My dad gave that suggestion exactly the respect it deserved: he laughed.
The argument had drawn a fair amount of attention, and more than one of the observers snickered. I doubted even Henry believed what he was saying, but he clearly didn’t like being laughed at. There was a young, redheaded servant girl—I’d guess her age at somewhere around fourteen—standing respectfully to the side awaiting his attention. To my horror, Henry turned to her and slapped her so hard one of the Knights had to catch her to keep her from falling.
“How dare you laugh?” he shouted, though she hadn’t been one of the ones who’d snickered. Those people got the message, though, ducking their heads and slinking away.
“Tell me, Henry,” my dad said, “do you make a habit of bullying children, or do you only do it when your temper is piqued?” If he was particularly upset that Henry had just clobbered an innocent bystander because of his needling, you couldn’t tell it by looking at him. I, on the other hand, wanted to demonstrate some of the most deadly kicks and punches Keane had taught me, and I had no doubt that thought was clear on my face. I wouldn’t actually have done it—I swear, I’m not a moron—but my dad put a restraining hand on my shoulder just the same.
Belatedly, Henry seemed to realize he was making a total fool of himself. I could see him visibly battling his temper, trying to resist the urge to respond to my dad’s latest taunt. He managed it, but not by much.
“Your daughter may ride in one of the servants’ wagons,” he said, still spitting mad. “I have no spare horse to give her now that she’s lost her mount.”
I had no doubt being relegated to the servants’ wagon was meant to be an insult, but if it got me out of any more horseback riding, I was all for it. I didn’t much appreciate Henry’s implication that I was to blame for losing Phaedra, but I kept my mouth shut. I wondered if my dad was going to argue about me riding in a wagon, but he seemed satisfied that he’d come out on top and didn’t object.
Henry turned sharply away, stomping off. “Elizabeth!” he bellowed over his shoulder, and the poor redheaded girl went scurrying after him, her head held low.
“Shouldn’t we be turning around and heading back to Avalon?” I asked my dad as we both watched Henry’s indignant retreat. “I’m obviously not as safe here as you thought.”
He looked grim and unhappy. “Apparently not. But we can’t turn back. It would be an unpardonable insult to imply that Henry can’t protect you.”
“You’re kidding me, right? Because I’m pretty sure I’d be dead right now if it weren’t for the Erlking. Even if Henry’s people weren’t behind it, they didn’t lift a finger to help me. I think it’s fair to say he can’t—or won’t—protect me.”
“Maybe so, but if we offer him an insult of that magnitude—no matter how well-deserved—he could use it as an excuse to revoke our safe passage.” Dad swept his gaze pointedly around the caravan, with its Knights and magic users. “We are not among friends, and without the protection of safe passage…”
I suppressed a groan of frustration, but I got the point. I had a good idea what Henry and his people would do if they were no longer under any obligation to play nice, and I did not want to find out firsthand I was right.
When we were finally ready to depart again, one of Henry’s servants directed me to my assigned wagon. It was more comfortable than riding horseback, but not by much. The only seats were hard wooden benches. As if that weren’t uncomfortable enough, two of the baggage wagons had been beyond repair, and their cargo was stuffed under the benches so there was only one seat where you could actually put your feet on the floor. The servants put me in that seat, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty when I saw the rest of them contorting themselves to find a place to put their feet. The women, who had to deal with the ridiculous bustles right over their butts, had an especially hard time of it. I wondered if all the crap in those crates was strictly necessary, but I knew better than to think Henry might leave something behind for the comfort of mere servants.
I don’t know if it was a result of post-traumatic shock, or if Henry’s servants were so beaten down they’d lost all desire to be sociable, but try as I might, I couldn’t get anyone in that wagon to speak to me in more than monosyllables for the entire afternoon. They all rode with their heads bowed, not looking right or left, not talking to each other any more than they talked to me. I thought surely I could strike up a conversation with the redheaded girl, Elizabeth, since I guessed she was near my own age, but she was even quieter than the rest. Her eyes went wide with what looked like fear every time I tried to strike up a conversation. I felt so sorry for her I wanted to go over and give her a hug, but of course, I didn’t. I was sure she wouldn’t have appreciated it.
I expected Henry to commandeer someone’s house for the night as he had yesterday, but apparently he had other plans. Maybe we were too far out in the boonies to find a convenient host.
Whatever the reason, our caravan came to a halt in the middle of what seemed to me a nondescript patch of road. The servants in my wagon practically stampeded in their hurry to get to work as soon as we came to a halt. Magic pulsed in the air, and the surrounding forest began shifting in a way that I didn’t think I’d ever get used to.
I assumed everything was going to move out of the way and make a big clearing like the trees had at yesterday’s rest stop, but that didn’t seem to be what was happening. As far as I could tell, the trees were scurrying about as haphazardly as the servants. I jumped down from the wagon and tried to stay out of the way so I wouldn’t be trampled.