"The princess has been kidnapped by bandits."
Sir Rottenham, who served as Royal Princess Training Master to the young princess of the land of Lazytown, had been taking her highness out to the local town in the royal carriage. He had planned for her to have a quiet day indoors back at the castle today (as she did everyday) but the princess had pleaded so sweetly and earnestly to go outside. The delicious chocolate cake from the town on the other side of the Lazy Woods, she had argued while blinking her innocent brown eyes, would help her relax and sit still for the rest of the day. The Royal Training Master had been unable to resist her appeals. After all, he did care for her happiness even if his training methods often contradicted her bubbly and energetic nature. Her antics could at times be unbecoming of a princess, but he hoped in time to teach her proper royal behavior.
Of course that was before he had lost her to an infamous gang of bandits.
Now he stood cringing before her uncle, Lord Milford, who was acting ruler and highly alarmed at the absence of his niece.
"Bandits!?" Lord Milford gasped "Oh my! However did this happen? How can you be sure?"
Sir Rottenham gestured wildly as he spoke.
"She was inside of the carriage when I last saw her. So, naturally she ought to have stayed there, correct?"
"Well, I believe so."
"That's what I thought! And then we stop for one minute to let a senior citizen cross the road and that's when it happened!"
"Well I think it must have happened. I ...uh, technically didn't notice she was missing until I had reached the town. But! When I opened the carriage door, there it was!"
"What was it? What was there?" Lord Milford clutched Sir Rottenhams waving arm.
"Nothing!" Shrieked Sir Rottenham, freeing his arm from his much shorter companion. He pulled at his own graying beard in distress. "Not a ribbon, not a hair not even a floor!"
"Well of course there wasn't a- did you say floor? Oh my, she must have fallen right out into the road."
Sir Rottenham squinted at his ruler, who was now rambling distractedly about carriage accidents and his personal experience with them. He clapped his hands onto Milford's shoulders and stared down into his round face.
"No no no no! The floor was cut away! There was a hole big enough that someone had gone through and snatched her away while we had stopped. No, this was definitely, absolutely, unfortunately..."
He straightened to his full height and raised a finger triumphantly.
"Oh this is terrible!" Milford wailed "Poor Stephanie! What an awful thing to happen to such a lovely girl. We must find her immediately- ah but then we need to know who took her in the first place and we have no clues to go on..."
"Ah." The Royal Training master cleared his throat "I actually have a pretty good idea who is behind this wretched scheme."
He presented an apple core, dangling it by the stem to avoid touching the fruit.
"My niece was kidnapped by... an apple tree?" Lord Milford raised his eyebrows. Rottenham sighed.
"The group who haunts your forest and harasses travelers on an annoyingly regular basis," he began.
"Yes." Milford nodded.
"With the leader who dresses in blue and gives apples away as if it's candy?"
"Oh. Right." Milford was pensive for a moment. "I suppose there is no other possibility."
"Exactly." Sir Rottenham set the apple core delicately on a nearby table and glared sternly at it.
"This was the work of the Blue Bandit."
Princess Stephanie couldn't help shouting. Sir Robert Rottenham, or Robbie as she had always called him, had told her that shouting and being noisy was very un-princess like. But Robbie wasn't here.
Stephanie barely felt guilty for tricking him and more pleased that their plan had worked so well. The 'Blue Bandit' had been her playmate since she had tied a note to the leg of a bluebird that sang at the window of her bedchamber high up on the castle wall. In the note she had poured out her boredom, her loneliness, her frustration at cards being the most exciting game she was allowed to play. Stephanie hadn't thought that anyone would actually read her scribbling, but hours after the bird had flown off with the message in tow, he had appeared.
Running up the wall in a superhuman way she hadn't thought possible and waving brightly at her from the ledge was a mustached man with the wild energy of a young boy and a funny blue hat. He had given her an apple and was confused when she said she had never had one before. When he tried to teach her to walk on her hands and she insisted that she couldn't, at least not in her princess gown, he had nodded understandingly. They had played many games that afternoon and before he left he promised to return the following day. The stranger slipped a blue mask down over his eyes before climbing into the ledge.
"Wait!" Stephanie had gasped. "Are you that guy? The- the Blue Bandit?"
The peasants of Lazytown buzzed with stories about the blue-masked man who made mischief for those who ventured into the woods. The details of his existence depended on who you asked, as is usual with local legends, but the princess felt somehow she was meeting the real deal.
The Bandit winked and extended his hand.
"But you can call me Sportacus."
They shared a vigorous handshake and he had jumped off the window ledge, performing a flip before landing soundlessly on the ground below. Then he was gone.
True to his word, he had returned the next day as soon as Stephanie had finished her daily scheduled royal wave. The Royal Princess Training Master had planned for her to read quietly in the library that afternoon, but she had yawned and stretched and excused herself for a much encouraged nap instead. Sportacus arrived at her window with two surprises in hand. One was a tunic and tights as pink as the ringlets on her head. He had called them 'play clothes'.
The other was chubby 6 year old boy with messy blond hair and a dash of freckles on his button nose. He was sucking on some hard candy (which he kindly offered to the princess, though she politely declined) and introduced himself as Ziggy.
"You're his son?" Stephanie asked the boy, gesturing to the blue clad man who was clearing furniture from the center of the room. He lifted a table with one arm and laughed triumphantly.
Ziggy was laughing too.
"Sportacus isn't my father! He's our leader!" The boy adjusted the mask tied around his forehead "I'm a bandit just like the other kids."
"There are children among the bandits?" This didn't seem safe to Stephanie, going off of what Robbie had told her about how children ought to be raised.
"No, all of us are kids! There's me and Stingy and- oh except Sportacus isn't a kid. He can act silly like one though!"
Their attention turned to Sportacus who was stretched out on the floor in a perfect split. He was grinning.
"Ready to learn?"
The princess left at sunrise the next morning, long before Sir Robert would wake and begin their day of princess training. She was dressed in her new play clothes and a pink cloak with the hood covering her head. Clutching the crude map Ziggy had drawn for her she darted through the sleepy castle and eased open the gate. A thousand fears accompanied her first step onto the soft grass on the other side. She stopped. The woods were 20 yards away, sheltering a tantalizing new world of reckless freedom. And also unpredictable danger. She ran for the trees.
By the time Stephanie found the bandits camp she was no longer running. She had been following the small river according to the map but it had been hours and the despair that comes with being lost was weighing her down. Tears of frustration and regret began welling in her eyes as she slumped down on a nearby tree stump in defeat.
"I should have stayed inside." She sighed miserably to herself.
Something bounced against the tree behind her. Stephanie whirled around and spotted the object. An apple core. A bush rustled somewhere to her right.
"Who's there?" She called, hoping her voice didn't give away her panic. Another apple core flew at her from the direction of the bush. Thunk! She shrieked and took off running downstream in a frenzy. The faint sound of mocking laughter reached her ears just before a familiar voice.
"Trixie! Trixie don't- that's my friend!"
"Ziggy?!" Stephanie stopped in her tracks and whirled around, panting.
"Oh hi Stephanie!" Ziggy tumbled out of a bush and pulled his colorful mask off his sweet face. He looked over his shoulder. "Trixie it's okay, you don't have to be mean!"
A girl with tan colored skin and wild black pigtails jumped out from behind a tree. She held a slingshot at the ready, as well as another apple core.
"She's on our territory, Ziggy! Wait till Sportacus hears you let some pink intruder dance into our camp!" She did not lower the slingshot.
"Sportacus knows her, Trixie. This is the princess him and me were visiting yesterday." Ziggy explained, taking Stephanie's hand and pulling her closer to Trixie. Trixie scoffed.
"She doesn't look much like a princess to me."
Stephanie was conscious of this. Her hair was undone and in a mess, and her new tights and tunic were covered in rips and dirt. She was a strange pink sight. But Trixie tossed away the apple core and tucked her slingshot into her belt.
"I guess we can't leave her out here to be eaten by the wolves."
"Wolves?" The princess asked, startled. Trixie's face lit up.
"Yeah, wolves! Lots of big bad wolves out here in the woods. They'll eat you and your little pink hood up like birthday cake! Ha ha!"
Ziggy squeezed Stephanie's hand tighter as Trixie prowled away, laughing and making wolf noises.
"Come on Stephanie, you have to come meet everyone and see where we live and and Sportacus will be back soon- boy will he be surprised to see you!"
He was leading her forward when suddenly she froze. Ziggy continued to tug on her arm as she looked down on him in surprise.
"You didn't tell Sportacus I was coming?"
It was Ziggys turn to freeze. His blue eyes went wide.