Madeleine realized the dose must have been a bit too weak. Too little, and the victim will begin revealing his innermost thoughts, Professor Xenophilus had said.
This meant she didn’t have long to make her escape. Maybe fifteen minutes.
In the darkness, she had managed to change clothes. Simon’s uniform was filthy and far too large for her frame. She couldn’t do much about the aroma, but at least the hooks from Olivia’s secret pouch held the material together adequately.
As she began climbing a set of steep stone steps, Simon was confessing his fear of bunny rabbits. He would be awake soon, but the fact that he was wearing a governess’s dress meant he might not call for help quite so quickly.
She tried to look on the bright side. But the ring was lost, Luke thought she was Vesper’s spy, and if she were caught, she would die. Her best hope was escape, from one of the most heavily guarded palaces in the world.
She had made stupid, unforgivable mistakes. Putting the ring on the tin flute. Allowing Master Winthrop to convince her to keep it there. Expecting that no one would recognize it.
As she neared the top of the stairs, she made a vow.
She would escape and regroup. She would use every ounce of her skill and cunning to find the ring. Somehow. And when she did, she would never let anyone, or anything, block the fulfillment of the promises.
From this point on, if she survived, the plan would be radically different. It would involve infinite patience. Observation. And more patience. If it took her lifetime — her children’s lifetime, their children’s — if it took the creation of a secret family within the family, so be it. The 39 Clues would remain secret for centuries if necessary. Until the moment when the families were ready to unite.
From this point on, Maddy Babbitt was dead.
Long live Madeleine Cahill.
At the landing, she inserted a large skeleton key into the thick, brass-plated wooden door. It creaked loudly as it opened.
“Wha? Hrrrrumph!” a gruff voice shouted. Another guard.
Madeleine’s legs locked. She cleared her throat and lowered her voice as far as it would go. “Go back to s-s-sleep,” she grumbled.
“Right, then, Grandmother …” came the answer, followed by a snore.
She stepped out into a narrow hallway. It led past a row of small warrenlike rooms, the living quarters for the kitchen maids. They were already awake, baking and preparing the day’s meals. As Madeleine darted past the kitchen, the scent of warm bread made her mouth water.
She followed candle-lit sconces through a long corridor. The palace was a maze, but at some point, if she walked far enough, she’d reach a door. She grabbed one of the sconces and held it like a torch.
“I beg your pardon?” a voice called from behind her. “May I ask what business you have here?”
It was Williams, the boy’s valet.
Madeleine’s mind raced. Luke had said he did not have the ring. Which meant he had given it to someone he trusted. Could it be Williams? “Hrrrm … Lord Cahill has sent me to fetch the ring,” she said in her guard voice.
“Ah, the ring, yes,” Williams said. “And you have the written request, do you?”
“Erm, yes, of course,” Madeleine said. She reached inside the shirt for her pouch. For the darts.
Williams was backing away. Suddenly he shouted, “Holworthy! Wigglesworth! Stoughton! Hargrove!”
Change of plans. Madeleine charged forward, sending Williams sprawling into the hall. To her left, an older man in a plaid nightgown and tasseled sleeping cap appeared in a doorway. “Guard!” he shouted. “We have an impostor in the palace!”
Madeleine raced the other way, ducking to the left down another long, straight section of the hallway. At the end of it was a square of dull amber light. The sun was beginning to rise. Soon the entire palace would be awake.
The hallway ended in a T, and men were approaching from either side. She wheeled around. The old man was padding toward her, followed by a gaggle of butlers and scullery maids brandishing wire whisks and serving spoons. There was nowhere to go.
She leaned back, pushed open the window, and jumped.
Goat manure, though no one’s favorite substance, had the benefit of being soft. As Madeleine sprang to her feet, she wondered just how many more charms of King Henry’s court she would discover.
She had landed at the edge of the royal garden. Above her, the palace rang with commotion. She raced toward a barn. Ducking around a corner, she nearly fell into a large barrel.
She continued her course into the barrel, feetfirst. The water’s color clouded fast, and when she jumped out she felt a bit more pleasant, and less fragrant. By now she could hear people running across the farm toward her. She headed toward the open barn door.
An ox-drawn cart emerged, laden with hay bales. The ox driver was gazing curiously toward the commotion, away from Madeleine. She dove onto the cart, nestling herself between bales.
The cart’s wheels creaked loudly beneath her as they moved. She peered out from the hay. In the distance, the sun struggled over the horizon, casting the grounds in a silvery predawn glow. One by one, darkened palace windows were flickering with light. A small arched door flew open, and someone rushed out, dressed in a servant’s black cloak. She squinted, trying to recognize the face before the figure rushed away toward the livery stable.
Hargrove. Heading in the wrong direction.
The cart was slowing now. From behind her, she heard the breathless voice of a guard grilling the driver. She didn’t hear the questions exactly, but she heard the driver’s annoyed reply: “Wha’ kind of palace is it where ye can’t keep track of yer own governesses? You skitter about after ’er, mate. I gots me work to do.”
Thank you, she thought, staying still as the cart trundled to who-knew-where. She was too afraid to poke her head up, but she finally did when the cart eventually came to a stop.
She recognized the destination. The jousting field. A few yards to the right was a large wooden shed where the knights prepared for practices. It was quiet now, and inside there was sure to be another change of clothes — dry and hayless.
As the driver began discussing the weather with someone, Madeleine slipped off the cart and into the shed. Hay stuck to every inch of her. A sleeping stable boy opened his eyes briefly and went back to sleep. In the morning light, Madeleine saw suits of metal armor, chain mail, pads, boots, helmets, full-body undergarments, saddles, stirrups, curry combs, tack of all sorts, swords, lances, maces, and weapons she couldn’t name. But she was most interested in the undergarments, some of which looked boy size. Quickly she changed into one, a black fabric suit that fit perfectly. It felt good to be dressed in something clean.
Tethered to a pole at one end of the shed were two flea-bitten horses, suited up and ready for the day’s jousting. They gazed lazily at her, then went back to chewing a meager scattering of hay.
“’Ungry, mates?” came the driver’s voice, just outside the door. “’Igh quality ’ay, comin’ yer way — and dry’s a bone!”
Madeleine panicked. No one in the kingdom would fail to recognize a young woman in men’s garments.
“Saints alive, ain’t they feedin’ yer nothin’ but crickets and mice?” the driver said as he entered, letting a bale of hay slip from each shoulder before the grateful horses. Outside, the king’s men were jabbering on about the missing governess.
” ’Ear that? Missing lassie! Meself, I don’t blame ’er. That Master Winthrop is worse than a stubborn nag — no offense.” He slipped the horses a couple of sugar cubes before exiting. “’Ere, put some fat on yer spindly bones.”
Madeleine watched it all through the slits of a helmet. She hadn’t imagined how heavy a helmet and a suit of chain mail could be. Or how hot. Or what a perfect hiding place it was.
By the time the voices began to recede, she felt like she was roasting. Through the slits in the helmet she could see the stable boy stirring. She would have to gain his trust. She lifted one leg and stepped forward. The chain mail clanked heavily. “Please,” she said, her voice sounding dull and muffled through the helmet, “wake up.”
The boy’s eyes flickered open and he sprang to his feet. “I’m — I’m sorry,” he cried out. “I worked through the night, I did. Only been sleepin’ a moment or two —”
Before Madeleine could reply, a deep voice thundered from the open door. “Good morrow, McGarrigle! Are we ready?”
“Er … almost, my lord,” the boy replied.
Madeleine turned. Ducking through the door was an older man, holding a riding crop. Glancing at Madeleine, he grinned. “Well, I’ll be a two-headed buzzard — ’tisn’t often that a jousting partner arrives this early. Fearless fellow, eh? Let me know when ye’re in yer tournament armor, and we can begin straight away. Make sure this man has a fine mount, McGarrigle!”
Madeleine could feel her chain mail clatter as she shook. “Mount?” she said in her deepest voice to McGarrigle. “As in … mount?”
“It won’t be so bad,” the boy said, approaching her with a heavy set of metal armor, “as long as ye’re protected wiff these.”
It took about twenty minutes for Madeleine to climb into the armor, with the boy’s help. It felt as if she were wearing a small building. “I’m supposed to move in this?” she asked.
“It’s the least ’eavy suit we ’ave.” The boy, who was examining the teeth of the two horses, took the reins of one and brought it closer. “This old nag may stay on its feet for a few moments at least,” he said. “Good luck jousting wiff the old fellow.”
“But —” Madeleine said.
“Step on this,” McGarrigle said, pushing her onto a wooden platform, which he raised with a massive winch.
Madeleine felt herself rising in jolts of motion until her knees were the height of the horse’s back. With a swift move, McGarrigle slid her leg off the platform and out over the horse. She landed on the horse’s back with a thud, causing its knees to buckle.
“Sorry, I has to do this wiff all his partners,” McGarrigle said, adding with a rueful sigh, “but never the same feller twice, if ye know what I mean.”
Madeleine felt the blood drain from her face. “Let me down!” she protested. But McGarrigle thrust into her hand a lance that felt as heavy as a tree, and her shoulder was nearly wrenched out of its socket.
“We’ll share a cup afterward,” the boy said, “if yer head’s still attached.”
“Wait — this is a m-m-mistake!” Madeleine stammered, lifting her visor.
“You bet yer sweet buzzard it is,” the boy said, giving the horse a good, hard kick.
Madeleine’s visor slammed shut as the horse galloped into the sunlight. She fought to stay upright, to keep her lance from drooping to the ground.
The field was long and dusty, with a few rows of empty seats on either side. At the far end, her opponent sat tall atop a black steed whose leg muscles bulged and glistened. “Ah, grand!” he shouted, clutching his helmet to his side. “It’s not often the Spanish ambassador arrives early for a joust. I was expecting not to see you at all!”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com