“My friends are gonna know I’ve gone missing!” said Portino defiantly, “and then they’ll just send someone else!”
“That wouldn’t be your little friends at the A&W Ranch, would it?” replied the large man with a sneer.
“What?” Portino’s face fell.
The large man laughed at the reaction.
“Do ya think we’re stupid? We know about your pals, and we rounded them up, so…problem solved.”
While the large man spoke, Crab Cakes produced a rope and leaned forward to tie Portino’s unresisting hands together.
“Thass right, mate,” said the pirate, “you come along nice and easy with us an’ no one gets hurt.”
This last statement was apparently unsatisfactory to Sahnik. In a flash, the dog leapt from Portino’s horse to the ground, where he found the closest leg of Crab Cakes’ mount. The horse shrieked and bucked violently. The pirate, still leaning forward, was head-butted by his horse, thrown back over the its rump and landed in an unconscious heap on the ground. Meanwhile, Sahnik had moved on to the large man who was ready for the attack, managing to remain seated while his horse bucked and skipped.
“Let’s go, Sahnik!” Portino hollered.
In one fluid motion, the dog launched himself upward just as his master leaned out and scooped him from mid-air. Without missing a beat, Portino spurred the mare into a gallop. Taken aback by Portino’s deftly handled departure, the large man quickly recovered and drove his horse onward. The pursuer and the pursued flew along the road. Although he managed to keep his distance at first, Portino knew that there was no way that he was going to outrace this man all the way to the Whyte Castle. Still, without any other option available to him, Portino continued to frantically urge his horse to go faster. However, the mare was quickly running out of steam. The large man was gaining with every stride, until:
He was knocked clean off his horse. The man fell limply to the earth, unconscious. Portino heard the thud and looked around. He saw a man with a large tree branch standing by the side of the road. Portino brought his panting mare to a stop. The man with the tree branch looked decidedly peeved. Cautiously, the boy turned back.
“I risked my neck spying for Hoboken Mike,” he heard the mysterious man growl as he tossed aside his branch, “and what do I receive as payment?” He thrust his hand into a pocket and pulled out a wad of paper. “Coupons! Coupons for his blasted restaurant!” Angrily, he flung them in the air, the little pieces of paper landing gently like autumn leaves over the prone villain. The man turned to face Portino, smiled, and bowed slightly.
“Innen-Owt, at your service.”
It was dusk by the time Wendy left the woods and found the main road. She rode south for several miles before coming to a crossroad and turning east. As night descended, Wendy grew more and more nervous as the landscape around her was gradually swallowed by the dark. To add to the gloom, thick clouds scuttled across the sky, hiding the stars and making Wendy feel very alone.
“I wish you could talk, Horsey Radish,” Wendy sighed. The horse nickered in reply. Leaning over, Wendy wrapped her arms around the horse’s warm, broad neck. She remained that way, mile after mile. The sound of her mount’s breathing and the rhythm of his movement proved to be soothing to the redhead. By the time the first twinkling lights of the village appeared in the distance, Wendy was sound asleep.
Horsey Radish gave his head a gentle shake, rousing Wendy from her doze.
“Mmm? Are we there?” Wendy mumbled sleepily. She rubbed her eyes and noticed the cluster of lights approaching. From a small building beside the village gate, a portly night watchman emerged.
“Whoa there, young lady,” said the watchman, stepping forward with a kindly smile. “Where might you be headed at this hour of the night?”
“I need to see Prince Carl, sir!”
“Ah, do you now? Awful late for a visit, don’t you think? Do your parents know…?”
“Please! It’s urgent! I have to see him right away!”
“Look, young lady…”
“My name is Wendy. Prince Carl knows who I am…”
“Wendy?” The watchman looked shocked. “Not Wendy from the Whyte Castle?”
“We expected your arrival, but not like this. Is there something wrong?”
“Please, we have to hurry! I’ll explain on the way.” Without another word, the watchman took hold of Horsey Radish’s bridle and together they made their way to Hardy Castle.
“This is outrageous!” Prince Carl thundered as he paced his throne room. He was the spitting image of his father with the exception that King Burger sported a full beard while the prince remained clean-shaven. However, Wendy had seen that similar glowering look that was currently on Prince Carl’s face. It was the same look the king had given to Wendy after the “sliders” incident. Had that been only a few days ago? Wendy felt that a lifetime had gone by since then.
“And with it all happening virtually under my nose! I should be ashamed!”
“Oh, no!” replied Wendy. “It’s not your fault! No one knew this was coming. My friends and I happened to be at the right place at the right time. The king doesn’t even know about what’s going on.”
“He doesn’t know?” Prince Carl asked astonished. “Then he must be warned at once!”
“We did send someone to warn the king, but I’m not sure if he made to the Whyte Castle. He might have been captured.”
“Just to be sure, we’ll send a message to the Whyte Castle.”
“But how? Little Julius has all the roads guarded.”
The prince smiled.
“Not all roads, my dear Wendy.”
Prince Carl led Wendy through a doorway and down a long flight of stairs. After opening a second door, the two stepped out onto a dimly-lit platform. Alongside the platform was a road with two thin ruts cut down its length. Both ends of the road disappeared into dark stone tunnels.
“What is this place?” Wendy whispered in amazement.
“It’s something that Father and I developed for a secret messenger service between castles. We call it the sub-way.”
“Yes. It’s how we share information about the goings-on of Dryvthru. We also use it to send belated birthday gifts, but that’s another story.”
Soon, Wendy heard rumbling coming from the tunnel on their right.
“Ah, just in time,” said Prince Carl as the noise continued to increase. Wendy couldn’t imagine what could be approaching. She didn’t have long to wonder. Out from the tunnel burst a strange-looking wagon. In the place of wheels, the wagon had two long pieces of metal which fit in the road’s ruts. Being pulled by the wagon was a large panda.
“What is with this kingdom and pandas?” Wendy said exasperatedly as the wagon came to a noisy, screeching halt.
“WHAT WAS THAT?” the prince yelled, cupping his ear.
From the wagon leapt a trim young man, dressed in green.
“Ah!” said Prince Carl, “excellent timing. I need you to travel to the Whyte Castle at once.” He produced a scroll with the information that Wendy had given him. With a smile and a bow, the messenger took the scroll and returned to the wagon.
“Now,” said the Prince as the sub-way wagon quickly slid away into the opposite tunnel. “We must look to our own defense.”
“Do you have an army?” Wendy asked as the two climbed the stairs back to the throne room.
“We have a small standing army. However, it is most likely that we may need to call on volunteers to fill our ranks. From what you have described, Little Julius will probably have a sizable force on hand.”
When they had returned to the throne room, Prince Carl called on one of his servants and told him to summon “the Colonel.”
“Who’s the Colonel?” asked Wendy.
“He’s my military advisor and a very wise man. If anyone knows what needs to be done, he does.”
After a few minutes of waiting, the throne room door opened and in stepped a bespectacled, elderly gentleman wearing a small goatee and white linen suit.
“Ah, Colonel,” said the prince with a wave. “We are in need of your services.”
“Well sir,” the Colonel drawled as he approached, “I am always happy to be of service.” He turned a grandfatherly gaze upon Wendy. “Now who do we have here?”
“Colonel, this is Wendy. Wendy, I’d like you to meet Colonel Landers.”
“Well now,” Colonel Landers beamed as he took Wendy’s offered hand. “With that lovely head of hair, I should have known. A pleasure to meet you, darlin’.”
“You know who I am?” Wendy asked, surprised.
“Oh my,” chuckled the Colonel, “the whole kingdom knows who you are!”
Dust-covered and weary from travel, Portino and Innen-Owt pushed on throughout the day, reaching Holdermayo by dark. After bolting down a quick meal, the two rode on toward the Whyte Castle, halted their mounts before the guard house.
“State your business!” said the captain of the watch, sauntering out and eyeing the two strangers with suspicion.
“We need to speak to the king,” Portino replied, “it’s urgent!”
“It’s always urgent,” scoffed the captain. “Be off with you!”
“Sir,” said Innen-Owt, “the boy is quite right. We bring important news from the south. The king needs to…”
“I said, be off with you!”
“If you could just hear us out…” Innen-Owt tried again.
“No one sees the king at this time of the evening!” roared the captain. Almost as an afterthought, he added “Unless of course you have committed a crime. In which case, you will be brought before the king to be judged.”
“I see,” Innen-Owt mused. “And how quickly is a criminal brought to justice once a crime has been committed?”
“Why, immediately,” replied the captain. “King Burger takes great pride in dispensing speedy judgments.”
“So, theoretically,” continued Innen-Owt, “if a crime were to be committed, say…now, would the accused see the king tonight?”
“That’s right,” the captain nodded.
“Hmm…fair enough,” calmly replied Innen-Owt.
Then he punched the captain in the face.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t throw all of you into prison for bothering me at this hour of the night,” yawned King Burger as he slouched on this throne.
“This villain hit me!” the captain moaned from the non-swollen side of his face.
“Only because we needed to see the king immediately,” retorted Portino.
“Well, that makes sense,” the king replied dryly. “You wanted to see me, so naturally you beat up my watchman.”
“Sire,” the captain mumbled indignantly, “I was not beaten up. I was merely struck while my guard was down.”
“Which is not the sort of thing that inspires confidence in my captain of the watch.”
At this, the captain had the good sense to look embarrassed.
“Your highness, Wendy is in trouble!” Portino finally blurted out.
This got the king’s attention.
“Wendy? What has happened to her?”
Portino then related the story of Little Julius’ plot, the kidnapping of Wendy and his friends, and his own near capture on the road to the Whyte Castle.
“This is outrageous!” yelled the king, echoing his son’s response to the news. “I will mobilize the army at once!”
“What are we going to do about Wendy?” asked Portino with some urgency. Just then, a man wearing a green shirt hurried into the throne room and approached the king.
“News from Hardyshire, my lord,” said the messenger, handing over a scroll.
King Burger unrolled the message, read it quickly, then let out a small sigh of relief.
“Well, here is a bit of good news. It appears that Wendy managed to escape her kidnappers and is safely in Hardyshire! She warned the prince and he is now assembling troops in the south.”
“That Wendy is somethin’ else!” Portino laughed. “Is there anything she can’t do?”
“Yes,” replied the king with a twinkle in his eye. “Stay out of trouble.”
Wendy stared into a fenced-in yard full of chickens.
“I don’t get it,” she said, turning to Colonel Landers, “I thought you were going to show me your secret weapon for winning the battle.”
“And so I am, darlin’,” the colonel replied proudly, waving an arm toward the mass of clucking poultry.
“But,” Wendy said dubiously, “they’re chickens.”
“Not just any chickens, my dear,” continued the colonel, unfazed by her doubts. “These are highly-trained birds of war!”
Wendy looked back at the pen just as a large hen near the fence relieved herself and then walked unconcernedly through the mess.
“These,” explained Colonel Landers, “are members of an elite air strike team: Chicken Fighters in Local Airspace. We call them ‘Chick-FLAy’ for short.”
“But they look…ordinary.”
“Ah, but we have a special diet that we feed the chickens prior to battle. You wouldn’t think it by looking at them now, but these beauties are capable of wreaking havoc from the sky.”
“A special diet? What do you feed them?”
“I’m afraid that is top secret,” said the colonel with a mysterious smile. “We don’t want this information getting to the wrong sorts of people.”
“It isn’t spinach, is it?”
The colonel’s mouth fell open.
“Wh…What?” he stammered in shock. “Why did you…? How did you…?”
“I met someone in Port Plees-Comagin who said he fed his chickens with spinach, and they grew really strong.”
Colonel Lander’s face went from shock to a stony look of disapproval.
“Tell me, Wendy,” he said gravely, “this person that you met. Was he squinty-eyed, smoking a pipe and wearing a sailor suit?”
“Yes! That’s Potpie! Have you met him before?”
“I have,” replied the colonel icily, “but I have not seen him in many years. You see, his real name isn’t Potpie. It’s Beauregard. Beauregard Landers…and he is my son.”