Read Charming, Volume 2 Online
Authors: Jack Heckel
“Well, what do you think?” Grady asked with none of his usual growls. All the dwarves poked their heads above the foot of the bed and waited eagerly for her review.
Liz wiped her eyes dry and smiled at the little group. “I think the butler would have to be a fool not to let you see his master.”
The dwarves gave a huzzah, broke out a large crockery jug of ale, and after a few rounds began dancing about the room. Elizabeth clapped along with them until Grady stopped the frivolity with a shoutâÂ“HEY! What are we doing? We need to get this stuff packed up, you guys. It's off to the Beast's we go! On foot, it'll take us a day or two at least to get there, so we have to get started.” There was another shouted cheer and the little group danced out the door in a clatter of boots and caterwaul of off-Âkey singing.
Liz beckoned Dorian to stop, and the elderly dwarf, still red in the face from the dance, puffed over. She put a hand on his head. “Thank you, Dorian, for doing me this favor. You cannot know what it means to me.”
He blushed. “Don't think anything of it. To be truthful, we haven't had a good story to tell for years. Our last few have been .Â .Â . well, awful. We've needed some inspiration, and”âÂhe paused and winked at herâÂ“it doesn't hurt that our new muse is easy on the eyes.”
She smiled sweetly. “Oh, how you flatter, Dorian, but thank you.” Then she straightened her face. “Now, remember, if you manage to see your Patron, you must ask him to take my warning to Lady Rapunzel.” The dwarf nodded seriously and she continued. “And if he is in any doubt as to the truth of my existence and need, you should give him this.” She handed him the slipper.
“IâÂWe can't .Â .Â . No!” the dwarf spluttered.
“Please take it, and use it to the best effect. I shall always have the memory, and trust me when I say that the memory is all that will ever come of my time with the Prince. If this silly glass shoe can help my brother and the King and my friend escape the Princess, then I will be happy.”
Dorian raised himself up to his full height, all two feet and nine inches, put a hand over his heart, and bowed deeply. “I swear to you, Lady Elizabeth, we will return, and we will bring help.”
She bent down and kissed the top of his head. “Thank you. Oh, and Dorian, the humerus is up here.” She pointed to the unplastered part of her arm above the elbow.
Dorian blushed from the top of his ears to the tip of his nose and scurried to the door.
“One last thing,” she called to him. “What did Grady mean, âIt's off to the Beast's we go'?”
The smile on the dwarf's face faltered momentarily, and then he said with affected lightness, “Don't you worry yourself about that, it's just a little inside joke. You know Grady.” Before Liz had a chance to say anything further, he slipped out the door.
At the Crossroads
THE KING'S PAR
slept one miserable night at the Cooked Goose, which should have been a great boon to the inn's reputation, except that a fierce attack of bed bugs roused the monarch in the wee hours of pre-Âdawn, and put him in a terrible rage, which he directed entirely at the proprietor of the Cooked Goose. The result of which is that, despite the truth of the matter, the Cooked Goose is the only public house in the kingdom that does not profess to have hosted the King.
The King's early morning meant that His Royal Majesty, Will, Tomas, and the Royal Herald were already on the road south to Castle White by the time the sun had risen. It was a silent and mournful ride. The King, wrapped heavily in his grief, said not a word, and the others did their best to match his mood. Even the weather fell into line, alternating between driving rain and drizzle.
Midday found them eating, if not enjoying, a damp luncheon at an overgrown crossroads. They had taken shelter under a dripping hawthorn tree, which was terribly uncomfortable. The low branches forced them to constantly hunch and offered dubious defense against the rain. And so, when Lady Rapunzel's carriage arrived with a shout and whistle from her driver and a clatter of ironclad wheels, it was welcome relief from what had become a rather moist and depressing journey.
A pale, delicate face framed by the hood of a red riding cloak emerged from a paneled window. “Your Royal Highness?”
All of the men looked up, and the Royal Herald, seizing the opportunity to practice his craft, called out, “Presenting the Lady Rapunzel!”
The King sighed. He began to rise slowly and stiffly. Beside him, Will stood to attention with a start, smacking his head hard on one of the low branches. A shower of raindrops and a muffled curse followed. Will's squire, Tomas, muttered in a low voice, “Watch your language, Lord Protector, there's a lady present.”
Will flushed, and the King lowered his head and grinned. The squire had been the perfect companion for his son.
The thought of Edward wiped the smile from the King's face, and his black despair descended again. He rose, shaking, and felt Will's strong hand on his arm. The lad was a comfort, but the King wanted to suffer. He shook the hand off and moved unsteadily to meet the lady. Will stepped forward beside him, and he felt Tomas and the Royal Herald fall in behind them.
Lady Rapunzel watched their approach behind a handkerchief, which the King suspected was there to hide the smile he saw in her eyes. The King reflected that, as wet as they were, they probably looked a bit ridiculousâÂpatheticâÂbut also ridiculous. Still, when she spoke, her voice held the proper note of respect. “Your Majesty and Lord Protector, well met.”
The King bowed in return. Will started to wave awkwardly before stumbling to perform his own bow. Rapunzel's eyes lingered on Will a moment longer than strict propriety would have deemed appropriate. The King noticed and sadly recalled the competition to marry he had started between Will and Edward. It hardly mattered anymore, but he couldn't help wondering if itâÂif
âÂhad played a role in his son's fall. The King cleared the lump that had formed in his throat and spoke. “Lady Rapunzel, well met. If you wouldn't mind, might we conduct the remainder of our conversation inside your coach?”
Rapunzel pulled her gaze away from Will, blinked, and lurched into speech. “Of course, Your Majesty. Please, come in and accept whatever small comfort I may offer. I also have urgent news to convey.”
The King stepped into the carriage and said in a firmer, more commanding tone, “Urgent news from Castle White? Is all well there, Lady Rapunzel?”
He took a seat across from her in the plush coach as she hesitantly lowered her scarlet hood. She reached a hand up and tucked the ends of her short blond hair behind her ears before she answered. “I fear not, Your Majesty. I bring dark tidings from the court.”
The King held up his hand to stop her. Will was backing away to join the squire and the herald in the rain. The King silently cursed Will's unwillingness to take the role history demanded, but aloud he said, “Lord Protector, Lady Rapunzel has urgent news from the castle. Please join us. I require your counsel.”
Will hesitated, but then bent his massive frame through the door of the coach and into the tiny compartment. He stood, awkwardly bent over and looked between the two benches. Lady Rapunzel gracefully resolved the point of protocol by sliding to one side and gesturing to the bench next to her.
“Please, Lord Protector, be seated and be welcome,” she said.
Will mumbled a thanks and sat. The quarters were close, and Will had to cram himself against the wall to avoid having his legs brush against Lady Rapunzel's skirts. She smiled at him in that knowing way only a woman can when she knows a man's discomfort. The smile broke as she reached up to touch the ends of her hair again.
Normally, the King would have found diversion in the scene, but he was in no mood today. “Lady Rapunzel, you mentioned urgent news from Castle White?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. It began the day after you and the Lord Protector left.”
Rapunzel told them about Princess Gwendolyn seizing control of the court, her humiliation of Lady Elizabeth, their flight from the castle, and her suspicions concerning the Princess's designs on the throne. The King listened silently behind steepled hands.
Will blurted out, “What? You can't be serious.”
Rapunzel turned to face Will and, between pursed lips, said, “I am perfectly serious, Lord Protector.”
Will mirrored her movement, turning in his seat to face her. “Princess Gwendolyn? What could she possibly have against us .Â .Â . against Liz, Lady Rapunzel?”
“You can't be that naÃ¯ve. She wants the throne.”
“That's absurd. She's the princess and a princess wouldn't engage in such schemes, Lady Rapunzel.”
“That's your argument?” she said in a voice rich with sarcasm. “That she's too much a lady?”
“Kind of,” he said lamely, but with conviction.
“Like any other lady, Princess Gwendolyn is perfectly capable of being a conniving, backstabbing schemer.”
“Now you're just being mean, you have no evidence that Princess Gwendolyn is any of those things. Apart from a Âcouple of slights against my sister, it doesn't seem to me she has done anything wrong.”
The King barely heard a word of their back and forth. His mind was filled with black thoughts, and it took all of his courtly skill not to show his grief, but to instead keep his face frozen in an expression of mild disinterest. Fortunately, he had many long years of practice at this so he wore the look quite naturally. “I am inclined to agree with the Lord Protector in conclusion, if not reasoning,” he finally opined. “With all due respect to you, Lady Rapunzel, and to your fair sister, Lord Protector, it sounds like the Princess is guilty of little more than being a poor hostess and badly overstepping her station. I think jealousyâÂyes, Lord Protector,” he said, forestalling Will's nascent protestâÂ“jealousy rather than ambition is the likely culprit behind Princess Gwendolyn's behavior.”
Rapunzel tried to keep her face respectful, but the King could see that she did not agree with his conclusion. Visibly gathering herself, she said, “Your Majesty, I hate to be contrary, but .Â .Â .”
“But you're going to be anyway,” he replied, and admired the lady's resolve on the subject.
“Yes, Your Majesty, I am,” she said with a hint of rebellion in her tone.
The King held up his hand, cutting her off. “Lady Rapunzel, I understand that Princess Gwendolyn can be cold and haughty, and I know better than most that her temper can be downright nasty, particularly when she feels she has been slighted, but it is my opinion that you and Lady Elizabeth have overreacted.”
Will, who had been listening to the debate in silence, now dropped the finger he had been chewingâÂa nasty habit he needed to be broken ofâÂand leaned forward. “Sire, are you absolutely sure there is no danger? I do not worry about myself, but I do not want Liz placed in any harm.”
The King paused, surprised to hear Will speak at all. He saw the color rush to the lad's cheeks as he realized that he was, in effect, contradicting his monarch. Lady Rapunzel used the moment to renew her assault. “Indeed, Your Majesty, Will should be with his sister. Besides, you and Prince Charming should be able to handle the Princess.”
The King felt the warmth drain from his face, and Rapunzel's voice trailed off as she recognized that she had said something very wrong. An awkward silence followed, and no one seemed to wish to be the first to break it.
Finally, Lady Rapunzel spoke, but in a much softer tone. “Where is your son, the Prince, Your Majesty? I should have thought he would be at your side.”
Where was Edward?
He felt old and tired, and responded in a voice that seemed to come to him from very far away. “Prince Charming is no more.”
Lady Rapunzel gasped in shock, and tears welled in her eyes. “The Prince? No! Forgive me, had I known .Â .Â . I am terribly sorry .Â .Â .”
She reached out for him, and the King watched himself first clasp and then pat her hand before releasing it, but he could not feel the touch. Some courtly reflex made him respond. “You could not know, as it was only a day hence that I .Â .Â . I .Â .Â .”
, he finished silently. Only a deep sigh marked the thought. “It doesn't matter. The fact is that the Prince will not return. Yet another reason I need the Lord Protector with me at the castle. You will take the news of his safe return to Lady Elizabeth at your family's country estate and bring her back to Castle White. Now, if you will allow me, I am tired and need to rest.”
Lady Rapunzel took the dismissal with remarkable grace. Without hesitation, she lifted the red hood back over her hair and replied, “Of course, you must be exhausted, Your Majesty. If, however, I may beg your indulgence, Your Grace. I have been trapped in this beastly carriage for two days, and would dearly like to ride a while in the fresh air. May I be excused?”
In a single stroke, Lady Rapunzel had not only accepted her dispossession with aplomb, but also relieved him of the responsibility of evicting her. The King nodded his approval. She rose, and, despite the tight confines of the carriage, managed a respectful curtsy. Will stood with her, but too quickly, and slammed his head into the roof of the coach. This time he managed not to curse. Rapunzel covered his fumble by putting out her hand to him. “Lord Protector, would you help me down?”
The squire, who must have been standing just outside, opened the door of the carriage and dazzling sunlight flooded the little compartment. While they had debated and discussed, the skies had cleared, and outside the afternoon sky was a crisp blue traced through with linen-Âsharp streaks of white. That the rains were gone assuaged the King's guilt a little. When the door shut behind Will and Rapunzel, the King fell back into the lonely twilight of his grief and wept for his lost son.
WILL BLINKED AT
the brilliant sky and stepped onto the wet road. As he helped Lady Rapunzel descend, Will suddenly became very aware of her hand in his. A hint of flowers floated in the air around her, not roses like Princess Gwendolyn but something else .Â .Â . jasmine. The perfume reminded him of home, where a vine of jasmine had climbed the wall outside his bedroom window. He found himself holding her hand for a moment even after she had stepped onto the road. She favored him with a smile of surprise and a blush of color, so swift, that he wondered after she turned away if he had imagined it.
She walked toward the head of the coach, and he had a chance to admire the waist of her traveling dress and the long flow of swishing skirt that followed. Perhaps she felt his eyes on her, because she glanced back, and when she saw him looking, she adjusted the hood of her traveling cloak, pulling it further down over her face. Will pretended to be in deep contemplation of his mud-Âcrusted boot.
Alone for the moment, he considered Rapunzel. What a change from the ball. She was still overly opinionated and quick to anger, but there was something about her that made his throat catch every time he tried to talk to her. Sadly, he reminded himself, she was unlikely to be favorably disposed toward him, given their argument. He replayed the conversation in the coach and winced.
By the time he had reviewed and regretted all the stupid things he'd said, the carriage was moving away, and the Royal Herald was scrambling to mount up and follow. “I must hurry,” the man exclaimed dramatically. “The King cannot possibly travel without being properly announced.”
Meanwhile, Tomas had taken a small cloth pavilion out of one of Rapunzel's many trunks, and was assembling it on the glittering green grass of a nearby field. Will wandered over to the squire and watched as he drove the last peg into the ground. “What is that for?”
“Haven't you ever traveled with a Lady, Will? She's going to need to change into her riding clothes, and she's not about to do that out in the open so you can ogle her in her all-Ânatural. Not that you'd mind, I'd reckon, given how you've been staring after her.”
Will's cheeks flamed. Tomas gave a low, knowing chuckle, and then stalked off toward Rapunzel. “Now I know why Charming always called him a gnarled hobgoblin,” Will muttered to himself.
Will was still mumbling to himself when Lady Rapunzel arrived. He tried to transformâÂmidwordâÂhis unintelligible mutterings into a song so she would not think him mad. The curled smile that followed told him that it hadn't worked. Still smiling, she stepped into the small enclosure to begin changing. Will turned to leave.
“Lord William, would you stay?”
He turned back and saw the cloth wall of the tent flutter. The opening gaped for a moment and Will glimpsed the outline of her body silhouetted within. He turned away and managed a throaty, “Yes .Â .Â . yes .Â .Â . of course.”