Infiltration and Larceny
You never know how fast you can run until you have something really scary to run away from. By the time I’ve managed to slow down, I find myself halfway back to the camp. Although I’ll admit this has less to do with my running skills and more to do with how ridiculously slowly Princess Isla was walking today. We’ve made almost no progress in getting away. If the bandits sent out a determined search, they’d find us easily. But there’s no point in worrying about that right now. I’m not going back to haul the prince and princess onwards to a better hiding place. Shudder!
It crosses my mind that, under normal circumstances, the best course of action I could take for my personal wellbeing, and indeed my sanity, would be to ditch them altogether and simply move on with my life. I would abandon this job as a failure, chalk it up to experience and look for a better gig in another kingdom. Course, there’s an excellent chance I would never be able to show my face in Druinberg again, but I’d survive.
But who am I kidding? I’ll never get such a prime chance to fulfil all of my curse requirements at once. Being selfless and nurturing, rescuing a love affair and… whatever the other thing was. I’m pretty sure the current situation has it all covered. And when my brave and noble deeds are written into the public record of this turbulent and chaotic wedding journey, the witch will have no choice but to admit I’ve satisfied all her demands and turn me back!
Besides, the thought of abandoning those overgrown babies to their fate in the wild gives me an uncomfortable feeling. I hate to say it but I must have somehow grown the tiniest speck of conscience in my weeks spent with the royal party.
So that’s settled. I’m sticking with the job of royal babysitter, for better or for worse.
Since I’m close by I decide to sneak onwards into the camp and scope out the situation. Maybe everything’s fine. Maybe Kayla and her group got the better of those attackers in the chapel. Maybe they’re anxiously waiting for me to bring the prince and princess back. Maybe they…
A familiar multi-tonal screeching noise reaches my ears. It’s coming from the camp. Maybe everything isn’t fine. I break into a jog.
It’s already full dark by the time I arrive at the outskirts of the grouped tents. The moonlight shows a weird scene and I have to stop and stare to work out what I’m looking at. The tents are all still there and seem mostly unharmed, but strewn between them is a mass of… something. Dead bodies?
I go a few steps closer and poke at the nearest bundle of it. Nope, just clothing. It looks like the entire contents of the tents has been dragged out and strewn across the ground. I doubt the skeleton staff we left behind here decided to have a spontaneous spring-cleaning session, so I guess this means the camp is in enemy hands. Someone is snoring in the tent nearest to me and I doubt it’s the tent’s original owner.
I sneak onwards, now and then tripping over piles of objects on the floor. I’m grinding my teeth, thinking of what these bandits might have done with the spare knives they found in my personal luggage, when something sparkly on the ground catches my eye. A tiara! What’s that doing there? It’ll get dirty lying there in the mud like that. I pick it up, glance down at the lack of free pockets in my flimsy slip and then place it on my own head for safe-keeping. A few steps further on there’s a necklace. Then more necklaces. A bit to the left there are a few rings that are all too massive for my little fingers. I thread them onto a necklace.
I creep onwards, flitting between tents, keeping one hand on the gems around my neck to stop them clacking together. In the centre of the camp I spot a rough wooden pen that’s been rigged using the wooden panels from the former barricade, along with tent poles and tree branches and god knows what else. Inside are stuffed all the wedding guests and camp staff. Most of them are sitting or lying quietly, but some are groaning or sobbing. I don’t recognise any of the princess’s soldiers or guards among them. A shiver runs down my spine. I hope that doesn’t mean they’ve all been killed. As I stand watching, another chorus of shrieks comes from a group of the princess’s ladies, who’re being menaced by two bandit guards. The guards jab their weapons through the slats of the enclosure, narrowly avoiding stabbing anyone, and guffaw over the screams that ensue. I shake my head. Don’t these men have any concern for their hearing?
“Got her!” a voice growls in my ear. Someone grabs a fistful of my hair from behind and starts dragging me along by it. I’m taken completely by surprise. I didn’t hear anyone sneaking up on me. Oh that’s right. No-one can hear anything around here at the moment.
“Come on now little thief,” gloats my captor. “The boss’ll want a word with you.”
I’m dragged into Kayla’s command tent. It’s packed with rough-looking and worse-smelling bandits. An incredibly fat man is seated in Kayla’s chair, reading a scroll by the light of a single candle. “What’s this?” he asks in a startlingly high voice.
My captor lifts his arm, letting me dangle painfully at the end of my hair. “Little girl. Found her wandering around the camp. Thieving all the booty by the looks of things.” He lowers me to the floor again and I stumble, then catch my balance and straighten my tiara.
Recapturing my poise, I look down my nose at the bandit leader. “Who’re you?” I demand. “What’s going on in this camp?”
The man looks annoyed. “I’m asking the questions here,” he shrills. “Who are you?”
“You just copied my question,” I point out. “At least think up your own.”
He gnashes his teeth then turns to the man holding me. “Why wasn’t she in the pen with the others?”
Another guard clears his throat. ’We heard about a little girl who was accompanying the princess on the way up the mountain. But she wasn’t in the chapel when we took it over.”
“Just like the princess wasn’t in the chapel,” the fat man muses in his high voice. “Perhaps those two facts are connected.”
“Where’s the princess?” I demand imperiously.
“Where’s the…” he begins, then catches himself about to repeat my question and scowls. “Who is this girl?”
“Alright, you caught me,” I say. “I’m the princess.”
He hesitates. “No you aren’t.”
“How dare you! Just look at me!” I gesture haughtily at the jewellery I’m wearing. “Anyway, how would you know? You don’t even know who I am. You’re rubbish bandits. You’ve ransacked this camp, but you haven’t collected any of the valuables. I mean, look at all this,” I gesture again at my jewel-laden neck. “It was just lying around in the mud. How’d’you expect to fund a rebellion without collecting plunder?”
“In the mud?” The bandit leader glares at his cronies. They shift uncomfortably.
One of them starts an explanation. “Yeah, see what it was… we was gonna pick it all up, but then Harkan said we’d better have something to collect it in it first, but the wood we had was already going towards building the pen so we couldn’t construct any chests or a container, but like, we didn’t-”
“Idiot.” The fat man snaps, then he looks at me. “You seem like you’ve at least half a brain. We’re planning to capture and kill Prince Theodore, then I’m going to marry Princess Isla and be king. How’d you like to join our cause?”
“But, sir,” interjects a minion. “She’s a kid!”
“Oh hush,” squeaks the man. “An attractive child like this in my retinue will help us win over the peasants.”
I sniff. “It’s not a bad plan, but you haven’t exactly convinced me of your competence.”
He pounds a flabby fist on the table. “How about this for competence! If you join us, we’ll let you live.”
I sigh dramatically. “It’s a kind offer, but I fear my loyalty is to the crown.”
“We’ll let you live and keep what you’re wearing,” he gestures to the jewels around my neck. “As a recruitment fee.”
I snort. “I’d like to see you take these away from me.”
His expression turns icy. His voice screeches like claws on a blackboard. “May I remind you, little girl, that you are entirely in my power. I will decide what is taken away from you.”
I point at his protruding belly. “Apparently no-one decided to take the pies away from you.”
He heaves himself to his feet, incensed. “Kill her!”
The man who’s holding me lifts his arm so I am once more dangling by my hair. Two other men draw weapons and close in on us. “Oh no you don’t,” I say. I draw a knife out of one of my dress pockets. It’s nicely sharp but sadly only a six-inch blade. Couldn’t fit any longer ones into my dress. The sacrifices a girl is forced to make for the sake of fashion.
At the sight of my knife, the men hesitate for a second, then look at each other and smile nastily. “That little blade won’t save you,” one of them growls.
“Wanna bet?” I ask. Before they can move any closer, I swipe the knife over my head, slicing the wickedly sharp blade through my own hair. It gives easily and I drop to the floor, leaving my captor holding nothing but a handful of silky blonde locks. The tiara I was wearing falls. I grab it before it hits the ground, yelling “See ya, fatso!” as I dash out of the tent.
The guards outside are caught by surprise and fail to react in time to stop me rushing by. I weave through the camp towards the nearby forest. Once among the trees, I lengthen my stride and sprint for all I’m worth, feeling that weird lightness and the unaccustomed breeze through my newly shorn hair.