Authors Note: Okay, I've kept everyone waiting for about eleven months or so - why make it any longer? Let's just skip the author's note this time around and get straight into the chapter!

Buttered Angie


"You with the sad eyes, don't be discouraged.

Oh I realise it's had to take courage.

In a world full of people you can lose sight of it all,

And the darkness inside you can make you feel so small."

True Colours by Phil Collins


A Thousand Miles
The Right Choice

Time dragged on at a frustratingly slow pace in Luke's small hut. Mitch was eased out on the ground, his back against the dirt-smudged wall and his legs stretched out in front of him. Slowly, almost lazily, he wiped the battle residue off his large, double-handed sword. Beside him sat Dean, who watched him with interest.

Richard, unable to sit still, had taken up the art of pacing. He now walked back and forth with quick steps as far as the dimensions of Luke's small hut would allow him to.

"What could be taking so long?" he kept muttering under his breath. "She's been out there for ages."

Luke hovered silently over his nephew, incredible waves of guilt coursing through him. A thousand regrets ran through his mind…

I should have brought him up better. My sister would have never wanted him to turn out like this. She trusted me with her only son. Before she passed away she made me promise that I'd take care of him. But I failed. I gave up on him. I let him go.

I let him go…

"That sure is a big sword," Dean commented to Mitch, in what he hoped was a friendly voice. The silent void was too much for him. He had to do something to break the intensity, to disturb the quiet – even if it meant resorting to making small-talk with a thief.

"It's a beauty, certainly." Mitch said. He didn't really feel comfortable talking to the kid that had caused so much trouble. If the topic of conversation had been about anything else other then that of weapons of fatalistic consequence, Mitch would have simply nodded and remained silent. But as it was, the topic of conversation was on his most prized possession as a thief – his sword. "I had to get it specially made. Cost me a pocketful, it did."

"You paid for it?" Dean said disbelievingly.

"'Course I did."

"But… you're a thief."

Mitch looked at Dean blankly. "So?"

"So why did you pay for it? You could've just stolen it."

Mitch let out a disapproving grunt. Now he understood what the kid was on about. "I had to pay."

"Why?"

"There are limits, you know!"

Dean's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "What! Limits to being a thief?"

"No, you idiot!" Richard paused in his pacing long enough to grab the collar of Dean's worn vest, lifting him up into a would-be standing position. The muscles in his arms bulged under the strain of Dean's weight. "Limits to keep our self-respect! We're not completely inhumane, you know."

Dean opened his mouth angrily, but before he could reply, Mitch put a strong hand on Richard's elbow, forcing his arms down until Dean was free of his grip.

"Calm down, will you?" he said quietly. "I know you're worried; we all are. But you have to control it. For all our sakes."

Richard gave Dean a look of pure loathing. "Bloody peasants."

Dean's eyes narrowed and he let out a horrible curse. Richard went white, but before he could respond, Mitch lifted his previously idle sword and held it against Dean's neck. It wasn't really a lethal position, since only the flat side of the sword was against Dean's skin, but peasants didn't know much about swords. For all Dean knew, he was in a position of mortal danger.

"Get that thing away from me." Dean's voice was panicky.

"You behave yourself, kid. It's been a very long couple of days, and my patience has just about run out."

"Luke!" Dean said desperately. "Tell them to leave me alone!"

Luke looked up momentarily from his dismal thoughts, but there was no sympathy in his eyes. He remained silent.

"No one's going to be able to help you if you don't behave!" Mitch growled.

"Okay!" The sweat glistened on Dean's forehead. "Okay, I get it. Just let me go."

After a few tense moments, Mitch backed off. There was silence. Dean looked around the room, taking in the faces of the three men that were staring back at him motionlessly. His gaze rested on Luke. The sting of betrayal struck him deep.

"Why didn't you do anything?" he asked, in hurt voice. "I was about to be killed, and you just stood there."

Luke shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, but Mitch is right, you know. You really should behave yourself in a room full of thieves."

"That's why us honest people have to stick together. We have to stand up for each other," Dean said almost accusingly.

"Well I hate to break it to you kid, but I'm not exactly honest… " Luke trailed off, leaving Dean to come to his own conclusions.

"Shit, not you too?" Dean's eyes were wide. "Shit! You're a thief!"

"Former thief," Luke corrected.

"Aren't there any honest people left in the world?" Dean cried out in exasperation. He wasn't really expecting an answer.

At that exact moment, the ancient door of Luke's dilapidated hut creaked open to reveal the King, the Duke and Rory. Dean's eyes opened even wider as he found himself under His Majesty's scrutiny.

Rory couldn't help but smile at the mortified expression on Dean's face. She knew all too well how peasants felt about royalty. She knew all too well how peasants felt about people in general, actually. She gave Dean a sort of pitying glance.

"…I wouldn't count on it."

- - -

It was certainly a very strange gathering. Crowded inside Luke's small, untidy hut was the most improbable group of people imaginable. Looking around, Luke reflected that they all looked rather comical, and he would have laughed, if not for the seriousness of the situation.

He was standing at the head of his table, intently watching what lay upon it. Only it wasn't a plate of potatoes and carrots or anything remotely normal: it was his teenage nephew, who also happened to be the current leader of the thieving world. Jess' eyes were closed, and one would assume that he was merely asleep, if not for the bloody wound in his stomach.

Also standing around the table, soundless and perfectly still, was Jess' loyal band of thieves. Well, the ones who were still left standing, anyway. Richard, Mitch and Rory looked at their leader solemnly, Rory clasping his shaking hand in her own. Their faces were grave. They had put their weapons to rest around the hut - the long swords, broadswords, single handed swords, double-handed swords, maces, knives, spikes, and lock-picking devices scattered randomly across the floor added to the strangeness of the scene. The shadowy forms of Jon and Charles haunted the walls of the hut, their silhouettes unmoving and unmovable.

And then there was Dean. Looking at the kid, Luke almost felt sorry for him. He was a simple boy, brought up well by his parents. He was a good worker and was obedient for the most part. But when it all came down to it, the bottom line was he was a peasant. There was no other way to put it.

There was nothing wrong with peasants, really. They were quite reasonable people, always ready to do their bit. But their one failing lay in the fact that they only had enough sympathy for their own misfortunes, and hardly ever bothered to understand the misfortunes of the rest of the world. It wasn't really their fault – they were quite hard done by – but it did make them extremely difficult to be around.

So there was Dean, as indignant as a peasant should be when surrounded by the two types of people he was raised to detest the most – thieves and nobles. Luke had found it hard to keep a straight face when he caught the expression on Dean's face as the King had entered the room. He couldn't even begin to imagine what was running through the poor boy's mind.

Luke's gazed shifted to the King and his Duke – the two strangest members of that strange gathering. The King was surveying the small space around him with surprised eyes – Luke guessed that he'd probably never been a farmer's hut before. The Duke looked all around him nervously; trying to step on the parts of the floor that had minimal smudges of dirt, most likely.

Luke finally held his gaze on Jess' solitary form, and he felt his heart sink. In the absurdness of the situation, he had almost forgotten, but now it all came back to him, the burden of guilt even heavier than before.

- - -

Richard couldn't take it any more. He couldn't take the silence, the idleness, the pointlessness of the whole situation. He wasn't just going to stand aside and watch his friend die. He had to do something. There had to be some way to save Jess.

Concern for his friend drove out all his other worries: he shoved restless thoughts of the King, the Duke and that peasant filth into the back of his mind. That was all secondary now. It didn't take a genius to realise that Jess was getting worse. He was so pale, and was losing a lot of blood. They had to do something soon, or else it would be too late. And he couldn't for the life of him understand why everyone was standing around so motionlessly, doing nothing. He pulled Rory and Mitch aside.

"Why are we just standing around?" he asked, his voice low and urgent. "There must be something we can do, some way to help Jess."

"Yeah? Like what?" Mitch's voice was dull.

"I don't know. I don't know what we can do. But I also don't know how long I can keep this up. Do you even care? I mean, how can you two just stand there and watch Jess die? Tell me that."

Rory grabbed hold of Richard's hand, her eyes full of tears. "I don't like it any more than you do, you have to believe me."

"Then why aren't we doing anything?" he demanded. "Doesn't it matter any more?"

"Of course it does!" Mitch roared, his eyes flashing. "Jess means as much to us as he does to you. Now I don't know about you two but I've been wringing my brain inside out trying to think of a way out of this mess. And you know what I've come up with? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But at least I'm trying. You should be too."

By now every conscious member in Luke's crowded hut was eying the three thieves. Richard briefly took in the blank faces staring at him, then turned back to Rory and Mitch, a note a defeat in his voice.

"I am trying. I just… It's so hard. I feel like, I don't know, like this is the end for us."

"Hey," Rory gave him a small smile. "Don't give up."

"We've been through worse than this," Mitch reminded him.

"I know." Richard sighed. "But still, I can't help thinking that this might be it. This might be the end of us. No, listen. We've gotten so far, and outlasted everyone in the game. Now it's time to give back what we owe. We should be grateful, I guess. We've had a good running. It wasn't the right thing to do, but it was good while it lasted. It had to end somehow. It's just that I never thought it'd be like this."

There was a long silence. The same sort of thing had been weighing on all their minds, but no one had dared voice it until now. Mitch cleared his throat uncomfortably.

"Now there's no need for that sort of talk," he said, laying a firm hand on Richard's shoulder. "We'll figure something out."

"But there's nothing left to try."

"Ahem!" The King cleared his throat loudly and gave Rory a meaningful glance from across the room. Rory felt a blush rise to her cheeks.

"Well, actually, there might be something else," she said slowly. "I didn't mention it before because I didn't see any point in it. I know you two aren't going to agree. I don't even like it – "

"Rory," Mitch interrupted. "If there's a way to save Jess, I don't care what it involves. Just try us."

"Yeah," Richard put in. "At least let us decide for ourselves."

"Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you." She paused momentarily, trying to think of the best way to phrase the bizarre proposition she was going to relay to her two friends.

"Well?" Richard wasn't the most patient person in the world.

"Well," Rory frowned at Richard. "It's like this. When I went outside to talk to the King, His Majestyhad a proposition to make."

Mitch struck a sideways glance at the King, a look of distrust on his face. "What kind of proposition?"

"A business proposition."

"Huh?"

Rory edged closer to the two, and lowered her voice. "Apparently the King believes that he's under attack, and that his position is in mortal danger."

"Under attack?" Richard gave Rory an incredulous look. "By who?"

"You two remember Marcus, don't you?"

"Oh, him."

"Yes, him. The King believes that Marcus is plotting with the Queen Mother to take him down. He can't trust his own personal guard, because it looks like Marcus has bought them over. He wants to have some sort of protection from outside the castle, someone that Marcus won't be able to influence…"

"…And that's where we come in, right?" Richard looked grim.

"You got it."

Mitch frowned. "So where exactly does Jess fit into all this?"

"The King says he's willing to help us out of our… um… situation if we agree to work for him. He has access to the best healers we could ever hope to find, not to mention the most extensive apothecary in existence." Rory chewed on her bottom lip. "He promised to do everything he could to save Jess, Jon and Charles."

"I'm sure he did."

Rory looked at Richard, confused. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"How do you know he's not lying? It could be a trap!"

"It could be the only way to save Jess' life!"

"Or it could be a way to kill us all," Richard said seriously. "Look Rory, I know you're worried about Jess, we all are. But we can't let that worry lower our defences. I mean, think about it. A King asking thieves to protect him! It's insane, it's impossible, it's never going to work. We're thieves, and he's royalty. Those two worlds can't collide."

"Why not?" Rory said. "Don't you see? If we take up this offer we won't have to live as thieves any more. The King is willing to pay us money, a lot of money, if we come and work for him. Then we wouldn't have to be thieves for a living. We wouldn't have to lie, or kill, or fight any longer. Just think of it! It'd be so good…"

"To you," Mitch grunted.

"What?"

"Rory, listen." Mitch looked her straight in the eye. "We all know you hate being a thief, that if you had another choice, you'd do anything to get out of it. But for me it's the opposite. I'd do anything just to stay a thief."

"But…"

"Look at it this way. If the King is telling the truth…"

"Which I doubt he is," Richard cut in, ignoring the irritated look the Duke was giving him from across the room.

"But just say he is." Mitch continued. "How do you think Jess will feel, waking up in the palace of all places? And what about Jon? You know how much he hates nobles. After what they did to his family, I don't blame him. How do you think he'd react?"

Rory looked down at her dirt-smudged feet. "Look at what they did to my mother," she said quietly. "I still managed to get over it."

"But that's you, Rory," he replied gently. "We're not as good as you."

"You can't understand the class divisions that exist between us all," Richard added. "You were born a noble, raised as a peasant and trained to be a thief. Inside you, those three worlds are colliding all the time, but outside, they never meet."

An expression of concern briefly passed across Mitch's face. "Rory, if we went back to the palace, we'd be in grave danger. Not only will Marcus know who we are, so will the King's guard. The King wants us to protect him, but who's going to protect us?"

"I know." Rory sighed. She turned away from her two friends and walked slowly over to where Jess was lying, gently taking his hand. "I know the whole thing is dangerous. But it's the only way to save Jess. You asked me before if I even cared that he's dying." She spun back around and faced Mitch and Richard once more. "Now I have to ask you the same thing. This is the solution you've been waiting for. It's what you've asked for. Mitch, you said you'd do anything to save Jess. Richard, you couldn't understand why we were standing here, doing nothing. But now look. Here's a solution, and you don't have the guts to follow through!"

"That's if he's not lying!" Richard exclaimed.

"Why are you so sure that he is?" Rory yelled.

"Why are you so sure that isn't?" Richard yelled back.

"I don't know, it's just a feeling," Rory replied.

"Oh well that's great." Richard's voice was dripping with sarcasm. He couldn't take much more of this. Rory was supposed to be on their side! "Do you want to know what I really don't understand? Why were you so reluctant to believe Jess but so eager to believe the King? Answer me that!"

"I don't know! Jess was lying to me, I found that out – "

"What, from peasant-boy here?"

"Hey!" Dean exclaimed, but was further silenced by a stern look from Mitch.

"It doesn't matter how I found out – "

"You're right, it doesn't." Richard said shortly. "The point is that you, Rory, found out then challenged Jess. Now he's lying here on the brink of death. I know it wasn't your fault, how were you supposed to know that the sword was faulty? But when it all comes down to it, you got what you wanted. You challenged Jess and won. You're our leader now. Make the choice. But make the choice based on all of us, not just on yourself."

Rory turned away, stung by Richard's words. Of course, she had been telling herself the very same thing over and over again, but to hear it from a friend whose opinion she valued as much as she did Richard's was a very different thing.

"You've gone too far," Mitch murmured to Richard.

"You can't ask me to make this choice." Rory's voice was shaking and her eyes were full of tears. She refused to meet Richard's glance, instead turning to Mitch. "I can't make this choice. Mitch, can't you help me?"

"I'm sorry, Rory, I can't decide for you." Mitch said as gently as he could. "Although I don't like what he said, Richard is right. We are obligated to follow whatever decision you make, be it good or bad."

The King cleared his throat. It was now or never. "So, what will it be?" he asked, coming to stand beside the three solemn thieves.

Rory turned her head slowly towards the King. Her blue eyes were full of tears and there were red blotches on her cheeks, yet she still took his breath away. "Well?" was all he could say.

Rory opened her mouth to speak. Richard and Mitch both eyed her every move, trying to guess what her decision would be.

"We can't accept," she said finally, shaking her head slightly. "It's just too risky. I'm sorry."

- - -

"Excuse me?"

Tristan's head was reeling. Had the thieves actually declined his offer? Had they actually dared to say no to the King? What right did they have to shun his generosity and thoughtfulness in such an ungrateful manner? Yet what else could you expect from a band of thieves?

"We can't accept your offer," she repeated. "It's too - "

But Tristan cut her off before she could continue. "How dare you!"

"How dare I what?"

"How dare you refuse my offer!" Tristan felt his cheeks burning. "Do you forget who I am? I am King!"

"Your… Your Majesty?" The Duke nervously tapped the King on his shoulder. Beads of sweat were trickling down the side of his face. Obviously, standing in a dilapidated hut with a band of thieves and a peasant was almost too much to put up with.

"Not now!" Tristan glared at his friend.

"But… but I think it would be wise… er… perhaps if we, you know, if we… came back… later?" the Duke stammered.

"Later will be too late," the King replied darkly. "And what's the matter with you anyway? You were the one who told me to come here!"

Rory, Mitch and Richard whipped around to look at the Duke. "You what?"

Being the centre of attention obviously wasn't one of the Duke's innermost yearnings. His face slowly drained of all colour, and his beady eyes were cast downwards. The only sound that emerged from his thin lips was that of incoherent mumbling.

Rory forced herself to focus on the situation at hand. She waved her hands in front of her two friend's faces; Mitch and Richard appeared to be transfixed by the Duke's little episode. "You guys! Mitch! Richard!"

"It doesn't matter who told me to come here anyway," the King said, edging his way around the table to come and stand next to Rory and her two friends. Mitch and Richard appeared to have snapped out of their reverie and were now eying the King with equal looks of distrust etched on their two faces.

"Doesn't it?" Rory countered.

"No, it doesn't. All that matters is that I asked you for your services and you said no. You refused to protect your King and your country. I could put that down as treason!" Tristan brought his fist down onto the tabletop for extra measure. It made a heavy thud and the table shook dangerously. "What kind of person puts their own needs before the needs of their King?"

Despite the seriousness of the situation and the intense atmosphere building in Luke's small hut, Rory, Mitch and Richard glanced at each other, all trying to suppress their smiles.

"Thieves, maybe?" Mitch supplied, with a hint of amusement in his voice.

"Gee, I knew the nobles were thick, but I didn't think they were that thick," Richard whispered to Rory out of the corner of his mouth.

"I heard that!" Tristan's eyes flashed dangerously.

"Oh, congratulations!" Richard grinned broadly. "You've got ears, You're Majesty!" He deliberately pronounced each word loudly and with extreme clarity.

"That's it, I've had enough." Tristan strode over the door of Luke's hut in a tirade of fury. The Duke followed him meekly. "I'm not going to waste another moment of my time standing in this disgusting hut listening to all your insults. You had your chance to get out of this mess, but it's too late now. I expect the palace guards will be here by sundown to arrest the thieves. Well, the ones who are still alive anyway."

He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in, before exiting Luke's hut, slamming the door behind him.

- - -

The King's final words reverberated inside the hut long after he had left.

I expect the palace guards will be here by sundown to arrest the thieves. Well, the ones who are still alive anyway…

Rory's thoughts were all over the place, a chaotic jumble of fragments of memories, feelings, regrets… She closed her eyes. She couldn't make sense of anything inside of her. There was only one question that she could comprehend, one question that resounded over and over within her – within the very depths of her soul. Rory knew that she couldn't bear it alone. She had to ask someone.

She let go of Jess' hand for a moment, and walked over to where Mitch and Richard were sitting in silence.

"Rory, what is it?" Mitch's voice sounded strange.

"Answer me honestly, okay?" she said. Somehow it was so hard to get the words out.

"Sure," Mitch said, while Richard nodded obligingly.

Rory took a deep breath. "Did I make the right choice?"

Richard was quick to deliver. "Of course you did. You made the best choice that you could've under the circumstances. Anyone else would've done exactly the same thing. It was a hard decision, but you made the best choice that you could."

"But was it right?"

"I don't think there is a right or a wrong choice," Mitch said slowly. "There wasn't any clear cut lines between the two. It wasn't black or white… it was grey. You had to weigh up both the good and the bad. It was just too dangerous for all of us. You did what you had do."

"If our positions were reversed, Jess would've taken the offer to save my life," Rory wiped away the tears that wouldn't stop falling. Her voice was shaking and she could hardly control it. "He would take the risk for me."

"Listen to me, Rory," Richard took both of her hands in his. "Jess knows you, he knows that you have so much more to live for. You have Jackson and Sookie to take care of. Jess has nothing to live for, other than this band of thieves."

"Think of what Jess would want you to do in this situation," Mitch added. "Imagine his voice inside your head. What would he be telling you to do?"

Rory smiled. "He'd tell be to stop being emotional and to get on with the job."

"That's right."

"Richard?"

"Yes?"

"I'm sorry," Rory said. "I didn't mean to say all those horrible things to you. I was just so confused before, I didn't know what to do."

"Hey, it's okay," Richard grinned. "I know you only took the King's side because you thought he was handsome…"

"What! I did not!" Rory protested, feeling her cheeks go red.

"Admit it!" Richard teased her. "Come on, admit it! You two talked outside for a very long time, you know."

"Look, she's blushing!" Mitch pointed out, and Rory glared at him.

"Admit it!"

"Okay, okay!" Rory put her hands up in the air. "Okay, I admit I thought he was a bit of a spunk – "

"A what?"

"A spunk!"

Mitch and Richard were looking at her oddly. "What's a spink?"

"A spunk!" Rory looked from one to the other, a strange feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. "You know what a spunk is, don't you?"

"I've honestly never heard that word in my life," Richard said. "Why? Rory, what's going on? Are you okay?"

Rory closed her eyes, and put her head in her hands. Where had she heard that word before? Where?

… Rose buds. Pink rose buds. Falling…

"It was raining pink rose buds," Rory said softly. "They were everywhere."

"What?"

Mitch and Richard looked up in surprise as Luke came swiftly over to where Rory was sitting.

"Pink rosebuds and… and perfume!"

"It can't be," Luke shook his head. "It can't be!"

"What is it?" Mitch said.

"It's Lorelai," Luke replied solemnly.

- - -

"That all depends on you," Lorelai said seriously, lowering her voice.

Rory felt a cold chill run down her spine.

"You are going to be made an odd offer – sometime soon - by a certain individual whose name I'm not allowed to tell you. All I can tell you is that he's a spunk. And it's up to you to decide whether or not you're going to accept or decline this offer. But choose carefully, because your choice is going to shape the state of the future world."

Lorelai paused for effect, then added dramatically, "And whether or not Jess is going to die."

- - -

"I remember now!" Rory exclaimed, jumping up and almost knocking Luke over.

"Remember what?!" Richard cried, perturbed.

"My mother! She came to me in a dream, she told me this was going to happen… she send that I was going to be made an offer… and that I would have to follow my guy instinct, or my gut instinct, or I don't know all I know is that Jess' life hangs in the balance and… Oh!"

Rory's eyes opened wide, and she froze for a moment. She was met with the stares of Mitch, Richard, Luke and Dean.

"What!?"

"I made the wrong choice!" she cried. "I made the wrong choice! Oh no, I have to go after him, Luke do you have any horses?"

Luke barely had time to move before Rory thrust her hand out. "No! No time, not enough time for horses, I'll run! I have to get to him, I have to make him reconsider! You have to understand, Richard, Mitch, say you understand!"

Richard and Mitch nodded dumbly.

"Yes? Good! I'll be right back, I have to catch up with him…"

Rory ran out of Luke's hut without so much as a glance backwards. The four left behind in the hut could only watch, dumbstruck.

"So, does anyone know what a spunk is?" Richard asked hopefully. His question was greeted with silence. "Didn't think so."

- - -

"I can't believe it!" Tristan exclaimed, as the Duke urged the horses forward. "Can you believe it? I can't believe it!"

"We had to try, Your Majesty," the Duke said, with his eyes lowered. He did not want to remind the King that it was his idea they came in the first place.

"True…" Tristan spanned his gaze across Luke's grassy fields, an almost dream-like expression on his face. "I wonder what'll become of me now."

The Duke glanced at the King. "It doesn't pay to think that way, Your Majesty. Always keep to the positive."

"It's kind of hard when your own uncle is trying to - " Tristan stopped mid-sentence, staring at something on the horizon. The Duke squinted, trying to follow the King's gaze.

"Your Majesty?"

"Do you see that, Duke?" Tristan shielded his eyes from the glaring sun, in order to get a better look at the far off figure. "Over there, near the trees… it's her!"

"Well so it is!" The Duke exclaimed. "What do you propose we do?"

"I don't know," The King frowned. "I wonder what she's doing out here. We only just left! Did she get this far on foot? Unbelievable!"

"Perhaps we should follow her…"

"Yes, I think we'd better. Come on, let's go!"

- - -

Rory slowed down. She had run the circumference of Luke's land but had found no trace of the King or the Duke, until now.

She could sense them coming. Her instincts were working overtime. She could feel the soil underneath her feet vibrating with the beat of horse hooves. She knew they were getting closer. She closed her eyes and came to a complete standstill. This was it. They were heading in her direction. The thundering of horse hooves became more intense. She could almost hear the King's voice on the wind. She spun around. They were in sight now. She waited patiently for their arrival.

The King jumped off the carriage before it had stopped completely. He jogged the few steps towards her. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

"I… I changed my mind," Rory said breathlessly. "I want to take up your offer. Please…"

The King's heart began to race. This was what he'd been waiting to hear. All the insult he had suffered was pushed to the back of his mind. This was exactly what he had wished for. But I mustn't seem to eager, he told himself sternly. It's a sign of vulnerability.

"Oh!" The King feigned coldness. "Well I don't know if I want to employ the likes of you any more. You have no respect for me whatsoever."

Rory's blue eyes flashed with anger. "Since when did respect come into this? You need something from us, we need something from you. I'm sorry that my friends and I offended you, but we've had a rough few days." Rory advanced on the King and quick as lightning shoved him onto the ground. The King barely had time to respond before she was kneeling on top of him, with her hand wrapped around the collar of his shirt. "Do you know how far I've run to catch up with you? Do you think I've come all this way just to receive a cold brushing off?"

"Your Majesty!" The Duke jumped down from the carriage and ran frantically to the King's side. "Your Majesty, are you okay?"

The King however paid no attention to the Duke. His eyes were focused on the thief. With great effort, he spoke.

"Get… get off!"

"Not until you promise you'll go through with the proposition."

"Well… okay!"

Rory relented, and released her hold on the King.

"Sorry," she said, helping him to her feet. "I had to do it."

The King said nothing, but got back into the carriage. The Duke and Rory followed suit.

"Where to, Your Majesty?" The Duke timidly picked up the reigns.

The King looked at Rory. "Luke's hut," he said. "Quickly!"

- - -

The next few hours passed like a blur. Jess, Charles and Jon were loaded into the inner compartment of the carriage, carried carefully by Richard, Mitch and surprisingly, the King. Richard and the King were still in there now. Rory herself had been too exhausted to help. She now sat on the roof of the carriage with Mitch was next to her. The Duke in front of them, at the reigns, though Rory noticed that he hardly needed them, preferring to direct the horses with spoken word.

The sun by now had set, leaving the sky a dark, deep, alluring blue. The silver moonshine lit up their path of travel in an almost mystical way. Rory rested her head on Mitch's shoulder. As they foreboding silhouette of the palace loomed up against the dark sky, blotting out the sky, Rory couldn't help but wonder what did the forces of fate had in mind for her, leading her to a place like this…

Only time could tell.