| "Tell me..." Dochia raised her head to the young man who entered the room.
"Alardys, Alexander Alardys, my lord." the young knight, dressed in the latest Polish fashion answered with a bow.
"Tell me, Alexander Alardys, why are you here? The Dragon doesn't look kindly on Polish spies prying on his captains."
Dochia peered at him from under her leather face mask. He faltered under her scrutiny, and she saw the fear in his eyes when she mentioned the Dragon.
"This matter is personal my lord. Duncan is captive in his own dungeon, and his life hangs on a thread.", Alexander blurted.
Dochia was thankful for her leather face mask and gripped the armrests of her chair.
"How can you be sure?"
"There are those who don't want the younger Alardys on the family's seat. They took a great risk to send a pigeon to the few of us in the service of the King of Poland. "
Alexander eyed her suspiciously.
"He is not well, my lord, and sometimes asks for lord Stan in his sleep. And for a woman named Dochia. The woman cannot be of help but you, my lord, might."
"How long de we have?"
"A fortnight at most. With luck, the passage over the channel would be fast."
"We ride at dawn. I'll ride as your wife, so we gain access to the castle and the dungeon." she said as she pulled her leather mask off her face under the astonished eyes of Alexander.
"There is someone else coming with us. He would travel as your squire. He is ... special. You'd see soon what I am talking about."
During the next two weeks, they spoke little and rode for hours, then crashed in an inn or under the night’s sky. Anguished, Dochia’s worked out a plan to free the man she found she loved even if she well knew he’d never be hers.
"Stoian and I lost our voices in a fire." Dochia rehearsed their plan with Alexander.
"Rory doesn't suspect anything. I am far down the line of heirs, so I pose no threat, and he could use an experienced captain in the lists." Alexander confirmed.
"Once we gain access to the dungeon, Stoian would open the cell then we grab Duncan and leave through the secret tunnel. Rory doesn't know Duncan showed it to me when we were children."
Dochia wanted to ask why the laird's eldest son would disclose such important information to Alexander; however, they had to hurry.
Changing the armor for the dress didn't come easy for Dochia, and she prayed her clumsiness wouldn't show. Rory looked at her with suspicion, and she couldn't stop the red that crept into her cheeks. He did interpret it though the wrong way and to her advantage. She lowered her eyes and did her best to bat her eyelashes when Rory winked at her and smiled full of male confidence.
"We need to hurry, Dochia; Duncan is dying. " a frantic Alexander whispered to her several days later.
That evening, Dochia gave a special attention to Rory while Stoian charmed the serving maids with his tricks. She managed to distract the laird long enough to pour a drop of her deadly nightshade brew in his wine. She hoped Stoian could do the same with the drink for the rest of the guards.
When the night fell, Dochia met Alexander and Stoian at the dungeon entry and smiled in approval at Stoian's smug grin. The guards were fast asleep and snoring, sprawled over the table. They advanced in silence trying to find Duncan's cell. The dungeon was empty save for a cell, deep down, at its end.
Dochia peered through the bars and signaled Stoian. She watched Alexander's eyes grow as the lock fell when Stoian trailed his hand over it. He then entered the cell and Alexander crossed himself when he heard the click of Duncan's chains falling one after another. With another smug smile, Stoian motioned at them to enter the cell and take Duncan.
Alexander and Stoian were carrying Duncan when a soldier stormed the corridor and demanded them to stop. Dochia looked in question at Stoian, and he shrugged.
"I don't drink, my lady" the soldier answered her. Dochia watched Alexander's blood leave his face. Another Alardys mystery she didn't have time to solve.
"Catch, my lady. Alexander recovered swiftly and threw his sword to her.
He didn't wait to see the surprise on the soldier's face and left with Stoian and Duncan. Dochia fought well and soon enough her opponent lay on the floor, dying.
"Thank you, my lady." she thought she heard as she rushed to catch up with the three men. Another....
"Never mind." she shook her head as she entered the secret corridor leading them to freedom.
They carried Duncan to a cottage, deep in the forest and laid him on the bed. Dochia and Rose, Alexander's sister cleaned him and bandaged his wounds.
She leaned towards Duncan and pressed her lips on his.
"You must live, mo ghaol." She still didn't know what the words meant, but somehow they felt right.
"What?" she answered Alexander's baffled look.
"I should have known you loved him." he shrugged.
"Means my love, didn't you know it?"
She hadn't known it, together with many other things about him. She would ask him later, when they would meet again. On her land and on her terms.
Now it was time for her to go. It would take her another fortnight to travel back to Valachia. She'd have a hell of a time explaining to the Dragon what she had done in the last six weeks. If he was in a good mood, she might avoid the pike.
When Duncan woke up, Rose was waiting for him with a bowl of soup. He took in the cozy cottage, and his new gained freedom then let his head drop on his chest. Dochia had been an illusion of his feverish mind.