But now, here's the next chapter you've been patiently waiting OVER A MONTH for. :)
23: Unpredictable Circumstances
“Are you sure we can trust him?” William asked, pulling me aside for a moment.
I shrugged. “For now, yes. He holds no love for the Duke, and he had plenty of opportunities to hurt me, but didn’t.” I leaned against the wall, my stomach full, and the excitement of the previous day beginning to catch up to me. I hadn’t slept at all last night and just now I was starting to feel the exhaustion. Briefly I wondered what had taken it so long.
“Safeguard had nothing to do with it?” William cocked a knowing eyebrow at me.
I laughed softly. “His presence may have helped my cause a little.”
My teacher glanced sideways at me, as if studying my face in the flickering light. “I wish somehow that we hadn’t separated. So many things could have happened while you were alone…” he trailed off, his sentence fading away like the smoke of the candles that lit the room we were standing in.
We had left Malcolm and Henry discussing further plans in hushed tones over a dimly lit table in the same inn I had so recently learned to sew a wound shut. The Restless Raven was chosen because soldiers knew that those who frequented it had no love for their master, the Duke of Devonshire, and therefore they shrank from ever visiting the ghastly place. Not that I could blame them. After all, the inn was hardly a pleasant place. Secretive and a good place to hide; yes, but clean and orderly; no.
Watching Malcolm talk with such animation brought a smile to my lips. I had been gone from his presence for so long I almost forgot how he threw himself so energetically into strategizing. He was brilliant when it came to planning, and this rescue of his betrothed was no different. A certain light shone in his eyes that I hadn’t seen there since the last time we had played a game of chess.
“I’ll pay you a half-crown for your thoughts,” William’s voice broke through my reminiscing, and I glanced his direction to find his eyes still studying me. My face must have gone a shade darker pink, because I could see William begin to grin to himself. “Or, perhaps I shouldn’t ask,” he added teasingly.
I rolled my eyes helplessly. Really, the man was incorrigible. “It is hardly is worth a whole half-crown,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders.
“Now I’m really curious,” my teacher’s smile reached to his eyes and I saw them twinkling.
I sighed deeply. “If you must know, I was thinking how glad I was to have my brother with me again. I missed him dreadfully.”
“Oh, is that all?” William asked.
With a frown, I looked over at him. He seemed almost crestfallen, but at the same time relieved. I hid a puzzled smile with difficulty. “I told you it wasn’t worth a half-crown.”
Suddenly, Malcolm appeared in front of me with a half-smile on his face. “Are you done whispering?” he asked.
I hadn’t realized. “We were whispering?”
His eyebrows rose slightly. “You were.”
“I beg your pardon. It won’t happen again, and yes, of course we’re done.”
Malcolm shot William a look I couldn’t quite decipher, and then motioned towards Henry. “We decided the first step in our rescue is to find out where exactly the Duke is keeping his valuable prisoner.”
William mirrored my nod of agreement. It was the most sensible plan of action. But how?
I must have asked the question aloud because he continued, “As he said before, Henry has some friends who frequent the castle, sometimes even the least used rooms which the Duke inhabits.”
Henry walked up behind him, subconsciously holding his injured arm in a protective manner. “They are less likely to attract attention when they inquire about the princess,” he explained. “Malcolm pointed out that some of them may even be the very ones who bring food or water to her.”
“After we successfully find where the princess is without the Duke or Alfred finding us, what will we do next?” William posed this question to Henry, but Malcolm was the one to answer.
“We will endeavor to find a way to smuggle her from the Duke’s grasp,” he said simply. “I agree with Henry…one must find an enemy’s weakness if one wishes to triumph over them. That will be our next step: finding a weakness.”
“And then,” I said finally, “you will swoop in on a white horse in shining armor and carry your future bride off into the sunset.”
William and Henry chuckled at this, and I could hardly keep a grin off my own face. Malcolm blushed and ducked his head before quickly gaining control over himself again.
“Of course, it won’t be quite that easy.” He sighed. “I only wish it was.”
I patted him on the shoulder gently. “God will be with us. He will keep us, as well as Christine, safe.”
Henry started towards the door. “I’m going to go speak with my friend, one of the guards in the castle. If anyone knows anything about the princess’s whereabouts, it’ll be him.”
Malcolm nodded his approval. “I’ll come with you.” My brother glanced my direction questioningly. “Would you like to join us?”
I shook my head wearily. “I’m sure it’ll be fascinating,” I replied, “but right now, I’m utterly exhausted and need to get some more sleep.”
William moved over to where my brother now stood, next to the door. “I’ll join you, Malcolm,” he offered.
The door shut behind them, and at last, for the first time in what seemed like years, I was able to have a whole night’s sleep.
* * * * *
A day passed, and then another, before we learned where Princess Christine was kept in the Duke’s large castle. Meanwhile, I caught up on much needed sleep and much needed nourishment. The Restless Raven did serve good food, though the dishes’ cleanliness was not such as it could have been.
At last Henry brought us the news we had been waiting for: the princess was a prisoner in one of the towers within the castle walls. The Duke didn’t appear to go near her, except he questioned her once or twice to learn all she knew about her father’s plans…which thankfully for us wasn’t much. It appeared that he had no ulterior motives except to keep her as a bargaining tool with the king. We hoped this would continue to be the case until we had a chance to pull her away. Who knew what the Duke would do to her if he grew tired of waiting for the king to demand a release of his daughter.
Our friend Lord Alfred, however, was an entirely different matter. According to Henry’s friend, he had gotten a few bruises from the hand of the princess, as well as a few more from her well-aimed kicks, for the trouble he took to whisk her away from her home. Of course, this didn’t put Christine in good standing with him.
Worried lines creased Malcolm’s brow when Henry finished releasing his information. “We’ve just got to get her out of there,” he said with a hint of desperation, gnawing on his lower lip.
William leaned his hands on the table, making eye contact with my brother. “Well, we’ve completed our first step in recovering the princess. What’s next, General?”
A small grin eased some of the wrinkles of Malcolm’s concern out of sight. “Next we find a weakness. As quickly as possible.”
My brother’s strategizing genius bubbled to the surface yet again. His eyes narrowed in concentration and he tapped the table we were sitting at with his restless fingers. “We’ll have to get inside the castle and gain a better understanding of their defenses.”
“Sir…I mean Lord Alfred knows what we look like,” I pointed out needlessly. I could see everyone was thinking the same thing.
Malcolm held up a hand. “I have an idea.”
* * * * *
“This is insane!” I exclaimed when my brother had laid out his “fool-proof” plan before us. I stared at the three men watching my reaction with obvious amusement on their faces. “You must be out of your mind!” I added for emphasis.
“I might be,” Malcolm chuckled. “But it will work.”
I shook my head violently, sending my long braid of auburn hair flying. “How? Alfred…the Duke and Alfred will see right through it!”
“I don’t think so.” Malcolm looked me in the eye. “Alfred will hardly think that you would allow us to dress you as a boy, cut your hair, and send you alone into an enemy’s castle to act as a peasant boy looking for work in the stable as a part of our rescue plan.”
“And he’d be right!” I said, holding my hair protectively.
“But you’d do it,” my brother continued knowingly, “you’d do it for the princess.”
“Much as I hate to see all those lovely auburn waves cut off, it’s the only way,” William added gently.
Even as a blush deepened the color of my cheeks at the subtle compliment, I gave a heavy sigh. They were both right. I would do anything short of killing myself or denouncing my faith to bring her to safety. With a resigned air, my hand fell away from my braid.
Sitting down on a nearby stool, I surrendered to their plan. “Please do it quickly,” I requested. “Before I change my mind.”
My brother pulled out a wicked looking pair of shears and began sawing my hair away from my head. I choked back tears as the strands fell around my feet, but gave up keeping them contained when they refused and obstinately continued down my face in small rivers of regret. Already I felt my head lighten, free of the weight of my hair, but that didn’t help my mood in the slightest.
As was the case with most girls, my hair had been a source of pride and vanity all my growing up years, and now I was losing all the work I had put into keeping it long and healthy to a whim of my brother’s. To say I was distressed would be an understatement of the highest caliber.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” Malcolm told me when standing back to survey his handiwork. “In fact, it looks quite passable, if I do say so myself.”
I took my tear stained face out of my hands and blinked away the mist that filled my vision so I could see the final picture in the mirror over the room’s fireplace. My sight cleared, and for a moment, I stared in shock at the creature that faced me. Then I realized that that creature was me, and the tears began to flow once more as I buried my face in my hands yet again in the effort to hide what I saw.
My beautiful hair, the one thing I really had to fuss over with girlish pride, was cut off just below the ears. Malcolm, not being the most accomplished barber by any stretch of the imagination, had cut it jaggedly, the rough ends all different lengths. Some of it hung down over my eyes, effective for hiding my identity, which I realized upon some reflection, but a very unladylike style nonetheless.
Any shred of pride I held had been efficiently cut off along with my hair. The sobs which racked my body died away to shamed hiccups. I pulled my head up and wiped my tears away bravely, still avoiding the image of my new self in the mirror.
“I-I’m sorry a-about that,” I hiccupped. “It was s-such a s-shock!”
My brother patted me on the back. “You’ll get used to it eventually, Meg.”
No I won’t. I ran a hand through my hair reflectively, surprised at how soon my hand came free of the shortened length. Tears stung my eyes, threatening to spill out again, but I sucked them back.
William was regarding me with a lopsided grin.
I met his stare with a glower that came straight from my healthy amount of wounded pride. “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t say it,” I warned. “I’m liable to slap someone, anyone, who sees fit to make a joke about how I look at this moment.”
My teacher saw fit to ignore my warning. “I was just going to say you look absolutely adorable, Meg,” he said with a smirk plastered across his face.
I stomped over and peered up at him, wishing I could be taller and be able to look him eye to eye. “Didn’t I warn you not to make fun of me?” My eyes filled with tears again, and my hand rose on its own accord to slap him.
He caught my wrist and lowered it slowly. “Calm yourself, Meg, I wasn’t making fun of your hair.” I saw now that William’s eyes held only honesty, and I forced myself to listen. “I really do think your hair looks fine.” He glanced at my brother and the grin returned. “Granted, Malcolm is not the best hair cutter in the world, but after a few weeks of growing, perhaps trimming it a little after we rescue the princess, it’ll look better.”
I took a deep breath, felt my shorn head, and gave William a shaky smile. “Thank you.”
“I can buy you some clothes, Meg,” my brother continued. “And we’ll have to fix your face—what we can see of it—and your hair so that Alfred can’t recognize you.”
I regarded myself sorrowfully in the mirror. “I doubt he’d recognize me as I am now.”
Malcolm tilted his head thoughtfully. “Perhaps not, but we’ll still have to get you nice and dirty before sending you into the lion’s den.”
I sighed with a martyr-like air. “I hope Christine appreciates everything I’m going through to get her to safety.”
“I’m sure she does,” William assured me.
Malcolm grinned and headed towards the door. “William, Henry, meet me outside. We’ll split up to gather supplies we’ll need for getting into the castle after Meg does her part, and the things for our disguises.” He looked at me and a flicker of sympathy clouded his eyes for a moment. “Meg, stay here and rest. Who knows when you’ll have another chance.”
I waited until the door closed before melting into a puddle of helpless tears once more. It was ridiculous, and I felt ashamed to show my feelings in such a manner, but I knew that if I held the tears inside, my resolve would crumble sooner. Better to let out my emotions now, while no one was near enough to laugh at my misery.