The Crimson Eagle, Part III

Marianne came to in a pair of warm, strong arms. Bright red, billowy fabric, she noted, smothered the arms. She followed the arms to a red shirt that opened to reveal a muscular chest with thick, dark hair. A red hood covered his entire face but his long nose and large, concerned brown eyes. “Are you ok, miss?” he asked in a thick Myposian accent. “You pass off. I do’n mean to scare you when I take you away, but I was afraid the Sheriff would bulldozer you with his carts.”

“No,” Marianne admitted wobbly, “I’m fine. Thank you for saving me!”

She took a good look at their surroundings. Sheep and goats grazed contentedly on a lovely meadow. A pair of rabbits and their many children hopped by, ignoring the humans. She lay in his arms under an olive tree at the corner of the meadow. The grass was as green as Ireland, the sky as blue as Lake Mypos. The puffy white clouds resembled the benign creatures cropping the flora. “Where are we?”

“We are on Mount Mypos, on the northern part of the island.” He got to his feet and gently placed Marianne on hers. “You can see everything from here.” He pointed to one side, where tiny brown huts and miniature buildings, like doll houses, covered the landscape. A thin plume of grayish clouds drifted from one spot. “There’s Pignika. There is still a little smoke coming from City Hall.” He moved his finger from the town to a solid, elaborate stone fortress that was probably several hundred miles from the town on the ground, but looked close enough to touch it from this distance. “That is Pignika Palace, where Samuel Gorpleous lives and holds court.”

Marianne ran to another side of the mountain, near a pair of goats who were nibbling wildflowers. She pointed at a very large, sprawling white building, surrounded by smaller houses and huts. “That must be Castle Markwright! I can see the tennis courts and the pool, and there’s the movie theater!” She giggled, indicating the expanse of endless blue beyond the silvery hills and green pastures. “And there’s the Mediterranean and the fishing towns!” She turned to her odd new friend. “Where do you live? Do you live in Pignika?”

The young man took her hand. “I can show you where I used to live with my mama. That is why I come here. It is far away from King Samuel, and it makes me feel happy.”

Marianne’s eyes widened. “I know who you are. I’ve heard your voice before. You’re the Crimson Eagle! You were at the party last night and on the roof of City Hall this afternoon!”

He shook his head. “I am Crimson Eagle sometimes. Other times, I am following the leader.” He shrugged. “I was a decoration when I went on City Hall. I kept King Samuel busy while the others saved the Mypiot farmers in the jail. The smoke was a decoration, too. It came from machines the leader made.”

They stopped by the blackened remains of what was once a very pretty little hut, chicken coop, and sheep pen. It was obscured by a thick grove of half-burnt olive trees. The look of sadness and anger in the young man’s brown eyes nearly broke Marianne’s heart. “Was this your house?” He was too upset to do more than nod his head. “How did it happen?”

“King Samuel and his men burned our hut to the dirt when I was away in America with the leader. Isabellina, the goddess of death, took my Mama to her underground home that day. Mama raised me in this hut. She and my cou...friend were all I had.” He burst into tears, sobbing noisily on Marianne’s thin, frilly shoulder. She put her arms around him and handed him a silk handkerchief. He accepted it and loudly (and messily) blew his nose.

“Thank you,” the young man sobbed, wiping his eyes. “I do’n mind Papa so much. Isabellina took him when I was very small Mypiot boy. I loved my mama, though.” He finally grinned at Marianne. “That’s ok, though. The leader came up with a plan to take Mypos back from King Samuel and the Sceptosians. The leader always has a plan. Sometimes, they work, and sometimes, they do’n and I rescue him.”

“The leader?”

“The head Crimson Eagle,” the young man explained. “He builds all the machines and the tricks that make other Mypiots think we are magical.” He led her back to where his horse enjoyed a grassy dinner with the remaining sheep and goats. The young man gently placed Marianne on the horse’s back and joined her as easily as if he were stepping into the bathtub. “The leader and I share horses,” he explained. “It throws King Samuel off the smell of our tracks.” He stroked the horse’s midnight-colored mane. “This is Nightwing, my favorite and best horse. He can jump fences, bring in the paper, eat hay, and play a mean game of Boochie Tag.”

They rode down the mountain in silence as the waning sunlight formed lengthy shadows that enveloped the island. Marianne couldn’t believe her luck. How many girls could claim to have been in the arms of the Crimson Eagle, Mypos’ most notorious outlaw? She felt like the heroine in a Wild West-themed penny dreadful. She wished they could ride into the sunset together, thwarting any danger they met. Aunt Lydia would worry, though, and she didn’t want to leave Jennifer.

He stopped at the village Tattari, several miles from Castle Markwright. “I can’t take you to the castle,” he told her. “It’s not safe for me there. A carriage to Castle Markwright stops here every night. Just tell the driver C.E sent you, and he’ll let you on for free.” They stopped in the shadow of a small wood hut. A weathered wood sign with the words ‘Bus Depot’ in Myposian hung off the side.

Marianne threw her arms around him. “Can’t you tell me your real name? I may never see you again!”

“I can tell you something close,” he whispered, looking right and left. “You can’t tell anyone else, though, not even Jennifer or Lydia. It is very important. Only the leader knows.” He started to unbutton his shirt.

”Gee,” Marianne breathed, “shouldn’t we get off the horse to do that?”

“I can take my shirt off on a horse. I do it all the time when I have to change clothes between here and our hideout. It is not as private as a phone booth, but it works.” He pulled down his scarlet balloon sleeve and showed her a gorgeously formed shoulder. “Do you see the brown mark on my shoulder in the shape of a sheep?” She took so long finding it he pointed it out with his slender gloved fingers. “Only the members of the royal family of Mypos have the mark of the sheep on them.”

Marianne gasped. “But that means...”

He nodded. “Yes, it does.”

“You have a mole in the shape of a sheep on your shoulder!”

He sighed and bowed, not an easy thing to do on horseback. “It means I am the Prince of Mypos, and my Mama and Papa who are with Isabellina were the king and queen before King Samuel and the Sceptosians invaded the island.” He shrugged. “I am not as interested in being prince as I am in saving Mypos. I am just a simple sheep herder who wants to make my people happy and avenge his parents.”

“Oh, gosh,” Marianne exclaimed. “I’ve never been rescued by royalty before!”

A carriage appeared in front of the bus depot. The young man hastily covered his birthmark. “Here is your ride. I will leave.”

“No!” Marianne exclaimed. “Let me give you a trinket of my love.” She kissed him so passionately he nearly fell off the horse. He was out of breath when she climbed off and waved good-bye. Even Nightwing watched the girl step onto the carriage with large, surprised black eyes.

“What a woman!” The Myposian youth touched his lips where she kissed him, then touched his shoulder where the birthmark was. “Someday, Nightwing,” he whispered to his mount, “when Mypos is happy and I have avenged Mama and Papa, I will marry her and make her my queen.” He sighed sadly as he turned his horse toward the caves carved into the hills near the village. “Someday.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Jennifer walked through the gardens, worried and frightened. Marianne still hadn’t returned, and it was past dark. The Crimson Eagle reassured her Marianne was perfectly safe in the hands of his deputy, who, he claimed, got carried away by a dramatic moment. He let her, Lydia, and Harriett off at a pasture several miles from Castle Markwright. They were not in wonderful moods when they arrived at the gates of the castle, especially Lydia, who regarded hiking as cruel and unusual punishment.

A bath and change of clothing restored Jennifer’s good humor, but hadn’t brought Marianne home or answered her questions about what went on at the street fair. Lydia suggested she visit Laurence in the little brick dwelling he shared with Balki near the cliffs on the northwestern border of the Markwright’s property. Jennifer agreed. Lydia was playing matchmaker, but there wasn’t really much else to do, and she wanted to find out exactly how the two men occupied themselves all day.

Donald, Laurence’s fat and surly footman, led Jennifer to an elegant but simple parlor filled with comfortable furniture and Myposian antiques. A framed map of Mypos hung over a huge, polished wood desk. She found Laurence Wayne sitting in a plush green armchair. He was dressed as impeccably as ever in a fine gray suit and blue cravat, his cane leaning against one side of the chair. “Good evening, Miss Lyons. I haven’t seen you since right before the street fair got out of hand. Don’t tell me you had another hot date. That makes two in less than twenty-four hours. You’re a very popular girl for a newcomer.”

She had a few things to get off her considerable chest, and she figured now was as good a time as any. What she really wanted to do was wipe the sneer off his baby face. “I could ask you the same thing, Mr. Wayne,” she snapped. “Where were you all afternoon?”

“I was interviewing the judges of the jam and jellies competition when City Hall began to belch smoke,” Laurence explained. “I tried to find you, Mrs. Winslow, Mrs. Markwright, and Miss Spencer, but the scene was something out of a stage comedy skit on inept firemen. Several of the King’s troops told me the Crimson Eagle spirited Miss Spencer to some unknown corner of Mypos while his men made off with the rest of you. I made inquiries among the remaining Pignika merchants and soliders, but no one knew what became of the outlaw and the blonde girl or the cart with the Crimson Eagle’s crew. I then hailed a carriage home, where I discovered Balki was called to the street fair to do lint paintings of prize-winning livestock and vegetables. I’m worried he may have been caught in fracas.”

He gestured at the equally plush chair across from him. “Miss Lyons, I doubt either of us are going anywhere until we know our friends survived the street fair disaster, so why don’t we fear for their safety together?”

Jennifer settled into the other chair. It was soft and warm. She could have easily fallen asleep in it if she wasn’t so antsy. “What is it that you and Balki do here?”

“These are our offices,” Laurence told her. “We do the bulk of our work and research for The Daily Mypiot here and finish at the main office in Pignika.” He struggled to stand, leaning heavily on his cane. Jennifer put her arm around him and gently helped him to his feet. “Come on, Miss Lyons,” he insisted, smiling shyly. “I’ll give you the grand tour.”

There wasn’t much to see. The ground floor consisted of the parlor and a second room that seemed to be Balki’s domain. A gorgeously carved Myposian antique desk dominated it. Papers, clothes, bags of dust and lint, half-opened tubes of paint, books on journalism and Myposian history, and paintings and articles from The Daily Mypiot covered every surface. An easel stood on the other side of the room near a huge window that overlooked Lydia’s prize-winning rose gardens. A group of thick brushes dripped water and dust onto a rusty tin that formerly held Myposian House Coffee (“good to the last drip”).

They returned to the parlor, sitting the same chairs as before. Laurence ordered two glasses of wine from Donald, who grumbled and complained all the way down the trap door that led to the basement wine cellar. “Donald doesn’t have the world’s most pleasant disposition,” he apologized. “But he’s damn good at his job and at keeping this place in order.”

She sighed. “It’s so peaceful. It’s like the rest of the castle doesn’t exist.”

“That’s why we spend most of our time here, instead of our rooms in the main house,” Laurence said. “We’re able to do our work for the paper without interference.”

Jennifer nodded. “What kind of articles do you write for The Daily Mypiot?”

“Mostly human interest stories, like the fair and the obituaries,” he admitted. “We also do pieces on King Samuel and the comings and goings of his court.” The young man sighed. “It isn’t exciting work, but it passes the time.” He pulled a checkerboard and wooden box with brass hinges from a drawer under the table. “Speaking of passing the time, would you like to play a game of chess while we await the arrival of our friends?”

Jennifer smiled. “I would love to! I’m very good at chess. I could beat every boy in school at Iowa.”

Donald returned with the wine to find the two engrossed in their game. The young blonde woman and the small youth with the dark curls were equally matched, in strategy and in wits. “Here ya go, Mr. Wayne,” the plump servant grumbled in a nasal New York accent. Jennifer thought she’d heard that nasal voice somewhere before. It sounded like the sailors in the ports of Manhattan, where they’d taken an ocean liner to Europe. “Do ya need anything else?”

“That will be all, Donald,” Laurence said distractedly. The servant huffed off, and the duo continued their battle of wits.

“Laurence,” Jennifer asked as she moved a pawn to the next square, “what do you think of everything that’s going on in Mypos? There’s obviously a lot of unrest and unhappiness.” She slammed a pawn on the board. “Somebody should do something about it!” she shouted. “The native Mypiots, people and animals, are treated like the dirt in King Samuel’s fingernails! They need clean water and safe streets and food for their families and livestock!”

“I don’t like it, either,” Laurence agreed, “but there isn’t much anyone can do. Mr. Markwright’s tried to talk sense into Samuel Gorpleous, but he only cares about his treasury and his own hide. Eliminate him, and a dozen equally corrupt Sceptosian nobles will take his place.”

“Who ruled Mypos before Sceptos invaded?” Jennifer asked.

“King Ferdinand the Fair and his wife Queen Carlotta the Strong were the heads of Mypos during the Myposian-Sceptosian War,” Laurence explained. “Ferdinand was murdered by Sceptosian soldiers, some say on the orders of King Samuel, though this was never proven.” He moved his bishop to her pawn and checkmated her. “Queen Carlotta and her son disappeared soon after and were declared dead.”

“Where did you hear that?” Jennifer asked curiously as she took his bishop with her knight.

Laurence smiled mysteriously. “Oh, I have my sources, Balki being one of them. He was a poor but honest shepherd in a remote area of Mypos before he came to live with me in America.”

Jennifer moved another pawn toward one of Laurence’s knights. “Why don’t you write an article about the plight of the Myposian peasants for The Daily Mypiot? It would make a great story, and it would draw attention to all of the injustices in this country.”

“I’m not permitted to,” he said. His voice was even, but Jennifer could tell from his expression and his compressed, almost vanished lips that the strict censorship of the Myposian press angered him a great deal. “Journalists who write anything even remotely critical of King Samuel or anyone involved with him are thrown in the dungeon for the rest of their lives.”

He deftly pushed his knight out of harm’s way. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my days in a damp cell, living on bread and water with Myposian goat herds who are a lot less intelligent than my cousin.”

“Someone’s defying King Samuel,” Jennifer reminded him as she dropped her knight closer to one of his remaining pawns. “The Crimson Eagle wrote that article in the paper this morning.”

“He’ll be lucky if he isn’t killed because of it,” Laurence objected. “At the very least, Mr. Markwright will tighten security at the Daily Mypiot offices, and The Crimson Eagle will find another way to foolishly enflame the public.”

She shoved her knight hard across the board. It knocked over two pawns and a bishop before falling with a muffled clack. “Why don’t you organize a committee or start a war or something? You have status, a decent job, respect…”

“None of which I particularly desire to lose.”

“You are such a pessimist!” She stood, her full skirts knocking over several chess pieces. “Why don’t you stop moping and think about something besides you and your articles for a change?”

Laurence limped next to the table. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Miss Lyons,” he hissed. “You’ve never chased a story, one that could make you and your cousin’s careers, only to see it all torn away from you in an instant. You never struggled to remember what happened in the accident that shattered your limb and your pride. You never woke up in a dirty hospital in a rough part of Chicago with only your distant cousin by your side and a pink slip from the newspaper that employed you in your pocket. You’re just a shallow, spoiled, stupid socialite!”

Balki entered the parlor in time to see Jennifer slap his cousin hard across his plump cheek and storm out, her skirts overturning the remaining chess pieces. “Did I miss something? Cousin, why Jennifer angry is? I thought you were crazy about her.” He straightened the bolero tie around his crimson blouse and black pattered vest.

“I am,” Laurence confessed, rubbing his stinging face, “but I love her too much to put her in danger.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Three Weeks Later

Jennifer and Marianne rode into Tattari on horseback, Lydia, Laurence, Harriet, and Balki behind them. The two young women were eager to do some shopping and catch up on local gossip. They’d spent the past two weeks “resting” after Marianne’s abduction. Marianne insisted the Crimson Eagle was a perfect gentleman, but Lydia fussed anyway, fretting over her “terrible experience.”

They hadn’t left the castle grounds since the street fair disaster. Harriett huffed and rolled her eyes and made friends with the servants, who loved her stories of her husband Carl’s dangerous police cases. King Samuel visited them several times, supposedly to chat with Robert Markwright about the press releases and the display of the Myposian crown jewels at Pignika Palace. He ogled the girls more than he talked politics. Marianne thought he was charming but rather slimy, “like a blonde lizard.” Jennifer avoided him by spending time in the library. Laurence Wayne stuck to his private office. Balki helped Lydia tend to Marianne, who thought it was very sweet of them but unnecessary. The Crimson Eagle hadn’t done anything to her she could tell them about.

Jennifer read The Scarlet Pimpernel five times, and it hadn’t even been written yet. She watched every movie at the theater twice and swam in the pool until her fingers were raisins. Marianne was happy as long as she was with Balki, but Jennifer would go stir crazy if she sat in that damn castle a moment longer. No one heard a peep from the Crimson Eagle or his deputy since the aborted street fair.

Balki and Marianne were side by side, Balki on a proud black stallion, Marianne on a pretty golden pony. Balki told the girl jokes that made her blush the color of Myposian beets. Laurence and Harriett brought up the rear, discussing crime in Europe.

Jennifer thought her friend and the Myposian artist were adorable together, and Lydia said as much to her as they entered the village. “Aren’t they sweet?” Lydia sighed. “Balki’s just wild about her.”

“She’s wild about him,” Jennifer admitted with a smile. “He’s all she talks about.”

Lydia looked slyly at Jennifer. “What about you? Has anyone in Mypos caught your eye?”

Jennifer fingered the eagle pendant around her neck. “There is someone, Aunt Lydia.”

Lydia smiled knowingly. “Laurence is a fine young man, even if he is disabled and a bit distracted when he’s in the midst of an article. He’ll make a wonderful husband for you.”

Jennifer sighed. “No, not Laurence. The Crimson Eagle.”

Lydia was shocked. “The Crimson Eagle? But you barely know him!”

Jennifer bit her lip. She couldn’t tell her aunt she met the Crimson Eagle in a glade at midnight two weeks ago. They had enough time to perform a duet, kiss passionately, and for her to find the eagle pendant on the ground before he melted into the treetops. “I know him well enough, Aunt Lydia.”

“Jennifer,” Lydia wailed, “he’s an outlaw! You don’t know who he is or where he’s from or how many dig-das are in his bank account!”

“Aunt Lydia,” Jennifer reminded her, “he saved us from the street fair fight sequence!”

“He caused the street fair fight sequence!” Lydia added as they arrived in the village.

Tattari was, like the older part of Pignika, a circle of huts and buildings made from mud and sticks. The Myposian peasants were as downtrodden as those in Pignika, but livelier. Women huddled together in huts, whispering to each other. Kids chattered like squirrels as they played with their few toys. Even the sheep seemed to bleat messages over their feed troughs.

“What’s going on?” Jennifer asked. “It sounds like Old MacDonald’s Farm.”

“Yeah,” Marianne added. “Here a baaa, there a cheep, everywhere a baa and a cheep!”

“Speaking of cheap,” Laurence said, “why don’t you ladies go to Tattari’s finest clothing establishment, Sheepridge and Clothesmaker? Anton Sheepridge is a personal friend of mine. He can make dresses that fit as smooth as a glove. Balki and I have to interview the owner of the largest turnip in Mypos.”

“How can you put a dress on your hand?” his cousin asked as he helped Marianne down. “And I thought Sheepridge and Clothesmaker was the only clothing store in Tattari!”

Lydia sighed as Laurence shot his cousin his dirtiest look. “That’s a wonderful idea, Laurence,” the redhead assured him. “There’s nothing better than a new dress to raise your spirits.”

Harriet eyed her. “You’d need a lot more than a dress to raise your spirits. How about you stand on Mount Mypos and let the wind carry you to San Capistrano?”

“Harriet,” wailed Lydia, “why do you always insult me? Do you know what it does to my fragile ego?”

Harriet raised her eyebrows. “Your fragile ego? Your ego’s so hard, it could cut raw diamonds!”

“See?” Lydia complained as the two entered the large building with “Sheepridge and Clothesmaker” splashed across the front in neon letters. “You can’t even leave me alone in fanfiction!”

Marianne was about to follow, but Jennifer stopped her. “Why don’t we go to that shop instead?” She dragged her friend to a smaller building across the square that had lovely earthenware pots and vases for sale.

“But Jennifer,” Marianne wailed, “I wanted to buy some ribbons and a new bonnet. My old ones are too hot in this climate! I saw a very nice bonnet with pink flowers in the window of Sheepridge and Clothesmaker.”

“You can get the bonnet another time,” Jennifer claimed. “I want to ask questions about The Crimson Eagle. Some of the people in this village may know something about him. The people he and his men rescued from Pignika during the street fair came from Tattari.”

“Like who he is, why he helps the people of Mypos, and why he’s two different people?”

Jennifer frowned. “What do you mean?”

Marianne shook her head. “Jennifer, even I know the man who carried me off at the street fair isn’t the same guy who played Errol Flynn on the chandelier at the ball. For one thing, the one who grabbed me has very nice, strong arms and a big, strong chest with more hair than a Care Bear.” She grinned. “The one on the chandelier is the one you have a crush on. I heard you talking to Lydia earlier.”

Jennifer sighed. “Ok, I like the shorter Crimson Eagle. So what? Unless we get some answers, we probably won’t see either again!”

The two women were walking across the square to the pot and vase store when Jennifer thought she saw two figures hurrying into the whitewashed hut. They wore heavy black wool capes trimmed with bright crimson braid. The muffling cloaks could not, however, disguise the obvious fact that one was taller and thinner than the other. One gloved hand carried a wooden basket of bread and dig-das, Myposian money.

“Wow,” Marianne exclaimed. “I wonder who those guys are? They’re nuts to be walking around in thick black capes when it’s hot enough to fry pig snout on the street!”

They rushed to the shop just as the two men were walking out. Jennifer ran into the smaller one and got a fast glimpse of a long, aquiline nose and wisps of curly brown hair. She tried to grab his arm, but he pulled away and hurried off, the larger figure by his side.

“Who were those cloaked men?” Jennifer asked the shopkeeper as she approached the counter. He was a short, stocky fellow with a craggy, expressive face and a thin mustache. “What were they doing here?” His shop was small but clean and crowded with pots and ceramics of every kind.

“Oh, they’re the local delivery guys,” the little man explained in a nasal New York accent not unlike Donald’s. “They brought my pastrami and provolone on rye from the deli across the street.”

“While dressed like druids in the middle of June?” Jennifer pointed out witheringly.

“Besides,” Marianne added, “there’s no deli here. The closest one is in Pignika, near City Hall. I remember passing it when we were at the street fair.”

The shopkeeper’s smile disappeared quicker than the men who brought bread and dig-das. “Ladies, would you be interested in a nice pot? My family’s made pots for generations.” He shoved one covered with enamel horses and warriors under Jennifer’s nose. “Here’s a nice one of cowboys and blazing saddles and all that John Wayne stuff. It’s yours for the low, low price of seventeen dig-das! How ‘bout it?”

Jennifer pushed the pot aside. “No, thank you. What we’re interested in is information about the Crimson Eagle.” She leaned closer to him. “That was him and his deputy who came here just now, wasn’t it?”

The shopkeeper loosened the top three buttons on his peasant blouse. “What if they were? My wife’s been sick the past few months, and the shop isn’t doing well enough to cover the eight thousand taxes King Samuel the Stinker threw at us. We need the dough, literally and figuratively speaking.”

“I understand that,” Jennifer said, truly sorry for the poor, nervous fellow. “My friend and I want to know if you’ve ever seen him, or have some idea of who he is.”

“No one knows who he is. He and his men always wear the black capes, like they’re trying out for ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ or the hoods.” He looked left and right. They were alone in the shop. Marianne admired a vase trimmed with red enamel roses and peonies. “I don’t believe the rumors that he’s a shape-shifter. That’s sillier than Fraunk-en-steen’s monster tap-dancing and making out with Madeline Kahn.”

“It’s pronounced ‘Frankenstein,’” Jennifer corrected.

“Not in my movies.” He continued, waving his arms toward the windows. The sheriff and his men paraded across the square, their purple and yellow flags snapping to command in the breeze. Men, women, and children gathered around the sheriff’s vehicles, cheering and shouting and singing and playing “The Phony King of Mypos” on the zither. “I heard from a friend of the wife of the uncle of one of the Crimson Eagle’s men that our great hero and all-around good egg is none other than the real Prince of Mypos!”

Marianne was so surprised at this reference to Mypos’ lost ruler she dropped the vase, which fell on the floor with a noisy crash. The shopkeeper gave her a withering look. “You broke it, you bought it!”

“The Prince of Mypos?” Marianne gasped as she fished dig-das out of her purse and handed them to the little man. “I thought the true Prince of Mypos died during the Myposian-Sceptosian War!”

The shopkeeper shook his head. “Nahh, that was just a story King Samuel invented so he could keep the throne. The real prince escaped to America and hired his own army to rescue his people and save Mypos from jerks like Samuel Gorpleous and Sheriff Burnsetti.”

The door to the shop was flung open as the man moved from around the counter with a broom, grumbling about clumsy young ladies. A tall soldier resplendent in purple and gold tacked a notice on the door of the shop. “Hey,” the owner exclaimed, “what are you doing? This is a store, not a community bulletin board!”

“These notices are to be posted on the front of every home, retail outlet, and office in Mypos,” the young man explained brusquely. “By orders of King Samuel Gorpleous.”

The notice was a parchment printed with words in English and Myposian. Jennifer read the English, her apprehension growing with every word. “’There is a ten thousand dig-da reward for the capture of the Crimson Eagle. You may use whatever means necessary, but the King would prefer him alive if possible.’”

“Yeah,” Marianne exclaimed. “He wants to kill the Crimson Eagle himself!”

“This is bad,” the shopkeeper wailed. “I sure don’t want to turn the guy in. He’s been really good to my family, and he might be our real king. A lot of people are even more desperate than I am, though. They’ll do anything for ten thousand smackers.” He shook his head. “It ain’t good to be the king.”

Sheriff Burnsetti was tacking the last parchment to the huge olive tree in the center of Tattari. His soldiers had mostly retreated to the Goat’s Head Saloon, where a red haired lady with an opera-trained voice and a heaving bosom amply assisted by a tight, revealing sequined gown sang songs about being tired, accompanied by zithers and a honky-tonk piano. She encouraged the soldiers to become sloppily drunk and not notice the proprietor was charging them twice as much as he would for normal folk.

Jennifer winced at one of the woman’s high notes. “Come on, Marianne,” she insisted. “I don’t think we’re going to learn much more here. Let’s go find Lydia and Harriett and go home.”

Lydia trotted out of Sheepridge and Clothesmaker wearing a brand new floral dress and bonnet as the girls emerged from the shop. Harriet and a servant followed, their arms laden with packages. “I swear, Lydia,” she panted, “if shopping was an Olympic sport, you’d have a shelf full of gold medals by now!”

“You’re just jealous because you couldn’t find anything that fit!” She joined the girls. “Hello, ladies! Have you spent a productive afternoon?”

“Oh, quite productive, Aunt Lydia,” Jennifer told her with a quick smile.

“We found out the Crimson Eagle might be the real Prince of Mypos!” Marianne told them eagerly.

Lydia and Harriet exchanged confused frowns. “You’ve been listening to the peasants gossip,” Lydia said slowly. “The Prince of Mypos was killed in the Myposian-Sceptosian War with his parents.” She nodded at the servant. “Charles, go get the valet to bring us our horses. We’re going to ride to Pignika for lunch. The only restaurant in town is the Goat’s Head Saloon, and it’s no place for ladies of our quality.”

Harriet handed the boxes to the valet. “In that case, you should fit right in.”

Lydia was about to make a stinging retort when the noise at the aforementioned drinking establishment reached a fever pitch. The redhead now danced with several soldiers, if her writhing movements could be called dancing. Other peasants in somber black joined in. They were so inebriated their version of dancing consisted of half-wobbling, half-leaning on their partner. Her voice reached a crescendo that broke everything glass within a five-mile radius, including the soldiers’ drinks, and frightened the horses Charles attempted to lead to the square. Jennifer noticed in the confusion that Balki and Laurence seemed to be missing. She hadn’t seen either of them since their arrival in Tattari.

She wasn’t given a chance to wonder about their disappearances, though. The soldiers were attempting to grab their rifles, which seemed to have mysteriously vanished, along with the singer and the drunken peasants. The Mypiots darted every which way, grabbing the wrong children and tripping over each other and cursing about which extra was supposed to run to which house.

There was no warning, just a puff of smoke for effect. The huge mustang with the fiery mane appeared out of nowhere, stampeding through the square at breakneck speed. A small but familiar figure in a red hood rode the gorgeous animal. The sleeves of his red blouse flapped in the wind and made him resemble the bird of prey that gave him his moniker. Another rider in a black hood and black blouse followed him astride an equally handsome stallion the color of a moonless night.

Jennifer and Marianne gasped in unison. “It’s him!” they breathed. “It’s the Crimson Eagle!”

“Oh, my god!” Lydia choked, fainting into Harriet’s arms. Harriett rolled her eyes and handed the half-conscious woman to the servant, hurried to the nearest soldier, and blocked his way with her ample body. One surly look from her sent the man scrambling down the street and out of Tattari.

The Crimson Eagle galloped past Sheriff Burnsetti, who was too surprised to react. The man on the black horse fended off several soldiers who’d made makeshift weapons out of lawn sculptures and pokers from the tavern. He was proved to be extremely adept with a sword, even on horseback. He and the other black-garbed men scattered through the square held the soldiers back long enough for the Crimson Eagle to tear down the Sheriff’s notice and post one of his own in its place.

Jennifer and Marianne joined Harriett in the fray. Jennifer took a chair from the Goat’s Head Saloon and brought it down on the head of one man. Marianne used the old Three Stooges “poke-in-the-eye” routine with another. The Crimson Eagle rode triumphantly out of the square to the general cheers and whistles of the crowd, including the three American women. His men made themselves scarce the moment he attached the second paper to the olive tree with an arrow.

His triumph was short-lived. Sheriff Burnsetti recovered from his shock as the Crimson Eagle rounded the drug store on the edge of town, followed closely by the man in black. Jennifer saw him pull the gun out of the holster on his waist, but grabbed his hand too late to stop him. The first shot broke one of the remaining windows in the drug store. The second hit the Crimson Eagle squarely in the right shoulder. The diminutive bandit listed to one side as his horse thundered toward the cliffs, the second man close on his heels.

The sheriff angrily turned to face Jennifer. “What were you doing, young lady?” he shrieked. “I could have taken care of that Errol Flynn imitation right here and now!”

“I didn’t want you to hit the horse,” Jennifer confessed lamely. “It didn’t do anything.”

Harriet snatched the paper off of the tree. “That foolish baby. I can’t believe he did this.”

Sheriff Burnsetti took the note from her and read it out loud to the people remaining in the square. “’You can put a million dig-da reward on my head, King Samuel, but it won’t stop me from restoring the true king of Mypos to his throne or the people to their carefree lives! My men and I will be at the opening of the crown jewels display at Pignika Palace…if you can find us.’”

The small sheriff with the sagging jowls turned his wrath on the three visiting American women. “I ought to arrest all of you! You interfered with police business, destroyed public property, and ruined my chance of finishing off the Crimson Eagle before the fourth season begins!”

“Honey, calm down,” Harriett advised him. “If you sputter like that for much longer, people will mistake you for Jack Benny’s Maxwell.” She crossed her arms. “You can’t prove we were involved in this. You didn’t see us. You were too busy watching those two ride through Tattari like the Lone Ranger and Tonto.”

Realizing Harriet was right, he switched the target of his anger to Jennifer. “And you,” he hissed, “this is the second time I caught you helping the Crimson Eagle. I don’t like people who aid the most devious outlaw in Myposian history. If I catch you anywhere near that backstabbing bandit again, you will be thrown in the dungeon and left there until you’re so covered with mold they’ll use you for penicillin! Have I made myself quite clear?”

Jennifer nodded. “Yes, sir.” She breathed a sigh of relief when he finally stomped off to chastise his still somewhat inebriated men.

The man on the stallion finally caught up with his chief about two miles from Castle Markwright. The Crimson Eagle clutched his right shoulder. A darker shade of red stained his bright crimson blouse and black leather gloves.

“C.E,” he asked tentatively, “are you ok? I know the Sheriff must have hit you. I heard the shots.”

“Yeah,” he gulped. “I just need to get this bandaged and buy a new pair of gloves, since these are ruined. I’ll be fine.”

The man in black got off his horse and went to his best friend and leader, who turned pale under his red hood. “Cousin, we need to get you a doctor. That wound don’t look so nice.” He reached up to his leader to help him off his horse, but the shorter man pushed his hand away.

“Don’t worry,” he said, smiling despite his sickly pallor. “It’s a million dollar wound.”

The man in black looked around. “How did you get a million dollars with that wound?”

C.E shook his head. “I mean, it bleeds a lot, but it’s not serious.” He almost fell off Chewbacca the mustang. “We’ve got to get the horses in the Cave,” he reminded his confederate. “It’s not safe out here. The sheriff may have sent men to follow us.”

The Crimson Eagle managed to get to the limestone cliffs that bordered the northwestern end of Castle Markwright before he started leaning against the other man, who led both horses. “Cousin,” the young man in black said urgently, “I can’t let you go through with this last plan. You aren’t well. I’m going to have to do it.”

“Nonsense!” his leader puffed. “I can handle it. We’re going to need every man we can get our hands on for this job.” He put his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “It’ll restore you to your throne and me to…well, it’ll make me happy, too.”

“And then we can tell Jennifer and Marianne the truth about who we are?”

“Yes,” C.E agreed. “Then, we’ll tell them.” He staggered, grimacing as his right shoulder accidentally rubbed against Chewbacca. “For now, we have to round up supplies and prepare the men. I have a plan!”

“Oh god!”