2nd Place Fiction
Excerpt is from Book Three of The Daughter of Robin Hood Trilogy.
I woke up in Nikola’s arms. I almost jumped out of the bed, but then I remembered we were married now. I had nearly forgotten. There was a constant pounding on the door. I thought it was his heart beating underneath my ear. Then I heard someone calling our names repeatedly. Nikola started to wake. When he did, he saw me and smiled.
The door flew open and Sweeney charged in, his eyes widened. It wasn’t because he saw us for the first time together.
Nikola sat up. “Sweeney? Get out!”
He shook his head. “We have to leave. NOW.”
Nikola waved his hand for Sweeney to come inside. Sweeney did, and he closed the door behind him. As I watched, I saw how well-rehearsed his movements were. He turned his back to us and lowered his head, his arm against the wall.
Nikola threw the blankets back and nudged me. “Get ready.”
There wasn’t much to pack, so we put on clean clothes fit for travelling.
“Tell us what’s happening.” Nikola said, pulling on a clean shirt.
“Larkin stayed behind with some of his men. While we were distracted by the wedding, he attacked the ship and freed enough men to create a small army.” Sweeney said.
“Please tell me he didn’t release those that are in the Knights Obscurum.” I said, tying the strings on the front of my dress. “They’re all we have to use against Larkin.”
“He did free them,” Sweeney said. “That isn’t the problem though. He is demanding we release Ainsley.”
Nikola buckled his sword belt. At the sound, Sweeney turned around. He looked at my wedding dress hanging neatly on a hanger on the outside of the wardrobe and sighed. “Larkin is waiting outside of the inn. He said he won’t leave until he has Ainsley, and if anyone tries to leave, they will be prisoners of war.”
“Does he know about the kitchen door?” I asked.
Sweeney furrowed his brow and put his hands on his sword belt. “I didn’t even know about the kitchen door.”
Nikola stepped over to me and touched my elbow. “What’s this about a kitchen door?”
I glanced between them. “Well, it’s safe to assume that if you two don’t know about the kitchen door, Larkin doesn’t either.”
We stood in silence, glancing between one another. No one wanted to mention that Larkin knew me well, almost as well, if not more so, than Nikola did. Larkin knew that I always looked for an escape route no matter where I was or what I was doing there. If he knew that, he might already know about the kitchen door, my only escape route. The risk was worth taking if it meant getting out without him knowing.
Nikola grabbed my bow and quiver from the corner of the room. “It looks like the kitchen door is our escape route, then.”
I furrowed my brow. “What are you doing with my bow and quiver?”
Nikola handed them to me without a word. I slung them over my shoulder. He turned me around and walked me over to Sweeney.
“Take my wife,” he said. “Protect her. Keep her safe. You remember the plans.”
Sweeney went to grab my arm as I was handed off to him, but I escaped and used the weapons Nikola had given me. I notched an arrow and backed away so I could shoot it at one of them.
Nikola tilted his head back. “Oh, so first you were going to steal from me, and now you’re going to kill me after one night of marriage?”
“I’m not leaving you,” I said. “Whatever your plans are, I won’t be taken away from you.”
Sweeney stepped forward. He stopped when I directed the arrow at his heart. He raised his hands in surrender. “Lee, we don’t have time for this.”
Nikola sat down on the bed and sighed deeply. “Lee, sweetheart, I feared something would go wrong, so I sat down with King Leon, your father, and Sweeney, and we made a plan. Only the four of us knew about it. We couldn’t involve anyone else. There are so many of us, I feared the plan would go around and end up escaping the wrong mouth.
I lowered my bow, but I held the arrow to let them know I was still ready to shoot should the need arise.
Nikola rubbed his finger where his wedding ring should have been. We had been in such a hurry, there hadn’t been enough time to acquire rings. “We thought we wouldn’t need these plans we made, but we went through with them anyway, just in case. Last night, King Leon retired, but he never made it to his bed. He took three of my knights with him, and half of his knights, and they started the journey back to Nodnol. I had hopes that we would follow him in two days, but we will have to leave today. The other part of the plan is for Sweeney, Sir Hood, and I to split up, and we’ll leave with our resources spread. Sweeney is going to take you, Pascal, and my brother, and you’re going to start your journey back to the castle in Nodnol. You’ll take the fastest route, and you should arrive a day after King Leon if you don’t catch up with him. Your father will take Sir Patrick and Ainsley and he will take the second longest path and arrive two days after the king. I’m going to take Muriel and Phil, and we’ll take the longest route to the castle. It is believed we will arrive three days from now, if not four. Sweeney, Sir Hood and I will split my knights and King Leon’s knights amongst ourselves. We are to meet at King Leon’s castle, and then we will begin our journey to Locksley.”
“Did you think I would agree to this?” I demanded. “We’re married, Nikola. We’re making this journey together.”
“No, we’re not. We knew someone would want Ainsley back, so we put you, Muriel and Ainsley in different groups to trick our pursuers. We’re going to make sure they can’t see who is who.” Nikola said, shoving some of his belongings into a satchel. “And I knew you wouldn’t agree to it, so I ordered Sweeney to take you by force if you argued.”
The words sank in. It took me a few moments to realize that now was the time to take up arms against them, but when I realized it, it was too late, for Sweeney had thrown his arms around me.
I squirmed as much as I could and I attempted to raise my bow, but I lost the arrow that I had held so firmly in my fingers. I had control of my elbows, but Sweeney held me tighter and I soon lost that too.
Nikola wiped his eyes and came over. I watched every move he made. He bit his lip as he approached. He was a strong man, but I wondered if the thought of sending me, his wife, away was too much for him to bear. He bent down, grabbed the arrow and placed it in my quiver. When he took my face in his hands, I tried to get away from him, too, but I had nowhere to go.
“Lee, please understand, I’m not doing this for Ainsley or myself or anyone else,” he said. “I don’t want you to be in danger. It won’t be safe for such a large group to travel back together. With Larkin right outside the front door, this is the only way to make it out safely. Please, go. I love you.”
“We made our vows,” I whispered shakily. I took a deep breath. If he wanted to be the strong man over this, I knew I would have to be even stronger for his sake. “We said we would take these things together, not apart.”
Nikola kissed my forehead. “Just know I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
He turned his face away and Sweeney carried me out kicking and screaming. I fought against him as much as I could, but then Pascal ran up the steps.
“They can hear you outside,” Pascal whispered urgently. “Sir Robin is watching from the window, and he said he thinks they can hear you. Stop screaming, Lee. Stop, it will be all right. I promise.”
I was desperate enough to fall into my last resort. Sweeney’s arms were wrapped around my midsection. This left me no choice. I fell forward and he was forced to let me drop to my knees. He should have known better. I was a thief, swift and sure, and even if I hadn’t stolen anything lately, I still had to be quick. I unsheathed the knife hidden underneath my cloak and turned to face Sweeney, to dare him to do anything.
He was a trained warrior—he knew me well, too. He must have seen it coming. He pushed me back to my knees. After I collided with the floor with a thud, he stepped back, but kept his fingertips gingerly on my shoulders. “Lee,” he said, with a deep breath, even though he wasn’t even bothered by the struggle, “stop this, please.”
Pascal knelt in front of me and placed his hands over mine, even though I still held the knife firmly. “Lee,” he said, looking into my eyes. His French accent was gentle as always, but urgent. “We must go.”
I looked down. “I can’t leave my husband. I won’t.”
They didn’t say anything. They hardly moved except to glance between one another. There were footsteps in the stairwell, and Papa ran up and pulled me to my feet. He wiped away the tears that were now flooding from my eyes and pulled me into a tight hug. I knew, even though I was married now, I would always be his little girl. “My love, I knew you would hate this, but you have to go.”
I wanted to know why they hadn’t involved me in these plans. They probably knew I would protest entirely. I knew why they were doing this. We could fool them easily, and they wouldn’t know with certainty which group had the real Ainsley. As I tried not to sob, I admired how clever this plan was, but I hated that I had to leave my husband. I had a family now, but it was now to be taken away from me after only one night.
Papa continued to hug me, and I knew at this point it was because he couldn’t look me in the eyes while he spoke. He knew I wouldn’t be any happier that they neglected to ask how I felt about these plans. “Nikola wanted to be sure that you reached safety quickly. When we organized plans with King Leon, he said there are three paths to return to his castle. One is the shortest, the next a medium distance, and the last, the longest way to return. We agreed that if we were attacked, it would be best to separate into groups and take these various paths. Nikola wanted you to be on the shortest path so he could have the assurance of you being safe sooner. Your husband loves you. It’s hard for him to send you away, but he wants you to be safe. Please, Lee, you’re making it even harder for him.”
I pulled away and glanced at the door. Papa was reluctant to release me. Whether we arrived safely or not, the kingdoms were on the brink of war, and we would be in the frontlines to die. If war came, there wouldn’t be very many opportunities for hugs in the future.
If I was this distraught about the plan, I couldn’t imagine what Nikola was experiencing behind the door.
This had been a plan I hadn’t been prepared for. We were supposed to have a quiet week. My plans had been to stay here for a few days and then begin our journey back to what really needed to be done. I had just married, and I didn’t have a ring to show for it. I never imagined I would have to leave my husband the day after the wedding.
I went to the door and knocked. I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but I had expected some sort of answer. And yet there was none. I put my hands on the door and leaned against it. “Nikola, please answer me.”
“Boys, come on. Let’s give them some privacy.” Papa said. They descended the staircase. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sweeney stop and glance back. I knew our window of opportunity was quickly closing, but nothing mattered as long as I could get a proper goodbye with my husband.
“I’m not opening the door,” he said from within, his voice too muffled from the wood between us for me to know if he was as emotional as I was. “I don’t want you to see me now.”
“Nikola, love, I—I don’t want to do this, no more than you want to see me go,” I said, putting my forehead against the door. I heard his head knock against the door on the other side. Somehow in my heart, I knew that his hands were against the door on the other side, right where mine were. I didn’t know how I knew, but in the depths of my soul I knew, and this knowledge sank in at such a depth that I knew it was truth. “But I’ll go, all right. I understand now, and I’ll understand more when it’s over. Love, I’ll see you again soon, and if I don’t, well,” I laughed, “Hell hath no fury like I’ll have when you don’t come to me, do you understand?”
Nikola laughed, and that was when I knew he had been crying as hard as I was. “I promise you I’ll be there. You’d better run out of the king’s castle to greet me.”
I smiled. “If I don’t shoot you first for making me leave you.”
We shared a laughed. I knew it would be the last laugh we would share for a few days, but it was better than the tears we were crying.
“Before you go,” Nikola whispered, “could you do a something for me?”
“Whatever you ask, it shall be done.” I breathed. I wasn’t normally one to do whatever someone told me to do, but he was my husband, and I was his wife. I had reached the point that I would do anything for him—even if he wanted me to greet Death without cheating him. I would do it.
If it were for my husband, I would do it, not because he told me to, but because I loved him.
“Dry those tears.” Nikola said.
I wiped the tears on the sleeve of my cloak.
“Smile for me, will you?” he said. “I know you’ll say you can’t, but don’t lie to me. I can hear the smile in your voice when you speak lovely to me.”
I smiled. “I didn’t know you could hear the smile in my voice.”
“I can hear it now. You have the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen, and it was never more beautiful than when you smiled at me for the first time in the Foggiest Forest, when we had run away from our old lives. You’ve always had a beautiful smile, but when you smiled at me in that particular moment, it was the first time you smiled at me as you. You weren’t trying to be anyone else. You weren’t protecting yourself or trying to keep me from knowing who you really are. You were Lenora Hood, and you smiled at me, Nikola Windsor, and I saw you. Only you. And birds started singing, and an angelic harp started playing—no, actually I think that was just Will Scarlett,” he said, and I laughed, “but that made me think of something—birds actually did start singing when you laughed with me for the first time. Your real laugh. Not the forced nervous one because you’re hiding something. It’s the laugh you laugh when you’re being you. It’s that one you laugh when you’re just taking a moment to enjoy yourself. I might have mistaken angelic harps for Will Scarlett’s, but I never mistook your laugh for birds singing.”
I hadn’t stopped smiling until I started laughing. “Nikola, I think you’re very confused. You might need a physician. Perhaps I should stay a while. I can’t leave you in poor health, now can I?”
I was secretly hoping there was truly something wrong with him. At least I would get to stay a little longer.
He laughed. “You would like that, wouldn’t you?” He sighed deeply. “Unfortunately, I’m not confused, my love. After all, I did hear that laugh now, and the birds—I heard them. That was you, wasn’t it?” he said, feigning a lighthearted excitement. “Oh, my dearest, that was your real laugh. You’ve only laughed—you’ve never listened to it. But I have, and it’s the sweetest music I’ve ever heard. If I’m ever truly ill, I think it could be my medicine.”
These were the words of someone who was truly in love. It wasn’t infatuation. It wasn’t a simple fondness. It was a love so pure that it swelled in the depths of his heart until his heart burst and the only thing he could do to repair himself was pour that love out on me.
I wanted to say something in return, but there was nothing I could have said that would have compared to the love he had just shown me. Simply saying I love you wouldn’t have sufficed, either. I knew he didn’t want to see me, but he was about to discover he had no choice. I dropped my bow and quiver. At the sound of the clunk, he started to ask a question, but I shoved my way inside the room. I saw his wet, bloodshot eyes, but I didn’t let myself focus on that.
I kissed him as soon as I reached him. He was surprised for a minute, but he didn’t protest.
I heard footsteps in the hallway. I didn’t want this moment to end. We deserved a proper goodbye, and if I could make it last longer, I would go back to yesterday and relive everything. I wanted to recall the joy I felt yesterday if I could avoid the sorrow that would surely come soon. If I could avoid it entirely, I would have made this moment last a lifetime.
Someone was in the hallway calling my name. I recognized Sweeney’s voice. He soon uttered a sound of surprise before grabbing my arm and pulling me away.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and as he pulled me out of the arms of my husband, I knew none of us really knew who he was apologizing to. He could have been apologizing to me, or Nikola, to himself, or to God. Sweeney was responsible for tearing us apart, and a hurried apology would never suffice, even though we knew he had no other choice. However temporary this pain was to be, it was still strongly present, and Sweeney was responsible for making it come sooner.
The last I saw of Nikola was him turning away to hide his face from me. As Sweeney pulled me though the hallway, I looked back, hoping to catch a final glimpse of Nikola, but all I saw was the door closing with a gentle click.