The woods were enchanting, no question about it. A red robin engaged all with its song. Every bush – literally, every one! – offered berries! Squirrels acted with an incomprehensible level of trust, as if they were tame. And the entire idyllic scene was admired from above by the sun– so bright, as if made for a children’s play. …As was everything else in this lovely spot.
Prince Foamage addressed his secretary, who was dosing off after breakfast – lulled by a smooth ride on the best suspension springs, “Frikadel! I keep thinking: why don’t people bring their children here? Children would absorb so much charm, so much soul-lifting education in the midst of this nature…”
The half-asleep Frikadel produced not so much a verbal, as a musical reply, in the sense that he agreed: let them bring children…
The path followed by their two carriages (the second one carried the bodyguards and the doctor) grew more narrow; now Foamage could pet a squirrel or collect a walnut without even reaching too far out of the carriage. No, this trip was positively charming – or at least this stretch of it! His Highness even attempted to sing Rudolph’s aria from La Boheme (“I marvel…” and so on).
This was when the secretary, who was suddenly thrown forward, crashed into the prince – first squishing him, then dragging him back, bulging his eyes and muttering, “Wow!” Apparently something had startled the horses. Most certainly, something did. But what?
A half-minute later this intimidating “something” appeared in the form of three human forms with stockings over their faces. Although, actually, only two of them wore stockings: the third one was aristocratic in his own way and wore a hat and an opera mask covering only half of his face. He was the one to explain politely, “Stay calm, gentlemen, it’s merely a robbery. Put your little hands on the back of your head. Here, come here… If we all behave ourselves, we’ll all be alive and well. But if we make a fuss, out of stupidity and greed – we’ll earn a hole between the eyes.”
This is when the poor travelers saw the pistols. “Just a minute!” yelled out Frikadel as he was being dragged out of the carriage – yelled rather weakly and hoarsely, “You cannot raise your hand to His Highness the Prince of Penagon…”
“Why? Will there be diplomatic complications?” bandit number one asked mockingly. And another one, whose amusement was obvious even through the stocking, said, “Then let him leave an ultimatum in that tree over there…”
“Yes, yes, proper paperwork is quite necessary in the woods,” bandit number three added, choking with laughter.
The victims of the attack huddled together under a thick, sprawling elm tree.
“I wonder what my bodyguards are thinking about?” Prince Foamage inquired from his secretary in a semi-whisper. The latter has completely lost any notion of any professional duties and could scarcely answer his boss’s questions! However, the prince did see those he was asking about shortly thereafter: another robber, the shortest one of the bunch, was tying the two oversized and not particularly bright bodyguards to a tree next to the second carriage. They sighed and groaned and tried not to meet the prince’s eyes. After all, they were supposed to be responsible for his safety, as they had sworn to the king himself!
“So, this is the prince?” the robbers gazed at Foamage and even spun him around like a tailor’s mannequin. “How much would his daddy spare for something like this?” the short robber asked.
“Gentlemen… you will have to answer to two kings at once for me! For I am traveling to the court of the Abidon monarch… He is expecting me! Incidentally, is this forest on the territory of Abidon?”
Foamage attempted to start a conversation, but no one listened to him – the robbers were too busy. They were dragging chests and suitcases from the luggage compartments of the carriages… The horses snorted and fidgeted whenever one of the masked scoundrels approached them.
“Gentlemen,” the prince tried explaining, “I would be happy to share my possessions, but not everything here is mine… This, for example, and those boxes over there were prepared as a gift to the Abidonian king’s family… I can’t show up there empty-handed…”
The short robber leaned toward him (the awful face was so close, the prince could even smell some acidy wine vapors on his breath) and said, “Stop whining, or I’ll rip your tongue out.”
Frikadel, who wasn’t tied to anything for some reason, sat under the elm tree and simply cried like a kindergartener.
“You shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have told them who I was…” the prince whispered, furrowing his brow, “Now they’ll keep me… what do you call it? Hostage!”
“It’s all my fault!” the secretary banged his head twice against the elm in frustration. “I blurted it out, Your Highness… Forgive me… I am an idiot!”
The leader of the gang came up to them leading an over-excited beautiful black stallion – flawless and proud. Human indulgence completed and emphasized his perfection with a rich blanket, and knee pads made of white leather. However, this entire package did not guarantee the easy compliant temper. “Depends on whom it is I’m asked to comply with,” the mischievous eyes said.
“The horse’s name?” the leader asked.
The mouth under the opera mask smiled: the bandit leader had thought as much, that this was the famous Milord.
“The last price?”
“Oh… I can’t remember, you know… Something fantastically expensive. Milord was considered one of our crown jewels… Dad wasn’t going to sell him actually. Under no circumstances. Not for tens of thousands…”
“Your papa is right: such beauties can only be given as a gift!” the rascal laughed, “Thank you, I fully appreciate it!” he took of his hat to make a low bow – mockingly, of course.
“Hey, Hernia!” he called one of his accomplices, “Take the stallion. Tie his legs and make sure you keep your skull away from his hooves. Keep an eye on him, understand? We couldn’t have taken anything better today… No, actually, we haven’t taken anything better in the last two years. Take care of him, Hernia. And remember: he is much more valuable than any of you!”
Hernia accepted the reins and lead Milord away the way he would lead a lady to the dance floor. The leader squatted in front of Foamage, “Were you going to trade him in for something from the king of Abidon? For what?”
“Trade? No, sir, how could I… You said yourself: something like that could only be a gift! But daddy said I could only give him away if my engagement to the Abidonian princess Albina worked out. And if no – then I was to keep him.”
The thief looked in the childish eyes of his victim, suppressing laughter, “Then it was a trade after all! For the king’s daughter. That is the stupidest deal! It would have been a double loss. You should be thankful I ruined it for you.”
Then he tickled Frikadel with a blade of grass – the latter formed a stiff smile in response, half-dead with fright.
Suddenly a shot rung out. Then two more! Some of the robbers pointed their weapons at their non-dangerous, completely demoralized prisoners. The others, already informed, ran toward their leader, pulling the stocking masks off their faces.
“What’s the matter?”
“Boars, Captain… The wild ones… Mean as I don’t know what… They trampled Basil the Crookmouth at the creek!”
“This is really bad, Captain! We saw only two, but I think there is a whole herd of them there! Crookmouth emptied his gun at them – and that was it… What to do? How do we… what’d you call it… counter-attack?”
“We don’t have anything, Chief! Only the pistols! We need rifles… And bullets, like they use for bears!”
“Well, well, well,” after such information, the leader considered it necessary to calm down the panicking associate by pressing the cold barrel of his pistol to his sweating face, “A pig, a boar – it’s all pork, boys! You eat pork, right? And when was the last time it ate you? Don’t you dare panic, guys! Are you stupid or something?!”
Apparently that was the case. The robbers gave in to thoughtless panic, which may have been silly and useless… Although there may have been some danger after all: another shot rung out, followed by a squeal that sounded more like a lion’s roar – and the robbers vanished. No one was left in the gully but their victims!
How much did the fate grant to Prince Foamage and Frikadel – a minute? Two? Less?
The prisoners, the horses, the luggage – everything here looked jumbled, as if through the eyes of a hunted animal. A frantic whisper rose over the gully, “You Highness… The boars might have mercy on us, but these guys? Unlikely. Shall we away?”
“Yes-yes… You are right… But who will untie our doctor? And the bodyguards?”
“They are on their own! They can use their little teeth! Your dad would have executed them for such service. Some bodyguards! Come on, quickly! No, we should go in different directions! Why are you following me, Your Highness? There are plenty of other places to hide!”
Realizing that he was betrayed by his own secretary, the prince stayed behind and pondered… Then he found a penknife in his vest pocket (actually, it was more of a manicure knife – it had one small blade and a nail file). He now had something to cut the ropes and free his other three companions! The sweating Foamage carried out this order of his conscience and simultaneously addressed his bodyguards in a social manner, “How do you like this situation?” The only response was the chattering of their teeth.
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