There was a dragon on the outskirts of the kingdom. This was the best thing to happen ever.
“Ever,” Brendon enthused, clanking along in his armor toward the audience chamber. “I can prove myself now. I can have a quest.”
Brendon was technically a knight, but he hadn’t won the title out of bravery or nobility or a notable display of character. It was just that he’d reached the age of majority and did well in the annual jousting tournament, and with so few quests around recently, the queen had decided that was as good a reason as any. Brendon felt like it was a little bit of a cheat.
“I dunno,” Jon said, ambling along behind him. “A dragon? That’s kind of a big quest.”
“I am a valiant knight,” Brendon proclaimed. “No quest is too big for me.”
“Everything is too big for you,” a familiar voice replied, and Brendon turned to see Spencer with his arms crossed, hanging out in the archway. He was wearing a lovely embroidered skirt and a bodice with the puffy sleeves Brendon loved and secretly coveted. He was also wearing a corset, which didn’t really do a lot for his figure, but Spencer had previously confided that his mother made him wear them because they kept him from slouching.
“Princess!” Brendon declared joyfully. Nothing was going to bring him down today, not even Spencer’s skepticism. He was going to slay a dragon. “Will you grant me a token of your favor, to take into battle with me? A scented handkerchief, perhaps?”
“I don’t carry scented handkerchiefs,” Spencer said, which was a lie and Brendon knew it. “And you’re not going into battle. It’s a dragon. It’s about two hundred times bigger than you. And breathes fire.”
“A ribbon, then,” Brendon said, not dissuaded in the slightest. “Here, I can take one of these.” He tugged on the yellow ribbon threaded through Spencer’s sleeve.
“No,” Spencer said, slapping his hand away. “I have to have one on each side, they make the fabric puff. If you take one, I’ll just look stupid.”
“I could take both,” Brendon said hopefully. He really liked the idea of riding into battle with Spencer’s token flying behind him as a banner. Besides, it would hopefully impress the queen and make her more likely to agree to Brendon’s quest, which was why he was all decked out in his shiniest armor to begin with. Every little bit helped. The queen wouldn’t want to disappoint Brendon and Spencer.
“You’re not facing down a dragon alone,” Spencer said irritably. He had on his royal I’m-getting-my-way-on-this look, which usually worked out well for Brendon, but not this time.
“I won’t be alone,” Brendon pointed out. “Jon will be with me.”
Jon was still a squire, in spite of the fact that he was older than Brendon and the queen was knighting people now for reasons like ‘noble effort during seasonal apple-picking in the orchard’ and ‘courageous dispatching of a mouse frightening the ladies’. Jon didn’t really like swords and he thought plate armor itched. He said he was happy to stay with Brendon as his squire, and if he was knighted they would be separated so Jon could have a squire of his own. Brendon was secretly glad for Jon’s lack of ambition, even though he knew it wasn’t a particularly knightly thought to have.
Spencer gave Jon a baleful look, which Brendon knew wasn’t indicative of Spencer’s feelings toward Jon in general, because Spencer loved Jon. It was probably just that Spencer was anticipating Jon saying something like, “Yes, but I’m just going to straighten your helmet and hold the horses from a safe distance,” which was what he usually said when Brendon started talking about quests, and in truth was what Jon had said the first time Brendon had mentioned dragons. Spencer never had to know that, though.
“This is a stupid idea,” Spencer told him. His arms were still crossed. It almost helped the corset look a little more useful, but not really.
“I’m going to see the queen,” Brendon said loftily, and clanked onwards to the audience chamber. He didn’t look back, as that would have given the wrong impression, but he did sneak a glance as he turned the corner, and was pleased to see that Spencer was trailing along behind him, next to Jon. Even if Brendon didn’t have a favor, maybe it would look like Spencer had come to see him off in support of the idea.
Sir Saporta and Lord Beckett were hanging out outside the chamber, arguing as usual, but in a friendly enough fashion. “I don’t care,” Lord Beckett was saying as they approached. “I’m not growing my hair out that long, it would take years. Decades. And I’d have split ends.”
“It would be one hell of a story, though,” Sir Saporta insisted.
“Good day, noble sirs,” Brendon said as he approached.
“Is he on about the tower again?” Spencer asked.
“It would be a very small one,” Sir Saporta insisted. “Minuscule. Hardly more than a cottage.”
“Then what’s the point of you climbing up?” Lord Beckett asked. “You could just come straight through the window.”
“I think you’re missing the point,” Sir Saporta replied smoothly.
“He does make a good argument, though,” Spencer pointed out.
“Fine,” Sir Saporta agreed. “Two storeys. That’s more than enough.”
“I’m not waiting in a two-storey tower for thirty years while my hair grows out just so you can climb up and rescue me,” Lord Beckett said firmly.
“Let your hair grow out first, then we’ll build the tower,” Sir Saporta graciously allowed. “Hardly any waiting.”
“I still don’t see the point,” Lord Beckett said doubtfully. Privately, Brendon had to agree with him. It seemed like an awful lot of work.
“The point, which you keep forgetting,” Sir Saporta explained, “is your hand in marriage. Which I would like very much to ask for.”
“Why can’t you just ask?” Spencer interrupted.
“I’m a knight,” Sir Saporta told him. “I can’t just ask, I have to rescue him, or break a spell, or win him in battle from another.”
“That’s true,” Brendon agreed sadly. He understood all about the trials and tribulations of knighthood. Spencer didn’t. He was an eminently practical person who thought the rules of knighthood were a bit silly.
“Why don’t you just fight Brendon?” Jon suggested.
It was a good idea, and Brendon thought it would be an awful lot of fun, shouting insults and waving swords and fighting a terrible, injury-free duel, but sadly he couldn’t afford to take the time right now. “I can’t,” he said apologetically. “I’m off to fight a dragon, on a quest. I’m going to see the queen now.”
“Oh wow,” Lord Beckett said, sounding impressed. “Really?”
“No, he’s not,” Spencer argued. Brendon ignored him.
“Why don’t you ask Ryan to put a spell on him?” he offered. Ryan was the court magician, and with everything being so prosperous and all, he didn’t really have a lot on his plate right now.
Lord Beckett turned understandably pale. Ryan’s spells, while usually very effective, did not always turn out as they had been originally intended.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Lord Beckett said faintly.
“Yeah, I’d kind of like him to stay whole and healthy,” Sir Saporta admitted. “I mean, being locked in a tower is one thing, but I don’t know how I’d cope with him being turned into a frog or something.”
“That was one time,” Spencer said grumpily. Spencer and Ryan were childhood friends, and Spencer was always a little defensive about Ryan’s particular eccentricities, especially with regard to his magical skills.
“It only takes once,” Sir Saporta pointed out. Lord Beckett was starting to recover some color, so Brendon refrained from mentioning that there had been that time with the duke turning into a ferret as well.
“Oh!” Brendon exclaimed, suddenly struck by an idea. “You could accompany me on my quest!”
“How will that help, exactly?” Spencer asked, but he didn’t seem entirely disapproving. He was probably relieved to think Brendon might not be attempting his brave and heroic feat alone.
“Well, you know,” Brendon explained. “I could defeat the dragon, as is my quest, and we could arrange for William to be carried off and held prisoner by the dragon, so Gabe would have to rescue him.” It was a brilliant plan. He was suddenly even more elated than he had been when he’d first heard about the dragon. Sure, it would take some of the spotlight off him, but it wasn’t like Sir Saporta would be helping to actually slay the dragon. He’d have a quest of his own, and Brendon was a big enough man (no matter what Spencer said) to share the glory.
“Uh,” Lord Beckett said carefully. “Does anyone else see the huge flaw in this plan? The part where I’d be carried off by a dragon and possibly eaten before you manage to rescue me?”
“We’d never let that happen,” Brendon assured him.
“It is risky, though,” Sir Saporta admitted, stroking his chin. “He’s not a princess, the dragon might not want to keep him.”
“Well, we’re not giving it Spencer,” Brendon said firmly. Spencer was staying here, in the castle, where he was safe. Brendon was not letting him anywhere near a dragon, and no one was allowed to argue that point.
“That wouldn’t help anyway,” Jon pointed out. He scratched at his beard. It was getting scruffy again, Brendon would have to trim it for him. Or try to, anyway; Jon wasn’t always crazy about Brendon’s attempts at grooming him. “I don’t think you really have compatible quests.”
That was disappointing, but probably for the best. It didn’t change Brendon’s plan in the least. “If you haven’t thought of anything by the time I return, we can have a duel,” he promised Sir Saporta. Although that might be awkward, since Brendon was still hoping to carry Spencer’s favor when he killed the dragon, but they’d work it out. Spencer wasn’t the jealous type, and Sir Saporta was a knight in need. Brendon had an obligation to assist him in his pursuit of Lord Beckett’s hand.
“If you return,” Spencer muttered mutinously. Brendon pretended not to hear that, either.
“I have to go,” Brendon announced. “I need an audience.” It was nearing the end of court, and the queen would be retiring soon. Besides, his armor was heavy.
“Good luck, my friend,” Sir Saporta said solemnly, clapping him on the shoulder with a dull clunk. “I wish you well.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Spencer said. He sounded a bit sullen, but Brendon tried not to be hurt. Spencer just didn’t understand knightly business. Brendon was following the call of duty.
“Come, Jon,” he proclaimed. Jon gave Spencer a little shrug and a goofy half-smile, and followed Brendon into the audience chamber.
Ryan was attending the queen, as usual, in his official court magician costume that he’d designed himself. It consisted of a top hat, several scarves, scandalously tight breeches and a vest covered with flowers over top of a shirt that had sleeves much like Spencer’s, only longer. He looked sort of like a very frilly gentleman pirate. He took his role very seriously, though, and frowned with somber attention as Brendon strode forward, clanking all the way.
“My queen,” he announced grandly. “I have come before you to request your blessing and permission to leave the castle. I wish to go on a knightly quest to slay the dragon that plagues our countryside, to free your people from fear and reptilian menace.” He’d thought of that last bit himself, and was quite proud of it.
“I’m not sure dragons are reptiles,” Ryan said slowly before the queen could grant his request. “Maybe ‘scaly menace’.”
Trust Ryan to ruin Brendon’s grand entrance. “Yes, fine,” he said hurriedly. “Scaly menace. Menace is really the key point. And the freeing of the people from it.”
“Hmm,” Ryan said.
“I think this is a noble venture,” the queen told him gravely. “Will you be taking anyone with you when you embark upon this quest?”
“My steady squire Jon will accompany me,” Brendon informed her. “He is both brave and true.”
Jon smiled at the queen. He looked both brave and true, Brendon was happy to see, although still a little scruffy. Brendon would have to fix that before they returned to the castle in triumph.
“I see,” said the queen. She paused for a moment, then inquired delicately, “With so many young knights seeking quests, perhaps it would be better for you to share this one? A whole group of you, maybe, could go together?”
“No one else wants to go,” Brendon said honestly. “I’ve already asked.”
“I see,” said the queen. She paused again. Brendon was starting to sweat, a little. And his shoulder blade itched. He understood why Jon hated plate armor so much.
“In that case,” the queen continued at last, “I feel we should give you some assistance, to guard you and support you in this quest, as it is for the good of our kingdom.”
Brendon frowned unhappily. Questing didn’t seem like nearly as much fun if he was going to be surrounded by guards who would probably end up dispatching the dragon before he had a chance to slay it. “I don’t…”
“As you will clearly not need any physical assistance,” the queen interrupted smoothly, “being a knight of the realm, we shall supply you with magical aid, to help you overcome any enchantments the dragon may possess, which would unfairly hinder you in your quest.”
Ryan looked startled. Brendon thought it over and brightened a bit. After all, it wasn’t really cheating if there was magic involved. He could hardly be expected to defeat that on his own. “I would be honored, your majesty,” he said solemnly.
“Then it is settled,” the queen said, with surprising haste, probably because Ryan was opening his mouth and didn’t look likely to agree with this particular turn of events. “Our court magician will accompany you on this most noble quest, from which we have no doubt you shall return victorious.”
“Uh,” Ryan said.
“Thank you, your majesty,” Brendon said over top of him, because questing would be much more fun if he had Ryan along, and anyway he was pretty sure now that the queen wouldn’t let him go alone, so he needed Ryan to agree to come with him. “I only hope that I can prove myself worthy of your good faith.”
“We have no doubts,” the queen said firmly. She paused again, then asked, “Is there anything else?”
Brendon seized on the chance. “Only one thing, your majesty,” he said quickly. “I ask for a favor from Princess Spencer, to carry with me into battle, as a sign that I serve you and your cause, on behalf of the kingdom.”
Spencer glowered. Brendon just managed not to beam at him. Spencer might be grumpy about the whole questing thing, but he could hardly deny a request like that, in front of the whole court and his mother.
“Spencer?” the queen prompted gently.
“Fine,” Spencer said. “I’ll give it to you later.”
“I am honored,” Brendon told him solemnly. He bowed low to the queen and backed gravely out of the room. Then he did a little dance in the hallway and kicked his heels together as soon as the doors closed behind him. He tripped on his heavy armor and Jon had to keep him from falling, but it was totally worth it. He was going to slay a dragon.
The first day of questing was a little boring.
“How long does it take to reach the outskirts of the kingdom?” Brendon complained. They’d been riding for most of the day, and he was starting to get sore. Not that he was about to admit it to the rest of their company, but it was difficult to stop himself from shifting every five minutes. He was also a little disappointed, because Spencer hadn’t given him a favor after all. He’d disappeared after court and hadn’t even shown up in the morning to see them off. Brendon told himself it was because Spencer must have slept in. Princesses did that sort of thing.
“It’s a big kingdom,” Jon said doubtfully. “A while, I guess.”
At least there was no question as to which way they were going. News of the dragon had traveled all the way across the kingdom to the castle, and all Brendon had to do whenever they encountered a town was to inquire politely about a dragon and every finger would fly in the same direction.
“I wonder how we’re going to get the head back to the castle,” Brendon mused aloud. “That’s what we have to do after we slay it, right? As proof of success? Chop off the head and bring it back with us?”
“I think the queen will take your word for it,” Jon pointed out. “And it would be kind of stupid to lie about it when the entire kingdom would know whether you’d actually done it or not.”
He had a point. Still. “It’s customary for me to present a trophy to the monarch,” Brendon explained. He had this vision of himself striding into the audience chamber, battered and victorious, with a giant dragon’s head trailing blood in his wake across the stone floor. It was pretty awesome.
“Maybe Ryan could do something,” Jon suggested.
“Like what, exactly?” Ryan asked, without a lot of inflection, but Brendon was pretty sure that was incredulity. He spent a lot of time with Ryan, and the subtle nuances had gotten easier to pick up on over the years.
“Something magical,” Brendon elaborated. Ryan just gave him a look and adjusted his outermost scarf. He was wearing even more of them than normal, bundled up from head to toe even in the warm weather, as if afraid the sunshine might touch his skin. Brendon didn’t know how he could stand it. It was only mildly balmy out and Brendon was sweating already. Ryan didn’t even appear to be slightly warm.
“We should think about stopping for the night,” Jon suggested, shading his eyes against the sun. “It’s getting late.”
“Is there a village nearby?” Ryan asked. “Maybe a big, fancy house?”
“No,” Brendon said with relish. “Tonight we’re sleeping out under the stars.”
Ryan looked dismayed. Brendon smiled at him, staying positive, and urged his knightly war-steed on so they could find an appropriate clearing.
They made camp in a little grove of trees, and after the first few minutes of grumbling, Ryan seemed to enjoy it. They made a fire and even got it burning, although Brendon singed his fingers and Jon couldn’t even get a wisp of smoke going, so Ryan had to do it by magic. They ate a delicious dinner that the castle cooks had packed for them, and sang campfire songs and discussed their plans for defeating the dragon (they didn’t really have any yet, but they had plenty of time), and just as they were about to fall asleep, there was a loud rustling in the bushes nearby.
“Hark!” Brendon shouted, leaping to his feet and reaching for the sword he’d left leaning against his saddle. “Who goes there? Show yourself!”
There was an even louder rustling, followed by some muffled cursing, and…
“Spencer?” Brendon said disbelievingly, gaping. He hastily corrected himself, “Princess? What are you doing here?”
“And what are you wearing?” Ryan added, and although it was not like Ryan had any room to talk, he did have a point. Spencer wasn’t wearing a corset or a fancy embroidered skirt, and he was all bundled up in a dark shawl over a simple peasant’s skirt and blouse. They made him look much softer than usual, although that could also have been the firelight. Brendon didn’t know.
“I said I’d give you a favor,” Spencer answered, tugging at his shawl, which was caught on a branch. “So here I am. The favor. Me. And I’m in disguise,” he told Ryan, glaring. “It’s not like I can just go waltzing across the countryside in a ball gown.”
“You can’t go waltzing across the countryside at all,” Brendon exclaimed in dismay. “You’re the princess. Does the queen know you’re here? What will you do? You can’t come along, it’s dangerous.”
“Did you really think I’d let you go haring off on your own?” Spencer asked.
That stung a bit. “I am a knight of the realm,” Brendon told him staunchly, drawing himself up. “I’m perfectly capable of handling my own questing.”
Spencer waved a hand dismissively. “Fine,” he said. “Did you really think I’d let Ryan go off on his own? Without me?”
That made more sense. Ryan was surprisingly accident-prone, and Spencer had been looking out for him for years now. Still, he obviously couldn’t stay. “We have to go back,” Brendon said reluctantly. “I can’t put you in danger.”
“I’m staying with Ryan,” Spencer replied immediately. “If he stays at the castle, my mother will never let you go on your own. And besides, that’s an extra two days added to your journey. Think of all the people the dragon could have killed by then that you could have saved.”
Brendon was horribly, guiltily torn. He looked at Jon, who just shrugged one shoulder as if to say, ‘he has a point.’
“Fine,” he said unhappily. “But you stay with Ryan, and when we face the dragon, you have to stay out of danger. The queen would never forgive me if I let something happen to you. She’d probably chop off my head.”
“No she wouldn’t,” Spencer answered, but Brendon didn’t believe him. Besides, if he ended up getting Spencer killed, he’d want to chop his own head off.
“I can’t believe you snuck out after us,” Brendon lamented.
“I can’t either,” Jon added, but he sounded admiring. “That’s pretty sneaky.”
“I can’t believe any of us are out here in the first place,” Ryan said.
“Dragon,” Brendon reminded him.
There was a moment of awkwardness when they all set up their blankets and no one was sure where Spencer should be. “You should sleep next to me,” Brendon said, holding the hilt of his sword while he tried to figure out where to put it. “I’ll protect you. But we don’t have a chaperone, so you really can’t.”
“He could sleep next to me,” Jon offered. “You could protect him from the other side of me.”
“You don’t have a chaperone either,” Brendon pointed out. He couldn’t allow Spencer’s virtue to be compromised. Not on his watch.
“Protect me from what?” Spencer asked, interrupting Brendon’s internal debate.
“Yeah,” Ryan seconded. “Protect him from what?”
“The dangers of the woods,” Brendon proclaimed. “Rogues and villains. Evil sorcerers. Wild beasts.”
“Shouldn’t Ryan be protecting me from the sorcerers?” Spencer inquired.
“Yes, but…” Brendon didn’t really have an answer for that one. He just wanted to be the one to protect Spencer. And sleep next to him. Although perhaps it was for the best that he didn’t, because Ryan would be a better defender of Spencer’s virtue. Brendon was an upstanding knight and of noble heart, but Spencer had a very pretty scattering of freckles across his right shoulder which an upstanding knight of the realm with a noble heart should really not have noticed.
“How about I sleep in the middle,” Spencer offered. “You on one side, Ryan on the other.”
“You won’t be closest to the fire then,” Brendon worried. Spencer showing up had thrown all of his questing plans into disarray. He didn’t know what to do about anything now.
“I’ll be fine,” Spencer promised. “Jon can stay next to the fire. And, uh, chaperone.”
Jon nodded solemnly, already laying down his blanket next to the crackling fire and stretching out on it like a sleepy cat. Ryan carefully laid out his own three blankets next to Jon’s, arranging them to his satisfaction before crawling underneath the top layer.
Brendon unrolled his own blanket, which still smelled a little like horse, and squirmed around on it until he found a comfortable spot. He rested on his side facing Spencer, so that he could make sure Spencer was safe if something woke them suddenly in the night. “Goodnight,” he said softly when they were all settled, and, “Goodnight,” Spencer murmured sleepily in return. Brendon’s heart did a little thumping thing in his chest.
He’d almost dozed off when a hand touched his shoulder and he jerked awake again. Spencer’s eyes gleamed a little in the firelight, dark and hard to see. “You’re shivering,” he whispered. “Are you cold?”
Brendon was, actually. It was chilly in the forest at night, and he was the furthest out from the warmth of the fire.
“I’m fine,” he whispered back. He was a knight, he could overcome far more than a little cold weather. “Go to sleep.”
“You could come closer,” Spencer offered softly. “It would be warmer with two of us together, and I’m closer to the fire.”
Brendon hesitated. It would be warmer, that was true. He and Jon had often bundled up together on nights like this, sharing the same blanket next to the fire. Spencer was a princess, though.
“I’m not that cold,” he lied. “It’s okay.”
Spencer was quiet for a long moment. Then, “I am,” he said, and Brendon was torn all over again. Spencer seemed to sense his hesitation, because he added, “Jon is chaperoning us. He said so.”
That was true. On the other hand, Jon was snoring even louder than Ryan right now, and would probably not make a very good chaperone at the moment. On the…well, on the first hand, Brendon was very cold. As was Spencer. And Brendon had a duty to look out for Spencer.
“Okay,” he said finally, scooting closer. Spencer lifted up the edge of his blanket, and Brendon pulled his own very carefully over both of them, tucking it in around Spencer’s shoulders. Up close, Spencer’s eyes seemed brighter.
“Okay?” Spencer asked. He was very warm, and soft, and close. Brendon nodded and the blanket rustled against the grass. “Goodnight,” Spencer whispered.
“Goodnight,” Brendon whispered back.
The next morning they rode through a village along the way, as usual, so Brendon could inquire as to the direction of the dragon. The villagers, however, had other ideas.
“Are you a knight?” one young woman asked hopefully.
“Yes,” Brendon answered proudly. “Well, sort of. Technically, right now I’m a knight-errant. I am on a quest.”
“Because we need a knight,” the young woman added, still hopefully.
“Is this about the dragon?” Brendon asked. “Because I’m dealing with that.”
“No, sir knight,” one of the gruff older men answered. “This is a different matter.”
“We’re in fear of our lives,” one very dramatic girl with big eyes put in.
“Of your lives?” Ryan asked, interested. “Or for your lives?”
There was some conference among the villagers. “For, my lord,” a matronly woman announced.
Ryan looked disappointed.
“One moment,” Brendon said apologetically, and turned his horse slightly to sidebar with Spencer and Jon. “Can I accept a quest, if I’m already in the middle of one?”
“I think it depends,” Jon answered. “Is this one more important?”
“What’s more important than a dragon?” Brendon asked incredulously.
Spencer made a face. “On the other hand, we’re here now, and depending on the quest, it would only take an extra half-day to dispatch, whereas if we travel to the dragon and then return, there’s an additional four days to a week that they would have to wait, by which time it might be too late.”
Spencer was endlessly mathematical. It was one of the many things Brendon admired about him. “So I should accept the quest,” he translated.
“I think you can have two quests at once,” Jon agreed. “You’ll just return home with double the glory.”
Brendon liked the sound of that. “Technically,” Spencer said warningly as he turned his horse back around, “you should find out…”
“I accept your quest!” Brendon announced. “Tell me what must be done.”
There was some feet-shuffling amongst the villagers. Finally the older man spoke up again. “Well, sir knight. You see, there are these sorceresses.”
Brendon suddenly felt very light-headed. Jon reached out a hand to steady him, which Brendon appreciated, because the villager was using the words challenge and doom.
“I will meet this challenge,” he announced finally, when it seemed the explanation had wound down. “Point the way.”
Directed by the villagers, they rode to the edge of the village, where three sorceresses were apparently waiting in an apple orchard to visit terrible evils on the men and women of the village.
Brendon clenched his reins very tightly and looked straight ahead. Spencer drew up alongside him, frowning. “I don’t get it,” he said. “What’s the problem?”
“There’s no problem,” Brendon answered quickly. “I just don’t like sorceresses. They’re frightening.”
“Wait,” Spencer said skeptically. “You’re afraid of sorceresses, but not of a dragon?”
“Have you ever met a sorceress?” Brendon challenged.
“No,” Spencer answered. “Have you ever met a dragon?”
“Dragons are different,” Brendon insisted, gesticulating. “Dragons are…”
Jon pulled up on his other side, looking somber. “Brendon’s afraid of girls,” he explained seriously.
“I am not,” Brendon said, flushing. It was just…dragons were big scaly beasts that may or may not be reptilian, but were definitely villainous, and sorceresses were soft, beautiful women with flowing gowns and fancy hair and lots of curves. They required a different skill set.
“You’re not afraid of Spencer,” Ryan pointed out, coming up on Spencer’s other side to join in the conversation.
Okay, first, Spencer was not actually a girl. “Spencer is different,” Brendon said firmly. “Spencer is a princess.”
“Hey, I hate to break this up,” Jon said apologetically, “but we’re here.”
They were now, Brendon saw, in a clearing in the middle of the orchard, surrounded by flowering fruit trees. In the middle of the clearing, looking rather pleased, were three beautiful women wearing flowing gowns and lounging artfully against convenient tree branches.
“I am Sir Urie,” Brendon declared, after clearing his throat twice. “I challenge you on behalf of the people of this village.”
The three women looked interested. “A knight,” one of them said, a petite blonde with gorgeous spiraling curls. “This is better than we thought.”
“We want you to settle something for us,” another added, a slim brunette who was lounging coyly in a very attractive way. “There is an apple here marked for the fair.”
“As we are all exceptionally fair,” the third sorceress pointed out, a redhead with a sexy, rasping voice, “we need someone to choose which of us it is meant for.”
Trap! shouted the small part of Brendon’s mind that was used to dealing with women. Trap trap trap!
“Fair ladies,” he said carefully, using his best court manners. “How could any man possibly choose between three such peerless creatures?”
Jon coughed. The first sorceress narrowed her eyes at him, but turned back to Brendon when she spoke. “I am willing,” she said sweetly, her lashes dipping in a sultry fashion, “to offer you something in return for choosing me.”
“I think that’s bribery,” Brendon said apologetically. “And as a knight, I cannot…”
“We all are,” the third sorceress cut him off, smiling in a way that was almost wolfish. “Which makes it a fair deal, don’t you think? Three bribes, evenly matched?”
“I don’t think it works like that,” Brendon said, frowning.
“It does here,” the brunette said firmly. She shifted slightly and her corset pressed a little tighter against her bosom. Brendon swallowed and tried to make his eyes return to her face.
“I’m going first,” the redhead said, taking a step forward as if to cut the others off. She had very pleasing curves, sharp brows and red lips. Her stance, when she faced him, was relaxed and confident. “I offer you power,” she said plainly. “Lands, wealth, servants, people to rule who will obey your every command and whim. Domination over the earth and sea.”
Jon gave a low, approving whistle. “Can she do that?” Brendon asked out of the corner of his mouth.
Jon shrugged. “She’s a sorceress,” he said. “Who knows?”
“Enough, Amanda,” the blonde said, hopping down off her tree branch and dusting off her skirt as she came forward. “My turn. You always make everything so dramatic. I offer you knowledge,” she said enticingly, her finger wound in a tight golden curl. “You will be the strongest knight, and know every skill. You will be an undefeated champion on the battlefield, and everyone will respect your cunning and wisdom.”
That was a tempting offer. Brendon cast a sideways look at Jon to see what he thought of it. Jon shrugged one shoulder.
“Dramatic, Greta,” Amanda drawled. “Really.”
“Hush,” Greta scolded, fussing with her skirt again. “You got your say. Now it’s Victoria’s turn.”
Victoria straightened slowly, like a stretching cat, and tilted her head so that her hair fell slyly across her face. “I offer you love,” she told him, in a smoky, sensual voice. “I offer you the fairest in the land, by your side in marriage. I offer you the princess.”
Brendon went very still. To the side, he saw Spencer do the same, but Victoria wasn’t looking at him. She was watching Brendon. Trap! his brain screamed, flashing urgent lights. Traaaap!
“The princess?” he said in a very high voice. He may have squeaked a little. “Can you really, ah…”
“We can all do what we say we can do,” Amanda interrupted, striding forward again. “Now choose.”
Brendon very carefully did not look at Spencer. He also very carefully did not look at the bosoms of any of the sorceresses, even though they were all wearing tightly-laced corsets and it was kind of hard to look anywhere else. “I…” he began helplessly.
To his surprise, Jon lifted a finger. “If I might ask,” he inquired politely. “I think it’s not so much a question of what you’ll do for him if he picks you, it’s really more what you’ll do to him if he doesn’t.”
Jon was so wise. Brendon shot him a very grateful look, and Jon grinned back, giving him a thumbs-up while the sorceresses were busy conferring.
“Kill him,” Greta announced decisively. “All of us. Well, whichever of us he doesn’t pick. We’ll work together. Sisters scorned and all that.”
Brendon swayed a little in his saddle. Jon reassuringly grabbed hold of his sleeve to keep him from falling off his horse.
“Okay,” he said after a moment. “Okay. I just need to think.”
“You don’t really have any good options here,” Jon muttered warningly. Brendon waved him off, thinking furiously, and finally turned back with a smile.
“Most fair ladies,” he began, bowing to them from horseback. “I declare this a draw. Hear me out,” he added hastily, as all three women drew themselves up dangerously. “I declare Victoria the fairest in autumn, when the leaves are falling, and everything is red and gold. I declare Amanda the fairest in winter, surrounded by whitest snow. And I declare Greta the fairest in spring, when everything is green, and all the colors are light and pale.”
Spencer gave him a sideways look. Brendon motioned covertly that he had (he hoped) everything under control. The three sorceresses conferred again, and then they turned back to him. “It is early summer,” Victoria pointed out, arching one perfect eyebrow. “Who holds the apple now?”
Brendon swept another courtly bow, feeling quite rakish and satisfied with himself. “By your own tongue,” he pointed out, “that honor goes to the princess, who you called the fairest in the land. And which you, in your wisdom,” he told Greta, “did not dispute. Furthermore, by offering the apple to the princess,” he finished, pointing at Amanda, “I can gain royal favor, and power in the kingdom.”
The three sorceresses pondered this for a moment.
“He’s good,” Amanda said finally.
“He’s very good,” Greta agreed admiringly. “That was an excellent answer.”
“We’re never going to find another one half as clever,” Victoria said, disappointed. “I suppose that’s the end of that.” She tossed the apple to Brendon, who caught it in one hand out of reflex.
All three sorceresses vanished in a puff of smoke.
“Wow,” Spencer drawled, looking sideways at Brendon. “The princess? Really?”
Brendon tossed him the apple. “Eat up,” he advised, so weak in the knees with relief that he was glad to be in a saddle and not on the ground. “It’s yours now.”
“No more quests,” Ryan declared dourly, picking up his reins again. “After the dragon, we go straight home.”
By the third day, the monotony of travel was beginning to wear a little on Brendon. Jon, too, or at least he understood that Brendon was bored, because he looked entirely unsurprised when they came upon the badly-painted wooden sign proclaiming The Great Pete! and Brendon’s face lit up with delight.
“Oh look,” Brendon said, veering onto the side path so quickly that he nearly ran his horse into Spencer’s. “We should go.”
“I thought we were on a quest,” Spencer said dryly, recovering his startled mount from the near-collision. “We’re going to stop for a traveling show?”
“It might be a traveling show in need,” Brendon argued. He lifted his eyebrows triumphantly to say, did you ever think of that?
Spencer rolled his eyes, but he followed Brendon onto the path, and Ryan and Jon turned after him. “Who calls himself The Great Pete, anyway?” Spencer asked. “That’s a terrible name.”
“A traveling magician, obviously,” Brendon said, with worldly wisdom. He loved magic shows. They were his favorite, apart from the minstrels. “Come on, think about it. We’re going to see a magician!”
“Um,” Ryan put in.
“Not a real one,” Brendon explained impatiently. “Not like you, or he’d be at court, serving the queen and being useful.”
“So we’re going to see a traveling charlatan,” Spencer said.
“Yes,” Brendon answered. “I wonder if he saws people in half.”
“Maybe he’ll make you disappear,” Ryan suggested, and appeared blithely unfazed by Brendon’s wounded look. Spencer snorted.
“That’s almost a better name,” Jon mused as they rode into the village square. “The Charlatan Pete.”
“Shh,” Brendon chided. “Magic.”
The Great Pete had a brightly-painted wagon with one side that dropped down to serve as a stage, and rows of benches lined up in front of it. There was a girl with red hair and a scandalously low-cut peasant blouse onstage working the crowd, which meant they had arrived just in time.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice called from out of sight. “Welcome to the wonders and magical miracles of the incomparable illusionist, the peerless performer and conjurer of countless spectacular sights…The Great Pete!”
The Great Pete stepped out onto the stage from behind the shiny curtain, sweeping his cape behind him with a flourish and doffing his top hat to bow low to the crowd. He was maybe five and a half feet tall on a good day, and his hat was nearly taller than the rest of him. To the side, Brendon saw Ryan straighten up a little, clearly taking costume notes.
“Do not be fooled, my friends,” said The Great Pete. “What you are about to see is no mere chicanery. It is true magic.”
He set the top hat onto a low stool that his pretty, scantily-clad assistant set out for him, and drew a long black wand, swirling it in circles over the hat. “Supercalifragilistic!” exclaimed The Great Pete, tapping the hat. “Expialidocious!”
That sounded a lot like real magic to Brendon, although admittedly he hadn’t heard a lot of it. He glanced sideways at Ryan, who shook his head and mouthed something that looked a lot like “Chicanery.”
Brendon refused to be disappointed. The Great Pete pulled a fluffy white bunny out of the previously-empty top hat, and Brendon applauded with the rest of the audience. Even if it wasn’t real magic, any show that had bunnies was fantastic.
Then the bunny started singing.
Brendon laughed at the warbling tune, and only petered off when he noticed Ryan gripping the bench tightly. Spencer had seen as well, and leaned in closer, murmuring, “Ryan?”
“That’s real magic,” Ryan said tightly. “There’s something…I don’t know what it is. There’s something real.”
Onstage, The Great Pete continued his show, producing a bouquet to give to one of the lovelier maidens in the front row, tossing a ring into the air which transmuted into a brightly-colored, fluttering scarf, and putting his pretty assistant behind the curtain of a bed sheet, where he caused her skirt to disappear, leaving her in a petticoat. Brendon absolutely did not blush, although if someone had accused him of it, he would have promptly pointed to Spencer by way of distraction, whose cheeks were looking rather pink.
The show continued with the lovely assistant, now without her leather bodice and very much down to her undergarments, putting on the top hat and beginning to dance. As she opened her mouth to sing, a strange voice emerged, strong and clear and definitely masculine.
Brendon glanced sideways again. Jon’s eyes were riveted to the stage – and the pretty dancing girl – but he leaned over as well, closer to Ryan and Spencer.
“It’s the hat,” Ryan said in a low voice. “The hat is magic.”
“A magic singing hat?” Brendon asked incredulously. Several people in the row ahead of them turned around to shush him, as the girl – or the hat, rather – was starting in on the second verse.
“We need to get backstage,” Spencer whispered. Brendon nodded. He could do that, absolutely. He was a master infiltrator.
“Not now,” Ryan said. “It’s too suspicious. Afterwards.”
Brendon nodded again. He and Spencer exchanged grim glances around Ryan’s head. With the exception of people like the sorceresses, who were a law unto themselves but technically speaking should not be running around the countryside tormenting peasants, magic was supposed to be used only in the service of the queen. Brendon supposed they’d have to do something with the hat, depending on what made it magic. Ryan would have to handle that part.
After the grand finale, which involved the pretty assistant, the fluffy bunny, and an assortment of scarves, hoops, and flaming torches, The Great Pete emerged from the back of his colorful wagon to greet adoring fans and accept donations.
They hung around until the villagers had all gotten a chance to meet their visiting performer, and then Jon kept watch while Brendon, Spencer and Ryan moved in to talk to the magician.
“My friends,” The Great Pete greeted them, with a particular eye for Ryan. They were wearing vests of nearly the same paisley print. “How did you enjoy the show?”
“It was very interesting,” Brendon said, smiling. “I enjoyed the bit with the singing girl.”
“And the rabbit,” Spencer added. “The rabbit was good.”
“Ah,” said The Great Pete, his eyes flicking back and forth between them. “It’s true, Ashlee is a jewel. A precious gemstone among women. And Cottontail has been with me for years now, she’s quite the professional.”
“I liked your costume,” Ryan put in, and even though it was part of the ploy, Brendon could see by his shy, slightly downcast look that he was sincere. “How you used it in the show. That was very clever.”
“Thank you,” The Great Pete said, starting to look nervous. “Always happy to meet fans. Now, though, if you’ll excuse me…”
“We know about the hat,” Brendon hissed in a loud whisper.
The Great Pete froze in place. “Hat?” he asked with ill-feigned surprise. “What, that old thing?”
“We know it sings,” Spencer said. “That wasn’t ventriloquism.”
“Gentlemen,” The Great Pete said, placing a hand against his heart. “I fear you have the wrong idea about things…”
“I’m a magician,” Ryan said flatly. “For the queen.”
The Great Pete now looked like a mouse caught between a cat and an owl, but he recovered quickly. “Not that I don’t respect your skills,” he said graciously, “but I am, in fact, a petty illusionist. You can have a look, if you like. This is the hat, here. Nothing out of the ordinary. All sleight-of-hand and the power of suggestion.”
Ryan turned the top hat over slowly in his hands, frowning slightly. Spencer joined him, holding out a hand to examine it. A moment later he shook his head. Ryan’s shoulders slumped in disappointment.
“You see,” The Great Pete told them, holding out his hand for the hat. “Now, if you don’t mind…”
Brendon reached out and pinched the hat’s brim.
“Ow!” said the hat, and then clammed up tight like it realized it had spoken out of turn.
“Uh…” said Jon, who had wandered over to see what was going on. “Did that hat just…?”
“Yes, yes,” The Great Pete answered, stealing the hat back from Ryan and holding it protectively close to his chest. “All right, you know now. The hat is enchanted. But I’m not the one who did it.”
“Ryan turned someone into a frog once,” Brendon volunteered. “I’m sure he’ll be very understanding.”
“No, I’m telling you the truth,” The Great Pete insisted. “I didn’t do this.”
“He didn’t,” the hat seconded unexpectedly, making all of them jump. “He doesn’t know any real magic.”
“If your hat is enchanted,” Spencer said cautiously, “we may have to take it with us to the queen, so that Ryan can attempt to undo the spell.”
“No!” The Great Pete exclaimed, clutching the hat even tighter. “You can’t take him, he’s my best friend.”
Brendon and Spencer exchanged concerned glances. “Great Pete…” Brendon began carefully.
He received a waved hand in response. “Call me Pete. And no, I know it sounds crazy, but he’s not…he wasn’t always a hat.”
Ryan looked thoughtful. “An enchantment?”
“There was a sorceress,” the hat confirmed. It had a strangely solid presence for essentially being a disembodied voice. “She was something of a renegade. Had power over knowledge, skill, that sort of thing.”
“Oh,” Brendon exclaimed, surprised. “I think we met her, actually.”
“Greta,” the hat sighed. It sounded slightly rueful.
“She was a bit infatuated,” Pete admitted, patting the brim of the hat in a reassuring fashion. “Wanted him to run away with her. Wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“I see,” Spencer said slowly. Brendon was beginning to as well.
“I was mad about her as well,” the hat put in. “But, well.”
“He wanted to be a minstrel,” Pete confided. He looked sad, suddenly. “It’s why we put together the magic act, so he could keep singing. At least he could have that much.”
“So she turned you into a hat,” Jon surmised.
“Yeah,” the hat said wistfully. “She was pretty pissed.”
“Ryan can undo it, though, right?” Brendon said, turning hopeful eyes on Ryan. “You’re the court magician.”
Ryan looked suddenly spooked. “It’s not that simple,” he explained. “It’s someone else’s spell, I have to figure out what she did and how, and then find a way to reverse it.”
“But you can do it, right?” Brendon persisted.
Ryan hesitated. “Well,” he admitted. “Yes. Probably.”
“We might be here for a while,” Jon commented, as Ryan’s face furrowed into a mask of concentration.
“You could stay with us,” Pete offered. “We have a big wagon. I’ll introduce you to Joe and Andy.”
“You don’t look like you have that much room,” Spencer said doubtfully.
Pete waved a hand. “It’s for friends, we’ll manage. The villagers might give us a place to stay, anyway, if we asked.”
“Shhhhhh,” Ryan ordered. They all fell obediently silent.
Brendon waited for approximately two minutes and then said hopefully, “Is it working?”
Ryan cracked an eye open and glared at him. “I don’t know yet,” he said acidly. “Someone keeps interrupting me.”
“Have you tried bippety-boppety-boo?” Pete suggested. “That’s the one I usually try, but I don’t have the magic hands.” He waggled his eyebrows at Ryan meaningfully.
“Please don’t call his hands magic in that tone of voice while he’s touching me,” the hat requested in a pained voice.
“Everyone be quiet,” Ryan said, in his court magician tone that brooked no argument.
Spencer reached out and caught Brendon’s hand, and he startled slightly. Spencer inclined his head towards the village and tugged gently. He was probably trying to say let’s go give Ryan some space, but Brendon was momentarily too distracted by Spencer’s warm hand in his to make sense of it.
Jon cleared his throat quietly. “Maybe we should…” he began, and the hat went poof!
There was a young man standing in their midst where the hat had been, with reddish-blond hair and a round face and a plump little belly. He looked just as flummoxed as the rest of them did. After a moment of standing and staring, the guy cast around, found a brown cap left on the stage from the show, and jammed it firmly down onto his head.
“Patrick!” Pete cried, overjoyed, and the two of them enjoyed a moment of backslapping and hugging and exuberant cheek-kissing, which Patrick looked pleased about but was still careful to weather with one hand on his hat brim to keep it from falling off.
“Um, hi,” the former top hat said nervously. “I’m Patrick.”
Brendon was awed. “That’s amazing,” he said, reaching out to touch Patrick’s arm hesitantly. Patrick looked just as spooked, but didn’t move away. “Ryan, that’s amazing. You have to tell the whole court about this. You have to write a ballad.”
Ryan ducked his head, seeming pleased, a tiny flush across the bridge of his nose. “We can’t,” he pointed out, with only a minor amount of grumpiness. “We have to go find your stupid dragon.”
“Woah, you guys are finding a dragon?” Pete put in, one arm still wrapped securely around Patrick as if to make sure he didn’t disappear again. “That’s hardcore.”
“I’m a knight,” Brendon explained, drawing himself up. He didn’t have to stand on his toes the way he normally did; Pete and Patrick were both about the same height as he was, so there was no one looking down their nose at him for claiming the title.
Jon was standing on his toes, but then Jon did that anyway. “I’m his squire,” he added. “We’re on a quest.”
“That’s awesome,” Pete enthused. “It’s too bad you’re not going back to court, though. This would make a great ballad.”
They all nodded. Then, “You should write it,” Spencer said suddenly. Patrick looked up in surprise at the vehemence in his voice. “You wanted to be a minstrel, right? Go to court, write the ballad.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Pete admitted, stroking his chin. “We are all getting a little sick of traveling all the time.”
“Do it.” Spencer hesitated. “And…while you’re there, can you tell my m-… Tell the queen you ran into us, and that we’re okay, and that we’ll be home soon.” He looked a little sad as he said it, but still determined. Brendon squeezed his hand, and Spencer looked over at him, surprised and grateful.
“Okay, sure,” Pete agreed. “You think she’ll listen?”
“With a message like that,” Ryan said dryly, looking at Spencer, “I don’t think you’ll be able to get rid of her until she’s heard every last detail of your story.”
“Right,” Patrick said, his eyes flicking between Ryan, Spencer, Brendon and Jon. “Thank you, by the way. I don’t think I said it. Thank you. It’s nice to have my body back again.”
“Glad to be of service,” Brendon replied, as he had been well-schooled in appropriate responses to grateful citizens. Ryan rolled his eyes, but Spencer just nudged him in the side with his elbow and smiled a little bit.
“We should get on the road,” Jon remarked, eyes shaded by his hand as he looked out at the sun sinking low on the horizon.
Pete pursed his lips. “Or,” he said, “you could stay with us for one night. The offer’s still open, and we owe you. A few hours won’t make that much of a difference, right? You can get a fresh start in the morning.”
They all exchanged looks. “I guess that would be all right,” Spencer said slowly, when no one else spoke up.
“Fantastic,” Pete said, slinging his arm over Ryan’s shoulders so he had one around Ryan and the other around Patrick. He tipped Ryan’s ridiculous feathered hat forward with one finger and grinned when Ryan fumbled to set it straight again. “We should celebrate. Drinks all around.”
“It’s going to be a long night,” Spencer said in an undertone, but he was smiling, too. Brendon smiled back at him, and squeezed his hand, because Spencer was still holding it and Brendon liked the way it felt when Spencer squeezed back.
“You bet it is,” Pete agreed. He kissed Patrick on the cheek again, and said gleefully, “Ryan the court magician. Tell me about real magic.”
“I think I can see it,” Spencer commented, standing up in his stirrups to peer at the mountain they were all fairly certain housed the dragon. “The cave. Does that look like it to you?”
“It looks high,” Ryan replied, but he wasn’t as grumpy as usual this morning. Spending the night with Pete and his band of performers as the celebrated hero had done wonders.
“We can probably reach it in one more day,” Brendon determined, squinting at what they thought was the cave. “That’s not too bad.”
“We’ll be back before next week,” Jon agreed, and then all hell broke loose.
They came from all directions at once, popping out of bushes and dropping from trees and bursting into sight on horseback, all of them armed and ominously masked, cloth tied over their noses and mouths. Brendon and Jon both drew their swords, but Ryan was unarmed and Spencer only had a sheath knife, which he was using to fend off one of the more determined bandits.
“I am a knight of the realm, cease this unlawful activity at once!” Brendon cried, but the bandits didn’t seem inclined to obey. They had Jon’s horse by the bridle, and as Brendon swung back around, one of them danced in to grab his as well, keeping him from turning. Brendon swung his sword awkwardly, but he couldn’t reach the man at this range without causing possible injury to his steed.
“Brendon!” Jon called, just in time to warn him, and Brendon brought his sword down to clash against another bandit’s long knife just as the man appeared next to him and made a grab for his stirrup. Brendon kicked at him, and his horse shied sideways, unable to maneuver with someone hanging onto its bridle.
“Spencer!” Ryan yelled, and Brendon whipped around to see two of the bandits dragging Spencer down off his horse. One of them had Spencer’s wrist, keeping him from using the knife, and the other had both arms around his waist, overpowering him.
Jon surged forward, trying to stop them, and one of the bandits brought a stout quarterstaff down on his head. Jon fell like a toppled tree. Brendon cursed, but his priority was still Spencer, who had now been disarmed and was still kicking and struggling to no avail.
Ryan clapped his hands together and lightning struck, causing a tree trunk to explode in a shower of sizzling sparks. That got everyone’s attention, especially the two bandits caught directly in the hail of ashy splinters.
“Fuck,” someone yelled. “They have a magician?”
“Ryan,” Spencer called desperately, but the bandits had a new target now, and they were closing in on Ryan like a pack of wolves on the hunt. Ryan clapped his hands again, but he wasn’t always good under pressure, and this time all that happened was a weak echoing boom of thunder and a violet flash.
Jon was struggling to his feet, recovered from the blow, and Brendon spurred his horse forward, nearly running down the man hanging onto his bridle in his determination to reach Ryan and Spencer. Ryan called out a word, and mist began curling up around their ankles, slinking eerily into shapes that dissolved and reformed as the bandits swung at them.
“Just go,” one of the men shouted. “We’ve got him, just go!”
“The knight!” someone else yelled, and Brendon barely had time to prepare before a net fell on him from the branches above, trapping his sword arm and weighing him down, making his movements clumsy and slow as he fought to free himself.
“Spencer!” Ryan cried again, and Spencer kicked at his captors but they continued to drag him off, further and further away.
“Spencer?” Brendon heard one of them echo, but he was falling, the net dragging him to the ground as his horse finally spooked forward, freed as the bandit holding onto his bridle jumped away.
“Magician!” someone else hissed in reply, as Ryan’s face took on an eerie mask of concentration, and Brendon heard the sudden howling of far-away dogs. Brendon struggled harder, seeing what was about to happen moments before it did, but he couldn’t get free in time and Ryan fell too, taken off guard and hit with a tree branch grabbed in haste by one of the retreating bandits.
It took an eternity for Brendon to fight free of the clinging weight of the net, and then he had to force himself not to simply charge off after Spencer and his captors. Instead he turned to help Jon, who was holding a hand dazedly to his head and swaying on his feet. “Ryan,” Jon said worriedly, looking past Brendon.
“I’m fine,” Ryan said, pushing awkwardly to his feet and shaking his head. “Spencer.”
“They took him,” Brendon said, the words heavy in his mouth. “The bandits took him.”
“We have to get him back,” Ryan insisted, already staggering after his horse, which was backing slowly in wary circles.
“Can you even ride?” Brendon demanded, reaching out to steady Jon.
“Spencer,” Ryan repeated, and Jon nodded in agreement.
It didn’t take as long as Brendon had expected to catch up with the bandits. They were pushing hard, definitely, spurred on by determination and, at least in Brendon’s case, the thought of what might be happening to Spencer right now, what those bandits might be doing to him. It was almost too horrible to contemplate.
He’d assumed the bandits would run for as long as possible, gaining ground and making the most of their head-start, but it was only an hour before they heard voices and caught sight of horses tied within a clearing. Brendon heard Spencer speaking, and his vision filled with red.
“We need a plan,” Jon hissed, clutching his reins tightly to keep from falling. “The three of us…”
Brendon pulled himself up and kicked his mount, bursting into the clearing.
Behind him, he heard Jon swear, but also the sounds of scrambling and rustling that meant Jon and Ryan were right behind him. He had his sword out and was half-thinking of just swinging for the nearest heads, bellowing “Surrender him or die!” at the camp as a whole, when Spencer stood up from the middle of the circle of bandits and said suddenly, “Wait!”
Brendon jerked to a confused halt. He was still furious, and terrified, his blood swirling around chaotically in his skull, but a royal order came before the inflamed passion of battle. “Spencer?” he said helplessly.
One of the bandits, who had to be at least eight feet tall, stood up slowly and raised his hands in a gesture of peace. Brendon wanted to chop off both of his hands at the wrists for even daring to think of making such a gesture. Then he wanted to chop off every person’s hand that had touched Spencer, one by one. His sword trembled a little in his hand.
“There’s been a minor misunderstanding,” the giant bandit said apologetically. “We are sincerely sorry for the trouble.”
“What?” Brendon said blankly.
“We were hired for a kidnapping,” the bandit said, wisely not taking any steps closer to Brendon or his raised sword. “But we seem to have kidnapped the wrong person.”
“What?” Brendon said again.
“It’s my fault,” one of the other bandits said, rising slowly to his feet. “Ryland wasn’t sure about you lot being the right ones, but I said we shouldn’t take the chance.”
“It’s not Alex’s fault,” yet another of the bandits insisted. “I thought he was right, too.”
“They did arrive earlier than expected, Nate,” Alex pointed out. “And there were more than we thought there would be.”
“Yes, but Gabe does occasionally change things up without thinking,” Nate said thoughtfully.
It took Brendon’s baffled brain a moment to piece all of that together. “Wait, Gabe?” he echoed in confusion. “Sir Saporta hired you?”
“That he did,” Ryland said cheerfully. “Not that we make a habit of this sort of thing, you understand.”
Nate snorted. “Yes we do,” he replied.
“Not in front of the knight,” Alex muttered, scuffing dust at him. Nate started coughing and Alex presented them with a smile as patently false as it was wide. “It was a special case,” he explained.
“A knight hired you to kidnap someone?” Brendon insisted. He felt as if his whole world was collapsing.
“Well, yes,” Alex said. “Very specific guidelines, though. No one was to be harmed, good care was to be taken of the kidnappee.”
“We even brought him a picnic lunch,” Nate added, holding up a basket as evidence.
“Why would Sir Saporta…?” Brendon asked weakly. He didn’t even know how to finish the question.
“It seems he’s rather enamored of someone who’s due to come riding this way in a few days,” Spencer drawled, arms crossed over his chest.
“Lord Beckett?” Brendon said, gaping.
Ryland snapped his fingers. “That’s the one. These two here are actually off his estate, they came along to help us. We figured the more men we had, the more daring a rescue it would be, the more impressive it would sound, etcetera.”
The two men in question waved. “I’m Adam,” one of them said, looking quite excited about all of the hubbub. “This is The Butcher.”
The Butcher ran a very long knife across the soft cloth in his hand and grinned sharply. Brendon blinked.
“Let me get this straight,” Ryan said slowly. “Sir Saporta hired you to kidnap Lord Beckett so that he could rescue him again.”
“And marry him,” Jon finished, nodding. “It’s a better plan than the tower was.”
“Or the dragon,” Spencer agreed.
“Only it went a bit awry, as you can see,” Alex explained. “All Gabe said was that we were to kidnap someone of good breeding, and very pretty. It was an easy mistake to make.”
Spencer smiled at Alex. Brendon glared.
“We do apologize, though,” Ryland said sincerely, “and would like to make amends. You can take the picnic basket if you want, it’s got a lovely roast chicken.”
“Of all the stupid…” Ryan began, spluttering into incoherence.
“Do you do a lot of this?” Brendon asked, reluctantly lowering his sword. His arm was beginning to ache, anyway; swords were awfully heavy. “Kidnapping for hire?”
“Not a lot, really,” Alex said thoughtfully, mulling it over. “A few. As we said, this one was a special case.”
“We’re really do-good bandits,” Ryland told them. “Committing crime for a good cause. Supporting the impoverished, helping true love find its way, that sort of thing.”
“We only hurt very bad people,” Nate put in seriously.
Brendon wasn’t at all sure what his duty was in a situation like this. Spencer seemed to sense his indecision, because he dusted off his peasant skirt and walked over to squeeze Brendon’s knee.
“Let it go,” he advised. “We have a dragon to slay.”
“But they kidnapped you,” Brendon said dumbly. Ryan made a low noise of agreement.
“Not for very long,” Spencer pointed out. “I’m fine. And now we have chicken.”
“I do like chicken,” Jon put in hopefully. Brendon was still torn.
“Come on,” Spencer insisted. “We’ll ride on for a while, and find a better place to camp.”
Brendon nodded finally, and Spencer went over to retrieve his horse from Jon’s care. Ryland gallantly helped him to mount, and bowed when Spencer gathered up his reins.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Ryland said. Brendon’s fingers itched for his sword again, but Spencer kicked his horse into a walk, so Brendon had no choice but to follow. He gave Alex another good glare in passing on his way past, though.
By the time they had left the clearing and the sounds of the bandits far behind, Brendon had reluctantly relaxed. He rode up beside Spencer, wanting to stay close, and Spencer glanced over at him.
“His heart was in the right place,” Spencer said.
“Too bad his brain wasn’t,” Ryan put in dourly from behind them.
Brendon sighed. “It’s hard, though,” he acknowledged. “We don’t exactly have a plague of giants at our borders these days. How are you supposed to ask for someone’s hand without proving your worth?”
Ryan made a disapproving buzzing noise, like an annoyed dragonfly. “You just ask,” he said.
Brendon shook his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jon nod in agreement. Jon might not be a knight yet, but he understood how these things worked.
“Hey,” Spencer said, grinning. “You almost rescued me from bandits. Do you think my mother would have expected you to ask for my hand?”
Brendon’s cheeks flamed with heat. “It’s not…” he stuttered, hand flailing a bit wildly. “You’re different. That’s not enough, not even close. You’re the princess. It would have to be something huge, something no one else in the world could do to win you.”
Spencer glanced sideways at him. “Like killing a dragon?” he suggested.
Brendon rode ahead a little faster and didn’t answer.
They were just leaving the forest behind when they came across the bridge. And with the bridge, the knight.
“This doesn’t look good,” Ryan muttered. Brendon was inclined to agree with him. He nudged his horse ahead slightly, half-shielding Spencer as they approached. Jon was doing the same thing on the other side with Ryan.
“Ho, friend,” Jon hailed as soon as they were within speaking distance. “Well met.”
The knight nodded graciously, but didn’t move from the center of the bridge. He was wearing chain mail and holding a helm under his arm. He had tufts of wheat-blond hair combed into sunlit disarray like thatch on a roof, and there was a sword belted at his side. He wasn’t anyone Brendon recognized.
“My name is Sir Tom of Conrad,” the knight announced, matter-of-factly. “I hold this bridge. All who wish to pass must fight or be disgraced.”
“What?” Ryan asked, frowning. “Why?”
“Pas d’armes,” Brendon sighed, before addressing the knight. “We are on a quest,” he explained. “To slay the dragon on the mountain.”
“I thought you might be,” Tom acknowledged. “I was hoping someone would come. I’ve been waiting here for days.”
“It was a very long journey,” Brendon told him apologetically. “And there were delays.”
“Well, you’re here now,” Tom said philosophically. “Are you ready for combat?”
“Yes,” Brendon said decisively, beginning to dismount, but Tom held up a hand.
“Not you,” he said politely, pointing at Jon. “Him.”
“He’s not a knight,” Brendon protested immediately. “He’s my squire. It is my duty to fight on his behalf.”
Tom shrugged. “He addressed me first,” he explained, and patted the rickety wooden railing of the bridge. “It is what I have sworn to do.”
Brendon sighed again, unhappy with the arrangement, but fell back. He dismounted when Jon did, to help him into his mail and check his sword, performing the same rites Jon usually did for him.
“Wait, that’s it?” Ryan asked, brow furrowed. “You’re just going to let him fight?”
“Pas d’armes is a very serious thing,” Brendon explained. He took off his own helm and placed it on Jon’s head. His was sturdier, and would offer better protection than Jon’s.
“This is stupid,” Ryan muttered mutinously. “The rules of knighthood are stupid.”
“He’s gaining honor and renown,” Brendon said. “It’s actually a very smart move. There won’t be many people trying to cross this bridge right now who aren’t knights.”
“That’s the plan,” Tom said cheerfully, pushing his own helm down onto his head so that only a few strands of fluffy blond hair escaped. “Are you ready?”
Jon squared his shoulders and raised his sword, holding a position at the foot of the bridge. “Spencer?” he prompted.
Spencer sighed, but rode forward a few paces anyway and raised his hand. He’d been brought up in the royal household; he knew the proper ceremonial etiquette. “Let the combat begin.”
There was a horrible clash of steel-on-steel. Brendon was almost tempted to hide behind his hand and not watch, but the urge to cheer Jon on was too strong. “That’s it,” he encouraged as Jon aimed a heavy blow at Tom’s side, which Tom blocked only at the last minute. “Get under his guard! Swing to the right! The right, Jon, the…look out!”
“Brendon,” Jon grunted, parrying another of Tom’s cuts that jarred his entire body as they connected, “stop helping.”
Brendon clamped his mouth shut, but he couldn’t help another helpless meeping sound as Tom got in a good hit. Jon staggered to the side, and barely blocked the next swing. He regained ground quickly, though, advancing on the narrow wooden bridge and swinging his sword with skill. Brendon bounced on his toes, looking anxiously for an opening.
Jon took several more hits, but he was holding up well, and giving nearly as good as he got. He landed a blow to Tom’s helm which left Tom staggering for a moment, disoriented, and followed up with another clout to Tom’s stomach.
There was a horrible moment when Jon overextended and left his side vulnerable. Brendon opened his mouth to yell, but Spencer’s hand clamped over his mouth, warm and solid. “Don’t distract him,” he warned, and Brendon nodded obediently, eyes wide.
Tom saw the same thing Brendon had, and moved in for another strike, but at the last second Jon whipped around and used Tom’s momentum against him, landing a solid blow to his sword arm and knocking the weapon out of his hand.
Tom hesitated, but his sword was out of his reach and Jon was standing over him, breathing hard and waiting. Finally he reached up to take off his helm, shaking his hair out and kneeling. “I yield,” he said clearly, and Jon nodded grave acceptance. He took a step back and offered his hand to help Tom up, and they clapped each other on the back like proper knights while Brendon ducked out of Spencer’s reach and rushed forward, dizzy with relief.
“Jon,” he said insistently, “Jon, you were amazing.”
“Well-fought,” Tom agreed, combing his hair back into slightly-sweaty tufts. “You are a worthy opponent.”
Jon took his own helm off, his forehead damp with perspiration. “Thanks,” he answered. “You as well. May we pass, now?”
“You may,” Tom agreed. “It was a fair combat. Good luck in your quest.”
“Would you like to come with us?” Brendon asked. He wasn’t all that keen on sharing this quest as a rule, but Tom was a good fighter and seemed like a stout fellow, and they could always use another pair of hands. Dragons were very large creatures.
Tom hesitated, but shook his head. “I’ve pledged to hold this bridge through ten combats, or until the dragon is defeated,” he replied. “I can’t leave my post.”
“We understand,” Jon said. “But we’ll make sure to pass back this way again on our way home, so you know your task is completed.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Tom said cheerfully, clasping Jon’s wrist. “Maybe I’ll ride with you.”
“I don’t understand, though,” Brendon admitted. “You’re so close; why not simply defeat the dragon yourself and claim the glory?”
Tom shrugged. “Dragons are not inconsiderable animals,” he said easily. “Claiming a bridge is more my size.”
“Good luck with your combats,” Jon told him, mounting up again. Brendon found his own way back to his horse, swinging up into the saddle and gathering the reins. “We’ll see you soon.”
“I sincerely hope so,” Tom said, holding up a hand in farewell. “And I’ll send you as much help as I can from down here.” He winked, and Jon grinned.
They rode on towards the mountain, and after a while, Jon brought his horse up next to Brendon’s. “You’ve been awfully quiet,” he said gently. “Second thoughts?”
Brendon shook his head. He bit his lip, but in the end it was easier to just say what he was thinking, unworthy as it was.
“You’ll be knighted for this,” he said, looking seriously at Jon. “Defeating an opponent in single combat, you can’t stay my squire now.”
“That’s for the queen to decide,” Jon said, nudging him gently.
“No, but she will,” Brendon insisted. “I’ll ask her myself, I’ll tell her what you did. We all will. You should be a knight, Jon. On your own merits.”
Jon considered him thoughtfully. “Maybe I want to stay with you,” he said. “Maybe, like Tom said, staying a squire is more my size.”
Brendon shook his head, filled with certainty. “It’s not,” he said seriously. “You’re more than this. You’re a better man than ten knights.”
Jon smiled. “Even if I am knighted,” he pointed out, “what makes you think anything would change?”
Brendon hunched down in his saddle, feeling very small. “You’ll have a squire of your own,” he said. “And adventures.”
“I’m having adventures now,” Jon said, reaching across the space between their horses to squeeze Brendon’s shoulder. “I don’t think they’d be nearly as much fun without you.”
Brendon smiled a little, hesitantly. “You think we could travel together?”
“I don’t think anyone will be able to separate us,” Jon told him gravely. Then he leaned back a little in his saddle and added, raising his voice, “And I think Spencer should be my squire. Right, Spence?”
“Not a chance,” Spencer returned from behind them, where he was riding next to Ryan. “This is the last time I let you two idiots go questing anywhere together.”
Jon grinned at Brendon. “He loves us, really,” he confided.
Brendon grinned back, feeling lighter than he had in days. “Maybe Ryan will be mine,” he suggested. “We know they can’t stand to be separated.”
“Just like us,” Jon agreed.
There was some debate, once they reached the base of the mountain, about who would be holding the horses.
Brendon had assumed it would be Jon, since he’d already volunteered for the position, but Jon had dismounted with the rest of them, and was checking the strap on his sword belt.
Brendon blinked at him a few times. “You’re coming?” he asked finally, hesitant. “I thought you were going to stay down here.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a knight now,” Jon explained, adjusting his hauberk. “You said so yourself, I’ll be promoted as soon as we get back. I might as well start living up to the title.”
Brendon tried not to beam too hard at him and probably failed. “There’s no one I would rather share this quest with,” he said sincerely.
“Ryan could hold the horses,” Spencer put in, interrupting their moment of comradeship. “He’s going to be useless in a fight.”
Ryan flushed. “I’m not good under pressure,” he muttered. “I’m not useless. Besides,” he added, poking at Spencer, “your mom would kill me if I chickened out.”
“My mom would rather you come back alive,” Spencer said dryly.
“Your mom…” Ryan began.
“We don’t make ‘your mom’ jokes about the queen,” Jon said, holding up Brendon’s armor so he could start getting dressed. “Ryan’s coming.”
Ryan shut his mouth and gloated in Spencer’s direction. Spencer crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. “I’m not doing it,” he said flatly.
“You’re not coming along,” Brendon said immediately, prompting Jon to swat him when he turned the wrong way to face Spencer. “You’re staying here, where it’s safe.”
“How safe is it really, this close to a fire-breathing dragon?” Ryan asked rhetorically.
Brendon was not deterred. “You’re not coming,” he repeated stubbornly.
“Why can’t we just tie them to a tree branch?” Spencer asked, looking just as mulish.
“Because if we all perish in this quest, what’s the next thing the dragon will find, all tied up and unable to escape?” Brendon explained patiently. “Tasty, tasty horseflesh.”
“I’ll charm the ropes,” Ryan volunteered, reaching out to touch a nearby branch. After a moment of concentration, vines blossomed under his hand, stretching out towards the horses. “They’ll be able to break these if they panic.”
“I go where Ryan goes,” Spencer said, and Brendon could hear the Royal Decree lurking underneath the words.
He was torn. But, “You stay at the mouth of the cave,” he compromised. “And let Jon and I protect you. And Ryan,” he added quickly. “Ryan will protect you, too.”
“Fine,” Spencer said, tugging his sleeves down and squaring his shoulders. “Whatever.”
“I think we should just ride the horses up the mountain,” Ryan said, craning his neck to look up at the dark shadow of the cave. “It would be faster.”
“Apart from when they smell the dragon, throw us off, and stampede back down over the broken necks of our corpses,” Jon agreed sympathetically, “that’s a really awesome idea.”
“All right,” Brendon said, taking charge as the senior and only official knight of their company. “Let us commence the quest.” He took a dramatic and mostly symbolic step forward onto the mountain path, and his visor fell shut over his eyes.
“We’re all going to die,” Spencer muttered dourly.
“We are not going to die,” Brendon contradicted, starting to feel mutinous. His armor was clanking heavily along and he was suddenly worried that if the dragon did in fact breathe fire, he would be roasted inside it like a personal-sized bake oven.
“How long do you think it will take?” Jon mused, as they curved along the side of the mountain on the little path, single-file. Brendon did a quick check to make sure that Spencer was in the back, and surreptitiously fixed his visor again.
“Only a few hours,” Brendon said confidently. “We should reach it by nightfall.”
They came around another bend and Brendon stopped short, looking at the dark cave mouth in surprise.
“Or, ah,” he corrected, suddenly nervous, “we’re here.”
They all huddled together in front of the cave, peering into its shadowy depths. No dragon appeared to be forthcoming. “Maybe you should do something to let it know you’re here,” Ryan said in a low voice.
“Like what, ask it if it wants dinner?” Spencer shot back, but Brendon squared his shoulders and stepped forward. This was his quest. This was the moment of truth.
“I am Sir Urie, a knight of the realm,” he announced, projecting as much as possible, because it looked like a really deep cave. “I challenge you to single combat, for the good of the kingdom.”
There was a flurry of whispering from inside the cave, like the hissing of snakes. Brendon was sweating inside his armor, but he had his sword at the ready, held with both hands in front of him.
“Do dragons speak English?” Spencer asked behind him. Brendon was gratified to hear Jon shushing him a second later, but in truth, he wasn’t sure himself. He really didn’t want to go inside that cave, though. It seemed like asking to be eaten.
“We could just wait until it gets hungry and comes out,” Ryan suggested, but Brendon didn’t really want to try to outwait a dragon. This was his quest, dammit, and his armor was hot and his palms were getting sweaty and he just wanted it to be over with. He was maybe a tiny bit nervous.
“Show yourself!” he demanded, voice ringing and echoing back from the belly of the cave, and everything around them was suddenly silent.
“Roar!” a voice boomed from the depths of the darkness, and a burning piece of wood hurtled out to bounce along the ground and roll to a stop at Jon’s feet. He poked it with his toe, brow furrowed in puzzlement.
“Did the dragon actually just say roar?” Spencer asked carefully, with the tone of voice that suggested they were all currently questioning their sanity. “Because that’s what I heard.”
“That’s what I heard, too,” Jon put in, still looking befuddled.
“And then it breathed wood on fire,” Ryan added helpfully.
Brendon was beginning to feel uncertain about his whole plan of action. “Come out and face me, fire-breather!” he challenged. Insulting your enemy was one of the first things they taught in knight training, but Brendon had never been very creative about it. It was hard to come up with flowery descriptions on the spot. He should have asked Ryan to write something down for him in advance.
There was another flurry of hissing whispers, louder this time. “We don’t have a plan for this!” emerged, before there was a louder shushing sound and everything fell silent again.
Brendon wondered if perhaps the dragon was schizophrenic. “We?” he echoed cautiously, half-twisting to catch a glimpse of Jon, Ryan, and Spencer behind him.
Ryan shrugged. “Maybe it has multiple personalities,” he suggested, confirming Brendon’s theory.
“Maybe it has a prisoner,” Jon offered, scratching the stubble on his chin.
“Maybe,” Spencer said dryly, “we’ve got the wrong cave.”
“I don’t know,” Brendon said dubiously. “It did say roar.”
“We have to go in,” Spencer said, determined, and Brendon opened his mouth to politely disagree with that course of action when a voice from inside the cave yelled, “No!”
Brendon paused again. “I am here to face you,” he told the disembodied voice firmly, his hands only shaking a little. “Come out and fight me like a m—a dragon!” he corrected hastily.
There was a brief lull, and then an unhappy voice, pitched low, said, “This isn’t working, Gee.”
“I know,” another voice said, sounding distinctly unhappy about it. “Maybe they’ll just go away.”
“I don’t think so,” another voice put in. “They sound pretty serious.”
Brendon wasn’t sure whether he ought to respond to that or not. “We are,” he said finally, still speaking loudly. “Very serious.”
The dragon sighed. “Don’t kill me, okay, I’m coming out,” one of its voices said glumly, and a rather pale and disappointed-looking man emerged from the cave, blinking in the sunlight.
Before Brendon had a chance to properly process the notion of a shape-shifting dragon, another man appeared beside the first, this one shorter and more fierce-looking, clutching a dull knife.
“If you try to kill him, you’ll have to go through me first,” the guy said defiantly, brandishing his knife with the skill of one who actually knew how to use it. Brendon shifted his attention worriedly between his two unexpected targets and hoped he wasn’t wrong by determining the smaller one as the greater threat. He was the more experienced knight; he didn’t want to leave Jon with a larger portion of the fighting.
“Me too,” someone else put in, and a tall, skinny guy followed the others out into the light. This one seemed mostly bored, and not too terribly concerned by the threat of cave-invaders, but he was at least stepping up. He scratched behind his ear and his feet turned inwards, knees knocking together.
“He’ll have to go through all of us,” a new voice stated, overriding the others, and a blond man with a beard came out and crossed his arms over his chest. Brendon hastily re-assessed his primary threat.
“Well, not me,” yet another person put in, this one staying out of sight for a moment longer before shuffling up next to the first guy. “I mean, I’ve got your backs and all, but I’m a baker.” His hair caught the light and burned red. Of all of them, if Brendon had to guess, he thought this one was probably most likely to be a shape-shifted dragon.
It was five against four, then. Brendon adjusted his grip on his sword and cleared his throat. “We’re only here to slay the dragon,” he explained politely, in case they didn’t necessarily need to engage in combat while outnumbered. “If we have the wrong cave, I apologize for the disturbance.”
“No,” the first guy sighed, running his hand through disheveled black hair. “You have the right cave.”
“Are you the dragon?” Brendon asked carefully. Spencer snorted a little derisively, but Brendon had seen a man turned into a singing top hat. He wasn’t taking any chances.
“No,” the guy answered. “Well, yes. We are the dragon. But we’re not actually a dragon.”
The short knife-wielder rolled his eyes. “Way to be helpful, Gee,” he said.
“There’s a knight, Frank, I’m trying to explain.” Brendon’s opponent – who might or might not be a dragon – took a deep breath and said, “I’m Gerard. I’m, uh, that is…there’s not really a dragon.”
Brendon was startled, and not a little dismayed. Gerard’s expression appeared to mirror his. “What?” he asked, confused. “That’s not possible. There have been reports.”
“Yeah,” Gerard said abashedly, toeing the dirt in a small semi-circle. “We kind of made those up.”
“Well, not all of them,” Frank corrected. “Ray started most of the rumors, and we built a fire to blow some smoke out of the cave, and it went from there.”
“Who’s Ray?” Jon asked.
The baker raised his hand meekly. So, Brendon thought, not the dragon after all.
“I don’t understand,” Brendon said. “The dragon was killing livestock.”
“I told you we shouldn’t have taken that sheep,” the blond bearded menace said, scowling.
“We needed realism, Bob,” Gerard replied, flailing his arms a little. “Authenticity. Clearly it worked.”
“Yeah, and clearly there’s a knight here to kill us now,” Bob retorted.
“Not really,” Brendon tried, still terribly bewildered. “I’m just here to kill the dragon.”
“We are the dragon,” Gerard said again. The skinny guy looked up, scrunched his nose, and bobbed his head in agreement. Brendon felt like his whole world was falling in on him.
“But…but why?” he asked blankly.
The skinny guy shrugged. “Gee feels like not enough people believe in magic anymore,” he offered by way of explanation.
“Not real magic, anyway,” Gerard said, taking over. “Not dragons and unicorns and fairies magic. Just the cheap enchantments people do to impress the court.”
“Hey,” Ryan objected, affronted.
“No offense,” Frank said, finally putting his knife away but leaving a hand on the hilt, like he was ready to draw it again if needed. Brendon suddenly realized how tired his arms were and let his sword drop, feeling very foolish. “But hardly anyone sees that stuff. We wanted something bigger. Something for people to really look up to and be in awe of.”
“And look what happened,” Gerard said mournfully. “You showed up to kill it.”
Brendon abruptly felt like the most horrible person on the planet. “I’m sorry,” he said meekly, wishing he could get out of his ridiculous armor. “I didn’t know.”
“Hey,” Spencer argued, coming up beside him and resting a hand on his arm, glaring at the assembled dragon-propagandists. “It’s not his fault, people were afraid. There were livestock being taken and farms could have been in danger.”
“That may not have been the best idea,” Bob admitted.
“We were going to do a unicorn for Mikey,” Frank told them, “but we couldn’t find a horse white enough that we could tie a horn onto. The dragon idea seemed easier.”
Mikey shrugged, fatalistic.
“It was also really fucking cool,” Gerard enthused, eyes gleaming briefly with the memory. “I mean, a dragon.”
“I know,” Brendon agreed regretfully. “That is really awesome.”
“It is,” Jon agreed, clearing his throat. “We came all this way because of it. So, I mean, that’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah,” Bob agreed. “We just wish you’d been more in awe and less prone to brandishing swords.”
“So I guess that’s over,” Gerard said, before Brendon could apologize again. He sighed. “Maybe…I mean, it’s good that people believed, right? For a little while?”
Brendon glanced at Spencer. Spencer raised his eyebrows. Further back, Jon caught his eye and shrugged a little. Ryan just looked thoughtful.
“Maybe,” Brendon said carefully, “maybe we wouldn’t have to tell.”
Spencer frowned at him. “What, just say you killed it?” he asked doubtfully.
“Ryan,” Brendon said immediately, although part of him ached to say it. “Ryan killed it. The queen would believe that, and we could make something up about how he did it, why there’s no body. He’s already the court magician, he’s earned his position. No one would question it.”
Jon scratched at his chin. “They might,” he said contemplatively. “Traditionally, we’d need to bring back some sort of proof.”
“Oh,” the one who must have been Mikey said, brightening a bit and straightening up. “We’ve got that. Sort of.”
“Mikey,” Gerard said warningly.
“It’s over, Gee, you tried,” Frank said, sympathetic. “Show them the egg. Maybe they can do something with it.”
“The what?” Spencer asked.
“Hang on,” Frank said, and disappeared back into the cave. Bob sighed and followed him in, “To make sure he doesn’t break it or his fucking neck,” leaving the rest of them staring at each other and waiting.
“You have a dragon egg?” Spencer tried again. Brendon’s eyes widened.
“Here,” Frank announced, puffing as he trotted back out of the cave. There was something large cradled in his arms, something that looked like a slate-grey, oblong rock. Brendon eyed it doubtfully, not sure whether to feel hopeful or disappointed.
“We found it in the cave,” Bob volunteered, hooking a thumb back over his shoulder. “It’s where we got the dragon idea in the first place.”
“Is it alive?” Brendon asked, still unsure.
Ryan reached his hand out hesitantly, and his eyes grew large and round when he touched the thing’s rough surface. “It’s magical,” he said, looking up at them. “Not just a charmed object, either. I can feel it.”
“It’s really a dragon egg?” Spencer asked in surprise. After the earlier disappointing non-existent dragon revelation, Brendon felt much the same way.
“We think so,” Gerard said, and then blinked at Spencer. “Oh hey, you must be the princess.”
Spencer looked startled. “Why would you say that?” he asked, clearly catching himself from saying something else at the last minute.
Gerard just smiled. “You’re obviously in disguise,” he pointed out. “Peasant girls don’t usually come along on quests to slay dragons. Especially not with court magicians and knights. Not that they shouldn’t, because they totally should,” he added earnestly. “But it doesn’t usually seem to work out that way.”
Spencer appeared flummoxed by this display of logic. Brendon himself was thoroughly impressed.
“Your highness,” Frank said, bobbing a little curtsy-bow. “Would you keep this egg safe for us?”
“We wouldn’t entrust it to just anyone,” Ray added. “But we know you’ll take care of it.”
“I…Thank you?” Spencer said, baffled.
“There must be a reason you came along on this quest, right?” Gerard said excitedly. “Maybe this is it, to be the keeper of this treasure.”
“I came along to keep these idiots from getting themselves killed,” Spencer replied, but he was smiling, and when Frank handed him the egg, he accepted it with extreme care.
Jon leaned over curiously to look at it. “So,” he said in a soft voice, reverently touching the egg cradled in Spencer’s arms, “maybe this will make people believe in magic again.”
“Yeah,” Mikey said thoughtfully, tilting his head, “but I still think we’re gonna do the unicorn.”
The journey back to the castle was uneventful in comparison. They spent a night with Tom building a bonfire, where Tom and Jon got ragingly intoxicated and sang songs about being knights and Brendon joined in, when he wasn’t with Spencer, carefully tending the precious dragon’s egg close to the fire.
They managed to avoid rogues and villains of all types, although there was a note pinned by an arrow to a tree that said, do-gooding bandits-for-hire currently unavailable, please check back later, which Brendon hoped meant that there were no kidnappings in progress.
The town that had been plagued by sorceresses was thriving, and sent them along with an overflowing fruit basket, handpicked from a towering stack of produce marked ‘for the
fair seasonal trade event.’
All-in-all, it had been a very successful quest, apart from how it really wasn’t at all.
Their return to the royal presence was heralded with much hugging and scolding, along with severe admonishments about princesses who ran off without telling their mothers first. Brendon suspected Spencer would be wearing corsets and puffy beribboned sleeves for weeks.
They presented the dragon egg in court, along with a daring and inventive tale about how Ryan had defeated their scaly foe, and everyone ooh-ed and ahh-ed appropriately. Ryan was given a shiny medal, and he looked embarrassed about it, but polished it carefully where it hung among his collection of floral traveling scarves. Jon, true to Brendon’s prediction, was knighted on the spot for services to the crown, and beamed with a dazed expression for the rest of the ceremony.
Sir Saporta caught them after court, dragging a glowing Lord Beckett behind him. “Someone looks happy,” Jon commented, folding his arms in amusement. “I take it the kidnapping went well?”
“We didn’t make it,” Sir Saporta replied, grinning from ear-to-ear. “The craziest shit happened while you were gone. This sorceress showed up, claiming to be the font of all wisdom or whatever, and threatened to turn the kingdom to ruin.”
The four of them exchanged troubled looks. “Greta?” Brendon asked, worried.
“That’s the one,” Sir Saporta answered, snapping his fingers. “So I challenged her to a riddle contest.”
“And you won?” Jon said, surprised.
“I did,” Sir Saporta affirmed. He wiggled his fingers. “I may have had help, but I’m not telling. So anyway, the queen bestowed an honorary title on me, with my own land, and approved my request for William’s hand.”
“So here we are,” Lord Beckett said, shrugging one shoulder and utterly failing to look nonchalant behind his smile. “Newlyweds.”
“What happened to the sorceress?” Ryan asked.
Sir Saporta just grinned harder. “Oh, that was part of the terms of the challenge,” he told them smugly. “If she lost, she had to stay here at court in the service of the queen.”
“Great,” Ryan said, not looking terribly thrilled about that prospect.
“She’s also married now,” Lord Beckett added. “To our newly appointed court bard.”
“Patrick is here?” Brendon asked, perking up a little.
“Oh yeah, you know him?” Sir Saporta said. “He’s written a great ballad, all about being an enchanted top hat. It’s pretty wild.”
“You don’t say,” Spencer said dryly.
“Anyway, we’ve got to go,” Sir Saporta announced, pulling Lord Beckett closer and draping an arm over his shoulders. “Honeymoon. We’re going on a pirate cruise.”
“With real pirates?” Brendon asked, torn between alarm and envy.
“Sort of. Pseudo-pirates. I know some people,” Sir Saporta replied, wiggling his fingers vaguely. “They stole a boat for us. Anyway, we’ve got to make the tide, so we’ll see you crazy kids in a few weeks, okay? You can tell us all about the dragon!”
“Right,” Brendon said, his enthusiasm wilting. Suddenly he didn’t feel like talking much to anyone, not when it was all a fabrication.
They hugged Sir Saporta and Lord Beckett goodbye, and then Jon went off to get fitted for his new armor and Ryan set out to find Pete, leaving Brendon staring at the mountains looming far away on the horizon.
“Hey,” Spencer said quietly, nudging him. “What are you moping for? We made it back alive, and we have a dragon egg to show for it.”
“You have a dragon egg,” Brendon corrected. “Ryan has a medal and a new court bard. Jon is a knight. Sir Saporta and Lord Beckett are married, and I have…” His shoulders slumped. “A lie. I didn’t do anything glorious, or worth writing a ballad about. I went on a quest and came back with nothing.”
Spencer stood next to him for a while, silent, and finally said slowly, “You know none of it would have happened without you, though, right? I mean, it’s not like you were just along for the ride. You’re what kept us going.”
“I guess,” Brendon responded, shrugging. He didn’t know how to put into words how disappointed he felt, how all of his big dreams had somehow become nothing but smoke. “I just thought it would be different. I thought I could come back and be something…more.”
Spencer leaned in a little closer, so that their arms were touching. “You saved me from bandits,” Spencer reminded him.
“They were already going to let you go,” Brendon said, rolling his eyes. “I couldn’t even do that much. Besides, you would have found a way to rescue yourself.”
“Maybe,” Spencer agreed noncommittally. He let Brendon brood for a few minutes, and then said lightly, “I guess that means we just have to try again.”
Brendon glanced sideways at him. “What?”
“We have to go on another quest,” Spencer repeated patiently. “All of us. We did well enough this time, don’t you think? Besides the dragon part, and that wasn’t our fault.”
“Yes, but…” Brendon began, and stopped, brow furrowed. “What would we do? There aren’t a lot of dragons running around, that’s why it was a good quest in the first place.”
“I don’t know,” Spencer said slowly. “I think I remember hearing something about pirates.”
“But that was…” Brendon started again, and then realized what Spencer was saying. Sir Saporta had to have gotten a boat from somewhere, and where there was one pirate ship, there would be more. And maybe even treasure. He smiled as understanding dawned, and Spencer grinned back. “Your mother will never let you go,” he pointed out.
Spencer shrugged. “We’ll work something out. I can always run away again. I’m not letting you go alone.”
The back of Spencer’s hand brushed his, and then his wrist turned, so that when Brendon turned his as well he could press their palms together, and hesitantly link their fingers. Spencer was a little pink in the sunlight, and it could have been from riding for so many days or it could have been something else.
“No,” Brendon affirmed softly. “I don’t want to go without you, either.”
Spencer leaned in first, probably because he had opinions about Brendon’s chivalrousness and knew he wouldn’t, but Brendon wasn’t really all that chivalrous when it came to some things, particularly Spencer, so he was only a second behind. Their lips met very softly, and when no lightning struck or angry chaperones appeared to chastise him, Brendon relaxed a little bit to properly enjoy it. He smiled when they finally pulled away, and Spencer smiled back and kissed him again.
By the time they broke apart the next time, Brendon was slightly breathless and Spencer was even more pink and they were definitely outside the bounds of proper chivalry, but Brendon couldn’t really bring himself to care. He might not be worthy of Spencer yet, but he would be. He would go on a hundred thousand quests if it meant he could have this.
Spencer licked his lips. Brendon’s heart did a little flip-flop of joy, and he snuck his arm around Spencer’s waist to keep him close. Just in case. Spencer didn’t seem to mind.
“So, pirates?” Spencer said, smiling.
“Arr,” Brendon agreed.
“Awesome,” Spencer said, squeezing his hand. “Let’s go find Jon and Ryan.”