s world. The design looked more like something from a storybook than like authentic period attire.

Come to think of it, a lot about this place—and not just the talking animals and the evil witch—was very storybook. For one thing, everyone spoke English, and in that vague British-like accent they tended to use for all Europeans in movies. Or else being Narniaed had done something to Lucy’s brain so she understood them if they weren’t speaking English. Things didn’t smell nearly as bad as she’d have thought they would in a real medieval setting, and Sebastian was not only tall, but he also had white, healthy teeth, which didn’t fit with what they’d taught in history class about that time period. Was she really in another world that was the source for the fairy tales she knew, or had she literally been carried into a storybook? It might not be such a bad thing if she had. In stories, good usually beat evil, and the heroine lived happily ever after. The real world wasn’t always so kind.

Lucy was normally a stickler for accuracy in costuming, and she complained enough about anachronisms in movies and television shows to make Jeremy groan, but after touching the dress, she decided it wouldn’t matter if she kept on her underwear. The fabric was awfully rough against her skin, and it wasn’t as though anyone would be seeing her bra and panties to notice anything unusual. Besides, the dress fit better with the help of a little padding in the chest area. She told herself it was important that people see the princess as beautiful, but if she was perfectly honest, she’d have to admit that she was more concerned with what Sebastian thought about her.

The bundle didn’t include any shoes, but the dress was a little long on her and covered her feet, and she didn’t think her ballet flats were too out of place, aside from being pink, which really clashed with the dark green dress. She stuffed her old clothes into her backpack. It wasn’t exactly period, being made of rip-proof nylon and covered with zippers, but at least it was a plain dark blue instead of something like Hello Kitty.

The witch and her people had only seen Lucy with her hair up in a ponytail, so she pulled off the ponytail holder and ran her fingers through her hair to loosen it so it fell around her face. It was hopelessly frizzed, but this was a world without conditioner and hair gel, so she suspected almost everyone with curly hair would look like that.

“I would never recognize you, your highness,” the woman said.

“Then this may work.” Lucy went outside to find Sebastian wearing a tunic that was a bit too big for him across the shoulders, which had the effect of making him look skinnier than he was, like a boy wearing his father’s clothes. This was the first chance she’d had to get a good look at him in decent lighting. It was hard to guess his exact age, since his life was probably pretty different from what she was used to, but he seemed younger than he had the night before. He had only the slightest hint of patchy fuzz growing on his jaw, and it would probably take him a few more days without shaving to develop a respectable five-o’clock shadow. The lines and planes of the face he’d grow into when he was older had been what showed in the firelight the night before, but in daylight there was still a bit of youthful softness blurring his features. A sprinkling of freckles across his nose and cheekbones made him look even younger. She guessed he wasn’t actually all that much older than she was, definitely still a teenager.

He was still holding his surcoat, which she assumed bore the crest of the lord he was squire to. With a glance down at it, he abruptly shoved it into their hostess’s hands. “You can take this as payment for the clothing and the help. It’s good fabric you may be able to use in some way.”

“Thank you, my lord. It is indeed finer than any cloth I own.”

The look of devastation on his face as he let the surcoat go was heartbreaking. Going from being a squire in the service of a nobleman to being a fugitive who had to pretend to be a peasant couldn’t be easy for him. Lucy put a hand lightly on his arm. “Thank you for that,” she said softly. “I know what you must be giving up to help me like this, but I’m sure you’ll be a big hero when you show up with me.” When he looked at her, the expression in his eyes made her legs quiver. No boy had ever looked at her that way, like she hung the moon and stars. She was the one to break the gaze when she couldn’t bear the intensity anymore. When she glanced down, she noticed that he’d put his sword belt around his waist over the tunic.

She shook her head. “That won’t do. Would a peasant boy carry a sword like that?”

He put his hand on the sword hilt and squared his shoulders. “I will not go unarmed.”

“I’m not asking you to, believe me. We just need to disguise the sword until we’re free and clear. What about those sacks up in the loft? Maybe if we wrapped some around the sword and strapped it to your back, it would look like you’re carrying a bundle.”

Wrapping the sword in burlap and twine made it a little less obvious. No one who was looking for a sword would be able to miss it, but with any luck, no one would look for a hidden sword on a lanky peasant boy.

Once she had Sebastian disguised to her satisfaction, she spread her arms and asked, “Now, how do I look?”

“You should hide your necklace. That identifies you.”

She reached up to touch her neck, only then remembering that it was the biggest clue to who they thought she was. Her cheeks burned with humiliation. Here she was, supposedly the master of disguise, and she’d forgotten that major detail. Unwilling to risk putting it in her backpack, she turned her back to Sebastian, unclasped the necklace, reclasped it around her bra strap and tucked the pendant into one of the bra cups. “Good catch,” she said. She then turned to Leila and Larkin. “What do you two think?” she asked the dogs.

“Your disguises would not fool us, as your scents remain the same,” Leila said, “but I do not think humans are as discerning.”

“Great! Now, we need a way to get out of the woods. Even in disguise, I’m pretty sure that the two of us will stand out when we’re in the sticks.”

She looked around the outside of the hut and spotted a wagon hitched to a pair of workhorses. “Were you on your way somewhere?” she asked their hostess.

With a bow and a curtsy, the woman said, “I was just about to go to the village with a load of wood when you arrived, your highness.”

“Perfect! We’ll ride with you. We can hide under some of the wood. In the village, we can get out and blend into the crowd.”

“It would be my honor to take you, your highness. I need a moment or two to prepare. Please excuse me.”

When she went inside, Sebastian said, “Where did you learn to plot like this, your highness? Have you had to work so hard to remain hidden in that other world?”

“What? Oh, no. I guess you could say I’ve seen other people have to do stuff like this.” She didn’t want to tell him that it had been in movies, which were fiction, so the ruse worked because the plot needed it to work. But, as she kept trying to reassure herself, nobody in this world had seen all those movies, so maybe this would be an entirely new concept. And if it was a storybook world, fictional ideas should work, even if they were from a different era.

While Sebastian and the woman rearranged the bundles of wood to create hiding places, Lucy turned to the dogs. “I guess we need to figure out what to do with you two.”

“We can make our own way to the village,” Larkin said. “There, we can watch you and track you without drawing attention. When you are safely away, we will rejoin you to lead you to the rendezvous.”

“Okay, then, see you on the other side.”

Lucy and Sebastian curled up in the hollowed spaces on the wagon, the woman placed a layer of wood on top of them, and soon they were off. The way was rough, and Lucy felt every bump. She was sure she’d be black and blue before they reached the village. The ride was smoother when they reached a real road, but that was only in relative terms. “Smooth” wasn’t an adjective she’d normally use to describe that road.

She wasn’t sure how long they’d traveled when a voice called out, “Halt!” and the wagon came to a stop. Lucy held her breath, wondering if these guards would be like their movie counterparts and not bother to search the wagon.

Continued in chapter eight.


Serial Story Part Six

Here’s part six of the ongoing serial story. In case you missed it, you can find the beginning here and the previous part here. If you’re enjoying it, please share it with others.

Chapter Six

            As soon as Dawn came through the portal, she turned around to see if Miriam had followed her. All she saw was an ivy-covered wall. It was as though the portal had never existed. Next to Dawn, Jeremy must have noticed the same thing. He dropped his defensive posture to whirl and stick his arm where the portal had been, like he thought he might catch it before it vanished completely, but he was left just waving his arm in the air. “Okay, how do we get back?” he asked.

“We don’t need to get back yet. We haven’t found what we’re looking for,” she said with a shrug.

“You mean we came here without being sure we had a round-trip ticket?”

“Well, somebody came from here to take Lucy away, and it sounded like Aunt Mariel intended to come back after she passed on a message, so obviously it’s possible to go back. I’m sure we’ll find a way when we need it.”

He looked for a moment like he was going to argue or get angry with her, but she gave him her brightest smile, the one that usually worked even on Aunt Mariel, and the anger faded from his eyes until he was actually grinning. “I guess since we’re here, we might as well get the job done,” he said. “What do we do now?”

Only then did she take stock of where they were. The garden was larger than it had appeared through the portal. Walls surrounded it on three sides, and on the fourth side was a building, with a long, covered walkway facing the garden. The plants in the garden didn’t look too unusual to Dawn. The grass and leaves were green and the flowers were normal flower colors. The air was full of bird song and chatter, which sounded slightly different from the birds at home, but not in a way Dawn could identify or even describe. It certainly didn’t seem like a threatening place, and she couldn’t imagine why the aunts would have stayed away if this was their home.

“I suppose we find out where we are,” she said. “There’s a woman over there we could ask.” She pointed to an elderly woman in a black dress who sat snoozing on a bench in the garden’s far corner.

“We’d better hurry. Miriam could be here at any second. She was coming after us.”

“If she didn’t come right away, she’ll take a few minutes. She won’t go without leaving a note for Matilda.”

Dawn struck off across the garden, Jeremy in her wake, heading toward the sleeping woman. She froze when a peacock fanned its tail and rushed toward them with a raucous screech. It wasn’t an ordinary peacock call. It was words. “Intruders! Alert! Alert!” the peacock cried out. The sleeping woman stirred, but Dawn was too startled about what she’d heard to be afraid of being caught.

She turned to Jeremy to find him looking at her with wide, alarmed eyes. “Do you hear that?” he asked.

“It’s talking,” she agreed. “It’s incredible!”

“Stow it, Mortimer,” another voice called out. “You can tell they’re not a threat.” The peacock paused and fluffed out his tail once more before lowering it and stalking away. The sleeping woman’s head dropped back onto her chest. “Don’t worry about her,” the voice continued. “She’s practically deaf, and nobody pays much attention to Mortimer, anyway. He’s such a show-off.”

Dawn turned to see who’d talked, but all she saw were birds. That was when she knew what had sounded odd about the birdsong: There had been human speech mixed in. Did all the birds talk here? As an experiment, she said, “Hello?”

A chorus of hellos responded. Jeremy’s eyes went even wider, and he took a step backward. “Okay, this is truly freaky,” he whispered.

One little red-breasted bird flew down to Dawn, and she held out a finger for it to roost upon. It tilted its blue-capped head at her and warbled, “You’re a girl!”

“I am.”

“And you came from a far away place!”

“Yes, I did.”

The bird chirped out a burst of song and shot up into the air, where it flew in loops while singing. The song included both normal bird sounds and words. Dawn caught only bits of it, phrases like, “It’s happened! In my time! I’m the one! She’s here!”

“You were expecting me?” she called up to the bird.

It flew back to her, resuming its perch on her finger. “Yes! All my life!”

Her hopes rose. “You know who I am?”

“You’re the girl from far away,” the bird explained with exaggerated patience, as though that much should be obvious.

Jeremy held his hand up in front of his eyes, studying it, then scratched at his skin. “Oh, good, we didn’t just turn into cartoons,” he said. “Now, if you’re through communing with your animal friend, we’d better figure out where we are and where we need to go. Miriam could be here at any second, and you know she won’t let you out of her sight once she finds you.”

“Maybe you can help us,” she said to the bird. “I’m looking for a friend. She’s my age, a bit shorter than me, and has curly brown hair. Have you seen her?”

The bird tilted its head, like it had to think about the question, then asked, “You’re looking for a girl? But I was supposed to look for the girl.”

Another bird perched in a nearby bush gave a trilling laugh and said, “No one your age has been here in years. We don’t get novices anymore. It’s not allowed.”

Dawn knew it couldn’t have been so easy that she could just step through a portal and find Lucy and learn who she really was, but she couldn’t hold back a sigh of disappointment.

“What is this place?” Jeremy asked.

“This is the home of the Sisterhood of Enchantresses,” the bird in the tree said. “Outsiders aren’t welcome here, especially those who come here by magic.”

The bird on Dawn’s finger took flight. “You can’t let them find you! Come on! This way!” it cried as it flew over the wall—a tall, solid wall Dawn and Jeremy didn’t have a hope of getting over, under, or through.

A lizard sunning itself on a protruding stone shook its head and said, “I knew I should have eaten that egg when I had the chance. I’d have done us all a favor.”

Dawn stared at the wall the bird had flown over, torn. Surely if Mariel had come here, and this was the place where the aunts had aimed their portal, she wouldn’t be thrown out as an intruder. But that bird had been expecting her and wanted her to follow it. The little bird was the only one who’d seemed to have any information, so she wanted to stick with it, and if she let Miriam catch her, she might not have another chance to learn anything. “Can you help us get away?” she asked the birds.

One bird flew toward a section of wall behind a row of blooming shrubs. “Back here!” it said. “There’s a door.”

There was, a wooden door so weathered that it blended in with the stone. “But can we get through it?” Dawn asked.

“It’s to keep people out, not in.”

“And apparently not too many people want out, not this way,” Jeremy remarked as he fumbled with the latch. “It’s pretty badly rusted.”

Dawn crouched behind the shrubs and watched anxiously for Miriam to appear. “Hurry,” she urged.

“Just. Give. Me. A—” Jeremy said, punctuating each word with a tug on the reluctant door. When it flew open, he stumbled backward into Dawn’s arms.

Once she steadied him, she saw Miriam step into the garden out of a shimmering in the air. The woman dozing on the bench finally woke as more black-clad women came into the garden, carrying gardening tools. “Go!” Dawn urged Jeremy with a shove. They slipped through the doorway and eased it closed, then ran down the sloping lawn, away from the garden wall.

They reached the shelter of a nearby wooded area, where they hid behind a tree and looked to see if anyone had followed them. The door they’d come through opened again, and Miriam and two other women dressed just like her came out and looked around.

“Oh, there you are! What took you so long?” a nearby voice chirped loudly. Dawn looked up to see their bird friend perching on a tree branch overhead.

“We don’t have wings,” Jeremy pointed out.

Dawn signaled him to hush and asked the bird, “What’s your name?”

“They call me Spink.”

“Hello, Spink. You said you were expecting me.”

“I knew a girl would come here from far away.”

“How did you know this?”

“My mother told me. And her father before her. And his father. And his mother. And her father—”

“Now, what about the girl from far away?” she interrupted before the bird went through its entire family history.

“She’s supposed to go to the castle as soon as she gets here.”

“What castle?”

There was a moment of hesitation, like the bird had to think. “It’s a castle on a river, in a town,” it said after a while.

Jeremy crossed his arms over his chest. “When we went to Europe on vacation last summer, just about every town on a river had a castle in it.”

The bird fluttered its wings and gave a distressed whistle. “It’s the castle, the important one. And I have to take you there.”

“Do you at least know where the river is?” Dawn asked.

“It’s very near. I’ve even seen it myself!”

“Would you please take us there?”

“Whoa, wait a second,” Jeremy put in, stepping in between Dawn and the branch where the bird sat. “Do you think that’s such a good idea? Do we want to get away from what could be our only way back home? And if your aunts set things up to come to this place, where they seem to belong to this Sisterhood, would they really leave it up to a bird to get you where you need to be?”

“Maybe Spink was sent by our real allies, the people my aunts took me away from.”

“Geez, you gave Lucy your necklace, and it seems like she gave you her imagination. You don’t know that they kidnapped you. Maybe you ought to try asking them questions before you run off. Now that you obviously know about the portal and the other world, they can’t hide everything from you. They’ll have to tell you the truth.”

“But how will I know it’s the truth? Once they know I’m here, I’m sure they won’t let me go off and learn anything else. But if we don’t learn anything elsewhere, we can always come back here and find them.”

“That’s if we can get back.”

“Jeremy, this is the right thing to do. I can feel it. It’s just like I knew I had to go through that portal.”

“But do we know we can trust this bird? You don’t know anything about this world. For all we know, there’s an evil coalition of songbirds running the place.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Jeremy!” Dawn realized that she was actually arguing with him. She’d never argued with anyone before. She’d had moments when she had to be persuasive, but she’d never raised her voice or had to think of something to counter everything another person said. It was almost as exhilarating as hearing applause onstage. But while they were arguing, the bird flew off. “Hey, wait!” Dawn called out as she ran after it.

“Dawn!” Jeremy shouted behind her, but she didn’t want to lose sight of the bird, so she kept running. Even though Spink was tiny, his dark red breast made him easy to follow through the woods. Dawn dodged trees and leapt fallen logs as she chased Spink. She wasn’t alone. Other forest creatures joined the chase, frolicking alongside her. There was a fawn on its delicate legs, along with a couple of cottontailed rabbits, and several more birds flying overhead.

Spink didn’t seem to notice the parade following him through the woods. “Spink! Wait for me!” Dawn called out, and some of the animals took up the call in human speech. One of the birds flew ahead, and soon Spink circled back.

“We’re going to the river, and then to the castle,” Spink chirped.

Panting to catch her breath, Dawn said, “Yes, I know, and I was following you, but remember, I can’t fly.”

“The lady can’t fly,” the fawn repeated with a giggle.

Dawn turned slowly around to see the cluster of animals gazing at her with adoring eyes. “Oh, you’re all so cute! And thank you for your help.” Jeremy caught up to her, and the smaller animals cowered behind her. “It’s okay,” she reassured them. “He’s my friend.”

“They talk, too?” he asked.

“Some of us do,” one of the rabbits said.

“They’re all friendly,” Dawn assured Jeremy. “They helped me catch Spink.”

“Thanks a lot,” he said, but he didn’t sound very grateful.

“Now we’d better go,” Dawn told the animals. “It was lovely to meet you, but I have to go now. You’re all so sweet, I wish you could come with me, but I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“I agree. They should all stay right here,” a voice growled. It was a voice that sent shivers down Dawn’s spine.


            “Go!” Larkin barked, adding a quick series of yips before he turned and ran back the way they’d come. Leila ran ahead of Sebastian and the princess. Sebastian squeezed the princess’s hand tighter as he started to run. Although her legs were far shorter than his, she kept up with him. Behind them came the sound of growls and high-pitched barks that reminded Sebastian of dogs fighting in the stableyard. Larkin must have been trying to delay their pursuers.

Leila returned, breathing heavily. “There is a safe house ahead,” she panted. “Hurry.”

The undergrowth was lighter there, so they were able to run faster. Soon, they came to a thatched cottage in a clearing. The blue-edged white handkerchief that signified allegiance to the Loyalist cause hung in the front window, and a woman emerged from the house as they approached.

“Long live the king,” Sebastian said.

“And his queen,” the woman replied. “Get inside, quickly.” Once they were inside, she pulled a rope ladder down from a beam overhead. Sebastian held the ladder steady while the princess climbed it, then followed her up, pulled the ladder up, and cut the ropes off the beam. The woman called to them, “Go to the back corner.” Crawling from one beam to the next, they got to an area where boards across the beams created a floor. Sebastian shoved the princess into the corner, positioned himself to shield her and pulled some burlap sacks over them.

He held his breath when someone pounded on the door below, and he could feel the princess stiffen in fear at the sound. He held her tighter so she couldn’t move. The boards under them weren’t nailed down, so even the slightest movement would be noticeable. The woman waited a second or two before opening the door and calling out cheerfully, “Good day to you, good sirs. How may I be of service to you? I have ale if you are thirsty.”

There was a slight hesitation, as though the witch’s men weren’t expecting hospitality and weren’t sure how to react, then one said, “We are seeking a boy and a girl. Every house in the forest must be searched.”

“You’ll not find them here,” the woman said, “but you are free to look. As you can see, there’s nowhere to hide in here, just the one room.”

The sound of a slap made Sebastian flinch inwardly. His every knightly instinct told him to go to the woman’s aid, but his first duty was to the princess. He hadn’t noticed much furniture in the room, but the guards were turning over every piece of it, from the sound of things. The noise seemed to go on forever, and Sebastian was sure that, as thorough as they were being, the guards were bound to discover the hiding place above. Finally, one of the men said, “They wouldn’t have stopped so soon, not if they knew we were right behind them.”

“Ah, let the others find them,” said another voice. “I’m tired of walking. Now, woman, you mentioned ale?”

The searchers were in no hurry to leave. They stayed there, demanding more and more ale, laughing, and talking. Were they going to stay the rest of the day? Sebastian wondered what he should do if they drank until they passed out. Would it be safe to sneak past them then, or would he and the princess have to stay hidden until the guards left?

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. The men finally had their fill of ale and took their leave with unsteady footsteps. The princess relaxed a little after the door shut, but Sebastian held her tight, hoping she understood from the pressure of his hand on her shoulder that she should be still and wait. He wasn’t sure how much longer it was when a familiar bark sounded outside. The door opened, and Leila’s voice said, “They are gone.”

Sebastian pulled the sacks away and slowly sat up, then helped the princess up. He retied the ladder to the beam and climbed down and held the ladder for the princess. She was trembling, either from the aftershocks of fear or from having to stay so still for so long, so he steadied her with a hand on her waist, then caught her and lifted her down, holding her until she was able to stand on her own. He wouldn’t have minded letting her cling to him tighter or longer, but he knew that was improper. She was a princess of the realm and he was a mere squire, he reminded himself, no matter how good it felt to have her in his arms.

She stepped away from him unsteadily, then gasped when she saw their rescuer’s face. Her lip was split, bleeding, and already swelling, and her face was stained with tears. “Oh my!” the princess said. “Look what they did to you. I’m so sorry.” She took the woman by the arm and led her over to the bench by the rough wooden table near the hearth. She took her healing supplies from her pack and tore open a small pouch. “Now, this may sting a bit,” she said before dabbing at the split lip. “That’s probably going to be pretty ugly for a day or so, but it should heal,” she said.

The woman looked up at her and went deathly pale as her breath caught in her throat. “Oh, forgive me, your highness,” she gasped as she slid off the bench onto her knees at the princess’s feet and grabbed her hand to kiss it. “I didn’t realize it was you.” The princess jumped back in surprise, her fingers going to the necklace at her throat. “To think, the princess is back, and in my home!”

“Please, you don’t have to kneel,” the princess said, helping the woman up and back onto the bench. “You got your lip split for me, and that makes us practically best friends.”

The woman flushed a bright pink and cast her eyes down. “Your highness is most kind.”

“Um, well, thanks.” The princess turned to Sebastian. “Sebastian, shouldn’t we be going now? I mean, the coast is clear, right?”

Again, he wasn’t sure what she’d said, but he thought she’d asked if it was safe for them to go. “I suppose it depends on which direction the searchers went and what amount of ground they’re covering.”

“If they’re smart, they’ll spread out,” the princess said, chewing on her lower lip in thought. “That’ll make it really hard to get by them. Maybe we should wait a while.”

“We don’t have that much time. We have a long way to go, and we have to be there by sundown.”

“And probably everyone between here and there will be looking for us, right?”

“I believe so.”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t be the ones traveling.”

Continued in Chapter Seven.


Serial Chapter 5

Here’s the next installment of my serial novel. You can find the first part here. The previous chapter is here.

Chapter Five

            A voice cried out, “Long live the king,” and Sebastian visibly relaxed as a pair of big dogs crawled through the underbrush into the clearing. Several deer followed them, picking their way delicately through the vines and undergrowth.

“We led them on a good chase,” the lead dog growled. “They’ll never track you back here. You should be safe.”

“You must be Larkin,” Sebastian said with the slightest hint of hesitation in his voice.

“Yes, and this is my mate Leila. We will guide you to the rendezvous.” Larkin turned his head toward Lucy and sniffed. “So, this is the princess?”

“Yes, this is the princess,” Sebastian said. “Melantha hadn’t harmed her yet. Thank goodness we got to her in time.”

“And now we have hope,” one of the deer said in a voice that sounded like velvet.

“Hope! Hope!” came murmurs from all the other animals gathered in the clearing. Lucy’s knees felt wobbly, and she had to sit down. The princess—Aurora or Dawn or whoever she really was—must have truly meant something to the people of this world. Boy, were they going to be disappointed that they just had plain old Lucy instead.

“The princess tires,” a doe pointed out.

“Oh! I am truly sorry, your highness,” Sebastian said. “Please forgive me for neglecting your comfort.” He dug in his saddlebags and pulled out a wineskin and a few cloth-wrapped parcels. “It is only bread and cheese and some ale, but that will sustain us for tonight. We will travel to a safe place that will be far more comfortable tomorrow.”

He opened the parcels, took a knife off his belt and cut bread and cheese into hunks, then passed a portion to Lucy. She was so hungry that bread and cheese—which were normally two of her favorite foods anyway—were the best meal she’d ever eaten. When she’d finished the food, he passed her the skin of ale. She’d never had ale before and wasn’t entirely sure what it was. As she recalled, it was something kind of like beer. Not that she’d had beer, either. She was a Baptist girl from a small town, after all, and she wasn’t nearly cool enough to be invited to the pasture parties where everyone sat around drinking beer.

She just about had to hold her nose to manage to swallow enough to get the dryness out of her mouth, and it burned all the way down her throat. It took all her self-control not to gag or cough. On the bright side, the alcohol probably killed all those amebas she was worried about.

She passed the skin back to Sebastian, who took a good, long swig of the stuff. He was probably used to it. He held the skin back toward her, but she shook her head. “No, you have the rest. You need it more than I do, with that shoulder.”

“Shoulder?” Larkin asked.

“He caught an arrow.”

“But the princess has tended my wound,” Sebastian hurried to add.

“Ah, I thought I smelled blood. If you’re wounded, you must rest.”

Sebastian gave a deep sigh, like he was finally acknowledging that they were safe and was letting himself release all the tension from the rescue. “Yes, we must rest. You’ll stand guard?”

“We will stand guard,” the dog said.

With a nod, Sebastian lay down on his uninjured side. Lucy took his cloak from around her shoulders and draped it over him, and pretty soon he was out cold.

Larkin’s mate Leila came over to Lucy. “You should sleep, as well, highness,” she said, bowing low over her front legs. The dog lay next to Lucy. “You may rest your head on my side, highness.” That was when it really hit Lucy what it must mean to be a princess—at least, in a place like this. It wasn’t about wearing a crown and a pretty dress. It was about people—and, in this place, animals—really believing she was someone special who could give them hope for a better future. She had a lot to live up to.


            Back in her bedroom, Dawn put on her sturdiest, most practical clothing: a pair of cargo pants, running shoes, and a t-shirt under a shirt with a lot of pockets. She emptied her schoolbooks out of her backpack and filled it with a couple of changes of underwear and socks, her toothbrush, and some toothpaste. She wasn’t sure what else to take, since she didn’t know what the world on the other side of the portal was like beyond the garden she’d seen. Almost as an afterthought, she clasped the bracelet Lucy had given her around her wrist.

She slipped out of the house while her aunts were still sound asleep. The songbirds in the trees outside greeted her with their usual chorus. “Please, not now!” she said, hoping she hadn’t hurt their feelings when they suddenly went quiet again. She sprinted up the street. Once she was out of sight of her home, she slowed down and walked the rest of the way to Jeremy’s street. Jeremy was an Eagle Scout, so he knew about things like camping and hiking, reading maps, and maybe even navigating by the sun, moon, and stars—all skills she thought might be handy on this mission. He was always up for an adventure. The trick would be getting him to believe her.

Thinking about what she’d have to tell him made her want to turn back. She could be going through the portal right now instead of waiting until Jeremy’s parents left for work. But, no, she couldn’t do this alone. She found a comfortable spot leaning against a tree behind some bushes and let herself doze off. She woke when the sun came up, then waited until Jeremy’s parents drove away. As soon as they were gone, she came out of her hiding place and brushed the dirt and leaves off her pants. Something must have bitten her while she slept because the tip of her right index finger was really itchy.

She was still rubbing her finger against the rough fabric of her pants when Jeremy answered her knock on his door. “What are you doing out here alone?” he asked. “Lucy got grabbed yesterday in broad daylight. I was going to come over to walk you to school.”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” she said, and she hadn’t, since she knew that Lucy hadn’t been taken by ordinary kidnappers. “But I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

He stepped back and gestured her inside. “I’ve got some stuff I need to get together before I leave. You can talk to me while I work. Have you had breakfast?”

She realized that she was about to head off to what seemed to be another world on an empty stomach. She wasn’t too hungry, but she let him microwave some pancakes for her, and she ate while he stuffed his backpack with marshmallows, graham crackers, chocolate bars, and bags of candy. “Are you running away?” she asked.

“I don’t think I’d get far on s’mores ingredients,” he said with a laugh. “No, I’m leading a hike for one of the younger troops right after school, and at the end we’re doing a camp fire. I thought about canceling after what happened to Lucy, but it’s not like I can do anything to help her, and you try telling a bunch of nine-year-olds that something they’ve looked forward to for months won’t happen.” He shoved a bottle of water in with the food. “So, what is it you wanted to talk about?”

She almost changed her mind about telling him, since he did have plans for the day, but she didn’t think she could do this without him. “It’s about Lucy. And about me, I guess. I think what happened to her had something to do with me.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know how Lucy always said that maybe my aunts weren’t really my aunts?”

“Yeah, she even did an Internet search for missing kids who fit your description.”

“She might be right. I don’t know about kidnapping, but don’t you think I’d know something about who I was if they really were my aunts? Don’t your aunts tell you stories about your mother or father when they were kids together? Have you seen pictures of your parents when they were kids, and of the rest of your family?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“I’ve never seen any of that. If my parents are dead, wouldn’t real aunts want me to know something about them? I don’t even know my parents’ names. I don’t know where I was born. I’ve never met a relative other than my aunts. The only thing I have that has anything to do with my parents is my necklace. That’s weird, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is weird. But what does this have to do with Lucy?”

“She was wearing my necklace, and I overheard my aunts talking about it. They seemed to think that whoever took her thought they were getting me because of my necklace and were taking me back to where I’m really from. And they were almost glad about it, like it worked out better for them that way. But that’s not all. You’ve got to see what I found in the garden shed.”

“Dead bodies?”

“Ew! No! Something else. It’s hard to describe. You’ll see.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve tried talking to your aunts about this.”

“If they’ve been hiding things from me my whole life, and they’re still not telling me what’s going on even after what happened to Lucy, do you think they’d give me a straight answer now?”

“Maybe not.”

“And if I ask, they’ll get suspicious, and that will make it harder for me to learn the truth.”

“Do you have a plan for finding the truth?”

“First you have to see what’s in the garden shed.”

“Okay, you’ve got me curious, I have to admit.” He picked up his backpack and slid the straps over his shoulders. “Let’s go.”

When they got to Dawn’s house, they sneaked around to the side yard. “Now we just need to get to the back yard without them seeing us,” she said.

“This sounds awfully sinister.”

“It might be. I don’t know what to think anymore.”

“I think maybe Lucy has been a bad influence on you. You’ve picked up her paranoia.” She gave him a pleading look, and he sighed. “Maybe it’s time for a prank call,” he said, getting out his cell phone. “You don’t have caller ID, do you?”

“We barely have a phone.”

“Okay, you’re about to get in big trouble at school.”

“I don’t think I’m even supposed to be in school today. I had to sneak out during the night.”

“That makes the trouble even worse, and they’ll be more likely to come get you. Do you think all three of them will go?”

“Mariel’s already gone. She went somewhere last night, and I don’t think she’s back yet. Matilda will probably be the one to go. She’s always taken the parent role at school. That just leaves Miriam.”

“Then we’ll need to get her to look out the front windows long enough for us to get into the back yard and see whatever it is you want to show me.”

“I’m sure my friends will help,” she said, looking up at where birds were already congregating in the tree next to them.

He placed the call. When one of the aunts answered, he deepened his voice and said, “Ms. Royal? This is Principal Jade at the high school. I’m calling about your niece, Dawn. We need you to come to the school right away.” Dawn heard the anxious voice on the other end of the call and felt a stab of guilt. “Yes, she did come to school today.” Another pause, then, “No, she’s all right. But there is something we need to discuss about her behavior. I’m sure she’s just upset about her friend disappearing, but we don’t need that kind of disruption in class … Thank you. I’ll see you shortly.”

He closed the phone and put it back in his pocket. “Sounds like she bit. We’d better get ready.” They opened the gate and stepped into the back yard, staying where they couldn’t be seen from the house. From the front yard, they heard voices. “I’ll be back soon, Miriam,” Matilda shouted. “Keep an eye out for that signal or for any word from Mariel.”

“Now,” Jeremy whispered, and Dawn gave a quick whistle and gestured at the birds. They took flight all at once and made a real uproar. Dawn could hear Miriam trying to shoo them away in the front yard. Jeremy grabbed Dawn’s hand and they took off across the lawn to the garden shed.

“Now, what was it you wanted to show me?” he asked.

She unlatched the door and flung it open, hoping the portal was still there. If it wasn’t, she’d look incredibly silly.

It was most definitely there. The garden on the other side was bathed in morning light, so that the shed’s interior was strangely sunlit. The portal tugged at her even more strongly than it had the night before. That other world must be her true home, its call to her was so strong. “Whoa!” Jeremy breathed. “Is that like a window, or can you actually go through to that place?”

“I think you can go through. Mariel went into the shed last night and didn’t come out.”

“So when you said the aunts might know where Lucy was taken, and the people who took her may have thought they were taking you, back to the place you’re really from, it was the place through this portal?”

“I think so. My aunts were creating this while they were talking about taking me home. This must be how they planned to do it.” She stiffened her spine and turned to face him. “I’m going through to see if I can find Lucy and help her get back and maybe learn something about who I am. I would appreciate your help if you want to come with me.”

“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?”

“I know it is. I can feel it. Every fiber of my being is telling me that I have to go through that portal.”

“Do you think it’s safe?”

She gestured toward the tranquil setting on the other side. “It’s a garden! And it’s where my aunts set up the portal to go. I don’t think they’d send themselves into danger. It’s where they were apparently planning to take me, so I’m only going where they want me to go. I’m merely doing it on my own schedule.”

He looked at the portal and back at her, frowning. Then he got the gleam in his eyes that usually meant they were about to do something that would get them all in trouble. “Okay, I guess the kids are going to miss that hike, after all. Unless, that is, we can find Lucy, unmask your secret identity, and get back before school lets out.”

She gave him a quick hug. “Thank you so much! I didn’t want to go alone, and I knew you’d be helpful.”

He took out his pocket knife, opened it and held it ready. “Since we don’t know what’s waiting for us on the other side,” he explained.

The last thing Dawn heard before they passed through the portal was Miriam’s voice calling her name.


            The first thing Sebastian noticed when he woke the next morning was a twinge in his upper left arm. That flash of pain brought back everything that had happened the night before and made it clear that it hadn’t been a dream. Sergeant Fulk really had found him in the armory and told him he had to rescue Princess Aurora from the castle dungeon. He really had stolen the dungeon keys and walked out of the castle with the strangely dressed princess. Now, he supposed, he was an outlaw—at least until the princess took her rightful place as ruler of the land. Until then, his job wasn’t over until he delivered her safely to the Loyalists.

He sat up, suppressing a groan, and cringed when his cloak fell off his shoulders. He should have given it to the princess. What kind of knight was he—that was, almost-knight—if he let a princess sleep exposed to the elements while he slept under his cloak? He recalled that he’d fallen asleep first, at her orders, and the last thing he remembered was her tucking the cloak around him. He didn’t think that was how a rescue was supposed to go.

Then again, none of this was what he’d expected. He’d pictured a delicate princess he’d have to protect from every danger and hardship, and instead she’d been the one to tend his wound and take care of him. She was much more capable than he’d imagined a princess would be. She should be good at things like embroidery and dancing, not pulling arrows out of shoulders.

The princess was still sound asleep, curled up on her side, her head resting on Leila’s back. The stories said she’d been gifted magically at birth with great beauty, and he’d always pictured that to mean she’d be tall and willowy, with flowing golden hair and porcelain skin. But, he supposed, that was too conventional to be truly great beauty. There were so many beautiful girls who looked like that. This princess was more striking, in her own way, with her small frame and masses of curls the color of dark honey.

He went to the stream to wash his face, and when he returned, she was sitting up and yawning. “I guess it wasn’t a dream,” she said with a wry smile.

“I am afraid not, your highness.” He took the food from his saddlebag and offered her more bread. She made a face when she drank from his aleskin, but she didn’t complain.

“How’s the shoulder?” she asked between bites of bread.

“It’s sore, but I can use the arm.”

“Well, take it easy. You don’t want to strain it too much until it has a chance to heal. Popping a stitch isn’t pretty.”

He wasn’t entirely sure what she had said, but from the context, he took it to mean that he shouldn’t overtax the injured arm, lest the wound reopen. She spoke so strangely.

“So, now what?” was her next question.

“If you are ready, we should begin travel soon. I am to take you to a rendezvous point, where the Loyalist leaders will take charge of you.”

“Okay, then. Let’s get a move on.” She stood, brushed the dirt and leaves from her clothing, and put her knapsack over her shoulders.

He took his own pack from his saddlebags. With great regret, he gave his horse a swat on the rump and said, “Go home, now!” It just looked back at him with what he might have sworn was a look of hurt and betrayal in its eyes.

“We’re not taking the horse?” the princess asked.

“It would slow us down in the deep woods, and it is very hard to be stealthy with a warhorse.”

“Good point. They also eat a ton.”

He had to fight back a smile as he turned to address his horse again. He wouldn’t want the princess to think he was mocking her. With a sharp pang of regret, he said more firmly, “I said go home, you! You’ll have good food there, and you’ll like that.”

The horse took a few steps away, then hesitated. Sebastian groaned and tried to think of a way to reason with a horse when a wolf charged into the clearing. The princess squeaked, barely biting back a scream, and jumped behind Sebastian. He put his hand on his sword and called out, “Long live the king!”

“And also his queen,” the wolf said, giving the countersign.

Sebastian relaxed and asked, “What is it?”

“They’re searching the forest with dogs,” the wolf growled. The curl of his lip gave a good indication of what he thought about dogs willing to work for the witch. “You must go. My pack will distract them.”

He turned and ran back into the woods before they had a chance to thank him or ask questions. Sebastian swatted the horse again. “Go, I said!” he urged, trying not to sound desperate.

The stag said, “We’ll take care of him.” He and the doe charged at the horse, who finally took off running. The three of them disappeared into the forest. Sebastian took the princess’s hand and followed Leila and Larkin out of the clearing.

The princess’s odd clothes were well suited for travel. She wore leggings of a heavy fabric that should protect her well from the branches and brambles of the forest, and though it wasn’t seemly that she wore men’s clothing, it did mean she had more freedom of movement. Her shoes wouldn’t hold up to long travel as well as boots, but they were more substantial than the light slippers ladies wore at court. He wondered if she’d been in disguise before she was captured.

He hoped they had a good head start on their pursuers and wondered if they were using bloodhounds to track a scent or merely using hunting dogs to flush out their prey. The princess’s hand felt small and damp in his, and when he glanced at her, her face was pale, but her jaw had a stubborn, determined set to it.

Perhaps noticing his attention, she smiled and asked, “Have I thanked you yet for rescuing me?”

He straightened his back and held his head high. “No thanks are necessary. I am merely doing my duty as a loyal subject of your kingdom and my part to restore the rightful rulers to the throne.”

Her grin grew, as though she found something to be humorous, then it faded, and she frowned as she asked, “What happened to the king and queen?”

“We don’t know where they are—if they’re even alive. They disappeared just before Melantha staged her coup two years ago. We were afraid that when you returned, the witch would lie in wait to capture you. The Loyalists were ready to rescue you, though they had to adjust their plans when you came back earlier than expected.”

“Actually, she kidnapped me from my world.”

“Your world?”

She sighed. “It’s really hard to explain, since I don’t understand it all, myself. But I’ve been living in this other, well, I guess you could call it another reality, like maybe a parallel universe. Anyway, this other, far-off place where I’m guessing you can only go using magic.”

That explained her strange manner of dress and her foreign way of talking. “And she went after you in that place?”

“Not personally, but she sent her people to bring me back. That’s how I got here.”

“How did they find you? No one was supposed to know where you were hidden. Not even your parents knew. The enchantresses told no one where they were going. There was to be a signal so they would know it was safe to return to the kingdom after the curse expired, and we assumed the witch had learned how to send the signal to bring you here.”

“I have no clue,” she admitted. “All I know is, these three guys came riding through my town, saw my necklace, grabbed me, and brought me here.”

“Perhaps the enchantresses will return after your disappearance from the other world, and they will be able to help.”

“Yeah, that would be real handy, wouldn’t it?” She was smiling again, as though she’d found something he said amusing or ironic. He didn’t see the humor in the situation.

Their situation became even less amusing when he heard the sound of barking dogs in the distance. Their pursuers were gaining on them.

Continued in chapter six.


Serial Chapter Four

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!

Chapter Four

            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?

Continued in chapter five.


Serial Part 3

This is the third installment of a novel I’m serializing, posting chapters on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The first chapter is here, and the previous chapter is here. Feel free to spread the word to others who might enjoy it. For updates on when each chapter is posted, you can follow me on Twitter.

Chapter Three

            Dawn’s aunts spent her entire birthday cleaning the house top-to-bottom. She couldn’t think of why they’d made her stay home, since they wouldn’t let her help. They just had her sit nearby and sing for them while they worked. For perhaps the first time in her life, she was tired of singing and desperately wanted to do something else, even pick up a brush and help scrub, but they wouldn’t let her leave whichever room they were working on at the time.

“It will be sunset in a few hours,” Matilda said when they finished scrubbing the bathroom late in the day. She sounded awfully pleased about that.

“That means we’d better hurry and finish,” Mariel said.

“I could help,” Dawn offered.

“No, dear, you just sit and sing like a good girl,” Matilda said, patting her on the top of the head. “Your music makes the work go faster for us.”

“The timing of sunset does vary from place to place,” Miriam said. She picked up her bucket of cleaning tools and led the group through the living room to the kitchen. “Sunset here doesn’t mean anything.”

“Is something supposed to happen at sunset—here or somewhere else?” Dawn asked.

Mariel and Matilda turned to glare at Miriam, who flushed pink. “I only meant that we wanted to have the work done by sunset, but if we didn’t finish, we could console ourselves with the fact that it’s still daylight somewhere,” Miriam said.

Dawn laughed. “I’ll have to remember that the next time I want to stay up past my bedtime. It’s still earlier somewhere else.”

As she followed her aunts through the living room, Dawn glanced at the grandfather clock. It was nearly four, plenty of time after school let out for Lucy to have made it downtown to the theater to check the audition results. Why hadn’t she called yet?

The thought crossed her mind that the aunts might have forgotten to pay the phone bill. She said she needed a bathroom break and stopped by the phone niche in the hallway to check for a dial tone. The phone was still working. Then it occurred to her that it was Lucy’s birthday, too, and her mother was having a big party that night. Lucy was probably busy, and it had been selfish of Dawn to ask her to run an errand for her. She’d find out soon enough if she got the part.

When they finished cleaning, the aunts sent Dawn off to her room to change for dinner. “Your best dress, mind you,” Matilda said. “This is a special occasion. And brush your hair.” Dawn put a record on and hummed softly along with it while she changed into a lacy white dress and put a bow in her hair.

She came back to the living room to find Matilda peering through the curtains into the back yard. “I think the sun has set!” she called out.

Mariel went to the sideboard and poured a red liquid from a crystal decanter into three tiny stemmed glasses, then hesitated, glanced at Dawn, and poured a smaller amount of liquid into a fourth glass. She handed the glasses to the other aunts, then the one with the smallest amount to Dawn. “You are sixteen, after all,” she said with a rare smile. “You might as well get your first taste.”

“Like I told you earlier, the sun sets at different times in different places,” Miriam muttered. “The days may not even line up properly.”

Mariel ignored her and raised her glass. Matilda immediately followed suit, so enthusiastically that some of the liquid sloshed over the rim of her glass. Mariel glared at Miriam until she, too, raised her glass. “To our Dawn on her sixteenth birthday,” Mariel said. “And to the beginning of the rest of her life.” Miriam downed her drink in one gulp, her eyes still narrowed into a frown, while Matilda sipped daintily at hers, her pinky extended. “Go on, drink up,” Mariel encouraged Dawn. Dawn took a sip, then had to gasp for breath. It tasted like a combination of cherries and gasoline. Surely this couldn’t be what the popular kids drank on weekends for fun. Mariel patted her on the back while she sputtered and coughed.

“And now for dinner,” Matilda said, ushering them all to the table.

For once, they didn’t nag at Dawn throughout the meal. Dawn wasn’t sure if that was because it was her birthday or because she was doing everything right. When they’d almost finished dinner, the phone rang. “I’ll get it,” Dawn shouted as she jumped out of her chair, nearly tipping it over, and ran to the phone.

However, it wasn’t Lucy telling her she’d be playing Guinevere. It was Jeremy. “Have you talked to Lucy today?” he asked.

“No. She was supposed to call me with the audition results after school, but I haven’t heard from her. Why? Aren’t you supposed to be at her party now?”

“She’s missing.”

“Missing?” she yelped. “What do you mean?”

“I mean no one’s seen her since the end of school. She signed up to take the driving test but didn’t show up, and she hasn’t come home.”

Dawn tried to think of a bright side, some wonderful thing that might have caused Lucy to miss her own birthday party, but nothing came to her. “And here I was, getting mad at her because she didn’t call me with the audition results,” she said, her voice cracking as tears stung her eyes.

“You haven’t talked to her at all today, and she didn’t say anything to you about anywhere she might have gone after school?”

She shook her head before remembering that he couldn’t see that over the phone. “No.” It came out as a sob. “Nothing other than checking the cast list. Maybe I should have called you or her mother earlier, when I didn’t hear from her. You could have started looking sooner.”

The aunts came in from the dining room. Their concerned faces said they’d overheard the conversation. Matilda put an arm around Dawn’s shoulders while Mariel took the phone away from her. “This is Dawn’s Aunt Mariel,” she said into the phone, enunciating very distinctly, as though she was afraid she wouldn’t be understood on the other end. “What has happened?” She frowned as she listened, then said, “I see. That is terrible. Please keep us informed.” She hung up and faced Dawn. “This friend who’s missing, that’s the one who’s wearing your necklace?” she asked, an odd look of fear—and was it relief?—on her face. The other two aunts wore similar expressions. All three of them exchanged glances before their faces went totally blank.

“Yes, it’s Lucy,” Dawn said with a sniffle.

Matilda handed her a lace-edged handkerchief and said, “Let’s go have our dessert.” She guided Dawn back to the dining table and nudged her into her seat, then said to the other aunts, “I’ll need some help putting on the finishing touches.” The three aunts went into the kitchen. Dawn noticed that they hadn’t cleared the table, so she carefully stacked the plates, arranged the silverware on top, and headed for the kitchen.

As she approached the door, she heard Matilda ask, “Do you really think it’s all over?”

Dawn knew it was wrong to eavesdrop, but her curiosity got the better of her, and she lingered near the door to listen rather than going into the kitchen.

“We haven’t had the signal yet,” Miriam said.

“We wait for the signal,” Mariel confirmed, “but yes, I do believe it may be over, and we were fortunate. The necklace may have some protective properties, but it also served as a form of identification.” She laughed a nervous, shaky laugh. “And to think, those sixteen years of careful hiding and planning might have come to nothing if it hadn’t been for the careless whim of a teenage girl.”

“A generous whim,” Matilda put in.

“Generous, yes, but it may have saved us from disaster. We were very fortunate,” Mariel said. “We never imagined they would find us here, so we were entirely unprepared. If she hadn’t given the necklace, we might have lost her, and now she should be safe because they won’t be looking for her anymore.”

Dawn shook her head in confusion. From the way they talked, she assumed they were referring to the necklace she’d given to Lucy. But sixteen years of hiding? First Lucy disappeared, and now her aunts were talking nonsense. Dawn didn’t know what to think. She bit her lip to fight back a whimper and edged closer to the door so she could hear better.

“What will become of the other girl, though?” Matilda asked.

“That is not our concern,” Mariel said firmly. “Dawn is safe now. That is what is important.”

“It should concern us,” Matilda insisted. She seldom argued with Mariel, but when she did, she stood her ground. “She’s an innocent.”

“They’ll realize soon enough they have the wrong girl,” Miriam said. “I doubt they’ll keep her, then.” But she didn’t sound like she believed it. “At any rate, there’s little we can do about it. We don’t dare take her back without the signal. It would be too dangerous. We’ve been gone nearly sixteen years, and we have no idea what the situation might be. For all we know, Melantha managed to take over even without killing the princess.”

“Still, we should prepare the portal. The signal may come at any time,” Mariel said. “We must be ready to go.”

“And we’ve been in here long enough,” Miriam said. “Hurry and light these candles.”

Dawn rushed back to her seat and tried to look as innocent and as untroubled as she could be with her best friend missing. It was the biggest acting challenge she’d ever faced, keeping her expression from showing the way her brain was spinning.

The aunts returned to the dining room, Mariel carrying a pink-frosted birthday cake covered with candles. They weren’t actually birthday candles but instead were a mix of household candles in various shapes, colors, and sizes. Behind Mariel, Miriam carried a stack of bowls and Matilda held a half gallon of ice cream. In spite of her concerns, Dawn was touched that they’d made the effort. “Oh, this is lovely! Thank you!” she said, not having to fake her gratitude. Still, she couldn’t help but flinch a little when Matilda put a hand on her shoulder as she bent to blow out the candles, and she noticed every single look the aunts exchanged among themselves.


            Lucy gave up struggling against her captor soon after they passed through that magical doorway. If she was truly in another world, freeing herself in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t do her a lot of good, and getting free of the guy holding on to her while she was on top of a huge horse running at a decent rate of speed probably wasn’t the smartest idea. She kept herself still, sending off all the body language signals that she’d given up.

Soon, the man holding her did relax his grasp a little, and he took his hand away from her mouth. She had a feeling she could scream her head off and it wouldn’t do her much good, since they were in the middle of a heavy forest. Even if there were people around, for all she knew, they’d be cheering on the guys in black instead of helping her.

“Who are you and where are you taking me?” she asked the guy holding her, then cringed when she realized she sounded like something out of a bad movie. Then again, those were pretty obvious questions, under the circumstances. He didn’t answer or even show any sign that he’d heard her. He’d spoken English—or, at least, she’d heard it as English—when he’d seen her, just before he grabbed her, so she knew he should have understood her. She suspected he had orders not to talk to the prisoner. “Okay, be that way,” she muttered as she rolled her eyes.

After what seemed like an hour of riding, they emerged from the forest and approached a village. The houses were half-timbered and had thatched roofs, and they were clustered together along a narrow, winding road. The men of the village wore loose, belted tunics over leggings and the women wore dresses that were pretty much long versions of the men’s tunics. The rough fabrics, simple design, and worn condition of the clothing told Lucy these must be peasants—that was, if this world was anything like what she knew of earth. She might not pay attention in history class, but she did know her clothing history. In spite of her danger, she couldn’t help but wish she could get a closer look at the fabrics because that might help her design Camelot costumes. Assuming she ever made it home. The town musical was the least of her worries right now.

The people stopped working as the riders came into town, and they hurried to move off the road, which was smart, as the riders didn’t so much as slow down. They didn’t seem to have any qualms about trampling anything in their path. In fact, Lucy was pretty sure they ran over at least one chicken, but she closed her eyes at the last second and didn’t see whether the bird got out of the way in time.

They’d nearly made it through the village when a woman looked up at Lucy, blinked in shock, gasped, and cried out, “They found her!”

Her cry alerted the rest of the villagers, who rushed toward the horsemen, waving hoes and pitchforks. Lucy wasn’t sure what was going on, but if they were trying to rescue her, she was totally in favor of that. She struggled in earnest, hoping that if her captor had to work to hold on to her, he wouldn’t be able to fight. Unfortunately, the other two riders didn’t have anything stopping them, and they pulled their swords and circled back while Lucy’s rider kept going. She couldn’t see what happened, but she heard a roar from the crowd, followed by screams, gasps, and thuds. The screams went on far too long, like either the peasants kept fighting even though they didn’t stand a chance, or the soldiers didn’t want to leave anyone behind. Lucy sagged against her captor in defeat, fighting back tears. Soon, the other two riders rejoined them, and they kept going. Now she knew for a fact that these men were the bad guys and that she did not want to be with them.

The trees thinned as the horses pounded down the road into a river valley. On a hillside across the river loomed a massive castle with a city huddled below it on the slope down to the river. This wasn’t a fairy princess castle, with graceful, gleaming spires. It was a castle that meant business, with thick stone walls and sturdy towers at each corner. It looked to Lucy like the kind of castle that would have a dungeon, and probably even a torture chamber. Suddenly the idea of a castle was much less romantic to her.

They clattered across the bridge and made their way to the castle through crowded, narrow streets. The people on the streets shrank away from the riders. Parents put themselves between the riders and their children. One woman held out a beseeching hand toward Lucy as tears ran down her face. An older man fell to his knees when he saw Lucy. Everywhere she looked, Lucy saw faces without hope, some of them with utter despair.

But what did that have to do with her? Was her being here such a bad thing for these people? She knew she didn’t mean them any harm. Or was it more to do with what awaited her, and they felt sorry for her? No, she decided as she looked into yet another set of despairing eyes, they were worried about what would happen to them. No one got that upset over the fate of a stranger, no matter how nasty that fate might be.

The city seemed to be in the middle of some kind of festival. There were brightly colored banners hanging everywhere, along with floral garlands strung across the street, from rooftop to rooftop. It was even more extreme than Lucy’s hometown’s Christmas decorations, only with less tinsel and no electric lights. If she’d noticed the decorations first, she’d have expected the people to look happy instead of like the world was coming to an end.

Their group rode into the castle courtyard, where a guard yanked Lucy off the horse. He dragged her into the castle, then down one flight of stairs after another. She struggled to keep up with him, often stumbling. She tried to remember each twist and turn so she could find her way out if she got the chance, but she was afraid she was hopelessly lost.

At the end of the final flight of stairs, they arrived in the dungeon—a narrow, torchlit corridor with barred doors set into the walls. The guard took a ring of keys off his belt, unlocked a door, and threw her into a cell, locking the door behind her. She landed on moldy straw that stank, so she jumped back to her feet. The only light in the room came from a tiny barred window set high in one of the walls and from a torch in the hallway outside the barred door. The cell’s stone walls were covered in slimy moss. There were brackets on the wall with chains hanging from them, and she was glad they hadn’t used them on her.

So, she was in a dungeon in another world on her birthday. She was missing her driving test, her own party, and whatever surprise Jeremy had for her. Tears filled her eyes, and she tried to fight them back. She could practically hear her mother’s voice telling her to pull herself together and think about what she could do. The thought of her mother made the tears worse. By now, her mother would surely be wondering where she was—or else she’d think Lucy was pouting about her mom not agreeing to take her to get her driver’s license. She’d just assume Lucy was being childish and dramatic and trying to get attention.

Alone and scared, Lucy couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. Armed men didn’t grab girls and haul them away to a dungeon because someone wanted to invite them for tea. She wanted out of there, and she wanted to go home.

“Ah, there you are,” a voice from behind her said, and she spun to see who it was.

There wasn’t anyone there, not that she could see. She got a mini flashlight out of her school backpack and pointed it at all the corners of the cell. The only living thing anywhere near the cell, besides herself, was the little black bird that had slipped between the bars in that window high in the cell wall. “Hello? Who’s there?” she called out. She hoped whoever it was hadn’t seen her crying.

“It’s just me,” the voice said from the window. It looked like the bird was talking. “I heard they finally caught you, so I came to the dungeon to check it out for myself.”

This was impossible. Birds didn’t talk. “You’re talking?” Lucy asked, just to be sure.

“Of course I’m talking. Do you see anyone else? Now, did they hurt you, highness? ’Cause if they did, I’ll have to do something about that.”

She shook her head. “No, they didn’t hurt me.”

“Good. Now, you sit tight. I’m going for help. We’ve got someone on the inside. And don’t touch any spindles.”

He flew away, leaving her with unanswered questions. Like how birds could talk, who “we” was, what a spindle had to do with anything, and what, in general, the hell was going on here.

And, wait a second, did he call her highness? She ran to the window to call after the bird, but then there was yet another voice behind her, coming from the door. “Don’t try it, there’s no escape,” the gruff voice said. She turned around cautiously, wondering what she might see. A talking guard dog, maybe?

But it was just a guard, a human guard. He unlocked the cell door and said, “Come with us. She wants to see you now.”


            That night, Dawn was too agitated to sleep. She paced her bedroom, trying to process everything that had happened that day. She knew she was missing information and couldn’t judge from what she’d heard of the aunts’ conversation, but it didn’t sound good. They’d been kind enough to her, but if they were willing to let something bad happen to Lucy, that couldn’t be good, could it? And it sounded like they knew what was going on, but they hadn’t shared any of that with her. Why not? She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

There was a noise from the back yard, and she went to the window to peer out from behind the curtain. The aunts had the doors to the garden shed open and were doing something inside. She heard them through the open window, but what they said didn’t make much sense. Their voices stopped as they backed away from the shed, then there was a flash of light through the shed’s windows and open doorway.

Dawn gasped in surprise and quickly clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. “There, that should do it,” Mariel said, brushing her hands on her black skirt. “We just step through the portal as soon as the signal comes, and we’ll be home.”

“Shouldn’t we tell Dawn?” Matilda asked. “This will be a very big change for her. She needs time to get adjusted.” Dawn clutched the windowsill to keep herself from falling as her legs went wobbly. She felt like someone had pulled the ground out from under her, leaving her nothing solid to stand on.

“She can get adjusted once she’s there,” Miriam said. “We don’t want to take any chances. She might not want to go, and we can’t take that risk.”

Now Dawn understood why they’d kept her home from school. It wasn’t just that day, it was for good. They were planning to leave. They were going to take her away.

“And what about the other girl?” Matilda asked.

“There’s little question of where she is,” Mariel said. “But perhaps I should go through to let the sisters know so they can intervene, if necessary.”

“Excellent idea,” Matilda said. “I’d feel so much better if we did something to help that poor girl.” Dawn felt a warm glow in her heart for her aunt’s kindness. Matilda always had been the one most like a mother to her.

“Very well, then, I shall go,” Mariel said. She walked into the shed, and the other two closed the door after her. Even after several minutes passed, Mariel didn’t come out of the shed.

Dawn sank down against the wall until she sat on the floor. She was dizzy, but she wasn’t sure if that was because of what she’d just heard and seen or because she’d been holding her breath for so long. The back door opened and closed, and Dawn flung herself across the room into the bed in case they looked in on her. Sure enough, soon her bedroom door opened, and she had to will her body to relax and her breathing to slow and become more even so she’d appear to be asleep instead of agitated. She gave herself half an hour after her bedroom door shut and another door elsewhere in the house opened and shut, then she slid out of bed.

She had to know what was in the shed. It was a compulsion that grew stronger every second—so strong that she nearly forgot to put on shoes before sneaking out of her room to go outside. The shed wasn’t locked, just closed with a latch. She unfastened the latch and eased the door open slowly, hoping it didn’t creak.

Inside the shed was a moonlit garden. She blinked and shook her head. That couldn’t be right. When she looked again, she saw that there was a faintly glowing arch in the shed, through which she saw the garden. Before she realized what she was doing, she took a step toward the arch, then caught herself. More than anything she’d ever wanted in her life—more even than a leading role in Camelot—she wanted to go through that portal. Though she kept her feet planted, her upper body swayed toward it.

On the other side of that glowing arch were the answers to all the questions she’d never thought to ask, like who she was, who her parents were, and where she came from. Based on what her aunts had said, she came from the world of that garden. That’s if they really were her aunts. Now she couldn’t even be sure of that much. Lucy had been taken because she was wearing Dawn’s necklace, because somebody thought she was Dawn, and that meant Dawn could learn who she was by finding Lucy.

Dawn took another step toward the glowing arch, then shook her head to clear it, backed away, and shut the shed door. She wouldn’t get far with nothing but a nightgown, and she wouldn’t get far on her own. She needed to find someone she could trust to help her, and with Lucy gone, that left one person.

Continued in chapter four.


Serial Chapter Two

Here’s the second chapter of the serial novel. If you missed chapter one, you can find it here. If you’re enjoying this, please share the links so others can find it.

Chapter Two

            Dawn’s Aunt Mariel met her at the front door before she had a chance to use her key or knock. “It’s late,” Mariel snapped. “Where were you?”

“I had the audition for Camelot this afternoon. Remember, I told you? And it went really, really well!”

“But you’re just now getting home?”

“I stopped by the drugstore afterward to tell Lucy how it went.” Dawn swept past her aunt into the entryway. “And I didn’t want to walk home alone. It wasn’t long until Lucy got off work, and then we could go home together.”

Mariel slammed the door shut and followed Dawn into the living room, asking, “Then what were you doing in the car with that boy?”

“That was just Jeremy giving us a ride home. You’ve met him. Remember? We’ve been friends since we were eleven. Lucy was in the back seat.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss Mariel on the cheek. “You’re so sweet to worry about me.”

The other two aunts came out of the kitchen to join the conversation. Aunt Miriam was shorter and softer than Mariel but was still very stern when she asked “So, nothing’s going on with you and this boy?”

Dawn laughed. “With Jeremy? We’re just friends. Besides, Lucy likes him.”

The three aunts exchanged meaningful looks. “You’ve never done anything like kiss a boy?” Aunt Matilda asked with a teasing smile as she tucked a stray gray curl behind her ear.

“Should I have kissed someone by now? I’m sure I could find a boyfriend if you think I should.”

“No!” Mariel snapped, then said more gently, “It’s not necessary. Everything in its time.”

“We were simply curious,” Matilda added.

Dawn sighed in relief. “Oh, okay. Because I don’t really have time for a boyfriend with play rehearsals and choir and all, and the boys in the drama club don’t seem too interested in having girlfriends.”

Miriam winced and glanced at the others. “Is acting a suitable profession for you?” She sounded almost nervous as she asked the question. “I know you enjoy doing the school plays, but you don’t want to make a career out of it.”

“Of course I do! There’s nothing I want more. All I want to do is go to New York and be a star on Broadway.” With a big grin, she launched into “New York, New York,” linking her elbows with Miriam and Matilda and doing a few kick steps.

Matilda tried to get in step with her, but faltered when Mariel said firmly, “We’ll worry about long-term plans when the time comes. In the meantime, it is time for dinner. Please go wash and change clothes.”

Dawn kept singing as she went down the hall, coming to the big finish as she entered her bedroom. As far as she knew, she was the only kid in school who was expected to dress for dinner, but her aunts were terribly old-fashioned that way. She didn’t mind humoring them, since they’d been so kind to her, bringing her up after her parents had died when she was a baby. She put on a simple black dress that was very much like what her aunts always wore, only without the stiff white collars that made them look like the Puritans in history books, then brushed her hair and tied it back with a faded black ribbon.

As she came out of her room and went down the hall to the living room, she heard the aunts talking. They sounded like they were trying to talk in whispers, only they kept raising the volume to talk over each other. Dawn stood quietly in the hallway so she wouldn’t interrupt their conversation.

“I hate for her to get her hopes up like that,” Matilda said. “What do we do?”

“Time itself will take care of it all,” Mariel said. “We won’t need to do or say anything until the time comes.”

“It will be quite a shock for her, though,” Miriam said.

There was a loud shushing sound, then Mariel whispered, “She should be coming back at any time.”

Dawn tiptoed back to her room, then walked normally down the hallway, singing to herself so they’d hear her coming.

“There you are,” Mariel said when she entered the dining room. “I don’t know how it can take you so long just to change clothes.”

“But you do look nice, dear,” Matilda added, adjusting the ribbon in Dawn’s hair.

Mariel clapped her hands for attention. “Enough talking. It’s time for dinner before it gets cold.”

The four of them gathered around the dining table, which was set with mismatched, chipped china. They followed all the formal etiquette rules as they passed dishes around the table to serve themselves. “No, dear, that’s not how you do it,” Miriam said as Dawn scooped mashed potatoes from a serving dish onto her plate.

“Sit up straight,” Mariel ordered before Dawn could take a bite of food. As soon as she took a bite, Matilda chimed in to tell her to take smaller bites. I’ll be grateful someday when I’m a big star invited to dine with royalty, Dawn told herself.

Mariel opened her mouth to say something else, but stopped and frowned. “Where is your necklace, young lady?”

Dawn touched the base of her throat, only then remembering that she’d given the necklace to Lucy. She was so used to wearing it that she could still feel it hanging around her neck. “I let Lucy wear it.” All three aunts glared at her, so she hurried to explain. “She gave me this bracelet as a birthday gift.” She held up her wrist and shook it. “See, you can add charms. I can get one for each show I do. But I didn’t have anything for her, so I let her wear my necklace, just for her birthday. She has to do an oral report for history class, and I thought she could use a good-luck charm since I won’t be there to cheer her on.”

“How could you—” Mariel began, but Miriam put a hand on her arm.

“I think it’s a lovely gesture,” Miriam said. “It was very sweet of you to let your friend wear your necklace on her birthday.”

Mariel’s eyes went from squinting in a frown to wide with realization, like she was only then figuring something out. A second later, Matilda gasped, then smiled and breathed, “Oooooh.”

“Yes, that was a nice gesture,” Mariel said. “After all, you won’t be seeing anyone tomorrow, and she’ll be out and about, so it’s a good time for her to be wearing that necklace.”

Matilda bounced up from the table. “Dessert time!” She collected their empty plates and disappeared into the kitchen. Dawn let herself sigh with relief that she wasn’t in trouble for giving Lucy the necklace. Moments later, there was a crash and the sound of breaking china. “Mariel!” Matilda cried out from the kitchen.

Mariel jumped up from the table, but Miriam stayed and caught Dawn’s wrist in a tight grasp before Dawn could go help. “I’m sure they can handle it,” she said.

Soon, Matilda came back to the dining room, carrying a tray with a pie and dessert plates. Mariel came behind her, then went around the dining room and living room, shutting the windows, blinds, and drapes. While she did that, Matilda served the pie as though nothing had happened, but Dawn noticed that her face was nearly as pale as her stiff white collar. When Mariel returned to the table, she, too, was unusually pale. The dish Matilda had broken must have been a favorite, Dawn thought.

The four of them ate their dessert in silence, the aunts all looking like they were listening for something. After a while, Dawn wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, or if she heard the sound of hoofbeats on the road outside.


            Lucy was having one of the worst birthdays ever. Her mom had left waffles and a gift for her, but it was depressing eating breakfast alone on her birthday. The gift turned out to be a new watch. It was nice enough, and Lucy had been under no illusion that she’d find a new car with a bow on the roof in the driveway, but a watch wasn’t exactly something she’d asked for or needed.

She’d thought she’d done a brilliant job on her history report, but the teacher had disagreed, insisting that a report on sumptuary laws in the Middle Ages didn’t prove that clothes were important to history, and therefore didn’t prove that there was a good reason to read Vogue in class. To top it off, she faced her driver’s test that afternoon, and she wasn’t sure her mother would let her get her license anytime soon, even if she passed. Her mom was still too paranoid about cars after the wreck that had killed Lucy’s dad.

The only bright spot of the day was Dawn’s necklace. It was a constant reminder that she had a sweet, generous best friend. Just having the necklace around her neck made her feel strong and powerful, almost invincible, and she carried that feeling with her as she went to the back parking lot, where the driver’s ed classes were held. Today would be the day she conquered parallel parking and passed the test, and then she’d go home to her birthday dinner and find out what surprise Jeremy had for her. Maybe he’d give her a locket or something heart-shaped to show they weren’t just friends.

Lucy was the first one to show up for driver’s ed, and the teacher hadn’t even arrived yet, so she went over to the nearby ag department animal enclosure to pet the sheep. They were spoiled rotten and rather friendly, but they probably thought she was going to feed them. “Sorry, guys, I don’t have any food,” she told them with a laugh as they competed to get close to her.

She glanced at her new birthday watch and realized that she still had ten minutes before the session started. That was almost enough time to run downtown and check the audition results so she could call Dawn as soon as she got home, but she didn’t want to take the chance of getting stuck to be the last one to drive. With any luck, as the first one there, she’d get dibs on the first turn at the wheel. Then she could take the test and get out of there instead of having to wait around and watch other people drive.

The sound of hoofbeats on the pavement made her look up. It sounded a lot like what she’d heard the night before, only louder and closer. A trio of men on horseback rode from the town to the back parking lot, toward the forest that started just beyond the football practice field. They were dressed all in black, with armor and helmets and swords at their sides, and they wore black cloaks that swirled around them. It looked like someone was taking the Camelot auditions way too seriously.

She thought the men would just ride by on their way to wherever it was they were going, but before they passed her, the leader came to an abrupt halt, raising his hand to signal the other two to stop. Then they all turned to face her. She almost felt like the leader had x-ray vision, from the way he studied her. She was sure he could see every detail of her appearance, and probably the state of her internal organs, as well.

“She is the one!” he shouted, and suddenly all three riders were coming right at her. Her instinct was to run, but she was trapped against the fence. The fence was too high for her to jump, so she could only run along it toward the metal shop. There were usually a few tough guys hanging out in there after school, and while they weren’t what she’d consider chivalrous, they also weren’t opposed to fighting. From what Lucy knew of their reputations, they were very likely armed.

In case they couldn’t resist a damsel in distress, she shouted, “Help! Someone! Please!” as she ran desperately toward the shop.

The shop door opened and a shaggy head stuck out. “Whoa, dude!” the guy said when he saw Lucy running toward him, three black knights at her heels.

“Help me! Do something!” Lucy shouted.

“Like what?”

“Like stop the freaky knights from getting me!”

He tilted his head to stare at the riders. “Whoa, so you mean they’re really there?”

It looked like she couldn’t count on the shop guys taking any initiative, so she made for the shop door, intending to throw herself inside and have the guys weld it shut, if she could make them understand that concept. Unfortunately, the horses were faster than she was, and the riders really knew what they were doing. They turned to ride alongside her, then the leader bent down, grabbed her arm, and pulled her up into the saddle with him. She tried to scream for the shop guys to call the police, but her captor got a hand over her mouth and pinned her against his chest with an arm that felt like a steel beam. The riders wheeled around and galloped into the forest.

They hadn’t been riding long when something loomed ahead of them. Lucy hadn’t explored this end of town much, but she was fairly certain that a giant, glowing gate wasn’t normally there. As they drew closer, Lucy could see that it wasn’t a physical gate. It was more like light in the shape of a gate, and what she saw through it didn’t at all match what was on either side of the opening. It was still a forest, but it was a different kind of forest, old growth hardwoods instead of the pines that surrounded the town. Wherever they were taking her, she had a strong feeling it wasn’t anywhere in Texas.

She held her breath as they neared the gate, and the tingle she felt when they passed through made her gasp. She craned her neck to see around her captor once they were out on the other side, but there was nothing behind them but forest.

She was stuck in another world, the prisoner of a trio of dark knights. This really was the worst birthday ever.

Continued in chapter three.