"You're certain?" Tomas stared at her in confounded disbelief.
Adeline wrung her hands and paced agitatedly. "Positive. What else could it mean? And why else would he snatch nigh upon two hundred children from their homes, when logic would state that he ought to be preoccupied with storming the Cair?"
Tomas nodded, his disbelief giving way to grim satisfaction mixed with horror. "At least we know what he wants with them. That's more than we had, my lady."
"Perhaps, but we still don't know where he's keeping them." She felt as though she could rip her hair out from the sheer frustration. "There was no mention of children from Cair Paravel in those shipping records. The wedding is in three days, and I'm no closer to finding them than I was three weeks ago."
Tomas stepped forward and, hesitantly, placed his hand on her shoulder. "My lady, the parents of those children already owe you a great debt simply for trying. A lesser woman would have cared only for her broken heart and contempt for the so-called prince."
Adeline shook her head. "You may be right, Tomas, but a greater woman would have found them."
He regarded her silently for a moment. Finally he sighed. "I had best be off, my lady. Don't lose faith."
She gave him a tiny smile, and watched him slip silently out into the hall, camouflaged by the armor he had stolen from one of Xaviar's dead soldiers after the attack on Cair Paravel. Once she was certain he had safely gotten away, she rubbed her face tiredly and studied the collection of parchment scraps and notes that littered the desk.
She had just tugged one of the maps closer for further inspection when the door opened, quietly but very suddenly, behind her, causing her to snatch the dagger from beneath her nightgown and whirl to face whoever it was. She knew before looking that it wasn't Tomas; he never entered without warning.
"Please, my lady…"
One of her maids cowered against the door, accompanied by an armored guard, and two other young children in servant's garb. As Adeline stood motionless, the soldier removed his helmet, revealing a face that looked younger than Lucy. The maid stepped forward timidly.
"My lady, we…we know."
"Stella," the young man said quietly, whether in warning or entreaty it was hard to tell.
Adeline swallowed heavily. "Know what?"
"Of the plans you and the strange man have been making, to find and rescue the missing children from Cair Paravel."
She dimly registered that her mouth hung open. "How –"
"It matters not how," Stella waved a hand impatiently. "What matters is that we act. Lord Xaviar stands on the cusp of reducing the world as we know it to a pile of rubble, my lady."
Adeline studied the four youths before her, mind whirling. There was something….off about this. A servant girl would not use such proper speech, would not stand and address Adeline as her equal. Stella, dressed in her tattered servant's dress, stood quietly and with the edge of tension in her tightly clasped hands, but her shoulders were set, her jaw and eyes firm. Quite suddenly it came to her.
"You weren't born servants, were you?"
The composed façade slipped briefly. "No, my lady, we were not. My father is the head councilman on the Isle of Felimath."
Just shy of a noble, then. "What of you three?"
The young soldier placed a hand on the shoulder of the youngest child, who wrapped her arms around his leg. Stella answered for them.
"Issachar is the son of another councilman. Dani's mother is the seamstress for the governor's household," the little girl clinging to Issachar's leg gave her a shy smile, "and Andres' father runs a merchant stall in the marketplace." The young boy looked equal parts angry and terrified, and it broke Adeline's heart all over again. He couldn't possibly have been more than seven or eight years old.
"How long ago were you taken?"
To her surprise, Issachar spoke up this time. "Seven months ago, m'lady."
"Were there others?"
"Not on our ship. But there have been other raids since."
Adeline felt an inexplicable urge to draw all four of them into a hug, but she suspected that little Andres might kick her.
"There is more," Stella stepped closer, her hands twisting nervously. "Lord Xaviar plans to assassinate King Fitzgerald and Queen Isabella, and to frame you for all three murders of the royal family."
Every last drop of blood left her face, and suddenly her lungs weren't working. For a moment she was terribly afraid she might pass out.
"What?" Adeline finally gasped, reaching one hand behind her to clench the table edge. The room spun sickeningly.
"I found correspondence between Xaviar and some warlords of Ettinsmoore," Issachar answered. "They're interested in buying in to the slave trade once Xaviar restores it, and apparently they have a strong hatred for you in particular. Xaviar has promised them your head in exchange for help in overthrowing Narnia and Calormen."
Adeline placed her other hand over her mouth in an effort to not retch. Her mind flashed images before her, images of a sandstone castle by the sea set on fire, of Edmund and his family – her family, too, now – being slaughtered by ruthless giants from the north.
And Alvaro. She barely knew the man, but enough to know he didn't deserve this. She imagined Tashbaan Hall, too, in flames and echoing with the screams of dying men, the marble floors slick with blood. With a shiver she pulled herself back to reality – there was no use in tormenting herself. Being promised as a bribe to a ruthless clan of Ettinsmoore mercenaries was terrifying in and of itself, but the manner in which she would apparently be delivered to them was nothing short of barbaric.
"I don't understand why they hate me especially, though…" she said half to herself.
Issachar hesitated before answering again. "General Omri was the son of their war chieftain, my lady. He's taken his son's death by your hand rather…personally."
She blinked. "Well, that certainly explains a lot about that oaf's behavior," she muttered darkly. The crippling fear had faded, leaving a grim determination and a sort of savage anger in its wake. She started pacing absently, turning the facts over in her mind. One thing struck her as odd, and she turned to Issachar curiously.
"How did you find that correspondence?"
To her surprise, the boy grinned impishly. "You are not the only one who can sneak about in the dark, your ladyship."
She grinned back. "Apparently not. Well done."
"He's also the one responsible for ensuring that no soldiers ever found you," Stella put in. "He's gotten quite good at causing diversions."
The tips of Issachar's ears had a dull flush, and he looked about ready to protest when Adeline cut him off.
"In that case, Issachar, I owe you my life. I'll make certain High King Peter is made aware of your bravery."
The embarrassment in his features gave way to a deep, righteous pride, and he nodded his thanks.
"But for now," she continued, "We need to make ready. Issachar, tell me where you found those documents."
"One of the ledgers in his study. It was written in a code of some kind, but I managed to decipher it over the course of several nights' examination. I made copies and kept them securely on my person at all times."
"We need to send word to Anvard, do we not?" Stella asked. Adeline nodded, chewing her bottom lip in concentration.
"Tomas won't be back until after the wedding, but Xaviar won't attempt the murders until I am back at Anvard, under the same roof as Fitz and Izzy, otherwise I'll have an alibi. Still…they need as much notice as can be given, in case our efforts here are in vain."
"Our efforts?" Stella was confused.
"Xaviar has committed treason, and is plotting it again." Adeline explained. "Not to mention, we have irrefutable proof of his plans regarding the slave trade. We have enough to execute him, really."
"We also have proof of his conspiracy against you," Issachar said quietly. Adeline frowned.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that you are a Royal Knight of Anvard. You serve at the right hand of the king, and as such your life is protected by law. An act of conspiracy against you is, indirectly, conspiracy against the king."
Adeline had known that, of course; she'd had to memorize entire pages of Archenland's laws when she'd taken her oath as part of her initiation into the Royal Guard. But if she were to be perfectly honest, executing Xaviar because of crimes against her seemed…petty.
Not that she would let him just hand her over, mind you. She'd go down with a fight, if in fact she went down at all. But Xaviar's crimes condemned him, and in her heart of hearts she knew that his blood must spill by her hand. Not because she was angry over losing Gwen, or that her remaining loved ones had been threatened, or even because she was angry over the disappearance of innocent children.
No, she thought. If Xaviar's life was to end, it would end because of justice. He would pay the consequences, not suffer the vengeful wrath of a wounded heart.
Aslan, if this is the task You have set before me, help me do it the right way, she prayed.
"How do we send word, then?" Issachar asked.
Adeline had just opened her mouth reply that she didn't know when a small voice interceded.
They all looked down at little Dani, her thumb caught in her mouth.
"Trees?" Issachar queried, and she nodded.
Comprehension dawned, and her broad grin was matched by Stella's, as well as Issachar's, who ruffled Dani's hair affectionately.
Even in Archenland, the tales of Narnian dryads were well known. Adeline and Gwen had grown up hearing the story of a dryad bearing news of Aslan's death at the Stone Table to Peter and Edmund, just before they fought the White Witch.
"Can you get to the trees?" Stella asked.
Adeline nodded. "Leave it to me."
The next morning, she greeted Xaviar with a considerably greater amount of civility than usual, a fact which did not go unnoticed by him. When he offered his arm to escort her to his study for breakfast, she stopped.
"Xaviar," she began. Vaguely she recalled Gwen trying to teach her how to use her so-called 'feminine wiles'. Did she bat her eyelashes? Gwen had done something with her voice, but Adeline wasn't sure she could pull it off. She shook herself mentally. Xaviar was waiting patiently, one eyebrow raised in expectation.
"Would you mind terribly if we ate outside?"
"Outside? Whatever for?"
How do I phrase this? "It's just…it feels like ages since I've felt the sun and wind on my face. I don't much enjoy being cooped up inside all day long. I miss it."
He stared at her, disbelieving, before smiling and tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow.
"Of course, Adeline. Whatever you desire."
She attempted a warm smile in return by way of thanks, and it must have been convincing. He covered the hand on his arm with one of his own, and though she itched to remove it she left it there. After the past several weeks of snippy responses and silent glares, she had some buttering up to do. There wasn't any hope of his letting her go outside unattended, so she forced her shoulders to relax, and curled her fingers just slightly, clutching his arm a bit rather than merely resting upon it.
To her joy, their picnic was spread amongst a grove of blooming trees; the shaded grass was cool, but the warm sun beat upon her shoulders. She tilted her face up to the cloudless sky. Today, and then tomorrow I have at least a scrap of my freedom. Then it is gone.
As best she could, Adeline shook off the sour thoughts. Now wasn't the time to be moaning about her predicament – there were far more important things to worry about. She closed her eyes, feeling the breeze and hearing the birds. She could smell the nectar of the blossoms surrounding her.
"Adeline, did you want tea?"
She bit back the sharp retort, instead giving a shy smile.
"Not just yet, Xaviar. Would you mind so much if I just sat here, quietly, for a moment? I've missed the outdoors more than I'd realized."
It did the trick. Xaviar looked incredibly pleased with himself, and nodded as he leaned back with his teacup. Adeline closed her eyes again, focusing instead this time on the trees surrounding her, the life thrumming beneath their rough bark, the roots that pushed deep into the rich earth and the branches that stretched high above.
Quite suddenly she felt…something. She wasn't sure what it was, until a gentle, musical voice that was most certainly not her own spoke within her mind.
Lady Adeline. What need have you with the dryads of Narnia?
Adeline's heart stuttered, but somehow she must have kept her face neutral, for Xaviar said nothing. I am sorry to be a disturbance, she thought. But your people and mine need help. This is the only way I knew.
There is no need to apologize, my lady. The services you have rendered Narnia place us in your debt. The dryad's presence was calming, soothing, yet Adeline could sense a tremendous power, a power that the spirit rarely used.
There is to be an attack on Anvard.
The dryad paused. My tree may be in Archenland soil, my lady, but all the spirits answer to the Great Lion. Why should the affairs of Anvard concern me and my brethren?
Please, you don't understand, Xaviar will not stop with Archenland. He means to overthrow the Tisroc as well as the five kings and queens of Cair Paravel. If he is not stopped…the amount of bloodshed will be catastrophic. You are their only hope. She tried desperately not to panic. If they refused to help her…
You have proof of these plans?
Yes. Xaviar is plotting the deaths of eight monarchs, as well as the reestablishment of the slave trade.
There was another pause, then the dryad spoke, this time with anger lacing her words.
What Xaviar is planning is of an iniquity unnamed even during the White Witch's time. How do you plan to stop him?
I think I can stop him here, but in the case I am unsuccessful, I want the others to be forewarned. I can at least prevent their deaths.
A wise strategy, my lady. But let me ask you this: how do you plan to stop Xaviar?
This time it was Adeline who hesitated. It will likely cost him his life, she thought with some regret. There wasn't as much as a flicker of surprise from the dryad.
Aye, it most likely will, she replied. But what of you?
What will stopping this rebellion cost you?
The question took her by surprise. It cannot cost me more than it already has.
And that is?
My freedom. My sister. My happiness. My life. My love.
A high price indeed, my lady. Do you hope to regain any of these things through Xaviar's death?
Adeline's pulse raced, but to her surprise, her thoughts remained collected. Once lost, some things are gone forever. Killing Xaviar won't bring Gwen back. It won't erase the heartache I have experienced. And my happiness is the least of my worries.
For several long agonizing moments, the dryad remained silent. Adeline feared the connection had been severed, but then the spirit spoke again.
You are as noble as you are courageous, my lady. We will warn the kings and queens of the looming threat. May Aslan guide your blade and guard your life.
The relief was staggering. Thank you.
There was no reply, and after a moment or two Adeline opened her eyes. Xaviar sat, quietly watching. His scrutiny made her want to run in the opposite direction, but she'd been done running for some time now. She met his gaze, even and controlled, and forced a hopefully believable smile.
"Would you pass the toast, Xaviar?"
He obliged, though his eyes returned to her face almost immediately. "You looked like you were in another world just then," he said softly.
Adeline smiled, really smiled.
"I suppose I was," she replied, though to herself she thought, Oh, Xaviar you have no idea.
Lucy's teacup froze halfway to her mouth.
"The slave trade?" Peter repeated incredulously. "Surely you can't be serious."
"That was abolished before my grandfather's time," Caspian argued. "They would not dare to – "
"There is nothing Xaviar would not dare to do, Cas." Edmund's voice was ice cold. Lucy saw Peter and Caspian exchange a look.
"Your Majesties," Tomas interjected. "Lady Adeline was utterly convinced that Lord Xaviar intends to reestablish the slave trade. How, when, or why he plans such is not in my knowledge, but it does not matter. We must act. Now."
Lucy's heart thudded frantically within her. "If he has already sold those children, they might be nearly impossible to find."
Tomas looked doubtful. "Lady Adeline assured me that Lord Xaviar has kept detailed records of shipments. It may be easier than you think, Your Grace."
She felt sick. "Peter, you said the youngest child taken was…"
"Four." He answered quietly. For a moment no one said anything.
"Addie will find them," Edmund suddenly stated, his voice loud in the frightened and depressed silence. "If anyone on this earth can find those children, it's Addie. And if I know her, she's likely doubting her ability to do so. The least we can do is keep up our own faith."
Tomas smiled slightly. "I tried to reassure her, Sire, but…"
"Let me guess," Edmund said dryly. "She was too busy being frustrated that she didn't find them three weeks ago to listen."
Tomas had opened his mouth to reply when the door quite suddenly burst open behind him. They all stared at Trumpkin, who looked like he'd sprinted up the huge staircase in the entrance hall.
"One of Xaviar's soldiers. Courtyard." He panted, and for a heartbeat they all were stone-still, almost unable to believe their ears. Then Edmund stood up abruptly, gaining the door in long, even strides before they all clambered out of their respective seats around the room and followed.
Edmund's legs covered distance much more quickly than any of theirs; they all hurried along after him, but Lucy couldn't help but notice the tense set of his shoulders, the clenched fists that hung at his sides. Nerves collected in a clenching pool in her belly, making her pulse race and her hands twitch agitatedly.
The man waiting for them stood beside his horse, feet splayed on the cobblestones and head held high. He watched them descend the front steps, and said nothing as they came to a stop before him.
"What?" Edmund's patience was practically nonexistent. Lucy supposed it was bit more salt in the wound than he cared for, seeing one of Xaviar's men for the first time since the battle. To her confusion, the soldier barely spared Edmund a glance, before settling his gaze upon Tomas, who stood to her left.
"A message from the Prince," he said in light accent, holding out a small scroll. Peter stepped forward.
"Not for you. Him." The man jutted his chin towards Tomas, who stiffened.
Peter looked, wide-eyed, over his shoulder as Tomas slowly approached to take the letter.
"I'd take it to heart, if I were you." His conversational tone did nothing to disguise the threat in his words, and Tomas regarded him coolly, saying nothing. After several moments the soldier turned and mounted his horse, not sparing any of them another glance before riding away.
"Glenstorm." Caspian said quietly, and the dark centaur, who had been on the sidelines for the entire episode, immediately followed to ensure their visitor left the citadel without incident. Tomas hadn't opened the letter yet, but was rather trying to glare a hole through the parchment.
Suddenly he almost ripped it open, scanning the contents quickly. Lucy was surprised at the snarl that curled his lip; Tomas might have been a spy and a professional soldier, but he always exuded an aura of calm and control.
"What is it?" Edmund asked.
Tomas paused briefly. "He knows that I have been assisting Lady Adeline."
Lucy inhaled sharply.
"I have been warned that if I visit her again, I will die." He said it calmly, and for a moment Lucy was reminded of Adeline, all those months ago when she'd been shot at the river crossing. She'd barely batted an eye until the poison nearly killed her.
"There is…one good thing, however," Tomas continued. He kept perusing the letter as he spoke. "I do not think Xaviar is aware of how much we know. He seems to be under the impression that I was merely visiting Lady Adeline on King Edmund's behalf, delivering letters and such."
"Idiot." Susan muttered. They all looked at her in surprise, Edmund with a tiny smile twitching his lips. Susan crossed her arms defensively. "Well, he is. Did he expect us to not notice two hundred missing children and not at least attempt to find them? He still thinks himself to be invincible, and is only concerned with Adeline as a trophy."
"I quite agree, Su," Peter said, his own amusement showing. "But this does complicate things. If Adeline was close to finding the children, how will she let us know?"
"She'll find a way," Edmund's voice was quiet. "She's smart, Pete. And she's determined, and I'd wager she's probably furious too. Xaviar doesn't stand a chance of keeping those children hidden from her."
"Not in the long run," Tomas replied. "But…she was hoping to find them before the wedding."
Edmund froze; none of them dared say anything.
"She…she told you that?" he asked.
"No, Sire, she said nothing of it. But…there are times when words are not necessary."
Edmund licked his lips. "When is it?"
Tomas looked as though he'd rather not answer, but Edmund held his gaze steadily. Finally, "The day after tomorrow."
In an almost knee-jerk reaction Edmund turned away from them all, one hand sliding across his jaw. Lucy felt that had there been a wall in front of him, he would have punched it. Likely repeatedly.
All of them whirled. How she'd approached without any of them hearing was a mystery, but the dryad, comprised entirely of pink dogwood petals hovered before them.
"I bring a message from Lady Adeline of Anvard. You are all in grave danger."