7790 words, novelette, REPRINT
One Last, Great Adventure
The Hero is fashionably late to the ball. He saunters through the ballroom doors, shrugging off the footman’s offer to divest him of velvet cloak and magnificently feathered hat. At the top of the stairs, he pauses, surveys the throngs below him, one negligent hand propped on his sword pommel, the other propped on the curve of his hip. He is smiling, as well a hero should.
Although the Hero needs no introduction, the steward introduces him anyway, bellowing over the vigorous music, the vigorous conversation. Those party-goers who arrived unfashionably on time turn away from the music, away from the conversation, and begin to applaud. Who would not applaud such a man, who slew the Lamia of Jengti in single combat, who turned back the invading hordes of Xana, and who, during the bloating sickness, crossed the Ice Ocean to bring back medicine for the city? The people of the City State Asteria love him. He has just returned from a three month campaign up in the highlands, helping their ally, the Sarifather of Irk, rid his kingdom of a pesky dragon, and he’s been missed.
The Hero is a mercenary, but he’s their mercenary.
The ball is not in the Hero’s honor, but that does not stop him from being mobbed by well-wishers as he comes down the sweeping staircase. They shake his hand, and pat his back, and ask him to dance, and offer him drinks, all of which he waves away with a good natured laugh. By inches, he makes his way to the dais, where sits the Elector of Asteria, watching the hub-bub with a fond eye.
The Hero kisses the Elector’s hand, and is warmly received in return. After he extends his well-wishes on her birthday, he is swept away by the Elector’s Heir to the roulette table, where he puts his fabulous luck to work at winning a large sum of gold. Later he charms the crowd with a vigorous horn-pipe solo, orates a touching toast to the birthday girl, and quickly dispatches a kettle-snake that somehow managed to crawl in through an open door and help itself to the oyster bar.
Later still, when the ball is called closed by the steward, and the rest of the guests have been stuffed, drunken and exhausted, into their carriages, the Hero slips through the darkened hallways of the Elector’s palace, evading the drowsy guards, and climbs the one hundred and fifty steps to the top of the Star Tower. He arrives at the top, puffing and a bit winded, for the steps are steep and very narrow. But the Elector is waiting for him inside, and she doesn’t mind that he’s a bit sweaty, not at all.
Even later, they lie wrapped in fur blankets, before the fire, and look upward, through the glass ceiling at the star-studded sky. The moon has long since set, but to the south, the darkness is slightly washed with green. The comet will be rising soon.
“I’m getting old,” the Hero says with a sigh. “Once this time of night would have felt too early. Now it feels too late.”
“Oh, tut,” says the Elector, who is older than the Hero by at least fifteen years, and still feels in her prime. Their exertions reopened the dragon scratch on the Hero’s thigh, and they are both now liberally streaked with blood, but neither feels like leaving their cocoon to attend to the mess. Their limbs are entangled in the most perfect comfort, and because of the glass above, the room is cold.
“I should retire,” the Hero says, yawning. “I’m thinking of retiring, actually.”
“And what would you do then, I wonder? Take up knitting?” The Elector toys with the scar on his shoulder, received years ago in a fight with an egregore.
“You don’t know how it is, darling,” he complains. “People trying to kill you all the time, facing death, pretending you don’t care—”
“No, I don’t know about any of that,” the Elector answers. She has weathered six assassination attempts, given birth to three children, and faced down two coups, all with a smile on her face. But that’s not heroic, that’s just life.
“I think about it . . . stopping. Sleeping late in the morning, not being responsible for anyone’s well-being. But then I think: What’s my legacy? What will I have left behind? What will they sing of in the evenings when I’m gone, and the next hero’s come in to slay nameless beasts with his well-named sword . . . ? And I think to myself: one last adventure. One last great adventure to go out on . . . And then I can buy a small house in the country and grow fat on apple dumplings.”
“Well if that’s really what you want, I may be able to help.” The Elector slithers from the fur blankets, goes to her desk, pawing through the mess. “Are you familiar with Illyria?”
“It’s west, somewhere, isn’t it?”
The Elector has found what she was looking for, and now she turns back to the Hero. The comet has risen fully now, flooding the room with green light, turning her long gray hair silvery, turns the dried blood on her stomach and thighs emerald. “Far west. It’s a small country, not much to commend it. Some decent rubies. A few songs. And this.”
He catches the chain she lobs at him. The pendant hits him square on the chest. He holds it up, sees a dangling gold locket set with a circle of tiny rubies. Inside is a gorgeously rendered portrait of a small pair of bare feet. The feet are young and soft, fragile looking. They are feet that have never walked a mile, or climbed a fence, or worn an ill-fitting shoe.
“Is this a joke?” the Hero asks. He is finding these small feet strangely stirring. They look so defenseless. The toes remind him of little pearls.
“Illyria is a hilly country. They like feet there. Their poets say the feet are the root of the soul. Or something.” She fusses with some papers, not looking at him. “And besides, some people find feet to be very erotic.”
“Some do.” Now he too rises from the fur blankets, to fill his jorum with wine poured from the clay jug warming on the hob. He tosses the wine back, and begins to dress. “But what should I do in Illyria?”
“Along with feet, what Illyria is rich in, is monsters. Strange, complicated, hard-to-kill ones. One monster in particular is causing the King of Illyria a lot of consternation. He has sent out a diplomatic circular seeking a hero to slay this monster.”
“Has he no heroes of his own?”
“Apparently not. But he does have a daughter with beautiful feet.”
“What is wrong with this princess that she cannot slay her own monster?”
“Not everyone is so enamored of swordplay, my love. And anyway, in Illyria they prefer their ladies to be delicate and decorative.” The Elector returns to the snug nest of blankets, watches the Hero as he sits in a chair, pulls on one boot.
He says casually, “You mentioned songs. Is there, perhaps a song in which a hero slays a monster and wins the hand of the princess, and the rights to a kingdom rich in rubies?”
“Now, as to that, you must ask your jongleur. My acquaintance with their legends and art forms extends only as far as that embassy ball I attended, in which feet were greatly celebrated in art and song, but woefully trampled in dance.” The Elector arches one of her own elegant feet, and lays it in his lap. He massages it idly with his large and capable hands. “But I imagine the standard rules apply.”
“It’s a long time,” he says with a roguish grin, “since I was a foot soldier.”
The Hero had started small, the third son of a highborn family in a country far to the north, which he has never cared to name. In that country’s tradition, the third son is the steward of the land, but the Hero did not care to be a steward. His personality was charmingly amoral, and his inclinations were towards flamboyant actions. But those qualities were reserved for the first son, with maybe a bit left over for the second. The third son was to be sober and attentive to the family’s extensive holdings, from which derived most of the family’s income and influence. He saw no heroics in pumpkins or wheat, so he left, leaving behind his family name, taking with him only his ambitions.
He went south, joined the Elector’s army as a private, and rose through the ranks to captain. He fought in her name as she expanded her territories, and in this fighting he made his own name as one who was reckless and bold, who was fair in battle, would honor the terms of a surrender, and who led from in front, not from behind. Then, bored with discipline and taking orders, he resigned his commission, and put together a small hand-picked crew of toughs and renegades, men who would fight to the death for the right price. Together, they embarked upon a glittering career as mercenaries, and with each campaign their fame grew.
But now, almost thirty years later, the Hero is ready to put his sword down. The knee he broke when a wyvern fell on it aches when it rains. The lung-full of dragon smoke he sucked in fifteen years ago still makes him wheeze. He has lost a toe to a shark-shifter, broken his nose in a battle with a catoblepas, and still has nightmares about being trapped for a week in a troll’s nest. His horse seems taller and the ground harder and field rations harder to digest. Wedding a sweet young princess and settling down to rule a small but rich kingdom sounds to him like an excellent retirement plan.
And so the next day finds him waiting for the Illyrian envoy in one of the Elector’s lesser receiving rooms. He’s wearing his best doublet, his best trunk hose, his best sleeves. Golden earrings gleam against his dark skin. His black hair is caught in a gold clasp. He doesn’t look at all like a hard-bitten mercenary. He looks like a prince.
“What if she’s an idiot?” Reynard says.
Typically, Reynard has not bothered to dress up. He wears the same tattered rusty red robe when-ever, what-ever. Since it’s never in style, it’s never out of style either. Unlike heroes, jongleurs of his caliber have no reason to try to impress with their clothes. When he sings or tells his tales, most people close their eyes to listen harder. Now, Reynard quits his pacing and perches on the velvet settee, hands clasped in his lap.
“As long as the princess is rich, I don’t care.” The Hero helps himself to a sugar plum. Since he’s in constant fighting trim, he never has to watch his waistline.
“Perhaps they are her best feature.” Reynard waves the dish away; he doesn’t fight. He’s been with the Hero ever since the Hero rescued him from a nasty trap he was caught in up in the Refusian Mountains. Like the Hero, he, too, has no place of origin, not that he’ll admit to. He knows the songs and stories of many lands, and plenty of good riddles, too.
He says: “What if she’s a scold?”
“Let her scold! My hearing is half shot already. Is my buckler on straight?”
“You look perfect and you know it,” Reynard says. “What if she’s an idiot and a scold and ugly besides?”
“Why then,” the Hero says fondly, “I still have you.”
Reynard snuggles up to him, and when the Illyrian envoy enters the room, he sees only a handsome dark man with a fox tucked under his arm. The Hero is feeding it sugarplums.
“How much farther is it to the palace?” the Hero asks. He tries to ask casually, aware that even so he risks sounding like a child on the road to granny’s. He is game but disgruntled; he’s no longer used to not being the one in charge of an expedition. They’ve been on the road for three weeks, with various modes of transportation: a ship down the coast, barges up river, and now horse-back. And yet, they don’t seem any closer to arriving.
Illyria is a much drier land than he had expected. And a redder one, besides. Each day seems hotter, and they left the last tree behind two days ago. Now it’s red rocks and cactus, and, at the watering holes, the occasional scrubby thornbush. The only green is a green by courtesy; at home, he would have called it gray. But things are different, here. The sky above is as blue as well-tempered steel.
“Surely that third river was the last one we had to cross?” The ‘river’ had had no water in it. If the Envoy hadn’t identified it as a river, the Hero would have thought it just another wash. The desert was criss-crossed with washes, proof that at some day it would rain. But not today.
From the back of his gray gelding, the muffled Envoy sighs and answers, “I’m afraid the map is a bit of a muddle.”
“You’re afraid?” The snappish redhead who rides at the Hero’s side turns his head to the Envoy, lightning quick. When he isn’t singing or telling stories, nothing but quips and pleasantries ever fall from his lips. It annoys the Envoy to no end. “My dear sir,” continues the redhead, closing in for the punchline; “if you’re afraid, imagine how the rest of us feel.”
“Reynard.” The Hero holds up his hand, and the jongleur stills, as if by magic.
“I only meant,” the Envoy says with forced patience, “that things are not exactly what they seem. On the map. We are not used to describing things as if we see them from above. Our maps, the ones our people use, are drawn from the foot’s eye view. Foreigners find them incomprehensible.”
“A map in translation,” the Hero says. “I see.”
“But we must arrive before dark,” the Envoy intones ominously, and the Hero does not need to ask why.
He betrays no disappointment when they come to the palace. After all, it’s not as though he’d been shown a picture of it surrounded by rubies. Nobody said it would be huge and splendid. And it’s not. Just a long building, melting into the hilltop it sits upon. Made of dried mud, painted a faded blue, with a red tile roof. They cross a moat full of prickly pear cactus, pass through a fence made of tall ocotillo spines. A simple house, but well-fortified.
And the forbidding mud walls hold a secret: a courtyard brilliant with purple and red bougainvillea, fragrant with fruit trees: oranges, lemons, fat red pomegranates. A stone fountain burbles refreshingly in the center of the courtyard. Above, the second floor balcony is lined with people, silently watching their arrival.
“Oh, good,” says Reynard; “I love an audience.” But he dismounts wearily, and says nothing more.
Before the Hero can follow suit, he is approached by a big man draped in a molting bear-skin, holding a stirrup-cup. The man does not speak any tongue the Hero is familiar with from his travels, but the ever-serviceable Envoy translates as the Hero is enthusiastically greeted with the cup and, once he has drunk and dismounted, an embrace. He still hasn’t figured out who the man is—could be the King, or the chief of security, for all he knows—but it doesn’t matter for now. Plenty of time tonight for reccy work. There will be a feast. There always is.
The welcome cup is promising, though; it implies brief hospitality, followed by a rest. He’s exhausted, and glad to be led to a hot bath. Once, he could ride all day and feast all night. Now he looks forward to his bed.
But first, as he predicted: the feast. The food is simple but ample. It’s not like anything he’s tasted before—everything is fiery hot, or seems to involve maize in one form or another—but he guesses he’ll get used to it in time. There’s plenty of cool, fizzy ale to put the fire out.
Reynard’s songs are well-received, even if the words are not understood. Reynard is well-versed in many languages and probably can speak this one, too, but he likes to lead with his best material. And not to reveal all he knows.
The bear-skin man does turn out to be the King. No crown, but a very impressive jade earring. You’d think he’d have broken out the rubies tonight, but nothing doing. He grins a lot, and slaps the Hero on the shoulder, his bad shoulder, alas. But he grins back; no need to get on the wrong side of his prospective father-in-law.
The Princess does not appear until the sweet is served; in fact, there are no other women at the feast at all. The Hero, used to the casual egalitarianism of the Elector’s court, finds that somewhat jarring. The Princess turns out to be a small, nervous girl, her hair in elaborate braids. No rubies there, either, though some nice enameled hairpins. She wears heavily-embroidered red velvet slippers on her feet, which are larger than the portrait made them appear. Maybe it’s the embroidery.
All in all, not what the Hero had hoped for, but it could have been much, much worse, so he will not complain. The Princess pours him tea with shaking hands, and smiles tremulously when he drinks it. It’s over-brewed, bitter and skunky, but he smiles his thanks. Heroes must operate heroically on many levels.
Eventually, the Hero brings up the Monster himself. He’s been waiting for the King to mention it, but the King seems to have forgotten why he’s there. Unaccountably nervous, the King. Probing questions receive vague answers.
Where can the Monster be found? In the hills, somewhere. Or possibly the sky. What does it look like? Big. How big? Bigger, apparently, than a man flapping his arms in a terrifying manner. It flies, then? Maybe. Unless it doesn’t. It has claws, or possibly extra sets of hands, or talons.
“It can take many forms, this monster,” the Envoy explains. “It is devious. Cunning.”
The Hero smiles to himself. He doesn’t care what form it takes, or if it’s devious, cunning, or smells like a poopy diaper and can sing five-part madrigals with itself. He’s never met a monster he couldn’t kill. He’ll kill this one, too. And then he will claim his reward and be done with heroics for good.
The Envoy communicates this to the King, prettying up the sentiment, of course. They agree he will go monster hunting in the morning. Even if they don’t actually find it then, he can get the lay of the land, and show off a little to give them confidence.
The Hero doesn’t care that the palace is small, or the country clearly not rich. As long as the bed is soft, he’ll be happy.
The Hero wakes in the soft bed to utter darkness and the susurrus of movement. Slowly he moves his hand, touches the warm steel that lies by his left side. He’d gone to sleep with the curled bulk of Reynard pressed against his right side. That pressure is now gone, but not surprisingly. At night, Reynard has a tendency to wander. He listens to the darkness, hears nothing more. But he knows he is not alone. He waits for the danger to declare itself, and declare it does, with the strike of a flint. A spark leaps, and then lights a small oil lamp, flaring green eyes.
“By the spotted god, I almost killed you,” the Hero complains. “Why did you not declare yourself?”
“I found the Princess,” the jongleur says, instead of answering.
The Hero sits up in astonishment.
“What do you mean?”
“The Princess. They’ve got her locked up in a storeroom. Not the girl from the feast. The real Princess.”
“That wasn’t the real Princess?”
“No. I’m sure of it. I recognized her feet.”
“Why is she locked up in a storeroom?”
“I don’t know. I think we should leave. Get out of here while we can. I don’t like the smell of any of this.”
The Hero is painfully aware that when Reynard doesn’t like the smell of something, it’s usually because that something stinks. But the soft bed . . . and the comfortable manor house . . . and his retirement. They are hundreds of leagues away from Asteria, and he has exactly three hundred dromas in his purse, five hundred more buried in a cave in the Pachego Mountains, and seventy-nine the Lord of Ravensgill owes him from a long night of euchre. That’s not enough to retire on.
And how can he return to the Elector, and tell her it did not work out? That he ran?
Plus he’d really like to know why the real Princess is tied up in the cellar, and a false princess was presented to him.
The Hero’s dim light plays off the storeroom’s crock-lined walls. A ham hanging from the ceiling almost cracks him in the head. If you can say nothing else about the King, he is well prepared for winter. Or a long siege. Reynard trots before him, leading the way. He would prefer to run, but he understands that a hero has his honor.
They come to a halt in front of a brass-bound door.
Reynard pauses to sniff the crack at the bottom appreciatively. “The stillroom,” he explains. “They’ve got a great vinegar mother starter. Pickles must be amazing.”
Reynard will have been in the room already, to bring back word of the Princess’s feet; but now he just stands there. It is the Hero’s place to open the door to the Rescue.
Still, a hero knows better than to rush into what could be a trap. On the other side of the still room door, the Hero holds the light low, not to reveal himself. In the corner, propped up against a giant clay pickle jar, is a sad tangle of clothes from which stick out two very dirty bare feet. The Hero recognizes them instantly. He has looked at their portrait a hundred times. He is wearing it around his neck now.
Still, he approaches the bundle slowly, with his sword drawn.
Reynard shows no such caution. He trots right over to the Princess’s bare foot and nudges it with his nose. She comes awake quickly, flipping and flapping like a fish, for the ropes that bind her allow no better movement.
“Have you come to kill me?” she spits. Unlike the people upstairs, she speaks a kind of basic form of Middle Standard. Curious.
“Is there a reason I should?” the Hero asks.
“Monsters need no reason!”
Reynard noses the girl’s foot again, and she tries to jerk it away.
“I’m not a monster!” the Hero protests.
“Untie me then, and prove it.”
“Tell me why I should first. Then I will be more comfortable untying you.”
“My feet are numb. Numb and grimsome. It is a disgrace. You must not look at them.”
Politely, he looks over at a shelf full of preserved fruit of some kind. It is impossible to tell, in this light, what kind it is.
She follows his gaze. “And they do not feed me.”
A slash of the Hero’s sword and a dried sausage falls into his grasp.
The girl glares at him. “Most heroic. I see now. Yes, you are the Hero, with my portrait on your neck. My father sent you, to slay monsters and marry me. Are you done with the slaying? It matters not; I shall not marry you!”
“The feeling may be mutual, madam. But we get nowhere if you are not forthcoming with the reason you are in this situation.”
“Give me some meat and I will tell you.”
So the Hero cuts off a couple slices and offers them to Reynard, who takes them delicately, and carries them over to the Princess. Still bound, she takes the slices from his muzzle to her lips, and gobbles them down.
“Now,” she says imperiously, somewhat spoiling the effect by trying to wipe grease off her chin with her shoulder, “are you going to release me or not?”
One of her pretty feet, which she’d tucked up demurely under the edge of her grubby gown, peeks out a little. Good gods, the Hero thinks; is she flirting with me?
If she is, he knows this game.
“It depends,” he says. He slouches elegantly, one hand negligently on his pommel. “If you refuse to wed your rescuer, then what’s in it for me?”
“Ah,” she snaps back; “but I think you do not yet do the slaying. A braggart is no hero.”
“But a hero can still be a braggart. What have you got against heroes, anyway?”
She draws her feet back in. “In the general, nothing. But to be forced to marry the one, just because he knows how to make the Monster go SPLAT with his sword . . . How is this for me the what’s in it?”
The Hero’s just a sucker for girls trying out slang. He crouches, loosens the ropes. As soon as she is free, the girl clambers unsteadily to her feet, grabs the nearest jar and pops the lid. She doesn’t bother with a spoon.
“Ah!” she sighs happily, licking her lips. “This was the worst! To be looking always, and never tasting.” She runs her finger around the bottom of the jar. “This is really quite good. Pumpkin. I like the spice. When I home, these I take.”
“Home . . . ? But surely you live here?”
The Princess gapes at him. Her teeth, like her toes, are little pearls. “But surely I do not! You think this—this?—is the house of my father?!”
The Hero sits down on a barrel. Between the long journey, the feast, the ale, and the tiny bit of sleep he’s gotten, this whole thing is beginning to feel like a dream to him. It has a certain dream logic. If he had to slay something now, he could probably do it on sheer nerve, but untangling riddles he prefers to do by day and well-rested. He pops open another jar of pumpkin jam. It is good.
“You may,” he says wearily, “remember a certain bargain we made over sausage? I have yet to see your end of it fulfilled. Why. Are. You. Here?”
She sits forward, her posture much improved by food and blood circulation. Oh, he thinks; to be so young as to bounce back that quickly from being tied up!
“You know, I think,” she says, “our land it is plagued by the Monsters. And my father, he seeks the Hero to kill them. The men of our land, them we cannot trust—for many of them are with sympathy for the Monsters, yes! Many of them even have the blood in their families, though they will not say. And those that do not, they are villains, lowly men of the soil unworthy. Do you see?”
He doesn’t, quite, but he nods to keep her going.
“My father the King, may his name be exalted although I am quite mad at him and wish never to step in his shadow again, he hates the Monsters so much, he wishes them all dead.” Another nod; this is par for the course. “My father the King seeks a man to lead us in battle, to slay them in the dawn time. And I would be wed to that man, no matter where his feet have took him!”
She shakes her head. Her ash-colored hair, loose from all her exertions, falls in snaky, dusty ringlets down her modest front. “This cannot be. I will not wed nobody like that. But it is true, my family’s throne will never be free if the Monsters are not put down.
“So I think: I will kill them myself! Then I make my own choice.” She looks up into his face to see if she is shocking him. He thinks of the Elector and her heir, and nods sagely, his face a mask of politic sympathy. “Thus I take my little brother’s sword, and I climb out my window but I do not have to go through the cactus which is good because I only bring the one dress, and I have a good horse and know to saddle so I make away before anyone know it first. And thus I come here, to their lair! But they—”
“Wait.” The Hero holds up one hand. He almost laid it on her shoulder, but you don’t do that, not yet. “This house—with the sausage, and the very decent jam—this is the Monsters’ lair?”
“The ones who made the jam?”
She nods, unperturbed by the dream-logic of the thing.
Ha! Well, that explains the remoteness and inaccessibility of the ‘palace.’ It’s a hideout, not a royal seat. These people want his protection, probably from the King; no wonder they were evasive about monsters. So did their Envoy deceive the Elector? Or—
She interrupts his thoughts, leaning forward to say earnestly, “Do not be deceive by their looks being like us.” Her eyes get very wide. “These Monsters are the terrible. They are—how do you say it?” She utters a word that sounds like asfdasfddfs.
At his side, Reynard mutters something softly. He can’t quite catch it—and since Reynard has not declared himself yet to the Princess, the Hero knows from experience that it is not his place to ask the fox to speak.
Her next words make it clear that he was right.
“Animals!” she whispers. “They are not human, not at all. They wear human face, but their hearts are monster, and too their shape, when they will!”
Reynard bristles, growling.
The Princess goes on heedlessly, “For years they live amongst us, pretending to be like. Because my grandfather’s father’s father, he conquered this land and made them leave or promise never to do their asfdasfddfs tricks again. Ha!” She spits delicately, for emphasis, it seems. “My toe.” Curse words never translate well in any language. “But they are true to their nature. Untrue to us. At night, when they wish it, they make the shapes of animals, and then,” she breathes, like a child telling ghost stories, “then they run in our villages and eat our young and ravage our maidens and steal our coinage.”
Well, isn’t that what Monsters always do? He nods gravely, and she continues, encouraged, “They say they own this country before we come here to make them civilized like us. We must defeat them or give up our land. And that may never be. That is what my father says. I wonder sometimes because my nursie she was asfdasfddfs. And I love her very much, she no monster. But she had live with us a long time, and civilized. These, they are bad!”
Reynard’s growls grow perilously close to speech. The Hero places a cautioning hand on his head, then slices a little of what’s left of the sausage. But before he can offer it to the fox, to his surprise the Princess says softly, “Oh! May I feed it to him?”
May she? It’s an interesting moment. The Hero hands the Princess the meat, and she holds it out to the fox, very slowly and gently. This, he thinks, is a girl who has not had pets of her own.
Reynard sniffs it for form’s sake, as if he did not know what it was, or who was offering. For a second, the Hero thinks he will snap her fingers, but instead, he snaps the sausage, tosses it showily in the air, catches it in his mouth and swallows it whole. The Princess laughs. She has a nice laugh. The Hero lets out a little of the tension of the night. Peace offering accepted, although he’s unsure why. He can’t wait to hear Reynard’s take on everything. Did he really not realize they were in a house of Shifters, himself?
“I like this little one,” she says, bending to pet him.
Reynard nips her fingers. She squeaks, then bats him playfully on the ear. He leans in to her. She scratches him behind his neck, which he adores—but seldom lets the Hero do.
“This one,” she croons, “he understand. He is very sweet.” Reynard leans into her, cuddling. What is he up to? Gaining her trust, the Hero supposes. Playing some foxish game of strategy.
The Princess sighs, looks up at the Hero again. “So we are understanding, now?” She puts the fox aside, clambers to her feet. She leans unsteadily against a pickle barrel. “Your sword you give me, and the Monster I kill.”
The girl has sand, the Hero has to give her that. Here she stands in a storeroom, defenseless and covered in jam, and she is sticking to her plan. But he can’t give her his sword, of course.
“All of them?” he asks.
“Mmm, no. That is not possible, even to you, I think.” She taps the barrel, thinking. “I kill just one; then I am Hero. I go home. My father cannot choose for me then.”
She’s let her foot peep out again from underneath the bedraggled hem of her gown. A ruby ring sparkles on one toe. “Your sword?”
The Hero hesitates. He’s a man of action, even of strategy—battle strategy. He is clever about movements, and terrain, and how other people who think that way are likely to jump. It’s not his job to figure out who the enemy is. That’s Reynard’s job. But Reynard is licking the Princess’s fingers, seemingly unconcerned with her genocidal plots.
“I make friends with asfdasfddfs when I am Queen, I think,” she says. “That will be best for all, and no more killing nonsense. We go, now?”
The Hero has learned one piece of diplomatic strategy from Reynard: the stall. Best to leave the Princess snug in the storeroom whilst he and Reynard discuss their course of action.
“But if I release you, it would be to warn the Monsters of what we plan.” (Oh, dear; now he’s picking up her diction. He does that, when he travels.)
“Yes,” she replies; “that is right. Good thinking, Hero. You tie me up again—but loosely—and I will be so helpless and hungry they will pity me. And then—BAMM! Ha.”
The Hero smiles. She’s brave, and has a good sense of fun.
So back to the filthy floor she goes, and he ties her up again, but loosely.
He stands up, taking the light with him. Her voice at his feet is suddenly small. “I wonder if . . . if your fox might like to stay with me? Just a little while? Until light comes again?”
Of course he feels sorry for the girl; but if she wants to be a hero, she needs to learn to wait in the dark, alone. He wants to get Reynard back up to the room, so they can discuss and strategize. He wants Reynard’s take on the shifting situation. Ha. He puns when he’s tired. But it’s Reynard’s choice.
“Thank you,” says the Princess softly. He lowers the light a tidge, just enough to see the red fox curled at her feet.
Dawn is breaking; there’s movement about the house. The Hero heads stealthily back to his room. But when he gets to his door, he finds it open. Inside is a whirl of screeching Illyrians. The bear-skinned ‘King’ rushes towards him, gesticulating and shouting. He’s swept up in the whirl, and borne down the hallway.
Did they discover his discovery of the Princess? Everyone is shouting. Some are waving short swords; others brandish bows. The Hero looks around frantically for the Envoy; he hopes they are not shouting hang him or chop him or something equally unpleasant, but without the Envoy he has no idea. No one has disarmed him yet, which is reassuring. They are making enough noise, surely, that Reynard will be warned.
The horde bursts out into the courtyard; the sun is barely over the roof ridge and already its rays feel like hammer-blows on his back. The gate is open; they hustle across the cactus moat, and through the ocotillo stockade to a stand of nervous-looking horses. There’s the Envoy, holding the bridle of a beautiful paint horse.
“What is going on?” the Hero demands.
“The Monster! Come, mount, we have no time to lose! He catches the dawn!”
As they ride away, pell-mell, the Hero looks over his shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of a small red shape, rushing to catch up with them. But the dust cloud is too thick and obscuring.
Even in early morning, it is hot out on the Illyrian hillside. The smells of sage and juniper mingle with the dust and old, old yellow rock. He wonders where the rubies are. Maybe right underneath him . . .
They’d ridden to an outcropping of boulders. There, they dismounted and picketed the horses, and there the monsters—who looked like men and who hadn’t acted the least bit monstrous—had given him a club made of some sort of polished hardwood, its tip embedded with shards of black glass as sharp as his sword’s blade; and then they insisted that he take a swig from the leather bota. A grassy-tasting liquid that burnt the roof of his mouth and made him feel momentarily light-headed. He accepted the club politely, planning to drop it behind a bush when he could.
What is the Monster that the monsters are afraid of? A bigger Shifter? A renegade, a rogue?
From his stance on the hillside, he looks around hopefully for Reynard; but still no sign of the small red fox. This, more than the approaching Monster, makes him nervous. Perhaps he hadn’t heard the commotion from the storeroom? No, Reynard can hear a mouse a mile away. It’s unlike Reynard to stay so far behind out of choice. He must be working strategy. That’s it.
There’s sudden silence. The Hero looks up, momentarily blinded by the sunlight. And so he feels it before he hears it, hears it before he sees it. The tremble of rock, the rhythm of hooves. Look up, look right, and across that little hill . . . and there it is, magnificent and undaunted, against the sun.
A four-legged bird, wings more than the usual two, hard to tell when they’re folded back, but jet black, obsidian black, gleaming with a million colors in the sun. Its legs are shiny, but end in spiked hooves. Its eyes are rubies. Its beak is enormous.
The man next to him is trembling. He’s breathing a word, over and over again . . . it’s so clearly “HIM! THAT! HIM!” that the Hero needs no translation. The terror is palpable.
The Monster wheels and cavorts upon the hill, as if announcing itself, as if daring anyone to approach it. It pauses, then, its wheeling more focused, purposeful. The great beak turns from side to side, ruby eyes scanning the terrain. It is looking for them.
This is his moment. Time for thinking, time for planning is over. The Hero charges, sword upraised.
And the Monster draws a weapon of its own.
Oh, six-fingered gods, it’s a man! A man robed in feathers and jewels, but a man nonetheless, up on a horse so he has the advantage, but that’s easy enough, the Hero has killed plenty of valiant steeds in his time (pity, though, about this one).
Unhorsed, the feathered man leaps to the high ground, defends himself with massive strokes of his strangely serrated blade, formed of a shining black so dark that when the sun catches it, it turns white, or all colors at once. Bastard. The Hero is whistling through his teeth, an old habit from his training days that he’s not even aware of doing.
The creature puts up a good fight. He has a hard time thinking of him as a man. The feathers and jewels are beautiful, distracting . . . they should slow the fellow down, but they seem to give him assurance. Maybe he’s using magic. Probably he is. The elaborate mask should be denying him peripheral vision, but instead he seems to see out of the side of his head, like a bird. The cape should be weighing him down, but he’s stronger than the Hero; he feels that when their blades collide, and the force of the obsidian blade nearly pushes him off the hillside. Damn.
The others are shouting something at him, but it’s from the direction of his deaf ear. And do they really think they can advise him how to fight?
The Hero begins to work at disrobing his opponent, to separate him from his magic accoutrements. Tricky, but fun. Very tricky. Trying to stay alive while aiming for a shoulder seam . . . Trying to breathe in the hot sun while figuring out how the headpiece attaches to the neck . . . The Hero is slowing down. This is not going well.
He seems to have shrunk to the size of a small animal; he is looking up at a huge black blade coming down at him from a cerulean sky. No, he is on his knees, that’s what it is. They’re going to hurt like seven devils later, but for now he must use them to get up. Up is where he belongs, not rolling and dodging, eating dust like a desert snake. He can’t get a purchase. It’s like the land is pulling him down, demanding he yield his bones to it before they can even belong to him for the few years remaining to him. He was planning to retire here, not to expire. Not yet.
Dimly he realizes someone new is shouting over the din, and that shouting is not words of encouragement either. He raises his head, sees through the grit a pair of dirty, perfectly formed feet.
“STOP!!!” screams the Princess. The rest of her words, foreign, are lost to him.
The feathered creature stops. The Hero struggles to his feet, wipes sweat from his eyes, finds his fighting stance, watches the other for his next move—and is utterly astonished by the fact that the creature has begun to dance. It’s a lively pace, a sprightly jig that seems to be designed to keep his feet from touching the earth—or, no, to get a bright red fox to let go of his legs.
The Hero is touched beyond measure; Reynard has never fought for him before—and he is horrified to realize that means he must need him to.
The creature stamps and shouts, still trying to shake Reynard off his lower legs. The Hero realizes he must try to attack the top half, the feathered cape, flaring into wings, the beaked head. Because of the fox dance, it’s hard to say where the feathered man will be from moment to moment.
The creature is ignoring the Hero, now, concentrating on getting rid of Reynard. Which is good, because he’s afraid to come in too close, lest he hurt the fox by mistake. And besides, his sword has gotten awfully heavy. Must be the heat. The fox is a flurry of motion. The Hero is mesmerized by the dancing colors: foxfur rust, tailtip black, rainbow obsidian blade, ruby eye, feather black, rainbow blade, foxblood red—
“No!” the Princess is shouting. Is she defending the Monster, or Reynard? He should give her his impossibly heavy sword after all, see how much luck she has with it. She’s lifting something dark and bright: the club they’d given him. She holds it high above her head, and flings it over both their heads, right at the feathered creature.
It hits with a huge thud. The creature’s arms fly upward. Is it going to take off from the hillside? No; the obsidian blade goes sailing out instead. Empty-handed, the creature seems to shrink. It—he—falls forward, face-plants in the dust, head askew as the beak turns to one side, reaching for but never nailing the fox lying utterly still beside it.
The Hero stands panting, gasping for water, no longer sure of his status. His sword feels right in his hand. The Monster is dead. Why is no one cheering and bringing him a drink?
At his feet, a girl sits in the dust of the hillside, cradling a ragged bundle of red fur in her lap. She is crooning to it, and stroking its bloody pelt.
In the end, he decides to return to Asteria.
The King of Illyria is dead, slain on a dusty hillside by a mysterious stranger while out hunting for his missing daughter, to bring her back to her duty. The Princess will become Queen of the land, now—its first female ruler from this line of invaders. She is assured the throne by virtue of the support of the Shifters, whose rights she has vowed to sustain at the price of their sworn loyalty, and a tribute of seventy-seven jars of pumpkin jam each year.
And she will be marrying an Outlander, a clever red-haired man with a beautiful voice, a nice line in verse, and a pronounced limp from a healing wound. Their time together in the storeroom had been short, but intensely romantic. The last of the Princess’s antipathy for Shifters had vanished away, and Reynard had realized two feet, when they were so well formed, were just as good as four.
They asked him to stay, of course. He’d make a wonderful ornament to their court, and a godfather to their children. He could help train the new queen in fighting, and later her children, as well.
But he is suddenly homesick for a place he never thought was home. He’d like to swim in the Asteria River again, and to fish in it, too. He’d like to sit in the orchards of Asteria, and pick apples from their trees. He’d like to taste the fine pastries of the Asterian court, and the sweet red wine.
He’d like to see the Elector again.
He takes two of the three hundred dromos from his purse, plus his winnings from last night’s game of something enough like euchre for him to have been successful with the younger set, and a gold hairpin from the grateful princess, and goes off to the Bazaar to see if he can find the Elector a really nice ruby ring.
There will be a Bazaar. There always is.
Originally published in Fearsome Journeys, edited by Jonathan Strahan, 2013.