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Chapter 22: Where Are We Now?

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Some stories never end.  They continue on, and on, as long as there is light and dark, life and death.  At some point, however, one has to stop writing about these stories, and start living them again.

 

A year has passed since Valkav died.  A whole year since Mara and I finally realized we really were meant for each other.  A lot has changed since then.

As soon as I got back to the castle, after Mara and I took our long, eventful walk, Jake reminded me of some unfinished business that we had both completely forgotten.  That little problem was named Helga.

She was still sitting on that rock next to the ruins when we got back, looking pretty much exactly the same as when we left her.  We took her back to the castle and introduced her to Roy. It was love at first sight for them. Shortly afterward, they were married with great pomp and circumstance and perfectly matching cerulean napkins.  Roy was crowned king (making Helga queen) and everyone was quite happy. That is, except for those of us who realized that Roy was totally unfit to rule an iceberg.

Fortunately, the kingdom has at least one capable man in it.  That man is named Arlin. He was given the title Lord High General of Defense and Security, and pretty much runs the place.  He does well and there has been great peace and happiness in the kingdom since that time.

Blythe’s injuries were rather extensive, and it took him a good long time to heal.  He was about the whiniest, most obnoxious patient in the whole place. Simeur, however, turned over a new leaf and spent a lot of time with Blythe, talking and telling stories.  After the obnoxious was pieced together again, Simeur even got him a job. Now they are both causing Phil problems and being nuisances. They also fight constantly. But they seem to like each other beneath everything.  Phil says Blythe is the best thing that ever happened to Simeur. They wander the countryside and get in trouble together now, instead of each separately. I suppose it works better. They only endanger the world half as often that way.  

As for Mara and I, we got married about a month later, when everything was back in order in the kingdom.  Because Mara is a princess, we had a very nice wedding. It was in the castle and everything, paid for in full by Roy.  Even I had to thank the guy for that one.

The whole universe flew into an uproar over us getting married.  The godmothers held a huge meeting, trying to decide what the consequences would be.  They were utterly furious, but that was fine with me. The only thing they could come up with to punish me was to say that they would not come and tell us whether our children were going to have a Happy Ending or not.  That is perfectly fine with me. Wouldn’t let them in the house if they wanted to tell us. My kids will live one hundred percent godmother interference free. Thank you very much.

The biggest problem, after we were married, was I didn’t really have a job.  After all that had happened, I couldn’t stomach working for Roy anymore. Even though, in the end, Mara was mine, it would be way too weird and awkward for both of us.  That leads us back to the problem that I have very few marketable skills.

It was Jake, actually, who helped me find solution.  My good buddy stuck around long after his services became unnecessary, because he said I was still the most interesting person he was acquainted with.  He was the one who started the whole thing.

When we were talking about what the heck I should do with myself, now that I could no longer be a stand-in hero, he came up with a very good point.  We were throwing ideas around (some of which were pretty exciting, I must say) and he pointed out the fact that there were a heck of a lot of D.I.D.’s in Fairyland.  Some of these D.I.D.’s had almost no chance of being rescued anytime in the near future. And their dragons did not particularly want to stick around either. Besides that, dragons come in handy.  Maybe, if I could repeat what I did with Jake, we could get a little business going.

The fact is, Jake had already turned out even more useful than I’d thought.  This conversation happened after several people approached me about getting Jake’s help for this or that.  He’d been so handy in battle that several kingdoms sent emissaries to me, wanting to see if they could get his help.  Also, Mara and I rode away on him after our wedding to go to our honeymoon. That caused quite the stir, and several people requested his services at their own weddings.  I guess it does make a bit of a statement, especially if your goal is to have a fancier wedding than the neighbor’s kid did.

Apparently, tales of the guy who had a dragon were traveling farther than expected.  Jake was always happy to comply, but he couldn’t do everything. A few more dragons would not only come in handy, but we could actually expand our business.  Maybe we could even make a living out of it.

We started trying.  It took a while to explain to the first several dragons why I was interested in them.  A couple times I almost got fried. And I couldn’t just leave the damsels lying around wherever anymore.  Mara would have been pretty mad.

Jake helped explain things to the dragons, and eventually things got going. People came to us from all over the place.  Some had dragons they wanted us to defeat. Others wanted to use our dragons for this and that. They have been the deciding factor in more than one war in Fairyland during the last year.  They are useful for all kinds of things besides that, too: transportation, guarding goods or travelers, anything you can think of. Our dragons do it all. We’ve even gotten letters from various damsels who are friends with their dragon and don’t want them to be killed by someone or other.  Those dragons are my favorite to fight. They miss me on purpose when they blast fireballs.

Usually, when we go after a dragon, Mara and I both go, usually on Jake.  After all, we may have lots of dragons, but we only have one Good Buddy. I get around the dragon, rescue the damsel, and deliver her to Mara’s protective hands.  Then, with Jake to protect me, we go back in and talk some sense into the befuddled dragon.

In the last year our business has been booming.  And things look very promising. We moved out into the haunted forest, because dragons do cause a stir in the neighborhood.  We moved into a neighborhood that could take it. We built a cottage near where Max lives and moved the whole conglomeration over there.  We made a large clearing, and the dragons sleep in it around the house, or clear themselves spaces under the trees. They eat either wild animals from the forest, or we sometimes buy a herd of cows or something from an area farmer for them.  They stay with us, get all the food they want, protect us from the haunted forest (and any malicious crabs that might still be hiding in it) and we protect them from any stray heroes or dragon-hunters. I am known to them affectionately as their very own dragon-slayer.  That sounds really odd, coming from a dragon, let me tell you.

In brief, life is good.  Mara is happy. So am I. Yes, I do risk my life a lot.  No, we will never be able to truly settle down and have a Happy Ending.  But Mara knew what she was signing up for when she married me, and so far she says she has no regrets.  In fact, she just told me that we are pregnant. I, Robbie, am going to be a father! Scary…

Of course, we are wild with joy.  When she told me, I actually whooped, grabbed her, and spun her around until she scolded me.  Then I ran to tell my good buddy, who was almost as thrilled as me

So that is our life.  It is crazy as always, and probably won’t ever slow down.  Not with dragons, and now children, everywhere. That is okay with us, though.  It’s what we want. After all, who really wants their story to end, even if it is a Happily Ever After?

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Chapter 21: Hero

Secrets For Surviving in Fairyland:

Sometimes, no matter how much you think you know, you are just wrong about a whole lot of things.  If you can admit that, just sometimes, your world will become a much nicer place.

I stared up at Jake from where I lay on the floor, and he stared back at me.  “Buddy,” I said, after a moment. “You just swallowed a sorcerer!” Maybe I only know a few things about sorcerers, but I know they are pretty hard to kill.  “He was still twitching. Aren’t you worried that he’s going to turn your intestines into snakes or something?”

Jake let out a low, rumbly laugh.  “Don’t you know? The one thing sorcerers are scared of is dragons.  We’re magical, you know. They can’t really do all that much to us, besides imprison us if they really catch us off guard.  He is never coming back, not now. The one sure fire way of getting rid of a sorcerer: have a dragon swallow him.”

“Um, thanks.”

“No problem.  Let’s get you out of here.”

With the sorcerer safely gone, I actually wasn’t feeling all that awful.  Other than the little problem of not being able to move my arm for the horrible pain that throbbed through it.  I stood up slowly and looked around, feeling a bit dazed.

“How are we doing out there?” I asked, making my way over to him.

“Listen,” was his only response.

I stopped.  I could hear yelling, and cheering from outside.  “Is that us?”

“Yes, yes it is.  You did it Robbie.  You defeated Valkav.  You win.”

It was almost too much.  The world started to spin at an alarming rate.  Jake started laughing again. “Just climb up, Robbie.”

Without arguing I did as he said.  Jake took off slowly, and flew gently down and around the castle.  He gave the softest landing yet, and growled for someone to come help me down.

I didn’t need that much help, just enough so I didn’t have to use my left arm.  Blakely helped me slide off and I began to survey the damage. Suddenly I thought of something.  “Blakely, will you do me a favor?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Go into the castle and see if you can find the gnome.  He might be in the throne room, and he is probably injured.”

“You want to help the gnome, sir?” asked Blakely, astonished.

“He saved my life.  Go.”

Blakely saluted, and did as he was told.  

I didn’t express my great fear, that he might be dead.  Instead, I looked around the castle. There were small smoldering fires here and there.  Arlin’s men picked their way through the wreckage and ashes, helping the injured of both sides and presumably counting the dead.  Those left of Valkav’s men stood along one wall, unarmed, and watched by several guards.

“Jake, where are they taking the injured?” I asked.

“They set up a station on the other side of the castle.  Arlin thought ahead. He got several healers from the village, along with the guards’ own healer, and hid them in the tunnel until the end of the battle.  Now they are out, and doing a fine job.”

Wow.  Good thing some people are organized.

Jake looked at me worriedly.  “Maybe we should get you over there.  Someone should look at your arm. It looks broken.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I said, brushing him off.  “First, I have to see Blythe.”

He didn’t look convinced.  He turned his head toward the castle and peered at it intently for a moment.  “It looks like they found him. They should probably take him straight to the healer’s though.  It doesn’t look good.”

My heart jumped into my throat.  “Dead?” I asked.

“No, but maybe mostly.  Come on, we’ll meet them over there.”  He gave me a nudge with his huge-o head to get me going.

Jake walked protectively behind me all the way.  There were people everywhere at their makeshift hospital, lying on the floor, on mats, all over the place.  “These people should be inside,” I muttered to Jake.

He growled his agreement, but said, “I think they didn’t want to go in without permission.”  

“Permission!  I’ll give them permission,” I muttered, but at that moment, Blakely and another soldier appeared, and they were carrying Blythe.

They took him over by the healers and set him down on a mat.  I followed like a worried mother hen, and when he was down, knelt over him.

“Blythe?” I whispered.  “Hey, buddy, can you hear me?”

His eyes fluttered slowly.  “Hey,” he rasped out.

Relief flooded over me.  He was alive. “How you doin’?” I asked.

He laughed, hackingly.  “How does it look like I’m doing?  Just swell!”

“Yeah, I can tell.”

“Hey,” he said seriously.  “Did you kill him? Is he gone?”

“He’s gone, Blythe.  Valkav is dead. You’re free.”

Tears welled up in his little gnome-eyes, and he struggled to speak.  “Thank you,” he said finally. “I can’t tell you, especially after…” he choked up, unable to go on.

“Hey, hey, don’t die on me now.  Don’t worry about that, it’s in the past.  Everything is forgiven. Everything. You have more than paid for what you did.”

“No, I can never pay you back for that.  But it’s a nice thought,” he said.

“No matter, it’s over.  You just get well, and strong, and back to your old, impish self now.  Okay?”

He nodded, smiled weakly at me, and closed his eyes.

I stood up slowly.  Time to do something about all of these people lying all over the place.  There was a giant castle, right there. Take them inside, for gosh sakes. I started looking for someone in charge-ish.  

Instead, a young boy stopped me.  “Sir, if you will just take a seat over there, I am sure one of the healers will be with you in a second.”

I looked at him in confusion.  “Who is in charge around here?” I asked.

“That would be Healer Jove, the healer for the guard.”

“I need him, immediately.”

“He is very busy, sir, but if you just sit over there someone will be able to look at your arm in a minute.”

“This has nothing to do with my arm, silly boy!  This has to do with the organization of the place.  Now where is he?”

“Sir, really,” he looked very exasperated.  He grabbed my good arm, and began to push me toward the waiting area.  “Just take a seat. We need to help the people who are close to death first.”

There was suddenly a low growl behind me, and the boy’s face went very white.  I turned around. There was Jake, looking angry. “Do as he says!” Jake growled.  

The boy’s eyes got big and he scrambled away.  “Great,” I muttered. “He’ll never come back now.”

“A simple thank-you would suffice,” Jake replied.

“Thanks,” I said, grinning.  

After a minute, the boy came back.  With him was Jove, a man I had met many times in the guard, looking rather angry.  At least, he looked angry until the boy stopped in front of me, looked up at him expectedly and said, “Here, sir.”

I don’t think Jove heard him.  “Robbie!” he said, thrilled, and rushed over to grasp my right hand.  “You made it! The sorcerer?”

“Gone,” I said, and it sent a thrill through my chest.

“Wonderful!”  Jove slapped me on the back a little too hard.  “Now, what can I do for you, sir?”

“These people should be inside the castle.”

“I agree, but we can’t take it over without permission.”

“I’m going to stand in for the prince and give you permission.  If anyone says anything, tell them I told you to do it.”

“Anything you say, sir,” Jove said.  Then he eyed me, warily. “That is, on one condition.”

“What kind of condition?”

“You let someone take care of your arm.”

Why was everyone so desperate to look at my arm?  It wasn’t that exciting. “Fine. Whatever you want, Jove.”

It took the whole night, but eventually every injured person had been moved inside the castle and made comfortable.  A young healer from the village tackled me at one point, and tried to make me let him wrap up my arm. It was totally the wrong time, and I was in the middle of something important, but Jake popped up growling and said if I didn’t let the healer do it, then he’d sit on me himself.  Being sat on by a dragon is a pretty vicious threat, so I settled down and let the healer do his thing with only a little bit of whining.

The night passed, and in the very early hours, Arlin dragged me away from the commotion and locked me in the guardhouse, and Jake sat in front of the door so I couldn’t escape.  I actually got a couple hours of sleep before dawn.

Then nothing could hold me in.  I got myself out the window, and soundly chewed out by Jake, and we headed back out.  Arlin gave me the run down on the damage, and how many from both sides were dead or injured

The numbers came out nicely.  We did pretty well for ourselves, all things considered.  The losses on the other side far outweighed our own. It made me proud.  Arlin and I walked all the way around the battlegrounds and talked about how to make the area livable and defensible again.  

It was while doing this lovely chore, as we looked down on the village and talked about how to help it recover, that I saw her.  She was walking up the road, with Simeur at her side. Her face was pale and drawn. Apparently, the spell had taken its toll.

A minute later she looked up and saw me.  She stopped and stared. For a moment we just looked at each other.  Then the careful, passive look on her face melted. She let out a little half sob, “Robbie,” and rushed into my arms.  

“Hey,” I said, surprised a bit by the outburst.  But it felt good to have her kicking again, instead of lying limply in my arms.

“I thought you were dead.  That was the worst night of my life!”  She pulled away, and looked up into my face.  For the first time I noticed that her eyes were bright red and there were dark circles around them.  “They wouldn’t let me come until now!”

“Who wouldn’t let you come?”

“Him!”  She pointed at Simeur, glaring.

“Thank you,” I said to him.

“Next time, I won’t have you get rid of the spell first.  I almost wanted to put one of my own on her just to make her stay put,” he replied.

I just laughed.  Mara glared at me.  “Thank you?”

“I told him to keep you safe until the battle was over.  Sounds like he did just that.”

She took a deep breath.  “What happened to the sorcerer?”

“He’s gone, Mara.  You’re safe now.”

“Gone?  How?”

“I killed him, with a little help from Jake,” I said, grinning up at my big friend.

“Robbie did most of it,” said my good buddy.  “I just disposed of the body.”

That made me laugh.  Mara looked totally confused, which was ok.  

“You could have died,” she whispered.

“That’s my life,” I shrugged.  I bit my lip. “I suppose you are wondering about the prince.  He’s fine. I’m sure you can go see him now, if you wish. I’ve got some things to take care of, but Blakely…”

I never finished my sentence.  “I need to talk to you. Now. Unless, you’re super busy,” she said, putting a finger on my lips to keep me from talking.  

“Okay, what about?” I asked carefully.

“I need to talk to you alone.”

Well, that was unexpected.  I really did have things to do.  Jake looked at me like I was an idiot.  He rolled his giant eyes and said, “Mara, that’s a good idea.  You should take Robbie out of here for a while, before he dies of exhaustion.  We’re running out of ways to get him to stop working and take care of himself. He won’t listen to me.”

I looked at Arlin helplessly.  “He’s right. We’ll be fine for an hour.  Go take care of yourself, for a change,” was all he said.

“You were supposed to be on my side,” I grumped.

He laughed.  “Jake and I will take care of things.  Go.”

I was outnumbered.  Even my best buddies were turning against me.  

“Come on,” said Mara impatiently.

“You are all ridiculous!” I said, and headed down the road after her.

We walked in silence until we were a ways away from the castle, in the middle of somebody’s pasture.  I felt glad about doing as ordered; it was really nice to get away from the castle, and the blood, and the war-zone and all.

“Robbie?”

“Hmm.”

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“I’m here.”

“Look, I’ve been thinking about some things the last few days.  I feel,” she stopped and took a deep breath. “I feel like the most horrible person ever!”

That got my attention in a hurry.  “No!”

“Shh.  I have to say this.  Just hold on.”

We stopped walking and I could only look at her.  

She looked into my eyes.  “I thought I lost you forever.  I realized…I realized how much you mean to me.”

“Mara,” I whispered.

“Robbie, I’ve been such a fool.  All I’ve done, this whole time, is try to convince myself that I can be happy married to the prince.  But I can’t. Last night, you broke the spell. I knew, I knew when he put it on me, you would have to be the one to break it.  I prayed that you would realize it, that you would understand. Robbie, I’ve been such an idiot over this Happy Ending business, and I’ve hurt you.  I know I have. The truth is I love you with all of my heart, and I have for a long time, I just couldn’t say it before.”

“How?” I whispered.  “How can that be? Mara, I heard you, with the godmother.”

“What?”

I sighed.  “I followed you, that day you went to the godmother’s house.  I was worried about you. I heard your conversation. I heard what you were saying about me.”

She looked confused, but fortunately not angry that I’d spied on her.  “Then you should understand.”

“What?  I heard you saying that I was meant only to get you your happy ending, nothing more.”

“Did you hear the whole conversation?”

“Well, no.  I ran away somewhere in the middle.”

“What was the last thing you heard?”

That was a good question.  I had to think about it for a minute.  “Something about you could only get your happy ending if you forgot me.  Or something.”

She actually started laughing.  “If you are going to eavesdrop on me, don’t just listen to half of the conversation!”

Now I really was confused.  “What?”

She shook her head and grabbed my good hand in her own.  “Ramonda did say all that. But it made me furious! I couldn’t believe she would say something like that about you!  So I told her she was an idiot, and that godmothers had no right to tell people what they can and can’t do, and that I was going to love who I wished and get whatever ending I wanted.”

Oh my.  “You said that?”

“Yes.”

“What did she say?”

“That I was a fool.  And I would lose my Happy Ending if I didn’t marry Roy.”

“What did you say?”

“Maybe you should have stuck around and listened to the whole conversation.”  She caught her breath. “Is that why you ran off?”

“Maybe.  What did you say?”  This was no time to talk about my stupidity.

“That I didn’t care.  I’d rather live a whole life and have my story be with you, than have it end with Roy.”

My heart wasn’t working properly.  Was it possible she really meant what she was saying?  “I thought,” I couldn’t continue.

“What?” she asked gently.

She was still holding my hand.  “I thought you wanted a prince, a hero.  The story you were meant to have.”

“This is the story I was meant to have.  And I do have a hero. The greatest, strongest, bravest hero in the history of the world.”

“All this time,” I whispered, “I thought you didn’t care.  Why didn’t you say something?”

“I tried.  I wanted to, before we went after Roy.  You wouldn’t let me.”

Thinking back, it was the truth.  I really hadn’t given her any chance to talk.  “I’m such an idiot.”

“No, it’s my fault.  I hurt you.”

“I’m still ridiculous.  You deserve better than me.  I can never give you the life you should have.”

“Would you stop going on about that already!  If I hurt you too much, if you can’t forgive me, that’s fine.  I’ll understand. But don’t you dare say you’re not good enough for me, Robbie DiShaun.  You are under a terrible illusion that you are not a hero, when everyone else in the world is trying to convince you otherwise.  What more do you want? You saved me, and Jake, and Arlin, and Roy, and everyone else in the kingdom. I was too blind to see it, but Robbie, you are all the hero anyone could ever want.  And you are all I could ever want or need. What do you think about that?”

There was nothing, no words in me for that.  Mara’s eyes were tearing up, but it was hard to see because so were mine.  Yes, I, Robbie, was crying. Instead of speaking, I leaned down and kissed her.  This time, she kissed me back.

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Chapter 20: The Battle To Save the World

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Everyone has a weakness.  If you know that weakness, that person is in the palm of your hand. You can manipulate them however you wish.   Even if they are five thousand times more powerful than you and hate your guts.

 

Things were getting very exciting around the castle.  It looked like the battle of the universe. There were soldiers and guards and people everywhere, fighting, shouting, and causing a riot in general.  

I needed to find a dragon.  At the moment, he was not in sight.  I put my fingers in my mouth and whistled as loud as I could.

A split second later Jake came barreling around from the other side of the castle, and landed with a “Cha-thump” next to me.  

“Ready to go hunting?” he asked with a big dragon-grin.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, and jumped up onto his back.  I was getting pretty good at that.

We had set Jake up with a complicated series of straps that held my giant dragon-sword onto him.  Usually, horses carried those, but in absence of a horse, Jake had offered to do the job. So, as Jake took off, I drew the huge sword.  We were ready.

Arlin’s forces were severely outnumbered.  He had set up a bunch of cool war-type stuff, and he obviously knew the castle grounds better than Valkav’s soldiers did, but that didn’t change the fact that they were outnumbered.  And numbers help.

Then again, so do dragons.  For one thing, everyone is scared of dragons, so they get frozen and petrified when a dragon comes around.  Which really makes it easier to fight them. For another, dragons are big enough to barrel around and knock a lot of people down.  And they can fly, which gets them around in a hurry. There is also the part where they breathe fire.

Between Jake’s smoking some people and knocking others down, and my humongous sword splitting people in half whenever they came close to us, we did pretty well for ourselves.  Arlin’s men were doing fine, too. In fact, the battle started to look fantastic, and like we might win in no time flat.

Someone, however, forgot there was still a sorcerer in this thing. Several of Arlin’s men nearby crumpled for no reason and writhed in agony on the ground.  I heard an explosion on the other side of the castle, but before we could investigate a large chunk of the wall collapsed and almost landed on Jake.

Bananas.  That was probably the sorcerer, causing trouble.  Jake verified that thought rather late-ish-ly. “The sorcerer!  He’s not going to let us get out of this without a fight!”

“Thanks, Jake, I couldn’t figure that out!” I yelled back, as another explosion went off right near his tail and sent us spinning at an awful rate.  “Where is he?”

“Inside the castle.  In a big, round room.”

Props for being extra descriptive, buddy.  “What kind of big, round room? I’ve got to find him, good buddy.”

“In the top of a tower.”

“Which tower?  Is he by himself?”

“The short wide one.”

Now we were getting somewhere.  “People?’

“A couple guards.  No big deal.”

Easy for a massive dragon to say.  The room that Jake was referring to, as far as I could tell from his perfectly awful descriptions, was known as the star room, for reasons unknown to me.  It was impossible to see the stars from that room.

It was in the very top of what was sort of a lame excuse for a tower.  It was very large, and round, as stated earlier by my good buddy. There were pillars all around the edges, and tables and charts.  It was a place where the king often went to think and relax. Other people didn’t get in there too often, but I had poked my head in once or twice.  

Now, the reason it was impossible to see the stars was not because there were not enough windows.  There were windows, huge windows, all around the room. They were just stained glass, and therefore, you could not see the stars, or anything else, through them for the life of you.  So there you have it. Unless Jake’s description was even worse than expected, the sorcerer was there, wreaking havoc with our plan.

There was only one thing for it.  Oh dear. “I have to face him, Jake!”  

He was silent for a moment, flying around the castle.  Yeah, like he was going to convince me his super-dragon-senses failed to pick up my last comment.  He could see through walls, for gosh sake, he could hear me yelling at him! “Talk to me, how close can you get me?”

“Close.  I can come in with you.”

“No, you need to stay here.  Get these soldiers defeated. Arlin needs you.”

“We need you, too.”

“Yeah, you need me to kill the sorcerer.  Face it; I’m mostly just eye candy way up here.  You’re doing the real work. I’ve got to do this.”  

There was a long pause, then he said, “Ok.  I’ll get you in.”

Jake circled the castle a couple of times.  “Hold on tight!” he yelled. He suddenly dropped his wings and crashed through a wooden section of roofing close to the tower.

Good thing he gave me such a fantastic warning.  I barely had time to duck and cover. But no awful damage was done to my overall state of being, so it was all right.

I jumped off Jake’s back into the disaster he had created.  You know, dragons are very useful creatures. I just might have to try and get him to stick around after this was over.  If it ever ended. “Thanks,” I called up to him.

“Just signal if you need me,” he replied.

“Yeah, cause I’m so great at signaling,” I said scoffingly.

“Just call me,” he said, and lifted off in a big swoosh of wings and feet and almost knocked me over with his tail.  

“Watch where you swing that thing!” I yelled, and took off running toward the ‘big, round, room.’

The first thing I saw in that wonderful place was a big sword.  Fortunately, mine was bigger. I brought the dragon-one that Jake had been carrying around for me.  Man, I love that thing. The little soldier man never even stood a chance. He was down in approximately an eighth of a second.  There was another one then. For a minute or two, I was quite well occupied fighting them off. Then they were gone and I was face to face with Lord Valkav himself.

He stared at me, and he looked a little less than totally pleased.  His eyes burned straight through me .I wasn’t exactly all howdy-doody about seeing him either.  “Hello,” I said grimly.

“You again,” he spit out.  “Haven’t I got rid of you yet?”

I shrugged.  “You know me, I’m like one of those annoying clingy people that just won’t ever go away.”

“I’ll make you go away,” he said, with a scary smile.  “This time, you won’t be coming back.” He raised his hand toward me.

The last time he did such a thing, I ended up writhing on the ground.  Time for some quick thinking. “What, you’re just going to fry me? Have I really scared you so badly?”

Good, it was working.  His hand stopped moving.

“A big, powerful sorcerer like you, and you are afraid to fight a mere mortal fairly?”  I threw my sword onto the ground. If this didn’t work, well, I was dead anyway. “Fine.  Just use your magic killing hand. Fry me to a crisp. Should have known you were too much of a coward to fight me yourself.”

Valkav’s hand fell.  He looked like he really hated me.  Fair enough. I hated him, too. “You want to fight me, do you?”

Not really, but my chances were better than against his magic hand.  I just grinned at him.

He grinned back.  “Fine!” he yelled.  

Now, how exactly I thought sorcerers fought, or what they considered fighting fair, I have no idea.  But I certainly didn’t expect what happened.

Without any warning, he started to get very large and change shape.  Okay, this was manageable. Depending on what he changed into, that is.  I suppose you couldn’t really expect him to pick up a sword or something and fight like regular people do.  He is a sorcerer, for gosh sakes.

I watched him grow and morph and such until there, standing before me, was a dragon.

Come on now, really.  A dragon? I actually laughed as the giant black thing stood in front of me, snorting smoke.  “You’re brilliant. Don’t you know? The only title I truly can claim is that of dragon-slayer?  Wouldn’t it be smarter to turn into something I haven’t defeated around nine of?”

Apparently, he didn’t think much of that little speech.  He lunged at me.

So guess what I did?  Ran between his legs. Things really were getting repetitive.  That, however, left my sword on the other side of him, so I had to repeat the trick. “Come on!” I yelled at him after snatching my sword off the ground.  “Can’t you see I know what I’m doing here? Change into something a little more interesting!” Stupid me, had to open my mouth and change things when I actually had an advantage.

Ask, and so it shall be given to you.  The sorcerer changed again. Into a hydra.  That was somewhat better. They have ten heads, so you can’t just dodge one of them and run between their legs like how it works with dragons.  Also, you can’t cut those heads off. They grow back two for every one you chop. Now, I didn’t count how many this one had. It didn’t exactly give me time for that between its maniacal laughing with half its heads and attacking me with the other half.

If you can get past a hydra’s heads, their body is kind of anticlimactic.  So, very carefully, so as not to accidentally remove any body parts, I stabbed and poked the heads away, and eventually got close enough to the thing’s body to stab its legs.  

It howled, in a very non-hydra like fashion, and changed again.  

Since I stabbed him in the leg, this time it turned into something leg-less.  Or, it had legs, it just didn’t use them. It was a giant, flying, phoenix thing that was on fire, and shooting fire, and it was the most deadly foe yet.  It also wouldn’t get close enough to stab.

Fortunately there were pillars all around the edges of the room.  You know how I love pillars. The space between the pillars and the outer edge of the wall was too small for him to fit between, so he couldn’t get at me very well, and I managed to avoid him splendidly.  

That didn’t stop him for long.  He changed. Again. Now his body got longer and longer, his legs disappeared, and the fire went out.  This one I had never seen before. He turned into what ultimately ended up being a giant snake.

The snake fit between the pillars just fine, thank you.  Around, and around the room I ducked and dodged, taking a random whack at him with my sword from time to time, mostly just because I didn’t have anywhere to set the thing at the moment.  His gigantic mouth was very close on my heels, snapping and biting. At one point, I actually managed to dodge just in time, and he bit a pillar.

Probably about a minute and a half after he started chasing me in circles all around the room and between the pillars, I had his whole snake body tied up in a giant tangle and was on the other side of the room, watching him struggle helplessly to get untied.  I felt pretty proud of myself.

He had one last trick to throw at me.  They always do. Couldn’t he just be content that I’d beat him?  One last time the morphing began.

This creature was something I can hardly even begin to describe.  It was huge, almost too big to fit into the room, for one thing. It had a giant ugly head, with horns coming out of it, and there were blue flames coming from its nostrils.  Huge wings sprouted from its back, but it stood on two legs and massive arms came out of its shoulders. It was the most completely terrifying creature I ever laid eyes on.

Right then, my certainty in defeating him wavered and crumbled.  This thing was way more than I was prepared to deal with right then.  He lunged forward and a huge fist thrust into me, sending me flying across the room.  “You have failed!” he roared, as he leaped across the room.

I barely managed to crawl forward and lunge out of the way as his fist slammed toward me again.  

Somehow, I got around him so I wasn’t cornered anymore and began to work my way across the room.  Something in my left arm had snapped when he threw me against the wall, and it was throbbing and aching awfully.  Rather distracting. His hand flew down again, and he lifted me up and squeezed until every single ounce of strength was gone from my body, then he dropped me on the ground.  

I lay in the middle of the room and he stood over me with his back to one of the giant stained glass windows, laughing.  As he laughed, he changed back into his normal, human-ish looking body.

“You see,” he said, still laughing.  “You could never defeat me. You are nothing, just a boy.  You will never amount to anything.”

The pain in my arm and the rest of my body was intense.  

“You know what this reminds me of?  That friend of yours. The gnome. Remember him?  This is sort of what he looked like the last time I saw him, after his pitiful attempt to save you.  He failed, just like you did. I destroyed him, and now I will destroy you. You know what I’ll do next?  I will take that princess, and I will destroy her, too, along with everyone else in your pathetic little kingdom.  To think, DiShaun, you wanted to be a hero. You, and your princess, are going to die.”

He smiled and lifted his hand.

My blood boiled and my heart raced.  He could threaten me all he wanted, but he could not talk about Blythe, my kingdom, or my princess that way.  Something inside me turned very hard, and it didn’t matter that I hardly had the strength to keep breathing. My hand found my sword lying somewhere nearby, and as the sorcerer lunged toward me I yelled like bloody murder, and thrust the sword upward and into his heart.

There was a long silent moment.  Valkav stumbled backward, gasping and blinking.  At that exact instant, the huge glass window behind him shattered, and Jake burst into the room.  His huge head went down toward the sorcerer, and Valkav disappeared.

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Chapter 19: The Spell

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Pick your friends—and your sidekicks—wisely.  Sometimes, they can be very useful and save your life and make your plans work and good things like that.

There was to be no more running that day.  I walked, yes walked, slowly, and painfully, all of the way back to where Simeur and Jake waited.  When I trudged into the clearing they were both awake, and they both looked at me anxiously.

Simeur stood up.  “What happened? Where is Mara?  And Blythe?” he asked, looking me over carefully, probably checking to see if I had any mortal wounds.

I sat down next to Jake and put my head in my hands.  “Blythe works for Valkav, and they caught us. I couldn’t get Mara out.”

There was a stunned silence.  Then, Sime’s voice again. “Blythe, he betrayed you?”

“Yes.”

Another long silence.  “I knew I didn’t like that guy.  He didn’t act the same when you weren’t around.”

“I believe it.  I should have listened to you, Sime.”

“You couldn’t have known.  Don’t blame yourself.”

“But I should have!  I should have figured it out!  There is no one else to blame, only me.  I’ve failed. I failed Mara.” I shook my head.  

“You haven’t failed at anything,” said Jake’s booming voice.  “You’ve only had a set-back or two.”

“No,” I whispered.  “I really, truly, thought that I would be able to do this.  I couldn’t. Mara is still in that place, in the clutches of the sorcerer.  He can do anything to her, whatever he wants. Who knows what will happen to her before we can rescue her!  And it is all because of me, because I tried to do something on my own, without the magic, and it didn’t work.  It just didn’t work. You were right, Sime. Without the magic, I’m just asking for trouble.”

“I never said that,” said Simeur.  “I told you what you were risking, but that wasn’t because I don’t think you can do it.  I’ve spent too much time under Phil’s tutelage to believe magic is everything in this world.  The reason I told you all of that was to make sure you knew exactly what you were risking, exactly what you faced by going out against the magic.  You shouldn’t make a decision about something like that unless you know what you are up against. That was why I told you. So you would understand, and could make precisely the choice you needed to make.”

His words stunned me.  Actually, they made sense.  He never told me not to do anything, he just explained the facts.  It went over badly and I still felt angry about it. But he was right.  “The fact is, I chose poorly this time. And now Mara has to pay the price.  She told me not to try and be a hero. Maybe I should start listening to her.  She was right, all along.” I was starting to break down.

“You are too a hero,” said Jake suddenly.  “Don’t you remember? You broke my enchantment without the help of any princes, or princesses, or magic, or anything.”

“I can’t be everything.  I can’t do this. I keep messing things up.  Over and over again, I’ve ruined everything. Now, Blythe has taken her from me and I’ll never be able to fix it.  I can’t do this.”

Simeur looked hard at me.  “Robbie, what is really going on?  This isn’t like you. Is there something going on with you and the princess?”

“Something going on?  You want to know the truth?” I asked, standing up.  “The truth, Sime? The truth is that I love her. Yes.  I love her, I love her, I love her!” I was shouting now, at Sime, at Jake, at the sky, at everything.  “But that is not enough. I’m not enough for her and I never could be. She needs a prince, or a hero. I can never be that, I can never be any more than just Robbie, the servant-boy.  I love her more than I have ever loved anything in the whole world. She means everything to me, but I can never say so. I can never have any claim on her, because I will never be good enough.  Nothing I do will ever change the facts: I’m still not a hero. Tomorrow, we will go in there, and we will fight like the dickens, defeat this sorcerer and save Mara so she can have her Happy Ending.  That is all there is left for me: to make sure that happens. And if I die in the process, so be it. There is nothing more for me..”

“That’s not true, Robbie,” Sime began.

“Yes, yes it is, Sime.  I heard her and Ramonda talking about me, and that is what they said.  I am nothing more than a tool to get her married to her prince. And by golly, I’m going to do a heck of a job.  We’re going to do this tomorrow, and we are going to do it right. I will not stop until that sorcerer is dead and Mara is happy again.  I don’t care, that I’m fighting this battle without a Happy Ending. I don’t care what happens to me. I don’t even know if I believe in this Happy Ending junk anymore, but Mara’s going to get one if it kills me, and that’s the way it is.  I may not be good enough for her, but I’ll make sure she is with someone who is.

“Tomorrow, we fight.  Are you with me?”

“Of course,” Jake growled lowly.  

Simeur sighed.  “You know we are, Robbie.  We’re with you to the end, and forever after.  But I don’t care what you, or Mara, or anybody else says.  If you’re not good enough for her, no one is. You’re the greatest hero I’ve ever met, and I’ve been around for over 300 years so I think I’ve seen a pretty good sampling!”  With that he stalked into the woods.

I lay down in the grass, close enough to Jake that the heat coming off of his stomach could keep me warm.  Dragons have more uses than just blowing things up. They make very nice space heaters, also. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out everything.

They couldn’t quite shut out the words Jake growled softly.  “He’s right, you know. I’ve seen my fair share of heroes too, but I’ve never met anybody like you.”

Pretending to be asleep seemed like the only good response, so that was what happened.  Jake sighed and put his head down close to me.

It had been a crazy day.  Despite all the stress and anxiety, it only took about two seconds to fall asleep.

It was late the next morning when I woke up and groggily opened my eyes.  Jake was awake too, watching me between slit eyelids. Simeur sat by an open fire, roasting up something.  Hopefully, there was some food for me on that thing.

With a groan, I sat up.  Simeur looked over. “Good morning, sleeping beauty.  Ready to wake up, finally?”

I groaned again, and stumbled over to the fire.  

“There,” Simeur handed me a chunk of wood, with a piece of roasted rabbit on it.  “You looked hungry. Eat, before you try to talk.”

I couldn’t even remember the last time I ate.  Simeur, as an elf, knew a thing or two about cooking exceptionally well.  The rabbit tasted delicious, though anything would probably have tasted good at that point.  

We ate in silence.  That is, Sime and I did.  Jake did not eat with us, but that was okay.  Dragons usually only need to eat once a week or so, and they are fine.  It was a good thing Jake wasn’t hungry, because our entire rabbit would have only been about half a bite for him, and I was really hungry and didn’t particularly want to share.  

After we devoured the rabbit, Sime asked, “So, what exactly is happening today?”

I hadn’t really explained anything while throwing my fit last night.  In brief, and very calmly, I told them what all happened the day before, and that Arlin was coming at noon.

“Noon?” asked Simeur, glancing at the sky.

My gaze followed his.  “Bananas,” I muttered. I needed to run like crazy if there was any chance of making it to the cave entrance in time.  Sleeping took longer than I’d realized.

“I’ll get you there on time,” Jake said, standing to his whole glorious height.

Well, I had no arguments with getting another dragon ride.  Simeur looked at Jake skeptically and said, “I’ll stay here if no one minds.”

I laughed.  “Sure, chicken out on me again.”

“Not having a death wish is not the same thing as chickening out,” Sime said with a sniff.

“We’ll bring Robbie’s friend back here so you can hear the plans,” said Jake.

“You’ll have to behave yourself,” I said, climbing up Jake’s leg.  “He’s never seen a dragon before.”

“I’ll try and be good,” Jake said, but I swear he smiled to himself.  

On Jake’s back, getting to the tunnel only took a few seconds, but Jake took his time circling down.  He probably knew that I found dragon rides rather enjoyable.

Arlin got there minutes after we did.  Good thing I took Jake, running would never have gotten me there on time.  Arlin climbed out of the tunnel with one other soldier. Both of them had their arms full of armor, and they had two swords.  When they emerged from the tunnel and ran right into Jake, they both dropped everything on the ground.

“Great, now it’s probably dented,” I complained good-naturedly.

Arlin gaped up at Jake.

“I told you I had a dragon.”

“I didn’t realize how big it would be,” he whispered.

That made me laugh.  “Arlin, this is Jake.  Jake, Arlin. And the other guy is Blakely.”

Blakely was the soldier who I saw at the castle the night before.  He, too, was dumbfounded by Jake.

It took a while, but I eventually did convince them it was safe to ride Jake back to our campsite.  Neither of the men said a word the entire time. And I’d thought I was scared the first time I met Jake.  Well, admittedly, neither of these guys had ever even seen a dragon before.

Back at camp, I checked out the armor while Arlin and Blakely went over how many men and horses and other things they had rounded up so far.  They had, fortunately, brought my own armor that I kept in the guard house when not using it. I didn’t usually wear it when dragon fighting because I didn’t want it to get singed.  But it was very good armor. There were two swords. One was a smaller sword for me to carry at my side. The other was a giant dragon-fighting type of sword that would usually be carried from your horse.  

By the time everything was sorted, I had a pretty good idea what all the guard had managed to round up.  That wasn’t all Arlin had to tell me, however. He saved the worst of his news for when I was done going over my armor.

“Robbie,” Arlin said, when I put the dragon-sword down.

“What?”

“There’s something I need to tell you.  About Mara.”

That got my attention.  “What? What happened?”

He shifted nervously.  “Valkav put her under a spell.”

My heart froze, and my guts felt like I’d swallowed rocks.  “What kind of spell? When did this happen?”

“Right after they discovered you escaped.  He wanted to make certain you wouldn’t be able to rescue her.  He put her to sleep, Robbie. I don’t really know much more about it, but it’s a love spell of some sort.  The only way to wake her up is by her True Love’s Kiss. They put her in the throne room. She’s just lying there, very still.  It’s terrifying. None of my men will go in there.”

“He put her under a spell?” I sank to the ground, letting my mind take in another shock.  Simeur’s face was very white. Jake snorted black smoke. Arlin looked apologetic and nervous.  “Well,” I said, trying to pull myself back together. “I guess we’ll have to figure that out, too.  Let’s do this.”

Arlin had brought charts and maps of the castle grounds.  It took time, but eventually we had the workings of a plan.  First I would get Mara out, so nothing bad would happen to her during the battle.  Then I would somehow signal Jake and he would come roaring in, which would be the troops’ signal to engage Valkav’s soldiers.  Arlin had some tricks set up. It would be exciting.

The only difficulties I could see in our plan were the parts I had to accomplish.  That is, saving the princess out from under Valkav’s nose, and then signaling Jake when I would be inside the castle.

Jake, of course, had an answer for that.  “Just whistle and wave your arms around. I’ll stay nearby, and see you.”

“I’ll be in the castle, Jake.  You can’t see me.”

“I have x-ray vision, Robbie.  I can see you.”

Oh, golly.  “How come you never bothered to tell me this before?” I demanded.  

I swear he rolled his eyes.  “Didn’t really seem important.”

Well, no wonder he’d always known where I was and when I was coming when I fought him.  “Ok, so that takes care of that problem.”

“I will help you rescue the princess,” said Simeur suddenly, joining the conversation for the first time.  “I know a thing or two about spells.”

What can I say, I pick good sidekicks.  With their help, everything was sure to work out.  “All right, it sounds good. Sometime in the battle I’ll take care of Valkav.  It’ll work out. For now, you need to get everything ready, Arlin.”

Jake flew us back to the tunnel.  “I’ll see you soon,” I said before they disappeared.

“Very soon,” said Arlin, with a smile.

After Arlin left to do all of the hard work to prepare for the night’s battle, I didn’t do anything useful.  I did some hunting and caught another rabbit, which I made Sime cook up. My hunger hadn’t quite been satisfied.  I ate the whole thing without pause. Afterward, I took a long walk and tried to get mentally prepared to do what could very well end me.  Then I started getting my armor all cleaned up and set for business. It wasn’t exactly designed to get dragged all over the kingdom. Besides that, I hadn’t worn it in a while, except at contests and things like that.  It is more designed for fighting people than it is dragons. I tend to do more dragon fighting, and things where more sneakiness than coolness is required, so I didn’t get to wear it all that often.

Soon it was time to go.  Sime helped me get all suited up, and then we were ready.  It took a while to convince Simeur it was actually safe to get up on Jake’s back, but at that point he really didn’t have a choice if he wanted to come with us.  He climbed up behind me and clung on for dear life while Jake took off and never moved the whole trip. He just sat behind me and tried to squeeze the life out of my stomach.   

Jake landed at the tunnel entrance and said he would wait close by the castle to watch for my signal.  It wasn’t until we were halfway to the castle that I realized we never actually set up an exact signal.  Oh well, I suppose he would figure it out.

Soon, Sime and I were in the guardhouse with Arlin and Blakely.

“All right,” said Arlin.  “I think we are ready. My men are set up all around the premises.”

“How many men did you manage to round up?” I asked.

“Well, there were a hundred and twenty-two left in my troops, and I dug up about thirty, maybe thirty-five more from the village.”

“Ok.  And how many do you think Valkav has now?”

“It’s impossible to say.  But with your dragon, and our weaponry, they can’t stop us.”

“They have a sorcerer too, don’t forget.  But first things first: do you think we can get into the throne room?”

“Yes, I think so.  If you’re sneaky. But you should have no problem with that, now will you?”

“No problem,” I said with a grin.  

“It will probably be easier if you get there by the second floor.”

The ceiling of the center of the throne room went up several stories, and around the edges of the second and third floors there were balconies overlooking the throne room for the lower courtiers to stand on.  The servant hallways connected to these, and they weren’t well guarded. It was by far the least dangerous way to get to the throne room.

Simeur and I made our way carefully to the second floor, through the servants’ quarters.  With some hard work, and some careful ducking and dodging to avoid any servants that would cause a commotion, we managed to get there in one piece.  

It wasn’t until we were standing on the walkway, looking down on the throne room itself that I really had to remember why exactly we were there.  So far I had been able to push it out of my head. But now, looking down there, I had no choice but to remember.

In the center of the room was a long, low table covered in cushions.  Did they have to display her like that? In the middle of everything? For there, lying on the cushions, covered in a blanket up to her shoulders, lay the still, cold form of my little princess.  It broke my heart.

For several minutes that was all I could see in the whole room.  I finally managed to rip my eyes away and look back at Simeur. He was watching me, almost as closely as I had stared at Mara.  “What?” I asked.

“Just how much do you know about love spells?”

“How much do you know about them?”

He rolled his eyes.  “How often must I remind you?  Is it that difficult? I’m an elf!  I know about love spells!”

“No games, Sime.  What are you trying to say?”

“These love spells can be very tricky things.  Obviously, we don’t really know much about this one.  If the situation weren’t so desperate, I would never allow you to try and mess with this one.  The situation is desperate, however, so we have to take some chances. There is a problem, though.  Depending on how exactly the spell was worded, moving her could be fatal.”

“Why is that?”

“There are sometimes details about location in these spells.  It’s hard to say what exactly is entailed in this one. It seems it was put together pretty hastily, so I doubt there was anything in it on that, but it is hard to say.  Either way, moving her would be a horrible, horrible risk.

I sighed.  “Couldn’t you have told me this before we were standing above the throne room?  So what are you saying? We have to break the spell?”

“Something like that.  But it’s your choice.”

Yeah, right.  Like I was going to steal her if there was a chance of it killing her.  “So, we have to get the prince? All this, and I still have to rescue the stupid prince first?”

“That is actually the other problem.”

“Now what?  What else are you not telling me?”   

“I didn’t tell you before, because I didn’t know for sure until I saw her.”

Tell me now!”

He shifted nervously.  “Listen, I’m an elf, right?”

“I thought we went over this already.”

“As an elf, I just know things sometimes.  We are a magical people, and there are things we can know about.  Love spells are one of those things. I can tell you, right now, the prince cannot break the spell.”

“What?  The prince is her true love!  How can he not break the spell?”  Panic rose up in my soul.

He shook his head.  “I don’t know. I can’t explain why, but I can tell you how it is.  The princess does not feel true love for the prince. Maybe, after they are married, that will change.  But at this time, he can not break the spell.”

“What am I supposed to do?” I whispered.  

Sime looked straight into my eyes.  “I think you know.”

At that moment, while the world spun out of control, there was a commotion in the throne room big enough to rouse me from my state of supreme shock.  The sorcerer was entering the throne room with his retinue. Oh great. Perfect timing.

Then there was an even bigger problem.  Blythe was with them, and right as the group walked into the room, he happened to look up and see me.

Our eyes met for a long moment, then he looked at Mara and back at me again.  His eyes got very big. Yep, he knew exactly what was up. He looked at the sorcerer, and back at me again.

“This is bad, Robbie,” said Simeur.

“He’s not going to tell on us,” I whispered back, and somewhere in my heart, I knew he wouldn’t.  He owed me that.

“We’re running out of time, Robbie.”

I stared at the table where Mara lay.  He was right, we were running out of time.  

“Robbie.”

I looked at Simeur.

“You are only going to have one shot at this, before it is too late.  This is your choice, but you need to make it now.”

I looked back down at Blythe, at Mara, and back at Blythe.  I think, at that moment, he understood exactly what was going to happen next, maybe even better than I did.  He looked at the sorcerer, at me, and at the sorcerer again.

“Now, Robbie!” Sime whispered.

Blythe made a decision.  Before either Sime or I could do anything, he took a running jump and leaped onto the sorcerer’s back.  “Go!” he screamed, before he was lost in the tumult that resulted from his crazy, crazy act.

That was that.  Without thinking, I jumped off the balcony, and landed on the floor of the throne room.  I hit the floor with a thud, but the guards were too distracted by Blythe’s commotion to pay attention to a random guy jumping off of balconies.  I ran straight to Mara’s table. Her face was utterly pale, her mouth slightly open. She looked completely dead.

Gently, I knelt down next to her and took her face into my hands.  All the craziness in the room seemed to fade away. None of that mattered.  It was just her and me. I knew, really knew now, how much I truly loved her.  “Mara,” I whispered. “Don’t do this to me. I need you.” With that, I leaned over and kissed her.  

Her lips were cold, but when mine met hers I felt a spark of warmth in them.  The kiss lasted for barely more than a second, but when I lifted away to look at her, there was a flush coming over her cheeks, and she sighed ever so slightly.  

That was enough.  Maybe it had worked, or maybe it was my imagination.  It was time to go. I threw the blanket off of her, lifted her in my arms, and fled from the room.  Somehow, all of that happened quickly enough for us to escape before Valkav recovered from Blythe’s sudden, unexpected attack.  As I ran, I wasn’t able to wave my arms, so I threw my head back and started yelling at the top of my lungs and tossing my head back and forth like a crazy person.

Well, it must have worked.  At least, I heard roaring and yelling, and then all the soldiers around me became very distracted.  

I ran past everyone, and finally burst outside.  Yup, Jake had figured it out. The guards had started their attack, and it was getting very exciting.  Somewhere, I could hear Jake roaring and it sounded like a happy roar. At least someone was enjoying himself.  

First, Mara had to get out of here.  In the barn a horse was waiting, all nice and saddled up and ready for her.  There was also supposed to be a guard. Unfortunately, when we got there, the horse was waiting, but the guard apparently got distracted.  There was no sign of the guy. For a moment I was dumbfounded. There was no way that I could leave now, in the middle of the battle. Suddenly, I heard a voice.  “I’ll take her.”

I turned.  There was Sime, looking a little flushed.  “You hate riding,” I countered.

He shrugged.  “I hate rivers too.  And you hate killing people.  Sometime, you have to do stuff you don’t want to.  I may hate riding, but I can do it in a pinch. Remember when I rescued you?”

He had ridden pretty well then.  “Ok,” I said. “I guess there is no one I’d rather trust her to.  You think you can get her to the forest?” I asked as he climbed onto the horse.  

“Yes.”

Once he was situated I took a last look at Mara.  She was definitely un-spelled, at least. There was a lot more color in her cheeks, and she stirred restlessly.  

“Stay safe,” I whispered as I placed her gently in front of Sime.

Her eyes fluttered gently, and she whispered, so softly I almost missed it, “Robbie, Robbie.”

“Go, Sime!” I cried, and flung open the barn door.  

He must have kicked that horse awful hard.  The animal took off and they were gone before I could recover.  “Go,” I whispered.

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Chapter 18: A Really, Really, Stupid Plan

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Be careful to whom you trust your soul.

 

Mara stopped short.  “Robbie,” she whispered.  

“It’s ok,” I hastened to assure her.  “I told you, I had some time to think.  We’ll do it your way.”

“Wait, Robbie,” she began.

“Mara, I decided.  Ok? Just leave it alone.”

She fell silent.  

“It shouldn’t be too hard.  I’ll go alone, or maybe with Sime or Blythe, get in, get out with the prince.  Easy.”

“What about the guards?” asked Simeur.  “Think they are just going to let you take him, just like that?”

“They’ve got the main doors.  I won’t use those.”

“Hmph.”  Sime wasn’t satisfied.

I didn’t really care.  I hadn’t forgiven him for ganging up on me yesterday.  “If we have both Jake and the prince we should be unstoppable.  Besides, while I’m in the castle I can talk to Arlin and get his help figured out.  It’ll be good.”

“When are you going?” asked Simeur.  

That was a good question.  I thought for a minute. “After it’s completely dark,” I decided.  Might as well keep the ball rolling. I was still on the adrenaline high from the fight with Jake that afternoon.  Storming the castle should work fine in my current state of mind.

Blythe glared at me ferociously, so I translated the plan for him.  “I’m coming with you,” was the first thing he said after I’d explained everything.  

“And just why do you think you should go?” asked Simeur pointedly.

“I know my way around the castle.  You don’t. And I know Arlin. Besides, I’m small.  I can stay out of sight and scout things out so he doesn’t get caught.”

“He has a point,” I said to Simeur.  

“Fine, take the little twerp.  I still don’t trust him,” said Simeur, not in dwarvish.

I rolled my eyes.  “Don’t be a pain, Sime.”  Then I turned to Jake. “This looks like a good place to meet again.  I’ll head for the castle with Blythe and once it’s dark sneak in. You, Simeur, and Mara wait here, and I’ll meet you with the prince once we’re done.  Sound good?”

Jake nodded and was about to speak, but Mara interrupted.  “I’m coming with you.”

I stared at her in astonishment.  “Just why do you think that?”

“You’re going because of me.  I’m coming with you.”

“It’s too dangerous.  You’ll get hurt. You can’t come, Mara.”

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” she said quietly and fiercely, looking straight at me.

There was no way for me to argue with that, but it kind of made me mad.  “Fine,” I spit out. “You can come. We’re leaving now, let’s go.” I saluted Jake and Sime, and stalked into the woods.  Blythe and Mara had to run to keep up.

Ok, I was a little bit wound up.  It had been a stressful couple of days, to be sure.  

Eventually I slowed down, and the other two caught up.  “Are you alright?” asked Blythe uncertainly.

“Dandy.”

At some point, as we walked through the woods toward the entrance to the secret tunnels to the castle, my mood lightened.  After all, we were doing something dangerous and death defying. My mood had to lift at some point during the operation.

We found the tunnels without any problem other than I got nice and scratched up trying to move all the branches away from the opening, and then setting them back in place after we were through.  Blythe and Mara weren’t a whole lot of help with that part of things.

Creeping through the tunnel wasn’t all that terrifying either.  Mara stepped on a snake and had to hold my arm the whole time afterward because she freaked out.  It was pitch black in there, too, so I wasn’t sure if we were going to find the turn because we didn’t have any torches.  I did find the turn, however, and soon afterward a place where they kept some torches and matches. Then we had some light, so next time Mara could at least see the snake before she stepped on it.  That didn’t encourage her much, so she kept trying to squeeze the life out of my arm. I refrained from any I-told-you-so’s. But really, she shouldn’t have come. This was not an adventure for the little princess.  Nothing glamorous, just tunnels and snakes. And since when do princesses come to rescue princes? It just wasn’t right, even by my screwed up version of the way the world should work.

When we got to the trapdoor I went first, just to make sure it had gotten good and dark while we wandered around in the tunnels.  It had been dusk when we went in, but now it was almost pitch black out. A thick cloud cover hid the moon and stars. You couldn’t see anything.  It was almost as bad as the tunnels. Maybe less snakes though. The page boys took too much delight in tormenting any snakes that showed their heads, so we probably wouldn’t run into any, as I assured Mara.  Why are all girls afraid of snakes, anyway? They really aren’t that bad!

We used the kitchen door to get into the castle.  No one was there, not this late. Then we crept through some of the back servant hallways hoping no one would discover us.

Blythe was somewhere ahead of us, scouting things out and making sure we didn’t run into any guards.  I grabbed Mara’s hand and pulled her along behind me as we snuck through the dark hallways.

The plan was to get around and use the prince’s window, sort of like I did in my devastating attempt to spy on the king.  I don’t know what made me think it would work this time when it completely failed before, but sometimes I am a slow learner.  

Through an extraordinary stroke of luck, no soldiers caught us while on our way to the prince’s rooms.  Like with the king, we got into the room above the prince’s, which fortunately was empty. I secured a rope to the banister around the balcony and Blythe was the first one to slide down the rope onto the prince’s balcony.  For a moment, I saw his tiny white face peer up at me, then he disappeared.

Mara looked at me like I was crazy.  “You want me to slide down that thing?” she whispered fiercely.

“You’re the one who wanted to come,” I replied.

She glared at me.

“I’ll go first, and catch you on the bottom, ok?”

“All right,” she agreed, unwillingly.

Down I went.  “Come on!” I whispered loudly.  A second later she slid down slowly and I grabbed her before she could land.  “See, no problem,” I whispered with a grin.

“Yeah,” she muttered.  

I glanced around the balcony.  There was no sign of Blythe. Maybe he had already gone into the room or something, I thought.  I grabbed Mara’s hand again and pulled aside the curtain to get into Roy’s room. It was pitch black inside, darker even than it had been outside.  I stumbled forward a step and whispered, “Blythe?”

That was a dreadful mistake.  The entire room exploded with light, showing very plainly that the room was also full of soldiers.  At the far end was the sorcerer, with Blythe standing on the floor in front of him, unable to meet my eyes.  

The sorcerer laughed.  “Such fools, you humans are.”

“The whole time?  You’ve been working for him this whole time?” I asked Blythe, disbelieving.

He barely nodded, staring at the floor.  “The whole time,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“I bet you are.”

“So,” said the sorcerer, stepping toward me, “we meet again, DiShaun.  This time I do not think you will find it so easy to escape from what we have planned for you.”

I just glared at him.  It would be pointless to argue with the evil, overdramatic maniac.

He snapped his fingers and four of the guards closed in and seized me, taking away yet another of my swords and holding me roughly.  Only one grabbed Mara’s arm. Apparently they thought I was the more dangerous character of the bunch.

The sorcerer laughed and took another step toward me.  He stood close enough now that I could smell his breath.  It stunk. “By the time we finish with you, DiShaun, you will wish you died the first time.”

With that he thrust one long-fingered, claw-like hand toward me and I was hit with the worst pain I had felt in my whole life.  It flung me on the floor in an instant, writhing and seizing. My head felt like it would explode, and all I could think about was the agony.  I can’t even describe it. It took everything in me not to start screaming, but I still had a little bit of pride.

The whole world turned black and still the pain continued.  I’m not sure for how long, it felt like hours, but it probably lasted only seconds.  A scream suddenly pierced the blackness. A scream I very definitely recognized as Mara’s.  The pain stopped with it.

I opened my eyes as fast as possible.  What was he doing to my little princess?

Apparently that was the wrong question to ask.  As far as I could tell, the little princess was doing most of the doing.

The soldier who had been holding her arm stood there empty-handed, and his own arm was bleeding from a set of teeth marks.  As for Mara, she had apparently jumped forward and grabbed the sorcerer’s hand and pushed it away from me. She clung to both of his arms, pushing him away, and he looked like he had completely lost his balance and was just trying to catch it again.  She was doing pretty good for a kid her size.

That is, until the sorcerer suddenly caught his balance and with a fling of his arm sent Mara flying into the wall with a thud.

My heart stopped when Mara hit the floor.  “No!” I screamed, and leapt from where I still knelt on the floor.  There were several soldiers between Mara and me. They never even stood a chance.    

I flew straight through the soldiers and knocked them down like bowling pins.  I threw them out of the way, not even caring what would happen when they got back up again, and knelt next to Mara’s still frame.  For a terrifying moment it looked like she was dead.

“Mara,” I whispered, holding her head.  “Come on, Mara, don’t die on me now.”

She groaned, her eyes fluttered, and her hand moved until it held mine.  “Robbie,” she barely whispered.

Oh, how I wanted to just sit there and hold her and take care of her.  Never again would I look on her the same way. But that option was not left for me.

Valkav’s soldiers did not particularly care that I was in the middle of a serious moment with Mara.  They pulled me up and yanked me away. Valkav looked as if he had never been attacked with the sharpened claws of a furious D.I.D. before, and it would take him a few minutes to recover.  In any case, he wasn’t interested in torturing me any more, for the moment at least. Instead, he gave his troops orders. “Throw them both in the dungeons!”

The soldiers were only too happy to comply.  I couldn’t even see what happened to Mara, or if she ever stood up, they pulled me away so fast.  I only had a moment to struggle and yell, “Mara!” very loudly, before they had me out of the room and halfway down the hall.

Once again, the iron gates to the dungeon clanked shut behind me.  My life was getting repetitive.

This time, though, they couldn’t hold me there.  After the sorcerer’s little display of power upstairs, I certainly didn’t want to still be here when he recovered from shock well enough to begin killing me again.  

But I couldn’t go, not yet.  There was something I had to do before leaving this place.  And I knew he would come

I had to wait until well into the middle of the night, sitting in the back of my prison, arms crossed, staring at the gate.  Finally I saw a light. A moment later the door opened and Blythe walked into my cell. Someone must have been with him, because the door shut and latched behind him.  

Blythe met my gaze for only a moment, then his eyes fell to the ground.  

“How dare you,” I said lowly.

He looked up at me briefly once more.  “I’m sorry, Robbie, really I am. I didn’t want to.  I didn’t have a choice.”

“Tell me.  You owe me that much.”

“It’s kind of a long story.”

“Talk.”

He sighed.  “It goes back a long time.  I was never a very good gnome, see.  Didn’t get along that well with the other gnomes, didn’t fit in, you know.  So when I had a chance to leave, I took it. Got in lots of trouble, out in the real world.  A lot of scrapes that went a long way over my head. But I liked it. It wasn’t the dark caves of the gnome-world anymore, it was bigger and stronger and better.  I enjoyed it. That is, until I messed with the wrong person.”

“What kind of person?’

“A godmother.  I played a prank on her.  Utterly humiliated her.” He grinned broadly, remembering.  “It was a great prank, but the godmother didn’t see the humor.  She was furious and said she was going to kill me. I had to make a run for it.  Running doesn’t do a whole lot of good when someone who knows magic is after you though, and it was only a matter of time before she was going to find me.  There was a young man, working in one of the magic shops there, who helped me. He said he had learned a lot of magic and wanted to set out on his own. He also said he could protect me from the godmother, as long as I promised to work for him and help him for as long as he needed me.

“It was only afterward that I found out he had sorcerer blood, and it wasn’t good sorcerer blood either.  He made me do all kinds of things and dragged me deeper and deeper in. I got into so much trouble; I did terrible, terrible things for him.  I didn’t want to, but he said if I stopped the godmother would destroy me. At some point the godmother must have forgotten me, to be sure. But there are lots of other people out there who would love to lay their hands on me by now.  Like I said, I’ve done terrible things. I was afraid to stop, afraid to turn against him.

“When he started this enterprise he told me it was our big chance, and after this he would set me free.  Now I am sure he lied, but then I believed him. Otherwise, I would never have agreed to help him destroy an entire kingdom.  He told me only one person in the entire kingdom who could possibly stand in our way: the prince.

“You were gone on your mission to rescue the princess by the time we were ready to go after him.  He told me to go in the general direction went and he would give me more instructions. Sorcerers have all kinds of interesting ways of communicating with their minions.  

“I found you eventually, and followed you until the gnomes captured you.  They caught me at the same time. It took all the tricks in my book to get them to allow me to be your translator and, eventually, talk to you on my own.  Then it was a simple matter of telling you whatever I wanted to get your trust, and tell them whatever they wanted to keep theirs so I could help you escape.  I knew if I helped you escape from the gnomes you would trust me implicitly. You know the rest. Valkav really wanted me to be a double agent, and that’s what I’ve been.

I was silent for a minute.  “Did you have anything to do with the last time I got caught?”

“No.  No, Robbie, I swear.”  Tears welled up in his tiny eyes.  “I never wanted any of this to happen.  And I really did take care of Mara while you were gone.  I didn’t want to hurt anybody, truly. I didn’t have a choice.”

“I believe you,” I said quietly.

He looked up at me, sudden hope in his eyes.  “Really?”

“Yes.  I understand.  You work for someone and you have to do what they say, even when you don’t want to.  I know how it is. I’ve never had to betray anybody, but I’ve done some pretty awful things myself.  I don’t hold that against you.”

His face fell.  “But you still can’t forgive me?”

I looked straight at him.  “You took her from me, Blythe.  You think they can keep me down here until I’m dead?  Not this time. But I can’t get her out. I have to leave Mara back in this place, because of you.  Do you understand that?” He couldn’t meet my gaze anymore. “Mara means everything to me, Blythe, everything.  And you took her from me. I’m sorry, but I can’t forgive you, not for that.”

“I understand,” he whispered.  “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t forgive me either.”

I nodded and stood up.  “Are you going to tell them I’m escaping?”

He looked back up at me, and smiled grimly.  “No. I have to do whatever he says, but no more than that.  I won’t tell.”

“Thank you.  I’m sorry it had to end this way.”

“So am I,” he said quietly.  He turned, tapped three times on the door, and it opened.  Blythe was gone.

It took a few minutes to process everything.  At some point, I realized thinking about it wasn’t doing anything other than make my blood boil.  It was time to get out of there.

A long time ago Arlin showed me a trick to get out of the dungeons.  Not very many people knew about it, but in my line of work it is important to know things like that.  It’s pretty simple, but not really something you would get by guessing. It’s a trick with the latch and the bolt in the door.  Sometimes it took a couple of tries, especially if the door was rusty, but I had practiced. Never know when something like that will come in handy.

I did remember this trick the last time I got myself locked in the dungeons about to be killed.  But with the threat on the village I couldn’t use it. This time no one knew I was here, so it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to blame the people in the village.  Whatever happened, I was spitting mad and couldn’t stand to sit around there any longer.

It took two tries to get the latch and the bolt to slide open at the same time.  I jumped out and took down the guard in front of the door so he couldn’t alert anyone else to my escape.  I also got his sword, which was definitely a plus.

Once out I looked around.  Mara was locked away somewhere in these dungeons..  It almost killed me to leave without her. Even if I could find her before everyone knew I escaped, she’d been hurt.  I would never be able to get her out in one piece. In fact, she was probably safer locked up here. They wouldn’t want to kill her, not yet.  If she ran away with me they might just change their minds.

No matter how much I thought it would to kill me, I had to leave her in the dungeons.  I took a deep breath. Then I ran.

I was so distracted, I almost ran over one of the castle guard.  I probably would have attacked him if he hadn’t said my name in surprise and I recognized him.  “Take me to Arlin. Hurry,” I commanded. He did as told.

Arlin’s face paled in shock when he saw me.  “Robbie! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in the forest?  I told you we’d keep you posted.”

“I know.  Things happened, I can’t explain right now.  Mara and I got caught. The gnome betrayed us.  He’s been working for the sorcerer the whole time.  I couldn’t get Mara out, she is still locked up.”

He sank into his chair.  “Wha—what? How did this all happen so fast?”

“It’s complicated.  Listen, how many men do you have, or can you get by tomorrow night?”

“By tomorrow?  150, maybe 200 tops.  If I had more time, maybe 300.”

“We don’t have more time.  How many men does Valkav have now?”

“It’s impossible to say.  Their numbers change every day.”

“Give me an estimate.”

“An estimate?  400-500.”

“Ok,” I took a moment to process that.  “Can you have your men ready by tomorrow night to fight the sorcerer?”

“Tomorrow night?  Robbie, I don’t know.  We need more time.”

“We don’t have more time.  He has Mara.”

Robbie, we don’t have the resources.  My men aren’t prepared to fight that many soldiers.  We would need something drastic.”

“How does a dragon sound?”

“A what?”

“I have a dragon.  He’s going to help us.  Would that help?”

He nodded, thunderstruck.  Dragons tend to have that affect on people.

“And if you have a dragon, can you be ready by tomorrow night?”

Arlin glanced at the other soldier who was in the room with us.  “What do you think? Can you men be ready?”

The man nodded, grinning.  “We’re ready to kick those blasted witchlovers out.  We can be ready whenever Robbie needs us.”

That made me smile.  Arlin too. “All right, then,” I said.  “Arlin, do you think you could get out to the woods tomorrow?  Meet me at the end of the tunnel at noon?”

“Yes, I can do that.”

“Good, we can finish our plans then.”

“You need to get out of the castle, for now.”

“Good plan.  It would really stink if they caught me now.”

“I’ll say.”  He walked with me to the tunnel entrance.  “I better not go in with you. Good luck. I’ll see you tomorrow, at noon.”

“Do you think you could bring me some armor when you come?  And maybe a better sword or two?”

He smiled.  “Done.”

 

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Chapter 17: Helga

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Being able to run is a very fine skill.  Whether you are winning a race, staying away from the coppers, heartbroken, fighting a dragon, or just trying to get somewhere quickly, it is always good to be able to run fast.

I ran blindly, as hard and as fast as possible.  My breath came out in gasps, and my heart pounded in my ears.  My side started to cramp, but on I ran until the pain was too much and the forest too dark to see where I was going, and I collapsed on the ground and fell asleep.  

The next morning when my eyes opened, the sun was pouring through the canopy of leaves overhead.  I stretched stiffly, and sat up, wondering what time it was. As far as I could tell, it appeared to be midmorning.  At least the night was over. I got up and started to walk aimlessly. It didn’t really matter where I ended up now.

So.  That was how it was going to be.  At least now it was clear. There wouldn’t be any more confusion on my part at least.  Mara thought I was just a pawn, a means to an end. I could never be anything more. At least she cleared that up.  Now we could continue with our lives.

Or she could continue with hers.  Me, on the other hand, that would be more difficult.  There was no way, when this ended, I’d be able to stay at the castle.  That left the question, what else could I do? What marketable skills did I even have?  The answer was: not much. I could fight dragons, outthink witches, run away from wolves and not much else. I’d spent my whole life training for a role that soon would be unnecessary.  If Mara cast me aside, I’d be out of a job. That was really the last thing eating away at my chest, but it didn’t hurt quite as bad to think about. I had actually believed Mara cared for me, maybe even loved me a little bit.  I’m such an idiot. I was just a tool, something to be used and then forgotten.

Whatever way I looked at it, there was still a job to do.  Just because I had discovered the truth about things, that didn’t change the facts.  Maybe Mara didn’t care, but this was my home, and Roy was still officially my boss.

And I promised Mara I would take care of it.  Even if she cared nothing for me, even if everything had changed, I still made a promise.  By golly, I was going to keep it.

The problem was, she wanted to get Roy.  I could live with that. Didn’t like it any, but it was livable.  That still left me without a very good plan for defeating the sorcerer.  I’m a dragon-slayer, not a sorcerer-slayer. It’s a little bit out of my experience.  Sure, I’m about as qualified as anybody, but that isn’t saying much. Do you know anyone qualified to fight a sorcerer?  Me neither.

I emerged on the top of a hill, and the trees cleared up a little so I could see for quite a ways.  The castle rose up in the south, looking bare, dark, and forbidding. The town lay spread out around the walls, looking small and desolate next to the castle.  

As I turned, I saw the forest spread out all around, almost as dark and forbidding as the castle. The forest made the castle and the village both look tiny and unimportant.  The trees continued, wide and unbroken for a long ways. Here and there emerged the top of an old tower, or you could see a break in the trees where there were ruins. Countless people had lived in the forest, countless died.  It was kind of fascinating.

Something caught my eye close by.  The midmorning sun shone blindingly, and bathed the tops of the trees in light.  A shadow moved across them at an alarming rate, headed toward a very tall tower jutting out of the trees somewhere in the east, toward the river.  I looked up. A large, dark shape flew through the sky. It circled the tower a few times and landed on the top, looking quite pensive and foreboding.  Probably, it was an enchanted dragon guarding a damsel in the tower. I didn’t remember hearing about one being there, but that kind of thing happens all the time in Fairyland.  It was a little too close to the castle for my comfort, but that’s ok. I can live with a dragon for a neighbor. Wait…

A huge smile spread over my face, and I started laughing hysterically.  A dragon! Just when I really needed something to cheer me up! What perfect timing.  As I stared toward the tower, at the massive shape of the dragon, a plan began to form in my mind.  A dazzlingly simple, marvelously elegant, freakishly fantastic plan. And it just might work!

It was time for some more running.  Time was becoming important. I bolted from the hilltop, headed as fast as possible toward the dragon-tower.  It took most of the day to get there. I couldn’t run the whole entire time, I’m not enchanted. But either way, I can travel pretty quickly when I’m motivated.  And today, I felt plenty motivated. It was the middle of the afternoon when I realized I was very close to the tower containing the enchanted dragon.

Inside this tower waited a dragon and a damsel.  I didn’t know much more. Dragons are big, strong, and very useful when you want to fight other strong powerful things.  

From Phil I knew that dragons only try to kill people who are in the castle because one, they are enchanted, and two, the people are trying to attack and kill them.  We’ve already been over that, awhile ago. So, my thought was, if I got the girl out of the castle, the dragon would be free. Maybe he would feel indebted to me for freeing him and decide to help me out.  That was the thinking anyway. And a dragon would be rather helpful for my impossible predicament. If nothing else, a good fight with a dragon might put me in a better humor.

The tower loomed up high over the trees.  It started out wide at the bottom, but got steadily thinner all the way up.  The top probably turned into merely a garret where the princess most likely lived.  The highest room in the tallest tower and all that jazz. A high wall circled the base of the tower, which didn’t make a lot of sense, but I’m not the one who designed the thing.  The dragon was probably in the courtyard there, between the walls and the tower. Either that, or he was hiding in the lowest level of the tower. Probably wouldn’t fit very many other places.     

The plan?  Grab the girl and get out again, preferably without making the dragon too angry in the process.  Or getting myself fried for that matter.

Well, if I wanted to do this, it was time to quit stalling and do it.  Twice, I circled the base of the tower, hoping to find some sign of the beastie waiting inside.  Nothing. When I got back over to the gate I stared at it for a long minute.

I stretched, loosened up a bit, and unsheathed the sword I got from Arlin.  Nothing in the plan called for the sword, I just felt more natural and comfortable going to face a dragon with it in my hand.  It seems more professional.

Making faces at the gate so far had not yielded any interesting results.  One last stretch, I grabbed the handle to the gate and pulled it open hard and fast toward myself, keeping it between me and the entrance.

Good thing, too.  A wall of fire came through the opening the instant it opened and if I hadn’t been safely hidden, everything would have ended there.  Before he could catch his breath again I leaped around the gate, bolted through the entrance, and ran between his legs.

He was a biggie, all right.  Almost as huge as Mara’s dragon, and a brilliant gold color.  He tried to whack me with his tail when I came out from between his legs, which was a new one, but I managed to duck out of the way, though it did get close.  Silly dragon, I’m faster than you.

Only, I didn’t want to kill the thing.  I just needed to get around it. If I’d thought it would help I would have started yelling, “Stupid!  I’m trying to help you!” But that probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Oh well, this was more fun anyway.

In the end I had to continuously run between his legs and dodge his tail to avoid him.  The more I did that, the better he got at aiming. Finally, we inched close enough to the crumbled entrance to the tower.  I made a run for it and darted behind the wall the instant I got inside to let the fireball pass by.

Luckily, the dragon couldn’t fit through the entrance.  A crumbly ruin of a staircase twisted up along the walls to the top of the tower.  I groaned at the sight. This was worse than dragon-fighting any day.

The stairs took longer than the dragon-fighting had, too.  I climbed them carefully. Didn’t really want to die from stepping on a rotten stair.  It took a while, but eventually I made it to the top of the thing and burst into the princess’s room.  

I needed to hurry and get back to Mara.  The princess sat on the low bed, her hands folded in her lap, utterly petrified at the sight of me.

From the look of things, she hadn’t been a D.I.D. that long.  She was a bit plump and quite cute, with large brown eyes and long blonde hair.  

“What’s your name?” I demanded.  I was in a hurry.

“Me?” she squeaked.

“Yes,” I sighed.  Who else was in the room?

“I’m—I’m—Helga!” she stuttered out.

I rolled my eyes, ran across the room, and grabbed her hand.  “Come on, then, Helga. Time to go!”

Back down, down, down, all the way down the stairs we ran.  Well, ran is relative. Helga didn’t move that fast, but she looked like she was trying to run.  No where near as fast or as determined as Mara.  But Mara was clearly my favorite. Obviously.

When we arrived back at the entrance to the courtyard, I poked my head around.  The dragon wasn’t in sight, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t hiding just out of vision, waiting for me.  

My only prayer, now that I had to drag Helga along, was that he would think twice about frying the princess.  Hopefully, that would give us time to run out of the courtyard, and Helga would be officially rescued.

I grabbed Helga’s hand and raced for the gate as fast as I could drag her.  As we burst into the open a roar sounded from somewhere above and to the left, and the thudding sound that meant he was airborne above us.  He roared again. Twenty feet to the gate!

The horrible sound of a dragon in-taking air.  Ten feet.

He landed on the ground behind us, reared his head back, and released.

I pulled Helga behind the gate and slammed it shut.

Take that, mister dragon!

Helga stood there just staring at me like I was some sort of nut case.  But there was not time to worry about that. I glanced around and saw a big stone, part of the ruins, close by.  “Here,” I said, leading her to it. “Stay there, for now. Ok?” She nodded, and I ran back to the gate.

Now that was taken care of, it was time to think about my dragon.  Cautiously, I opened the gate again and peeked inside. The dragon sat in the courtyard, sides heaving and head down, looking in my direction suspiciously.  I was all the way inside the courtyard before I realized something kind of important.

No one had ever actually tested my dragons-aren’t-really-all-that-bad theory.  No one but me had ever even thought about trying it. Who goes to all the trouble of rescuing a dame without bothering to kill the dragon?  So there I was, face to face with a massive golden dragon, with no idea whether or not he was going to just eat me then and there.

Slowly, I made a great show of placing my sword on the ground next to me.  He watched closely, huge golden eyes tracking my every move.

Here goes nothing.  “Uh, hi,” I said. What should one say in this situation?  “Uh, well, I’m Robbie, and I actually didn’t come here for the princess.  I’m a lot more interested in you, really.” I sounded ridiculous “See, now that I’ve rescued the princess, you aren’t enchanted anymore, so you don’t have to stay here.  You could do anything you wanted. But I was kind of wondering if you would be interested in helping me out. I’ve got this problem, see, the kingdom I live in has been taken over by this evil sorcerer, and I’m not a hero or anything, so I’m having a little trouble.  I thought maybe, since I got you free of your enchantment, you might like to do a little favor for me, or something.”

Ok, so that sounded awful.  “So, in other words, I need some help, and it doesn’t exactly look like you have anything better to do with yourself right now, so yeah.”

The dragon just stared at me.  Did he even understand a word of that? There was a thought.  What if dragons don’t understand people-talk? That would put a serious hole in my plans.  And probably in my body if he still thought I wanted to kill him and my sword was lying on the ground.  This was a horrible idea.

He was still just looking at me.  Suddenly, a deep sound burst out of his throat.  If I hadn’t been utterly petrified that would have cued me to bolt out of there in high gear.  For some reason, however, my legs wouldn’t respond to the signals my brain sent out, and I just stood there gaping at him and looking ridiculous.  

“What did you say your name was again?” came a deep, growly voice from the golden dragon.

“R-R-Ro-Robbie,” I stuttered.  

He made that funny growly noise again, and I realized it was probably laughter.  “You are the queerest person I ever met, and I have met some queer ones.”

“Uh, thanks?”

“So, you don’t think I have anything better to do, do you?”  There came that growly noise again. “Well, you’re probably right.  And you are entertaining. I’ll come with you, if nothing else just to see what in the world you were stuttering about.”

Now that he was talking and being friendly like, my bravery started to come back in a lovely flood.  “I wasn’t stuttering. I had something caught in my throat.”

“Sure,” he said, skeptical.  

“You’re really going to help me?” I asked, trying not to let my hopes fly up too high until I felt certain.  This was almost too good to be true.

“Well, maybe first you should tell me exactly what I’m signing up for.  However, like you said, you did rescue me from the enchantment. I do feel indebted to you for that great service.”

“I must say, that is a great relief.  I always thought dragons weren’t all that bad, but no one ever agreed.  Of course, I didn’t remember that until I was back staring you in the face.”

He laughed.  “Well, you get points for pure guts, if nothing else.”

“Thanks, I do try.”

“You haven’t answered my question yet.”

“Oh, and what question was that?”

“What did I sign up for, exactly?”

“That, my friend, is a very long story.”

Once again, I found myself settling down and telling the whole long thing over again.  When the dragon heard my reasoning behind coming to rescue the princess and get his help in return, he burst into loud guffaws.  

“That—that was all you had—to go on!” he laughed loudly.  “You’re crazy! You had no idea I wasn’t going to eat you!”

“I was just a little bit desperate, if you can’t tell.”

“So what is the plan now, since you have acquired a dragon’s services?”

“First, we probably should find the princess.”  I had carefully left out the parts about our big fight and the conversation I overheard with the godmother.  In fact, the whole incident had happily stayed far away from the front of my mind. It could just stay away, for all I cared.

“That does always help,” he agreed.  “I don’t suppose you have any idea where exactly she is?”

“She was in the forest near the castle yesterday.”

“How do you know for sure?”

“I saw her there.”

He looked me over carefully.  “And you got all the way over here today?  On foot?”

“I like to run,” I said with a shrug.

He burst into more loud, roaring laughter, and I laughed with him.  “In all my hundreds of years, never have I met a human like you, Sir Robbie.  Let’s go find your princess.”

He turned, strode out of the gate, and crouched down.  “You won’t have to run any more today, anyway. Hop on.”

“Really?”

“Of course.  My pleasure.”

It’s not everyday you get a chance to take a complimentary ride by dragon-back.  This was turning out to be a pretty ok day after all. Eagerly, I scrambled up his leg (with a little help from him, admittedly) and onto his back.  As I got settled between his shoulder blades, I thought of something. “Hey,” I called to his head. “What did you say your name was, again?”

“It’s not very pronounceable.”

“Well, I gotta call you something!”

“You can call me Jake, I guess,” he said uncertainly.  “That’s close enough.”

“Jake.  It’s nice to meet you Jake.”  A thought came to me. “What kind of a name for a terrifying dragon is Jake?’

“Like I said, it’s not my real name.  My real name can only be said in dragon language.  You wouldn’t be able to get it out, not with your vocal cords.  So you are going to have to live with Jake.”

I shrugged.  “It’s fine with me.  Just a little odd, that’s all.”

“Robbie’s not much of a hero’s name, either.”

“I’m not much of a hero.”

He didn’t respond, because at that moment he made a terrific leap and with several huge thuds of his humongous wings we went airborne, flying over the tops of the trees.  He made several circles around the tower and headed for the castle. “That one?” he hollered at me, flying in the direction of the one he meant.

I barely managed to nod, and with a roar and a little dip in the air he got going even faster.  Now we were booking. I was terrified, but after a minute started to relax. He flew confidently and my seat between his shoulders felt pretty solid.  Unless he started doing somersaults in the air, I probably wouldn’t fall off. In fact, it was a very enjoyable ride once I caught my breath.

When we were very close to the castle he pulled up suddenly, his head reared back, and he circled once over a section of trees.  Then he pulled up a little higher. “Someone is calling your name down there!” he yelled over the wind.

“Really?  Is it a girl?”

“Yes.”

“That’s got to be Mara.”  It came to me that I sort of ran away without any warning or talking to anybody.  Oops. “Maybe you better set me down and let me warn her before you come roaring into view.”

“Good plan.”

He circled a couple of times and eventually found a spot clear enough in the forest for him to land without spearing himself on any trees.  He settled on the ground, and I slid off. And right onto my rear. Apparently it would take a minute for my land legs to come back. Jake laughed at me.  Again. “Go get that girl of yours,” he said, still laughing.

“I’m going, I’m going,” I muttered, getting up and running into the forest.

It took a minute to get my bearings and remember how to run properly.  Then it took a couple more minutes to find Mara. Soon I heard voices, one of them unmistakably belonging to Mara.  With a grin I ran toward them.

When they came into sight, Mara sat on a rock talking to Simeur, and Blythe stood on the rock next to her looking from one to the other in aggravation.  “Hey!” I called.

They all three turned and stared at me.  Mara jumped to her feet. “Robbie!” she cried, her face filled with relief.  

“I’ve got to show you something.  Come on!” I called, turning back toward the woods.

“Wait!  Robbie! Where have you been?” she cried, running up to me.

“It doesn’t matter.  No time. I need to show you something!”

“But…”

“Come on!” I grabbed her hand, and pulled her behind me back through the forest.  

“Did you sleep in a tree?” came the unmistakable voice of Blythe in dwarvish.

“Under one, actually,” I replied.

“Where did you two learn dwarvish?  You both have awful accents,” commented Simeur.  Oh yeah, I forgot, he would know dwarvish, wouldn’t he?  Though why he never felt the need to point that out before and help me with my translation difficulties is a mystery.  My absence must have forced him to talk to Blythe.

“You three drive me crazy!” said Mara.  “All day these two have been gabbing and arguing with each other in that crazy language, and now you, too!”

“Sorry,” I said with a grin.  To my little sidekicks I added, “Have you two been arguing?”

“This—this—thing you brought back has no idea how to handle anything.  He is more trouble than he is worth!” crabbed Simeur.

“And he does nothing but whine and complain.  Can’t stand it that the princess trusts me more than him!” said Blythe, glaring at Sime.

Simeur sighed.  “That’s not true.  No one cares to listen to me, despite the fact that I worked with Robbie for years before you ever popped up.  We don’t know anything about you, actually. What did you do before you met Robbie? Won’t tell me. I don’t trust him,” he added.

“Whatever, you two.  I have someone for you to meet.”  I stopped at the edge of the clearing where I’d left Jake.  “Ready, Princess?” I asked.

She nodded slowly and with a grin I led her into the clearing.

“Mara, meet Jake.”  Jake stood, huge and terrific, in the center of the clearing, where a patch of sunlight reflected off his great golden frame.  He looked absolutely magnificent and it made me smile.

She gasped at the sight and clutched my arm very hard.  Even Simeur and Blythe fell silent. “Who—what—how…” Mara whispered.

I grinned, grabbed her hand, and led her closer.  Jake bowed his head slightly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Princess.  Robbie has told me so much about you.”

“How?” she whispered again, unable to take her gaze off of Jake, who looked a little bit full of himself.

“Remember how I told you, before Roy killed your dragon?  How once the princess is rescued the dragon doesn’t have to kill anyone anymore?  Well, I had an opportunity and I decided to test the theory.”

“You could have died!”

“That’s what I said, Princess,” cut in Jake.  “I think our friend here does a lot of things without thinking about them too carefully.”

“I’ll say,” Mara agreed, before she realized she was talking to a dragon.  “You should have seen some of the stuff he’s pulled already!”

“I believe it!  He didn’t remember he’d never tested this theory until he was standing in front of me without a weapon, or so he claims.”

Mara glared at me.  “Thanks,” I muttered to Jake.  “Now I’m in trouble.”

“No,” said Mara.  “At least, not for that.  But where have you been? We were worried about you. What happened?”

I shrugged.  “Just needed to think about some things.  But that’s not important now.” I didn’t want to talk about the things I’d thought over.  “The important thing is that, with Jake’s help, this might actually work. The first thing that we need to do is get Roy back.”

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Chapter 16: Conversations

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Eavesdropping usually brings more pain and suffering than it does anything else.

 

My breath came heavily as I stared at Mara’s pale, angry face.  I thought she would understand, thought that she would realize how much this meant to me.  Now everything I cared about had been ripped to shreds and thrown into my face.  Without a word, I turned and ran as hard and as fast as I could through the forest.  

I should have known. Every insult I ever heard rang in my ears.  Not a real hero.  Stable boy.  Servant.  Commoner.  

The rage that burned in my chest was almost more than I could take.  And the pain.  Why did Mara, of all people, have to throw this at me?  Couldn’t she tell that every word ripped through my soul like shards of glass?  

I ran harder, and let the pain in my muscles drown out the pain in my heart.

It was dusk when I returned to the cave.  I pulled aside the brush covering the entrance and saw Simeur sitting inside, waiting for me.  “What do you want?”  I couldn’t help the harsh edge to my voice.  

“Where have you been?”

“None of your business.”

Simeur stood up abruptly and his eyes bored holes into me.  “Now you listen to me for a change.  You think you’re the victim, and we’ve wronged you horribly, and all that nonsense, but I think it’s about time for you to grow up and get over yourself.  You hurt Mara.  Bad.  Is that what you wanted?”

Did he not realize how angry I was?  “Of course not,” I snapped.  

“Well, I think that was the only thing you accomplished with your temper tantrum.  I hope you’re happy.”

Maybe he had a point.  A small point.  “Where is she?”

He pressed his lips together and shook his head.  “If you want to know that, you’re going to listen to me for a minute.”

“Just tell me, Sime.”

“Nope.”

I wanted to punch his skinny little head off.  “Fine.”  I sat down and leaned up against the cave wall.  “I’m listening.”

He snorted.  “Sure.”  Then he came and stood right over me, a ferocious look on his face.  It was the first time I ever felt intimidated by an elf.  Then his eyes drifted back into his head and I realized what he was about to do.  Elves have photographic memories, which is one reason a guy like Phil keeps them around despite their penchant for ridiculous quantities of trouble.  However, they are not very good at editing.  Which meant he would tell me exactly word-for-word and detail-for-detail everything that happened while I took my run.  

Before I could interrupt his planned reverie, he began.   “After you left, Mara looked sick.  She ran back here, so I followed her and sat in the corner until she was able to talk.  First she stomped back and forth for a while, madder than anything.  Then she cried.  A lot.  After that she finally came and sat down next to me and buried her face in her hands.  ‘Are you all right?’ I asked her eventually.  

“‘I hardly know,’ she whispered into her hands.  ‘I think I’ve done something awful, Simeur.’

“‘What do you mean?’

“‘I don’t even know!’  She looked quite angry again.  ‘Why is he so aggravating? He thinks he’s some kind of hero.  Why won’t he listen to me?’  She fell silent for a minute, then she added.  ‘I think I’ve done something awful to him.’

“I kept silent and waited for her to continue.

“‘What is it like to live like this?’

“‘What do you mean?’

“‘Like what?’

“‘Without a Happy Ending.’

“I shrugged.  ‘It’s not bad.  I’ve never worried about it.’  

“‘Doesn’t it bother you, that you will never have one, I mean?  I’m not trying to pry, but I truly have never really known anyone like you people before.’

“‘No.  It doesn’t.  I’ve never met anyone with a Happy Ending who I wanted to trade lives with, I know that much.  Not that my life has been so wonderful, but it’s enough.’

“She sighed.  ‘I’m so confused.  I thought everything made sense, and the world was perfectly happy.  Aren’t the Happily Ever After’s supposed to make the world happier?  Now it seems like all they do is hurt people.’

“‘They do hurt lots of people,’ I agreed.  ‘But they aren’t all bad.  For the most part, it doesn’t really affect us.  I couldn’t care less who has a Happy Ending, for my own part.  That’s the way it is for most people.’

“‘Why does Robbie have such a problem with it?’

“Now we were getting to the heart of the thing.  ‘Robbie is a little different.’

“‘How so?’

“‘Robbie’s life has been, well, rather difficult.  The king took him from his family when he was just a baby to be raised in the castle.  He doesn’t even remember his family, knows nothing about them.  He grew up knowing that he didn’t mean anything to anyone, he was just a tool to bring the prince fame and glory.  He learned at a horribly young age that nothing he does has any value unless it brings glory to the prince.  He has never done anything that he could claim for himself.  No one, not even me, knows all of the things he has done for this kingdom.  The prince takes all of the credit.  Robbie is reminded, every single day of his existence, that he is nothing without the prince.  Not because the prince has any particular skills.  Robbie is the hero.  It is Robbie who fights the dragons, and rescues the girls, but without the prince, without that protection, he doesn’t dare to do anything.  It is killing him.  It’s been killing him for years, and those who know him well can see it.  Every time he saves someone, every time he is a hero, do you think anyone thanks him?  You think anyone notices, or cares what he goes through to keep the prince rich and famous?  No one.  Not even the prince himself, much less the people he has saved. Robbie is the wisest, strongest, kindest, gentlest, smartest, most compassionate man I know.  He is a hero, in every sense of the word.  And not once has he ever tried to claim any of that for himself.  He’ll never tell you anything about it.

“‘Now, I don’t know exactly what is going on between you two, and I don’t really want to know. He doesn’t have a Happy Ending.  So what?  That doesn’t change who he is, and it doesn’t change the facts.  If anyone can save this kingdom, it’s him.’

“Mara was very quiet after that.  It was quite the sermon I gave her.  She was crying again, too.  ‘All right, Simeur,’ she barely whispered.  ‘I understand a little bit better now.’  She looked around.  ‘Do you suppose it would be all right if I go out for a little bit?  I need to talk to someone.’

“‘I don’t care,’ I said.  ‘But tell me where you’re going so Robbie doesn’t kill me when he comes back.’

“‘Of course.  I’m going to Ramonda’s.  I need to talk to her.’

“That surprised me, but there was nothing I could do. ‘Be careful,’ I told her, as she walked out.  She didn’t look back and that was that.”   

That was a lot to take in at once.  “You really said all of that?”  I’d never heard Simeur get out more than a couple sentences at a time.  

“Yes,” Sime said stiffly.  “Is that a problem?”

I shrugged, my mind was spinning.  I couldn’t ask the obvious question: if he believed all that, why had he told me earlier I couldn’t win without the prince?  I didn’t want to know.  I just stared at him blankly.  

“Now,” Sime continued, “I have something more to say.”

Oh great.  Now I was going to get preached at.

“You hurt Mara.  Hurt her bad.  You told me your goal was to protect Mara and get her a Happy Ending.  If that’s true, you are making an awful mess of it.  If you really want to do this right, you’re going to have to stop indulging in your little pity party and think about her for a change.”

I couldn’t quite process Simeur’s words.  But they stung.  “You said she went to see Ramonda?”

“Yes.”

Ugh.  Ramonda was the kingdom’s godmother.  We all know how I feel about godmothers.  She lived near the castle and it had always grated on my nerves that the lady was so close by.  It never occurred to me that someone might actually want to go see the lady.  

Without another word I turned and sprinted out of the house.  It wasn’t safe for Mara to be out and about by herself.  And I absolutely do not trust fairy godmothers for anything.    

At the top of the hill, I slowed.  The house looked innocent enough, but any child in the village could warn you to stay away.  That might sound funny, especially since fairy godmothers are supposed to be the ones who answer wishes and make dreams come true.  She never did any of those lovely things for the kids in the village.  I’m sure she had for someone before, but that someone had a Happy Ending.  All she ever did for me, or anyone else in the village, was tell us we weren’t special enough.  She didn’t get involved with us after that, for which I am very thankful.  

I walked all the way around the house and got the layout in my mind.  Her house sat on the edge of the village, nestled up against the forest.  In front there was a fence and gardens and such, but apparently Ramonda thought the forest served as a fine fence for the rest.

The forest offered more protection for me, too.  I snuck around the trees, and went from window to window along the back wall until I heard voices.  Then I pressed up against the wall under the window and listened.

Mara’s voice came first.  “I don’t understand though.  Why doesn’t this feel like a Happy Ending?”

“Your story isn’t done yet, my dear.  These are just trials and sufferings that must come in your tale.  They will pass before long, never fear.”  The godmother’s voice was sweeter than honey, cloyingly sweet, and a little nasal sounding, at least to me.  

“But this is wrong!  It’s hurt so many people!”

“Even more must be hurt before the end.  You need to accept that, my dear.  Not everyone has a Happy Ending.  You should feel quite lucky.  Prince Roy will be free soon and then you two will live happily ever after.  Do not worry.”

Mara was silent for a minute.  “What about Robbie?” she said, so quietly I barely heard it..

The Godmother didn’t speak for a second.  “What about him?” she asked harshly.

“What will happen to him?”

“You should not concern yourself with him, my dear.  Only think of your own story.”

“But I can’t help it.  This would all be impossible without him.  It isn’t fair for him to get tossed aside.  What will happen to him?  I need to know.”

Ramonda sighed.  “Robbie doesn’t get a Happy Ending, dear.  You must accept that.  Robbie is just a servant, a pawn in this game.  His role, his only purpose in life, is to arrange your and Roy’s Happy Ending.”

“That’s wrong!”

“Listen to me.  Long ago, we didn’t set Endings for everyone.  There was chaos in Fairyland!  Everyone thought they were the hero.  Everyone expected to get a Happy Ending, and it created disaster.  The Godmothers came together, and devised a plan to retain order.  If we set everyone’s destiny at birth, and told them their destiny, then those who got Happy Endings would get them, and those who don’t would stay out of the way.  It was a good plan and for the most part worked beautifully.

“We discovered one problem, however, that no one foresaw.  The people who got Happy Endings grew lazy.  They knew whatever they did, their Ending would come anyway.  Why work for it?

“This became a serious problem.  Without any heroes, the villains grew stronger and stronger and no one could lift a finger to stop them.  Fortunately, before things got too out of hand, the people realized this was an issue also.  And thus they created Robbie’s role.  We helped the kings and other rulers to set up the practice of bringing in a boy without a Happy Ending of his own to do the hero’s work for him.  This way the damsels could be rescued, the villains defeated, everything would work out beautifully, and peace would be retained.  The heroes would get their fame and glory.  Everyone was happy.

“I admit, it is rough for those unlucky enough to be chosen to work as the stand-in hero.  But that is Robbie’s job.  It is his only purpose within the world.  The magic will help him only so far as he is bringing glory to Roy.  He is nothing without it.”

“That’s not fair!  How can you say that!  Robbie did everything!  Everything!”

“He is nothing, Mara, you have to forget him.”

“I can’t,” Mara’s voice barely made it through the window.  “That’s just it.”

The Godmother’s voice became very harsh very quickly.  “Roy is your prince, he is your hero.  You will marry him, and you will live Happily Ever After.  That is your story.  Robbie is nothing to you and he never can be anything to you.  He is just a servant.  He means nothing, he is worth nothing.  It may not be fair, but that is life.  Robbie must bring you your ending and then bow out.  Will he ever be happy himself?  No.  I can tell you that much, he probably cannot ever be happy.  It will be very difficult for him to accept the fact that he is unnecessary and the rest of his life will be long, dull, and miserable.  That is the way it must be.  If you want your prince and your Happy Ending you have to understand this.  Robbie means nothing.”

That was it.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  I fled.

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Chapter 15: Not That Hero

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Don’t ever forget who you are.

 

The next morning I remembered something a little important.  Simeur.  Oops.

I raced out of the cave before Mara or Blythe were awake, back to where I said we would meet.

He was there, waiting for me with an anxious look on his face.  He jumped up when I got close, and now he looked mad.

“Where in the world have you been?”

“Sorry. I overslept.”

“I was about to head for the village!  I thought you got caught!”

“Nope.  We’re good.  Come on, I’ll take you back.”

We started to walk through the forest.  “How did it go?” he asked after a minute.

“I got the princess and Blythe.  Not the prince.”

He nodded.  “What do we do now?”

I laughed.  “Wait here until I come up with a plan, I guess.”

When we go back, things got kind of exciting.  Blythe and Simeur eyed each other warily, and both seemed quite disgruntled about the other being there.  Simeur was polite to Mara, at least, but he wasn’t overly thrilled about the whole situation.  I didn’t want to deal with any of their drama.

The next few days were reasonably uneventful.  We stayed close to the caves, and Mara and I both went crazy.  Blythe did little but act like a pest.  Simeur was useful, at least.  He went to the village daily to try and hear the news.  Everything was uneventful there, too.  The sorcerer was staying low and no one knew the princess was gone.  It gave me a great sense of joy.  

I don’t have a great store of patience, as I’ve made clear before.  After a few days of driving myself wild, and watching Mara do the same (you can only sweep the cave or go for water or hunt for food so many times a day) I’d had enough.  “Hey, let’s go for a walk,” I called to Mara one morning, before she had time to get too crabby.  

She was only too happy to comply.  

She walked next to me silently for a minute.  “So, what’s up?” she asked suddenly.

“We need to do something.”

“Like what?”

“That sorcerer is in charge up at the castle and we can’t let him get away with it.”

“What can we do?  He’s so strong.”

“That’s what we need to talk about.”

“What are you two doing?”   Simeur appeared out of nowhere.

“Simeur, you just about gave me a heart attack.  I could have died,” I informed him bluntly.

“Apologies,” he muttered.

“We’re talking about what we should do now.”

He nodded, thoughtfully.

“Simeur works for Phil, my fairy godfather, so he does know a little bit about this kind of thing,” I told Mara, grudgingly.

“A little bit?  I’m an elf!  I know far more than you silly humans!”

“I’ve killed more monsters.”

“I’ve seen more monsters.”

Ok, I’d give him that.  “That doesn’t prove a whole lot, buddy.”

He just glared at me.

“To get back on topic,” said Mara.

“Yes.  We need to do something.  And soon.”

“What is your plan?” asked Sime.  “You wouldn’t call this little meeting unless you had a plan.”

“I didn’t call a meeting,” I said, exasperated.  “I went on a walk with Mara, and you popped up.”

“I figured it must be important if you two wanted to be alone, so I thought I would tag along.”

“If I’d wanted a meeting, I would have brought you and Blythe along.”

“I don’t trust Blythe.”

“What’s wrong with Blythe now?”

Sime shook his head.  “I don’t know.  I just don’t like him, not one bit.”

“Whatever,” I said, rolling my eyes.  “The point is, if we don’t do something about this sorcerer problem, no one is going to.”

“So what’s the plan?” asked Mara.

“Well,” I said, struggling to put my thoughts into words, “Arlin has an army, right?  Maybe it is a little cut back at the moment, but he could call up a decent sized one on a moment’s notice.  Then, all someone needs to do is fight the sorcerer.”

“And just who do you suggest to do that?” asked Simeur bluntly.

“I am a dragon-slayer,” I pointed out.

“A dragon-slayer without a happy ending,” Simeur pointed out.

“Why should that matter?  I got Mara out, didn’t I?  You and Max thought that would be impossible and it went off without a hitch.  Why shouldn’t I be able to do this?”

“Wait,” Mara interrupted, stopping suddenly.  “What are you two talking about?”

“Robbie doesn’t have a happy ending.  He could die easily, at any moment.  If he does something too dangerous, the magic will work against him, because it says he is not supposed to be a hero,” Simeur said, while I glared furiously at him.

“He’s done all kinds of things, and been just fine!” Mara said, looking from him to me in confusion.

“That’s because he was with the prince.  The magic does want Roy to have a happy ending.  Without the prince, Robbie is really, truly on his own.”

“No, no, no!” I cried, smashing my fist into a tree.  “I got Mara out!  On my own!”

“Yes,” conceded Simeur, “you did.  But that is probably because you managed, anyhow, to make the magic work.  She does have a happy ending, and the magic suggests that she should be rescued when a sorcerer is holding her captive.  You were in the right place at the right time and it worked.”

“It worked because I know what I am doing!  Not because of any silly magic junk.  Listen,” I said, turning to look at Mara.  “I can do this.  The magic isn’t everything, you know.”

“No,” she whispered.  Then her voice got louder.  “Didn’t you listen to anything he said?  The magic dictates that you will die!  Don’t you get it?  You can’t do this, Robbie!  You just can’t.  We have to get the prince.”

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do, Mara!  Don’t you dare!”

“But it is true!  You don’t have a happy ending, Robbie, you can’t do everything!”

“I have killed dragons, fought witches, and rescued more people than you could count!”

“You had the prince then, and you need him now.”

“We don’t need the prince!  He will just get in the way.  I am more than capable of fighting the sorcerer myself!  Saving the prince will just make this more complicated.  Let me do this, Mara, I can do it.  I can save us.”

“No,” she said quietly.  “No, Robbie, you can’t.  You’re not a prince, Robbie.  This is a job for a hero to do, and you’re not that hero.  This is my Happy Ending, and it has to be right.  You have to get the prince.  That’s all that there is to it.”

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Chapter 14: Escape

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

It is better to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, than a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

 

On the way to the castle I passed a farmhouse with their laundry up, and after some sneaky investigation I darted into the lawn, grabbed a bunch of clothes, and fled for my life.  Sorry to whatever family lost half their wardrobe, but they’d be better off if I killed the sorcerer anyway, or at least that was my justification.

There was a skirt, a shirt, a headscarf, and a bunch of other random stuff in the clothes I grabbed.  With a lot of stuffing and bunching and pushing and adjusting, eventually it transformed me into something that resembled an old servant woman on her way back into work.  I felt rather proud of that costume.  When I was close to the castle wall, I started hunching and waddling.  When I passed several groups of people without any funny looks, I started to relax.  This wasn’t so bad, after all.

Near the castle, traffic got worse.  There were people everywhere, coming in and out.  It was late afternoon, and all the extras were clearing out.  A strange hush lay over the crowd.  It felt different than it had in the past.  There was more whispering and less laughing.  More wary glances from side to side, less trust.  This place was already feeling the effects of the change in management.  

I waddled along with my head down, trying to stay obscure and unnoticeable.  At the gate, I waited until a group of other lady servants were walking in, and fell in step behind them.  So far, so good.  As soon as we were in, I stopped following the other old ladies.

Now this was the hard part.  I had absolutely no idea where Mara’ stayed in the palace.  Snooping around until I found her sounded like a terrible plan.  So, as much as I didn’t want to bring anyone else into this mess, other options eluded me.  I stuck to my original plan and went to find Arlin.

The castle guard had their headquarters, barracks, training area, and pretty much all their other facilities in a long low building along one of the walls around the castle.  Arlin had an office in there.  Maybe getting them to help a traitor wasn’t a brilliant plan, but they were all guys I grew up with.  If anyone could—and would—help me, it would be them.  

An old woman going to the castle guard’s quarters looks a little bit weird, but that couldn’t be helped.  I got there without much trouble and when no one was looking slipped inside.  Abandoning my lovely waddle, I bolted for Arlin’s quarters, and once I was inside, slammed the door shut behind me.  

   He was sitting at a desk in the corner, and looked up in shock at my presence.  “Can I help you?” he asked, standing up uncertainly.  

“You sure can,” I said, ripping off the headscarf so he could see my face.

His mouth fell open, and then a smile almost ripped his face in half.  “Robbie!” he cried and rushed forward to grasp my hand.

“Shh,” I cautioned, and then I laughed.  “It’s good to see you, too.”

“What happened?”

I shook my head.  “All kinds of stuff.  I need your help.  What’s going on around here?”

He sighed.  “Nothing good.  The sorcerer popped up immediately after your arrest.  He said there was rebellion among the people, things had gone too far, and it was time for drastic measures.  The king did everything the man suggested.  It was bizarre.”

“What’s his name?”

“They call him Valkav.  Lord Valkav.”

“He is in charge now?”

Arlin nodded.  “He claimed that if you were trying to kill the king that the prince was also guilty of treason.  They put the prince under house arrest.  Then the king came before all the people and announced that until further investigation, if the king were to die Lord Valkav was to stand in as Lord Protector until a child from the union between the prince and princess was grown.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“I know.  And now the king is dead.  Lord Valkav brought in his own soldiers, and I have very little power.”

“Is that who those guys are?  Valkav’s soldiers?”

“That’s what I assume.  They work directly for him.  Even before the king’s death they didn’t pretend to be anything else.  They have all the muscle in the castle now.  Our numbers have been cut back severely.  Those of us left have merely a ceremonial duty now, and I believe that is only because the people would throw a fit if he got rid of us right away.  He’ll wait until he has had control longer, and then I’m pretty sure we will all be out of a job.”

“This is even worse than I expected.”

“It’s pretty bad.  I don’t know what anyone can do.  Valkav can’t be implicated or accused of anything without proof, and I can’t investigate him, not with his men peeking around every single corner.  I don’t know what to do.”

I ran my hands through my hair.  All of my worst nightmares were coming true.  “I knew this was going to happen,” I said quietly.  “That’s the worst part of this whole mess.”

“How?’

“That night, the one when I got arrested, I was spying on the king, trying to get some idea of what was going on.  I heard Valkav talking to the king.  He told him not to trust his son, and to make him heir to the throne instead.  I heard all of it.  Valkav knew it, and that’s why they had to execute me so quickly.  And then, of course, they used me as an excuse to speed their plan up a notch or two.  I’m such an idiot.”

“This isn’t your fault, Robbie.  This was all going to happen anyway.”

“I can’t just sit here and let this happen.  Maybe you can’t do anything, but I can.”

He shook his head.  “It’s too dangerous, Robbie.  They’ll catch you.”

“I’ll be no worse off than I was before.  I’m already a condemned traitor, Arlin, what more can they pin on me?’

“Good point.”

“Is it possible to get the prince out?”

“No, I don’t think so.  Not without killing yourself anyway.  He is very, very heavily guarded.”

“Ok then, what about the princess?”

His eyes got a gleam in them.  “Now that you could pull off without too much trouble.  Valkav’s plan isn’t much good without the princess, because there is no heir coming anymore.  He’ll be stumped until he finds her again.”

“I’ll need your help.  I haven’t been in the castle and have no idea how the place runs anymore.”

He got up and began to pace against the back wall.  “After supper would be the best time, I think.  She walks in the garden every night.  If you nabbed her then, her absence probably wouldn’t be noticed until tomorrow morning.”

“They wouldn’t notice she didn’t go to bed?”

“She’s been a bit neglected lately.”

“All the better.  But maybe you should do it, I can’t be seen on the grounds.”

“No, she doesn’t know me, not well enough to trust me at least.  I really would have to kidnap he, and that might cause too much of a stir.”

“Then I’ll need a disguise,” I said thoughtfully.

“I can arrange that.  You can wear one of our uniforms.  The helmet will cover your face.”

“No good,” I shook my head.  “If someone saw me, you’d all be in huge trouble.  Not gonna happen.  You’re not taking the fall for me.”

“Ok,” he said thoughtfully.  “What if you dressed up as one of Valkav’s men?”

I actually laughed.  “I love that plan.  Can you get a uniform for me?  With a helmet?”

“Absolutely.”

“It’s perfect.  Even if someone sees me, what is Valkav going to do?  Hang his whole guard?”

“Where will you go?”

“The forest.  I don’t know.”  I shrugged.

“Remember that cave where we did initiation?”

I laughed.  “Of course.”  Long ago, when Arlin and I were nothing more than servant boys training with the castle guard, we’d started a “secret society” for the boys in the castle.  There was a cave outside the castle where we took new recruits to ‘initiate’ them that we discovered one night when we got stuck outside in a thunderstorm after the castle gates shut.  Oh, good memories.  

“Go there.  It’s still hidden, exactly how we left it.  Then I’ll be able to find you if I need to.”

   “Oh golly.  That means I’ll need to remember how to find it.”

   “I’m sure you can handle that.”

Arlin got me everything needed for our plan to succeed.  The uniform wasn’t even close to fitting right, but that was ok.  I didn’t have to wear it for very long.  We didn’t have a lot of time, and before I really felt prepared one of Arlin’s most trusted men, who I had known as boys and we told about the situation, burst in to say that Mara was in the garden.  It was time.

Oh golly.  I pulled on my helmet as I ran behind the soldier toward the garden.  When I finally saw her, my breath caught.  Not because I was having some sappy romantic moment, but because she looked awful.  There were dark circles under her eyes, but the rest of her face was very, very pale.  Her eyes looked tired and glazed, and her usual neat appearance was more thrown together looking than normal.  It was bad.  

With a slight helmet adjustment, a nod at the soldier to leave, and a very deep breath, I strode across the lawn and grabbed her arm.  

She gasped.  “What do you want?”  Her whole body tensed and she pulled away from me.

“You need to come with me,” I said.

Maybe she recognized me then, it’s hard to say.  A little pokey needle thing got me in the neck.  “Let go of her, you infidel!” cried a high-pitched, obnoxious voice.  

“You are an idiot, Blythe!” I muttered, and pulled up the facemask on my helmet.

I didn’t know a gnome’s mouth could drop so far.  His eyes bulged in his head and he made queer gurgling sounds.  

Mara’s face was beautiful to see.  “Robbie!” she cried, and probably would have hugged me if I hadn’t stopped her.

“Shh!” I whispered, pressing a finger against her lips and shutting my facemask again.  “Not until we’re out of the open.  Now look scared or something normal like that.”

It would have taken an idiot to believe that she was being dragged anywhere against her will, but I can only try.  Mara was in a daze, and Blythe wasn’t doing a whole lot better.  I didn’t know what to do about it.  I’m not used to my presence dazzling anybody.

  I took a roundabout route to the guard’s quarters.  Once we were there I pulled off the stupid helmet.

Mara stared at me like I was a ghost.  “What?” I asked, uncertainly.

“I thought you were dead,” she whispered.  “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.  Oh Robbie, I’ve been so scared.”  She looked like she was about to go into shock or faint or something.

“Hey, hey,” I said gently, pulling her into my arms.  “It’s ok.  Nothing is going to happen to you, I promise.”

Suddenly she burst into sobs and threw her arms around my neck.  Now this seemed more like the crazy emotional girl I remembered.  I held her and let her cry on my shoulder, with my face pressed into her hair.  We weren’t getting anywhere until she got this out anyway.  

She cried for a couple of minutes, but eventually it stopped, and she pulled away and wiped her eyes.  “Sorry,” she muttered, embarrassed.

“It’s fine.  You’ve had a long couple of weeks.”

“Yeah,” she whispered.

“I’m getting you out of here,” I said, grabbing her hand and leading her toward Arlin’s quarters.

“How?  Where did you come from?  How did you get here?  Where have you been?” she asked.  Now she was acting more like herself.

I laughed.  “One question at a time.  I’ll tell you everything after I rescue you, how does that sound?”

“Ok, I guess I can live with that,” she said skeptically.

“All right.”

“Don’t leave me out,” said Blythe.  Oops, I forgot he was still there.

With a laugh I tapped on Arlin’s door.  He opened it, and a smile broke out on his face.  “Good, you didn’t die.”

“You have high hopes for me, don’t you?” I asked.

“Most definitely,” and he laughed.  “Come on, let’s get you two out of here.”  

Underneath the castle was a complex series of tunnels and caverns that only the guard knew about.  For generations of kings they kept them secret just for times like this, passing down the knowledge from soldier to soldier.  They made good use of them: storing food and supplies in case of attack, training drills, sometimes even using them as extra barracks when they outgrew the ones they had.  Connected to these caverns was a tunnel that led out somewhere far past the walls, to a hidden spot.  It has been used countless times to sneak people and goods in and out of the castle in times of need.  

Our king was never very involved in wars and sieges and the like, so he never heard a breath about the place.  Which meant, of course, that neither had Valkav.  I grew up and trained with the guards, and was often considered sort of an honorary member.  So, of course, I knew about the tunnels.  I may forget about them at times, and dress up like an old woman to get in the castle instead.  But I did know about them.    And this time we were going to use them.  I was done with costumes.  For today.

I changed back into my own clothes so I could move again, and we headed for the tunnels.  It was sort of a long, difficult process.  They were designed for secrecy, not for convenience.  Arlin came with because I hadn’t been down there enough to guarantee we wouldn’t get lost.  Most likely I’d be able to find my way around, but I hadn’t needed to in a while.  

When we got to the tunnel that led away from the others, under the walls and away from the castle, Arlin stopped.  “I should get back now.”

“Thank you, Arlin,” I said, grabbing his hand.  “For everything.”

“It is nothing.  You’ve done far more for us.”

I laughed harshly.  “I haven’t done a thing yet.”

He just smiled.  “I’ll try to get word to you if anything happens.”

“All right. Think you can find it?”

“Oh, yes.  How in the world could I forget?”

“All right.  Keep in touch, now,” I said, shaking his hand.  Then I grabbed Mara’s hand, and started down the tunnel with Blythe sitting comfortably on my shoulder.

To keep it simple, we eventually emerged on the other side of the wall.  I had to move the elaborate array of branches and brambles that covered the opening, and we were out.  While I put the cover back up, Mara stood in the open and looked at the stars, breathing deeply.  When I finished I walked over and stood behind her, a little bit awkwardly.  “All you all right?” I asked finally.

She turned toward me.  “Yeah, I just didn’t think I’d ever get out of that place.  It was stifling.”

“I bet.”

“Thank you,” she said, staring deep into my eyes.  “Thank you so much for rescuing me.”

“No problem.  I was in the neighborhood,” I said with a grin.    

“Yeah,” she laughed.  “Sure you were.”

I managed to get my bearings after a bit and we started walking through the forest.  Blythe was strangely quiet.  “So,” Mara asked finally, “where have you been these last couple of weeks?  And how did you escape?”

“Well,” I said, trying to decide how to start.  “It wasn’t easy.”  As we walked, I told her about Simeur, Max, and everything that had happened to me since the last time I saw her.  When I finished, she was silent for a minute.   

“So,” she said finally.  “Where exactly are we going now?”

“There’s a cave not far from here that Arlin and I used to go to a lot.  It’s very well hidden.”  I couldn’t help but grin.  Oh yes, it was hidden. We were very careful about that.

She watched me with a funny look.  Fine with me.  I wasn’t about to explain how very well I knew this cave.  She did not need to know.  “I have to sleep in a cave?” she asked skeptically.

“Don’t worry.  It’s rather nice.  For a cave.”

It was a little after dark when we found it.   Years had passed since the last time I needed to find it, and forests all look the same after a bit.  Then I saw the tall, prickly pine tree we used to make new initiates to our club climb, and everything came rushing back.   A minute later we crawled under the thick branches to the entrance to the cave.

Even Mara couldn’t complain about the furnishings.  There was a heavy chest in the corner filled with blankets for our camping trips long ago, and a stack of (now rotten) fire wood.  The cave was left well swept and cleaned.  

Mara looked at me.  “You’re not going to explain how this came to be, are you??”

“Nope.”

She rolled her eyes.  “So now what?  What’s your plan?”

Good question.  “Well,” I said slowly, trying to collect my thoughts, “The castle will go into an uproar over your disappearance.  We should probably lay low for a couple days, wait for things to calm down before we anything more.  He can’t exactly progress with his plans now that you are gone.  If people find out you’re gone they’ll panic and possibly demand the prince get crowned.  So he’s stuck for now.  I’d like to let him think about things for a couple days.”

“So we have to stay here?   For days?”

“Hey, are you saying you can sleep in a tree, and not here??”

She made a face.  “I’ve learned to sleep anywhere.  Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

I opened the chest and pulled out a stack of blankets.  “Good.”  I threw them at her.   “Because you get that side.  Blythe and I will be over here.”  

Poor Blythe.  I kept forgetting the little guy didn’t understand everything.  It took a while to explain everything to him.  Sometimes, I am a terrible friend.

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Chapter 13: Stuck

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Patience is a virtue.  A very good virtue.  Sadly, not everyone gets all good virtues.  I have very few.  And I certainly don’t have patience.  But, if you do have this virtue, it makes everything so much happier.

When my eyes fluttered open, the first thing I thought was that the dream was finally over and it was time to go and die.  Then I remembered that stupid crab.  Not to mention I was lying on something soft and comfortable and the smell of coffee and fried eggs filled the room.  

With great care, not moving too quickly, I got off the makeshift bed on the floor and followed the sounds through a doorway and down a hallway, and then into the kitchen where I found them.  Simeur sat at the table while the dog made tea or coffee or something.  That could take some getting used to, and you know me, it takes something rather queer to disturb me.  Between the crab and the dog, I was officially disturbed.

Max was nice, though.  The moment he saw me he boomed out a rather hearty “Good morning!” and sat me down at the table with a cup of coffee.  The coffee tasted great and was exactly what I needed to settle down my nerves.

“So,” Max said, once we were all situated.  “What’s the story here?”

Simeur just looked at me, so I assumed that was a cue to start talking.  “Well,” I said, “it’s kind of a long story.”

“He’s Robbie DiShaun, the knight who works for the prince,” Simeur said, as if to get me started.

That was the first time I’d ever been called a knight.  “More like servant than knight, actually” I said with a grin.

Max just nodded.  “I see.  I wondered about that last night when Simeur told me your name.  You caused quite a stir around here when you caught Griselda.  Forest hasn’t settled down yet.”

“I have a habit of causing trouble,” I said.

“So I noticed.  What trouble got you stuck out here?” he asked.

“You haven’t heard?”

He shrugged.  “News from the kingdom doesn’t matter out here.  I don’t hear much unless I ask.  Normally I don’t care to ask..”

In short, I explained the situation with the sorcerer, how being in the wrong place at the wrong time got me condemned, and how Simeur saved me.  At the end, I explained about the crab—which caused Max to laugh so loudly I thought the house would fall down—and how we found his house.  “So that’s about it.  I’m condemned, have nowhere to go, and the kingdom is doomed.”

That made him serious real quick.  “That is rather troubling, isn’t it,” he muttered, mostly to himself.

“I’ll say.”

“Besides all of that,” said Simeur, “he just got back from a journey to rescue a princess for Roy, and has been invalid for the last three weeks.  He’s only been on his feet for a couple of days and hasn’t really recovered yet from a whole pack of injuries.”

“Who told you that?  You haven’t been around!” I asked Simeur with a scowl.

“I heard a few things while I was waiting for you to pop up at the hanging hill,” he said pompously.

The little imp.  “It’s not that bad,” I assured Max.  “It’s just a couple little things, I’m fine.”

“After the way you about fainted last night, I’m not sure I believe that,” Max said.  

The whole world was ganging up against me.  “I’m fine.  I have a job to do, and that is not hanging around here.”

“And what is your job?”

“To make sure Mara gets her happy ending.”

Max glanced at Simeur.  “Mara is the princess he almost died rescuing,” Simeur said.

“So, how do you plan on doing this?” Max asked.  

“I don’t know yet.”

“I have an idea,” Max said thoughtfully.  “You need to get healed and come up with something.  I can get the woodland creatures’ help, and we can keep an eye and an ear on what is happening in the kingdom, while you rest up.  We’ll figure out what is going on, and if you need to do anything you can figure it out then.  How does that sound?”

It sounded like a wonderful plan.  Resting and keeping up with the daily news would be a nice change.  “All right,” I said to Max.  “As long as you aren’t worried about soldiers coming and destroying your house or something.  I am a wanted man.”

He downright laughed.  “Soldiers?  Out here?  No soldier has the guts to get so far into a haunted forest!”

“Hey, I did it!” I pointed out.

“You’re not really a soldier now, are you?”

“Not really,” I conceded.

“So my point stands.  I’m not worried about anything the palace can send at me.  You’re the only person from the palace whoever causes trouble around here, and we all know you’re not going to cause any this time.”

He had a point.  So we came to an agreement and I decided Max was ok, for being a giant black dog, that is.

The next few days were pretty much great.  I got to rest and take it easy.  There was a river that went through the forest, and came pretty close to Max’s house that made for good swimming, and I slept a lot, and lay in the grass.  It was very relaxing, especially considering my current circumstances.  I tried not to think about those, or the fact that this had to be a very short vacation.  

Max found a whole bunch of crazy animals he and Sime could talk to, and sent them out and about to spy on the kingdom.  Max gave them food for doing it; it’s not like animals just sit around waiting to be useful all the time.  They have lives, too, you know.  But they like food, so they did whatever he wanted apparently.  I don’t really know, I can’t talk to crazy animals, other than wolves and some birds.  Birds don’t say much, though, other than “food” and “bad guys!” and “fly away!!!!” and stuff like that.  So it’s not that hard to learn.  

Max and Simeur handled the animals, and the talking and everything while I did useful things like go swimming.  From the reports they gave me, things were not going well.  The king decided that since I worked for Roy, Roy must have been involved in the assassination attempt and conspired against him.  They locked Roy in his quarters and refused to allow him to do anything.  The king disinherited him until “further investigation of the assassination attempt and the escape of a wanted traitor who works for the prince.”  

Each report brought more bad news.  New word came that the king decided to name his new Lord Chancellor as his heir until the child from the union between Roy and Mara was grown.  There wasn’t even a child, or a union yet!  But Roy had been found unfit, so that was that.  I worried a lot, but what could I do?

Two weeks passed uneventfully, other than the visits from the little animals with their depressing news.  If I hadn’t been so worried about Mara and the kingdom, I never would have left.

That is, until we got a report that changed the rest of my life.  A little rabbit brought the news and told it to Max and Sime.  I knew something was up.  I sat at the table drinking my coffee while they whispered and gave me funny looks.

After a few minutes of that, I put my coffee down.  “Just tell me, it’s not gonna kill me!”

Max nodded at Simeur, and he took a deep breath.  “The king is dead.”

The world stopped spinning.  “What!”

“I’m sorry, Robbie,” Sime said, looking at the ground.

I sort of felt sick.  “What happened?”

“He choked on something while he ate, and died suddenly.”

“Choked!  The sorcerer…” I managed.

“Probably,” said Max.  

“The sorcerer is in charge now, following the King’s decree,” said Simeur.

“What wonderful timing,” I muttered  

“I know.”

I stood up and began to pace.  The sorcerer took over the kingdom.  The sorcerer sat on the throne.  The sorcerer who tried to kill me.  The sorcerer responsible for the look on Mara’s face the last time I saw her.  The sorcerer now in charge of the palace where Mara lived right now.  

The sorcerer who could now kill Mara with a word if he wished, or do anything else for that matter.  And no one remained to stop him, no one to do anything.

Well, I’m not a hero, but I couldn’t just hide in the woods while Mara could be dying or something equally awful.  “I have to go back,” I said, turning to face Simeur and Max.

“Robbie,” Simeur started.

“No, Sime, I have to!”

“It’s dangerous, Robbie.”

“I don’t care, I can’t just sit here!  He has Mara!”

“You could die!”

“I’ve fought every kind of monster imaginable and survived, I’ll be fine.”

“You were with Roy then, and had the protection of the Happily Ever After.  You won’t this time.  You’ll be all alone.”

“I’m doing it for someone with a Happy Ending.”

“You know that’s not how it works.  If you aren’t working directly with them, the magic won’t help you at all.  You have almost no chance.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” I yelled, finally snapping.  “I’ve studied under Phil, too!  I know, I’m just a loser who can’t do anything on my own!  I got that, Sime!  What do you want me to do?”  I took a deep breath.  “If I can get to Mara, when I’m with her I’ll be protected again.  I can get her out, if nothing else.  Then I’ll decide where to go from there.  Maybe I’ll get Roy out, too, I don’t know.”

Simeur turned to Max.  “What do you think?”

Max looked hard at me.    “It’s very risky, Robbie.”

“I know.”

“The magic won’t help you this time.”

“I know that too.”

He nodded.  “If you understand, then go.  I can’t stop you.  But wait until tomorrow morning; if you start now you’ll just be wandering around the forest at night.  I’ll take you out tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” I said quietly.  I left them and went on a walk.

My head spun.  I couldn’t think about what Sime said, so I just walked.  The king was dead.  The world I grew up in had disappeared forever.  Nothing would ever be the same.  What was really the plan?  I didn’t know.  All I knew was that it was time for action.

I walked for a while before I heard something and spun around.  Max stood in the shadow of a tree behind me, watching me.  “You scared me,” I said, and continued walking.

In one bound of his long legs he stood next to me.  “Sorry.”

“What’s up?”

“We were worried you’d booked.  Didn’t know if we’d see you again.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“Didn’t think so, but I thought I’d follow you, just in case.”

I nodded.

He sighed and stared up through the branches toward the sky.  “You know, I can read the stars.”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

“And what are the stars saying to you tonight?”

He stared at the sky for a long moment.  “The end is near.”

How disturbing.  “Whose end?” I asked uncertainly.

He stared at the sky for another moment.  “I’m not sure.  I can’t see enough of the sky.”

I stifled a laugh.  Of course he couldn’t.  “Well, now we know someone is going to lose.”

He nodded, and laughed as well.  “Somebody.”  He looked at me in concern.  “Don’t worry, Robbie.  I’m sure she is fine.”

I couldn’t say anything, just stared off into space.

“She’s a lucky girl, to have someone like you looking after her.”

“No she’s not,” I whispered.  “A lucky girl has a real hero, not a stupid prince and a stand-in hero.”

“You are a real hero, Robbie.”

“A real hero?  A real hero doesn’t have to worry about losing the protection of the magic when he isn’t dragging his buffoon of a prince along just so he won’t die!  A real hero doesn’t wash socks for a living, and a real hero doesn’t give up the girl to the first idiot that looks at her.  I’m not a hero, Max, I’m just a guy who does hero-work for a living.”

“Whatever you say,” he muttered.  “But if it weren’t for you, she’d still be stuck in that enchanted castle, don’t forget.”

“Maybe she would have been better off.”

We didn’t talk anymore, and eventually Max left me alone.

It was very, very late when I got back and finally fell asleep on my cushion.

And it was very, very early when Max, Simeur, and I headed off for the castle. We traveled quickly, Max running next to our horses.  It was a quiet trip, everyone lost in thought.

Other than me, who religiously avoided thinking.  Being completely exhausted helped with that plan, which was kind of the point.

We rode all day, and it was late afternoon when we could see the castle.  It took a minute to figure out why the place looked so bare and naked.  Then it hit me.  Not a single flag flew from the towers, the walls, or anything.  The place had been stripped.  How disturbing.

After we were a little closer we pulled to a stop and I stared at the castle for a few minutes.  Somehow, someway, I had to get into the castle, rescue Mara, and get out.

I should probably free Roy too.  The problem was simply that—according to Max’s woodland creatures—they were guarding Roy heavily.  Which was my fault, I do admit.  He was suspected of sending me off to kill the king.  I wasn’t sure that freeing him would work out very well, especially since the sorcerer knew I was loose and could possibly come back for him.  Especially if the guards thought I worked for him, which I suppose, technically, I did. Whatever way you look at it, he was going to be heavily guarded.  Now, if his guards were my friends from the palace guard, no problem.  I’d have him free in no time.  If they were those crazy dudes that came from who knows where, however, there was not a big chance of me getting him out today.  Not until I had a better plan, that is.  

For now, it was time to come up with a master genius plan to just get into the castle.  Usually, this castle wasn’t a particularly tough place to get into.  Some castles are like fortresses, no one gets in, and no one comes out.  Our castle wasn’t like that.  There was an almost constant stream all day long of people coming and going.

At the end of every day, there was a great exchange among the castle servants.  People who had the day off, or only came in at night all came back, and people who lived outside the castle left.  It was a grand lovely mass of confusion, yelling, and bickering.  No one really knew how many servants worked in the castle, or came and went in a day.  It left a big wide hole in security that could easily be taken advantage of.  

So it wouldn’t be hard to sneak in, just uncomfortable.  See, big, strong, strapping young men like me were going to be heavily questioned anyway, and, unfortunately, I look like myself.  And myself was a wanted man.  So a disguise was in order.  The fun part was, the most unsuspicious kind of person to be entering the castle at that time of day would be a round, old woman.  

How awkward.  

Max and Sime were staring at me, waiting.  “All right,” I said.  I turned to Max.  “Thank you, Max.  You’ve been a big help, and a wonderful host.  I couldn’t have asked for a better place to hide.  But now, I think, I should continue on alone.”

He nodded.  “I knew that was coming.”  He reached out one giant paw, and I shook it, trying not to laugh.  “Good luck, Robbie.  And keep in touch, both of you.”

“We will.”  Then he left.

I hated to say it, but I was going to miss that big old dog.  I turned to Simeur.  “Do you want to leave?”

“Well, er, it’s kind of difficult.  Phil’s orders were to stay with you until you were out of danger, and I don’t think he would consider you safe yet.”

“Probably not,” I agreed.  

Simeur squirmed.

“But you don’t need to come into the castle with me.  This will probably be easier with just me to worry about.”

The relief on his face was quite blatant.

“Wait for me here.  If I’m not back by tomorrow morning, check the village and see if you can find out what happened.  Got it?”

“Yes,” he said with a nod.

“Good.”  I grabbed his hand.  “See you in the morning.”

“Yup, in the morning, then,” he said with a crooked grin, and disappeared with both of the horses.

I was alone.  “All right, Robbie.  Let’s do this thing,” I muttered to myself, and set off toward the castle.

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