The biggest, meanest looking bandit is moving about the inside of the circle, soapboxing to the tied-up minstrels. A shattered lute lays next to an unconscious man who is bleeding from the head.
“Look ‘ere,” the biggest bandit says, “The rest of you can go. We just want the White Witch. But first, we need you to tell us where you found her. Is that so hard?”
“We’ll tell you nothing!” shouts a redheaded kid in a bright green tunic.
One of the bandits gives him a cuff, but he puts a little too much pepper in his swing. The redhead falls to the ground in a heap, unconscious.
“Sorry,” the bandit says sheepishly.
“You can’t keep knocking everyone out,” the leader says. “Who am I’m going to question, then?”
“Didn’t mean too.” He slinks away from the red and green heap.
The biggest bandit turns back to the remaining minstrels. “Maybe you’d like us to bring you to Asphodel?” he says. “Because if you don’t tell us where you saw this little witch’s friends, we’ll have to bring you to him. And nobody wants that, right?”
He spins around, throwing his arms out wide and smiling. Ew. Asphodel definitely does not include dental in his henchmen plan.
“You tell us where the other White Witches are, we make more money for bringing them to Asphodel, and you get to keep your souls,” Raging Gingivitis is saying in his most reasonable voice. “How ‘bout it?”
I’ve seen enough. I pull Tudie back until she and I can speak without being heard.
“We can’t leave her. She’s one of the Big Three,” Tudie says. “She’s too important—far more important than me. We must save her.”
It’s not like I was going to leave her. She’s just a kid. However, I was going to suggest we hide until dark and then run back to get Torvold. But now that Fortitude itself is telling me to knuckle up, I do. I swing my pack off my back and put it down between us.
“We need a plan. I’ve got some spells on me.”
I pull out a small tie-string bag and place each spell gently on the ground between us. There’s a yellow one the size of a baseball, a silver one the size of a soft ball, and a tiny brown one the size of a marble.
“What do they do?”
I point to each in order and name what’s in them. “Bees, bear trap, and hedgehog.”
“What’s so terrible about the hedgehog?”
“I think he’s rabid,” I say. Tudie makes a doubtful face. “It’s the best I could get! Where are your spells, by the way?” I say, feeling put-upon.
“Alright, alright,” Tudie relents. “Put the rodent away. I think we can manage with the bees and the bear trap.”
I tuck the tiny hedgehog spell into my skirt pocket so I don’t lose it, and offer Tudie a choice between the other two. She takes the bees.
“Okay, so what we have to do is…” I trail off when I see Tudie look over my shoulder and stiffen. “There’s a bandit right behind me, isn’t there?”
“Two,” Tudie says regretfully.
I turn and see two scruffy looking men. I don’t recognize them from the circle in the clearing. They must be the look-outs.
“What you have to do, Pretty, is stand up and come join the party,” drawls the bandit behind me.
“Join the party,” the other one parrots, guffawing.
They’ve got a smarmy way about them. I’ve had plenty of time to get acquainted with their type in the post Knob Knoll version of Lucitopia. These are the guys who starts carrying off all the women under twenty after the White Witches are dead.
“Bees,” I say to Tudie, standing slowly to give her cover.
“Bees?” she repeats dumbly. Then she gets it. “Oh, bees!” She throws the spell and it hits the guffawing bandit right in the face.
“My eyes!” he starts screaming, “I’m not supposed to get bees in them!”
The other bandit tackles me before I can throw the bear trap. I roll with him and clasp my arms tightly around his neck (despite the full-frontal assault of his BO) so I can get at the blade I’ve got tucked up my sleeve. I pull it out and let go of his head. He rears back and sees that I’m about to stab him in the eye. He moves up and to the side just enough that all I do is skewer the fleshy part of his ear. My blade goes right through it and dangles there, like a very goth piercing.
Having a knife in his ear is enough to get him to fall off of me, though, and luckily, he lands right on the bear trap. BO starts kicking and flailing and howling like crazy.
“Run!” I yell, jumping up and grabbing Tudie.
She digs in her heels. “We can’t leave.”
I throw my head back and growl at the heavens, “Virtue is a pain!” I turn her around and give her a little push away from danger. “You run and get Torvold, I’ll get the little girl!”
I double check my bodice for my blades as I scurry through the underbrush and head back to the clearing. I need a plan. Plan, plan-a-plan-a-plan-plan.
I don’t have a plan, and I’m at the clearing. Instead of seven bandits, there are now four. That’s good in that there are fewer bandits for me to fight here in the clearing, but bad because that means there are three bandits that have been sent to find out what the yelling is about. I hope Tudie is a fast runner.
I hear a man’s blood-curdling scream that ends in a gurgle from the brush behind me. I’m pretty good at identifying screams after my long tenure in Lucitopia, and I think that was Bees in the Eyes dying a bloody death. Spells can’t kill. They’re only illusion. Something else is going on.
Raging Gingivitis sends out one more guy to check on the others. I hide behind the tree while he runs past me and then start psyching myself up.
Gingivitis is having a little conference with his two remaining cohorts. He’s yelling at them, and they’re leaning back. Apparently, Raging Gingivitis’ last name is Halitosis. I edge around the clearing, keeping low, until I get near to where the White Witch is tied up on the ground but there isn’t enough cover for me cut her bonds without the bandits seeing me.
It’s time to get heroic. I step out, fully exposed.
“Ho there!” I yell. I can’t believe I’m doing it now, too, but at least I don’t shoot anyone in the face with an arrow.
Instead, I unleash the hedgehog.
It lands right in the middle of the bandits’ huddle, and straight away I know this spell is different. I can’t see the whole hedgehog, but I can see its furry little outline as it leaps and scurries in a frantic tumble of quills and rabies.
It’s a group spell. Fancy.
All three of the bandits experience the same thing at the same time, and apparently, it’s bad. They start pushing at the faint outline, screaming, “Get it off! Get it off!” in a perfect chorus of terror.
I take my blade and cut the White Witch’s bonds.
“That was marvelous!” she says, jumping up. She gestures to my blade. “May I?” she asks.
I hand it to her and she runs over to the other minstrels and starts cutting their bonds. Now that she’s at it, I take out another blade and go help her. I guess it’s a dick move to leave the rest of them here like that, but that hedgehog isn’t going to last forever. I paid practically nothing for it.
Unfortunately, I’m right. By the time we get the medieval drama club free, Gingivitis has pushed through the worst of the spell and he stumbles over to grab onto the White Witch. She screams and jabs at him with my blade, but she’s definitely not the stabby type. And she’s, like, seven, so arm strength is an issue.
I make a move to run at them, but Gingivitis holds my stolen blade up to the little White Witches’ throat.
And now I’m pissed. It’s bad enough that thugs like this are after Dex and Tudie, but she’s just a kid.
“Let her go!” I snarl at him.
“Or you’ll what?” he says, taunting me. He’s still getting gnawed on by the hedgehog, but he’s got such a huge wellspring of naturally occurring asshole in him that it can’t help but bubble to the surface in the form of banter. He leers at me. “You’re an interesting one, aren’t you?”
“Let go of that little girl and I’ll show you how interesting,” I promise.
I’m in a crouch and I’m starting to come around. I’m going to try and flank him while my disease-riddled compadre still has some steam in him. I’ve palmed another blade from my dress and I’m hiding it in the folds of my skirt, but the other two guys are starting to recover now. I’m going to be in a lot of trouble in a second.
I hear footsteps running up fast behind me. I look just in time to see Torvold, turned into a bolt of pure fury, as he slashes through the two bandits behind me.
“That’s far enough!” Gingivitis screams frantically. The little witch gives a girlish shriek as the blade cuts a tiny bit into her skin.
Torvold comes to an abrupt halt next to me. “You alright, princess?” he asks. His voice is low, and his teeth are bared.
“Fine,” I say crisply. “Except I really don’t like him.”
I might be hallucinating, but I think half of Torvold’s mouth just twitched up into a smile.
“You two a couple, then?” Gingivitis says, wagging his eyebrows at Torvold. “She’s a game one. I bet she gives you a run for it, though, doesn’t she?”
I can feel Torvold’s temper getting away from him. Gingivitis can see it, too.
“I’ve got a game for you,” I say before Gingivitis can push Torvold into making a mistake. “You let go of the girl, and I throw a blade right between your eyes.”
“You’re just bluffing,” Gingivitis says.
“Your men are dead,” Torvold says, his temper restored. “You’re all alone in this. I’ve taken your horses, your provisions, and the only weapon you have is a dagger. You will never make it back to Asphodel alive.”
What a badass.
Torvold eases to the left and I edge more toward the right. If we split up, one of us might be able to get behind him. Gingivitis starts backing up, trying to keep the two of us in his sights.
“Stop right there,” Gingivitis growls again, and he squeezes the little girl closer to him. She whimpers, and I try a different tactic.
I see a lump just behind Gingivitis. The lump is the unconscious red-headed minstrel in green. He’s blended in down there with the leaflitter. I hold both my hands up and let the blade I’ve palmed slip to the ground. I take one slow step toward the hostage situation.
“Do you know who I am, sirrah?” I ask the bandit. He frowns, his eyes darting between me and Torvold. He takes a step back. I take another step forward and smile brightly. “I’m Princess Pleasant.”
“Pull the other one,” he tells me, disbelievingly.
“I am,” I insist, taking another step. “And if it’s gold you’re after, I have coffers full of it.”
He takes another step back. “You do look rather like her,” he admits.
“Just let me have the child,” I say sweetly. I take one last step. “That’s all I care about.”
He takes that final step back and stumbles over the red-headed boy.
“Torvold!” I yell, but he’s already two steps ahead of me.
Torvold catches the White Witch in his arms and rolls away from the bandit, shielding the girl with his body.
Gingivitis pops back up on his feet before I can get a dagger out of my garters (stupid petticoats) and he dashes into the trees. I’m a few hundred yards after him when I hear the distinct sound of horse hooves pounding the ground. A few moments more and I catch a glimpse of him through the brush, and then he breaks the tree line and I can see him riding off the road and across the rolling hills.
I stand there, watching him disappearing toward the setting sun.
“He rides west, toward Asphodel,” Torvold says behind me. I turn and his eyes dart down to the dagger in my hand. He blurts out, “How many of those do you have?”
“A few,” I hedge. I look down at the little White Witch clutching Torvold’s hand. “Are you injured?” I ask her.
She touches the cut on her neck. “It stings,” she says. “But I’m already recovered.”
“I have bandages in my saddle bag, your Grace,” Torvold tells the little girl. “Let us rejoin the others.”
As I pass through the clearing I start gathering up all my blades and hiding them in my dress. The White Witch runs to aid her minstrel friends, telling them that they’ve been rescued.
“Why did you go ahead like that?” Torvold asks behind me.
I don’t look at him. I retrieve the knife that Gingivitis took from the littlest Witch. “I wanted to enjoy the air,” I reply, turning away from Torvold so I can put it in my bodice.
“Enjoy the—” he begins but cuts off when I walk away and go to where I dropped the dagger in the leaflitter. “You must stay with the group, Princess.”
I find it, stand, and walk away from him. I head toward the trees. I left a blade in Bear Trap’s ear. After a moment Torvold catches up to me. He walks backward facing me for a moment, trying to get me to look at him.
“It was very dangerous. You could have been killed,” he says. I brush past him, but he follows me. “You could have gotten Fortitude killed.” He’s getting angry now.
I go to where I see two bloody heaps and stop. Torvold steps in front of me.
“Princess, you must promise me you won’t do something like that again,” he demands. He makes a frustrated sound. “I was worried about you. When I heard screaming up the road, and you were gone—” he looks away and swallows, unable to finish. He reaches out to touch my arm.
This, right here. This standing close together in the soft light of sunset with his vulnerable eyes looking down on me as he reaches out with his lips parted like he’s just about to kiss me—this is exactly what I can’t do anymore. This is the kind of malarkey that’s going to get me stuck in this rotten book forever. Or worse.
I take a step back and then around him, dodging his hand. “Fear not, good Sir Knight,” I say cheerfully. “I was lost in thought and travelled too far ahead. I realized my folly as soon as I encountered danger, yet I knew that a simple band of ruffians would be no match for you. You have proven your valor yet again.”
I go to Bear Trap and see that his head is no longer employed by the rest of his body. I seriously consider leaving my blade but know I shouldn’t. I find his head and keep my eyes averted as I yank out the dagger. I clean it hastily on the ground, trying not to barf.
Torvold has been silent. I look up at him and wish I didn’t. Though my words have been nothing but praise, he looks as though I’ve slapped him.
“Is that all you have to say to me, my princess?” Torvold asks.
I straighten. I shift from foot to foot. I can’t bear to see him hurt. “I’m sorry I scared you,” I reply contritely.
“Why did you go ahead like that?” he asks again. “Did I do something to offend you?” He takes a step closer. “Dex mentioned that you seemed angry I had spoken to our hostess alone and that I wasn’t forthcoming about it. I assure you, princess, all we did was speak.”
Put that way, my behavior seems silly now. Of course all they did was speak. I smile at my own foolishness, my face suddenly hot. He smiles when I do and moves closer to me.
“Was that it?” he asks, not letting it go until I answer him.
“Possibly,” I admit stiffly. His smile broadens until his dimple makes an appearance. He’s standing close to me again. Now he’s touching my arm and drawing me against him. My hands come up to rest on his firm chest. Didn’t I just say that I wasn’t going to do this anymore?
“Are you going to kiss her?” asks a piping voice.
Torvold and I jump apart and see the littlest witch standing not far off with her minstrel friends. They have these half-embarrassed, half-expectant looks on their faces that tell me all of them have been watching us for a while. I practically run away to find Dex and Tudie.
I can’t get jealous again. He’s not mine. I can’t get distracted by his shoulders and the dimple and the deep sweetness of his laugh. This is ridiculous. He’s a character. In a book. From now on, no more playing footsie with Torvold.
I know I’ve said that a few times before, but this time I mean it.