The church bell rang in great, thundering tones, the bellows of a giant echoing across the city. The whole capitol was in a frenzy; along with the church bells belting out that ungodly racket, there were the shouts and curses of the city guards, the barking of excited dogs, and the clattering of hooves and cart wheels against the stone streets. Winona imagined the city – built into the side of a hill and crowned by a castle built of stone so white to this day the people swore it was built with magic – as a great anthill, all its workers running around in a panic at the behest of its queen.
Every single one of them was looking for her.
To be more specific, they were looking for what she had just stolen. The princess sat obediently on the horse, hand tied to the reigns and dressed for all the world as a simple peasant’s daughter. Winona led them down the dirt path leading away from the capitol, trying not to smile at her latest success. God, she was good. It would take the guards ages to search the city and realize the princess was long gone. By the time they had realized the princess was gone, Winona and the princess were already on their way to the next town.
“You’re a villain,” the princess sniffed. She had the most miserable expression on her face, and she had looked that way ever since her last escape attempt. She had slipped off the horse and ran to a traveling merchant ahead of them, begging him to believe she was the princess. Winona had simply apologized to the man for her ‘younger sister’s’ wild imagination, and explained that the girl was just a tad touched in the head. He had smiled at them, handed the princess a bright red apple, tipped his hat and went on his way. Winona made sure the girl was tied tight to the reigns from then on.
“Guilty as charged,” Winona said.
The princess apparently didn’t know how to respond to such a confession of Winona’s moral failures. They traveled in silence for the next mile, where they came upon a fork in the road. Winona took them off the main Royal Highway and onto the little dirt road that would lead them to one of the smaller villages far from the capitol. They were making good time, and less than two days away from their destination.
“Why are you doing this?”
“For such a reason you’d kidnap me? Your queen’s daughter?”
“Your mom’s no queen of mine, princess.”
“I have a name! It’s Rosa!”
“You can call yourself Sweet Pea for all I care,” Winona said.
“What’s your name?”
Winona suddenly had a vision of the next twenty miles being nothing but a game of Twenty Questions with an indignant fourteen-year-old.
“You can’t be stupid enough to think I’d tell you that.” The princess huffed, and probably would have crossed her arms if she could have. Winona wondered what it must be like living in a castle, filthy rich and with a small army of servants catering to her every will. Well, after this job, Winona would have the money and the servants, too. Two out of three wasn’t bad.
“What will happen to me?”
Winona glanced behind her. The girl’s face had fallen, all haughtiness forgotten.
“I hand you off to my employer, he pays me, he sends a ransom note to your dear mama, your mama pays it, and we all go home happy and filthy rich.”
“Do you promise?”
“Promise me I’ll be okay?”
Winona didn’t glance back this time. Instead, she kept her eyes focused on the road.
“Yes, I promise.”
* * *
The inn wasn’t pretty, or spacious, or even particularly clean. There was one bed and one thin, ratty blanket, and Winona could hear the wind whistling through gaps in the walls.
“You can’t expect me to sleep there,” Rosa said. She looked at the bed like one would regard a mangy, rabid mutt.
“Either that or the floor,” Winona said. She forced off her boots with her foot and crashed onto the bed. “Here, you can even have the blanket. Just remember, if you try to escape, that these roads are full of bandits who’d love to get their hands on a pretty girl like you.”
Rosa slipped into bed a few minutes later, and Winona blew out their bedside candle. Winona didn’t stay awake long enough to know if the girl hard fallen asleep; when she had finally drifted off, Rosa’s breathing was still curled into a tight little ball and her breathing was harsh and shallow. Was she crying? Winona dismissed the thought. The girl would be fine; hell, she’d be back home and under her down-feather comforters in less than a week.
Winona started awake to find a knife held against her throat. A man – or woman, she couldn’t tell in the darkness – stood over her, holding the knife, while someone else pulled Rosa toward the window.
“Help me! Please! You promised!”