A Plot Foiled
The princess and her ladies await the prince’s message with bated breath.
“He said…” I pause, racking my brains. Blast it! This is why I’m a mercenary and not a messenger.
“He said he’d be happy to cook your lunch, the stars fall out of your eyes into his soup bowl and he hopes your lustrous hair and perfect ankles will never give him indigestion.” Or something along those lines.
While the princess and her attendants are gasping and speculating over the message, I topple into my bed and steadfastly refuse to respond to their efforts to wake me to take a reply back to the prince. What do I look like, a child labourer? I fall into a blissful sleep, undisturbed by the whispering and exclamations.
But even royal travelling parties don’t escape the start-at-dawn rubbish. It’s horribly early the next morning, when I’m awakened from my familiar nightmare by a chorus of shrieks. I leap blearily out of bed, grabbing several knives from under my pillow, poised to strike down the princess’s attacker.
Instead I’m confronted by the sight of my goatly steed from last night, standing next to my bed, chewing my silk sheets. “Oh for goat’s sake,” I growl, and collapse back onto the bed, tugging the sheets away from it. It has a stronger grip than I thought, so I end up with goat breath uncomfortably close to my face.
“Willa,” comes a quavering voice from the other side of the tent. I raise my head. The ladies-in-waiting are clustered in a quivering mass with the princess’s rumpled head sticking up behind. “Is that your… goat?” enquires one of them.
The goat licks my cheek lovingly.
If the royal carriage wasn’t already something to exclaim over, it’s nothing compared to the spectacle it makes with our new, four-legged escort running alongside. Try as I may, I cannot persuade the stupid thing to go back with its herd. Appealing to Goat Man is useless. He merely shrugs. “Goats is goats.”
“But can’t you make it get back into the cart with the others?”
“No need. He likes running.”
I’d have stabbed the man in his hairy heart, except I would have ended up losing another knife. The three I threw at him still haven’t recovered from their traumatic experience.
Once the princess and her ladies have got over their shock at the sight of the goat, they progress from shrieking terror to doting affection. They spend the day’s journey jostling each other for a window seat and squabbling over names.
“May I be so bold as to say that he looks like an Archibald.”
“Oh no, observe the reddish sheen in his coat. Jasper suits him much better.”
“William!” barks the stone-faced matron. “Billy for short.”
Come evening, Billy and I resume our messenger duties. I could complain to Kayla that carrying messages for the princess wasn’t in my job description, except it all counts toward my quota of helpfulness, so that’s a good thing. Also, I have to admit I’m starting to enjoy myself a little.
“Your Highness,” I tell the prince pompously. “Princess Isla says she hopes you never see a sunset without admiring the rising of her moon.”
The prince’s eyes grow wide. “Tell her it is my heart which rises and sets with every breath she takes. I pray our years together will be blessed with the peace and plenty of fruitful prosperity.”
After a short gallop back to the princess’s side:
“Princess Isla,” I announce, “the prince said his heart rises and sets in your breath and he prays your years together will be a piece of fruit.”
The following evening Princess Isla is ready with her next message:
“Tell the prince I have admired him from afar for so long, I am half going mad with longing for the simple touch of his hand.”
Oh that’s a good one.
“Your Highness,” I tell the prince, “Princess Isla says her far hand is madly longing for a simple touch.”
He spends a while in thought. “Tell her I wish only to bedeck her brow with diamonds,” he replies, “but none would compare with the pearls of wisdom that drop from her mouth each and every time she speaks.”
“Princess Isla,” I say. “The prince says he’s noticed how your mouth is dripping with diamonds but he hopes to bedeck your brow with pearls.”
The ladies gasp and fall silent. I wonder whether I’ve gone too far…
But no. The princess sends me back with a message, eloquent in its simplicity.
“Tell the prince… I love him.”
Darn. It’s hard to mess that one up.
Back in the prince’s tent, I shuffle my feet a bit and blush.“The princess says…”I never thought I’d see myself playing cupid. “She says she loves you.”
The prince’s eyes widen in shock. His face softens and his eyes shine with tears of emotion. “Tell her, I love her too,” he murmurs, voice shaking with passion.
After that there are no more messages.
Runner goats don’t take kindly to inactivity. It’s early the next evening and Billy has already chewed holes in several skirts, eaten someone’s diary and mangled a hairbrush beyond salvation (ha!). He and I are sent outside to ‘play’. I go willingly enough. We’re drawing close to our destination and the princess is spending much of the time obsessing over her wedding gown. The endless debate over each seam and sequin is doing my head in.
For lack of anything better to do, I climb onto Billy’s hairy back and let him amble around as he pleases. I’ve got pretty good at riding bareback. As we wander through the forest, I practise hitting knots in trees with my throwing knives. I’m just retrieving a blade from a twisted oak when a faint light in the distance catches my eye. It looks like someone has a lantern but is covering it in order not to be seen. Of course, it could also be a swarm of fireflies. Either way, Billy proceeds enthusiastically towards the light. Maybe he enjoys snacking on fireflies. Many of his decisions seem to spring from his desire to comprehensively catalogue the taste and texture of everything in the world.
As we get closer, voices become discernible, an urgently whispered discussion. I stiffen. This sounds suspicious. Billy continues towards the sound and I send a quick prayer of thanks for his surefooted progress through the dark forest.
“…the problem of getting the bodies back, should anything go wrong.”
“Nothing will go wrong.” The second voice is scornfully confident. “We’ve studied the patterns. We know where everyone will be. It’ll be child’s play.”
“Speaking of children, we’ve noticed there’s one travelling with the prince’s party. His little cousin. Should we… I mean… um.”
The silence following those icy words causes goosebumps to spread over my skin.
If I’m not very much mistaken, this sounds like an assassination plot. I grin. Excellent, I was getting itchy for a good fight.
But while I’m grinning away to myself, I fail to notice that Billy hasn’t stopped. He carries on forward until he’s ambled right into the clearing where the plotters are gathered. There’s a moment of stillness where they all turn to gape at us.
Then things kick off for real. “Get them!” shouts the leader.
The nearest man dives to grab us. Billy swerves out of the way. I flail wildly to keep my balance, throwing a couple of knives as I do so. By sheer luck, one of them gets our attacker in the eye.
I grab a handful of the loose skin on Billy’s neck and attempt to steer him towards another would-be attacker. He ignores my urging.
I hold on for dear life as he breaks into a gallop, lowering his head. Thwack! We hit the group’s leader dead on. He shoots backwards into a tree and slides down, groaning. Puncture wounds from Billy’s horns gape in his chest. Looks like he’ll bleed out, but I throw a knife for the sake of decoration.
Two men try to come at us from either side. I shriek as Billy leaps into the air, tossing his head to stab one man with his horns and walloping the other man with his behind. We all end up on the floor. The wind is knocked out of me, but I have the advantage of not having just been punched by a goat part. Staggering to my feet, I pull out my longest blade and go around the clearing, finishing the groaning attackers off. Within seconds, the glade is empty of movement. A distant crashing in the undergrowth indicates someone got away, but I doubt they’ll continue an assassination plot on their own. It’s probably fine.
“Good work, Billy.” I stroke his ears. He snaps his head around and chews experimentally on my wrist. “Ow, stop it! Come on, we have to go back to camp and report this.” I climb onto his back and then try various combinations of kicking him with my heels and pulling on his fur, but Billy acts as if I’m not even there. He begins chomping the trousers of the nearest dead man, delicately pulling the cloth away from the corpse’s leg. Cursing, singing, beating my fists on his skull, none of it works.
At least he’s not a flesh-eating goat, I concede. Knowing myself to be beaten, I slide down from his back and hurry back towards camp on foot.
I find Kayla sitting in the command tent, conferring over a map with a group of men who are dressed in Prince Theodore’s livery. I sidle up next to her and tug on her tunic. When she looks down, I jerk my head towards the woods meaningfully. “Kayla, there’s something you should see.”
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” she announces, rising from the table.
One of the soldiers squints at me. I recognise him from my visits to the prince’s tent. “Hey, it’s the messenger girl,” he crows. “Are your teddy bears lonely?”
Kayla glares at him and then follows me outside. “What was that about?”
“Long story. But there’s something more important.” I gabble a quick explanation about the bodies in the forest. Kayla summons a few guards, directing them to fetch shovels and then follow us into the forest. I lead the way at a brisk march. I’ve just remembered I forgot to retrieve my throwing knives from the bodies. Sloppy, Willa!
“You know,” Kayla says as we hurry through the trees, “we might be short of fighters, but you could have come back to fetch reinforcements before attacking them. You didn’t have to face a gang of killers by yourself.”
I didn’t exactly have a choice about facing them by myself, but I’m not about to let on. “It seemed wisest for the safety of the prince and princess to deal with the threat immediately,” I say seriously.
She smiles at me. “I had the impression you were just doing this job for the money. It’s nice that you care for their wellbeing too.”
“I do,” I tell her. And I’m surprised to realise it’s true. Somehow, somewhere along the interminable goat journeys as I carried their banal messages back and forth, I became invested in the royal pair. I’m as eager as anyone to see them safely married and living the lovey-dovey life they so obviously long for.
When we arrive at the clearing, the goat is nowhere to be seen. The bodies are all in the same positions, except for one difference. They’re all naked.
“What the hell,” exclaims Kayla. “Did you do this? Or were they genuinely having a nudist meeting?”
I can’t answer her because I’m too busy grinding my teeth. My knives are still stuck into the bodies, but the hilts are chewed and mangled beyond recognition. They’re completely ruined.
I am going to KILL that goat.