An Accidental Messenger
“Willa,” Kayla’s face holds a mixture of exasperation and disbelief. “Did you steal those dolls from that little girl?”
I shuffle my feet. “How’d you know it was me?” It’s dinnertime the same day and Kayla has pulled me out of the rations queue into a quiet nook behind the cooking tent.
She rolls her eyes. “It wasn’t exactly difficult. The princess is raving about you and your adorable doll family. Then there’s the fact that you’re the only other ‘little girl’ in the expedition. Also, Cecelia told me you threatened to pull their heads off earlier in the day.”
“THE ACTUAL LITTLE GIRL THAT YOU STOLE FROM.”
“Oh.” See, this is why I’m a mercenary and not a thief. “The dirty tattle-tale.”
“What on earth did you want them for, anyway?” Kayla asks. “Don’t tell me you actually wanted to play with them.”
“No, no,” I say hastily. “I just wanted to seem cute for the princess so she’d let me ride in her carriage.” It was a stupid, split-second decision. In that moment I would have done pretty much anything to secure my place in the golden carriage. The dolls seemed like an essential accessory.
It turned out to be a mistake, though. Once I had them, I didn’t much know what to do with them. I’ve spent the whole afternoon clutching them awkwardly. God knows, I was terrible at little-girl stuff even the first time around.
Kayla sighs. “Well, on one hand, I’m pleased you’ve wangled your way into close contact with the princess. We’re horribly short of fighters and you’ll be ideally placed to protect her there. On the other hand, little Cecelia is Prince Theodore’s second cousin and those dolls are family heirlooms and worth thousands each. You have to apologise and give them back!”
“And the princess had better not find out about this either,” she calls after me as I slope off, feet dragging. This is quite possibly the most humiliating situation I have ever brought upon myself.
Cecelia’s mother opens the carriage door when I knock. She presses her lips together and waves me inside, where Cecelia is sitting with a doleful expression, tear stains plainly visible on her plump cheeks.
“Sorry I took your dolls,” I mutter, holding them out to her.
Letting out a noisy sob, she throws herself forward and snatches them out of my arms, retreating to the safety of her mother’s skirt. She inspects each doll minutely for damage, stroking their faces over and over.
The mother glares at me. “Well? Are you truly sorry?”
“I’m most very, truly sorry,” I mumble.
“And why did you take Cecelia’s things?”
I sigh dramatically. “Because she is a generous, selfless, kind-hearted girl who offered to share her dolls with a poor, stupid penniless waif who had none of her own.”
Cecelia lifts her head. There’s a slight lift to the corner of her mouth.
I continue. “Cecelia is a good, generous, benevolent, caring, philanthropic…”
The little girl’s smile becomes a real one. “Mummy, what’s filo…filan…?”
“…beautiful, elegant, charming, glamorous, voluptuous,”
“Mummy, what’s volum…”
The mother clears her throat. “Alright. That was enough of an apology. Be off with you!” The carriage door slams behind me and I dust off my hands. Job done. If I didn’t exactly show my generosity there, at least I repaired the damage. Time to return to my seat in the luxury of the royal conveyance.
But no sooner have I plonked myself in a prime spot next to the window than the grim-faced matron takes it upon herself to comment on my lack of accessories. “Willa dear, where have your dolls gone? Don’t say you’ve been so careless as to lose them.”
“I gave them away,” I tell her. “To a poor little girl who was crying because she didn’t have any.” I turn back to the window with a smirk while she scowls and the other ladies all exclaim over my generosity.
Then it backfires. “Come here, dear,” coos the stern woman, with evil glee. “Let me brush your hair.”
“No,” exclaims another of the ladies. “I want to brush it!”
“Me next!” squeals another.
Horror of horrors, I end up back on the floor, passed around from one to the other while they take turns with the instrument of torture. Meanwhile, they’re speculating over Prince Theodore’s skill in bed. They keep using the phrase “husbandly duties” so my precious little ears won’t be burned. I put on my most innocent voice and ask a few awkward questions about what sort of ‘duties’ a husband has, and suddenly they all lose interest in brushing my hair. Don’t let anyone ever tell you innocence isn’t a weapon.
When evening comes, Princess Isla exits the carriage first, then turns around and holds out her hand to help me down. “I’m having a little cot made up for you in my tent, Willa,” she tells me. “You’d like to sleep in my tent, wouldn’t you?”
“Your highness, please reconsider!” hisses the dour spoilsport, but the princess waves her away.
“Oh yes, Princess, I would love to.” I exclaim. Turn down the chance to sleep between silk sheets? Absolutely not!
It’s incredible how quickly I’ve become accepted as a part of Princess Isla’s entourage. I don’t know what’s going through her head regarding where this random little girl has come from or where my parents are. Then again, she probably hasn’t even given it a thought. Princesses are used to things dropping into their laps without explanation.
Inside the tent, the ladies swish around, removing Princess Isla’s travelling clothes, draping her in a nightgown and otherwise getting her ready for bed. She is also subjected to the dreaded hairbrush, but she withstands the tugging with remarkable poise. “You ought to try to get a message to the Prince,” the lady with the hairbrush is telling her. “So you can be sure he is thinking only of you.”
The princess sighs longingly. “I only wish it were possible. It seems an age before we’ll be safely married. But it’s useless to dream of it. Our parties are so hopelessly separated.”
“One of us could carry it, Your Highness.”
She shakes her head. “No, no. You are all too well known as my closest confidants. It would be improper.”
“What about…” The lady with the hairbrush turns to look at me. “Couldn’t little Willa take it for you? I’m sure she’d love to help.”
What? Oh bollocks. I was just getting comfortable in my silk sheets here.
The princess clasps her hands. “Oh, she could! Willa is small enough to slip across the barrier. And no-one could think to question the actions of a child!”
“Wait a minute-” I begin.
“Bring me my writing set,” demands the princess. “I must pen a love note immediately.”
“Better not, Highness,” another lady shakes her head. “Who knows what would happen, were it to be intercepted. It must be an oral message.” She nods towards me. “Tell Willa what you want to say to him and she can pass it on.”
“But…” My eight hours of undisturbed sleep are dissolving before my eyes.
The princess turns towards me. Tears of joy gleam in her eyes. “I’m so happy that we’ve found a way for me to communicate with my love. Thank you, Willa! Thank you for making this possible!”
Oh double bollocks. What did I say about princesses getting everything they want?
She dances over to me and kneels by my side. “Tell him…” She thinks for a moment. “Tell him he is the only one in the world for me. Tell him I cannot wait another day before I am allowed to wake up by his side and eat breakfast with him each and every morning for the rest of our lives!”
The ladies sigh with sentiment at this passionate outpouring.
“Will you remember that, Willa?” one of them asks. “The princess said she cannot wait-”
“Yes yes,” I snap. “I’ll remember it. Where is the prince exactly?”
“His party is camped to the north. Go to the northern end of our own camp and you will encounter a barrier. It is a safeguard to keep the prince and princess from meeting before their marriage. You must find a way to pass it.”
“Be careful, Willa!” exclaims the princess. “And please, bring me his reply swiftly!”
As I leave the princess’s tent, it strikes me that this task isn’t so different to missions I’ve completed in the past. Infiltrate the enemy encampment, steal the intelligence — or rather, in this case, pass it on. If the princess’s burbling love-talk can really be classed as such. Still, at least it will count as helping someone, so not a total disaster.
Outside, the camp is quiet. For such a large travelling party, all the processes of setting camp and doling out food at mealtimes have functioned impressively smoothly. I feel another pang of regret for criticising Kayla’s leadership. She’s a bloody hero. Heroine. Whatever.
I soon find the barrier. And when I say ‘barrier’, I mean a laughably frail construction of wooden panels that have been set into a perfunctory ditch. They teeter on the brink of falling over in a good puff of wind. They’re so low, I could probably vault them if I get enough of a run-up. I back up a few paces, but then a shouts ring out. “Who goes there!” A powerful lantern beam illuminates the area and an entire squadron of guards appears from nowhere to surround me. I thought we were supposed to be short of fighters?!
Luckily, it’s easy to convince them that I was just playing. They send me away with remonstrances to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep so I can grow up into a beautiful lady. I had to bite my lip not to scream about how much I’d dearly love to go to bed. First I have to complete this sodding messenger task entrusted to me by a certain other beautiful lady.
So jumping the fence won’t work. There are too many guards who take their jobs too seriously. I’ll have to go around it. But that could mean trekking through the forest for a few miles and losing several more hours of sleep. My silk sheets and I haven’t got time for that. How can I get there quicker?
“Hello, little girl!”
A horned figure looms out of the darkness. I fire off three of my throwing knives in quick succession. With my sharpest dagger ready in my hand, I run to grab a torch from a nearby tent entrance. Is the camp under attack? Should I sound the alarm?
“Watch it!” comes an exclamation. “These is sacred goats!” As I get closer with the light, the figure reveals himself to be the goat man clutching his horned staff. All three of my knives are buried in his goatskin coat. Apparently they haven’t gone deep enough to hurt him. I’m not sure whether to be pleased that I haven’t injured him or annoyed that goatskin appears to be thick enough to stop my weapons.
“We wuz exercising like,” says Goat Man. Sure enough, the goats are milling in a nervous clump behind him. “Goats is no good cooped up in carts,” he tells me.
I contemplate the hairy, three-horned creatures and an idea crawls its way to the front of my brain. “Can I borrow one of those for a midnight ride?”
Goat Man looks pleased and makes an expansive gesture. “They’s pleased to carry you. Takes your pick.”
“Thanks, and just one more thing…”
I point towards his chest. “Can I have my knives back?”
The man didn’t have any saddle or tack for the goats (I don’t know why that surprised me) so I’m hanging on for dear life as my new steed gallops joyfully along the barrier. Blimey, the people charged with keeping the royal couple apart have really taken a hardcore approach to their job. The barrier stretches a good way outside the camp limits. At the end of it sits a dozy soldier who starts in surprise when he sees us gallop by. Good luck keeping us out, sucker! I take the goat a little way north before galloping back on the other side of the fence.
Once I’m back in the camp, I realise the goat doesn’t have anything to tie it up with. I have to trust that it won’t stray while I’m talking to the prince. I leave it contentedly munching the guy-ropes of someone’s tent and make my way to the grandest marquee. There are guards at the entrance. I march straight up to them and announce I have an urgent message for the prince.
“What sort of message, little girl?” chuckles one of them.
“Is it an invitation to your teddy-bear’s picnic?” asks the other. “Don’t worry, the prince will most certainly attend. He hasn’t had a proper stag party yet.” As they’re both doubled over, slapping their thighs and guffawing at their own joke, I roll my eyes and slip by them into the tent.
The prince is sitting on his bed, staring thoughtfully into space. He looks melancholic and romantic. He and the princess are going to make the perfect couple.
Spread around, lounging on the rich furnishings of the tent in various attitudes of stupefaction, are the languorous youths from my disastrous carriage ride. Thankfully, none of them seem to be conscious or else I’d think twice about making my presence known here.
“Prince Theodore?” I hiss. “I have a message from the princess.”
He looks up sharply, surprise and hope dawning in his face. Behind me, the two guards burst in, blurting excuses. The prince waves them away. “At ease, gentlemen. This girl has important business with me.” I stick my tongue out at their backs as they retreat outside, muttering angrily. Once they’re gone, the prince leans over eagerly. “What did my love say? Tell me!”
“She said…” I hesitate. Actually, I only have a vague memory of what the princess said.
“She said she’s the only one in the world who cannot wait another day to wake up and eat your breakfast.”
The prince looks thoughtful. “An interesting message.” He stands and paces back and forth across the tent. “No doubt it is riddled with hints and subtext.”
One of the languorous youths jerks into wakefulness. “Whassat?”
The prince repeats the message.
“Oh, that’s rich,” chortles the youth. “The ‘eating’ of your breakfast obviously implies-”
“Shh!” Prince Theodore casts a sidelong glance at me. “Let us discuss it later.” He crouches next to me. “Little girl, you are a most brave and stalwart messenger. Will you do me the favour of a lifetime and take a message back to her?”
I sigh. “I suppose so.”
This ‘helping people’ business is turning out to be more trouble than I expected.