The Golden Carriage
I jerk awake and lie there panting, covered in sweat. That stupid dream again! Ever since I was cursed, I’ve been re-living that scene in the witch’s cottage. It never fails to put me in a foul mood.
The cracks of dim light filtering through the shutters are getting paler. I lie groggily staring at them. There’s something rising up from the back of my mind. Didn’t I have something to do today? Wasn’t I supposed to…
I’m still attempting to fasten the lacing on my dress as I scurry up the hill to the castle gates. Reaching the brow of the hill, the spectacle beyond the gates comes into view and I heave a sigh of relief at the reassuring degree of chaos taking place in the wide courtyard. Although it’s well past dawn, innumerable people, horses and dogs are milling around with varying levels of aimlessness. I haven’t missed the royal party’s departure.
I find Kayla wrestling her way out of a wriggling clump of three-horned goats. “Put them in the cart,” she yells at a goatskin-clad man bearing a three-horned staff.
“No need for that. They’ll run alongside, easy like,” he drawls. “They’s good runners.”
“No! We’re specifically instructed not to have loose animals.” She catches sight of me and shoves a hairy goat-ass aside, so she can stalk towards me. “You’re late!”
“The girl could ride one-of-em,” calls the goat man. “They’s good runners with passengers an all.”
“What are the goats for?” I ask.
Kayla brushes hair out of her face. “Archaic wedding tradition. Don’t ask. Look, there’s been a mix-up and we’re terribly short of carriage space. You might have to-”
“Don’t say I actually have to ride one of those things,” I say, wrinkling my nose. Behind Kayla, the goat man is beckoning, patting the back of the nearest goat in an inviting manner. Another goat is chewing the edge of Kayla’s cloak.
“No, of course not,” she says impatiently, jerking her cloak out of the goat’s reach. “But you’ll have to ride with a group of courtiers. The horses are all spoken for. I don’t suppose you’re tall enough to ride one, anyway.”
“Tall enough for a goat,” remarks the man.
She whirls around and shrieks at him. “Will you get those bloody goats into the bloody cart!”
“They likes running.”
“Where should I go then?” I ask.
“God knows! Just get into one of those.” She gestures to where dozens of carriages are lined up, waiting for the signal to leave. “And quickly,” she adds. “We’re leaving any second.”
“They’d better not contain any wizards,” I mutter, stomping over to the carriages. I’m not tall enough to see into any of the windows, so it’s a matter of choosing at random. As I’m walking past one carriage, its door opens and a chubby little girl (a real one) sticks her head out.
“Are you looking for your mummy?” she asks.
“Absolutely not,” I tell her. I’m long done with that woman. I carry on walking but she calls after me. “You can ride with us if you want. I have three dolls and I’ll share with you.”
“Can I pull their heads off?” I call back. A gasp is followed by noisy sobbing and then the bang of the carriage door closing.
“Move out!” comes a cry from up at the front of the baggage train. Near me the horses prick up their ears and footmen descend from the various carriages to release the wheel brakes.
A sense of urgency seizes me. I have to find a carriage NOW or else risk being left behind. I open a door at random and stick my head in. Full of fat old ladies. They all exclaim in delight when they see me. “Absolutely not,” I repeat and slam the door again. In the next instant the carriage moves off, bearing the fat ladies away. The one behind it is also pulling away. Jeez, I’d better get into one of these things without delay.
Crossing my fingers, I run to the last carriage in the train. It’s the only one that hasn’t started moving yet. Reaching it, I pull the door open and dive inside, just as the entire carriage jerks into motion.
“And who might this be?” someone says in a bored tone.
“It appears to be a child without its mother,” sneers another voice.
“Too bad. It looks young enough for the mother to still be worth some fun.” Laughter follows.
The carriage is full of lanky, indolent young men who’ve stretched themselves over all the seats, leaving not an inch of space for my tiny behind. They’ve even claimed the foot cushions for their dice and cards.
“Aren’t you going to offer a lady a seat?” I demand of them. My stately air is spoiled when the carriage jerks over a rut and I lose my balance, toppling into the lap of the nearest one.
“Well, it seems the lady has chosen her seat,” guffaws one of them. “Bit young for you, Londrew.”
“She’ll grow,” says Londrew, pulling me further onto his lap.
“Oh abso-bloody-lutely not!” I repeat, elbowing him in the face and jumping down. “I’ve decided I’d rather sit on the floor,” I announce. “It’ll be easier to play with my dolls and stuff.”
“Suit yourself,” they all yawn, failing to notice my complete lack of said dolls.
As we leave Druinberg behind, the scenery outside changes to the horribly familiar landscape of endless trees. What did I ever do to deserve such a glut of forest journeys? To make things worse, the carriage I’m in might look nice from the outside but its suspension is terrible. No matter how I try to brace myself on the floor, I keep getting jolted and rattled about. By the time we stop for lunch, I’m bruised and battered and ready to kill someone. I hobble out of the carriage, hoping for a sight of the goat man. He seemed expendable.
I end up behind Kayla in the queue for lunch rations. “Hey, do you think I could ride with the servants or something?” I wheedle. “The carriage I ended up in is too full. I had to sit on the floor.” My voice sounds horribly whiny, but, to be fair, I’m seriously bruised here.
“Just try one of the other ones,” she says distractedly.
Her lack of sympathy annoys me. “How did we end up short of carriages, anyway? I thought a royal trip would be better equipped.”
Kayla brushes hair out of her face and glares at me. “Look, you have no idea how difficult it is to organise an entire expedition! If you wanted a better seat, you should have bloody well turned up on time!” Grabbing her bowl of food, she stalks off. Sheesh.
Then I feel bad. That was bitchy of me. I’m grateful to Kayla for giving me a job. And I was late. And if that’s true about her organising this whole thing by herself, then she’s doing an incredible job. Maybe I should-
A female voice interrupts my thoughts. “What a dear little girl. Did I hear you say you need a carriage seat?”
I spin around and get all starry-eyed in wonder.
It’s the princess!
Normally I wouldn’t care too much about being in the presence of impressive people, but there must be some little-girl hormone or something that overrides my adult reactions. Where the normal me would have smiled and thanked Princess Isla for her kind offer, my little-girl body refuses to do anything other than stare at her, open-mouthed, while my face turns a luminous red.
The princess is accompanied by a gaggle of ladies-in-waiting, all of whom are nudging each other and whispering. “Your Highness, please reconsider. We’re cramped as it is,” a stone-faced matron holding a tray of food hisses into the princess’s ear.
“It’s true, Highness,” says another lady on her other side. “Where on earth would she sit?”
“But just look at her.” The princess gestures to me. “She won’t take up much room.”
It pains me to surrender my dignity like this, but there’s no way I’m going back to that horrible nightmare of the young men’s carriage. Besides, this is the princess! If I ride with her, there’s an excellent chance I’ll find an opportunity to help her in some way. And helping a princess is surely better and worth more than helping a normal, ordinary commoner. I put on a serious face. “Excuse me, your highness. I’d very much like to ride with you. But would you have room for my dolls as well? I wouldn’t like for any of them to be left behind.”
The princess laughs. It’s a beautiful laugh that reminds me of the tinkling of a chandelier. “Oh, you’re just adorable,” she gushes. “That settles the matter. We’ll find room for you and your dolls. Go and get them and then meet us by the big gold carriage over there.” Ignoring the fluttering and exclamations of her retinue, she bends to my height and then points towards the royal conveyance. She needn’t have bothered. It would have been obvious to a blind man that the huge gilded contraption was made to transport a princess.
I beam at her and bob a curtsey before running off. I run straight past the carriage of young men, not even pausing to flip them off. I keep going along the rows of ordinary carriages until I find the one that held the chubby girl from this morning. She and her guardians have gone for lunch; the carriage stands empty. On the floor are three china dolls with painted faces. I swipe them up and stuff them down the front of my dress.
Slinking around the back, I break into a run as I make for the huge carriage lurking at the centre of the expedition like an enormous golden pumpkin. No-one saw me take the dolls. I believe this is what one refers to as the perfect crime.