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The Knight and the Tower

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There was once a knight called Sir Steven. And he was a very knightly type of knight. Honour, truth and justice were some of his favourite things; he was also valorous and kind. He was highly skilled at arms, strong and fast and agile. He was quite clever, which is not perhaps one of the virtues knights are most famed for; and he was chaste, although this was less an exercise in virtue than an outcome of the fact that the most virtuous knights rarely get invited to the really good parties.

Sir Steven was, however, rather on the lonely side. When you are the paramount knight in all the land, you are kept rather busy; when you are a paragon of virtue, you don't get to hear all the gossip; and when you are as handsome as the noonday sun, as the more personal ballads described Sir Steven, your brave comrades don't invite you to come wenching with them.

So Sir Steven slew dragons and rescued babies, defeated enemy knights in single combat, captured bandits and defended peasants. He rescued the occasional beauteous maiden from dreadful peril, but unfortunately they all had prior romantic attachments, and he received only sisterly embraces as he delivered them into the arms of their respective beloveds. Once, he was almost seduced by a wicked sorceress, but was rescued from her amorous clutches just in time - or perhaps even a little ahead of time, although Steven had to admit to himself that a lady passing under the sobriquet of the Bloody-Handed Queen was probably not interested in settling down.

One particularly beautiful summer, Sir Steven ventured further afield than he ever had before, pursuing basilisks that had hatched with profusion in the extreme heat. It was frustrating and bloody work that took him weeks; he was almost drowned, he fell down a crevasse, he got basilisk guts all over his enameled red armour, he was separated from his big white charger, and finally his sword was melted in the flow of acidic blood that swelled from the heart of the mother basilisk. But Sir Steven, to his other virtues, added patience and an even temper; he just sighed a little, slung his shield over his back, and began the very, very long walk home. As the sun lowered in the sky, he sighted a tall tower on the horizon; and he bent his path towards it, hoping to find shelter there.

The tower was very tall indeed, and covered with creepers; and there was no door into it. Sir Steven circled the tower twice in growing puzzlement, and then sat down to think about it. He was contemplating taking his boots off and settling down to sleep against the wall when he noticed something odd about the wall, or rather about the creeper growing on the wall. It was a light creeper, clinging tenaciously to a wall with very little grip; the stone was smooth, and the blocks fitted together so tightly the seam could barely be felt. But among the creeper tangled even finer growths, black and profuse. Steven gathered some, curiously. They didn't seem to connect to each other at all, nor to the wall, and they were smooth in his hands. He lifted his handful away from the wall, and then gave a cautious tug to see where on the high tower they began.

"Hey!" said a voice from above him, and he jumped, squinting up into the darkness. A small square glow had appeared in the distance, like a candle in a window. "Who's that pulling my hair?"

Sir Steven dropped the handful of what was now quite obviously hair, feeling terribly embarrassed. Yanking on a lady's hair was no way to say hello. He was assembling an apology when the voice came again.

"Is that you?"

Knights are taught to speak no lies; but they are also told not to mislead, so Sir Stephen had to consider his answer with care.

"Yes," he called after a moment, "But probably not the one you're expecting."

There was a scuffling from above, and the light grew a little brighter; he could just make out a figure leaning out of a window.

"I'm sorry about pulling your hair," Steven tried, "I didn't realise what it was. I was looking for shelter, you see-"

"Oh!" said the voice. "Well, come on up. I'm terribly bored." And there was more rustling and scuffling, and the hair on the wall shifted and shook.

"Come up how?

"Climb up my hair, of course."

Sir Steven paused to consider this. He was not by any count a small man, and he was wearing a suit of armour. Even if the maiden in the tower was careless of the pain such a weight would cause, it would surely only end with the maiden being dragged out of the tower and plummeting to her doom, which would be both tragic and horribly embarrassing.

"It doesn't seem very safe," he said finally.

"No, it'll be fine," said the voice reassuringly. It was pitched rather low for a maiden, but was really quite lovely, Sir Steven decided. "Hair has very impressive tensile strength. Just take handfuls of the creeper as well, to make sure you stay close to the wall. You needn't be scared."

"I meant for you!" Steven said, a little indignantly, and the voice laughed, soft and throaty.

"Oh, I see. No, it's all right; I've got a sort of pulley arrangement - anyway, just trust me, it'll be fine."

So Sir Steven took up handfuls of hair and creeper, and climbed up the tower. It was a tall tower, but Steven was strong, and before long he was sitting on a window sill with a great sweep of black hair trailing past him. He took off his helmet, and looked out over the land for a second. He could see a very, very long way. Then he turned back to the tower.

"I'm here," he called into the dimness of the chamber - or possibly it was a bower. It did contain a maiden, after all.

The hair rustled, and a tall dark figure appeared out of the darkness. It was instantly apparent to Sir Steven that unless there were several residents of the tower, there wasn't a maiden. Or if there was, the luxuriance of her hair extended to her face, where she wore it in a moustache and goatee. But Sir Steven was a courteous knight, and it would hardly have been fair to blame someone for not being a maiden. It wasn't as if he had done it to spite Steven, after all. So he smiled at the young man, who smiled back at him and sat down on the window sill next to him. Steven blinked a little at the great cascade of hair, and the man rolled his eyes.

"I know, I know. It's not my fault. It's a curse."

"A curse?" Steven perked up. Damsels were traditional, but when it came to persons in distress, Steven was very modern in his attitudes. "Perhaps I can help. I'm - my name is Sir Steven," he paused hopefully for a second, but no sign of recognition appeared, "I'm a knight. I rescue things. People. I could rescue you?"

"My name's Tony." And Tony smiled at him again. "I would love to be rescued. I've been here for years. Why don't you come in, and we'll talk about it?" Tony got up and started to light candles, and Steven swung his legs into the room and looked about with interest. There was a bed, of course, and a comfortable looking chair with thick books piled next to it. There was a little writing desk, covered in papers. And there were several big tables covered with a bizarre complexity of metal, glass, and what looked like alchemist's work. He was trying to read some of the scrawling script when Tony appeared at his shoulder.

"I've been cursed by a sorcerer," Tony explained cheerfully.

"Are you a prince?" said Steven with interest.

"No, I'm not nobility. Why would I be? Does it matter?"

"No, no! I'll rescue anyone in distress. I was just curious. I mean, sorcerers don't usually bother with peasants."

"I'm not a peasant," said Tony irritably. "My father is a very successful and prominent merchant."

"Oh," said Steven. Tony scowled at him. "I was born a peasant," he offered placatingly. The scowl disappeared, and Tony cocked his head, interested. "After my - after I was orphaned, I joined the army. And I did well. And I earned my knighthood." That was, of course, an extremely abridged telling, leaving out many events in which Steven had been devastatingly heroic, but it would do for now. "How did you offend the sorcerer, then?"

"Well, when I was quite young, my parents wanted me to marry him." Tony began pacing idly, just missing tripping over his trailing hair with every turn.

"Really? That's quite... unusual."

"Oh, they have very advanced ideas. They think sorcerers should be treated just like normal people. And it wasn't as if I minded hugely. He was very handsome." Tony glanced at Steven from under his eyelashes. "You know, tall, blond, muscular. Just the kind of thing I like."

"Oh," said Steven thoughtfully. Maidens were more traditional, of course, but there was really no need to get caught up in little details.

"Anyway, it all took a very long time to arrange, and I sort of... lost interest." Tony paced a circle round Steve, leaving a black moat of hair around him. "It all came to a head when the sorcerer came by to visit and found me - well, let's just say I can quite understand his annoyance, although he scared the poor stableboy almost into fits. So then came the carrying off and imprisoning."

"So you've been separated from your one true love, then?" asked Steven, with a touch of disappointment. Still, freeing a handsome young man from a curse and reuniting him with his lost love was a knightly endeavour.

"Well... one true love might not be entirely accurate. Or true love at all, really. Although I can confirm I was sincerely fond of all of them!" said Tony brightly.

Sir Steven considered that, and then blushed deeply. Tony circled him again, closer, and fine trails of black hair caught in Steven's armour. Tony let out a little annoyed noise and tugged on them, and Steven quickly stepped towards him to help him untangle himself. Tony's hands slipped over the articulated joints of his red-lacquered armour, and he made an interested little noise.

"I like your armour."

"Watch your fingers-"

"Stay still, then. This is very cleverly made. Does it all buckle together, or point onto the scale armour? Does the scale go all over, or only in the gaps?" Tony was unbuckling the straps of his cuirass, now, peering inside. "Oh, leather. That's sensible. But really, would it be so hard to make armour that covers the gaps too? Then you'd only need one layer."

"It's - very difficult indeed. Or so the armourers tell me," said Steven, as his gorget dropped to the floor with a muffled clanking sound. "Even the scale is awkward in joints - it's bearable under the arms, but no good for knees or elbows, really." Soft strands of hair were drifting all around him, now, as Tony swiftly picked pieces of armour off him.

"So leather, there. Is it really tough enough?" And Tony's hands slid over the leather, thoughtfully.

"Yes!" he squeaked, and blushed. "Yes," he said, in a more reasonable tone, trying to edge out of Tony's very interesting grip. "There's a balance between flexibility and protection of course - " Tony's hands closed on his belt buckle, and he took a fast step back; unfortunately, a long twist of hair had meandered around his ankles, and he staggered back several paces, taking quite a lot of Tony's hair with him, and thus Tony himself. He ended up leaning against the wall with Tony pressed up against him, smiling at him, and all right, Steven might be innocent but he could take a hint.

Sir Steven, being a good and virtuous knight, had always tried not to dwell too much on the charms of ladies. Whatever tenuous imaginings he may have had of a gentle, shy maiden who would adore him spun away like mist under the bright and shining reality of Tony, who had clever hands and a sweet mouth and - well, this isn't that kind of story, but an hour later, as Steven lay tangled up in sheets and hair and long pale limbs, listening to Tony talk, he couldn't remember ever being happier.

"...so you see, I think it's perfectly possible to turn base metals into gold. You just need the right catalyst, and enough power." Tony nodded decisively. "I think-"

"Oh," said Steven, drowsily, and spat out a little more hair. "Tony, why do you have so much hair?"

"Am I boring you?" Tony looked at him severely. "I know alchemy isn't as exciting as riding around on a horse with a sword-"

"I am very interested in alchemy," said Steven firmly. "I want you to tell me all about alchemy. And mathematics. And glassblowing, and whatever that strange contraption on the corner of the table is."

"A spherical astrolabe," said Tony helpfully, and he was smiling now.

"And I very much look forward to you explaining what it is and how it works and what you intend to do with it. And when you have finished I want you to learn new things just so I can listen to you explain them to me. Preferably when we are together just like this," and Sir Steven didn't even blush, because while modesty was certainly a fine quality there was a time and place for it, "But right now, I want to find out how we can lift this curse from you, defeat the sorcerer, and go home. And all this hair is presumably a part of that." Tony kissed him then, and there was a long pause before he settled back on the pillow and began to talk again.

"Well. The sorcerer said I'd stay in here until I agreed to marry him. I'm not sure how I got in; he put me to sleep when he stole me away, and I woke up here, with all this hair. I thought at first I'd been asleep for a hundred years, but the sorcerer said not. The astrolabe was the first thing I made him bring me, so I could check. Anyway, he uses the hair for a ladder, and it won't cut. It doesn't really tangle, either, thank goodness. I really don't know why he didn't just buy a ladder."

"So I could just go away and get a very long ladder? Or even a rope?"

"Well, I expect the sorcerer would come after me, so we should probably deal with him. Besides, if it's magic, then killing the sorcerer should break the spell, and I'll be able to cut the hair. I don't think he's a very powerful sorcerer, or he'd just fly up here. In fact, sometimes I don't think he's a sorcerer at all." And Tony frowned, thoughtfully.

"I think getting you out of here should be the priority," began Steven, and Tony shrugged.

"Why wait? We'll wait until the sorcerer gets here, I'll distract him, you stab him, and then we'll cut off my hair and use it as a rope to climb down." As plans for defeating evil sorcerers go, it was a simple but potentially effective one. There was a slight problem, though. "Where is your sword, anyway? Did you leave it with your horse?"

"It got melted by a basilisk," he said very quickly, and Tony stared at him.

"It - are you armed at all?"

"I have my shield," Sir Steven said meekly.

"Your - you have to get out of here!" and Tony scrambled out of the bed, pulling hanks of hair out from under Steve. "Up! Move! Come on!"

"But - " Steve broke off, confused as Tony shoved him before gathering up his clothes.

"Out, out, out," chanted Tony under his breath, and Steven stumbled towards the window. Tony threw the armful of leather out of the window, and then his hair after it, and began wrapping it into the hooks in the wall.

"My armour - "

"No time!"

"My shield!" Steve managed to catch up his shield as Tony pushed him towards the window, and then he was scrambling nude down the rope of hair, awkward and confused. He was on the ground searching for his clothes when he heard hoofbeats. Being still in a state of undress, he prudently retreated around the tower. The hoofbeats stopped, and a voice called out.

"Anthony, let down - oh." There was a pause. "Anthony, why is your hair down?"

"Because I heard you coming. And because the quicker you're in and running through the usual rigmarole, the quicker you're out again. And I'm very busy right now. So stop asking stupid questions." Tony sounded breathless and excited, but that apparently didn't bother the sorcerer, who shrugged, and began to climb.

Sir Steven watched until he was out of sight, and then finished collecting his clothes. He knew he was pouting, which was totally unknightly, but it was dark and no one could see him, so he kept right on at it. He'd finally found someone suitable to rescue and live happily ever after with, and it had all been going wonderfully, and now he was out here alone in the dark while a sorcerer made advances to his Tony.

Sir Steven felt, very strongly, that Tony was his now and there shouldn't be any damn sorcerers crawling around him.

He sighed to himself, thinking of Tony's bright eyes and warm smile and his... other fine qualities, and then decided, firmly, to be more of a knight about the situation. He was dressed now, at least, and he still had his shield. There was a not too spiky looking clump of bushes a little way away, if he recalled correctly; he could sleep in there. And then in the morning, he would come up with a plan to rescue his Tony from the evil sorcerer.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out quite like that. He hadn't been sleeping very long at all when the sky erupted in a thousand colours, and when he squinted up at the tower, great streams of smoke were puffing out of it. The glare of light was almost blinding, like staring into the sun. A few seconds later, a furious figure blew out of the window, and tumbled down the wall far too fast, tearing creepers and yelling. He landed with a terrible thump, and there was a moment's silence before he began yelling again, gesturing furiously up at the tower. The tower remained silent, and before long the sorcerer gave up, limped over to his horse, and rode away.

Sir Steven waited a little while for the colours to drain out of the sky, and then he approached the tower, which still had a faint eldritch light hanging about it. There were very few creepers left on the front, and there was a lot of hair scattered over the ground. Steven eyed it worriedly as he called up to the tower.

"Tony? Tony, are you there?" He sighed with relief as a figure appeared at the window, and then frowned. It wasn't really unexpected, but it was disconcerting to see Tony without all that hair.

"Hi, Steve," said Tony in breezy tones.

"Are you all right?"

"Fine. Had a bit of a haircut, and I'll tell you, the back of my neck feels naked."

Sir Steven blushed. "How - I can't climb up."

"Well, no. But don't you worry about me. I've got all sorts of plans."

"That's - good?" Steven rested his gloved hands against the wall, stared up at Tony. He couldn't really see his expression at this distance. "Tony, I - let me help. What can I do?"

"Nothing, really. Look, I'll look you up when I get out of here, all right?"

"I - " Steven stopped speaking and swallowed several times. "Can I have my armour, please?" There was a pause.

"I don't think throwing it down would be very good for it." Tony's voice was gentle. "I'll get it back to you when I get out. Now you should probably get going before the sorcerer comes back." And he vanished back into the tower.

Without his armour, the walking was much faster. He wasn't hungry at all, so it didn't matter that he didn't have any food. Hopeless love was really quite a knightly kind of thing.

None of it helped. Sir Steven trudged miserably along the road. He helped a widow woman carry her wet laundry back from the river. He helped a farmer drag his handcart out of the ditch. He rescued two small children from a large dog that only wanted to play, and broke up a fistfight by putting his hands on his hips and glowering menacingly.

His glower, at least, had improved.

On the second day of his walk, things started to look up. He was challenged by a mysterious knight, and he hit the man so hard with his shield he fell right off his horse. The knight departed in high dudgeon, and Sir Steven kept the horse, which was a rather unpleasant shade of yellowish brown, but had a kind eye and enough muscle to carry Steven's not inconsiderable weight. The increased speed cheered him up somewhat, and he was starting to consider the possibilities of some kind of folding ladder when a dreadful metallic booming sound came from the sky, as if thunder had started wearing plate armour.

The horse danced uneasily as Steven looked about him with a frown. Back the way he had come from, the blue sky was stained with darker colours, and he could just make out two figures fighting in the sky, spraying light and making terrible sounds. He hesitated a long moment, then turned his horse back along the road. At a fast trot, and without stopping, the distance went by much quicker, but he rather thought the swooping, diving figures in the sky were coming in his direction, too. He had dismounted to lead his horse down a rocky slope when a crisis was reached overhead; with a sound of grinding metal, the two plummeted downwards, locked together, and impacted with a terrifying sound. Steven carried on slowly down the slope until it was safe to mount again, and then urged his horse to a canter. It would not be kind to the horse to make it gallop under his weight.

He reined in with a gasp of relief when he saw a figure in familiar armour walking down the road towards him. He waited, grimly, until the figure stopped beside him before dismounting on the other side of the horse. Blue eyes gazed at him from above a golden visor, and he glared.

"My helmet didn't have a visor."

"I've made some improvements," said Tony's voice. "It turns out it is possible to turn base metals into gold, by the way, but you need a lot of power." Steven frowned.

"You were flying. Are you a sorcerer now?"

"Bite your tongue. No, I managed to steal his power source last night - after he cut my hair, and before I pushed him out of the window. So he went away to fetch his spare, and make something to let him fly up to my window with. So I made a few modifications to your armour, and when he came back, I was ready for him. I don't think he was a sorcerer at all. I can't wait to figure out how the power works." And he tapped the blue glow in the centre of his breastplate.

"My armour *flies* now?" He could see gold at the joints now, filling in all the gaps of the armour.

"Well... it does fly. But I don't think it will fit you anymore, to be honest. I had to take out quite a lot over the shoulders..." He lifted the golden visor, and laughed at Steven's frown. "But here I am! You can rescue me now."

"Rescue you from what?"

"Sore feet," said Tony promptly. "I've not had to walk more than ten feet at a time for years, and my feet hurt, and you have this nice horse... it's a horrible colour, by the way, you should get a better-looking one." Sir Steven stared at him, and then knightly training rushed to his aid.

"Of course," he said, politely. "Help yourself. I quite enjoy walking. You see so much more." Tony frowned at him.

"Aren't you going to help me mount?" he said pointedly. "This armour is quite heavy, you know."

"I know," said Steven from between gritted teeth, and passed over the reins before walking round the horse. He grabbed the stirrup and held it for Tony, and Tony rested a hand on his shoulder and leaned in close.

"Aren't you going to ask why the sorcerer cut my hair?" he asked, and Steven felt himself start to blush at the warm breath on his cheek.

"Why did he?" he asked.

"Because I made him very angry."

"I can believe that," said Sir Steven sourly, and winced slightly. That really wasn't knightly at all. But Tony just laughed, and leaned closer, arm slipping around Steven's neck.

"I told him someone else had climbed up it. I told him I'd met a knight in shining armour and found true love," he said softly, and Steven turned his head to look into Tony's eyes.

"Were you just saying that to make him angry?" he asked, feeling hope welling up, and Tony rolled his eyes.

"No. No I wasn't. Now kiss me, then help me get on this -" It was, possibly, impolite to interrupt the person in distress one was rescuing, but to be honest, Tony was absolutely terrible at being rescued, so he was in no position to criticize when Steven pushed him up against the docile horse and kissed him passionately. He only stopped when Tony tugged quite forcefully on his hair, and began to complain about his sore feet. So he helped Tony up onto the horse, and they began the journey home.

 

"You walk very slowly, you know. You're really slowing me down."

"Sorry, Tony."

"Do you think I could be a knight, now I have armour?"

"I expect so."

"I could fight dragons."

"We could fight dragons."

"Haven't you already fought dragons?"

"I'm sure it will be much more fun with you."

"I should think it will be." And Tony smiled at Steven, who took his hand and squeezed it. It was not, perhaps, the most conventional of happy endings, but Sir Steven was such a good and virtuous knight in general that he can be forgiven some slight irregularities in his story.