Chapter 11

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            Valerie froze before slowly moving her hand away from her sword. The cold of the metal point pressed into her neck made her very sure she didn’t want to make any sudden movements. She began turning her head but the voice from before snapped, “Don’t look at each other.” It came from behind Isaac and she could only assume he was in a similar situation.

            Pitching her voice lower than normal, hoping they hadn’t noticed she was a woman yet, she said “Look, we’re only-”

            The woman cut her off again. “Don’t talk either! Not until we tell you to.”

            “Wait,” the voice behind Valerie hissed. “You,” she said, pressing the blade more tightly into her neck. “Turn around. Slowly.”

            Repressing both a wince and the desire to run, she moved as slowly as she could to delay the inevitable revelation. She looked down into the blue eyes of her assailant, glaring at her over orangey-pink brows and choked.

            “Where did you acquire this sword?” the shorter woman demanded, knife still held at Val’s throat.

            “Miette?”

            Lyel’s lady faltered, her blade point slipping. “Who?”

'           “It’s me Valerie! I’m sorry, I’m wearing the wig because my hair’s really obvious. Even in a fall forest.”

            “Valerie? Then…” Miette trailed off to glance at their other captive. “Sir Isaac?”

            “My lady!” The other attacker said, dropped the sword she held to throw herself at Val. “I thought you were gone forever!”

            Startled, Valerie hugged Sora back. “No, Darren drugged me and sent me back. As soon as I woke up, we got ready and returned. Now you and Miette need to tell us what happened. We only know a little bit.”

            “Please sit, my lady. I’m sorry we don’t have a lot to offer you,” Sora said, hovering until Val and Isaac were seated on the ground, backs against some of the trees that edged the place.  Besides the cloaks and fire pit, they could see two packs, far thinner than their own, lying under the roots of the fallen tree. Looking back at her friends, she took in their dirty, torn appearances, both women looking like they’d had no easy time of it.

            She shook her head. “Sora, you’re living in the woods because the palace has been taken over by invaders. No one would expect you to offer them anything. We just want whatever info you can give us. I do have to say, I’m surprised to see both of you here.”

            Miette folded herself gracefully down in front of them, even in the middle of a forest filled with enemies she held to her dignity. “I would not be here, had I had a choice. But Lyel, who I had believed had more sense than Darren, decided to attempt something similar.”

            Valerie stared. “He knocked you out and dumped you in the woods?”

            Her lips thinned as she pressed them together. “No. I forbade him from doing such a thing after what happened to you. No, he had my agreement to leave. But that was only due to his taking advantage of one of my weaknesses.”

            The quizzical looks Val and Isaac sent her way made Miette’s frown deepen while Sora hid a smile. “While in most ways the years I spent as a cat left no mark, there are still some traces of what happened to me that affect my behaviour. Lyel knows how I feel about them and he will wish he had never heard of catnip when I am through with him.”

            “Catnip? He drugged you with catnip?”

            Isaac chuckled. “I bet he got you high as a kite then got you to agree to leave that way.”

            Miette nodded. “Yes. Then he had Sora take me out of the palace.”

            “I hid my lady in a hollow in the woods while I went back for the packs. She wasn’t herself and I couldn’t handle packs and her at the same time. It was during my second exit that the invaders breached the palace gates. I was able to hide near enough the gate that I eventually escaped. Few were so lucky,” Sora said, joining them on the ground.

            “So the invaders took over that quickly?” Val asked, leaning forward, hands on her knees.

            The maid nodded. “They were sighted coming towards the city. That’s when all the women and children who could be evacuated from the palace were. I think some ended up in the city and some in the woods around us.”

            “And Darren? The others?”

            Miette and Sora exchanged glances. “His highness is still alive,” the maid said. “I heard some of the solider talking near the bush I was hiding in. They said that he was to be guarded heavily by spells, traps, and soldiers.  He is the bait at the centre of the trap, my lady.”

            Valerie let out a long sigh of relief, feeling tears she hadn’t thought there prickle the corners of her eyes. “I know. It’s a trap for me. But that just means they’re more likely to keep him alive. And I have no intention of walking into that trap. I’m going to raise an army and crush every last one of those bastards.”

            “Erramun and Lyel? They were with him?” Isaac asked, watching Miette closely.

            She nodded. “I cannot imagine them being anyplace else. And they would not have allowed Darren to be captured if they had the power to stop it. I know Lyel is alive but beyond that…nothing. I would imagine that Erramun would be in the same state.”

            “Then do you know where the recruits’ camp is?” Valerie asked.

            Both women shook their heads. “One of the other survivors we met said he’d come across one of their patrols. But he’d been going back to his hometown and didn’t want to join. He said they were farther south and east than we’d thought. We considered going to find them but…” Sora trailed off.

            Valerie smiled. “No, this worked out wonderfully. We know the recruits are there which means we have an army!”

            Miette winced. “Valerie, you must understand, the recruits are unblooded.”

            She frowned and Sora explained. “They’re green milady. None of them have seen real combat. And they’re outnumbered. Even seasoned troops’d have difficulty fight their way through the enemy. There are too many of them.”

            “So our army is outmatched,” she whispered, feeling her stomach sink to her feet.

            The other two women nodded. “I am sorry, Valerie but with only those men…” Miette said.

            “We’d all end up dead,” Val finished, nodding though her stomach was still at knee level. “Can we gather allies? Is there anyone who would have more troops they can lend us?”

            “There may be some. It would take some persuasion,” she replied slowly. “I may be able to speak to my brother. Oh and we can see Enax first! He may be able to help. At the least he will be able to send us in the correct direction.”

            “Who’s Enax?”

            Miette grinned. “He is the wizard who turned me into a cat.”

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