Elizabeth met with Ralph immediately after breakfast in her tower. He knocked on her door and Sylvie admitted him. It was so normal and non-magical it made her blink back tears.
They sat at her dining table as soon as he maid had cleared it. Ralph offered her a sheaf of papers. "These are all the notes from the Sothalia Council meetings while you were gone," he explained. "There's nothing urgent in them. By the way, now that you're back, do you want the Council to continue?"
She just nodded and set the notes asked. "Absolutely, administration isn't something I care much for. I'll sit in on future session just so I know what is going on. No word of Nick yet?"
"I'm sorry, no, but we do have one clue now. Several people on the coast have reported the dragons passing by heading south. They were too high to see anything of the prince, but our ships are concentrating their search in that direction."
"Good. That's good."
"Indeed. This next item is a little awkward. I received a letter for you from your grandfather about a week ago. I didn't know if there was anything urgent in it, so I opened it and read it. I hope you don't mind." He passed it to her.
Elizabeth shook her head and read it. Gramp's writing seemed shakier than she remembered it, but it was mostly news of home. The one unsettling thing he discussed was that her brothers had had some sort of falling out and were fighting all the time, mostly verbally but there had been a couple of physical tussles. At the end of the letter he asked if she would consider fostering Charlie for a year or two.
It was common practice to send young lords, especially younger sons, to the household of a friend for a period of time to gain experience and polish. When she had finished the letter, she said, "I think it would be a good idea to have Charlie here for a while. What do you think?"
"I agree. Separating them until they're both a little older could prevent a serious rift or even a tragedy. I've taken the liberty to ask around about tutors. He's twelve?"
"Yes, and big for his age."
"Then he would fit in quite well with the children of Baronet Trimble and Sir Paul. They share tutors for history, mathematics, and literature. Classes are in the morning and there are currently five students ranging in age from ten to fifteen. In there afternoon there is a class in Manners and Decorum, which I believe is something like the Genealogy, Protocol, and Etiquette class Nick used to take but without the genealogy. After that the girls go to sewing and music and the boys go to weapons training. If you were willing to split the costs for the tutors, Charlie would be welcome."
"Of course. I'll write to Gramp and tell him Charlie can come whenever he wants. We'll have to think of other things for him to do though, spending that much time in class will only mean a lot of stored energy that will get him into trouble if there isn't an outlet for it."
Ralph made a note for himself. "Perhaps hunting with some of the younger lords. I can inquire about what the other boys in the classes do in their free time."
"It looks like the construction is going well. How much is expected to be completed before winter?"
"The main bulk of the castle should be closed in by then and some of the interior work completed. There are towers planned but they won't even be started until next year. That reminds me. I have good news and bad news about the prisoners. They've finished all the fish and potatoes, by the way."
"Good news first."
"The families of three of the younger men have returned to Sothalia and have taken the responsibility to keep them out of trouble, so they have been released into their custody. Five of the other prisoners have also been released based on good behavior and hard work. Four are now paid employees on the construction crew and one is employed on a nearby farm. Their example has improved the work habits of most of the rest of them."
"The bad news?
"Two of the men have been trouble right from the beginning. They've been lazy and uncooperative, and deliberately damaged tools they were given to work with. The final straw was an escape attempt, and they were both flogged after that. Lord Percy has taken them back into custody and we are planning to exile them, one to the west and one to the north."
"Flogged? They were whipped?"
"Yes, but only five strokes, and the entire Council thought the punishment too light, including myself. It wasn't the first time for either of them from previous scarring, and one also had had an ear clipped for theft. They're simply not interested in honest work."
"All right, exile them. But see that they have food, water, and a blanket when they're released. They may not want to ever become honest men, but give them a fresh start anyway."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Elizabeth looked sharply at him; was he mocking her?
No, Ralph smiled back at her. "When you command me, I can hardly respond with your first name."
Elizabeth smiled too. She hadn't been giving orders very long, but apparently she was becoming competent at it. "Is there anything else, Ralph?"
"I'm afraid so. I've saved the most difficult for last. We have witches now. Five of them arrived last week in a carriage from Londinum. They are properly registered, but I have no idea what to do with them without Nick."
Elizabeth was so surprised all she could do was stare at him for a moment. She recovered and asked, "What have you done with them so far?"
"Given them food and lodging and set some limits on magic use. Let me go over what we have. The good news is Esme. She calls herself a hedge witch, and she's mostly a healer of both people and animals. She's upset about being taken away from her village; apparently the women in her family have been the local doctors and potion makers there for generations. Her two adult daughters are taking over for her as well as they can, but neither has her magic. She says it skips generations, so I've sent word to have the family watched for magic talent in the future. Her magic is weak; she mostly uses it when setting broken bones but other times as well although she didn't elaborate. She also uses herbs as you do, so you may want to compare notes with her."
"That's wonderful. Would she be willing to treat people here?"
"Yes, her biggest worry was that we would try to force her to use her magic to hurt or kill. I've told her no one will do that and she's one of those people who really can't stand to be idle. I've given her a cottage to herself so she can see patients and told her we'll supply herbs and whatever else she needs to care for the poor in Sothalia who can't afford to see one of the physicians in town."
"Excellent. I'll visit her when I can. Who else do we have?"
"A young lady of about fifteen named Flyte. She's an illusionist, but she doesn't believe it. Wherever she goes, she's followed by faeries, pixies, and unicorns or whatever they are. You can see them and hear them, but they're not real. She's creating them but she thinks that magical creatures just like her."
"Can't someone explain it to her?"
Ralph shook his head sadly. "I've tried, and so have others. She grew up in terrible circumstances; extreme poverty and abuse from within her own family. She was about three when her unicorn illusion saved her from a much older brother, and after that all the magical creatures kept everyone away until she ran off into the forest with her menagerie. She survived somehow, and was found living in an abandoned hut on the outskirts of a village. The villagers believed her illusions and gave her gifts of food, drink, and clothing, and in return her magical creatures do them no harm. I suppose in a way she has repaid them, since others in the area come to see her faeries and do business in the village, which has grown substantially in the last few years."
"I suppose they're disappointed since she left and there are no more faeries?"
Ralph shrugged. "No idea. She has a room in the dormitory building built for the witches, and since she believes her magical friends don't like being inside, they usually only manifest when she goes out in the gardens every day. The gardeners have been told to ignore her and the illusions. We had a couple of cases of hysteria at first, but everyone who goes into the gardens regularly is starting to adjust."
"I'm glad you told me. If I saw a unicorn or a group of faeries with no warning I might be a bit hysterical myself."
"Quite understandable. I'm not sure what we're going to do about visitors, and I don't know if her talent can be turned into something useful militarily. I was hoping Nick could get through to her so her illusions would be under control."
"Perhaps one of the others could explain magic to her?"
"Doubtful. Let me tell you about the others. We also have a thirteen-year-old boy accompanied by his aunt, Dudley and Aunt Bitsy. I put them in a cottage as well, since he's a bit young to be housed with grown men. His magic is not completely under his control and he doesn't know how to do anything except light a candle and move something small around from a short distance. Right now I've forbidden him to experiment with his fire ability, but given him permission to practice moving things. There are plenty of broken stones that have been hauled outside the walls, and he's to work there on increasing the weight he can lift and his control of the weight in the air. I have a guard with him just in case anyone is alarmed seeing him do magic. It's just busy work, but I don't know what else to do with him."
"That seems like a good idea. I think you're doing quite well, Ralph, especially with no knowledge of magic yourself, and Nick will know how to help him when he returns."
"Probably, but you haven't heard everything yet. The fourth magician is actually two people. They're an elderly couple that have been married for thirty-six years and spent their lives on a farm. Their sons are doing the farming now and they're mostly retired. The odd thing is that they can only do magic together. Abner actually does the spell, but he can't do it unless he's in contact with Flo, and she can't do magic at all. Nick might understand it, but I don't. In any case, I've given them a cottage since they are a married couple, and they've agreed to keep any magic use indoors for minor domestic things like lighting the fire or lifting a heavy kettle."
"So basically we're providing a retirement home for them."
"Yes, at their age I doubt they'll be of any use in a battle. And then there's magician number five," Ralph continued. "Frankly, he scares me. Winston is in his mid-twenties, and very powerful; I think he's a distant cousin to Lawrence, the previous Earl of Ulle. He has a room in the witch house, but when I told him not to do any magic he basically told me to go pound sand. He says he's answerable only to the head of the Royal Coven, which I'm not, and he'll do as he pleases until Prince Henry tells him differently. So far I've seen him help a little with the construction, but mostly he goes out of the city. I had him followed one day and he went to the river and threw some rather impressive fire spells out over it. After that he spotted his follower and tossed him about twenty feet. The man wasn't badly hurt, but I'm not putting anyone else on his tail; he's just too unpredictable."
"Perhaps I should talk to him. I may not be charge of the Royal Coven, but I am the Duchess of Sothalia, and he is living in my domain. Where do you think I could find him?"
Ralph shook his head. "I don't know, but I'll have him brought to you, if you really want to see him. I'm not sure it's safe though, Elizabeth."
"There's only one way to find out. Just make sure he has several guards accompanying him; that way if he does try anything someone can stop him. He can't attack in all directions at once."
"I hope you're right about that. I'll have the guards look for him. There's a large room that will one day be your audience chamber. Right now it has a wooden platform and a couple of large chairs in it. I'll have him taken there. Him being brought to you and you sitting while he stands should give you the upper hand, at least to start."
"All right. And I suppose I'd better go exploring and find out where everything is or eventually will be."
Elizabeth spent several hours walking around her enlarged castle. She stopped and talked to any castle servants she didn't know, learning their names and duties. The duchess also found the architect directing the construction and went over the plans with him. He showed her what portions had been completed, what was planned for the future, and gave her timelines.
At the midday meal she was able to identify many more of the people at the lower tables. She noticed their first cleaning maid, Laura, appeared ready to give birth at any moment. She also spotted people she was sure were Aunt Bitsy and Dudley, and Abner and Flo. Ralph pointed out Esme as well, but Flyte and Winston weren't in attendance. Elizabeth asked him to have the magicians remain after the meal so she could talk to them.
Her meeting with them was informal; she just had them move to sit closer to her when the others had left.
She spoke to Esme first. "I'm very glad you're here. I know a little about herbal healing myself, and I'd like to exchange recipes with you some time. Is there anything you need that you don't have?"
Esme shifted her stout body a little uncomfortably. She wasn't used to dealing with the nobility. "Well, Ma'am, there are a few things I used to gather wild where I lived that I haven't found here yet."
Ralph said softly, "Address Princess Elizabeth as 'Your Highness'."
Elizabeth said, "Can you write out a list? Any useful medicinal plants that don't grow locally could be imported and grown in the castle gardens."
"Yes Ma'am, Your Highness, I can do that. And if you don't mind my saying so, I could do with a bit of help. I was helper to my mother, and my daughters were my helpers, but now we're apart. It's better to have more hands sometimes and often a strong young person can things an older one can't. If there's a bright young lass who'd like to learn the trade, she'd be most welcome."
Elizabeth looked at Ralph who shrugged and said, "I don't know of anyone off hand, but I'll keep an eye out. If you find someone, Esme, feel free to take her on as your apprentice."
"Yes sir, I'll do that."
"That's all then. Give your list to me and Her Highness and we will try to supply you."
Esme bobbed in a semblance of a curtsy and left. They turned to Dudley, a gangly redhead. His aunt was dark haired, neatly dressed, and sharp faced, and moved a bit closer to him in a protective manner.
The boy stood up and executed an awkward bow. Elizabeth smiled at him and said, "Dudley, what do you know about magic?"
"Not much, um, Your Highness. Sometimes I just feel like I'm all full of energy and it just has to bust out of me. And sometimes I want to do something real bad, and suddenly I can."
Elizabeth was shocked; he really had no idea at all what he was doing. Well she knew a little of the basics; she'd read a magic book or two herself and Nick had talked about it. "Dudley, inside of you there is something called an aperture. I can't do magic so I can't really tell you exactly where it is. But when you open it, magical energy comes through, and when you close it, the magic stops flowing. It goes into your channels that run through your body. Some of it can flow into your reservoirs, places inside you that can store the energy. If there's too much or you want to get rid of some, you can send some through your feet into the ground, which is aptly enough called grounding. In your hands there are ejectors which can shape the energy and cause it to come out in different forms. Do you know how to read?"
"No, Your Highness, nobody in my family knows that. My pa works on a farm and my ma keeps the house and garden and takes care of my brothers and sisters. My aunt here was a maid in Sir Camber's house. None of us never had no need for reading."
Ralph said, "I'll see if I can arrange for some lessons."
Flo spoke up. "Why, Your Highness, I can read. I even have four books of my own. If the boy would be willing to trade work for lessons, I'd be glad to teach him. After all, what else do I have to do?"
"What kind of work?" Dudley asked.
"Abner has a bit of rheumatism, so if you could fetch the water in the morning, maybe dig a patch for a little garden?"
The boy nodded. "I could do that."
"Good," said Elizabeth. "Dudley, when you go out to practice lifting rocks, try to feel your aperture opening and closing. You should learn to control it and how much energy you are taking in. That's really step one to being a good magic user."
"Okay, Your Highness, I'll try."
Ralph asked Aunt Bitsy, "Is there anything you need to look after Dudley?"
"No, Sir Ralph, except the boy could use some better clothes. Everything he has is patched and ragged, he doesn't look like belongs to no royal anything. Oh and a couple of small rugs, the floor can be cold in the morning."
Ralph eyed Dudley and could see she was right. He made some notes and said, "Those are reasonable requests; I'll see what I can do. That's all, then."
Aunt Bitsy smoothly curtsied and Dudley bowed, and they left. There was only the elderly couple remaining until a teenage girl came in from the kitchen. She was slender with sun-lightened long brown hair and well-tanned skin. She wore a short green dress, brown leggings, and boots. She stopped and stared at the group.
Abner said, "Well how do, Flyte. Her Highness her was just saying hello to all us magic people. Come on over."
Flyte came about halfway to them and stopped; she seemed nervous about getting too close. "Hello, Princess. Hello, Sir Ralph." Elizabeth suddenly noticed a little winged person sitting on the girl's shoulder. Flyte glance at it and said, "Oh this is Lia. She's my friend. She goes with me everywhere, but sometimes she's invisible."
"Well I'm pleased to meet both of you. Flyte, do you need anything? Is your room all right?"
"Oh, we're fine Princess. But I miss the trees. The gardens are nice, but the unicorns like the forest much better. Couldn't I live in the forest instead?"
"No, I'm sorry, but I've already told you that we need to know where you are and that you're safe," Ralph replied.
"All right. I'm going outside now, everyone is waiting for me." She scampered back through the kitchen and out the door.
Elizabeth turned to Abner and Flo. "Do you know Flyte well?"
Abner replied, "No, Your Highness, just met her on the coach from Londinum."
Ralph asked, "Is your cottage comfortable? Is there anything you need?"
The old man spoke right up. "Well, seeds for the garden, of course."
Flo said shyly, "There's one thing. The mattress on our bed . . . our bones are old, we could use something softer."
"I'll see to both requests," said Ralph. "There is one thing we really haven't talked about. Exactly what sort of magic can you do? I know you can light the logs on your hearth, is there anything else?"
There was a short silence. Then Abner said, "If there's a big rock in the field, Flo comes along and I get it right out. And there was that time we went fishing. It was a holiday, you know, we went to the lord's fair until the middle of the afternoon, and we decided it would be nice to have a mess of fish for dinner. The whole family went. My granddaughter, little Clara, she was playing on the bank and fell into the river."
"I saw right away only Abner could save her, and I grabbed his hand," added Flo.
"Yeah, she was being carried off pretty fast. And I couldn't see her much, but I knew right where she was. Don't know how I knew, but I did, and I just reached out and popped her right back up on the bank. Of course it was a ways downstream and we all run down there, but she was all right, just wet and coughing and then crying."
"It was the best sound in the world when she started bawling," Flo said. "It meant she was really fine, she had good air."
Ralph nodded. "About how far away was she when you rescued her?"
"Oh, I don't know, a fair distance I guess."
I'd like both of you to go out to the rock pile where Dudley is practicing and see how far away you can lift a rock of about the same weight as the child. I'd like to know the distance and weight. Don't go alone though, make sure you have a guard with you," Sir Ralph instructed.
"All right, and I guess I can pace off the distance. Not sure what difference it makes, but since you've given us a nice cottage and food and all, we'd be glad to do it, wouldn't we Flo?" Abner said.
Flo nodded. Ralph said, "That's all, then," and they bowed and curtsied and left.
After they were alone, Elizabeth asked, "Do you think any of them might actually be some use in defending Anglia?"
"Unlikely, but you never know. I think discovering everyone's capabilities would have been the prince's first task, and it's something we can do at least to some extent."
Elizabeth returned to her tower to go through her wardrobe with Sylvie. She hadn't had much time to look through the trunks that Arthur had brought, and she was starting to think that there might be enough of the castle completed to have a Midwinter ball.
Two hours later a guard came to tell her that Winston had been found, and to lead her to her rudimentary throne room. Sir Ralph came and stood near her but off of the temporary dais. Four guards escorted in a well-dressed young man, and placed themselves to either side and behind him when he stood before the duchess.
Winston addressed Ralph. "What's going on? Am I under arrest or something?"
"Not at all. We simply couldn't find you. Princess Elizabeth, allow me to present Winston, a member of the Royal Coven."
Winston bowed and said, "That's Winston Marshall, Your Highness. And you couldn't find me, Sir Ralph, because I've purchased my own house. If I must live in Sothalia, at least I can have a decent residence."
Ralph and Elizabeth exchanged glances. Neither was sure if that was a good idea or not; there weren't any rules established for the coven about where the members had to live.
Ralph asked, "Where is this house?"
"I'm just south of Sir Roderick, if you know him."
"We do," Elizabeth stated. "However keep in mind that when Prince Henry returns he may require you to live in the housing established for the Royal Coven."
"And when will that be, Your Highness? I heard he was carried off by a dragon, which means he might never come back."
"He will be back, Mr. Marshall. In the meantime I am overseeing the coven," Elizabeth said firmly.
"Your Highness, you don't even qualify to be a member. I am the most powerful witch in the group and the only one with any education. If Anglia needs magic to defend itself, I'm the person everyone will have to depend on. Therefore I think I am in charge of the Royal Coven until and if the prince returns."
Sir Ralph asked quietly, "Mr. Marshall, what did you do in the last war?"
"The only thing I could do without betraying either Anglia or my cousin Lawrence, Earl of Ulle. I stayed out of it."
Elizabeth said, "You may be the most powerful witch here at the moment, but the grace period is not over. There will likely be others joining the group. But even if you remain the most powerful, that does not make you the best leader or Prince Henry's second. The fact that you have physically separated yourself from the others for your own comfort shows that clearly. The Royal Coven serves at the pleasure of the king; as the only member of the royal family in Sothalia, I am in charge. If I believe you aren't trustworthy, I have the authority to remove you from the coven, in which case you would be in violation of the witch law, and suffer the consequences."
Winston paled and dropped his eyes. "Yes, I see, Your Highness. I did not understand that you would have that authority whether or not you know anything about magic. Please let me say that I am grateful to be able to live in Anglia and use my talent without the threat of execution. So what do you command?"
"Two things. First, if you're going to practice your magic make sure that there is no one that could possibly be harmed in the area and take a guard with you so anyone nearby will know you are a sanctioned member of the coven and not a rogue witch. I don't want any misunderstandings that could result in injury or death. Second, I want a list of all the spells you can do and the range and strength of each--for example, you can lift one hundred pounds at one hundred feet."
"Easily done, Your Highness. And my house? Must I give it up?"
"No, enjoy it for now. When--and I stress when rather than if--Prince Henry returns, he will make a final decision and undoubtedly establish rules and boundaries for the Royal Coven. That will be all for the moment."
The witch bowed and left, followed by the soldiers.
Ralph said, "I'm impressed, Elizabeth. I didn't realize you had that authority. For a moment I thought the whole Royal Coven idea was going to get completely out of hand and end up in a pitched battle."
She smiled. "Well if I didn't the authority before, I have it now since he believed me. And although he has magic, I have soldiers, thanks to Prince Arthur. But we really need Nick to handle this. I don't know about Esme, but the others would follow someone like Winston. He's by far the most powerful of them, and he's wealthy and educated. Our poor have been trained to obey the rich. And we could get others like him, especially from the north."
"We both know Nick is doing everything possible to return. In he meantime, I suppose we could set some broad rules, like all members of the coven must reside in Sothalia, they can only do magic when and where allowed, and they all should learn to read and write."
"Make a list. I'll let you know if I think of anything to add. And now I need to go through Nick's wardrobe with Parker to put away his winter things and make sure all his lighter weight suits are clean and in good condition so they're ready for him when he returns."
After going through her husband's wardrobe with his valet, Elizabeth didn't need much convincing that she needed to go shopping. Some of Nick's clothing from the previous year was badly worn; being careful with his clothes wasn't something he thought about very much. And she needed a few things for summer as well. Now that there were businesses open in the city, the duchess decided to spend a day shopping, to the delight of her maid. Clothes shopping was one of Sylvie's favorite activities, and Parker would go too, since he knew more about fabrics and styles of men's clothing.
The next morning they went, accompanied by four guards. As more people returned to Sothalia, the character of the city was changing and Elizabeth didn't want any trouble. Besides, four guards meant lots of arms for carrying packages. She decided to walk; some of the shops were on narrow streets that would barely accommodate one carriage or wagon. And that way she could window shop and stop in wherever she chose.
There were still damaged buildings being demolished or repaired and new structures being built. The markets were crowded with stalls and busy with shoppers. They wandered through a few stores as well, picking up some small items. Then they headed east toward the wealthier section of the city and had lunch at a nice restaurant inside a large inn.
After lunch, they headed down a narrow lane to a shop that carried a selection of fine fabrics. As they were passing large brick building being torn down, Elizabeth noticed movement out of the corner of her eye, and saw the wall next to them start to bulge and new cracks suddenly appear.
"Run!" she cried and headed for the far side of the lane. Behind her, Parker responded instantly, pushing a startled Sylvie next to him away from the wall after her mistress. The two guards behind them saw what was happening, the one farthest from the wall running across the lane too while the one nearest wall did the only thing he could and threw himself back, trying to clear the crumbling brick in that direction.
The two guards in front had little chance. The one farthest from the wall saw the party running away and managed a few steps in the same direction before he was hit. The one nearest the wall was buried in bricks before he discovered where the danger was.
The noise subsided and the dust settled. Elizabeth found herself face down with Sylvie next to her and Parker on top of both of them, trying to shield their upper bodies and heads with his torso. He got off slowly and asked, "Your Highness? Sylvie? Are you all right?
The duchess found she could move a little, but she'd been hit in the backs of her legs with bricks. Her voluminous skirt and multiple petticoats had protected her somewhat, but now all that fabric as weighed down by rubble. Sylvie was in a similar situation. Parker began freeing them and the guard that had been behind them came to help.
When the ladies were finally able to sit up, they saw one of their guards digging frantically by the stump of the wall while another remained on the ground and moved feebly back in the direction they'd come from. The guard who had helped them went to assist the digger, but before he reached the spot the rescuer stood up and shook his head. He changed course and headed toward the guard who was alive but still down, followed by the guard who had been digging. People had come out of other buildings but mostly just stood and stared, although several went back inside, and one or two ran off, hopefully to get help.
Elizabeth and Sylvie got to their feet. Parker stayed next to them, but his eyes scanned the remains of the building. Two walls had previously been taken down and the rubble removed. Now only one wall stood, but there was no one in sight. Had there been careless workmen and they'd run away? He'd heard no shouts or footfalls. He supposed it was possible the wall had fallen by itself, but it seemed odd the entire wall had given out all at once and down to a foot or two from the ground.
The duchess had seen enough to realized that what had happened hadn't been natural. The cracks had appeared all over the wall almost simultaneously, and she'd seen no reason for the entire wall to bulge out as it had. Someone had tried to kill them with magic. Or rather someone had tried to kill her, and the guards and servants just happened to be there too.
One of the guards came up to her and reported. "Your Highness, one man is dead and another has a broken leg. With your permission, I'm going to go get help."
Elizabeth gave it and he ran off. Sylvie had been standing, but now she sat down ont he ground again. Parker asked, "Sylvie, are you hurt?"
"Not bad, it's just my legs are aching. I got hit a few times but nothing's broken. Must I stand?"
Parker looked to the duchess who shook her head. They were all filthy and bruised; it hardly mattered, although she felt she shouldn't sit on the ground, being a princess. Someone offered them water, and someone else had taken a bucket and dipper to the remaining guards. A little old man struggled to bring three chairs from a building next door to where they stood. Parker helped him and assisted Sylvie up and into one while Elizabeth settled into another, and Parker took the third. He was favoring his left arm, but the duchess had seen him use it so she knew it wasn't broken.
There was an approaching rumble, and then there were guards with a wagon and carriage in the narrow lane, driving in as far as the rubble in the street allowed. The injured man and the dead one were both put on stretchers and loaded into the wagon while Elizabeth and her servants got into the carriage.
At the castle, Parker offered to fetch a physician but Elizabeth declined for herself, but told him to make sure that he, Sylvie, and the guards were properly treated. All she needed was a bath and clean clothes. Servants brought the hot water to her tower and she managed the rest herself. She put some soothing ointment on her developing bruises, and had a servant take the jar to Sylvie and Parker. Gwen Baker brought her tea and fresh cookies, and the duchess asked the cook to check on her maid and Nick's valet and to see whatever they needed.
Sir Ralph followed close on the cook's heels. "Your Highness, what happened?" he asked, obviously very concerned.
"Sit down please, Ralph. Cookie?" He took one and nibbled on it while she continued, "Someone used magic to try to drop a brick wall on me, but officially we're calling it an accident since there's no proof. Can you find out where all the witches were in the last two hours?"
He quickly gulped down his cookie and stood up. "Of course. Any idea why?"
"Not precisely. Mr. Marshall seems to be the only likely suspect at the moment since I refused to allow him to take over the coven, but check everyone."
"Yes, Your Highness." Ralph set off at a brisk pace.
He returned three hours later with a perplexed look on his face. Elizabeth invited him to sit, but he paced instead as he gave her the results of his research.
"Winston, Dudley, Aunt Bitsy, Abner, and Flo were all at lunch in the main hall. Afterwards, Winston and Dudley went out to the rock pile with a guard and practiced magic all afternoon, Winston actually giving Dudley some tips. Aunt Bitsy says she went back to their cottage, but there are no witnesses to confirm that's where she was. Abner sat outside and whittled, puttered in his yard for an hour or so, then went inside. Flo was seen going into their cottage and hasn't come out as far as anyone knows. Esme has been with patients on and off all day, and was with a family with sick children during lunch, and then treated a man with a bad gash, and saw a mother with a fretful baby."
"That just leaves Flyte."
"The gate guard saw her walk off toward the forest and she's just returned. She said she was visiting the unicorns. Of course she could have given the illusion she was someone else and come back into Sothalia earlier, but I really have a difficult time believing she would try to kill anyone."
"She could be putting on an act," Elizabeth said tentatively.
"It's possible. It's also possible that someone else is a far better magician than we think, or there's a witch in Sothalia we don't know about. I suppose it's even possible there was an old rune or something on that wall that made it break like that."
Elizabeth shook her head and sat quietly for a few moments. Then she said, "I doubt the rune theory, since the building wasn't terribly old and the Francks didn't set it off when they damaged it. In a way I'm glad Winston has an alibi, otherwise we'd both be jumping to the conclusion he's guilty. Are we sure Aunt Bitsy can't do magic or that Flo might be able to do some on her own without Abner?"
Ralph replied, "All we know is what they're telling us. Someone could be lying, in fact they all could be lying, how would we know? We need a powerful witch we can trust."
Elizabeth nodded. "We need Nick."