Authors: E. D. Baker
This book is dedicated to Victoria Wells Arms, my
guiding light; Brett Wright, who makes new beginnings
joyful; Kim, who makes me laugh and keeps me going;
Ellie, who helps me choose; Kevin, my techno-wizard;
and my fans, who always want to know
what happens next.
Annie stopped at the top of the stairs and smiled when she saw the noisy bustle in the courtyard. While once she might have disliked the commotion, now she thought it was wonderful. For sixteen years her father had refused visitors for fear that one might bring a spinning wheel that could trigger the curse on his oldest daughter. After the curse took hold and everyone else was sleeping, Annie would have given anything to hear the shouting and see the flurry of activity. Now, with the curse ended and her sister about to get married, the entire kingdom had reason to celebrate, and visitors from all over were flocking to the castle.
“Good!” Gwendolyn said as she approached Annie from behind. “You aren't doing anything. Go find Beldegard's sisters for me. A guard told me that he saw the twins out here. I'm having wreaths made for their hair,
and I want the woman who's making them to see the girls so she can choose the right flowers.”
“First of all, I
doing something,” said Annie. “I'm looking for Liam because we have an important errand to run. And second, why don't you send a footman to find the twins? I don't even know what they look like.”
“They're eight years old with dark hair like Beldegard's. How hard can they be to find? I'm sending you because they'll come if you ask them to, but I've been told that they really don't listen to servants. Please, Annie? Just tell them to come see me,” Gwendolyn said, turning on her “I'm so sweet and innocent” look. “I really don't ask that much of you, and this is such a little thing.”
“That's not true! You're always asking me to do things for you. Didn't I just get your husband-to-be turned back from a bear to a human? I'll find them, but then I can't do another thing until I run my errand with Liam.”
“That's fine,” said Gwendolyn. “Just tell the girls to hurry. I want to approve the flowers, and I don't have all day to wait for the twins to show up.”
Annie sighed. Her sister seemed to have become friendlier toward Annie while they were searching for the dwarf who had turned Beldegard into a bear, but the old Gwendolyn had returned at the approach of her wedding. Annie hoped that the newer, nicer Gwendolyn would be back after her honeymoon.
Annie was looking for the girls when she spotted Liam walking out of the stable.
His face lit up when he saw her. “Are you ready to go?” he asked. They had commissioned a goldsmith to make a pair of chalices as a wedding gift for Gwendolyn and Beldegard. Annie wanted to pick up the gift herself so it would remain a secret.
“I was, but Gwennie asked me to find Beldegard's sisters. She said that they're out here somewhere. It shouldn't take long to find them if you help me look. They're eight-year-old twins with dark hair like Beldegard's.”
Liam nodded. “I think I saw them a few minutes ago. They look a lot like their big brother. If I remember correctly, they were over by the dovecote.”
Turning to the far side of the courtyard, Liam led the way through the crowd. When they reached the small, round tower, the girls were nowhere to be seen.
“Hang on,” Liam finally said. “Could those two girls be the twins?” He pointed to a pair of girls with long braids making their way through the crowd.
Annie glanced past the dovecote to the open area behind it. “It's possible, but there's nothing back there except a practice field and the dungeon wall. Where do you think they're going?”
“I can't imagine, but they aren't the only ones going that way,” said Liam. “Look!” A stream of children of all
ages was heading across the open space between the dovecote and the castle wall. When a toddler began to cry, an older girl scooped him up to take him with her.
“They're stopping at that cell window,” said Annie. “Are there any prisoners there now?”
Liam frowned. “Your father told me that the only prisoner in the dungeon is Granny Bentbone. Her cousin Mother Hubbard came to see her yesterday.”
“I think we should see what's going on. I don't trust Granny Bentbone one bit.”
“Then we'd better hurry,” said Liam. “Who knows what the old witch will say to the children.”
Annie bunched the hem of her skirt in one hand, and together she and Liam dashed across the practice field to where the children were gathered in front of a cell window. As Annie drew closer, she thought she heard the soft hum of magic underlying a familiar voice. Pushing gently through the group of children, she knew why it was familiar. Granny Bentbone, the witch who had lived in a gingerbread cottage and locked children in cages before eating them, was speaking through a little barred opening.
“I'm in here by mistake, dear ones,” the old witch was telling the children. “If you let me out, I'll make you some delicious candy!” Annie's father had sent his knights to arrest her and bring her back to the castle only days before.
“She's using magic; I can hear it,” Annie murmured
into Liam's ear. “That must have been how she lured children to her cottage in the forest. We have to tell Father. I'm sure he'll want to move her.”
“Even the smallest child couldn't get through that window; the bars are too close together. They'd have to go into the dungeon to let her out, and they'll never be able to get past the guards,” said Liam.
“I wouldn't count on that.” Annie glanced behind them at the children still headed their way. “I'm putting an end to this right now. Excuse me,” she said, squeezing past some little boys. When she reached the wall, she remembered that the windows were set so high that neither a prisoner looking up nor a passerby looking down could see much.
“Children, you'll have to move away from here,” Annie told them. “You shouldn't talk to this woman.”
“She promised us candy!” cried a little girl.
“Then she made a promise that she cannot keep. Don't listen to anything she says. She is not a good person. And as for you, Granny Bentbone,” Annie said, turning back to the window, “leave these children alone, and stop trying to talk them into helping you.”
“But I don't know why I'm here! I've done nothing wrong!” wailed Granny Bentbone, sounding old and frail.
Annie pursed her lips, not sure what to say. She knew that the elderly woman had difficulty remembering things, although now and then her memory
returned for a short time. Either Granny really couldn't remember what she had done, or she was lying to get the children's sympathy. Annie could no longer hear the hum of Granny Bentbone's magic, but from the expressions on the children's faces, the old woman no longer needed it; they already wanted to help her.
“Go on, children,” said Liam, shooing them away. “You shouldn't be here.”
“Where are Beldegard's sisters?” Annie asked Liam.
“They left when you first told them to,” said Liam. “It's just as well. We have to tell your father about this. I'm going to send a guard back here to keep everyone away from the window.”
Annie and Liam found the king in his private chamber talking about the progress of the wedding preparations with Queen Karolina and Princess Gwendolyn. The king looked bored and seemed to welcome the interruption. He smiled as they entered the room, but his expression grew grave when Annie said, “We have to do something about Granny Bentbone. We were looking for Beldegard's sisters when we noticed that a group of children had gathered around the witch's cell window. When Liam and I followed them, Granny Bentbone was using magic to draw the children to her and promising them candy if they let her out of the cell.”
“I was going to have her executed,” said the king,
“but Mother Hubbard demanded that I be lenient in judging Granny Bentbone. If I execute the old witch, Mother Hubbard intends to bring a plague of insects on our linder trees and destroy the crop for the year.”
“I can't believe this happened the day before my wedding!” cried Gwendolyn. “I wanted everything to be perfect! I'm going to have only one wedding, and I want it to be the most beautiful wedding anyone has ever seen.”
“And it will be,” assured the queen. “Halbert, what did you tell Mother Hubbard?”
“Just that I'd find an alternative to execution,” said the king. “But I can't keep Granny Bentbone locked away for the rest of her life if she's going to summon children to her anyway. I don't know what I'm going to do now.”
“I might have a suggestion,” said Liam. “You could send her to that tower where Annie was held prisoner. It's in the middle of a forest, and no one lives anywhere near it. There are no doors, and the only windows are at the top. No one can get in or out of the tower without something to climb, and I doubt the old woman could scale it even if someone gave her a rope.”
“That's a marvelous idea!” said Annie. “Granny Bentbone isn't strong enough to climb down anything, and from what I've seen, her magic isn't very strong, either.”
“What about Beldegard's sisters?” asked Gwendolyn. “Did you tell them to come see me?”
“I'm afraid the girls left before I could talk to them,” said Annie. “They were among the children who had gone to see Granny Bentbone, and we told them all that they couldn't be there.”