It looks like there’s interest in a full book. I’ve ordered a cover and I’m working on proofreading the whole thing. I hope to have it available by the end of next week. I won’t bother with doing a pre-order phase. I’ll just have it go live as soon as it gets through the system. In the meantime, here’s chapter 12. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here.
“Wait a second,” Lucy sputtered at Sebastian. “You’re not sure your home is safe?”
“I haven’t been there since I was a child. I was fostered out for training when I was seven, soon after my father died, and I haven’t seen or heard from my family since then. I’ve heard of my brother, especially lately. He was on the royal council under the king and queen. I even saw him once from a distance at court, but I haven’t spoken to him. His service to your parents makes me think you’ll be safe with him, but I don’t know how welcome I will be.” His last words had a snap of finality to them that made Lucy reluctant to ask further questions, even though she was dying of curiosity. Obviously, this was a sore point with him.
“Okay, we’ll go to your home,” she said softly. She squeezed his hand and added, “And if your brother is mean to you, he’ll have to answer to me.”
That earned her a half-hearted smile. “You are very good to me, your highness.”
“Hello! You’re the one saving my life left and right. You know, I think we make a pretty good team. We’re practically a TV show: He’s a brave squire, she’s a spunky princess. Together they fight crime!” He gave her a big “huh?” look, and she supposed he had no idea what she was talking about. “Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “There are just too many references there to explain. We’d be here all day, and we need to get a move on.”
She suppressed a whimper at the thought of walking again, but didn’t feel so bad when Sebastian groaned as he stood and shouldered his pack. After they emerged from their shelter, he went over to a thick tree trunk on the top of a nearby hill. “We need to head west, which would be, hmmm,” he studied the trunk, then turned to his left and pointed, “that way.”
As they walked in that direction, Lucy couldn’t resist throwing in a bit of knowledge she’d picked up from Jeremy’s Boy Scout handbooks. “Yeah, because the moss grows on the north side.”
He snapped his head around to look at her, a mixture of surprise and awe on his face. “You know that?”
“I’ve picked up a few things here and there. Remember, I didn’t grow up as a princess.”
“You are full of surprises,” he said, a goofy grin threatening to take over his face. He fought it back with what looked like a force of will. “You are a skilled healer, you can defend yourself with strange weapons, and you know something of woodcraft. What other skills have you learned during your exile?”
“Oh, I can do all sorts of useful and non-useful things.” She’d been fending for herself and even sometimes looking after her mom for most of her life, ever since her dad died. “I can cook—nothing gourmet, but I haven’t poisoned anyone yet. I make a killer ice cream sundae. I can sew. I even make most of my own clothes. I’m learning about historical and theatrical costuming, though I’m not sure how useful that is. I play the clarinet in the marching band. That’s also not very useful. Oh, and I’ve learned to fix a few things around the house.”
“Perhaps all princesses should grow up away from the castle. You’re better equipped to be queen than most rulers are.”
“I’m really not that unusual where I come from. Well, not everyone designs and makes their own clothes, and the historical and theatrical costuming obsession isn’t typical, but a lot of people where I grew up can do the kinds of things I do—or more. My friend Jeremy knows all sorts of wilderness survival stuff, and he can even replace buttons on his shirts, too.”
“Then we should make a policy of sending our future rulers to your world,” he said.
“I guess that means I’d have to send my kids away, then.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’m sorry, your highness.” His voice was somber, with a contrite tone.
She looked up to tell him it was okay, since they were only joking, and found herself looking into his eyes. Again, she had that feeling of her breath catching in her throat. They both looked away at the same time. She felt she should say something, but what?
She liked him, she realized. Liked liked him. Before, she’d certainly known he was good-looking, brave, and had an amazing body, but she hadn’t considered him as a potential romance candidate. He was like a TV star, someone she could admire from afar without ever thinking that she might actually go out with him. But now that she was getting to know him—and adversity was great for figuring out the kind of person someone was—she thought he was someone she’d like to know better, no matter how well she already knew him. This was the way she felt about Jeremy, that no matter how much time she spent with him, no matter how close they got, it wasn’t enough.
The reminder of Jeremy jolted her. He’d been there her whole life. She’d never imagined being with anyone but him. But he’d never looked at her the way Sebastian did. She glanced up at Sebastian and found him looking at her again, then they both hurried to look away. No, she wasn’t imagining it. He looked at her like he’d started noticing her as a girl, not just as a princess he was supposed to protect.
But what should she do about it? It wasn’t like they had much of a future together, since she was from a different world she wanted to go back to. He might look at her in a way that sent chills down her spine, but he hadn’t made any more moves than Jeremy had.
Her natural response to any emotional turmoil was to jabber, so she made a stab at starting a conversation. “Is fostering like sending you off to school?” The way he’d described it, it didn’t sound like a foster home in Lucy’s world. Then again, if his family didn’t have any contact with him, maybe he’d been taken out of a bad home and had just been too young to realize it.
“It is a common practice among the nobility,” he said. “A father or an older brother isn’t considered the best person to train a boy to be a knight. The best training requires an impartial teacher who is able to see a boy’s faults clearly and correct them. I don’t think my brother had the time to teach me, as he inherited the title and the lands and had an estate to run. He wouldn’t have been able to bring up a younger brother and train me properly. Lord Argus had a reputation for the strictest and best training. The teaching is much like a school, with book instruction, but also training in running a noble house, combat, horsemanship, and everything else that goes into being a knight.”
“But I guess you usually don’t lose all contact with your family while you’re in training, huh?” Lucy asked. Then something he said caught up with her. “Wait, you said a title?”
“Yes, my brother is Duke of Grantley.”
“So that would make you Lord Sebastian.”
“I suppose it does. But no one ever uses my title. Lord Argus forbade it. All the squires were supposed to be equal.”
“But you’re not working for Lord Argus anymore, my lord.” She gave him a mock curtsy, and he grinned in response.
She was about to ask him more about his family, but he changed the subject. “I wonder if Lord Argus has been working with the witch all along. I can’t believe I’ve been in the service of a traitor.”
“That doesn’t reflect on you, since you didn’t know.”
“Did Fulk know, though? I can’t imagine he would willingly work for a traitor.”
“Maybe he was a double agent, spying for the good guys while pretending to be the loyal sergeant.”
He shot her a suspicious look. “You know a great deal about subterfuge and espionage, your highness.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I guess. I’ve seen a lot of spy movies because my friend Jeremy wants to be James Bond when he grows up.” His expression went from suspicious to confused. “I’m not even going to try to explain movies. You do have plays, though, right? Where people act out stories?”
“Yes, we do have those. I even got to see one once.”
Just one, once? Between that, his out-of-touch family, and all those scars, she got the feeling he’d lived the kind of life that people wrote books about and then went on talk shows to discuss their inspiring triumphs over tragedy. “Well, these are a kind of play, and spy stories are very popular for these plays. I’m sure in the real world spying is mostly boring stuff, but in fiction it’s very glamorous and exciting, with secret agents who travel all over the world and use high-tech devices to stop the bad guys. And, yeah, there’s always one of the bad guys who turns out to be working for the good guys, and usually a good guy who turns out to be working for the bad guys.”
“You go to these plays with your friend?”
If she wasn’t mistaken, he was showing distinct signs of jealousy. Did he have anything to worry about? She wasn’t sure, but she did know that instead of enjoying the idea of boys competing for her, she didn’t want him to think she was involved with someone else. “Jeremy’s my neighbor. We grew up together. He’s practically a brother to me.” How sadly true that was.
There was a definite decrease of tension in his face and shoulders. “It is good that you had someone to act as brother for you. I often wondered what it might have been like to grow up with a brother. I remember Geoffrey playing with me when I was very young.”
Ah, another tantalizing tidbit. “How much older is he?”
“I’m not sure. More than ten years, as he’d reached his majority when he inherited the title.”
“Then that’s a pretty good brother if he still took the time to play with you.”
He changed the subject again. “If Fulk isn’t the traitor, then I wonder who did alert the witch to our rendezvous location. Surely not that many people knew where we planned to take you.”
“It could have been anyone. Heck, since a lot of the animals around here talk, it could even have been an innocent-looking little songbird sitting in the window when people were making plans. We could be surrounded by spies here in the forest.”
They both came to a halt and turned to look at each other as the sickening realization hit. Lucy had said it as a joke, but it was a real possibility. Just then, there was a rustle in the underbrush nearby. Sebastian took Lucy’s hand, and together they ran. Lucy looked back over her shoulder and saw a puzzled-looking rabbit watching them. She couldn’t help but giggle, and when Sebastian turned around, he laughed, too.
“We’re now officially paranoid,” she said as she leaned against him, still shaking with laughter.
“I believe that is quite understandable in our situation,” he replied with a grin.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone the story of Sir Sebastian and the fluffy little bunny.”
“For all we know, the fluffy little bunny was an enemy spy who would have reported our location.”
“You know, I’m not sure I want to live in a world where fluffy little bunnies can be evil.” But there was no way to tell which forest creatures were on which side. They really could be surrounded by enemy spies.
“Humans would have to listen to animals for animals to be of much use as spies,” Leila muttered.
That brought up a whole new set of questions for Lucy, who’d wondered how talking animals fit into society, but she had a feeling that would be even touchier than asking Sebastian about his family. “We listen to you, Leila,” she said, resisting the urge to scratch the dog behind the ears. “Anyone who doesn’t is just stupid.”
She realized after they resumed walking that Sebastian hadn’t let go of her hand. Her heart pounded as she moved her hand in his so that their fingers laced. It was probably the closest she’d ever come to a bold, flirtatious move, and she wasn’t sure how he’d react. When he settled his hand into the new grasp and squeezed, she went momentarily dizzy.
It occurred to her as they walked that as the son and brother of a duke, he should be eligible husband material for a princess. But she wasn’t a princess, she reminded herself. She was a common girl from another world who couldn’t possibly snag the son of a duke. There was probably some daughter of a duke or earl who’d been set aside for him.
And it was all pointless, since she hoped to go return home. Back there, she had Jeremy, who had always been her best friend and who was bound to become something more, eventually. She tried to conjure up a picture of Jeremy in her head every time she looked over to see Sebastian. Especially when she saw Sebastian looking at her.
Larkin, who’d been scouting ahead, ran back to them, panting. “We are nearing the river,” he said.
“That means we’re getting closer,” Sebastian replied, then turned to Lucy. “Your highness, the way will become rougher and more difficult from here. My family’s estate is in the hills.” Returning his attention to Larkin, he asked, “Are we near enough to a crossing—one that will be safe?”
“There is a bridge ahead. While it does not appear that the witch’s men are watching the bridges here, I believe it may be a troll bridge.”
“Most of them are,” Sebastian said with a worried frown. “And it would be far too dangerous to try to ford the river. We’ll have to risk it.”
Lucy was about to ask just how expensive the toll could be when it occurred to her that Larkin had said troll bridge, not toll bridge. “Wait a second, you mean a troll under the bridge, like in the fairy tales?” Of course, neither of them knew what she meant because they weren’t fairy tales to them. They were current events. “Never mind. Just something I read.”
“I will look for the troll,” Larkin said, then disappeared into the trees.
The way had become rougher and rockier. Lucy felt like she was climbing instead of walking flat, and there were now more pine and fir trees than the hardwoods of the lower forest. Soon she could hear the distant rumble of water and realized what Sebastian meant about the river being too dangerous to wade across. It sounded like there was at least one waterfall.
Larkin came trotting back. “Troll,” he said.
Sebastian rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. “How big?” he asked.
Lucy could tell that Sebastian was weighing his options, from the way he frowned and kept glancing at her. Finally, she asked, “Okay, so what’s the deal here?”
“The trolls will sometimes allow people to pass with proper payment of a toll, but I know I don’t have the coin for that, and I have nothing of value that it would be safe to give up. Without payment, they take their toll in flesh.”
“You mean they eat people?”
“They’ll eat anything. I might be able to fight it if it came after me, but if it tried to get you, there wouldn’t be much I could do to stop it. I could hit it with my sword for hours, and it wouldn’t bother turning around until it finished with you.”
This really did sound like “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and that gave Lucy an idea. “Are these trolls all that bright?”
“They’re incredibly stupid,” Larkin said.
“Then we could try to trick it. There’s a tale in my world about tricking a troll into always thinking something bigger and more delicious is coming along. That way the smaller and weaker ones get by safely, and only the last fights the troll and wins.”
“It could work,” Leila said, tilting her head to one side. “They are very stupid.”
“Very well, then. We will try the princess’s plan,” Sebastian said with a nod.
They got closer to the river and hid behind some trees. The river wasn’t visible from there, mostly because it ran through a deep gorge. Lucy could hear the rumble of rushing water, but all she could see was a sheer cliff on the other side. While wading across was likely to be impossible, the bridge didn’t look much safer, even without a troll. It was a wooden suspension bridge, just a few boards strung together by fraying rope. There was only the slightest breath of a breeze, but the bridge still swayed in it. Lucy wasn’t fond of bridges at the best of times. She squeezed her eyes shut on the highway bridge across the Sabine River. This looked like the kind of thing she had nightmares about. She had to close her eyes or go for snacks during movie scenes about crossing bridges like this one.
Now she had to cross it herself, after getting past a troll? Not likely. She scanned the trees on the opposite bank, looking for one tall and strong enough that they might be able to toss a rope to so they could swing across, like in that scene in Star Wars. That had to be safer than the bridge, with or without a troll.
Not that there’d been any sign of a troll. There was just a large, mossy rock sitting next to the bridge.
“Your highness, what is your plan?” Sebastian asked.
Clutching her skirt so her hands wouldn’t shake, she said, “Well, first the smallest has to go. I guess that would be the dogs. When the troll tries to stop you, you tell it that you’re not worth eating, but someone larger is coming along soon. Then I’ll go and do the same. Then Sebastian, you come along and fight it. I’d guess knocking it off the bridge would be the best bet, but I’ll leave the fighting strategy up to you. But remember, I’ve never seen a troll before, so I have no idea if this will really work.”
“It does sound like something a troll might fall for,” Larkin growled.
“Then let’s do it,” Sebastian said.
The dogs approached the bridge, and as soon as they’d taken about three stops onto the boards, the rock unfolded into a roughly human-shaped creature a head taller than Sebastian and twice as broad. “You must pay my toll,” it boomed.
Leila bowed in a submissive posture and said, “We are but animals and have no money.”
“Then your toll will be your flesh.”
“We are hardly worth the effort, sir troll. But coming behind us is a person with far sweeter flesh.”
“A human?” Lucy was glad she couldn’t see the troll’s face from her hiding place because it sounded like the troll had just licked its lips. Ick.
“Yes, a human, coming very soon. You might miss her if you’re too busy with us.”
The troll turned back to the bridgehead, and the dogs scampered safely to the other side. That meant it was Lucy’s turn. Taking a deep, gulping breath, she eased her way out of the hiding place and approached the bridge. She tried skipping a few steps, like she was a carefree girl out for a stroll, but her legs were shaking so badly she nearly tripped and fell, so she gave that up and just walked.
“You must pay my toll to cross,” the troll boomed at her.
Suddenly, Lucy couldn’t help thinking that risking her life on the basis of something that happened in a fairy tale may not have been the best idea she ever had.
Continued in chapter 13.