“Stay asleep, Princess,” Kristoph whispered softly as the commander of the troop drew closer. “Don’t make a sound, for your life’s sake.”

He kept a carefully inscrutable expression as the soldiers surrounded the gurdet and avoided eye contact. It was Lee whose gaze met the commander’s.

“We have no contraband of interest to the army,” he said. “There are only our food supplies and water, and our son asleep in the back.”

“Your son?” The commander peered into the back of the gurdet. The canvas cover was thick, and no light penetrated it. The princess was sleeping in the cool darkness, but it was too warm for a cover, and it must have been obvious that she was a girl, not a boy. But Lee’s words, as well as his hypnotic eyes had put the suggestion into his head. The Commander nodded and called his soldiers away.

“You should not stay on the open plain after dark,” he said. “Go to a village. You will avoid more delays to your journey.”

“I understand,” Lee answered. “My thanks to you.”

The soldiers rode on. Li drove the ponnets slowly at first, then let them trot.

“You are incredibly good at Power of Suggestion,” Kristoph said with a laugh once they were well out of earshot. “OUR son. Which of us do you think he imagined was the mother of the child?”

Lee laughed, too. Then he became serious.

“Will you explain why you didn’t want to reveal that we had the princess?”

“Because they’re looking for her for the wrong reasons. I felt it in their minds. If they’d found her they were ready to put their swords through her heart.”

“Not while I have breath in my body,” Lee growled. Kristoph nodded. They would both fight to their last to protect the innocent child. “Why?”

“Something has happened since we left the Ocean City, something that changes everything. Don’t ask me to explain further. I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to look after the princess until we can put her in the hands of somebody we can fully trust.”

“Agreed,” Lee responded. “What about his advice to find a village before nightfall? Was that well meant or is it a trap?”

“I’m not sure. I would like to find a village and see if anyone knows anything. But I think I should like to be on the plain before nightfall.”

“There is a settlement ten miles due north-west of here. Let’s go there to buy food and water and ask some subtle questions.”

While Lee turned the ponnets to the north-west Kristoph went into the back of the gurdet. Lee heard him talking to Allia gently and she answered him trustingly. He didn’t worry about what he was doing until the two emerged to sit on the wooden seat.

Princess Allia had been transformed into a boy. Kristoph had shaved her head apart from one small plait of yellow hair at the back of her skull and dressed her in a roughly made shirt and pants cut from the fabric of one of Kristoph’s own shirts. It was the worst bit of sewing Lee had ever seen, but it would pass for the sort of clothes youngsters on the plains wore. She was barefoot and bareheaded. Kristoph fashioned a cap for her head to disguise the fact that her scalp was not as tanned as her face after travelling in the sunshine for so many days.

“If anyone got too close it would be obvious,” Kristoph pointed out. “Besides, she has that birthmark as a giveaway. I couldn’t remove that without causing her pain. Besides, it IS her birthright once this matter is resolved. But at least we can drive into the settlement as an all male party which attracts no comment.”

The village of two dozen houses built around a deep well and a clump of groundnut bushes was strangely quiet when they drove into it. The people who were about looked at the gurdet with a mixture of fear and suspicion.

“Yes, I know,” Lee said before Kristoph opened his mouth to speak. “Something IS wrong here.”

He stopped the gurdet beside a larger building that passed for an inn and stables. There was always something of the sort in any such settlement for passing visitors. Kristoph lifted Allia down from the seat and stepped inside while Lee attended to the ponnets.

Of course, all eyes within the inn turned upon them. Kristoph kept a tight hold on Allia’s hand as he crossed the wooden floor and asked the woman behind the counter for food and drink.

“Come into the back room,” the woman answered. “Your boy will be better eating in the quieter place.”

That sounded to all within hearing like a kindness. The back room was the private quarters of the innkeeper and his wife. Kristoph realised as soon as they were within that room, that there were other reasons why she had brought them away from prying eyes. In particular, he noticed the child a little older than Allia who was sitting quietly with a counting frame doing simple sums. This ‘boy’ had the same pale scalp compared to ‘his’ face as Allia had when she took off the cap.

By the time Lee came in along with the innkeeper the woman had prepared a meal of bread and cheese for the guests, along with ale for the men and a cup of milk for Allia. They thanked her for the food and remembered the proper Risan blessing before eating.

“Sir, madam,” Kristoph said. “Will you tell me what is happening? Why are there soldiers on the Shrow looking for girl children?”

“You have not heard?” the innkeeper asked. “There has been a military uprising in the Capital city. The Dowager Princess has fled to Risa I where she is said to be in hiding, protected by friends there. In the absence of an heir General Assar has proclaimed himself President. But there are still many people loyal to the Crown, and there are rumours that the little princess lives, after all. Assar is afraid the loyalists might find her and proclaim her as queen.”

“He is afraid of a little girl?” Lee was scathing. “His military junta cannot be as strong as he hoped.”

“He is afraid of what she represents – the rightful ruler of our world.”

“And so his soldiers ride across the Shrow searching for a girl child?” Kristoph guessed. “They stopped us on our journey already, and I guess from the faces of the people that they have been here.”

“They have,” the woman of the house said tersely. She looked at her husband.

“They ordered us to present all girl children for inspection. We were afraid and hid our child. Many people did. We didn’t know what would happen. There were rumours… we feared they would simply murder them. As it was…. Rough men with swords pulling the clothes from children, inspecting their bodies for the royal mark….”

The woman gently pulled down the collar of her child’s shirt. There on the nape of the neck was a birthmark. It was not crown shaped like the one on Allia’s arm, but Kristoph and Lee both understood. They feared that their child might be mistaken for the princess and killed without further thought.

“It is likely you will find many settlements without ‘girl’ children on your journey, sirs,” the innkeeper said. “There is fear everywhere. If the soldiers do not find what they are looking for… they may return in worse mood and deal even more harshly than they did on their outward trek across the Shrow.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Kristoph answered. “When we have eaten, we will press on. We won’t add to your burden by our presence among you. I think you should let your little one play bareheaded in the sunshine while it is still quiet. The disguise will be more effective that way.”

“Indeed,” the woman agreed. “Before you go, let me provide you with some better clothing for your ‘boy’. Those look as if they might fall apart any moment. I have some homespun shirts and leggings that our elder child grew out of long before now. They are in good condition, hardly worn.”

Kristoph quietly thanked her and let her take Allia behind a curtain to be dressed. The clothes she emerged in were properly made for a boy of her age. There was a bundle of shirts and trousers of larger sizes, too. The innkeeper’s wife handed them to Kristoph before she hugged him with tears in her eyes and a half smile on her lips.

“We are loyal to the Crown here. Good luck on your journey. May the sky gods protect you and this precious child you have care of.”

“And may they protect all loyal men and women and all innocent children,” Kristoph responded.

The innkeeper swiftly harnessed their ponnets. The animals were fed and watered and rested. They would pull the gurdet swiftly until nightfall. The innkeeper’s wife stood with him at the back door of the inn as they wished their brief guests farewell.

“She knew, of course,” Lee noted when they had left the township behind. “She dressed Allia. She must have seen the mark.”

“Yes. That is why we had to leave. If the soldiers returned while we were there, we could not ask them to keep such a secret. They are brave enough as it is.”

“Do we still press on to the capital city?” Lee asked. “We are bringing the princess directly to the place where her deadly enemy holds his ground.”

“We do,” Kristoph answered. “We cannot wander around the Shrow indefinitely. Our TARDIS is there. That is our best advantage in these circumstances. When we get back there we can take stock of the situation and decide our best plan.”

Lee saw the wisdom in that. He made the necessary course adjustment and they set off towards the setting sun. They passed close to more settlements, but they didn’t enter any of them. If the people were loyal, then bringing Allia to them only added to the distress and burden already upon them. If there were supporters of the military among them then the chances of exposure were increased. Allia’s disguise was easy to uncover, and her birthmark proved she was the child they sought.

When darkness fell, they kept travelling for a while. The Risan moon was full and the stars were an easy guide to their correct path. They kept going until the ponnets showed signs of exhaustion before selecting a halting place beside a clump of groundnut bushes. The ponnets fed on them, drawing moisture and nutrition from the leaves. Kristoph and Lee had a rather more appetising supper of meat and bread from a package the innkeeper’s wife had given them before they left. Allia had her own food but she also happily ate some of the bread.

The next morning, the same transformation witnessed four times already lengthened her limbs and body. Her hair grew with it, and Kristoph carefully shaved it again to make her look like a boy.

“It won’t be for long, my dear,” he promised her. “When we reach a place of safety you will be able to be a girl again with long flowing yellow hair that your princess’s crown will sit upon.”

She nodded as if she understood and hugged him around the neck affectionately. The eyes of The Executioner, the man who could kill in cold blood without a moment’s hesitation, shone with warm, soft emotions.

“We will be assassins again before long,” Lee reminded him. “This is a temporary situation for us, too.”

“Yes,” Kristoph said with a slight hint of regret in his tone. Then he became busy making breakfast for them all while Lee got the ponnets ready for the day’s travel.

“The clothing and food were enough for eight days travel,” Lee noted as they turned towards the still dark horizon with the dawn sunlight casting their long shadow in front of them. “The expectation was that the princess would be in the city by the time those things ran out.”

“If we keep going as long as possible, resting the ponnets just enough not to cause them distress, we may be there in seven days,” Kristoph responded. “We won’t be expected.”

“That might be our advantage,” Lee said.

Li Tuo stopped talking. Marion was on the edge of sleep. He pulled the blankets closer around her and reached to kiss her cheek.

“The end of this tale will do for breakfast time,” he whispered. “Sleep well, my Lady Marion.”