An Unexpected Ally
It takes a while for everything to be accounted for. People rush around, reuniting themselves with loved ones, claiming prized possessions and rifling the contents of the supply wagons. It seems the bandits weren’t very concerned about feeding their prisoners. The cook, having found his trampled chef’s hat, gathers an army of assistants to reassemble his kitchen tents. He chases interlopers away from the stored delicacies and sets about preparing the belated wedding feast.
A mounted escort is prepared to ride forth and bring the prince and princess back to camp in appropriate style and pomp, but in the end they aren’t needed. A chorus of cries and gasps signals the royal arrival on dragon-back. Spindral circles the camp several times to give everyone a chance to point and exclaim at her passengers, before landing in the huge clearing designated for the wedding feast. The prince and princess dismount to cheers and applause, bowing and waving as if they’d personally been responsible for freeing the camp from murderous bandits.
After that, I leave everyone to their rebuilding and feast preparation activities. Finding a bed that doesn’t smell too strongly of bandit sweat, I zonk out and sleep for the entire afternoon.
I’m awakened later by one of the princess’s ladies, who does her best to tidy up my non-haircut and dresses me in one of my daintiest dresses. I’m to be an honoured guest at the feast, she tells me.
“That’s nice,” I yawn. I’d have preferred to have been an honoured occupant of my bed for a while longer. This is why I’d never want to be a princess.
“Still, it could have been worse,” I tell the woman. “This whole thing could have been at dawn.”
In the forest clearing, long tables have been hastily assembled. Ample space has been left next to the high table for Spindral to sprawl her huge body comfortably. Next to the dragon stands a familiar, oddly proportioned table where Fell is already seated, drinking dark-coloured wine out of a mysterious carved goblet.
I squeeze myself into a space at one of the tables and, as if everyone had merely been waiting for my arrival, the atmosphere explodes into festivity. Beneath the jovial mood I can sense a mildly frantic undercurrent, as if the guests are determined to wring every extra scrap of enjoyment out of the feast as a way of blocking out the horrible ordeal they’ve just survived.
The prince and princess are toasted with gusto. Several battered nobles in muddy finery mount a pedestal to make speeches, belatedly congratulating the pair on their nuptials. Their words, obviously prepared in advance of the whole bandit fiasco, contain several digs about the wedding night, which cause the prince and princess to look at one another and giggle in a disgustingly suggestive way. I roll my eyes and try my best not to let my mind go back to that clearing, where I heard… I clap my hands over my ears.
And that’s why I fail to hear when my name is called. Someone nudges me and I look up. Everyone is staring at me. Kayla stands next to the pedestal, beckoning, with a broad grin on her face. The prince and princess are smiling and nodding encouragingly. Hesitantly, I push back my chair and make my way across the clearing, feeling all eyes on me and my bruises and cropped hair.
Kayla gives me a hand up onto the pedestal and turns to face the assembled crowd of nobles and wedding guests. “And for numerous instances of bravery, above and beyond what she was hired to do, including personal guarding of the royal persons, penetrating enemy lines and mutilating her own hair in the quest to restore Prince Theodore and Princess Isla’s wedding to its intended course, I hereby award Wilhelmina Lang with the Order of Hellvan, the highest honour to be conferred on fighters in the Kingdom of Hellavan.” Kayla hands me an ordinary wooden shield, whispering, “Just take this, it’s symbolic.”
It’s also heavy. “How the bloody hell did you find out my full name?” I hiss at her.
She winks, turning back to the audience. “And there’s one more thing that I wish to award to Wilhelmina today.” She pauses. The prince and princess glance at each other questioningly. Looks like they weren’t in on this extra award, whatever it is. Maybe it’s the bravery bonus. But something tells me this isn’t about money.
“When I first met Willa, she was in a bad situation,” says Kayla. “She was looking for a way out and she was willing to do whatever it took to get there. Unfortunately, in the process of doing what she thought she needed to do, she lashed out. She was rude, and that rudeness cost her something precious.”
I frown as I think back to the first time I met Kayla in that bar. Was I rude to her? Or to someone else? I can’t remember…
“But today I’m going to fix all that, make it all right again and give her back what was taken. Willa,” she turns to smile at me. “I’m impressed with your progress and I’m convinced you’ve learned your lesson. I’m going to turn you back.”
I stare at her uncomprehendingly.
“Turn me back where?”
She just keeps smiling at me. Then it clicks. I’ve seen that smile before. On the fire-lit face of a woman with mud-brown hair, who petted a cat as she berated me for being too vain, too greedy, too quick to judge by appearances, too eager to discard the gifts I’d been given. Even as I watch, Kayla’s familiar face shifts slightly, gaining years, taking on a more pronounced likeness to that other face. Her dark brown hair shifts to a muddier tone. My mouth drops open as I realise what’s happening.
With her transformation complete, the witch stands before me, wearing Kayla’s usual ensemble of leather armour and weapons. If I’d been looking for it, I might have spotted the resemblance in Kayla’s features. As it is, I’m totally thrown. I want to gasp in shock, laugh at the irony and, at the same time, rage at her for the deception. How can it be that this woman, the one I’ve travelled for, fought beside and shared jokes with, can be the same one that cursed me into this too-small body, this miserable existence, against which I’ve struggled and chafed for so long? How could I have failed to guess who she was?! The conversations we’ve had, the friendship I felt growing… Was it all a sham? It suddenly seems incredibly important to ask her.
But I can’t ask or rage or do any of it because something is happening in my throat. My shoulders are shooting up, pushing my head higher. My arms lengthen and stretch. My feet burst through the thin slippers I’m wearing. Other parts of me do the same, while my clothes stretch and burst in response to my rapid enlargement. The gathered faces watching me all lift by a few degrees as I get taller and taller.
Finally, I stand there in what was once my own body. My previously charming dress hangs in precarious tatters. I look around dazedly. Seventeen years worth of growth in a few seconds. That’ll leave a person bewildered.
“Spindral, would you be so kind as to fix Willa’s outfit?” asks Kayla the Witch.
The dragon sniffs. “I suppose so. But only because I do not wish to be seated with such indecency.” She flicks a claw and I feel something happen to my clothing. I look down.
Aaaand that’s the last time I let a centuries-old dragon make wardrobe choices for me. The outfit I end up in looks like a cross between a nun and an old dowager with a fixation for petticoats. The princess’s wedding dress has nothing on the number of layers I’m currently wearing.
Kayla looks like she’s trying not to laugh, but offers the dragon her thanks.
“But, I don’t understand,” says Princess Isla. “Where did Willa go? And who is this lady?”
“This is Willa,” says Kayla, gently.
“No it isn’t,” Prince Theodore shakes his head emphatically. “Willa is short. And she has curly hair.”
I put up my hand to feel my head. My hair is still short but it feels like it’s gone back to its usual texture. Thank goodness!
Kayla does her best to explain about the curse and how the person they see now is actually the real me. Understanding dawns on a few people’s faces, but not Prince Theodore’s. He keeps insisting that it can’t be me. Likewise, most of the wedding guests lose interest in the story halfway through and return their attention to the food and drink. Several loud toasts are ringing out through the clearing as Kayla sticks out a hand to help me down from the pedestal. Her grip is firm and she gives my hand an extra squeeze. “Enjoy yourself, Willa. You deserve it.” She turns to go back to her seat.
“Wait a minute, Kayla, Witchy-witch, whatever your name is. I need a word with you.” I grab her arm and haul her away from the feast and a short distance into the surrounding forest.
Once we’re in a suitably deserted clearing Kayla wrenches her arm out of my grasp and turns to me, folding her arms. “Yes,” she says. “My name is Kayla! Which you’d already know if you’d bothered to ask or shown any interest in me as a person the first time we met!”
I shuffle my feet and say in a small voice. “I’m sorry for that. I wasn’t very nice.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“To be fair, I had circumstances…” I begin, then break off under her hard gaze. “Ok, that’s not really an excuse. I’m really sorry.”
She nods in acknowledgement of my apology.
I ask, “So all that time you were… you? A witch pretending to be an expedition leader?”
“Yup.” She looks the tiniest bit smug. “I was pleased with how the curse turned out. It was bloody hilarious watching you trying so desperately to get rid of it. But then I was so stern with you that last time you came to my cottage, I got worried you wouldn’t come back. So I arranged to put myself in charge of this little operation and then invited you to join it.”
“So you basically engineered this whole expedition?”
“Not exactly. I mean, Isla was going to get married either way.” Her face breaks into a grin that’s startlingly familiar, despite the added years on her face. “But if you’re asking whether I took advantage of the situation,” she continues, “then the answer is obviously, yes!”
I scowl. “So much for being Miss Morality. I thought the whole point of the curse was to teach me a lesson in manners?”
She hesitates, then folds her arms again and snorts. “Oh let’s face it. It was mostly simple revenge. You insult a witch, you get punished. That’s the way the world works, baby. Well, I got a good deal of amusement out of you. And you learned your lesson, so it was a win-win as far as I see it.”
“Not from where I was standing,” I grumble. “And what about us…? I mean, I thought we were friends?” I always felt like Kayla saw who I truly was, despite the curse. Turns out there’s an excellent reason for that.
She shrugs. “Put it this way. If I can forgive you for calling me ugly and you can forgive me for cursing you with a child’s body in order to teach you a valuable lesson, then as far as I’m concerned, we’re friends.”
“Speaking of the curse, I mean, not that I’m complaining or anything but I thought I’d have to, you know, grovel a bit more before you…”
“I admit, that was my original plan, but then…” She shakes her head. “You went and impressed me. You were unselfish, you did your best to support Isla and Theodore’s marriage. You lectured me about not judging people based on their appearance. You even cut off your own hair and made yourself ugly for their cause.”
“Hey! I wasn’t that ugly,” I poke her in the arm. “And what about the part where I was generous with my stolen jewellery. Don’t forget that.”
“Ladies, a moment of your time.” Fell steps into being next to us. Kayla jumps, startled. I roll my eyes.
He clears his throat. A slight blush stains his cheeks as he addresses himself to a spot just wide of Kayla’s eyebrow. “Spindral and I must be on our way. Besieged kingdom. Duty calls.”
Something clicks in my brain. “You knew the whole time!” I exclaim. “You could see Kayla was a witch and that’s why you were acting so weirdly.”
A faint hint of a smile graces the corner of his lips. “Correct. Standard illusion spell. Fairly obvious.”
“And where’re you going now?” I demand.
“Kingdom of Buhne. Offering a reward for the slaying of a Vernal Beast. Fairly handsome.”
“A handsome beast?” Kayla asks with interest.
He glares. “No, the reward. Fairly handsome.”
There’s a pause.
“Well, have fun slaying your venereal beast,” I say.
He scowls at me, then snaps out of existence.
“What a strange man,” remarks Kayla.
“Fairly standard for him,” I tell her.
She looks sideways at me. “So, this is a crazy idea but… do you want to follow them? Sounds like that reward might be worth chasing.”
My face cracks into the beginnings of a grin. I always knew I felt an affinity for this woman. “I’m up for some excitement, but…” I hesitate. “I’d kind of like to stick around here until I get my pay. I earned two bravery bonuses, you know.”
A strange look comes over Kayla’s face. “Willa,” she hesitates. “There’s something I have to tell you about those bonuses. In fact, about your pay in general.”
I have a bad feeling about this. “What? Don’t say I didn’t get the second bonus? I kept those overgrown babies alive in the forest for a whole day!”
“That’s not the problem.” She sighs. “Remember when I recruited you, I told you we needed fighters because of a flu epidemic?”
She looks uncomfortable. “Well… the thing is, there wasn’t actually an epidemic. Lots of guards quit because they hadn’t been paid in months. The truth is, the royal family is broke.”
I stare at her, open-mouthed. “But you,” I splutter. “You recruited me and all those men. And all the time, you knew you wouldn’t be able to pay us?!”
“I didn’t have much of a choice.” She shrugs. “And I kind of assumed most of them would get killed along the way, so the problem would solve itself. Royal wedding parties have a habit of being attacked.”
“So you… And I… All that time I was… AAARRRGGGHH!” I end the frustrated scream with a string of my most imaginative swear words.
“So, how about it?” says Kayla once I’ve run out of steam. “The Kingdom of Buhne? Fairly handsome reward?”
“Absolutely,” I say furiously. “I’m not sticking around here another minute!”
“We can take some horses and supplies,” she says. “It’ll be like collecting payment in kind.”
I have no argument with that. “But what about Fell and Spindral?” I say doubtfully. “They’ve already got a head start. Will it be worth it if they beat us to the reward?”
“Are you joking?” she scoffs. “They’ll arrive in an instant, then decorate a burned patch of forest with ridiculous furniture and loll around for days, arguing over the best spell to use. Meanwhile, you and I can ride in, slay the beast, collect the ‘fairly handsome’ reward and be gone before they’ve finished their breakfast.”
I grin in delight. “Let’s do it!”
We sneak past the forest clearing where the noise indicates the feast is still going strong and make our way to the equipment stores. Kayla picks us out a couple of horses while I raid Prince Theodore’s armoury. He has a few decent knives, but I’ll still have to stop at a proper market when I get the chance. I also take the opportunity to change out of my nun outfit and pull on some leather armour. Now I feel properly dressed. It feels bloody brilliant to be back!
The sun is setting as we lead our new horses silently out of the camp. Once we’re far enough away, we mount and begin to ride in earnest, chasing the faint trail of dragon smoke leading west. Kayla grins back at me as she kicks her horse into a gallop. The further we get from the mess and hubbub of the feasting camp, the better I feel. What an adventure! I got my body back, saved the day a few times and found an unexpected ally into the bargain.
Now I just have to convince Kayla around to my way of thinking where lie-ins are concerned.
Running parallel through the trees alongside us, I can just make out a three-horned shadow.
I have a feeling my next few jobs are going to be very interesting.
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