“Open the damn gate!” James bellowed as they walked on the drawbridge.
Sarah shivered in the cold wind that funneled through the dark stone corridor before them.
“Name and rank,” a Guard called back from the towering wall above them.
“For the hate of the Gods,” James called back. “Lieutenant James of the Elite returning with prisoner.”
“Prisoner? General’s orders were...”
“I know what General Wholawski’s orders were!” James interrupted the man. “But I guarantee he’ll be interested in this one.”
“It’s your head.” The guard shrugged.
“And it will be yours if you don’t open the damn gate. I didn’t cross all of Vervell and Azure just to freeze on the drawbridge.”
The man scuttled inside and James pushed and prodded Sarah into the freezing shadow of the gate towers. The warmth of stone that Sarah had noticed when entering the Verdain castle was absent here. Instead, the facade was cold and immobile. Sarah did not envy those who faced its walls; nor those on top. There was a nasty cold wind coming from across the lake.
A sudden screech before them startled her and she looked back into the wind tunnel to watch the portcullis rise. It must be one hell of a pulley system to get that thing up, she thought. The iron bars were as thick as her arms. Once it was high enough James shoved her through.
A man met them halfway across the courtyard. “General isn’t happy about being disturbed.”
“I think he’ll forgive me when he sees her.” James gave Sarah a kick.
She turned on him, eyes ablaze.
“That’s female?” the man asked.
“Of course I’m female,” Sarah snapped, not happy with her situation at all. “Never knew wearing my pants and cutting my hair would fool so many.”
Sarah rolled her eyes as James replied, “It insults too.”
He moved past the man and across the lawn to where the inner keep doors were opening up. They stepped inside the tower walls only to have the door slammed shut behind them. They waited in the near darkness until the inner doors opened. Sarah took deep even breaths to calm herself down. Hearing James’s breathing echo hers, she renewed hope that he was still on their side. Once the door was wide enough James led Sarah up three steps into a large hall.
“All right Lieutenant James.” General Wholawski bellowed from the other end of the room. His back was to them and Sarah continued to gather her resolve. “Is there anything other than you returning from the dead that should concern me?” The man slowly turned to face them. “I was having a lovely chat with the Princess and apologizing that I didn’t have her brother’s head to serve her.” His eyes fixed on Sarah. “What is that?”
“Oh for Christ sake I’m not an it I’m a she!” Sarah blurted out unable to help herself, despite Jason’s warnings and James jerking on her ropes.
General Wholawski jumped down from his dais and strode forward to meet them two thirds of the way up the hall. “So it is female.”
Sarah glared at the man. Had she really volunteered for this?
“She’s spirited too, and,” James began but the General completed his statement for him.
“She’s the witch who tried to poison us and took our darling Prince.” The General laughed. “Yes, I remember that stare. But tell me,” his face was inches from hers, “what did you do with the boy?”
“Ate him for breakfast,” Sarah retorted.
The General pulled back and laughed. “You know, I should have gotten to know you better when you were with us the first time. Second time’s a charm.” He moved back to the dais. “Strip her.”
“What?” Sarah’s exclamation echoed Jason’s mental cry.
“You heard me,” the General spun around and sat upon his throne. “Strip her. I want every part of her clothing searched. Destroy anything you find that might be used to poison us.”
“Yes General.” James’s face betrayed no emotion.
“Pfft,” Sarah muttered. “It’s not like my body hasn’t been seen by a man before.”
Sarah, Jason’s voice held fear and longing.
I know, she tried to swallow her own fear at the connection break it would bring, but at least he didn’t suggest a cavity search.
Sarah stood proud. The General could strip her clothing, but he wasn’t going to strip her of her dignity that easily. Two vials rolled onto the ground as James shook out her pants. Sarah furrowed her brows as James picked them up and presented them to the General. Did he plant them on me? she wondered, heart dropping.
“Throw her in the dungeon and burn that clothing.” The General grabbed the two vials and came back to stand face to face with Sarah. “You can make a fool of me once,” he hissed at her, “but not twice. I’ll keep our bargain though. Don’t seduce my men and I won’t let them touch you. At least, not yet.”
His eyes traversed her body as if memorizing the tender parts of a piece of meat he was to butcher later. Sarah involuntarily shivered.
“Go on Captain,” he emphasized the title, “James, take her away, and find some suitable rags for her to wear. I’d hate to have her die of cold before we have any fun eh.”
He clouted James’s shoulder before walking away, leaving Sarah sick to the stomach.