A Proper Princess
So once again I find myself running through the forest, escaping from something distasteful. This time I sprint for a good while until all sounds of pursuit have faded into the distance. I chose a different direction to the one where the prince and princess are hiding. When I’m sure I’ve lost the bandits, I’ll circle around to find my way back to them.
Then I hear the sound of hoofbeats. Damn it! There were horses in the camp. The bandits must have saddled up a few and are now coming after me. I start running again, but it’s futile to think I can outrun horses. I need a place to hide. I stop again and look around, searching for a good spot.
And that’s when I hear more hoofbeats, this time ahead of me. My breath freezes in my lungs. Am I already surrounded?
In the darkness ahead, the rhythmic drumming is accompanied by grunting and crashing, as if an enormous and very angry beast is forcing its way through the undergrowth. The sounds get louder and louder. I stand transfixed, unable to run or hide, peering into the darkness. The animal is only yards away now, it’s nearly upon me, it’s…
I make out the three-pointed prong of his horns as he lowers his head and charges past me. A few moments later, screams of pain, horses neighing and a general commotion floats through the darkness. I wait a few moments until I’ve properly caught my breath and then amble after Billy to see whether he needs any help finishing my pursuers off. Under the circumstances, with him rescuing me and all, perhaps I could forgive him his earlier crimes.
I don’t have to go far. The corpses of the bandits who were chasing me are uncomfortably close. A few more minutes and they’d have had me. Now they’re goat fodder. At least their clothes are. I walk around, listening for more pursuers as Billy delicately munches on his meal.
“What have you found there, Billy?” A voice comes through the trees. It’s a very familiar throaty voice. A figure moves lithely through the undergrowth, revealing itself to be the very woman I’d feared dead.
“Kayla!” I exclaim in delight. “You’re not dead!”
She squints in my direction. “Willa?” I move forward into a patch of moonlight so she can see me better. “It is you,” she cries. “Where is Princess Isla? Did you keep her safe?” As the light falls on me her mouth drops open. “Never mind that. What have you done to your hair?”
“Oh, that.” I run a hand through my shorn locks. It’s very short on top and long straggly bits hang down at the sides. Imagining how it must look, I cringe inwardly and reply, “It was necessary in the moment.” With quick sentences I summarise what’s happened since the doomed wedding. Kayla stands next to Billy, absently petting his coat while she listens. “What about you and the guards in the chapel?” I ask her.
She shakes her head gravely. “Overwhelmed. A few of us escaped, but most were captured. I believe they’re keeping everyone in the camp. At least, we’ve heard screaming…”
“I know what you’ve heard.” I wince at the memory. “So what’s the plan now?” Despite my joy at finding her alive, the situation seems dauntingly tricky.
Her brow furrows. “Hard to say. I’ve sent messengers to discreetly gather reinforcements and bring them back here. I’m hoping with more force, we’ll be able to take back the camp and rescue the hostages. But those reinforcements will take a while to arrive and every day I fear some bandit guard will get fed up with the noise and… You know.”
“You didn’t inform the palace in Druinberg about what’s happened?”
She shakes her head furiously. “And let panic ravage the kingdom? Absolutely not! That kind of chaos could lead to riots, coup attempts, all manner of unrest. I assumed you had the royals safe?”
“I do,” I say. At least, I did… Except they might now be dead from drinking at the poisoned stream. I decide not to mention that. Billy has already finished eating the clothes and is nudging me with his velvety nose. I climb onto his warm back. “I can take you to them now if you like.”
Kayla catches one of the horses and follows behind as Billy takes off galloping through the forest.We swing out in a broad circle to avoid going near the camp again. The soothing rhythm of a running goat is just like old times. I’m so comforted to have found Kayla and to have an ally in this whole mess, that I end up falling into a doze on Billy’s back, my arms flung around his hairy neck. I jerk awake as we arrive back in the spot where I left the princess. The first faint suggestion of dawn is beginning to lighten the sky in the east. All’s quiet in the peaceful spot next to the ridge, with only the merry bubbling of the potentially deadly stream breaking the silence. If it was any other goat, I’d be asking myself how Billy even found this place without my guidance. Except the princess’s ridiculous dress is still lying there on the ground, and I know from experience that Billy has a sixth sense for detecting unattended apparel within a 100-mile radius.
“So this is the place?” Kayla dismounts behind me as I slide down from Billy’s back. “Where are the prince and princess hiding?”
“So here’s the thing,” I begin. “Just before I left they were… I mean-”
“Hey!” Kayla shrieks, butting past me to push Billy’s head away from the princess’s dress. “Don’t let him eat that!”
“It’s probably ruined anyway,” I say. “Or else Isla doesn’t need it anymore because she’s de-…MARRIED!” I correct myself. “She’s already married, isn’t she? So what does she need the dress for?”
“You don’t understand.” Kayla picks up the dress, peering at it in the dim light. She attempts to dust one of the stains off it. “It’s traditional for Hellavan queens to keep their wedding dresses and wear them to state functions in the months following the wedding.” We both look at the pitifully ragged garment she’s holding. “I suppose some repairs would need to be made…”
“Or a copy,” I suggest.
“Or a copy,” she agrees gloomily. “I hope the bandits didn’t kill the seamstress.”
“Yoohoo!” comes a voice from upstream. We both turn to see Princess Isla tottering towards us in the grey dawn light. She’s wearing Theodore’s shirt and her mud-spattered wedding shoes. It’s a leggy look.
“Princess Isla!” exclaims Kayla.
“You’re not dead!” I say at the same time, drawing a sharp look from Kayla.
A few paces away, Isla stops and covers her mouth. “Willa! What happened to your hair?”
I run a hand over my head, feeling again the weird lightness of my head without the curls. “It’s a long story,” I say. “Look, we’ve got your dress. Um, do you want to put it back on?” Her legs are nice, but it’s very early in the morning.
“In a minute,” she trills. “I’m just going to wash first.” She changes direction and heads towards the stream.
“Wait!” I shriek. She stops in her tracks, startled. “I’m not sure the water is safe,” I explain.
“What?” cries Kayla.
In slow motion, all three of us turn our heads to look where Billy is slobbering into the stream. Having sated his thirst, he gives his coat a few licks and trots over to begin gnawing the bark off a birch tree. Sensing our gaze on him, he freezes mid-gnaw and shifts his eyes towards us as if to say: What?
“What are you talking about?” exclaims Isla. “Theodore and I have drunk from the stream several times and we’re both fine.”
“Oh good,” I say weakly as she totters towards the water.
“Why did you think the stream was unsafe?” demands Kayla.
I explain about the lack of wild animals I noticed yesterday and my suspicion that the stream had something to do with it.
“Oh, that’s easy!” Isla finishes her wash and comes to claim her dress. “It wasn’t the stream at all.” We help her into the voluminous layers and for a few moments the conversation is paused as her head is swamped in swathes of fabric. Eventually we sort through them, find the bodice and get all the pieces roughly where they’re supposed to be. “It was the dragon,” she declares. “Spindral explained how animals run away from the burning smell she gives off.”
“Dragon?” Kayla’s eyebrows have shot up into her hairline. She casts a suspicious glance back towards the stream.
“I think I may have met this particular dragon before,” I say gloomily. “Did she by any chance have a wizard with her?”
Isla leads us a little way upstream and then along a deer track into the forest. After a few minutes, the trees thin out and then stop altogether, a very familiar charred landscape taking their place. If it wasn’t for the mountains in the background I’d believe myself back in the same burned-out plain I visited on my last job.
A few metres into the charred area is Prince Theodore, wearing a waistcoat and no shirt, sitting at a familiar table where oddly shaped implements are set out for breakfast. With a glazed look on his face, the prince is nodding along to something the cross-eyed man next to him is earnestly explaining. On the other side of the table is a shimmering hump that stirs into life as the dragon lifts a claw to emphasise a point. “But my dear fellow, don’t you remember we discussed this exact point, and you conceded that szerencse was a very outmoded form of-”
“Hi! I’m back!” calls Isla, skipping forward. “I found it,” she holds up the edges of her ragged skirt.
“Much better,” exclaims the dragon. “I do so prefer a princess in white. Now, my dear, please sit and enjoy breakfast with us.”
“And look who else I found.” Isla extends a hand to indicate Kayla and me.
Fell’s eyes focus on my collarbone. “Willa. Your hair looks different.”
“Nice to see you too,” I tell him.
“Is that the inappropriate little girl again?” asks the dragon. “I’m willing to have her join us as an extra diner, now we’ve a legitimate princess who is properly attired.”
“Who are these creatures?” Kayla hisses at me. “Is it safe to sit with them?”
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “They look weird, but they’re mostly harmless. Anyway, someone once told me that judging by appearances is very ill-advised and not at all polite.” A thought strikes me. “Hey, maybe we could persuade them to help us.”
“Who’s this?” Fell transfers his gaze to Kayla’s shoulder as she gingerly takes a seat next to Princess Isla.
“This is my head of guard, right-hand gal and all around wonder-woman,” announces Princess Isla, patting Kayla on the arm. “Without her, we would never have ended up here. Oh! I mean-” She stutters as Kayla’s face darkens. “I meant we wouldn’t have ended up at the chapel. Kayla wasn’t to blame for those nasty intruders.”
“Head of guard is it?” Fell looks amused. “Princess’s ‘right-hand-gal’?”
“That’s correct,” Kayla tells him stiffly. “I’m in charge of organising the princess’s wedding. I’ve heard you may be able to help us get back on track with it.”
Fell’s eyes twinkle in two different directions at once. “I wouldn’t have thought a person like you would need any help. Seeing how you’re a wonder woman and all.”
Kayla looks uncomfortable. She clears her throat. “Yes, well. The situation is unexpected.”
He nods, smiling weirdly. I look between them. What’s going on between these two? Could it be… are they flirting?
“I’m so happy to see you, my Shmoopie-Poopsie Snuggluffagus!” Isla shoves her nose into Theodore’s neck.
I turn to Spindral, my only hope of sensible conversation. “How are you this fine day?” I ask politely.
“Very well thank you,” she replies. “It is pleasant to see you again. And may I inquire,” she adds, eyes whirling with interest, “what sort of revenge you inflicted on your hairdresser?”