Behind His Mask

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Chapter 10 - Following a Fool

If Kalavan had given me something to help me fall asleep, it mustn’t have been part of the story for him to leave my shack without me noticing, because I heard the door close as he left the next morning.

As soon as he was gone I sprung from my hammock and threw a few things together in a knapsack I made out of my hammock. I knew it was strange, but it felt like the thing was just made for that. By day, it was a useful bag and by night, it was a handy place to sleep. The first thing I packed was each and every one of Surrey’s books. No worry about the weight of my pack. They were very much like tiny paperback books. Beyond that, there wasn’t any prepared food in the house, so I scampered after Kalavan and hoped he could scrounge something for us to eat later on. With some luck, he wouldn’t mind me eating off his plate.

By the time I got into the yard, he was already partway through the maze. He said he came in by turning left every time he met a crossroad. Well, I would bet my britches he would go back through by choosing right each time because that would take him back down the same path he had already walked when he came in. So that’s what I did, wishing that I’d been smarter and paid better attention to the maze when I was sitting on top of the windmill. I could have memorized a quicker way out.

The morning mist hung over the roses. Each rose transformed into a floating crimson jewel rising betwixt the leaves of green. Over them, I saw Kalavan’s head as he moved on ahead of me. It was a strange moment. I wasn’t normally given to fantasizing about anything more intimate than holding hands, despite the happenings after my wedding to Tremor in the last story, but the setting was too romantic. It was like a dream, but when I became the cameraman filming the scene, I didn’t like what I saw. There was the beautiful young man, gold dust lingering in the air around him, striding easily through the passage—he even began whistling a melody that spoke of deep longing. But once the camera pulled away from him and focused on me, I felt like running back to my shed. I may have been young, but I looked and felt like the bent old witch that trapped Rapunzel and kept her hostage for envy.

I was so angry, I picked off five of the bumps on my face and dropped them in the grass. That wasn’t even half of them. They were all over me. And they were supposed to protect me? From what?

After exiting the beauty of the rose garden, Kalavan took the dusty road that led to the northwest through forested hills. Walking on those roads, it was easy for me to stay out of sight if he should have happened to turn around. There were so many turns and so many blind spots that a six-headed monster could have been walking forty paces behind me and I wouldn’t have noticed.

After a few hours, we came to a town and I decided it was about time I made my presence known. If I didn’t, I feared I wouldn’t get any breakfast. Kalavan came to an inn and went in the front door. I followed him but lingered at the threshold. He dropped his bag on a table by the fire and asked the barmaid for cider.

I was about to approach his table when abruptly, someone grabbed my collar from behind and pulled me back onto the street.

“Let me go!” I wailed, my feet dangling slightly like a kitten held by the scruff of her neck.

Suddenly, I came face to face with a man as tall as he was wide, and he was tall enough to glare down at me when my feet were off the ground. “We don’t have a table for you,” he said gruffly. “Someone might get sick.” With that, he dropped me in the street and went into the inn himself.

I was outraged and hurt. I pulled another three warts off my face and threw them on the ground. Then I moved along down the street until I came to a bakery. By that point, I was famished, so I went inside hoping I would be able to barter for something edible.

In the bakery, the baker was counting dried apple slices and staring at the door in expectation. He looked disappointed when I came in. “No bread today,” he said crossly. “It’s all got to go up to the Duke’s this evening.”

“I’m not looking for anything fancy,” I said softly. “Yesterday’s crusts will do.”

The baker shook his head and leaned forward. “Y’know anything about the visiting chivalry?”

“No,” I answered meekly.

“They’re strong men—strong. I’m not sure any one of them has looked at a woman before, but if any of them bothered to look at you, they’d see a witch. Do you know what they do to witches here?”

“I’m not a witch,” I said stubbornly. “I realize you’re trying to be kind, but I’ve already been warned. I have nowhere else to go.”

“Then you should figure something out before they find you.”

“Before who finds whom?” asked a haughty sounding voice coming from the door.

All the skin prickled up on the back of my neck. I had not heard anyone follow me in and from the expression on the baker’s face, neither had he. I turned and saw a knight clad completely in armor that shone like dark pewter. Seeing the owner of the voice shouldn’t have lessened my fear, but it did. I couldn’t help it. He was a few inches shorter than me and I could see down his breastplate with ease. It was too big for him. I averted my eyes like the baker but not before the knight had seen my crucial mistake—underestimating him.

“And who is this?” he asked, trying to point his chin down at me while speaking to the baker. It was quite impossible unless I got down on my knees.

“Don’t know. She just came begging in here. I didn’t give her nothing,” the baker scoffed.

I did a tiny curtsy, hoping it would help to make amends for looking down at him.

“Are you a witch?” he asked just in time for several other men who came in the bakery to hear.

“No,” I said easily. “But a witch cast a spell on me.”

“She’s lying,” one of the new entrances said. “I saw her. The barman wouldn’t let her in, so she took some of those warts off and threw them at his door. She cast a curse on him.”

“No. That’s not what happened. I mean… that is sort of what happened. The innkeeper did refuse to let me in and I was angry because a witch put these on me, and I knew that was why he wouldn’t let me come in, so I started to pull them off. They’re not cursed though. I mean, I wasn’t casting a curse on him,” I sputtered idiotically.

No one was listening.

“She’s a witch,” someone hissed into the ear of the knight.

“A witch?” the knight intoned.

I winced.

The knight unsheathed his sword and used the butt end of it to tip my chin up, so he could ‘apparently’ get a better look at my face. “I’m curious to see what kind of magic she can perform.”

“Excuse me, sir… knight. I don’t perform magic. I already told you—I’m not a witch.”

“That’s a lie,” another villager said. “She’s the daughter of the Red Thorn. I’ve seen her up on that windmill laughing and laughing when folk got caught in her trap. I saw her leave that forsaken rose-labyrinth this morning.”

I was stunned. Someone had seen me?

“I don’t believe you.” The knight laughed and turned his head toward the speaker. “How could a thing as repulsive as this girl be the daughter of the Red Thorn? The Red Thorn was a famous seductress. How could this thing be her daughter? Show me!”

I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or the person in the crowd, so I took a couple of steps toward the door. Maybe I could get away, and get help from Kalavan. I ducked my head and since it seemed like no one wanted to touch me, the crowd made way for me to exit.

On the street, I knew I had hardly escaped my accusers. I had to do something. Maybe I could just run away, but as I started down the dirt road that pointed the way I had come, the dumpy little knight came out of the bakery and called to a few of his fellow knights loitering in the street to stop me.

“Grab that girl!”

They weren’t as squeamish as the townsmen in the bakery and they came at me instantly. I tried to run away, but before I knew it the short knight was joined by taller comrades and they had me surrounded. The men weren’t afraid of my skin as their hands were covered in gauntlets. They wasted no time and dragged me into the town square to make sport of me in front of everyone.

The short knight came toward me as another one held my arms tight from behind. “See, pet,” he said gloatingly. “Let’s see how beautiful you can be without those hideous warts on your face. They’re disgusting.” He approached me and though I didn’t expect it to hurt, it did. He pinched me brutally with his chain-mail fingers as he pulled one off. Much to his surprise and my misery—it came off easily. “What is this?” he asked, sniffing it.

“A wart?” I replied unhelpfully. Then, I gained courage and threatened. “And you’ll get a thousand warts all over your hide if you don’t leave me alone. There’s a spell on them you see.”

He glared at me and then, much to my amazement, he licked it. “Pet,” he said slowly. “I think it’s made of flour and ground-up pig hoof.” Then he started to laugh, and I scowled. “What kind of magic is that?” He picked off the rest of the make-believe warts on my face one by one and with each grab it felt like he cut my skin. Then he threw them down on the dirt road like trash and I wondered how long it had taken Surrey to make them. My heart hurt. They were supposed to protect me, but I had not protected them.

“Let me go!” I suddenly cried.

But the knight persisted. “I wonder about this hair, too. Do you think it too is made of flour?”

“Pull the knots out!” one of the knights observing called out cheerfully like it was a game.

I couldn’t move. The knight behind me hadn’t loosened his grip on my arms during all that time. I tried to squirm out of his grip, but it was no use. He was strong and my arms felt powerless against his. Within seconds, my red hair fell and I could feel the spell Surrey had cast on me breaking. I had never seen myself with my hair down. Looking at it, I saw it hung long and vibrant red with an intense shine. I stared. From my perspective, it was the kind of hair that was the envy of all women. The entire village knew it too and a strange silence gripped the air.

“Was she enchanted?” a woman’s voice whispered.

“Is that even the same girl?” another voice asked.

Then it was the short knight’s turn to speak. “She really is a witch!” He grabbed me by the front of my hair and said darkly, “Do you know what we do with witches in the capital?”

“And do you know what knights do to their squires who cannot follow directions?” a deep piercing voice rang out from behind the crowd.

My heart nearly stopped beating. Was that Kalavan? Had he come to rescue me?

Immediately, everyone stepped aside. I looked at him, too. Sitting atop of a beautiful black stallion was a knight clad entirely in black armor. His visor was pulled down over his face and a glorious blue feather protruded from the top of his helmet.

So it wasn’t Kalavan after all! Or maybe it was. Wasn’t he the kind of guy who could trick anyone in the world? I wouldn’t know that until I saw the man’s face.

“Welvington,” he said clearly through his visor. “If you cannot wear my second set of armor with more dignity than this, not only will I not allow you to wear it, but I shall dismiss you without hesitation. This is your last reprimand. What trouble are you rousing now? This is the smallest town surrounding the capital, but that does not give you leave to forget your place. What are you doing, Tracton?”

The knight who had been holding my arms looked distinctly uncomfortable, but he looked freer to do what he wanted than my short accuser. He stepped forward and sought to explain himself. “She’s a witch. We just saw her transform from the most hideous hag to the beauty that stands before you. She’s a changeling for certain. Sir, we must oversee her burning.”

My heart beat heavily as I watched his visored face turn toward me, but my tongue was completely frozen. I couldn’t speak.

“Has she anyone to be her champion?”

I had heard something about champions in medieval times. Since they had no way of proving whether or not I had done wrong, I would need a champion to fight for me against a knight who fought for my execution. If my knight lost the joust and hand-to-hand combat, I would die. But worse than that if I had no one to act as my champion, I would die without anything being done in my defense.

I looked around the crowd frantically to see if there was anyone who appeared even a little friendly toward me. Remarkably, I saw Kalavan. So he wasn’t the knight after all! He was standing among the spectators with his face set in hard lines, but he didn’t look remotely inclined to speak. When our eyes met, he looked away. Why wouldn’t he do something? It was his story. Couldn’t he write his own victory?

“We’ve not inquired,” came the speedy reply from the knight.

“Then I’ll champion her myself,” the black knight replied. “Who shall I joust?”

The silence was heavy.

I sucked in my breath. If no one chose to back up their accusation with a willingness for combat then the charge would be dropped and I would go free.

“No one, my lord,” the knight said quietly. “If you choose to champion her, then her innocence is assured.”

Then the black knight brought his horse around and trotted up to my side. Without moving from his position in the saddle, he lowered his black gauntlet to me in invitation. I knew what was happening. If the black knight had not interfered, his squire and the knights with him would have burned me at the stake. The black knight’s extended hand was the only way out because if I refused to go with him, he would withdraw his protection. I didn’t like it. If I went with him, I would be taken away from Kalavan and that wasn’t the way the story was supposed to go.

In my fury, I didn’t debate within myself for longer than a minute. I made up my mind. I didn’t look at Kalavan, but reached out and took the black knight’s offer.

In a moment, I was pulled up onto the horse in front of its rider, with my feet dangling over one side. His metal armor bit into me as he secured his reins and moved the beast away from the detestable townsfolk. I let my eyes linger over his shoulder and spotted Kalavan standing in the crowd, looking as though his soul was being split in two. Well, why should it? If it was his story, why did he let the girl get dragged off by someone else?

I settled in with the black knight. He rode us out of the village and onto a grass path. I had no idea where we were going. He did not speak but pressed forward with purpose. Bobbing up and down with his mount wasn’t the most comfortable position I could have imagined and I would have liked to ask him where we were going, but I found I didn’t have the courage. Even up close, I could not see his face through the gaps in his helmet. There was only shadow. Nor was it comfortable to crane my neck to try to discern his features, so I set my eyes forward and let the silence stretch out as far as the road ahead of us.

There was a hill before us and as we came to the top, in the distance I could see a city with a castle rising from its center. To my surprise, it was nothing like the castle in the previous story. It looked more traditional in its design since it was squarish, and it was five or six times bigger. I could see at least five turrets; narrow spires that reached to the sky like swords. The stone working that made up the walls looked thick and impenetrable, but since it was nestled in the mountains instead of by the seashore, it looked cold and foreboding. Was that where we were going?

It took less time to get there than I imagined. There was no moat, but we passed through an unbelievably high archway to enter the courtyard. Once there, a servant boy ran to us to tend the black knight’s horse.

The boy helped me down and though my legs were both cramping, I behaved as though nothing was wrong. The knight leaped down. Wasting no time, he took me by the hand, hauled me past noblewomen, courtiers, servants, and even other knights. Without saying a word, he dragged me into the main fortress and up an incredibly wide staircase. Up and up we went until my legs ached and I felt like we must be almost at the roof when abruptly he changed direction and led me down a hallway and into a bedroom.

It was simply decorated. There was a bed with four posts and a canopy… except the canopy was made of wood, with bed curtains. A chest sat at the foot of the bed. I spotted a chamber pot by a stand with a washbasin on it. A red and yellow stained glass window bathed the room in a strange kaleidoscope of colored lights.

The fact that he took me to a bedroom before any other place put me on edge, but as I turned to see if he planned to ravage me there and then, I saw I could relax.

The knight left the door open and at long last, he removed his helmet. His hair was black and curly. It was tied in a low ponytail, but it was clearly grown past his shoulders. His eyes were yellow tinged with orange, but his face was like someone I knew. It was yet another version of Evander, like Murmur in the last story, but he wasn’t Murmur. The man in front of me had a wider face and a sharper nose and chin. Actually, he wouldn’t have looked anything like Evander if it weren’t for the shape of his eyes. They gave it away. However, his expression was completely foreign to me.

“My name is Valance Marr,” he said, his tone distinct and strange, almost like he wasn’t used to speaking. “There are clothes in the chest. Pick and take whatever you want. This will be your room. In this kingdom, you will be a lady. Whatever witchcraft you know, abandon it straightway. I won’t tolerate it. Do what I say and I will protect you.”

I knew my eyes were huge as I looked up at him. I couldn’t help it. I felt like a bug being pinned to a board.

“Tonight there is a feast to celebrate one of my victories. You will be there… with me.”

“All because you think I’m beautiful?” I asked, my voice trembling to a warble.

His expression was perplexed. “Don’t you know what you look like?”

I shook my head.

From off his back, Valance took his shield and handed it to me. It was oval-shaped with a cross in the middle. In two adjacent corners, the metal was black, like his armor, but in the two opposite corners, the metal was clear and unspotted—like a mirror. I looked at myself.

“What has Evander thought up this time?” I said out loud. Valance didn’t seem to notice, like some of the characters in the other story whenever I spoke of reality.

I’d already seen my marvelous red hair, but without the blotches on my face, I seemed to have been gifted different skin. It was pale with cherry kisses coloring my cheeks. My lips were scarlet, and as I pressed them together I saw and felt that the shade was natural. My eyes were my own color, but with that hair and skin with those arched eyebrows over-top, I looked like a completely different creature.

And suddenly, I got what Evander was trying to say. When I was so pretty on the outside, it didn’t matter to Valance what I was like on the inside. He only wanted me because of that creamy skin and that rapturous hair. He probably wouldn’t even bother to talk to me. As long as I did what he said, he didn’t even need me to think. Just be pretty. Could any woman of spirit stand to live that way?

“Thank you,” I whispered politely and gave the shield back to Valance.

He took it from me with a strong arm and shouldered it. “Get dressed.”

Yeah, I understood him.

I turned around to open the chest and found myself back in my own room in my shabby apartment. The moment when I got back to reality was always a shock to me. In my mind, I had been gone for two days. According to the red digital clock propped up beside my bed, it had only been about two hours.

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Author's Notes: Thanks for reading. I love you guys!

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