Gemma was sitting on her thick blanket when the cell door clanked open.
“I’ve got your early dinner here,” a guard carrying a tray said. He pushed up the visor of his helm several times before he gave up and tossed the protective head-covering outside the dungeon. Gemma recognized the man as the kind guard who had delivered dinner the night before, as well as her breakfast that morning.
“Thank you,” Gemma said, sitting up straight.
“No need for thanks,” the guard said, briskly setting the tray on Gemma’s stool. He glanced at Gemma and made a sweep of the surroundings before he shook his head.
“Do you know when I am to be taken tonight?” Gemma asked.
The guard scratched his thinning hair. “You’re not. The spinning won’t be ready for another day. There seems to be a shortage of flax fibers.”
Gemma stared at the man. Lady Linnea’s plan was actually working?!
“I see. Thank you,” Gemma repeated.
The man shook his head. “I will return for your dishes,” he said, stooping to pick up his helm before he left Gemma’s cell, locking it behind him.
Gemma looked over the plates and cutlery piled on the tray. She nibbled on the food—a delicious roasted duck—but mostly pushed it around. Her stomach gurgled with nerves as she tested the knife for sharpness and compared it to the dull, warped one she had smuggled into her spinning room.
As she ate, Gemma swapped out the knives and thought about the fixed patterns of her prison life—mainly the movement of her guards.
Gemma didn’t move the following morning when the kind guard opened the door to her cell to deliver her breakfast tray.
The soldier pushed up his visor before, as customary, he removed his helm altogether. He entered the cell and looked around for the stool before realizing Gemma, huddled in the corner, was sitting on it, her eyes closed and, to all appearances, sleeping.
“Poor thing,” the guard said before he turned his back to Gemma and set the tray down. He crouched down to fix some of the items on the tray, and Gemma smashed him in the back of the head with the stool.
He toppled over with a groan, stunned long enough for Gemma to unbuckle his belt and slide the keys off.
She ran out of the cell and shut the door as the guard started to recover.
“What are you doing? Stop! Help!” he yelled, but his shouts were muffled behind the thick dungeon walls.
Gemma fumbled with the three keys on the ring before she found the right one and locked it just as the soldier slammed into the door on the other side.
Gemma dropped the keys and ran through the surprisingly empty dungeon. She sprinted up the stairs just as voices emerged from the far end of the chamber.
When she reached the top stair—sweaty and out of breath—Gemma paused long enough to look up and down the hallway. She spied a laundress pushing a cart of laundry. When the woman paused to enter a side room to gather more laundry, Gemma grabbed a huge pile of dirtied linens. She held the laundry at chest height so it mounded over her like a cloth mountain, hiding her face.
Still carrying the laundry, Gemma prowled down the hallway, looking for a way out of the palace. Her hands trembled when a group of three chattering maids glided down the hallway. Gemma’s heart throbbed in her chest, but none of the servants called out to her, or even seemed to notice her as she walked.
Gemma slipped around a corner and leaned against a wall. Enough, she thought. I have to be calm. Gemma tilted her head and listened. The palace was mostly silent. Servants talked in hushed tones and did their work quickly and efficiently. No one had raised a cry yet. Perhaps no one even knew she had escaped.
Still listening, Gemma started walking again. This time, she followed her ears, moving in the direction of servants’ chatter.
She made it to the kitchens with no trouble. Rather than plunge through the warm room in a bundle of laundry, Gemma followed an outer wall that led away from the kitchens. Eventually, it opened up into a courtyard.
Gemma heaved the laundry higher up and walked across the courtyard. She couldn’t believe it when she passed the palace walls and entered the gardens. She made it to the shores of Lake Sno without being detected. Gemma skirted up to the line of trees that crowded the lakeshore. Then, she dropped the laundry and ran, following the edge of the forest.
Eventually, she came upon a little shack. Gemma took a risk and peeped inside. The shack was empty and buried under dust. It obviously hadn’t been used in some time. There were white swan feathers that dotted the furniture, and a small bundle of what looked like dried nettles.