Excerpt for The Beginning of Freedom by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Part One: Survival

Chapter 1

Princess Alisa, of the Woodrow Empire, lay on her bed mournfully. It wasn’t that she had things to do; it’s that she didn’t want to do them. That was the problem with being royalty: your whole schedule was planned out by your advisors. Or, should Alisa get really unlucky, her father. She really didn’t want to go to the wine tasting that several different companies had arranged with her family, so she simply called one of her girls into her rooms, stripped her naked and wore her clothes. Being careful to leave the unfortunate maid tied up with a gag on in the closet, she stealthily stole her escape out the side window. It was a short hop to the ground, and besides, the horse grooms had trained her in the art of falling gracefully. She hiked down the road in her tattered brown dress which was several sizes too small, but she walked quickly enough and sure enough so that ignorant thieves might not decide to take her. Sheltered she was, but ignorant she was not. She went down the mud road, passing bread stands, fruit stands and meat stands. People were milling around and she walked quickly through them in the direction of the town to the north, Ravenfell.

Why she left, she still didn’t know. Boredom couldn’t be the entire reason, could it? There had to be something else. For Alisa had everything: a royal family, a royal castle, royal maids and royal marriage prospects. But her problem was that she had never been outside of the castle, save for once when she was a baby and they wanted to parade her around to show the populace that an heiress had been born. Since then, however, Alisa had gained many brothers, so prospects of her ruling were very dim. Also, she was not the murderous type, so killing tended to disgust her. So did wars. She was happy in a way to have brothers, so she wouldn’t have to deal with wars and spies and enemies and who was capable of poisoning your cup of wine. Alisa had started drinking wine when she was ten, and although she always had a maid drink it before she tried it, she wished to be a simple girl herself who didn’t have to worry about such nonsense.

She also had no friends. Well, her girls were her friends, but they weren’t her equal. She overheard them talking about her and about other frippery, but she could never join in, for everyone would start to talk guardedly and measure their words in front of her.

So she left. And now she was on the road to the nearest town which was not under her father’s control.

She had passed the vendors and now walked with wagons at a steady pace down the dusty road. To either side was lush forest, which was even threatening to encroach on the road if they did not get axed soon.

She was passing many wagons at her fast pace, and was already dehydrated. She considered obtaining a coconut from one of the trees and drinking its juice, but that was too much work for too little profit. She instead decided to poke her head into one of the wagons to ask if they could spare some.

“Get out of here, little girl,” said the driver, a pockmarked man who could stand to lose a few pounds. “We don’t deal with ones such as yourself.”

“Aw, can’t we keep her, pops?” said a boy on the verge of manhood who was sitting in the wagon, so Alisa couldn’t see his face. He stuck his head out and his jaw dropped, much to Alisa’s distaste. "Wow, she’s beautiful!” he cried.

“If you like the fact that she’s so muddy she looks like she’s been living with the pigs for the past year,” said his father, spitting on the ground in front of Alisa. Alisa gracefully jumped over that wet spot on the ground and continued to keep pace with the driver and his wagon.

A girl poked her head out where her brother had been before. She looked to be about eight, and she had beautiful blond braids. “I like her, too, Papa, can’t we keep her?” she wept, all the while winking at Alisa with a sly expression.

“I suppose,” the father sighed, all the while making his wagon go faster so Alisa had to run to keep up. After a few seconds, though, he slowed down and jumped down from his seat. He was sweating profusely and he looked nearly as dirty as Alisa was. He stuck out his hand. "Zachary,” he said. “These are my children: Mark, Jessica and Robert. Robert’s on the inside, so you can’t see him. He’s still a baby. We have a very peculiar profession. We are actors. Would you like to become an actress and perform with us?”

Alisa had a feeling that he knew she would say yes, but she said yes anyway.

“Good,” said the man. “Hop in the back, we have to make good time to Greyfell because we have a show there tonight. I hope you don’t weigh much.”

“Papa!” accused the little girl. “That’s not nice!”

“She doesn’t look like she weighs much,” said the boy doubtfully. “Come, sit next to me.”

“Quickly, we haven’t got all day,” ordered the father.

Alisa hopped on the back of the wagon and shimmied her way to the front, where the boy and his sister were sitting. “Acting?” she said, a bit imperiously.

“Mark,” said the boy, extending his hand.

Alisa took it after some hesitation. “I apologize,” she said, “I am not instructed in matters of local etiquette. Am I supposed to shake hands with my hand up or down?”

“What, so I can kiss it?” the boy laughed. “I think you worry too much. I wouldn’t worry so much if I was you.”

“He likes you,” said the little girl pointedly. "I’m Jessica. Nice to meet you,” and she extended her hand. Alisa shook it with a faint smile.

“Let’s work on the script,” said Mark.

“Could I please have some water first?” Alisa said in a small voice.

“No problem!” said Zachary. “Mark, give her some water.”

Robert screamed in his cradle.

“Oh, that’s our baby brother, he’s not that important,” said Jessica hastily. “We use him for random scenes that require a baby. Now:” she said in the manner of an instructor, “we will teach you all your lines. We memorize everything.”

“I call her ‘the little director,’” said Mark. “She’s always telling me what to do.”

“And she’s a damned good one, too!” yelled Zachary hoarsely.

They practiced their lines for hours before they came to a stop at Greyfell. Jessica and Mark were inventive, changing the storyline so that Alisa had an important part in the events. They finally stopped at Greyfell and were setting up the stage when Alisa heard a scream: “Alisa!” said the screamer. “What are you doing so far from the palace?” The small crowd gathering for the night’s performance separated to reveal the screamer: a dense middle-aged woman who was wearing a smock nearly as dirty as Alisa’s. At once Alisa identified her as the palace’s chief cook. “What are you doing here?” Alisa stammered. Then, remembering that she was in command, she said, “Why aren’t you back at the castle? My father and I will miss your magnificent cooking!”

The woman put a finger to her lips. “Shhh!” she said. “I left my second in charge, but just for one day! You mustn’t punish me, your grace! I was just scouting for some new spices, and...”

“That is fine,” Alisa sniffed, somewhat expertly after observing others in the same situation thousands of times throughout her life. “No more transgressions, though,” she warned, with her finger in the air for emphasis.

The woman left the crowd and there was a collective sigh from the crowd, which had swelled in size even in the little time that Alisa and the cook were talking.

“Alright, we have ten minutes until we start,” said Zachary. “Everyone remember their lines?”

All four of the children nodded, although the baby was only going to be a prop.

“Good,” the man said. He looked positively radiant, a polar opposite of what Alisa had seen when they saved her life down by the hot, dusty road.

The crowd was getting restless, and Alisa and her companions were getting pelted with eggs and tomatoes from a pair of drunk twins (they looked exactly alike). Then they all bowed to the audience and everyone was instantly quiet. Zachary bent down to the stage floor and gingerly picked up a cracked egg. The crowd cheered as he threw it back at them. Then they began to throw the pieces of the egg amongst themselves. “Popular person,” whispered Alisa at Mark. He smiled at her and nodded.

“I give you,” Zachary said to the audience from the raised stage, “The Three Dimwits!” He started clapping and winked to the audience and they took his cue and also started to clap.

Mark, Jessica and then Alisa all filed onto the stage sheepishly. They all took bows, one at a time and then together. Now apple cores were being thrown. “Why, thank you!” said Jessica in a tinny little voice, catching one of the apples and biting into it. “I hope whomever this apple belongs to is not sick!”

The audience roared with laughter.

“Who wants to be my girlfriend?” said Mark, who had started to march in place, swinging his arms.

“I love you!” screamed a teenage female audience member, throwing a handful of flowers toward the stage.

“No, that couldn’t be me,” remarked Mark. “I have no friends!”

“I don’t care!” screamed the audience-member. “I’ll have you for breakfast, lunch and dinner! I’ll be your friend forever!”

“Well, you certainly have charisma,” Mark said, and produced a handful of flowers from nowhere that he tossed at his betrothed. "Now I am taken, alas!” he cried to the audience. “We shall do the deed after the show!”

“How about now?” jeered a middle-aged man with a mustache and potbelly that he eagerly displayed to the embarrassment of everyone else.

“And here we start our story,” Zachary said, to the relief of most of the crowd members. “What befalls our three dimwits as they walk along the road to Greyfell?”

“Rape!” cried out the potbellied man, who was quickly pounded into unconsciousness by his fellow audience-members.

“Pestilence!” said a young girl near the front.

“Plague!” said her friend.

“That’s the same thing as pestilence, my dear,” commented Zachary with a smile. As he was saying these words, Mark, Jessica and Alisa were flailing about with their bodies on the hardwood floor of the stage, pretending to suffer from some horrible illness.

“Kingdom! Knighthood!” said a little boy near the edge of the crowd.

“My oh my, young sir, does your voice carry! Do you also play the trumpet?” Zachary said.

“No, but I would love to play the strumpet!” he cried.

“In his spare time, yes, he does play the trumpet, don’t you, little one?” his mother cooed. “He’s saying big words like ‘strumpet’ and ‘trumpet’ and he’s only seven! What a prince!”

“I’m a real prince,” blurted out Alisa to her own dismay. But she had to run with it now. “Look at my beautiful skirt!” and she turned around so the audience could see her from all directions.

“More like a pretty vagrant,” said the seven-year-old. “Look at all that mud on her dress! Why don’t you fetch me some hot water so I can bathe, girl!” he finished.

The audience burst into laughter, even the women.

Alisa did another good piece of improvisation as she picked up one of the tomatoes on the stage and hurled it at the boy. They boy jumped to catch it and then tossed it back at her.

“Hey, Alisa,” said Jessica, picking up Robert from the corner of the stage and holding him out to her. “Will you take my baby child and groom him for me?”

“Groom? Me?” said Alisa. They were again operating purely on improvisation. Zachary watched them closely as they begun to spin their tale.

“Yes, you, vagrant girl. You should learn how to clean babies, as you are my servant and I shall tell you whatever it is I want. For I am the Emperor! I will take all your money and leave you with only vagrant girls to do your bidding!”

“Ooh!” said the crowd. Alisa could see Zachary scratching his head, and then shrugging. Things were still going well, so he had no reason to intervene.

“Hey, isn’t the King of Woodrow’s daughter named Alisa?” shouted one of the women from the crowd.

“Yes, I was named for her,” said Alisa in a bout of quick thinking. The audience heaved another collective sigh.

“And I was the one who named her!” Zachary jumped in, walking in between the Vagrant Girl and the princess. He took The Baby from the Princess and held him above his head. The Baby started to cry. “I hereby proclaim this baby...” Zachary paused, savoring the dramatic moment--”The Chosen One!”

The audience gasped, and then erupted in hilarious laughter, as the most secret part of their religion was taken to task. “The peasant is that girl Alisa!” shrieked a man with a bad haircut and a bad shave who was holding a giant staff. “And I can be the Magician Protector!”

“I apologize, Goodman,” said Zachary from the stage, “but that position is already taken--by me.”

“I can be your assistant!” shrieked the man. His friends started to beat him up.

“Thank you,” Zachary said cooly. Then he saw something and cursed. “Soldiers,” Zachary muttered. “We need to hide. Now.” Then he addressed the audience: “Sorry, show canceled.” A great groan rose up among the audience, until they began to be attacked by Imperial soldiers wielding batons. And five of them were headed directly toward the stage.

Zachary led his children and Alisa away from the stage and toward the village. They went into a house’s front door seemingly at random, and then down a staircase that was behind a bookshelf. Alisa was scared, for almost the first time in her life. "Don’t worry,” said Mark, his arm protectively around her shoulder as his father led them down a dark passageway. "We’re safe now.”

“That was the last one they didn’t know about,” said Zachary. “I would definitely not use this tunnel again; they’re likely to raze the entire village after this encounter. Why else would they bring that many soldiers? I think I counted fifty out there.”

“Well, so long to Greyfell,” mourned the eight year old, Jessica. Even Robert, normally buoyant and cheerful, seemed sad.

“Where will we go next, dad?” said Mark.

“Well, we need to drop Alisa off, because if they find out we have her then they will double the price on our heads,” Zachary said.

“What do you mean?” said Alisa with too much innocence.

“I know you’re princess of Woodrow,” said Zachary bluntly. "However you escaped there is not my affair, but I need to get you back there as soon as possible.”

“Why now?” demanded Alisa as they went further down the tunnel, brushing the cobwebs from their faces. "Why not before, when I asked your help?”

“Well, I thought it was the safest thing for you to come with us, rather than being picked up my someone far more dangerous,” said Zachary, sounding angry. “I realize now I shouldn’t have done that; everyone, and I mean everyone, knows your face inside and out. It’s even minted on the royal coin!”

“It’s your responsibility to take care of me now,” said Alisa, “and you really can’t take me back home: the Imperial forces will catch me on the way. They will hold me for bounty, as they are technically at war with Greyfell.”

“Hmmm,” Zachary contemplated, “I guess we’ll have to keep you, then.”

“We? What do you mean, we?”

“Oh, me and the children, of course,” Zachary said brightly.

“You know we love you,” said Mark, who had been sitting and listening to the conversation.

“Don’t speak over your father,” Zachary said. "So,” he said, “we might as well go toward the Empire, as we know they’ll be looking for you hardest in the areas that are outside its borders. But we still need a disguise. We obviously can’t be the Merry Little Players anymore, as they are an affront to the Empire’s dignity. And you, Alisa, cannot look like you look right now: you’ll be spotted instantly and you’ll be returned to your family for ransom from the Empire, even though they are technically in alliance with your parents. Unless that’s what you want...

Alisa shook her head vigorously to the negative.

“Thank you very much for keeping my secret,” she said.

“And you know how to butter me up, too,” said Zachary. “Very well, then. We will need to disguise you as well as ourselves.”

“With what?” piped up Jessica. “Are you going to turn me into a boy?”

“No,” Zachary said meanly. “But we will do that to Alisa.”

“Wait,” Alisa said, scared of being identified as one of those grimy creatures who made their wages in fights to the death with other little grimy creatures. “Boys are disgusting. I would never want to become one.”

“Nevertheless,” Zachary pointed out,”--”

“I know,” Alisa said. “It’s the only way to protect me. But what if...” her mind searched for the answer. “What if I turned into a ghost?”

“Is this girl serviceable?” Zachary asked Mark. Alisa took this to mean that he was asking Mark if she was crazy.

“Why do you always steal my thoughts, girl?” Zachary growled at Alisa. “You are a witch, are you not? Do you expect me to believe this fiction?”

“And you are a magician,” said Alisa, upping the ante. “Who cares what we call ourselves, my suggestion will work!”

“Daddy, you’re a magician?” Jessica said irritably. “I thought you said all magicians are evil!”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that, honey darling,” Zachary stated. “Why aren’t we on the road yet? We’ll take the Northeast road to Redstone. Who’s driving?”

When he said “who’s driving” that usually meant Mark was driving. Mark sighed and went up to the open air to take the reins of their two horses.

As they started to roll along the wide dusty road, Zachary said, “I’m tired. I need to get some sleep.” Then he pointed at Alisa: “We’ll settle this tomorrow,” he noted, and fell instantly on his pillow into a deep sleep.

Alisa carefully looked at Jessica, who was sitting opposite her, and Robert, whose head was on Jessica’s shoulder. “Looks like he slept through our argument,” she said sweetly.

“Yeah, she usually goes to sleep when Father is talking,” Mark’s voice came from the front.

“Shhh, I’m sleeping now,” Alisa said. And she slept till the morrow.

Chapter 2

When Alisa woke, Zachary was driving the cart. “Not there yet, still in the middle of the forest, but you can hear some birdies cry if you come up with me,” he said.

Alisa joined him on the bench. “Want to take the reins?” he offered.

She declined. "I think you’d be better at that than me,” she said. “I have no training for this kind of thing.”

“You’re a vagrant girl, are you not?” said the man. “Come, let’s switch places, and I’ll show you.”

He showed her and it was easier than she had expected: she just had to make the horses respect her. Which meant she had to pull on the reins with all her might just to get them to do a simple thing. But, as Zachary had implied, she was a vagrant girl, and what ordinary vagrant girl didn’t know how to control horses? She trusted Zachary on this, because she hadn’t encountered any other vagrant children at the performance. And at home, none of the vagrant children were allowed near her.

All three of the children were still asleep. “Turn down that road,” instructed Zachary. The road was little more than a cow pasture.

“What’s down there?” Alisa said as they turned.

“Some long-forgotten farmer’s apple orchard,” he said. “That’s going to account for all of our food for the next few days. Wake the children for me, won’t you?”

The children were woken and after parking the cart they all went in different directions looking for apples. Zachary carried Robert. They all had baskets, although they were a little flimsy. They would each search for an hour or two and then return to the cart.

Alisa hummed as she went. Her skirt was still covered with mud, although it had somewhat dried over the few hours she was asleep. All the apples she was already carrying in her skirt were dirty. But that’s what streams were for, weren’t they? She looked up at the sun: only half an hour had passed. She sighed, drank some water from the stream, and moved on.

At one point she heard something scrabble in the woods, and she stopped short, trying to hear what it was. Probably a deer of some sort, but she had to make sure: there were rumored to be monsters in the forest. When a few minutes passed, by her clock, she started advancing again. It was a deer, and Alisa was immensely thankful to the gods. But then there was a low growl.

“Sphinx!” shouted someone beside her, and it was Mark. He was holding a flaming stick. “These are our apples, Monster!” he screamed at it. “Go back whence you came!”

“These are my woods,” growled the sphinx. “I haven’t seen you around for quite some time.”

“We were here just last week!” protested Mark.

“And I was here these last seven days,” said the sphinx. He opened up his mouth and roared. After that he said, “my wife is here, too. She will be here now in minutes. So who do you think will win this fight?”

“I will crush you both,” Mark said from between gritted teeth.

“And I will kill and eat your lady friend,” said a voice from behind them.

“You’re here early,” said the sphinx in front of them.

“I never let you out of my sight, my love,” said the female sphinx. She strutted over to where her husband was. “Shall we make it a race?” she said. “I haven’t gotten very much exercise today.”

“Wait!” said Alisa. “I can pass your riddle!”

“How did you know about that?” hissed the male sphinx.

“Everyone knows that,” Alisa commented. She looked at Mark. “Don’t you?” Mark shook his head. “Well, then, at least I know,” she said. Mark glared at her. “You’ll be thanking me soon,” she told him.

“Fine,” hissed the male.

“Go on,” the female told her husband. “You tell it.”

“But which one shall I tell?” he mused.

“Do the one you did yesterday! They weren’t here yesterday.”

“Hmm,” he said. “Fine. I shall do that one again. What is lost, dirty and carrying a burden?”

“We get three tries,” Alisa whispered to Mark. He nodded and was about to say something, but she put her hand on his mouth. “Let me try first,” she said. He glared at her again.

“Okay, I know the answer,” Alisa said. “It’s me! I’m lost, dirty, and my burden is the apples I’m carrying, or, if you want, this vagrant boy right here,” and she indicated Mark. She imagined he really didn’t like her at this moment.

“Conference!” announced the male sphinx. He started to whisper something to his mate.

“That was very hurtful, you know,” said Mark.

“I was just trying to answer the question.”

“Think you’ll be right on the answer?”

“I have no doubt that we’ll be right,” said Alisa.

“We have determined that you are not right,” said the male sphinx after the conference with his wife. “You have two more guesses.”

“But my love, it almost isn’t worth it to eat them! Look at them, they are so scrawny! And they’re also an endangered species. And they’re so dirty!”

“Not after we boil them, love,” said the male. “Water, especially boiling water, washes out most stains.”

Alisa tried not to think about what they were saying. “You go, Mark,” she told the boy. “You can think of something, can’t you?”

“I can try,” he said, his face pale. Alisa thought he didn’t look at all like the confident boy who had greeted her on the wagon. "Okay, What is lost, dirty and carrying a burden, right? Fine.” And Mark started to think.

“Don’t take too long, boy,” said the male sphinx. “We’ll give you five minutes.”

“Six minutes,” said Mark shortly.

“Six minutes it is, then, boy. We’ll be waiting here for your response.”

Mark started to cry. “If you want, I can do it,” offered Alisa.

Mark shook his head no. “Wait,” he said softly. “I’m thinking...”

He stood up from where he had been crouching with his face in his hands. “I know,” he said. “It’s an ant!”

This prompted another conference between the two sphinxes. But almost immediately after it started, they ended the conference and the male sphinx stepped up to them. “No,” he said mournfully. “Just one more try, be careful!”

Alisa knew that the sphinx wanted them to be careful less than he wanted to eat them, but she didn’t protest his statement. After all, he was just trying to be polite.

“One more try!” bellowed the male. His wife roared, almost as fearsome a roar as her husband’s.

“Don’t worry, I think I know what it is now,” Alisa breathed. “Jessica?” she yelled. Then she yelled at the top of her lungs: “Jessica!” Then she heard the sound of a whimper. "It is as I suspected,” Alisa said with fervor. “You have already captured the little girl! You will pay for this!”

“And just how do you suggest to make us pay?” snarled the male.

“The answer to your riddle: is Jessica!”

“Is that the little girl’s name?” asked the female.

“Yes,” said Alisa, firmly.

“Then you get to live,” said the male sphinx, using his claws to clean his mane. “But Jessica still dies.”

“That’s not fair!” said Mark. “She’s my sister! I’ll fight you!”

“How?” asked the female. "You have no natural weapons. Save for that thing you call a ‘head.’”

“You guys have that, too!” yelled Mark. “Give me my sister back!”

“Aw, poor humans,” laughed the male, his wife laughing along with him. Alisa saw Mark running toward them and shouted for him to stop. Then the sphinxes stopped laughing and showed their teeth to Mark as he approached them. Then Alisa had no choice: she took up the flaming stick that was by now only smoking and blew it back to life. Then she charged at the two sphinxes, which by now were deciding who should take the first bite out of Mark, who lay on the ground, bleeding from multiple claw-wounds. So Alisa did the only thing that could help: she played along. “I get to take the first bite!” Alisa declared, taking a step toward them and brandishing the flaming stick. She noticed that Jessica had run her way back to Alisa and was now crying in her arms.

“The girl escaped!” roared the male sphinx.

“It doesn’t matter, dear, this one has more meat.”

“But we could have had both!”

“Look on the bright side, dear. We’ve got a whole day’s meat. I’ll even let you take the first bite, how about that?”

While they were arguing, Alisa had come up with a plan. “Listen, Jessica,” she said, “I think this is the only way we can win. You must catch the attention of the female, so that she will chase you. Then, with her distracted, I will go and kill the male with this flaming stick. After that, we will play it by ear. But with one of them left instead of two, both of our chances of survival go way up.”

Alisa wasn’t quite sure if Jessica understood everything she was saying, but Jessica looked at her and nodded. “I’ll do my best,” she promised Alisa. And she charged at the female sphinx.

Alisa wanted to yell at her “Not yet!” but her chance had passed. Jessica simply ran at the female sphinx. The female, not expecting such a charge from her former prey, stepped back a few steps. Jessica threw herself at the female’s face and the female shook her head to get her prey off, but Jessica held on.

“Hey, where did you go?” shouted the male to his mate.

“Not far!” shouted his wife. “Our former prey is gouging at my eyes!”

“Just kill her!” he said.

“Ahhh! I can’t see!” screamed the female. Jessica was still holding on with one hand. With the other, she was pushing deep into the sphinx’s skull. And then, just like that, the female sphinx shuddered and died.

“Where is she?” questioned the male sphinx. Alisa didn’t say a word; she just held her burning branch like a sabre.

“She can’t have died,” mused the sphinx. “All she had to do to stop that little girl was open her mouth and let her teeth do the rest.”

“Through her eyes up into her brain,” said Alisa. “That’s how it all went down.”

“Hmmm? I’m not familiar with that expression. Could you please clarify?” said the male sphinx.

“Your mate is dead,” said Alisa.

“My wife cannot be dead,” he said. “Where’d you go, honey? Are you here?”

“She can’t hear you,” Alisa said.

Jessica emerged from the forest into the clearing where Alisa stood opposite the male sphinx with her burning branch. "Who can’t hear you?” she said.

“Come over here, Jessica,” Alisa said, motioning with her arm. “Right here. There you go. Now, this is where we leave.”

“Leave?” said the male sphinx. “I have plans for both of you!”

“I think your wife is hurt,” Jessica said. “She needs you to save her.”

“Where is she?”

“Just in that stand of trees! See, there?”

“You had better not be tricking me,” said the sphinx threateningly with a half-roar. And he stalked off.

“Run!” whispered Alisa. And they both ran. In back of them, growing farther and farther, the sphinx moaned for his mate.

Alisa carried Mark’s torso with some difficulty while Jessica held his legs. He drifted in and out of consciousness and said things about his long lost mother as well as ideas for future shows. At the end of twenty minutes or so, they saw that they were approaching the cart. “Here they come!” shouted Zachary, who was alone with the baby. “Did you bring many apples?” "No,” gasped Alisa. “We were attacked by two sphinxes.”

“What?” he exclaimed. He rushed to meet them. “Oh, no, is he dead?”

“Not dead, no,” Alisa grunted, giving Mark to his father.

“Thank goodness!” he said. “Where are the wounds?”

“Just scratches to the chest; I think he’s just more shocked than anything,” said Alisa.

Zachary confirmed that diagnoses. “Let’s move!” he ordered after he had bandaged his son.

They all moved on. Munching some apples sat Zachary next to Alisa as he drove the horses hard. “There’s no burden, anyway,” he told her. “It’s like”

the cart’s empty, all there is are some little kids. No apples, no oranges, no other kinds of produce.

“How long until we reach Redstone?” asked Alisa.

“Two days,” answered Zachary. “With no apples, I’m afraid.”

“Didn’t you get any?” Alisa said.

“We ate all of them last night.

Couldn’t you have gotten any meat?”

“What do you mean, meat...” said Alisa, but then she started to get the joke: “Ah, I see what you mean, sir. That sphinx would’ve been too heavy to carry, though.”

“Aw, shut it!” exclaimed Zachary. “I’m just happy that everyone is safe. Now, I have absolutely no idea where those sphinxes came from! They were hunted to extinction hundreds of years ago!”

“How about in captivity?”

“That must be it!” he said. “Zoos! There’s a zoo in Redstone, they must have escaped from there. Or, perhaps, they were released.”

“What, to hunt apple orchards?” said Alisa with a laugh.

“Don’t underestimate them,” said Zachary, eyebrows raised. “You saw what they can do out there.”

“Aren’t they afraid of humans, though?”

“My daughter, every animal is afraid of humans, if the humans show up with enough numbers.”

“I hope they have lots of babies,” Alisa said reverently.

“Do you want the human race to be extinct, as well?” asked Zachary.

“I heard that Redstone was recently conquered by the Empire,” Alisa said.

“That is correct,” said Zachary with a yawn. “That’s why we’re going there--to blend in. It’s the last direction they’d expect us to go.”

“Or perhaps it’s the first direction they’d expect us to do, as--”

“Let’s not play this game,” said the man. “Just sit back, enjoy life, appreciate your blessings, especially the one that Mark is still alive. You saved him. You deserve a prize.”

A contingent of soldiers was passing by. There must have been twenty of them, to Alisa’s estimate. The commander rode up to them and signaled them to stop. Alisa, who had the reins at that moment, yanked on them and held on. Finally, the cart stopped, a full three meters beyond the officer. The officer didn’t move from his place. “Papers!” he barked.

“Provided,” Zachary said with a cough. He leapt off of his side of the cart and approached the officer with papers he had not been holding the instant before. "Where is this garrison headed?”

“Why do you want to know?” snarled the officer.

Zachary held up his hands in surrender. "Just wondering. I’m from Cliffheight right down southwest of here. I’d love to see it become part of the Empire. Mostly because you people maintain the roads well. When my cart is full with apples and garnishments I really don’t want them to crush against each-other on the road. Bouncing is not good for my wares and turns them into soup.”

The officer actually laughed. "You are surely a charming man. Very well, then: enjoy the road. Only a few more hours.” And he jumped on his horse and was gone with his contingent.

“That was pleasant,” Zachary remarked.

“Soldiers must do their jobs, I suppose,” remarked Alisa.

“I was wondering,” Zachary said after a pause, “What’s your stance regarding Greyfell’s conflict with the Empire?”

Alisa shrugged. “I don’t know and I don’t care,” she said offhandedly, “but let me remember: ah, there it is. The ruler of Greyfell forgot to write a check for some ice he ordered from the north that the Empire was transporting. That’s why the Empire is so mad.”

“That’s a stupid mistake,” said Alisa. “Why didn’t they just pay up?”

“It was a matter of ego, I’m afraid,” said Zachary nonchalantly, chewing on a reed he had obtained from the side of the road. "No one wants to appear weak, so both committed troops, and then you have an all out war...”

“War!” Alisa shuddered. “Horrible!”

“It also does present some opportunities...” Zachary said, looking out into the distance.

Alisa chose to remain silent.

“Fine,” Zachary said, taking the reins from her. “Only a few more hours, as the good captain said… why don’t you go and get some sleep? I’d like some alone time...”

“What are we doing once we get to Redstone?” Alisa couldn’t resist but to ask.

“Going deeper into the Empire, of course,” said Zachary. “That’s where they won’t be looking for us.”

“I really appreciate this, you know,” said Alisa. “You could just dump me by the road and let me find my own way back to Woodrow, but you instead show me compassion. I thank you for that and find it hard to fathom.”

“Well, the Empire would just hold you as a bargaining chip, then,” said Zachary. “That wouldn’t be much fun for you, now, would it?”

“Well, Woodrow technically is not at war with the Empire,” Alisa said.

“But they do support Greyfell, my lady,” said Zachary with a little contempt in his voice.

“You don’t like me,” said Alisa. “I understand. I’m a princess, and I grew up in the most privileged circumstances imaginable.”

“So you can read me like a book,” said Zachary. “Just remember the kindness that I’m showing to you. I’m a nice person. And even though I sometimes appear as not nice, I still have good intentions.”

“You worry too much,” said Alisa, climbing into the wagon and pulling the covers tight over her. “Wake me up in four hours, I’d be happy to drive the rest of the night.”

“Thank you,” said Zachary. “I need to get some sleep in before we reach the next group of soldiers.”

It was coming toward evening and the sun was about to set. Alisa lay on her back, surrounded by Zachary’s children. Mark was sleeping, as he had been all day following the mishap with the sphinxes. The other two children were nestled against one side of the wagon, somehow sleeping comfortably. They were going to Redstone, a nice city and large, as Zachary had described it to her. Of course, they would be plowing right through there en route to the more central cities of the Empire, but Alisa didn’t mind; she would be able to get a great vantage point of the city during the few hours they would be passing through, as she was one of the two drivers of the cart, assuming Mark hadn’t healed as of then. She had often wondered what a big city was like, having of course being raised in a castle with a medium-sized village within its walls. Woodrow was, of course, a power in itself, but that was because they recruited lads from outlying provinces and paid them ample gold to become the country’s soldiers. But to see a city like this was something Alisa had never before experienced. It was indeed curious that she had never left the castle walls, but then again kings tended to be very protectful of their daughters.

The following morning, after only a quarter sun, Redstone came into view. Nestled into a valley, its red-bricked houses and edifices gleamed in the sun and seemed to sparkle. “They like being ostentatious,” explained Zachary when Alisa asked him. “Probably one of the reasons they got conquered by the Empire.”

“I was just wondering, Sir Zachary,” Alisa said.

“Don’t call me that,” Zachary snapped.

“Just wondering,” said Alisa, as if she hadn’t been cut off, “how large is the Empire? And how old? My tutors somehow never got around to it.”

“Probably because they were spies for the Empire,” Zachary mused as they passed several carriages all heading the other way. “Hmm, looks like these people can’t even wait for Greyfell to be conquered--they already are taking it as a given. As you know, my cultured princess, everyone that the Empire conquers gets a special boon; but this only applies to the people that the Empire conquers. Therefore, lots of minor nobility is heading over to Greyfell. They hardly have any land of their own here in the Empire, so they are hastily setting up residence in Greyfell in order to take advantage of the higher status they would obtain as conquerees, of you will of the Empire.

“It’s all about money, isn’t it,” Alisa sighed. “One would have much higher hopes for commoners...”

“It’s not just commoners, my lady,” said Mark in between coughs from the wagon. “Monarchs rule, and keep their rule, because of money.”

Alisa harrumphed.

Zachary, Mark, Jessica and Robert all burst into laughter, though Alisa wasn’t sure how the baby could decide if something was funny. “What’s so funny?” she demanded of them, even though she already knew the answer.

“We did some plays...” Jessica said, gasping for air…”and they were all about you! And this!” she spread her arms wide and continued to laugh.

“Really?” Alisa menaced. “And what did ‘I’ do?”

They just laughed harder. Alisa sighed and closed her eyes as they rode into the city.

Chapter 3

The air was steaming with smells. Some were nice, some not so nice, though Alisa liked to think the nice ones outnumbered the not-so-nice ones. As they went further into the city, though, the not-so-nice smells definitely started to outnumber the nice ones. Waste was thrown into the streets without a care; horses added their own coda as well; and rotten fruit and vegetables outnumbered the fresh ones on farmers’ stands. It was as if the city of Redstone had made a halfhearted effort to brash onlookers to make their city look clean, and then, as one really became acquainted with all the streets, one gathered the truth. Alisa commented upon this to Zachary.

“Yes, my girl,” said Zachary, holding onto the reins nonchalantly with one hand as porters carrying barrels of ale passed him on the other side of the road. “That’s what happens when a city is conquered by the Empire: they get cleaned, outside in. First the outside, so passersby know that it has been conquered, then the innards of the city, once all the dissenters within the city are quelled.”

Alisa didn’t bother to stop and ask her patron why his voice had suddenly turned regal; She merely thought of it as a strange affectation, which in reality it also was. Instead she said, “You mean that the Empire rewards people for their opinions.”

“Correct,” said Zachary. “Hey, kids, this princess is actually pretty smart!”

Alisa’s face burned. “What good is it for me if I stay with you?” she threatened.

“You get out of here alive and treated well,” Zachary returned calmly.

“You get my undying adoration,” pitched in Mark.

“My love, too!” chirped Jessica.

The baby even gurgled a loud gurgle.

“I sense something is unsaid,” said Alisa.

“The point,” said Mark, his disembodied voice coming from the covered wagon, “is that with us, you get a free disguise. At our show tonight, you will play yourself--the kidnapped princess whose destiny is to take back your country, and with it all other countries, from the evil clutches of the Empire. As if he was narrating a prophecy, a man on horseback with a cart full of slaves rumbled past them. “Kill the Empire!” one of them screamed. They all hooted and spat on Zachary and Alisa.

“I see now why the Empire is evil,” said Alisa, wiping some spit from her nose.

Zachary sighed. “These days, anyone who is not a slave is ‘pro-Empire.’ That’s how the Empire gets cities and countries to defect without much opposition: the nobles sell their commoners as slaves and get to keep their nobility as their country transitions to serve as a province of the Empire.”

“Now I finally know why everyone hates the Empire,” said Alisa winsomely. “I guess I will have to play the part of the Noble Dissident.”

“Ah, so you’ve heard the story, then,” said Zachary happily, dodging a barely-alive human who at first looked like he was part of the dusty street.

“Yes, it gets whispered in every circle, now, even in the rulers’ own palaces,” said Zachary, still full of joy.

“Is that the Good Queen?” asked Jessica from the wagon.

“Yes, daughter, it is,” said Zachary, grinning and causing Alisa to also grin, although she didn’t know at what. He looked at Alisa’s somewhat questioning glance. “Don’t worry, my daughter,” he said, fervently patting the bench between them. "You will come and see, eventually, as the prophecy is fulfilled through you.”

“Of course,” Alisa said.

“You will see, girl, tonight,” said Zachary.

“Hey, did you know that all three of us are adopted, just like you?” Mark said, his disembodied voice once again reaching them.

“Shhh,” Zachary said. “Wait until tonight.”

The evening passed quickly, as Zachary found them a place to park the cart and to perform the show. “It’s tricky,” he said to Alisa and Zachary as Jessica fed the baby with bits of apples they had managed to save from the dwelling of the sphinxes. "You have to go to the places that are infested with anti-Empire sentiment, because those places you will be sure that there there are no spies--because everyone knows not only each other but also where everyone goes during the day. Having a handler in this mess would be a tricky task. On the other hand, you don’t want to go to someplace that is too anti-Empire, because that is where they take their slaves. So I think I’ve got the right balance tonight.” He chuckled along merrily, preparing the stage and inspecting all the props.

“This is going to be a special night,” whispered Mark to Alisa as soon as Zachary had gotten out of range. "You are going to be featured as the girl from the prophecy: ‘The Noble Queen.’”

“More like ‘The Noble Princess,’ Alisa said. “I am definitely not a queen.”

“Not yet,” Mark emphasized. “But you will be soon.”

“Who says?”

“The prophecy, of course,” said Mark.

“Whose prophecy?”

“Well, there was this crazy man, stark naked and with a long beard, who was chained to a post in Davenshore, some leagues west of here...”

“West of me, as well, because I’ve never heard of them,” Alisa said.

“Very much west,” Mark gestured. “I was the only one who had heard it. It was then that I gathered all of you, here,” he said, motioning all around her.

“What, Jessica and Robert you could have picked up at some orphanage,” Alisa mused. "And me, you had me by the side of the road. But Zachary?”

Mark’s grin grew wider. “I’m the playwright,” he said, with an air of a regal who reluctantly gives up a secret. “You think Zachary’s in charge?” He started giggling uncontrollably.

Zachary stuck his head in: “It took you that long?” he said, glancing at Alisa and then Mark. He also doubled down in fits.

“I’m done setting up the show, sir,” Zachary told Mark.

Mark held up a hand at Zachary: “Did you know I used to do this show alone?” he said. “I would make up whatever ‘prophecy’ I wanted. But that was until I met a true prophet... ” and his shoulders trembled with the memory. “Then I was no longer controlled by myself, I was instead controlled by the prophecy. Things have a way of happening, the prophecy always gets its way...” and his voice drifted out into nothingness, and he appeared to be looking at something no one else could see. Finally he sighed. “Everyone ready?” he said to both of them, as if nothing had happened. They could hear the raucous crowd forming around the stage, as it was almost sundown. A couple of tomatoes made their way onstage. “That’s my cue,” whispered Zachary. He crept out of the backstage area and onto where the crowd could see him: “Patience, my lovely peoples,” he cautioned them. “That is what will liberate us from the Empire, not direct violence. That would only produce more slaves. Out of you lot,” he said, pointing to all the people who had gathered, by this time a few hundred.

“Your coming awaits you!” shouted a grizzled old man, too old to be taken to the slave pens. "We had it two days ago that you would arrive! And arrive you did!”

“Indeed,” said Zachary to the audience. “Any other forewarnings of our appearance?”

“My papa told me the prophecy said you were coming!” shrieked a little girl of no more years than Jessica’s. Zachary looked questionably offstage, and Mark shook his head with an emphatic “no.”

“Not yet, m’lady!” shouted Zachary to everyone, and the whole collective audience let out a great sigh. “Unfortunately,” said Zachary, “our salvation is not at hand, causing the entire audience to sigh. “But!” Zachary said. “But!” he said again, a declaration: “Your feet must not falter! For the prophecy will come true! It will! Thus say the gods! And each and every one of us will have a part to play in it! Mark my words, it will come true… and soon!”

“How soon!” said a serving wench at one of the local pubs.

“Within a fortnight,” Zachary replied, looking backstage at Mark with exasperation. Mark gave him the thumbs-up signal.

Zachary turned back to the audience. “The Stagemaster confirms it! And he is never wrong! A fortnight, it is!”

This caused the audience to hush and whisper amongst themselves. "Now, let us perform the latest prophecy, one we heard from a man gallop up behind us on a tired horse who was frothing at the mouth, and who died the instant the man slipped down from the saddle!”

The audience roared. Alisa could see that a few dozen mounted patrols were gathering at one of the places where the crowd ended.

“Make no mistake, this was it!” said Zachary, pacing up and down the stage. This was the signal to start the play. So they started it: Mark strolled onto stage with a hoe in hand, hoing some hay back and forth on the stage. “Look at this innocent peasant farmer!” Zachary declared. "He has nothing except for the few cabbages the ground gives him and the cow he milks for him and his family! But he is not alone: the Empire lurks behind every corner!” Zachary cast a fleeting look at the armed soldiers on horsebacks and then backstage. Mark made another “thumbs up” gesture and waved his arm, instructing Zachary to continue his lines.

“This farmer!” he continued, “almost devoid of personal possessions, wishes simply to live! To live! Is that too much to ask?”

“No!” roared the crowd, which was composed of diverse ages and diverse genders, so their roar was extremely well balanced.

“What do we want of the Empire!” said Zachary.

“To not exist!” roared the crowd, completing the formula, which had apparently rushed ahead of their coming to Redstone.

“How do we accomplish this!”

“Fight, steal and lie!” roared the crowd. Some of the Imperial horses gave nervous whinnies.

Jessica strode onto stage, carrying Robert in her arms. “Look at this poor child!” shouted Zachary. “She has nothing, no food, no water! Why? Because she gives it all to her baby brother!” And Jessica held up Robert for all the audience to inspect. The audience was quiet as she did so.

“This baby, born innocent and not with guilt as those from the Empire would have you believe...” and this was said to even more whinnies from the horses.

“This Empire, who rules for one purpose: slavery!” shouted Zachary. He was answered by fists from the audience being raised airborne.

“Look at your peers!” Zachary said, once the sound had died down. “Your allies in this audience, but also your fellow guardsman.”

“Not anymore,” spat a man with little to wear and a deep scar down one cheek. Murmurs answered him.

“That’s correct, Goodman!” said Zachary. “Look at them, with their burnished horses, polished armor, and all their swagger--of course, meant to maintain public order, but in this case meant to maintain public tyranny…”

The crowd yelled and hooted but the men with their horses remained where they were: at the edge of the audience, without any apparent response to the provocation.

“You know what to do!” Zachary screamed at the audience, fists raised.

“Yes!” yelled the audience, particularly the adult males, who strained to push the horses and their riders away from the stage.

The horses, and with them their riders, broke rank and fled, the wild mob chasing after them, until all who remained were little tots and elderly people.

“They will be out for our blood, now,” remarked Zachary. “We’d best be on our way to the next town.” He bent over to talk to a kindly old woman: “M’lady, we will perish surely from the Empire’s lances if we don’t take about five hundred of your carrots and five hundred mushrooms,” he said. “Would the kind lady be amenable to--”

“Take it take it all!” she gestured, in a movement that seemed somehow too young for her somber age. "Gods know I don’t deserve it. Go, bring the revolution, go!” she said, the last statement ending in a bark.

“Well?” said Zachary, gazing back to Mark and Alisa.

“The lady still speaks,” said the old woman, “and her prophecy does not lie.” Alisa looked at her and her eyes had somehow become clouded. “Hear me now, for here is the prophecy:”

“What prophecy?” said Zachary suddenly. He glanced toward Mark. “What do you make of this?” he said.

“We’ll listen,” Mark said. “You never know, maybe she is a seeress.”

“Seeress is a bad exclamation,” said the prophecy emanating from the old woman. Her whole body seemed to be covered with a silvery glow.

“Am I not a Prophetess? Male prophecies control everything. But I am a female prophecy! Hear me and fear for ye lives!” and she gave a terrifying cackle.

“Come on, then, what’s your prophecy?” Zachary coaxed her.

“Stop goading me! I will come in my own time!” she screeched, casting miniature lightning bolts about her. One of them came in contact with Zachary: “Ow!” he said.

“Shut your trap, you stupid little man!” she shrilled. “Now, here is the prophecy: The clan will continue into the heart of the Empire, where they will wreak much havoc. They will free the slaves and--”

“That sounds great!” said Zachary.

“Let me finish this stupid prophecy, old man!” the crone screeched, spit flying from her lips in every which direction.

Zachary collapsed to his knees and spread his arms in supplication. “M’lady, we are ready--”

But the lady had already continued: “--and they will kill many nobles, including the king. Then they themselves will rule.” Suddenly the fire disappeared from the old lady’s eyes and the lighting coursing around her body stopped. She fell forward but Zachary caught her. “Excuse me? the woman said, her eyelashes fluttering as she struggled to lift her head. She hastily got to her feet, seeming to be a young woman and not an old one. Startled, Alisa peered into her eyes and discovered something amazing: “Why, she doesn’t look a shade past twenty!” Alisa exclaimed to Zachary. “Where is that old woman who made the prophecy?”

“What are you talking about?” said the young woman. “One minute I was watching your performance, and the next...”

“So she only inhabited your body for a few minutes, then,” said Zachary studiously.

“Excuse me?” she said. Her face was remarkably beautiful. “Thank you for catching me and all that, but I do think I should be going. I have a husband and kids, you know. Family?” she said, trying hard to change the expression on Zachary’s face, which was of horror. “Whatever,” she said, getting up. “Happy Taurus Day!” And she was off, walking briskly.

“I’ll stop her,” Alisa said, getting to her feet.

“No,” Zachary said, glancing at Mark. “It doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”

“Of course it doesn’t,” Mark said, sighing. “But what do we know now that we didn’t know before?”

“Nothing, of course,” said Zachary. “Other than that we succeed.”

“We don’t know it’s us, though,” said Mark with a frown on his face.

Zachary stared at him. “You really think that?” he crowed, starting to laugh mirthfully.

Mark started to laugh then, and so did Alisa. “What’s so funny?” Jessica called from the wagon.

“Nothing,” Mark laughed. “Absolutely nothing.”

There was the clop-clop of hooves, and a couple of the soldiers of the Empire approached them on horseback. “Darn it,” said Mark. “We were so oblivious in our laughing fits that we weren’t even scanning the area. Zachary,” he motioned to him, “You know what to do.”

“Excuse me, mine officers,” Zachary staggered up to them. “Have you seen my bottle?”

“Why, drinking too much horse piss, you vagrant?” sneered one of the officers, stopping his horse. "No, sir,” Zachary pleaded, “I just lost my bottle. There was a show, here, you know, an’ everyone was a’ drinkin...”

“Aw, get out of my sight, you good-for-nothing,” said the officer, making his horse prance high in order to strike at Zachary. Zachary rolled out of its path just before the hooves hit the ground.

“Hey,” Mark yelled, getting out of the driver’s seat. “That’s my father you’ve got there! I will file a motion with the magistrate!”

“We are the magistrate, boy,” sneered the officer. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t lock the lot of ya’ up, right now!”

“My poor father has a drinking problem,” said Mark quickly, “and all we’re doing is transporting these carrots and mushrooms over to the next city!”

“I bet you don’t even know what the name of the next city is, boy,” spoke the other horseman, grinning.


“Never mind that,” said the second horseman. “We can see that the company obviously stole your wagon and used it as a stage. You did nothing wrong. But do try and avoid this area, will you? We don’t need our noble merchantmen turning into slaves…”

“And merchant women!” came Jessica’s tiny voice from inside the wagon. The baby even made an especially loud gurgle.

“I see you truly are what you claim to be,” said the first officer. “Fare thee well,” he finished, and he and his companion turned around and headed back where they came from.

“The advantages of being young,” Zachary muttered once the mounted men were gone.

“That’s why I’m in charge,” said Mark proudly. “At least, in that operation.”

“Yeah, hopefully I’ll be sober next time we have to improvise,” said Zachary.

“So we can spend the night here?” Zachary wondered. That’s when Alisa realized he wasn’t so bright.

“Of course not, Pops,” Mark said. “We got past them because of dumb luck. We must go now to the next town, we can’t stay here and wait till morning.”

“Ah,” Zachary mused. “So no sleeping.”

“You had the last shift, Zachary, so you can sleep first,” said Mark. “Alisa will take the first reins and I will do the second.”

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