Eve yanked the curtains open, letting in the warm sunlight. She skipped back and forth, an undergarment in her hands on one trip, a pair of slippers the next. "Clara! Wakie wakie!" she trilled playfully. Clara groaned and burrowed back under the warm covers. For once Eve's perpetual perkiness was just annoying rather than uplifting. The sunlight was streaming through the windows in a blaze of light and heat. Clara reluctantly bared herself to it, but then retreated back into the dark and comfort of her world under the blankets.
"Clara! Come on, I mean it. You need to get up." Eve started yanking on Clara's arm.
Clara grumbled a bit but eventually came out. "Now what on earth are we doing that requires me to be so awake?"
Eve resumed her hurrying about, and Clara flopped back on the bed. "Today's our rehearsal for the big discovery. We've got to make sure the hair is good and tangled, the dress is ripped, and everything looks convincing," Eve said. Clearly, she was quite excited. She pulled Clara off the bed into a slouchy but still upright pose. "I'm just glad we got some weight on you," Eve said. "You were far too skinny before. Now you have got curves, and you look all the more like Melanie! It's perfect."
Embarrassed with the attention and the scrutiny, Clara made to head back to bed. But Eve towed her away towards the screen so Clara could get dressed. By this time, Clara knew how to work the corset, though she still needed help tightening it. She put it on over the shift and stepped out again. "Eve, I don't have a dress. Are they going to find me in my underwear?"
Eve smirked. At Clara's glare, she quickly said, "I would never have suggested this, but when I hid Melanie I didn't take her clothes. I did not want her to be cold in the coming months! You know autumn's just beginning, we took you around the middle of spring."
"So you didn't take her clothes, but nobody knows what she was wearing under them, so naturally they will need to find me with my underthings on the outside." Clara paused and thought back, counting the months. "Is it really fourth month already? Wow..."
"Yes, Colin's birthday is tomorrow, actually," Eve said. "But we can't celebrate much, or at least not with you. You are being found!" Clara had resumed the glaring. "The King will want you in his presence for the rest of the day. You can feign exhaustion and go to bed early, but you will have to dine with him at the very least."
Clara rolled her eyes. "Fine. He is my father, after all. I've just never met him." It was difficult for her to be so cavalier about something like that, her own family member that she did not even know, but Eve did not notice.
"So, Clara-" Eve snapped her fingers in front of Clara's face. Clara started, fluttering her eyelids. She had begun drifting off again, now that she no longer needed to be thinking. "Clara!" Eve said. Clara nodded sleepily. "You will need to be completely ready for tomorrow, and we'll likely have to leave you in the woods tonight. The prince knows where you will be that he can find you. Colin will take you there at midnight." Eve finally stopped. "Do you understand?" she asked slowly and loudly. Clara bobbed her head blearily. "Okay. And maybe skip the corset, I think that if you were stuck in the woods this would be one of the first things you would get rid of. Yes?" Clara made a noise that signified noncommittal agreement.
Eve gave up and pushed Clara into the chair in front of the vanity. Clara's eyes kept sliding shut as Eve teased, yanked, and thoroughly tangled Clara's hair. A sigh escaped her lips, but when Eve asked what it was about, Clara simply replied with, "Oh, it is nothing. I'm just a little nervous."
Eve laughed. "Don't be! The King loves you. He will want you to be with him for a while, but after the first few days, you can go back to your routine with me. We can actually go down to the field to watch the knights, you can go on horseback rides again, everything will be fine!"
Clara sighed again, a bit quieter this time. I wish that was all there was to be worried about. Clara was more nervous about the acting bit. Sure, she could imitate Melanie, but would it be enough to fool someone she had been living with for fourteen long years?
As Eve continued working her way around Clara's head, something occurred to Clara. "If Melanie was out in the wild, wouldn't one of her main priorities be staying clean?"
Eve paused in her work. By this time, Clara's hair, which normally hung down to her hips, was knotted up to at a bit below shoulder length. "Yes, I believe you are right! How did you know that?" Eve said.
"Just a feeling," Clara responded. "What if we stop teasing it and braid it back while it is tangled? You could still smear dirt and such into it, but this way it will be more realistic."
Eve seemed a bit reluctant to stop what she was doing, but she eventually agreed with Clara on a braid they could do to make everything work together better.
When they were done with the whole look, Clara strode to the mirror. Who is that? She looks...terrible! She tilted it this way and that, trying to make the reflection turn back into her.
Eve watched Clara stare at herself, pose. Stare some more, look confused, and pose again. Finally, Clara asked Eve, "Who is that? It cannot be me. You said I had curves, and that I looked good. The girl in the mirror is...hideous." Her voice was slightly disgusted.
Eve went over and stood behind the mirror. "I sincerely hope you're joking."
Clara twisted this way and that in order to see herself from a different view. "But...that girl looks so...evil! Scruffy! I look like I've spent the past months sleeping in the wild with wolves!" She looked at Eve, and Eve saw that Clara's eyes were slightly frantic. "I'm not sure I want to look like that."
Eve grinned. "You really weren't kidding. Well, if it makes you feel any better, that was the idea." Her voice took on a joking tone. "You always did have an inner wolf. You just had to find it and let it out."
Clara smirked at her reflection, which smirked back. "Yeah...I could get used to this."
Colin woke instantly as the clock began to chime. When it hit twelve, he was already dressed and heading towards Clara's tower.
Clara had never really fallen asleep. She had dozed from when she had gone to bed at around ten, but she did not properly sleep. She was too scared. And why did it have to be Colin, of all people, to escort her into the wilderness wearing nothing but a torn and muddy shift? She would be practically naked, arms exposed and dress ripped up to her knees. It was hardly proper, and things around Colin had been off ever since Clara found out that he had feelings for her. She could not be sure, but when they had joined minds, his secrets were not as well hidden as he had thought. She was not worried about what he was thinking, but about her feelings. She was not sure if she felt the same way for him.
Clara pushed the angst-ridden thoughts away and focused on the task at hand. To add some extra tangles, she had slept in the teased-up braid, and once she was in the forest, she would rub herself with dirt and stick twigs in her hair. She also decided that she would cover herself with a cloak, so as to avoid anything odd and to stay warm. She looked at her pale, moonlit reflection a final time and took a deep breath. Here we go.
They met up in the stables. Colin helped Clara tie rags around their horses' feet, and then off they rode. Colin led the way, through the town and past the guards. Once they were out in the open, Clara felt her body relax slightly as they cantered smoothly into the trees.
She jumped slightly, but hopefully the movement of her horse camouflaged it. "Yes, Colin?" She did not look at him for fear that she would see something in his eyes that she did not want to. No! Not this again. Stay focused, Clara, she told herself. If Colin wanted her to be more than a friend to him, so be it. She could deal with it.
"We're nearly there. I will show you where they will be searching. You should definitely stumble around a bit, it will help create the illusion that you have been lost for a long time and you do not know where you are. We will have to go off the path," he said.
Clara was hardly listening. She was too wrapped up in her own thoughts. She brought her gaze up from her horse's neck and smiled briefly at Colin. "Okay, thank you."
"For what?" Colin asked. He was not sure what he had done, but Clara seemed upset with him.
"Oh, just helping with all this..." Clara gestured at the air. "Um...off the path, this way?" She led her horse off the track a bit.
"Yes, that way will be fine," Colin said. Clara swallowed and clicked her tongue so her horse would move faster. After a few minutes of trotting through dense overgrowth, Colin called, "Here is good, Clara. Stop."
She stopped and dismounted onto the prickly forest floor. Wincing, she picked up some of the dirt from the ground and smeared it into her face. Colin grabbed some leaves and branches to wind through her hair. When Clara looked well and truly horrible, Colin took her cloak and slippers, then left, bidding her well.
It was cold. Very cold. And it was not the sort of chilly-breeze cold either. It was the deep, bone-chilling cold, the shivers-up-your-spine cold, the trembling, shaking, and just plain awful kind of cold. A bit like jumping into a frozen pond, Clara did not notice the cold at once, but rather felt it slowly seep into her, rooting her to the spot. She knew she would have to move eventually, but she could not.
What was that fire spell again... she thought. It had been an hour, maybe more. Clara never had been particularly good at judging time. But if the cold kept up the way it had, she knew that she would not make it to the morning. Especially if she fell asleep. So Clara jumped up and down, rubbed her hands together, breathing on them to keep them from going numb like her toes.
Then, she remembered. The fire spell! That is it! "Enrea-" What comes next? she wondered. A small pile of sticks appeared by Clara's feet, summoned by her partial spell. "Oh! That was lucky," She said to herself. Clara knelt down, grabbed the sticks, and shuffled them a bit more together for kindling. It was too dark for her to see well enough to collect more. "Enreagrof," she said, gesturing with her hand at the small mound. Nothing happened. She rubbed her face, trying to remember. "Enreabrof," she tried again. "Oh, thank goodness!" Clara whispered as the branches finally lit. She blew on the fire gently, piled bits of leaves and more twigs around it, and settled in.
After a short while, the fire warming her toes, Clara noticed something besides the blood rushing back to her extremities. She heard sounds over the merry popping and fizzling of her little fire, little night noises that never bothered her safe in bed. A cracking twig here, a scuttling sound there. Dead leaves crunching, wind whistling, birds flitting about on near-silent winds. Clara shivered, but not from the cold. She realized that she was constantly whipping her head this way and that, and she scratched her nose with one of the twigs in her hair. Clara rubbed at the stinging sensation before she remembered her hands were filthy and she shouldn't get dirt in a cut. Wrinkling her nose, she tried to turn her attention back to the fire. She knew she would not be getting any sleep.
She peers through the inky blackness of the forest and tries to find the nearly invisible path. She turns and immediately loses any sort of bearings she may have had. She decides to retrace her steps, but she cannot remember which way she came from. The path is now the furthest thing from her mind. The darkness now seems to be watching her, waiting to swallow her into certain demise, never to be seen or heard from again.
Clara gasped and sat up. She had not realized that she had fallen asleep and that her fire had nearly gone out. She glanced up at the sky, and then scowled at the branches blocking her view. But it did seem to be a bit lighter. And it had certainly warmed up, even if it was still quite cold. Clara stamped out the remains of her little fire, spreading out the ashes so that nobody would know she was there and making her feet very dirty.
"Well, I guess that's all," she said to herself. She heard a bird begin to sing, and was overjoyed to know that it was morning and she was not stuck in an awful dream anymore. She began to seek out the bird, following the song and then the little thoughts from its mind. She finally found the bird, high in an oak, and pondered climbing up after it. Instead, she asked the little bird, Excuse me, but do you know how long it is until daybreak?
The bird was startled out of its lovely little song, and Clara spent a long while convincing it that she was a friend and had only meant to ask a question. Fortunately, the bird answered that daybreak was not far off, and would probably approach by the time he finished his new song.
Clara was cheered by the thought of a quickly approaching daybreak, but was unsure how the bird would sing such a long song. Based on the light around her, it appeared to be a very misty, dusky dawn, and daybreak would still be hours away. Ah, well, Clara thought. Better head back to my little camp, it will be hard to find me if I've gone from where they are meant to find me.
But in looking around, Clara soon discovered that she had no recollection of which way she had come. She put her back to the bird's tree and tried not to let herself fall into the feeling of panic that had overtaken her in her dream and left her unable to think properly. Her eyes slid shut and she took a deep breath. This way.
Clara took one step, and then another, increasing in speed until she was running through the trees with her eyes closed. Jerking to a stop, arms pinwheeling to keep her upright, her mind informed her that she had found her base camp. Opening her eyes, Clara smiled and gave a short laugh of disbelief.
How did I do that? she wondered. But did it matter? She was not lost. She had overcome the terror that had gripped her in that awful dream. She spun around and laughed, arms out, embracing the new day.
Colin was worried. He should not have been, but he still was. He had barely slept as well, and he was just waiting for the day to begin, expectant and ready to go "find" Clara. And, truth be told, he was hoping to be invited to the welcome-home feast for her, even if all he got to do was pour drinks.
Of course, that would mean wearing the "Official Servant's Uniform of Theorden", which was a garish gold and purple tunic with gold braiding, beading, and epaulettes. And the epaulettes had fringe. The leggings to match were purple as well, but if Colin were lucky, James would let him out of wearing the gold boots.
The thought of having the privilege to wear something so horrid was almost enough to take Colin's mind off the daunting prospect of the day. Everything had seemed so easy when they planned it, but what if Clara had moved so far that they could not find her during the day and she had to spend another night in the woods? What if something had happened to her already in the cold, dark mists? What if...
Colin sat up and shook his head vigorously. No. Clara is perfectly fine, and we will find her. He set about preparing James's things for the day, and woke his charge promptly when the clock struck seven.
James mumbled something into his pillow and rolled over. Colin contemplated yanking the blankets off the bed, but decided on a more traditional shock approach. James spluttered as the water hit his face. "Colin!" he shouted.
Colin grinned and set the pitcher back down. "Good morning, Your Highness!" Colin said. James grumbled at him and got out of bed.
As the prince was dressing, he asked Colin, "So we are setting out today, yes? To find her?"
"Yes, I thought we could leave after you've eaten." Colin gestured to the plate of food he had brought with him. James grunted noncommittally and sat down to eat. Colin bounced on the balls of his feet, and when James told him to stop, he began pacing. James eventually just stuck the apple between his teeth and gestured at Colin to pack up everything they would need.
Colin thrust the bag into James's arms. James rolled his eyes and mumbled something around the apple. At Colin's questioning expression, James took the apple out of his mouth and said, mouth full, "You really fancy her, don't you?"
Colin's ears turned scarlet and James laughed at his servant's startled expression. "I'm only teasing you! Come on." Feeling sheepish, Colin followed James out of the room.
Clara was looking forward to the rest of the day less and less. Her early rising had caused her to feel irritable about everything surrounding her in the pristine forest, and she had been trudging about with a scowl. She just felt tired, which she idly realized would be helpful in her portrayal of Melanie. She also had attempted to contact Lady for the first time in months, but she was just a touch too far away, and she couldn't wander that far away from where she was meant to be found. This, and the fact that there was no one to blame for it, were two large contributing factors to Clara's overall upset.
After wandering a bit more and getting many splinters and pebbles stuck in her feet, Clara had nearly worked out how she would greet James. She would have to be relieved (so not much acting required there) and stumble over to him (again, not much acting, her feet were very cold and sore). After that, she decided she would seem to be in a sort of daze, not processing much, while really getting used to seeing the knights up close and scouring everyone's faces and actions for clues as to how she should continue to act.
By the time Clara had chosen a course of action, she decided to keep her mind preoccupied by preparing for every possibility within her little plan. What if she had to ride with a knight other than James? Unlikely, but she could do the same thing she would have done otherwise, slump against them and just sort of go limp. Be as much of a physical burden as possible. Easy enough to do.
Clara groaned as she knocked her foot on yet another tree stump. It had happened to her about three times already. She hoped that Colin and James would be there soon.
Colin and James set out into the forest, a parade of James's knights, their squires, and a few bored-looking guards in tow.
"Prince James!" Colin called after about five minutes.
"What is it now, Colin? Are your little arms sore already?" James replied. Their banter was familiar to the other knights; in fact, Sir Thomas and his squire were having their own conversation about sword polishing, while Sir Burt's squire looked on, laughing and throwing in some tips of his own. Sir Burt was acting uncharacteristically aloof, looking around at the trees and ignoring everybody else, for he had a few things on his mind. The guards plodded along on their horses, silent as always. Colin wasn't sure why James had felt that taking them along was a good idea. They weren't exactly necessary, nor did they offer much extra assistance when they had two of James's knights with them.
"As a matter of fact, they are. I have only been carrying all of your equipment on these jaunts into the woods for months," said Colin. "Why couldn't you just use another horse?"
"I cannot waste the precious resources of the kingdom. My knights may need to go on a raid, or...something," James answered, winking at the knights. Colin groaned and rolled his eyes.
Sir Burt eased his horse up until it was next to James's and lowered his voice. The knight did not want to be overheard. "James, I do not mean to alarm you, but your father, the King, has recently brought to my attention that we do not seem to be making any progress on the search for Lady Melanie," the older knight said.
James had readied what he thought was a witty retort, "My father, the King? Have I got any other fathers?" but as Sir Burt continued, the prince said nothing. "Yes, well, I have a feeling we will find her soon enough," James said at last, nodding and urging his horse forward.
Sir Burt rode up alongside the prince once more. "Yes, but King Woden has instructed me to take over the search as soon as tomorrow." There was a note of urgency in his voice.
"Yes, well..." James said again. Fortunately, just then Colin startled and let out a yell, accidentally firing a crossbow from James's things into a nearby tree. There was a high-pitched shriek of terror from somewhere near the tree.
Yes! Finally! Colin thought.
James swung down from his horse and drew his sword. "Who goes there?" he shouted. It sounded silly, even to him, but apparently it was intimidating, because a slim figure stepped out from behind the tree. Her hair hung in tangles around her face and her dress was torn. Her face was smudged with dirt, nearly beyond recognition, but –
"Melanie?" James said. He hardly needed to act; his shock at seeing his sister so bedraggled and dirty was quite real. "Lady Melanie, is that you?" James asked again.
She swallowed hard, and then nodded. Then she looked up and realized who had asked. "James!" she exclaimed, tottering over to him. Right as she reached the prince, she tripped and fell into his arms. He caught her, and she made a great show of her eyes rolling back. "I can hardly believe my eyes," she whispered. Tears traced glittering tracks down her cheeks as she smiled. "You found me."
Her eyes rolled back again and she slumped. Still in James's arms, he caught her and called to the others, "It's her! It's really her!"
Sir Thomas looked surprised. He turned to Sir Burt. "Did we really just find Lady Melanie? After all this time, we found her?"
Sir Burt grinned at the young new recruit. "Yes," he answered simply. "We found her."
Sir Thomas laughed, and then let out a great whoop that sent birds taking flight from the trees. "I don't believe it!" he said. "We did it!"
However, Sir Burt's happiness did not last long. He kept glancing around the search party like a twitchy rabbit. "Something is not right here," he murmured. Then he smacked his saddle in frustration. "Of course. Stupid, obvious...James!" he called.
James looked up from securing the lady in his saddle. "Yes, Burt, what is it?" he said, sounding a bit annoyed.
"There is something coming!" Sir Burt glanced around again. "All the animals are gone, and it wasn't just Thomas's shout that scared them off." Sir Thomas looked sheepish as his comrade continued. "I think it may be – " He gripped the reins of his horse's bridle so tightly his knuckles turned white. "OGRE!" he yelled.
What appeared to be a giant, mossy boulder with arms and legs stood before them. How it had managed to sneak up on them was a mystery. But the ogre let out a roar, showering everyone with rotten-smelling saliva. Clara sat up, and let out an involuntary squeak. The ogre roared again, so loudly that thankfully nobody heard Clara and the prince employ some of their favorite curses.
Sir Thomas's squire had screamed at the sight of the beast, then attempted to run, crashing through the underbrush. Before he had gotten far, the ogre had swung his fist at the young man, knocking him to the ground. He did not rise. One of the guards had already run, his horse taking off back along the path, and the others were close behind. One of them stopped to grab Sir Burt's squire, but then he too was gone, leaving behind the various accouterments that the squire had been carrying.
"NO!" Sir Burt yelled. He swung off his horse and stepped towards the ogre, blade drawn. "Fly or fight, foul creature," he muttered.
The ogre roared at the trees behind it, and another ogre, this one slightly smaller (perhaps female? Clara wondered idly.) appeared, blocking any means of exit. They were trapped.
Clara held onto the horse. James had foolishly tied her legs to the stirrups, so she could do nothing but hold on tightly, as tightly as she could, as her horse reared. She would have tried to comfort it, but she was practically out of her mind with fear herself. She was in no position to be comforting.
So quickly that Clara hardly knew what was happening, Colin had fired his crossbow into the mouth of the roaring smaller ogre. It coughed and toppled over, looking confused as it thrashed about. The larger, meaner looking ogre had started uprooting trees and attempting to skewer the knights and the horses.
James mounted his horse again and Clara clung to the helpful mass in front of her to stay on. Their horse whinnied again in fright and jumped over the incapacitated ogre before it. As James and Clara rode through the trees, the downed ogre regained its feet, just after Sir Thomas had followed the prince in escaping. He was trying to turn back, but the horse pulled the reins free form his hands and ran.
"We can't just leave them there!" Clara shouted into the wind.
Somehow, James still heard her, and replied, "We just did leave them there. We have no choice."
"NO!" Clara screamed. She beat her fists against the prince's broad back, but remembered she was tied up and soon relented. She scowled at her stupid brother's blonde head the entire ride back to the castle, and as soon as she could get down, she began her tirade towards James.
"You have to go back and save them!" They started walking out of the stables and towards the front doors of the castle. "That is your servant and your very good friend you left in there, and you need to go back!" Down one hall, they were practically to the throne room already. Clara was so angry that she did not bother trying to stay in character. From what she had heard about Melanie, she and James had had rows fairly often, so this would not be too out of the ordinary anyway.
"JAMES!" Clara shouted. He finally turned to her.
"And what would you have me do? Risk my life to save the lives of two people?" he said. The next part seemed harder to get out, as though his throat had suddenly closed. "I...I am the only heir to the throne." James swallowed to lessen the thick feeling in his throat that came from the lie. It would not have been so bad if he had not been talking to one of the other, albeit illegitimate heirs. "Would you have me sacrifice the entire future of the kingdom for these two people?"
"Yes," Clara replied, folding her arms.
James opened his mouth, ready to respond, but turned away and stalked down the corridor instead. Then he thought of a retort, which he called back over his shoulder. "Some thanks I get for saving you!"
"THEY ARE YOUR FRIENDS!" Clara yelled at his retreating back. James did not acknowledge that she had even said anything and continued storming away.
Blinking back fresh tears, Clara tilted her head back and glared at the ceiling. The pale stone seemed to be wondering what it had done wrong, and Clara tore her eyes away from it to stare at the huge oak door before her instead. The throne room. She knew she would have to go in eventually, but she really did not feel any inclination to do so at the moment.
So, Clara dragged her cold, sore self back to the room she had become familiar with. She stumbled around, quite lost, for some time, alerting all that she passed to the fact that she was alive and back at home. One of the knights (armor-less, she couldn't tell which, though she thought it may have been one of the knights from her rescue) was kind enough to point her in the right general direction.
She only was badly turned around once, but she found the kitchens and (more or less) remembered her way back from there. Eve was waiting in the room, wringing her hands.
"Oh, good, you made it back all right!" Eve exclaimed, jumping up from her sewing to embrace Clara. Clara nodded mutely. She was far too tired to do much else. The worries and sleeplessness of the night had begun to catch up to her.
"Look, Clara, I hate to have to tell you this, but you do need to see King Woden at some point today. You can rest up now – " Eve added hurriedly as Clara's eyelids drooped. "But after a few hours, you need to get up, get cleaned, get dressed, and go see the King. We can hold him off for a little while, tell him you need rest, but you must see him today. And as soon as possible, maybe even tomorrow, there will be a feast held in your honor. The kitchens will be going mad for days!" Eve said with a little grin.
Clara was barely making sense of what Eve was saying, but she was excited for the feast. Perhaps there would be dancing. And Clara would finally get to wear her finery and her carefully cultivated accent amongst other people, people who knew the real Melanie. She was excited and apprehensive in equal measure.
Clara decided, as she flopped onto the bed still fully clothed and filthy, that Sir Burt and Colin were going to be fine. She could not explain how, but as the numbness of sleep descended over her, she felt an incredible sense of wellbeing towards them, and imagined them floating away in an impenetrable bubble. Her wild musing quickly gave way into dreams that made even less sense than giant bubbles, blissful into oblivion.
Colin had tried. Really, he did. But he was not a knight for a reason, and that reason was that he simply was not much of a fighter. But he did have one thing working for him.
"Natsreb," Colin muttered, pointing at a thick tree branch. He hoped that in the chaos around them Sir Burt would not notice the spell.
There was a flash of light, but a small one, and the branch creaked ominously. Then it fell, splintering into pieces, each of which attacked the small ogre. It howled at Colin, and he grinned, firing a bolt from the crossbow. The combined forces of the branch and the crossbow were enough to finally bring the ogre down, and it collapsed, twitching for a moment before going still.
I have just killed an ogre, Colin thought. Oh, my... It was the first time he had ever accomplished something so huge, so important. He puffed up his chest and joined Sir Burt in the fight against the other ogre.
The knight noticed the fallen ogre, surrounded by pieces of tree, and called out, "Lucky break, eh, Colin?"
Colin smirked. You have no idea. But that was a good thing, he had to remind himself. Sir Burt was not a dull man, and Colin knew that he was careful with the spells. Of course nobody knew, nobody could know.
A tree nearly impaling him was a welcome distraction. Colin had just backed away when the ogre swung the trunk and hit Sir Burt. He flew through the air and landed with a sickening thud. He did not rise.
No, no, no, don't be dead, don't be dead... Colin had to refrain from helping the knight and instead focus on the ogre. He tried the breaking spell again, now that Sir Burt was unconscious, but the branch might have well been a twig thrown at the monster.
Glancing around, Colin realized they were running out of options. If he did not best the ogre, and soon, they were both going to die. Sir Burt's sword had been whisked from his grip when he had lost, and Colin picked it up. It was unfamiliar, heavy in his hands, but he had no other choice.
He charged the ogre.
Clara was confused when she saw Colin and the ogre. That cannot possibly be right. Surely, the battle must be over by now... Then she realized she must have gone back to this point in the confrontation. She was a dust speck; a ghost; invisible and nobody could see her.
Colin was losing badly. He was taking broad swipes with the sword, almost as though it was an axe. Clara saw Sir Burt lying beneath a tree, and instantly knew that he was alive. She had to save them, somehow, but her bubble idea seemed a bit ridiculous now. Think, Clara, think! she told herself. This is the past. What have you already done, already seen, that could... A grin spread lazily across her face. Of course.
"Okay, boys, hold on," Clara said.
Colin was quite confused when her found himself at the entrance to the castle. Nobody around him seemed to notice anything different. Sir Burt was propped up on Colin's shoulder, and his eyes fluttered open.
"Colin? Where...where are we?"
"Back at the castle," Colin replied. "Though I am not sure how."
"Oh..." Sir Burt was starting to stand up. "Help me with my armor."
Colin helped the knight remove his armor, just as Didacus came down to the gate. "Burt!" he called. "You are injured?"
The stoic knight nodded, and Colin could see that the he was very pale. Didacus assisted Sir Burt, examining his ribs, which had cracked when he was hit with the tree. Colin left them to go put James's things away.
Didacus had not brought bandages with him, and he asked Sir Burt to come to his chambers. On their way, they passed Clara, looking very lost. Sir Burt gave her directions, a bit confused as to why she could not remember where she lived.
Eve shook Clara's shoulder. "Clara! Wake up! It is nearly time for supper, and the King has requested that you dine with him." Eve pondered throwing water over Clara's head.
Clara finally lifted herself up on an elbow and questioned, "Tonight? What time is it?"
Eve glanced at the clock tower. "Quarter past six. You slept for most of the day."
"Yeah, I guess I did..." Clara rubbed her forehead. "Ugh, we need to get all these tangles out of my hair."
"Yes, that is why I woke you up now. The King wishes to dine at seven..."
"So we have three quarters of an hour for me to get ready? Wonderful. What am I wearing?"
"This." Eve pulled out a shimmery gown that looked like it was made of the sunset. The bodice was a deep blue, which faded into lavender and then the palest pink at the hem. It was simply cut, and the sleeves were long and billowy. There was already a necklace and a set of earrings that matched, plus a chain to be worn around the hips that had little bird charms dangling off it.
"If this is what I wear to simply dine with the King, what will my feast and ball gowns look like?" Clara wondered aloud. Eve flashed her a devilish grin before seating Clara in front of the vanity to brush her hair. The knots and snarls had worked themselves further amongst each other while Clara had slept, and she was sure that by the time Eve was finished with her hair there would hardly be any left.
"Eve! That really hurts!" Clara exclaimed, raising a hand to her head in protest.
"Well, if you would just hold still – " Yank. "This could go by a lot faster."
"What shall we do with my face?" Clara asked Eve, eyes streaming. The two of them had spent many a girlish afternoon playing with Melanie's cosmetics, and Clara was apprehensive to see what they would make her look like for an actual occasion. Eve did not respond except to tug on the brush, now lodged in Clara's curls.
Clara gasped as the brush tore free and Eve said, "I was thinking something simple. Dark lips, lined eyes, rosy cheeks. But first, you need to bathe. And I am through with brushing your hair." Clara reached back and was slightly surprised to find that her hair was all still there.
After she bathed, she slipped into the gorgeous gown and started on her face. Eve began by dusting Clara's face with rice powder, which made her sneeze. Then on went a deep red lip dye, which Clara thought made her look very odd. To make Clara's eyes look bigger and darker, Eve inked around them in black, then applied a light, rosy rouge to tint Clara's cheeks.
Looking at herself in the mirror, Clara had to admit that she looked like nobility. Eve jabbed some pins into Clara's hair that were shaped like small, sparkly flowers, and they looked nice but seemed to serve no real purpose other than scraping her scalp. Clara started to feel that perhaps looking beautiful wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
"You look quite nice, if I do say so myself," Eve remarked, surveying her handiwork appreciatively. Clara examined herself again in the full body mirror and agreed that she did look rather fine. Eve performed her warding gesture, and Clara said, "Okay. Time to dine with the King."
"Colin!" James called imperiously.
"Yes, sire?" Colin replied, rushing into the room holding a newly clean tunic. He had literally run into Sir Richard in the corridor, and the knight had nearly spilled wine on the white garment. It was an accident that Colin was quite glad to have avoided.
"I'm very glad that you and Sir Burt got out of there, but that's no excuse to be slow. Have you got my tunic yet?" James asked.
Colin tossed it over the screen by way of response and waited for the prince to emerge. Eventually, the prince did come out, a bit tousle-haired, and Colin handed him a comb.
"The King wishes me to dine with him and Melanie," James tipped Colin an enormous wink and started combing his hair. Colin rolled his eyes. The whole switching plan had been his idea in the first place, and it was the prince who was in need of a few extra brain cells, not Colin. They headed out of the room. Once they arrived at the staircase leading down to the throne room, however, James told Colin to wait. The prince was the only one who was supposed to be at the feast.
Dining with the King was a stilted, awkward affair, at least for Clara. James arrived and watched her dither at the door for a full minute before saying, "No, please. After you," and theatrically opening the door.
Her eyes were wide. Her palms were sweating. Clara kept swallowing and wiping her hands on her dress. She felt the delicate gold circlet that Eve had placed on her at the last minute start to slip, and she hurriedly shoved a little higher on her forehead.
As soon as Clara entered the room, the King stood, arms wide. "My dear Melanie," he said.
Clara blinked rapidly. James was standing a respectable distance away and she could not go to him for help. Heart pounding, she pasted a smile on her face and stepped into the King's embrace. "It has been too long." There, that is a suitable thing to say, is it not? Clara thought as King Woden rocked her back and forth. The smile slid from her face as anxiety set in. The King suddenly pulled away and held her at arms length and Clara hurriedly hitched her smile back into place. The King, despite having found his daughter, still seemed oddly distant, almost disappointed that Clara had been discovered. Clara wondered if it was perhaps because Melanie had been rebellious against the King and his rulings, even though she had hidden her sorcery. Clara knew that her twin had been quite strong-willed, and many of the King's policies had been to her disliking.
The silence between King Woden and Clara had become uncomfortable before James finally stepped in and said, "Well, shall we dine? That is what we are here for."
The King and Clara gave James similar looks of condescension at his attempt at humor and sat down at the highly polished table. James promptly engaged King Woden in a discussion over a matter of state, and Clara poked uncertainly at her food. There were small, red, seeded berries that looked interesting, as well as grapes and some sort of meat that smelled heavenly. There was also mulberry wine, which, after tasting, Clara had to try very hard not to spit out. Picking up one of the red berries hesitantly, Clara struggled to remember the culinary discussion she had had with Eve during one of the very first weeks she had been at the castle. What were they called? Ah, yes, strawberries. A silly name, considering that they were nowhere near straw colored, but tangy and sweet. Clara tasted one and absolutely loved the flavor. The meat, which turned out to be roast boar, was also excellent. There were also chicken legs. Clara was glad of the one familiar element on the table, albeit a different tasting one. Clara was so lost in a sort of food-induced fog that she did not realize that the King had asked her a question until James kicked her from under the table.
Hurriedly wiping her mouth, she put down her utensils and said, "Sorry, what was that?" She had barely remembered to slip her accent into place, but fortunately, the King did not notice.
King Woden smiled indulgently and replied, "I am not surprised that you are quite hungry. I merely asked you what happened while you were absent."
Clara gulped and fiddled with the edge of the tablecloth. Her appetite shriveled. "Um, I don't really know. I can't remember much...I can remember being taken..." Growing more nervous by the second, she glanced at her brother, but he was busy shoveling down food and ignoring her. Clara narrowed her eyes at him momentarily before realizing that the King was staring at her with an expression of extreme concern.
"You must have been drugged by them this whole time! Tell me, do you remember any of their faces?" Something in the King's face scared Clara, something that looked snapped, and she pushed back from the table abruptly. His incredible overprotection of Melanie in the form of wrath directed at her captors was too much for Clara to bear.
James looked up from his plate, startled. King Woden stood. "I-I am sorry, Sire. Perhaps I should retire," Clara stuttered. James finally came to her aid.
"Yes. The drugs need time to wear off," he said. "I will take her to Didacus in the morning." The King nodded and waved Clara off. She quickly walked off, waiting for James just inside the entrance to the dining room. James said something about escorting Clara back to her chambers, snagged a chicken leg, and put his free hand around Clara's waist.
In between sloppy bites of the chicken, James said, "So how are you feeling? Tired?" Disgusted, Clara tried to push her way free, but James caught hold of her wrist. "I will tell Didacus to tell the King you need rest. Your welcome feast will be postponed until you are truly ready." Then he released her, a rare smile lighting up his features. "You seemed a bit overwhelmed tonight."
Clara made a very unladylike, childish face at her brother. Then she grinned and swatted his arm. "Go on. Get some more food. I can walk to my chambers alone."
James turned around and headed back to the dining room. "Melanie?" he called. Clara turned after a moment of thought. Of course he could not go shouting her real name in the corridors.
He pointed the direction opposite the one she was going, waved goodbye with the chicken bone, and pushed the door open into the dining room. Clara stalked off down the hall in the right direction this time.
She made it to her room without much incident, managing to avoid all but a few curious servants. Eve was straightening out the bedclothes when Clara trudged in.
"Clara! How did it go? Is everything-"
"I am fine. It was...strange, to have to be someone else. I think I will manage for the feast, but James is pretending I am drugged. Didacus will tell the King I need time to recover, and then we will have the feast," Clara interjected.
Eve smoothed a corner of the sheets into place. "Oh. Is that all, then?"
Clara cocked her head questioningly. "Sorry? I don't understand what you mean..."
"I just expected something like this might happen. James rushed you into this. You're just not quite ready."
Feeling slightly upset that she was apparently so predictable and unprepared, Clara cast her eyes downward and twisted her toe into a knot on the wood floor. She realized she was being childish at around the same time as she noticed a row of shining beads on her slipper. Clara shook her head at how easily distracted she was and slid her foot back between the folds of her dress. Looking to Eve, Clara said, "Maybe you should start dressing in all black and be the court seer."
Eve shuddered. "Don't even joke about magic like that, Clara." Clara nodded and apologized. Eve's dismissal had been a subtle reminder of the consequences of magic. Clara resolved to tell Colin that they would need to be more careful with their lessons, possibly giving up their time altogether on some days, now that she was officially in the castle.
By the next morning, Clara had forgotten her resolution and was disgruntled by the fact that she was, once again, confined to her room. "I just got here!" she would exclaim to anyone who would listen. "Now I have to pretend to be stuck again!"
Eve soothed her friend as best she could, but the effect was slightly diminished as she tried to continue Clara's training. "Yes, Clara, I know. Maybe you should try to always talk in your Melanie accent in order to improve? You sounded very much like yourself there." Clara just scowled.
"I am myself, Eve. I wish I could just get out of this room!" Clara replied.
But, as it turned out, she would not have to wait very much longer. It was announced shortly after Eve had convinced Clara to do a speaking exercise that the feast for welcoming "Melanie" back home would take place the next night.