Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:
Be careful to whom you trust your soul.
Mara stopped short. “Robbie,” she whispered.
“It’s ok,” I hastened to assure her. “I told you, I had some time to think. We’ll do it your way.”
“Wait, Robbie,” she began.
“Mara, I decided. Ok? Just leave it alone.”
She fell silent.
“It shouldn’t be too hard. I’ll go alone, or maybe with Sime or Blythe, get in, get out with the prince. Easy.”
“What about the guards?” asked Simeur. “Think they are just going to let you take him, just like that?”
“They’ve got the main doors. I won’t use those.”
“Hmph.” Sime wasn’t satisfied.
I didn’t really care. I hadn’t forgiven him for ganging up on me yesterday. “If we have both Jake and the prince we should be unstoppable. Besides, while I’m in the castle I can talk to Arlin and get his help figured out. It’ll be good.”
“When are you going?” asked Simeur.
That was a good question. I thought for a minute. “After it’s completely dark,” I decided. Might as well keep the ball rolling. I was still on the adrenaline high from the fight with Jake that afternoon. Storming the castle should work fine in my current state of mind.
Blythe glared at me ferociously, so I translated the plan for him. “I’m coming with you,” was the first thing he said after I’d explained everything.
“And just why do you think you should go?” asked Simeur pointedly.
“I know my way around the castle. You don’t. And I know Arlin. Besides, I’m small. I can stay out of sight and scout things out so he doesn’t get caught.”
“He has a point,” I said to Simeur.
“Fine, take the little twerp. I still don’t trust him,” said Simeur, not in dwarvish.
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t be a pain, Sime.” Then I turned to Jake. “This looks like a good place to meet again. I’ll head for the castle with Blythe and once it’s dark sneak in. You, Simeur, and Mara wait here, and I’ll meet you with the prince once we’re done. Sound good?”
Jake nodded and was about to speak, but Mara interrupted. “I’m coming with you.”
I stared at her in astonishment. “Just why do you think that?”
“You’re going because of me. I’m coming with you.”
“It’s too dangerous. You’ll get hurt. You can’t come, Mara.”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” she said quietly and fiercely, looking straight at me.
There was no way for me to argue with that, but it kind of made me mad. “Fine,” I spit out. “You can come. We’re leaving now, let’s go.” I saluted Jake and Sime, and stalked into the woods. Blythe and Mara had to run to keep up.
Ok, I was a little bit wound up. It had been a stressful couple of days, to be sure.
Eventually I slowed down, and the other two caught up. “Are you alright?” asked Blythe uncertainly.
At some point, as we walked through the woods toward the entrance to the secret tunnels to the castle, my mood lightened. After all, we were doing something dangerous and death defying. My mood had to lift at some point during the operation.
We found the tunnels without any problem other than I got nice and scratched up trying to move all the branches away from the opening, and then setting them back in place after we were through. Blythe and Mara weren’t a whole lot of help with that part of things.
Creeping through the tunnel wasn’t all that terrifying either. Mara stepped on a snake and had to hold my arm the whole time afterward because she freaked out. It was pitch black in there, too, so I wasn’t sure if we were going to find the turn because we didn’t have any torches. I did find the turn, however, and soon afterward a place where they kept some torches and matches. Then we had some light, so next time Mara could at least see the snake before she stepped on it. That didn’t encourage her much, so she kept trying to squeeze the life out of my arm. I refrained from any I-told-you-so’s. But really, she shouldn’t have come. This was not an adventure for the little princess. Nothing glamorous, just tunnels and snakes. And since when do princesses come to rescue princes? It just wasn’t right, even by my screwed up version of the way the world should work.
When we got to the trapdoor I went first, just to make sure it had gotten good and dark while we wandered around in the tunnels. It had been dusk when we went in, but now it was almost pitch black out. A thick cloud cover hid the moon and stars. You couldn’t see anything. It was almost as bad as the tunnels. Maybe less snakes though. The page boys took too much delight in tormenting any snakes that showed their heads, so we probably wouldn’t run into any, as I assured Mara. Why are all girls afraid of snakes, anyway? They really aren’t that bad!
We used the kitchen door to get into the castle. No one was there, not this late. Then we crept through some of the back servant hallways hoping no one would discover us.
Blythe was somewhere ahead of us, scouting things out and making sure we didn’t run into any guards. I grabbed Mara’s hand and pulled her along behind me as we snuck through the dark hallways.
The plan was to get around and use the prince’s window, sort of like I did in my devastating attempt to spy on the king. I don’t know what made me think it would work this time when it completely failed before, but sometimes I am a slow learner.
Through an extraordinary stroke of luck, no soldiers caught us while on our way to the prince’s rooms. Like with the king, we got into the room above the prince’s, which fortunately was empty. I secured a rope to the banister around the balcony and Blythe was the first one to slide down the rope onto the prince’s balcony. For a moment, I saw his tiny white face peer up at me, then he disappeared.
Mara looked at me like I was crazy. “You want me to slide down that thing?” she whispered fiercely.
“You’re the one who wanted to come,” I replied.
She glared at me.
“I’ll go first, and catch you on the bottom, ok?”
“All right,” she agreed, unwillingly.
Down I went. “Come on!” I whispered loudly. A second later she slid down slowly and I grabbed her before she could land. “See, no problem,” I whispered with a grin.
“Yeah,” she muttered.
I glanced around the balcony. There was no sign of Blythe. Maybe he had already gone into the room or something, I thought. I grabbed Mara’s hand again and pulled aside the curtain to get into Roy’s room. It was pitch black inside, darker even than it had been outside. I stumbled forward a step and whispered, “Blythe?”
That was a dreadful mistake. The entire room exploded with light, showing very plainly that the room was also full of soldiers. At the far end was the sorcerer, with Blythe standing on the floor in front of him, unable to meet my eyes.
The sorcerer laughed. “Such fools, you humans are.”
“The whole time? You’ve been working for him this whole time?” I asked Blythe, disbelieving.
He barely nodded, staring at the floor. “The whole time,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“I bet you are.”
“So,” said the sorcerer, stepping toward me, “we meet again, DiShaun. This time I do not think you will find it so easy to escape from what we have planned for you.”
I just glared at him. It would be pointless to argue with the evil, overdramatic maniac.
He snapped his fingers and four of the guards closed in and seized me, taking away yet another of my swords and holding me roughly. Only one grabbed Mara’s arm. Apparently they thought I was the more dangerous character of the bunch.
The sorcerer laughed and took another step toward me. He stood close enough now that I could smell his breath. It stunk. “By the time we finish with you, DiShaun, you will wish you died the first time.”
With that he thrust one long-fingered, claw-like hand toward me and I was hit with the worst pain I had felt in my whole life. It flung me on the floor in an instant, writhing and seizing. My head felt like it would explode, and all I could think about was the agony. I can’t even describe it. It took everything in me not to start screaming, but I still had a little bit of pride.
The whole world turned black and still the pain continued. I’m not sure for how long, it felt like hours, but it probably lasted only seconds. A scream suddenly pierced the blackness. A scream I very definitely recognized as Mara’s. The pain stopped with it.
I opened my eyes as fast as possible. What was he doing to my little princess?
Apparently that was the wrong question to ask. As far as I could tell, the little princess was doing most of the doing.
The soldier who had been holding her arm stood there empty-handed, and his own arm was bleeding from a set of teeth marks. As for Mara, she had apparently jumped forward and grabbed the sorcerer’s hand and pushed it away from me. She clung to both of his arms, pushing him away, and he looked like he had completely lost his balance and was just trying to catch it again. She was doing pretty good for a kid her size.
That is, until the sorcerer suddenly caught his balance and with a fling of his arm sent Mara flying into the wall with a thud.
My heart stopped when Mara hit the floor. “No!” I screamed, and leapt from where I still knelt on the floor. There were several soldiers between Mara and me. They never even stood a chance.
I flew straight through the soldiers and knocked them down like bowling pins. I threw them out of the way, not even caring what would happen when they got back up again, and knelt next to Mara’s still frame. For a terrifying moment it looked like she was dead.
“Mara,” I whispered, holding her head. “Come on, Mara, don’t die on me now.”
She groaned, her eyes fluttered, and her hand moved until it held mine. “Robbie,” she barely whispered.
Oh, how I wanted to just sit there and hold her and take care of her. Never again would I look on her the same way. But that option was not left for me.
Valkav’s soldiers did not particularly care that I was in the middle of a serious moment with Mara. They pulled me up and yanked me away. Valkav looked as if he had never been attacked with the sharpened claws of a furious D.I.D. before, and it would take him a few minutes to recover. In any case, he wasn’t interested in torturing me any more, for the moment at least. Instead, he gave his troops orders. “Throw them both in the dungeons!”
The soldiers were only too happy to comply. I couldn’t even see what happened to Mara, or if she ever stood up, they pulled me away so fast. I only had a moment to struggle and yell, “Mara!” very loudly, before they had me out of the room and halfway down the hall.
Once again, the iron gates to the dungeon clanked shut behind me. My life was getting repetitive.
This time, though, they couldn’t hold me there. After the sorcerer’s little display of power upstairs, I certainly didn’t want to still be here when he recovered from shock well enough to begin killing me again.
But I couldn’t go, not yet. There was something I had to do before leaving this place. And I knew he would come
I had to wait until well into the middle of the night, sitting in the back of my prison, arms crossed, staring at the gate. Finally I saw a light. A moment later the door opened and Blythe walked into my cell. Someone must have been with him, because the door shut and latched behind him.
Blythe met my gaze for only a moment, then his eyes fell to the ground.
“How dare you,” I said lowly.
He looked up at me briefly once more. “I’m sorry, Robbie, really I am. I didn’t want to. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Tell me. You owe me that much.”
“It’s kind of a long story.”
He sighed. “It goes back a long time. I was never a very good gnome, see. Didn’t get along that well with the other gnomes, didn’t fit in, you know. So when I had a chance to leave, I took it. Got in lots of trouble, out in the real world. A lot of scrapes that went a long way over my head. But I liked it. It wasn’t the dark caves of the gnome-world anymore, it was bigger and stronger and better. I enjoyed it. That is, until I messed with the wrong person.”
“What kind of person?’
“A godmother. I played a prank on her. Utterly humiliated her.” He grinned broadly, remembering. “It was a great prank, but the godmother didn’t see the humor. She was furious and said she was going to kill me. I had to make a run for it. Running doesn’t do a whole lot of good when someone who knows magic is after you though, and it was only a matter of time before she was going to find me. There was a young man, working in one of the magic shops there, who helped me. He said he had learned a lot of magic and wanted to set out on his own. He also said he could protect me from the godmother, as long as I promised to work for him and help him for as long as he needed me.
“It was only afterward that I found out he had sorcerer blood, and it wasn’t good sorcerer blood either. He made me do all kinds of things and dragged me deeper and deeper in. I got into so much trouble; I did terrible, terrible things for him. I didn’t want to, but he said if I stopped the godmother would destroy me. At some point the godmother must have forgotten me, to be sure. But there are lots of other people out there who would love to lay their hands on me by now. Like I said, I’ve done terrible things. I was afraid to stop, afraid to turn against him.
“When he started this enterprise he told me it was our big chance, and after this he would set me free. Now I am sure he lied, but then I believed him. Otherwise, I would never have agreed to help him destroy an entire kingdom. He told me only one person in the entire kingdom who could possibly stand in our way: the prince.
“You were gone on your mission to rescue the princess by the time we were ready to go after him. He told me to go in the general direction went and he would give me more instructions. Sorcerers have all kinds of interesting ways of communicating with their minions.
“I found you eventually, and followed you until the gnomes captured you. They caught me at the same time. It took all the tricks in my book to get them to allow me to be your translator and, eventually, talk to you on my own. Then it was a simple matter of telling you whatever I wanted to get your trust, and tell them whatever they wanted to keep theirs so I could help you escape. I knew if I helped you escape from the gnomes you would trust me implicitly. You know the rest. Valkav really wanted me to be a double agent, and that’s what I’ve been.
I was silent for a minute. “Did you have anything to do with the last time I got caught?”
“No. No, Robbie, I swear.” Tears welled up in his tiny eyes. “I never wanted any of this to happen. And I really did take care of Mara while you were gone. I didn’t want to hurt anybody, truly. I didn’t have a choice.”
“I believe you,” I said quietly.
He looked up at me, sudden hope in his eyes. “Really?”
“Yes. I understand. You work for someone and you have to do what they say, even when you don’t want to. I know how it is. I’ve never had to betray anybody, but I’ve done some pretty awful things myself. I don’t hold that against you.”
His face fell. “But you still can’t forgive me?”
I looked straight at him. “You took her from me, Blythe. You think they can keep me down here until I’m dead? Not this time. But I can’t get her out. I have to leave Mara back in this place, because of you. Do you understand that?” He couldn’t meet my gaze anymore. “Mara means everything to me, Blythe, everything. And you took her from me. I’m sorry, but I can’t forgive you, not for that.”
“I understand,” he whispered. “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t forgive me either.”
I nodded and stood up. “Are you going to tell them I’m escaping?”
He looked back up at me, and smiled grimly. “No. I have to do whatever he says, but no more than that. I won’t tell.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry it had to end this way.”
“So am I,” he said quietly. He turned, tapped three times on the door, and it opened. Blythe was gone.
It took a few minutes to process everything. At some point, I realized thinking about it wasn’t doing anything other than make my blood boil. It was time to get out of there.
A long time ago Arlin showed me a trick to get out of the dungeons. Not very many people knew about it, but in my line of work it is important to know things like that. It’s pretty simple, but not really something you would get by guessing. It’s a trick with the latch and the bolt in the door. Sometimes it took a couple of tries, especially if the door was rusty, but I had practiced. Never know when something like that will come in handy.
I did remember this trick the last time I got myself locked in the dungeons about to be killed. But with the threat on the village I couldn’t use it. This time no one knew I was here, so it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to blame the people in the village. Whatever happened, I was spitting mad and couldn’t stand to sit around there any longer.
It took two tries to get the latch and the bolt to slide open at the same time. I jumped out and took down the guard in front of the door so he couldn’t alert anyone else to my escape. I also got his sword, which was definitely a plus.
Once out I looked around. Mara was locked away somewhere in these dungeons.. It almost killed me to leave without her. Even if I could find her before everyone knew I escaped, she’d been hurt. I would never be able to get her out in one piece. In fact, she was probably safer locked up here. They wouldn’t want to kill her, not yet. If she ran away with me they might just change their minds.
No matter how much I thought it would to kill me, I had to leave her in the dungeons. I took a deep breath. Then I ran.
I was so distracted, I almost ran over one of the castle guard. I probably would have attacked him if he hadn’t said my name in surprise and I recognized him. “Take me to Arlin. Hurry,” I commanded. He did as told.
Arlin’s face paled in shock when he saw me. “Robbie! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in the forest? I told you we’d keep you posted.”
“I know. Things happened, I can’t explain right now. Mara and I got caught. The gnome betrayed us. He’s been working for the sorcerer the whole time. I couldn’t get Mara out, she is still locked up.”
He sank into his chair. “Wha—what? How did this all happen so fast?”
“It’s complicated. Listen, how many men do you have, or can you get by tomorrow night?”
“By tomorrow? 150, maybe 200 tops. If I had more time, maybe 300.”
“We don’t have more time. How many men does Valkav have now?”
“It’s impossible to say. Their numbers change every day.”
“Give me an estimate.”
“An estimate? 400-500.”
“Ok,” I took a moment to process that. “Can you have your men ready by tomorrow night to fight the sorcerer?”
“Tomorrow night? Robbie, I don’t know. We need more time.”
“We don’t have more time. He has Mara.”
Robbie, we don’t have the resources. My men aren’t prepared to fight that many soldiers. We would need something drastic.”
“How does a dragon sound?”
“I have a dragon. He’s going to help us. Would that help?”
He nodded, thunderstruck. Dragons tend to have that affect on people.
“And if you have a dragon, can you be ready by tomorrow night?”
Arlin glanced at the other soldier who was in the room with us. “What do you think? Can you men be ready?”
The man nodded, grinning. “We’re ready to kick those blasted witchlovers out. We can be ready whenever Robbie needs us.”
That made me smile. Arlin too. “All right, then,” I said. “Arlin, do you think you could get out to the woods tomorrow? Meet me at the end of the tunnel at noon?”
“Yes, I can do that.”
“Good, we can finish our plans then.”
“You need to get out of the castle, for now.”
“Good plan. It would really stink if they caught me now.”
“I’ll say.” He walked with me to the tunnel entrance. “I better not go in with you. Good luck. I’ll see you tomorrow, at noon.”
“Do you think you could bring me some armor when you come? And maybe a better sword or two?”
He smiled. “Done.”