Dawn could hardly wait to rehearse with the troupe. They were far better than the group that had kidnapped her, and it didn’t take her long to learn their songs. Spink joined in, as well. The only downside was Rhian, who seemed determined not to like her. Her glare from across the boat grew even fiercer when Huw pulled Dawn aside after the rehearsal to suggest that she prepare a few solo numbers.
When life on the boat turned to chores, Dawn got laundry duty, and Rhian’s smirk as she dumped a pile of clothes and linens at Dawn’s feet told her this wasn’t a plum assignment. The aunts had never bought an automatic washer and dryer, so Dawn knew how to do laundry by hand. She was sorting through the pile of clothes to put together the next load when a voice roused her from her thoughts. It was a rich baritone that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Broadway stage. She looked up to see a young man pouring a bucket of river water into the laundry tub. He even looked the part of a leading man, with dark hair and broad shoulders. Some of the boys in the school choir were good, but she’d never sung with anyone like this. “You have a really nice voice,” she said.
“You’re one to talk, Miss Dawn,” he replied with a grin. “And it’s flattering that one who sings like you do might think so.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Will.”
“Hello, Will. I know some songs from my home that I think you could sing very well—some duets—if you’d like me to teach you, and if you’d like to sing with me. Are you interested?”
The next time Will brought a bucket to the laundry tub, she started teaching him by singing a song for him. She was sure this would be easier if she had a mobile phone so she could just play the songs for him. But she didn’t, not even back home. She didn’t have any of the electronics other kids used to listen to music. Her entire music collection consisted of the box of records and the old turntable that had been in the house when she and the aunts moved in. She’d always felt it was a stroke of fate or luck that the previous residents had apparently been musical theater fans. Would she have discovered her talents and her life’s ambition if they’d had a fondness for instrumental jazz, instead?
Will proved to be a quick study, and by the time Dawn was through with the laundry, she’d already taught him the main verses of four songs. They spent the time after chores were done practicing together. “What’s this, then?” Rhian asked as she passed them on the deck. “I thought you sang with the bird.”
“Excellent work, young Will,” Huw remarked from his seat nearby. That shut Rhian up immediately, and she sauntered away with one last glare tossed over her shoulder.
“Do you think it will help us be invited to perform at the coronation?” Dawn asked Huw.
“Could be, could be. What makes you so eager to sing at the coronation?”
Dawn felt her face growing warmer. She hated to lie, but she was afraid to tell Huw the truth about looking for Lucy and being directed by Spink to go to the castle. “Well, it’s a coronation. It’s a historic occasion,” she said.
“Oh, that it is,” he muttered.
“You don’t sound very happy about it.”
He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. “It’s not as though we have much choice in the matter. It’s a command performance by her wicked ladyship.” He grinned. “But the coin should be good, as everyone’s too scared to stay away from her big moment.” He rubbed his first two fingers against his thumb. “The audiences should be enormous—and looking to have their hearts lifted.”
“Who’s her wicked ladyship?” Dawn asked.
“What? You don’t know?”
“We’re not from around here.”
“Her ladyship is the witch Melantha,” Huw said. “She’s been scheming after that throne for years, and now she’s finally got it, what with the king and queen being out of the way and now the princess’s curse deadline nearing. She’s planning to crown herself, and of course it must be a coronation grander than the king himself had.”
“Oh,” Dawn breathed as she tried to figure out where this fit into the rest of the story. Had the witch been the one to kidnap Lucy? And were her aunts for or against the witch? Rhian had said something about the enchantresses not opposing the witch. Dawn couldn’t hold back a shudder as she realized that running from her aunts must have been the right instinct.
All this time, Spink had been sitting on a nearby railing, singing to himself and occasionally picking up words from their conversation. Suddenly, he burst out, “Melantha! I know that name! I’ve heard it before!”
“Yes, of course you have, little friend,” Huw said gently. “She rules the kingdom, for now. People talk of her all the time.”
“Is she at the castle?”
“She is now.”
“In a tall, tall tower?”
“Honestly, I have no idea.”
“Melantha in the tall, tall tower of the castle,” the bird sang cheerfully, as though it was an old, familiar song he had just remembered from childhood.
“I don’t suggest you add that song to your act,” Huw remarked with a twitch of his mustache. “I don’t think it would be very popular.”
“I–I don’t have any money,” Lucy squeaked to the troll looming over her.
“Then you will pay the toll with your flesh,” the troll replied. A green, damp, mossy-looking thing came out of its mouth and ran across its lips, and Lucy sincerely hoped it meant eating and not other ways it might mean “flesh.”
“I wouldn’t make much of a meal,” she replied, trying to bring her voice down an octave. “I wouldn’t even make a good appetizer. But there’s a really big guy coming not far behind me. You wouldn’t want to ruin your appetite with me. And, as a bonus, he looks like he might put up a fight, which could be good for some fun.”
“How big?” the troll asked, its eyes going glazed as its pitiful little brain tried to process the thought.
“Lots bigger than me. But he’ll be here any second now, so if you don’t let me go, he might be able to sneak by while you’re distracted with me.”
On cue, Sebastian stepped out of his hiding place and approached the bridge. The troll looked from Lucy to Sebastian, then took a step forward. That left just enough room for Lucy to slip past while the troll’s attention was focused on Sebastian. She paused to give Sebastian a quick thumbs up from behind the troll’s back before she headed across the bridge.
The bridge itself was almost scarier than the troll. It swayed with every step she took, and she could see water rushing over the rocks below from between the bridge’s boards. The advice not to look down did no good here. If she didn’t look down, she might miss a board and step right into a gap.
Behind her, she heard the troll boom, “I don’t take tolls.”
“I wasn’t planning to pay one,” Sebastian replied, sounding perfectly calm. The bridge shook violently, and Lucy had to get both hands around the rope handrail to keep from being tossed off. While she held on to the wildly swaying bridge, she turned to see what had happened. Sebastian was moving steadily toward the bridge, his sword held in front of him, and the troll had backed onto the bridge.
The troll stood, blocking the way, and Sebastian hit it in the middle with the hilt of his sword, then hit it on the head when it doubled over in response. The troll reached out and knocked Sebastian’s feet from under him. Lucy fought not to scream out loud when Sebastian came dangerously close to the edge of the gorge. She knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to remind the troll of her presence. Although it was difficult to tear her attention away from the fight, she forced herself to take advantage of the troll’s distraction and resume making her way across the bridge.
The bridge kept swaying and bucking, and she knew that meant the fight was still going on and had moved onto the bridge itself. “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” she muttered with each step she took, and she was definitely praying, not swearing. If she just made it across this bridge and if Sebastian made it past the troll, she promised not to whine about going to Sunday school. That was, if she ever got home so she could go to Sunday school.
At a particularly wild shake of the bridge, she turned around while clinging desperately to the rope and saw that Sebastian had made it around the troll and was on the bridge, between the troll and Lucy. The troll was still coming after him, but it was no longer in Sebastian’s way. Sebastian kicked at the troll, sending it reeling backward, which made the bridge shake again. It didn’t help matters when Sebastian started running across while the troll recovered. “Your highness, run! Hurry!” he called while he ran, the troll coming after him with a ferocious snarl.
Lucy had been picking her way carefully across, but then she noticed that Sebastian was putting away his sword and getting out his knife, and she suspected she knew what he had planned. Her ongoing prayer turned into a whimper as she forced herself to run. She wanted to kiss the ground when she reached the other side, but Sebastian shouted, “Start cutting!”
She got out her Swiss Army knife and began sawing away at one of the ropes, attacking a frayed spot. The dogs noticed what she was doing and gnawed on another rope. Sebastian was still a few feet away when she cut all the way through one rope, and he leapt for safety before immediately turning to help cut the other ropes. The ease with which they cut through the bridge’s supporting ropes made Lucy even more queasy about having just crossed that bridge.
The troll was almost upon them when the last rope broke, sending the bridge and the troll crashing down to bounce off the gorge wall into the river. Once the troll hit the river, it was hard to spot it among all the mossy rocks. Lucy wondered if any of those rocks were ex-trolls who’d suffered a similar fate. It was kind of a shame about the bridge, since she was sure losing it would be a major inconvenience to the people in the area, but if it went down that easily, it was probably for the best. Now maybe they could get a decent bridge without a troll.
“It worked,” she said, gasping for air as she leaned against Sebastian, still too shaky to be elated. “It really worked.” They’d just acted out a fairy tale. That could mean her story would have a happy ending, too. Or would it, given that she didn’t actually belong in that story?
“Excellent plan, your highness,” Sebastian said with a grin and a clap on her back before he settled his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. She couldn’t help but smile when she remembered that only the day before she’d had to order him to put his arm around her.
They stayed like that for a long time, catching their breath. Lucy would have been happy to stay like that for hours. With the troll gone and the bridge destroyed, she felt like they were safe, at least for a while, and she was really enjoying being that close to Sebastian. But they had a destination, and by the position of the sun she knew it was already well past noon. “We’d better get going,” she said. “Beating a troll doesn’t mean we get to take the rest of the day off.”
He chuckled, and leaning against him the way she was, she could feel his laughter rumbling in his chest. “Are you always this resilient?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been tested before. Not like this.”
“When I was sent to rescue the princess, I expected a great lady or a delicate beauty who would need careful handling.”
“And you got me, instead.”
“Yes, I was very fortunate.” A tickling feeling on her head told her he was playing with her hair. Oh, boy.
“You’re the princess this kingdom needs,” he continued, still twining her curls around his fingers. “You’re brave and resourceful, kind and good. People will rally around you. They’ll fight for you. And we will win back the kingdom.”
This would have been a good time to let him know she wasn’t really the princess. She didn’t think he’d dump her right there in the middle of nowhere. It even sounded like he liked her as herself and not just because he thought she was a princess.
On the other hand, how would he feel if he learned he’d given up his position, shed blood, and fought a troll for plain old Lucy Jordan?
Reluctantly, she pulled away from him and stood up before he had a chance to get to his feet and help her up. She pulled the straps of her backpack over her shoulders and said, “Well, which way?”
He shouldered his own pack and said, “Come on, it isn’t far now. Just over that next hill.” He pointed ahead, and the next hill didn’t quite fit her definition of “not far,” but she didn’t want him changing his mind about her being resilient, so she started walking.
Although she was exhausted and starving, her blisters had spawned blisters, her backpack seemed to gain five pounds every few minutes, and every single muscle in her body screamed in agony with every step, it was one of the best afternoons Lucy had ever spent. They must have fallen off the witch’s radar, since no one was actively chasing them, and that meant they could relax and just walk. Well, not relax entirely, as she was well aware that Sebastian and the dogs were keeping their eyes open, but at least they didn’t have to run.
And that meant they could talk. It was like spending an afternoon with Jeremy, except Sebastian occasionally took her hand or put his hand on her back, and he kept giving her those looks that made it clear that he was thinking about kissing her. He had finally dropped his guard with her, let himself forget about her being a princess. They were just two kids hanging out, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that she was trapped in a strange world where a wicked witch wanted her dead, it would have been fun.
Before she realized it, they’d reached the top of that hill Sebastian had pointed to. “We’re almost there,” he said, his voice rough enough that she wondered if she had some vitamin C cough drops in her backpack. With all the running around and sleeping outdoors and bad food, she wouldn’t be surprised if he was getting sick. She couldn’t have her protector slowed down by a cold. “My home is in this valley.”
“Thank God,” she said, meaning it intensely.
“We will make sure it is safe,” Larkin said, and he and Leila trotted off.
Once they were gone, Sebastian said, “I imagine that things will change once you’re in a place more worthy of your status. I don’t know what will happen then. You may no longer need me to guard you.”
“I’m sure I’ll still need a guard. That witch probably hasn’t given up.”
“But I may no longer be that guard. There are men far more experienced than I am who would be given that duty.”
Only then did she realize that he was trying to say good-bye, now while they were still alone together and before the fuss that was likely to come with showing up at his brother’s place. She gave him a hopeful smile. “Don’t I as a princess have some say about who my bodyguard is?”
He looked strangely sad as he said, “While a princess has a great deal of power, there is also a great deal of her life that is beyond her control. In a sense, you belong to your kingdom and the needs of the kingdom must come before personal desires.”
He laughed, losing the sad look for a moment, but only a moment. Then he was back to looking like he’d lost his best friend. “I believe, from what I’ve learned of you, that you will carry your title and serve your kingdom well.” He lowered his eyes, breaking eye contact, and whispered, “Before you have to live as a princess, I wanted to say. . .” Words didn’t come to him, so instead he leaned over and kissed her.
She went still with shock at first. Then she kissed him back, putting her arms around his neck and standing on her tiptoes so he didn’t have to bend over so much. Once she did that, he put his arms around her and pulled her against him. She wasn’t sure how long they made out, but eventually they stopped kissing and just held each other in a tight hug.
Finally, he loosened his hold and stepped away from her. He knelt in front of her, took her hand, brought it to his lips, and whispered, “My princess.” By this time, she was practically sobbing, and his eyes were suspiciously bright. She wanted to grab him and hug him again, but she got the feeling that his courtly gesture had been his way of reminding himself who she was (well, who he thought she was) and what his duty was. They were back in princess-and-protector mode, and she knew she’d only make things worse for him—and probably herself, too—if she tried to cross that line again. He got back to his feet just as the dogs returned.
“The armies have gathered,” Larkin reported. “The Grantley banner is at the head, so they are a friendly army. It should be safe.”
“The Loyalists must mean to challenge the witch before she can crown herself,” Sebastian said.
“It looks like you brought me to the right place,” Lucy said, forcing her voice to sound bright so she wouldn’t start crying again as soon as she spoke. “Now they’ll have a princess to offer as an alternative.” It took her a second to remember that she was only a pretend princess. She’d really let the role go to her head. Or maybe her brain was addled by all those kisses.
“We will leave you now, Highness, Lord,” Larkin said, bowing his head. “Our mission is complete.”
“Oh, can’t you come with us?” Lucy said, trying not to whine.
“We are not comfortable in large gatherings of men,” Leila said. “If there is a battle, we may join, but we do not go into human camps.”
Lucy wondered if it would be poor etiquette with talking animals to pet them. She settled for returning their bows and thanking them for their help, all while trying not to cry.
When they’d gone, Sebastian held his arm out to her and said, “Your highness?” She took his arm and let him escort her down the hill. He was so reserved with her that if her lips weren’t still tingling, she’d have wondered if she’d imagined the way he’d kissed her.
The sun was setting, and the light of campfires and torches ahead made the camp look warm and welcoming. Lucy was already looking forward to sitting in something that resembled a chair and sleeping on something that resembled a bed, maybe after eating a meal that wasn’t bread and cheese.
Before they reached the camp, though, a voice called out, “Halt!”
Several guards appeared, seemingly out of thin air, and surrounded them. “What is your business in this camp?” their leader asked.
“I need to see the Duke of Grantley,” Sebastian said.
“And who might you be?”
“I’m his brother, Sebastian.”
“Seize them!” the guard called out. As guards grabbed them, disarmed Sebastian, and bound their wrists with rough ropes, the lead guard came very close to Sebastian, practically spitting in his face, as he sneered, “Nice try, spy. But Lord Sebastian is dead.”
Continued in Chapter Fourteen.