Things were about settled when Marta came sheepishly in and interrupted. “Your pardon, but I must set the table. There will be eight and the children?” She asked, judging the table too small for that many.
“Let the children and Tomberlain,” Brianna added to single him out, “eat with you and Maven this evening, unless my young squire would rather share with Redux?” Tomberlain said he might carry enough to the barn to do that very thing. “And here,” she said. “We will help.”
“I’ll help Maven with the cooking,” Elsbeth said, but Margueritte grabbed her arm.
“You need to think harder than that to get out of work. You can’t cook, or did you forget?”
Everything got settled amicably that evening, and the supper went very well overall. Margueritte helped Marta serve since Lolly was not there and Maven got so tired out from all that cooking. Elsbeth went with her brother and Redux, and the little ones, probably had a wonderful time dancing to the sound of Luckless’ mandola and Grimly’s flute. But that was all right. Margueritte did not mind.
They almost got into trouble when Chief Brian wondered where that midget had gotten off to? The others became excited for the possible distraction since the supper table was not exactly tension free.
Marta stood stiff as a board, her eyes darted back and forth, with sweat ready at any moment to break out on her forehead.
“She had to go home.” Margueritte spoke up quickly and sent Marta outside to the kitchen. True enough.
“Drat,” Chief Brian said, and he explained his encounter with the little one, embellishing it just enough for a good laugh. By then, Maven had come in, presumably to help clear dishes.
“Yes. Dear Lolly had to get on home,” Maven said. “She has seven mouths of her own to feed, you know, in that little rundown old shack of hers. Why, the place barely keeps out the rain, it does, and that does not help her husband, arthritic and all the way he is. He can barely farm enough to keep his family from starving, though he might have done better if his oldest and only son had not lost a foot in the badger hole. Come to think of it, they would have had eight children, that is a second son, if the wart hog had not got him when he was a young one. I almost forgot about him. Of course, Lord Bartholomew, saint that he is, does everything he can for the poor, wretched family, but there is only so much one can do. And here, Lady Brianna, the good lady let Lolly come up to cook just for her king whom she loves with the hope that in his abundance he might send her just a little to see her and hers until they can get in the rest of the scraggly bits of grain from the field. Even with all the little girls helping, though, I can’t see how they will get it in before the frost. Yes, I really feel for the poor old dear and help her myself every chance I get.”
The king frowned. “I may be able to send a little something.”
“And I will, too.” Chief Brian agreed. Everyone agreed, except Bartholomew who seemed to be having a hard time to keep from laughing, and Brianna whose ears were red from hearing such lies, and Finnian McVey who looked up at Maven and tipped his hat ever so slightly to a master. Finnian was apparently no slouch in the matter of lying.
Going out the back door with the dishes, Margueritte turned to Maven. “You lie like an elf.” She said it bluntly and did not mean it as a compliment.
“Well, having a few around has given me some chance to practice,” Maven admitted.
In the morning, almost before day had fully broken, Margueritte and Elsbeth were dumped, not too softly, in a pile of leaves. Obviously, the place had been well worked out in advance as the riders shot for it in a straight line. Margueritte wondered what other parts of King Urbon’s plans he had neglected to share with her father. But then Goldenrod and Little White Flower showed up and the girls got busy having fun.
“I told the ogrees like you asked,” Goldenrod said. “That was scary for me, the most scary, ever.”
“I bet it was,” Little White Flower said.
“How come fairies don’t always talk right?” Elsbeth asked out of the blue.
Margueritte had to think for a minute.
“Is it because when they are young, their little brains can’t hold it all in?” Elsbeth suggested.
“Mostly too many feelings in this world,” Little White Flower said. “It’s hard to be happy, feel proud at having done well, and scardy remembering all at the same time.”
“No,” Margueritte said. “Well. Probably something like that, but I think it is because young fairies were made to be terminally cute and sweeter even than cotton candy.”
“What’s cotton candy?” Elsbeth wondered.
“Whipped sugar,” Margueritte answered.
“I knew some cotton fairies once,” Little White Flower said. “But I never knew a cotton candy.”
“Hmmm,” Goldenrod interrupted. She wanted to say something intelligent, too, but she could not think of anything to say.
“Unicorn.” Elsbeth called out when she remembered her instructions.
“Unicorn.” Goldenrod echoed, and for a while they all called, though none of them seriously supposed the creature would come.
Meanwhile, King Urbon had moved the entire male population, and quite a few females out of the village of Vergen, and also brought about a hundred members of the court along to make nearly seven hundred people altogether. He even offered a lesser sentence to those stuck in the fens if any would be willing to help. These people slowly spread out at first light until they made a line, a mile in length. Ever so slowly, they moved into the Banner. They carried whatever nets, fishing nets, cloth or sacks they could which might help to catch a unicorn.
After a while, the girls stopped calling. The sound of hounds could be heard, far away, closing from the other direction.
“I’m cold,” Elsbeth admitted, and she and Margueritte got up and began to walk in a great circle. The calling started again but stopped quickly when they heard a rustling in the leaves not far away, but out of sight. They stiffened as a face popped out from behind a tree.
“Owien, Son of Bedwin.” Both girls called out together.
“I see you bathed,” Margueritte said.
“Look nice,” Elsbeth added.
“No time for that,” Owien said. “I came to warn you. It’s a trap. The people are circling all around to keep the unicorn from escaping, but Mother says they will drive all beasts to the center, and not just the unicorn. That means Bears and Great Cats and Wart Hogs and snakes, too.”
Elsbeth shrieked at the word, “Snake.” They paused again, because the leaves rustled once more. A man jumped out and grabbed Owien, took him down, and held a big knife. Owien fought well, but the man, or rather boy was much bigger than him. Margueritte hit the boy in the arm.
“Tomberlain,” she yelled. “Leave Owien alone.”
“Yes, leave him alone,” Elsbeth agreed.
“You know this boy?” Tomberlain asked.
“Of course,” Margueritte explained. “He risked himself to come and warn us about the circle closing around us.”
“Oh, sorry,” Tomberlain said and he sheathed his knife and helped Owien to his feet. “I thank you for caring about my sisters.”
“No, thank you, Squire,” Owien said. “I never wrestled with a real squire before. It was an honor.” Margueritte thought she better step in before Tomberlain’s head swelled to where it became too big to fit between the trees.
“What can we do to get out of here?” she asked the practical question.
“No broomsticks handy,” Tomberlain said. “But I brought my horse. He is young and strong and might carry the four of us.”
“Three,” Owien said. “I can just blend in with the circle as it closes.”
“Nonsense.” Margueritte and Tomberlain spoke together. Tomberlain finished. “You’re in as much danger here as the rest of us.” For a third time, everyone stopped then, to listen. The leaves sounded agitated this time. To everyone’s surprise and wonder, the unicorn came into the little clearing. It would not let the boys near it, but it seemed to be offering itself to the girls to ride and to take them out of danger.
“Looks like the matter’s settled,” Tomberlain said. “We have two chargers, but we have to hurry.” They could already hear the drums and distant shouts. “It took too long to find you,” Tomberlain admitted. “But we can make a dash for it. Hurry Owien.”