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Tag: happily ever after

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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Chapter 11: Rumors and Recuperation

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

If you really want to know what is going on in the world, listen to the servants.  They know everything that is going on in the palace better than anyone else.  Especially the pages and the kitchen girls.  Every hunt for knowledge should start there.

  

Recuperation is rather pointless after you find out a sorcerer is bent on destroying your entire world.  The next day I got up, strictly defying Princess Bossypants’ orders, and escaped Blythe’s ever-watchful gaze.  She tended to leave him to guard me when she wasn’t around, just in case I got any bright ideas about getting up. How Blythe became my only friend willing to sit by my bed, I couldn’t tell you.  But it got annoying.

Fortunately, he learned his lesson before and didn’t utter another word on the subject of Mara and me.  He didn’t say anything about the approaching wedding either.  It’s a good thing, too, because if he had, I might have lost it completely.

But that day nothing could hold me in.  I escaped from Blythe and made it all the way to the garden.  I didn’t have any particular plan, I just couldn’t sit in bed and hope for the best anymore.  I paced up and down the walkways.

How could this have happened?  Why did nobody notice?  The last few months had been so hectic, I was barely ever in the castle.  I thought about the timing of that.  Not once had the thought crossed my mind that it was anything but coincidence, and the fact that our ever important birthday was approaching.  What if it was more?  What if I had been kept out of the castle on purpose, so I wouldn’t notice the king was being destroyed?  I slumped down onto a wall and put my head in my hands.  Now I really needed a plan.  And none was coming to me.

Who knows how long I sat on that wall, head down, letting everything sink in.  The first thing I knew, I heard a voice close by.  “Robbie?”

I looked up.  Mara stood nearby, a basket half filled with apples in her hands, looking at me worriedly.

“Mara!”

“What in the world are you doing?  Are you alright?”

“Fine,” I said with half a grin.

“Does your side hurt?  Why are you out here?  I’m going to kill that gnome!”

“No, I snuck off, it’s not his fault.  Don’t worry, he’s a good babysitter.”

“That’s why I picked him.”

“I know.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“I went on a walk.  I felt restless, needed to think  

She raised an eyebrow.  “And what do you need to think about?”

“My job,” I said shortly.  The plan was to leave it at that and storm off, but for some reason I couldn’t.

She shook her head.  “Well, if your side is fine, then come help me fill this basket.”

“Sure,” I said, returning her smile.  It would do me some good, take my mind off of things.  That was the excuse, anyway.  Then I had a thought.  “Um, one question.  Why are we picking apples?  Don’t you have a wedding to plan?”

“No.”

I choked on myself and pretended to cough.  “No?”

She glowered and threw an apple in the basket.  “No.  This is more important.”

I scratched my head.  “More important than your wedding?  I thought girls like planning weddings.  And stuff.”

“Did you know that no one picks these apples?  They just fall on the ground and rot away.  Such an unbelievable waste.  So I am picking them.”

“That still doesn’t explain why you don’t have a wedding to plan.”

“Because I don’t.  Roy has a wedding to plan.”

“Roy?  Roy is planning the wedding?”  This oddly made sense.

“Yes.  Roy has a wedding to plan.  I have apples to pick.”

Something was wrong.  I am not the quickest hobo, but even I could catch this.  I raised one eyebrow and cautiously picked an apple and placed it in the basket.  This continued for several minutes before Mara finally let loose.

“Did you know that there are approximately 28 different shades of cerulean?”

My next answer needed to be chosen carefully.  “Cerulean?”

“Yes.  Blue.  It’s blue!  But no, we must choose the exact perfect shade of blue for everything!”

I nodded seriously.  And did not laugh.  Not at all. “Roy does like things to match.”

She glared at me.  “The numbers of times a day he makes me look at practically identical fabric swatches and give an opinion on bridemaid dresses, or napkins, or curtains, or garlands, or any other cursed detail is beyond comprehension.  I didn’t spend all that time in the tower studying different shades of blue!”

“So you are picking apples because, you don’t want to pick blues?”

“Did you know Prince Charming plans to have 28 lords of the court attending him at the ceremony?”

“No.”  Why would I know that?  I didn’t even know a sorcerer decided to attack our little kingdom before yesterday.  

“So I need to choose 28 ladies to attend me.”  Another glare.  “Do you know how many ladies I know?”

I didn’t move.  

“None.  I know you, Blythe, and Roy.  No ladies.  I haven’t talked to a lady in 150 years, except for the queen, and now all these girls who want to attend me, but I don’t even know their names.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t see.”

I didn’t argue.  After all, she was correct.  I never planned a wedding before.  

“So I am picking apples because otherwise they would go to waste.  And then I am going to hide in the kitchen and make the cook bake me a pie.  And then I will eat that pie.  And that whole time I will be free of inane wedding decisions, because there is not a chance in a witch’s garter Roy looks for me in the orchard or the kitchen.”

“That works for me.”  As we went over previously, arguing with damsels is never a good idea.  I also could see no problem with helping her avoid her wedding to Roy.  

The next couple of hours were lovely.  I walked in the garden with Mara, picking apples and laughing and talking.  Not that we really talked about anything important, because things would have gotten awkward really fast, but it was fun.  In fact, it was completely beautiful.

At some point, we had more than filled the basket, regardless of how much we goofed off and wasted time, and Mara had to return to the cook with her offerings.  She waved good-bye and ran off, and I plunged back into despair.  

As far as I knew, the kingdom was being taken over by a sadistic sorcerer.  The king was probably lost, and if I didn’t do something soon, nothing would stop this guy from destroying everything I cared about, including the beautiful girl I had been picking apples with two seconds ago.

That left only one thing.  I needed to know—really, totally, for sure know—what was happening to the king.  Messing with sorcerers doesn’t tend to work out real well, and I probably should have waited, talk to Phil, figure things out first.  But I wasn’t in a wait-around-and-see-what-happens kind of mood.  More of a let’s-start-something-and-see-how-it-works-out kind of mood, actually.  What to start, well, that was a little more difficult.  I wanted to see the man Arlin told me about.  Maybe, just seeing him, a few questions would be answered.  Fortunately, I was still supposed to be an invalid, so no one expected me to snoop about after hours yet.  Hopefully that meant it would be fairly easy to get up to the royal apartments and see what I could.  

It was very late when I left my room, dressed all in black with a hood over my face, and headed for the royal apartments. My only plan was to sneak around the king’s apartments until I saw and/or heard something.  Hopefully, I would get out in one piece, but that part was a little bit iffy.  Especially if he really was a sorcerer.  

The castle was kind of spooky at night.  There was no one around, even the guards who usually pop up here and there had mysteriously disappeared per a hint I sent to Arlin that it would be a good night to have some staff problems.  Arlin was a good man: he asked no questions and did exactly as told.  Sneaking up to the royal apartments went off without a hitch.

Sure enough, when I poked my head around the corner there was a light coming out from under the door to the king’s chambers.  I grinned to myself.  As quietly as possible, I snuck around, found the stairs, and got to the next floor.  From there, I went to a sitting room directly above the king’s room.  This room didn’t have a balcony, but when I looked out the window I could see the balcony to the king’s room.  No light was coming out of the window, so I assumed the curtains were closed.  That was good, I didn’t want anyone to see me.

Luck was with me, and a full moon hung in the sky, giving me just enough light to secure a rope to the window ledge and carefully lower myself down to the king’s balcony.  Once all the way down, I made sure the rope was within easy reach and ducked behind the wall.  Even with the curtains shut, I didn’t want to risk casting a shadow in the room on the other side.  Then I settled in for the ride.

There were voices coming from the room.  One of them was the king’s, the other I never heard before, but just the sound of it made my blood run cold.  It was velvety smooth, and low, but it sent a definite shiver down my spine.

“Your majesty,” it said, in a tone that was both obeisant and condescending at the same time, “you must assert yourself.  Power is slipping out of your hands.  Every day the respect of the people wanes more and more.  Your grasp is failing.  You must show the people that you are not to be trifled with.”

“And how do you suggest I do that?” asked the king’s voice.  He sounded very tired.

“Many people are suggesting that you are too old to rule and your son should take over.”

“My son!  My son is nothing but a buffoon!  He can hardly make a king!  Who would suggest such a thing?”

“There are people, my lord, who believe he is stronger than you.  Don’t you see, you must assert yourself as the absolute ruler.  Take away your son’s power.”

“How?”

“You must question his sanity and his integrity.  Put those things under doubt, and he loses everything.”

“Put those things in doubt and I have no heir.”

“We must wait for an heir.  He will marry the girl and a child will come of that union.  By the time the child is grown, you will have had time to train it properly, the way you should have trained your son if he had the intelligence.”

“And in the meantime?  The people will never be content unless there is a current heir.”

“Name me Lord Chancellor, to stand in as heir until satisfaction can be determined with the true heir, when your grandson is grown.  Those who would usurp in favor of your son will be thoroughly confounded, you will place your authority over the doubters, and you will be beyond question for at least the next twenty years.”

“It sounds risky.”

“Not at all!  As your Lord Chancellor, I can ensure that discipline and authority are maintained in the kingdom.  I can assure you, the people will comply.”

“If you think it is for the best, then I suppose it is what we should do.”

This was bad.  This was very, very bad.  The king went along with everything the man said.  I didn’t doubt the man with the velvet voice was the sorcerer, the tall, dark man Arlin told me about, and he had enchanted the king.  And he was going to be the second most powerful person in the kingdom in no time flat.  I repeat: this was very, very bad.  

I’d heard enough.  Carefully, I got up and found my rope.  I jumped to start climbing, but in the process my foot hit a loose stone on the wall, and it clattered to the balcony floor.  I froze.  For the longest moment of my entire life there was dead silence.  Then, the curtains flung open and light flooded the balcony.  

A tall, dark man, in a long black cape, with piercing fiery eyes glared down at me.  “Here, your highness,” he cried, pointing a long, bony finger at me.  “Here is one who has come conspiring against you, usurping in favor of your son!”

The king appeared behind him, looking as if he had just finished being sick.  “You!  I should have known it would be you!”  He turned to the sorcerer.  “This man is one of my son’s most constant confidants!”

I wouldn’t exactly have described myself that way, but whatever.  If the choices were support the sorcerer or the class clown, I’d choose the clown any day.  So yeah, in this situation, I guess I was a prince-supporter.  

“Guards!” cried the sorcerer.

I expected some of my friends from the palace guard to pop up, but to my not-so-pleasant surprise two men I never saw before, wearing unfamiliar colors, came out of nowhere.  “Seize this man!” ordered the sorcerer.

They did so, a little bit more roughly than necessary, I thought.  “You’ll never get away with this,” I growled at the sorcerer.  “You have no idea who you are messing with!”

He smiled in a very terrifying manner.  “Oh yes, I think I do.  It is you who has no idea who you are messing with.”

“You think anything you can contrive will be able to hold me in?  Everyone in the kingdom will know your plans by morning, just you wait.”

“I don’t think so, Robbie DiShaun.”  His use of my full name stopped me short.  “After all, you wouldn’t want the whole village to suffer for assisting a traitor, now would you?”

I had been taut, struggling against the iron grasps of the guards, and doing a pretty good job too, if I do say so myself.  At his threat, everything in me just wilted.  I felt all my strength, and all my rage go, and in its place was pure helplessness.  Of course.  One wrong move, and every man, woman, and child, in the village would suffer.  He would pull that on me.  

“You are under arrest for high treason and conspiracy against the king.  You will be executed tomorrow at nightfall to begin our campaign to crush all dissenters in the kingdom!”  I swear he smiled.  He turned to the guards that were brutally taking advantage of my non-fighting state.  “Take him to the dungeon.”

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Chapter 10: Someone Else’s One True Love

Secrets for Survival in Fairyland:

There is a way things work here.  And there is a way they don’t.  Never forget what is possible, and what could never happen in a million years or you are signing up for a massive headache.

“Robbie, Robbie can you hear me?”

The voice wanted me to wake up for some reason.  Didn’t it know how happy I was to be asleep?  Didn’t it realize that if I woke up I would come back to pain and discomfort and I was quite happy to stay where I was?

“Robbie, are you awake?”

Too late.  The world rushed back.  I groaned loudly.

“Can you hear me?”

With another groan I opened my eyes and looked up into the concerned face of my little princess.  “Yeah, now let me sleep.”

“Oh Robbie!”  Her whole face lit up.  She looked exhausted but relieved.  

That got me a little worried.  “How long have I been out?”

“A couple days.”

“What!”  Oops, I must have moved my head.  Well, if I hadn’t been awake before, I was now.  The pain finally caught up to me.  I let out a gasp, then shut my mouth to recover again.

“Oh, does it hurt?” she asked, looking all concerned again.

“Yes, it does,” I said between clenched teeth.

“Well, that’s no surprise.  The doctors were with you for hours before they could get that spear thing out of your side.  It was barbed.”

“Oh, really?” I said sarcastically.  She didn’t notice.  

“How come you didn’t tell us you got stabbed?” she asked and pressed her lips together.  Her eyes bored into me.

“There was no need for you to worry about it.”

“And if you had dropped off like that before we got rescued?  You have no idea what a scare you gave me!  You could have died!”

“You would have been fine, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” I muttered.

“What in the world do you mean?  It would not have been fine!” she said angrily.

“You and Roy get Happy Endings, you were gonna be fine regardless.  It would be difficult with me gone, but it would have happened anyway.”

“That’s horrible!  Don’t say that kind of thing!”

“Ok, fine!” I said in exasperation.  “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry.  Happy?”

“No.”

Oh, golly.  “No?”

“No.  You should have told me.  You gave me the biggest scare of my life!”

“Sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t cut it.”

“Then what do you want me to say?”  At this point I just wanted to make peace and move on to a new topic.

“That you will never do it again.”

“There will never be a chance for me to do it again, you have nothing to worry about.”

“Hmph.”

“What, you don’t believe me?”

“Well, it didn’t sound that convincing.”

“Roy’s got you now.  He’s got his Happy Ending, Mara.  He will never go out to be heroic again.  I’m just another servant now.  I’m surprised the king even gave me doctors to take the spear out.  I thought he’d forget about me.”

“He tried, but I threw a fit and told him that you did far too much for us to let you die of that wound and he better give you the best medical treatment available.”

“Really?” I was surprised.

“Yes, really.  You think I would just let you die?”

“I guess not.”  This was different from how most people treated me, and it would take some getting used to.  It was a change for the better, I thought.  Phil and I had done well this time.

“I’m not sure how offended I should be by that.”

“Not very.  It was not intended offensively.”  Suddenly I thought of something.  “Oh!”

“What?” she got very worried very quickly.  “Is something hurting?”

I rolled my eyes.  “Everything hurts.  That is not the problem.”

“What is the problem?”

What exactly should I tell her?  “I just remembered something.  It could be difficult.”

“What?”

“It’s, um, well,” I stammered.  It would probably work out better to just tell her.  “Blythe.”

She smiled.  “Oh, don’t worry about him.”

“What!”

“I found him in your bag.  He’s fine.”

“You didn’t tell anyone, did you?” I asked, aghast.

“Nope.  I figured that much out from him.  You can really understand dwarvish?”

“Yes, I really, truly can.  Where is he now?”

“Somewhere around.  I’m not sure.  He shows up to get food, and then he runs off again.  Hopefully he isn’t getting into too much trouble.”

“Hopefully.”  That was a scary thought.  Blythe roaming the world at will?

“Well, I guess I will go away now and let you get some rest.”

That brought up another question.  “Hey, how much have you been up here while I’ve been out?”

“Oh,” she said casually.  “Not a whole lot.  But someone had to stay with you, so I volunteered to do some of it.”

She was making me feel bad for being rude.  “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it.

A smile filled her whole face.  “You are welcome.”

 

I definitely messed myself up this time.  For the next week I did nothing but lie in bed.  Mostly I slept.  Every time I woke up, Mara was by my side.  I felt thankful for that, because my mood was usually rather terrible.  More than once I acted awful and rude, but she always came back and always, after that first encounter, was nice and calm with me.  Not that I could figure out why.  For the most part, her presence was very comforting and welcome.  In other ways, however, it was less than that.

The whole castle buzzed with plans for the wedding.  Everyone bubbled and chattered about all the lovely little details.  It was good news for everyone in the kingdom.

This all affected Mara, the princess bride-to-be, more than a little.  She looked tired and her cheeks were often flushed.  Sometimes she couldn’t focus at all and distractedly talked about anything other than the wedding.  Other times she hardly said a word.  I wondered how she really felt about the wedding and everything, but I couldn’t quite work up the courage to ask her.  After all, it wasn’t really my business.  But something inside of me burned whenever I thought about her marrying dear old Prince Charming.

One time, a couple of days after I first woke up and discovered I was an invalid, I was lying in bed with my good arm flung over my eyes happily being grouchy while Mara read a book on decorum during royal dances out loud to keep us distracted.

This was one of her quiet day and I could tell something was up.  Her face was flushed, her hair a mess, and she looked like she hadn’t been sleeping well.  Her quiet times were becoming much more frequent than her talkative times.  The only reason for this I could come up with was that she realized her fairy tale was not coming out exactly the way she planned.  

“Are you sure this is what you want?” I asked suddenly.

She glanced up from the page on how to properly greet a new partner mid-dance.  “What?”

I sighed.  “All of it, the prince, getting married, everything.  Are you sure it’s what you really want?  You look unhappy.”

“This is my Happy Ending, Robbie.  Of course it is what I want,” she said, and looked down again.

It was so frustrating.  She deserved better than this.  “You really want to marry the prince?  Roy?  You’re smarter than that!”

“You’re talking about my one true love, Robbie.  You watch your tongue.”  Her voice rose sharply and she glared at me from behind a few stray strands of hair.

The words hurt.  “Yeah, your one true love is the court jester who can never mean anything to you, but you are going to marry him anyway!”

“This is my Happy Ending, and if you’re jealous you can just leave me alone about it!”  She was standing now and glaring at me furiously.

“Oh yes, that’s definitely it.  I’m jealous that you get to marry the prince.  Of course.  I’d rather spend the rest of my life in the basement washing socks!”

“That can probably be arranged!” she shouted, and stalked out.  

I never heard the end of that chapter.

I know it was stupid. Not to mention extremely rude and mean and awful of me.  The very worst thing I could do or say, and I did it anyway.  I’m an idiot.

But what was I supposed to do?  Everything in my whole soul burned and screamed at the thought of her marrying him, but there was nothing I could do about it.  Bringing up the subject certainly hadn’t helped.  She probably wouldn’t come up to visit me anymore and I’d be all alone.  I’d probably just lost the best thing in my whole life, but what should I have done?  Just let her get married without saying anything?

That probably would have been better for everyone.  What had my little outburst really done for either of us, other than point out the fact that once she was married I would be miserable and her Ending wasn’t going to be as Happy as it could have been?  All because of me, and the fact that I chose her to marry Roy of all people.  Of course, I knew what she was going to say, too.  She was right.  This was the path laid down for her from the beginning of time.  It was the course her godmother put her on.  And there was no room for a poor servant boy on that path.  

Because she was right about something else too.  I was jealous.  But not of her.  For the first time in my life, I was jealous of the prince.

Even though we both knew I was a total idiot and didn’t deserve her, she was back the next day to see me again.  I behaved perfectly.  I felt very contrite when I opened my eyes to see her and Blythe standing at the table by my bed folding fresh bandages.

Blythe saw me and started clicking and pointing until she looked at me.

“Good morning,” she said serenely.

Dang it.  She was being all stiff and formal and acting like distant acquaintances.  “Hey,” I said awkwardly.

“You are an idiot,” said Blythe in dwarvish.  Good thing she didn’t understand that particular comment.

“Are you feeling better?” she asked.

“Much,” I said with as much feeling as possible, hoping she would understand I was ready to be good.

“I have never met a person as stupid as you my whole life,” said my friendly little commentator.

“That’s good,” she said, sitting on the stool next to my bed.

“I, well, I wanted to say I’m sorry for how I behaved.  I’m just stressed and grumpy and, you know, injured,” I said sheepishly.

“Why don’t you stop acting like a fool for once?” said you-know-who.

“It’s all right, I understand.  Sick people don’t always know what they are saying.  It’s perfectly fine,” she said, with a smile that said everything was back to normal.  Almost.

“That’s good,” I said, trying to smile back.

“If you had a brain everything would be so much better!” said the annoying one.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked The Obnoxious in dwarvish.

“Is he all right?” asked Mara.

“He’s griping about the quality of the cheese market,” I said with a grin.

“You have blown everything.  Everything!  And all because whoever put you together forgot to give you a brain in that big ugly head of yours!”  

“Oh, that’s nice,” said Mara in confusion.  “Tell him I’ll try to get him something better next time.”

“She’s says you are a nuisance and need to shut up immediately,” I said to the idiot I agreed to bring home with me.

“I’ve met trolls brighter than you!”  He must have been furious.  There is no greater insult to a gnome.

“You know, some of the guards have been asking about you.  I guess they think we killed you,” she said with a laugh.

“I suppose Arlin or someone could come up to see me.  Might relieve my boredom some.  Then they would have to believe I was still alive,” I said, grinning at her.

“Am I the only one here with the ability to use my brain?” asked the rude one.

“What, are you sick of me already?  Or is it the sleeping that is boring?” Mara teased.

“Sleeping is wonderful.  Never get too much sleep.  And you are wonderful, too.  But come on, you’ve got to have better things to do than spend all your time waiting on me,” I said.

“Why don’t you just tell her the truth instead of acting like a bloody milk cow?”  I don’t even know what that was supposed to mean.

“Oh, you know, I don’t really mind,” she said, just before poking me with something in the side.

I let out an “oomph” and she laughed.  Then I said, “I’m sure you’re busy right now.  I feel bad, taking up so much of your life.”

“If I was your mother I would tie you up and throw you in a barrel in the river and rid the world of the nuisance!”  Blythe jumped up and down, red-faced, on the bed.

“You sleep a lot.  I really don’t spend as much time up here as you think.  Your waking up happens on a very regular schedule,” she said, laughing lightly

“Well then, by all means, keep wasting your time on me.  You’re certainly more interesting than the ceiling.”  

“I never should have rescued you!  Everyone would be so much happier!”  This was getting out of hand.  I wondered if Mara still thought the gnome was griping about cheese.  

“I should hope I was!  Otherwise, I’d be pretty useless!” she said.

“How are things going down in the rest of the world?  I’m a bit isolated up here.”  I really wasn’t used to being so cut off from society.

“Gah!!!!”  He made some awful faces.

“Oh, they are all right.  At least, I think so.  No one really tells me much.  Everything is kind of hectic,” she said with a shrug.

“I bet.  They just don’t want you to be worried about anything else, probably,” I assured her.

“What am I going to do with you?  You’re completely worthless!”  If he didn’t shut up…

“Still, it would be nice if, for once, I knew what was happening to me.  Why doesn’t it ever occur to anyone that just because I am a princess, that doesn’t mean all I’m interested in is dresses and jewelry?  I spent my time in that tower learning about more than just fashion trends.  I’m interested in what’s going on in the world; I haven’t heard anything in so long.  And now I hear pages and maids whispering rumors in corners about sorcerers and all kinds of stuff, but I’m utterly clueless as to what is actually going on!”  

“What?  Who is talking about sorcerers?”  I sat up.  This was interesting.

“Stop wasting time, you pig of the abyss, and do something worthwhile!”

She sighed.  “Oh, it was just something some of the younger servants were whispering about.  It is probably nothing.  No one else seems to be worried about anything.  I’m just ranting.  I’m sorry.”

Younger servants.  Based on my experience, this was worth looking into.  Now I really wanted Arlin to come and visit me.  I had some things to ask him.  It would probably be more worthwhile to get my news from someone who actually got the news.  For now, I decided to follow the crowd and protect Mara from all worry.  “You’re right, it probably is just all talk,” I said with a grin.

“I never should have left home.  The gnomes were better company than you!”  That was really starting to get on my nerves.

“Well,” said Mara, standing up.  “I guess you’re finished.  I better go; I’ve got some stuff to do.  Do you want me to get someone to send Arlin up?”

“That would be angelic of you.”  I smiled up at her.

“The hydra was better company than you!”  I contemplated chucking Blythe out the window, but it was too far.

“All right,” she said, smiling.  “I’ll do that.  I’ll see you later, than.”

“See ya,” I said and watched her go.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” wailed the annoying little miniature nuisance.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked Blythe with a glare.

“You are an idiot!  Why don’t you just tell her you love her?”

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.  She is marrying Roy.  Now leave me alone!” I growled, and rolled over to stare at the wall.  I didn’t want to talk.  I didn’t want to think.  I just wanted to sleep.

I stayed that way even after Blythe left.  Thankfully, it was only a few minutes before there was a knock on the door and I remembered Mara was sending Arlin up.

“Come in,” I called, rolling back over to face the world.

The door opened and my old friend walked in.  “Feeling better yet?” he asked.

“You know how it is, gotta get the rest while I can,” I said with a grin, and sat up to talk to him.

“That is very understandable,” he said, sitting down next to me.

“How’s life?”

He shrugged.  “Crazy as usual.  The whole place is a mess.”

“What else is new?”

“I know, I know.”

I hesitated for a moment.   “So, I guess the real question is, what’s happened while I’ve been out of commission?  Mara’s full of rumors but not much else, and she said something about sorcerers.  I got quite interested.”

His face got dark suddenly.  “Yes, there have been some…incidents.”

That got my attention.  “What kind of incidents?”

“The undercover, cloak-and-dagger type of incidents that make any honest soldier crazy.”

I just looked at him.  Eventually he’d explain.  I was sure of it.

He sighed.  “You need your rest, I don’t want to upset you.”  He laughed suddenly.  “I wouldn’t want to face that fiery little princess if I did, to be honest.”

I laughed too.  Something inside liked the idea of the princess getting fiery over me.  Liked it a little too much.  I changed the subject.  “I know.  But I’m the expert in magic, sorcerers and skullduggery.  Unless you found someone who knows more, I’m the best chance you have to figure things out.  I’ve been sleeping for days.  It’s time to remember the rest of the world, I think.”

“You’re right,” he said with a grimace.  “You do know more about this sort of thing.  I can make a battle plan, I can talk for hours about siege warfare, but when it comes to conspiracy and witchcraft…” he shrugged.  “I guess I’ll just tell you.  There’s a man here who has gotten very close to the king recently.”

“What kind of man?”

“I don’t know.  He doesn’t come out much, hardly anyone sees him, though I think a lot of people know he’s around.  He stays close to the king and often goes to the king’s quarters late at night.”

“Have you seen him?”

“No.  I don’t think he wants the captain of the guard knowing much about him,” he said with a harsh chuckle.  “But…” he stopped and glanced around the room nervously.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “We’re in a tower, no one can hear through the walls or the floor, and the door is thicker than any other in the palace.  You think I’d stay in a room where I can be spied on?”

“I’m sorry.  We’ve all been very nervous lately.  It’s terrible.”

I nodded.

“There are two girls who clean the chambers of the king and queen.  Last week they came to me, scared to death.  They’ve seen the man plenty of times and they finally decided they needed to tell someone.  Turns out, they haven’t been allowed to clean the king’s room in weeks.  The queen spends all her time weeping, their serving people are afraid to breathe, and the man is in the king’s room every night for hours and they hear voices until very late at night.”

“What is the man like?”

“Tall, dark, and terrible.  That’s all they could say, really.  He hides his face and skulks about like a thief.”

“That doesn’t make him a sorcerer.  The king has had strange people about before.  I’m sorry to sound skeptical, but a sorcerer is a huge deal.  I can’t just jump in and assume any tall dark guy is from the devil, you understand.  “Before I left, I don’t remember anything being too out-of-place.”  

“Things took a definite downward spiral right after you left.  And since you got back, you haven’t exactly been nosy as usual.  The king has changed a lot.  He looks pale and tired all of the time.  He is snappy with all the courtiers, and even the queen.  He even barks at Mara.”

Now that made me angry.  “What for?”

“Nothing.  Like I said, things have been very peculiar.  Even before you left there was some strangeness going on, but it picked up the instant you were gone.   Beyond that, some of the lords have started to suspect things.  But any time someone gets too close, their house or their lands burn, or something else terrible happens to them.”

Ok.  Maybe I discounted the serving girls’ story too quickly.  The king had been acting strangely, even before I’d left, and I knew it.  And then, he completely ignored me when we returned from our epic adventure to fetch the princess.  While he often ignored me, he also knew that I was the secret to his son’s success.  To leave me alone to fade in the tower was quite strange.  “Well, sleeping until noon was nice while it lasted,” I muttered, mostly to myself.

The relief on his face was instantaneous.  “You mean you will look into things?”

“As soon as I can walk.  If I can’t figure it out, then we’ll know we’re in trouble, “ I assured Arlin.

He looked so happy, I almost felt bad.  After all, there was no certainty that I was going to be able to figure it out either.  “Good,” he said.  “I was almost at my wits end.  How am I supposed to protect the palace when no one will tell me a thing?”

“That, my friend, is the question of the ages.  Too bad rulers don’t think of that kind of thing when they create all these problems.”

“All right,” he said, standing.  “I’ll let you rest now.”  He grasped my hand.  “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you are back to help me.  I felt very alone.”

I grinned.  “Don’t I always have your back?  I’ll let you know as soon as I know anything.”

“Don’t rush things.  Get yourself healed up before you do too much.”

“I’ll be fine.  Don’t worry about me.  You focus on keeping this place in one piece and I won’t tell Mara you riled me up.  Deal?”

He laughed.  “Deal.”  Then he left.

I stared at the wall.  What a lot this day gave me to think about.  I decided it was about time to get off of this bed, and start doing my job again.  The way I saw it, my job now was to make sure Mara got her Happy Ending.  And nobody—not sorcerers, not princes, not kings, not anybody—was going to stand in her way.  Whatever else happened, that was my goal from this point on.  She was the one the Happily Ever After gave me to protect and I was gonna do a darned good job, if I had anything to say about it.

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Chapter Nine: Angels and Miracles

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

Traveling around with people who get Happy Endings will always, always, always work in your favor.  They can’t lose, remember?  It’s nice to take advantage of that sometimes.

 

I didn’t exactly trust my dear friend the ten-headed to keep the gnomes away forever.  After seeing the speed that thing moved, I guess it was pretty old.  Eventually the gnomes were going to get around it.  So I didn’t allow myself much time to lie on my back, staring at the beautiful sky, gasping for air and praying that my side wouldn’t bleed to death.  With one hand pressed firmly against the wound I sat up gingerly and looked around for the others.  They were all close by, looking only slightly less dead than I felt.  Roy was on his face, probably still fainted, and Blythe sat on the dear prince’s back with his shoulders drooping and his eyes closed.  Mara leaned against a tree, her eyes were shut also and there was a long dirt smear on her face.  

The blood all came rushing through my body again, and I had to take a moment to let the world slow back down to its normal speed.  I thought I was going to be sick.  At some point the spear in my side was going to have to come out, but now was not exactly the proper time for that kind of awful operation.  

“Blythe,” I said hoarsely.  

He opened one eye to peek at me.  

“Is he alive?” I asked, looking pointedly at Roy.

Blythe nodded.

I nodded in reply.  “How long do you think it will be before the gnomes come after us?”

“Nightfall.”

“Ok…” I said with a sigh.  That didn’t give us a lot of time, but hopefully we could get far enough away that they wouldn’t bother us, ruined clover fields and a caved in tunnel or not.  “Do you know if there are any villages around here?”  

“Yes, there is one not far from here.  The gnomes have no dealings with it, because the people there hate them.  But I know where it is.”

Good.  A village full of gnome-haters would be a whole lot safer than the open forest. “Is it close enough to get to before they catch us?”

“Should be.”  He eyed me skeptically and I wondered how obvious my extreme discomfort was.  “Depends on how fast you can walk.”

“I can walk pretty fast when I have a good reason.  You’d be surprised.”

“I bet I would.  Is that thing you are wearing supposed to be a shirt?”

Good question.  There wasn’t much left but torn and (now) bloody scraps of my white shirt.  That’s another way you can know that the princes don’t actually do the work; their white shirts end up looking just as nice as they did at the beginning of the adventure.  My shirts, well, don’t last very long on trips like this.  “It used to be,” I said.  “I’m kind of hard on my clothes.”

“So I see.”  He glanced up at the sky.  “We should probably get going.”

“Probably,” I said with a sigh.  “Wake up Roy, I’ll get the princess.”

“How come you get the fun job?” he asked, but he did as I said.

As carefully as possible, I got up and walked over to where Mara was sitting.  “Hey,” I said, grabbing her shoulder with the hand that wasn’t busy keeping the blood inside my body.

Her eyes fluttered open.  “Hey,” she said.  

“We need to go.”

She must have actually looked at me about then.  Her eyes got very big.  “What happened to you?”

“I got kidnapped by gnomes, what happened to you?”

“No, really, you’re bleeding!”  She tried to pull my hand away to look at my side.

Maybe I wasn’t as good of a hider-of-wounds as I thought.  “I really don’t think you should do that,” I said, resisting her.

“Why in the world not?  You need to get that taken care of!”

“I’m a little afraid that if I move my hand the blood will all come pouring out of me and that would be a little bit more than either of us are able to deal with before nightfall when the gnomes start pouring out of that hole and come back to get rid of us for good.  So let’s not worry about my injuries right now.  It’s only a little scratch anyway, it’s just bleeding a lot.  I’ll be fine.”

Blythe was clacking angrily at Roy, who was staring about groggily.  “Robert, what is making that noise?” he asked in confusion when he saw me.

He really must have been in a daze if he wasn’t calling me Ronald.  “Robbie.  The gnome wants you to get up and follow him.”  And in dwarvish to the gnome I added: “Don’t talk in clackerish.  I’ve have heard more than enough of that language for the rest of my life.”

“You could let me have a little fun,” he said despondently back in the same language.

“What are you saying to him?” Mara asked suddenly.  She stared at me in confusion.  

“It’s dwarvish.  It was the only language we could come up with on such short notice that we both knew.”

“You know dwarvish?” she asked skeptically.

“I know a lot of languages.  What do you think I’ve been doing my whole life?”

She shrugged.  

“Ok, let’s go!” I said with approximately twenty times more energy than I felt at the moment.  Blythe led the way, for which I was very glad.  It was enough work to put one foot in front of the other while keeping track of the royals and holding myself in one piece without having to find the village also.  As it turned out, the little guy was quite a good guide.  We walked for an hour or so, and it was getting near dusk when he stopped.

“We are very close.  It is just through those trees,” he said pointing.

“Good.”  I kept walking, but Blythe did not move and stared at me with a funny expression.  “What?’

“They hate gnomes, remember?  I don’t want them to see me.”

Oh yeah.  I thought about that for a minute.  “Well, can’t you just follow along and stay out of sight until we’re out of the village?”

He looked quite disgruntled.  “I suppose.  Don’t go too far until you know I’m still alive though.”

“Don’t worry.  I haven’t forgot my promise.”

Blythe looked convinced and he disappeared into the underbrush.

Roy and Mara stared at me in confusion.  “Let’s go.  Blythe is going to have to catch up with us later.  He has some business to take care of.”

I started walking through the trees in the direction that Blythe pointed, and they followed.  They were probably just too tired and scared and sore to even care anymore what happened to the little gnome that saved our lives.   

Moments later we stumbled into the village.  It wasn’t much to speak of, there were a few houses arranged in vaguely a round shape, with a big open space in the center and a well.

It was almost dark, and there wasn’t anyone in sight.  We walked to the well and I turned in a circle, trying to decide where would be the best place to look for help.  Normally, sleeping on the ground by the well would have sufficed, but the pain in my side was growing and I really felt like being indoors might increase my odds of surviving the night.  

I stopped my circle suddenly and stared in wonder.  My heart felt lighter than the air; it sang, it leaped, it rejoiced.  A dozen horses were tethered in front of a building that had a hammer and anvil hanging on the sign in front of it.  That many horses stuck out terribly in a village this small, but what turned my heart into a bubbly happy thing was that the horses, and crest they bore, were very familiar.

Before setting out on any expedition, I always let the men of the castle guard know what I was up to.  I grew up with them and most of them were good friends.  Every time I went on an adventure I told them how long they should wait before coming after us.  It was my final back up plan, so that if something happened to me Roy would still get home in one piece.

This was one time when I was very grateful for my precautions.  The crest on the horses gear was that of the castle guard.  Our detours had taken long enough that they set out in search of us.  Right in the nick of time, too!  But that is the best part about traveling with a bunch of Happy Ending people, things just sort of work out for them.  Things that would never time out right if it was just me.  That was why the castle guard showed up right when I really couldn’t go any farther.  The magic that rules this land was rooting for Roy and Mara and it was smart enough to know that Roy needed some serious help to get anything done.  

Without waiting to explain to Roy and Mara I limped across the open space and pounded on the door of the blacksmith shop.  They stayed put, confused.

A very tall, very thin man opened the door.  “What d’ya want?” he growled.

Over his shoulder I could barely see the shapes of too many men crowding the little shop.  “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m looking for…”

Several of the men inside leaped to their feet at the sound of my voice, and one of them threw the skinny man aside. “Robbie!  What in the godmother’s name are you doing here!” he cried, and rushed over to grasp my hand.

“Arlin!” I said, holding his arm.  “You have no idea how good it is to see you here!”

He glanced me over.  “What happened to you?  You look like you have been to hell and back again!”

“Kinda feels that way, too,” I said with a grimace.

“Is the prince with you?  And a princess?”

I turned and pointed behind me to where they both stood, gaping.

His eyes widened.  “Good!  The king will be thrilled!”

I didn’t really care about the king’s opinion.  “Did you bring horses?”

“Yes.  Enough for all three of you,” he added with a chuckle.  

“You are my hero,” I said to Arlin.

“Well, I guess being a hero’s hero is nothing to scoff at,” he said with a laugh.

“I’m no hero,” I said.  “Come on, I’ll take you to the prince.”

Arlin had brought half a dozen other soldiers with him, as well as the three extra horses.  Most of them I recognized by sight, but I didn’t know their names.  The blacksmith gave the royals and me something to eat and drink, and then grumpily took Mara to stay with him and his wife while all the boys camped out in the loft over his shop.  I snuck away for a few minutes to look at my side.  The spear was still buried in my flesh, and I broke it off as close to my skin as I dared and cleaned it as much as possible.  I decided against telling anyone else how badly I was wounded.  It wouldn’t really help anything for them to know and would just slow us down if they insisted on examining my many injuries.  I just hoped I would make it back to the castle.

The next morning I was the last one awake.  One of the soldiers shook my shoulder, causing a wall of pain to attack my side.  I almost screamed.  Everything hurt, opening my eyes hurt.  It took a long time to get downstairs, and by then Arlin had everybody else ready to leave.  He said that the village had been their final stopping place, and they’d only planned to spend one more day searching for us before heading back, so it didn’t take long to get ready.

It wasn’t until Arlin finally managed to get Roy situated on his horse and we were riding out of town that I managed to fall far enough behind the others for a tiny little bundle of joy to leap out of the bushes onto my horse, and I only had a moment to shove Blythe into my saddlebags before Arlin started to worry about me.  I hadn’t quite convinced him that I was all right, but he kept his mouth shut and didn’t say anything to anyone else.  He’s a good friend.

The ride was rough.  Riding is no fun with major wounds.  It started bad, and it never got even a little bit better.  Mara was in a very good mood.  Why not?  She was on her way to the castle to get married to her one true love and everything was going to be grand.  She sang some, talked a lot, and asked me a whole bunch of questions about the castle, the kingdom, and the royal family.

“What’s the king like?” she asked at one point, riding along next to me.

“I don’t know.  He’s a king.”

“No, what is he like?”

It was very difficult for me to comprehend her fascination with such mundane subject matter.  “Well,” I said with some difficulty, “he’s not quite as tall as me, he has longish hair and a beard.  Gray.  He’s pretty smart, I guess.”

She sighed.  “But what is he like?

This was a lot harder than it should be.  “Like what?  His personality?  He’s nice enough, I guess.”  I didn’t want to tell her my real views on the king, but I didn’t want to lie either.  So I compromised.  “I’m sure he will just love you.”

That worked.  She smiled and stared off into space.  “What about the queen?”

She acted like that most of the first day.  It wasn’t so awful, except for the fact that I was in a bad mood, and she was in a good one.  Happy people are quite annoying when all you want to do is stew in self-pity and despair.   The second day she was much quieter.  I think she started getting nervous.

It was late afternoon when we finally got back to the castle.  When we came out of the woods at the top of the hill overlooking the kingdom, Mara’s whole face lit up.  “Oh, it is lovely!”

She was right.  It was smack in the middle of summer, so the whole place was green as could be.  Crops and pastureland stretched in all directions.  The castle stood on a hill looking imposing and near it was the largest town in the kingdom. Even an old grouch like me can’t deny it is pretty.

By the time we actually got to the castle, I felt very light headed.  Horse-back riding is no good for someone as badly injured as me.  Arlin, I think, had some idea of the pain I was in, but there was nothing he or I could do about it.  I was also pretty certain that my side was bleeding again, my arm looked dead, and each muscle in my body screamed with every step the horse took.  It took most of my concentration to just stay alive and not start crying and dying and such.  I was very glad that Mara seemed to be having an attack of nerves and wasn’t asking any questions, because it wouldn’t have taken her long to figure out that something was terribly wrong.

Arlin had sent two of the guards ahead of us to let them all know that we were coming, so as we rode up the bells in the town rang out and there were people gathered everywhere to greet us, cheering at the top of their lungs.  The noise did not help my headache any.  I thought I was going to be sick.  

Instead of thinking about that, I focused my attentions on the very pale and frightened face of the princess, who rode right next to me.  I did feel a little bit bad for her.  After all, she was stepping into a whole new life with a bunch of fops she never met.

And no choice in the matter.

The king and queen waited for us on the palace steps.  When we came to a stop in front of them, they descended.  Several servants were waiting, and two of them helped Roy down from his horse, while two others assisted Mara.  I stayed quite happily up on my horse.  I was a little worried about what would happen if I tried to move.

Together, the prince and princess approached the king and queen.  Mara curtsied, and said a quiet word or two to them.  Then the king addressed his subjects.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t remember anything he said.  It probably was just about identical to the rest of the speeches he ever made, but I really couldn’t tell you.  My body hurt, the sun beat down, I had a headache, and I felt sick.  There was also a small concern going off in the back of my head that Blythe might have smothered to death in my pack by now.  He hadn’t gotten many chances to get out in the last two days, and the last time I saw him he’d looked a little pale.  The king’s speech was the last thing I was worried about.  

Finally, I think the speech ended, because the crowd started to dissipate.  The royals stood on the stairs talking about something.  The king called out to me suddenly, “Robbie, come in with me.  We have some things to discuss.”

How discouraging.  Now I was going to have to move.  This could get rough.  With great care and precaution, I slowly began to dismount.  Arlin was nearby, and I think he realized something bad was about to happen because he was jumped off his horse to stand close by.  

Dismounting went down pretty well, and I stood on solid ground.  Now for walking.  The royals stared at me.  “We don’t have all day, Robbie,” said the king impatiently.

I started to walk toward them and everything got very peculiar.  The whole world started to spin, someone screamed, and a girl’s voice yelled my name much too loudly before everything got nice and dark and quiet.

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Chapter 8: Dark Dungeons of Doom and Despair

Secrets for Surviving in Fairyland:

If you believe that there is no such thing as monsters, one will pop up from under your bed when you are sleeping.  Put up those monster alarms, and all will certainly be fine.

 

I crept after Blythe through the darkness of the cave.  The only light was his tiny torch.  He stayed close by, so I wouldn’t get lost.  So far things looked good.  After we decided to be partners in crime, Blythe had gone to find Mara and Roy without me, while I took a nap to recover my strength so I wouldn’t need one later in the day.  My body hadn’t managed to recover yet from all my previous activities.

My nap had been very short.  The gnomes didn’t hide them very far off.  We went down a few tunnels and eventually got to a wooden door blocking the path.  “In there,” Blythe whispered hoarsely.

I looked at it skeptically.  How come they trusted me to stay put by myself, but Mara and Prince Know-Nothing merited a door?  I leaned up against it and listened.  Nothing.  “Are you sure?” I whispered to the gnome.

He nodded fiercely.  Ok.  Here goes nothing.  “Mara!” I called out, as loudly as I dared.  

There was a moment of deep silence.  I was about to turn back to Blythe and ask him what the heck was his problem, when I heard, soft and muffled behind the door,  “Robbie?”

“Mara!”  My heart almost stopped, it was so good to hear her voice.  “Are you alright?”  I pressed up against the door to hear her better.

“I think so.  How about you?”

“I’m fine.  Is Roy with you?”

“Yes.  Robbie, what’s going on?  Did they catch you too?”

“Yeah.”

“Who are they?  What do they want with us?”

“They didn’t tell you?  You don’t know what happened?”  I looked inquisitively down at Blythe, and he shook his head.  That was a relief.

“No, Robbie, I was asleep, and we haven’t seen anyone.  I’m starving, and I’m scared, and it’s dark, and Roy is sleeping, or unconscious, or something!”

“Shh, Mara, it’s ok.  I’m gonna get you out.  We’ll get out of here just as soon as I figure out how to get through the door.”  I looked at Blythe, and hoped he had a plan, because the only one I could come up with was breaking it down and that would probably alert a couple of unfriendly parties if they were within a mile of us.  Breaking doors is loud.

His whole face got screwed up in a rather entertaining manner.  He nodded briefly.  “I’ve got an idea!”  He darted out of the room and I plunged into darkness.  The little torch had been more useful than I thought.  I sunk to the floor and leaned against the door.

“Do you have any idea how long we have been down here?” I asked, considering that I spent a grand majority of the time unconscious.

“No, but it has been a while.  I was worried about you.  How did they catch you?” Mara whispered back.

“They hit me with a big stick.”

“Who are they?  I haven’t even seen anyone at all.”

“You’ll see when we get you out.”

“We?  Who is we?”

“Shh!” I heard something.  For a moment we both stayed silent, but I didn’t hear it again.  If Blythe didn’t come back soon, my mind was going to go bye-bye.

“What’s wrong?” Mara whispered.

“Nothing.  I think I am going crazy.”

“Me too.  This darkness is infuriating.”

“I know,” I said sympathetically.  “You can’t even tell if your eyes are open!”

“Exactly!” she said, laughing.  “It’s ridiculous.”

Where in the world was Blythe?  

“So what is your plan for getting us out of this?”

“It’s kind of complicated.  It may not be the most well thought out plan I’ve ever had, but I think it is going to work.”

“Clikaty clack click!” said a voice behind me.

An explosion of torches lit up the tunnel, and I saw about fifty gnomes glaring at me angrily and clacking all at once.   

“Robbie!” I heard Mara call from behind the door.  

There was no chance for me to answer her.  In a fury, the gnomes hustled me away from the door and back, back, through the long dark hallways.  Most of them were big enough for me to walk through, but some of them weren’t, and in no time I was crawling along my way.  They moved at a horrible pace, and it took everything in me to keep up with them.  Something deep inside of me said this was going to turn out ugly.  Running off and finding Mara had made them very angry.   Their own fault they didn’t put a blasted door on my cell.  Stupid gnomes thinking Prince Horrible is smarter than me and needs a door.

I decided that Blythe must have abandoned me.  There was no sign of the little scamp.  Not that I blamed him.  I probably wouldn’t have tried to help me either.

Suddenly the gnomes halted and became very silent.  This was getting unnerving.  They stood for a moment and a couple of them began to click nervously at each other.  A second later, even I realized what the trouble was.  The ground began to shake a little and rumble slightly.  Their faces got more and more panic stricken and pandemonium broke out.  Gnomes went racing all over the place, clacking loudly, then they took off as one and disappeared down the hallway much more quickly than I could have traveled.

   The rumbling got louder.  Suddenly Blythe stood next to me.  “Run, you confounded idiot of the sky!  Run, if you want to live!” he yelled and began to move quickly the opposite direction the gnomes had taken.  

“What’s happening?” I yelled back at him, as I followed as fast as possible.

“Cave in!”

I could hear clicking from behind me.  Apparently, some of the gnomes wanted their prisoner back and were willing to risk being buried alive to catch him.  They really were upset with me.  

Anyway, when Blythe heard them, he got nervous.  As if the imminent cave-in wasn’t enough of a problem.  He started to move faster.  “Hurry, hurry!” he said.

“I’m trying!” I yelled back.  

If the speed I traveled with the other gnomes had been horrible, this was even worse.  The cave got wider, however, and traveling got easier.  I could even walk again.  The rumbling was now a roar.  

Several things happened at once.  I looked behind, saw a whole bunch of pointy red hats, and the cave-in started, all at the same time.  I ducked my head, and leaped and ran as far away as possible, and could hear the yelling of the gnomes.  With a last terrified crash, I jumped, covered my head, and stayed there listening to the terrible noises behind me.

Everything went silent.  I poked my head up.  A solid wall of rocks and dirt ended about ten feet behind me.  I glanced forward.  There stood that cheeky little gnome, Blythe, with an impish grin on his face.  “Did you do that?” I accused him.

“Yours truly,” he replied, with a mock bow.

I shook my head at him.  “We both could have been killed!”

“Instead, the only main artery between the city you went to and the next one has been closed off.  It is going to take forever for them to get one of the condemned tunnels opened up for someone to chase us.

Ok, that sounded good.  But I still didn’t want to take any chances.  Now those gnomes were going to be even more upset with me and I didn’t want to be underground any longer than necessary.  “Let’s go.”  I was still curious about one thing, though, and as we walked I asked, “How did you manage to cave in the only main road?”

He shrugged.  “It’s not that hard to do, if you know how.  They don’t expect anyone to do it, so they don’t make it that difficult.  Who would want to cave in the city?  No one is usually down here but us and prisoners who can’t find their way around.”

“There’s never been anyone like you around here, in other words.”

“What can I say?  I’m one of a kind!”  He sure was cheeky, and I was starting to like him.

When we got back to Mara’s cell, Blythe had the key that he had taken so long to find.  I opened up the door, and called out Mara’s name.

“Robbie!”  She came out of nowhere and flew into my arms, wrapping her arms around my neck.  “Oh Robbie!’ she sobbed into my shoulder.  “I thought you were dead!”

“Um, it’s ok, I’m ok,” I said.  I awkwardly patted her back, not sure how to react to all the emotion. For a minute, we stood there, and I was about to tell her we should escape before hugging, then she pulled away to look at me.  “What happened?”  

“I’ll tell you on the way.  Where is Roy?”

She pointed into the cave.  

It was to dark to see anything, and I didn’t really feel like I wanted to wander around until I found him.  “Hey, Blythe, put your torch in here.”  He walked in from the hallway, where he had patiently been waiting, to light the room up.  “You need to get me one of those,” I muttered.

Mara gasped at the sight of the gnome.  Oh yeah, she hadn’t seen them yet.

“What in the world!” she gasped.

“Mara, this is Blythe.  He is helping us escape.”

“It’s a pleasure, ma’am, and a pleasure to be sure,” the imp said, with a bow, in dwarvish.  I translated for him.

“Pleased to meet you,” she said in confusion.  I was busy trying to get Prince Hapless to wake up and smell the roses, so Blythe got to decipher that for himself.   

“What!  What do you want?” Roy yelled.  Now I was glad that we hadn’t woken him up before.  

“Time to go home, pal,” I said impatiently.

“It’s about time,” he said grumpily.  “I was wondering where you were, Ronald.”

“Robbie.  I’m here now, so let’s go.”

I walked back over to Blythe, and looked down to meet his gaze.  “All right, buddy.  Lead on.”

Certainly I believed Blythe that it was going to take a while for the gnomes to get around his little self-made roadblock.  But there was something I knew that Blythe didn’t: I have horrible luck.  It makes a difference in these things.  So, despite his self-assured grin and haughty strut, I wasn’t really in the mood to just take our time and slowly meander through the dark caverns of death.

We traveled very quickly through the tunnels, several times I actually had to tell him to slow down because Mara and the prince were having some trouble keeping up.  Not to mention my own battered and exhausted self.  Blaming them seemed manlier, so that was what I did.  It certainly was not the time to remind everyone that I could barely stay upright.

The Brilliant Genius Master Plan that Blythe and I came up with back in my little cell was to take the paths through the caves all of the way to the edge of the forest.  It would be faster, according to the gnome.  The exit would take us above ground near a human village.  There I could most likely get horses (three of them this time) and any supplies we needed to get back to the castle in one piece.  And I was going to get a sword.  Blythe had not been able to locate my old one, and I felt naked without it, even though he had provided me with a rusty old one he found somewhere.  Not to mention the fact that I had no way, other than that rusted out piece of junk, to protect us against any new attackers.  After all the problems so far on our journey, it would be stupid to hope that the last part would be carefree.  

Blythe would travel with us, probably hidden somehow to keep him away from the notice of any pesky villagers who would ask difficult questions about the little imp.  Then we would head pell-mell, fast as possible, for home, without stopping long enough to get into any more trouble than necessary.  It sounded pretty good to me.

We walked fast for several hours.  My whole body ached and throbbed and pounded and burned spasmodically.  Mara and Roy were both exhausted, and it took everything that both Blythe and I had to keep everyone headed the right direction.  I was beginning to seriously regret some of the more damaging things I had done in the last week.  Who knew camping out in a clover field would end up so deadly.  

It began to feel like we were doomed forever to wander helplessly in the dark with only Blythe’s little torch, and his occasional, “Just a little farther now!” to keep us going, when I heard something behind us.  I stiffened and looked immediately at Blythe.  He didn’t say anything, but I saw him go tense and he turned his head slightly, as if to hear better.

Gnomes have better senses than I do, so it seemed more useful to watch his reactions than it did to try to figure it out myself.  The signs were not good.  His face got all screwed up, and he glanced back at me with worry.  It was time to know what he knew, but I needed to do so casually so as not to worry the other two, who were so tired and sore that it was exhausting to watch.  I spent a lot of time helping Mara, who after not moving in centuries was having a strenuous week.

I ran up next to Blythe, grabbed him by the arm and set him on my shoulder.  “What’s up?” I whispered in his ear.

“No good,” he whispered so quietly I could barely even tell he had spoken.

“Are they behind us?”

“Yup.”

“How close are we to the exit?”

“Not close enough.”

“How close?”

“I would guess we are a half hour from the exit.  They are only a few minutes behind us.”

So close.  So close to freedom.  But not nearly close enough.  I was going to get angry again pretty quick.  After everything I had been through to keep this girl alive so far, and everything my poor body had suffered, I was not going down like this.  No way.  

Blythe’s head swung wildly from side to side.  He knew, just like I did, that if we got caught we were dead.  And he looked about as excited by that idea as I was.  Roy and Mara, fortunately, were still unaware of what was happening.

“Well, genius, what is the plan now?” I asked the gnome.  “This is your world.”

“I’m working on it!” he bristled.

I glanced behind us.  “Could you work a little bit faster?”

Suddenly his face brightened.  “Yes!  Turn there!”  He pointed down a dark tunnel just a little ways ahead of us.

We’d stuck to the main tunnel all night, and something told me the scary side tunnel didn’t lead to anything good.  But now was not the time to argue with the friendly neighborhood gnome-who-saved-your-butt-once-already.  I turned down the scary tunnel.    

Roy did not even notice.  I think he was asleep on his feet.  Mara looked slightly puzzled, but didn’t ask anything.  I glanced at the face of the gnome on my shoulder, and instantly I was worried.  He was smirking rather proudly to himself.  I got the distinct feeling there was something he had not told me.

“Now is the time for you to explain what we are doing down here,” I whispered as I led the way down the tunnel.

The smirk disappeared.  “It’s just a crazy idea I had.  It’s the only thing that could possibly work.”

“What?”

“It’s our only chance, otherwise we might as well just give up and die.”

“What is it Blythe!”

“Legend says a ten-headed hydra lives down here and eats everyone who comes this way.   The gnomes are terrified of it!”

I stopped in my tracks.  “A ten-headed Hydra?”

He must have heard the dead flatness in my voice, because he glanced at me nervously.  “It doesn’t really exist,” he said hurriedly.  “I’ve gone all over the place and there is no such thing.  It’s just a legend.  Hopefully they will be too scared to follow us down here.”

“And what if you are wrong and there is a ten-headed monster waiting to kill us?”

“There isn’t!  We will be fine!”

I couldn’t believe it.  We left the trail, wasted all this time, and for nothing.  We were trapped in a cave, with a gnome army waiting for us outside and maybe a monster inside.

“Don’t worry, Robbie, they won’t come back here,” the gnome said.  “And besides, there is no monster.  Trust me.”

We were stuck.  I didn’t have any other choice.

There were now clearly loud noises coming from the main tunnel.  Our cave ended and we pressed against the back wall.  Mara and Roy both looked petrified, even the prince had realized we were being chased and were now cornered like rats in a trap.  I pressed my teeth together and stared toward the entrance.  The noises grew louder.  Our little detour to the Hydra-cave had barely even slowed them down.  They were coming.

Blythe looked a little bit pale.  “I can’t believe it,” he whispered.

“It’s fine,” I said, unsheathing my rusty sword.  “Like you said, it was our only chance.  We tried.  You gave us a chance, thanks.”  I grasped his hand and stared into his eyes.  

He nodded, smiled, jumped off my shoulder and took a stance, looking hard at the place they would come from.  

“Stay behind me,” I told Mara.  Then they were on top of us.

There were gnomes everywhere; their little red hats were like a blur.  I heard Blythe screaming some rather awful clicky things at them.  Roy had probably fainted.  That was about all I had time to think about before I was quite diverted trying to keep anyone from touching Mara.

The gnomes had spears twice their own height, with heavy, jagged barbs at the end.  These instruments of destruction flew everywhere as I batted first one then another away from Mara and me.  Blythe continued his yelling somewhere to my left

At this rate, I wasn’t going to be alive much longer.  My rusty piece of junk sword felt rickety and I knew it wasn’t going to last much longer.

Suddenly all of that diminished in importance, because a jagged, awful, fiery pain pierced my side and caused me to double over with a gasp.  One of the gnomes’ barbed spears was buried deep in my left side.  Everything looked red and hazy.  I clutched my side, my other hand instinctively kept flinging my sword at the gnomes.  My shirt started to turn red, and everything began to feel very surreal.  It took all I had not to curl up on the floor and succumb to the blackness.  Instead I focused on knocking one gnome into oblivion at a time.  

Then the gnomes started running.  There was suddenly a lot of terrified clicking and they began to leave en-masse, screeching to each other.  I could only stare after them, dumbfounded.  Without warning Blythe stood next to me.  He grabbed my leg, tugged on it, and pointed behind me.  He didn’t say a word, but his mouth was shaped in a nice “O” and he looked much paler than usual.  Carefully, not sure if I really wanted to do so, I turned my head and looked behind me.  There, terrifyingly close, were two sneering heads with one eye each, and great huge teeth everywhere, connected to two necks and disappearing into the darkness in a little branch off tunnel that I hadn’t noticed before.  

I wasn’t certain, but I felt fairly confident that there were about eight more heads close behind those two.  I suddenly understood the gnomes perfectly.  “Run!” I managed to gasp out to Blythe.  

Roy was on the floor, probably asleep if the past was anything to judge by, but fortunately Blythe must have realized that something was wrong with me because he dragged Roy behind him, and I was left just grabbing Mara’s hand and pulling her along behind me.  Remember, gnomes are five times stronger than me, so it isn’t like it was horrible punishment for him to drag Roy.  

We ran as fast as we could (which was getting slower all the time, at least for me) back through the little tunnel and to the main passageway.  Blythe led the way and we booked it for the exit.  I heard roaring and screaming behind us, the distinct noises caused by a ten-headed hydra, but for some reason it wasn’t eating us yet.  I clutched my side, only hoping that I wouldn’t bleed to death before we got out of this mess.  Mara seemed to be in a daze running along behind me.  

I have no idea how long we ran through the tunnel, with the hydra making awful noises behind us.  It felt like the longest eternity ever to me, but I distinctly remember Blythe saying it was about a half hour to the exit.  Either way, it was more running than I felt capable of, but still better than being eaten alive, so I kept going.  Then suddenly, Blythe yelled something and disappeared into the ceiling.  I could only follow.  I threw Mara up, glanced down the tunnel where I could still hear the hydra, and with my last little bit of energy pulled myself up through the hole in the ceiling and out of the cave and rolled over onto the grass in the sunlight.

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