“Gwendolyn, fetch my cape,” Pippa whispered. She scanned her bedchamber and spotted the document on her desk.
“Please, oh please, do not do this terrible thing,” Gwendolyn begged in a hushed voice.
Pippa didn’t need to turn around to know her childhood friend stood near the door wringing her hands with worry. Ever since the death of Pippa’s mother, Abigail, Gwendolyn had taken it upon herself to coddle the motherless girl. Pippa whipped around. “My cape, now!” she said through clinched teeth.
Gwendolyn teared up, yet turned to do her lady’s bidding. Pippa had to steel her heart against the tears or she might reconsider her actions. Riding well before dawn under the cover of darkness would be risky yet necessary. She had no other option to save herself and her people.
“Ye risk much riding into the wolf’s lair,” Gwendolyn sniffed.
Strapping on her sword belt, Pippa rolled her eyes at her dramatic friend. The wolf’s lair indeed. Being the lone child of Lord Phillip and Lady Abigail Fairwick had left Pippa with few to call friend. When she was a child, she had played with Gwendolyn and Merry even though both were children of castle servants. Unfortunately, there were times when Gwendolyn used their friendship to try and dissuade her decisions . . . such as now.
With sword and knives in place, Pippa turned to face her friend. She took the cape and fastened it under her chin. “Help me attach my quiver and arrows under my hood.” With the help of her father, Pippa had handcrafted her leather quiver and was quite proud of it. She had become rather proficient with her bow . . . enough to feel confident in protecting herself. But her knife throwing ability is what grabbed her enemies by surprise.
“Oh, my lady, please reconsider this dangerous undertaking. Henry would be happy to do your bidding.”
With a deep sigh, Pippa stopped her preparations and grasped Gwendolyn’s hands. She peered into her friend’s anguished eyes as tears threatened to fall. “I appreciate your offering your husband’s services, but he has other tasks to perform to insure my journey. You mustn’t worry so. I’ll be safe in God’s protective hands.” That should stop Gwendolyn’s scolding. No one dare fault God’s security. With one final squeeze, she released Gwendolyn’s hands. “Shall we go over your part to play in my plan?”
Gwendolyn clutched her apron. With wide eyes she said, “I’m to leave your bedchamber locked and go about my duties as if nothing is amiss. If anyone asks for you, I’m to say you’re not feeling well and decided to rest while writing your correspondence.”
Pippa looked at Gwendolyn. “If you don’t feel you can hide your anxiety from showing on your face, then stay busy cleaning the unoccupied rooms. I don’t want anyone becoming suspicious.”
Gwendolyn hung her head. “Ye have it aright.” With a bowed head she peered up. “I worry I might break down if questions are asked.”
Pippa gripped Gwendolyn’s shoulders and gave a slight shake. “You must stand strong. Our very livelihood depends on making a powerful alliance . . . and before you speak . . . yes, he does have a somewhat scandalous reputation, but he is the wealthiest and most skilled warrior in our realm.”
“But . . .”
Pippa released Gwendolyn’s shoulders and placed a finger across her lips. “No buts. Do as I say, and all will be well.”
As a lone tear leaked from Gwendolyn’s eye, she said, “I fear this will be the last time I see you.”
For a moment Pippa pressed her eyes closed and inhaled a deep breath. With hurried motions she grabbed the document holder and attached it under her cloak. “We are wasting precious time. It will be daylight in a few hours. No more discussion about my plot.” She studied Gwendolyn. “Carry out your part, and I will see you tonight or tomorrow morning.” Pippa slipped behind the door which led to the passageway and waited for Gwendolyn to scoot out before she locked it.
Gwendolyn paused with her hand on the door latch. She placed her other hand upon Pippa’s arm. “God’s speed, my lady.”
Pippa squeezed Gwendolyn’s hand and offered a smile. “All will be well. You will see.” Pippa hoped her performance had convinced Gwendolyn to carry out the reckless idea. The more it tumbled through her mind, the crazier it sounded.
She turned the key in the lock and dropped the safety bar in place. Giving herself a mental shake, she lifted the candle from her bedside table. Walking into her changing room, she placed the candle on a stool in the corner. Now to find the concealed handle to release the latch on the wooden wardrobe. As she reached toward the wall, the candle light flickered. Pippa jumped around to face the doorway expecting to see an intruder but found it empty. A tingle slipped down her back. She chastised herself for being spooked. No time to let her imagination play tricks on her. Her telling ghost stories to Gwendolyn and Merry had come back to spook her.
Pippa sucked in through her teeth. As she puffed out her breath, it stirred a tendril of hair that had loosened from her braid. For her own peace of mind she shut the door connecting the bedchamber to the changing room. Back to her task. With steady hands, she ran them along the edge of the wardrobe until she felt the loose stone. She worked and wiggled the stone but couldn’t dislodge it. Taking the knife from her boot, she slid the blade under the stone and shimmied it loose. With a little more effort her fingers grabbed the edge of the stone and pulled it out. Placing it on the floor, she reached for the candle to illuminate the hole. When she saw the iron ring, a small giggle escaped.
To keep from burning herself, she set the candle back on the stool and clutched the ring with both hands. She placed one booted foot against the wall and gave a hearty yank. The well-greased mechanism began to grind as the wardrobe slid sideways. Pippa froze as the opening revealed the hidden stairway. Her father, Phillip, had divulged this particular secret after an attack by a would-be suitor trying to capture Pippa. After the attack, her father had decided she should make this her bedchamber for the duration of her life at Fairwick castle. Until today, she had never traversed the tunnel.
As she stared into the dark abyss, her heart raced. The circular stairs disappeared downward into blackness. Her father had left two torches on the wall, ready for use. With her candle, she set one torch ablaze and blew out the candle. There was no turning back when she stepped onto the stone platform. Her father’s trap door would slide shut, as if never disturbed.
In order to keep her spot secret, she replaced the stone in the wall and put her candle back on her bedside table. Unsure of the success of her mission, she glanced around the room that had served her for many years. Her possessions brought her comfort especially since the death of both parents. Would she sleep here again? It mattered not. She needed to rescue her people whatever the cost . . . the mission couldn’t wait.
Not wanting to become downhearted, she squared her shoulders and marched back to the stairs. With great determination, she stepped onto the platform and watched as her safe haven disappeared. Pippa picked up the lighted torch in one hand and the spare, unlit torch with the other. She hesitated . . . unsure as to the length of her journey, she closed her eyes.
Almighty God in Heaven. I place myself in Your protective hand. Be my shield against my enemies and my refuge in case of danger. I entrust You to defend my people in my absence. Guard them with Your angels of might. This I pray thee.
Opening her eyes, she began her steps into the mysterious channel. The stones were damp and mossy. Not wishing to fall to her death, she placed each footstep with care. With only the sound of her boots to keep her company, she had ample time to reflect on her life.
She had been the first born of Phillip and Abigail Fairwick. They had christened her Philippa Emma Gail Fairwick. The name Philippa was for her father, Emma had been in honor of her aunt and Gail had been after her mother. It saddened her to think how little she remembered about her mother who had died giving birth to a little boy. Unfortunately, her baby brother had died on that dreadful day as well. With vivid clarity she could still envision the pain etched on her father’s face during that time. It had been more than she could bear, and she had run from the castle to her special hiding place. Just the thought of it now caused a pain in her chest.
I need to stop these morbid thoughts. It profits me nothing.
Pippa was grateful to have arrived at the bottom of the secret stairs. Ahead of her was a long walk through the gloomy passageway. She recalled her father had said the opening at the end of the corridor would place her far into the woods outside the castle grounds. Her burning torch dimmed. She quickened her pace since it would not last the entirety of her journey. The unused torch in her hand brought a smile to her lips. Her father had thought of all her needs. I love you, papa.
The further she traveled from the castle, loose stones from the wall gave her pause. Would she negotiate the slippery hallway and find her way blocked from fallen stones? Her loud heartbeat rushed faster. Mighty God, please keep my pathway clear. Onward she trudged. ’Twas but a matter of moments, yet felt as if hours ticked away. Just as her second torch burned low, she saw the hidden door. A slow breath escaped as her tense body relaxed. Trapped in the dark unknown was no longer a fear.
Pippa dropped the dwindling torch to the dirt floor and grabbed the latch on the wooden door above her head. She hesitated. Once the hidden door opened, she would need to be ready for any situation. You better be waiting for me, Henry.
With a fortifying breath, Pippa shoved the door upward just to have it snatched from her hand. To her utter relief, Henry peered into the hole. “Take me hand.”
She grasped his extended hand and with great ease he hauled her aboveground. Henry placed her on solid footing before shutting the door and covering it with moss and dirt. “Follow me.”
The two crouched low as they disappeared into the dense forest. Pippa had faith that Henry had prepared her horse for the treacherous mission. As children, his father had worked for her father. Not having a son, Phillip had permitted Pippa to train in weapons. She and Henry’s companionship had solidified during those early years of training together. Now he was a trusted protector under Pippa’s leadership.
It wasn’t long until her horse came into view. The muzzle was still in place as well as the covers over his hooves. With a soft hand, she tugged his head down. “’Tis alright, my sweet.” She stroked his forehead while making kissing sounds in the air. In a short time, a wolf appeared on the fringe of the trees.
Henry jumped. “I wish ye would wait until I’m away before calling the beast,” he hissed.
Pippa suppressed her smile. “Hold Romeo’s head while I mount.”
Henry held fast while Pippa arranged her belongings. After she took the reins, Romeo pranced around until she forced him into submission. “I’ll return posthaste. Keep my departure our secret.”
“I’ll do as ye say, but under protest. I should be the one ta meet the wolf in his lair. Not ye.”
Pippa could hear the agitation in his voice. “Wolf’s lair . . . you and Gwendolyn are quite the pair,” she said in jest. “God is my defender and provider. Do not fear for me.” On a serious note, she said, “I need your assurance that all will be well while I’m away. I want no worries to hinder my task.”
“Ye have my word.” He took hold of the bridle once more and looked at Pippa. “Have a care, m’ lady.”
She nodded and turned to leave. “Come.” With one word, her loyal wolf trotted after her. When she twisted around for one last glance at Henry, he had already vanished into the dark.
Alone once more.