It isn’t until we’ve finished breakfast that I can get my tablemates to talk about anything sensible at all. Halfway through the meal, Billy ambles up to the table. A scrap of what might have been Prince Theodore’s shirt is dangling from the corner of his mouth. For some reason, the dragon is very taken with him. “Just look at him nibbling the tablecloth like that!” she coos. “Does he like lace?” A pile of doilies appears next to Billy on a footstool. He falls on them with obvious relish while the dragon crows and claps her paws together. If she’s able to conjure fabric like that, why doesn’t she just magic up clothing for her guests instead of complaining about the way they’re dressed? I wonder sourly.
At long last, the talk turns to more serious things. Kayla explains our needs with brutal simplicity. “Kill the bandits, leave the camp and the hostages intact.”
Fell replies with a businesslike air, “Fairly straightforward. And what would be our reward for involving ourselves in this little affair?”
“Little affair?” splutters Prince Theodore. “The future of the kingdom is at stake!”
“Isn’t he darling,” says Spindral, dreamily conjuring another pile of lace for a very fat-looking Billy. “I do so enjoy an indignant prince. You got a good one,” she tells Isla.
“Oh, I know,” the princess gushes. Then her smile fades. “But I’ll be glad when I can get back to looking after my guests. I feel awful for deserting them and indulging myself in a premature honeymoon like this.”
“Oh yes, you must get back to your guests,” the dragon says. “Fell, I fear we must help them, if only for the sake of propriety.”
“What about the sake of our treasury?” he responds, glaring at the dragon’s nose.
“We will, of course, pay you handsomely for your trouble,” says Kayla gruffly.
A smile lifts the corner of Fell’s mouth. “What about your trouble, Wonder Woman?”
“You’ll be in trouble if you don’t shut your mouth!” she retorts.
Fell shakes his head and sighs. “Nevertheless, we would require some payment in advance. Fairly strenuous magic required. No help for nothing, as the saying goes.”
“That’s not even a saying,” I grumble. One of Fell’s eyes glares at a spot above my head. It reminds me of the tiara I’m wearing over my ruined hair. “Hey, what about this?” I pull it off my head and hold it up, along with one of the necklaces. “We could pay with these and then Princess Isla can reimburse the original owners, if they’re still alive.”
“Reimburse? Pah! We could pretend the bandits stole the jewellery!” exclaims Prince Theodore. Isla slaps him on the arm.
“Let me see those, please.” Spindral inspects all the pieces I’m wearing and, with the authority only a dragon can command where jewels and treasure are concerned, pronounces them valuable enough to be worth helping us. “Okay then.” Fell rises from the table, dusting crumbs off his clothing. “We’ll return shortly.” He climbs onto Spindral’s neck and the next instant, they’ve both disappeared into thin air.
“I thought they’d take off and fly there,” Prince Theodore says in the voice of a small boy who was denied a treat.
“Believe me, it’s not worth it for the amount of ash that flies down your throat,” I tell him.
“I’m so relieved they’re going to fix our little problem,” sighs Isla. “Such nice people.”
Theodore huffs. “I hope you weren’t paying too much attention to that Fell fellow. It looked like he had his eye on you.”
“Which eye?” asks Isla, innocently.
I slap her a high five. “Must have been his other eye because the one I saw was definitely fixed on Kayla.” We both turn to look at the blushing Kayla.
“Yes, what was all that about?” asks Isla. “He made some rather peculiar comments. I can’t say I understood what he was talking about.”
“Um…” stutters Kayla. “He may have recognised… That is to say, I think I may have met him before under different circumstances and he… was teasing me about it.”
Isla and I probe her with further questions, but she jumps to her feet and loosens her collar. “Well, are we going to sit here and let them do all the work or are we going over there to help finish the bandits off?” She stalks off towards the trees. I exchange glances with Isla, shrug, rise from my chair and scuttle after Kayla.
Billy tries to come with us, but he’s gorged himself on so many doilies that he only manages to waddle a few trees into the forest before he falls asleep, leaning against a bush. Meanwhile, Kayla and I find her horse and she pulls me up behind her to ride double. Soon we’re galloping back towards the camp. This time I’m eager to see what we’ll find when we get there.
I feel a lot lighter without all that jewellery. More importantly, it feels good to know that it went towards a worthy cause. I mean, technically it wasn’t my jewellery to begin with, and the worthy cause will eventually benefit me too, but still. I think I deserve to feel just the tiniest bit smug.
“You know, Willa, you’ve surprised me,” Kayla calls over the drumming hoofbeats as the forest scenery whizzes by. “When I first hired you, it seemed like you were only interested in the money.”
“That’s a pretty fair assessment,” I admit.
“And you were kind of rude to everyone.”
My face grows red. “I’m sorry about that. I was stupid,” I mumble. Being rude hasn’t got me very far. In fact, it dawns on me that being rude has caused most, if not all, of my recent problems. Maybe this could be the moment when I make a vow never to be rude again and become a new woman…
But it never hurts to reflect on one’s weaknesses. Mine is definitely rudeness. And impatience. And a fixation with sharp knives.
“Now here you are, donating wealth to help the kingdom,” continues Kayla. “I would never have imagined myself trusting you with the princess’s life, but up there in the chapel when all hell broke loose, it seemed obvious. I knew I could rely on you.”
A smile breaks out on my face. “I’m glad.” I’m quiet for a moment, then I say, “The princess can be annoying, but in some ways she has a hard job. I appreciate her for being the one to do it.” Kayla nods to show she’s heard and we ride on as the sun climbs higher in the sky.
We’re still a long way from the camp when we spot the giant mushroom cloud hanging in the air. “Shit,” says Kayla. “That looks…” She doesn’t bother to finish the sentence and kicks our horse, urging it to greater speed. I hang onto her for dear life as we hurtle towards the smoky mass.
As we approach the outermost tents three wild-eyed bandits emerge out of the impenetrable fog and run, howling, past us into the forest.
“Shit,” says Kayla again, pulling the horse up. “We should go after…” She trails off, her face lit by flames as all three men simultaneously burst into raging bonfires.
“That’s Fell’s handiwork,” I tell her.
She looks annoyed. “The wizard? What an untidy spell. If I find out he’s hurt anyone from our camp, I’ll be docking his fee by three necklaces.”
“He used that spell on me once,” I say absently. Now that the crackling from the burning men has died down I can hear faint sounds emerging through the smoke lingering in the camp.
“It doesn’t seem to have harmed you very much,” Kayla says drily. “Shall we proceed on foot?”
We slide down from the horse’s back and, by tacit agreement, draw our weapons before creeping past the outermost tents into the grey mass of ash and smoke. Hearing noises to our left, I place a hand on Kayla’s arm and jerk my head to indicate we should creep that way.
Peering around the tent, we make out two indistinct shapes, one human, one much larger. They might have been impossible to recognise, had it not been for the very familiar voices floating through the smoke.
“Too much Lángok, my dear fellow. Entirely too much Lángok.”
“But you must allow, if dealing with rabble, a degree of impreciseness is…”
“Come on!” Kayla hisses into my ear. “Forget them. Show me where the prisoners are.”
I lead the way and we sneak through the camp, keeping a good distance from the shadowy figures. We’re a few tents away from the prisoners’ enclosure when Kayla suddenly grabs me and drags me behind a nearby wagon. “What’s…?” I snap my mouth shut as she furiously shakes her head and jerks it in the direction we’d been going.
A child’s voice floats through the mist “…easy as anything! Just open the box and release the buggers so they’ll run towards it.”
“But sir… It’s a dragon.”
“Yes, you dunces,” exclaims the voice shrilly. I suddenly realise it’s not a child at all, but rather the bandit captain who tried to recruit me. “That’s the point of the mice! They’re the natural enemy of dragons. In the meantime, the rest of us will round up the prisoners and be ready to use them as shields.”
I cast a look at Kayla and raise my eyebrows.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” she whispers. “We have to get to the prisoners first!” We shrink further into the shadow as two bandits go stumbling past, one of them holding a box. Then we silently flit in the direction they came from.