Steve slept in the next morning, having stayed up well into the night with Marcellus. When he finally got out of bed, he had his bath and got dressed. He'd missed breakfast with Annette, which actually wasn't so bad. He wanted to spend as much time alone with Marcellus as he could. They had their breakfast in Steve's quarters, and Marcellus discussed plans to spend some time with his parents. "I may take them out on my boat this afternoon."
"That sounds like fun," Steve said.
"You are welcome to come," he said. "In fact, it may seem strange if you do not."
"Oh, I'd love to go. I just hope I don't give myself away."
"Don't worry, Steve," he said. "It is highly unlikely that they will suspect anything. You have become quite adroit at behaving like King Stephen."
"It's weird, but I hardly have to think about it anymore," Steve said.
"That is a good thing. We still do not know when Stephen will return. It may be... some time," he said, looking sad. He cleared his throat. "Therefore, it is well that this begins to come naturally to you."
Steve nodded. He put a hand on Marcellus' arm. "He'll be back." After a moment, he stood up. "Maybe we should do something now. You know, before we take your parents out. We could take a walk."
"Yes, let's do that. The day is quite nice." They headed out toward the gardens, accompanied as usual by their guards. They made their way through the garden at a leisurely pace, stopping frequently to admire a particularly beautful flower or lovely statue. Marcellus gave him surreptitious lessons about them, making statements like, "Remember how pleased the Queen Mother was when you brought her a bouquet of these white roses?" "It seems amazing that it was ten full years ago that you ordered these fountains to be placed throughout the grounds." Steve made notes of the information and commented on how it did indeed seem just like yesterday.
They'd almost reached the entrance to the maze when Steve heard a startled cry. He turned to see one of the courtiers reaching out for her hat, which seemed to have been blown away by a strong wind. Steve thought it was strange, since none of the trees were moving, but the surrounding courtiers were having similar problems. Their hair blew forward, their clothes flapped in the mysterious breeze, and anyone directly in its path was roughly pushed aside. After a moment, it broke away from the group of courtiers, and made a hard left, coming straight for them. Steve thought could see what looked like the outline of a person running so fast that leaves and dust fluttered in his wake. What the hell?
Marcellus gasped. "Intruder!" he shouted. The guards immediately drew their weapons and formed a tight circle around Steve and Marcellus. Steve could hear the wind growing louder and louder. Within seconds, it was upon them. There was a bright flash of light, a sound like roaring thunder, and suddenly, the guards and Marcellus were lifted off their feet and flung violently away. Steve gasped. The guards landed at least fifteen feet away, and Marcellus had gone even further. Steve was alone.
Steve gritted his teeth and forced himself not to run. The wind blew harder and the sound of thunder was almost deafening, but Steve stood firm. The clear figure drew closer, now moving at a normal pace. It paused and seemed to stare at him for several seconds. He could feel the malice emanating from the figure so strongly that it was almost tangible. Then, suddenly, a male voice spoke. Steve shuddered. The voice was so full of hatred and anger that it sent chills through him. "All that is yours will be mine." Then, there was a growl, and a guttural command. "Follow." The figure turned and sped into the maze.
Steve wondered how he was supposed to follow the man when he was going that fast. Steve also wondered what kind of drugs the man thought he was smoking if he thought he was going to follow him anywhere, whether he could or not. He turned to look for Marcellus, and found that the prince was already making his way toward Steve. The guards had gotten up, too, and were jogging toward him. They had almost reached him when Steve heard shouts coming from the maze. There was a high-pitched shriek, and Steve felt his heart start to pound. Oh please, let that not be who I think it is. With a glance at the others, he set off at a run towards the maze. Steve followed the sounds of shouting voices.
As he drew nearer, he saw one of the British guards on the ground, surrounded by leaves and twigs. Steve gasped. The guard was badly scratched, and there was a large hole in the hedge near where the man was laying. He'd been blown all the way through the hedge, which had to be at least four feet wide. "Great Waters!"
Steve turned at the sound of Marcellus' voice. He and the guards had caught up to him. Steve bent down and touched the soldier. He groaned and opened his eyes slowly. Then, he gasped and sat up. "The Princess!"
"Damn!" Steve cried. "Can you stand? Take me to her!" The soldier stood up, wincing, and led them at a run through the maze. As it turned out, he'd been flung through more than one hedge. They passed three other hedges with the same tell-tale hole at different heights, as well as other hedges through which different guards had been flung. Finally, they reached an area where several other guards had gathered. Steve looked around, but all he saw were soldiers. "Where is she?" he asked loudly. "Where's Annette? Is she hurt?" The guards snapped to attention, but no one answered him. "Well?" Steve snapped. "Where is she?!"
One of the Pacifican guards swallowed, and approached Steve. He dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "Your pardon, Sire," he said. "But the Princess... she has been kidnapped."
"Forgive me, Sire. The sorcerer took her. We... we were unable to stand our ground."
"Dammit!" Steve sighed and looked at Marcellus, who was clearly horrified. "What are we going to do? What am I going to do? Shit! Get up," he said to the guard. "Which way did he take her? Did you see?"
"No, Sire," the guard said mournfully, getting to his feet. "I was thrown, and when I returned, the Princess was gone. All we found was this." He handed Steve Annette's tiara.
Steve took the little crown in his hand, and thought about how frightened Annette must be right now. "Shit! All right, listen. I want you to get all the guards together and find out if anyone saw anything, understand?"
"Good. Go!" The soldier hurried off, and Steve turned to the guards that had been with him. "Two of you go and get Captain Martinez and bring him back here. You. Send for a priestess right away. I need someone to trace this spell and tell me where he took her. Dammit, I can't believe this! What else can I do? Are there any tracks on the ground? Did anyone look for tracks? Somebody look and see if he left a physical trail we can follow!"
A flurry of activitiy followed Steve's orders. Steve stood apart and watched, his body tense, his mind spinning. What was going to happen? What else could he do? How was he going to get her back? He was startled by a hand on his shoulder. He looked over to see Marcellus watching him with a worried expression. "Will you be all right, Steve?" he asked softly.
"I think so."
"You are doing an excellent job, my love," he said, and Steve smiled at his use of the pet phrase when no one else was there to hear.
"Thank you, my love," he said. "And forgive me! I never checked to see if you were all right. Were you hurt?"
"Nothing worse than a few bruises."
"Good," Steve said. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, nearly knocking off his crown in the process. "What am I going to do, Marcellus?"
"You are doing all you can. We will find her," Marcellus said with a certainty that Steve wasn't so sure he felt.
"I hope you're right," Steve said. "Great Waters, I hope you're right."
Captain Martinez arrived and bowed deeply to Steve. He looked nervous, and his face was ashen. "Please forgive me, Your Majesty. I have failed you horribly. I... I am unfit to bear the title of Captain of the Guard."
"Nonsense, Captain Martinez," Steve said. "The man we're dealing with is using some very strong magic. The soldiers surrounding me did their best to stand their ground, and I'm sure those guarding the Princess did the same. In any case, now is not the time for regrets. Our only priority is getting the Princess back, and getting her back safe. How can we do that?"
"My guards have told me that the intruder traveled so fast that there was a strong wind in his wake. We may be able to follow the trail caused by that wind. If he continues to use the speed-travel spell, we may be able to trace him to his destination. If he isn't using a blocking spell, a priestess should be able to trace him even if the wind trail fails us."
"Good, good. I think you can take over from here, Captain. Tell me immediately of any developments."
"I must return to the palace," Steve said. "I have an even more difficult task to perform."
"What is that, Sire?" Marcellus asked.
"I must tell the Queen that her daughter's been kidnapped."
Queen Elizabeth grew pale, and her lips disappeared into a thin line. "What do you mean, Annette has been kidnapped?"
"The sorcerer abducted her from the hedge maze."
"In broad daylight?! Where were your guards?"
"They were with her, Your Majesty," Steve said. "Six of my own, and three British guards were there protecting her. But the sorcerer's powers overwhelmed them, and he was able to get her away." Elizabeth breathed deeply, visibly trying to get hold of herself. Steve had never seen her so upset. "I am sorry, Your Majesty. I know how worried you must be, but I assure you that all is being done to get Annette back safely. I will not rest until she is found."
Elizabeth nodded. She looked down at Annette's tiara, which Steve had given her. "My soldiers and all of my servants are at your disposal," she said softly. "You may find me in my chambers if anything is discovered."
"Of course, Your Majesty," Steve said. The queen left, and Steve sighed. "She took that rather well," Steve said.
"She is the most powerful ruler in the world," Marcellus said. "By necessity, she is a very strong person."
Steve sighed and sat down. "I wish I could say the same for myself. I feel like I'm going to be sick."
"You are not alone in that, my love," Marcellus said. "This is, indeed a dire catastrophe."
"I don't know what to do, Marcellus. How are we going to get her back? What if she's... what if he's hurt her in some way?" he said, refusing to even let the phrase, "what if she's dead" cross his lips.
"I... I do not know, my love," Marcellus said, clearly hearing the unspoken question. "But we cannot abandon the hope that we will find Annette and bring her back safely. Soon, Captain Martinez will give us his report. In the meantime, it may be prudent to call a meeting with the dukes and tell them what has happened before rumor twists the information."
Less than half an hour later, Steve was in conference with the dukes and duchesses. They were already concerned, as most of them had heard that something awful had happened in the garden, though they were not sure what. Steve explained everything, starting with the assassination attempts for those dukes that had not yet been informed of them. Then, he told them how Annette had been taken from the garden, and what was being done to get her back. "We don't yet know where he plans to take her, but I will keep you all informed as developments arise." The dukes and duchesses all promised that if they could be of any help, they would.
Captain Martinez was waiting outside the audience chamber when the meeting was over. "Well?" Steve asked eagerly, bringing him into the audience chamber. "Did you find anything?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Martinez replied. "The villain is headed due south. I have sent several men to follow the trail while it is still fresh, but it will be difficult to overtake him at such high speeds, even on horseback."
"Very well," Steve said. "What about the priestess? Has someone arrived yet?"
"Yes, Sire," Martinez said. "The High Priestess arrived while you were in council, and she has brought two of her most trusted priestesses to assist her. They are inspecting the scene now."
"Good," Steve said. "I'd like to see them as soon as they're finished of course."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Steve dismissed the Captain, and returned to his quarters with Marcellus. He paced the floor rapidly, willing everything to happen faster. "What can I do?"
"There is nothing to do now but wait, my Lord," Marcellus said.
"I can't stand this! I hate waiting."
"Perhaps you should eat something, my love," Marcellus said. "You have had nothing since breakfast."
"I know, but I don't have an appetite. I can't settle down." Marcellus gave up and watched Steve pace for almost an hour.
Finally, a messenger came and announced that the High Priestess had requested an audience. Steve sent the messenger to ask the Priestess, Captain Martinez and Queen Elizabeth to please join him in the small audience chamber, then headed there himself. "Where do we have a large map of the area?" he asked the room in general. An attendant immediately found a large map of Columbia and laid it on the table. Steve studied it for a while, wondering where the bastard had taken his fiance, and how they were going to bring her back.
Soon, Captain Martinez, Queen Elizabeth and Mother Tatiana were all assembled. "Thank you for coming," Steve said. "Please, take a seat." When they were seated at the table, Steve said, "Captain Martinez has already told me that the kidnapper was traveling south according to the physical trail. Mother Tatiana, you and your assistants have seached for the magical trail. Were you able to find anything?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. The sorcerer used no magical blocks to prevent us from following him."
"I am not surprised," Steve said. "When he spoke to me, he told me to follow. I suppose he wanted to make it easy."
The Priestess sighed. "Unfortunately, my Liege, following him will be far from easy."
"What? Why? Did you lose the trail?"
"Far from it, Sire. He traveled south using the speed spell, and an invisibility spell. When he reached San Diego, he made his way due east. He stopped using the speed and invisibility spells soon after that, but we were still able to trace him by another spell. He appears to possess a magical item - possibly a garment or a talisman, which imbues him with great strength, and makes him impervious to attack. In effect, he is invincible."
"Oh, great," Steve said.
Mother Tatiana's expression was grim. "That is not all," she said. "From what we can discern, the sorcere's direction is clear. He plans to enter the Forbidden Forest."
There were gasps from everyone in the room, including Queen Elizabeth. Steve remembered the legend behind the Forbidden Forest. It was one of the two places in the world where the alleged dragons had supposedly moved after the Scourge was over. While Steve still thought that the whole dragon story was created to keep people in line, apparently the method worked. Everyone seemed to think it was unfathomable that a person would intentionally enter the Forest. "How can that be?" Captain Martinez cried.
"Are you sure, Mother?" Marcellus asked. "Is there no way that you could be mistaken?"
"I wish there was, Your Highness," the Priestess replied. "But I can see no other purpose in heading east from this point. There is nothing between Pacificana and the Forbidden Forest except the Cherokee Nation, and he will find no shelter there. He must be heading for the Forest."
"No!" Elizabeth cried, startling everyone. "No, this cannot be! You must bring her back."
"But, Your Majesty, King Stephen is not invincible," the Priestess said. "To enter the Forbidden Forest would be suicidal."
"He must go! He must bring my daughter back!"
"Your Majesty, please calm down," Captain Martinez said. "We cannot send King Stephen on such a mission. Besides the fact that the journey would be suicidal, there is no heir to take the throne should anything happen to the king!"
The Queen stood speechless for a second, mouth agape. "How... how dare you say such a thing to me?!" she cried. "Any heir that is to inherit this throne is to be born of my daughter! And she is at this moment headed toward a deadly peril thanks to the incompetence of your soldiers! You will not suggest that the man who is to be her protector stay here and remain out of danger while my daughter's life is in jeopardy! He MUST go!!"
"No!" she shouted, pounding a fist on the table. "I will hear no further excuses from you or anyone else!" She stood up, glaring at Steve and lifting a warning finger. "I promise you this, King Stephen. If you do not go, and my daughter is not brought back to me alive and unharmed, I will wage a war on this nation the like of which has never been seen before."
There was another collective gasp, and Steve jumped to his feet. "Your Majesty, please don't say that," he said. "Please. I love Annette, and I will do all in my power to save her..."
"I know you will," Elizabeth said. "And if you fail, and my only daughter dies, the Pacific Ocean will run red with your people's blood."
Before anything more could be said, the Queen turned and stormed out of the audience chamber. Steve stared at the closed door for several moments, feeling the blood drain from his face. He sank slowly into his chair and put his head in his hands. He thought someone might have said his name, but his heart was pounding too hard for him to hear. He concentrated on breathing, and not passing out. War. He couldn't have war. Not with Great Britain. They were friends. They were close allies. They were too powerful to defeat. People would die. His people. He couldn't let it happen.
After several minutes, Steve raised his head. His subjects were waiting, watching him with worry and fear written on their faces. He looked at each one of them before finally speaking. "Mother Tatiana. I need you take my best sword and shield and ask the Spirit of the Waters to give them added strength, and as many other magical properties as you see fit. If you can create a speed spell for me, I will be grateful for that as well. Captain Martinez. I need you to ready a horse for me, along with enough supplies to carry me through the journey. You," he said, pointing to the lone attendant in the room. "Come here." The attendant approached and bowed, looking nervous. "I need you to see to it that the Queen is made as comfortable as possible. She and her company are still our guests. I want them to be treated as such. Marcellus. I need you to inform Lord Edward of the situation, and ask him to inform the dukes on my behalf. Emphasize that we are not at war, and that I expect all British nationals residing in the palace to be treated well while I am gone. Then, please meet me in my quarters."
Steve stood, and the others stood with him. "This war will not happen," Steve said. "I give you my word."