Willard assisted Natasha into the box of the wagon. She worked her way to the far end and lay on her stomach, the side of her body against the front of the wagon. Growing up, the twins teased her over her lack of height, but now she was thankful. There was plenty of room without her head or feet touching the sides. She felt the warmth of the blanket as it covered her. Given her pounding heart, it was comforting.
“You have been covered with hay. I fear you’re not comfortable, but pray tell me you’re able to breathe.”
“I’m content,” she assured him.
Willard called the dog, and Natasha felt movement on the wagon as the dog jumped up and joined her. She heard the sniffing.
“Good girl, Goldie. Lie down and guard your friend.”
The heat of the dog’s body warmed hers as Goldie snuggled tight. She would not be cold during the journey.
The wagon creaked as Willard took his seat and motioned the horses forward. His soft words of prayer for a safe, quick journey drifted back to where Natasha lay.
They had not travelled far when the wagon slowed. It was such a still, quiet night, the guard’s voice sounded loud as he instructed Willard to stop.
“Are you travelling alone, sir?”
“Me and my dog.”
“At this hour?”
“I’m the foreman, and we’re behind schedule. I had paperwork to complete.”
“I’m on official business from the king. Remove yourself from the wagon.”
Goldie moved away from her side and growled.
“Official business?” Willard questioned. “I have not—”
“Does the animal bite?” the guard interrupted.
“If she feels threatened.”
Goldie growled for a second time.
Natasha felt movement on the wagon. It wasn’t the same movement as when Goldie jumped up. What’s happening? Dear God in Heaven, don’t allow the guard onto this wagon.
Covered only with the blanket and hay, she felt vulnerable. Goldie was gone from her side. Where is the dog? She wished for Stewart. Goldie’s growl became louder.
“Control your beast!”
Nothing. There was silence. An eerie silence. What is happening? She had to assume Willard was settling the dog.
“Remove your animal from the wagon.”
Natasha’s heart stopped. Goldie had to remain on the wagon to protect her. If the guard discovered her, Willard would be hung, the dog killed, and she would be banished to the castle, forced to face the wrath of her father. She would never see Stewart, Hope, or the Donovan family again. Natasha felt a sensation in her nose. She heard something, but wasn’t certain what it was. Was someone joining them? Another guard? Suddenly, her eyes became itchy. Her nose twitched. Dust? She closed eyes and crunched her nose, but it didn’t stop the tingling. This is no time for a sneeze. No. She clamped her lips together as tightly as possible, praying she could smother the sneeze and that it wouldn’t cause the wagon to shake.
“Choo.” It was the quietest sneeze of her entire life, left her a little light-headed from the effort to stifle it. She needed fresh air, but that was also impossible. She listened for some inkling of what was going on in the roadway.
“Move the animal, or I’ll dispose of it myself,” the guard yelled.
“Sadie, come. Get down, Sadie.”
Is he attempting to confuse the dog by using a strange name? Natasha was able to feel Goldie leaning against her side. What in the name of heaven is Willard up to? The guard will kill the dog if he doesn’t obey the order.
“She has been trained to stay in the wagon until we reach home,” he apologized.
“Remove it,” the guard demanded.
Natasha waited for movement in the wagon, but there was nothing. Then she felt Goldie shift back further into her. Goldie’s hip bone dug into Natasha’s ribs. She struggled to breathe.
“You’re scaring the dog,” Willard protested. “Your harsh voice and mannerism. She isn’t accustomed to that. It’s causing her aggression.”
Goldie moved from her position at Natasha’s rib cage.
“You cannot kill her,” Willard cried in panic. “She is only doing her duty! What shall I tell my children? Never trust the king or his men? They do not show remorse, but simply enjoy killing? I question whether you possess a heart. My children will be heartbroken when they see the bloodstain.”
You cannot appeal to his sense of decency, to his honour. Father is heartless. Dear God in Heaven, help Willard. Please, I beg of you, help us.
“That is not my concern.”
Natasha’s heart pounded. Fear rushed throughout her body followed by an intense flush of heat. She feared she might be ill. We’re going to die. Willard, Goldie, and I.
“I am not armed. My dog is on her property. You are not threatened where you stand.”
“It’s a thick bed.”
“Indeed it is. The dog is my companion while at home and work. I offer comfort for the journey. Sadie is tired and hungry, as am I.”
Natasha began to pray, willing words into the guard’s head.
Think reasonably, rationally. You are not a stupid man. The king’s only daughter. Would a common foreman bury a princess in a pile of hay where she could barely breathe? Search elsewhere, and let us move on. God, I beg of you. Help us.
Goldie growled. It vibrated against her thigh.
Suddenly Natasha heard a gunshot. To her ears, it sounded distant, but hidden under hay and a blanket, she couldn’t be certain. Her nerves could be playing tricks on her. Then another, and another gunshot.
“Jacob?” A man’s voice bellowed. She trembled at the sound, and then silence. Eerie silence.
The second bellow broke the silence. Is the guard calling for assistance? What’s happening? Is Willard shot dead? I’ll never forgive myself if Willard is dead.