By Cate McDermott
“Well, if that isn’t about the queerest thing I’ve ever heard,” the chief remarked thoughtfully, glancing around the circle of men gathered about the fire, as though expecting their corroboration of this sentiment.
Princess Esther looked up from where she was sitting, just outside the ring of bandits, framed in the glowing firelight that threw her profile into stark relief against the dark background of the woods. “Well, it’s the truth, though; and that’s my whole story.”
“Still, I say it’s the queerest thing I ever heard,” the chief reiterated, jiggling his sword in its sheath in a subtle attempt to rouse his men into expressing their agreement with his opinion. “I never before heard of someone coming heir to a throne that they didn’t want, and that they weren’t really wanted for.”
“Politics,” sighed Lorenzo. “The struggle for power: it brings out the worst in all men—raises all sorts of insanely unnecessary complications that no one would bear with otherwise.”
Esther looked at him and giggled, amused by his sudden display of moralism. He winked at her conspiratorially and went on composedly eating a wild pheasant wing. Most of the bandits’ fare consisted of what they were able to hunt or gather in the forest. Esther nibbled appreciatively at the stewed berries on her tin plate, which she had carefully balanced on her knees as she sat on a moss-covered log. Her captors had shown a tolerable amount of regard in treating her with the distinction due to a lady, although the chief’s aide and two other of the bandits still stood a close guard over her while she ate. Esther had no intentions of trying to run away, but there was no harm in asking politely for the opportunity.
“So, what are you going to do about me now?” she inquired cautiously. “If you know I’m on your side, won’t you be willing to let me go?”
“Go where?” demanded the chief, gruffly as ever. “You don’t want to go to the palace, Princess Esther; you have nowhere else to go in Tryfort, and you can’t go home. Much better for you just to stay with us.”
“But I can’t!” Esther cried. “I couldn’t become an outlaw! Besides, Grandfather and the children will be so worried if they don’t hear that I reached the palace safely.”
“We can send word to them; you don’t have to worry about that,” the bandit chief said reassuringly. “And no one’s asking you to become an outlaw. We’re not really outlaws here; the law’s entirely on our side, and it’s merely the tyrannical abuse of power that has lost us our rightful lands and turned our allegiance away from the throne of Tryfort.”
“But once I become Queen of Tryfort, I’ll give you back everything that has been taken from you unjustly,” Esther said eagerly. “I promise! The first thing I’ll do when I reach the palace will be to look into all your cases; I’ll have Master Youngford explain them to me. And who knows, if I can work myself into my aunt and uncle’s good graces, I might be able to help you out even before I take the throne.”
“Nay, I doubt that, fair princess,” responded the chief. “You do not know King Rothbart and Queen Tressine; I do. No one, no matter how high in their good graces, could sway them to retract from their position once taken.”
“Unless they were convinced that it was in their own best interest, as in my case,” Esther pursued earnestly. “If I could persuade them that it would be good for them to have you on their side to help defend the country against some nation whose ambassador they had ill-treated, for example, or something like that, they might see the point in letting you have your lands back—even if you haven’t any right to them!” she added with a laugh. “You still haven’t offered me any conclusive proof that you didn’t deserve to lose your lands; and your behavior to me has been quite against your claims, you know.”
“Why, in what do you complain of our treatment of you?” Lorenzo demanded, with a fine imitation of injured resentment. “Haven’t we been as polite and accommodating to Your Ladyship as any courtier?”
“I wouldn’t know; I’ve never met a courtier before,” Esther responded. “I’ve led a very retired life at Meriway,” she added seriously, endeavouring to keep a straight face.
“Well, of course, in that case . . . I-er, well-ah-well,” Lorenzo stammered, trying to gather his wits back together after being thrown off in this manner. Esther laughed right in his face, accompanied by the majority of his comrades, whereupon Lorenzo subsided considerably from the front ranks of the discussion.
“I just don’t see what good it’s going to do for you to go to the palace.” The bandit chief returned to his original line of argument. “If you stay with us for a time, we could gather more forces—a lot of other folks who have grievances would also join us if they knew that you, the rightful heir, were with us. And then, when we rise against King Rothbart and Queen Tressine at last, there would be no anarchical squabbling over who should take over the throne: everyone would know it would go to you, and we all would stand by you to enforce it.”
“In return for favored court positions afterward, I suppose,” Esther returned drily. “But you forget that I have no experience in governing a realm; I was to be brought to the court of Tryfort in order to obtain the necessary knowledge and expertise for ruling.”
“Humph! I don’t know that the manner of ruling that you’d learn from King Rothbart and Queen Tressine would be one much worth having, Princess,” replied the chief, scowling.
“Better than none at all,” Esther retorted. “Besides, they weren’t going to be teaching me; Alyssa told me I was to have a tutor in Master Youngford.”
“Oh, him?” Lorenzo came back into the discussion with renewed interest. “Nice chap, as I recall. I knew him, back when I was a courtier, Your Highness,” he grinned. “A very wise fellow, but a bit hide-bound. Old-fashioned allegiance, if you know what I mean. And this Alyssa you mention, was she that pretty maiden with you?” a look of complacent approval came over his face at the memory.
“Yes, the one you treated so very rudely,” Esther came back at him readily.
“Well, what else could I do, Your Highness?” Lorenzo demanded, looking injured again. “It was all for the cause. I just obeyed orders, and I did try not to inconvenience her any more than I could help. She was pretty, though,” and he stretched out his long legs and leaned back, meditating on these pleasant reflections with half-closed eyes.
Esther shook her head at him, with a reproving smile, which she knew quite well he would not observe, and then returned her attention to the chief.
“But anyhow, Princess Esther, what makes you so sure you couldn’t learn anything about ruling, here in the forest with us?” asked that individual, his scowl growing heavier and yet somehow also less alarming, the more he pondered on the weighty issue. “I assure you, it takes more diplomatic skill and judicious exercise of authority to govern a band of unruly vagabonds than ever I had to employ back when I was lord of my own estate. You could learn a deal from us—not the least in warcraft, which is always one of the primary duties of a head of state, commander-in-chief of the nation’s forces.”
“I suppose . . .” Esther said slowly.
“Not wishing to boast, of course, but some of us here belong to lines going back further than the Royal House itself in Tryfort,” the chief added. “And there are those who would argue that we have therefore a greater claim on the throne. Your joining with us could unify both sides. Stay with us, Princess Esther,” he continued compellingly, “learn of us how to survive, to rule, to fight for one’s land and justice. And some day the throne will be yours. Until then, you will be gathering support and winning the hearts of your lower—but most important and difficult to be gained—subjects. The nobles too will join allegiance to one who has shared in their sufferings and losses. You could marry my son, Marcus, too; that would give you an alliance to half the most influential families in the kingdom,” he added brightly.
Esther gasped, and glanced involuntarily over at the dark, silent, handsome boy who had henceforth taken little part in the discussion. He returned her gaze gravely for a moment, without any apparent interest, and then turned back to his father, poking at the fire. But it did not blaze up half so brightly as Esther’s face did just then!
“Well, really, I . . .” she stammered slightly, then quickly gathered up her dignity once again. “I am quite too young to be thinking of such things. And so is your son.”
“To be sure,” the chief assented quite readily. “I shouldn’t have put such nonsense into your heads. But old men will have their dreams for the young ones, you know, despite the fact that you so rarely oblige us by actually allowing them to come to pass!” he added, laughing. “Never mind, Princess Esther; it was only a chance suggestion, if that. But you see that you could have more security for your future in remaining with us, than in entrusting yourself to the whims of your aunt and uncle, who might decide to dispossess or poison you just as quickly as they decided to reinstate you.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Esther replied quietly. “But I was prepared to take the risk, as it seemed that my duty lay in that direction. I do not see that my duty lies in any way towards you—begging your pardon, sirs, of course, nothing personal—and I have no reason to trust myself to you any more than to my aunt and uncle. You live as outlaws, no matter what you claim to be in reality; this is no place for a proper young maiden of noble station.” Esther sat up very straight and smoothed back her hair.
“Whew, that’s quite a condemnation, chief! What are we going to do about it?” inquired Lorenzo, grinning at Esther.
“You are going to be quiet, sir, and kindly remain so!” the chief rejoined, crushingly. Lorenzo subsided once again, consoling himself with his pheasant wing “Well, fair maid, I see your side of the matter, but I did wish I could influence you to accept ours. Because, you see, whether or not you agree voluntarily to join with us, there is simply no way we can allow you to go on your way to the palace. It has nothing to do with you,” he continued, checking Esther’s attempt at interruption with a commanding motion of his hand; “it is simply a matter of principle. We are enemies of King Rothbart and Queen Tressine. We have kidnapped their heir. Whether their heir joins with us or merely remains our captive, our purpose is fulfilled just the same. If we were to give you up to them, it would be an admission that we accept or at least will do nothing to oppose their tyrannies. Do you understand, Princess?”
Esther had been doing some hard thinking during the chief’s monologue, and now a new plan had popped into her head. “Yes, I think I do understand,” she said slowly. “But allow me to understand this, too: if I were to accept your terms, what would my status be? Would I be kept constantly under guard? Then I might just as well remain a prisoner. But if I would have some control, within the band . . .” she let her voice trail off, uncertain of whether it would be wise to say any further.
“Why, Princess Esther, didn’t I just say that you would learn to rule from us?” the chief protested. “And how could you learn that unless you were given a place of independent authority and privilege within the band? You might consider yourself my ward; and if, by some mischance, we failed to repossess the throne for you, you could at least have your share in the government of the band after my death, with Marcus.” He glanced at his son again.
“I wouldn’t want to rob him of any part of his inheritance,” Esther said quickly. “I understand the risks involved in attempting to acquire one’s right to the throne in this way; if we fail, I would not expect any further recompense from you. That would not be fair.”
“Ah, ‘tis evident that we have in our midst Tryfort’s one hope for a wise and just ruler again!” the chief exclaimed, looking as misty-eyed as it is possible for a hardened old noble-landowner-turned-bandit to do. “Then we may consider it settled, Princess Esther?” he extended his hand to her as he spoke.
“You may,” Esther returned, with the barest emphasis upon the “you,” as she put her small, dainty hand into his hard, rough clasp. The chief did not seem to note the dry irony of her tone, but his son looked up at Esther, quickly, then as quickly looked away again. But in that one moment, the purpose of each had become evident to the other. How strong of allies the rest of the outlaw band would ultimately prove to be, Esther did not know. But that in Marcus she had found a friend to trust, she realized almost instinctively.
It was impossible to discuss the matter, however, in the presence of the rest of the band; and furthermore, there was no time. The chief rose to his feet. “Down on your knees, all of you, and swear your allegiance to the new member of our band and the next ruler of Tryfort, Princess Esther!”
“Princess Esther!” echoed the rest of the men, as, led by the willing Lorenzo, they one and all knelt ceremoniously before her.
Esther rose as well, blushing a little at receiving her first display of loyal homage, and wondering exactly how it would be best to respond. The blond-haired aide caught her eye, and mouthed the words, “thank you.” Esther took the hint, and, inclining her head slightly to him in grateful acknowledgement, began:
“I thank you all, good sirs, for your acceptance of me and your proffered services in pursuit of my throne. That our alliance may be of mutual benefit to us all, and that I may well endeavour to deserve and maintain the regard that you offer me, is my earnest wish; and—that is all I have to say, thank you,” she concluded somewhat abruptly.
“Hear, hear!” cheered Lorenzo and the rest of the men, who found this brief method of political address very much to their taste.
“It allows us to get back to our dinner all that much faster, you see,” as Lorenzo explained it later.
To Be Continued