“Right, then, what are going to do?” Catherine said, hands on her hips, waiting expectantly for Carter to give orders. I was surprised to see her, assuming she would have gone with Nathaniel and Sierra to Springriver rather than wait here.
Carter didn’t speak right away, his eyes fixed on the ground, the gears in his mind turning rapidly as he tried to process what he’d just been told and what he ought to do next.
Silence descended in the stables as what Stone said spread through the sea of pirates milling about. Slowly, laughter died down and heads turned toward the captain, awaiting instructions.
“Well?” Catherine prodded. “Shouldn’t we be barreling off after them?”
“No.” A muscle in Carter’s jaw twitched. “We must approach this carefully. We’ve got one shot at this and we cannot afford to muck it up.” He looked up, meeting my eyes. “You and the rest of the ladies must change. If we are to show up at the Springtons’ home, they cannot know anything is amiss. The mates and I will prepare the horses and weapons. William will come to fetch you when we are ready.”
I stared at him an extra beat. When he had thought Sierra was lost to him just an hour ago, he had split his knuckles wide open trying to break down a tree with nothing more than his own brute strength. But now, when he was in genuine danger of losing both siblings, he was suspiciously devoid of emotion.
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “That was an order, Elizabeth. We’ve no time to waste.”
I hesitated one moment more before I nodded and got to my feet.
“I will remain here with Stone,” Lydia stated.
“Very well,” Carter said. “Catherine and Elizabeth, off you go.”
Not able to shake off that sliver of doubt, but not seeing any reason to delay, the two of us took off running back to the house, going straight to our rooms. Mrs. Brooke gasped as we came charging into the foyer, sputtering as we sped past.
“We need to change,” Catherine called over her shoulder. “Now.”
Mrs. Brooke immediately started running behind us, another maid falling into line behind her. Brooke followed me into my room, the maid continuing to Catherine’s.
Brooke wasted no time undoing the laces at my back, though she was obviously flustered. “What’s happened, Your Ladyship? Is everything—"
“Nathaniel is in danger.”
She gasped, her hands pausing for a moment as she met my gaze in the mirror. “What? What is—"
“I’ve no time to explain.” I forced the filthy dress off, the seams straining as I yanked at the sleeves. “But it is imperative that I change into something presentable so that I can help save them.”
“Yes, Your Ladyship.” Brooke ran to the armoire, grabbing the first gown she saw.
The door opened and another maid came in, her hands wringing nervously in front of her. “Mr. Jenkins said you needed my assistance,” she said, tucking her blonde hair underneath her bonnet.
Brooke handed her the dress, the maid immediately knowing what to do with it, unlacing the back and preparing it for me to wear. Brooke returned to me, switching the now brownish corset and chemise with brand new pristine ones. “Do you know,” Brooke laughed as she tightened the corset, “these past couple of days have been the most eventful I’ve ever experienced in my life. First, the most notorious pirate in the country shows up at our doorstep, and now Lady Elizabeth is rushing off to help him save my boy and I simply cannot help but—"
“Is that what we are helping you dress for?” the maid asked, her movements slowing down as she turned to look at me.
I nodded. “One of the pirates will be up to fetch both Catherine and myself when we are ready to depart.”
“Your Ladyship…” Her eyes flicked to Brooke’s uncertainly and Brooke frowned in confusion. The maid cleared her throat and said, “You are mistaken, milady.”
My brows furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I am sorry, but…the captain and his men have already left.”
“That’s not possible.”
She pushed her hair back again, biting her lip. “Just as you and the other lady entered the house, I saw all the men riding off.”
I shook my head, the information unwilling to compute in my mind. “You are saying that they’ve left us behind?”
The poor maid looked so helpless, her eyes dropping to the ground. “Sorry, milady, but I—"
The door flew open and Catherine stood there, her hair still disheveled and her new emerald gown hitched awkwardly on her right hip. Her maid stood behind her, looking just as troubled as the girl in my room. Catherine gasped, “They—"
“Well, what are we to do?” she demanded. “Because there is no bloody chance that I am going to stay behind and do nothing.”
I dragged my hands down my face, processing. His odd behavior in the barn now made sense, but still the fact that he had just abandoned us stunned me. Why would he—?
I met Catherine’s gaze. “Perhaps the best way to help them is to stay exactly where we are.”
Her eyes nearly fell out of her head. “What?”
“Caspian obviously left us here for a reason. Did you not suspect that reason is because we are useless in a fight?”
Her brows furrowed. “But I—"
I looked at my reflection in the mirror, so obviously small compared to the enormous challenge awaiting all of us at Springriver. Of course I wanted to help Nathaniel and Sierra in any way that I could, but really what could I do—
My vision blurred for a split second, my head whipping to the other side, my cheek stinging like a thousand bees were attacking me. Immediately, my hand flew to cover it, the skin burning against my chilled palm, as my wide eyes turned to Catherine.
She stood beside me, her fists jammed into her hips as she stared at me, fuming.
“You slapped me,” I stated in surprise, too shocked to do anything other than gape at her through the tears that had burst into my eyes.
“I do not pretend to know what has happened to the Elizabeth I knew, and I do not care. What I do care about is the fact that the Elizabeth that has taken over your body is weak, and that is something I cannot stand for.”
I didn’t even blink. “You slapped me.”
“Nathaniel kept me alive in Gretchen’s hell, and you better bloody believe I am going to return the favor. I do not care what has happened to you that would make you complacent with Caspian leaving you behind, but you better—"
“Why did you slap me?”
“Because,” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air, “I could think of no other way to make you focus. Are you focusing now?”
I blinked rapidly, clearing the cobwebs from my mind and turning my body fully to face Catherine. “Yes.”
“Perfect. Now, I do not know where all this rubbish about us being useless in a fight came from, but you well know I am an expert swordsman, as you used to be. I can fight.”
“But I can’t—"
“You are our only means of being allowed into the main part of the house. Lord and Lady Springton trust you. They will provide you with access that I would not be able to obtain on my own.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. Mrs. Brooke, could we borrow some of your clothes?”
“Yes.” I met Catherine’s eyes. “We will not be entering through the front door.”
Brooke met my gaze questioningly in the mirror but she immediately got back to work. “Anna,” she said to the girl standing at the door, “go fetch some spare uniforms and tell Jenkins the ladies will be requiring a carriage.”
“No,” Catherine said, “we require something much faster than that.” She turned to Anna. “Tell him we need two horses. Make sure Lady Gallagher’s is Warrior.”
The girl quickly curtsied and hurried to do as she was told.
“I don’t know how to ride a horse,” I said, grunting as Brooke pulled the laces tighter on the corset. “And Warrior sounds like a much too ambitious one to start off on.”
“Trust me,” she said, giving her back to the other maid so she could help her finish dressing, “you will know how to ride this one.”
“You expect me to ride a black stallion?” My mouth parted as I gazed at the large beast waiting for us by the front door.
Catherine ignored me as she went to her own chestnut brown horse, mounting it as if it was something she’d done every day of her life. “As sympathetic as I am to you getting reacquainted with your horse, I must urge you to get over it quickly. Time is of the essence right now.”
“This is my horse?” I took a step closer, flinching when he swung his head in my direction. “He seems much too aggressive for someone like me.”
“Nonsense. He is a warrior, as you are. Or, were.”
I glared at her as Jenkins handed Catherine a small dagger and she slid it into the small sheath hidden on her thigh beneath her gown. “I cannot—"
“Do you know, you say that much too often.” She looked at me, adjusting the reins in her hands. “Elizabeth, we simply do not have time for your ridiculous fears. Believe me, Warrior will remember you, even if you do not.”
“Hut, hut!” She dug her heels into her own horse and shot off toward the gates, the sun just starting to paint the sky in oranges and purples.
I watched her go with fury, breathing heavily. “Bitch,” I mumbled under my breath as I turned back to the large animal who had started to impatiently stamp his foot.
Taking a deep breath to calm myself, I whispered, “Hi there, Warrior. I’m just gonna get on your back now.” As soon as my hand touched his side, he reared back, his front legs kicking out wildly. I screamed and ran back toward Jenkins.
Warrior settled, his nostrils flaring and ears flapping back and forth.
I looked at Jenkins. “How had I ever ridden that thing?”
He shrugged. “As long as I have worked here, not a single person has been able to so much as get near him.”
“Right. Great. And I’m supposed to race off on him. Excellent.”
I could practically feel the ticking of a clock as time ran out, the thud of each second wasted ringing in my ears. Straightening my back and bracing myself, I walked around to his face, maintaining eye contact as he tracked my movements. “Alright, listen to me,” I instructed, glad my voice sounded braver than I actually felt. “A whole bunch of people are counting on us and we’re running out of time. So you’re going to let me get on your back and we are going to run like hell to Springriver. Understand?”
He blinked, his nostrils blowing out hot air again.
“Good. Okay, here we go…” This time, when I put my hand on his back, not even a muscle twitched.
I turned back to Jenkins who watched me with extreme bewilderment. When he saw me pause, he waved his hands at me to continue.
Putting my foot into the stirrup, I hauled myself up, gown and all, and not once did the beast stir. When I was comfortably seated, a huge smile stretched across my face. “I did it, Jenkins!”
“Well done, milady. Very well done.”
I leaned forward, putting my mouth right next to his ear, whispering, “Let’s go get ’em, Warrior.”
He neighed in response and was off like a bullet, the air slamming into me with the force of a truck, his hooves hitting the ground hard with each step. I hung on to the reins for dear life, the hard saddle quickly making my tailbone sore as I bounced helplessly, Warrior running even faster.
The rain pelted my face, stinging my skin and making it harder to grip the reins. Warrior pushed himself harder at my command, his hooves tromping the wet earth beneath us, mud caking all of his legs as we ran faster and faster.
Distantly, I heard Lydia’s voice behind me. “I knew this was a bad idea. Papa told me there was a bloody awful storm coming.”
“We will make it back to the house before it gets much worse. You worry too much, Lydia.”
She pulled her horse up beside me and squinted at me through the rapid drops of rain. “I am insulted, Beth. I am anything but worrisome.”
“Then stop complaining and enjoy it.”
“Enjoy what?” she called over the sudden booming thunder.
“The adventure!” I squeezed Warrior’s sides harder and he shot off ahead of Lydia, his ears flattening as another bout of thunder rumbled through the sky, but being the obscenely brave stallion that he is, he did not spook at the loud noises.
“If I get there first,” I called over my shoulder, “I am going to tell your father that this entire day was your idea.”
“Like hell you will!” She urged her own horse faster.
I turned forward, laughing under my breath, whispering into Warrior’s ear, “Come on, boy, you aren’t going to let that mare beat us, are you?”
He blew out a sharp breath through his nostrils and pushed himself even harder.
I opened my eyes and was surprised to find myself leaning forward over Warrior’s neck, his sides panting against my legs, his hair slick with sweat. Slowly, I leaned back, taking in my surroundings.
Gravel crunched under Warrior’s weight in the small fenced off area we were standing in. A plain black door stood in front of us with piles of wood and tools strewn about in an orderly sort of way.
“See?” I turned to see Catherine climbing off her horse, her black maid’s dress swishing at her ankles, smiling at me as I stared around in complete confusion.
“I told you that you would remember how to ride.” She patted Warrior on the neck, not even reacting when he neighed menacingly at her. “I was right.”
But she wasn’t. Something was very wrong. One moment I was just barely hanging on to Warrior’s reins and the next I was hurtling through the cobblestone streets of England like it was something I’d been doing all my life. Except all I could remember about the ride here was the exhilarating feeling of racing through the air almost as if I had been flying. I couldn’t, however, recall any of the houses we passed or any of the sounds we heard, or anything else of the sort. It was like part of me had been here, in this saddle, riding Warrior toward Springriver, and another part had been…somewhere else entirely.
“Shall we go in?” Catherine asked, looking up at me expectantly.
A terrible foreboding feeling coiled up in the pit of my stomach, sinking lower and sending chills up my spine. Something was definitely not right, and I had no idea what it was.
Swallowing hard, I slid off my horse, pressing my cheek to his, whispering a quick, “Thank you,” before I turned back to Catherine. I took a long deep breath, shaking off the uneasy feeling and nodding.