Part IV – 1
John looks to me to see if I’m ready. I stomp my front right foot and shake my head. He scowls at my disapproval. I give a small huff and then a reluctant nod. John pulls the grey scarf over his mouth and nose and adjusts the hood on his head. He steps out of the woods and begins his ascent up the hill. I peek out from behind a tree to watch. He is easy to see in the moonlight. Before he even gets halfway up, a lookout on top of the hill notices him and alerts the others. The lookout grabs a bow.
John yells to them, “I am here by order of King Declan. You are surrounded. If you wish to live, you will relinquish your stolen goods and – “
An arrow flies by, nearly hitting John. The other thieves grab their weapons while John turns to flee. He scurries back down the hill under the barrage of arrows. The thieves yell, thrusting their swords in the air as they chase him.
I shake my head. I told him this wasn’t going to work. Fortunately, we planned for this.
John dashes past me. After the thieves run by me as well, John turns to face them. He is joined by another dressed in grey. The two draw their swords and stand their ground. A thief is about to shoot when he is shot by an arrow himself. More arrows shoot down at them from the treetops. Some thieves continue charging towards the two in grey. Others turn to flee. I step out of the shadows, blocking their path. A thief runs toward me with his sword swinging wildly over his head. Another pulls back his bow.
I lunge at the man with the sword, grabbing him and pulling him in front of me just in time to block the arrow. I throw him at the archer, causing him to fall backwards. I jump forward and strike another thief with my claws. The others try to turn back, preferring to take a chance on those with mortal weapons. I fight them as they run while the rest are swiftly dispatched by sword or arrow.
As the two in grey check to see if there are any remaining thieves, a third man climbs down to join them.
“Is that all of them?” John asks.
Erik pulls his scarf off. He puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles loudly. We wait for the reply. Off in the distance, two short whistles answer back. We got all of the thieves. Erik sets down his bow. John and Owen finally reveal their faces
I hear a rider coming towards us. I walk to the edge of the woods, but it’s only another of our band, also decked in grey. Though the rider’s horse races forward, I can tell there is no panic or fear to reach us. It is only the pure enjoyment of the ride that dictates this fast pace. The horse gallops past me into the forest, leaping over a fallen tree, and stopping abruptly in front of Erik. The rider gracefully dismounts and removes her mask. I’m some distance away, but I can still see Cat’s self-satisfied grin. I wish I could ride as well as she can, or even whistle. She’s lucky to be so talented. I return to the group.
“No one escaped,” she proclaims. “They all went charging down the hill to chase John.”
I look at John and try to appear smug.
“What?” he questions me. “It is only fair we give them an opportunity to surrender before we attack.”
“Come, let’s search their stolen treasures and see what this fuss is all about,” Cat directs us.
She mounts her horse and rides towards the thieves’ camp. I run beside her, though I could easily outrun her horse. When we reach the top of the hill, I scan the campsite. I find only their horses, bags, and a fancy carriage atop the hill. Cat was right. There’s no one here. Cat searches the bags until our three companions join us.
“We’ll take all this to my castle,” John instructs. “We can inspect it there.”
We load everything into the carriage. Cat harnesses the horses while I look around one more time to make sure no one is watching. I see Erik taking the same precautions. John climbs atop the carriage. Cat, Owen, and Erik manage to squeeze inside among the bags. As John drives the carriage to his castle, I follow at a distance.
We go through Pike’s Woods. I stay behind in the forest as the carriage continues without me. John’s knights will let him enter without questioning him. They’ll probably assume John is up to some underhanded dealings and not bother to look beyond that. However, if they see me, they might become curious enough to investigate.
At least I won’t have to wait long before morning. I stroll through the woods and enter Pike’s Cave where I’ve hidden my clothes and where we’ve left our horses. After a few minutes, I transform into a human and start to dress. Soon, John arrives with one of his own carriages. He opens the door for me and assists me inside. I keep the curtain pulled back from the window until we reach John’s castle.
John escorts me inside away from the view of his knights. It’s odd that John lives here now. I still think of it as Grandmother’s castle. After Declan’s coronation, John asked permission to buy this castle from him. Declan didn’t even know this place existed. Father must have kept it a secret from him too. The castle had been vacant for several years before John purchased it. I can only assume that Grandmother must have died. She died alone. I don’t know if anyone was notified of her death. I worry that Mother will succumb to the same fate. Mother never lets anyone into her chambers. Sometimes, I even wonder if she’s still alive, though Declan has assured me that she’s still eating the food that is sent up to her.
John and I reach the end of the hall. John pushes against the wall, and it moves to the left. The hidden room is large and well-lit by torches. We step inside and join the others who are examining the stolen goods. Owen and Erik are laying out golden candlesticks and silverware. Cat is busy studying the gold and silver coins.
“John, have you seen these?” Cat asks him.
“No, I haven’t had a chance to look at anything.”
“You said Declan commissioned you to find the thieves, but these thieves aren’t stealing from us. Look.”
Cat holds out some coins. John and I step closer.
“You’re right,” John agrees. “This isn’t our money.”
I don’t recognize it either. Owen and Erik set down their things to look.
“T’is from Alberdeen,” Erik informs us. “King Nicholas rules that land.”
“Do all the coins look like that?” I ask.
“I think so,” Cat answers.
Cat opens another bag to look. She shows more coins to Erik, who determines they are from Alberdeen as well. Erik spies something else in the bag. He reaches down and pulls out a paper.
“What’s that?” asks Owen.
Erik hands it to me. I glance at him then take it.
“It’s some sort of list,” I explain. “It has a list of noblemen, but I don’t recognize any of the names.”
“What are the names?” asks Erik.
“Duke of Moore, Duke of Tallywood, Lord Marcus Ellsbury, Count of Borum . . . “
“Those be the nobility of Alberdeen.”
“But there’s also a price by each name,” I continue. “The dukes have a higher monetary amount attached to them than the counts and barons.”
“The nobler the man, the higher the price?”
“Yes, it appears that way, and then at the bottom, it says ‘Must provide proof of conquest for full reward.’ It’s signed XX.”
“XX? Twenty? What does it mean?” Cat questions.
“Perhaps someone is paying thieves to attack the nobility of Alberdeen,” John ventures.
“But why? Who would pay for that?” asks Owen. “Wouldn’t it be easier to attack these nobles themselves instead of hiring others to do it? Who keeps the plunder? The thieves?”
“It seems as though Alberdeen is having some difficulties,” Cat surmises.
“T’was that way since I’ve lived,” says Erik. “Lots of fighting, everyone there is uneasy and distrustful. I’ve heard word it’s settled over the years, but t’would not seem so now.”
“Why does Declan care about the affairs of Alberdeen?” I ask John.
“I don’t know, but I think he’ll want me to go out again tonight. There are other thieves rumored to be in the area.”
“Not tonight,” Owen quietly mentions.
Cat reminds everyone that we have to get back to Declan’s castle before he realizes we’re missing. John takes us out to the carriage and then drives us to the cave. John returns to his castle while the rest of us ride into the king’s woods. We leave our horses for Erik. Before going through the tunnel, I ask him to meet me in the library later. Owen, Cat, and I go up to my room. Owen sneaks out to get ready. I quickly help Cat dress after she fixes my hair. Everything is in place. It’s as though we’ve been here all night. If anyone has noticed my absence, I’ve been out walking or picking flowers or any other excuse I can think of.
After breakfast, I wait in the library, leafing through a book I’ve pulled from the shelf. The door is open, but Erik knocks anyway. I invite him in.
“You wanted me here?” he asks.
“Yes,” I hand him the book. “I have an idea. I thought I could teach you how to read.”
“I know how to read,” Erik scoffs.
“There’s nothing wrong with not knowing, Erik.”
“Nothing wrong, but I’ve already the skill.”
“Then why do you always hand things to me to read? Why don’t you read things yourself?”
“I’d rather hear your voice than my own. T’is nice to hear.”
I put my hands on my hips. He’s just being stubborn. Erik smiles and leans forward, resting his hand on the table.
“Fine, then why don’t you read that?” I ask, pointing to the book I gave him.
He sighs and opens it. He turns a few pages, shakes his head, and then closes it.
“I’ve read it before. T’is quite dull. I’ve no wish to read it again.”
He’s going to say that with any book I give him. Determined not to lose, I march over to a desk. I seize a quill and briskly write on a paper. Erik remains standing by the table. I go back over to him and hand him the note.
“Well, what does this say?”
He takes it and holds it close to his face. He squints and replies, “Too messy.”
“It is not.”
Nevertheless, I go back to the desk and re-write it as neatly as possible. I stomp back over to him. He’s smiling widely at my efforts.
“Now you can read it.”
He doesn’t take it this time. He only glances at it.
“Still too messy.”
“It is very legible, and even if it wasn’t, you still would have recognized your own name if you knew how to read. Why can’t you just admit – “
“Is that what it’s s’possed to be? T’is not the way to spell my name.”
“Then how do you spell it?”
“You have to use symbols. It’s in another language.”
“Terik,” he answers.
“There is no such language as ‘Terik.’”
“Well, I s’pose you just don’t know it.”
“I’ve studied languages, Erik. I can read and speak several fluently, and I’ve never even heard of ‘Terik.’ You’re just making it up.”
“Have you proof?”
“How am I supposed to prove that a language never existed? That’s unfair.”
“If you can’t prove me wrong, you must admit I’m right.”
I shake my head. I’m not giving up that easily. I was only trying to help him learn, but he’s messed up my plans with his ridiculous mind games.
A servant enters and informs me that Declan wants to see me in his study. I excuse myself to Erik, giving him a look to let him know that this isn’t over. He only bows and somehow manages to refrain from smirking. I go to the study where a servant waits outside. He opens the door and announces my presence, and Declan calls for me to enter. I step inside.
The door closes quietly behind me. I hope Declan hasn’t noticed my absence this morning and called me here for an explanation. I look around the room as I wait for him to finish writing. I don’t particularly like his study. There’s only one door and one window. The window is on the left. It’s big, but it doesn’t provide much of a view. All I can see is the back of a tree trunk and a bush. The curtains on the window are a musty brown. His study is quite dreary.
He looks up from the paperwork on his desk and motions me closer. I stand in front of him, feeling more like a child than a woman.
“Noreen, I wanted to discuss your marriage prospects.”
Oh. This again.
“I know you don’t enjoy this discussion, but you must be married sooner or later.”
“Aria isn’t married yet,” I argue.
“I know. It’s something I need to work on. I can’t have my two adult sisters remain unmarried. It doesn’t reflect well on our family or on the kingdom.”
I don’t think it will do me any good to point out that he isn’t married either. I wish he would concern himself with his own marriage prospects instead of fussing over mine.
“I thought that for you,” he continues, “you might have considered Sir John. He is a fine man, and a duke. He’s well-off, well-liked. He lives nearby. You wouldn’t be far away from your family.”
“I’m not getting married.”
“Noreen, you’ll have to be married. This isn’t about what you want. This isn’t about what I want either. Father has been gone for a year, so any time of mourning has passed. You have to take on some responsibility. You’re not a child anymore. Anyway, I thought I should let you know beforehand that I found a good match for either you or Aria.”
“You don’t get to choose that. He will be the one to decide.”
“Who? Who will decide?”
“You’ll know in time. Nothing is finalized, so you don’t need to know now.”
Someone knocks on the door.
“Enter,” Declan orders.
John steps into the room and bows. Declan tells me he’s said all he needed to say to me and that I may leave now. Declan stands and turns around to put his papers on a table behind him. John steps aside and holds the door open for me. Declan is still organizing his papers, so I go to the drapes instead. I hide behind them. John moves the curtain back and points to the door. Declan turns around. John quickly drops the curtain and steps away from the window. I hear Declan turning the pages of a book. I peek out at John. He gives me a concerned look but doesn’t reveal my hiding place. After he closes the door, I duck behind the curtain so he can’t see me anymore.
“Sir John, this is our kingdom, and this is Alberdeen,” Declan says. He must be showing John his atlas. “They’re relatively close, and Alberdeen is nearly the same size as our kingdom. It would be prudent for us to become allies.”
“Yes, is this why we are aiding them?”
“Yes, I see you’ve already figured it out. King Nicholas has been having some difficulty lately with thieves. Several bands are hiding out within our borders. It would put us in good favor with the king if we were to recover some of the stolen goods. Also, we can’t be providing refuge to thieves. It’s not prudent for our sense of security if thieves think they can hide within our kingdom. I’d like you to go out again tonight. I’ve heard reports of another group that has committed thefts in Alberdeen. They are rumored to be living quite close to the castle.”
“I’m afraid, Your Highness, I can’t do anything tonight. I must pay my respects and honor a friend who died one year ago.”
“I understand, Sir John. Then you can go out tomorrow night. We will meet again tomorrow, and I will provide you the details as well as any updated information.”
“I also wanted to ask you if you’ve changed your mind about revealing the secret of the Luna Belua. It would be easier for me to accommodate the creature if I am fully informed.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t changed my mind, Sire.”
“Well, that is your decision, of course. Have you changed your mind about marrying Princess Noreen?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t, Sire.”
“Very well, I only thought I’d give you one last chance. She may soon be married to another.”
“King Nicholas has a son, Prince Nicholas II. He would be a strategic match for Aria or for Noreen. However, they are not to know yet. I don’t want them to get their hopes up or fret about it. Nothing is certain.”
“I won’t say anything, Sire. They won’t find out from me, I assure you.”
Declan dismisses him. As I move the curtain back slightly to look out, John sends me one last disapproving glance before he leaves. I’m stuck in the study, but not for long. Declan doesn’t like the study either. He only uses it to meet people and have private discussions. He must thing that kings are supposed to talk to people in studies. Studies are seemingly the proper places to meet. After only a minute, he rises and walks out, probably heading to the armory. I count to thirty then go to the door. I stick my head out to look. No one is in the hallway, so I escape unnoticed.
Marry the prince? Impossible. I’ll make sure he likes Aria better. He’s a prince, so I’m sure she won’t mind.