Copyright 2016 Susan Skylark
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Table of Contents:
“No, no, no!” rang the irate fairy’s strident voice as she perused the text before her, “this will never do, not in the least! That’s not how it happened at all!”
“What’s wrong with it?” gasped her journalistic companion in surprise, “I thought you were a Reformed Evil Fairy or some such?”
Her glare froze him in his seat as she replied icily, “that does not mean I will swoon and sigh over this pathetic drivel you have the audacity to call literature. Not even my goody-goody sister is that insipid.”
“But what is wrong with it?” said the flummoxed, and rather nervous, writer in growing despair.
“The better question,” said the fairy wryly, “is what is right with it. Nothing! Absolutely nothing!” She frowned slightly and added, “that and it is utterly dull.”
“Dull?!” said he, his ire suddenly replacing his fear and surprise, “it is the consummate fairy tale!”
“That’s the problem,” said she with a heavy sigh, “I’ve had to give up the genre entirely in these latter years; it probably isn’t your fault, the world isn’t what it used to be. I suppose you don’t even believe in dragons?”
“Of course not,” said the man with a sneer, “why should I? Nor unicorns either, for that matter.”
“So you can put a rider on your home insurance policy, of course” said the fairy with a laughing smirk, “what happens if a dragon should happen to fly over your house and sneeze?” He paled at this, wondering if his disbelief were so wise and trendy after all. She continued, “as for unicorns, there’s not really any practical reason to believe in them, but it’s to your own loss if you don’t.” He frowned at her, not catching her meaning but she was not about to enlighten him further.
Said he after a long and awkward silence, “very well, madam, I suppose since I importuned you for this very reason. You had best tell me how to improve my manuscript.”
“Much better,” said the Reformed Fairy of Blackfen, with something almost resembling a genuine smile. She took up the paper again and scanned the text, muttering under her breath as she read, “big party…angry fairy…the girl will die…irritating cousin mitigates the curse…pricks her finger on a spindle…long nap…smooch from a handsome prince…happily ever after.” She looked up at him and said solemnly, “if you must know, it is very tedious indeed.” His mouth fell open in astonishment but she charged on before he could utter anything he might afterwards regret, as he was in the presence of a magical person who did not suffer fools lightly, said she, “your characters have no personality, your plot has no depth, there isn’t even a sprinkling of humor in it, the danger and suspense is nonexistent as we all know the prince will come eventually. That and it’s historically inaccurate.”
“Fine,” grumped the journalist, sitting back in his chair, arms crossed, and the look of a sulking toddler on his face, “enlighten me.”
“Oh, that I will,” said the fairy in true delight as she tossed the paper aside, laughed she, “and it doesn’t even begin with ‘Once upon a time:’
“I need a baby,” said the noble lady to her husband as he entered their extensive and fashionable house. He stared at her blankly for a moment, as if wondering why she just did not go out and procure one like she did her dresses and shoes, rather than bothering him with such trifling little details, but before he could fathom the full import of her words, she plunged ahead, “I was just over at the Jones’s and they have the cutest little boy! Oh, darling! I want one; I must have one! Wouldn’t a little girl be just the thing to liven up this rather dreary old house? Think of the adorable little clothes and the accessories I could buy! The congratulations and adulation that would flow in!”
He was about to protest that babies were theoretically expensive, and from what he had heard, they were quite noisy and dreadfully messy, not to mention rather inconvenient, but then that is what one had staff for, was it not? And as money was no object in that particular household, why not? “Very well darling,” said he, “if it makes you happy, nothing could please me more.”
But it seems infants are slightly harder to procure than shoes of a particular size and shade, which is hard enough, most especially when you are impatient for the fulfillment thereof. So it was that little Midas Jones was walking and beginning to babble almost recognizable verbiage, which his mother insisted were words, whilst our esteemed lady’s frustrations mounted over her inability to produce such an adorable creature of her own, but more importantly she was unable to reap the social excitement and congratulations that would undoubtedly flow unceasingly from such a fount. She consulted every known sorcerer, apothecary, physician, and herbalist she could find who specialized in such matters, but all to no avail.
But just as the baby craze seemed to be fading in that particular neighborhood, though exotic poultry were becoming quite fashionable, our lady found herself the mother of a beautiful little girl, in celebration of which, they threw a fantastic party, inviting everyone who was anyone in the entire Kingdom and beyond. The happy couple stood at the door greeting their guests as carriage after carriage rolled up and disgorged one fabulously clad celebrant after another, all obviously bored silly and there out of duty rather than any fondness for children in general or this couple in particular. The proud parents had just turned to follow the last invited guest into the house, when a rather irritated throat cleared behind them, drawing their attention. “Yes?” said the perplexed lady of the house to the rather curiously dressed individual loitering upon her expensive and stately steps.
“I fear my invitation must have been mislaid or lost by the carrier, for I never received it,” said the interesting personage.
“Invitation?!” said the lady, quite aghast that this odd person could even think that she would ever extend an invitation to such a peculiar and shabbily clad being.
“It is the only explanation,” said the creature, quite indifferent to the hostess’ shock, “for who would dare not invite me?”
“Who or what are you, madam?” said the astounded lady.
“What?” said the disturbing vision, with a certain dangerous edge in her voice that even the flabbergasted lady could not miss, “I am not a what but a who, madam! I am the Fairy of Blackfen.”
“Ah!” said the relieved host, coming to his lady’s rescue, “that explains it then. For you see, we don’t happen to believe in fairies, it is quite unfashionable and therefore unthinkable, and since we do not believe in your existence, well, you can’t expect an invitation when you don’t exist now, can you? No hard feelings I hope. Ta ta!” He stared at her expectantly for a moment, as if he expected her to immediately tip over dead, and then seemed rather crestfallen when she failed to do anything half so obliging.
The fairy frowned at him, “why are you standing there gaping?”
“I would think you of all people would have read that particular story?” said he in wonder, “when I said, ‘we don’t believe in fairies,’ aren’t you supposed to drop dead or something?”
The fairy said with a longsuffering sigh, but could not entirely hide her wry smirk, “I am afraid that particular story is not this particular story, thus the rules are quite different. So sorry to disoblige you, now what about my invitation?”
“I am afraid not,” said the lady of the house with a firm shake of her head, “it would never do! Your attire alone is five hundred years out of fashion, not to mention what my neighbors would think if I actually let a fairy in the house! It would be utterly ridiculous and I could never again show my face in fashionable society. Now if you were a leprechaun or some other well-to-do and currently in-vogue pixie-type person, I might make an exception, but it is completely unthinkable in this instance! I bid you good day, madam; I have a party to host!”
The fairy laughed darkly and said in her most sinister voice, which was impressively creepy, “what if I threatened to curse your child else?”
“Oh, would you!” said the lady in sudden delight. At the astonished and confused looks she received not only from the fairy but also from her husband, she added by way of explanation, “little Midas Jones was hexed after calling the new teacher at his Montessori, ‘an ugly old hag,’ when she pinched him and said he looked good enough to eat. It was only the truth after all, but still she sued the Montessori and won enough money to pay cash for that homely old gingerbread mansion down the street. Who builds with carbs nowadays? Anyway, then she went and cursed him besides. Now everything he touches turns to gold! I had thought about asking if we could babysit now and again, but this would be even better.” Her husband still looked rather perplexed, though the fairy now seemed to understand far more about this particular couple than they knew about themselves. The lady rolled her eyes and sighed, “what is it dear? What was unclear about what I just said?”
The man shook his head, “what’s a Montessori? Some sort of fancy sandwich shop?”
With another sigh, his wife expounded, “it is an elite and expensive school for very young children, I had one picked out even before our daughter was born; you can’t start too early, you know.” She eyed the fairy eagerly, “what do you think?”
Said the fairy dryly, “I don’t think there’s a worse curse I could lay on you people than the existence you already lead.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” snapped the lady in vexation, “the Jones’s have a child with a curse, how am I to be content without one too?”
The fairy wore a mocking smile, “you continue to prove my point, madam. But I won’t be cursing your wretched whelp with anything half so interesting as the golden touch. I suppose I could destine her to prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a wakeless sleep, or even to die; it’s trite, but effective.” She frowned, “but then there’s always the matter of some pesky prince showing up and ruining everything; I can’t abide a ‘happily ever after.’ No, I’ll leave things as they are, I’ll let you stew in your insipidness and go vainly about your pathetic lives, but I will not forget this and one day, I will have my revenge on the entire neighborhood. It used to be an actually respectable part of the Kingdom, except maybe for that troll under the bridge, but I’d take him over any of your ilk, drat those goats! At least he kept the riffraff out.”
The lady looked rather baffled after this expostulation and asked for clarification upon the most important point, at least to her thinking, “what exactly is a spindle?”
The fairy sighed heavily, and replied, “I suppose you’ve never actually had to do any sort of actual handicrafts? Making your own dresses, spinning, sewing, that sort of thing?”
“Making dresses?” said the flummoxed lady, “I have never heard of anything so ridiculous! Why, I just send a page down to a certain seamstress with precise instructions as to what I want and need, and her lad brings it over in a trice. No fuss, no mess, just magic! Or does she grow them? Sewing indeed! What nonsense!”
The fairy’s head was in her hands, though whether trying to hide her amusement or frustration this tale does not tell, sighed she at long last, “never mind madam, it matters not.” And then she vanished. The baffled couple exchanged a perplexed look and then went in to their guests with quite the story to tell.”
“That is utterly ridiculous!” gasped the journalist, as the fairy paused in her telling of the tale.
“I know,” sighed the fairy, thinking she had made her point at last, “such was the state of the world even then, and it has only grown worse since.”
“No!” said the offended man, “they could have been my parents! What happened to the King and Queen? The castle? Who wants to hear a fairy tale set in the suburbs?”
“Apparently not you,” said the fairy darkly, but softening her tone, she said more graciously, “but then you can’t really help your upbringing I suppose and it explains much about your own lackluster tale.” She glanced derisively at the cast off manuscript, “I suppose you can’t help that! Now do you want to hear the rest of the tale or shall I call in a psychologist so you can work through your traumatic childhood first?”
“By all means, please continue,” said the man, who was now white as a ghost, though whether at the thought of displeasing this magically dangerous personage or at the very idea that he might need counseling, she did not know. She smiled in a very pleased fashion, for either would suffice, and then continued:
“After the congratulations and socially enforced awe that attend the advent of a new baby in the family had subsided to a mere trickle, and as the lady’s trendy chicken fetish consumed more and more of her time, the child was relegated to the care of a person known only as ‘nurse.’ And as Nurse was a rather old and perpetually exhausted person, she required a great deal of sleep, which only increased as the child grew, thus the dear lady spent most of her waking hours dozing in a chair in the garden whilst her charge ran amuck amongst the ferns and hedgerows. While her mother truly had picked out a Montessori, a husband, the names of her grandchildren, etc. before the girl was even born, the all-consuming pressure of trends and fashion soon turned her mind to other, more pressing concerns and her daughter’s brilliant future was quite soon forgotten therewith.
The disgruntled fairy had not forgotten her promise and watched the family with interest as the child grew, wondering if she could come up with a curse worse than the girl’s current reality. However, the girl was not without allies, for this particular fairy had a sister, one with whom she was not on very good terms, for in the elder’s usually blunt way of expressing things, she summed up her younger sister as a quote, ‘goody two-shoes!’ The younger saw what the elder was plotting and felt the need to intervene on behalf of the child, though whether she was protecting the girl from her parents or her vengeful sister, or both, was yet to be seen.”
“This is actually becoming a little bit interesting,” said the man, whose complexion had returned to a somewhat more natural color, “do you not find it odd to speak of yourself in the third person?”
The fairy glared at him and he was suddenly pallid as milk once more, said she, “if you would please not interrupt, you will soon discover that the story becomes quite interesting indeed. And a good storyteller has no difficulty in speaking in the third, fourth, or even fifth person!”
The man frowned, “the fifth person?”
“Only slightly more difficult to master than the fourth-and-a-half person,” said she with dancing eyes, causing his cheeks to redden in fury as he realized she was making fun of him rather than imparting the literary secrets of Faerie. Ignoring his interest in the grammatical rules peculiar to immortals, she continued:
“The great horse whinnied nervously; the knight looked around in dread, wondering what could cause the usually unflappable animal such unease. Such was its training that it did not flinch, even before dragons. The friendly light of eventide suddenly became the black of a storm-wracked night and all the whispered noises of a sylvan twilight were now as a tomb. A scornful female voice scoffed in the menacing gloom, “well hero? What will come of you? Will you live or die? Will you ride upon my whims or shall the earth swallow you whole?”
The man shuddered, but knew to his very soul that he could never serve such a vile mistress, said he as boldly as terror allowed, “do your worst, fell lady, but I shall never serve such as thee.” The only answer was her mocking laughter as the ground upon which the horse stood suddenly became treacherous as that of mire or fen. The horse screamed his terror but was soon silenced as they sank from the sight and knowledge of mortal men.”
“Certainly far more dramatic than my rendition,” said the man in approval, “but I still don’t see where a spindle fits into all of this?”
“You are utterly ruining my tale!” said she with another irritated glare, “and unless you want to finish the story as an amphibian, I would highly advise against further outbursts!” He swallowed audibly, eliciting a menacing smile from the lady as she continued:
“There had never been such a cheerful, skipping child as Kylee, who seemed more lark or sunbeam than daughter of men. Her joy it was to sing and dance through the wooded vales in mist and shadow, to whisper with the flowers of the garden when they were aglow with the morning sun, and to share secrets with the little birds that trilled in the hedges. Nor was she surprised to meet one day a creature as whimsical and joyous as herself, save this was a daughter of the fairies, rather than of the mortal race, but so alike were they in interest and temper that it mattered not. So it was they traversed field and fen together, laughing with the brook and dancing in the mists of dawn, learning the language of violet and swallow. Her parents would have been aghast to learn that she kept company with any fey creature, no matter how sweet of temper, but they took very little interest in her or her tales, and her nurse, when conscious, just assumed them to be the invention of a young and fanciful mind with too little interest in her own kind, but she could not contain this seemingly half-dryad creature without crushing her utterly or ruining a perfectly good nap, so Nurse allowed her to gad about as she would, thinking she would one day outgrow such nonsense. But outgrow it she never would.
The years passed and this whimsical bud blossomed into a fanciful maiden who still kept her secret trysts with her sister of fairykind, but had learned the wisdom of keeping silent upon the matter with less discerning mortals. Upon a misty morn of rose and gold, Kylee met the fairy lass amidst the dew soaked lilies, but the creature seemed apprehensive, a mood in which the girl had never before seen the irrepressibly blithe creature, said the fairy with trembling voice, “I bear dread tidings, my friend, but worse would it be if no one knew and nothing was done to prevent so great a tragedy.” Kylee was at her side in a moment, urging her to speak what she would, for it must be grim indeed to so upset a creature that might have been mirth incarnate. Continued she, “my sister, whose nature is quite contrary to my own, has used her magic to coerce and entrap any number of men, warriors all, that they may do naught but her will, this to spare their lives. She intends to loose these vile slaves upon all the folk hereabouts, to rid the countryside of mortal men and to restore order and dignity to the neighborhood, at least as she defines it.”
Kylee gasped, “can nothing be done?”
The fairy said grimly, “there is a chance but the cost is great.”
Kylee’s fear turned suddenly to a grim resolve, “speak dear friend, I will pay what price I must, if I can avail my folk.”
The fairy swallowed a sob, but continued, “my sister has captured a number of knights, unwilling to do her will, in the process of acquiring those of a more vile or fickle nature that she has enslaved, these objectors may perhaps oppose her fell minions if they can be wakened from the sleep that lies heavy upon them. But to break the enchantment, one must be found who is willing to endure endless sleep that these others might waken.”
Kylee nodded sadly, “I will try, what must I do?” The fairy flung herself into her friend’s arms and wept as if her heart would break, but after she had cried herself into relative acceptance, she told the girl all that must be done.”
“Truly pathetic!” said the man, unable to resist, even with the threat of a rather soggy future hanging over his head.
“I know,” sighed the fairy, who did not seem at that moment intent on carrying out her promise, “but what do you expect from two such sappy heroines? But even so,” she smirked at him in anticipation, before continuing, “no matter how saccharine or cavity inducing they might be, they are worlds better than your one dimensional characters!”
Said the now miffed man, not thrown off in the least by this venture into the realm of mathematics so soon after their grammatical discursion, “you say my characters have no more personality or interest than a dot, a single point in the space-time continuum?”
“Precisely,” said she in quiet triumph, “now on with my tale:
It was rather a dreadful trick, though quite ingenious, or so thought the Fairy of Blackfen, and at last she would have her revenge, one way or another, on those who had insulted her so long ago. If the girl were as insipid as her parents, she would be destroyed along with all her folk, but if she somehow managed to remain untainted by their futility and vanity, she would soon find herself napping until Time itself failed utterly. She drew back into the shadows and watched in eager anticipation what was to come. The most delicious part of the whole scheme was that her pansy of a sister thought she could use the girl to subvert her plans, when either outcome was just as satisfactory to the Fairy of Blackfen, though on second thought, the idea of the girl thinking to sacrifice herself on behalf of those who could not even comprehend such a scheme and wouldn’t care about it if they could, was rather delightful.”
“You can’t gloat in the third person,” sulked the man.
“I can do whatever I want,” said she, “I am the omniscient narrator! That includes turning you into a frog, by the way!”
He shuddered involuntarily, “I thought you were a Reformed Evil Fairy.”
“Only a Mostly Reformed Evil Fairy,” said she, savoring his discomfiture, “it is a process after all:
On the far side of the woods lay a wild land of moor and fen, amidst those forgotten hills was a cavern in which the knights slept as men in their tombs. Kylee set out immediately for that lonely heathland as the fairy vanished to distract her sister, that she might not know of this threat to her plan until it was too late, little knowing her sister’s true intentions. The journey was uneventfully made and as night was falling, Kylee found herself upon a stony hillside beneath a sky of lowering grey clouds. An archway of stone stood black and ominous before her, like the mouth of death. She took a deep breath and marched into the doorway. There was a slight glow in the otherwise gloomy cavern, for some sort of luminous fungus thrived therein. Upon each side lay a row of stone biers and upon each lay an unmoving knight, sword upon his breast, as one interred. She hastened to the far end of the seeming tomb where lay an empty stone bier, around which had coiled a thorny vine that bore spines, long and sharp as needles, and black roses, which stank of death and decay. As she crawled atop the bier, she pricked her finger upon one of the thorns, a single drop of blood fell atop the stony bed as the girl immediately fell into darkness.
A light glimmered in the doorway as the fairy entered to see what had come of her friend. The girl lay unmoving, pale as marble and cold as stone, upon her bier while all about the cavern, the sound of waking men and clinking armor filled the air. The fairy’s light and courage blazed forth as she called the groggy knights to arms and told them of all that had come to pass and what was yet to come. As one, they gazed upon the sleeping form of the maiden with pity and wonder, vowing to waken her in turn once the grim fairy’s minions were routed. They emerged from the cave and found their horses inexplicably waiting and eager upon the hillside. Once they were mounted, the fairy’s light engulfed them all, and they vanished, leaving the hillside to its lonely vigil, save that the great thorny rose encircling the girl’s bier grew to such vastness that it quickly covered the entire hill and filled the cavern in which she lay. Any who dared approach the sleeping figure would soon find themselves likewise enchanted by the merest scratch from those countless, terrible thorns.
The vile fairy unleashed her minions at full dark and intended none of her neighbors to see the morning, but her sister knew of her plans and sent her own knights to counter the plot. The fighting was fierce but the wakened knights were victorious and the grim fairy overthrown. The triumphant knights and their pixie captain surrounded the fell creature, who wore a look of haughty triumph even in defeat, scoffed she, “well met sister! A victory indeed, I did not think you had it in you, but what has it cost your dear little friend? She will never waken as long as the hills endure! You have salvaged the lives of those hereabouts but at what cost?” Her scornful laughter seemed to mock the rising dawn itself before she vanished into the whelming mist.
“What will come of her?” asked one of the Knights of the remaining fairy.
She shook her head and said, “she will likely get up to more mischief one day, but for now these folk might dwell in relative peace and safety.”
Asked another Knight, “what of the sleeping maid? Did the fell lady speak truly of her fate?”
The fairy said sadly, “she paid the price willingly and without hesitation. But great is the price to free her from the enchantment; I do not know if any would be willing to endure the cost, so she will likely sleep on until the world itself has passed into legend.”
“What then is the price?” asked the first Knight.
Said she, “one must journey to the far, distant hills that rim the very edge of the world. There grows a flower that is said to cure even death itself, but the price to pick them is great. The hand that plucks them must then cross the hills and leave the world forever behind. What lies beyond, none knows, but that is the price.”
There was much murmuring amongst the Knights, for they had not reckoned on such a cost. They had thought to fight monsters or fell men, to make a great journey and bold vows, but in the end to return triumphant. But this? To make the effort and never see the result; to strive and never return more? The cost was too great, the price too dear. One by one, they turned away with many fine words and much regret; the fairy wretchedly watched them go, but knew it better that they never attempt the journey than to have their hearts and courage fail at the last. All the men of renown and valor abandoned her that day, but the least of them all, a mere page, remained behind. She eyed the boy with grim hope, “and would you risk this thing when all your elders will not?”
The boy shrugged, “if none else will, that leaves only me. I will go.” He frowned, “how then are these flowers to reach the imperiled lady if I am not to return?”
Laughed she for very joy, “I will accompany you and bear them back to she that sleeps.”
The boy nodded grimly, “then we had best be on our way.” She laughed in relief and joy as the boy mounted his horse and they set forth into the dawning. As they traveled, asked he, “could you not pluck these flowers to save your friend?”
She looked sadly upon the boy and shook her head gravely, “nay, for my kind is not allowed beyond the confines of this world, only mortal man has that doom and that joy.” The boy nodded, but seemed perplexed by her words, but there was naught she could say to enlighten him, for it was just the way matters stood and was perhaps beyond mortal comprehension.
She could not harvest the flowers herself, but she could certainly help the boy in other ways and much did she ease the tedium and difficulty of travel with her magical talents and pleasant company, until at last, after a rather uneventful and relatively agreeable journey, they arrived upon the hills that bordered the verge of the world. It was an enchanting land of rolling hills, wide meadows, laughing brooks, and bright woodlands, but to the East there was no horizon of boundless blue sky, but rather a perpetual mist that seemed ever radiant with the new risen sun. Said she, “thence must you go once you have plucked the flowers.”
He studied the mist and some part deep within yearned above all else to discover its secrets. He smiled at her tremulously, “and where grow these wondrous plants?”
She smiled and pointed to the mist, “in the very vapor of the mist do they abide.” They walked slowly towards the verge and a wondrous scent filled the air.
He sighed with great eagerness, “they smell sweeter than life itself!”
“Aye,” said she, “and so will they drive away even the shadows of death. But come, the time is at hand. Does your courage fail you, even now?”
Laughed he for very joy, “nay lady, I long to plunge in and see what waits Beyond, if this is the mere border, what must lie at the heart?”
A bittersweet smile touched her lips, “I envy you son of man, for such I shall not know while this world lasts.”
They drew to the very edge and he reached into the mist, taking up a humble clump of what looked to be no more exotic a flower than what is commonly called lily-of-the-valley. He smiled and tried to draw his arm back from the mist, but could not withdraw it; he looked to the fairy in concern, said she, “you must fully enter the mist and then hand me the flowers from within its confines. Do not go too far in or you and the flowers will be utterly lost to the mortal world!” He nodded and a look of joyous determination filled his eyes as he took that first fateful step. His heart gave a strange quiver as the mist enshrouded him but he knew he could now hand off the flowers. She smiled with a strange mix of joy and sadness and took the proffered bouquet. He smiled wondrously before vanishing deeper into the brume and beyond all knowledge of men. The fairy looked wistfully after the vanished boy, but then remembering her errand, returned to the ensorcelled Kylee.
She suddenly appeared outside that grim cave, flowers in hand, but she was appalled to see it so overgrown with that deadly vine. “Ah! Just the thing,” came a relieved and unexpected voice, “if one is to waken an enchanted Princess, one must do it properly. How much for your pretty flowers, lass?”
Pretty flowers? Princess? Unsure exactly what was going on, the fairy gave the dashing Prince a baffled look as he handed her a few coins and relieved her of her flowers. With that, he strode boldly towards the overgrown tomb; the scent of the flowers sent the shadow of death flying from its confines as the black roses burst into jubilant curtains of bloom in every shade of red, pink, and yellow, drawing gaily aside to admit the young hero. He knelt beside the bier, struck breathless by the maid’s beauty, and then she inexplicably woke up, without a proper kiss or anything! Kylee sat up as one long abed upon a joyous morning and smiled wonderingly at this handsome stranger. He shrugged at the seeming impropriety of the situation and offered the lady his hand. Thus did they emerge joyfully from what once had been a tomb into the glorious day, as from death into life. Kylee immediately saw her friend and rushed to greet her, wondering what had happened whilst she slept.
The fairy then imparted the tale, causing Kylee’s countenance to fall, especially at what it had cost the valiant youth on her behalf. She glanced questioningly at the Prince, “you had nothing at all to do with this rescue?”
He shrugged, “I paid the girl fairly for those flowers. What more could I do?”
She frowned at him, “you do not find it a little odd that death and darkness fled so easily before you?”
He smiled ruefully, “I’m a Prince, and those things just happen in such tales as this. Why should I find it strange in the least?” He frowned, “though I did wonder why you wakened without a proper kiss. That at least was rather uncanny.”
Said she, “you do know that I’m not a true Princess?”
“That could complicate things,” said he, “I had hoped to rescue a Princess, I’m not sure what my parents would think if I brought home a lady without a royal title and a handsome dowry.”
The fairy burst out laughing, “so you sir, are not the true hero of this tale and yet have the temerity to find yourself disappointed that this lady is not of royal blood?”
He smiled ironically and said with a laugh, “it is a bit strange at that. I guess I just stumbled into the wrong tale, that’s all.” He shrugged, “it was a lovely story while it lasted.” He offered the lady his hand, she shook it merrily, and they parted on the best of terms. Said he as he mounted his horse, “farewell ladies, I hear tell there is a dragon most foul that needs slaying over yonder and he holds a real princess captive.” He thrust the flowers into the girl’s hands before urging his white charger off into the westering sun, soon vanishing from view.
The girl sighed heavily as she turned to her friend, “what of that poor boy who gave up everything for my sake?”
Said the fairy wistfully, “you need not mourn over much for him I think, he rejoiced in his fate ere he vanished from my sight.”
Kylee smiled sadly and then asked curiously, “what then lies beyond all this? Perhaps I should venture thither and see for myself!”
The fairy smiled knowingly, “nay child, for though all men must take that path one day, none should seek it ere their time. It was a needful thing that sent him thus, but you must bide here awhile and see what life yet holds for you. Your tale is not yet done.” Her smile became wry indeed, “perhaps it will yet avail you a Prince.”
Laughed the girl, “I cannot abide a half told tale, you are right my friend, that journey will come soon enough, but I must finish one tale before I begin another. Though if all Princes are as stuffy as that fellow, I think I can learn to live without them.””
“Ha!” burst out the journalist, once more tempting an amphibious doom, “your prince is just as insipid as mine!”
“No,” said the fairy, with that ever annoying smirk of triumph, “he is vastly more insipid, which makes him far more interesting. Yours simply puts people to sleep; I wonder how he ever thought he could wake that princess of yours from an enchanted doze?”
“There’s still no spindle,” grumped the man, “and it hardly resembles the tale I have heard told.”
“That’s your fault, not mine,” said the fairy derisively, “you should have gone straight to the source from the start instead of listening to hearsay. Now be quiet, for this is where it gets good:
Suddenly the fairy’s elder sister was there beside them, desirous of her own part in the conversation, said she with a grim laugh, “that was a tale indeed! I never thought to see the Prince ride off into the sunset all by his lonesome, that was quite satisfying!” She skewered the girl with a glare, “now why did you have to go and be all sensible and virtuous and the like, especially for the sake of all your deplorable kinfolk?”
Kylee laughed aloud, “it would not have been much of a story else.”
“I suppose not,” said the elder fairy, who then glared at her sister, “and how did you manage to find a lad that could love a lady, a stranger at that, more than life itself?”
“It is the true nature of love, I suppose,” said the younger thoughtfully, “the world thinks it all romance and excitement and fuzzy feelings, while all that is very nice and natural, it has very little to do with the actual concept and practice of love, which in its basest and simplest form is merely one will sacrificing its own good for that of another.”
Kylee sighed heavily, “and the only man in true possession of such a virtue now dwells beyond the confines of this world! Whatever happened to happily ever after, anyway?”
Seethed the elder fairy, “I despise happily ever after! There is no such thing in my experience.”
Kylee smiled knowingly, “at least not this side of those strange mists at the end of the world.”
“It isn’t mere happiness Beyond, either,” said the younger fairy, “it’s Joy, pure and simple, if the rumors be true.”
“Yckk!” grunted the elder fairy, as if she had been poked with a stick, “that’s even worse, you make me nauseous with such goings on!”
Kylee arched an eyebrow, “what have you against such things, madam?”
The Fairy of Blackfen smirked, “I find them dreadfully dull, what is life without the spice and zest of mischief and mayhem? My sister mentioned the word ‘nice’ just now and that is a word I detest above all others. I want nothing to do with any of it!” She eyed her sister with mild irritation, as she fell to giggling uncontrollably, “and what pray tell, is so funny?”
“You,” guffawed the other, “nice indeed! I quite agree, it is a deplorable word and should be stricken from our vocabulary, but what you think you abhor and what really scares you are two very different things.”
“Oh,” said the elder, “enlighten me, do.”
“You think all this prattle about joy and love and hope is dreadfully boring because to you, such concepts are as dull and tedious as ever was the word ‘nice,’ but really, you are terrified to discover that they are quite different from what you first thought them to be and that you have been wrong all these years. And you are, dear sister, more wrong than you can begin to imagine, for they are not dull and quaint and boring, but there is nothing more exciting, fierce, or dangerous in all the world or beyond it. And that scares you, and it should, because without just that, your life is nothing and never will be. Your idea of love is about as deep as that held by our dear, departed Prince, which is to say, nothing at all.”
“Perhaps,” said the elder fairy with a quizzical frown, “I will consider it, but I absolutely refuse to be nice.”
“Nor would I ever ask such a horrid thing of you,” said her smiling sister, “but I will certainly wish you a true ‘happily ever after.’”
“Yes,” said Kylee, “but what now am I to do? I cannot go home, even your dread sister cannot wish such a fate upon me.”
The elder smiled wryly, “I didn’t wish it on you when you were born, lass, and now that I’m supposed to be a reformed fairy of sorts, I guess I can’t go cursing fools and boors left and right as once was my fancy. Have your parents even figured out you are missing?”
Giggled the younger fairy, “certainly not, that intrepid but lazy Nurse of yours told them that her charge was off on an extended retreat for Royal and Noble youths then hied herself off to be Naptime Supervisor at the Montessori.”
Kylee laughed, “at least she’ll doze happily ever after.” Her face fell, “but what is to come of me?”
Her friend smiled hopefully, “I know the cutest little cottage, with wisteria growing all over it and a garden full of violets.”
“Before you become a cottager,” said the Reformed Fairy, “you’ll need to invest in a proper spinning wheel. It would be scandalous else, but it will be my treat, a just and poetic recompense for all I’ve put you through.”
Kylee nodded, “what then are we waiting for?” But the other fairy gave her sister a thoughtful frown, wondering what the elder was up to. The theoretically reformed lady only smiled mysteriously and led the way back to town, whereupon they paid a visit to Crazy Bob’s Spinning Wheel Emporium.
The eager salesman approached at a run, babbling on like a brook in flood about his various wares, sales, and guarantees. Kylee wandered off with him to look at the latest model, upon which she pricked her finger and fainted dead away. “Not again!” bewailed the distraught salesman, “at this rate I’ll never sell a single spinning wheel, and I work on commission!”
Said the Reformed Fairy of Blackfen in commiseration, “why not start a side business of renting out rooms for those so afflicted, it will be a steady income.”
He nodded thoughtfully, “that’s a brilliant idea! I’ll even give you a discount on your friend there, since it was your idea.”
The fairy shook her head, “thanks but no, she has a destiny all her own.”
“It was just a thought,” said the man with a shrug, but another customer drew his attention and he hastened away.
Frowned the younger at the elder as the latter took up the prone form, “what are you up to? I thought you had turned over a new leaf?”
“Oh, I have,” said the other with a fervent grin and a twinkle in her eye, “trust me on this.”
Her sister shook her head, “I will for now, but you had best do some explaining, and sooner rather than later.”
They suddenly vanished and reappeared beside the rose covered hill wherein Kylee had had her last good nap. Once the girl was again settled on her bier, those magnificent flowers still clutched in her hands, the fairies went outside to confer on the girl’s fate and future. Said the reformed lady, “now sister, can you do something with the aesthetics of this place? I am no good with all that decorating stuff, make this hill a castle and all these wastes a garden. Then we’ll assemble a staff and treasury, and when our girl wakens, she’ll be a princess indeed.”
The younger fairy smiled, “I love it, and she’ll only wake up when the right man comes along? None of these shallow, so-called charming fellows for her?”
“Precisely,” said her sister with a triumphant smirk, “now let’s get down to business.””
“What was that!?” said the writer in outrage, “moralizing, philosophical maunderings, a cheap shot at consumerism? This isn’t a fairy tale, it is verging on a fable. And you can’t just invent a princess, you know?”
“Omniscient narrator!” crowed the fairy in triumph, but added thoughtfully, “so why can’t I be omnipotent as well, at least in my own tale? You can’t tell me that all these writers of so-called fairy tales don’t just make up a kingdom and royalty to go with it whenever they happen to need it. Besides, you mortals invent royalty all the time. You need a King, or think you do, so someone declares himself thus,” continued she with a grimace of distaste, “of course it usually involves a civil war and treason and that sort of thing, so you see, this is certainly far less messy, besides, haven’t you ever heard of poetic license?”
“Yes,” said the man, quietly thoughtful, “I worked for the Department of Poetry and Prose for a summer during college.” His frown deepened as he met her eye, “did you actually apply for such a license?”
“Certainly,” said the fairy, now on the defensive, “after the fact, but I did acquire one.”
“They are not retroactive!” said the man, aghast.
“Well, I was an Evil Fairy at the time,” grouched she.
“I suppose,” said the man with a sigh, “but you make an interesting case with your Theory on the Invention of Royalty and Kingdoms at Need. Perhaps you should write a thesis on it?”
She nodded eagerly, “then I could be Doctor Reformed Fairy of Blackfen. I’ll certainly have to consider it, but first, let me finish my tale:
They invited Midas Jones to come over for a consultation on the treasury, a matter which he promptly set in good order, but upon trying to settle the bill, he said to the Reformed Fairy of Blackfen, “madam, no amount of money could satisfy me, for obvious reasons I am quite content financially, but rather let me marry the sleeping maiden and I’ll consider your account settled…!” He trailed off with an awkward squawk that sounded more a croak at the end as the younger fairy turned him into a rather mopey bullfrog.
She grinned at her sister and said, “I can see why you like this sort of thing.” She addressed the amphibian, “now listen closely, frog-boy. You can live in the moat rent free, eat all the flies you can catch, and therein hopefully await the day when a princess will deign to kiss such as you, otherwise I am sure my sister would happily fricassee your legs for lunch. Are we agreed?” With a terrified croak, the boorish ranid hopped off and immersed himself in said moat.
“Very good sister,” laughed the elder, “I could not have done it better myself!”
They then betook themselves to the task of hiring a competent staff to run the castle once the Princess Kylee awakened from her slumber. As each resume was reviewed and the interviews were conducted, the selected individuals were asked to join their future mistress in a lengthy repose, one fellow asked rather impertinently if he would be compensated for his time spent napping, whereupon he joined poor Midas in the moat, which brought a questioning frown from the younger fairy to bear upon the elder, who shrugged and said, “I can’t be totally reformed all at once now can I, a relapse is not unexpected.”
The younger smiled, “nay sister, you misunderstand me, I thought I was in charge of the Human Resources Department.”
The elder laughed, “but you can’t have all the fun.”
They continued in this manner until the castle was fully staffed, but the younger fairy felt inclined to look at one final resume and immediately hire the owner thereof. The elder glanced over her sister’s shoulder in confusion and asked, “what did you hire him for?”
The younger smiled mischievously and answered, “he is one of those forward thinking fellows that believes the world is round!”
“Ah!” said the elder, further studying the resume, “and he is eager to prove it at that. A wise decision, it will not stop the progression of things, but perhaps it will buy us some time. Sleep well, Master Columbus and may it be many a year before your ships set sail and unmake the world as we once knew it.”
Sighed the younger, “it will not be long, sister, ere we are but legend and must then dwell in secret, forgotten except by children and poets.”
“So it must be, my dear, but we have a few years yet before History becomes more important than Legend,” said the Reformed Fairy of Blackfen, “and as you say, there will always be those who still believe in things unseen.””
“That’s a rather sad ending,” said the man in actual dismay.
“I haven’t finished yet,” said the fairy, only slightly vexed, “but yes, it is rather a sad commentary on the state of the world in general.”
“Did you really delay Master Columbus?” said he in wonder.
“Of a certainty,” said she with a proud grin, “but only for a century or two, but it was fun while it lasted. Now are you ready for the true happily ever after?” He nodded eagerly and she began:
“So it was that the Princess Kylee slept on for many a year, until at last a worthy suitor presented himself at the rose draped castle, barely visible beneath the twining vines, heavy with flowers. He passed easily through the corridors, past the sleeping minions awaiting their first day of employment, he did not notice the two morose frogs bemoaning their fate in the moat or see the two magical ladies watching in eagerness from the shadows, but had eyes only for she who slept upon the stone bier, the ever blooming flowers still clutched in her hands. He drank in her radiance for a long moment and then kissed her fully and deeply, her eyes fluttered open and she gazed up joyously into his own. Whispered the elder fairy to the younger, “perhaps there is such a thing as happily ever after, after all!” Her sister’s glorious smile and dancing eyes were answer enough.”
“You are getting soft,” said the journalist with a heartfelt sigh, and then he frowned, and said in horror at a sudden realization, “and so am I!”
“I know,” said the fairy resignedly, “what do you think happens when you get Reformed, even just mostly?”
“I don’t want to be a Reformed Journalist,” said he in near panic.
“No need to worry about that,” said the fairy dryly, “there is no such thing. Unicorns might be real, but there is certainly no such thing as a Reformed Journalist.”
“At least there are still a few myths in the world,” said he in relief, “what would we write fairy tales about if everything in them were true?”
“But it is!” said she in surprise, “that is the whole point.” She added with a thoughtful frown, “but then you are a journalist.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” asked he in consternation.
She shrugged, “it is just that some people can’t believe in the truth, even when it is right before their eyes.”
“But if I am not skeptical of everything,” said he, “I might believe anything and then where would my reporting be?”
“But what if you are too skeptical?” asked she.
“It is a risk I am willing to take,” said he with a huff.
“That is exactly my point,” said she with a nod. He gave her a mystified look but she quickly changed the subject that they might not converse in circles till the stars fell, “so what did you think of my tale?”
“I don’t believe it,” said he, adding quickly as he caught her dark look, “but then it is a fairy tale and no one needs to believe it. But it is not Sleeping Beauty. No one is going to make a big budget animated movie out of it, that’s for sure.”
She looked at him, quite aghast, “you think I want the tale ruined by singing mice? Can you imagine what your descendants would reinterpret my character to be? I’d have a green face and horns or something equally ridiculous! It would be a disgrace, not to mention embarrassing, and then they wouldn’t even give me a cut of the profits and I’d have to turn them all into frogs, which would be an unmitigated environmental disaster.” She picked up his discarded draft and handed it back to him, saying sadly, “here, take your story. Perhaps the world cannot stomach anything else.”
He stood and tipped his hat to the lady, saying almost apologetically, “it is a good story, but you are right, the world is different nowadays and really can’t handle such a tale. Good day, madam.”
He left and the fairy smiled wryly after him, vastly proud of herself for not having turned him into a frog after all, no matter how much he deserved it. But his insipid legend would no doubt go down in history, and be a musical sensation besides, while the true tale would be forgotten, like everything else in life that was even remotely important. Maybe she should pursue that doctorate and take a teaching position at a major university and try changing that particularly disturbing trend of the modern world. She laughed heartily at her own musings, that would be a miracle indeed and truly worthy of a fairy tale in its own right. This Reformed thing was getting very much out of hand. Now where had she left that Midas Frog, perhaps he’d be willing to finance her education if she lifted his amphibious curse. She laughed again, wryly this time; she was becoming a veritable fairy-godmother! If her sister ever found out about this, she’d never live it down. Where was that wretched frog?
Aido had been an under-clerk for the Department of Prophecy Amelioration for over a decade, and at last he was about to embark on his first undercover investigation. He had been in training for years: working out, perfecting his combat techniques, learning to procure and prepare ‘wild food,’ studying old maps and forgotten languages, familiarizing himself with the prophetic writings of every culture, real or imagined, learning the arts of healing, riding, and woodcraft, and only shaving every third day. Finally, his superiors had decided that he was ready to be promoted to the rank of Investigator for the Sub-department of Hero Isolation and Containment. He happily walked over to the Repository of Draught and Riding Beasts to procure his very own work vehicle; hopefully something in a blood bay with a little spirit, but that was asking for too much, after all, his was a bureaucratic position.
At least he was not assigned the riding ox or the donkey that would only go left, regardless of whether you asked him to stop, turn, or back up. He took the reins from the bored looking kid who worked the desk and looked over his new wheels skeptically; it had four legs at least, that was a start. The sorrel coat would blend in with every other horse on the planet, which was far from exciting, but perhaps being inconspicuous would be an advantage in the field. It would get him where he needed to go in an efficient manner and that was all the Department cared about. He sighed and led the beast out of the Repository and parked it in the loading area before going to retrieve the rest of his equipment.
If the horse wasn’t exciting, maybe his weapons allotment would be. Aido stood in line for what seemed hours as a fusty old lady pottered about behind the counter of the Dispensary of Potentially Lethal Implements, adjusting her glasses and scratching her head in confusion every three seconds. Finally his turn came and he handed over the paperwork requisitioning what he would need for his field investigation. She stared at him blankly, blinked a few times like a confused chicken, and then after a few minutes of silence, said, “you will have to come back after the Midday Ingestion Break, Investigator. You know it is against Regulations for me or anyone else to do any sort of Official Business between the hours of Twelve and Thirteen.”
He stared at her in astonishment, not believing it was already that late in the day and dreading the thought of more delay, but there was nothing to be done. If either of them were caught working over the Break, the results would be catastrophic. He said something inconsequential and made his way to the Room of Edible Procurement and then returned to the Dispensary to wait, finding that he had lost his place in line. He sat down with a sigh and tried not to weep in frustration. Finally, just before the Afternoon Refreshment Period, he was allowed to get his allotment of PLIs. Like the horse, there was nothing at all interesting about the assortment of weapons, but at least they were functional.
Quite nervous that he would not be able to leave today after all, he hurried to the Division of Wardrobe Affairs to outfit himself for his new role and thankfully arrived after the Refreshment Period. He stared glumly at the bundle of clothing, knowing it looked like it was supposed to but that the material and craftsmanship would not hold up if he encountered any weather that was not sunny and warm. The middle-aged clerk watched his reaction carefully, with a slight sneer on his face, saying as he saw Aido’s dismay, “don’t blame me, we have limited time to make the stuff and whoever bought the material got a great deal on it, though I wouldn’t use it for rags, but it ain’t my fault.”
Aido sighed again and left with his allocation of lousy clothes. Finally, with the sun low on the horizon, he returned to his nondescript horse to pack and be gone, but it took him another half hour to figure out which of the eight sorrel geldings in the loading area was his. When he finally identified the beast, he almost turned right around and demanded his old job back, for there was a parking ticket tucked into the creature’s bridle. He glanced at the sign, thirty minute parking indeed! He loaded the saddlebags and swung into the saddle. With a grim smile, he crumpled up the fine and tossed it over his shoulder and then urged his horse to a trot before anything else could delay him.
He stood outside the Edifice of Monetary Exchange and wanted to scream. He needed to make a withdrawal from the Department’s account to finance his journey but the facility was closed and would not open again for three days, as it was an Obscure Holiday Weekend (Foot Fungus Awareness Day). Aido could not wait that long or his superiors would demand to know why he was so inefficient in his duties. He had no choice but to hope there was a branch Edifice in one of the villages through which he would undoubtedly pass. He turned his mediocre beast and made his way out of the city.
Darkness had fallen, forcing him to pull over for the night. He glanced about hopefully, but there was no sign of either an Approved Nocturnal Repose Sight or a House of Temporary Accommodation for Wayfarers. He could get in trouble for camping in an unapproved fashion but it was a risk he would have to take, and with the mood he was in, he was quite ready to defy any and every regulation he could think of. He even built a fire without a permit from the Incendiary Activity Coordinator and used wood without asking leave of the Arboreal Comptroller. The cheery blaze revealed a sardonic smile on the face of the Investigator as he rethought the day and began to wonder at his previous eagerness for this assignment.
He had always been as much a stickler for the rules as any petty bureaucrat could be, but after all the headaches and frustration of the day, he began to wonder at his previous zeal for such stipulations. With these uneasy thoughts on his mind, he turned over and tried to sleep in as unregulated a fashion as possible. The birds awoke far earlier than any sensible regulatory body or department could fathom, a challenge the Avian Affairs Agency was still trying to bring under control, but the small, feathered fiends just would not submit to their authority, though fines and imprisonment had all been tried, alas to no avail. Aido was glad there was something in the Universe that had as yet defied regulation, and even more grateful that he would be up and on his way long before the lackeys of the Thoroughfare Safety and Compliance Administration were abroad. His more sensible side began to regret his rashness with the parking ticket, but another part of him laughed mercilessly at the part that fretted over such a trifling matter. He gathered up his gear, mounted his horse, and continued on his way.
It was just the sort of day to prolong the usefulness of his standard issue substandard clothing and his heart rejoiced in the beauty of the morning, quite insensible that he was violating at least nine subparagraphs of the Modern Aesthetic Code, which frowned upon such natural splendor and the enjoyment thereof, rather preferring the appreciation of the far more grotesque and grim (not to mention more financially lucrative) products of the modern writers, musicians, and painters. But what did this mere underling know of High Culture and the Finer Things of Life? He rode along amongst the bucolic charm all about him, content in his ignorance. The plain old horse jogged along indifferent to the countryside about him, and therefore quite obviously a lover of Fine Things and of a higher social order than his master. They came to a sizable market town that afternoon and Aido hoped to make a successful withdrawal from his work account to finance the remainder of his mission, else the paperwork to obtain a reimbursement of his expenditures would take the rest of his mortal days to accomplish.
He stopped before the newest, and ugliest, building in town, certain that it must be what he sought. It was, but like every other public institution, it was also closed in observance of an Official Obscure Holiday Weekend. Apparently his work related expenditures would have to be passed on to his children as an inheritance, as he would not live long enough to be reimbursed. He sighed and urged the beast out of town before he started screaming in frustration and risked being locked away as a lunatic or a disturber of the peace. Aido rode on for another hour before stopping alongside a happy creek, where he decided to take a break from his saddle and water his highly efficient mode of transportation. He mused upon his assignment and its futility as he leaned on the bridge railing and watched the gladsome water frolic in its stony channel beneath him. He wished his life could be as happy and careless as that unceasing flow. Another day of riding would bring him to his destination, perhaps his previous enthusiasm would then return once he was truly doing what he had always dreamt of doing one day, and for which he had spent his entire life preparing. With a heavy sigh he climbed back into his saddle, knowing chances were very good that only his loathing would grow in the days to come, for his heart had grown cold towards his first and only love. He rode on, wondering what he was riding towards, or perhaps more correctly, what he was trying to escape.
He passed through several small villages while the day lasted, each with its own Regulation Stopping Places, but he ignored them and rode on, enjoying the illicit thrill of thwarting the over-regulation under which he had so happily toiled his entire life. Thankfully it was a Holiday Weekend, else he might not have made it through the first village without being apprehended by the local constabulary for his various heinous crimes against humanity and the world in general, to say nothing about the discarded traffic citation. He rode on through more and more villages, each more forgettable than the last, laid out in the precise pattern required by the Zoning Commission of Outlying Settlements. He camped again in an unregulated fashion before rising on the Official Obscure Holiday and rode into Happytown in time for the Midday Ingestion Break. He glanced around uneagerly at yet another cookie cutter village and sighed, but he had work to do. He entered the Requisite Lodging and Nourishment Establishment for Transients, the only place open on an Official Obscure Holiday, and allowed the flighty teenaged hostess to seat him in the nearly empty common dining area, and acknowledged that he would gladly consume the Daily Balanced and Nutritious Repast. She returned with the unassuming concoction in a bowl and set a mug of some viscous purplish-green liquid before him that smelled of aged turnips and old socks, which immediately killed what little appetite he had.
As he was staring balefully at his inedible Repast, a man with a knowing look in his eyes seated himself beside the Investigator and smiled superciliously at him. Said the newcomer without preamble, “you work for the Feds, don’t you.” It was not a question.
Aido looked up in surprise but did not deny it, saying, “what gave me away?”
The man’s smile became condescending, “anyone dressed in cloth of that poor a make must either be destitute or a government employee.” He laughed in derision, “my brother is a fabric merchant and makes a handsome living by selling such pathetic material by the square acre to lackeys in the Department of Acquisition and Distribution of Necessary Consumables. He makes more per yard from that flimsy stuff than he does selling the finest material available to the Great Lords.”
Aido smiled ironically, “that does not surprise me in the least.”
Said the stranger, “so what are you doing here? Obviously you are here on Official Unofficial Business else you’d be in a Right and Proper Uniform.”
Said Aido warmly, “I am here to discover if any Heroes might be budding in Happytown. Certain of the Prophecies hint at just such an Occurrence in the very near future.”
The man laughed, “trying to thwart Prophecy again, are they? Will you people ever realize there are just some things government cannot control?”
Aido stared at his regulation soup in dismay, “that I highly doubt.”
Said the man eagerly, “so just what happens if you discover said Hero?”
Aido said dryly, “we offer him a great government job. If he declines that, then he gets to attend Mandatory Reeducation Sessions for the Socially Dysfunctional and will inevitably end up committing suicide, excuse me, I mean he will choose Elective Self Annihilation.”
“Lovely,” said his companion, “you people have a title for everything!”
Aido smiled wryly, “the Department of Nomenclature is the biggest division of the government.” He glanced around furtively and said, “I would rather get out of this line of work. The sooner the better.”
The stranger brightened, “with that I may be of assistance.” He continued with an amused smile, “are you aware that you are a fugitive?”
Aido frowned, “I was not aware that it was Official, but it would not surprise me, though it is an Obscure Holiday. The parking fine?”
The stranger laughed, “you didn’t?!”
Aido caught his amusement and nodded, “I carelessly tossed it aside.” He then whispered, “among other vicious crimes.”
The stranger smiled deeply, “then I will gladly aid your disappearance. We criminals must stick together. Come!” They stood silently, heartlessly leaving the inedible fodder on the table and a less than standard tip for the Hostess.
As they walked inconspicuously down the street, Aido noticed several posters bearing his face and emblazoned with directions for his immediate apprehension. They continued their steady, unhurried progress (so as not to draw attention) and turned down a smaller lane that apparently vanished into the neatly managed coppice behind the village. Eventually the Regulation Side Path crossed the threshold into the Unregulated and Semi-wild Wooded Area and became as unmanaged as the forest through which it wound. They continued on in silence for nearly an hour, and only when they felt themselves truly alone and unobserved did the stranger finally speak, “so what has prompted your flight from Order, my friend?”
Aido laughed, “I set out with every good intention of fulfilling my orders but it seemed at every turn there was a governmentally imposed hindrance to me accomplishing my task or even surviving for an hour without unneeded frustration and complication. That and the ride out here gave me plenty of time to consider life and the lack of meaning therein.”
The stranger smiled broadly, “welcome to the first day of a purposeful life my friend. I am called Gunyon and am a member of the Freemen for Commonsense.”
Aido grinned, “that sounds like something birthed in the Department of Nomenclature.”
Gunyon laughed, “it was, we social rebels had not yet got around to naming our pathetic little society and the guys over at Nomenclature could not abide having such an as yet unnamed group running at large, so they came up with a name for us.”
“Just what does this society of yours do?” asked Aido as they trekked deeper into the confines of the wood.
Gunyon shrugged, “we really haven’t accomplished much of anything yet. We started only a few months ago as a small group of annoyed citizens who occasionally met to grouse about too much Order over Tea. Of course our Tea Time was not considered the Official Hour for Consuming Brewed Beverages, so the authorities soon started to take notice. We each received a rather nasty letter, in triplicate of course, indicating that we had best mend our ways or there would be Dire Consequences.”
“What did you do?” asked Aido, both amused and aghast.
Gunyon smiled, “we went underground of course. On the outside we are just monotonous citizens but when no one is looking…” he paused for effect, “we each of us are rather disorderly and unique.”
“Your crimes far outweigh mine, sir,” said Aido, with a respectful bow.
Gunyon smiled in anticipation, “but you have hardly begun to rebel my friend. I think you could make quite a career of it.” For the first time since he left his old life behind, Aido felt the first stirrings of eagerness and what he was startled to realize must be hope.
Once Aido was completely confused as to direction and the hour, they stood outside an old fashioned but well tended cottage with only a few unofficial weeds daring to show their leaves in the otherwise regulation vegetable patch. Aido said in appreciation, “how do you get away with keeping up such a residence?”
Gunyon smiled, “the Inspectors for the Regulatory Authority of Domiciles and Outbuildings are loath to travel this far off the beaten path to make sure my house is up to code. I don’t tell them anything and they don’t ask; it is a mutually beneficial relationship.” They stabled the horse in an old lean-to that had once housed a cow, but Gunyon had not bothered to go through the rigmarole required to acquire a new one after the decease of his previous beast. They entered the cottage and Gunyon’s wife happily served them a brewed beverage outside the requisite hours. As they sipped their tea, they discussed many things and Aido felt himself enjoying life and real companionship for the first time in living memory.
“So what about this Hero of yours?” asked Gunyon, as he munched on his fifteenth cucumber sandwich.
Aido said with a mouthful of cookie, “what about him?”
Gunyon said, “what makes The Powers That Be think one is like to rise from such a place as Happytown?”
Aido swallowed his cookie and said, “the name alone would suffice, but there are certain vague writings from an extinct people group native to the very south of the world that suggests as much, but as I said, the Prophecy is vague and it could be any of ten or twenty different villages and this may not even be the Appointed Time. That is the problem with Prophecy, it is often rather vague and fulfills itself often without us knowing until long after the fact. But just to be on the safe side, they are taking all precautions.”
“How do you go about finding a Hero?” asked Gunyon with a smile.
Aido chewed thoughtfully for a moment and then replied, “we will of course monitor all known widows with only sons, step-families containing an ill-tempered woman, orphans raised by obscure or cruel relatives, and anyone who has ever found a child of unknown pedigree on their doorstep. Of course the current management strategy for all such High Risk Families has been implemented to prevent just such an occurrence. None of these Families at High Risk of Hero Production or Prophecy Fulfillment are left to go hungry, become poor, or otherwise grow discontent with their lot in life. If there is no discontent or need, or so the theory goes, there is unlikely to be a Hero produced or a Prophecy fulfilled.”
“An interesting theory,” said Gunyon as he chewed, “has it worked?”
Aido shrugged his shoulders, “before my promotion to Investigator I worked mostly in the Laboratory of Statistics and Numerical Data which compiles numbers on Everything, even on things that have no numerical data, but there was very little convincing evidence that any of their preventive protocols either helped or hindered Prophecy/Hero attainment. In reality, such occurrences are so rare that it would take a millennium to get enough data to even begin calculating whether their programs are effective or not. Of course, no one really cares if a bureaucracy is effective so long as it seems to be doing something.”
Gunyon chewed on this revelation and another sandwich, before saying, “can we improvise our own Hero?”
Aido sat back and said thoughtfully, “it certainly isn’t done that way, at least if you are going by the Book, but I am so tired of ‘The Book of All Regulations Pertaining to Decent and Orderly Civilian Life’ that I think we should, just to spite them all!”
Gunyon nodded, “very well, we will.”
They stayed up much of the night (quite against the Treaty on Reasonable and Necessary Nocturnal Activities) discussing their plans to implement a Hero and/or fulfill a Prophecy. As they made up their lists, discussed necessary attributes, and inventoried equipment, Aido said in surprise, “it seems my training to prevent Hero actualization has actually equipped me with all of the requisite skills.”
Gunyon smiled, “and out of Happytown a Hero shall rise. Prophecy fulfilled! Excellent! Now all we need is a ragtag band of followers and we shall be ready to shake the Pillars of Order.”
Aido said hopefully, “your company of so-called Freemen?”
Gunyon shook his head, “a few might be interested or willing to assist in our caper, but we need the seediest, most scandalous, and underrated band of cutthroats this world can supply.”
Aido nodded, “ah, you suggest a raid on the Facility for the Containment of Socially Awkward Individuals.” Gunyon smiled in anticipation of what was to come.
They went to bed and slept well into the day (violating the Compact on Acceptable Awakenings) and after a scrumptious breakfast that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Highly Recommended and Otherwise Required Guidelines for Food Preparation and Consumption, they went about plotting their raid. They made their way out of the forest in the twilight, knowing no true government official would bother being out of doors at that hour. They stayed overnight with another Freeman who lived on the far border of the forest and set out before first light the next morning. For three days they traveled as far and hard as they could each day without risking exposure by too much exertion. They arrived outside the Facility of CSAI in time for the Afternoon Refreshment Period and had to wait for admittance until the Guard for Security and Safety had finished his allotted Refreshment. The bored and disgruntled looking man in his fading years studied their paperwork, stared at them, returned to the paperwork, whistled tunelessly, and then resumed staring at them. Finally he said in irritation, “seems like everything is in order Investigator, you may proceed with your prisoner.”
Gunyon nodded grimly and touched Aido in the small of the back with his swordpoint, grumbling, “move along, scum.” They both contained an exuberant smile that their subterfuge was working so well, of course it helped that Aido was truly an Investigator with a real Department and that Gunyon was a renowned scribe who could copy, forge, or create any document or handwriting desired.
As Aido was by now a well-known criminal, it was quite reasonable to present him as the newest inmate of the Facility. They wound deeper into the complex, passing each checkpoint and guard station with ease until they were in the very heart of the detention area. The day was wearing out as they passed the last checkpoint and Gunyon asked after the keys, that he might lock up his captive for the night. The guard yawned and said, “it is one minute to close pal, whatever you do afterhours is no concern of mine but I won’t be held liable for overtime. Take the keys, I’m going home.” He handed over the gigantic key ring and left for the night, leaving the pair alone with the inmates.
It took several hours to free the captives, as there were countless keys to try in each lock, but finally the prisoners were loose and they began discussing strategy. It was an easy matter to capture the skeleton crew that guarded the facility at night and lock them up in the prisoners’ stead. It was many months before the incarcerated guards were able to convince the morning crew that they had been illegally detained, but finally the paperwork made it through all the proper channels and the guards were released with only a severe scolding. The morning crew thought it odd that the number and faces of the prisoners had changed overnight but as there was no official paper trail on the matter, no one wanted to get in trouble or take responsibility, so nothing was said about it until the proper paperwork was completed, by which time our Heroes were long since gone.
Most of the detainees went home, as there were far too many of them to go a’questing, but there were half a dozen that stayed to help. Aido studied their motley crew with appreciation; here were rebels indeed. One man had green hair that clashed with his favorite purple shirt, another really liked liver and onions, there was a lady who was overly fond of cats, Robert insisted on being called Bob, there was a repeat jaywalker (crosswalks hadn’t been invented yet), and a man who had accidentally cut the tags off of a mattress he did not own. Few were the criminals in the realm more vile than these, let The Powers That Be tremble, for the Shakers of Empire had emerged (yes, the Nomenclature people are at it again). They easily made their way out of the Containment Facility, after raiding the parking garage and locker room for their own personal benefit, and went out to, well, shake the Empire.
So how do eight people make an Empire tremble and bring an overbearing bureaucracy to its knees? Easy! Destroy the Paperwork, for if it does not exist on paper, it does not exist, at least in a bureaucracy. So off they went, to interfere with the lifeblood of this bungling, lumbering giant and who better to aid them than the Minions of Government themselves. Aido thought the tree obsessed people over at the Arboreal Comptroller would be just the folks to get on their side, for if it were well nigh impossible to get paper, one could not have paperwork, and no paperwork meant no bureaucracy. So our zany friends arrayed themselves in varicolored splendor and did not bath or shave for several weeks. Once they appeared to be quite friendly with the earth and all therein, they wandered over to the Main Office of the Arboreal Comptroller and made their plea. The Administrative Assistant was quite perplexed by these hippy-wannabes and did the only thing possible in a confusing or overwhelming situation: she delegated. So it was that they passed from one office to another, from one flunky’s hands to a lackey down the hall. Finally they arrived in the Office of the Arboreal Comptroller himself and happily extolled their plan of saving the nation’s precious forests from the horrid fate of wanton waste and negligence that was rampant throughout the realm. The man nodded, ordered his personal aides to present themselves, and soon interrogated them as to the abuse of the obviously vanishing woodlands.
The minions agreed to the last man (what else are minions for?) that there was certainly a problem and only Drastic and Instantaneous Action could preserve some small scrap of the once great forests from total annihilation. One went so far as to proclaim that his son’s third grade science teacher had complained the other day that they seemed to be cutting down too many trees lately, at least more than she remembered as a girl. This smote the hearts of all those listening sore and even lent scientific credence to the Theory of Arboreal Apocalypse. The Comptroller had heard enough; he would act immediately.
The Service for the Collection and Distribution of Information: Useful and Otherwise, was summoned to report on this horrifying discovery and soon the whole nation was in a near panic at looming paper shortages, rampant deforestation, and the resulting air pollution, acid rain, and erosion that would no doubt make the entire world uninhabitable for at least a thousand years, give or take an Officially Obscure Holiday. So it was that Drastic Measures were taken and the forests were saved and the masses appeased. Paper became scarce and terribly expensive until someone decided to import it from less prudent nations, thus restoring paper to the peasantry. Of course, during the paper shortage the entire government collapsed due to lack of paperwork and most of its officials were forced to seek sanctuary in the nation’s universities and on the professional speaking circuit, where they remain to this day.
While the economy suffered a grievous recession in the public sector, private industry and productivity flourished (even without paper) as never before, and for the first time in history, people without a government job could actually make a living. Eventually things settled down, paper was restored to the nation, and the government returned, but in a more modest and humble form, which was the only kind now acceptable to the temporarily freed plebs who, once drunk with the wine of freedom, would not again taste of the moonshine of bureaucracy. As for our heroes, each was honored with his or her own Official Obscure Holiday but after the Paper Revolution, only the Service for the Distribution of Written Communications officially observed said Holidays, but then, no government is perfect!
What people are saying about this story:
“Complete nonsense! What is the world coming to? Do not let your kids read this book…” --Pedagogy Monthly.--
“…full of stereotypes and affronts, only reinforces the stigma society already holds for small dogs and their pet parents…” --The Lap Dog Gazette--
“A curious look at a case involving dwarvish consumption of fried foods and the possible consequences thereof…” --The Journal of Dwarvish Gastroenterology--
“A story full of hope for an overlooked and underrated subclass of society; yes, my fellow nerds, there is a chance for love and adventure, just not in the real world, as we have long maintained.” ---RPG Today--
“I liked it…what are we talking about again? Tacos? Yeah, I like tacos…not tacos?”
—Anonymous Undergrad after a busy night out—
Once upon a time in a land far away (as all such lands certainly are), there was born a Princess, and like all such royal children, her birth caused quite a stir in the Kingdom, for certainly this was a herald of troubles to come, for is it not so in all such tales? Quite sensibly therefore, in anticipation of this unknown but very certain threat to his Crown and Kingdom, the King sent his only child away for her sake and for all other sakes in the Kingdom. With a sigh of relief and a bit of grief, the loving but dutiful parents sent their child into another world where she might remain until the Appointed Time when the threat of all potential disasters would be long past and she could return safely to the realm. The place where the wizards banished the poor dear was a weird and wild place, filled with all manner of strange and bizarre creatures, and this was the opinion of people who had seen unicorns and dragons and centaurs.
It was a place where no sane villain (and very few of the crazy ones) would think to look for such a personage, for what parent would dare send their beloved child There? Besides for the inanity of sending a royal child to such a place (which was precisely the reason to do it), there was also the fact that it would be the perfect place for her to grow up and learn all the things children of noble birth must know: namely that oneself is the most important entity in the known universe. For the citizens of this strange and distant land had long ago forgotten their past, cared little for their futures, and could really care less about anyone but themselves. It was a whole civilization of folk who thought they were aristocrats or at least thought they should be. It was perfect! Or at least it should have been, for the one problem with raising a completely self-absorbed person is trying to get them to notice or do anything not immediately associated with themselves.
“Gertrude!” shrieked a prissy female at the top of her lungs and voice range, “Gertrude! I am in desperate need of your help! Eeek!”
Gertrude dashed up the stairs at her sister’s frantic call for aid, which in itself was not disturbing, for Clarisse must cry out in vexation at least a dozen times a day, but that she would ask for help from her sister was nearly unthinkable. She either sought help from her indulgent parents, her elder but not wiser sister Missy, or from one of the equally flighty young women who always seemed to hang about her like the pox, but never would she deign to demand the assistance of her geeky twin sister. It must be something truly desperate indeed to draw such a cry for help when Gertrude was the only person within auditory range capable of rendering aid. Gertrude dashed into the bathroom where Clarisse was putting the finishing touches on her hours’ long morning ritual only to find the whole morning’s labor disfigured by a look of utter horror. Now this look on anyone else might cause the observer a moment of pity but it occupied Clarisse’s face so often that those familiar with her seldom seemed to notice, save in times of dire emergency, such as this. The panic filled eyes were focused on the bathroom mirror which had moments ago displayed only her gorgeous countenance but now her visage was obscured by a rather lengthy message scrawled out within the mirror itself, for no amount of wiping or scratching would efface the writing.
Shrieked Clarisse as Gertrude ran into the little room, “what can it mean? Oh, what can it mean? How can hackers and telemarketers have gained access to my bathroom mirror? I have already destroyed or deleted this message many times over, only to have it appear here!” Gertrude was quite intrigued and even on the tingling verge of that excitement every true geek knows when an adventure is before them. She read the message again and again, and with each reading her smile deepened while Clarisse could only stare at her in growing mystification. Finally she groused, “why are you smiling like an idiot? This had better not be some trick of your nerdy friends!”
Gertrude faced her twin sister and said, “how could you have let this go for so long? It says quite plainly that this is the five thousand one hundred and sixth time this message has been relayed! How can you be so oblivious? What other messages have you received?”
Clarisse smiled frivolously and said, “oh, they have tried to contact me by every means possible. They even sent me a letter! Who sends letters in this day and age? I cannot get away from this harassment, even in my own bathroom! Every means by which to communicate has been tried and has failed, for I will not believe these hackers, whoever they are. Are you sure this is not some weird trick from your even weirder friends?”
Gertrude laughed grimly, “my friends are too enlightened to try entangling you in such a plot. They would never waste their time.” She sighed deeply, “But alas, it is real and for some reason beyond comprehension this adventure has fallen to you.” She brightened then and said, “of course I must come with you because you will be completely inept upon such a quest.”
Clarisse gaped, “you believe this nonsense? You really think this is wise or safe or socially acceptable?” Gertrude laughed as she grabbed her sister’s hand and drew her out of the bathroom and down the hall towards the bedrooms, saying, “it is certainly none of those but you are not going to miss this if I can help it!” Clarisse was too mystified to do anything but follow in confused astonishment.
The full text of the writing was as follows, “My Dearest Madam, please be informed that we have tried reaching you by various means, on several occasions (5,106 to be exact). We were loath to send this message in this manner as it is quite intolerable to separate one’s royal personage from one’s royal reflection but we are quite desperate. Please proceed to the Park and enter the first horse drawn vehicle you encounter and all will be well. If you fail in this endeavor many lives, including possibly your own, shall be grievously touched. Ever Yours, The Royal Secretary of Lofrenier.” Clarisse could not comprehend in the least what Gertrude knew almost before she read the message: it must be magical and therefore an adventure, but who was senseless enough to ask for help from such a person as Clarisse? Regardless, this thing must be done and there was no way that Gertrude was going to miss it.
They stopped in Clarisse’s room and Gertrude ransacked her as until now forbidden closet. She finally drew forth a long dress that might be just the thing, or as close to the thing as she could convince Clarisse to wear in public. Clarisse was aghast to see Gertrude digging in her closet but then even more mortified when she demanded that she wear last year’s prom dress out in the streets! The poor old dress was so terribly out of fashion that Clarisse would be forced to remain out of social reach for at least a week if she were foolish enough to give in to her sister’s ravings. Gertude solved this small problem by dashing from the room and presenting her sister with a veil. At first Clarisse had no idea what the filmy material was and then it occurred to her that she could then appease her sister (also something she had never done) and also be out and about without causing a riot and being recognized, as she had feared. As she donned the clothing, still not understanding but so shocked with the morning’s events that she dared not defy her sister, Gertrude dashed from the room and returned almost instantly garbed in one of those weird ensembles she insisted on wearing to Medieval Fairs and Sci-Fi Conventions but this outfit was much more appropriate to the former than the latter.
“You look like Robin Hood,” laughed Clarisse, as Gertrude tied up the back of her dress.
Gertrude grinned and said, “one of us had better. Come my Lady!” They donned a pair of cloaks (also quite unfashionable) and made their way out the door and towards the park.
“I still can’t believe we are doing this,” said Clarisse as they entered the park.
Gertrude grinned and said, “I cannot believe you are doing this, but I can easily believe I am doing this.”
Clarisse nodded dully, remembering all the times her weird sister had dressed up to attend movie premieres, book signings, and conventions. On their own street, had there been anyone to observe they might have been remarked, but in the park they were quite overlooked, as the various denizens thereof were even more aberrantly arrayed than themselves. There were the punk kids with their tattered clothes, chains, tattoos, and interesting hair colors. There was a wedding party posing for pictures. There was a herd of young people wearing nothing but black, complete with stygian hair and make-up. There were clowns and street performers and old ladies with blue hair, and in the mix no one noticed the pair of oddly clad young ladies. They had circled the park halfway when finally a vehicle drawn by something of vaguely equine descent stood waiting, as had the Handsome Cabs of London in bygone years. Clarisse gave one desperate look to her sister, who only laughed excitedly and drew her into the buggy.
The door closed behind them, the driver whipped up the beast, and off they rattled. It was completely dark in the little carriage, for the windows were covered and the doors were shut. Clarisse wondered if perhaps she had wandered into a bad dream. Gertrude was so happy she hoped she would not wake up and spoil it; her only disappointment was that her sister seemed to be the heroine of this tale rather than herself. They rattled on for what seemed hours but was perhaps only five minutes, when the driver stopped the creature pulling the vehicle, descended from his perch, and opened the door while bowing deeply to its occupants. They stood before an enormous castle that blushed crimson in the rising sun. A middle aged man and woman, both handsome and wearing crowns, stood upon the great steps and stared in wonder at Clarisse; they had yet to notice Gertrude in their excitement.
Finally the woman spoke, “welcome home, Princess!”
Gertrude gaped, “you are a princess? Well, I should have known! That explains everything!”
“And who is this?” asked the King, in some amusement.
Clarisse stuttered, quite overcome, “my sister.”
The Royal pair exchanged an amused smile and the Queen said gently, “but child, you have no siblings. Perhaps she is your adopted sister but certainly she is not of Royal Blood.”
Clarisse’s eyes widened with shock and she said joyfully, “we are not related? That is wonderful! I knew she was too strange to be a blood relative! I at first suspected aliens, but I suppose this is a reasonable alternative. What did you say about me being a Princess?” Quickly the whole tale was told about how the girl’s birth was certainly a proclamation of doom and how she had been sent to another world for everybody’s sake and how her mother in that strange land had only had one baby but somehow everyone thought she had had two quite unidentical twins. And now, the time had come for Clarisse to marry and live happily ever after. Clarisse gaped, “but how can I marry someone I do not even know? Maybe if he is a Prince and terribly handsome…”
Said the King, “certainly he is a Prince and Princes by definition must be handsome. You must marry him or Dread Things might result.”
Wailed Clarisse, “none of my friends can see me arrayed for a Royal Wedding?! This guy had better be handsome, rich, and a member of a popular boy band, or at least European.”
The King and Queen exchanged a flummoxed look, not understanding the last part but the King replied soothingly, “worry not my dear, for the entire Kingdom shall see you so beautifully attired! Your fickle friends in that other world could never compare to those you shall certainly make in your true home.”
The thought of being the most beautiful and popular woman in the Kingdom suddenly quieted the raging Clarisse, who then said upon further thought, “what if I do not like this Prince?”
Said the King grimly, “as I said, Dread Things will likely result. Know you not your history?”
Clarisse gaped, “how am I to know the history of a land I have never visited or even dreamed of? I hardly know anything about American history, or at least American history prior to the advent of the internet, which was when reality really began.”
Gertrude could stand it no more, “Clarisse, are you an absolute imbecile? They are not speaking of a specific history but of the history of Fairyland in general. Have you never read a fairy tale?”
Clarisse shrugged, “does watching that cartoon with the singing mice count?“
The King was astonished at such disrespect for his daughter and at the weird name she apparently bore in The Other World. He said in a somewhat miffed tone, “my dear young lady! You must hereafter address your former sister as Her Royal Majesty the Princess Flufflebun.” Clarisse turned red with shame or anger, perhaps both; she liked the sound of everything except the last part.
Gertrude asked pleasantly, though desperately concealing a laugh, “I beg your pardon Majesty, but I knew not your customs and old habits shall certainly die hard. May I beg to call Her Majesty ‘Fluffy’ or something less onerous in less than formal settings?”
The Queen smiled demurely and said, “that sounds a grand idea child, and we shall grant this strange request because you are sisters, at least in another world. It seems you know something of our history?”
Gertrude made a very proper courtesy to the Queen and said, “of your land in particular I know not even the name Majesty, but I am something of a scholar in Fairylore, as it were, and know well the inevitability of the disaster of which you speak if Certain Things are not accomplished.” Clarisse snorted in derision, thinking her sister too imbecilic to know anything of use or import.
The Queen nodded gravely and said, “and will your sister abide by our Royal Decree or shall we face the Consequences?”
Gertrude said quietly, “the decision must be hers Majesty but I pray her better nature wins out.”
Clarisse grimaced, “I shall do as I think best…mother. Perhaps you should introduce me to Prince Charming before I make up my mind.”
The King clapped his hands and servants rushed upon the small gathering like crows upon carrion, as he said, “that is a wonderful idea, my dear. His name is Prince Slofelling III, darling; Prince Charming LXVII, his younger brother, recently married some third-rate Princess of Glopenstein. He will be at the ball tonight, which celebrates your return to Lofrenier.” Then the servants swept them off to prepare for the ball. The King said quietly to the Queen, once the horde had vanished, “what think you my dear?”
The Queen sighed, “I am afraid we sent her to the wrong world. She is a bit too arrogant, but perhaps it is only the strangeness of the situation?” The King could only shake his head in commiseration.
Finally Clarisse’s dream had come true: she had minions and lackeys galore; they would make her as beautiful as possible without her having to lift a finger! Thus giving her plenty of time to interrogate her annoying ex-sister, who was not quite so pleased to be going through such a dressing ritual. Clarisse demanded of Gertrude, as the servants fussed about their hair, “what exactly is going on? Why is everyone convinced that the end of the world is going to happen if I don’t marry prince what’s his name?”
Gertrude shook her head grimly, annoying the servants by disarraying the carefully coiled strands, “do you know nothing? In every single myth, legend, and fairy tale, Something Dreadful always happens when the Princess is about to marry. It may not be the end of the world but it will be Dreadful! You must marry this Prince and soon, or we all might be doomed.”
Clarisse whined, “but I am too young to get married. Besides who gets married anymore, anyway? What if I do not like this guy?”
Gertrude said bluntly, “then you doom us all.”
Clarisse sighed, “then I had better try at least. Marriage cannot be worse than death I suppose.” The servants spent the better part of the day fussing over the ladies and finally they finished just ten minutes before the ball was to begin. Clarisse laughed for joy, she had never felt so regal. Even Gertrude, usually a bit of a tomboy, was pleased with the results.
A harried looking servant waited anxiously for the ladies to emerge from their toilette, and after making the appropriate courtesies, said hastily, “your Majesty must hasten to follow me, else she shall be late for her grand entrance.”
Clarisse er… Princess Flufflebun gasped and said, “how dreadful. Lead on young man!”
The servant bowed and scurried off as quickly as seemed proper for a royal heiress to proceed. Upon nearing the ballroom, he advised her Highness that once she heard the flourish of the trumpets, she must make her entrance through the curtains yonder. Her attendant could then inconspicuously follow after. Whether Clarisse or Gertrude was more incensed at the idea of the latter waiting upon the former, none will ever know, but at that moment the trumpets cried aloud, saving the poor servant from anything worse than two murderous feminine glares. Catching their meaning, he wisely chose to absent himself immediately from their presence. Clarisse then made her first official appearance as Princess Flufflebun and the courtiers and guests gathered in the ballroom went mad with delight. Gertrude allowed the uproar to die down and followed quietly after.
Gertude wandered about the heavily laden food tables, sampling the strange provender while her sister was gaily introduced to all and sundry by her overjoyed parents. After the extensive introductions and other formalities had been accomplished, it was time to dance, and dance they did. All night did they dance and did not retire until it was truly the dawning of the following day. Of course all the young gallants wished a chance to grace the floor with the stunning and long awaited Princess, but that honor fell almost exclusively to her affianced Prince. He was a splendid dancer and spent most of the night whirling her about to the envy and joy of all there present, thus Clarisse had very little idea of his personality but he was handsome even in his strange clothes, which sufficed for the present. Gertrude was not overly impressed with the Prince despite his good looks, for he did not deign to dance with nor even acknowledge the late sister of her Highness. But then no one paid her much heed, for she was wont to lurk in the shadows and watch all that went on, she had no title or riches, and who could pay attention to such an insignificant creature when the true Princess had returned? Mostly Gertrude was content to remain unnoticed, but somewhere deep within she felt a pang of sadness at the apparent apathy or even outright rejection of the court. She might say she needed no one’s affirmation but like all mortal men, her soul quailed to think herself unloved of all men.
As morning made her presence known, the guests gratefully retreated to their beds. The Princess said goodnight to her newfound parents and in parting, they informed her that the wedding was to take place in three days, at which Clarisse gaped, whereupon her mother informed her gently that gaping was not a habit becoming in anyone, most especially a Princess of Lofrenier. Clarisse yawned widely, which gained her another brief admonition from her mother on the proper decorum befitting Princesses of Lofrenier, but she replied tiredly, “I had best get some sleep.” Her parents agreed and a servant appeared to lead her to her chambers.
The exhausted and disappointed Gertrude followed reluctantly after. The servant eyed her strangely but decided that this bedraggled creature must be the strange lady’s maid that had accompanied the Princess on her journey home, so he said nothing of her presence and admitted her Majesty to her chambers. Clarisse flopped herself down upon the grand bed and groaned, “oh, my aching feet! I am to marry in three days! What am I to do?”
Gertrude lay half somnolent in a chair and replied, “either marry the man or declare immediately that it cannot be and thus doom these poor folk to their fate.”
Clarisse sighed, “at least he is handsome and rich. I am sure he must have some musical skill. It could be worse. Besides, I am starting to like this Princess thing. Though I must find myself a better entourage. Gertrude, you cannot be my constant attendant.” Gertrude’s only reply was a hearty snore. Once the ladies had wakened from their much needed slumber and after a hearty repast, the conversation was resumed. What was to come of Gertrude? Obviously Clarisse was resigned to her fate, but she could not abide having her nerdy sister ever underfoot, nor would Gertrude be happy in such a position. “Perhaps you could return home,” mused Clarisse.
Gertrude gave her an astonished look, “and leave my only chance at living every geek’s dream? I will make my own way in this strange new world and forget all that has been before.”
Clarisse began to yawn but checked herself, trying to become the lady she must now be, “sounds like a plan to me. When do you leave?” Gertrude gave her a pathetic look, that might have twinged what little heart Clarisse might have at such a lack of fondness for her onetime sister, but it did not show upon her countenance. Sighed she, “well, I suppose you can come to the wedding, but then the entire Kingdom has been invited. Perhaps you can call?” Gertrude gave Clarisse a patient look, but she seemed oblivious to the fact that it would be many centuries yet before telephones invaded this hitherto peaceful land.
Gertrude stood, saying, “then this is goodbye Highness, and I wish you and yours all the best. Farewell.” She left the room and Clarisse returned to her eggs, wondering if they might find her some ketchup somewhere.
Gertrude found a servant and asked if she might have an audience with the King. The servant replied that their Majesties were not to be disturbed but that the Steward might perhaps listen to her concerns. She followed her unhappy guide, who handed her off to the Steward and then vanished once more upon his own interrupted errands. Said she to the venerable man before her, “sir, I would ask what is to be my own part in this tale? My late sister is content to take her appointed place yet I am alone and adrift in this strange land. Any boon you can offer me, gladly would I receive it.”
The aged man said thoughtfully, “you seem an earnest maid and I have seen the disdain with which you have been treated. If you do not desire to remain here in the favor of our Princess, I will offer you what help I can in equipping you for a life elsewhere.” And in so saying he did. Gertrude was soon clad as a peasant maiden and given a small supply of food and coins and those things necessary for a journey. She would rather have set out attired as she had arrived, but such was considered scandalous by those about her, save in times of dire need when the story required the heroine to garb herself as a man, thus to save her life. So it was that she set out sensibly, though girlishly clad, not knowing quite what to do with herself but with a rising sense of hope in knowing that in a place such as this, surely adventure must soon beset her.
She asked directions to the nearest Fairywood and the man said, “what sensible maid would venture thither? Only young heroes set out a’questing would dare such a thing, but do as you will.” He then told her how to get there and off she went. The King and Queen were much disturbed to discover that the girl had vanished ere their waking, but dared make no fuss about the matter for reasons of their own. So involved was Clarisse with her own affairs that she was quite oblivious to the vanishment of her sister.
Gertrude followed the winding road for most of the day, it was a pleasant land of rolling hills and scattered trees, but the ever growing blotch on the horizon promised a great forest lay before her. She rested briefly beside the road beneath an agreeable tree to consume her midday meal, but was soon enough off, hoping to reach that mysterious wood before dark. About mid-afternoon, she stood on the edge of the forest. It was not one of those dark, scary woods where mostly dreadful things dwell, the kind that grow about witch’s castles and where the undead seem to frequent; most of the residents were probably very much alive, by the look of it. The forest was as pleasant as the land without, she shouldered her satchel and walked boldly into the woods. One can tell much about a Fairywood by its appearance, much as one can tell a lot about a neighborhood by its upkeep. No self-respecting vampire or evil troll would be found in such a place. What with the birds chirping, squirrels doing whatever squirrels do, and actual sunlight reaching the forest floor, it was downright disgusting! There were no half-starved wolves, giant spiders, or even cursed pools of water. Instead there were bunnies, gobs and gobs of bunnies!
Yes, bunnies, so many bunnies that the wolves were all well fed and no true hero would dare show his face in such a place. Even the trees were polite in this bizarre forest. Which is why Gertrude met Steve as she entered the local chapter of the Fairywood. Steve, as you can tell by his unheroic name, was not much of a hero. He only hung out in this particular Fairywood so the real heroes would not laugh at him in the cooler Fairywoods of the world. When Gertrude first espied our valiant subhero, he was locked in mortal conflict with a butterfly, a foe almost as feared as the bunnies. It was hard to tell who was winning, but as the insect was not even aware of the combat, it was probably a draw. Suddenly the subhero noticed he had an audience and with one last, grand thrust, the butterfly flew idly away as the boy put up his sword. He bowed deeply to this humble maiden (one never knew if a strange woman might not be a princess or a witch in disguise, so it was always wise to be polite); she made the appropriate gesture in return. Suddenly a troop of the strangest looking creatures Gertrude had ever seen traipsed between them.
Steve said politely to their lost seeming leader, “there is nothing of interest here my good man, try the Dreadful Mountains about eighty leagues to the South. Good Hunting!” The goofy looking boy nodded his thanks and ordered his motley troop towards the south. She looked at Steve blankly and he shrugged, “just some lost tourists from The Other World. They pretend to come here and achieve great things while playing a weird sort of game with dice, sometimes their imaginations are so vivid they accidentally end up here in truth. But there’s nothing of interest for them here, but there are all sorts of Dreadful Things in the Mountains.”
Gertrude shook here head in astonishment, wondering if that was what nerds looked like when they grew up, a hideous thought indeed! “What exactly are you doing here yourself, sir?” queried the maiden.
Steve bowed expansively and said, “I am called Steve and I am not quite a hero.”
“Steve?” asked she, “just plain Steve? What kind of a heroic name is that?”
He shrugged, “it’s not, but then I’m not really much of a hero. All my brothers went off to fight an evil mage and got turned into quite respectable trees: oak, rowan, hickory. I went and he said he wanted to renew his subscription to ‘Vile Spells Quarterly.’”
“Oh,” said she with some disappointment, “my name is Gertrude and I am quite alone in this strange place with neither kith nor kin, I had been hoping to come across someone who might help me find my place in this peculiar land.”
Steve brightened, dug around in his belt pouch for a moment, and pulled out a shiny silver badge that read, ‘Official Guide.’ He proudly pinned it on and Gertrude could only sigh, but could not refuse his help without being impolite. Just Plain Steve led the way deeper into the wood. Said he as they marched along, “it was quite providential that you found me, lady, for you undoubtedly need a place to stay for the night and I know the best inn in the forest. You will never sleep better than at the Inn of Glitch.”
She raised her eyebrows, “the Inn of Glitch?”
Steve asked in surprise, “you have not heard of Glitch?”
She shook her head, “I am quite a stranger here.”
He smiled in anticipation of regaling her with his vast knowledge of this rather unremarkable part of Lofrenier. “Glitch,” he said, “is a prosperous community in the heart of the forest. It is home to many somewhat interesting people, some of whom are actually successful at whatever it is they are supposed to be or do. The rest are, well…outcasts, losers, failures, that sort of thing.”
She frowned, “it is not a den of iniquity where all sorts of shady characters can be found?”
Steve said sadly, “it is nothing half so interesting, actually it is quite a nice sort of community.”
“Nice?” came the aghast question.
Steve shuddered, “yes, nice. There is no more proper word to describe it. Even the adjectives are pathetic in such a place.” What kind of a town could this be? She had never imagined anything so terrible!
They ambled along the lovely path for a good half hour until they came at last to what could only be Glitch (not to be confused with the Dwarf Punk Band of the same name). It was…well… nice! Lovely little cottages with well tended gardens and neat shops (yes, gasp, neat too!) lined the cobblestone streets; characters you might see in one of those movies with the singing mice smiled and waved at one another and occasionally broke into a choreographed singing and dancing routine. They stopped outside of the inn, which might have crawled out of a little girl’s illustrated storybook, and Steve asked proudly, “well?”
Gertrude shook her head sadly, “it is certainly nice, neat, and well, rather dull.”
Steve nodded, “it wasn’t always so pleasant, but one of those good fairies came along and thought she was doing the town a favor by granting the residents unending peace and giddiness, such is the result. It is nice, but it is also very dull, especially once you’ve seen all the chorus numbers eighteen times. Shall we go in?” Gertrude nodded and preceded her guide into the picturesque inn.
It was early in the day so there was hardly anyone about except a fat, smiling innkeeper, the requisite cat on the hearthrug, and a few scattered individuals who could not stand another spontaneous chorus of, ‘We Are So Happy it Hurts.’ Gertrude allowed Steve to pull out a stool for her at one of the corner tables and then seated himself. She smiled, glad to know that chivalry was not dead in this strange country, nor was it even slightly under the weather. The innkeeper brought them the standard (and only) house brew while Steve took off his guide button that they might speak upon non-professional topics. She eyed him curiously; he shrugged and said, “it’s a living.” She nodded and he continued, “so what is your…”
She strained to hear the last word, “my what?” He mouthed the word again. She frowned, “my quest?”
Steve looked at her with horror filled eyes as the nearly deserted room suddenly burst into chaos. Any number of out of work and down on their luck adventure seekers suddenly swarmed about the table. It took Steve ten minutes to quiet the giddy throng as he tried to explain to Gertrude the dangers of mentioning the Q word in such a place. She could see the obvious results and promised never to do such a silly thing again. Once the assembled creatures were quiet, Steve sorted through them with comments like, “sorry Chicamomicamar, not today,” and “we are not really in need of your magical sneezes.” The disappointed has-beens and never-wases left with slumping shoulders and teary eyes until only three remained.
A tiny person stood on the end of the table, a llama with a horn on its nose looked at them eagerly, and a cloud of greenish-orange gas floated beside the llama. Steve made introductions, “this is Melvin the Giant.” In a side whisper he added, “he’s really an Imp but he thinks himself a Giant; it was all those self-esteem lectures they get in pixie school that did it, he really took them to heart.” Louder, he continued, “this is Ludwig the rhinoceros and Stench the gaseous anomaly.”
Gertrude frowned at Ludwig, “you look like a llama with a horn on your nose.”
The camelid nodded, “is that not the definition of rhinoceros? Horned nose? I am precisely what I claim to be.”
“I see,” said she, though clearly she did not. She looked at the gas cloud, “what is a gaseous anomaly?”
Stench replied, “it is the result of a dwarf eating a deep fried burrito. The chemical reaction that occurs occasionally results in a product with a life of its own. Like me. Sadly, I am not considered appropriate in polite society.”
Gertrude said in wonder, “you cannot help your upbringing I suppose.”
She whispered to Steve, “why did you not get rid of all of them?”
He said in an undertone, “I could not have gotten rid of any of them if I had tried to be rid of them all. Don’t blame me, you are the one who mentioned the Q word.” He said for all to hear, “what then is our…agenda…my lady?”
Gertrude stared at him blankly and said, “I have no idea.”
The entire company suddenly broke into excited cheers and eagerness lit their eyes. She stared at Steve for interpretation. He said, “most agendas that might be attempted in Lofrenier are too dangerous, complicated, or important to be risked by the likes of us. Your agenda, what little of it there is, sounds like one we can actually manage and in accomplishing it, we can become heroes and perhaps free ourselves from this absurd nonexistence.”
She nodded in comprehension but asked, “then how do we know when we have accomplished our task?” She smiled in understanding, answering her own question, “we just set forth and whatever befalls us is our destined adventure.”
Steve nodded, “precisely. We shall set out at dawn.” He glanced around, but a look of disappointment crossed his face as he noticed that there were no shadowy figures about that might be plotting against them. Only the cat on the hearthrug paid them any attention at all, and that only a benign contempt
They went to bed at a reasonable hour and left at a quite unreasonable hour. This was dawn? Gertrude asked why they had been roused from their beds in the darkest hour of the night and Steve simply replied, “that is the proper hour to go adventuring.” She sighed and continued to march along in silence, why did she persist in asking such silly questions?
The two humans walked, the gaseous anomaly (hereafter the GA) floated along, and the llamaceros trotted along with the Imp/Giant and the tavern cat on his back. Why the cat had decided to join them was anybody’s guess, but then who, in any world, ever understands cats? Gertrude yawned another silly question, “are we not to soon meet a wizened old man to give us direction or pose us a riddle?”
Steve shrugged, “as there are no real heroes in this wood, there is little need for a Wise Man, but Wise Guys we have aplenty. I would be content if we were spared such company, myself.” The assorted company muttered their agreement, but as always happens in fairy stories, once the question had been spoken aloud, it was not too many chapters later that the prophecy fulfilled itself. And so did Hamric the Disgraced Comedian join their enigmatic company. They found the poor fellow sitting forlornly on the side of the road and though Steve hastened their pace, it was too late. He joined their party as they jogged past and immediately began telling jokes that were old even in this Medieval world. Steve said in an undertone, to Gertrude’s aghast face, “that is what happens when you inadvertently insult a witch in a nightclub.” She shivered and hoped such a ghastly fate would never befall her. They marched on.
They stopped at daybreak for a much needed rest and some breakfast. Hamric proved his usefulness to the company by producing a Hat of Unspoiling Bounty. He took off his magical headgear and from it produced a can of semi-edible pork product, a plastic wrapped, crème-filled sponge cake, and a case of diet cola. It was not the organic, froufrou elvish fare sometimes found in such tales, but it kept them fed, even the GA would not stoop to eating tofu though maybe the cat would, you never know with cats. As they ate, Gertrude asked, “are any of you going to the wedding?”
They stopped eating and stared at her in astonishment. The Imp intoned, “silly girl, I am not getting married.” His ego could not fathom attending an event not featuring himself.
Steve asked, “you mean The Wedding?! I had not heard the Princess had returned! When is it?”
Gertrude said, “the day after tomorrow.”
Steve paled, “so He has two days to wreak havoc ere Happily Ever After sets in.”
Gertrude frowned, “who is He?”
Steve said in confusion, “you do not know who He is?” Gertrude shook her head as Steve asked, “what world are you from?” She shrugged and he continued, “He is the Dark Lord, the ultimate evil in our world.”
She asked, “what is His name?”
Steve shook his head, “no one knows. It was so long and unpronounceable that it was forgotten long ago. He is simply He, Him, the Dark Lord, or He Who Cannot Be Pronounced, if you are being formal.”
Gertrude asked, “why would He want to stop the wedding?”
Steve replied, “He cannot stand Happily Ever After, it does horrible things to the morale of his Minions. They get the idea that they should live Happily Ever After too. And we all know that is a ridiculous aspiration for a Minion. A Minion’s sole task in life is to die by the hundreds in pointless conflict, they can’t do that if they want to live happily ever after. So He will stop at nothing to see that it does not come to pass. We had better head back to the capital and see if we can intercede between the Princess and the Dark Lord before it is too late.” Like a well trained army, they packed up their strange rations and marched hastily back the way they had come, hoping they would not arrive too late. Had the Princess known they intended to crash her wedding, she would have refused to proceed with the whole affair.
By sunset, the bizarre little band had arrived in the capital city and lost themselves in the crowd. Gertrude felt like she was in the midst of the best fantasy convention ever, never had she seen so many interesting and fantastic creatures, except that time she went to a midnight movie at the bargain cinema back home. Steve said thoughtfully, “we need a way to get into the wedding.”
Gertrude grinned impishly and led the party to the great square where the festivities would be held the next morning. “What are you doing?” gasped the flummoxed unhero.
She took a seat and motioned for the others to do the same saying, “we are getting our seats. There is an open invitation for the entire Kingdom to come so we might as well get good seats.”
Steve was perplexed, “who would come so early only to secure a place at an event that will not occur for twelve hours or more?”
Gertrude laughed, “you would not believe what people would do where I come from just to be first in line.” Steve did not look any less confused but he took his place and wearily waited for dawn.
They roused from their uncomfortable doze when the early guests started seating themselves. A regal lady in her middle years seated herself next to the GA and stared in horror at Steve, who sat on its other side, thinking he had done the unspeakable. He smiled sheepishly and continued to scan the area, looking for any sign of trouble. He need not have bothered, nothing exciting happened until the presentation of the bride, when the cat dashed from his seat, grabbed the girl, and suddenly vanished. Steve muttered, “I knew we should have never trusted a cat.” He looked at the others, “come on, we have a magazine to deliver.”
As if this made perfect sense, they followed him unquestioningly, but were stopped short as the King bellowed, “not so fast. You cannot leave until that girl is married.”
Gertrude stared at the King, aghast, “why ever for? It is not as if I am a princess or anything nearly so interesting.”
“But you are,” said the smiling Queen.
Steve smacked his forehead, “of course! Why did I not think you would so hide the real princess? But are we not to rescue the poor girl?”
The Queen’s answer calmed the quite worried frown that creased Gertrude’s brow, at least until she processed the meaning of the last bit, “certainly you must rescue the poor creature, but not before the Princess is properly married, thereafter she may do as it pleases her.”
“Wait,” gasped Gertrude, “you mean I am the true princess Flufflebun and have to marry Prince what’s his name?”
“Certainly not,” said the King, “what a ridiculous name for a royal personage!” Gertrude began to relax but the King had not finished, “your true name is Marguerite Johanna Eloise Penelope VIII.”
Gertrude, er Marguerite, grimaced, “much better, truly.”
The Queen added, “and you may marry the man of your choosing, as long as he isn’t an enchanted tree or something.”
Gertrude protested, “but I don’t know anyone well enough to marry them.”
The Queen shook her head, “well, the longer you dither the more danger your adoptive sister will find herself in.”
Gertrude sighed, “Steve?”
The hero-wannabe gasped, “me? Seriously?”
She smiled grimly, “you might be a lousy hero but you are a decent fellow and the only eligible guy I know in this bizarre land.”
Steve shrugged and a hasty wedding followed with much rejoicing (and an even greater sigh of relief). The requisite fairy godmother appeared shortly after the nuptials to bless the couple with the usual gifts of graciousness, wisdom, and so forth. Once that ordeal was over, another fairy person made her approach to the couple. The King gasped, “you have not come to hex our poor child Moargoth, we did invite you to the wedding after all?”
The rather wicked looking fairy laughed heartily, “certainly not, it was nice to finally be invited to such a function rather than having to crash the party and curse the poor dear. I have come to bestow my gifts on the happy couple, which are far more useful and interesting than those of my nicey-nice cousin.” It was at this point that they began to realize that maybe she was not entirely evil after all, but rather liked to dress in a Gothic style, which was just beginning to become trendy in that world. Everyone within hearing looked quite interested in this proposition, except the poor nice fairy who would have glowered were it in her nature, instead she vanished after a woeful look at all and sundry. “First,” said Moargoth, “if you are going to rescue that brainless bit of fluff, you will need some more intimidating allies.” She rolled up her sleeves and got to work.
The imp finally reached the gigantesque proportions he entertained in his imagination, the rhinocerllama became a terrifying unicorn, but the GA was left unchanged as there is nothing more dangerous in the known or imagined universe, except perhaps a bad comedian, which is why Hamric found himself quite himself as well. To the new prince-by-marriage, she gave this hint, “you are quite right to pursue a certain evil mage in this matter, you already know he has a fondness for arcane magazines, but you must also know he tends to be a bit absentminded and very particular, you should be able to use this to your advantage. If you successfully complete this quest, you shall be a hero indeed and will be in desperate need of a more appropriate name. As for you princess, you might find this small yappy dog quite useful. If not, feed it to your gaseous friend.” Then she was gone.
The party exchanged a wondering look, made their farewells to the royal parents, and swiftly departed. They were quite happy with the magnificent horses they were allowed to borrow from the royal stables, but had been firmly warned to bring them back with full stomachs and they were not to attempt any stunt riding, they were just to rescue the poor girl and come straight home. They even provided a fuzzy pink purse to carry the small, evil dog in.
Gertrude asked of her new lord, “who exactly is this evil mage of yours and why did he kidnap my sister? I thought only He Whose Name is Tedious or whatever you call Him was interested in messing up her Happily Ever After.”
Steve the Unglorious replied, “I now believe that He and the rather insignificant evil mage of my previous acquaintance are one and the same, much as you, my beloved, are truly a princess. Your true guise was hidden for reasons that at the time seemed sensible. What better way to hide your true identity as the Most Evil Mage in the World than by being a rather drab evil mage in a low rent part of the realm?” She shook her head in wonder, could this tale get any stranger? And as you full well know, it did simply because she thought it couldn’t. They rode on for several days, still grateful to the Benevolent Hat of Hamric for its sustaining but inglorious fare. They rode on for another round of several more days after that (feel free to insert tedious descriptors of the countryside here, it should fill several pages at the least). Finally they came to the foothills of the Dreadful Mountains, which were swathed in a Dark and Terrifying Forest where they met some old friends. The troop of nerds met this strange company with some hesitancy, trying to decide if this were a rival gang of geeks or perhaps an expedient way to level up, but finally deciding it must be some new plot twist introduced by a desperate GM to keep things interesting and therefore not immediately hostile.
“Whither goest thou?” came the curious lilting voice of the leader, who seemed to be speaking in a bad Scottish accent.
Steve frowned at the nerd leader in incomprehension. Gertrude giggled in a very unprincess like fashion and said politely, “we all love the good King’s English, but a more modern vernacular is an acceptable alternative.”
Much relieved, as he knew little of that forgotten tongue, the lead nerd said, “where are you going and may we be of assistance?”
Steve shook his head, “we are going to rescue a non-princess from a false feline.”
“Sounds like a perfectly reasonable quest,” said he, “we are in. What are the rules?”
Steve frowned again in confusion but Gertrude said, “rescuing the girl without getting ourselves killed or turned into trees are about the only ground rules.”
“Drat,” said the nerd, “I had at least hoped that fire weapons were worth double points, but I suppose we had best do this your way.” Gertrude laughed aloud and Steve just scratched his head.
The nerds introduced themselves to the flummoxed company of would-be heroes as a band of dwarves, elves, halflings, weredragons, and a vegan vampire. The gigantesque imp said to them in a whisper that shook the trees, “I know a not-so-good fairy that can help you with your identity issues. She did me worlds of good, finally convinced my body to be what my mind always knew I was.” They exchanged confused looks but nodded as if they knew exactly what the giant was babbling about; it was not wise to disagree with someone ten feet tall at the knees.
They camped for the night outside the Dark and Terrible Forest and planned to make their way into its mysterious depths at first light, which is the only time one ever dares such a thing (otherwise you keep bumping into trees in the dark and it is rather embarrassing). Morning came, the unicorn returned from his midnight scouting foray and said that the dark mage’s hut lay less than an hour’s journey into the wood and that the local troll union was on its yearly picnic in the Moldering Swamp so the way was relatively clear of enemies. They set forth into the Forest, wondering at the great difference between this place and the forest that had been their home. There was not a bunny in sight and the trees looked quite disagreeable, even the squirrels were black and boasted large teeth and creepy red eyes. They trudged on without incident and came to an assiduously maintained dilapidated hovel, obviously the owner was very persnickety in the upkeep of his downtrodden abode. Steve smiled, particular about the details indeed; he had a plan and quickly recounted it to the others, who stared at him in incomprehension but each would do their part.
He knocked boldly upon the door and it was answered by a stooped man with a trailing beard and half-moon spectacles. He blinked at the party standing about outside his door, not quite sure what to think. This certainly was no band of heroes so he need not immediately turn them into trees, unless of course they proved irksome, wanted donations for some noble cause, or were members of an obscure religion seeking converts. Steve pulled a stack of periodicals from beneath his tunic and said, “I have brought the magazines you ordered Master Mage, how will you be paying for them?”
The mage blinked at him again, but finally understood and an eager smile lit his face, “of course, of course, I am really excited about that new alchemy spell in the latest issue, to think they discovered how to turn lead into apple butter!”
“Quite useful I am sure,” quoth Steve, “that will be two pieces of gold, five pieces of silver, and seventeen pieces of tin.”
The Mage nodded happily, disappearing into the house to retrieve his magical coin purse. He returned and said quite embarrassed, “I am so sorry, I do not seem to have exact change. Will you take three gold pieces instead? I am fresh out of tin!”
Steve looked rather shocked, “sir, I could not! I must have exact change or I may be accused of price gouging or banditry! Certainly not. I must have exact change or I fear I will have to revoke your subscription and you’ll lose your complimentary frog itcher too!”
“Oh!” said the Mage in some distress, “we certainly cannot have that! A frog itcher? I never knew I needed one, but it sounds too good a deal to pass up. Let me see?” He thought for a few moments and then his face brightened, “I know!” He said some very ominous sounding words and suddenly all the noble trees that bedecked his front yard suddenly stretched, yawned, and looked far more like a dozen flummoxed heroes than a lovely grove. “Don’t know what the Neighborhood Committee will say about that, but it may be my only hope of saving my subscription. Come lads, have you got any tin? If you can scrounge up seventeen pieces of tin I’ll give you your freedom in exchange.”
The former trees all shared an excited grin and began turning out their pockets. They found the requisite number of coins and eagerly handed them to the wizard before dashing quickly off into the forest before he changed his mind. The wizard nearly glowed with excitement as he gave Steve his money and took his magazines and free gift. He flipped through the top issue and looked a bit disappointed that there was no mention of his latest exploit. He suddenly glared at the strange company about him, “how many people does it take to deliver a magazine? Who are you?”
Steve smiled in grim amusement and said, “we are here to rescue the princess!”
The mage smiled wickedly and said, “no, you are going to improve my landscaping before the neighbors complain.” But before he could work his vile magic, the GA engulfed him and he dared not breathe, lest he inhale the noxious fumes.
“Very good,” said Steve, as the magician started turning blue, “Hamric, you know what to do.” The comedian started his routine and the now purple magician looked like he might explode or faint. He could not utter foul incantations thanks to the GA and the bad jokes prevented him from concentrating and thus using his cunning to escape this snare. He was forced to stand there, helpless and purple, at the mercy of his captors. Long after this adventure, Hamric and the GA started their own evil mage capture business and made a very good living thereafter.
Gertrude burst into the house, searching for her sister. What she found was an aviary with a hundred different birds in it; instinctively she knew one of those feather brains must be her sister, but which one? A smile grew on her face as she saw the magpie. She pulled the designer canine from its fuchsia handbag and launched it at the vain, chattering bird. The dog licked the bird, and suddenly it was Clarisse, simultaneously bemoaning her lack of stylish attire and rumpled hair and gushing over the small furry dog. Gertrude shook her head in wonder, and handed her sister the pink fuzzy dog purse and a hairbrush. Clarisse stowed the dog in the handbag and began the laborious process of straightening her hair, which would take even longer than this entire adventure.
Steve came into the house, smiled to see the lady restored, and asked Gertrude for seven pairs of ruby slippers. She stared at him in confusion, but remembering the magical virtue inherent in ruby slippers, she assisted her beloved in ransacking the house in search of the appropriate footwear. All they could find were red bowling shoes, but they would have to do. Steve looked at Clarisse and asked, “lady, is it your wish to remain here or would you return to your own wild and dangerous world?”
Clarisse looked at him as if he were mad, “you think I would remain here a minute longer than I have to? Get me out of here!”
He bowed, tossed her a pair of shoes, and ran out the door. Clarisse grimaced at the unstylish footwear but put them on, she was horrified to see the small herd of geeks doing likewise and nearly took them off again, but for a firm look from Gertrude. Nearly in tears, she complied. To think she would wear anything worn by geeks! Steve was just lacing another pair on the purplish wizard, who was willing to cooperate with anything as long as there was a hope he might draw breath in the next hour. Steve took Clarisse’s hand and led her over to where the geeks and the wizard waited. Gertrude handed Clarisse a bottle of hand sanitizer as she passed, knowing she might otherwise die after this was all over unless she could quickly disinfect herself of nerd germs. Steve gave her hand into that of the head geek and said quickly, “you know what to do. You will have little time once our friend the mage here recovers his breath, so make it quick!”
They started to click their heels together and repeat the magic words while Hamric and the GA dove for cover, not wishing to accidentally find themselves in that horrific world from which the nerds had come and to which they would return. The mage started to incantate, but suddenly the whole company vanished, dog and all. Gertrude looked to her husband and asked, “was it wise to send that mage into my world?”
Steve smiled, “he will have no magic there, only his absentminded pickiness will remain to him. What he will do with that, I know not, but he is canny enough to survive and will cause little harm to others, bereft as he is of his magic.”
Steve was quite right, the mage settled in quite happily and quickly earned a doctorate of Arcane Theorization in Alternate Plane Physics and soon had tenure at a prestigious university. The nerds were quite delighted with their adventure and spent the next six months counting up and arguing over their experience points. Clarisse spent the same amount of time cleansing at the spa, undergoing a detoxifying diet, and complaining incessantly to her shrink, but she was quite smitten with the dog, after all, only the kiss of true love could break the vile mage’s spell. On the way home, the Giant asked of Steve, “what was my part in this whole crazy tale?”
Steve shrugged, “comic relief.” The Giant smiled and Hamric wept, knowing that role could never more be his.
Steve received a much more heroic name from the Fairy Goth-mother (she originated the trend after all) and they all went to a Glitch concert to celebrate. So they all lived more or less, happily ever after, that is if you like dwarvish punk music, which would otherwise make for a rather miserable evening, but then, there is always tomorrow!
“Ahem,” cleared an eager but nervous throat. The dragon opened one scaly lid a fraction, glanced at the unassuming personage rudely standing upon his threshold, shut his eye, and resumed his nap. This went completely unnoticed by the impatient intruder, who continued to ‘ahem’ so much more loudly and frequently that the dragon finally came fully awake, quite ready to do violence to this interrupter of his slumber. The creature smiled broadly and greeted him cordially upon his awakening; so startled was he, that the creature would thus greet imminent death, that for a moment he forgot his intentions entirely. But then he perceived that the creature was not welcoming death, but rather would not know danger until she had lain six months in her grave. His wrath was replaced by perplexity as he finally listened to what the creature was prattling on about, “no doubt you have received and reviewed my resume? I have been patiently waiting for some confirmation that you had looked upon my application favorably, but as you no doubt are quite busy, perhaps you had not yet had a chance to get back to me, so I thought I would just drop by and save you the trouble of scheduling an interview.” The dragon cocked his head and scratched the angle of his jaw in wonder, never in all his countless years and vast wanderings had he ever come across such a spectacle.
The creature happily chattered on, without seeming to notice that her host had not, as yet, made even the briefest of replies. Finally, before pausing for breath, she said, “now that we have finished with the formalities, when would you like me to start? And if you could get your HR department to give me a synopsis of my pay and benefits, we should be all set.” Pay, benefits, HR department, resume, interview?
Said the dragon at long last, “perchance, madam, are you mad or under some foul curse?”
She frowned at him for a moment, but continued brightly, “I will just pretend you did not try to denigrate my feminine status by calling into question my intelligence and sanity. I assure you, Sir, I am quite within my right mind. Just because I am not a man does not mean I cannot do this job as well or better.
Now the dragon was even more confused, “pardon my insensitivity, madam, I meant no denigration to your sex, species, or any other congenital characteristic, but I am quite far from understanding what exactly you are talking about. I have no ‘job’ available, as you seem to presume, for any woman, man, dwarf, giant, lizard, mime, or any other sensible life form ever born. Please be so kind as to take your resume and be gone, I have important business to attend to forthwith.”
She drew herself up and stared at him coldly, highly insulted and not a little confused. How dare he use such language with her, congenital indeed! He was just asking for a harassment lawsuit. She tried to calm herself as best she could, knowing that anger would not advance her cause and while a lawsuit might attain her ends, it would not be the best means of getting what she truly wanted. She said as calmly as she could, “I apologize for the confusion, but apparently you did not receive my communiqué and are also frightfully unaware of your own plight.” He could not help but smile at the creature’s audacity and the exceeding pride, which she had in her sophomoric knowledge. For sheer amusement, he indulged her continued blathering. Said she, “I have spent the last seven years of my life in thankless toil at the prodigious and esteemed College for the Mastery of Draconic Lore and Equitation.
“So you have learned all about dragons and how to stay on a horse?” said the dragon, with as straight a face as he could muster.
“A horse?” said she in disgust, “nay, nay, Sir, I have learned the art of riding dragons but there is no fit word yet coined for the art, because it is just catching on, so we must adapt a word once applied solely to equids until a more suitable term is found.”
“I see,” said the dragon, though obviously he did not.
Continued she, “now, as I said, it is a new and modern trend, but one I am assured that is vital to the success of both our species.”
Said the dragon dryly, “I do not know how we have survived this long without it. You say you have actually ridden a dragon?”
She colored slightly, but continued boldly, “not a real dragon, as it were. But I have practiced extensively with models and studied the art thoroughly under masters in the discipline. A dragon’s time is too valuable to be wasted on students and their practicums, instead, such honors are reserved solely for licensed and accredited graduates of the College.” Her voice took on an eager lilt, “of which my class is the first. The College assures us of finding an amenable draconian partner within three months of graduation and that he or she will be quite willing to pay back all of our quite substantial educational loans within a reasonable period of time while also allowing us a generous stipend, housing allowance, and other necessities.”
“They have promised you all that and more?” said the dragon, not a little impressed at the greedy machinations and baseless propaganda of the College and wondering why he had not thought of it first. It was quite brilliant, actually! Continued he, “so what exactly does a dragonrider and her esteemed companion do?”
“Do?” said the girl in confusion, “the dragon flies and the rider, well…rides.”
“Obviously,” said the dragon patiently, in answer to this brilliant reply, “but I would assume there was some task of mutual benefit that must be accomplished?”
Sounding like an infomercial for the College, she said eagerly, “oh, there are countless things that can be accomplished by such an ideal arrangement. Think of the ease of travel, the improvement in exploration and communication, the implications for trade, the applications for war and defense, and let us not forget our vital role in repelling any showers of parasitic worms intent on ravaging our planet.”
The dragon stared at the child in amusement and pity, what had they been teaching the poor creature? Said he as gently as he could, “and how is any of that vital to draconian thriving or even survival? We do not trouble ourselves much with the inane undertakings and endeavors of men, excuse me, men and women. I can see where our cooperation would be quite beneficial to humankind, or should I say people?, but I do not see how it helps dragonkind. As for that last bit of nonsense, please remember that what happens in popular novels is not exactly reflective of reality in general.”
She stared at him aghast, “but you must help me! I have more debt than I can ever hope to pay off in three lifetimes. All my friends and family are expecting me to have a glorious and lucrative career; they will be vastly disappointed. The College assured us that things would work out brilliantly and their networking division guaranteed us a job upon graduation. What am I to do? I did not spend seven years of my life and a small fortune for nothing! You are just ignoring the realities of the modern world, stuck in the past as you are. You have not heard the last of me!”
She stormed out of his lair and he resumed his nap, vastly amused. It was many months later that an even more annoying visitor unceremoniously awakened the sleeping dragon. This one did not amuse the dragon in the least. Said the meticulously groomed man, who had never been accused of possessing anything even resembling a sense of humor, “are you Macracanthorhyncushirudinaceous the Deplorable? The dragon yawned, showing his massive teeth to the intruder, who was not in the least impressed, as he continued in nasal tones, “I am with the law firm Sneezes, Wheezes, and Squeaks, I am Mr. Squeaks, I represent one Genevive Smithdaughter, a graduate of the Esteemed College for the Mastery of Draconic Lore and Equitation and recent applicant for the position of Dragonrider, which she deemed necessary for your own health and happiness. She was grievously treated and demands a full apology plus the immediate implementation of all rights and privileges attendant unto said position.”
The dragon snorted, “and just what happens if I ignore this little farce?”
Said his lawyership most grimly, “the courts do not look favorably upon such matters, the full weight of the law is on her side.”
The dragon said in irritation, “and what do your judicious courts have to say upon the matters of meddlers, thieves, and enslavement?”
The lawyer replied calmly, “she is a trained professional and deemed it in your best interest to enter into this contractual relationship, solely for your benefit of course. But as a woman, you have treated her deplorably, thus living up to your name I might add, when she only had your best interests at heart. Will you comply or shall we see you in court?” The dragon smiled, showing his teeth once more, and Mr. Squeaks finally began to show sensible signs of nervousness.
Three months after Mr. Squeaks failed to return from his interview with the dragon, obviously dilatory in his duty, as all men perpetually are, Ms. Wheezes took up the case and obtained the earliest court date available for this critical case. Fifty-seven years and two days later, Ms. Smithdaughter’s granddaughter appeared in court on her behalf, as she was the sole heir of that deceased lady’s student debt and pending lawsuit. The dragon slept blissfully through the trial, finally having overcome the indigestion caused by that persnickety lawyer which kept him awake for nearly three decades. The judge waited patiently for the advent of the dragon, but alas he did not appear. She then turned to the anxious girl and said, “as your grandmother’s adversary is not here to defend himself, let us begin this trial and see where it leads.” Though the dragon did not appear, and only read the outcome in the papers over his coffee some two hundreds years later when he finally awoke of his own volition, his side was not without its advocates. While it was ostensibly a case of discrimination based on sex, others interpreted it as an attack on the legal definition of what was and what was not a person, there were activists hoping to use the case as a springboard in declaring that dogs were people and male humans were not, while others saw it as a race issue or even a species issue, the College had its representatives there to make sure no one usurped their curious rights, and every other strange and varied argument for and against was heard in the ensuing days.
After thirty seven years of argument and counterargument, the ancient judge declared from her deathbed, “for this I have wasted my life?” as she passed from the sphere of mortal concerns. With the decease of the original judge, a mistrial was declared, but no one seemed eager to pursue the case anew, not even Ms. Wheezes, who was still annoyed that Mr. Squeaks had not yet returned, men! The dragon slept on. The Smithdaughter heiresses continued to attend the College in each succeeding generation, passing on their combined debt to their progeny while still languishing without a proper job or brilliant future that was theirs by right, as promised by the College. Dragons were still thought people by some, at least the female dragons, while the rights of dogs gradually increased to be more than that of male dragons but less than that of female dragons, though the dogs were happily oblivious to their ever changing legal status and the dragons could also care less, as the legal and philosophical inanities of men were of little interest to them, but it was a standing practice amongst them never to intentionally ingest lawyers ever after. And still Mr. Squeaks did not appear.
Long ago, when the world was young and men still walked in innocence, an ancient king made an alliance with the terrible god of war. In exchange for the life of his maiden daughter, he would receive power to conquer all the kingdoms of men and have dominion over all mortal lives. The night was dark with neither star nor moon giving light or hope to those who gathered upon the face of that forbidden hill to commence with their evil deed. The king had gathered all of his generals and advisors to stand as witnesses. The girl was brought forward and the hood removed from her head. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she stared with pleading eyes into the cold and remorseless depths of her father’s eyes. She saw neither love nor regret there, only a thirst for power beyond the reach of mortal ken. He drew forth a cruel knife from a sheath of black leather. Very soon the alliance would be sealed and no power on earth could withstand him. He approached the girl with a cruel and mirthless smile and raised the blade to strike.
He was thrown back from the girl and blinded by a cold light, and all standing around the pair fell to the ground in fear. Like a bolt of lightning, a bright and terrible figure stood between the man and his prey. The king regained his footing with a sneer and a triumphant laugh. “You have no authority here,” he scoffed, “be gone before I become violent.”
The light receded slightly and those standing about could make out a vaguely equine shape amidst the glow. The figure reared up on its hind legs and pawed the air. He appeared in the form of a horse but with the awe reserved for a charging bull or roaring lion. Then he spoke, “you must not do this terrible thing. You will forever tear apart the laws that bind the world together.”
“I will do as I please,” scowled the king, “and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”
“If you are set upon this course I cannot stop you by force, but perhaps I can offer you an exchange,” said the figure.
“What can you possibly offer me,” growled the king with the light of avarice in his eyes.
“The foul demon with whom you are dealing demands innocent blood for your vile contract, so be it! Take mine instead of the girl’s,” said the mysterious figure.
“Yours!” gasped the king, “but of what advantage is that to you?”
“To ransom the life of this dear child shall be gain enough,” said the figure.
“Very well,” said the king. “I have a feeling my master will be quite pleased with the exchange. What is one small child when the blood of his enemy is laid at his feet? What are your terms?”
“Give me one hour to bear this child to safety, then I will return hither and you may do as we have agreed,” said the figure.
“How do I know you will not steal the child and disappear?” asked the king.
“You know very well I do not lie,” roared the figure. He swept the child onto his back and as the light disappeared over the rim of the hill called back, “in one hour I shall return.”
For a time the girl clung silently to the back of her rescuer but as the horror of what she had so nearly escaped sunk in she began to sob uncontrollably. “Do not weep little one,” said the figure, “you are safe and all will be well.”
“How can you say that?” sobbed the girl, “evil is about to be unleashed upon the earth and no one will be able to stop it.”
“I can,” said he softly. A sense of immense peace fell upon the girl and dried her tears. Shortly, they approached a small cottage by the edge of a little stream that chattered invisibly in the night. A woman emerged from the door and wrapped a blanket around the quivering form of the girl. She bowed once to the retreating figure and took the child into the house. The girl fell into bed and knew no more that night. The woman stared into the darkness, tears streaming down her cheeks. Within the hour agreed upon, the figure returned to that forsaken hilltop. His light was dimmed to the slight flickering of a dying candle. He stood before the men with a drooping head but a righteous fire blazed in his eyes. The king laughed him to scorn, drew his blade, and approached the apparently cowed creature. Steel flickered in the light as the blade struck home. The light dimmed and went out. As if from a vast distance, a great wailing cry rent the night, as if the earth itself had been mortally wounded by the blow. A wind came howling out of the west and clouds blotted out the sky. Darkness engulfed the world, lightning flashed in the heavens, and thunder rolled as if all creation reared up in fury at the atrocity that had occurred. The hill itself began to roll like a wave on the sea and split in two. The men were thrown from their feet and retreated in confusion and fear from the horror before them. Their horses reared and snorted, broke loose, and disappeared into the storm.
“What have you done!” roared one general over the wind. “
I have loosed the wrath of the heavens,” screamed the king. A panic spread among them and all fled into the darkness.
The next morning, the girl rode up the accursed hill hoping to find some trace of her rescuer. She found the vile blade broken in two, but no sign of the mysterious glowing figure. She dismounted and peered with dismay into the gaping chasm that had once been the heart of the hill. “What is it you seek?” asked a voice behind her.
With a shriek of pure joy she flung her arms around the figure that now stood at her shoulder, glowing like the sun. “You are alive!” she said.
“Yes,” said he simply.
“But what of last night?” asked she, “I was sure you had been slain. What of that horrible shriek and the dreadful darkness?”
“My life cannot be taken against my will. Before anything ever was and after all has passed into nothing, I was and ever will be. I laid down my life not only for you, but for all things that would have been utterly destroyed by the acts of last night. Your blood would have strengthened that foul demon beyond anything he has yet achieved. My blood offered willing in exchange for another’s broke his power. What began in selfishness and evil, ended in selflessness and love, which alone has power to conquer the darkness. He has been vanquished but not destroyed. He still lurks in the world, full of malice and hate and ready to assist any who give themselves over to a lust for power and destruction. Until last night, mankind had lived in peace and harmony with one another and with all creation, but that peace has been shattered. Man has shown himself vulnerable to evil, willing to place himself above all else, even his own children. It is no longer safe to assume that all men are good in and of themselves. Each individual must hereafter make a decision to follow what is right and good, or to follow his own selfish path into evil and darkness. From the dawn of mankind, it was given into your hands to decide whether to pursue goodness or darkness. A member of your race has chosen the ultimate evil and with his fall, all are now required to make a decision that once came naturally to all.”
The girl fell sobbing at his feet, feeling in herself the dreadful truth she had just heard spoken. It was as if something inside her had been torn or ripped away and she was left with a gaping hole, much like the defiled face of the hill. Looking up into his eyes, she said, “I have lost something within myself. I am no longer whole. I have a longing, a desire for something. Something, though I know not what. Something greater than myself.”
“Yes,” said he, “your whole race now shares that same longing. And with what you fill that hole will determine the course of your life, and the lives of all those around you, from now and ever onwards. Choose carefully.”
“Can I choose you?” she asked hesitantly.
A smile crept over his face and the whole hillside seemed to laugh with joy. “Of course,” he said. “After last night, the world is hurting and needs to be told these things which you have just heard. I need someone to go forth and tell them. Bring your horse forward.”
The girl ran over to the horse which had strayed and was happily nibbling at weeds upon the far side of the hill. She led the beast towards the figure. The stallion pulled back against the reins and nearly reared, trying to avoid the glowing figure before him. “Do not be afraid my simple beast,” said the figure, “from now and ever onwards, you and your descendants will no longer be considered simple.” The figure turned his side towards the girl and for the first time she saw the gaping wound in his side. From it dribbled a steady stream of silver blood. She gasped in horror and drew back. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “this is the price of last night’s adventure. Though much was lost, much good also came of it. Take a drop of my blood on your finger and place it on the horse’s tongue.” Hesitantly the girl complied. Almost reverently she poked a finger into the sliver stream and placed a drop of the precious fluid into the horse’s mouth.
An indignant snort was followed by a blinding flash. She no longer held a horse by the reins but a unicorn. The sorrel coat had become white as the snow; wisdom and fire were in his once placid and simple eyes. Cloven hooves of silver had replaced his single hooves of grey. A silver horn protruded proudly from his forehead. He shook his head in disgust a few times and looked with dismay at the girl and the glowing figure.
“Remove his bit,” laughed the figure. The girl complied and the unicorn seemed much happier. “Now it is your turn,” said he. The girl looked with shock and disgust at the gaping hole in the figure’s side and turned pleading eyes to his. “If you really wish to serve me, you must taste of my blood,” he said, “by doing so you are binding yourself to me and my purposes. You will gain much in wisdom and abilities but in doing so you are also swearing to serve me, even with the forfeit of your life be it necessary. Do you wish to proceed?”
She nodded and did as she was bidden. She seemed to grow taller and a thirst for knowledge grew within her. A deeper understanding of things once hidden to mortal mind blossomed in her heart. She had changed as much as the horse.
“Now,” said the figure,” I will tell you of things long hidden to the race of men, things vital to your quest. The demon of war, to whom your father nearly sacrificed you, was once my greatest servant. But he desired things beyond his grasp and made an attempt to supplant me as The Master of All. He was banished from my presence and ever since has made war upon all that is good and wonderful. He has claimed lordship over all creation and still yearns for the power he cannot have. Until last night, he had made little progress in his war against me, but last night there came a breaking. Men, who had once lived in peace, have heeded his call and some have broken away from me seeking the power promised by their new master. Now all must decide whether to follow him or me. None can sit this out. By stepping aside, they are simply declaring themselves for him, if only by doing nothing. This is war a war that has raged since before the world began, there can be no civilians. He will devour everything if all stand aside and let him. I will only do so much. I am Master of all things, but I have given all sapient creatures a choice, and upon that freedom I will not trespass. They must choose what is right or what is evil. I will not infringe upon their decisions for good or ill. If they choose the right, I can assist them, but if they choose the evil I can only stand aside and weep for their ill choices and dire fate. That is why I could not interfere directly in the affairs of last night. It is up to you, and those like you: my servants, to pursue evil in whatever form or guise it takes and do what you must to defeat it and to defend the innocent. You must spread word of this through all lands and to all peoples. It will not be easy and there will be great heartache along the way but you will never be alone; it must be done or evil will consume the world and all within it. Last night a deadly blow was dealt to my enemy, but he is still lurking about and still very powerful. In the end, he will be completely vanquished but until that final day, you are all that stands between the world and devastation. A rent has been created in the hearts of men. They will yearn for me and try to fill the gap with all sorts of vain things. You must tell them the truth of what you have seen. Last night, the innocence of man was lost, but by my blood it can be healed.”
The girl had been held spellbound by the tale. The light around the figure dimmed a little, just enough so that she could make out his full form. She had glimpsed a horse-like figure last night and this morning, but now saw him fully, as if a fog had lifted. He was similar to the unicorn standing at her shoulder, but taller and more terrible; his horn and hooves were of gold and he glowed with the very light of the sun.
“Your faithful steed will be the father of the race of mortal unicorns and you shall be the first among a great and future throng of my servants. I will hereafter withdraw from wandering abroad in the world but I will be found by those who seek me. Go forth and teach what you have been taught, fight evil, and protect the innocent.” With that he seemed to glow brighter and as the sun topped the head of the hill, vanished into the blinding rays.
Jace stood upon the battlements, staring, though unseeing, out upon the bleak grey landscape of the failing year ere snow covered and softened the weary land for its winter repose. Leaden clouds lowered ominously on the horizon while a mournful wind moaned pitiably in the half completed towers of the grotesque fortress; the river passed sullenly by without comment, preoccupied with its looming icy imprisonment. Though only partially complete, the grim fortress was already falling to ruin, as were the souls who lingered therein. The place was hardly cheerful, even upon a bright morning of spring, and was at its most dismal ere the first snows of winter, but it was not the weather that brought the boy out to pace the battlements upon such a dreary day, rather he had much to contemplate and none of it good. His patched cloak flapped wildly in the wind but he little noticed, for his thoughts were just as unruly. His grandfather, a nobleman displaced by war, had laid the foundations of this ruin and his father had further built up the fortress after its founder’s untimely death, but the family fortune had run out long before the project was finished, so it moldered in half-completed splendor while its occupants dwelt ever in the shadow of poverty and isolation, and now it seemed, madness as well.
Jace’s father was but a boy when war forced the family to flee with what they could salvage of their wealth. The patriarch was determined to start anew in a strange land, much to the dismay of the locals, but they were a rather peaceful folk and he began his project without asking their permission, and as they were notorious for their willingness to forgive, the project continued despite their misgivings. But tragedy struck the third winter the family spent in their new home, for both of Jace’s grandparents died of pneumonia within a fortnight of one another, leaving their son, still very much a boy, alone in the grim fortress with only a few faithful servants and guards that had accompanied the family in its flight, for they trusted no one in this strange land, least of all those of common descent. But the boy was not crushed by his loss, but rather was as determined, perhaps more so, than his father to finish the project and become a veritable lord in this strange land, the protests of the original inhabitants aside.
Construction continued slowly as the boy grew to manhood and the family fortune dwindled, but surely the son of a nobleman might make a proper match and thereby reinvigorate his fortune as well as perpetuate his line. So it was that Jace’s father went a-courting and soon came home with his beautiful and captivating bride, the very picture of a wealthy lady, but only a picture, for though of noble blood, her family was as destitute as that of her new husband, though neither had thought to broach the subject before their marriage, assuming the other was indeed as rich as they portrayed themselves to be. The truth came out very soon after Jace was born; the ensuing fight was the stuff of legend, at least if you believe the tales told in after years by the aging servants, but in the end, the lady fled, leaving her infant son and husband to fend for themselves. The man looked coldly upon the boy, who was so like his mother in form and feature that he could not help but despise him. He turned his back on the child, stared stonily at the open door out which his wife had fled, and then withdrew to his own chambers. Had one of the few remaining servants not taken pity upon the poor creature, he likely would not have survived infancy.
The man seemed indifferent to the fate of his son, pretending that he did not even exist and focusing all his time, thought, and energy on his project instead, but there was no money to pay workmen or buy stone and timber, so the man had to do everything himself. Only two servants remained of the few that had fled with the family, lingering on out of faithfulness and because they had nowhere else to go, for their lord had long since ceased to pay them. The old housekeeper did the cooking, looked after the domestic side of things, and was the only mother the boy ever knew. The other was an aging guardsman who had taken on the duties of butler, valet, and jack-of-all-trades; it was he that taught the boy what little he knew of reading and more importantly, to his mind at least, the sword. The rest of the lad’s education was left to what he could glean from the few books that lay forgotten around the fortress and what the housekeeper could impart in the form of old stories as she wandered about the keep seeing to her myriad duties.
As the boy neared manhood, at last his father took a modicum of interest in him, but whether it was due to some newly realized desire for kith and kin in his fading years or because his rheumatism forced him to abandon his fortress building activities, none knew. But one day the master of the ruin summoned the lad into his chambers, where he sat in relative splendor in a fraying robe with a moth-eaten velvet chair for a throne. Upon the lad’s entrance, the man studied him as he might a horse he had a mind to buy. After several minutes of dreadful silence, the man said at last, “what do they call you boy?”
The lad blinked in surprise that his father did not even know his name, but his servile foster parents had taught him courtesy, if little else, said he with a proper bow, “I am called Jace, sir.”
The man nodded as if it were of no matter and continued, “very well boy, they say you are my son, a claim I cannot verify yet neither can I fully deny it. In either case, it is high time you started to earn your keep around here. My father had a vision that this castle would one day tower over the surrounding countryside and herein would his descendants be safe from war, plague, and the like, nevermore to be driven like refugees from that which was rightfully our own. This is all my purpose and destiny and it shall be yours, whether you like it or not. You will take up where I have left off: cutting timber, collecting stone, using it to finish what my father began, well?”
The boy gaped, was this to be all his future? A slave to another man’s futile dream?
The man shook his head sadly, “I see you are not a man of vision, like unto mine, a pity, for I think it proves that you are not my son after all. I will give you the afternoon to ponder your future, either submit yourself to my father’s dream and fulfill your true purpose in this life or get you gone from here, never to return.” The boy gave a perfect bow and vanished from the room, fleeing to the battlements to mull over his future, whatever it might be.
Night was falling and still he had found no sensible reply for the grim man waiting impatiently in his chambers below, prematurely aged by labor, sorrow, and unrestrained ambition. Jace glanced uneasily out upon the darkening world, could he truly find a life out there in the world that had forsaken his family, from whose stock had sprung his faithless mother? Yet he knew he could not remain forever a slave to his grandfather’s dream as his father had ever been. What was he to do? Where was he to go? The outside world terrified him, but could he live on for countless years in futile toil? He wanted to scream or weep and came very close to doing both, but his reeling thoughts were interrupted by a stooping ghost that loomed out of the darkness before him.
Came the gruff but concerned voice of the guardsman, “what troubles thee lad? The master sent me to find ye, he is impatient for yer answer.”
The boy glanced silently out into the darkness and the man nodded in grave understanding, “aye, it is a hard choice, but no choice at all I think. This cursed place has consumed two generations of yer family lad, don’t be a fool and make it three. Whatever horrors lay without, they can be nothing to what lurks herein.”
The boy nodded his silent thanks and then went to find his father, knowing the man had spoken truly. He knocked timidly upon the door and entered upon the gruff command to do so. He found his father standing before the hearth, staring into the flames, his hands clasped at his back; he did not turn around or even look at the boy, said he, “a harlot’s son, through and through, cannot even stay on to succor an aging wreck of a man in his failing years, the selfish, selfish wretch.” Suddenly the man turned, his anger giving him strength and speed that years of hard labor had stolen, he took up an iron poker that lay to hand and his eyes seemed to blaze with the light of the fire at his back, snarled he, hefting the poker aloft, “Out! Out! Get out, you insolent oaf!”
The boy knew the man was in earnest and half out of his mind besides, lingering not a moment longer, he turned and fled the chamber and hied himself that moment from the crumbling keep. The housekeeper and guardsman watched him flee with sad eyes, shook their heads in dismay, but had known for many a year that there could be no other end to the tale, but at least this wretched fortress would not utterly consume the boy as it had his forbears, what the outside world might do to him was another matter entirely.
Jace fled with only the clothes on his back, packing was of little matter as he was currently wearing everything he possessed. His only thought was to escape the broken dreams and empty years that lay behind with no concern for what the morrow might hold, for he knew nothing of purpose, joy, peace, hope, or comfort. His world was as cold and lonely as the fortress he had just fled. A miserable drizzle began to fall not long after his flight, forcing him to seek what shelter he could beneath a clump of spruce trees that seemed to huddle together for comfort amid the cold, wet dark. Every fiber of Jace’s being cried out to do the same, but one cannot comfortably cuddle with a conifer so there was nothing left to be done but cry himself to sleep.
A wan shaft of sunlight filtered down through the clouds and pierced the fastness of the boy’s retreat, bringing him blinkingly awake. He sighed heavily as he gained his feet, seeing no reason to go on save that he was too anxious and grieved of heart to sit still. So off he went into the dawning, grateful that the rain had stopped and that he could now see whither he fled. Which got him to wondering where exactly he was to go. He knew nothing of the outside world, save for forays with the guardsman into the surrounding forest to collect wood or to hunt. He had never even seen a farmer’s cot, let alone a village. He had heard the housekeeper mention a city once, a concept he could not quite comprehend, but he was not sure he wanted to venture thither, for she had spoken of it in hushed tones one night with the guardsman as they sat before the kitchen fire, certain the lad was abed and not hiding in the doorway, listening in horrified fascination as she described the demon-worshippers that dwelt therein and the horrid practices with which they maintained their uncanny powers.
He smiled grimly to himself, pondering what was best to be done, as his feet followed a game trail seemingly of their own accord, so little did he notice or care whither his path led. He could wander out into the wilderness and undoubtedly die of exposure or starvation during the coming winter or he could find this city and see if the housekeeper’s awful tales were even half true. It might be death either way, but at least he could discover what a city was ere the end. With this grim acceptance, did he suddenly step out of the surrounding woods and look upon a great swath of cultivated land, dotted with farmhouses and well-tended copses, and in the distance loomed the infamous city. He had inherited a little of his father’s ambition, so with a grim smile pasted on his face did he set out in quest of what could only be his doom.
His smile became incongruous as his journey progressed in a rather anticlimactic fashion, for though he had prepared himself for sights grim and terrible, the countryside was rather picturesque and the few folk he observed in passing seemed as sensible and down-to-earth as either the guardsman or the housekeeper. He consoled himself with the thought that of course the commonfolk would be of similar disposition to the menials with which he was acquainted, it was only their fell masters that would be workers of such foul magicks. He hastened his steps to discover this inevitability for himself but was again sorely disappointed. He soon found himself in a veritable flood of humanity headed for the city to conduct the day’s business. People at first trickled in from the outlying farms and villages but soon converged upon the main road leading into the city.
Jace gazed about him in wonder, never having imagined there could be so many people upon the face of the earth, let alone upon one certain stretch of road. The houses and shops that began to line the way were also strange to his eyes and he goggled like the yokel he was; some of the more world-weary passersby about him smiled in welcome amusement at the lad’s befuddlement, for a moment remembering their own forgotten youth. A veritable city had grown up around the walls of the original settlement and many of Jace’s fellow travelers vanished into the labyrinthine streets and alleys upon their own errands, but most continued on through the gates, few even glancing at the guards who stood silent watch at the gates and upon the walls, but the boy froze in fascinated terror. His sudden halt brought a few complaints and jostles from those nearest him, but they shoved around him and continued on their way, some giving him a meaningful glare but most shaking their heads in vast amusement.
So too did those fell warriors eye the boy with smiles that never broke the stony facade of their faces. But as more and more people pushed by the lad and entered the gates unscathed, he drew a deep breath and pressed ever onwards into the heart of a city inhabited by sorcerers and worse, though strangely, none of the folk about him seemed overly concerned about their impending doom. He was drawn inexorably to the center of the city where a great castle towered over everything. For a long time he stood as one transfixed, staring up and up and up at the edifice that soared above him. A rueful smile split his lips, for even had he and his descendants ten generations hence worked ceaselessly, never could they hope to make anything like this of that horrid fortress. And thence lay his doom. At last, he gathered his courage and set forth upon the last leg of his final journey, thinking it quite a heroic effort on his part and not a little disappointed that there was not a bard or poet at hand to record the tale. Most of his erstwhile companions had vanished long ago into the city proper and left the bumpkin to stare as he would. So it was that he came to the castle gates and found himself very much alone with a whole host of those grim faced guards just waiting to make a gory end of him. Where was a poet when you needed one?
He stood awkwardly out of the way, studying those who guarded the gates and those who came and went upon their own errands, not finding anything too sinister in any of it. Again rather disappointed, the lad at last made his own approach, knowing his courage was hanging by a thread. His first attempt at speaking failed dismally with the guard looking at him in perplexity and what might, to Jace’s horrified mind, be pity!
But the guard saved him from further embarrassment and possible flight by asking, “what can I do for you lad?” He actually smiled, “you need not be so terrified, you are quite safe within the confines of Astoria.”
The boy blinked in utter astonishment, could this fearsome warrior truly be speaking to him, and with kindness? Demon-worshippers indeed! Said he at last, a quaver in his voice, “I am in desperate straits, sir, but well know that there is little hope for one such as I in this cold, indifferent world.”
The guard nodded in understanding and said gently, “aye lad, many come hither with just such a tale, but take heart, for we shall do all we can to remedy your plight, whatever it be.” Jace looked near to fainting with hunger and astonishment, as the man motioned for a servant standing within the courtyard to take charge of the flummoxed lad and see to his comfort. The servant smiled in amusement, having done the same a thousand times before, and easily guided the gaping boy into the castle proper, leaving the guard to speak with the next person awaiting his attention.
At last Jace collected his wits enough to comprehend what the servant was saying, “the morning meal has just finished, but I can bring you something once you are settled.” He studied the lad’s ragged attire that was more patches than original cloth and smiled wryly, “and I’ll see to your wardrobe as well. Have you come to study then?”
Jace froze and studied the man as if he had asked if his father were a toad, said he in astonishment, “study? You must know I could little afford such a luxury!”
The servant grinned, “I suppose it is priceless at that, but come lad, anyone is free to study in Astoria and all the Lady asks is that you abide by her rules whilst you reside in the city.”
The boy gaped anew, but a smile danced in his eyes, said he with an incredulous grin, “then I will certainly take you up on that offer, sir.” The servant nodded as if it were simple sense and they continued on their way.
He stopped before a door at the end of a long corridor and said, “you can sleep here for now, this room is currently unoccupied but if you stay very long, you will undoubtedly find yourself with roommates rather soon. I’ll see about finding you something to eat and some appropriate attire.” He smiled broadly as he turned to go, “welcome to Astoria!”
The boy stared wistfully after the retreating form for a moment and then curiously opened the door and entered the room. Glancing about at the small but comfortable chamber, he laughed aloud and said, “demon worshippers indeed!”
“How dreadful!” came a startled and unfamiliar voice.
Jace turned around in surprise to find a girl about his own age, or at least so he assumed, not having much experience in such matters, peeping round the door, a broom forgotten in one hand. She squeaked in dismay, “forgive me, I was just sweeping the hall when I heard your outburst and just had to investigate.” She blushed crimson at her own unseemly outburst and though she colored further, pressed on, “can you tell me more about these demon worshippers?”
Jace was not sure whether he was more startled, annoyed, or amused by this perplexing creature, but said as calmly as he could, “I haven’t much to tell, for I was only laughing at the incongruity of this place with a description I once heard of it. The old woman was convinced this place was naught but a den of such villains, but I have yet to find them, should they exist.”
Briane laughed excitedly, clasping her hands like a little girl, “oh, you will have to look long and hard to find such in Astoria. I have been here all my life and have never heard of such goings on.”
Jace smiled wryly at his previous eagerness, “so there isn’t anyone in Astoria possessed of uncanny abilities as my unenlightened source assumed?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” came the voice of the returning servant. He gave the girl a patient look, “have you not things to be about?” She squeaked again, dropped a curtsy, and disappeared round the corner with a death grip on her broom. The servant shook his head and smiled ruefully, “the silly girl spends more time eavesdropping than attending to her chores; more curiosity than a cat, has that one.”
Jace was gaping again, but the servant ignored him and thrust a pile of clothes and a tray of food into his hands, saying as he did so, “as promised, here is your breakfast and a change of clothes. If you hurry, you can just make it to the next class session. You’ll have an official schedule soon, but until then you had best tag alone with some of the other Students.” He smiled impishly, “and as to your unasked question, you’ll soon discover the answers for yourself if you pay attention in class.” He nodded at the boy and vanished about his interrupted errands.
Jace shook himself, frowned in consternation at the servant’s retreating back, and then hastily changed his clothes and wolfed down the food, both from hunger and eager to begin his education. Only then did he realize he was alone in an unfamiliar castle with no idea where to find said classes. He shrugged, smiled as his audacity reared its head once more, and dashed down the hall in search of a class or an adventure, whichever came first.
He nearly collided with a pair of slightly older boys as he came careening around the corner, determined not to be late. Suddenly ill at ease, Jace muttered his apologies and stared at his feet. One of the older lads must have heard, ‘new here,’ amongst Jace’s mumbling for he cheerily replied, “don’t worry about it! Come with us and we’ll help you get settled.”
The boy stared up in astonishment, gaping yet again, stuttered he, “how can this be? How can you be bothered with helping me? I don’t understand?”
The older pair exchanged a grin, then Adan, the lad who had spoken, clapped the younger boy on the back and smiled, “it seems you have much to learn about life in Astoria. Wherever you came from, it must have been a rough life. But come, else we’ll be late.” Jace smiled at his reassuring words and then blanched in near panic at the thought of being the cause of their tardiness. The older pair shook their heads in amusement but all three hastened off to class.
Jace remembered little of that first lesson, so overwhelmed was he with all that had happened in the last day and all the novel sights and experiences he had taken in. His erstwhile guides were assigned chores in the stable the following hour, which allowed the overwrought Jace some much needed time to sit and think while his companions shoveled muck. The midday meal offered another course of novelty and wonder to Jace’s abused sensibilities, never in his life had he been amidst so many people, and most astonishingly of all, though complete strangers, they actually seemed to care about him. Another round of classes was set for the afternoon, but Jace felt he needed some time alone to sort everything out, and perhaps even a nap after his difficult night. He goggled, less than a full day had passed since his father had cast him out, alone in the night. Adan nodded his understanding and showed him back to the corridor that housed his room, and though he valiantly intended to contemplate upon all that had happened, he fell promptly and soundly asleep.
A ruckus in the hall wakened the boy as the eager Students returned to their rooms after their last class before going to the evening meal. Jace glanced blearily about, wondering for a moment where he was, but suddenly realization dawned and a great smile lit his face. He had come home at last. He adjusted his rumpled clothing, grateful it was not too wrinkled from his nap and ran a hand through his hair, it would do, then dashed excitedly from the room, again nearly colliding with Adan, who smiled roguishly at the boy and hoped such behavior was not becoming a habit. Said the elder lad with a grin, “it is good to see you so refreshed, you looked rather stunned when we parted and I know you learned nothing in class today, but it seems there is hope for you yet.”
Jace smiled ruefully, “it has been quite a day.” He glanced hopefully in the direction of the dining hall, even after so short a stay he had become very much accustomed to being fed regularly and well, which was an unlikely occurrence in his former life, said he, “and I’d be happy to tell you all the tale over the evening meal, that is if you care to hear it.”
Adan laughed outright, “aye, it must be quite a story indeed, but fear not, there shall be plenty of food to go around.”
Jace colored and began studying his boots, abashed that his greatest desire at the moment was so blatantly obvious. Adan glanced at said boots as well and frowned, “but first we had best stop by the supply room and find you a decent pair of boots.”
Jace looked up suddenly in surprise, would the miracles in this place never cease? He had never owned a decent pair of boots, this particular pair had been worn by his father when he fled his homeland, ages ago! Adan smiled warmly at the look of grateful astonishment in the lad’s eyes and led the way, eager to see the wish fulfilled. The servant in charge of the supply room at that hour took one look at the antique footwear, turned away with a disgusted groan, and vanished into the storage area, reappearing with a worn, but quite serviceable pair of boots that actually fit the agape lad. Rather pleased with himself, the servant smiled smugly and reluctantly took the ancient boots in exchange, his countenance taking on an unruly expression as he did so, their fate remains a mystery to this day but judging from his face, it was not a pleasant one.
As they walked to the dining hall, Jace remarked with an awe tinged voice, “I have never encountered such generosity, not even from my own folk!”
Adan shook his head, his eyes sparkling, “you’ve seen nothing yet, all we’ve done this day is see you properly clothed and fed.”
Jace froze mid-step and faced his companion, “there’s more?!”
Adan clapped him on the shoulder and smiled, “aye, more than you can begin to imagine.” They continued on, Jace speechless in incomprehension.
As they sat at table, finishing their food, Jace told his tale, much to the horror and astonishment of Adan and his friends who had joined them for supper. No wonder the boy was so grateful for the least bit of kindness or attention! Adan said at last, “so that is the tale behind that ugly heap of rocks up river? Long have we theorized amongst ourselves about who or what had built it, or rather begun it, and why. It is a grim enough story in its own right.” He smiled ruefully, “though nowhere near as horrific as some of the tales we’ve birthed.”
The others shared a wry laugh and eyed their companion with both pity and wonder, Jace awkwardly studied his peas, uneasy being the focus of such attention. Adan continued, more to distract his companions away from their study of the abashed boy than for anything else, “well, this is the place to start over or start anew, if that is your wish. Any idea what you want to do with your life?”
Jace could not restrain his laugh, “it was but a day ago my father cast me out and I encountered true human society for the first time in my life, let alone human kindness. Must I already know the course of my future?”
The others joined in his mirth, forgetting how high were the expectations of their hosts and thus, inadvertently perhaps, their own. Once the laughter had subsided, Jace asked a bit timidly, still uneasy speaking his mind amongst so many strangers, “what is this place? Who founded it? How can they afford to support so many ragamuffin students with no expectation of remuneration? Is there some hidden agenda or trap, for it seems too good to be true?”
Adan smiled, “rest easy my friend, there is nothing sinister or hidden here. You may stay as long as you wish and leave likewise. The only requirement is that you do your best, be respectful of others, and follow the rules as best you can. According to legend, Astoria was founded centuries ago, near the very Beginning. The country is self-sufficient and quite prosperous in its own right, but is also supported by various Kings, Lords, and wealthy benefactors who believe in its mission or have benefited from its services themselves. They have been educating all comers since its foundations were laid.”
Jace nodded thoughtfully, “a noble cause I suppose, but who founded it and why? My experience of the world is limited, but I do not see blind philanthropy as a common trait amongst men, someone must have had a reason.”
Adan studied his companion thoughtfully, trying to gage his reaction to what was to come, said he at last, “you will learn far more in your initial classes, but the simple answer is: the Master Himself provided for the city’s founding as a home for the Brethren and those they serve.”
Jace blinked, not having imagined the so far sensible Adan to be one who believed in fairy tales, said he in consternation, “that is what the legends say?”
Adan grinned, “you are a skeptic then?”
Jace shrugged somewhat sheepishly, though he was not the one who seriously thought myth had once walked about under sun and star, “I suppose, though I know little enough of the subject, and of all else for that matter, that I should withhold judgment until I am certain.”
Adan nodded, “fair enough, but don’t worry, there is no requirement to believe a certain way to study here. Even if you hold it all to be a tall tale, there is still more wisdom to be garnered here than you’ll be able to absorb in a lifetime.”
Jace smiled in relief, “that is good to know.” He frowned thoughtfully, “I met a servant earlier who made a rather cryptic comment about certain individuals around this place having uncanny abilities, but he said I would have to wait for my classes to answer my questions in that regard. Our old housekeeper was convinced the city was inhabited by demon-worshippers, a claim I am certain is wrong, but what is the truth about this place and its denizens?”
Adan smiled in amusement at the servant’s evasiveness, he was pretty certain who it was the lad had met, but he said, “the Brethren are purported to have certain gifts given to them in their service to the Master, you will learn far more in days to come if you want specifics, but there is nothing evil in the mix. Uncanny yes, miraculous certainly, but not demonic.” He smiled impishly, “how is it you can believe in demons but not the Master?”
Jace frowned at the thought and then smiled ironically, “that is an incongruous thought! But then, I am not sure I believe in demons either, it was just something I overheard and never gave much serious thought until I was bound hither in the dark, alone, after being cast out from all I ever knew. I guess the imagination is prone to embracing the grim and frightening with far less reluctance, especially under such circumstances, than the rational mind is in accepting the supernatural in far more congenial surroundings.”
Adan smiled broadly, “my friend, you have come to the right place, for yours is a mind quick and ready to absorb all available wisdom and knowledge, and here you will undoubtedly find ample fodder for thought.”
They continued their conversation upon more general topics, for which Jace was thankful, little liking being the center of attention when he was so little used to it; so absorbed was he in all that was said that he did not notice Briane sitting on the edge of the group, studying him with sparkling eyes and a knowing half-smile upon her lips.
Adan saw him back to his quarters after the meal, for even with his nap, Jace was exhausted though sorely disappointed not to be able to participate in the games and conversations held amongst the students that evening, but such was the ritual every night, so he consoled himself with the thought that there was always tomorrow and many days thereafter. Yawning, he bid goodnight to his companion, and was soon asleep.
‘Over the hills and far away,’
thither lies the land of Fey,
Of wandering brook and woodland glade,
Golden meads and dappled shade.
Where evening star is guide and stay
And in the vales, mist doth play.
Dryad, pixie, gnome dwell there,
Griffons lurk and dragons lair.
Songs of old live on there still,
Legend treads on plain and hill.
Beasts that talk and trees that sing,
The poor be rich, a peasant King.
If that land, you would gain,
Take a child in your train,
Let him lead you by the hand,
And you will reach that far, fair land.
Over the Hills and Far Away
Up the airy mountains,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
William Allingham, ‘The Fairies’
Beatrice was missing, and none were fain to seek her, save her little brother, Tibbin, but could a mere child go where grown men feared to tread? Perhaps only a little child could. She had strayed up into the hills after her father’s missing sheep and none had seen her for a full three days. No one ventured into those hills, for they were known to be haunted by all manner of folk, strange and fey, and it was folly for mortals to tread thereupon. No, the girl was lost, spirited away or bewitched by some fell being, never more to be seen by mortal men under sun and star, at least not in any natural form; her family might as well accept the truth, embrace their loss, and move on with their lives, or so whispered the villagefolk. But Tibbin was not content to lose his sister thus, but loath were his parents to part with their remaining child, so did he make for those forbidden hills without their knowing or leave, save for a brief note of farewell, imparting his fate. Aghast, his parents asked of their friends and neighbors if any were willing to go after. They merely shook their heads and muttered darkly amongst themselves, who would risk their lives when the boy willingly chose his doom? It was not to be helped. The aggrieved couple went home to wait, perhaps vainly, for news of what had come of their children.
Tibbin was a child but he was not a fool, he was young but also sensible. His elders all feared the fairyfolk, mostly because they did not understand them, albeit they had little interaction with that mysterious kindred and only a few old tales, likely flawed, to rely upon for information pertaining thereunto, but they were also small-minded and superstitious, little liking anything outside their ken, which was pretty much anything and everything outside the confines of their secluded village. Tibbin was still young enough to be untainted by their blindness and prejudice; for his were the wide, unguarded eyes of childhood that saw things as they were rather than as the viewer thought them to be. He was a little leery of the fey folk, as all creatures are of the unknown, but he was not paralyzed or handicapped by unmerited terror as his elders were. Thus did he hie himself into those mysterious hills, the only hope for his sister. He took with him enough bread, cheese, and water to last him a week of hard scrabbling over rocky ground, hoping it would be enough. He took no weapons, save a little knife, which was tool rather than implement of death. With his meager rations and a stout, faithful heart did he set out upon quest great and daring.
He left at twilight when his parents thought him abed, creeping carefully out of the house and into the brushy waste behind, clambering over stones and thorny scrub by the light of a slivered moon and a few bright stars. He went as far as he could in the wan light, at least far enough that pursuit would not follow, and then laid himself down under a gorse bush to find what rest he could. An impertinent bird started trilling in said bush at an unearthly hour, wakening the stiff, cold hero into a misty world of gold and rose. He smiled despite his discomfort and drank in the beauty about him, like a connoisseur a rare and delicate wine. He stretched, breakfasted, and was soon off into the mysterious otherworldliness of dawn, feeling that his adventure was well and truly begun. His sister surely waited around the next bend in the path or just over the hill. He whistled as airily as the bird as he set forth.
His sister was not over the next hill, but a short, stocky man with a prodigious beard sat upon a stone in the thinning mist, smoking his pipe. Asked the boy of the stoic figure, “have you perchance seen or heard of a young girl roaming these hills within the last sevennight, good sir?”
The dwarfish gentleman smiled broadly at the lad’s boldness, withdrew his pipe, and exhaled thoughtfully, “aye lad, aye. Not a rabbit goes through these hills without my knowing it. How is it you have the courage to come when none of your elders would bestir themselves?”
Said the boy with a shrug, “none would come, so there was only me. Please sir, have you seen my sister?”
The man nodded sagely, “she’s taken up with a few of the pixies that haunt meadow and lea, dangerous consorts for a mortal lass.”
The boy paled, “have they harmed her or is she in great peril?”
The dwarf laughed, “aye and nay, lad, aye and nay! Those fairies are as feckless and giddy as any lass your sister’s age, but they never grow up or wiser, and neither do they age nor die. They will not hurt a mayfly or aught else, but rather delight in all that is pretty and ephemeral: flowers, butterflies, robin’s eggs, and the like. They have no use or comprehension of the greater, eternal things but are like a brook’s laugh or a dancing little wind in their seriousness and wisdom. The danger lies in the fact Time and Death mean nothing to them. Your sister, if she is not careful, may get so caught up in their whimsical nonsense that she forgets such things herself and by the time she remembers them, may find herself a very old lady with naught of life left to her. It is a tricky thing when mortals think to involve themselves in matters beyond their ken and natural sphere. Your kind is made for eternity, but must enter it through the proper door, not try to sneak in the window.”
The boy was silent for a long while as he contemplated the little man’s words, and finally said, “can I draw her back?”
The man nodded, “aye lad, if she will come, but she may be so entranced with the merriment and giddiness of her companions that she will yearn to stay. If she will not go of her own will, no power on earth or beyond it will move her. Take heed to yourself, that you not find yourself also caught up in things beyond your natural sphere. Someday perhaps, such or rather far greater shall be your lot, but do not be tempted into seizing it ere it is time for only trouble will come of it.” The boy heartily thanked the old man and hastened in the direction he was bidden. The dwarf watched after and wondered what would come of the lad and his sister, silently shaking his head at the recklessness and abandon of those silly pixies and the inadvertent havoc it could wreak upon a mortal creature.
Tibbin had not gone far when he spied a rather curious creature crouching in the shade of a great oak. It appeared to be a lad his own age, but his full height would only reach his father’s knee; he was light of build, eye, and hair and his ears were slightly tapered. He winked at the staring boy, motioned eagerly for the lad to follow, and vanished into the hedge of roses at the base of the tree. Tibbin took two happy steps after the fairy creature but then froze, his quest was his sister, not to be caught up in a fate like unto hers. He sighed heavily but turned staunchly back upon his original path and intent. The little creature watched after, for a moment a little disappointed, but then some other amusement soon caught his attention and his lost companion was immediately forgotten.
By the time the sun was on its downward journey, Tibbin had come to the little meadow wherein the dwarf said his sister and her merry companions might be found on occasion. He settled down in a thicket of young birches to await their coming. Neither was the wait to be tedious, dull, or lonely. The world, in itself, was young, spry, pleasant, and full of the wonders of spring, but those hills were haunted by all manner of folk and creature unknown to the children of men, and in this varied parade, Tibbin found endless marvel and interest. Most ignored him, some were openly scornful, and a few asked him to follow in their merry wake, but ever he sat and awaited the coming of Beatrice and her fairy companions. So did he wait for three full days, eating from his scant provisions and refreshing himself in the ever singing brook by which he sat, finally on a night of mist and moon and starlight, five bright figures came laughing and dancing into the water meadow, Beatrice as radiant and blithe as her companions.
Tibbin rose from his place with a joyous shout and for a moment the pixies quivered like frightened birds, but soon they arrayed themselves about him in a merry dance of welcome and curiosity. Beatrice at first did not know him, but as his song joined in their lilting chorus, his well loved voice broke the thrall about her and she joyously left her place in the circle and flew into her brother’s arms with tears of unspeakable longing and delight. The piping and cavorting of the fairies increased tenfold at such mirth and delightedly did they share therein, but soon they tired of the newcomer and were rather perplexed and no little troubled by the strange sobbing that now wracked their once gay companion. For nothing did they know of sorrow or death. With a merry call, did they bid Beatrice to flit off with them anew, careless once more, but she smiled sadly, wiped a mysterious moisture from her eyes and cheek, and shook her head adamantly. The pixies shrugged indifferently and capered off into the creeping mist to join the dance of the fireflies, their companion utterly forgotten. Beatrice shook her head ruefully, took Tibbin’s hand, and returned to his place amongst the birches. They slept soundly until roused by the zealous chorus of a morning in spring. Hand in hand, they left that lovely meadow and turned their steps and hearts longingly towards home.
They met the little man, still sitting on his accustomed stone and smoking his pipe, perhaps as he had done since the first morning of the world. He smiled joyously at them, waved enthusiastically, and then vanished. They shared a mystified smile and continued on their way. They might have slept another night in the bush but knew their parents were mourning their presumed fate and were eager to turn their weeping to joy. So it was that joy came with the morning. Their father stood aback the house, staring morbidly off into the hills and thought himself in a delirium when he glimpsed his lost children walking blithely back from the land of things forgotten and unknown. He trumpeted his wonder and joy so loudly that the entire village was roused. His wife came disbelieving from the house, took one look at what had so disquieted her husband, and added her own shriek of pure joy to the cacophony of laughing welcome and wonder.
The grim eyed, fretful villagers gathered round the happy little foursome and muttered darkly about curses, possession, and worse. A few even clutched a kitchen knife, pitchfork, or wood axe in nervous dread. The now grave father stood forth and asked of his disturbed folk, “my children have returned unscathed, why do you not rejoice?”
Said one distrustful old man, “who are you to say they are unscathed? Who knows what terrible curse might have been laid upon them? None venture into those hills and returns unchanged, if they return at all. They are a threat and a danger to us all as long as they remain among us. Send them back or send them away lest evil befall us all, else we will take matters into our own hands.”
The man shook his head in grim disgust, but before he could reply to this nonsense, Tibbin took his hand, looked gently into his eyes, and said with a wisdom far beyond his years, “heed him not father, he knows not of what he speaks and no words of yours will change his mind.” Unchanged indeed! The man smiled down at this young sage, caught the eyes of all his dear ones, and then looked once more upon those mysterious hills. A brilliant flicker of gold and white upon a far hill, like a distant star, filled all his vision and called bewitchingly to his very soul. Said Tibbin with tremulous, but joyous finality, “come, come away!” He took his father’s hand, his mother and sister joined theirs also, and the entire family boldly made for that distant vision, the flummoxed villagers parting before them like water around the bow of a boat. They vanished into those wondrous hills and were seen in that village no more. Many and dark were the rumors of the witchery that had taken an entire clan and the grim fate that had undoubtedly befallen them, but I can assure you, they were all of them wrong.
The screams of horses and men filled the evening air with a chaos and horror ill-suited to the loveliness and quiet of the fading day. Two of the beasts faded away as they fell dead and the third trapped his master beneath his prone form. The trapped rider was himself uninjured save perhaps in the fall but several arrows had embedded themselves in his two companions and their fallen mounts; of the two, one lay unmoving and was likely dead, the other moved feebly but hope dawned as he caught the trapped man’s eye. They stared at one another for a moment, the one with growing hope and the other with a rising fear. The crunch of oncoming feet suddenly drew their attention as their foes approached. His eyes pleading for help, the arrow stricken man suddenly threw some small object into the distant brush and glanced significantly from the now hidden object to his trapped companion whose eyes held reluctance and fear, but a minimal nod of his head brought the shadow of a smile to the stricken man’s face before their enemies were upon them. A small band of vile looking men emerged from their ambush and looked about in delight at the carnage they had wrought. One of them turned over the unmoving man to reveal that nothing remained but a corpse.
Another approached the hopeful man and called out, “this one’s alive and should suit our purposes well enough. Be done with him.” One of the more vile of the company smiled in cruel anticipation, drew his sword as he approached, and finished that which the arrows had begun. His eyes widened momentarily in pain and then stared blankly as the sword was withdrawn from his unmoving chest. The whole group of them then approached the sole survivor yet trapped beneath his dead horse.
Said the leader of the repulsive band, “are you one of the Brethren then?”
The trapped man laughed mirthlessly, “I am simply an ill-fated poet who hoped to write the tale of some great heroic effort but alas, all I shall ever write is a lament to the foolishness of heroic quests if ever I write anything again.”
“Yes or no,” snarled the leader.
The poet winced at his tone and said, “I am not one of that fellowship.”
The man grinned cruelly and asked, “then why do you ride with them?”
Taking on a professional air the poet said, “as I have already related I hoped to write a firsthand account of whatever adventure my late companions hoped to accomplish. I fell in with them not quite a week ago.”
“You know nothing of their mission?” queried the leader in some amazement.
The poet sighed, “I only knew they were bound for Kyra on some desperate quest; I do not think even they knew their appointed task but hoped to find some contact upon our arrival.”
The sinister man said, “how were they to make contact?”
The poet shrugged, “they took that secret to the grave.”
The leader did not seem pleased, “then I have no further use for you.” The poet nodded grimly as the sword was raised again but the leader suddenly laughed, “I however like the idea of a lament against all for which the Brethren stand. I will spare your life poet but only for the promise of your work. Write well, for if you do not it might well be the last thing you do. Search them and their luggage, then we ride for Kyra.” The despots ransacked the living and the dead, but found nothing of interest. They vanished as quickly as they had come, leaving the trapped poet to somehow extract himself from beneath the dead horse. He painfully managed to pull himself from beneath his ill-fated mount, searched the vegetation concealing whatever it was his companion had hoped to hide, and finally discovered a small blue crystal cut in the shape of a star suspended from a satin ribbon of deepest blue. He looked over the trinket and wondered to whom it might belong and how he was to discover its keeper and his destiny.
He sighed, he was no hero. He sat heavily down upon the dead horse thinking about what had transpired in the last week to so utterly upset the course of his life. He had been a wandering poet who roamed from place to place and entertained as he could to keep his stomach full and a roof over his head. The commonfolk seemed to appreciate his efforts, at least enough that he did not starve. A week gone, the two adventurers had stumbled into the same inn where he was holding forth with his familiar evening oratory. They had listened appreciatively and once the night’s entertainment was finished, invited him over to their table for a mug of ale and some much needed conversation. They had struck up a lively conversation, all three being of a quick and learned mind, and had stayed up long past the time all sensible men were in bed. He had asked after their own travels and their tales amused and amazed him. Whether it was the late hour or the wine, the poet never knew but he soon found himself asking if he might not accompany them on their adventure. They exchanged a curious look and finally agreed that he could come, but that there might come a time when they might suddenly have to part company. There was some hint of imminent danger and intrigue, but then no story was complete without such so the poet readily agreed.
So it was that he found himself riding with them to the Southern Realms towards the kingdom of Kyra whose monarchy was suddenly in disarray and from whence had come a desperate note and the trinket that he now held in his hand. No one knew who had sent it, but only that it must be presented to the guards at the castle gates in the great city of Yorka. The owner claimed that the very fate of the country might rest upon this quest and help was needed soon. Kipril shuddered, wondering what strange adventure he had now become a participant in. He looked upon his dead companions and his silent promise to the dying man echoed in his mind. He had ever been an observer of life, a recorder of its wonders and perils, never a participant and now it had been thrust upon him. He was ill-suited to such an adventure not having wielded a sword since his youth and then only poorly, but there was no one else to whom this adventure could fall. He must at least attempt it, if only for the sake of the imperiled people of Kyra. He sighed heavily, stood, and began to salvage what he could from the wreckage. He filled his saddlebags with food and supplies, took up his bow, and then glanced at his fallen companion’s sword. He was perhaps not as skilled with the weapon as some, but it might be useful in his quest. Almost reverently, he took up the weapon for which his companion had no more mortal use. In the gathering dark, he took the road and hoped to put many miles between himself and the sorrow behind him.
Kipril awoke early and crawled from the small dell in which he had taken shelter for the night. He walked as fast and as far as he could that day, knowing full well that his quest was a hopeless one unless he soon acquired some swifter form of transportation. Evening was falling and the lights of an inn ahead drew his weary gaze. He felt that hope waited within, even if it were nothing more than an hour’s repose from the weary and lonely road he walked. He took a seat, ordered a mug of a nameless brew, and glanced about at his fellow patrons. He saw nothing but farmers and merchants until his eyes fell upon a young woman just entering the inn. She was well dressed and moved like a cat, making him wonder if she were not some minor noble’s daughter set out in search of adventure. Perhaps here was a chance to fob this foolish quest off upon someone else. She caught his gaze and curiosity drew her to the stranger’s table. He bought her a mug of his own nameless ale and she asked, “whither is your road sir and what quest lays at its end?”
He laughed in spite of himself and said, “it seems I am not the only lonely adventurer upon the road. I am currently walking to Kyra as my mount and companions have fallen upon the way but I shall not make it in time at the pace I currently set. What of you fair lady?”
She smiled at his words and said, “I too am upon a noble quest though perhaps one far less dire. I ride for fabled Astoria and seek there to join the Brethren. Are you perhaps one of those storied knights who has ridden forth in noble pursuit?”
Kipril could not help but laugh, “lady, I am simply a wandering poet that has had unwanted adventure thrust upon him for there is none else to carry on the task which my late companions had begun. They were of that noble calling but alas they have fallen by the way.”
She smiled curiously and said, “then at least your quest is a vital one and perhaps your heart nobler than you know. Perhaps I can aid those I hope to be my benefactors ere I ride to their country. If walking is too slow a pace, then let me lend you a horse upon the way.”
Kipril smiled gratefully and said, “that would be a great ease to my journey but I am still unworthy of this task. I have a borrowed sword but little skill with it. Could I beg your aid as well for I see you are not yourself unarmed?”
She smiled gaily at him and said, “I was afraid you would turn me away for I am a woman, but I shall joyfully aid your task. What is it we must do?”
Kipril laughed, “I know almost as little as you but I shall gladly accept your company. I have only a token to show at the gates of the castle and there our adventure may perhaps begin.”
Alia soon told her story of how her father, a minor noble, had given her the choice of a loveless marriage or taking her small inheritance and forever leaving his presence. She would not doom herself to such a grim fate and thus took her pittance and left behind all that she knew and loved. She had heard many strange tales of the Brethren in her youth and set out in search of the mysterious adventurers of song and story. She was eager to take part in a story of her own, even before ever she reached Astoria.
By common agreement they were saddled and upon the road ere the sun was up and it was not many days before their hurried pace brought them within the borders of Kyra and soon to the castle in the midst of the bustling city of Yorka. Kipril left Alia at an inn in the city that he might approach the gates alone. If he should not return, she was to make her own careful inquiries and if he discovered the nature of their adventure, he would swiftly return to tell the tale. Both knew well the cost of this errand might well be their lives, but Kipril pressed on out of duty and Alia in hopes of righting some wrong. The streets of Yorka were abuzz with the recent demise of the King in a hunting accident, the ascension of his brother to the throne, and the impending birth of the late King’s child and hoped for heir. What part the dark men would play in the matter was yet to be seen. Kipril approached the castle gates and proffered the charm to the guards posted there. They eyed the trinket with some curiosity but could not decide if the man was trying to sell it or simply asking after its owner.
A servant stationed nearby however gasped and said, “this man must immediately accompany me.” The guards glanced in wonder at the man who had silently stood watch for so many days and now finally spoke. They nodded grudgingly, but this was a personal servant to the Queen and not to be questioned nor gainsaid. They let the man pass and the servant led him deep into the castle to the private chambers whence the Queen had withdrawn to mourn her husband and await the birth of her child. It was she that had sent the urgent message and who now desperately awaited its answer.
Kipril was amazed to be presented before so distinguished a personage and was speechless for a moment as he made his bows. She smiled deeply and a glint of hope shone in her troubled eyes as she said, “so the Lady has sent my savior at last.”
Kipril blushed crimson and studied his feet saying, “I am no hero lady but a simple wanderer who has taken up a quest whose true heroes have already fallen in its course. I will do what I can, but I am no warrior but a poet.”
She nodded sadly and said, “then to you my brave poet will the duty fall. This then is my plea: if a male child should be born, to Astoria you must bear the infant in safety and secrecy, there to await the day when he can challenge his uncle for the throne of Kyra. For only a man can sit upon Kyra’s throne and this child is the only one with a rightful claim save my brother-in-law who has already taken the title of King upon himself. He was ever jealous of my husband and his demise was no accident though such is claimed, and if an heir should be born my son will not live long past his birth. But should a girl child be born, she is no threat to his rule and we may depart in peace to my family’s estates and he is forever free to rule Kyra as he sees fit.”
“When is the child due?” asked Kipril awkwardly.
She smiled and said, “any day. I had hoped for your arrival sooner due to the legendary swiftness of unicorns but alas your mounts are mortal horses.” As if in answer to his question a wince of pain crossed her face as she said, “perhaps even today!” The Queen winced again as she said, “I think that you arrived only just in time. Tonight will reveal whether your quest is a vain one.”
Her ladies escorted her to her chambers, the midwife was fetched, and Kipril was left in the sitting room with a silent servant. The night passed slowly and only occasional sounds of pain and frustration came from the adjoining room to break the silent vigil. Finally the unmistakable cry of an infant was heard and not long after it was repeated. The midwife rushed out all in a flutter and beckoned in the man who had waited so long; the Queen wished to see him without delay. He made a rather flustered bow and she smiled tiredly at his discomfiture. She said, “twins!” He looked at her in anticipation as she continued, “a boy and a girl, of course the boy’s birth shall remain an absolute secret and you shall bear him to safety until the appointed time. Are you ready to ride?”
He said, “I need only fetch my confederate and my luggage from a nearby inn and then we shall leave at once.”
“Confederate?” asked the Queen.
Kipril said, “a young woman I met by chance upon the way who was on her way to Astoria and agreed to this slight detour.”
The Queen smiled, “excellent, a man traveling with an infant would arouse suspicion. I do not think your encounter chance young man. Why did she not accompany you?”
Kipril said, “this mad adventure has already cost two men their lives. I was concerned about pursuit and did not want both of us to fall afoul of some unknown foe ere we knew our errand. She remained behind in case something happened to me.”
The Queen said, “you have acted wisely. Return to your inn, pack your things, and come to the small gate the servant shall show you as quickly as you can. Haste will ensure secrecy.”
He bowed again, met the servant in the adjoining room, and followed him on a twisting path out of the castle. They emerged in a dark alley and the small door shut silently behind Kipril as he dashed off in search of his inn. He had just stepped out into the main street abutting the alley when he felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. He clutched at the wound as his knees buckled and he fell to the ground in agony; the air was filled with strangely familiar and sinister laughter. The dark voice said, “I told you to leave well enough alone boy! This is the price of meddling in business not your own. Who did you meet within the castle and to what purpose?”
“That I shall never tell,” groaned the stricken man.
“We shall see,” snarled the sinister voice as the man dashed off to investigate where the meddler had been.
Kipril struggled to his feet, holding his hand to his wounded side; he dashed off in a stumbling run towards the inn. Alia gasped when she saw who the ashen faced man was who nearly fainted as he entered the door of the inn. She had been speaking quietly with a man in the uniform of the Brethren. Both ran to aid the injured man on the verge of collapse. “What happened?” she gasped.
Kipril glanced about nervously, “we must talk quickly and privately. There is no time.” They wasted no time in helping him to sit on the edge of the bed in one of the guest rooms. Once they were alone he said, “as you know there are rumors about that the late King was murdered by his brother who made it look like a hunting accident. The Queen was concerned for the safety of her unborn child, should it be a boy and potential heir to the throne. If the child was a male, she wished one of the Brethren to carry him safely to Astoria to wait until he came of age to challenge his uncle for the throne. The Queen gave birth tonight to twins, a boy and a girl. She will withdraw quietly to her estates with the girl and waits for us to bear her son to safety. Alia, you must meet the servant at a small side gate and take the infant to Astoria.”
“What about you?” whispered she.
Kipril drew back his tunic from the wound and said grimly, “I am in no condition to travel nor do I think I shall long survive this wound. One of the men who ambushed my late companions fell upon me as I was leaving the castle. He must have seen me go in and waited for me to come out. He attacked me, questioned me, and then ran off to see what I would not tell him. He will be on the watch so you must be careful.”
The Brother spoke for the first time, “these are grim tidings indeed. I am the Lady’s Advisor to the King, or I was until the new King banished me from the castle, save for court functions, which is why I now haunt this inn. The child must reach safety at all costs. Take my mount, he will bear you swiftly and safely to Astoria.”
Alia’s eyes were wide, “me ride a unicorn?”
The man nodded grimly, “I cannot accompany you for I am needed here and neither is your friend in any condition for such an adventure. It must be you. Go, and may the Master ride with you.” She nodded grimly, bid farewell to her companions, and dashed from the room.
“Will she make it do you think?” asked Kipril of the other man. He only shook his head in wonder and helped make the stricken man as comfortable as he could.
Alia rode swiftly towards the small gate, astonished at the speed and silence of her mount. He was reluctant to so abandon his master but he knew this task was of the utmost importance. They arrived swiftly and nearly unseen for the unicorn had draped himself in darkness. Alia knocked upon the gate, it was opened by a cautious servant, she showed the crystal star as instructed, and soon received the child into her keeping along with those things that might prove his identity at the proper time. They dashed off together into the night bound for Astoria. Not far out of the city, the unicorn stopped and whinnied in fear but his master bid him run all the harder and he could not disobey. Some time after he screamed in rage and grief but continued on his course, faithful to his master’s last command.
The dark man left his injured foe and ran off into the darkness to see from whence he had come. He could not yet gain access to the castle and could learn nothing more upon a second investigation. He dashed back to find his nemesis fled and followed quickly after. Not long after the girl had left, the dark man burst through the window of the room in which his quarry lay helpless upon the bed. He had not expected to find one of the Brethren within, but all the better. The two men whirled about in a dance of death and steel while Kipril watched wide-eyed from the bed. The two were fairly evenly matched and it was hard to tell who had the upper hand. The dark man snarled in glee as he clipped his opponent on the shoulder and knew his victory was assured, but in his moment of triumph he dropped his guard for a brief second allowing his foe to strike a mortal blow. The man fell to the floor laughing through his pain and panted, “you think you have won but neither of you will long survive me.” He coughed a few times before succumbing to his wounds and then dissolved into an oily puddle on the floor.
The two survivors shared an astonished look and the Brother leant heavily upon the bedpost, clutching his injured shoulder and breathing heavily. Kipril asked in growing concern, “what is wrong? What did he mean you would not survive?”
The man said quietly through teeth clenched in pain, “I think there was some vile taint upon that blade of his and that it is quickly killing me. I doubt you will long survive me. That being the case, have you thought about what lies beyond death?”
Kipril stared at the man in astonishment, “you are nearer death than I and you want to talk philosophy?”
The man winced as he laughed and said, “I have no such worries but you might spend all eternity ruing these last few hours.”
Kipril frowned, “you Brethren are all fanatics on this topic. I suppose if this Master of yours does exist then I have naught to fear. I have lived a good life, or as good as any man could in my circumstances. Besides, I have gotten myself killed on his behalf, for which I think he owes me much.”
The dying man’s breathing was ragged and darkness was ever on the brink of overcoming him, but he fought against it saying, “with an attitude like that you are sure to spend an eternity apart from the Master and thus in utter darkness and despair. The Master is no man with whom you can bargain in the market place. He owes mortal man nothing. We are all rebels against his perfect way and we all justly deserve condemnation. Our best efforts are nothing to him. What can any mortal do that could impress or indebt the One who made us.”
“Then we are all doomed?” asked the skeptical Kipril.
The man was fading fast but said, “the price of rebellion is death, but the Master took that penalty upon himself to spare us if only we will accept his sacrifice on our behalf. He need not have known death, but he suffered death for us.”
“What must I do?” asked the stunned Kipril.
With his last breath the man said, “believe, trust, and give yourself utterly to him.” He toppled over and moved no more, leaving Kipril alone to contemplate eternity.
These Brethren were mad, absolutely mad! He had now seen three of them die for no good cause. Could they be right? In all the excitement he had forgotten about his own wound and now remembrance came crashing agonizingly back to the front of his mind. He was deathly weak and each breath became more and more a struggle. He glanced desperately at the dead man and idly wondered how long before he himself was naught but a corpse. His mind returned to those uneasy things of which the dying man had spoken. All his life he had heard the tales of the Master but had never felt inclined to think of them as more than just stories. What if there was something beyond humanity? Beyond death? It certainly made sense but how to know what was truly out there? He glanced again at the dead man and remembered how certain he had been even to the point of being able to proselytize upon the brink of death. Worse, his own heart seemed to tell him that here was the truth he had ignored all these years. His mind protested not wanting to admit that up until this moment perhaps his life truly had been lived in vain. The weariness deepened and darkness gnawed at the corners of his vision; the maw of eternity gaped before him and yet he wanted to protest, drag his feet, and hesitate.
Finally, the moments running out, he gasped, “I do not know you but I know I need you. Forgive my rebellion, my ignorance, and my hesitation. I have nothing to offer, but I am yours to use as you will.”
A voice like echoed thunder said quietly beside him, “I certainly shall.”
Alia rode swiftly to Astoria, her heart near to breaking for her fallen companions. The infant traveled well for one so new to the world and she wondered what hope rested upon the shoulders of one so small and innocent. The unicorn revealed his true form as they ran through the streets of Astoria that none might bar their way. The guards upon the castle gates watched curiously but allowed the strange woman to pass unhindered. It was not often that one not of the Brethren ever rode upon the back of so legendary a creature. They gaped even more to see the stranger clutching a very young child to her breast. She slid from the saddle and glanced about in near desperation, “I must see your Lady immediately concerning happenings in Kyra.”
A servant ran immediately to ask after the Lady’s availability and returned swiftly to lead the strange young woman to stand before their legendary leader. Alia told her story and presented the child and his accessories to the astonished Lady who replied, “these are certainly tragic tidings and we shall tend to the child as his mother wishes. Now what of you my dear? You who have traveled so far and risked so much; what is your part in this tale?” The infant was given into the care of a childless woman and her husband who were delighted to have such a charge. Alia was finally able to realize her goal of joining the Brethren.
The years passed and the child grew into a boy verging on manhood. For ten years, he grew up quietly at home thinking no more of himself than any other peasant’s son. At ten years of age he was allowed to go to Astoria to further his education with the renowned knowledge and teaching skills of the Brethren. At fifteen, he was convinced he wanted to become one of them. He stood before the Lady that day, nervous but hopeful to have his request granted. She looked at him quietly for a few moments and a small sadness seemed to flit through her eyes for a moment but was soon replaced with dead seriousness. She said, “Ian, I cannot grant that which you ask.”
He gaped and without thinking asked, “what have I done or not done that you will not allow me to join you?”
She smiled and said gently, “it is nothing of your doing but concerns a greater duty you must first fulfill.” He looked at her in absolute confusion as she continued, “as you are well aware, the Brethren cannot rule even a city, let alone a country save perhaps the Lady of Astoria. You cannot take your Oath because you are the rightful heir to the throne of Kyra and the time has come for you to journey thither and claim your birthright.” He looked at her as if she had gone mad.
She continued, “your father, the former King of Kyra was killed upon a hunting foray and many suspect his brother in the crime. Your uncle now rules Kyra with an iron fist and oppresses your people severely. Your father died before your birth and your mother feared for your life so sent you hence that you might grow up in safety. Your twin sister and mother yet reside upon your family estates in Kyra. Nothing is known to anyone outside the Brethren and a few faithful servants of your existence. My hope, and the hope of all Kyra, is that you return to the land of your birth and claim the throne that is rightfully yours and rule your people more justly than their current King. This is why I must deny you the Oath.”
He gaped at her and finally said, “I understand and know I must take this quest upon myself if only for the sake of the suffering Kyrans, but how am I, a mere boy to challenge a King?”
The Lady smiled warmly, “I will send several of the Brethren with you along with certain proofs of your valid claim to the throne. You must know this is a very dangerous quest; four men and two unicorns have already died in the events surrounding your birth. The King has many dangerous servants and advisors who will aid him in thwarting your efforts at all costs.”
Ian bowed deeply and said, “it is a risk I must take. What if I fail?”
The Lady smiled, “short of death I do not think you shall fail.”
He smiled weakly, “my only regret is not being able to serve you as one of the Brethren.”
She smiled warmly and said, “if you survive this ordeal and still have the interest in sixty years or so after you have passed your reign onto your children, I see no reason why you cannot yet join the Brethren.” He smiled deeply at her sincerity and wondered if his zeal could be so strong as to last six decades.
Alia and three others were dispatched to accompany the aspiring prince to Kyra. He carried with him a letter written by his mother and sealed with the royal signet ring, the crystal star charm, and his late father’s sword. It was early autumn and the weather was perfect for travel; the party made excellent progress and was soon nearing the borders of Kyra. It was at this point in their travels that Ian felt the adventure was about to begin; until now, he had been in a blissful half-dream but now was not the time for childish fancies when the fate of a nation rested upon his very inadequate shoulders. It was late afternoon and the sun had set all the world afire in shades of richest gold when a lone traveler approached the party upon the road. He drew rein and waited patiently for the party to approach.
One of the men asked as they drew nigh, “why do you bar our way stranger.”
The stranger suppressed a smile of secret amusement and said, “I do not bar your path but simply wish to join your party. I have come to aid you in your endeavors.”
The Brother laughed, “and what could you know of our errand?”
The stranger replied, “I have come to see finished the errand I began fifteen years ago.”
“And what errand would that be stranger?” asked the Brother cautiously.
The man smiled sheepishly and said, “to see a proper King restored to Kyra.”
“What part did you play in that sad tale,” asked the Brother in confusion, “I thought there were none living, save those in our party, to finish what was begun so long ago.”
“Alia can testify to my involvement,” said the man strangely.
All the while, Alia had been staring at the stranger in astonishment and could not quite believe her eyes. With his statement she said in doubt and horror, “Kipril? Is it truly you? I thought you long dead! What became of the Advisor to the King, his mount certainly felt him die.”
Kipril glanced towards the ground and then ruefully met her astonished gaze, “you know me for truly myself. Not long after you left, my attacker came to finish me only to find me not alone. They fought, the sinister man was killed, and my valiant protector did not long survive him. I was on the brink of death when I finally realized sense and surrendered my life, failing as it was, to the Master. The Master himself was in that room and took me at my word. He healed my wound and set me immediately upon this task. To you it has been fifteen years; to me it has been only a few minutes! I do not know what shall become of me once all is ended. I may perhaps live on for years or I might fall to dust the moment the King is crowned. At least my life will not have been lived completely in vain.”
The little company stared at him in astonishment, but the Brethren knew he spoke truly no matter how hard it was to believe. Alia smiled at her long lost friend and said, “then welcome back my friend. What counsel can you give us about matters in Kyra?”
Kipril said, “as you know, the King is a vile tyrant and sorely tries his people. What you may not know is that the men behind the deaths of three of your comrades fifteen years ago secretly aid and advise the King. The Queen and her daughter still live quietly in the country but the King has his eye on the girl as a prospective bride for his own son and heir. I suggest we break into two parties. Alia, the boy, and I shall ride to the former Queen’s estates and the rest of you shall ride to Yorka and assess the situation there. We shall meet you as soon as we have apprised the Queen of her son’s return.” The others quickly agreed and they set off immediately for their assigned destinations.
As Alia and her companions made camp that night, Ian asked, “how can this be?”
Alia laughed, “how can you have spent so many years among the Brethren and not believe in miracles?”
Ian smiled ruefully, “I suppose I do but I thought they only ever happened to other people. The Master truly does work in wonderful and mysterious ways!”
They rode on, avoided the patrols once they crossed into Kyra, and soon found themselves upon the Queen’s estates. Alia presented the star trinket to the guards at the great gates before the ancient house and a servant was quickly sent to inquire after the Queen. The astonished servant quickly returned and ushered the strangers into his lady’s presence. All three bowed and the aging woman stared in wonder and joy at her long sundered son. Finally each found the courage to embrace and a quick round of wondering questions and excited chatter followed.
After Ian met his sister and mother and all their curiosity and joy had momentarily been satisfied Alia asked, “how go things in Kyra? Are they as bad as we have heard? Any idea how the boy is to retake the throne?”
The queen said, “things are bad enough, especially for the commoners. In usual circumstances, Ian would present himself to the royal lawyers who would then decide whether he was the legal heir to the throne, but these are far from usual circumstances. I fear his uncle will kill him regardless.”
Kipril said, “I think secrecy will not avail us. Let us present ourselves before the entire court that a knife in the dark will not end all their worries. With enough witnesses perhaps the King will step down as he rightfully should. If he will not, then we will do what we must. He may challenge you to a duel for the crown and I am sure there will be treachery in the mix.”
Ian said firmly, “I will do what I must.”
They all agreed to the sketchy plan and the three set off at once with the Queen to follow after with the intent of attending court on the following evening when Ian would make his claims. They reached Yorka the following morning and met with the three that had gone ahead who agreed completely with their suppositions. The Brethren could not take the throne by force, but neither could the current King legally deny the claims of his nephew. His only recourse would be to have the upstart murdered, a dangerous task since all the city would soon know of the challenge to his throne or to challenge him to and best him in a duel.
The servants of evil had not been lax these many years either. They had a spy in the midst of the Queen’s servants and the moment he saw the star trinket he knew the game was afoot. He made his way to the city and swiftly reported his suspicions to his dark masters. So it was when the young renegade came to make his claims, the King and his sinister advisors were not taken unawares. They could have barred the youth an audience but then he would have made a scene in the street. He was too well protected to be silently murdered and it would be good to show the court exactly how such rebels were dealt with. The King actually looked forward to the confrontation and his associates would make sure that he was the victor. As expected, he made his appearance at court the following evening.
There was much gossip amongst the bystanders as the King had allowed word of the imposter to be spread abroad. Alia, Kipril, and his mother accompanied him to stand before the King; the rest of the Brethren spread out to make sure no ambush was imminent. Ian said in a voice for all to hear, “I hereby lay claim to the throne of Kyra held unjustly these fifteen years by the murderer of my father.”
The King laughed, “have you any proof boy that I killed your father or that you are even the late King’s son?”
Ian stood his ground and said, “I have no proof you murdered my father save the certainty in my heart. But I have ample proof I am the son of the late King.” He proffered his proofs and the royal lawyers examined the documents and artifacts for authenticity.
The King said, “I thought this woman bore a girl child.”
The former Queen spoke, “I gave birth to twins that night. The boy was safely hidden until he was of an age to claim his birthright.”
The King scoffed, “a likely story, you simply found a youth of the correct age and indoctrinated him.”
Alia spoke, “nay Sire, it was I that bore this very child to Astoria fifteen years ago. Know by the Oath that it is true.”
The King looked to the lawyers, “well?”
They nodded grimly, “the artifacts and proofs seem to be quite real. Can anyone bear testimony to the Queen’s story?”
An aged woman emerged from the crowd and the ancient midwife said, “she speaks truly. I was there when she gave birth and delivered a boy and a girl that night.”
“Very well,” said the King in much glee, “who is to say that you are the legal heir to the throne? Why must I vacate that which is lawfully mine?”
Alia spoke, “Kyran law states that in the presence of an immature heir, a Steward may be appointed until the boy is of age at which point he will assume the throne. Your reign is legally at an end. You are also accused of gaining the throne through treacherous means which would also nullify your right to reign.”
“You have no proof,” snarled the King, “and I will not relinquish the throne to this no name upstart. If he wants the throne he must step over my dead body to gain it; I challenge him to a duel.”
Ian looked concerned, “must I fight him?”
The royal lawyers looked grim, “under these circumstances it would violate all our customs not to. You have no legal requirements as such, but the people would not respect you if you declined. I also think your uncle would prove a dangerous enemy were he allowed to live.”
The King gave him a dangerous look and the lawyer replied, “I was only stating the obvious Sire, no insult was meant on your behalf.”
The King glared at his nephew, “well?”
The boy drew his sword in answer, the audience drew back to give them room to fight, and the King grinned as he drew his own blade and approached the boy. The lawyer intoned in a dreary voice for what seemed a decade the various rules before allowing the combatants to bow and face one another. The boy was young but skilled, the old man experienced but out of practice. They whirled about in a deadly dance while the dark aides of the King drew their own weapons to aid the King by treachery should such be necessary. The Brethren held their own swords at the ready seeing what the sinister men intended. It was the stamina of the younger man that won the day as his weary uncle knelt before him with chest heaving wildly for air. He mocked between breathes, “finish me boy or they shall think you too weak to rule.”
The boy shook his head, “no, you shall stand trial for my father’s murder. I will not make you a martyr or give you the honor of a swift death.”
At that moment, the sinister men in the crowd made to fall upon the boy but were met by an equal number of the Brethren. The King seeing his future looking bleak and his treacherous friends fighting for their lives, lunged forward with sword drawn upon the distracted boy. The blade buried itself deeply in Kipril’s chest as he leapt between Ian and his murderous uncle. Seeing his own doom near to hand, the vile King took his own life rather than losing it justly to the headsman. His vile henchmen did likewise rather than reveal their sinister allegiance.
The court was in uproar and confusion until the Brethren and heir apparent finally managed to calm them. No one understood why the dark men had dissolved into an oily puddle of goo upon death but the matter was soon forgotten as the lawyers proclaimed Ian the rightful heir to the throne now that his uncle was most certainly dead. Some of the more treacherous nobles made to sneak out but the Brethren barred their way until the new King could deal with them justly.
Ian stared down in dismay at Kipril’s shattered form, “I should be the one lying dead.”
Alia put a reassuring hand upon his back and smiled sadly at her fallen friend, “he was already assumed dead in your service Sire; it just happened a little later than we all thought. He knew well his duty and carried it out faithfully. We can all only hope to die so nobly. We will mourn a little, but grief should not be our constant companion, for we shall meet again beyond time if we remain faithful until the end ourselves.” The King was crowned and ruled his people justly for many years and once his own son was well established upon the throne, Ian quietly vanished and only his nearest kin and the Brethren knew what became of him after. The poet who thought himself no hero lived on in song and story long after Kyra itself had passed out of memory.
Prince Bryant sat in the common room with two sons of the greater lords of Ithamar; they all had older brothers and very little chance of ever taking their fathers’ places of import and influence unless their elder brothers succumbed to some mysterious illness or fell in battle. Thus they were relegated to the privileged but socially obscure branch upon which they perched. Much was expected of them by their noble parents but they would win little glory, wealth, or renown for anything they did, though their elder brothers seemed to accrue acclaim simply by getting out of bed of a morning. It was a seductive glue that bound them together: jealousy of their elder brothers and anger at fate for placing them in such an insignificant position. Most nights they could be found drowning their woes among the city’s many inns and drinking houses. When they gathered in such a place, the natives inevitably relocated so as not to find themselves in an awkward confrontation with such important and often drunk personages; the consequences of such an experience never favored the peasants. The boys would drink their fill and complain even more of the hardships of the world while the innkeeper listened and shook his head thinking they knew little of hardship and nothing of real life, at least not life as experienced by the vast majority of humanity throughout history.
Ithamar was not the worst of countries in those days in its treatment of its peasants but the taxes were high and common men had few rights in a conflict of interest with the nobility. So they drank and complained and bonded over their seeming sorrow. Then they would stumble home drunk, fall into bed while servants cleaned up the mess, and begin anew their tedious lives on the morrow, succored only by the hope of the coming night.
Bryant’s father the King, his elder brother, his mother, his numerous aunts, his grandmother, and everyone else in the Kingdom with the nerve often scolded him about his dissolute habits but he ignored them or scoffed or yelled back, all to no avail. Why did he not lead his father’s soldiers as his younger brother did or marry the daughter of some foreign King? Could he not learn something from all the philosophers and sages in the Kingdom and be of use to his father and brother in matters of state? Could he not quietly disappear to his country estates and hunt contentedly in obscurity and not cause a scene? Could he do anything but embarrass all his nearest relations? Deep within he found the whole thing somehow amusing, if only for the consternation it caused his elders; irritating all his nearest relations seemed the only joy he had left in life. On the outside he was all strut and show but within he yearned for meaning and direction and purpose. He was a boat adrift at sea without anchor, rudder, or sail while a storm raged around him with no end in sight. At least he felt as if he had something to look forward to in his nightly carousing though he always came away feeling small and empty and alone as he wandered home to bed in the small hours of the morning.
Dark were his thoughts that night, darker than his usual wont, for he felt if he continued to do nothing he would soon do something drastic, whether to himself or others he did not know. He said to his companions, “I am tired of this tedious life we live. Let us do something great or terrible, that we might end the tedium and do something to be remembered; even if we do not succeed, it is better to die in the attempt rather than die in obscurity. Shall we be famous or infamous?” His friends laughed drunkenly, for the night was far gone and much wine had passed their lips.
He continued, “as you will not choose I shall have the honor then. Let us be infamous! There are many failed adventurers and heroes and none know their names. I say let us be remembered in infamy, for a villain never truly dies though he live only in legend. We could be bandit kings but why stoop to such a level when we can reach far higher and take what fate herself has denied us? I say we reach for the crown itself my friends! Let us supplant my brother and even my father the King!”
He continued to draw heavily from the mug of nameless liquid before him and was lost for many minutes in his treasonous expostulations. Whether he was serious or not, his friends could not tell but his words greatly disturbed them. They continued to listen and ape interest but the plot (what little of it there was, it was mostly grand words and misty aspirations) had quickly sobered them even as it chilled them to the bone. They were as empty inside as the prince but where they were content to enjoy all the privileges their rank could bestow, he had long ago failed to be pleased by such vapid entertainments. He was desperate for something to change and he had almost convinced himself that this was the only way. He finally finished his diatribe and drained his glass. He wandered home and his friends followed at a distance. They saw him safely to bed and then waited sleeplessly for the hour when the King would be abroad.
After an eon, dawn finally revealed her glory and they saw the crown prince emerge from his chambers; they hurried to tell him of his brother’s embryonic treachery. He listened gravely to the miserable pair; they did not wish to betray their friend, but their friendship was not such that it would be worth their lives if they did not tell and were considered traitors by their silence and seeming complicity. They finished and the crown prince said, “let us to my father that he may hear these ill tidings.”
They hastened to the King’s chambers, awakened the slumbering monarch, and told again their terrible tale. The King began to fume and rage while the Queen begged him to be reasonable and speak with Bryant first, before calling for his head, which of course started a Royal argument.
The prince and the two lordlings quickly withdrew from the Royal bedchamber and the prince asked, “is my brother in jest, a drunken fool, or a true traitor?”
They shook their heads, “my lord, we know him little when he is sober; you had best ask him yourself.”
The prince said, “I shall.” He turned sharply on his heel and went to find his brother before their father could do something rash. Bryant was not happy to be so awakened, his head throbbed terribly, but he soon quit complaining when his brother told the reason for his visit. The elder said, “father may very well banish you for such talk if he does not simply call for your head! Are you in earnest?”
Bryant said quietly, “I am not sure, I need something to change and this is as good a scheme as any I can think of.”
His brother said, “if it had been a drunken jest, perhaps father could be appeased but I am afraid his anger shall fall swiftly and harshly upon you.” Bryant paled, said nothing, grabbed his sword belt and cloak, and fled the room. His brother silently watched him go. He did not wish to see his father’s wrath realized but neither could he acknowledge this cold-hearted stranger as his brother. By the time the argument was settled and the guards were sent to bring the errant boy to face his father, he was long fled.
Bryant ran for his life. He was astonished to realize that he might perhaps be a murderous fiend if given the chance, at least if it granted him the end he sought. He had hoped it had all been the ravings of a drunkard but he was horrified to realize that under the right circumstances he might be capable of doing just as he had boasted. He fled his father’s wrath but he could not flee the monster that was his own soul. He ran to the stable, found a saddled horse awaiting his rider, flung himself into the saddle, and galloped out of the courtyard. The servant that had been saddling the beast tried to pursue the prince with warning but to no avail; he had stolen a wild and dangerous animal that was stubborn beyond belief and resistant to even the cruelest methods of training. How he even stayed in the saddle was hard to imagine. He was a magnificent animal and had been brought as a gift to the crown prince by rich merchants as something of bribe, that he might remember them with favor when he succeeded his father. The creature was physically perfect but had a will of iron and would let no man on his back. The prince was the first to attain such a feat and that unknowingly. So they ran, and with the speed of the creature any other horse in the King’s stables would have a hard time catching them. The beast would deign to be led and saddled but would carry neither men nor burdens. The crown prince had ordered him saddled and hoped to break him that very morning, hoping to succeed where all others had failed.
They ran hard all day on the shortest road out of the country. As night was falling they finally stopped, the prince collapsed against a tree just over the border. His heart sank and his hand reached for his sword as he heard the sound of galloping hooves drawing swiftly nigh. Six of his father’s guards drew rein a bowshot from the prince and one aimed his arrow at the weary boy. The bowstring sang as the prince dove to the ground; the arrow embedded itself in the tree just above where his head had been. The guards then turned and rode off slowly into the dying day. Cautiously the prince stood and pulled the arrow from the tree. He found a small piece of paper attached to the shaft, which read, “know you now that you are henceforth banished from all the domains of Ithamar and all title, privilege, and rank is hereby denied you. If you should ever return, it will be as a criminal and an outlaw and your life is forfeit unless spared by the mercy of the King.”
Bryant sighed and said to the night air, “I wanted things to change and they have, but not in the way I intended. I am now an exile, a wanderer, an outlaw, a fugitive, with no home, people, or place to call my own. I am a fool.”
The sweat-lathered horse snorted and said, “you are certainly all of that, as am I, but you need not be a fool.”
The prince sat down hard in surprise and exhaustion, saying, “horses do not talk.”
The horse eyed him patiently and said, “perhaps, but then again it may be that just the horses of your acquaintance have never spoken. Either that or I am not a horse.” He snorted wryly in amusement, as if he had said something rather clever.
Taking the hint, the former prince said, “if you are not a horse, then what are you?”
The unhorse said, “let us just say I have been banished from amongst my own noble and glorious people and reduced to the state in which you currently find me. I have been stripped of all that makes my people unique and left a mortal nag.”
The unprince said, “and what did you do to become as you are? Who are your people and where do they come from?”
The unhorse said, “perhaps one day I shall tell you all the tale but for now you must suffice yourself with what I have already revealed. What of you?”
The boy sighed, “last night in a drunken rage I spoke of doing terrible things only to awaken and find that all know of my theoretical treachery and that some part of me is not averse to such acts. I can flee my father’s wrath but I cannot run from my own wretchedness.”
The horse looked at him thoughtfully and said, “until now I have revealed myself to no one, but trapped as I am, I shall go mad if I trust no one and soon shall think myself nothing but a silly horse in truth. Seeing as we are both rebels and outlaws, perhaps we can travel together for a time? I will allow you upon my back in exchange for your aid in keeping me out of the hands of strangers who would happily confiscate a wandering horse as I will seem if I travel alone.”
The boy laughed weakly, “I admit to you that I am a traitor, willing to do murder and yet I alone of all men am the man you choose to trust?”
The horse said, “you have not yet killed anyone and the fact that you are horrified at your own thoughts means there is yet some hope for you. We are both rebels and outcasts, perhaps together we can find redemption upon the road. Besides, you are alone and desperate and need me as much as I need you. You shall not get far afoot.”
“Where then shall we go?” asked the former prince.
The horse shook his head, “I do not know. Even if I returned to the lands of my people I would not be allowed to or even capable of entering that wondrous land. You have no skills or relations that might benefit you in the wide world?” The boy shook his head. The horse sighed, “then let us go north for now until something draws us elsewhere.” The boy nodded his agreement, for one direction was as good as any other at the moment. They wandered off the road a short distance and the boy was soon asleep.
Morning came and the boy rose damp and stiff but much refreshed, but he had brought nothing to eat or to start a fire with. Neither did he have a bow. He had his sword and dagger upon his hastily grabbed belt; his belt pouch was full of coins but there was nowhere to buy breakfast. He refreshed himself in a swiftly running creek, saddled the horse, and they were soon off though the boy’s stomach complained bitterly. The horse remarked, “it would be a far easier journey if you could sate yourself with grass as all sensible creatures do.”
The boy laughed and said, “you are the only sensible herbivore I have ever met. All other creatures that go on four legs have remained thankfully silent.”
The horse retorted, “that only proves their sense, for only man opens his mouth and makes sounds for no reason. At least doubt remains as to whether the silent beasts are truly fools or not; man has proved himself thus time and time again by his speech.”
About midday they stopped in a small village and the boy purchased what he would need for the journey and some much appreciated food. They continued on until nightfall at which point, the boy made a rough camp as the horse wandered off for his nightly meal. They continued on in this manner for several days and nothing truly remarkable happened. They were traveling north through Sebeka: the neighboring Kingdom to Ithamar, a peaceful and prosperous country that welcomed strangers and most especially their coin.
The horse said one day as they rode along, “what know you of happenings in the wide world?”
The boy said, “I paid little attention to world events, current or historic, save for a little about our closest neighbors. Now I begin to regret my inattention to my studies, for now I see the use of them when previously I thought it all nonsense.”
The horse said, “I know little of the countries of men, but I shall tell you what I know of your world in general. It is a vast place and there are many kings and kingdoms; some are prosperous and peaceful, others are evil and warlike, and there are all shades between. There is also much unclaimed and wild land wherein all manner of beasts and folk strange to men are to be found. Much of what you consider myth or legend is actually true and flourishes in such places. In the far south dwells an Evil Prince with much sway in the world. His minions ride wherever they will and do as they please, causing much grief amongst innocent folk. His kingdom is called the Infernal Realm and is separated from all else by impassable mountains, though any who wish can freely enter his gates. All is sere and waste within a hundred miles of those vile peaks and he holds sway over all within their shadow. Many of the Kings closest to his domain are his vassals and nearly as vile as he. He is a rebel against the Great King, who dwells far to the north in the Brightlands and once was His greatest servant. A great chasm in the earth, called the Rift by men, separates those dear lands from all others.”
He continued, “it is said that the Rift is a actually a rift in time and space, having no bottom. No mortal can cross that chasm save by the will of the Great King or His dear Son, the True Prince whose will is always that of His Father. It is from the Blessed Mountains that rim the Brightlands that my own kin come and from thence was I banished. Between the Brightlands and the Infernal Realm are the Grey Lands, in which mortal men dwell and that encompass all you know as real. It is in this strange plane that you are born, live, and die. After you pass the gates of death you must enter either the Brightlands, if you are a willing subject of the Great King, else you come under the dominion of the Dark Prince and you will never more come forth from the Infernal Realms. One day the Great King will reclaim the Grey Lands and forever banish the Dark Prince beyond his own mountains and seal the gate that none may pass out again. Then will all the world be as it was meant to be, before rebellion brought death and sorrow upon the face of the earth.”
The boy paled, “I have heard stories and legends of such things but never thought them more than tales. You tell me this is the truth! Whatever is a rebel of my standing to do? Am I doomed to dwell in that terrible place for all eternity?”
The horse shook his head, “I am a rebel myself and doomed to the same fate unless we can find a way out. My people are immortal, true and willing servants to the Great King, but alas I refused the duty He asked of me and I was thus banished. We never spoke of redemption, for we had no need of such a concept, but on these shattered shores on which I find myself the need is truly great. We must seek out one who can tell us this mystery.”
The boy nodded glumly and hoped with all his heart that a way could be found out of this pit of his own making. At least he knew now why they rode north; he had no wish to be nearer those awful lands than he absolutely had to be. “What or who are we looking for?” asked the boy.
The horse said, “there are supposedly men abroad, servants of the Great King, knowledgeable in all things pertaining to Him and His dealings with fallen men. It is one of these learned men that we seek, to learn what must be done to redeem ourselves.”
“Where are such folk to be found?” asked the boy.
The horse snorted in laughter, “an excellent question. I know little of mortal lands and know only what I have personally observed since my arrival in this dismal sphere and that which I have overheard men speak in my presence. Sadly, I seem to know more than you who were born in this place.”
The boy nodded glumly, ashamed of all he had failed to learn in his life and of all the time he had spent drowning himself in a mug of ale. The boy said, “perhaps instead of isolating ourselves of an evening, I should visit the local tavern and see if I cannot learn something of these mystics you speak of?”
The horse nodded in approval, “an excellent proposition.” They stopped early that evening, for they would not reach the next village before dark. The horse said to the boy, “be careful, for there are men who do not hold the Great King in high favor. The Dark Prince has spies and servants everywhere.”
The boy smiled slightly, “you are worried for my safety?”
The horse smiled, “let us just say it would be a far more difficult journey alone.” The boy’s smile deepened as he entered the inn while the horse wandered off into the night.
The boy took a seat far to the back and watched quietly from his private corner. The innkeeper eyed him speculatively but said nothing, for he caused no trouble. The boy watched the quiet conversations, tavern games, and the comings and goings of the various patrons. He marked out several shady looking characters but saw no one who seemed an ideal source of information. Full dark fell outside the grimy windows as a ragged traveler traipsed into the inn and wandered to the back of the common room. He surveyed the men scattered about the establishment and his eyes fell upon the boy, obviously a fellow stranger in this place. He made his way to the back and asked if he might share the boy’s small table. The boy was intrigued by the stranger and nodded eagerly. The man took a seat, the serving girl brought him a bowl of stew and some bread, and as he ate his meal he said, “what brings you to this place lad? One does not often see such youngsters wandering alone, save perhaps a few adventurous lads looking to be heroes.”
The boy said, “I wander because I must. My past is behind and all my unknown future lies ahead. I seek hope in a hopeless world and peace for a disquiet heart.”
The man smiled secretively and said quietly, “the world is not quite as hopeless as you might think, though sometimes it is dangerous to speak of that which is a light in even the darkest night. I am willing to speak with you but perhaps in a place less obvious?”
The boy nodded gravely and said, “my companion and I have ridden far in search of such knowledge. We are both wanderers seeking rest. What do you suggest?”
The man smiled, “let me finish my meal and then we shall talk for a time of trivialities to allay the suspicions of all here. Then you can wander off into the night and I shall follow when convenient. Wait for me along the road but well out of sight.” The boy nodded and they proceeded as planned.
Half an hour after the boy had gone, the man trudged wearily out into the dark, a man obviously too poor to afford a bed in such a place. A few eyed him speculatively but returned to their drinks, seeing nothing obviously to their benefit in yet another penniless traveler. The man wandered out into the road and waited silently until the boy crawled out of hiding and drew his attention. They vanished down an overgrown trail into a little clearing. The moon stood high and gave enough light to cast their faces into shadow. “Where is your companion?” asked the curious man. The boy smiled silently in amused anticipation as a horse stepped out of the shadowed woods and stopped before the man, looking at him as if awaiting some reply. The man looked from the horse to the boy and back again.
“Well?” asked the horse, “I have been told that this little interlude shall be worth missing part of my evening repast.”
The man gaped, “I have not had the pleasure of meeting a talking horse before, unless of course you are not actually a horse?”
The horse smiled in pleasure, “finally a man with some sense! Long have I hoped to meet such a specimen. I of course am no horse, save perhaps in appearance. And who pray tell are you and how come you to know more of wisdom than most men I have encountered?”
The crown prince could not sleep. He tossed and turned for nearly two hours that night, unable to settle his uneasy mind or still the unexplained terror coursing through his being. Unnamed fears in the dark had not kept him awake at night since he was a very little boy. Yet here he was, nearly a grown man on the very eve of the long awaited celebration that would mark his coming of age, fretting and restless because of a vague uneasiness about what lurked in the shadows of his own chamber. Ridiculous as it was, this realization did nothing to ease him into a blissful slumber, but then the reason for his uncanny feeling of wrongness presented itself and he wished with all his might that it was only fancy that plagued him. There were deeper shadows among the lesser shades of his room, and these began to whisper and hiss excitedly in an unknown tongue as they drew closer to the bed. The boy crouched deeper beneath the covers and shuddered, knowing there was no weapon that would avail him against such foes, at least until he heard a familiar scornful laugh.
“Come big brother,” chastised his younger brother Garot, “why do you cower beneath your covers like a terrified child? At least be man enough to face your doom with equanimity!”
Anger flared in Bayard’s heart, anger enough to overcome his terror, at least for a moment. He threw aside the blankets, not that they would be any protection against these mysterious fiends anyway, and glared into the darkness in the direction from which the taunts had come. Said he with a voice as smooth and chill as a winter pond, “what have you to do with this brother?”
The younger scoffed, “why everything of course! It was all my idea after all. Now you will kindly accompany these, um, gentlemen and I will assume your place as heir to the throne. After the proper mourning rituals are observed of course. It is a good thing I look well in black.”
“Of course,” said the elder, his anger fading and his fear flooding back with twice the vim. The shadows were suddenly upon him, his terror intensified to the point no mortal heart can bear and happily did he fall into unknowing blackness.
“Don’t forget the servant,” snarled Garot, “we need no witnesses.” The servant that stood beside the young prince, having let him into his sleeping brother’s chamber on the pretext of some dire situation that could not wait until morning, squeaked in terror and tried to flee, but one of the shadows engulfed him and all suddenly vanished, leaving Garot alone in the empty room. He smiled unseen into the darkness, a look of sheer triumph on his face, and then exited the way he had come. A passing guardsman eyed him oddly as he left his brother’s chambers at this strange hour, causing the Prince to sigh, for he knew the man would have to be dealt with as well which would mean more time wasted before he could get his own much needed rest.
The blissful darkness receded and the utter terror returned, along with a good dose of despair, shame, and horror just to keep things interesting. Bayard found himself standing in the midst of a crumbling ruin in the heart of a dark and dripping wood in the grim, flat light of predawn; his eyes strayed to the wide-eyed servant and he rejoiced to know he was not alone in this horrid nightmare, but the shifting wall of wraiths that completely hemmed them in quickly stifled even this minor comfort. A great and terrible roar shook the very foundations of the ruin and sent both mortals and shadows cringing to the overgrown paving stones as a hideous bird, resembling a vulture but large as a draft horse, landed in the middle of the gathering. It leered at them in silence for some time, savoring their terror as a gourmet might a fine morsel, and then it screeched in a harsh tongue which sent the wraiths rushing upon the prisoners. Once each was completely immobilized by half a dozen of the insubstantial beings, the vulturine monstrosity said in the tongue of men, “the choice is before you, pitiable wretches that you are. Become one of my pets or food for them instead. Well?”
The servant quivered in terror but managed to squeak defiantly, “never will I serve you! My Master is faithful even in death!”
The monster chortled in amusement, “so faithful that he allows you to fall into such a predicament with no hope of escape? Very well, you shall have your heart’s desire. Watch well Prince, what comes of those who refuse my offer of mercy. We shall see how faithful his master truly is!” He laughed in such a dreadful way that Bayard wished he had never heard of the concept.
The servant’s voice suddenly spoke with a confidence that belied his precarious circumstances, “do not forget who wrought you my Prince! Take comfort in the One who traded His glory for our sorrows…” The voice faded away even as the boy himself did. Bayard watched in horrified fascination as the lad began to grow misty and then vanished altogether, apparently absorbed by the shadows that held him, which now seemed far more substantial and looked almost solid with actual features in their once blank faces. He shuddered and looked with dread upon the creatures still holding him. How could he meet such an end? Yet how could he willingly become a creature such as this? The servant had seemed quite bold at the last, yet how could old fairy tales give him such courage? He glanced around at the fell gathering and suddenly began to believe that perhaps all the old myths and legends might not be as improbable as once he had thought them. If such creatures as these could walk the earth, why could not the other stories be true?
He was suddenly a small boy again, enraptured upon his mother’s knee as she told him the strangest tale of all. Of a great and glorious King who dwelt far from the sorrows and sins of men, who abandoned it all to walk among that wretched folk. Of his own inglorious end at the hands of those he had come to succor and how he paid the price that man himself could never pay, thus ending forever the terror of death and sin for those who loved him. It was a grand tale and once he had hoped it true, but it was only a story taught to children out of custom and habit in hopes of inculcating morality in their young hearts. His family was strong and need admit no weakness or failing. In general they were good and honorable folk and needed not the mercy of some benevolent being. So he had laid it aside with the other accouterments of childhood and focused on things more befitting a young prince nearing manhood. But his sword would avail him nothing at such a moment, neither would all his lessons in history and arithmetic. The servant was no fool and had faced his end with courage, could he do any less? All this passed through his mind in the few moments during which the servant vanished and then the vile bird turned his burning gaze upon the remaining prisoner.
“Well?” squawked the awful buzzard.
Bayard shuddered, but felt a strange boldness and an inexplicable hope welling up inside his chest in the midst of overwhelming despair. Said he as calmly as if he were taking tea with his mother in the garden, “I will have nothing to do with you or yours sir, do your worst. I am resigned rather to die than become such as these. Fool that I have been, I did not see until this very moment the Truth until death was looking me in the eye, at least I need not die as I have lived. I commend my soul to Him who wrought it and may He have mercy upon me!” The vulture shrugged and Bayard felt cold fingers digging deep into his being and pulling it in six different directions. There was no pain, only a growing sense of thinness about his person, a whelming dark, and then an all consuming light more terrible even than the shadow creatures. The moment before he lost all sense of anything, he thought he heard the sound of galloping hooves that stopped suddenly as a horse screamed and then he knew or perhaps was, nothing but light.
The breathless guard was flung from his horse as it spooked at the dreadful creatures gathered in the courtyard. He caught a brief glimpse of the nearly translucent prince before his vision exploded into stars as he bashed his head on the paving stones. The prince’s brother had sent him thither with all haste to see what had come of the crown prince and if there was any hope of rescue, but as he lay stunned on the moist pavement, his sluggish thoughts chastised him for so foolishly walking into an obvious trap. The shadows soon overwhelmed him too and afterwards, some of them almost appeared human. Of these, three returned to the palace to make sure the surviving prince held to his part of the bargain.
The Royal family had gathered as usual for their communal breakfast, it was the one time of day that all of them could be prevailed upon to make an appearance before the demands of the day soon drew them apart. Garot nearly dropped his teacup as his tardy brother entered the room, as if nothing untoward had happened the previous night. He greeted his parents and sister cheerily and stared in horror at his brother who was pale as death. Neither the King and Queen nor their daughter noticed the interaction, save to reply with an automatic greeting of their own, caught up as they were in their own toast and conversation. Bayard took his accustomed place across from his brother and continued to stare in concern, wondering what was wrong with the boy. His brother’s unexpected appearance was shock enough to Garot, Bayard’s look of worry over his treacherous brother’s reaction was even more perplexing. How had he survived? Why was he not declaring him the worst sort of traitor but instead stared at him in grave concern?
Bayard said quietly to his brother, “what ever is the matter Garot? You look as if you have seen a ghost!”
Garot found his tongue and answered in a feeble voice, “I am just stricken dumb at seeing you so full of cheer this morning. I had thought last night might have been rather difficult for you.”
Bayard smiled warmly, misunderstanding completely that his brother was not concerned about his health but rather with his own mental stability. Said he, “how did you know I had such a strange nightmare? But it was only a dream and though it began in the most horrible manner imaginable, the end was truly glorious and well worth the initial terror.”
Garot eyed him in disbelief. A nightmare?! The boy should be dead or worse! And here he was eating toast as if it were the most natural thing in the world, completely oblivious to his own brother’s treachery. He gulped down his tea, mumbled something about a busy day, and hastened from the room. Four sets of perplexed eyes watched him go but soon enough returned to their own thoughts. Garot bolted from the room with as much decorum as possible and then hastened back to his own chamber to think, but there he found three gentlemen or rather creatures resembling gentlemen awaiting him. They looked quite different from the shadowy beings he had barely glimpsed the previous night but the feeling of icy terror that squeezed his heart was certainly the same. Perhaps they could solve this desperate riddle.
If you are looking for a serious tale with a redeeming moral, find another book. This is a foible, not a fable, thus it has no intrinsic value whatsoever, save to make you smile. These stories should be used with caution, not taken internally, and avoided by those who have a congenital lack of humor, who take themselves and the world too seriously, and those looking for something serious to read. So take a detour through the fickle world of Foible, where a sense of humor is your only weapon against incomprehension. These stories are a silly (and hopefully entertaining) romp through the land of Faerie, poking fun at everything you love about fairy tales, geek culture, and very possibly things that have very little to do with either. Finally available as a complete (albeit short) collection! On Princesses: Yes, the world needs another fairytale, just like your grandmother needs a Dwarf Grunge Band. Of course this is not just another fairy tale, it is a completely irreverent celebration of geeks, fairy goth-mothers, small annoying dogs, and yes, princesses. On Heroes: This little saga pokes fun at bureaucracy, paperwork, heroes, and the latest fad in looming environmental crises. Find out how to save the world in six easy lessons, or not. On Sleeping Beauties: Just when you thought you knew everything about a certain fairy tale, here comes a take on the story fit to baffle even renowned scholars in the genre, along with most everyone else. Take another jaunt into the land of Foible where most anything can happen, and often does, but be warned, this tale should not be read by those who take themselves, or their literature, too seriously. On Dragons: Of course we can't leave such topics as lawyers and a college education alone, here's another tale from the land of Foible!