All was quiet for a long moment, as the gathered leaders turned their eyes toward the small gate set in a nook of the city’s western face. The faint, rumbling thunder of heavy wooden beams carried to their ears as the great doors burst open, launching a two-horse cart from its mouth as if shot from a bow. A ragged handful of men ran out immediately after the cart, their swords drawn and their legs pumping hard. But it soon became apparent that this was not the march of the Steward’s full army, as they had feared. No, the men on foot were trying to chase down the cart, and when they realized that it was too fast for them, they turned back into the city and slammed the Shepherd Gate closed again. The cart rumbled on, striking down the dusty westward road for a mile before turning toward the encampment of the Prince’s loyalists.
“Well we’ll soon know what that was about,” Kobi mused.
“Are we sure it’s not an attack, a trap of some kind?” asked Mack.
“One cart against our army?” Captain Drave scoffed.
“But remember,” Mack continued, “most of the ones who came from Arrens bear no arms. Perhaps the Steward knew that, and has some ruse to take advantage of it.”
“I don’t think we have anything to fear from this,” the Prince said as the cart bounced closer across the fields.
A single man sat on the cart’s forebench, holding a long set of reins in his fists. The cart behind him had high wooden walls and was covered on top with brown canvas cloth, making it impossible to see what was inside.
“I know him!” Kobi said with a smile as the cart drew nearer. “That’s Tully, my lieutenant!”
Soon the cart was close enough for Kobi to step forward and hail it with an upraised arm. The driver saw him, flashed a broad smile, and then drew his horses to a halt. He clambered down and knelt in the dust before the group of leaders.
“It’s true!” he gasped. “My lord the Prince! You’re really here!”
“I am,” said the Prince. “And so now are you.”
“What are you doing, Tully?” Kobi asked, lifting his friend by the arms and slapping the dust off his tunic. “What’s all this about?”
“I came to bring what help I could,” the lieutenant explained, his gaze flashing back to the Prince again. “Forgive me, my lord. If I were a man of greater faith, I would have already been out here to greet you with all these others. But I didn’t believe it could be true. Then, when I saw your group arrive, I knew I had to do something.”
By this time, Mack had circled around to the back of the cart and peered inside.
“Armor!” he shouted. “We’ve got swords, spears, breastplates, helmets, bows and arrows!”
“Enough, I hope, to turn some of these Arrensian followers of yours into proper soldiers,” said Tully. “The Steward had appointed me chief of the armory after you left,” he nodded to Kobi. “So when you arrived and I made up my mind to join you, I knew I at least had something to offer, something to make up for the lateness of my loyalty. I’ve plundered the storehouse of the enemy.”
“Thank you, Sir Tully,” said the Prince. “Your courage does you credit. I don’t count loyalty by a clock, but by the heart. You are here with me, and that’s what matters.”
The children each took a turn looking in at the shining array of weapons, as Sir Mack hoisted each one up over the back hatch of the cart.
“All right!” Sim shouted. “Now we’re ready to fight that Steward!”
Lady, however, did not share her brother’s excitement. There were other thoughts on her mind. She looked long and hard at the distant walls of Arrens, then walked up to Tully and tugged at his sleeve.
“Sir,” she said softly.
The whole company grew quiet to hear what the girl had to say.
“Before we left the city, my Auntie and Uncle…we saw them taken away. They said that the Steward was putting them in his prisons—what did they call it?” she asked as she turned toward Joe.
“The ghost house,” the oldest boy said, his voice suddenly hoarse.
“Yes, the ghost house,” Lady repeated. “I was just wondering, Sir Tully, if maybe you had seen Auntie and Uncle, or if you knew what happened to them…?”
Her voice trailed off as her eyes welled up with tears.
Tully looked helplessly around the company for a long moment, obviously not wanting to answer. But when no other answers were given, the officer knelt down and looked into her eyes.
“I don’t know,” he said, his voice quiet. “But if they’re in the ghost house, they are certainly not alone. So, so many of our people have been sent there. The best of them—the noblest, the ones who spoke out. All sent away. Even the First Consul, Dama—he’s gone. So…so if your Uncle and Auntie are there, little one, then they are in good company. It means that they were the brave ones, the ones who cared enough about goodness to do something about it. And the Steward couldn’t stand that, so he locked them up. The ghost house, yes…even more, the whole city is a prison. We are all captives, both those who are gone and those who remain.”
He had stood up at the end of his speech, his gaze turned now toward Prince Halbrinnon. “They say the ghost house is aptly named,” he finished, putting it in terms that he hoped the children would not understand.
But Joe knew what he meant. He remembered what had been said before, when their journey began. No one comes back from the ghost house. For all he could figure out, it was a burial-ground.
Prince Hal’s eyes had grown bright with tears. He looked at Lady, at Tully, and then at all of them.
“All of that changes now,” he said, firm resolution in his voice. “If all the people of Arrens are prisoners, as you say, then they will be imprisoned no more. I am here to set them free.”