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PanOptic Voices Posts

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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Chapter 12: Traitor to the Throne

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Sometimes you have to forget about plans, and just act on pure instinct and not worry about the consequences.  Take a chance, especially if you don’t have anything left to lose.

The dungeons were not a lot of fun. I’d been in them before, but the other times had mostly been to visit perps that I caught and threw in there.  I’d never been on the wrong side when the gates clanged shut before.  It was an interesting experience.  

Not really, it felt quite desolate when the bars closed down and trapped me in the cold, damp cell.  Not to mention that I wasn’t fully recovered, and felt somewhat completely miserable.  This was not an ideal situation for recovering from my wounds, though the way things were looking now, I never would have a chance to recover.  That was a very depressing thought.

Of course, I could have gotten out.  It wouldn’t have been all that difficult, despite the fact that I was weak and ill and depressed.  But the sorcerer took away that option.  If I escaped, he’d say I had help from the village and innocent people would suffer.  I couldn’t do that.  I just hoped that someday the truth would come out.  I realize I looked a bit suspicious, standing on the balcony in the middle of the night.  Even with an unbiased jury, it would have been difficult to explain my behavior.  The way things were, well, I was in trouble. There wouldn’t be a chance to explain, a chance to do anything at all.  The only way I could escape would be in public so it would be impossible to accuse innocent people of wrongdoing, and escaping in public doesn’t tend to work out all that well, at least, not in general.  

And Mara.  What would she think of me?  Accused of conspiracy and treason, a traitor by all appearances.  There was no way I’d ever have a chance to explain to her.  Not that it would matter in the long run.  Come to think of it, my execution would be just the beginning of a long road downward for the entire kingdom.  

I’d practically handed over the keys to the whole conglomeration by getting myself caught.

Blaming myself really wasn’t accomplishing anything useful, but, then again, what useful things did I have time to accomplish anyway?  My life was starting to look kind of short and sad.  

With a groan I slumped down against the stone wall.  It was cold.  And damp.  I started to feel sorry for all the people I had light-heartedly tossed in here.  The place was a bit more miserable than necessary.  

Who knows how long I sat there, wilting in a pool of depression and misery.  Too long, but any pity party probably lasts too long.  In the long run, I must have dozed off at some point, because out of nowhere Blythe was standing on my shoulder, shaking me and saying “Robbie!  Robbie, wake up!” over and over again.  

“What?  What?!?”  

“Oh good,” he said with a sigh.  “I thought you went and keeled over on me.”

“Do I really look dead?”

He shrugged.

I stretched my aching limbs.  My whole body was stiff and sore.  “So, have you heard?”

“Heard what?  That you are apparently a traitor and to be hung at sundown?  No, I just randomly decided to come looking for you in the dungeon.”

I snorted.  Trust Blythe to still be cracking jokes.  “Yeah, I hang out down here all the time.  It’s good for the constitution, the cold dampness, you know.”

“Oh, most definitely.”  He laughed, then he shook his head.  “How did you get yourself into this mess?”

“It’s a long story.  Basically, there is a sorcerer taking over the kingdom who has enchanted the king, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and heard all their evil genius plans and therefore must die.  What are they telling people?”

“That you were caught spying on the king.  You also supposedly were highly armed, so they suspect an assassination attempt.”

“Of course they do.”

“The whole castle was in an uproar within an hour of your arrest.  I’m sure the whole kingdom knows by now.”

“Dandy.  What time is it?”

“Midmorning.”

I nodded and stared at the floor.  My life was passing a little too quickly for comfort.  “Mara knows then?”

He nodded slowly, watching me.  “She hasn’t stopped crying since she heard the news.  She wanted to visit you, but they refused.  When she insisted they locked her in her room.”

That made my blood boil.  It didn’t help any that I felt extraordinarily guilty making her cry for hours.  Knowing what the sorcerer and the king had planned for her was no good either.  It certainly didn’t sound like a Happy Ending to me, at least.  And I was most certainly going to lose her.  I closed my eyes, and let the pain take over for approximately two seconds.  Then I looked at Blythe.  “Could you do me a favor?”

“What?”

“Promise you’ll stay with the princess, take care of her until things settle down around   here?  I know you can’t stop the sorcerer, or anything like that, but just keep an eye on her for me?”

“Of course,” he whispered.   He looked around the cell.  “Surely, there is some way you could get out of this dump.  You’ve been in tighter spots than this!”

I buried my face in my hands.  “Yes, much tighter.  I could certainly get out.  Most definitely.  And then the sorcerer will decimate the entire village.  Do you really think I can do that?  Let helpless innocent people take the fall for me?  No, Blythe, I’m not going anywhere.”

“The kingdom needs you, Robbie.  Now more than ever.”

“They’re gonna have to get on without me,” I said flatly, unable to meet his gaze.

“It’s not right,” Blythe muttered.

I snorted.  “You’re telling me.”

“Is there anything else you want me to do?”

I shook my head.  “Nope.  Just take care of Mara.  That’s all that matters to me now.”

He nodded. His eyes looked a little red.  “I better go.  I don’t want to get discovered.”

“Go then.  Thanks for coming to visit me.”

“Yeah.”  He looked a little choked up.  “Well, it’s been fun.”

“Yeah.”  I grabbed his little hand.  “It’s been real fun.”

He disappeared into the darkness, and once more I was sad and alone.

No pity party this time, that was over with.  If there was an opportunity for me to escape, it would be at the hanging, where everyone was watching and no one but me could be blamed.  Not that there was any reason to expect a chance for escaping; people getting hung for high treason tend to be well guarded.  But it was the only hope I had and I wasn’t about to give up on it.

I spent the next few hours getting myself ok with the fact that there was nothing more I could do to prepare the rest of the world for my demise.  There was just nothing I could come up with for everyone to know everything they needed to know.  Unless I wanted to go nuts, it was necessary to be fine with that.  It took a while.  But going crazy wasn’t a highly acceptable option either.  

There is not much left to say about my time in the dungeon.  It was pretty boring, other than the going crazy part.  And you probably don’t want to hear about that anyway.  Let’s just say, it was a long day.  At the same time, way too short.  It was my last day on the planet, after all.  Every second was the most torturous heaven imaginable.  That’s seriously not a joke.  

Eventually it all came to an end.  There were noises down away where I couldn’t see.  The soldiers coming for me.  I pulled myself together and stood up to face them.  Whatever happened, I was going to do this like a man.  So there.  After everything that had happened in my life, if I couldn’t face hanging like some sort of hero, there wasn’t much point to the rest of it.

They showed up just as expected, looking fierce and grim and rather unpleasant overall.  It was not any of the palace guard.  Apparently Mr. Scary-Man knew better than sending a guy’s friends to execute him for no apparent reason.  Instead, it was more of the weirdoes who arrested me the night before.  I was really curious about who they were and where they came from, but I probably wasn’t going to find out pre-execution.  

Without any ado they hauled me off and dragged me up out of the dungeons.  Seriously, did they have to handle me like that?  It’s not like I was causing a scene or something.  I was the epitome of cooperative and easygoing.  You never saw someone so amiable about getting executed on false charges.  

Tradition dictates that criminals who are to be hung die at sunset in our kingdom.  Traitors are always executed on a hill, about a mile from the castle.  It is a very grim, desolate place.  The gallows are situated a little ways down the hill, and everyone from the castle sits up at the top in their litters and such, while the people from the village and any other onlookers go a little ways farther down the hill.  It works out ok, I guess, for everyone but the traitor who dies. My outlook on life was definitely expanding today.  

The traitor is brought to the hill standing in a cart.  Once at the gallows, the cart is rolled under the rope and once everything is situated the cart moves away and, well, the traitor doesn’t go with it.  Good intentions or no, my heart almost failed when I saw the cart.  With a gulp, I stepped up onto it and set my face like stone.  The plan was that my expression would stay this way for the very short remainder of my life.

My plan almost got knocked off to LaLa Land when I arrived at the hill and saw the stricken, heart-wrenching face of my little princess.  Her eyes were red, her face tearstained. They obviously tried to clean her up a little bit for the formal viewing of the execution, but they failed.  When she saw me she gave a little cry and her hands flew to her mouth.  I had to look away to keep from crying myself.  

One last time I lifted my gaze to look into her deep eyes, and then I was ready for anything.

Which was probably a very good thing.  Because after that, nothing happened the way anyone expected.

The instant my gaze left Mara’s, I happened to see someone I did not expect.  This person looked at me with an impish grin on his face and holding a sword.

Oh, baby.    

I started to smile and stopped.  That wouldn’t be suspicious at all, smiling while the executioner positions the cart.

Apparently he planned to wait until the last minute.  He didn’t do anything as the guy in the black hood got the rope all nice and cozy around my neck.  Then I’d had enough.  I rolled my eyes and things got moving.

The imp came running very fast, threw the sword right as the executioner slapped the horse to move the cart, and just when I thought it was too late, it sliced through the rope and I hit the ground behind the cart with a nice, loud, very alive, thud!  It was impossible to keep my balance, so I ended up rolling, while my friend grabbed the sword again.  I scrambled to my feet and he cut the rope off my hands.  

The guards all ran right at us.  I remembered that I have a few limits on how many people I can fight at a time, when I heard my friend yell, “Abracadabra!”  A huge puff of blue and purple and black smoke exploded over the field, with us at the center and everyone started coughing.  Then Simeur grabbed my hand and we ran like bloody murder.  I’d never been so happy to get dragged around by an elf.

Fortunately for my somewhat iffy condition, he had two horses tied up extremely close by.  This was especially lucky, because the lovely cloud of smoke was dissipating.  We jumped up onto the horses and rode off into the sunset.

I didn’t die! After 24 hours of doom, gloom, and despair, to ride into the sunset with an elf looked like a pretty good way to end the day.  We rode very, very fast.  I think the horses were under a special enchantment to run so fast, because there certainly wasn’t any sign of our pursuers.

I didn’t let him stop until we were deep into the haunted forest. It was Griselda’s haunted forest, which is quite close to the castle and I knew it reasonably well.  We got thoroughly lost deep in the middle before either of us thought about stopping.  And then we went a little farther, just to make sure.  Once we were far enough in that I couldn’t have found us if I’d been looking, it seemed safe to give the horses a break.

We climbed down and got the horses situated.  Then I just looked at Simeur in disbelief.  Reality started to come flooding back and the whole situation looked entirely unrealistic.  It was possible that I was taking a nap in the dungeon and this was a dream.  Actually, it was highly probable.  How in the world did Simeur get there?  Right on time?  Really now.

Simeur noticed my blank stare.  “Are you ok?” he asked uncertainly.

“No.  No, I’m not ok.  I’m supposed to be dead.”

“Oh, well excuse me, next time I won’t interfere with your plans!”

“How in the world did you end up there?”

“Phil sent me.”

Ok, that might explain a little.  But not much.  “How did Phil know?”

“He had a dream.”

“He had a dream?”

“Yes.”

“A dream about what?”

“You.”

“He had a dream about me?”  That was a little creepy.  “And so you knew exactly where you needed to be and when and with a sword?  That definitely makes a lot of sense.  Just tons.”

He sighed.  “Phil had a dream about you in a dungeon with a sorcerer.  He freaked out, said you were in trouble, and sent me flying over as fast as possible.  I got here this afternoon, heard what was going on as soon as I crossed the border, and got myself to the hanging grounds.  That’s all there is to it.”

“When did Phil have this dream?”

“Last night sometime.  He got me up in the middle of the night to come.”

I did some quick math.  “There’s no way you had time to be here by afternoon.”

“Phil enchanted the horses to be super-duper fast.  He enchanted the cow.”

“The cow?  That old thing?”  I knew it.  There was no way horses could move like that on their own.  “He’s quite resourceful, isn’t he?”

“Quite.  And he didn’t want you to die very much.”

“Well, thank you.  And thank you for not stopping to pick a fight with some giants on the way.”

“The horses wouldn’t have stopped to let me if I wanted to,” he said stiffly.  “And you’re welcome,” he added.

I sat down and leaned against a tree.  My head spun, it had been a long day.  “So, what are we going to do now?”

“A friend of mine lives near here.  If we can find him, we will stay with him until you decide what you want to do.”  He glanced me over carefully.  “And maybe until you can walk a straight line.”

There was nothing for it; I stuck my tongue out at him.  There wasn’t anything I could say, so that would have to suffice.  Childish, yes, but to the point.

By now it was dark.  The whole thing still had a very dream-like quality to it.  Simeur’s explanation hadn’t quite convinced me that I wasn’t just dozing in my cell and about to be awakened by the guards to be carried off to my doom.

My eyes drifted shut.  After everything I had been through, falling asleep on Simeur wasn’t about to make me feel bad.  

As I drifted in and out of consciousness, it sounded like Simeur was talking to someone.  At least, I heard his voice, and a lot of clicking.  Maybe I really was dreaming.  Everything felt very surreal.

After the noises continued for a minute, it managed to rouse me from my lovely stupor.  I cracked my eyes open.  Simeur was crouched on the ground talking to something in front of him.  That something looked strangely like a crab.  As fast as possible, I slammed my eyes closed again.  How peculiar.  My mind must be running away without me.  How else would it come up with something like a crab talking to an elf?

The noises continued, while I blissfully ignored them.  They stopped suddenly.  At the exact same moment I felt a sharp pain on my arm, and Simeur started screaming bloody murder.

My eyes flew open. Simeur flew into the bushes screaming and waving his arms at something and a giant red welt was growing on my arm.

Simeur came back, his face red and his eyes bulging.

I spoke cautiously, not sure if I really wanted to hear his answer.  “Did the crab just pinch me?”

“Yes.”

That was it.  I was awake.  There’s no way that was a dream.  My dreams are about stuff like winning the pie-baking contest, and normal things like that.  Something that random could only happen in my real life.  “Why did the crab pinch me?” I asked uncertainly.

“I told him who you are.”

Oh, great.  So there was a random crab running around with a grudge against me.  “Why does he care?  What did I ever do to him?”

“He used to work for Griselda.”

Of course he did.  I suddenly thought of something.  “How do you know that?”

“He told me.”

“You speak crabby?!?!”

“Of course.  I am an elf, you know,” he answered stiffly.

I shook my head, and closed my eyes again.  This was almost too much to take. Seriously, what were the chances that Griselda would have a crab working for her in the middle of the forest, miles from any ocean, and it would happen to find me in the woods and pinch me?  Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about waking up anymore.  This was definitely reality.  My dreams couldn’t make this up.  

“He told me where my friend is, though.”

“How wonderful,” was all I could think to say.

Simeur was silent for a little too long, so I looked up at him.  He stared at me with a twisted, exasperated expression.  

“What?” I asked.  

“Are we going to go find him?”

I thought about that idea.  “How far is it?” I asked.  My limbs were not working very well at the moment, and resting sounded much better than hunting down some crazy friend of Simeur’s.  The friend could wait until tomorrow, if necessary.  Though, after the creepy crab, maybe I shouldn’t spend the night out in the open in this weird forest.  

“Not far.”

With a groan, I got my whole aching body off the ground.  “Let’s go.”

He led the way, and we walked the horses through the forest for a little bit.  Simeur spent a good bit of time sniffing this way and that (don’t ask about the sniffing, I don’t know, I don’t ask him questions about anything he does, it’s probably an elf thing).  Just when I was about to start complaining that we had gone for more than ‘not far’, we rounded a bend and saw a wide, tall bank.  A huge tree grew out of it, with giant roots twisting everywhere.  The bank rose up a little higher than my head and in the middle of it, nestled in between a couple of the huge roots, was a round green door.  Simeur’s face lit up.  “I told you I’d find it!”

“Took you long enough,” I muttered.

“Crab’s don’t exactly give the greatest directions, you know.  Things look a little different from their point of view.”

I rolled my eyes.

He walked up to the door and knocked twice.  I was curious to see what kind of creature this friend was.  Let’s just say he didn’t disappoint.

The door swung open and in the doorway stood the biggest, blackest dog, I ever saw.  My heart almost stopped.  He was taller than Sime, I swear.

“Max!” Sime cried happily.

The dog’s ears perked up, and his tail started to go at a devastating rate.  “Simeur!  What are you doing out here, you rascal!” his voice boomed.

“Business, Max, you know how it is.”

Max nodded wisely.  Then he glanced at me and I gulped.  “And who is this?” he asked.

“This is my friend, Robbie,” Simeur replied.

“A friend of yours is a friend of mine,” the beast replied.  “Good to meet you, Robbie.”

“You too,” I managed.  This day really was getting to be too much for me.  It was time to sit down, have a drink, and get some sleep.

  Apparently Sime knew this.  “We’ve had a long day, do you think we could spend the night here?  We’ll tell you everything tomorrow, I swear,” he said to Max.

“Of course, of course.  Forgive my poor manners.  You startled me some, popping up like this in the middle of the night.”

“It’s fine,” I muttered.  The world was getting hazy.

Max looked at me anxiously.  “Come in, come in,” he said hurriedly, ushering us inside.

As for the rest, well, it’s kind of difficult to say.  It wasn’t long before the elf and the talking dog had me settled down on something soft and comfortable.  It’s good to have friends, even if they are a bit peculiar and talk to crabs and things.  The last thing I thought of as I drifted off to sleep was whether Mara knew I was ok.  I already missed her.

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Santa Clause and the Midlife Crisis

By Laura Trude

If you’ve been delivering toys for 300-plus years and your species is only supposed to have a life expectancy of maybe 1/5 of that, you’d probably have a mental breakdown too.  Now don’t get me wrong, Santa loves his job.  He gets to invent toys and deliver them and spend all year at the toy making capitol of the world – the North Pole.  Maybe that’s his problem.  When you’re surrounded by snow and ice year round, even if there’s lots of hot chocolate and cookies, and the sky either tends to be dark, cloudy, or everlasting day, you might get depressed too.  I think that’s what happened to Santa.

He woke up as he usually did.  Mrs. Claus had already gone to get his hot chocolate and cinnamon toasted pancakes.  But Mr. Claus found he couldn’t get out of bed.  It wasn’t like he was sick, the Fountain of Youth had cured that, or that his legs didn’t work, but mentally, he couldn’t make himself get up.

“How long have I been delivering toys now?” he asked his wife as she came in with his tray of food.  

“About 300 years, dear.”  Mrs. Claus set the tray on his lap and he absentmindedly began eating.

“But what have I done, really?” he protested, through a mouthful of dough.

“You’ve brought joy to billions of children, dear.”  Mrs. Claus took a sip of her hot chocolate and sat at the desk next to his bed.

“One toy each, and they get tired of it and throw it away!  All my work, ends up in the trash.”  His fork clattered to the red, Christmas tree lined plate.  Soon, poor Mr. Claus was sobbing into his hands.

“That’s why you bring them another one next year,” Patricia rubbed her husband’s back with one hand.  “And you must admit, they’re rather excited when they see those toys at first.”

“At first, then they’re disappointed when they find out what they really are.”  Santa sobbed some more.  By now, his pancakes were getting pretty mushy.  A crowd was starting to gather by the door.

“That’s only 10% of the time.  Really, you oughtn’t cry over 10% who are so spoiled they can’t find joy in a Christmas present from my dear husband.”

“There are quite a few spoiled brats, nowadays, aren’t there?”  Santa was looking up to his wife through puffy eyes.

“There are, my dear,” Mrs. Claus patted down his matted hair.

“We ought to adopt them!” Santa sat up so quickly, his tray clattered onto the floor, spewing pieces of pancake, syrup, and hot chocolate all over his red satin quilt and matted white beard.

“Adopt them, my dear?  Are you mad?  Do you remember what happened last time you tried to adopt children?  And these ones already have parents.”  Being pragmatic, Mrs. Claus stood up and began gathering pieces of broken glass.

“Rotten parents, they are.  I know!  I ought to be a school teacher, and knock some sense into them!” Santa shook his fist and succeeded in only throwing his breakfast even further around the room.  It was like snow, except that it can get moldy.

“Knocking isn’t allowed anymore.  And who would hire you?  They do background checks nowadays and as far as they know, you don’t exist.  You’re better off here.”

 

If men always followed their wives advice, perhaps they wouldn’t be in as sticky predicaments as they are nowadays.  As you ascertained from the previous statement, Mr. Claus did indeed, not follow his wife’s advice.  First he tried creating himself an ID in the states (they were the most excited about Christmas), but the FBI didn’t seem to think “Santa Claus” could be considered a real name (in other words, he earned himself a file under the Patriot Act and was imprisoned without trial for “suspicious activities” until Gwendoline broke him from the secret army base.  Apparently, naming yourself after a supposedly fictional character can get you labeled as a terrorist).  Next, he tried forming his own school.  However, since it was in the middle of nowhere and didn’t have state licensing, he had no students.  Finally, he decided on something Mrs. Claus suggested (do what you do best): a Christmas camp.  

At first, Santa Claus was thrilled.  Not only could he teach these kids about the meaning of Christmas, but he could teach them to be grateful, to be friends, and best of all, to love his toys.  If you are a parent or grandparent, or even an older sibling, aunt or uncle, you may know that attempts at training children do not go as planned.  From day one at Santa’s Christmas camp, things were a disaster.  Many of the children who showed up either had been forced to go by parents who thought their children were too young to not believe in Santa Claus, those that were young enough to believe but not yet potty trained, and those that were only there in hopes of Christmas everyday and who clearly enjoyed Christmas and were not part of the 10% who didn’t.

“Meet the Reindeer Day” became “I peed in my pants Day;” “Create your own Toy Day” became “I poured glue in my hair and it Won’t Come Out Day;” “Dress up like an Elf” was “Who are those funny midgets in suits?  I want one, Day.”  If the camp trained one of those kids, even in the slightest, it was a miracle.  However, the camp accomplished two things.  One, it convinced Santa Claus that he did NOT want to be a teacher, EVER.  Secondly, it convinced him that he needed a vacation, not just any vacation, a vacation to someplace as unlike the North Pole as any place could possibly be.  And that meant Africa.

“Honey dear, do you want to go on a Safari with me to Africa?” Santa popped the question as Mrs. Claus was stirring up a batch of brownies.

“Africa?  And kill all those beautiful animals?  Hmprh.” She turned her back, clearly not in a good mood since one of Santa’s campers smeared reindeer poop all over her kitchen.

“What else is there to do there?”  Remember, Santa hadn’t spent much time in the real world since Great Britain was an imperialist country and ruled most of the world.  His remarks would have been perfectly ordinary 300 years ago, when most noblemen went to Africa for just such sport.  However, this wasn’t 300 years ago.

“You could just admire their beauty as live animals.  Trust me, they’re much prettier when they’re moving.  Take reindeer, for example.  You would hardly like to see one of those heads on the wall.”  Mrs. Claus finished fixing her batter and poured it into a large pan, smoothing off the top before placing it into the oven to bake for sixty minutes.  “What about Antarctica?  I’ve always wanted to see Emperor Penguins.”

“Brr, it’s cold enough in the North Pole, thank you.  I need to go someplace warm.”

So that’s why Santa Claus ended up going to Africa alone and got kidnaped by terrorists who thought he was an American (and they were partially right).  Once again, he did not listen to Mrs. Claus.  He ended up spending his vacation in a tiny jail cell, very hot, with little water, his face getting redder and redder while the United States figured out that Santa had escaped from their prison and why was this terrorist being held by other terrorists?  Unfortunately for Santa, the United States decided that either this was a trick by terrorists or Santa was from another faction who didn’t get along with the one who had kidnaped him, so Santa did not get rescued until his vacation time expired and the elves started looking for him (Mrs. Claus did not look first because she was still mad at him).

You would think that after this many adventures, Santa Claus would settle down and be Santa for another 300 years, but actually, all that Santa had accomplished from his expeditions was to finally recognize that perhaps Mrs. Claus had some wisdom after all.  So he went to Antarctica with her (which was quite a relief after three months in an African prison), was enamored by the beauty of the place, calmed down somewhat, met some really kind children thanks to Mrs. Claus’s connections, and decided to give Christmas another chance.  One incident in particular made him decide that perhaps bringing toys was a good occupation.

Santa was creeping away from the Christmas tree with his sack when a little girl peeped up from the couch.

“Santa Claus!”  The girl, probably three or four, jumped up and down in her lacy pink nightgown and ran over to Santa.  “What is it?”  She picked up the box the old man had just placed under the tree and shook it (she must have been peeking).

Santa’s hard features softened into a wide, melty grin.  He walked back to her, put one arm over her shoulder and whispered, “Why don’t you find out?”

The little girl practically jumped on his foot as she tumbled onto the floor and began ripping open the paper of her very own package.  Inside, she found a long white box taped on one side.  She looked up to Santa Claus with two very sweet brown eyes.  She couldn’t get the box open.  Santa set his bag on the floor and pulled out a pocket knife.  With one stroke, he slit open the tape.  “It’s made so you need help,” he whispered.  Gingerly, the little girl opened the box and pulled out a little doll who looked just like her.

“Dolly!” she yelled and ran around the room laughing, her doll flying with her through the air.  Footsteps sounded in the hall.  Quickly, Santa picked up his bag and lumbered back to the fireplace.  As he was making his way up, he overhead the parents talking.

“Oh, what did you get?” The mommy asked.

“Santa brought me, brought me, a dolly!” the girl squealed.

The dad yawned and then smiled knowingly at the mom, “That was a nice gift for him to get.”

That was all Santa heard before he was back on the roof and back in his sleigh.  But that was all he needed to hear.  For in that moment, he realized that if he changed one person’s life for the better, even just by making the parents smile with their child’s joy, being Santa Claus was worth it all.  Even the mental crisis.

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The Rebellion of the Elves

by Laura Trude

    Karl Marx was right about a lot of things.  For instance, did you know that he was one of the first people to point out that united, people have a lot of power?  You have to remember, he first wrote this when the Industrial Revolution was just getting underway.  This was back in the days when most people generally subsisted on what they made themselves.  What they couldn’t make, they got from others who pretty much lived the same way.  Some people made shoes, others produced food, clothes, and various other necessities and frivolities.  It may be hard to imagine in today’s consumerist economy, but that’s about all people needed for the last millennium: clothes, food, and water.  If you had your own land, you could probably take care of all these needs yourself.  Grow some cotton or buy some sheep, and you could make clothes.  Get some seeds, till some soil, and there’s your dinner, assuming you have some trees or shit to burn (I mean this literally; cow dung makes excellent fuel, minus the smell).  Dig a well (or not), and there’s your water supply.  All the basic needs of life, taken care of right there.

    Granted, you may insist you need a Sealey mattress, or a light bulb, even a stove or internet connection, but you don’t really, because people have gotten by without those things for thousands and thousands of years.  That brings me back to Karl Marx.  You see, if that’s all people need, then obviously the people who produce things like food and clothing should have a lot of say in the goings on of the world.  If the fancy-ass landlords who live on cheese and caviar, sitting on their silken couches embroidering pillows, decide not to be very nice to their field workers, well guess what?  Those field workers decide to stop producing food and their idolatrous overseers starve to death.  Or better yet, the workers (who far outnumber the gentry) band together, burn down the nobleman’s house, and take over the land for themselves.  At least, that was the theory.  

    The elves were having a lovely time in their North Pole hideaway.  They drank hot chocolate, designed toys, sled down mounds of ice, made toys, and celebrated Christmas all year-round.  Like the peasants, they could deal with their lot in life, even enjoyed it, as they actually had free time, unlike many peasants.  They were the happy elves you see in all the cartoons, until two things happened: one, an increase in the world’s population; two, the invention of the television.

    The papers always write about the effect of overpopulation on the environment.  Will we have enough food to feed seven billion people?  Where will they live?  What will happen to the animals driven into dwindling forests to make way for housing subdivisions?  And most importantly, will our natural resources (especially oil) be enough?  What you never hear about is the effect of overpopulation on the North Pole.  With more people, you have to produce more toys; more toys means longer hours; longer hours means unhappy workers.

    First, the elves had to cut short their two hour lunch break.  Since the elves live in the North Pole, that lunch break was often the only daylight they saw, i.e. the only time to play outside.  The hockey went, then the figure skating, then the ice-fishing, and pretty soon they were drinking their hot chocolate on the job!  It wasn’t enough.  

    Elves, you remember, are very vain creatures.  If they make something, they want to do it well.  They want it to be their own craftsmanship and make the quality of their work a point of pride.  Thus, Santa’s announcement came as a bit of a shock.

    “My dear toy makers, I’m afraid I have some terrible news.  Even with all your hard labor, production cannot keep up with all the wonderful new children being brought into the world around the earth.”  Santa Claus looked as if his dearest friend had just died.  The elves felt worse.  He at least could still go around Christmas Eve as he always had, delivering toys to most of the girls and boys.  It wouldn’t be his fault if a few of them got shorted: toy production was the job of the elf.  The elves grumbled amongst themselves as Santa took a big breath.

    “As a result, I have decided we will mechanize.”  His face was grave as he made this announcement.  Like the elves, he felt that this was a betrayal of one of the fundamentals of Christmas theology.  Wasn’t a much greater gift to be given something someone had made?  

    “What?!”

    “You can’t do that!”

    “We won’t be turned into factory workers!”  The elves were outraged.  Santa leaned against his wife as the crowd of elves surged forward.

    “Peace!  Peace!” cried the head elf.  “You know we can’t meet the quota.  What other choice to we have?”  Mobs, unfortunately, are not swayed by reason. Runton Felbriggs discovered this as he watched his house burn to the ground. Emmanuel Lipman learned this lesson after negotiating failed and workers destroyed his factory. Keith Frogson never learned this lesson, because he died before he had a chance to learn it.  Looking throughout history, I have seen the same pattern repeated again and again.  King Louis XVI guillotined by his French countrymen. Gobel Babelin burnt under suspicions of being a witch.  And the North Pole elves’ revolt.  You see, the intelligence of a mob can always be measured by its angriest, loudest, and often, least learned member.  One angry shout, and the entire balance of the crowd is swayed.  Santa didn’t even have time to grab his naughty and nice list.

    “Down with the machines!”

    “Down with mindless activity!” (The elves didn’t even notice the irony)

    “Down with Christmas!”

In some cultures, “down with” is a phrase equivalent to “I’m groovy with.”  This phrase originated with the onset of disco dancing in the mid-1970s, when “dancing” meant “shaking your bottom and bending your knees as much as possible without losing your balance.”  In the Christmas of the elves’ rebellion, “down with” found its parallel in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, “Down with Julius Caesar!”  If you are familiar with the play, you may remember that Caesar was killed shortly thereafter.  Thankfully, Santa was not.

    “Run for the sleigh!” Santa Claus shouted to his wife.

    “After his sled!” ordered on slightly less intelligent member of the elven species.

    “Stop the reindeer!” amended another.

    “He’s escaping!”

    “What do we care?  We’re on strike!”

    “Elves on strike!  Elves on strike!”

I’m sure they went on like that for quite a while, but I wouldn’t know, because I was on the sleigh with Santa.

    “Santa, dear?”  Mrs. Claus was snuggled tight under a polar-bear blanket.

    “Yes, honey?” Santa looked understandably distracted.

    “What do we do now?”  Indeed, what would they do?  Without the elves making the toys, there would be no Christmas.  Before, they had been behind on production, but now the elves weren’t producing anything at all!

    “Who else makes toys?” I asked.

    “Well, factories, I suppose.” Santa Claus mumbled.

    “Then let’s approach them.”

By the time we reached New York City, word of the elves strike had spread to the local newspapers.  Santa called the suppliers of FAO Schwartz as soon as we landed.

    “Schwartz and Company?”

    “How can I be of service?” replied the operator.

    “I need to put in an order.”

The elves declared it a betrayal.  Santa called it saving Christmas.  Mrs. Claus was only happy to have something to do.  I felt awful.  What is it called when one betrays one’s own species?  Oh yes, treason.  

    While the elves were striking at every street corner, Santa had the factories installed.  I suppose he had good reason for it.  The elves weren’t around to object, he had already said he would to the same, and production, like a show, must go on.  Sometimes I wonder if Santa was right to place his first loyalties with children he hardly knew rather than friends with which he spent everyday.  Other days, I think that perhaps Santa was merely getting on with the inevitable in hopes that the sooner the factories were installed, the sooner the elves would realize their stupidity.  After all, how could they produce any more toys than they already were producing?

    That’s when I thought of Santa Claus’s magical timer.  You know, the one he uses to get to all those houses on Christmas Eve.  Why couldn’t we use it and make the year longer?  We could make it as long as we needed to produce enough toys for every girl and boy.  I passed the word on to the leader of the rebellion.

    “The magical timer?”

    “Yeah, why can’t we use it?”

    “Won’t it only work for Santa Claus or something?”

    “Why shouldn’t he work it for us?  He only conceded the factories because we didn’t have enough time.”

Whispers of the elves new idea floated quickly to Santa’s ears.

    “The magical timer, eh?” he appeared to think about it.

    “Yes, why can’t we use it?” I waited hopefully.  If this didn’t work, what would happen to the elves?  Would they come work in the factories?  Would Santa hire new workers?  Wouldn’t they demand wages?  How would Santa pay them?

    “Wouldn’t you get tired of 500 days between Christmases?  Or more?” Santa stared me down.  He wanted an honest answer.  He hadn’t installed those factories for nothing.  He had probably thought of the magical timer before…  I didn’t know what to say.  I couldn’t think for my fellow elves.  As for myself…  I remembered back to the days of long afternoons of ice skating, snow ball tournaments, and sticky-gooey candies perfected by generations of elven grandmothers.  If we could make the year longer, we could make it long enough to return to our two hour lunch periods and finish all the toys, elven-fashion.  I replied carefully.

    “A long time ago, the elves pledged their allegiance to your mission of bringing toys to the good girls and boys of the world.  Before then, we had very little to do but carve figurines from whale bones during the long winter hours and provide enough food and fuel to sustain us.  But you brought something more to our lives.  Making toys for children, bringing smiles to the world, that gave us, or me at least, a purpose.  Not only were we able to make a difference in the world, not only our own little space of it, mind you, but the world, we learned new things, had enough food for once, could spend time having fun, making hot cocoa, smashing each other with snow balls.”  I took a deep breath, “Santa, as long as you make enough time for us to enjoy our lives, to have both a purpose, making toys, and, time to laugh and play, I, for my lot, am satisfied.”

    “Well spoken, my dear friend.”  Santa looked at me for a long time, with that steady-gaze peering into your soul type of look.  I remained calm and stared back, knowing that my words were true, and realizing something else as well.  Perhaps Karl Marx had had a similar realization as well.  It’s not just food and clothing that make this life, but purpose, love, and fun.  If you merely work your whole life and don’t do anything useful with it, or take the time to enjoy this life with friends and family, what’s the point?  Aren’t you then no better than a cog in a factory?  “My friend, if you are willing, will you deliver this message to your fellow elves?  ‘With the magical timer, Santa Claus can make enough time in the year so that the elves can make all the toys this world ever needs, and time for your two hour lunches.  If this proposal meets your agreement, I, Santa Claus, will personally oversee the removal of the FAO Schwartz factories.  Won’t you please join with me again in bringing smiles to the world and forgive my clouded heart?  In seeking to save Christmas, I forgot what’s important: friends.’  Does that sound good?  Will you deliver it?”  Santa suddenly looked old, beyond his 200 plus years.

    I agreed that his message would likely meet the approval of my colleagues and ventured into their camp to deliver it.  I was surprised to find everyone gathered around a large electronic screen with some moving images on it.  Everything else around them was a mess, an absolute mess.  Yes, in their free time, the elves had discovered television.  I was certainly glad to deliver my message.  Even then, it took quite a speech to remind them that life did not consist in pictures on a screen, but in living it.  Eventually they returned to the North Pole, which thankfully has absolutely no reception (and thankfully, the elves had yet to discover the use of the satellite dish).

    With time, the factories were removed, snow covered their foundations, and life as an elf returned back to normal.  Time again for hours of sledding, time again for Aunt Silvia’s nuclear gingerbread cookies, time again for life.  Too bad the rest of the world doesn’t have a magical timer, too.

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Santa Clause and the Fountain of Youth

By Laura Trude

Well, now my friends are curious about Santa Claus’s encounter with the Fountain of Youth.  As I said, Santa Claus had set up shop in the North Pole and the elves had adopted a European decorating scheme.  The town witch doctor had managed to make the resident reindeer fly and the current head elf at the time was busy directing tree-cutting operations, since wooden toys were all the rage back then.  This was Santa’s thirtieth Christmas as the spreader of universal Christmas joy (which only included European countries back then), and Santa was starting to realize he was over-the-hill.  

    Us elves had a huge celebration for his fiftieth birthday.  We had the entire village decked out in red streamers and icicles and the wife of the head elf, Mitzkuvit (she was named before European names became popular), baked Santa a cake that was a life-size version of himself.  Santa took one look at that cake and cried.  At first we thought it was because he was so happy (Mitzkuvit was sure beaming), but then we realized it was something else.  See, we elves, since we live a few hundred years, thought turning fifty was like becoming a full-fledged adult.  For Santa, turning fifty meant he might die at any moment (this was before modern medicine).  He began wondering who would take over when he was gone and couldn’t bear to think that Christmas might not be celebrated any longer (this tradition had been going on for thirty years now, remember, although he needn’t really have worried, because we elves could certainly have done the job.  Although, we had become rather fond of this fat red man with a beard, as fond of him as he was of frosted sugar cookies).  

    Aunt Eloviouse, our town witch doctor, was the first person to realize Santa Claus’s predicament.  She stabbed Santa on the toe with her whale-bone cane and muttered, “Stop whining and find yourself a replacement.”  That began Santa’s journey to find a Santa Claus in-training.  Eloviouse used the same magic she whips up to determine the naughty and nice list to find herself some good candidates for a new Santa Claus.

    That Christmas Eve, while Santa was making his rounds, rather than leaving the house as quietly and quickly as possible (after devouring the cookies and milk left for him), Santa began waking up those Aunt Eloviouse considered potential new Santa Clauses.  Some of them thought he was an intruder and rung the police.  Others thought they were dreaming and went back to bed.  A few took his offer seriously, but then explained to him that they had far too many responsibilities at home to take up such a job.  Then he found Patricia Wade.  She was a lovely middle-aged lady, who had never got around to marrying, but made things for all the children in the neighborhood as if they were her own.  And she made scrumptious sprinkled sugar cookies.  Santa fell in love and soon they were married.  The problem was, she was almost as old as him, too old to have children, so the search for the new Santa continued the next Christmas.

    Mrs. Claus suggested he try the little children at the orphanages.  They were young enough to believe him and didn’t have any connections to leave behind (unless they had siblings at the orphanage with them).  The problem was, he couldn’t just wake up one child, because all the children slept in the same room.  And if he were to take one, the orphanage would cry “murder!” or “kidnapper!” as soon as they found out.  Thus, Santa decided to adopt a child.

    As you can guess, this didn’t work out.  See, social workers don’t consider old people suitable parents.  “But what about all those poor children stuck in orphanages?” you ask.  These social workers are so picky about who’s good enough to take care of a child, that no one takes care of them.  At least, that used to be the case.  Since then, things have changed, and since then, Santa Claus found the Fountain of Youth.

    “So how did we get from adopting a child to the Fountain of Youth?” you ask.  While Mr. and Mrs. Claus were being frustrated by adoption services, Aunt Eloviouse was looking for alternatives.  As much as she didn’t like to admit it, she had become rather fond of the old man and was worried that she wouldn’t feel nearly the same way about a new Santa Claus.  She still had another 200 years to live, remember.  So she got in touch with all her witch doctor friends (well, more like colleagues then friends; they didn’t get along very well), and soon extracted some information from one of them in Brazil about the Fountain of Youth.

    “Okay, okay!  So I have heard something!” Meveir admitted, his dark face cringing in Eloviouse’s bowl of ice water.

    “Oh?”  Eloviouse’s face looked so dangerous, she didn’t need to say any more than that.

    “They say,” Meveir whispered, his face closing in on the glass, “deep in the forest, past spiders and scorpions, mind you, lies the Fountain of Youth.  The Incas tapped into this holy place long ago and paid dearly for it.  Remember how they were all wiped out by the Europeans?”

    “That’s old history, Meveir.  And it wasn’t really the Europeans as much as it was the micro-organisms they carried,” Eloviouse smirked at him.

    “Fine, fine,” Meveir grimaced.  “I just can’t stand the thought of something so tiny killing off so many of my ancestors.”

    “So you say this water will cause someone to live eternally?” Eloviouse brought him back to the point.

    “Well, I’m not sure if it’s the water exactly, and as I said, it didn’t work for the Incas.  Some say you can only have a very good reason for drinking the water, otherwise…” Meveir looked off into the distance.  Eloviouse nodded her head, images of sick and dying Incans crowding her thoughts.  What if that happened to the elves?

    “So it’s only a last resort, really.”

    “Hmph, yes,” Meveir looked tired.  Perhaps the connection was draining him.

    “Well, if you’re going to die soon anyway, what do you have to lose?”  Eloviouse decided that it could have nothing to do with the elves.  It was Santa they wanted eternal life for, giver of toys.  The elves lived long enough; there was no need to threaten a plague.  “Tell us how to get there.”

    Thus, Santa soon found himself on the way to the Amazon, with Aunt Eloviouse and Mrs. Claus in tow (“There’s no way I want to live forever without my wife,” he insisted.  “I’ll go with him to the death,” Mrs. Claus trembled).  On the way, they found cacao beans, which soon became an important part of Christmas, especially as carried on by the tradition of chocolate Santa Clauses.  As you know, Santa Claus didn’t die (because Christmas still goes on), and so the chocolate version of himself became a symbol of how fortunate he was to have the opportunity to continue bringing Christmas cheer (and then you eat it – I wonder what that means?  That we can all take a bite out of happiness?  Or perhaps that we can share in it?).  

    Once Eloviouse met up with Meveir, he led them deep into the jungle (well, not that deep, because then he freaked out and was either eaten by a poisonous snake or still wanders around screaming in the jungle to this day; they weren’t really sure which).  With the ancient Incan map still to guide them (which, unbeknownst to Eloviouse, Meveir had acquired at great price because he was really fond of her; too bad he never had a chance to tell her that….), they found their way to the Fountain of Youth.  Now the Fountain of Youth doesn’t look exactly like a fountain you may think of, with the bowl of water and sprayer shooting from the top.  The word “fountain” comes from the Latin “fontanus,” which means “a spring.”  Indeed, inside the cave was a spring issuing from the rock into a basin, about the size of a kiddie pool.

    “Can this be it?” Mrs. Claus asked.  I gather it didn’t look as ornate as she had imagined it.  You know, when something is given a really fancy name like, the “Fountain of Youth,” you expect it to be gorgeous.  Perhaps she had imagined a marble pedestal with lion heads carved into it, or at least lots of tiles on the wall forming a picture of Eden (I wonder if pointillism emerged from tile art?).  There were a few carvings on the wall though, writing of some sort.  

    “Can you read that?” Santa asked Aunt Eloviouse.

    “Unfortunately, no,” Eloviouse was inspecting around the fountain carefully.  Santa held his torch closer.  “That doesn’t help, because I don’t know the language.  Now if Meveir was here…”  Just then, they heard a scream in the jungle.

    “Perhaps we don’t want him here,” Mrs. Claus suggested nervously.

    “Right.”  Aunt Eloviouse paused.  “Now I’m going to try an incantation.”  So she raised her arms above the spring and chanted some words that I wouldn’t in a thousand years understand.  Mrs. Claus eyed the cave entrance nervously, as if wondering whether a maniac Meveir might enter at any moment, or some other dangerous creature.  Santa was staring closely at the fountain, and so he was the first to notice a silver figure appearing in the mist.

    She, if it was a she, looked like an exotic form of man.  Her hair waved about her like sea tentacles in the mist and her slender figure was covered in a veil which disappeared below her knees into the pool of water.  Her eyes were a very lustrous blue, which glowed slightly, and the rest of her nearly blended in the water behind her.  Eloviouse gasped and sank to the ground.  

    When the water-figure first spoke, no one could understand her.  Then her words modulated and rang through the shallow cave like a clear bell.  “Drinkers, beware.  This water springs only for the deserving.  It does not promise eternal gladness, only a life free from the detriments of age and disease, not a violent death.  It is for you to choose, and choose carefully.  For those who aren’t considered worthy, will die most painfully.”  The figure vanished.  Mrs. Claus clung tightly to Santa’s elbow and Eloviouse rose slowly from the ground.  

    Santa Claus threw back his shoulders and uncurled his sloping spine, “I am not afraid.”  He put his right hand over his wife’s where she held his elbow, and walked to the fountain.  He disentangled himself from her grip, cupped his hands into the water, and took a long, deep, drink.

    Now there are many brave deeds in the world, but I consider this one of the bravest.  Don’t get me wrong, jumping in front of a train is not brave, but stupid.  Risking your life to save someone else’s, is brave.  But Santa, while he may not have had much longer to live, not only risked his life, but devoted his life to others’ happiness.  You may not always be happy with the toys Santa Claus brings you, but that does not stop him.  He continues to bring toys to children around the world, expanding his business every year.  Did you know, he was even giving to African slaves before slavery was considered illegal?  He cared about them even when no one else did.  But not only did he decide to give to others during his lifetime, he decided to extend that life by an eternity, so he could keep on giving.  That to me, shows courage.

    “Well, I’m not dead yet,” Santa chuckled.  Mrs. Claus smiled at him and then took a step closer.  He kissed her on the cheek and then stood aside so she could get to the fountain.  Eloviouse held her breath.  Mrs. Claus cupped her wrinkled fingers, lowered them into the water, and raised them to her rosy-red lips.  She took a sip.  Nothing happened.  Mrs. Claus ran into Santa’s arms where he embraced her fiercely.  

    “Don’t celebrate yet,” Aunt Eloviouse cautioned them.  “He didn’t say the stuff would kill you right away.  And we still have that jungle to get through.”

    But as you already know, they arrived home safely, with lots of cacao beans, and lived together very happily until Santa had his mental breakdown.  But that’s another story.

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