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22: Planning Again
Henry led me from one disreputable neighborhood to another, stopping passersby on the narrow lanes, questioning men who could hardly see straight they were so drunk, and paying some of them for helpful directions. I have to admit, he did know how to glean information, and did a far better job then I would have done. Granted, it helped that he had the courage to talk to a few characters I would have done everything I could to avoid.
Finally, when I had just about worn through my riding boots with all the walking around the village and my voice was almost completely gone from telling everyone and their cousin what my brother and William looked like, along with their counterfeit names, we found them.
Or perhaps, I should say, they found us.
Henry was looking worried by the time he came out of the final tavern and walked over to where I stood in the shadows. “I can’t get any more people to give me information. It looks as though we’ve walked ourselves to the end of the road and there’s no place to go.”
I sighed, rubbing my arms in the cold. “We have to find them,” I said, swallowing back the tears of helplessness that threatened to spill out of my eyes and over my cheeks. I had nowhere to go, and night had long since fallen. Trust never came easily to me…and I didn’t know how far Henry’s gratefulness went. He could be planning on leading me into a corner or to his friends at this very moment.
Instead, hands covered our mouths and pulled Henry and me back into the shadows of an alleyway. I found myself being pushed into a stone wall and my wide, frightened eyes meeting William’s. He gasped as if someone hit him in the stomach and stumbled backwards, letting go of me immediately.
“Meg?” his voice was filled with shock and disbelief.
I fell to the ground when I lost his support and sat there, rubbing the circulation back into my arms. Malcolm held Henry still, his eyes wide in surprise. Then, as one, both Malcolm and William turned their glares to Henry.
My brother tightened his grip on Henry, causing the man to wince and groan at the pain he was causing his injury I had so carefully sewn together. “What did you do to my sister?” he demanded fiercely.
“If you hurt her in any way…” William added threateningly, his eyes flashing fire in the darkness.
I leapt to my feet, pulling Malcolm’s hands from Henry’s injured arm. “Stop! You’re hurting him!”
Incredulity at my actions caused them to hesitate, and I quickly glanced over Henry’s injury to make sure his cut wasn’t bleeding again. The man winced at the probing of my fingers, but his eyes held no malice towards my brother and his harsh treatment.
“He got a cut,” I explained once I was satisfied the wound hadn’t reopened. “And he didn’t hurt me.” My story came out in a rush, and though the air around me was stiff with suspicion, they seemed to accept the fact that Henry wasn’t going to harm any of us.
Meanwhile, the man studied me closely. Once I finished the story and while Malcolm and William decided what to make of it in their own minds, he spoke. “Meg?”
I avoided his gaze and stood up.
That alone seemed to be enough of an answer for him. He chuckled. “I thought so. You almost slipped yourself. Don’t be too hard on your friend for giving your real name away.”
William glanced between us. “I suppose we should thank you,” he said grudgingly.
“For what?” Henry asked as if honestly confused.
“For keeping her from searching for us all over the village in the middle of the night by herself,” Malcolm answered for William. I don’t know what he saw in the look I gave him, but the next thing he said was, “Don’t give me that look, you know you would have! Admit it.”
Much as I disliked it, I knew he was right. I would have. “Have we found a way…” I trailed off with a glance towards Henry who was watching us with narrowed eyes.
“The Duke is no friend of mine,” he said suddenly when he caught my eyes on him.
I shifted my weight from one leg to the other. “Why would you tell us that?” I asked.
“Well, you’re obviously trying to do something without his knowledge of it, considering the fact that you were avoiding his soldiers earlier this evening at all costs,” Henry answered matter-of-factly.
“We’re trying to rescue…” I fought to gather and use the right words. Just in case.
“He kidnapped my betrothed,” Malcolm said.
“Ah,” Henry replied, his eyes lighting up in understanding. “So you want to rescue her?” At the united nods from us, his brow furrowed and he scratched his chin, as he seemed to be in the habit of doing when in deep thought.
“A man named Alfred knows we’re trying to rescue her,” Malcolm put in, in hopes of helping whatever plan the man might have.
Henry sucked in a breath. “If Lord Alfred knows about your rescue plans…that’s going to make your job a great deal harder.”
My eyebrows lifted in surprise. “A Lord!” I exclaimed, not bothering to hide the shock in my voice.
Malcolm and William’s faces sank into thoughtful glowers.
“That explains a lot,” my brother said.
“The rotten little…” William stopped his verbal abuse of the man abruptly and glanced in my direction apologetically.
A smile twitched the corners of my mouth. “No need to hold back too much on my account,” I said. “My own vocabulary is sadly lacking in words that I can use to describe his infamous behavior.”
Henry interrupted us. “I know you may not want my help at all, but if you are willing, I think I have the beginnings of a plan.”
Malcolm’s eyes sparked in interest and he involuntarily leaned towards the injured man. “How could you help us?”
“Well,” he hesitated slightly, “I have a few friends among the guards in the castle’s dungeon, and that is undoubtedly where your betrothed is being held…if she’s still alive.”
“You think we might be able to slip into the dungeon and free her?” Malcolm could hardly hide the eagerness in his voice.
“Possibly. Or possibly we can work inwards from the outside. Tunnels may be a bit common for escaping prisoners to use, but there’s a reason for that: it has worked in the past.”
The idea of having Henry help was slowly taking root in Malcolm and William’s minds. I already mostly trusted him, despite the less than pleasant way we met each other. Besides, I was ready to do just about anything to get the princess to safety.
“What is the young lady’s name?” Henry continued, looking questioningly at my brother.
He froze. We were treading dangerous ground yet again. “Anna,” he said at last.
Henry apparently noted his hesitation. “You’ll have to tell me her actual name, otherwise I won’t be able to find where she’s being kept.”
A resigned look came over Malcolm’s face and he sighed. “Her name is Christine,” he said finally.
Henry uttered a low whistle. “The princess herself?” he muttered more to himself than us.
“Yes,” Malcolm answered shortly. “But how did you know that was the princess? Surely there’s more than one girl in the kingdom whose name is Christine,” he added suspiciously.
Henry raised an eyebrow. “Everyone in this village heard about the Duke capturing the princess to use as a bargaining tool with the king.” The man’s brow furrowed. “An unfortunate complication…it’s going to make our job of rescuing her a great deal harder. Such a valuable prisoner is going to have twice as many guards around her at all times, if not the Duke himself.” He paused, scratching his chin again. “In fact, she may not even be kept in the dungeon. The Duke may have her up in his specially guarded tower he keeps for political prisoners.”
William chewed on the edge of his lip. “Surely the Duke will have a hard time hiding such a famous prisoner’s whereabouts from all the people in the castle. Couldn’t we discretely inquire around until we find out where she is?”
“An excellent plan,” Henry agreed slowly, “except that you say Lord Alfred knows about your plans of rescue. If that is so, he’ll be sending his own spies to look for people asking about the princess. Once he gets wind of our inquires, the blood hounds will follow our trail and we’ll put her life in more danger than it already is…not to mention the fact that we’ll be killed.”
“What do you suggest then?” Malcolm asked, his face drawn into a worried frown.
“To be able to overcome an enemy, you must find a weakness,” Henry said simply.
For a moment, we looked at him. The man I had almost left to bleed to death on the shadowed street was apparently as full of surprises as we were of desperation.
“Who are you?” I asked suddenly.
Henry sighed. “Who am I? Nobody right now. You should ask who I was.”
“Who were you?” William asked without missing a beat.
“I was the Duke’s Captain of the Guard.”
My hand covered my mouth, muffling my gasp. “What happened?”
“I dared to disagree with his brother.”
Henry closed his eyes, as if to shut out the painful memories of his past. “He wanted to send all the soldiers under me in to a battle in which we would be outnumbered one hundred to ten. It was nothing short of murder of all my men. I refused, and stated my reasons. His brother was absolutely livid at my refusal and stormed to the Duke who in turn banished me on his brother’s behalf from my position without even bothering to hear my side of the story. I have been striving to drown my memories in the taverns since then.”
For a moment, there was nothing we could say. Our silent shock hung for a moment, our mouths open in disbelief and horror at what he must have gone through. Henry gave a shuddering sigh and passed a hand over his forehead.
“I would do anything to help revenge these five years I’ve wasted because of him,” Henry continued. “If you wouldn’t mind my help that is.”
Malcolm grinned and shook Henry’s hand. “Consider yourself a part of our rescue plans. We could use another man on our side.”
“And one who knows the inside of the castle as well as you do will be invaluable,” William added.
The tension melted. Plans were made. Now all we had to do was carry them out.