Cassie Crawford straightened her mantle for the third time as the museum director slung a sundial necklace over her head.
“Are you certain this is going to work?”
The director pursed her lips. “Since mechanical clocks were not invented until the late 13th century, you will have to rely on this sundial to keep track of the time. But this is no ordinary sundial.” The director indicated two buttons attached to the dial’s side. “The mechanism is necessarily simplistic. The button on the left will transport you to the drop zone, and the one on the right will take you back to this present-day museum."
The director adjusted Cassie’s veil and stepped back. “However, your timing is absolutely crucial. You will have exactly three hours to complete your fieldwork. If you do not return to the exact spot where you arrived and push the button on the right once the three hours is up, you will be stranded in time. There will be no way to retrieve you.”
Cassie turned the knob on the sundial necklace until it pointed to 11. She was about to jump into the kingdom of Northbridge on November 11, 1135. She had spent an entire semester researching and preparing, but she still couldn’t keep her hands from shaking. She glanced at the enormous painting hanging on the wall to her right. Painted by an Alexander de Carey in 1137, it depicted the duke and duchess of Northbridge locked in battle, each vying for control of their house. The duke was bathed in a warm yellow light, heroically brandishing his lance to ward off the duchess, painted in much darker tones, her dagger barely visible. A Latin inscription was etched into the frame, and if Cassie recalled her Latin correctly, it read: “Death and life are in the power of the tongues, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.”
The director followed Cassie’s gaze to the painting and smiled.
“Many of our art history time travelers have lamented the staggering difference between the artist’s interpretation of characters and events as opposed to the real thing. Remember that the artist has taken creative liberties. Appearances will not be as they seem.”
The director reached forward and adjusted Cassie’s skirts for the final time. “Also keep in mind, Ms. Crawford, that you are here simply to observe, not to attempt to change history.”
Cassie took a deep breath. “I’m ready.”
The director smiled again. “I wish you success in your findings. You are doing a great service to the museum, Ms. Crawford.”
Cassie pressed the left button on the dial, and everything went dark.
The first thing Cassie registered was the sound of thunder booming close by. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her pounding head, careful not to move before she could survey her surroundings. As her vision adjusted, she saw that she had arrived in a frigid castle hall, hopefully one inside Castle Northbridge. Rain was falling in sheets through the arched windows overhead, and lighting occasionally illuminated Cassie’s surroundings. To either side of her were mounted wolf heads that shone fiercely whenever the lightning struck. Two rows of heavy-looking ebony doors continued down the length of the hall. At the end of the hall was a stone staircase under a crimson banner of a stylized wolf with claws bared.
Cassie counted the stone tiles in the floor between her and the wolf heads to mark her spot for her return home. She was squarely in the center of the heads. Satisfied in her assessment, she looked up at one of the arched windows and frowned. Her sundial was completely useless in this downpour. She would have to be extra conscious of passing time.
Cassie started to make her way to the flickering light coming from the staircase, her footsteps echoing in the drafty hall. As she approached, she could hear muffled voices arguing somewhere from the bottom of the stairs.
“-nough Aelfrith! I will hear no more of this!”
“How long are you going to delude yourself? You knew that one day you would have to face what you’ve done, and it seems that Providence would have that day come sooner than you expected.” Cassie had to strain to hear the next part. “Milord – Cedric, listen to me. We’re running out of time. We can’t just simply -- ”
“What you are insinuating is nothing short of treason!” Something slammed. “Were you anyone else, I would have your head for this insolence!”
Another slam. “Either you finish the job, or I will!”
A long silence. Then a voice growled, “You are dismissed, Aelfrith.”
A bang, then rapidly approaching footsteps. Cassie froze, unsure of whether she should run or confront this Aelfrith. She had no time to think before a tall man in a crimson cloak came stomping up the stairs. He got halfway up before he noticed Cassie standing at the top. The color drained from his face, and his mouth worked soundlessly before he regained his composure. His face twisted into a sneer.
“If you were hoping to gain an easy surrender, you’re going to be severely disappointed. Tell me, how many more of you rats are lurking in the castle?”
Cassie blinked. Should she play along? Aelfrith already seemed to have his own ideas about who she was, and she very well couldn’t tell him that she was a researcher from the 21st century.
Another bang, and a huge man with his hair plaited into several small braids stormed to the bottom landing of the stairs. His massive fur-lined cloak and gold signet ring identified him as lord of the house. Cassie recognized this man from the painting: the duke of Northbridge. But while the painting had depicted this Cedric personage as a hero, he looked anything but. His jaw was square and brutish-looking, and he had a pronounced brow that reminded Cassie of a Neanderthal.
“Aelfrith! What is the meaning of --” The big man stopped as soon as he saw Cassie, and his eyes widened in disbelief. “So. She has already sent her harbinger.”
Cassie’s mind reeled, trying to make sense of the situation that she stumbled into. The two men seemed to think that she was working for someone else. Was she supposed to be a messenger? A spy?
Aelfrith glanced sideways at Cedric. Cedric drew himself to his full height, but even he had trouble looking imposing when he was looking up at Cassie. “You! Lass! State your purpose!”
Cassie racked her brain for the appropriate response. She decided to take advantage of her higher position on the stairs, using the fact that the men were already wary, even fearful, of her. She stepped forward making sure to block the entire path and, in the most resonant voice she could muster, uttered her reply. “Your doom is nigh, lord of Northbridge.”
Both men’s faces went white as pattering footsteps approached, and a young man nearly careened into Cedric.
“You’d best watch where you’re going, boy, if you want to keep that head of yours,” Cedric growled.
The young man bowed, his face flushed from running. “Apologies…milord…army…here…the lady…hurry…”
Cedric wheeled on the youth and grabbed him by the scruff of his tunic. “What? Spit it out, boy!”
The young man gasped for breath. “Lady Rowena. She’s returned.”
Cedric dropped the boy unceremoniously in a heap on the floor. “That’s not possible!”
Aelfrith shot Cedric a meaningful glance, then turned to the young man. “Wulfric, how many soldiers does Lady Rowena command?”
Wulfric grimaced as he picked himself off the floor, rubbing his wrist as he did so. “The scouts report that she commands at least five thousand infantry and three thousand calvary, perhaps more.
Aelfrith cursed. “How is it that we have not heard of this before?”
Wulfric visibly swallowed. “I’m the last messenger, sir.” He looked down at his shoes and his voice softened. “Many others perished so that this information might be delivered in time.”
Cedric muttered something incoherent. “Wulfric, sound the warning bell. Aelfrith, gather every man able to wield a sword and prepare for a confrontation on the plains. Station half a company of men to the castle artillery and see if they can’t delay the approaching army.” Cedric turned to Wulfric. “Have you information on where and when Rowena’s army will be arriving?”
Wulfric swallowed again. “All you have to do is look outside the gate, my lord.”
Cedric looked as if he were going to throw poor Wulfric on the floor again, but Aelfrith held up a hand. “Hold. She’s launching a frontal assault?” Aelfrith directed his attention to Cassie, who had been all but forgotten, and frowned. “Does she intend to bring down the castle from within as well as without?
Cedric growled. “Enough deliberation! Take the wench along with us. We’ve a castle to defend. Men, to arms!”
The army of Castle Northbridge was gathered in such haste that half of the soldiers were not fully dressed for battle, and some were still carrying the dirty pitchforks they were using to farm. Very few were mounted on horses. Even Cassie, who was not accustomed to medieval warfare, could see that this was a losing battle. Just how was Lady Rowena able to attack Castle Northbridge so swiftly?
Cassie looked up nervously at the still-overcast sky. The rain was pouring relentlessly, drenching lords and servants alike, although some of the clouds had a golden lining. Perhaps the sun would break through long enough for Cassie to check her sundial. However much time had already passed, Cassie knew she could not stay for a bloody battle to the death. She would have to make her escape back to the castle once the fighting started.
Wulfric had not been exaggerating when he said Rowena and her forces were right outside the castle. She was waiting on a stretch of verdant plain outside the castle gate and, judging from the smug look on her face, she had apparently been waiting several minutes for Cedric’s forces to meet her on the plain. Even among the horde of soldiers, Rowena was not hard to identify. She was dressed head to toe in a flashy silver suit of armor, and her hair was braided into a single thick rope down her back. She assumed a wide stance and brandished a rapier, looking every bit the proud knight in shining armor, rather than the dark form that the painting from the museum made her out to be.
Cassie could see Cedric barreling his way to the front of his army, axe tight in his grip, until he and Rowena were directly opposite each other with the plain between them and their respective forces behind them. The two generals bore a striking resemblance to each other. Against her better judgement, Cassie squeezed through Cedric’s disorganized army to better see and hear the exchange between Cedric and Rowena. She was here to observe and record after all.
The tension in the air was so oppressive, it was almost tangible. The warning bells were tolling in the distance, and the soldiers around Cassie shifted nervously, waiting to face their inevitable deaths. Cassie could still only see the back of Cedric’s head, but she could very well imagine his wry smile.
“Welcome home, dear sister.”
Rowena released a long, mirthless laugh. “Now Cedric, is this any way to greet a family member? Your manners have always been abysmal.”
“You should have remained in Wesford with Baron Healdegard.”
Rowena snorted. “You handed me off to a minor noble whom you barely knew, and banished me to a distant land.” Rowena’s shoulders dropped as if in regret. “All of this,” she waved a hand to indicate the two armies, “could have been avoided if you only would have let Northbridge have its rightful ruler. It’s firstborn.” She drew herself up to her full height. “I did all the right things. I scored the highest marks in my lessons, took first place in the tournaments, and went through extensive diplomatic training. I showed far more promise than you, younger brother, could ever hope to.” Her face twisted into a sneer. “But Father ignored all of my talent, hard work, and role as firstborn, and decided to give the inheritance to my good-for-nothing brother, who did not lift a finger to earn it. I am here to collect what’s rightfully mine.”
Cedric pointed his giant axe at Rowena. “These are matters that you should not trifle with, Rowena. Think of all the confusion and chaos that would ensue if a woman were ever to lead Northbridge. We would be invaded, besieged, and wiped out within the year!”
“Yet you’re the one who’s being invaded!”
“I gave you a chance at life with Baron Healdegard. You should be thanking me!”
“And you should be begging me for mercy!”
Cedric roared. “Enough of this! This is what happens when women are allowed power! I should have ended you when I had the chance.” He lowered himself into a battle stance. “I will not make the same mistake again.”
The sun’s rays pierced the clouds for the first time that day, glinting off Rowena’s shining sword and armor. Cassie fumbled for her sundial and held it up. The little white dot was nearly touching the twelve. She gasped; she had no more than fifteen minutes to dash back to the castle and stand in between those mounted wolf heads.
Rowena raised her rapier high into the air, then let it fall slowly, almost gracefully. She gave a mighty battle cry and charged forward, her forces thundering behind her. Cedric raised his fist, and his army surged forward as well. Cassie was able to glimpse Cedric, surprisingly fast for someone his size, bring his axe crashing down on Rowena’s sword before the chaos of battle threatened to sweep Cassie away. She turned and struggled through the torrent of haggard looking soldiers. No one made any attempt to stop her; these were simply ordinary men caught up in yet another noble dispute. Cassie pushed her way out of the flood of men and struggled toward the castle. The muddy earth seemed like it was trying to suck her underground with each step she took. She was drenched in sweat by the time she reached the castle gate. Cassie cursed. Of course they would have closed the gate during a battle in their front yard. She dashed to one of the outer walls, hitched up her skirts, and began to climb. Gusts of wind blew her veil askew, and her fingernails became jagged and caked with dirt. She reached the top of the wall, hoisted her legs over, and began her descent. She felt her heart pound harder with each painstaking foothold. What if she didn’t make it in time?
She touched down into the courtyard and turned to see a soldier stationed on one of the parapets pointing his loaded bow at her. She bolted for the courtyard well and threw herself behind it in the hopes that it would offer her some sort of protection. It didn’t. Cassie let out a howl as the arrow pierced her ankle. She twisted around and yanked it out of her ankle; her full skirts had slowed the momentum of the arrow, so her wound wasn’t deep. Cassie gritted her teeth as the soldier loosed another arrow. This one grazed the top of her veil. While the bowman was reloading, Cassie darted toward the grand stone staircase that led into the castle interior before reinforcements descended on her. She bounded up the stairs, heaved against the heavy ebony doors, and burst into the castle. She raced through the entrance chamber, the dining hall, up flights of stairs, past living quarters, and up another flight of stairs until she spotted the wolf heads all the way down the hall. Cassie used the last of her strength to sprint down the hall. Looking outside of the arched windows, Cassie could see that the sun was directly overhead. She reached the end of the hall, planted herself squarely in between the mounted heads, just as she had before, and pressed the button. Nothing happened. Cassie jammed the button again and again and still nothing happened. She sank to her knees and sobbed, gasping for breath. No amount of historical information, however enlightening, was worth dying for. Possessed by a strange sense of calm resignation, Cassie rose to her feet. Suddenly, she was enveloped in a bright light, and everything was gone.
Cassie found herself standing in the same spot at the museum where she had left three hours before, with the highly inaccurate painting of Cedric and Rowena to her right, and the museum director typing away at her desk in front. The director looked up and greeted Cassie with an enthusiastic smile.
“Well? Was your trip fruitful?”
Cassie glared at her. She was drenched, muddy, bleeding, and miserable. “Of a sort,” she bit out.
The director clapped her hands. “Excellent! We will be eagerly awaiting your report next month.” She pressed a few more keys. “Your success will pave the way for the investigations of future students.”
The director went back to feverishly typing at her desk. Cassie began to trudge to the bathroom to change out of her filthy clothes. Her job was supposed to correct the historical records, but she had a sinking feeling that the board would only dismiss and obscure her findings again.