The Princess and the Peach
By Benedict Brown
Complete at 75,000 words
I never knew my parents. I can’t even tell you where I was born. When I was just a baby, trolls kidnapped me and sold me to a poor, childless couple who needed a slave. I grew up, as most girls do these days, chained to a table having to work for the crumbs of food my loving owners threw at me. They liked to poke me with sticks and tell me what a lucky girl I was.
“We cudda left yuh to die like a little runt,” the wife always told me, “but not us.”
“That’s right,” her husband would reply.
“No, not us. We tooks care o’ yuh.”
“We gives yuh food and a lov-er-lee home.”
“Now get back in yuh cage!”
I hated them with a well-concealed passion.
Occasionally the old slave drivers let me out of the house to carry pigs to market or cut wood but they never unchained me. I grew up like a dog. In fact, for a while we had a dog and it ate better than I did. Still, life could have been worse. One day they ate the dog and they never took a bite out of me.
As a special treat, when I was twelve years old, they cut off my hair, dressed me in boys’ clothing and put me up for sale. I woke one morning to the sound of someone knocking on our door.
The old man jumped out of bed with a great big grin across his face.
“That’s right,” he said.
He opened the door and there, blocking out the light, was a man taller and wider than anyone I’d ever seen. As I lived in an enchanted forest filled with strange creatures like land squids, manticores and boggarts, at first I couldn’t be sure that he was even human. He was colossal and near covered in thick black hair, a real living freak of nature.
A hole opened up in the middle of all that hair and the big man spoke.
“I ‘ear ya got a boy fer sale,” he said. His voice was as deep as a canyon.
“That’s right...” The old man’s confidence suddenly disappeared as he took in the monster at our door.
“Wudya take a sheep fer ‘im?” the stranger asked. He pulled on the rope in his enormous hands to reveal a fluffy, white sheep who bahhhed in response.
“That’s right!” The massive smile returned to the old man’s hideous, shrunken face which I would never have to set eyes on again. He pulled the sheep into the house and pushed me out the door.
Unshackled and able to walk around as I pleased for the first time in my life, the strangest sensation of freedom and fear crept through me.
“Sorry ‘bout this,” the huge, frightening man said a moment later.
Before I knew what was happening he’d pulled a dingy sackcloth bag over my head. My moment of freedom had passed.
He took me by the hand and tugged me along behind him. We walked the whole day without saying a word. All I could see through the bag was the light of the sun breaking through the trees as we went deeper and deeper into the woods. My mind ran with terrible thoughts. I kept wondering if this giant was planning to eat me or if he just wanted me as his slave. It was the one time in my life I ever wished I was back, chained up, in my cage.
Finally we stopped and that beast-man took the bag off my head. We had arrived at a camp hidden somewhere well within the forest.
“The boss’ll wanna see ya’,” he said and motioned for me to follow him.
The camp sprawled across the forest clearing like a small, portable village. Long banners with different crests and animals upon them hung from the trees. There were several wooden caravans painted in carnival colours and, dotted amongst them, I could see twenty or so tents and a number of smouldering fires. As we arrived, the inhabitants emerged from their homes to get a look at the new acquisition. At first only the men came out to see me but soon women and children appeared.
For the second time in my life I’d been sold and I was worth exactly one sheep. I was much luckier than before. My new owners were a band of thieves, cutthroats and blackguards. They stood and stared at me and I felt like a piece of meat hanging in a butcher’s storehouse. I was shaking with fear but tried my best not to show it. Their unmistakable leader approached me. He inspected me just like everyone else.
“What is your name, boy?” he asked.
After everything I had already lived through, I decided right there that it was time I stood up for myself, no matter how scared I might be.
“Why d’you need a name for your slave?” I asked back, staring him straight in the eye.
The men looked so hideous at first. They were harsh and coarse, with dirty clothes and scars. They smelt of alcohol and laughed like hogs. They laughed at my rudeness.
“Why do you think you’re my slave?”
“Why don’tcha answer m’ question?”
He paused, smiling as he looked me up and down. Unlike the other men, he was dressed in fine, flamboyant clothes which glittered with chains and gemstones.
“I like you, child. You will be no one’s slave. We are all free here. If you are happy in our company you will cook for us and we will give you food, a place to sleep, maybe even some warm clothes. Then, when you decide you are ready, you can tell us your name.”
Still unsure if he was telling the truth, I kept my guard up but answered his question all the same.
“I don’t got no name,” I replied.
The men all laughed again.
“No name? ‘ow’d ya mother call ya?” The monster who had brought me to the camp laughed.
“I don’t got no mother.”
“Everyone’s got a mother. Even Eddie and he’s barely human,” another of the men said.
“Aye.” The big man grinned. “But I never knew me daddy. P’raps ‘e was an ape.”
“I’m sorry, child,” their leader said, smiling. “You won’t find your mother here, but we can surely do something about a name.”
I had no response for him. I couldn’t get another word to rise up out of my throat and so he continued talking.
“My name, in case you were wondering, is The Great Bartholomew.” He spoke dramatically and then paused like he expected me to recognise him.
“No? Nothing? World’s most dangerous highwayman, doesn’t ring a bell?”
I shook my head and the rest of the gang all laughed.
“Well, not to worry. Where was I?”
Between puffs on a large wooden pipe, a rather well-spoken man spoke up.
“You were about to welcome our new addition to-”
“You mean to tell me that you’ve never heard of The Great Bart?” the leader interrupted. “And what about Bartholomew the Great? You see, these days I’m the world’s greatest highwayman but, once upon a time, I had another career altogether. I used to be known as Bartholomew the Great, the most famous pirate who ever lived.”
I continued to stare back at him, blank-faced.
“Give it up, Bart. He doesn’t know you,” the smoking man said.
As Bart was clearly just getting into his stride, many of the onlookers took the opportunity to go back to their homes, leaving me alone with the five main members of the gang.
“I was feared and admired from Finisterre to Land’s End for my wicked ways, sharp tongue and dashing looks.” Bart stared off into the distance as if he was thinking back to happier times. “I packed it all in after a particularly nasty sea battle made me dream of life back on dry land.”
“‘e don’t know ya, Boss,” the big man, Eddie, said, clutching his massive gut as he shook with laughter.
“Shut up, all of you. There was a flicker of recognition there. I saw it,” Bart replied, sounding irritated. “I gave up my fortune, fame and pirate’s life for a more simple existence as a good old-fashioned highwayman.”
“Give over, Bart. He’s never heard of you,” a third man said.
“How is that possible?” Bart asked himself. “You know I was going to welcome you to the gang and introduce you to everyone but I’m not in the mood anymore.”
“Don’t be sad. I betcha very famous. I’m prob’ly just too young to know you,” I said.
He turned away and bit his fist.
“Ahh come on, old man,” the smoker said. “There’s no need to weep.”
“I’m not weeping. I’m lamenting the ignorance of today’s youth. Just introduce yourselves for once.”
“Young sir,” the smoker began, “my name is Anders-”
“Well that’s no way to start now, is it?” Bart said, turning back to me and reclaiming everyone’s attention. “Unnamed boy, allow me to introduce my noble advisor and chief scientist, Sir Anders Fahrenheit. The cleverest man you will ever meet, Anders was once the queen’s astronomer and was famous throughout the nation for his wisdom. It was he who first discovered that the Earth was flat and that, with a big enough ladder, you could reach heaven in just a couple of days. Strategist, consultant and lyric poet, I’d be lost without him.”
The whole time Bart was speaking, Anders stood nodding in agreement. Exactly why he had given up a room in the Blue Palace to live as an outlaw was a fact I never discovered.
“The hairy beast who escorted you here we call Eddie. Well-known for his immense strength, he can crush the air out of an opponent in seconds. He once fought a bear with his bare hands and to call it a fight is being generous to his ursine foe. I’ve never seen him lose a scrap in all our years together.”
“Ah, Bart, ya’ old softy. Ya’ makin’ me blush,” Eddie said.
“Next up we have Rhodri, the knight.”
A gaunt, delicately framed man who had said nothing up to now turned to face me.
“He may not look like much but he’s just as dangerous as Eddie. A sorcerer with a sword, he can cut you into forty pieces before you know the battle has even begun. Not a big talker our Rhodri but it serves me well as I never understand a word he says. They say that Wales is the land of song but to hear this Welshman talk is like listening to a pig being eaten by a duck.”
Rhodri turned away again without showing any sign of whether Bart’s words had upset him.
“Finally we have Eric, the jack of all trades. If Eddie is the brawn, Anders the brains and Rhodri the instincts of the gang then Eric is our heart. Minstrel, storyteller, amateur psychologist and master shoe-shiner, he is somewhat unnecessary and completely vital all at the same time.”
“Charmed, young gentleman, really I am,” Eric said with a smile.
“One day, if you’re lucky enough, he might tell you a little tale,” Bart continued. “When he weaves a story, you get so trapped up in it, you’re scared what will happen next.”
“I do my best.” As he spoke, Eric’s smile became a grin.
“So, young sir, what do you say? Do you fancy a place in the court of King Bart?”
I still didn’t know how to reply. They didn’t seem like they wanted to cook me in a stew or use me in some dark-magic ritual but that didn’t mean I could trust these strange people. I glanced around at the men and they stared back, waiting on my answer.
“I think I gotta sleep,” I finally said.
“Good idea, you must be exhausted after the long walk. Sorry about that whole thing with the bag. We didn’t want to scare you but you can never be too careful when you’re the most wanted man in the country. It’s better not to have too many people finding out where I live, if you know what I mean.”
Bart led me over to my new home. The small tent had nothing but a scratchy woollen blanket and a tiny pillow inside but, to me, it was the most luxurious place on Earth.
“The last person who lived here got eaten by a giant tarantula,” he said. I have no idea if he was serious. “Get some sleep and we’ll see how things look in the morning.”
I climbed into the tent and fell instantly asleep. I didn’t wake up until the next morning. I would have slept much longer if it hadn’t been for an odd scratching noise on the side of my tent. It was Bart again. He couldn’t find the front door.
“Ahh there you are,” he said as I stuck my head out through the flap. “I think it’s time you discovered what we get up to around here.” He spoke in the loud, theatrical voice which he reserved for talking about himself.
All I could manage in response was a yawn. I was still hoping I was dreaming and that I would not have to be getting out of bed so soon.
“You see, my dear child, I am a thief!”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Oh, yes, of course you do. For some reason I thought we hadn’t told you.” He sounded disappointed and perhaps a little drunk. “Still, how about you come and see Bart the Great in action?”
“I thought you was The Great Bart?”
“Oh, ha ha ha.” He had a very phony laugh. “Of course, how foolish of me. I am The Great Bart. Bart the Great was a pirate, wasn’t he? I never met the chap but they say he was devilishly handsome.”
“I also know that you are Bart the Great and yuh gave up your pirate’s life for a more simple existence-” I began to repeat the story he had told me but he soon cut me short.
“You do? Oh? So what is it that we haven’t told you then?” He paused to think. “Ahh, I remember, that whole thing with the badger, the elephant and the lady water sprite. Well there’s no need to worry yourself about that. Where was I? Ah, yes. Are you ready for action?”
A few minutes later I was sitting on a horse behind Rhodri, galloping through the woods with the rest of the gang in tow. When we arrived at the path which cut through the forest, Bart hid me in a bush where I could watch the show from a safe distance. The men took their places and awaited the first stagecoach and their first victims of the day.
“Oh no,” the coachman said as he spotted Bart’s white horse on the road up ahead of him. “It’s him. It’s The Great Bartholomew.”
In the time it takes to say “Oh no. It’s him. It’s The Great Bartholomew,” the coach was surrounded.
Eddie stood at the front of the carriage looking menacing with Eric and Rhodri around the other sides. Even though they all wore swords in their belts, nobody drew a weapon. Bart was so feared and admired that the gang no longer needed to actually attack anyone.
“Get ready!” Bart shouted, once the coach had come to a stop.
“We are ready,” Eric said.
“No, not you lot. I mean them. It’s a new catchphrase I’m trying out. Get ready!” Bart said again.
“What’s wrong with, stand and deliver?” Eric asked. “You can’t improve on a classic line like stand and deliver.”
“Yes, but it’s hardly original. I could be anyone saying a line like-”
“Uhum,” Rhodri interrupted Bart, bringing him back to the job at hand.
“Get ready! For you are in the process of being robbed by the one and only, The Great Bart.”
“And his band of fearless thieves,” Eric added.
“And his band of fearless thieves. Thank you, Eric, I was just coming to that. I am The Great Bart. If you would be so kind as to hand over your valuables I will graciously spare you your lives and you will be free to go about your business.”
The men approached the carriage and the driver remained in his seat, trembling like a small, balding earthquake. The women inside the coach peered out in the hope of getting a glimpse of the famous highwayman.
“Think of it as an investment,” Bart said. “Just imagine how grateful your grandchildren will be when they discover that they were permitted to come into this world because I didn’t kill you. But please save your thanks, good people. No words of gratitude are necessary. We do, however, accept jewels, coin purses and assorted objets d’art.”
The men held purple velvet bags through the windows of the coach like altar boys at a mass. I could see from the happy expression on Eric’s face that the pouches quickly filled up with bounty.
Bart approached the carriage to inspect the haul.
“Oh, Mr Bart?” a brave young lady said. She was as rich as a Black Forest gateau.
“Please, madam. There’s no need for formality,” Bart replied, leaning in through the window with a mischievous sparkle in his eye. “Call me Great.”
His men all rolled their eyes and tutted. They were clearly no longer amused by Bart’s patter.
“Would you mind signing my empty purse? I’m a huge fan of your work,” the lady said.
“Madam, you’re too hard on yourself,” Bart said. “You’re really quite petite.”
He looked around at the rest of the passengers who responded with sighs and shudders. Though the men in the carriage shook with fear, the women all blushed and batted their eyelashes. Bart winked at an old lady, making her faint with excitement, whilst her husband tried to avoid eye contact altogether with the wicked criminal.
“Oh, Bart. Why don’t you let me be your treasure? Put me in your bag and take me back to your secret lair. I’ll make you feel like the richest man on Earth,” the young lady suddenly shouted, no longer able to control her passion.
With her expensive tastes and fashions, she was just like a work of art. Her face was so caked in white powder that she looked like a Roman statue.
“But, madam,” Bart said to the young aristocrat, pretending to be shocked, “if you knew where my secret lair was, then I really would have to kill you.”
As Bart kept chattering away and the rest of the gang loaded the loot onto their horses, I heard a noise off in the distance. At first I thought it was wild animals in the forest but it was getting louder and closer. It was the sound of horses galloping along the path.
“Bart,” I said as I caught a flash of blue livery through the trees. “There’s someone on the road.”
“Sir, are you a wizard?” the young lady asked dreamily. “I could swear I just heard that bush call your name.”
“Madam, I can honestly say that the only magic I possess is my bewitching charm.”
“Bart, move!” Eddie said as he mounted one of the horses and the rest of the gang galloped away.
“Au revoir, ma petite truffe,” Bart whispered, before kissing the young lady full on the mouth and jumping skilfully onto his pretty white stallion.
Just as he was steering his horse into the thick cover of the forest, two guardsmen emerged into view dressed in the deep blue uniform of the king’s guard. One soldier stopped next to the stagecoach while the other chased after the gang into the trees.
Ten minutes later the second guard reappeared without Bart, or his horse, or his nice blue uniform. He waddled embarrassedly onto the scene and attempted to aid the investigation with only his wits to help him.
A short time later, Rhodri crept up to where I was hidden and guided me back to the camp without being seen. That night we had a feast to celebrate our successful getaway. Bart brought me new clothes to wear and let me burn the rags my owners had dressed me in. As I sat eating dinner with the gang, thinking over my adventure, I realised that something had changed. In all the excitement I had forgotten to be scared. I looked around at my new companions and I felt safe.
“Okay, Bart,” I said over the noise of the men and their families as we all sat eating around the fire. “I’m gonna stay.”
“That’s the spirit, nameless young man. I never doubted it for a second.”
Right from those very first days Bart and the gang showed me kindness like I’d never imagined possible. It was hard for me to believe they weren’t just tricking me. Even in my first hours in the camp, as I avoided their stares and barely spoke a single word, they joked with me and treated me like a friend.
Our happy band was completed by several wives and children along with two rather dull men who looked after the horses. Eddie’s wife Gerry was the size of a small minotaur and arguably tougher than any of the men. Under Bart’s rule it was Gerry and the other women who had the real power. They were responsible for hunting, bookkeeping, carpentry and general handicrafts. The men would have been lost without them. They also held the authority to decide when it was time for us to move on and where we should end up.
Eddie and Gerry’s son Ross was only a few years older than me and had just become a full member of the gang. He was fast, both with a weapon and on a horse. Loyal and always fair, he was a sensitive soul and spent most of his time moping about with a broken heart over his sweetheart, Eric’s daughter Rachel.
Slowly I began to accept that this bunch of foul-mouthed, foul-smelling, foul-mannered brutes were as nice as they seemed. I was the one putting on an act, not them. I knew from the beginning that I could not keep lying to them forever. Still I feared so much the idea of returning to my old life that I couldn’t bear to tell them the truth. It was a boy they had bought and so a boy I would have to be.
We travelled from place to place. A caravan of thieves, taking shelter in forests, steering clear of the king’s guard and watching out for trolls. With a little help from the men, I taught myself to cook. Stealing sheep from the fields was easy enough and Eddie would occasionally catch a phoenix or an overweight basilisk. I would cook them over a big fire and boil the vegetables that the children would bring. In the beginning the men tried out different names on me but they all knew it was down to our leader to choose one.
Bart was an enigma. He was a murderer and a thief but at times he could be as soft as a dandelion clock. As a highwayman he was known for his gallantry as much as his ruthlessness. He was always willing to listen to a plea from a lady and was well-known for returning sentimental items he had taken. Sometimes he even posed for sketches with his admiring fans. Of course, it hadn’t always been like this. He spoke of the coachmen they’d beaten unconscious and the soldiers they’d had to kill to earn such a reputation.
I bothered Bart for months to let me come out on a raid with them again but he said that robbery was no pastime for an infant. After much begging, Ross reluctantly taught me what he knew about thieving. I practiced on the men, trying to steal the purses from their belts without them noticing. At first they always caught me but I was a quick student and was soon as good as my teacher.
Still, I was the cook and nothing more. Bart had no intention of letting a child get in the way of the serious business of daylight robbery. Occasionally, however, action seemed to find me.
Unleash the Trolls
In some places, parents tell their kids scary stories about gypsies coming in the night to kidnap them if they’re naughty. In Sardonia the gypsies tell their kids that, if they don’t behave themselves, the trolls will come.
Trolls are the most disgusting creatures on the planet. They’re as mean as elves, as cruel as vampires and as ugly as helldogs. They’re slimy, smelly, stupid and I absolutely hate them with all my heart. Trolls aren’t like other creatures. They don’t have friends or loved ones. They don’t believe in compassion, education, self-improvement, team sports or interior design. There is one thing that they want and one thing they care about. Everything they do, everything they feel, it’s all for the sake of gold.
No, you don’t see trolls walking around covered in big fat chains or with massive rings that say “TROLL” covering all four knuckles. Trolls like to hide their gold underground so that they know it’s safe and no one can get to it. They don’t use their gold for anything but they hunger for it all the same. If you offer a troll some gold to kidnap a baby, kill your enemy or burn down a village they’ll do it because they love gold. It’s as simple as that.
I’d been living with Bart’s gang for a couple of months when the trolls first attacked. As I found out that day, they are very territorial creatures and will do whatever it takes to keep people away from their hidden stashes. We’d made the mistake of pitching camp right on top of one of these hoards.
Ross was the first to see them. He’d been collecting wood for me to add to the fire and came running back, screaming at the top of his voice. Rhodri grabbed his swords and suddenly there were two fat little monsters dead on the floor in front of me. Eddie gritted his teeth ready for battle, his eyes searching the trees for something to crush. Anders grabbed a set of compasses and hid behind his much bigger colleague. Suddenly the trolls were everywhere.
I imagine troll mothers must have some trouble telling their kids apart. Each one is like a short, green mountain of warts with fat little limbs and tiny, piggy eyes. Imagine yourself completely surrounded by a circle of giant lime jellies holding axes and you’ll get a pretty clear picture of the scene.
Eddie charged towards the nearest group. He was a human battering-ram. Spinning furiously with his fists flying, he knocked down the five nearest trolls like empty milk bottles. Rhodri sent daggers zooming out in front of him as his sword thwicked and thwacked at the persistent trolls’ necks. No matter how strong the men were, there were too many of the hideous creatures for them to hold off alone.
“Why can’t you all be quiet?”
Barely awake, Bart emerged from his tent in his underwear with a bottle of wine still in his hand from the night before.
“Uh-oh,” he said as he saw a troll coming towards him, smashed the bottle over its head and dived back out of sight.
“Bart?” Eddie said. “We need ya’.”
“I’ll be right with you,” came Bart’s muffled reply.
I grabbed a burning log from the fire and swung it about me in case anything wanted to come near. Even Eric was doing his bit, throwing pots and tins of polish at the approaching masses. One troll tried to get up onto Gerry’s caravan. A swift kick to the face from her formidable left foot soon sent the beast on its way.
The bodies were piling up all around us as Ross, Rhodri, Eddie and Gerry got down to some troll-bashing. Yet for every one they dispatched, another appeared.
“Baaaaart!” Ross cried as he took a blow to the hip from a low-swung axe.
“I’m just coming.”
Eddie picked up two of the little beasties and hurled them way up into the trees, never to be seen again. His long, trampling legs snapped slimy, green necks as his hands crushed unlucky skulls with a single squeeze.
“Where is it?” Bart asked, still out of sight of the action.
The grooms galloped through the packs of trolls, separating them so that Eddie, Ross and Rhodri could pick them off. Ross was not much taller than one of our enemies and was clearly suffering from his wound but he still managed to knock out as many of the creatures as his immense father.
“Bart, now!” Anders shouted as he got his first chance to stab his callipers into a thick green neck. Disgusting, putrid goo oozed out of the creature and it emitted a high whine, like a pig bladder football letting out air.
“Ah, there it is,” Bart said to himself, but he still didn’t leave his tent.
Eddie punched one troll so hard that its neck instantly snapped. Rhodri skewered another straight through the heart and into the beast behind. For a moment he was stuck with a giant troll kebab in place of a weapon.
Gerry kicked everything that came near. Ross was spinning round and round like a vicious ballerina. I never got to hit anything, or set anyone on fire for that matter as it was just then that Bart burst out of his tent. He was dressed in his finest clothes with a sword in each hand.
“Get ready!” he shrieked as he landed a kick on the nearest troll.
“Seriously?” Rhodri said as he took a break from the battle to look at Bart’s opulent outfit.
“Yuh look like an old gypsy woman.” Gerry just stared at him.
“‘e looks more like a bu-di-full princess,” Eddie said as he continued to throw punches at the advancing monsters.
“Have I taught you nothing?” Bart called to the others as he engaged his next opponent. “A true gentleman never shows up to a battle poorly dressed.”
Bart was not as swift as Rhodri or as strong as Eddie. In some ways he didn’t even have the resilience of Gerry or her son but to watch him fight was to witness true magic at work. He had the instincts of a wolf and could have destroyed the whole pack of trolls blindfolded with one hand behind his back and his legs tied together. He was creative too. Jabbing his swords into the trunk of a tree, he liked to take punches at the ugly green beasts before re-seizing his weapons and plunging them into one of the unsuspecting creatures.
He was braver than anyone, foolish even. He preferred to fight several opponents at the same time and made the dumb trolls believe they had him in a corner only to topple several heads off with one mighty strike of his sword. All the time that he fought, he laughed and smiled like a child enjoying a game.
As the number of trolls decreased he began to sing in time with his movements.
“La la la la…”
“La la la la…”
“La la la lalalala la la….”
“Urghhhhhh,” a troll with a sword in its eye gurgled.
In minutes, the ground beneath his feet was covered in puddles of green goo and the odd dismembered body part. With Eddie, Bart and Rhodri all fighting together, there was nothing short of divine will that could stop them. Bart tricked his last troll, running round the tree trunk to stab it straight through both kidneys, and took a masterful bow.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Eric said with pride. “I give you, the one and only, The Great Bartholomew.”
I clapped and whistled as Bart, Rhodri and the others tried to catch their breath.
“Masterful work,” Gerry said sarcastically.
“I don’ts know ‘ow ‘e does it,” her husband said with a laugh in his voice.
The campsite was a mess of green slime and dead bodies. Mothers and children peered out from the safety of their caravans to see if it was okay to come out.
“Time to move on, I suppose,” Gerry said.
“Not until after breakfast,” Bart replied. “Maybe next time those damn creatures will think twice about waking me up before noon.”
The men piled the bodies up. The children collected axe handles for firewood and I set about making some food. Which was when I realised that, even though we never stayed in one location for very long, I had finally found a place to call home.
Bart was a thief and a murderer but he neither hit nor chained me. He gave me food and clothes. He spoke to me like a human being and, on my thirteenth birthday, he gave me a name. He also gave me a birthday, as I’d never had one before. With the celebrations underway he took me aside to give me my present.
“Ever since you’ve been with us, I’ve felt happier,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes, doing this job, day after day. Your innocence and positivity have helped me to remember exactly why I get up every morning and steal things from people. You’ve brought us luck on our travels so I’m going to call you Christopher.”
I’d been doing my best to keep my secret from the gang. I always walked around with mud on my face and my clothes dirty. I kept my hair short and tried to disguise my voice but there were some things I couldn’t hide. My body was changing like it wanted to give me away. I was growing up and I knew that I couldn’t hide the truth for much longer.
“There might may be a problem wiv’ that.” I hesitated. “Bart, I ain’t who you think I am. I mean, I’ve got a secret.”
“I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what you’ve done. You’re a fine mascot and an even better cook.”
“That’s not wha’ I mean.”
“You’ll be Christopher to me no matter what you have to say.”
He showed me his teeth through a big smile.
“I’m a... girl!” I said, turning away from him so that I didn’t have to see his horrified reaction.
“I see.” He paused. “Of course you are. How did I not notice it earlier? Well that was awfully stupid. Imagine calling a girl Christopher.”
I turned to look at him. His smile had grown even wider.
“It’s too late now though,” he said. “Sorry, you’re stuck with it.”
I laughed, unsure if he was joking.
“How do you think it suits you?”
“Eh?” I replied, completely failing to grasp what he was talking about.
“Christopher. How do you like your new name? No, don’t answer. Come with me.”
He took me by the hand and led me to where the rest of the gang were sitting.
“My merry men and women, I have an announcement. Our distinguished chef has finally earned a name. I’d like to introduce you all to Christopher.”
They cheered and clapped.
“About bloody time.”
“Much better than ‘boy’.”
“What do you think of it, Anders?” Bart asked.
“Well,” Anders paused, puffing heavily on his old wooden pipe which he thought made him look sophisticated. Breathing out a thick cloud of stinking smoke, he said, “Yes, it’s a fine name.”
“Oh and one more thing. Christopher is a girl. If any of you even think of giving her a hard time for being dressed up like a boy for the last couple of months, I’ll pop your eyes out with a spoon.” Bart’s voice changed from jolly and light to deadly serious so that nobody questioned if he was kidding.
Ross and his father bellowed out a laugh.
“Pleased to make you’re acquaintance, Miss Christopher.”
Bart’s smile returned as everyone began to make a fuss of me.
“Yes, you’re very welcome here with us, Christopher, m’ dear,” Eric, the spokesman of the group, announced. “Welcome to the family.”
It wasn’t long before the gang started calling me Chrissie or Christina, but Bart never changed.
“Fine meal, Christopher,” he’d say after dinner each night. “Keep it up.”
After that, life went on just like normal. They all still teased me as much as before and treated me like everyone else. With each passing day, I became more certain that I had found what I’d always longed for. Being surrounded by people who cared for me, by people who wanted nothing more than my happiness and well being, felt like some kind of heaven.
None of them cared for me more than Bart did. I was steadily becoming his biggest fan. Whenever he talked to me I giggled like a silly little girl. When I wasn’t working, I would follow him round listening to the fabulous stories of his past adventures. The only people I had really known before Bart were the old couple who’d brought me up. Their idea of entertainment was beating me till my ears were bleeding, so I hadn’t had a lot of experience when it came to learning how to judge people. Still there was something so magical about Bart. I loved him like no one before or since. I loved him like he was my father. And just as I realised how important he had come to be, he announced his plan.
“If you’re set on being a woman,” he said with the flash of a devious grin, “then you’ve got a lot to learn. It’s alright for this lot to waste their lives away but they were never given any choice.”
“I’m happy-” I began to say.
“Quiet, child. Most of our little family here were born without any opportunities. Do you think they chose to grow up without an education or a decent home? I did what I could for them, but you’re different. You’re under my care and I’m going to do everything in my power to see that you get a chance in life.”
“I wanna be a thief like you or a-”
“Christopher, hush,” he interrupted. “If you’re to be a woman, there’re some things you’ll need to know. First you must learn how to carry yourself, how to dress and how to speak like a lady. Second I will teach you all about etiquette, sophistication and the ways of high society. Then third, but most importantly, I will teach you how to kill.”