By Cate McDermott
“What’s the matter, Alyssa?”
Princess Esther’s maid quickly turned away from the carriage window, forcing a smile. “Nothing, I was just wondering whether we weren’t going a little too fast down this hill,” she replied, casting another anxious glance sidewise out the window.
“Well, we can find that out easily enough,” Esther responded pleasantly, reaching up to open the little window in the carriage roof. “Oh, John!” she called to the coachman, high up on his seat at the front of the carriage, holding the reins of all six of the horses taut in both hands.
“Yes, Your Highness?” The coachman spoke respectfully but tensely, and without turning his head. The horses had begun to run even faster, and it was taking all of his energy to hold them in.
Esther was, by this point, becoming somewhat alarmed herself. Alyssa, who was always pale, was now snow-white and twisting her handkerchief nervously in her hands. “Is something the matter? Why are we traveling so fast all of a sudden, and on this hill, no less?”
“I don’t know, Your Highness,” John replied, breathing heavily as he strained at the reins. “The horses seemed to take fright at something; I’m sure I don’t know what,” he went on with a hasty glance at the sky; “the weather’s fine and I don’t see any signs of wild animals about. But there’s no doubt something’s worrying the creatures. Easy now,” he finally managed to slow the horses to a walk.
“Let’s stop a moment, John,” Esther suggested. “Perhaps the poor things need a rest.”
“Just what I was going to propose myself, with your very kind permission, Your Highness,” the coachman responded. “Whoa, there!” Linking the reins through the ring beside his seat, he sprang down and went forward to pat and reassure the trembling animals, whose sweaty sides were heaving as they tossed their heads uneasily, eyeing the scene around them with rolling eyes, breath coming in nervous puffs from their flaring nostrils.
One of the five grooms dismounted from the back of the carriage and opened the door with a bow. “Perhaps, Your Highness, you and the maiden Alyssa would care to descend and rest yourselves a bit before we continue on?” he inquired, with ceremonial deference.
“Yes, I think so,” Esther accepted the proposal gladly. Rising from her seat, she placed one hand in the footman’s and picked up the edge of her flowing skirt with the other. “Thank you. Come, Alyssa,” she added over her shoulder.
Alyssa followed her mistress, and stood beside her in the lane. “This is a lovely area. What could have troubled the horses, I wonder?” she remarked, surveying the velvet sweep of hillside and the rocky grandeur of the shrubbery below with her usual placid countenance.
Esther shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you think the weather will turn, John? I remember Grandfather once telling me that animals often know that a storm is coming before people can discern the signs.”
“That’s so,” assented the coachman. “But there’s not so much as a wisp of cloud in the sky. Storms can’t come up clear out of nowhere. Still, it might be best to get on our way again. The next inn is three hours’ journey from here, and if a storm should come up, we wouldn’t make it before dark! Shall I help you back in, Your Highness?”
“In a moment, please.” Esther took a step away from the carriage and heaved a great breath of the fresh, keen autumn air. It was not as cold in Tryfort during this time of year as it had been in her old home back in Livwel. She wished she could stay out in the open longer. But after a moment, she turned regretfully back to the carriage. Alyssa was already inside, and all the grooms were seated in a dignified row on the roof, their arms crossed properly over their chests.
As John offered her a hand back up, Esther suddenly made up her mind. “John, I think you should lead the horses for a bit, just down the rest of the hillside, so that there won’t be any danger of their taking fright again and running away with the carriage down this steep slope. And for that matter, I’d like to walk that far myself, after sitting in the carriage for so many days.”
“As you please, Your Highness,” the coachman released her arm with a bow, and went over to take the bridle of the leading stallion.
“Don’t you want to come, Alyssa?” Esther invited her maid, holding the coach door open.
In her elegant rose-coloured gown, with her fair skin and straight carriage, Alyssa looked exactly like a delicate pink-and-white china doll, sitting upright on the velvet seat as though nothing on earth could move her without breaking her first. She shook her head primly. “No, thank you, Princess Esther; I had rather not. Unless you particularly desire my company?” The only thing that was more important to Alyssa than perfect ladylike decorum was the perfect carrying out of Esther’s wishes.
“I don’t mind walking alone, if you’d rather ride, Alyssa,” Esther rejoined, with a smile. “I imagine that simply walking down a hill next to one’s coachman does not require much assistance. I promise you I’ll hold my skirt up and not get mud on it, and other than that, I don’t know what there could possibly be to worry about! I’ll rejoin you in a minute,” and Esther shut the carriage door, motioned for John to start leading the horses, and began slowly walking down the grassy slope beside the revolving front wheel of the carriage.
Esther’s mind was indeed quite free from worry as she strolled along. The horses seemed quite calm now—she could not tell if John was making a particular effort to hold them in—and she did not realize how conspicuous her movements were to anyone who might be looking up from below, with her lavender gown glowing against the drab, browning landscape like an unexpected intrusion of Spring into Autumn’s territory.
Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, Esther perceived that the shrubbery before her was so thick that there was no way she could pass through it without damage to her dress, even if she held the skirt up to her knees! The carriage track was so narrow here that there was room only for the vehicle itself. Accordingly, Esther requested John to stop once again.
“We’ll drive on from here; please help me back in now,” she bade him, calmly. John gestured for one of the footmen to get down and help her; he did not release the reins as he climbed back up onto his high seat. Two of the footmen got up at the same moment, and stumbled over each other’s feet as each attempted to be the one to descend to Esther’s assistance. She giggled, watching them hang on awkwardly to the back of the carriage in their fine livery, with their feathered hats falling over their eyes.
And just at that very instant, as Esther stood momentarily quite alone in the road, a sharp voice called out from the thicket behind her, “Forward now, men!”
Before Esther could even turn around, she was surrounded by a score or more of roughly dressed, severe-featured men, most of whom were masked and all of whom wore cloaks. The first few to rush out and grab hold of Esther were on foot, but the rest were mounted, their horses trampling the scrubby brush underfoot. They circled around Esther as she struggled unthinkingly to free herself, too stunned by the utter unexpectedness of the attack to even think of how futile such efforts would prove.
“Here now, what’s all this!” coachman John shouted, his voice full of outrage. “Unhand my mistress, you villains, unless you want a taste of my whip!” He flourished the mentioned instrument above his head as he spoke, badly startling the carriage horses, who immediately began to plunge and rear again. John struggled to keep them under control. “Get on and fetch your mistress safely away from these scoundrels, you young cowards!” he roared at the footmen, all of whom were on the ground by now, trying to find their way through the rampaging melee to Esther. But the bandits on horseback closed in on them, barring the way with drawn swords. An arrow whizzed into the air in a high arc, and all five footmen threw themselves flat on the ground. Three of the unmounted bandits holding Esther left her to the control of their fellows and rushed forward to bind the grooms before they could rise and renew their rescue efforts. Another of the band rode forward to the side of the coach and pulled John down from his seat, twisting his hands behind his back, preparatory for binding him as well.
“No!” A frantic scream commanded everyone’s attention. Alyssa, red in the face, and with her pretty pink gown and blonde hair all rumpled, had sprung from the carriage and was engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle with one of the bandits who had been tying up the footmen. Even Esther stopped momentarily in her struggles to stare, as her maid revealed this new side to her character. “I’m coming, Princess Esther! How dare you, villains! Unhand her, I say!” Alyssa shouted at the top of her voice, thrusting past the bandit who had endeavored to intercept her. Heedless of the danger to herself, she forced her way in between the circling horses, bent only upon reaching her mistress’ side, to share her fate, whatever it might be. A stirrup, swinging loose, struck against her cheek and it began to bleed, but she paid no more attention to it than if it had been a flick from a glove. Tears sprang to Esther’s eyes at the sight of her friend’s loyalty, and she began once again to struggle determinedly against the bandits who held her, with renewed hope.
But these brighter feelings lasted for scarcely a moment. One of the mounted men, masked and heavyset, galloped out from the shrubbery right in between Esther and Alyssa, barking orders. He was clearly the leader of the band. Under his instruction, the bandits began to move more quickly. One of them sprang from his horse and seized Alyssa from behind, laughing heartlessly as she fought hopelessly against his strong grip, much greater than her own.
“Get her to the carriage, Lorenzo!” the masked leader shouted. “We’ve no time for pretty maids today; there’s grim work afoot!”
“No, no!” shrieked Alyssa, as the bandit opened the door of the carriage and bundled her unceremoniously back inside. “No! Let her go! What are you going to do to her? Princess Esther, Princess Esther!” Her cries were cut short as the bandit slammed the door shut upon her and went to work improvising a fastening across it with his leather belt, heedless of Alyssa’s frantic hammerings from the inside.
“Get the princess bound, men, and we’ll be on our way,” the leader ordered tersely, turning to the men who were still hanging on to Esther. She refused to stop twisting and turning, although their relentless grip was beginning to cut off the circulation, and Esther could feel her arms starting to grow numb. She panted for breath, kicking and pulling with all that remained of her strength. The leader glanced coolly down at her for a moment; then, apparently satisfied, turned his attention elsewhere. “Are all the servants securely bound?”
“Yes, chief,” the others responded. Several of them had ridden up to the front of the carriage, and were engaged in the dangerous task of unharnessing the plunging stallions.
“And the maid, Lorenzo?”
“She can’t get out; the leather is good and the band secure across the carriage door, chief,” the bandit replied, with some complacency. Apparently not everyone in the band was as accomplished as himself in handling these delicate sort of situations.
“Good. We’ll leave them all here; the next person that happens along the road can pick them up and do what he pleases with them,” the leader said, with brutal sarcasm. He turned around to face Esther again, surveying her struggles, growing feebler by the moment, quite calmly and without pity. Esther glared back at him, suddenly furious instead of frightened.
“How dare you!” she cried, her voice quivering with rage. “How dare you mistreat my servants and steal the royal horses! You can’t leave them here; they might starve before anyone else happens along this road, you inhuman brutes!”
“Nay, I doubt that, fair mistress,” the bandit chief replied, drily. “This road is tolerably well traveled.”
“Ay, by men of your kind! What will become of them? I demand that you let them go. Do what you like with me, but allow them to go on their way in safety. You have enough horses already to leave them some means of transport! I’ll go with you willingly, if you will only let them go,” Esther’s voice broke as she made the self-sacrificial offer, casting an imploring glance from the prostrate figures on the ground up into the callous face of the bandit leader. “Let them go!” she reiterated, fiercely. “I will never cease to struggle, I promise you that, until you let them go. You greatly misjudge whom you have to deal with, if you think that I will ever go with you and leave those in my service helpless behind. I am responsible for them, and they are dependent upon me, and I will not desert them! You will let them go, if I have to fight three days and nights to accomplish it, you black-hearted scoundrels!”
“Silence the maiden, I am tired of hearing her screaming,” the chief said indifferently. One of the bandits jerked off his kerchief and twisted it around Esther’s face, across her mouth. The rough action nearly sent Esther to her knees, and as she was temporarily off her balance, one of the men holding her managed to twist her hands behind her back and bind them securely. Only half-conscious, Esther felt herself being heaved up and across the front of the bandit leader’s saddle. The others had succeeded in loosing and mounting the carriage horses by now, and at a terse word of command from their chief, they wheeled and rushed away in a body, triumphantly bearing away their captive prize.
They rode along madly, crushing bushes and snapping fallen branches underfoot, deep into the heart of the forest. Draped uncomfortably across the saddle, with her head hanging down and getting terribly jolted with each thudding stride of the bandit chief’s steed, Esther had very little leisure to think about the implications of her situation. Her mind was in a whirl, and she was constantly being jerked into or out of temporary spells of unconsciousness, which is not very conducive to any process of logical reasoning.
Presently, she came out of one of her brief swoons, to find that the horses had slowed to a walk, the kerchief had been removed from her mouth, and the bandits were conversing in low voices.
“So, now that we’ve got her, chief, what next?” asked the brash, brazenly cheerful voice that Esther thought she recognized as Lorenzo’s.
“What, did you want something else?” growled the chief sardonically. “The plan was to get the princess before she could reach the palace, and we’ve done it. It’s just one more step towards our revolutionary goal, and the biggest one we’ve had yet, or don’t you agree, eh?”
“It’s certain that I do, chief, but what are we going to do with her?” Lorenzo inquired, a little more tactfully.
“That, sirs, is just what I would like to know!” Esther managed to pull herself up by a dexterous use of the saddle horn, twisting half around so she could hold it with her bound hands, and looked determinedly into the eyes of the bandit chief—for about one second. “Oh . . .” she wavered and lost her hold on the horn, her head spinning.
The chief caught hold of her before she could fall forward again. “Here, drink this,” he ordered, holding a leathern water bag to her lips. Esther was only too glad to obey.
“But what are you going to do with me?” she repeated, a little thickly.
“Seems unanimous, chief. Everyone wants to know,” Lorenzo agreed.
The chief looked at his subordinate, around a sea of more expectant faces atop their mounts, and then down at Esther. He seemed slightly nonplussed. Even the best of leaders sometimes overlook minor details of complex cases, and they don’t expect to be taken to account for it.
“Oh, well,” he stalled for time, speaking more gruffly than ever, “I don’t suppose we’ll have to do much. It’s not like she could travel alone through the forest; we don’t have to worry about her running away from us.” As if to corroborate his statement, he cut Esther’s bonds as he spoke.
“I might surprise you,” Esther replied, drily, chafing her sore and bruised wrists. “But what I don’t understand is what you wanted me for in the first place.”
“We don’t want you, personally, Princess,” Lorenzo responded, bluffly and not too politely. “We just don’t want anyone else to have you, that’s what it is.”
“Well, that seems a trifle dog-in-the-manger, I must say!” Esther retorted, not particularly appeased by this explanation.
One of the other bandits, a younger, blond-haired fellow riding on the chief’s other side (he happened to be his aide and squire, although Esther only learned that later), here intervened.
“I suppose that, as gentlemen all, despite outward circumstances, we can agree that the lady is entitled to at least a civil explanation,” he said rebukingly. Lorenzo shrugged and grinned at Esther, not at all abashed.
“Oh, I’m sure she understood me; she seems a fairly clever maiden,” he said breezily. “Didn’t you, though?” he inquired, with a wink.
Esther tossed her head scornfully, with a fine display of maiden pride as well as cleverness. “I did, but that does not mean that I approved of it, sir!” she riposted crisply. “And so, as I believe you wished to explain something to me, sir . . . ?” she turned dismissively away from Lorenzo to the other young man, bending an almost gracious smile upon him.
He bowed respectfully enough, although keeping one eye on his grim-faced chief as he did so. He seemed to think that the right of explanation belonged naturally to the leader, and did not wish to appropriate that distinction to himself. He waited for the chief to speak first.
“Well, maiden,” that individual began, “as you might assume, we’re not men particularly high up in the good graces of the current regime. And through no fault of our own, though I don’t suppose you’ll believe that; that’s neither here nor there. Suffice it to say, we’ve all been ousted from our lands and living, and turned to this unpredictable calling, not only for the purpose of survival, but also of revenge upon those who now unjustly profit from our lost wealth.”
“ ‘Tis not simply a matter of personal disposition, you see, fair maiden,” the blond aide clarified, evidently desirous that Esther should not think more ill of him and his fellows than was strictly necessary.
“But what has all this to do with me?” Esther asked insistently, keeping her voice cold and suspicious, although with a slight effort. The thought that these men had been injured by the royal aunt and uncle who had also injured her mother was beginning to work upon her sympathies in spite of her, but she did not wish to let them see that. Their behavior was unlawful and utterly inexcusable, no matter what their provocation might be, she told herself sternly. “Do you expect me to restore your lands to you?”
“Hardly, seeing that you will never be given the opportunity to have them in your possession,” the chief retorted brusquely. Esther flashed her eyes at him, but said nothing. “But you are the sole heir to the kingdom of Tryfort, fair maiden; everyone knows that,” he continued.
“Except for me,” Esther murmured softly. The chief glanced down at her, and exchanged a slightly puzzled look with his aide, but then went on, curtly:
“And so you are in our way, you see. So long as the royal line was to die out with the present generation, we knew that we could come in and retrieve our lands in the resulting confusion that necessarily surrounds establishing an entirely new house of government. Help one side against another, on the condition that they give us back our old hereditary possessions—plus a bit more, naturally—once they were in power, and there you are, you see.”
“I see,” Esther responded coldly, between her teeth. “A dastardly scheme enough.”
“ ‘All is fair in love and war,’ ” Lorenzo quoted sententiously. “And all we want is our rightful property, fair maiden, and wages for our services.”
“At the moment, I can’t say your services are ones I think very much of!” Esther retorted with spirit. “You’re a pack of fools, to kidnap me like this and try to get me out of the way, when I could have helped you!” she exclaimed, beginning to work herself into a passion of injured sensibility.
Her planned torrent of reproaches was cut short by a united burst of laughter from the entire band of outlaws. The bandit chief shook with laughter to the point that he almost fell off his horse. Esther wished he would; then she could catch up the reins herself and get away! But where would she go . . . the chief had been right; she was completely helpless and in his power. There was nothing she could do—except bend her head and bite her lip pretty hard to keep from bursting into tears. At the very least, she would not give these men the satisfaction of seeing they had upset her.
“Oh, upon mine honour!” the chief exploded at last, dabbing at his forehead with his mask, that being the only piece of cloth he could lay hands upon at the moment.
“You haven’t any!” Esther cried furiously, preferring to demonstrate courage rather than common sense in this situation.
“But truly, fair maiden, you must admit that this quite passes belief! As though you, a princess and heir to the throne, could possibly offer any help to a band of outlaws!” The chief guffawed again.
“I could and would,” Esther replied determinedly, “if I thought you deserved it, which I’m beginning to doubt now,” she added drily.
“But really, Princess, why would you?” Lorenzo apparently thought it was about time he took over the conversation again. “Excuse our skepticism, but we’re all men of the world here, and know better than to expect anyone in a high position to consider helping less fortunate people, especially when their interests conflict with their own.”
“But it so happens that they don’t,” Esther retorted. “Helping people whom my uncle and aunt have hurt is precisely what I most want to do, after what they did to me and my mother.”
“Here now, what’s all this?” The bandit chief was completely bewildered by this time. “What wrong have King Rothbart and Queen Tressine ever done to you or your kin? You’re their rightful heir, are you not?”
“Yes, but they don’t really want me to be—that is . . . oh, it will take so long to explain everything,” Esther began despairingly.
“Well, we’ve got all the time in the world, or at least until we see the sheriff coming,” Lorenzo said cheerfully. “Suppose we stop and pitch camp here for the night; it’s a nice level spot here, and our lady captive can explain whilst we build the fire and make everything comfortable?”
“Well, I don’t know . . . oh, all right then,” the bandit chief stopped his horse abruptly and dismounted, swinging Esther down with him almost before she was quite aware of what was happening. Lorenzo and the aide were already down on their knees, pulling up grass to make a bare spot for a fireplace, and the rest of the outlaws were tying the horses to low branches of nearby trees.
Esther looked up at the bandit chief’s grim face and grinned. “Could I do anything to help, sir?” she inquired innocently.
To Be Continued