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Curt kept a decent pace, but they thankfully didn’t hurtle through the trees. With the sky getting lighter, they could actually look at the beautiful multi-colored leaves and talk. Jennifer asked questions about the curse and the cure and Philippe eagerly shared about the numerous queens in the past who had drowned in the lake, supposedly a suicide curse. He wisely said nothing about Tristan’s mum having committed suicide. Tristan hated that theory and knew his dad did as well. Horrifically, no murderer had been found in eight months. Unless William had masterfully killed his mum and hid the evidence, Tristan had no idea who could’ve done it. Maybe she had committed suicide. Maybe it was simply a horrific accident they’d never have any answers for.

Even Philippe admitted that nobody had any idea what the cure might be. Was it a token that protected the royals, a blessed chalice that could make water holy, an herb that healed a royal female body and soul? Philippe became more animated as he talked. It was obvious he believed in the curse and the cure and had every expectation that they would find it today.

Tristan had never believed in any of it and didn’t think his father did either, but it was telling that they’d both come on the adventure on this cool fall morning, especially with William and Naomi kidnapping Henry only two days ago.

Had his dad only agreed to indulge Philippe, Curt, and Aliya, or did he hold some hope that the cure might be real? The fabled cure could no longer save his wife, but his dad loved each of his daughters-in-law. If Jennifer became queen, maybe it could protect her. That thought changed this outing from a mild curiosity and chance to hike with Jennifer to an interest in what they might find.

They passed a patrol of Ray’s guards in a Polaris Razor. The men saluted and slowed, but the king waved them on and didn’t stop.

Twenty minutes later, they parked the side-by-sides off the trail as best they could. Everyone but Tristan strapped on small backpacks and they set off to the Austrian side of the mountains.

“What do you have in the backpack?” he asked Jennifer.

“Oh, you know, just some fruit snacks, water bottles, a knife or two, bear spray.” She smiled sweetly up at him as they navigated the steep trail.

His brows shot up. “Fruit snacks. Very practical.”

“Thank you.”

“I wasn’t aware we had a bear problem in Augustine.”

Her eyes darkened. “I’m hoping to meet up with a rat sometime soon and give him a face full of it.”

“Glad you’re prepared.”

Aliya edged up to chat with Jennifer and soon the two were laughing and talking like old friends. Tristan loved listening to the complimentary tones of Jennifer’s cultured, lilting voice and Aliya’s hilarious ‘southern sass’ as she liked to call it. He caught Curt smiling at the two of them and then exchanged a smile with his brother.

Would Tristan finally join his brothers in marital bliss? His path with Jennifer had seemed as difficult to climb as the rugged mountains surrounding them, sometimes even impossible. Maybe they’d finally found a passable trail and his Little Red Riding Hood could soothe the Big Bad Wolf once and for all.

The trail became more rugged, with a sharp drop-off to the right, at least seventy meters down. Then it gradually became more and more narrow and dangerous. They clung to roots and tree branches and Tristan became concerned one of them would slip and fall to their deaths. Was some unknown and probably unreal cure worth this?

Then the trail disappeared altogether.

They each leaned toward the mountainside, holding on to whatever stable tree, root, or boulder they could while Philippe and Curt conferred. Philippe studied the map they’d found, pointed excitedly, and then they started clearing the thick growth in front of them. Searching for a path or some kind of cave?

The king looked at Tristan and raised his free hand. Tristan thought this was getting a little out of control. Jennifer was holding tightly to a root and appeared safe. Hopefully they’d give up this nonsense and head back soon. He and Jennifer could hike all the way back to Traverse with the guards trailing them in the side-by-side. They’d cook together in her parents’ cottage, snuggle, talk, and plan while they waited for William to make his move.

An opening appeared in the mountainside, interrupting Tristan’s plans. His eyes widened as the brush was pulled away enough to reveal a cave entrance.

Aliya clapped happily. “Yay! I knew this was it! I’ve been searchin’ for this like a squirrel tryin’ to find his acorn!”

Tristan leaned forward, definitely interested now. “You’ve never seen this opening or cave before?” he asked Curt.

“No.” His brother moved more underbrush out of the way. “I haven’t explored on the Austrian side like I have the Augustine, but we think the borders may have been different back when they placed the cure here.”

Tristan was still skeptical about a cure, but it was definitely intriguing to find a cave opening and supposedly they’d found it from some centuries-old map. His interest was piqued, at least. They could explore the cave. Maybe they’d find some cool relic people thought was the cure. Then he and Jennifer could have a leisurely hike back and snuggle and kiss and talk.

Curt pulled a flashlight out of his bag and Philippe pulled one off his utility belt. They turned the powerful lights on.

“Stay out here and guard the trail and the opening,” Philippe instructed the guards.

They both nodded and moved to the most comfortable position they could on the mountainside.

Philippe led the way. Curt escorted Aliya next. His dad gestured for Tristan and Jennifer to go, and the king took up the rear.

It wasn’t easy to see, but it appeared to be an abandoned tunnel, definitely created by human hands. They walked single file, following the flashlights’ beams cutting through spider webs. Tristan felt like Indiana Jones. Everyone was quiet, and the apprehension in the air was thick. What would they find?

After about fifteen minutes, the path opened into a large cavern with mining shafts, a wooden door across the way, and some broken-down equipment. They all stopped and looked around. An old salt mine, but not old enough to contain the cure.

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