Excerpt from “Best in the Kingdom” by Jett Farrell-Vega (Fantasy-Humor)
The reek of saliva stirred Lila from her deep sleep– not the typical malodor of morning, but an overpowering fetor and sliminess like a mastiff had slobbered on her face after chewing on a dead muskrat. It left an unpleasant, coppery tang on her lips.
As she woke, she realized with embarrassment that the offending spittle was her own, soaked into a sash bound over her nose and mouth. Embarrassment gave way to confusion when she discovered her wrists knotted tightly behind her back. Confusion gave way to terror when she realized she was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a labyrinth of shadowed pines.
Her body ached like she’d toppled down a mountainside. She tried to recall how she’d arrived in the forest, but her sense of time had been stolen like a tart left carelessly on the windowsill. Her dress was smeared with inky stains. Bunchberries. She remembered gathering them in a secluded thicket outside her village.
A man with a strange accent had spoken to her. Her kin, the people of Weidfeld, spoke with a lilt, a canter of the tongue suitable for folk who worked with their hands and had no use for silver-tongued speech. The man’s peculiar voice was the last thing she remembered– a gritty drawl that reminded her of a swaggering, dust-sodden drunk she’d seen at Woolshire market as a child.
“Motherless boys o’er the mount’ns aren’t taught any pru’priety,” her father had said. “Terse braggards an’ double-tunged eedjits drinkin’ their way from one side o’ the seven kingdoms t’ the udder. Have a mind you ne’er take up with that lot, an’ you’ll do well in life.”
Seventeen years of good advice poorly heeded. The man’s question had startled her.
“Darlin’, does this smell like nodblossom to you?”
Her head drooped. How had she been so stupid? She never thought such a thing could occur in peaceful Weidfeld, where the only trial ever held had been for a toothy sow that hobbled its master.
Lila remembered everything now. She had been kidnapped.
Something huffed at her back. She jumped, her blood turning to lead until she realized it was just a sinewy mare tied to another tree. Was that why her bones ached? Had she been slung over the villain’s saddle with all the dignity of an ill-gotten sack of taters?
Her attention turned to the swift sound of crunching leaves. A man in black raced towards her, his knees bounding chest high as he hurdled over stumps and brambles. He was several years her elder, stubble-chinned with short dark hair. He carried a remarkably wide-brimmed hat, one side curled up and the other down with crow’s feathers tucked into the band.
She screamed through the sash and teetered to her feet.
“Shhhh!” he hissed and raised an urgent finger to his lips. He yanked her backwards before she made it two steps and clamped his hand over her mouth.
“Darlin’, no time to explain, but it is oh-so-important that you do not make a sound,” he whispered firmly. He grimaced at the damp on his hand from the sash. “Ew.”
She stomped on his boot.
She fled, blonde hairs cobwebbing her eyelids.
“No-no-no-no-no!” He caught her dress and wrestled her to the ground. She thrashed to escape, but he was a strong fellow for his average size. She opened her mouth to cry out.
The knife against her throat froze the sound cold. The man gave her a surly glare. “I don’t want to hurt you, but you need to shut it and stay-the-hell-still.”
Lila didn’t move. Another horse was approaching from somewhere unseen.
“Not a peep. Got it?”
The kidnapper hurried to his feet and untied the mare. He pulled two bags off the saddle and smacked the mare’s behind, sending her away in a fright. He yanked a raggedy brown sheet from one of the bags and dove Lila’s direction.
The world turned dark. The other horse arrived and slowed. The man held his finger to his mouth then dragged his thumb across his throat in warning. He lifted the edge of the sheet slightly.
The horse had lean, pitch black flanks. Through the burlap, she saw the faint silhouette of a hooded rider searching the woods…
For a dirty, maiden-snatching kidnapper perhaps.
Before Lila could muster her courage, the figure galloped away after the mare.
The man released a breath he’d been holding. He sniffed the air, drawing uncomfortably close to Lila’s face.
“You usually drool when you sleep?”
She answered defiantly in the negative, but the gag reduced her words to muffled slog.
The kidnapper tossed the scratchy covering off and sat up. The burlap was covered in dirt, nettles, and twigs to match the forest floor. “Now that we’re alone, can I trust you not to scream your pretty little head off so I can toss that snot rag?”
Of course she was going to scream! But to who? Accepting defeat, she nodded.
The man untied the sash. “Sorry it had to come to such ugliness, Goldie, but you, my dear, are a spitfire.”
Lila took a long breath of clean air. She eyed the sheathed knife hesitantly. “My family won’t be able to pay any ransom.”
He chuckled. “What makes you think I nabbed you for a ransom?”
Lila’s chin quivered– embarrassing habit. “Are you a slaver?”
“I find those involved in slave trade a distasteful lot, though next time you decide to raise a racket, remember that Tarminian corsairs like blondes.”
“A pervert then? I’ll leave you with teeth marks you’ll never forget if you try anything foul!”
He grinned lopsidedly. “No need to get your skirt in a knot. I’m no pervert.”
“A bride kidnapper?”
He laughed. “No, I’m not a bride kidnapper.” He gazed off into the woods. “Though I may have to consider that some day.”
“Then why in the green hills did you kidnap me?”
“For the money.”
“What money? My father’s a thatcher! What are you after?” she sobbed.
He put a hand on her shoulder and looked her steadily in the eyes. She noticed he was about the same age as her cousin in his thirtieth year. His eyes were the color of dusty hazelnuts, his demeanor both annoyingly casual and deceptively sharp. “I can’t tell you.”
“I can’t tell you, but if you cooperate, it’ll be worth your while.”
“Why? You’ll kill me if I don’t?”
He grimaced. “I’d rather not, but you are very loud.”
“Wh–Where are you taking me?”
“I’m takin’ you that way, and I can’t tell you why because if I did, you probably wouldn’t do it.”
His laziness disturbed her even more than his threats had. “If it’s that horrible, just kill me and be done with it.”
He gave her a sideways look as if she were a precocious child threatening to hold her breath to the point of suffocation. “It’s really not that bad. You’ll be doin’ a public service.”
“Public service? I need to get back to my family!”
The man stood and dusted his pants off. “Oh, they’ll be fine. I even left a note for ’em.”
“A note? Saying what?”
“That you’d absconded with a handsome rogue and are perfectly safe.”
Lila stammered but found no words.
“One day, you’ll thank me. Just think of this as an adventure.” His grin was maddening, so stupidly smug she wanted to slap it off his face. She didn’t want adventure. She was happy tilling fields and baking bunchberry tarts.
“Now, can I untie your hands or are we gonna have to do the fair-maiden’s-flaccid-body-found-eaten-by-clawfish thing?”
Her head sagged.
“Please don’t scratch my eyes out. We rogues are known to overreact to such unseemly behavior.” He cut the ropes. “Just do exactly as I say and everythin’ll be fine.”
“Or you’ll slit my throat?”
“Nah, I just said that to get you to shut up.”
She buried her face in her hands, tears flowing against her will.
“Anyways, bein’ you made me lose my horse, I figure having to walk to Sarcia will be recompense enough.”
Her eyes widened. “Walk to Sarcia?”
“Probably just a four day journey.”
“How long was I asleep?”
“Oh, two days. Didn’t realize you’d nod off for so long.” He grinned that damned grin again.
Nodblossom. That must’ve been what the nasty copper taste was. It made a powerful sleeping tea, but she had never heard of a brew so potent it could knock someone out with a single whiff.
He put on his hat and held out a hand.
“At least tell me your name,” she asked.
“For now, you can call me Starling.”
She recognized the starling feathers in his hat now. They changed colors depending on how he moved his head.
“Starling the Kidnapper,” she mused.
“I prefer ‘Burglar’ or ‘Mr. Starling’ if you like tossing around titles.”
“So you’re a thief.”
“Thief is such a curt term. Burglar rolls off the tongue better, ‘specially when you’re the best burglar in the kingdom.”
“All of ‘em.”
This wasn’t happening.
She accepted his hand and stood. “I’m Lila. Not that you probably care.”
“Nope,” he affirmed as he gathered up the bags.
Lila looked out over the forest. “Who was chasing you?”
Starling laughed again, though his humor on the subject seemed thin. “That would be a close friend I like to call Hell-on-Hooves.”
With that, he set off. With nowhere else to go and no way home, Lila grudgingly trailed after him.