Day Twenty-one

Estelle smiled at him but the amusement never reached her eyes. She tussled Colin’s hair as she stared at the open wardrobe and all of the colorful costumes it held. Costumes Gerald would never wear again, one way or another. She realized then that the Great Hall was now without a Royal Jester and her father…

“So he has left already,” Grace said, leaning against one side of the doorway, her arms folded across her chest. “That poor child.”

“I’m right here,” Colin said, raising one hand over his head, his face a picture of confusion.

“Not you,” Estelle told him. “She was talking about Jerry.”

“When you get to my age,” Grace told him with a wink, “anyone under forty seems like a child.”


“Now run along, Colin,” Estelle said, patting him on the head. “I need to speak with Grace alone.”

Colin got to his feet reluctantly and stood looking back and forth between the two women for a moment. Then he dragged his feet to the door, where Grace stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“If you would like to help Jerry,” she said with an unreadable expression, “then tell no one what he is doing. Do not even mention that he has left the castle. Can you keep this secret?”

“If it’ll help Jerry, I won’t even tell my mother!”

“That’s a good child. Now be on your way.”

Grace stood watching the boy jog down the hallway until he rounded a corner. Then she stepped into the room and closed the door behind her before coming to take a seat on the edge of Gerald’s bed.

“What was that all about?” Estelle asked, still on her knees and unable to find the energy or motivation to move. She wondered what would happen if she asked her father if she could sleep in Gerald’s room until he returned, then immediately scolded herself for being ridiculous.

“Two things,” Grace said. “Firstly, if word reached your father he would send men after Jerry. And they would find him and bring him back and everyone would be worse off for it. The king would be furious with him for playing him for a fool, but mostly for trying to get himself killed. And you two would have to find a way to see each other every single day, finally knowing how much you care for each other… and yet not be able to speak one word of it. It would be in your eyes each time you looked at each other but the knowledge that your husband would soon be returning with his bloody dragon’s head would always be in your heart.”

“And secondly?” Estelle asked quietly, her eyes on the floor before her.

“If everyone thinks he was just fooling around, then no one will know he is actually trying to kill Blackwing. So they will keep tabs on the other nine men and worry about where they are, what they are doing, how soon they might reach the dragon’s lair. And Jerry will move undetected. The way he raced out of the hall I would wager he has made himself a very nice head start - and those ten men have no idea.”

“So we will lie to my father?”

“Only for a day or two. By then Jerry will be out of reach and Owen will have no choice but to wait and see which of those eleven eager souls returns with the proof he has required of them. He will be angry with us, of course, but it will pass. Eventually.”

“What will we tell him? That Jerry is sick and confined to his room? He will be extremely suspicious after the stunt Jerry pulled this morning.”

“I would suggest avoiding your father altogether for the remainder of the day,” Grace said. “When Jerry fails to appear in the Great Hall tomorrow morning, I will send word that he is not feeling well and needs to rest. By the time he discovers the truth, it should be early afternoon - later, if we can manage it. Hopefully it will be enough.”

“Do you think he stands any chance at all?” Estelle asked, pushing herself off the floor and coming to sit next to her maid.

“Have I ever told you about my husband?”

“I didn’t know that you were ever married!” Estelle said, feeling ashamed that she had known the woman for so long and was unaware of such a fundamental fact.

“Then let me tell you a story,” Grace said as she eased to her feet. “It is not a long one, but I think it would be best to not linger here any longer.”

“In case my father comes looking for Jerry,” the princess agreed, rising and linking their arms together. “Would you walk me back to my room, Grace? I fear I am feeling lightheaded.”

“But of course, child,” Grace said, patting her on the back of her hand. “It has, after all, been a very momentous morning. I would recommend that you spend the rest of the day in bed so that you may recover your wits. I shall be sure to inform your father that you should not be disturbed.”

“You are much too kind.”

“I know.”

With a soft chuckle they left Gerald’s room, making sure to close the door behind them. As they made their way to Estelle’s room through hallways that were gradually becoming busier, Grace shared her tale in a quiet voice. She sounded as though she was a world away, which was where her memory was taking her.

“I was wed to Nigel very young,” she began. “Younger than you are now, but I shall keep to myself exactly how much younger I was. It is not important, and a woman has the right to keep some secrets.”

“Of course,” Estelle said with a fond smile.

“Those were tumultuous times we lived in back then. It seemed like one war or another was always raging, whether it was kingdom against kingdom or disputes within our own borders. We were used to it but it still wore on our nerves - how could it not?

“Armed men would pass through our village almost every day, either the king’s soldiers or mercenaries or who knows. It was rare that an invading force would make it as far as our village, but it did happen on a handful of occasions. Only once was it very bad.”

“Oh, how dreadful! I couldn’t imagine being forced to live under foreign rule, no matter how temporary it might be.”

“My dear child,” Grace said with a laugh, “we suffered no such indignities. No, we fought. The men battled in the streets, the women would shoot arrows from inside the houses. And we knew the king - your father’s father - would be sending his soldiers to help drive them off. We always had hope; I cannot express to you how important that is.

“But they had our village surrounded and the soldiers were having difficulty breaking through to us. Our losses mounted, our morale waned. Things were looking very… grim.”

Grace lapsed into silence as they passed a group of servants huddled together in the hallway. The three men and two women paused in their conversation to curtsy and bow in their direction, but not before Estelle heard them discussing who they thought their next king would be. It was an effort for her to not tell them who she hoped would prove victorious.

“We were forced to lock ourselves in our homes,” Grace continued a few moments later. “But our food stores would only last so long, and there was always the threat looming over our heads that the invaders would just set fire to our buildings. It still surprises me that they did not, to be honest.

“My Nigel was no fool - he saw what was to come if no action was taken. So late one night we remained awake, our cooking fire and torches doused. We were going to make a break for it, fools that we were. Nigel thought that just before dawn would be best, figuring that one watch would be coming to its end and those on duty would be half asleep.”

“You say you were fools,” Estelle said as they reached the central staircase and began to climb. “I say you were incredibly brave. I cannot imagine making such a bold choice.”

“Because you have never found yourself in such a dire situation,” Grace countered. “But it matters not, wise or foolish, brave or stupid. We were doing it. There was no danger of either of us falling asleep, our nerves made sure of that. At the first sign that the sky was beginning to lighten, we slipped out of our back door and made our way through the back alleys of our village.

“Our footsteps sounded like cannon fire in my ears, our breath like the clanging of swords. But somehow we made it to the outskirts without encountering the enemy. Nigel held me in his arms as we looked across the open fields to their campfires. I remember thinking that they looked like the fires of some terrible demons, come to devour our souls.”

“And to think that you turned into such a reasonable old lady,” Estelle said with a gentle elbow to her side.

“I think a fever has taken hold of you, child, if you think you can get away with such talk. I will tell your father that you need two days to rest, not just one.”

“Ever so thoughtful of you, Grace.”

“Indeed. May I continue now?” After Estelle nodded her permission Grace did just that. “We were about to enter the fields and leave the protection of the building when Nigel turned to me and whispered something in my ear. I still remember his words, all these years later.”

“Well?” Estelle asked after Grace had been silent for half a flight of stairs. “What did he say?”

“No matter what happens next, know that I love you.”

Estelle bit her lip and blinked rapidly, fearing that she knew how the story was going to end. But she remained silent and forced herself to hear the rest.

“Then he grabbed my hand and we were running through the fields, faster than arrows. We aimed for a spot in the line where the fires were burning low, thinking that they were untended. In reality, it turned out to be a trap.

“There were six of them waiting for someone to make a break for it, all of them very much awake and very well armed. They appeared before us without saying a word and closed in with these… horrible smiles on their faces. As though they were going to enjoy the slaughter they foresaw.

“I will never forget the sound of Nigel’s sword as he pulled it from his scabbard and pushed me behind him. I begged him to surrender and plead for mercy, but he knew there was no point in any of that. So he fought.”

“I’m so sorry, Grace,” Estelle murmured.

“Don’t be,” Grace said with a laugh. “It was the most magnificent thing I have ever seen. Those fools did not stand a chance against my Nigel! Not when my life was hanging in the balance. He slew five of them before the sixth ran off with his tail between his legs!”

“He survived?” Estelle said as they reached the door to her room. She opened it and stood looking down at her maid. “Do you tell me this to make me feel better about Jerry’s chances?”

“No, child,” Grace said with a tender smile before she placed a hand on the princess’ cheek. “I tell you this tale so that you may know what love is capable of overcoming. Rest well, Your Highness. You will need all of your energy in the coming days.”

With that, Grace turned and walked away, leaving Estelle to stare at her retreating back before she stepped into her room, alone with her thoughts at last.

The End

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