THE KING'S BLADE
St. Mary’s Loch, Scotland----spring, 1401
Lady Megan MacKelloch sidled passed the tinker’s wagon and the men attempting to pull it up the steep muddy hill. She shook her head as she slogged toward the top. She was glad it was them and not her attempting the impossible. Topping the rise, she bent at the waist, her chest heaving to catch a breath. Bridget was going to be one sorry sister when she caught up with her. Filling her lungs, Meg straightened. Then swiping the sweat trickling off her brow with the back of her hand, she narrowed her gaze on the make-shift village below. The struggle up the rain-soaked hill would be as nothing when compared to finding Bridget amongst the milling crowd and vendor stalls hastily constructed for the meeting of the King’s Justice Council. She scanned the village then found her eyes focused on the gray stone structure of St. Mary’s Kirk. Baron Maxwell had warned them to stay away from the proceedings. Too bad, Bridget refused to heed everything their new stepfather asked. Meg hardened her jaw, not about to cover for Bridget this time.
Gathering her skirts in one hand, Meg started down the slippery slope grabbing onto scrub branches to slow her sliding descent. A rolling rumble sounded from above. She frowned as she gazed at the clear blue sky above. More rain meant more mud to fight through as--
“Look sharp below.”
Meg twisted as she realized the warning came from behind her. She caught only a glimpse of the run-away wagon as the rain-soaked path gave way, sweeping her downhill in the sliding mud.
“A-a-a-h.” She shrieked. Then clamping her jaw, she stared in fascinated horror as the path’s fast-moving debris gathered speed carrying her in the swift moving muck to the village below. Terror clenched Meg’s stomach as realization struck.
“I’m going to … die.” The reality of her words roared in her ears as a tight fist closed over her heart sending it into painful palpitations.
“C-c-can’t.” She managed to gasp as a renewed sense of preservation swept through her. Frantically, she grabbed at and missed latching onto a scrub branch as she swept by it. “Ah-h-h,” she moaned in feverish disappointment. Scanning ahead for another bush she spied the cesspool sitting at the bottom of the hill. “No-o-o,” she choked out. Desperate to save herself, she dug in her heels to slow her descent. But her delayed reaction catapulted her through the air to land in the mud … with a splat.
"Oh-h-h,” she sputtered. Lifting her face, she opened her eyes. Stunned, she laid for a moment, staring at the mud. Merciful heavens, had she just survived meeting the Grim Reaper?
Her senses seemed to come alive as she pushed her aching upper body out of the cold, overpowering stench. She shivered as she leveled herself to her knees and peered through the mud dripping down her forehead.
Hastily, Meg made the sign of the cross. A sudden lightheadedness overcame her as she heard chatter and crude laughter. Turning, she spied a crowd gathering beside the refuse pond where she knelt.
Obviously, she wasn’t dead.
Her heart sang in relief at the realization but that turned to a quick dismay as another tremor seized her.
“Ack,” Meg said as she wheezed from the frigid water saturating her garments all the way through to her skin. This time she could really claim ‘wrong place, wrong time.’ But would anyone believe her?
Quivering with cold, she pushed to her feet as the cart splashed to a stop a few feet away. Her knees buckled. She plopped back into the mud profoundly thankful at finding herself safe. “O, Blessed St. Columbine, thank you for your protection,” she muttered as she stared at the wagon sinking into the mud nearby.
Struggling to her feet, she frowned as she peeled off the bedraggled veil clinging to her neck. Grateful as she was, Meg couldn’t help but wonder what else would go wrong with the day? She brushed her mud crusted hair away from her face as a familiar cold lump settled once again inside her chest. Bowing her head, she began, “Lord, thank you for…” She froze at the realization of her action. Hadn’t experience taught her that asking for help from the Almighty gained her nothing?
She took a quick breath then groaned softly as she stared at her best cotehardie covered in filth. How could she explain yet another disaster to her mother? Especially not when she must first confess that she’d lost her sister somewhere among the crowd roaming the main village thoroughfare.
Meg took a deep breath to slow her breathing. Scrunching up her ruined skirt, she lifted one booted foot from the sucking mud and struggled to find a firm foothold on what she believed to be solid ground. She raised her head hoping to find Bridget perusing one of the vendor stalls. But with hundreds attending the King’s Justice Council at St. Mary’s Kirk, the jostling crowd obscured her view.
“Look at the wet hen,” a thick border voice shouted.
Meg dipped her chin. Hadn’t she learned that the best way to handle a situation like this was to ignore the ignorant jeering? She gritted her teeth as she heard a few in the crowd chuckle.
“Nay, looks more like a scarecrow.” A mocking bass said.
She took a bracing breath as laugher rippled through the crowd. This wasn’t the first time she’d been the brunt of someone’s joke, she reminded herself.
“Nay, it’s a nightmare to scare our children with,” a female said as the crowd roared with laughter.
Meg twisted, opened her mouth then stopped. She had been taught to respond to the less fortunate with kindness. If she couldn’t be a gracious lady to them then she wasn’t to say anything at all. Searching for those mocking her, Meg realized that she’d turned too late.
It could’ve been anyone in the crowd. The thought didn’t take away the sting of embarrassment flushing her face. Ack! But what difference did it make when she was--?
“Allow me,” a rich baritone voice said from somewhere behind her.
Caught off guard by the velvet tone, she turned then barely managed to control her gasp when she caught a brief glimpse of the man’s tall form. Suddenly, the cold and wet no longer mattered. Struggling to breathe, her eyes rose to his clean-shaven square jaw, skimmed passed his hawk-like nose to be trapped and held by the kindest set of gray eyes she’d ever encountered. And to think she had always considered the color gray cold.
Her heartbeat raced at the thought. Heavens, soon she would join the convent. She’d best not be cataloguing a man’s features like that. She caught her breath as he quirked his sleek black brow at her. Merciful heavens, he must surely think her a twit!
Dismayed by her realizations, Meg pulled herself together. “Thank you, kind sir, but I’m afraid I can’t accept your chivalrous gesture.” She said knowing her brisk tone ran counter to her thumping heart.
“Why?” the man asked, his powerful body moving with an easy grace as he extended a hand toward her.
Meg’s eyes froze on his clean, calloused palm. Sir Gilbert had warned her about all the strangers there for the King’s Justice Court. Dare she trust this one? Her wet toes curled inside her muddy boots in affirmation. She had to admit that she found the man’s polished manners a welcome change. “I prefer to do this my own way,” she said, making a shooing gesture with her hands. “Please stand aside.”
“Good manners dictate I assist you,” he countered extracting a kerchief from inside his cuff.
She gazed at him then sighed at his gallant gesture. Sweet Blessed Angels! Just because the man had a fine set of gray eyes, a kind smile and a voice like velvet didn’t mean that she should make a ninny of herself. She managed a nonchalant shrug. “Be assured then the consequences rest with you.”
“She has a point, Lord John,” a man, shorter in height by several inches, said as he stopped beside her rescuer. “The Kirk’s doors close in a few minutes.”
“True.” Her rescuer nodded. “This will only take a moment. My lady,” he said, turning back to her. “Please, take a hold of the kerchief and I’ll pull you onto solid ground.”
Afraid the person helping might disappear in a blink, she seized onto the pristine white square. Meg wasn’t sure how it happened but in a flash she found herself standing on firm ground with the man’s soiled kerchief wadded in her fist.
Before she could gather her scattered wits, the man gave her a courtly bow. “Adieu, my lady, until we meet again.” He pivoted, his dark blue cape swirled around his deerskin boots as he disappeared amongst the now quietly gaping crowd.
“But wait, I didn’t have a chance to--,” Meg began as she pressed a hand to her chest as her sister, Bridget, skidded to a halt beside her.
“Meg, you must---”. Her sister panted out of breath then paused. “Gracious, what happened to you? You stink!”
“I know, but---”
“Never mind,” Bridget said, airily flicking her hand in dismissal. “Did you see him? Did you?”
“Who?” Meg pulled her ruined cote away from her shivering body. With her feet half-frozen, she knew the discomfort stamping her feet would bring. Although mimicking her sister’s temper-tantrum might have its merits.
“Why, the King’s Blade of course,” Bridget said, switching her head from side to side searching the crowd. “Where did he go?”
Meg stared at her sister. Maybe she ought to pay more attention. In the future it might keep them both out of trouble. She frowned. “Who are you looking for?”
“The King’s Blade. You know, the Earl of Crawford’s second son.”
Meg bit her bottom lip. Right now, her concern centered on how to explain things to her mother. Carefully, she tucked the lemon and cloves scented kerchief into her cuff.
“Don’t you ever pay attention to anything that’s happening?” Bridget asked as if she were the eldest with the right to admonish a younger sibling.
“Occasionally, I do,” Meg admitted, holding her cold, wet skirt away from her trembling body.
“Then you know who I’m talking about.”
“Not really.” Meg shrugged, trying to shake off the excess mud caught in the folds of her garment. What did she care if some Earl’s son was a blade or not? It had nothing to do with her.
“How could you not!” Bridget said, pressing her hand over her nose.
Meg shrugged. “Easy, I have enough keeping track of you. I’m not about to worry about some blade I neither know nor care about.”
“Oh-h,” Bridget said with a disgusted wave. “You’re impossible. I don’t know why I--” She paused. Leaning forward, she narrowed her eyes. “Do you know all I can see of you is the whites of your eyes?” She let out a sharp laugh. “Mother’s going to have a fit when she sees you all cover in muck.”
“And you’ll relish every minute of it,” Meg muttered, waving her hand in the direction of the Maxwell campsite. Since experience had taught her to complete dreaded tasks first, she said, “let’s get this over with.”
She took a quick peek in the direction the stranger had gone, hoping for another glimpse of him. While the stink and stains would eventually fade, Meg knew she would never forget the stranger or his kindness. She rested her hand over the kerchief tucked safely beneath her cuff. Although she doubted she’d ever have the chance to thank him for his compassion at least she could dream.
* * *
Lord John Lindsay, second son of the Earl of Crawford and better known as the King’s Blade, slipped into the crowded vestibule as the Kirk’s bell pealed. With his nod, his two men closed the heavy studded doors and dropped the bar locking all inside. His muscles tightened in readiness as he moved down the congested center aisle. He paused to observe his men stationed strategically around the inside the church’s gray stone interior.
With the exits secured and all the spectators weapons confiscated, John tipped his head and quietly acknowledged Andrew, his best friend. Beside Andrew stood Torrin Byers, John’s second in command, both positioned near the dais constructed to replace the main altar. On the raised platform sat the seven members of the King’s Justice Council. Behind them stood a contingency of their own armed guards ready for anything the unruly Johnstones might attempt.
He stared at the seven men as he waited for the proceedings to begin. Presiding over the council, Sir Gilbert Maxwell sat at the far end of the table. A man John knew who believed in one’s right to live in peace. A man not afraid of making difficult decisions.
John hadn’t looked forward with any anticipation to the beginning of this trial. In fact, he dreaded the outcome. Although the King’s justice would be served today, it was bound to stir up trouble among the feuding families living in Scotland’s border area. People needing to find peace and gain a sense of pride in their country, not more animosity.
He shook his head. No question, all the killing, raping and pillaging had to cease. One of his main duties lay in enforcing King Robert III decree of establishing peace in the border area. He understood that meant all offenders must be brought to justice. The Crown didn’t need dissension amongst its subjects. The threat of England invading Scotland on the pretext of ferreting out rebels’ was enough concern without adding in more carnage and resentment existing between the people of the two nations. Yet there had to be a way to deter those committing the atrocities. He rubbed the back of his neck.
He peered at the three Johnstone men on trial for murder, rape and malicious destruction of property. He narrowed his gaze on Willie, a stout, spotted-faced man and the leader of the Johnstone Clan. A crude man who ruled with an iron fist, barked orders and manipulated people for his benefit. John clenched his jaw as he swung his gaze to Willie’s first born, the arrogant, humorless Fergus, known for carving his mark in his victims before he slowly skinned them alive. He shifted his sight to Willie’s other son, Desmond. A sneaky, shallow-minded whiner trapped in a boyish body who had been instrumental in raping the nuns at the Convent of the Blessed Heart. He knew his aunt would forever live with the shame and degradation of the violation. Because of her initial assistance, John and his men had tracked and pieced together this case for the Crown. He’d often thought about the pasteboard tarot-like clue that had led to the apprehension of the Johnstones’. Not for the first time had he wondered who had sent it. Yet even with all the evidence he had gathered there were no guarantees or ….
“Hear ye, hear ye,” the clerk of the council announced in a stentorian voice as he rapped his staff on the stone floor. “The sentencing phase of the King’s Council is now in session, the Honorable Sir Gilbert Maxwell, presiding.”
“Proceed with the reading of the charges as levied by the Crown against Sir William Johnstone, Fergus Johnstone, and Desmond Johnstone,” Sir Gilbert directed.
John scanned the crowd and quickly located the only other two Johnstones allowed into the proceedings. He nodded as two of his men moved to stand behind them.
“Found and judged guilty of the multiple murders occurring in the villages of Milltown and Mouswald, for the pillage and rape of the nuns at the Convent of the Blessed Heart and the willful destruction of the home property of Baron Giles, this case now enters into the sentencing phase. How say you, Sir Hugo Turnbulls?”
The burley, apple cheeked Scot stood then smiled. “Death.” He bellowed.
John clutched his sword hilt as Fergus jumped up and planted his feet wide. “You’ll regret that,” he snarled, baring his teeth.
John relaxed as his friend Andrew place his massive hand on Fergus’ shoulder and forced him back into his seat.
“Just remember, I know your daughter’s chamber is second on the right in your family wing,” Desmond warned, cracking his knuckles. The crowd gasped and began whispering.
John’s breathing slowed and he narrowed his gaze waiting for Willie’s response.
But Willie’s nostrils only flared and he said nary a word.
John took a deep breath and slowly released it as the clerk tapped his staff on the floor, restoring calm. “How say you, Sir Walter Olivers?”
The stooped shouldered elderly man stood, slowly and brought his shaky hand to his forehead. “I need time to think. Please come back to me when you’ve polled everyone else.”
John tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword as Fergus hooted in triumph. Meanwhile, Willie smiled quietly, revealing all his yellowing teeth while Desmond banged his fists on the table in rapid succession
The clerk thumped his staff on the floor then raised his voice subduing the noise of the crowd. “How say you, Sir Thomas Armstrong?”
The crowd whispered in hushed, expectant murmurs.
Like the crowd, John waited with baited breath.
Armstrong’s square jaw jutted out. “Death with confiscation of all property,” he said with a crisp nod.
Veins popped in Willie’s neck.
“We’ll burn you out,” Desmond threatened.
“Your eldest lass is mine,” Fergus yelled as spittle sprayed from his mouth. “I’m coming to get her.”
“Hang ‘em high,” came a shout from somewhere in the back of the Kirk
John pivoted, searching for the culprit, not about to allow anyone to interfere in the proceedings. No matter how he felt about the Johnstones, no one other than the King’s Council would be allowed to serve up justice this day.
The clerk struck his staff loudly on the stone floor then cleared his throat. “How say you, Sir Kenneth Elliots?”
Elliot’s unfolded his lanky form from out of his chair and stood, rocking on the balls of his feet. He stared for a moment. “I vote for property confiscation,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
John frowned at Elliot wondering what retribution the Johnstones had threatened him and his family with.
The three Johnstones whooped and hollered. “Praise be, the angels are on our side,” Willie exclaimed.
Desmond roared in laughter while Fergus asked. “Think you got us now, Maxwell?”
The clerk narrowed his eyes and gave his staff several hard knocks on the floor. “How say you, Sir James Kerr?”
John turned his gaze toward Kerr as he stood.
Kerr’s ruddy cheeks reddened as if he’d just completed a day’s hard labor. “Death,” he said, flashing a cold smile.
Cheers erupted in the room. John moved toward the rowdy bunch standing near the dais.
Willie’s face flamed.
Desmond waved his fist at Kerr. “You’ll regret this.”
Fergus pointed an accusing stubby finger at Kerr. “Everything you have is mine.” He threatened.
The clerk beat his staff against the floor. “How say you Alexander Younge?”
John stopped moving as the boisterous group quieted.
Reed thin, his gaunt leathery cheeks covered in a grizzled beard, Younge wobbled to his feet. “Property confiscation,” he said in a hollow voice.
“Yea!” Desmond whooped loudly.
“I told you he’d vote our way,” Fergus shouted.
Willie slammed his fist into Fergus’ jaw, silencing him as the crowd booed and hissed.
The clerk whacked his staff up and down repeatedly to gain control. “Now, how say you Sir Walter Olivers?”
The elderly man stood once more. “Confiscation.” He wheezed then sat.
John stared at the Council members for a moment in stunned disbelief then watched as Desmond punched Fergus on the shoulder with a hoot and a holler then pounded on the table.
Willie frowned. “Fire and brimstone,” he said. “We’re doomed.”
“Nay,” Fergus shouted. “I told you, we’d go free.”
The clerk pounded his staff on the corner of the table to gain everyone’s attention. “With three votes for confiscation and three for death, the decision rests solely with Sir Gilbert Maxwell.”
The room became eerily quiet as Sir Gilbert stood. So silent, John could hear the twittering of the Popits nesting in the Rowan trees outside. He held his breath. Would Sir Gilbert do the safe and expedient thing and only vote for confiscation or would he stand for the King’s justice?
Sir Gilbert stood then faced the Johnstones. “I render the verdict of death by hanging. The family retains what lands they have inscribed in the property book of the Crown’s Assurances.”
At his pronouncement chaos erupted within the room. John and his men swiftly moved in to restore peace as Fergus jumped over the table and lunged in Maxwell’s direction. Intercepted by a member of Turnbulls security, he was restrained by Andrew. Desmond wrestled one of the Armstrong guards for a weapon but failed in his endeavor.
“You’ll die for this.” Willie threatened Maxwell. “The Johnstones will destroy all you hold dear.”
Finally, with all the Johnstones subdued, cries of retribution against them filled the Kirk. John moved through the churning crowd toward the vestibule then unbarred the door. Promptly, John’s men led the three Johnstones outside to stand before the elderly priest in charge of St. Mary’s.
Raising his aged hand, he made the sign of the cross. “We have learned from the Bible that if you push a man, fling anything at him, strike him in any way with the intent to harm him and he dies then you are guilty of murder. Do you wish to confess your sins?” He asked as he stepped slowly toward Willie.
“Nay, stay away.” Willie yelled then covered his ears. “You can’t justify our deaths with Bible Verses.”
“Here’s my answer, old man,” Fergus said then spat at the priest, his spittle landing short of his mark.
“You won’t ever hear me say I did anything wrong,” Desmond said, puffing out his chest.
The priest paused a moment. “Then may the Lord have mercy on your souls,” he said as he made the sign of the cross. Turning, he shook his white head and moved away.
John squinted into the afternoon sun as he watched his men position the condemned men beneath the looped ropes under the spreading branches of the Rowan trees. As the King’s Blade, he had a job to do. But lately, he’d begun to wonder, did he served justice or vengeance
A Bride for a King
Belle lingered at the rain splashed windows, her arms hugging her churning stomach. Although the summer downpour obscured the view of the quaint seaside village below, she could see the vague reflections in the windowpane of the three men striding into the inn’s private sitting room behind her. She glanced over her shoulder at her twin, nodded once and returned to peer at their reflections in the glass. She narrowed her fuzzy gaze as her sister walked toward the three British Naval Officers.
“Let me make sure I understand you correctly,” Rita said, her mocking tone sending a trickle of trepidation through Belle as her sister addressed the captain who had accompanied them ashore. “You are telling Her Royal Highness that you’re not only abandoning her in a foreign port but you are also leaving her without British protection?”
“Your Ladyship, ‘tis not our intention--” the captain began.
“Are you saying we haven’t accurately assessed the situation?” her sister inserted as she swept forward and halted with a swish of her skirts before the officer, her arms held akimbo.
“Excuse me for a moment while I verify something,” The captain said as he turned to confer with the other two men.
“By all means,” Rita said giving a dismissive wave then she began to tap the toe of her slipper impatiently on the amber varnished wooden floor.
Belle noted her own tight smile reflected in the glass. Leave it to Rita to dive right into the crux of their problem. She sobered, afraid that her unguarded expression might be seen and reveal their ruse. Leaning forward, she studied the images of the three men whispering fiercely in the room behind her. She frowned. Granted, the men had escorted them from the ship, through the churning Ionian Sea to the quay and then up through the narrow, winding cobblestoned streets in an antiquated coach pulled by four mismatched nags to the Black Swan Inn. But really, Admiral Birkhead had assured her that his men would remain with them until their brother and King Stefan arrived. Obviously that wasn’t the case now and the plan had changed.
“Your Ladyship,” Captain Waverly, wheezed, “‘tis not so much that we’re deserting you, ‘tis . . .”
Belle took a deep breath. Time for her to go to work. Lifting the train of her bottle-green velvet riding habit, she straightened her spine and turned to survey the room. “Gentlemen,” she announced to gain everyone’s attention. “We do understand the untenable position you have been placed in,” she said choosing her words carefully. “And we do deeply and humbly appreciate your valuable assistance.”
“Oh! Thank you, Your Highness,” Captain Waverly said, bowing his graying head at her, “for not only your kindness but also your patience and understanding. If King Stefan’s troops weren’t already stationed around the inn then we would gladly remain until His Royal Highness personally arrives. However, with his troops positioned around the perimeter, our orders from the Admiralty Fleet were to see you settled then return, post haste to our ship. We’re to sail with the tide.”
Belle nodded and glanced at her mirror image still tapping her foot. One thing for certain, life hadn’t been dull growing up with such a mercurial older twin. Belle had never been able to predict what her surly sister would do next. “I am sure his Majesty and our brother will be here soon,” she said, pride keeping her from arguing with the senior officer. “Therefore, we will remain sequestered here until they arrive.”
“That would be advisable, Your Highness,” Captain Waverly nodded and then opened his mouth as if he would like to say more but closed it as if he’d had a sudden change of heart.
Wise man, Belle thought as she glanced at the other two naval officers. Were they as cavalier about deserting them as the Captain? She narrowed her gaze wishing she had been able to wear her spectacles. It appeared that young Mr. Ainsley shuffled his hat from one hand to the other while Mr. Trumble looked everywhere but at them. She nodded. Rita had been right all along. There would be no help from the British Navy or from its officers. They were strictly on their own, abandoned in a foreign country.
Belle straightened. “Thank you, Gentlemen.” Raising her chin, she took a resolute breath. Since she had assumed the role of the future Queen of Barovia for her twin for a few days then she would act like one. “And since your services are no longer available, we bid you adieu.”
The naval officers looked at each other then bowed quickly. “Thank you, Your Royal Highness,” Captain Waverly said in a rush as he began to back out of the room. “And may we be so bold as to wish you every happiness in your marriage?”
Belle froze at the innocuous reminder then managed to thaw enough to issue a hasty “Thank you.” She forced her lips to part in a stiff smile as she flicked her hand in dismissal. Quickly, the men removed themselves from her presence. As they shuffled out of the room, she glanced at her sister who had suddenly turned away. Belle frowned as she noted Rita’s shaking shoulders. She bit her lower lip, hoping Rita’s mirth wouldn’t give away their game. She remained in her regal stance until one of the King’s guard finally closed the private sitting room door, then she collapsed in the nearest chair. “Oh, my! Rita how will you ever do this?”
A giggle met her question. “You were rather impressive, Belle,” her sister said then swirled, her claret riding skirt belling away from her ankles. “Perhaps you were the one destined to be Queen.”
Surprise along with a sense of relief washed over Belle. She’d passed her first test as the soon-to-be-Queen Rita. “Oh, don’t talk nonsense,” Belle scoffed. “Need I remind you, that being the eldest, you were the one who married King Stefan by proxy this morning aboard ship, and not I?”
“And how do you know that I didn’t . . . sign that document as Isabelle Marguerita Mary Elizabeth?” her sister asked, archly.
Suddenly, Belle felt lightheaded. Had Rita signed her name? The question had every muscle in her body turning to mush. Thank goodness she was sitting down otherwise she would’ve ended up in a heap on the floor at the frightening thought. “Rita,” she gasped. Gripping the arms of the chair, she started to rise. “You didn’t!”
Although a half-smile curled the corners of Rita’s mouth, her hazel eyes narrowed coldly. Sweeping her hands behind her chignon, she brushed a strand of ginger-colored hair from her face. “Now, Belle, don’t be tedious. Would I do that to you?”
Belle settled back into the chair. Her sister had played a variety of self-serving games before. She knew it was best if she remained calm. “I hope not but I distinctly recall that you, Marguerita Isabelle Mary Elizabeth, vowed never to follow another dictate from either our brother or Queen Victoria after we left England. So, what’s changed?”
“I didn’t realize you were so eager to comply with our brother’s arrangement for you to marry that old codger Umberford with his passel of brats once you return to England.”
Belle inhaled sharply then decided she wouldn’t give Rita the satisfaction of knowing how much the mere mention of Umberford’s name made her skin shrivel on her bones. She shook her head and smoothed the material of her riding shirt over her knees. “You know I’m not the least bit happy with Edward’s scheme.”
“Oh!” Rita exclaimed. “Now, don’t get your corset in such a twist. You’ll get all flushed about the collar and we’ll both be in trouble,” she added in a rush. “I was simply being facetious.” She pivoted then seemed to hesitate. “That’s why I suggested you pose as me so I could have the time to adapt to my role.”
Her pleading tone hung suspended for a moment in the silent room.
Finally, Belle nodded. Of course, she understood. Truth to tell, it was bad enough that their brother was forcing her to marry Umberford. But, for Rita to be used as a political pawn to regain their grandfather’s lost estates in Barovia was an abomination of the worst order. She turned away gripping her hands in frustration. For her sister to be forced to facilitate their brother’s greed and give up the man she loved was intolerable. No one should have to endure that kind of pain, especially not Rita. She had already sacrificed so much. Belle turned, suddenly chilled by her own selfishness for not being more empathetic. After all, she had never been in love like Rita was. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know none of this has been easy for you. Have you heard anything at all from Tony?” she asked, gently.
“Nothing,” Rita whispered, her voice cracking. Hurrying across to the fireplace, she braced her forearm against the mantle. “But then I didn’t expect to,” she said. Pivoting, her twin faced her squarely. “Major Anthony Winston is gone. He accepted a post in India.” She straightened, her jaw jutting forward. “When he found out that I was to marry King Stefan of Barovia, he told me that we had to set aside our love and not only obey Edward but our Queen as well.”
Rita’s words seemed to vibrate throughout the room. Belle hugged herself hoping to ward off the pain her sister’s words caused. For one person to have such power over so many was frightening. She paused at the rebellious thought, suddenly realizing that perhaps Rita’s championship of America’s right to declare their independence from Great Britain had merit. She nodded, re-affirming her agreement with Rita to switch identities until her twin could come to grips with her life altering situation and accept the fact she was to be the Queen of Barovia.
“And that being the reality,” Rita added as she moved toward her, “we’ll stick to my plan of you waiting to switch places with me until after I’ve met King Stefan.” She raised her hand, halting Belle’s further comments. “And if I decide that I can like him, then we’ll return to our own identities and I will marry him in the Barovian Ceremony that has been scheduled three days from now. Agreed?”
“B-but,” Belle felt obligated to say. “You agreed to this marriage. There is no way out but for you to become King Stefan’s wife.”
“Let me remind you that I never agreed to anything.”
“Then why did you go along as if accepting it?” Belle asked as a fluttering sensation clenched her stomach. Her sister released a dramatic sigh then swirled with a dramatic flair to face her.
“That’s just it,” Rita said. “Like you, I’ve had no say in the matter. Everyone, including you, just assumed my compliance. So,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re as much at fault as Edward. That’s why I need your help.”
Belle took a deep, pained breath. “I know,” she sighed as a wave of guilt washed over her. “And I did promise that,” she added. For truth to tell she’d been relieved that Rita had been chosen to be queen instead of her. That is, until she’d met Umberford. She shivered and rose from the brocade padded chair. “All right,” she said as she began to pace. “I promised I would help and I will. When I say I will do something, I do it. No, matter the consequences.”
“That’s what I love best about you,” Rita said, latching onto her wrist. Belle found herself halting as her twin tugged her into a tight embrace. “You are the only one who truly understands me,” she said. “Remember when we first switched places at age twelve and you went to Brighton for me?”
Belle nodded, caught in her sister’s tight hug. “I was terrified the whole time that either our Aunt Ellie or her Majesty would discover I was an impostor,” she confessed as she returned her sister’s hug.
“But that didn’t happen, did it?” Rita said as she pulled away. “We are so alike that no one ever notices our differences.” Turning, her sister faced the oval mirror above the fireplace. “You act and react exactly like me. We mirror each other. That is why I’m inherently confident that you will always react as I would. So, there’s nothing to worry about, is there?” she asked as she pivoted.
“I hope I can live up to your expectations,” Belle murmured. She moved away to gaze out the balcony windows as a heavy weight settled in her chest. Rita was wrong. In many ways they were the complete opposites. The problem was that Rita had never taken the time to discover those differences.
Peering through the rain streaked French doors leading onto the balcony, Belle searched the desolate inlet below for the HMS Sea Hawk. The British Man-of-War that had brought them to Barovia. A bleak sense of desperation swept through her as she searched the horizon for a tiny dot, hoping for one last glimpse of the British Man-of-War and a bit of the familiar. Finding nothing, she gulped back her dismay.
Straightening, she took a deep breath, forcing back her rising tide of uneasiness. Now wasn’t the time to fall apart. For once again, circumstances demanded that she hold the tattered pieces of both their lives together. She took another deep breath and blinked back the tears welling inside. In a fortnight she and Rita would be separated. She to live in England and Rita to reign as Queen of Barovia. If what she’d learned about Umberford’s strict dictates were true, then she and her sister would never see each other again. No matter what their brother had promised, Belle knew this would be their last time together. She had only this one last chance to make things right for her twin. She had to do all she could for Rita. She would have no more chances to correct the mistakes she’d made in the past regarding her sister.
Belle choked back the panic threatening to swamp her as she thought of their uncertain futures apart. She took a slow, steady breath. She knew from experience that it did no good worrying about tomorrow. She couldn’t change the past and the future was too ambiguous to predict. To do that she would need a crystal ball. She gulped at the thought. She’d watched their aunt dabble in the black arts. The arcane had led to nothing but disappointment and heartache for Aunt Ellie.
Slowly, she turned away from the balcony doors. She might as well face the inevitable. She had been abandoned in a foreign country with her sister, their aunt, and two ladies maids dependent upon her. All they had was each other. That being the case it would have to be enough until Edward arrived with King Stefan.
A frantic scratching sounded at the connecting door, followed by a yelp.
“There’s Muffy,” Rita said, “Aunt Ellie must be up from her nap.”
The door swung open and a white ball of fur tumbled into the room followed by their petite blonde-haired aunt. The small dog raced around Aunt Ellie’s floor length mauve skirts, yipping shrilly preventing the middle-aged woman from moving further into the room.
Belle looked on in amusement as Rita scooped the small yelping dog up into her arms. The smile dropped from her lips as Belle realized that their ruse was about to be undone by a ball of fluff, Aunt Ellie’s most recent addition to their entourage.
Hastily crossing the room as the dog licked joyously at Rita’s face, Belle held out her arms. “Give him to me.”
“Oh, Muffy,” Aunt Ellie exclaimed. “Imagine that! Now you like her Ladyship just as much as you do her Royal Highness.”
Rita arched her eyebrow. “You sure?” she whispered, pausing to deposit the wiggling canine into Belle’s waiting arms.
Belle nodded, wishing their aunt hadn’t turned so formal in her use of titles. Especially now that they had changed identities. But then her aunt had lived with them for nearly eight years and never seemed to be able to tell the two girls apart. So, surely she would be able to remember who her aunt was addressing?
“Definitely,” she nodded then narrowed her gaze on the oversized rat as Rita handed the dog over to her. The dog squirmed then let out a high-pitched howl as Belle fought to hold onto its squirming, wiggling body. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all, she decided.
“Oh, you bad boy,” their aunt scolded as she quickly lifted her pet from Belle’s arms. “I am so sorry Your Highness,” she said. “I do not know what has gotten into Muffy?”
Belle knew exactly what was wrong with the dog but instead chose to say. “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve heard that all males are fickle.” She smiled to soften her words.
“Not just males,” Rita said, her tone hard. “I’ve also known a few females that fit into that category.”
“True,” Belle acknowledged as she waved her hand for Rita to ring for tea.
“My Muffy has always been so good.” Aunt Ellie’s voice trembled as she looked soulfully up at Belle. “I just don’t know what has gotten into him.”
Belle laid her arm across their aunt’s shoulders and directed her toward the armchair positioned near the fireplace. “Don’t fret, my dear. Tea will be here soon.”
“Is fine,” Belle inserted. “Like humans, some animals don’t travel well. It was a rough crossing for us all.”
“Oh, my yes and especially for you, Your Highness,” Aunt Ellie said. “I am so glad to see you have regained the bloom in your cheeks.”
Surripediously, Belle glanced at Rita who still looked a bit pale.
“I’m told that the idea of marriage does that to one,” Rita quipped as she crossed to the fireplace. “Aunt Ellie, allow me to take Muffy for you. He’ll be better off with one of the maids while we have our tea.”
“Good idea,” Belle said as the sitting room door opened and Agatha, her lady’s maid, wheeled in the tea tray. “Let’s all sit and have a relaxing cup while we wait,” she invited.
“Right, might as well make ourselves comfortable,” Rita agreed with awry twist to her lips. “Who knows how long we’ll be forced to kick up our heels here,” she added as she handed the dog over to the maid.
Without a thought, Belle crossed to the tea trolley and selected a teacup. “Aunt Ellie, would you--“
“Oh, no, Your Highness,” Aunt Ellie popped up out of her chair as if she’d sat on a hot coal. Adjusting her pink-fringed paisley shawl, she hurried across the room. “Please, Your Highness, allow me to do the honor,” she said, hastily snatching the cup from Belle’s fingers before she could object.
Sphynx-like, Belle stared at the petite woman for a moment. Then she glanced over at her twin, her heart hammering in her chest. Had she unknowingly given away their game?
Rita’s small shrug indicated that she had no answer and that only time would tell.
“Very well,” Belle muttered as she allowed Aunt Ellie to proceed. Resuming her seat, she watched their aunt turn and set the cup on a saucer. “I really wish we could drop the ‘your highness’ bit though,” she added.
“Oh, no, Your Highness,” Aunt Ellie said as she glanced over her bony shoulder then turned back to pour the tea. Belle noted a blush stained her aunt’s porcelain face as she crossed the room. “I couldn’t possible agree to that,” she said, offering her the cup filled with Oolong tea. “You must become comfortable with hearing your new title.”
“I suppose you are correct,” Belle sighed then added, “Thank you,” as she accepted the fragrant brew. When she took a sip, a tingling sensation floated across her tongue. Gracious! That wasn’t Oolong. She frowned as she swallowed then noticed that their aunt had returned to the tea cart. What new brand had Aunt Ellie forced them into trying this time?
“Would you like a cup?” Aunt Ellie, twisting the black band of her cuff back into place before raising an empty cup and waving it at Rita.
“With or without what you just slipped into her Highness’ cup?” Rita asked.
Belle choked as she went to swallow another sip. Her eyes began to water.
“Oh, dear!” their aunt squeaked. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”
Finally getting the tea down, Belle wiped at the tears streaming down her face and then managed to gasp. “See what?”
She heard Rita’s cold chuckle. “I suspect you are drinking one of Aunt Ellie’s offensive potions,” her twin said. “But, by now we both realize that while they may taste awful,” she shrugged. “They are innocuous.”
“O-oh!” Aunt Ellie exclaimed then her shoulders drooped. “I know that I ought to be offended by your words but . . . you’ve only stated the truth. I am a complete failure when it comes to casting spells.” She signed, a doleful expression sweeping across her countenance.
“Um-m,” Belle said clearing her throat. “So, what exactly did you put in this?” she asked as a tingling spread down her throat and into her chest. She coughed then managed to gasp out. “Should I be worried?”
“Oh dear! Do you feel ill, Your Highness?” Aunt Ellie asked. A deep frown drew her thinning brows together as she began twisting her lace hankie this way and that.
Belle shook her head, her eyes beginning to water again. “Not necessarily… ill, just…strange.”
“Oh!” Aunt Ellie gasped. A delightful giggle erupting as a grin spread across her wrinkle free face. She clapped her hands. “Imagine that! It’s working! It’s really working.”
Belle coughed again then pinched her throat to prevent the sneeze tickling the back of her nose from spewing forth.
“What makes you say that?” Rita asked as she handed Belle a lace hanky.
“I have been practicing,” Aunt Ellie said, proudly, her thin lips stretching into a wide smile.
“But, what exactly did you put in my tea?” Belle asked again as she mopped at her streaming eyes.
Aunt Ellie dipped her silver streaked blonde head, then fingered the coral brooch she wore pinned at the neck of her dress for a moment. “A-a few of my very special herbs,” she said, shyly.
“From our herb garden?” Belle asked, trying to decide if she should be alarmed by the strange aftertaste.
“That . . . and a few other things I found,” Aunt Ellie said, nodding vigorously. The movement caused the braids coiled at the back of her head to sway precariously.
“Like eye of toad?” Belle mumbled.
“Oh no, my dear,” Aunt Ellie trilled, shaking her head briskly. “Love potions never use toads, or frogs, or lizards, especially not when dealing with royalty, Your Highness.”
“A l-love potions?” Belle stammered. “Why on earth do you think I need one of those?”
“Well,” Aunt Ellie seemed to hesitate then peered up at her as she extracted two pins from her hair and tucked them back into her coil. “Because I wasn’t sure that the spell I put on your brooch would work. I thought… I had better mix you a special potion as well.”
“Oh-h-h,” Belle sighed, swallowing back the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat. “And the reason you felt it necessary to go to such lengths was--”
“Your Highness,” Aunt Ellie said, leaning towards Belle and grasping her hand. "For the past eight years you and your sister have been the light of my life. I want only the very best for you. I want you…to be…happy.”
Tears welled up in Belle. “And you think one of your potions will do the trick?” she asked, softly, wanting to remember this overwhelming moment of love pouring out to her for the rest of her life. Knowing that someone wanted the very best for her would have to be enough to sustain her through the dark years she served as Umberford’s wife.
“Oh, yes, Your Highness, I know it will.”
Belle flipped her hand to clasped Aunt Ellie’s in her own. She knew the dear lady had loved and still mourned her husband. “And you really believe that love is necessary in a Marriage of State?”
“Oh, my dear child,” Aunt Ellie said, softly. “Not only is it necessary but it is essential if the marriage is to succeed.”
Belle peered into the kind blue eyes, so wise in courtly protocol yet naïve in so many of the ways of the world. “And you think your potion will help me attain happiness?” she asked as she remembered the blackened kitchen walls she’d help scrub down more times than not after one of Aunt Ellie’s potions had gone awry.
“Oh, yes, Your Highness, it is my fondest wish for you.”
Belle hated to disappoint the woman who had been a loving surrogate mother to them. She lifted her cup from where she had set it on the small table beside her. She stared into the cup for a moment then swirled the contents. Raising it to her lips, she tipped it and swallowed the remaining contents in one gulp. Gently, placing the bone china cup back on its saucer, she bravely met her aunt’s expectant gaze. “Then may all your wishes come true.”
The poignant moment was lost when Rita hurriedly clapped her hands. “Brava, Your Highness, brava!”
Belle wrinkled her brow and eyed her sister warily. She only hoped her bravada hadn’t landed her in more trouble than what she was in already.
* * *
Prince Nikolai Orsini Garaini, otherwise known as ‘Niko’, slapped his black leather riding gloves against his gray breeches then frowned. Blast! The situation wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. Although his men had secured the perimeter of the Black Swan Inn, the life of their future queen was in jeopardy. “And you say the rebels have cut off all access by road into the village?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Colonel Cyrek Domokos handed him the spyglass and pointed to the main road leading into Saranda. “There is a main force waiting by the bridge down there.”
“How many?” Niko asked as he swung the scope and adjusted the knob to focus on the road running east from the village of Saranda to the town of Suri Kalter over the mountains.
“About three dozen.”
“Have they pitched tents?” Niko asked as he turned the glass to the south.
“No,” Cyrek assured him. “Evidently they don’t think they’re going to be there that long.”
“Good,” Niko said knowing if his enemy was entrenched it would be more difficult to roust them out.
“And the south road?”
“It’s guarded by a small force,” Cyrek replied.
“So, we’re up against a contingency of about fifty-four rebels?” he asked then wondered if the rebels were there simply to attack another village or if they had been informed that their future Queen had come ashore. If that was the case, then their presence meant that they were there to harm the Lady with the aim of striking a crippling blow to the country.
“Could be more,” Cyrek said, slowly.
Niko heard the caution threaded through his friend’s words. “And the village itself?” he asked, pivoting in that direction, knowing stealth had always been the best option when creating a plan.
“We’re not sure, Your Highness,” Cyrek said. “The villagers are believed to be loyal to the Crown. However, there could be rebels planted in every house or none at all.”
Niko nodded. In these uncertain times, his first priority was to keep her ladyship safe and to effectively extract her from harm’s way. “Has there been any unusual movement seen inside the village?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Cyrek said. “As you ordered, our men have filtered into the village over the past two days. Some dressed as fishermen, others as itinerant peasants and a few appear as tradesmen. They are positioned both inside the inn and stationed around it.”
“Good,” he said then frowned. If there had been any way he could’ve delayed the lady’s arrival until after he’d found out with certainty that someone was supplying information to the rebels then he would’ve. But Stefan needed this marriage pronto to stabilize their country. “And the lady?”
“She and her entourage arrived minutes ago while you were making your way up here.”
Niko nodded then hesitated. “How large a group?”
“Nearest I can tell,” Cyrek said, “there’s a middle-aged chaperone, two ladies maids, and another female.”
“Likely her personal secretary,” Niko guessed, pleased she had kept the number of attendants to the maximum his cousin had requested.
But that by no means solved his problem of how to extract her from a village surrounded by rebels. Slowly, he began to pace the small ridge above the main road as he considered the solution. Halting, he waved his officers waiting for instructions over as he bent and drew a squiggly line in the dirt. “While I had planned on bringing her Ladyship into the Bay of Vlore,” he said, pointing to the make-shift position. “With the storm and the Austrian-Hungarian blockade in the Strait of Otranto, I had no other choice but to move our rendezvous point to Saranda since it’s the only port deep enough to handle a British Man of War.” He drew a circle. “Now, we have the task of removing Cousin Stefan’s bride from the threat of the Yugoslavian rebels blocking all our exits from the town.” He straightened and stared at his friend. “Stefan hasn’t been king long enough to gain the full backing of all of our countrymen. If the rebels can stop Stefan’s marriage, our very existence is in jeopardy.”
Cyrek nodded. “Because without this marriage, we have no link to Queen Victoria and England’s might. And without that military power behind us--”
“Greece, Yugoslavia and Austria-Hungary will invade, claim our land as their own and we will become a bloody battlefield caught between the three countries,” Niko said. “Our defenses cannot withstand the collective invasion of all three nations at once,” he admitted then took a deep breath. “Therefore, to prevent that, here’s my plan.” Hastily, he began drawing in the dirt. “We’ll leave you, Major Kelso and your rifle troop here to pin down the rebels at the bridge,” he said pointing at the position he’d drawn. “Captain Bjorni, we will send you and a squad of your men to the south to hunt down the rebels along the road,” he said moving his index finger over to that position. “Major Hondros, you are to maintain your orders to fire at will upon anyone threatening the safety of her Ladyship.” He swept his gaze over his cadre of officers. “As for me, I’ll circle around to the village of Vorshi. Procure Stefan’s yacht and sail back here. Since we’ve masked the ship’s markings and it appears as an ordinary fishing vessel, we’ll anchor off the promontory. A skiff will bring me ashore. I’ll then make my way up through the village and proceed on to the inn.”
“And at the Inn?” Cyrek asked as his bushy eyebrows drew together.
“I’ll convince her Ladyship that she must accompany me out by boat,” he said then straightened. “Any questions?” he asked as he swept his gaze over his men.
With a shake of their heads, they responded, “No, sir.”
Niko nodded then continued. “Once you have quietly rounded up the rebels, you and Major Hondros will escort her ladyship’s entourage to Ksamilli. The following morning, you will proceed to Berat where we’ll meet you outside the city in the field across from the public market.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Cyrek snapped him a salute. “Rest assured the men guarding our future Queen will protect her with their very lives.”
“I know,” he said, returning the salute. The men in his command were seasoned veterans who had served together, like he and Cyrek had, for over ten years. With men like these, what inevitably went wrong was halted before it became a problem.