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.
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.
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.
“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?”
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.