Here’s the next chapter of the ongoing serial. The formatting may look a little different because of what I had to do to the file in order to turn it into an e-book. The book will be coming very soon. I’m formatting it now. If you missed the beginning, you can find it here. The previous chapter is here.
The boat pulled up at a village just before dusk and the crew set up the stage. The area around the docks was crowded with people by the time the sun had set completely. Dawn felt the rush of adrenaline she got before every show, flooding her body with a wave of energy that would make her explode if she didn’t sing, dance, or find some other way to let it out. Performing wasn’t just fun for her. It was vital to her life.
She and the troupe gathered on stage behind the curtain, and at a signal from Huw, Jeremy and one of the other men pulled the rope to draw the curtain aside. The lanterns around the stage were so bright that Dawn couldn’t see much of the audience other than a general blob of people, but their applause was loud and enthusiastic. She put on her biggest smile as they began the initial group number.
After a few songs as a group, they rotated among soloists and smaller ensembles. Soon, it was time for Dawn and Will to perform. She’d never sung with another person with so little rehearsal—he’d heard the songs for the first time only hours ago—but that only made the performance more exciting for her. His voice had a maturity that fit better with her voice than anyone else she’d ever sung with. It wasn’t too hard to get into character and imagine herself singing to her beloved. She was just feeling truly romantic at a quiet moment in a song when a voice from the crowd shouted, “Dawn!”
She froze. The first thought to cross her mind was that whoever it was had totally broken the mood and ruined the song. But then she realized that she hadn’t been introduced by name. No one outside the crew should know who she was. At that moment, the curtain swished rapidly across the stage, and she hurriedly stepped back as it closed in front of her. She turned to see Jeremy still holding on to the curtain pull and staring at her, his face white.
She ran over to him. “Why did you do that?” she asked. “We were in the middle of a song.”
“Look,” he said, pointing to the shore. From his vantage point at the side of the stage, there was less light on the boat, and that made it easier to see the audience. There was a commotion on the dock, where someone seemed to be trying to shove through the crowd—someone wearing a big white collar.
Then the sky lit up. It was as though someone had pulled the moon a lot closer to the ground. A cool light flooded everything. Jeremy pulled Dawn back against the aft cabin, where there was still some shadow. “Dawn!” the voice cried again, and this time Dawn was sure it was Mariel. They’d found her, and they were coming after her.
A shadow loomed over them, and Dawn jumped before she realized it was Huw. “It sounds like someone is looking for you,” he said mildly, as though people interrupted his performances with magical light every day.
“Yes, and I don’t want to be found,” Dawn replied, surprised by how steady her voice sounded. “I escaped from those people, and I won’t go back.” She added, still not sure whether or not it was true, “They kidnapped me and took me away from my family. I finally figured out the truth and got away.”
He nodded and grinned. “Very well, then. I enjoy any opportunity to thwart those old crows.” He reached up and waved a hand, and the eerie light faded. He waved his hand again, and the dock became blurry, as though they were looking at it through thick glass. “Now, take her to my cabin.”
Jeremy and Dawn ran into Huw’s cabin, bolting the door behind them. “You don’t have to hold your breath,” Jeremy said after a while, a fond smile in his voice. He put his arm around her shoulders, and she let herself lean against him as she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “I don’t think they’ll hear you breathing.”
“With them? You never know.”
“Do you think it’s true, what you said to Huw about them?”
“I don’t know. They’re certainly coming after me.”
“Want me to go check?”
She didn’t want to be alone, and his arm around her was so very comforting, but she did want to know what was happening. “Won’t they recognize you?”
“Please! After all this time, they still call me ‘that boy.’” He took one of Huw’s hats and a cape from a hook on the wall. “And I’ll be in disguise. I’ll be right back.”
As she paced nervously while she waited for him, another thought occurred to her: What if the enchantresses had Lucy? The aunts had known something about Lucy’s disappearance, so maybe the other enchantresses’ men had brought the wrong girl back to this world. And that might mean that she, Dawn, was the one who was supposed to be with them.
There was a knock on the cabin door and Jeremy’s voice said, “It’s me.” She rushed to open the door. “They have a boat nearby, and the enchantresses are all over the docks,” he reported. “I couldn’t tell if the aunts were with them or on their own. Huw’s out there arguing with one of the aunts, trying to convince them it’s a case of mistaken identity and you’re his sister’s youngest daughter, just joining the troupe.”
“I thought of something while you were gone. What if it was the enchantresses who took Lucy?”
“Then she might be on their boat. Let’s find out.”
She reached out to stop him, but her fingers only brushed his sleeve as he left. Soon, there was a sharp rap on the door, and Dawn opened it to see Rhian. “Take off your dress,” Rhian said.
“Come on, we don’t have much time. Da’s out there trying to convince one of those enchantresses that she has you mistaken for somebody else. I get to play you.” She looked happy to be helping Dawn, which was a welcome change. Dawn hurried to pull off her dress.
Rhian stripped off her clothing and pulled Dawn’s dress on before leaving the cabin. Dawn reluctantly put on Rhian’s discarded dress so she wouldn’t be stuck sitting around in her underwear. The bodice was loose on her, and the skirt barely came to her ankles.
Waiting was incredibly frustrating. It seemed like everyone but her was involved in this scheme to protect her. Jeremy was out investigating, Huw was lying and doing magic, and Rhian was pretending to be the girl who’d performed. It didn’t help matters that her finger itched again, making her even more irritable. Dawn went to one of the portholes to try to look out. The glass was thick and wavy, which made it hard to see through, but the window did open. She nudged it open just enough to get a sliver of view, then ducked quickly when she noticed Mariel on the dock, talking with two other enchantresses. She cautiously peered out the window to watch what they did next. They met up with a larger group of enchantresses, and they all headed toward a boat. She ran to the aft porthole just in time to see Jeremy appear on the deck of a boat docked upstream. They were heading right toward him, and he’d be caught.
Sebastian couldn’t believe what he’d heard. “But–but I’m not dead,” he stammered. “I’m here, with the princess. Sergeant Fulk sent me to get her out of the dungeon. I’ve left the service of Lord Argus and returned home.”
“Lord Argus is a traitor,” the guard spat.
“I know. But being in his service allowed me to rescue the princess.”
“I take it this is the princess?”
The guard went over to the princess, eyeing her up and down. She stared at him defiantly and said, “What if we are who we say we are? How will it go for you if the duke finds out you kept us from him and tied us up? I know how it’ll go for you when I’m in my proper position. Speaking of which, what’s your name? I want to be sure to remember it.”
For a brief moment, it almost seemed like the guard would buckle under her threat, but then he stepped back with a laugh. “You, a princess?”
Her cheeks flushed bright red as she said, “I’ve got the royal insignia.”
“Hidden, of course, you moron. The witch and all her people are looking for me. Do you think I’d be wearing it openly? It’s called a disguise. Hello!”
Sebastian had to admit that she didn’t look much like a princess at the moment, in spite of her regal bearing and fierce words. She was filthy, her clothes were torn, and her hair was a rat’s nest. He imagined he looked no better after all their adventures. Even if he looked like his usual self, he doubted anyone would recognize him. When he’d left Grantley, he’d been a scrawny, freckle-faced child. He wasn’t even sure he’d recognize his own brother if he were brought to the duke’s tent. The one time he’d seen Geoffrey at court, he’d only known him by his ducal regalia.
The guard leaned closer to the princess and pawed at her clothing, searching for the insignia while taking full advantage of the opportunity to grope her. Sebastian strained against his captors. “Hands off her, you oaf!” he shouted, but the princess didn’t need his help. The man made the mistake of standing too close to her, and she suddenly raised her knee to strike him directly between the legs. He staggered away as one of the other men raised a hand to strike her. The thought of his princess being struck like some common scullery maid gave Sebastian the strength to break away from his captors and clout the knave with his bound hands.
The others came after him, and he fought wildly, striking out with his hands and feet. He heard the princess scream, “Sebastian!” and then his head exploded.
When he woke, he was in a tent, his back against the center pole, and his arms bound behind him, around the pole. His head throbbed and he could feel where every punch and kick had landed on his battered body. Worst of all, he was desperately thirsty.
“It’s about time,” a voice whispered nearby. “I was beginning to think you’d be out all night. Are you okay?” Only one person in all the land spoke like that, and his heart sang with joy that his princess was still with him.
“Okay?” he asked, not sure what that meant, but his throat was so dry that he barely made a sound.
“Oh, you poor thing, you must be really thirsty. Here.” A bowl was placed against his lips, and he drank greedily, emptying the bowl.
“What happened?” he asked once he felt able to speak.
“Well, you were arrested as a spy. Apparently they don’t think a girl could do anything like that—never mind the fact that public enemy number one is a woman—so they’re just making me work as a servant in the camp.” He bristled at the thought of her being enslaved, but she put a calming hand on his shoulder. “Easy there, tiger. You’re not gonna break yourself out that way, and I don’t need to you defend my honor. I’ve got things under control. Besides, this may be the safest place for me. If no one here thinks I’m the princess, no spy can rat me out, and I don’t think any of the witch’s people are going to get past the guards into the camp.”
Her hand left his shoulder, then a faint glow appeared in the tent as she lit her strange torch. “Now, let me take a look at you. I should probably check you for concussion, but there’s not much I could do about it here other than make you rest, and those ropes are doing a good job of that. You do have a nasty cut on your head, though.” She dabbed at his forehead with something cool and wet that stung when it touched the cut. He braced himself so he wouldn’t flinch at the pain.
While she worked, she talked. “I still have my knife, as they didn’t think to search me for weapons, and I bet I could get through these ropes, eventually. The problem is, if I get you loose, where would we go? You’d get re-captured right away, and they might just kill you on the spot instead of waiting for a trial and formal execution. We need to think of something else.”
“If only I had some way to prove who I am.”
She smoothed a bandage onto his head. “The photo I.D. is a marvelous invention. It would make things so much easier. But is there something only you and your brother would know?”
“Was there something you called your brother when you were little and couldn’t say his real name? Or a favorite toy? You said he played with you. Was there some game you played? Did something happen while you were still at home that he might remember?”
“Give me a moment to think.” He’d spent most of the past ten years trying not to think about home. It didn’t help matters that she began washing his face with a damp cloth. Her touch was rather distracting.
“At least now we know why you haven’t heard from your family in all that time,” she said. “They think you’re dead. I bet that’s what Lord Argus told them.”
“Surely they’d have expected him to send the body home for a proper burial if I’d died under his care.”
“Good point. Still, I bet there was something like that going on.”
“Or maybe they don’t think I’m literally dead, but they’ve disowned me, so I’d be dead to them.”
She swatted him lightly on the shoulder, narrowly missing a bruise. “Don’t talk like that! And, anyway, would the guards assume you couldn’t possibly be who you said you were because you’d been disowned? That doesn’t make sense. No, this is probably your former master’s doing. He may even have told your brother you were dead after you rescued me to keep you from being able to go home for safety.”
What she didn’t say—and what he hoped she wouldn’t say—was that this wouldn’t explain why they’d had no contact with him over the years, why they’d never answered any letter he’d written.
He deliberately shifted his thoughts back to his early childhood, then blurted, “Fireblade!”
“It was Geoffrey’s toy sword, something an armsman made for him. When he got a real sword of his own, he gave Fireblade to me, with much ceremony.” Even in his current dire circumstances, he smiled at the memory. “To me, it was as good as being knighted. I’m sure he’d remember that.”
“Okay, Fireblade. Got it. Now I’d better get out of here and back to work before anyone notices I’m missing.” She rested her palm against his cheek and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything. I won’t let them do anything to you, I promise.” Her face was very close to his, and for a moment he both hoped and feared she’d kiss him. He’d said his farewells and closed that part of his heart. If she kissed him, he’d have to go through the pain of losing her as anything but the princess he was sworn to serve all over again.
She kissed his forehead, the way she might recognize any loyal servant, and the fact that she seemed to sense his inner struggle made him love her all the more.
Then she was gone, moving toward the tent flap. Before she disappeared into the night, she whispered, “Don’t struggle against those ropes, or your wrists are going to look like raw hamburger, and I’m running out of disinfectant.”
He wasn’t sure what hamburger was, but he thought he understood what she meant. She had enough to manage without having to worry about tending his wounds, so he forced himself to relax, as much as he could do so while knowing he faced a death sentence for merely doing his duty.