Lady Arabella Spenser was day-dreaming of monsters and knights in shining armor when her carriage abruptly stopped in the middle of the woods.
Rudely called back to reality by the oddity, Arabella pulled back the window curtain to see what was happening. The three men her father had sent to escort her were clustered around a downed tree that blocked the road. It wasn’t just a branch, which might have fallen by accident; it was a full tree, which meant it was probably deliberate.
Arabella’s heart sped up and she leaned out the window a little more, trying to get a better look. If the tree was torn up by its roots, that meant it was probably ogres or trolls or giants — something impressive and dangerous. Ever since last spring’s unfortunate bear incident, her mother had spent evenings reading to her from A Damsel’s Guide to Distress. By now, she had all the rules memorized, the most important of which was this: the quality of a damsel’s rescuer was always proportional to the amount of distress she was in. Ogres or trolls or giants were sure to attract an earl, at least, or maybe even the heir to a dukedom.
Her escort was blocking her view of the tree, so Arabella opened the door to her carriage and scrambled out. Unfortunately, that did nothing to improve her view. Instead, all three men began tripping over each other as they surrounded her and urged her back inside.
“What is it?” Arabella demanded, trying to make her voice sound imperious instead of squeaky with excitement.
“Just a fallen tree, milady,” the coachman said.
“I still think it was cut,” the outrider muttered. “That axe — ”
“Hush!” The footman shoved past both of them and laid a hand on her arm, trying to turn her back towards the carriage door.
Arabella’s hopes plummeted. Ogres and trolls and giants wouldn’t need man-made tools to fell a tree.
With a whoop, a half-dozen bandits came pouring out of the trees. They were dirty and ragged, but armed to the teeth with swords and knives.
Arabella stomped her foot in annoyance. Really, this was intolerable! Bandits barely even merited an esquire.
The footman dove under the carriage. The coachman grabbed the bridle of the outrider’s horse, moments before it tried to bolt. The outrider valiantly drew his sword, but six against one were terrible odds. Two of the bandits evaded the outrider and headed directly for her.
A Damsel’s Guide to Distress said that a damsel should always be demure and dainty and delicate while in distress, but Arabella figured these were extenuating circumstances. After all, she couldn’t possibly be expected to settle for being rescued by anything less than landed nobility. It wasn’t just her reputation as a proper damsel at stake, it was her entire future. Besides, if her escort could be persuaded to keep silent, then her mother never had to know.
When the first bandit tried to grab her, Arabella snatched the knife from his belt and slew him.
The other bandit gaped at her for a few seconds, then attacked her in earnest. Arabella liberated the fallen bandit’s sword and made short work of his companion. Then, with the help of her outrider, she finished off the others. None of her escort was seriously injured, though the footman had terribly stained the knees of his livery and her favorite traveling dress was probably ruined.
Arabella was wiping her sword clean on one of the bandits’ bodies when she heard the sound of hooves pounding down the road behind them. She looked up in time to see a scruffy young man pull his flea-bitten nag to a stop.
“Fear not, fair maiden, for I am here to rescue you!” He lifted a rusty old great-sword that was far too big for him to handle effectively and swung it through the air as if he were attacking some invisible foe. He was lucky he didn’t slay his own horse, flailing about like that.
“I thank you for your offer, kind sir, but as you can see I am not currently in need of rescue.” Arabella curtseyed politely, then handed him the sword she’d taken from the fallen bandit. A damsel couldn’t achieve the proper level of distress if she was carrying around her own sword, after all. “Here, you’ll have better luck next time with this.”
Arabella climbed back into the carriage, leaving her escort and the befuddled squire to deal with the fallen tree. She leaned back against the soft cushions and closed her eyes, once again dreaming of ogres and trolls and giants.
And when her future husband showed up, she might even let him help slay them.
Kat Otis was born with a surplus of creativity and quickly learned to cope by telling stories to anyone who would listen. When she’s not writing, she’s an historian, mathematician, singer, and photographer. She lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there’s no country music involved. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress XXVI.