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Month: October 2017

Chapter 7: Out of the Frying Pan

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Don’t ever relax.  Even if you think you have defeated every bad guy that could possibly jump out at you, there is always another one, even worse than the last, just waiting to ruin your life.

 

When I opened my eyes, sunlight streamed through the leaves above.  Out of the corner of my eye I peeked toward where Mara had been the night before.  Good.  She was still there.  And still sound asleep.  What a relief.  My first goal of the morning was to get her off my shoulder so she wouldn’t be mad when she woke up.  It didn’t work so well.  She just mumbled in her sleep and grabbed one of the tattered strips of cloth hanging from my shirt.  She couldn’t accuse me of not trying.

I really felt sore though.  Sleeping in trees is not so good.  Especially if your last few days were like mine.  My body protested when I blinked.  I looked cautiously down to the bottom of the trees.  No wolves.  At least, not that I could see.  Hopefully they got bored and left during the night.  Maybe they all went to the Roy Buffet.  That was my secret hope anyway.

Carefully, without moving too many muscles, I reached over and gently shook Mara’s shoulder.  She stirred and groaned.  “Mara,” I whispered.  I didn’t have a lot of experience in waking up sleeping maidens.  “Mara!” I said again, a little louder.  

This time, it worked.  “Huh?” she asked, and looked up at me blinking.  She still clung to my shirt.  

“Rise and shine, princess,” I said with a grin.

   She sat up a little bit and looked around in confusion.  Then she woke up.  “We’re still in the tree?”

“Yup.  You tried to fall out, but I stopped you.”

   She suddenly realized she was clinging to me, let go, and promptly almost fell again.  I caught her and held her until she regained her balance.  She looked at me sheepishly.  “Did you have to hold me in the tree all night?”

“More or less.  You helped some,” I added, glancing at my shoulder, which she grabbed again when she fell.  

Her gaze followed mine and she let go suddenly.  “Sorry,” she muttered, glancing down.  

“Don’t worry about it.  You’ve never slept in a tree before.  Everyone tries to die the first time.”

“Oh, and you have lots of experience with that, do you?”

“You’d be surprised.”

She looked at me incredulously.  “I bet I would.”  She glanced around the tree.  “Do you think the wolves are still down there?”

“I can check,” I said, though I was skeptical that my body would function well enough to swing around the tree.  I didn’t feel the need to share that particular factoid.

“You should.”

The girl had no idea what she asked.  I gingerly stretched my shoulders.  So far, so good.  She looked at me expectantly.

Here goes nothing.  

I hadn’t tried to move my legs yet, but I somehow managed to get them on the tree branch under me.  Then I stood up.  That is, I attempted to.  It was more like me trying to die this time, and Mara caught me.  Well, now we were even.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Mara asked with concern.

“Great,” I managed to get out.

Mara started to laugh.  “You look ridiculous!”

“Wish I could watch,” I muttered.  

“Do you want me to do it?” she asked uncertainly.

“Nope.  I’m great.  Just give me a second to get my heart restarted.”  I have some pride.  I couldn’t let the distressed damsel do my job.

The next time I tried to stand up I was more careful.  It worked a little better.  I didn’t fall on Mara’s lap, at least.  I worked my way around the tree carefully and took a good long look at the ground.  After convincing myself I couldn’t see any wolves from the tree, I started to climb down.  

“Where are you going?” Mara asked.

“Do you want me to make sure the wolves are gone before we have another mad scramble to get away from them?”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s where I’m going.”

“Oh.”

She watched tensely while I slid to the ground and walked around the tree.  

“Any sign of them?”

“Nothing yet.  I’m going to make a big circle in the forest to make sure.  Don’t run off.”

“I won’t.”  

After two loops around the tree, I was certain the wolves had given up.  “They’re gone,” I called to Mara back at the tree.  “Come on down.”

“Are you sure they won’t attack as soon as we are both on the ground?”

“I’m sure,” I said with a laugh that sounded a little like a choke.  

She timidly climbed out of the tree, with a little help from me at the bottom.  “So now what?” she asked, brushing herself off and fixing her short hair.

“Well,” I said, glancing around the forest.  “I suppose we need to find Prince Charming.”

“That would probably be a good start,” she agreed.  “How do you propose we do that?”

“We can follow our trail back to the camp, for starters.”

She looked around incredulously.  “I don’t even know how to begin.  It all looks the same.”

“That’s what you have me for.”  I had already found our trail during my circles, and it took us only a couple minutes to get back to our little excuse for a campsite.  We hadn’t run nearly as far as I thought in our terror.

The camp was fine, although the horses apparently fled.  Their ropes were broken, but there was no sign of blood or horse limbs.  I guess the wolves felt too excited about their tasty human-type dinner to spend much time worrying about the gear that could have made a great alternate meal for them.  We spent a few minutes checking everything carefully for damage, before I decided it was about time to go find my dearest prince.

I didn’t expect Roy to get very far, especially when I saw how little distance Mara and I managed to cover.  Although, we did run into a little trouble with her hair, which would not have been a problem with Roy.  He did get farther than us, I must admit.  But his trail was very windy and twisted.  Who runs like that?  I don’t know.  Anyway, we finally found him: sitting in a tree sound asleep.  Surprise, surprise.  

It really isn’t any coincidence that we all spent the night in trees.  It truly is the only practical way to escape from a pack of wolves and Roy gets a happy ending so something had to happen for him to survive.  

Neither Mara, nor I, particularly wanted to climb another tree to wake him up, so I threw sticks until one hit him on the noggin and jostled him from his sleep.  That was a bad idea because the first thing he did was try to die.  He did manage to catch himself, however, and get to the ground in a more reasonable fashion.  

His hair hung all over the place, his royal tunic was torn, and his face was dirty.  Somehow, he still managed to come across as a fop.  He swooshed his hair, flinging dirt and several leaves into air and struck a particularly interesting pose.  “My lady, you have no idea how I spent the night, in fear for your good life!”

“I’m fine, milord,” she said with a curtsy.  She was obviously nervous, waiting for him to see her hair, or rather, lack of it.

He didn’t even notice.  “Now we must set off again for the castle, where we will wed!”

That guy really does have a one-track mind.  “I have our horses back at the camp.  They survived the attack,” I inserted into the conversation.  

“Hm, what?  Good,” said Roy.  “Come, my lady,” he said, and began to lead the way.  In the wrong direction.

“Roy,” I said.

He turned around.  

“This way.”  I began to walk in the correct direction.  

Back at the camp, we got together what we could carry and set out on foot.  It was beginning to look like we were never going to get back to the castle.  Not that I would have had much of a problem with that, but some other people might.  I felt my gloomy mood descending again as we trudged.  To make up for it, I walked just slightly faster than Roy could do comfortably so he had to trot along to keep up.  Which meant Mara also had to trot, but I decided not to feel to guilty about it.  I saved her life twice, she could walk fast.

I had decided to take a different, more direct route home to avoid giants and elves and other distractions.  I knew we were headed in approximately the correct direction.  The hope was that at some point I would see something familiar and everything would be just fine and dandy.   Roy didn’t even realize we weren’t going the same way as before.  Or maybe he just appreciated the lack of thorns in the road.

There is a thing about my plans though: they tend to get changed.

That day was very uneventful.  By nightfall, I was sore, tired, and very, very grumpy.  I didn’t have much to say to anybody. It probably didn’t help anything that since we returned to the prince, he had talked constantly to Mara, and therefore I’d had nothing to do all day but stew on how unfair life was.  

Nothing happened that night either.  

The next morning at breakfast, Roy went out of camp at my bidding to go fetch some water.  After a little bit, I realized he hadn’t returned yet and started to get worried. With my luck he was probably long gone getting chased by a bullfrog.  The princess was still sleeping, so I walked into the woods the direction he had disappeared to try and track him down.  

It was early and a light mist stretched through the low spots in the woods.  I followed the prince’s tracks for about a hundred feet.  And they were gone.  Poof.  Vanished.  Like Roy sprouted wings, turned into a butterfly and flew off.  

I had a bad feeling about this.  I glanced around, but there was no sign of Prince Helpless anywhere.  I turned on my heel and sprinted back to the camp for the princess.  I arrived too late.  Where the princess had been sleeping only moments before, there was now only an empty bedroll and no tracks or any sign of her leaving.

This was not good.  In fact, this was the epitome of the opposite of good.  There was only one thing to do.  I certainly couldn’t go home without prince or princess, and whatever had taken them was dangerous, silent, sneaky, and deadly.  Anything that can whip two royals out from under my nose without leaving anything to track them by is something I don’t want to take any chances with.  

I had one thing to go on.  Somehow the princess got out of the camp.  There had to be something, some sign of her somewhere.  If she woke up, she certainly would have tried to leave something for me.  Anything.

Silently and carefully I began to make rings around our camp, each one spiraling further out.  After a couple circles I saw something I thought must be from the princess.  But it was actually Roy’s trail that I had followed earlier.

Steady man.  Don’t lose it now.  

It occurred to me that that the forest was dead silent.  Now, understand, forests are usually pretty quiet.  I assumed this was supposed to be a haunted forest, so it should be a little quiet, but even a haunted forest has the occasional bird call.  Or at least a vulture squawking or something.  It’s a forest, for the godmother’s sake, there are animals.  This one, for some reason, felt a little bit low on wildlife today.  Only a couple days before I’d been chased by some wildlife, so I was pretty certain that wasn’t the normal state of things.  

I didn’t have to wonder about it for very long, because out of nowhere a tree branch jumped at me, and everything went black.   

 

The sky was moving.  Pretty lights glowed in the trees.  I was floating.  How lovely.

 

I opened my eyes for real this time.  At least, I thought my eyes were open.  I tried opening and closing them a couple time and got confused about which was which, because nothing changed.  Now I knew I was losing it.  I tried to remember how I got wherever I was, but it hurt to think.  Either that or my head just hurt anyway, which is more likely because the only thing I could remember was that the jumping tree branch had knocked me out.

I couldn’t move my arm or legs either, and I gradually determined that they were tightly bound.  There didn’t seem to be anyone close by and all I could think about was what sort of formidable monster had managed all this.

My hands had fallen asleep.  I wondered how long I’d been unconscious, and where in the world were Mara and Roy?  Painfully, with every injured, wounded, bruised, and sore muscle in my body (which was most of them) groaning and screaming in pain, I tried to sit up.  I lay back down again.  Maybe instead I should just take this opportunity to get some rest.  Almost immediately, I fell back asleep.  

I woke up to a light shining in my eyes and an annoying clicky noise chattering about something.  I blinked, trying to get my bearings and see what kind of creature it was that was bothering me without getting my pupils burned out in the process.  

   It took a minute, but I finally saw what it was that felt the need to shine bright lights in a sleeping man’s eyes.  The thing that captured a prince-hero, a princess-D.I.D., and yours truly, the dragon slayer.  I couldn’t believe it.

In front of me stood a creature about 6 or 7 inches tall.  He had a puffy white beard, a tall red hat, a little turned up red nose, and bright eyes that gleamed at me maliciously.  It was a gnome.  

A gnome!

I closed my eyes again.  This was almost too much to bear.  

The thing was trying to talk to me.  That was the clicking noises I heard.  He clicked disapprovingly and shined the light in my eyes some more.

“What, ok, I’m awake.  What do you want?”  I glared at the annoying thing.  

“Click tick tring ling tick.”

“Why did you capture us?”

“Clickity click tring clicker clack.”

“What are you going to do with us?”

“Gling clack cling clackity click.”

This conversation would be so much more helpful if I spoke gnomish.

A dozen more gnomes appeared.  They proceeded to unashamedly pick me up and carry me down a long dark tunnel.  

Gnomes aren’t the most well-documented creatures in fairyland.  Even Phil doesn’t know anything about them.  All I could tell you was that there are thought to be two types: friendly garden gnomes who bless peoples’ flowers and hide under toadstools, and angry forest/mountain/any other kind of gnome that are mildly malicious, insanely fast, seven times stronger than the average human, and like to live in dark caves underground with no contact to the outside world.  Those are your basic ho-hum any-hobo-could-tell-you gnome factoids.  

The vile little beasties carried me at a rather uncomfortable speed through the dark tunnels about six inches off the ground.  All I could see was their pointy red hats bobbing next to me.  

After a little bit I could see lights up ahead.  The glow on the sides of the cave looked a little bit ominous.  It woke me up some.  I had a feeling this was about to get interesting.

The tunnel opened up to a huge cave.  We were on a ledge looking down on what appeared to be a city.  Every inch of it was packed with gnomes.  How curious.  I wondered what awful deed I had committed, because if anything was certain it was that these gnomes were quite angry.  At me, of all things

We stepped on a platform, and it moved down with a grinding sound.  The gnomes were deathly silent.  Two of them went to my legs and untied them, while two others untied my hands.  Apparently I was at least allowed the dignity of facing my death not being carried six inches off the ground.

   From my now towering height, I had a pretty good view of the place.  There were more gnomes in there than I knew existed in the universe.  The gnomes led the way down a neat row spaced exactly wide enough for me to walk in comfort, but not wide enough to give me any room to think about running away.  Not that I would have.  Remember, each one of these beasties was five times stronger than me.

I walked down the gnome-way feeling a little bit doomed.  It was nerve-wracking, but kind of ironic at the same time.  To think, after everything I faced and killed and defeated, I would be decimated by gnomes.  How humiliating.

The walkway ended at a raised platform that sort of looked like a birdbath, if birds needed stairs.  On top of it sat a chair, and in the chair an extra old and wrinkled gnome.  His hat was especially tall and especially red, and he wore a long purple coat with stars on it.  The chair looked like it was made out of a tree, a miniature sized tree that got leafy and flowery up over his head.  It was one of the queerest setups I ever laid eyes on.

The platform the gnome-chief sat on was high enough that he sat about at my shoulders. When I got before him the whole place fell silent.  I mean, I thought it was silent before, but that was nothing compared to this.  You could have heard a mouse burp.  

I waited impatiently for something to happen.  The king glared at me, very serious and very angry looking.  Imagine an angry gnome glaring at you from a birdbath with a tree in it, and you might understand my situation.  Then imagine five trillion more angry gnomes on the ground not moving a hair, and welcome to the dollhouse of horror.  This was not a gnome you wanted in your garden, I promise.  

I waited for a moment, not wanting to be the one who broke the awful silence.  Mister Greater-Gnome finally spoke.  At least, I assumed he was speaking.  Here is what I heard:

   “Clicka clack clack gling linka dong clang clacker click gligingling tong tuga clack’s click cling long ting wonga lack clicka clack clinkg clack click clickity ting clacker ting ticker tack clangaclack click clackity lingding lack ticka tock.”

How enlightening.  “Um, what was that?”  I asked politely.  “I’m afraid I don’t speak gnome.”  This could be really, really sad.  They were going to kill me, and I would never even know why.  

Another gnome appeared in the birdbath, with an important looking gnome-guard carrying a sword on each side.  He looked younger; his beard was reddish and very short.  His hat looked more like a cap than the witch-hats the rest wore.  He had bright red cheeks and his face looked a little less angry.

With great ceremony, and a push from his guard friends, the gnome bowed down to the senior-gnome.  Then he looked up at me and surprised me with a wink and a grin.  I straightened.  

The little gnome started to talk, but it wasn’t in gnomish.  In fact, I recognized it as a form of giantish.  My giantish is really poor, however.  I only know one dialect and I have a terrible accent.  I tried the one I knew, and his whole face lit up.  He started to talk quickly and lost me instantly.  I shook my head.

“Very little,” I said in giantish.  The gnome’s face fell.

“What else do you speak?” he asked, very slowly and carefully.

“What do you speak?” I asked cautiously.  

He cocked his head to the side.  “Animal languages?”

“Which ones?”

“Chipmunk?”

“Nope.  Wolf?”

“No good.”

“Troll languages?”

“No!” he made a face.

I forgot.  Gnomes hate trolls.  “Um,” I tried to think.  I was running out of languages.  “Elvish or dwarvish?”

That got him excited.  “Yes!  I’m better at dwarvish, though.”

I immediately switched to dwarvish.  “That should work for me!”

“Perfect!” said the gnome, grinning widely.  The gnome-guards and the big-lord-gnome scowled and he straightened up.  “His Royal Highness, Klikarakatarak Glingcongacongatrik, king of all the high-gnome Ericana people of Katagakkingakka forest commands that you tell us why you have invaded our forest and ruined our most sacred and royal lands.”

That was shocking and unexpected.  “I never touched your lands!”

The gnome translated and a collective stir traveled through the crowd.  The king clacked something out and the translator turned back to me.

“How can you say such a thing?  It was witnessed by several of our goodly Ericana gnomes.  You and your malicious companions deliberately sabotaged our most royal and sacred clover crop!”

I stopped and thought for a minute, trying to remember if I’d seen any clover fields in the forest.  Nothing came to mind.  I started to get angry.

“Your majesty,” I said, looking the king in the face and trying to appear penitent.  “We are strangers here.  I don’t believe we went near any clover field, but if we did, then I can assure you it was completely unintentional!”

Again, I had to wait for the gnome-translator.  The king appeared to be infuriated by my answer.  “His royal highness says that you have desecrated our fields, and ruined our crop. You will suffer for this.  Leave now.  Tomorrow, His majesty will have decided on a suitable punishment for you and your abominable companions.”

This was a serious problem.  I was not allowed to answer, instead my captors marched me off, back down the gnome-way, onto the moving platform, and through the tunnels.  This time, they let me crawl all on my own instead of carrying me.

They shut me up in a room with a heavy curtain between me and the rest of their little underground universe.  They’re smart little chaps.  They knew there was no way I would try to escape just to starve to death wandering around in the tunnels.  My chances were better with His Grim-ness up there than they were trying to get out of this mess.  For once, every plan, every idea, every everything had failed me completely.  I had no experience, no knowledge to draw upon.  I wondered, with a shiver, if Mara was ok, or if they had dragged her into that mock-court also.  I hoped not, no one should have to go through that.  With a pang, it came to me that I might not ever see her again.

Life hadn’t completely abandoned me yet, fortunately.  I heard a noise outside in the hallway, the curtain moved and I saw a light through the crack.  They were coming back for me.  That was quick.

To my surprise, when the curtain moved it revealed my little translator gnome, carrying a gnome-sized torch.  His face lit up when he saw me and he tucked the curtain back down, with a last peek down from wherever he came.  He turned to look at me.  “Hello!” he greeted me in dwarvish.

“Hello,” I replied suspiciously.

“I’m Blythe.  What’s your name?”

“Robbie.”

“Nice to meet you, Robbie.”  He stuck out a doll-sized hand to me, and I took and shook it between two of my fingers.  

“How can I help you?” I asked carefully.  This encounter befuddled me completely.

He sighed.  “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

“Pardon?”

“It’s kind of complicated.”

“I can’t do anything for anyone at the moment, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“See, that’s just it.  Neither can I, and I think if we work together we might be able to come up with something.”

“Why don’t you tell me what in the world you are talking about?”

“Thing is, I’m kind of in trouble with the other gnomes.  I did,” he paused and thought for a minute.  “Let’s just say I did something bad.  They are very mad about it.  I’ve been under lock and key for weeks.  They only let me out because they had no other way to talk to you.  But I’m still in trouble.  They have been contemplating what to do with me for over a month now, and the only reason they haven’t decided yet is because they can’t come up with anything horrible enough.  I’d love to escape, but face it, I’m a gnome.  I’d have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and I’d probably get killed or eaten by a troll within a week.  None of those are good options either.”

“What in the universe does that have to do with me?”

He grinned.  “I was hoping you would ask.”

Oh brother.

His face became very serious.  “They are outraged with you.  The clover fields are incredibly important.  Whatever they do to you is going to hurt.  Bad.  I don’t know who you are, or where you’re going, or anything.  But I’m pretty certain you don’t want to die.”

“What is your point exactly?”

“I can get out of the caves.  But I have nothing outside of this,” he waved his hand around to the dark walls, “I have no friends, and no protection.  I can get you out, if you will take me with you wherever you are going and help me find a place to live.  What do you say?”

I looked at him carefully.  I’m not big on believing every random creature with a  sob story but there was no real reason that I could come up for him to lie. Which meant simply that we had a way out.

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Chapter Six: Princess Mara

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Don’t ever argue with a princess.  It’s pointless.  You’re more likely to single-handedly win a battle against an army of ogres and wolves.

 

It was almost nightfall before I convinced the prince to stop.  He forgot that not everyone took a two-hour nap in the middle of the afternoon.  We made camp near a fallen tree.  The prince was quite distracted with bragging on his grand victory, so I had to take charge.  The prince took care of his horse and the princess gathered firewood while I built the fire, found clean water, and found some food for them to eat.  

At some point, after everyone ate and the prince was once more snoring happily away, I had a chance to take care of some things.

My head pounded and my arm felt like it was on fire.  I guess I took more of a beating than I’d thought.  It was very dark, but the stars were out, and the fire was bright.  It was time to clean myself up.  This could get messy.  

I took off the belt over my leather shirt and tried to get the shirt off.  Unfortunately, in doing so I moved my arm wrong and got hit by a monster wall of pain.  I caught my breath, gasped involuntarily, and stopped for a moment to let everything calm down.

“Are you alright?”

With a start, I glanced at the princess.  Apparently she wasn’t as sound asleep as I thought.  “Yeah,” I muttered.  I tried again to get the shirt off.  The right arm came out this time, with another twist that caused me to gasp out loud.  Some of the remaining scraps of the left sleeve seemed to be stuck inside my arm.  This would be more difficult than expected.

Suddenly the princess stood at my side.  “You’re injured,” she said, concern on her face.  

“It’s just my arm.  I think the shirt got caught in the wound.”

“Let me help.”

I glanced at her sharply.  She looked serious.  “I’ve got it, it’s fine.”

“Yeah, and let you keep me awake all night with your moaning and groaning?  I think not.”

“You’re the most stubborn…” I didn’t finish the thought, my arm was more important than winning this particular battle.  “Here.  Hold my tunic.”  

She held it gingerly while I pulled out my knife and carefully tried to cut the tunic away from the parts that were stuck.  “Why don’t you let me do that?” she asked when I, wincing, finally got through one section and started on another strip.

“Because it is very painful and I’d rather do it myself,” I said with a gasp.  I grit my teeth and started sawing again.  

Eventually we got the tunic mostly cut off my arm.  It was a very long painful process, and despite myself I was glad the princess helped.  She kept quiet throughout the operation, but after we took as many scraps off as I dared pull on she threw the ruined tunic aside and said, “I’ll get some water.”

I meant to take it from her and clean the wound myself, but she wouldn’t let me.  “No, you just worry about not waking up the prince,” she said sternly.  It concerned me some, because most people who were locked in a tower for the last 150 years aren’t that careful when it comes to cleaning ugly, painful wounds, and most princesses would probably faint on me.  But she set her face and determinedly began the messy job.

She was gentle, but it still hurt.  I gasped once right at the get go when the icy water touched my damaged skin, then I bit my lip and stared at the stars while she cleaned me up.  The white shirt I wore under the tunic had suffered as well, and she completely chopped off the left sleeve while cleaning my arm.  She used the semi-whitish scraps to clean the burn.  I told her to rip up my tunic and use those pieces, but she quite pointedly said it was too dirty and she wasn’t going to do anything of the sort.  I shut up.  Whatever she did, it was better than doing the job myself.

I could go on about all the lovely, grisly little details of this part of my life, but I’ll just say that after what felt like an eternity of her cleaning and rubbing and poking and pulling, she finally decided it was good enough.  Only then did I dare to stop looking at the stars and view the damage.

I guess it could have been worse.  There was a long ugly mark down my lower arm, almost all of the way from my elbow to my wrist where I had blocked a flame-blast from the dragon.  The skin around it was red and angry.  It would take a while, but it would heal and be useful again.  Probably not pretty, but that was ok.  It wasn’t my first scar.  

I reached over to pull off the other sleeve of my shirt to use to wrap up my left arm so it didn’t get gross again.  

“What are you doing?” Mara asked when I grabbed hold of my sleeve.  

“I’m making my clothing a little bit more symmetrical, what do you think?”

“You can’t just rip off your sleeve!”

I stared at her incredulously.  “Um, actually, I can!”  And so I did.  

Her mouth dropped open.

“What?  You’ve never seen someone rip their clothes to patch a wound before?”

“There is other cloth in the world.  You didn’t have to ruin your shirt.”

I spread my arms so she could get a good look.  Both sleeves were gone.  The whole left side was ripped and parts were singed black.  “I really don’t think that tearing off the sleeve is what gave this shirt the death blow.  I do own other clothes you know.  My wardrobe will survive.” Why did she care, again?

“Hmph,” she muttered.  Then she helped me wrap my arm up.  Gotta admit, she was helpful.  When she wasn’t arguing belligerently, that is.

After that she went back to her bedroll and I curled up in mine on the other side of our ridiculous excuse for a fire pit.

The next morning the prince woke us up a lot earlier than I appreciated.  “Come, my fine fellows.  Let us set out with the sun!” he cried jovially.  I would have liked nothing better than to slap his round face, roll over, and nurse my throbbing head and burning arm.  Instead, I got up, packed up camp while Roy sang the princess an ode to a violet (at least, I think that’s what it was), and got the horse ready.  The princess just stood there awkwardly.  Well, I guess it’s not every day a knight in shining armor wakes you up at six in the morning to talk about violets.  At least, I think so.  I don’t have a lot of experience with being a lovely damsel.  It could happen more than I know.  

So, half an hour later we were on our way.  Roy rode his horse, the princess was on mine.  Guess where I was.

Yup, I walked.  Isn’t that what I wanted to avoid in the first place?  It’s my fault; I’m the one who forgot the princess needed a horse, too.  Of course, she couldn’t do something nice like ride behind her one true love.  No, make the stable boy walk.  

We travelled all morning.  After we were sufficiently far away from the terrifying castle of doom, Roy was comfortable enough to tend to other matters.  “I’m hungry!” he announced.

Without a word I helped the princess and the prince off of their horses.  Roy liked it when I treated him like a cushy helpless little marshmallow.  So sometimes he pretended he couldn’t get off his horse.  It was my favorite game.  There was still some food in my pack on the horse, so we had a cold lunch.

We started to, that is.  About halfway through eating I heard something.  Roy was talking very loudly, bragging about something I never even heard of to the princess and getting lots of practice on his lovely poses.  I got up and walked out of camp, and heard the noise again.  There was something in the woods, watching us.  I felt tense.  “Ronald!” Roy yelled from the camp.  He never notices me until I leave, then he gets scared.  He’s as bad as a little kid who’s lost his blankie, and I’m the blankie.  I ignored him.  The forest started to look much more ominous.  I heard it again.  There was definitely something there.  I crouched over and circled the campsite.  One rotation and I had no doubt about what was watching us.  I hurried back to camp, where Roy stood talking loudly and nervously to the princess, who was watching the woods in concern.  At least she had some sense.

I was just about to say that we needed to break camp, but I never got it out of my mouth.  The forest erupted with the sound of wolves howling.

Roy has several great fears.  Mostly, everything.  But wolves are one of his biggest fears of all.  At the sound of the wolves surrounding us, he bolted off as fast as his legs could go.  That is actually pretty fast.  The princess just stood there and stared at me in horror.

“Pickles,” I muttered.  Then my life got even better, because two wolves jumped from the bushes and went after Roy.  Three more stalked into the clearing in front of the princess and me.   Three very hungry looking wolves.

“Pickles,” I said again, grabbed the princess’s hand, and started running.  I had absolutely no plan, other than to get away and hope the prince didn’t die.  The one problem was that even when I saw the wolves in the clearing, I could hear more in the forest.  So more than five wolves were chasing us.  Brilliant.

Five I’m pretty sure I could fight off.  More than five was iffy.  The princess could barely keep up as I dragged her through the woods.  The wolves were right behind us, howling and barking and whining.  

Outrunning a wolf is a stupid plan.  You will never, ever succeed.  I knew this, but I hoped the princess didn’t.  Because my only plan was to run until I came up with a new plan.  I’m usually pretty good at coming up with brilliant master plans, but it is a little difficult with no help, no inspiration, and no prospects while running through the woods and getting lost with a screaming girl while the guy you are really supposed to protect is also running lost through the woods and quite possibly getting eaten.  

Then I lost the princess’s hand.  I heard her scream and turned around.  We apparently were running through a thorn thicket and the brambles had snagged the princess’s hair.  The more she thrashed, the worse it got.  The wolves were almost on top of her.  I ran back, pulled out my sword, and jumped in the way right as a wolf leaped for her.  He met with my sword instead of with her flesh and nicely impaled himself.  There were a lot more where he came from.

“Untangle it!” I yelled at her, batting away another giant wolf.

“I’m trying!” she yelled back.

I glanced up at her from underneath another wolf that had tackled me.  She wasn’t making much progress.  

“Robbie!” she screamed.

The wolf on top of me went flying and I jumped up in time to skewer the wolf she was trying to kick away.  She still looked completely tangled in the branches.  Why do princesses have so much hair?!?!

There was only one thing to do.  I ran around her and knocked out another wolf.  Things were getting ridiculous.  Surprise, surprise.  I grabbed the dagger out of my ankle sheath and handed it to her.  She stared at me blankly and before I could explain I got tackled.  Again.  

“Cut your hair!” I yelled, holding the wolf’s jaws away from my throat.  

“What!”

“Cut your bloody hair or we are both going to die!”  I rolled on top of the wolf, and punched him the gut.  He squealed.  “Do it!”

   She still just stood there, staring at the knife.  I’d about had enough.  Stable boy, my eye!  Between knocking wolves off, I took my sword, raised it above my head, and brought it down.  Her hair got very short.  I think she screamed.  

At that moment two wolves tackled me into the mud, and I couldn’t really worry over how she felt about her new hairstyle. I stabbed one and pounded the other on the head, but before I could get to my feet I found myself staring into the gaping throat of a very large wolf.  This was going to hurt.

To my surprise, the wolf let out a squeak and fell on top of me.  I batted him on the head and sent him packing with his tail between his legs.  I looked up.  There was the princess, standing above me with my little knife soaked in blood.  “Wow,” I said, then I grabbed her arm and pulled her on top of me only seconds before a wolf flew through the air right where her head had been.  This was exciting.  

She landed on top of me with an “oomph!” and stared at me in dismay.  “What are you doing?” I yelled.

“What?  What are you doing?” she yelled back.  I realized she must have missed the part where the wolf went flying and didn’t know why she was lying on top of me.  That wasn’t awkward at all.  

“Go climb a tree!”

She stared at me blankly.  “Seriously, go climb a tree!” I yelled.  Understanding suddenly enlightened her; she got off of me and started climbing the tree.

Unfortunately, a wolf jumped up and grabbed her skirt.  I was getting tired of the beasts.  “Gaaaaahhhhh!” I yelled, and chopped him on the back, which allowed the princess to keep climbing.

By now wolves were everywhere.  One jumped at my throat, one bit at my foot, and another wouldn’t let go of my sword for some reason.  It was getting hectic.   “Robbie!” the princess yelled from somewhere above me.  “Climb up here!”  Easy for her to say.

I managed a glance up into the tree.  It would take longer to get up there than it would for the wolves to tear me into lots of little Robbie-pieces.  There was one larger branch up high enough that if I could jump onto it and pull myself up very quickly, I would probably live.  Unless I missed.  If so, I would bash my head open, hit the wolf-infested ground, and probably die quickly.  Perfect.  On the other hand, just standing there wasn’t a good option.  So with a gulp, I opted for the jumping plan.  

I took my sword—it was the smaller one I left with my horse while I fought the dragon, the big one was probably still stuck in the rotting corpse—and swung it wildly in an arch around me to make some space.  I sheathed it, leaped, and reached for the branch.

By some miracle of heaven, I got it.  My arms wrapped around it, and I pulled my legs up only inches above the snapping jaws that followed.  And no wolf can climb a tree.  Thank goodness.  

I waited until I was up a little further and sitting next to the princess a comfortable distance off the ground to relax, catch my breath, and remember I was already injured.  This was not exactly what the doctor ordered for my arm.  And that had been my last clean shirt.  Not anymore.  

The princess just sat there, straight and stiff as a board, staring ahead.  Her face was white and I realized mad wolf fights weren’t in her normal agenda.  The silence started to feel uncomfortable and I got a little worried.  She might not have appreciated me chopping all of her hair off, even if I did it for her own good.  Princesses don’t always consider minor details like that.  

“Are you ok?” I asked, just to be saying something.  Because, of course, she wasn’t ok.  It was a stupid question, but I had to say something.

“No, I’m not ok.”

Told you.

“You cut my hair off!  It looks awful!  I can’t believe you did that!”

“What other choice was there?  You were stuck!  It was either lose your hair or lose your head, and I had to pick one.”  There we go again.  I’m an idiot.  Why was I arguing with her?

“Look at me!  It’s horrible!”

“So fix it.”

“What?”

“You’ve got the knife, make it look better if you don’t like the way I cut it.  I wasn’t exactly thinking about style when the wolves were flying at us.”

She held up the knife.  It was covered in blood.  “This was just in the back end of a wolf.  I am not putting it in my hair!”

Ok, so that was a valid point.  But it’s not like I had my knife cleaning kit.  My shirt certainly would not be any help at this point.   I took the knife, took off my shoe and one sock, wiped the knife on the sock, and handed it back.  “There.  Robbie fixed it.  Better now?  We can be unstylish together.”  Stupid socks.  

She gave me the evil eye.  “I’m not two years old, you know.”

“Act it then,” I muttered under my breath.

Apparently not quite quietly enough.  Her eyes got very big and angry.  

“Sorry,” I said, quickly, “I’m trying to keep us alive here, you realize?  You’re not exactly making this very easy.  I’ve had a long couple of days.  Actually, more like a couple of weeks to be honest.  My life was hectic long before you got involved.”

She grimaced at me and started trimming the ends of her hair.  I watched her for a few minutes while the wolves below us howled in disappointment.  She started doing gymnastics and convulsions trying to fix the back of her hair decently and I took pity.  

“Here,” I said, and took the knife away.  She surrendered it with only a wary glance.  As if she didn’t trust me to chop hair in a straight line.  

I’d slashed it pretty short.  What once was glorious cascade down to her waist now barely reached her shoulders where it was shortest in the back.  The front was slightly longer than the back, though there were really long sections mixed in sparingly.  It looked really awful.  I was careful in my cutting; the last thing I needed to do was give her another reason to hate me.  

After the whole thing was trimmed to both our standards she turned to me.  “How does it look?” she asked cautiously.  

I thought it looked great.  Again, I’m not exactly an expert.  In the back it reached her shoulders, then she trimmed it so it got shorter up front and became bangs that reached her eyes.  It was straight and dark, with the ends curling under her chin.  It accented her heart-shaped face and made her eyes look even larger.

“It looks smart,” I said.  

“Is that a good thing?” she asked suspiciously.

“Yes,” I said, rolling my eyes.  

“Are you sure?” she asked, her face crestfallen.  I got the impression that the loss of her hair hurt a lot more than I’d realized.  It made me feel a little guilty.  Only a little.  

“Yes, I’m sure.”

She sighed, and stared down to the bottom of the tree where three wolves still kept watch.  “Do you think they are ever going to let us down?”

I shrugged.  “They’ll get bored eventually.”

“How long is eventually?”

“Tomorrow morning?”

“That long!”

“Well, I’m not going to climb down in the middle of the night, hoping they left us alone, are you?”

She sighed again, and began to play with her short hair.  “My head feels light.”

I tried not to laugh.  “I’m sorry I cut your hair off.”

“Sure.”

“No,” I said, serious now.  “I actually am.  But I had to choose between your life and your hair.  My job is to keep you alive, so that is the choice I will always make.”  

She fixed her intense eyes on me.  It was a little uncomfortable.  She stared at me for a moment, and suddenly smiled.  The knot in my stomach loosened.  “It’s okay.  I’m sorry I yelled at you.  You saved me twice in two days.  I owe you, I guess.”

“Just doing my job,” I said with a shrug.  

“Still,” she said with a smile.  “I feel indebted.  Friends?”  She stuck her hand toward me.

That was an unexpected development.  Not altogether an unpleasant one, either.  “Sure,” I said, a little bit skeptical, and shook her hand.  

She grinned impishly, and I had to smile back.  I must say: in all of my experience, I’d never met a princess like Mara before.  Suddenly her face fell.  “Where is Roy?”

I groaned.  I’d happily forgot about him for a while.  “He’s probably sitting like a duck in a tree somewhere, even more miserable and stuck than us.”

She laughed.  “Is he always like that?”

“Like what?”

“‘Oh thy violet of purple bright, as lovely as my love in my sight,’” she quoted, waving her hand in the air.

“Most of the time,” I said with a laugh.

“Do you ever get used to it?”

“More or less,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“How long have you worked for him.”

“My whole life.”

“Oh,” she was quiet for a minute.  “What’s that like?”

“It’s ok,” I shrugged.  It was difficult to know what I should tell her about my not-so-fairytale-like life.  Hers had been very different.  “How was it living in that castle with the dragon?”

“It was ok.”  We both laughed.  “Kind of boring,” she added.  “There wasn’t a whole lot to do in that little room.”

“What did you eat?”

“What?”

“Really, I think it’s a valid question.  There wasn’t anything to eat in there.  The dragon didn’t bring you food, did he?”

She looked at me like I was crazy.  I probably was.  “That is not the first question I expected to be asked after 150 years of enchantment.”

“Then it must be a pretty good question, eh?”

A smile spread over her face.  “It was actually pretty cool.  Did you see that little round table, over by the window?”

I crinkled my face and tried to remember what her room looked like.  I’d been a little distracted.  “Not really,” I admitted.  

“Well, it had a magic tablecloth that the sorcerer gave me after he left me to starve for a week and discovered me half dead.  It had pictures of all kinds of food on it and whenever I got hungry I just had to pick what I wanted, ask for it, and it would appear.”

“Wow.” Good thing the sorcerer choked after saving his prisoner from starvation.  I wondered if there were any radishes on the tablecloth.

“Yeah,” she said, and we fell silent again.

“What else did you do?”

“There wasn’t much else to do.”

“Well obviously you didn’t just sit and eat all day.  You’re not hugely fat.”

“You are the strangest person I ever met.”

“Maybe you should get out more,” I said dryly.

She glared at me.  “Yeah, I probably should try that.”

“Just a suggestion.”

“What do you do?”

“Slay dragons, fight witches, save little children, rescue damsels.  You know, the usual.”

“Oh, yes, very usual.”

“I know, not very interesting.”

“How come you do all that?”

“Roy’s a prince, people expect him to be a hero.”

“That doesn’t explain why you have to do anything.”

This was getting touchy.  How much should I really tell her?  I sort of liked the girl, and didn’t want to dash her hopes completely by telling her what a buffoon her one true love was.  “Roy needs a little help sometimes, that’s all.”

She laughed outright.  “Is his name really Roy?”

“Yes,” I said, grinning.  “But he will try to convince you he’s Prince Charming.”

“He already did!”

More laughing.  This night wasn’t turning out so bad after all.  “You know,” I said, “you’re ok.”

“Well, thank you, I think,” she said.

“Don’t worry, it is a compliment,” I assured her.

“What do you mean?”

I struggled with how to frame my words.  “I’ve rescued, well, more than one princess in my life.  Most of them aren’t very interesting.”

“And I am?”

“In comparison, at least,” I said, trying not to smile.

She punched my arm lightly.  “Thanks!”

“You’re welcome,” I said, more worried about not yelling out in pain.  My arm was worse off than I’d thought.  

I didn’t do a good job.  “Oops.  I forgot,” she said.

“No worries,” I gasped.  At this point I think I passed out.

When my eyes opened, it was very, very dark.  Mara’s face hovered about two inches away, peering down in concern.  “Robbie?”

“Guhhhhhh,” I moaned.

“Oh,” she said with relief.  “I thought I killed you.”

I sat up grimacing.  “Nope, I’m a tough hobo.  It’s harder to kill me than that.  I hope.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I think several days of monster fighting got the better of me.”

“Oh.”  

“Um…how long have I been, er, not awake?”

“A few hours.  I don’t know.  You had me pretty worried.  I thought I would have to try to drag your dead body past all those wolves,” she said.  I’m pretty sure she was teasing me.   

“Wouldn’t want you to have to do that.  I wouldn’t be able to watch!”

She glared at me, but didn’t punch this time.  I realized she looked utterly exhausted.  It had been a long day for her, too.

“Why don’t you try and get some sleep?” I offered.  

She looked at me skeptically.  “And let you pass out again and fall out of the tree and die!”

“You’re not going to be any good if you pass out too.  I’m used to this kind of thing, get some rest.”

She didn’t have the energy to fight with me.  “Ok, I guess,” she said.  She squirmed around a bit, trying to get comfortable, then looked at me in despair.  “How did you do it!” she cried dismally.

“I can smack you in the arm, if you want,” I offered.

“I have half a mind to smack you!”

My eyes got huge, my jaw dropped, and I cringed away from her.  Her eyes got huge, and she glared at me.  “Thanks.  Thanks a lot,” she muttered.

“Just kidding,” I said with a grin.  “Really, get some sleep.”

She leaned against the tree trunk and moved around restlessly for a bit.  It got quiet after a couple minutes and just when I felt certain she was asleep, she started to slide.  Without any warning she suddenly started to fall out of the tree.

I grabbed her arm, and held her for a moment.  When I realized she wasn’t going to wake up I had a problem.  What if I dozed off?

Gently, trying not to wake her up (it would take a while to explain what the heck I was doing) I moved her so I leaned against the tree. I put my right arm (the not-dead one) around her back and her head rested on my shoulder so she couldn’t fall over backwards.  In her sleep she muttered something and snuggled up next to me.  I could only pray she wouldn’t wake up like that.  

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Chapter Five: Dragon Slayer

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Keep a dragon confused.  That’s the only way to prevent ending up on the barbeque.  You have to be careful when you’re fighting something five thousand times your body-weight.  Just remember: being smaller does have some advantages.

 

The prince led the way through the castle.  Sometimes he forgot that he was terrified of dragons.  I followed him, a little bit more cautiously.  

Dragons are huge.  You’d think that it would be pretty easy to keep track of them, but no such thing.  They have all sorts of hiding methods and they are crazy sneaky.  I’m serious.  They really are just giant snakes and they can move silently.  Add to that a nice selection of magic powers, the ability to fly and breathe fire, and a nasty temper, and they are insane.  I loved it.  Every one of my senses was on edge, waiting for him to pop up.  It was way too quiet for a dragon-infested castle.

Then, without warning, a claw appeared from around a corner and threw Prince Utterly-Useless against a wall, and I was face to face with the biggest dragon I ever saw.  Smoke poured from his nostrils.  He was black with a green tint, though in the darkness he mostly looked very dark.  And huge.  And scary.  His head went back and I decided it was time to stop thinking and start acting.  I bolted between his legs and under his whole giant body only about an eighth of a second before he scorched the part of the floor where I’d just been standing.

I got a little nervous just then, because it would have been especially easy for the dragon to roast Prince Unconscious to a crisp, considering the guy wasn’t moving, and I was running between the monster’s legs.  Fortunately, the dragon seemed more interested in me.  I’d rather have the dragon after me than Prince Ugly.  Then I’d just have to save the guy.

Nothing freaks a dragon out like running between its legs.  It can’t see you, and for a moment you have a slight advantage.  I admit, it’s a very slight advantage.  But anything helps when fighting these beasts.  This was the seventh dragon I fought.  The king kept me busy.  Roy usually ended up being about as useful as he was this time.  But whatever way you look at it, I had more experience when it came to dragons than your average hobo.

Nonetheless, this dragon was impressive.  No wonder the tiny kingdom this dame came from couldn’t deal with him.  As I came out from under him and ran as fast as possible toward a narrow hallway, I heard a roar.  The dragon turned on his hind legs (Huge and agile.  Oh, bananas.) and came after me.  I took off down the hall as fast as I could.

Step one of my plan was to get the dragon far away from Prince Unbearable.  It would be totally useless to kill the dragon and end up with a dead prince.  When you really got down to it, my job was to keep Roy alive and make him a hero.  That was it.  I was no hero; I just had a job to do.  So don’t think that I was running down the hall because I clutch when I actually get into battle.  I just needed the opportune moment.

The dragon did not fit down the hallway.  It blasted some fire after me, but I got around a corner just in time.  I kept my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t go back and blast the prince.  I got lucky; two seconds later I heard the unmistakable thump of a belligerent dragon on the floor above.  Then nothing.  I smiled.  I knew that wherever this hallway came out, he would be waiting for me.  Now this was fun.

I slowed down after a moment.  At the end of the hall was a wide room filled with pillars.  Once maybe it was a main hall for someone’s court.  Now, it was just big and spooky.  And it wasn’t completely empty.  There was a dragon in there somewhere.  Dragons can be silent and sneaky, for sure.  But then, so can I.  I slunk into the shadows against the wall and loosened my sword in its sheath.  Then I waited.  

Dragons are very patient animals.  They have to be, they live for centuries.  But they are also very curious.  And that’s their weakness.  If they know what you are doing, they will wait for hours.  Once, I had one trap me in a dark closet and sit outside it for a whole day, silent and spooky, waiting for me to get bored and come out so it could kill me.  The thing held its breath all day so it wouldn’t miss an opportunity to fry me.  A whole day in that closet!  But I’m getting off subject.  The point is, that dragon knew exactly what I was up to.  Nothing, in fact, I was stuck in a closet.  If a dragon isn’t sure what you’re doing and he is riled up, he is not going to wait forever for you.  He is going to start some action.  

This dragon had one advantage: he knew where I was, he just didn’t know what I was doing.  I had no idea where he was.  But I had one advantage, too.  I understood enchanted dragons perfectly, both from experience and from Phil’s tutoring.  He knew nothing about me.  He didn’t have much practice fighting knights and it wouldn’t have helped him now if he had.  I don’t operate the same as most people.  Most people try to be heroic.  As I’ve said before, and probably will say again, I don’t have to be heroic.  I can be useful.  

I waited for what felt like forever.  Then I saw a dark shadow and a slight glow.  The dragon was coming.  I took two steps closer to the opening and crouched down, my hand ready to draw my sword.  The shadow grew bigger.  My whole body tensed.  Suddenly his eyes appeared, bright and brilliant, illuminating everything.  

The instant I saw him I drew my sword and took off.  He pulled his head back, lunged, and snapped, expecting me to go for his heart.  Instead, I darted to the side just in time to avoid his monstrous jaws.  I kept going and ducked behind a pillar to avoid the wall of fire he blasted.  I glanced toward the ceiling and suddenly my plan got a radical makeover.  Now this would really be fun.

Something that once had been a chandelier hung on the ceiling.  It was broken; now it was just long chains with a gigantic chunk of twisted metal attached to it.  I didn’t particularly care about the thing attached to the chains; it was the chains that changed my plan.  They, combined with the pillars, were going to make my job almost too easy.  I had to remind myself to run some more.  The dragon didn’t particularly care that I just discovered a brilliant plan and needed some time to ponder it.

I spent a couple minutes darting around, dodging fireballs, perfecting my scheme, and getting the general lay of the room.  It was very large with rows of pillars all up and down it.  Whoever built this place must have been paranoid about the roof collapsing.  At one end of the room was a wide stair to a platform, then on both sides of the platform another staircase curled up leading to a walkway all around the room.  When I had a chance I ran up those stairs.

Now, lest you forget, the dragon was very upset at this point.  Don’t forget I had to figure this all out while trying to avoid getting eaten.  

I ran as hard as I could around the walkway.  The dragon couldn’t quite get a good shot at me, because every time he thought he cornered me he ran into some pillars that were too close together and had to get around them and by that time I’d moved.  Then we started the process over.  At least it kept both of us on our toes.  I finally got to the set up that held the chains for the chandelier.  I had half a second to look, see how it worked, and break it, then jump out of the way so that I didn’t get chopped in half by the flailing chains before taking off again to avoid the dragon.  I got lucky: step one of my plan worked perfectly and the chandelier crashed to floor.  I don’t think the dragon even noticed; he was too frustrated by me avoiding his wrath.  It was highly entertaining, but my side started to hurt a lot.  It was time to wind this down.  

I got back down the stairs in one piece, but it took a couple minutes to work my way over to where the chains had fallen.  The dragon was furious, he had blackened every inch of the place.  I grabbed the end of the chain opposite the massive chandelier.  I got lucky again: the size of the chandelier was perfect.  There were lots of sections of pillars it would never fit through.  And it wasn’t even rusted out.  (Yes, I checked to make sure it wasn’t about to fall apart.  Very quickly, but I did check.)  I started to feel very excited; this might really work.  The links in the chain were very large.  I slipped my sword through one and turned to face the dragon.  

He burst around the pillar and hurtled toward me.  I braced myself, this time I needed to actually hit him.  He had started to get wise to me and he didn’t expect me to attack him.  Every time he came at me I darted one way or the other at the last moment and now he expected it.  The last couple times were close.  This time, I needed to stab him.

Dragons are very difficult to kill, even if you know how to do it.  It is especially hard with a sword.  To get a sword under a scale, you have to attack at a very specific angle.  And to actually get it into his heart you have to get under a very specific scale.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, your sword gets stuck under the scale approximately ninety percent of the time leaving you weaponless, which means you are kind of in trouble.   Dragons don’t just tip over and die right away, even if you do mortally wound them, instead they get even more ferocious for a while.  Most people advise using a weapon other than a sword while dragon fighting.  But most people don’t fight like me, because most people aren’t almost confident they won’t die.  I mean it was certainly possible that I would die, but then Roy probably wouldn’t get his happy ending, so it was unlikely.  But I couldn’t rest all of my chances on pure luck.  That would have been stupid.  I needed a backup plan.  Thus, the whole crazy deal with the chandelier.  

As his head lunged toward me, I ducked under it at the last second; keeping my eyes on the scale I already decided was the one I needed to get my sword under.  His head shot over me and I charged.  Right on cue, his chest dropped down and I shoved my sword under the predetermined scale, still attached to the massive chain.  I felt it pierce the flesh under his scales and the dragon let out a bewildered bellow.  I pushed it in all the way and took off as fast as I could, forgetting the cramps in my side and legs in my desperation to get as far away as possible as quickly as possible.  You don’t want to mess around with angry dragons.    

I ran between two pillars that I was sure the chandelier would not fit through first.  Then I started darting, ducking, and weaving around and between every pillar I could find up and down the hall.

If he’d still had full firepower, I would have died.  But even a monster dragon can’t keep that kind of furnace going forever and he had been chasing me for a while.  I think he was a little bit out of shape as well.  Now, with a sword in his heart and his life and energy seeping away, his flames were getting weaker and weaker and I easily could have avoided them if I wasn’t exhausted as well.  

Now, in case my plan isn’t completely obvious yet, the idea was for the chain to get all tangled up in the pillars and the chandelier to get caught and hold him so that he got completely stuck, with a sword in his heart.  Then, well, that would be that for the dragon.  It was a good plan and I thought it should work.  As long as I managed to stay on my feet that long.  My body was about finished, too.  I wondered if Roy was still unconscious in the hall.  

So, I ran.  And ran.  And ran some more.  I would definitely be sore tomorrow.  The dragon came after me, dragging the chain behind it.  I tried not to look behind to see how far back he was.  I could tell he was slowing down, but so was I.

Then he stopped.  There was a gurgle, a clunk, a roar, a blast of fire dangerously close to my back end, and then I just heard him breathing heavily.  I got what felt like a safe distance away and turned around to look at the damage.  

The entire hall smoldered.  Smoke and ash covered everything.  The massive chandelier chain crisscrossed the hall back and forth, tangled around pillars.  The dragon stood in the middle of it all, his head down, blood pouring from his chest and pooling around him, impossibly stuck.  I did it.  I defeated the dragon.  Not dead yet, but close enough.  I stared at him for a moment.  

The job wasn’t done yet.  I turned around and found the hallway where Roy fainted.  He was exactly where I left him.  Another lucky stroke: he was still alive.  Actually, he was snoring quite contentedly.  I couldn’t decide if he stayed unconscious the whole time, or if he got un-unconscious and just decided to take a nap while he waited.  I was about to wake him up when I thought better of it.  It would be much more conducive to rescue the princess without Prince Unpractical.  He’d want to make speeches or something, and I wasn’t quite in the mood for that.  

Princesses usually aren’t that hard to locate.  Just find a long staircase leading to a tower.  I got to what looked like a proper staircase for hiding a princess at the top, and started to run up.

My breath came out in gasps.  I had to stop halfway up the stairs; this was just ridiculous.  Neither the prince, nor the princess, nor the dragon was going anywhere.  Why in the world was I still running?  I leaned against the wall to catch my breath and assess the damage to myself.

The back of the leather jacket I wore instead of armor was black and singed.  The left sleeve was in shreds, and so was the sleeve of the shirt I wore under it.  My revealed arms were black with grime and ash.  I ripped off a chunk of shirt sleeve that looked like it had some semblance of whiteness left to it and used it to wipe some of the black off my face.  My side ached and I knew my left arm was burned pretty good.  Other than that, and the fact that I couldn’t stop gasping for air, I seemed to be in mostly one piece.  That was encouraging.  

I took my time getting up the rest of the stairs, so by the time I was at the top I could breathe again and my heart speed sounded normal.  I took a deep breath and pushed open the door.  

The room at the top of the stairs looked very different from the rest of the castle.  A huge, soft blue drapery hung around a large window looking out at the desolation around the castle.  The room had more light in it than anywhere else in the castle.  I’m not sure why.  The bed was draped with more blue cloth.  There was a scanty amount of other furniture in the room and that was it.  The girl stood next to the window, leaning half out of it.

She spun around when I opened the door and looked at me with a pair of the biggest, deepest eyes I ever saw.  They caught me off guard.  I obviously startled her, too.  

“You’re the one who fought the dragon?” she asked me eagerly. Her beautiful eyes shone.  

Well, one thing was certain.  She was the prettiest damsel I ever rescued.  Her appearance otherwise was about as I expected from reading the book.  She was tiny, petite and delicate looking, with dark brown hair hanging down to her waist.  Her face was heart shaped, with a tiny, slightly pointy nose, a sharp chin, and delicate features.  Her eyes were the most astonishing thing about her face, dark brown, huge, and deeply intense, ringed with long dark lashes.  She stared at me intently, waiting for my reply.

I spread my arms so she could get a good look at my black and singed appearance.  “What, is it obvious?”

She smiled brilliantly.  “Then you are my hero.”  

“Nope,” I said, and shook my head.  “I’m not a hero.  I work for the hero.”

“What?”

“Come on, I’ll take you to your prince.”

I turned around and started to walk back down the stairs.  

“Wait!” she yelled after me.  “Where are you going?”

“I’m taking you to the prince.”

“Wait!”

“I’m in a hurry, your majesty.”

“I command you to stop for a minute!”

I rolled my eyes and turned around.

She had followed me down the stairs.  Her eyes blazed and her lips were pressed firmly together.  I’d made her mad.  Already.  I often have that affect on damsels.  

“Now,” she said, standing two stairs above me so she could look down on me, “who are you and where are you taking me?”

“I work for a prince who has come to rescue you and take you to his castle and marry you.  I’m taking you downstairs to meet him.”

“Why didn’t he come up and get me himself?  That would be the proper way to do things.  I should not be rescued by a stable boy!”

That made me kind of mad.  After all, I just defeated her dragon for her and my arm was probably scarred for life.  “He’s downstairs because he is completely incapable of fighting a dragon and he was only in here two seconds before it knocked him out.  So I fought the dragon and rescued you, and now it is time for him to come and claim his due.  Got it?”

Her face fell and she stared at me, bewildered.  “But…”

“Just come on,” I said, and turned around to keep walking.  I felt a slight twinge of guilt.  It wasn’t her fault my life was crappy.  

She followed me in silence down the stairs for a minute.  “What’s your name?” she asked finally.  

“Robbie.”

“Robbie,” she repeated thoughtfully.  Than she asked, “What’s the prince’s name?”

“Roy.”
“Oh.  And he’s my prince?”

“Yup.  He would be your one true love.”

“How come you work for him?”

“I’ve worked for him my whole life.”

“You defeated the dragon?”

“Yes.”

“Why?  Why did you kill the dragon when he’s my prince?  My hero is supposed to be my prince!  This isn’t right!”

“Life’s not fair, Princess.  Things don’t always turn out the way they are supposed to.”

I could feel her seething behind me.  

At the bottom of the stairs she followed me to where the prince was still snoring away.  He looked ridiculous.  I gave his shoulder a shake, then kept shaking until he woke up.

“What?  What’s going on?” he said, looking around in bewilderment.  He didn’t even seem to notice the princess who stood against the wall, staring at him in confusion.

“It’s time for you to kill the dragon,” I said quietly.

It was the law.  I wasn’t allowed to completely kill the dragon.  The prince had to do it.  I would cripple the monster and mostly kill it, leaving the final stroke for Roy.  It was part of the Happily Ever After; the prince had to at least poke the dragon.  So I would damage it enough that there was no chance the dragon could accidentally breathe on the prince, the prince would stab it, and that was the end of it.  

I pulled the prince to his feet, gave him time to readjust his hair, and led the way through the little hallway into the pillar room.  The dragon crouched in the middle, magnificent even now.  He lifted his huge black head when we entered and his eyes were scorching.  The princess gasped at the sight of him and the prince blanched.  “Don’t worry,” I said quietly.  “He’s not going anywhere.”

The prince smiled and turned to the princess.  “Don’t worry, my lady,” he said.  He grabbed her hand and kissed it.  Finally, he acknowledged her presence.  “I will destroy this monster!”  He bravely strode through the still smoking room with his sword drawn toward the wounded and exhausted dragon.  “You, monster, have met your end!  Prepare to face my wrath!”

“Come on princess.  You don’t want to see this.”  I pulled her after me back again through the hall to the other side to wait for the prince.  It would be a while.  

I sat against the wall and let the pain and exhaustion have their way for a bit.  The princess stood in front of me, biting her lip.  “Did you do all of that?” she asked suddenly.

“All of what?” I asked, lifting my head to look up at her.  

“That, in there.  With the dragon and the chains and everything.”

“Yes.”

“How did you do it?  I’ve never seen anything like that.  I thought he was undefeatable.”

“I’ve fought more than my share of dragons.”

The dragon bellowed in the pillar room. I winced.  The prince was very clumsy about killing things.  “It’s kind of a shame, really,” I said half to myself.

“What is?”

“The dragon.  It doesn’t need to die.”

She looked confused.  “Of course it does.  What do you mean?”

I shrugged.  “Well, that’s just the thing of it, really.”

“What are you talking about?”  She actually looked interested.  That was surprising enough I actually explained.

“Well, dragons don’t just go around capturing people, they get enchanted, too.   And the way these enchantments work, they have to kill anyone who tries to rescue the girl they are guarding.  If someone rescues the girl, the enchantment is broken.  The dragon goes free.  Most of the time the dragon is just as much a prisoner as the damsel and at least as miserable.  Killing the dragon doesn’t actually accomplish anything.  If someone could rescue a girl without killing the dragon, the dragon would be free.  Most of the time they aren’t inherently evil, just enchanted.  If you rescued one, they might be useful.”

“How do you know that would work?”

“I know a thing or two about enchantments.  I have a good friend in the business,” I said with another shrug.

“Then why doesn’t anyone do that?”

“People don’t see things that way.  What glory is there in going around the dragon, when you can be known as a dragon-slayer?  Besides, it’s difficult to get around a dragon without killing it.  Most people can’t do it.”

“You did.”

“Yes, but Roy needs his fame.  That’s why I’m here.  And like I said, where’s the fame in a living dragon?”  

“That isn’t fair!”

I stared at her.

“I know, I know,” she said with a glare.  “Life isn’t fair.  You said that already.”

She certainly had a temper.    “I’m sorry.”

She practically snarled at me.  “Don’t be condescending.”

I spread my hands.  “Pardon me princess.  I’ve had a bit of a long day.”

She was about to make a scorching reply, but the prince appeared in the hallway.  He strode up to the princess.  “Now, my fair lady, your evil captor has been destroyed.  Princess, I will take you to my castle and you will be my bride.  What say you?” he asked with a majestic pose and a flip of his magnificent hair.

Her eyes got very wide.  “My lord,” she said with a deep curtsy.  She was about to go on, but I never knew what her reply was to that presumptuous remark.

The prince interrupted.  “Come, it is a long journey home and there is much to do when we get there.”  He grabbed her hand and began to walk away, then he turned back to look at me for the first time.  “Hurry up, Ronald, and get my horse.”

I stood up with a groan.  “My name is Robbie!” I called after them, and slowly followed.

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Chapter Four: To Choose a Damsel

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Be careful what you wish for: sometimes a fairy godfather just might give it to you.  Then you’re in trouble.

 

It was very early in the morning, but I couldn’t sleep any longer.  I leaned against the doorpost of Phil’s small, thatched cottage and gazed out toward the dilapidated shack and broken fence that kept a skinny milk cow.  It must have been either very stupid, or too old and slow to manage to walk off, because I couldn’t see that the fence was doing any good.

“What are you doing out in the cold, laddie?”

I turned to see Phil standing right behind me.  “Just admiring your pasture down there.  It’s rather ingenious.  Can you possibly get any milk out of that poor animal?

He chuckled.  “Not really.  I think it’s older than me.  But it’s good company.   Nice to have something alive around that doesn’t bother you with pesky questions and incessant complaining.  I’ve had enough of people to last a lifetime.”

“No people?  Does that mean you want me to leave too?” I asked, pretending to pout.

He put a thin, frail looking hand on my shoulder, and gave me a rough shake.  “Not all people, though I do wish you hadn’t brought your gilded jester.  Now come in out of the cold and have some tea.”

Phil was a fairy godfather.  He should have had long snowy white hair and beard.  Instead, he was mostly bald, with just a ring of frizzy gray hair, and a gray beard that stuck out in every direction.  His house was full of books and birds.  The birds were his way of obtaining information from the world; the books were his soul.  

I sipped the tea and waited for him to get settled.

“Now,” he said, sitting down and looking me in the face, “what did you come here for?”

When I arrived the night before, Phil asked no questions.  He was delighted to see me and relieved that his elf was still alive.  He gave Roy a thick drink to put him to sleep and we stayed up late, reminiscing and telling stories.  Now he was ready to go to work while it was early and the prince was still asleep.

“Can’t I come visit an old friend?” I asked with a smile.

He snorted.  “That fat king wouldn’t let you go out to visit a friend if the world was crumbling into oblivion.  You only get to come and visit me when you need something.”

“I guess it’s a good thing I need you then.”

Phil just looked hard at me.

“I need a damsel,” I said finally.

“You don’t need me to find a damsel.  Just look out the window sometime,” he said with an exasperated wave of his hand.  Phil held the strong opinion that Fairyland was going downhill and the prevalence of damsels, witches, and other such horrors was a sign of a ridiculous amount of overdramatic-ness on the part of the fairy godmothers.  

“No, this one has to be special.  It can’t just be any girl.”

“And why is that?”

“She’s the last.”

He was quiet for a moment.  “The last?”

“It’s almost our golden birthday.  Roy is ready to get married and settle down.  This will be my last rescue.”  It physically hurt me to say it.  The look on Phil’s face didn’t make it better.

He looked like someone shot his favorite bird.  

Phil blinked and snapped out of it.  “Isn’t it a little early?  Just because he wants to get married doesn’t mean he won’t want to be a hero anymore.”

“You know that’s a lie as well as I do.”

He sighed.  “What do you want me to do then?”

“I want you to make sure that my last adventure is one worth remembering.  And I want the girl I have to spend the rest of my life working for to be a reasonable person.”

Phil’s eyes actually started to glow.  “Well, that is a bit more difficult.”  I could already see the wheels rumbling in his head.  He got up from his chair and began to look over the books on his shelf, mumbling to himself as he did so.

He thumbed slowly over his books and I settled back to wait.  He had a lot of books.  This could take a while.

“A good damsel,” he muttered.  “There’s a very limited selection.”

“I realize that.”

He was silent for a while, carefully looking over his shelves.  “There!” he said finally.  He pulled one huge fat book off the shelf and brought it to the table.  “There’s far too many damsels in this world,” he said, flipping through pages of his book.  “The godmothers created a monster with their Happy Ending business.  Hardly a reasonable girl to be found anymore.”

“I know, Phil.”

He chuckled.  “I know you know.  But grumbling is a perk for the elderly.   There is one girl I heard about a while back who stuck out.  I like her story a lot.  Brave little thing.  And it sounds like a good adventure for you, a good match for what you’re looking for.”

I already hated her.  

“Ha!” he cried, and shoved the book at me open to the page about the girl who I already knew would ruin my life.

Her name was Mara.  That sounded good right away.  Most of these girls are named Lorianza or Rapunzel or Aurora or something silly like that.  Mara is pronounceable.

Then there was her story.

She lived in a country that was incredibly prosperous until the king decided to pick a fight with a sorcerer.  So the sorcerer called a dragon and demanded that the king sacrifice his daughter to it, or the dragon would destroy the entire kingdom.

This was a small kingdom that probably didn’t rate having an uber-powerful sorcerer trying to take it over, but it definitely did not have the manpower or resources to defeat a dragon.  (Not to mention they didn’t have me working for them, not to sound cocky or anything.)  So the king handed over his daughter.  Sad, huh?  Anyway, that was unexpected and the sorcerer ended up being kind of a wussy and didn’t have the guts to actually make the dragon eat the girl, so she got carried off and surrounded by multiple enchantments and other horrors, and left her there with the dragon until the sorcerer came up with a new plan.  Unfortunately for him (and the enchanted dragon and girl) he choked on a radish and died suddenly.  I don’t know what happened to the kingdom, but for the last 150 years the girl had been trapped in a very formidable enchantment that was not exactly meant to be broken because the sorcerer never planned on leaving her there.              

I sighed.  “Well, the dragon sounds impressive, at least.”

“What about the girl?” Phil asked, watching my face carefully.

I wondered if I looked as depressed as I felt.  I shrugged.  “She sounds fine.  I won’t like her either way, so it’s not a huge deal.  I’m more interested in the dragon.”

“Well, no one has ever seen the castle where she’s imprisoned, so it should be interesting enough.  My birds say that it is near the Molgavi River, across a broken bridge.  But I’ve never heard of anyone who has been there.”

I looked back at the book.  “What’s that mean?”  The spell was written in goofy looking runes I couldn’t read.  

Phil leaned over to look.  “It’s mostly spell gibberish.  There are some bizarre things in it, something about fire monsters.  And this,” he pointed to one of the runes.  “This says to trust what you cannot see.”

I made a face.  “What is that supposed to mean?”

He shook his head.  “Beats me.  I suggest you go to the broken bridge and see what you can find.  You’re a smart one, and you’ve outsmarted a spell or two in your time.  I have great faith you’ll figure it out.”

I made another face.  “This is the best you have?  There isn’t another damsel that would work?”

“Trust me.  You won’t find one you like more.”

I did trust him.  He never let me down before.  

We both felt sad.  Our brilliant genius master plan to get the best damsel in Fairyland didn’t take more than a day and at some point Roy woke up and needed to be entertained.  Simeur got the brunt of that job, but even Phil and I aren’t cold hearted enough to leave it all to him.  It ruined the last half of my visit with my old friend. We stayed that night at Phil’s, and left early the next morning.

“I will miss you, laddie,” Phil said quietly, grasping my hand.

“We’ll see each other again.”

Phil nodded sadly.  He knew that was unlikely.  So did I.  He didn’t have a lot of friends.  But I waved to him and Simeur and rode off with Roy.  As we rode out of Phil’s little valley the blood pounded in my head.  I wasn’t ready, it wasn’t time yet.  I couldn’t do this.  I was too young to end my life.

Stop.  Breathe.  Time to be a professional again.  Time to find this princess.

The Molgavi River required quite a journey.  It took a good four days steady riding to get there.  On the bright side,the journey was quite uneventful.   The only hard part was Roy practicing his poses and singing awful little ballads about dying damsels.  I know.  Creepy

After we got to the river, we started near the end where it emptied into another, larger river, and rode upstream.  I figured we eventually had to find the broken bridge.  And we did.

At least, it was definitely a broken bridge.  Or, maybe half a bridge?  In the middle of the river the bridge just stopped.  On the other side I could see no ruins or leftover bits of bridge.  It just didn’t exist anymore.  I looked at it carefully.  I hadn’t forgot the fire monsters.  Despite the huge, angry river roaring beneath it, I decided to try going over the bridge and see what happened.  After all, my last falling in a river adventure worked out fine.  What could possibly go wrong?  

We left the horses on the river bank and started across.  We didn’t have to go very far.  A blast of fire shot down and hit the bridge only a foot or two away.  I looked up to see a bird enveloped in flame scream at me and disappear. Roy immediately hit the deck and cowered.  He gets really useless when something dares to frighten him.

I drew my sword and started to swing at the little pests.  There were three small fire birds, diving, darting, disappearing, appearing somewhere else, and shooting little tiny spurts of flame at me.  To my surprise, they weren’t actually that scary, just kind of annoying.  And impossible to catch or hit with my sword because they could teleport.  So at some point, I started to think about what I was doing, and realized that it was kind of preposterous.  Why shouldn’t the sorcerer have just set them there to scare off any misinformed heroes until he came up with something better?  Maybe I didn’t really have to kill them.

Without further ado, I turned, grabbed Roy’s collar, and began to run over the broken bridge.  Now I had another problem.  The bridge was still broken in the middle and when we hit the end we were going to fall in the water.

The spell contained a bit about ‘trust what you cannot see.’  Well, I couldn’t see a bridge to walk on.  So maybe the point of was to run out on the empty space, and everything would come together.

That was my plan.  I know; I’m a genius.  But the awful little fire-bee things were right on my tail and they were super annoying, so that was that.  Still dragging Roy behind me, I closed my eyes and ran off the edge of the bridge.

I stopped in shock.  Yes, when I say I stopped, it obviously means I didn’t fall.  No duh.  The instant I stepped off the end of the bridge, it felt like a shock wave passed through my body.   My eyes flew open in surprise and my jaw actually dropped. Where just moments ago stood only the empty opposite side of the river, a huge rocky island jutted up in the river.  On this island was a black, weatherbeaten castle.  The spell had been a cloaking device, a way to hide the castle from the world.  The “broken bridge” now easily reached the island.  I turned and looked at the other side of the river.  There was no sign of the fire monsters. Yup, I’m a genius.

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Chapter Three: Finding Phil

 

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Don’t get stepped on by giants.  This may be more difficult than it sounds. 

 

“Richard!  I say, Richard!”

The prince and I dismounted when we left the trail. Without a light, it was difficult to see where trees, bushes, rocks, ditches, or anything else was, and one wrong move would take the horses out for a long while.  Walking them let us see at least a little better.  My legs were already scratched, and if this went on a lot longer I wouldn’t have any skin left down there.  Couldn’t there be one thornless bush in the entire forest?  And now Roy wanted to complain.  

“Richard.  My good man.  Why are there so many thorn bushes on the trail?  This is a most preposterous excuse for a road.  I must tell my father.”

“Robbie.  And it isn’t a road.  We left the road.”

“Oh.”  He fell silent except for the occasional exclamation when a thorn pierced his red velvet britches.

The first half hour or so everything went smoothly.  But things never stay that way in my life.  I just started feeling confident when I tripped and fell into a wide, shallow ditch. It took two seconds to discover what it was: a giant’s footprint.  Giants aren’t the most dangerous things in Fairyland, but they are very large.  And if they step on you, you’re done.  Dead done.

This was a fresh footprint too, if I knew anything about giants.  That doesn’t mean a whole lot, because technically they can travel a long way in an hour if they want to.  But most giants are lazy, and they usually like haunted places such as this, so odds were that this guy was still close.  I stood still for a moment to listen and could not hear anything giant-like.

What a conundrum.  Giants meant trouble.  And we were already in plenty of trouble.  The prince looked like he was about to faint with exhaustion and if I told him there were giants nearby he’d quickly turn into a panicked maniac.  

On the bright side, there were no giants in this exact location.  I decided to settle down for the night before we ended up as somebody’s dinner.  

We set up camp.  I wouldn’t light a fire for the prince, so there wasn’t much for him to do but fall asleep, grumbling under his breath and shooting me dirty glances.  I stayed wide awake, waiting for something to happen.  There’s no way I could travel through a haunted forest, get lost, and spend the night there without some sort of disaster happening.  

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I could hear something.  Something started thudding and thundering, not very loud, but loud enough, somewhere off to the right.  I stood up and listened until I was certain.  Somewhere, about a mile away, at least two giants were up to something.  They weren’t getting closer, or farther away for that matter.  I couldn’t tell what they were up too.

Unfortunately for me, I have a horrible bout of curiosity.  For some unexplainable reason I decided the prince would be all right for a minute and headed toward the noise.  As I got closer, the sounds became more discernible.  The giants were laughing and yelling, though quietly, at least for giants.  I stumbled out of the dense woods to a swash of forest where the trees had been broken and smashed and the ground trampled beyond anything humans could muster.  This had to be a giants’ trail.  My suspicions were confirmed when I found more footprints in between the shredded trees.  Oh good, they were big giants.  My favorite kind.  Not easily handled medium sized giants.  Oh no, the bigger the better.

I walked on the edge of the trail, so as not to get accidentally stepped on by anyone out for a stroll.  It wasn’t until I was almost on top of them that I finally figured out what was going on.  I let out a groan.  

Of course, I should have known.  There are not a lot of things that would have a couple of these blokes guffawing about like they were.  But of all the ridiculous things.

I left the trail and circled the clearing where they stood, taking in the situation.  There were two giants.  One of them was building a fire.  The other was teasing their soon-to-be supper.  They would be disappointed if I had anything to say about it.

Their supper happened to be Simeur.  I suppose you could say that Simeur is my friend.  Actually, he works for Phil.  He is also an elf, about three feet tall, and extremely good at getting into the worst situations.  I saved his sorry elf-butt several times before.   

Poor Simeur.  The giants had wrapped him chin to toe in a rope, and one of them dangled him upside down, lifting him up and down at a terrifying rate, while Simeur yelled like a dying dog.  Sime is scared of heights, and falling, and being upside down, and a lot of other things, really.  I almost laughed at the look on his face.  Giants really don’t scare me as much as they should.  To be honest, it really isn’t healthy.  I glanced around and got an idea.

I situated myself behind a tree, slipped an arrow into my bow, and waited.  I had to.  There was nothing to be done until they were quiet enough to hear me.  Eventually, Giant Number Two stopped slinging Simeur around long enough to check on the fire Giant Number One was making.  That was my chance.

“Hey, you up there,” I yelled at the top of my lungs.

They stopped.

“Uh, Brutus, did you hear that?” asked Number Two.

“Yeah, Beagle, I did,” said Number One, Brutus.

Brutus and Beagle (they must have been brothers, only one mother would be that cruel) glanced around the clearing cautiously, scratching their heads.  

I ran around and found a new tree a little ways away.  “Hello!” I yelled again.  This time, I sent an arrow up with my words and it stabbed Beagle in the buttock.

“Ow!” he yelled, dropping Simeur on his head.  I winced.  Simeur would be mad at me now.

“Where are you, you little twerp!” yelled Brutus.

“I’ll turn you into jelly!” shouted Beagle, rubbing his behind.

I ran some more.  “What are you talking about?  I’m right in front of you.” I called, shooting Brutus in the same place as his brother.

“Hey!” yelled Brutus, pulling the arrow out and glaring into the forest.  He looked about warily.  “How come I can’t see you?”

“‘Cause you’re stupid.”  I laughed.  Giants hate being laughed at.

“We ain’t stupid!  You’re stupid!” yelled Beagle.  Then he howled as another arrow stabbed him.

“You shouldn’t call your brother stupid!  That’s mean!”  I shot another arrow at Brutus.  “You’re a bully, Beagle.”

“You callin’ me stupid?” shouted Brutus, shoving Beagle.

“Well, you can’t see me either.  You must both be stupid.”  Beagle’s turn for an arrow where it hurt.

“Don’t call me stupid!” shouted Beagle, shoving back.  They both started pummeling each other.  So far, so good.  But if they stepped on Simeur he’d turn into jelly.  I winced.

The giants tumbled to one side of the clearing exchanging blows and kicks and bellowing loud enough to wake up everything in the forest.  Finally, I saw my chance and took it.  

I darted into the clearing, grabbed an unconscious Simeur, and ran for it.  With any luck at all I would be far away by the time the squabbling giants noticed their dinner was missing.  I ran as fast as I could while carrying an elf in about the general direction I hoped I came from.  If we got lost now, we’d have to wait until morning to get anywhere, and with two furious giants loose it would be a long night.  

Suddenly the bundle on my shoulder began to squirm and grunt.  I didn’t pay any attention.  That is, not until it kicked me in the face.  Then I dropped it soundly and looked down at the elf who glared up at me fiercely.

The rope wrapped around him made it look like he was in a cocoon.  Part of it had slid into his mouth and he couldn’t talk.  But he sure looked mad.

“Come now,” I said to the cocoon.  “Is that any way to treat your rescuer?”

The cocoon wriggled violently and grunted and moaned.

“You just stop that,” I ordered.  “Listen up.  If you want me to untie you, then listen!”  The cocoon stopped squirming, but he still glared at me.  “So I just saved your life.  Seems like I do that a lot.  The way I see it, you owe me one.  So I’ll untie you, but you gotta do me a little favor.  I need to find Phil.  And you are going to take me to him.  Got it?”

The cocoon grunted.  I cut the rope off his mouth so he could talk.  Simeur moved his mouth around like he was testing it.  Then he glared at me and said sullenly.  “I couldn’t possibly take you to Phil.  My job is to protect Phil’s privacy.  He would be quite angry if I just randomly brought you to his house.”  

Even moments after I saved him from being eaten he had an attitude problem.  “You know Phil doesn’t mind me.  Do we have a deal?”

“I can’t take people to Phil unless he tells me to.  I have orders, you know.  You can’t just boss me around.”

I shrugged.  “Suit yourself,” I said, and started to walk away.

“Wait, wait,” Simeur cried, struggling at his ropes.  “Robbie wait.  You can’t leave me like this.  It is not acceptable.  Not acceptable at all.  How would Phil feel if you abandoned me in such an awful manner?  You can’t do this.”

“Watch me.”

“No, Robbie, stop.  Be reasonable now.” Simeur really looked scared.

“No, you be reasonable, Simeur.  Why do I always need rescue you and never get anything in return?  If you are not going to help me, I see no reason to help you.”  I started to walk away again.

“Wait, wait, Robbie.  Stop.”  

I stopped.

“I can be reasonable, right?  We are both reasonable people.  Phil does like you.  I suppose, just this once—I could take you to him.”

I turned around.

“But,” he said, suddenly fierce, “there is just one condition.”

“You are in no position to make conditions.”

“Phil will yell at me, Robbie.  Have a heart.”

“What is it?” I said, relenting.

“Don’t tell Phil how you found me.  You know, the giants and all?  He’ll fire me.  You wouldn’t want something like that to happen, now would you?”

“Fine.” I walked over and began the long process of untying him.

After Sime was un-cocooned, he got up and sniffed the air carefully.  I was painfully aware that the sounds of the giants’ brawl were getting closer and though I couldn’t tell exactly what they were saying, it sounded less like a brawl and more like a hunt.  “This way,” Simeur said, and began to trot through the thickest briar patch in the forest.  There was no choice but to follow him.

Shortly afterward it began to rain.

Of course it rained.  After all, it is my life.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Then it stopped just raining and turned into a blasted thunderstorm.  The downpour instantly drenched us and made it quite difficult to see.  The rain also made an unbelievable amount of noise as it pounded on the trees and I couldn’t tell where the giants were.  There was only one consolation.  Giants have poor hearing and bad sight, but they do have a good sense of smell.  Usually they don’t pay attention to it, which is why a guy like me can sneak up on them.  When they want to find someone, however, it is very useful.  For them at least.  It’s not all that useful when you are getting chased by one of them.  I hoped the rain would wash our scent away and make it more difficult for them.  I didn’t want to be giant-chow any more than Simeur did.

Simeur came to a sudden stop and glanced about with his forehead all wrinkled.

“You’d better not tell me you’re lost!” I shouted.

“Everything looks different in the dark and the wet,” he said matter-of-factly.  “I’m not lost.  Just a little confused, that’s all.”

“You don’t have time to be confused!  The giants are going to catch us!”

“I’m trying!  If I’m not careful, we will get lost!”

“Hurry!”

He looked around one last time and started walking again, in a slightly different direction.  I was getting very worried.  Occasionally I could hear booming, thudding noises.  They probably weren’t thunder.  

Right about then I remembered that I’d left the stupid prince in the stupid clearing and we were going to have to go back for him eventually.  That was it.  I’d had enough, and now I was mad.  

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I muttered under my breath.  I grabbed Simeur’s collar and began to run as fast as I could, dragging the unfortunate elf behind me.  

“Robbie!  Gah!  My legs are short!  Ah!” Simeur yelled.

I pretended not to hear him.  The giants sounded dangerously close.  Apparently the rain wasn’t doing a good enough job of washing away our scent.  The only light in the dense forest was the flash of lightning.  Fortunately, there was a lot of lightning now, otherwise, Sime and I probably would have impaled ourselves on a tree branch, or gotten caught in a tangle of thorns, or fallen into the river I could hear roaring somewhere to my left.

The river!

I turned on my heel and pulled Sime with me toward the roar.  Moments later a flash of lightning showed me the river rushing through a gorge fifteen feet below us.  I couldn’t stop to think about what I was about to do.  I certainly couldn’t worry about the frantic screams from Simeur that I could barely hear over the thunder.  Instead, I jumped.

My logic, at that moment, went something like this: water washes away scent, so the giants wouldn’t be able to track us.  And the mad, racing river moved much more quickly than I could run, especially while dragging Sime behind me.  If nothing else, I’d rather die in a rushing river than be turned into jelly by Brutus and Beagle.  

The instant we hit the water I began to question my logic.  The river was bitingly cold, and it immediately started dragging us at a terrible speed.  

This wasn’t the first time I had traveled in a raging river through a gorge.  It was the first time I had traveled down a raging river through a gorge during a massive thunderstorm in the middle of the night dragging a terrified screaming elf with me.  My logic didn’t quite factor all of that into things, apparently.  

We were moving too fast.  I kicked my legs, trying to keep both my own, and Sime’s, heads above the water.  Simeur was dead weight next to me, screaming and spluttering and drowning.  “Sime, kick your feet!  Kick your feet, Sime!”

“Gglblahglshpahshglah!!!” was Sime’s only reply.  

“Sime, if you don’t help me we are going to die!  Kick!”  

“I can’t swim!” he choked out.

“You don’t have to!  Just kick, you blathering idiot, or I’ll let go of you and you will drown!” He began to kick.  Impressive that I said all that while mostly drowned, eh?

I could go into great detail about our entire adventure down the river, trying not to drown, getting bashed on rocks, and occasionally screaming at Sime to “Kick your blasted legs!” but that would be redundant.  Let’s just say that after an eternity of misery, the river dashed us against the bank of the river at a point where it was reasonably climbable and there was a tree root jutting into the water right at a time when lightning flashed and I could see all that.  In case that sounds too convenient, let me tell you that we were dashed into lots of unclimbable banks, and sometimes we hit climbable ones when there was no lightning, so at some point the odds did have to even out a little.  

We lay on the bank like a couple drowned rats until morning.  Both of us were far too exhausted to even consider trying to go anywhere.  At that point, I didn’t care if the giants came to kill us.  I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

Fortunately, my brilliant logic had managed to get us thoroughly away from the giants and when I regained consciousness the next morning, we were both still alive.  At least, I was.  Sime looked a little questionable.  

After a great deal of shaking and yelling and slapping, I finally got the little guy to wake up.  Then I was in for it.

“You are an idiotic, stupid, mindless, ridiculous, annoying, obnoxious, idiotic…”

“You said that already,” I interjected.

“…foolish jerk!  What in Fairyland were you thinking?  Do you want me to die?  We were fine!  Now we are completely lost and helpless, the giants could find us at any time, and I have no idea where we are!  And my best jacket is totally, completely, and absolutely ruined!  You’re lucky that I don’t just leave you here to fend for yourself, you fool!”

“I saved your life, Sime, don’t you forget.”

“I could have got myself out.  I would have been fine.”

“Okay, so leave.  You said yourself you have no idea where we are.  So you aren’t useful to me anymore.  I can probably find Phil as quickly as you can at this point.  So leave.  I can take care of myself and you said yourself you would be better off without me.”

A look of terror flashed over Simeur’s face before he got control over himself again.  I forced myself not to react.  I wasn’t actually going to abandon him, especially since if I did he would probably get lost again and die.  One of the nice things about not being a hero is that I can bluff little elves and not really feel guilty about it.  Besides the fact that a hero would have turned to face the giants instead of jumping into a river to escape, but that is beside the point.

The point is: I needed Sime’s help to find Phil.  I could technically find him alone, but it would take a lot longer.  If I could get somewhere Sime recognized we would get to Phil in no time flat, assuming no more crises interrupted us.  

“Well, let’s not be hasty, now,” said Simeur. “I need to consider my options.”

He meant, “Please don’t leave me, I need to think up something to convince you to stay, hang on a sec.”  I waited, trying not to smile.

“You managed, with your ridiculous plan, to get us both completely lost.  You owe me.  Besides, you almost killed me!”

“I saved your life, first.”

“Yes, but then you tried to kill me, so we’re even.  I don’t know how to find my way anywhere and you don’t know how to find Phil once we are anywhere.  If you get us out of the woods, I’ll bring you to Phil.  What do you say?”

I could have argued that jumping in the river helped save his life, but that would have been pointless when he already agreed to do everything I wanted.  “Deal.”  

The first thing we had to do was get back to Roy.  That, in itself, was a serious problem.  We started out following the river, until we found a large trampled bank full of giant footprints.  I assumed that this is where we had jumped, and they lost us.  We followed the giant tracks through the forest until we got back to the trail.   It took all day and a considerable amount of whining from my new travel buddy, but eventually we did make it back to my beloved prince.

He actually didn’t seem that upset by my unexplained absence.  He was more concerned with being in wet clothes and I had to help him find dry ones from his pack.  Apparently all he’d done during my entire adventure was sit around and pout.  Well, now you know why I wasn’t too worried about leaving him.  He isn’t nearly brave enough to wander off while I am missing.

The next day the really fun part began.  I still needed to get us out of the forest for Simeur’s part of the deal to kick in.

We began to walk, leading the horses.  Now, I was lost before I found Sime.  I was definitely lost afterwards.  I had the much harder part of our little bargain.  However, for all Sime and Roy knew, I was totally not lost. On the bright side, my navigational skills had not completely abandoned me.  I knew that on the trail we had been walking east.   I also know that moss only grows on the north side of trees, and could use that to keep moving in an easterly direction.  Even so, I was worried.  I hadn’t tried to travel this forest without a trail in a long time, and certainly never with cargo.

Sime wasn’t stupid.  He began to feel put out again.  “You don’t even know where you are going, do you?  You’re just guessing.  You have no idea where we are.”

I sighed.  “We’re not lost yet, Sime.  Why can’t you trust me?”

“Well, because of you we spent half a night drowning!  Oh, sure, I can’t think of any reason not to trust you.”

“You didn’t get eaten by giants.”

“Tell me where we are then.”

“We’re in the forest, walking east.”

“Great.  Just great.  Now I know exactly where we are.”

“Good.”

“Smarty-pants human,” Simeur muttered.

“Useless elf,” I responded.  For the first time, I thanked the stars Roy wasn’t bright enough to ever question my judgment on anything.  He was busy whining about the seriously un-shiny condition of his boots and wet socks, and asking repeatedly if he could ride his horse again yet.

Sime and I walked in silence, mostly ignoring Prince Charming.  Shortly after noon I began to feel like I might know where we were.  I didn’t say anything to Sime because I didn’t want him to get smart on me if I was wrong.  I did pick up the pace a little, however, and the elf did notice.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I don’t want to get stuck here after dark again,” I said.

Simeur shivered.  “Don’t you know where we are yet?”

“I feel pretty confident.”

“Pretty confident!  That means that you are a little not confident!”

“Ok then, I’m completely confident.  Happy?”

Five minutes later, the forest was noticeably less dense.  Almost an hour after that, we stepped out of the trees and looked out over a grassy meadow.  Roy joyfully leaped upon his horse.  Simeur was ecstatic.  

“Oh grass, oh flowers, oh sky of mottled blue!” Roy cried blissfully.  

I rolled my eyes.

“Oh beautiful heavens, I thought I’d never see thee again,” Simeur said with a sigh, staring at the sky.  What a bunch of hobos.

“Your turn.”

“What?” Simeur said, breaking from his reverie.

“It’s your turn.  I got you out of the forest, now you need to get us to Phil.”

Simeur smiled smugly.  “Of course.  Not a problem at all.”  He glanced around, sniffing the air.  “This way,” he said, and pointed.  

Simeur sat behind me on my horse and pointed the way and we rode for the remainder of the afternoon through meadows and fields.  We jumped fences and scared sheep until after nightfall.  I was just starting to feel nervous when we came over the top of a hill.  

“There it is, my friend,” said Simeur with a smug smile.  

A light glowed from a cottage at the bottom of the hill in a grove of trees.  Simeur jumped off the horse trotted down the hill, and Roy and I followed right behind him.  I suddenly felt very excited about seeing my old friend, the godfather.

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