The journey was accomplished in almost complete silence. Sir Hugo was miserably aware of having failed in their effort to rescue Blaise. He felt old and defeated and out of ideas. He heaved a sigh as Whitecastle came into view.
“I’m so, so, sorry my boy. I wish I could have come up with a clever idea.”
Arric had remained silent on the basis of the less he said the less likely he was to give the game away. Now he gripped Sir Hugo’s arm.
“Don’t blame yourself. As you said Asgreen plays dirty. I’m sure you’ll come up with something even if it’s after the wedding.”
There was no time for Sir Hugo to respond as they were already descending towards the main courtyard of the palace. They could see ten blindfolded people lined up and surrounded by guardsman. The carpet touched down and Sir Hugo and Arric stood up.
Asgreen smirked “I thought you'd come round to my way of seeing things.”
Sir Hugo said nothing but he scowled at the the Count. Arric stepped off the carpet.
“I trust this is the real Prince Blaise and not another rodent?”
“I’m not a rodent.” Arric stated firmly “Now let those people go.”
“Tsk, tsk so fiery! You are in no position to make demands Your Highness.” Asgreen waved a hand and Arric could see his lips moving. The spell brushed over Arric “It seems you were telling the truth. You are not a rodent. Very well.” He turned “Captain, escort the hostages to the gates and let them go.” He turned back “Sir Hugo I do believe your presence is surplus to requirements.”
“I want Smitty back.”
Asgreen laughed, it was not a jolly sound “The rat has a name? Really you are the most ridiculously sentimental excuse for a wizard. Like some old biddy with a cat. I’m afraid the rodent is no longer available for exchange. Now if you don’t mind?” He waived his hand in a laconic fashion “Shoo, shoo, old man.”
Sir Hugo hesitated but Arric turned “Thank you Sir Hugo, you’d better go. I’ll be fine. I’ll do as I’m told and marry Letitia.”
Sir Hugo nodded. He couldn’t find any words to say. He sat down and the carpet lifted and flew away over the palace gates.
Arric followed Asgreen as he led the way into the palace. He was surrounded by six guards just in case he thought about causing trouble but he had no intention of being anything other than perfectly meek and submissive. Asgreen locked his ankle into the shackle and dropped the key into his pocket.
“Any attempt to escape will result in a reduction in the number of inhabitants of Whitecastle. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good. Tomkins will bring you your meals. The wedding will take place as soon as Letitia has recovered from the insult and injury your substitute inflicted on her.”
Asgreen turned on his heel and marched out of the room. Arric heard the snick of the lock. He wished the rat had behaved and not precipitated a crisis but he’d love to know what Smitty had done to Letitia. Poor Smitty. The sun had set and the shadows were lengthening it would be dark soon. Arric lay back and closed his eyes. He needed to get some rest.
Arric woke just before midnight. He wondered if Asgreen had left any guards. He should have listened before he dozed off. He couldn’t hear any sounds but if there were guards they were probably asleep by now. He sat and thought for a moment then stood up and with great focus and full intention cast a sleep spell
“All servants and guards in this wing where ever you may be; sleep deep and sound and wake for nothing until the cock crows and dawn breaks.”
He then unlocked the shackle from his ankle and thrust his feet into his shoes. He took two pillowcases from the bed and pushed them into the pocket of his coat. He stole over to the door to the dressing room and eased it open. Tompkins was snoring softly. He shut the door and walked across the room to the door that opened on to the corridor. There were no guards. Arric walked briskly along the corridor to the main part of the palace. He didn’t have Blaise’s knowledge of the lay out of the palace and it took him over an hour to find the kitchens. He knew kitchen maids and spit boys often slept on the kitchen floor so he cast another sleep spell before he opened the door. There were three small humps under blankets near the fire place. All soundly asleep when he checked. He found the pantry and store room and filled his two pillowcases with fruit and cheese and other food that would keep for a few days. Once he’d done that he put them in the hallway outside the kitchen. He returned inside and cast a variant of the spell he’d used on Beattie’s barrels. This time he included all the food and drink in the kitchen, the store rooms, the pantries and the dairy. He left the kitchen hoisted the two pillowcases over his shoulders and made his way back to Blaise’s wing of the palace. He hid the food behind the boxes in the attic room he’d used when he rescued Blaise. He sat on one of the boxes and made a good meal since no-one had brought him supper.
Once he’d eaten he put some food back in one of the pillow cases and made his way to the ground floor. He was in luck, the door to the garden had no spells on it. He let himself out and made his way to Jed’s cottage. The old groom took some rousing but when he opened the door and saw who it was his face cracked into a beaming smile.
“I knew there would be a plan.” He said as he shut the door. “I’ve got your rat here.”
“Smitty’s here? That’s a relief. We thought Asgreen had killed him.”
“Is that his name? I found him hiding by the door when I got back from work. I could tell he wasn’t an ordinary rat. They mostly don’t wear lace hankies besides it had the Prince’s initials. He squeaked at me and I worked out it must be the rat you substituted for Prince Blaise so I took him in. He was in a state. He’s sound asleep in a little box on my chest in the bedroom.” Jed had been poking up the fire while he was speaking. Now he pushed the kettle onto the hob and gestured to Arric to sit down. He settled himself on the other side of the fire. “So how can I help?”
“I’ve taken Blaise’s place and I intend to delay the wedding by causing problems starting with everyone in the palace having severe stomach upsets by lunchtime tomorrow. I’ve hidden myself some food and I brought you some. I spelled everything in the kitchens, pantries and dairies.”
Jed started laughing “That’s good. I like that. No doubt the Count will cure himself and the Queen and Lady Letitia but he’s not known for bothering with healing magic so I doubt he’ll get the palace functioning quickly.”
“I’d intended to play Prince Blaise securely chained up by day and make mischief at night but now you tell me Smitty’s here I might revise my plans a bit. Could you take a message to Sir Hugo without your absence being noticed?”
Jed made tea and handed Arric a mug. “I’d be missed of course but I was head groom until I retired. Now I just do the Prince’s two horses. No one in the yard is going to question me if I say I’m going on an errand for the Prince. Main problem would be the Count thinking I was up to something.”
Arric nodded “It partly depends on Smitty in any event. If he’ll agree to going back to being Blaise for a few days it would give me a lot more opportunity to make mischief. I’d better get back. I only spelled people to sleep until dawn and it can’t be far off that now. I’ll take Smitty with me. I’ll come and see you again tomorrow night if that’s all right.”
“Of course it is. Anything I can do to help I will and gladly. I’d like nothing better than to see Prince Blaise restored to his rightful position and the Kingdom faring well again. I’ll go and get Smitty.”
Jed returned with a small box out of which Smitty was peering sleepily, As soon as he saw Arric he squeaked excitedly. Arric emptied the pillow case and made his way back to the palace. He left Smitty in his box in the attic with the food and stern instructions not to eat too much since it had to last them a couple of days. He told Smitty he’d be back that night and returned to his room. He resumed looking like Prince Blaise, made sure there were no tell tale traces of his nocturnal expedition then locked himself back into the shackle and climbed into bed to catch up on some sleep.