Princess between Worlds (8 page)

BOOK: Princess between Worlds
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They had almost reached the wall when a
whoomp! whoomp!
overhead made Annie look up. Something long and narrow was flying toward the castle on enormous wings; Annie had never seen anything like it. “What is that?” she asked Liam.

“I can't tell from here,” said Liam. “There's no one at the gate, but there's a door in the wall. Let's try that. Maybe someone will come if we knock.”

Raising his fist, he banged on the door, shouting, “Let us in!” When no one came right away, Annie raised her voice with his and started pounding. After a few minutes, a small slot squeaked open in the door, revealing a tiny peephole. A moment later, an eye filled the hole.

“What do you want?” demanded a man's deep voice.

“We want to come in,” said Liam.

“Go away. We're not letting anyone in tonight.”

The peephole closed partway, then seemed to get stuck. Fingers fumbled with the cover as someone tried to close it the rest of the way. Annie could hear the man who had been rude talking to someone else, although she could hear only his side of the conversation.

“No, I didn't ask anything about them. What difference would it make? I'm not letting them in no matter what pitiful story they tell me. Yes, I heard the captain's orders. I know he said to keep an eye open. What? You think it might be them? Let me take another look.”

The cover to the peephole squeaked again and the eye reappeared. “Why are you here?” the man barked when he saw Annie.

She glanced at Liam, then back at the eye. “We just got married and we're on our grand tour and—”

The eye disappeared. There was a muffled conversation on the other side of the door before the voice said, “All right! You may enter.” The man forced the peephole cover closed, and there was a loud scraping sound. He grunted and cursed under his breath as he dragged the heavy door open. Annie could see why the task was so difficult when they stepped through the opening. The man was no more than four feet tall and looked as if he'd have to hold on to something heavy whenever a
strong wind blew. His companion was the same size and had the same swarthy skin and bumpy nose. Annie suspected that they were twins.

Liam helped them close the door, which revealed a large box that the guard had used to stand on. When the door was closed and barricaded, the guard who had been talking to them said, “You have to stay here until the captain comes. He wants to see you.”

“Why?” Liam asked.

The guard shrugged. “How should I know? He doesn't confide in me! Timmon, you go tell him that they're here while I keep an eye on them.”

His twin nodded and ran off, leaving the first guard staring at Annie and Liam. “Now, don't you get any ideas about overpowering me. I may be short, but I'm fast!” he said, emphasizing his words with a few quick jabs at the air.

“We wouldn't dream of it,” Liam said without a trace of a smile.

A bell pealed somewhere in the city. At the first note, the guard's expression changed from belligerent to frightened.

“What is it?” asked Annie.

“Dragons!” people screamed as a building a few blocks away erupted in flames. A series of explosions made the ground shake. Annie held her breath when an enormous lizard-like beast flew overhead, blocking the
stars for a moment. Its scales glowed red in the reflected firelight. Another, paler dragon flew beside it. Opening its mouth, it exhaled a cloud that ignited when the first dragon blew fire at it. Together they blew up buildings on the next street over.

“It looks as if there are two kinds of dragons,” Liam told Annie. “The one that puffs some kind of gas and the one that breathes fire that ignites the gas. They make a nasty combination.”

The guard who was supposed to be watching Annie and Liam was growing more and more agitated. People carrying water-filled buckets ran by, hurrying to put out the fires. “Jimmie, come help!” shouted one.

“I can't,” the guard yelled back. “I have to stay here.”

“We need you!”

“I can't . . . I just . . . ,” Jimmie said, the two choices warring inside him. When a woman screamed, Jimmie turned to Annie and Liam, saying, “Listen, I have to go. You two stay here until I get back.”

The guard ran off, disappearing down the street, where a new fire was raging. A moment later, a slender white dragon swooped low over Annie and Liam, blowing mist at a building close to where they stood. Another, bigger dragon followed the first, breathing a long tongue of flame into the mist. The air above the
building exploded, knocking off the roof and setting the rest on fire.

“We're not staying here!” Liam shouted, sheltering Annie as debris hailed down around them. “We have to get to the castle and see if we can help the king.”

Annie and Liam ran toward the center of the city, dodging flaming pieces of roofing, volunteers hauling buckets, and terrified families running in the opposite direction. When they ran into soldiers shooting arrows at the dragons, they turned down another street. Soon they were seeing soldiers everywhere, running through the streets or trying to shoot down dragons.

Annie and Liam were running past a small shop on a road leading to the castle gate when three men ran out of the building. Annie tried to go around a man in the middle of the road, but he ran straight at her, grabbed her around her waist, and dragged her into the building.

“Liam!” she screamed as the other two men jumped him.

Annie didn't see what happened to Liam after that, because the man holding her forced her into the shop. There were other men inside, but none of them came to help her.

“Quiet!” the stranger told her when she continued to cry out. “Your young man will be here soon enough. You don't want to attract the people looking for you,
do you? Like the soldiers who plan to march you off to a dungeon cell?”

It took a moment for the man's words to sink in. When they did, Annie stopped trying to get away and said, “Someone is looking for us? How is that possible? We didn't even know we were coming here until we arrived.”

“Let me explain,” a man said from the shadows in the back of the shop. He walked into the light from one of the two lanterns as he talked. Even before she could see him, Annie guessed he was the leader from the way the others looked at him and moved aside to let him pass. “I work in the castle and I overheard King Beltran with a visitor who claimed to be a wizard. The man said he wanted to warn the king that two spies pretending to be on their grand tour were about to arrive.”

Everyone turned as Liam burst into the room, armed with a sword he'd taken from one of his attackers. When he saw the men surrounding Annie, he pointed the sword at the man closest to her and said, “Stay still, Annie, my love. This will take just a minute.”

“No, Liam! Wait! They have something to tell us. Please go on,” she told the leader.

“You and your young man fit the description that the wizard gave perfectly. The king has had his guards looking for you ever since the wizard was here. Apparently the only thing the wizard didn't tell him was when you
would arrive. Beltran plans to throw you in his dungeon and torture you until you tell him who sent you, then have you both executed. He believes that you have been sent to assassinate him.”

“That's ridiculous!” said Annie. “We really are on our grand tour!”

Liam had made his way to Annie's side. Turning to the leader, he said, “Did you hear this wizard's name? Can you tell us what he looks like?”

“I didn't hear his name, but I can tell you that he's balder than a baby's bottom. He's got bushy eyebrows and long nose hairs. Oh, and his eyes are small and close together.”

“Rotan!” Annie and Liam said at the same time.

Annie glanced at Liam. “How does he know where we're going?”

Liam shrugged. “He must have talked to the woods witch. So much for Moonbeam taking care of him for us.”

“So you really aren't assassins or spies?” asked the leader.

Annie shook her head. “We just got married. We're taking a trip before we settle down.”

“That's too bad,” said a man with a straggly beard. “We would have been happy to help you assassinate Beltran. Are you sure you wouldn't like to give it a try?”

“You hate your king that much?” asked Liam.

“King? Pah! He took over when his brother died of mysterious causes. Beltran has involved East Aridia in one war after another ever since.”

“My brother was turned into a mouse when Beltran made the army fight in Greater Greensward,” declared the man who had grabbed Annie. “He's back now, but he still has an unquenchable desire to eat cheese.”

“And now Beltran has gotten us into a war with dragons!” said the bearded man. “Not just one kind, either. The fire-breathing dragons and the ice dragons used to hate each other, but now they're allied against us because Beltran is so greedy.”

“He tried to take over the mine where the dragons dig up their gems. Dragons don't take kindly to being robbed,” the leader told them.

“He doesn't sound like the kind of person who would listen if we tried to explain why we're here,” Annie said to Liam.

“If you value your life, you won't go anywhere near him,” said the leader. “The man is insane.”

“Unless they want to help us assassinate him, in which case we could get them in the room with him,” said the bearded man. “And supply them with weapons.”

“We're not here to assassinate anyone,” said Liam. “Or to get mixed up in your kingdom's affairs!”

“We never should have come here,” Annie told him.

Liam nodded. “I know. And there's no good reason to stay. If you gentlemen will excuse us,” he said, and took Annie's hand.

“Not so fast,” said the bearded man. “I think we can use them. What if one of us dressed as a guard and took them in? Beltran wants to see them, so our man could take these two all the way to his private rooms. When he's in Beltran's presence, he could kill the king and whoever is with him.”

“And leave us to take the blame?” said Liam. “I don't think so!”

“Maybe it isn't your decision to make,” said the man who had grabbed Annie. He took a step toward her, looking anything but friendly.

“I think we should help if we can,” Annie hurried to say. “Let me talk to my husband. If you gentlemen will give us just a moment?”

The men exchanged glances, then the leader nodded and the others backed off. Annie led Liam to the side of the room, ignoring the angry look on his face. She turned so that her back was to the wall and he was facing her.

“Postcard,” she whispered.

Understanding erased the anger from his face. Annie didn't want to help these men any more than he did. She was giving them a moment together, and a moment was all they needed. While the men began to grow impatient, Liam reached into his pocket for a postcard. They both touched it and were gone.

CHAPTER 7

They were in a desert again. As far as Annie could tell, it might even be the same one. The stars still twinkled overhead, a cool breeze was making her pull her coat closer around her, and sand was once again filling her shoes. “Are we still in East Aridia?” she asked Liam.

“We're nowhere near East Aridia,” he said, looking at the sky. “See those stars? I recognize some of the constellations, although they aren't in the same places as they would be at home. When we were in East Aridia, none of the constellations were familiar.”

Annie shivered. “Wherever we are, it's as cold here as it was there. Do you see anywhere we can get out of this wind? I'm cold and tired and would like to get some sleep.”

Liam lowered his eyes to the land around them. “I think I see trees over there,” he said, pointing.

“In the desert?” said Annie. “I see shapes, but I can't tell what they are.”

Although there was a full moon, it wasn't enough to see the shapes clearly, so they started walking to investigate. “How odd,” Liam said when they drew closer.
“They might be trees, but they're not like any I've ever seen.” The unusual plants grew to well over their heads, with trunks covered with overlapping scales and fernlike growths at the top.

“Look, there are a lot more in this direction,” said Annie. “And I think I see the moon reflecting off water.”

They found a small lake at the edge of the plants. When Liam scooped up some water to taste, he declared it fresh and pure. They drank then, wishing they had something to eat. Annie was now so tired that she couldn't stop yawning, so Liam took his coat and spread it on the ground at the base of one of the odd plants. After Annie lay down on the fur coat, Liam sat down beside her and used Annie's coat to cover them. The coats smelled of dragon fire and burning buildings, and weren't long enough to cover Annie's feet, but she was thankful that they had them.

“Aren't you going to lie down?” she asked Liam.

BOOK: Princess between Worlds
8.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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