"It was so terrifying, Orsted…" Gwaelin spoke, voice trembling as she informed Orsted about her encounter with Erik. "I really didn't know what he was going to do…"
She shuddered as she remembered the feeling of Erik's coarse hand on her chin. She just couldn't understand why he persisted in wooing her despite her consistent refusals and worse yet, why her father even kept Erik on staff. She had confided her concerns in her father before, but he often encouraged her to overlook the offense because 'Erik was only being friendly and asking for a simple dinner.'
Well, this time he went too far! Gwaelin resolved.
Orsted drew her into a secure embrace, quieting her disconcerting thoughts. "I won't let any harm come to you," he promised as he tenderly stroked her hair. Being this close to him reminded her of their kiss, and while she longed to experience more intimacy with him, a pressing question resurfaced.
"Say, Orsted…" Gwaelin trailed, "There is something I don't understand...You arrived at just the right moment when Erik was harassing me. How did you know I was in peril and how did you know where to locate me?"
Releasing her, he paced forward a moment, wearing a deeply pensive expression she had only seen on him while camping in the meadow when he claimed to hear a disturbing noise. His back to her, he considered a second, removing the pendant from his pocket as he replied.
"I know this sounds strange, but I was admiring your pendant when I heard you crying out to me," he paused and turned to face her. "While holding your pendant, I followed your voice and it led me to you. Is that strange or what?"
Gwaelin gasped. "So that's the power my mom meant!"
"Power?" he questioned, glancing from the pendant to her.
Gwaelin nodded and then informed him that her mother mentioned the true gift of the pendant lay in the power unveiled when given to the object of one's affections.
"It seems when I think of you," she concluded, "that we have the ability to communicate even across great distances if you are also holding the pendant."
"In that case," Orsted said, unclasping the necklace and fastening it to his belt, "I will never remove it!"
Gwaelin giggled. "But Orsted, don't you think you'll look peculiar wearing a lady's necklace?"
Orsted considered. "Perhaps so, but not as peculiar as telling them why I'm wearing it!"
The two lovers shared many more laughs as they strolled around the courtyard, hands entwined. Admiring the setting sun, the pair paused to share an electrifying kiss, temporarily displacing any concerns. Had they been less enamored, they might have noticed that Orsted's pack, which rested by the courtyard entrance, was slightly ajar. They at least might have overheard their eavesdropper murmur, "Enjoy your bliss while it lasts."
Gwaelin's initial relief that Erik would never harass her again was stifled as soon as Orsted resumed his travels. Although Erik submitted to Orsted's strength, she knew Erik's pride was another matter and was not a force to be reckoned with. It was this realization that presented her with the notion that it was only a matter of time before Erik's vengeance reared its ugly head. Immediately, she sought to confide her concern in her father, who to her dismay, was in a meeting with the chancellor and his other advisers. Deciding her concern could wait, she returned to her room and collapsed on her bed. Thinking of Orsted, she was suddenly startled as he connected with her.
It's about time you thought about me! he teased.
Oh, and I'm sure you've been thinking about me all day, she replied, giggling as she did.
She realized her mistake as the guard posted outside the room opened the door. "Princess, are you alright? I thought I heard something."
Though communicating telepathically with Orsted, she found she had to remind herself not to speak aloud. That included laughter, gasps or other responsive noises. If she kept this up, the whole kingdom was bound to think she had gone mad during her captivity!
"Oh, I just remembered a funny event from yesterday. Sorry for startling you," she replied, wishing the guard would leave. Her father's added protection was quickly becoming overbearing!
"I see…I shall be outside your highness."
She waited until she was sure he left, which she later found funny because it's not like he would hear their conversation anyway!
Sorry, a guard entered, she explained to Orsted who she sensed chuckled.
Again? You better learn to control those animations of yours, my love, or you'll have some explaining to do! But to address your comment earlier, yes, you have been on my mind all day…
Her heart fluttered wildly at the realization that he was thinking of her despite the trials on his journey.
You forget, my love, that I can hear you thoughts, he teased, and I suppose since this made you so happy, I shouldn't say that part of the reason I'm thinking of you so much is that your pendant keeps clanking against my armor whenever I walk!
Forgetting to silence her animations, she gasped. Oh, you! I would hit you right now if you were here!
Suddenly, the door flew open and the sentry reentered, this time with his sword drawn. "I heard you and just wanted to be sure there was no trouble!"
Sighing, she fought to control her irritation. "You heard me gasp…listen, if this is any trouble I promise you I will scream and you will know something is amiss. Jumping at every noise I make is getting a little tiresome, don't you think?"
The guard blushed, and Gwaelin instantly felt remorse for her curtness. "I apologize, your highness…" he started.
Gwaelin shook her head. "No, it is I who am sorry. I know you are only following my father's orders. I'm going over to the balcony, but why don't I leave the door open so you'll know I'm okay?"
"Yes, princess!" the guard said, brightening.
Moving to the balcony, she gazed at the setting sun as it illuminated such magnificence over the courtyard. Instantly, she wished Orsted were here to share it with her.
I am here…he reminded her.
Gwaelin sighed longingly. Yes, I know, but it's not the same…Where are you now?
I'm in the rock mountain cave searching for the Fighter's Ring.
Gwaelin gasped, taken aback. You're in a cave? Orsted, shouldn't you be paying attention? What if one of the DragonLord's minions sneaks up on you and you don't defend yourself because you're distracted by me?
Orsted seemed to sigh. Gwaelin…I thought we weren't going to do this. I know you are worried and there is a lot that can happen, but you have to trust me, my love. Right now, I am exhausted and taking a break in an area I surrounded by fairy water wanting nothing more than to talk to my beautiful princess.
Gwaelin could feel her cheeks flushing. I'm sorry, Orsted. You are right and I can't live in constant worry. I love you…please be safe, my hero.
I love you and will return to you soon, he promised.
As their conversation ended, Gwaelin felt a reassuring peace enter her and she knew that even if her father didn't rid the kingdom of Erik, she knew Orsted would never let harm come to her.
Orsted, determining it was best to setup camp before nightfall, unpacked his belongings, noticing a wrapped package fall at his feet. Curiously, he brought it closer, detecting a hint of lavender as he did. A gift from Gwaelin? He wondered. Opening the package, he carefully removed the leather necklace within adorned with what he recognized as the crest of the royal family.
That was nice of her, Orsted thought. I will be sure to pick her up a gift for our next visit.
The recollection that Gwaelin despised lavender was buried beneath his fascination as he unfastened the clasp and secured it around his neck. It was at that moment that the depth of his folly was revealed and the necklace began constricting him. Desperately he fumbled with the necklace and to his horror found that the clasp had broken! Struggling to tear the necklace from him, he soon resorted to attempting to cut it unsuccessfully with his sword.
"I see the necklace fits you perfectly," a menacing voice spoke.
Through his blurring vision, Orsted discerned it was Erik who stood before him. Suddenly, he realized the extent of his peril, however he was helpless to do much more than gasp for air. Feeling himself begin to lose consciousness, he suddenly felt mild relief from the constriction.
Erik chuckled as Orsted attempted to meet his gaze. "I slid a piece of leather underneath the necklace. You didn't really think I'd let you die so quickly, did you? After all, I've heard that death by strangulation allows the victim to die while unconscious." Erik paused to clutch Orsted's longish chestnut hair and adjust the angle of his head until their eyes met. "And I despise you too much to allow you that luxury."
His vision was still somewhat blurred, and he continued to gasp for air suddenly feeling Erik hoist him over his shoulder as if he were cattle. Struggling, Orsted attempted to wriggle out of Erik's grasp, until he spoke.
"Be careful…you might cause that piece of leather I generously provided you with to loosen, and that's the only one I have," Erik ominously warned.
Accepting the truth behind his warning, Orsted ceased his struggles and determined his efforts would be better spent devising a way to freedom. Unfortunately, he did not have the energy to chant the spell to return to Breconnary where he could visit the villager who promised to help him if he had the misfortune of equipping cursed gear. In addition, he needed to see how Erik intended to dispose of him so he could ascertain his predicament.
"Hmm…" Erik considered. "Perhaps right here is a good spot for your grave. Why don't you have a look?"
Nothing could have prepared Orsted for the plan Erik's sinister mind conjured. Without warning, Erik released him and he landed with a splash in the poisonous marsh. Turning him so he was face up, Erik again directed Orsted's gaze upward.
"Don't worry. I won't let you drown either, nor…" he paused to vanquish an approaching scorpion in one blow, "allow you to fall at the hand of one of the DragonLord's minions."
Orsted made out a vial Erik held which he identified as fairy water. Gasping for air and gritting his teeth against the immobilizing pain of the marsh, he observed as Erik sprinkled the water along the marsh's perimeter.
"There!" Erik exclaimed. "That should do the trick. Now…" he trailed, directing his attention to Orsted as he removed a warp wing from his pack. "I'll be generous and leave you with a little something to consider to help take your mind off the pain. Did you really think it would threaten me to know that you would divulge my visit with the Princess to his majesty? I tell you Orsted, you really are dense! The King believes he owes me and thus will continue to require to make restitution to me for the rest of my life. Why do you think that is? I'll leave you with that riddle to enjoy. This has been a pleasure Orsted, and I mean that!"
With that, Erik extended the wings and the oncoming breeze carried him swiftly away.
Unable to sleep, Ellen sauntered in the hallway, attempting in vain to silence the sinister foreboding which rang in her mind. She could not explain it, but she sensed that tonight she would learn the reason behind her apprehension of fulfilling Erik's favor. Wondering if it would be too intrusive to confide her concerns in the Princess, she glanced towards the stairs leading to the royal bedrooms. Deciding that it was better to inform the Princess of a possible threat than to feign indifference, she approached the stairs. It was on the third step when a terrified shriek resounded throughout the castle.
Upon hearing the scream, the King bolted up and assured he and Gwaelin were secured together. He would not have a repeat of several months ago! After what seemed like an eternity, a guard entered to provide an update.
"My liege, one of the castle guards had the misfortune of equipping a cursed belt! We summoned the expert from Breconnary and he is being tended to now."
The King sighed with relief. "Excellent!" he started to say more, but noticed the guard's apprehensive expression.
The guard, glancing quickly at Gwaelin, proffered a note. "We discovered this on the package he opened containing he belt."
Glancing at it, the King's eyes widened. "The belt was from Ellen? Ellen did this?"
Gwaelin suddenly seized the note, staring in disbelief.
"It's in her handwriting, isn't it?" the King gently asked.
Gwaelin's silence provided him the confirmation he needed. Although he found it hard to believe Ellen was capable of such a gruesome crime, he had to take action.
"Arrest her!" he commanded the guard.
While her father participated in the interrogations amongst the castle staff, Gwaelin used his distraction to her benefit and visited Ellen in the dungeon. As she descended the winding stairs, the sentry posted at the cell door barred her way.
"I beg your pardon, highness, but the King issued me strict orders not to allow anyone passage. That includes you, Princess…"
Gwaelin regarded him sternly, noticing the guard refused to meet her eyes. "I see…but one detail my father neglected to mention is that Ellen is my personal handmaiden and as such all disciplinary measures rest in my hands."
The guard nervously glanced from her to the door, as if expecting to King to manifest at any moment. "Well, you see highness, I only have his orders and I must obey his command…"
Gwaelin maintained her calm composure. "Yes, I suppose I could ask my father to come down here himself, but he hasn't been in the greatest health lately. Or I could send you to interrupt his current interrogation, but you know how he hates interruptions."
The sentry stood momentarily paralyzed by ambivalence. "Well…"
"I'll just be a minute," Gwaelin interjected, "and if my father has any issues I will accept all consequences."
Brightening, the guard nodded feebly before unlocking the cell. "You may pass, highness."
Gwaelin stepped through, immediately dumbfounded at the sight before her. Ellen was chained to the stone wall, eyes downcast and seemingly apathetic to the rodents scurrying around her. Blinking back tears, she softly called her friend.
At the mention of her name by the familiar voice, she glanced up in astonishment. "Princess? What are you doing here?"
Gwaelin longed to rush to her friend and embrace her, but she feared the guard may be eavesdropping through the barred door and such a reaction would appear contradictory to the interrogation she described. Instead, she raised a finger to her lips and without moving her head, glanced to the door. Ellen nodded and Gwaelin stepped forward, clasping her wrist as guards of Alefgard did when interrogating a suspect. Such a practice was said to be used to determine whether an individual was giving false testimony. However, Gwaelin's true intent was to devise a code so that the guard could not discern the true nature of their conversation. She figured she would tap her index finger against Ellen's wrist once when she spoke a true statement and twice for everything otherwise. She only hoped she could get Ellen to understand in time.
"I know you have committed a terrible crime," Gwaelin tapped her finger twice, and seeing Ellen's confusion quickly continued. "And you know I am a harsh ruler," she tapped twice again.
Ellen glanced from Gwaelin to her wrist curiously, and Gwaelin nodded.
"You know how much I love my kingdom," she said, tapping once then added. "I will punish you most severely for this," she said, tapping twice.
Seeing at once Ellen's enlightened expression, Gwaelin favored Ellen with a grateful smile.
"What possessed you to do such a thing?" she questioned Ellen.
Ellen considered a moment, attempting to get into the mindset of this new communication style. "I wanted to do a favor," she said, tapping once.
"A favor for a friend of yours?"
"Yes," Ellen replied, tapping twice.
Not a friend of Ellen's? Gwaelin could only think of two people who could ever despise someone as sweet-natured as Ellen.
"Are you referring to the head of maids?" Gwaelin inquired, hoping it was not her second guess. At least the head of the maids would be easier to discipline.
"No," Ellen said, tapping once.
Her fears confirmed, Gwaelin posed the next question. "Are you sure you are not referring to the captain of the guards?"
"No, of course not," Ellen quickly replied, tapping twice. "Why would he want to get me in trouble?"
Gwaelin would have laughed at her ridiculous statement if it weren't for the guard, who she was now certain was eavesdropping. She earlier heard the clank of his chainmail as he crouched against the door. Wishing more than ever that she could speak straight-forwardly with Ellen and hear the entire story, she sighed feigning frustration at her.
"Ellen, I have had it with you!" she paused to tap twice. "You will tell me who you got the belt from before we are through. Did this individual threaten you? Is that why you are refusing to confide in me?"
Ellen's fearful eyes revealed all Gwaelin needed to know, but she tapped twice anyway. "No, this friend had no reason for vengeance."
"Did someone ask you to write the note on the gift?"
"No," she replied, tapping twice. "I wouldn't give a gift and forget to sign it!"
Now she knew what happened! Erik feigned forgetfulness, saying he forgot to write the note for the package he asked her to deliver and asked if Ellen wouldn't mind writing it for him. Her handwriting was the true favor, and what a predicament Erik left her in! She did not know how to draw more information out of Ellen, and judging by the fear in her eyes, she did not know if Ellen knew anymore than she. Why would Erik do this? Erik referred to the castle help as "lowly-handmaidens" so this surely went beyond a simple matter of restitution for whatever small offense Ellen did to him. Still, she couldn't leave her friend in despair.
"I see…Perhaps Orsted can help when he returns. I will be sure to call on him," Gwaelin spoke, tapping once.
The mention of Orsted caused Ellen to smile with relief. What Gwaelin did not share is that it had been two days since she last heard from him and she was becoming worried. The two shared their telepathic connection while he was in a cave and clear across Alefgard. Surely distance did not interfere with their connection. The only other possibility was…
No, she promised him she would stop thinking so fearfully! The minute Orsted left, she vowed to herself she would not give into despair and incessant worry as she considered all of the terrible threats Orsted would be facing. However, as much as she tried to dispel it, the nagging doubt resurfaced. What if he needed help and she acted too late?