Sliding into Chaos
If there was ever a phrase calculated to bring about instant panic among gathered people, stay calm and you won’t be hurt is surely it. The owner of the voice has apparently never spent time in the company of the princess’s ladies or he would have had more sense. Even after weeks of prior exposure, the piercing chorus of ensuing shrieks makes me wince.
The princess throws herself into her new husband’s arms and they clutch each other desperately as chaos takes hold in the tiny chapel. People leap out of their seats and mill around, some attempting to do as the voice commanded and move towards the walls, being hampered by other people who are just as determined to go in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, a trickle of rough-looking fighters streams into the chapel through the rocky entrance. They fan out brandishing clubs and knives, attempting to herd the assembled wedding guests towards the sides of the room. The assembled wedding guests refuse to be efficiently herded. Panic and mayhem reign supreme.
I grab a knife and look to Kayla for instructions. She’s signalling frantically to a group of unusually burly guests seated in the front row. They leap up and arrange themselves into a living barrier in front of the royal couple, throwing off cloaks to reveal armour and weapons. I should have known she’d have bodyguards in place. With that done, she darts over to where I’m standing. “Give me your dress,” she snaps. Without stopping to question the command, I wriggle out of the awful thing and shove it at her. I’m left wearing only a shift, but it doesn’t matter because my knife pockets are sewn into it.
“Trapdoor behind the altar, get them out,” Kayla commands. She bundles the tiny dress over her own head. It doesn’t go past her shoulders and ends up as a weird kind of cape. Ducking, she runs back to where the prince and princess are clinging to each other and yanks them down to the ground, giving them a shove in my direction. Then she stands up and tugs one of the guardsmen into an embrace in the spot where the royals had been standing. With the chaos in the chapel, anyone who glimpses the white material she’s wearing must assume the princess is still there. Smart.
Okay, time for me to do my part. The prince and princess are crawling frantically towards me. I usher them towards the back of the chapel and leave them crouched behind the altar stone while I search desperately for anything resembling a trapdoor.
There! I spot a cleverly disguised ring hidden in a carved flower on the floor. Grasping the ring, I hiss at the prince: “Help me with this!”
But I didn’t need his help at all. I’d assumed the trap door was made of stone, but it turns out to be a square of wood covered with a thin layer of imitation marble and flies open immediately. Below it is a short drop and the beginnings of what is unmistakably a slide. A slide! “Oh, this is going to be fun,” I chuckle to myself. Then I push the prince into the hole and watch him glide sideways out of view.
“What have you done?” shrieks the princess. “Theodore!” she crouches, peering into the hole. I push her in as well. Then I pull the trap doordown so I can close it as I jump in myself.
The slide is made of varnished wood and runs through a rounded tunnel that’s been panelled with some sort of shiny material that I can’t identify. Cleverly placed ventilation shafts cast regular patches of dim light, illuminating the tunnel and the fraying edges of the cobwebs that Prince Theodore must now be wearing. There are a few twists and turns in the slide’s course, but not enough to slow my progress and I get up quite some speed. Within a few moments it becomes clear that we’re sliding through the entire mountain and it’s an incredibly exhilarating ride. If it weren’t for the circumstances, I’d say it was quite worth the trek uphill.
Occasionally the course of the slide straightens enough for me to catch sight of the other two sliding ahead of me. And if I hadn’t been able to see them, I would definitely have heard them. I don’t think they’ve been on many slides before.
At the bottom is a springy patch of moss, which would have provided a nice soft landing if the prince and princess hadn’t proved their ignorance of normal playground rules and completely failed to move out of the way. The three of us end up in a panting heap.
“That was brilliant!” I whoop, scrambling to my feet, accidentally elbowing them both in the face. “Did you guys know that slide was there? You should totally start charging people to use it. It could replace income tax!”
There’s a lengthy silence as the two of them stare at me, then Isla lets out a great wail. “Everything is ruined! We’re going to die, we’ll never get back in time for the wedding feast, and just look at my dress!”
“But at least you’ve got your priorities straight,” I tell her.
Prince Theodore’s eyes are devilishly bright. “Do not worry, my love, my princess! I will ensure that those scoundrels cannot touch us. You will not be harmed.”
“We can escape into the forest,” I suggest. “They probably won’t find us.”
“See?” he tells her. “Our messenger girl knows what to do. We will prevail.”
Isla stops sobbing long enough to wail, “But my dress!!”
The prince looks at me, obviously hoping I have a magical solution to the dress problem, but I shrug. He’s on his own with that one. I was thrilled to get rid of my own dress. The thin silk shift I’ve got on isn’t ideal for a forest getaway, but it’s better than mounds of satin and lace that will catch on every stray twig and bush. And I made sure the seamstress put in enough pockets for my knives, so at least I’m armed.
“Come on then,” I say. I’ve given them both a chance to take charge of the situation and they haven’t. Guess it’s up to me to save the day. “We need to get away from here in case the attackers find the trapdoor.”
Both of them leap up, glance fearfully at the end of the slide, and scurry away from it like it’s a snake. Unaccountably, they both choose to run uphill in the direction of the chapel.
I sigh. This is going to be harder than I thought. “This way,” I call, as if they’re naughty toddlers who’ve wandered off. I walk a short way into the forest and turn back to see whether they’re following. They are. “Come with me,” I call encouragingly. “Just follow Auntie Willa.”
Several hours later, my feelings for Billy the goat almost seem like affection compared to the murderous thoughts I’m harbouring towards the future rulers of the kingdom. They don’t seem to possess the most basic survival instincts. I had to stop the princess from picking pokeweed berries (“but they look so delicious, and I’m hungry”) and tell her several times to put her shoes back on.(“But they pinch so.”) Meanwhile the prince insisted he could tell directions from the sun (while standing under a thick canopy of forest leaves) and set a heading straight back towards our likely bandit-infested camp.
I suppose I can’t blame the royals for being foolish and helpless. They’ve spent their lives being waited on and told what to do. In this case, it just happens to be a six-year-old girl telling them what to do, but they’ll have to deal with it. This could be my chance to strike out all my instances of selfless generosity in one go, and I’m not messing up because of them.
It would be madness to risk going back to the camp before I can be certain that Kayla has dealt with the bandits and secured the area. She put me in charge of keeping these two alive. Therefore, I take them in the opposite direction, deeper into the forest. Princess Isla whined for the first couple of hours, but then lapsed into miserable silence. Prince Theodore is mostly quiet except for the occasional outburst when he thinks up some genius idea. His latest one is: “We could climb trees and jump from branch to branch, making our way back to Zair unseen!”
“There aren’t any trees along the path to Zair,” I tell him. “Anyway, I don’t think your wife is in any state to climb.” We both look at Isla, who is sitting on a rock, staring dismally at the patchwork of stains littering her dress.
“My wife,” breathes Prince Theodore. A dazed expression comes over his face, as if the reality of his newly married status has only just filtered into his consciousness. After gazing at Isla with soft eyes, he sits himself beside her and starts whispering things into her ear.
Give me strength!
I badger them to get up and force us to keep moving for another hour or so until we reach an earthy ridge running alongside a stream. This is a likely place to build a shelter and camp for the night. I think we’ve all had as much walking as we can take. I set the royals to gathering branches that I can use to rig a shelter, while I go in search of food. A stream means plentiful game and I’m good at hunting for food when I have to. Maybe there’s even a forester or someone living around here. I could try to barter with some of the princess’s jewellery.
I follow the water upstream for a mile or so without coming across a single living thing. This is strange. No game. No birdsong. No signs of life anywhere. Something is definitely off. Could the water be foul…?
They could be drinking it right now! Swinging around, I sprint back towards the camp.
When I arrive, panting, back at the place where I left the prince and princess, I find a laughably small pile of sticks. Next to it is a mound of white satin. Next to that is a single boot. Listening carefully, I can hear…
Oh bloody hell!
Clapping my hands over my ears, singing loudly, I run away, back into the forest.