(At only 17,269 words, it’s a quick read)
The witch stared at the remains of her ruined cabin and flapped her hands uselessly. The mule, which James had dubbed, “Old Gluepot” struggled to its feet, shrugging off lumber with a clatter into the heap. It snorted and commenced to aimless wandering, the chest still firmly strapped to its forehead.
“You!” she shrieked, recognizing the men as they strolled forward.
“Yeah, us,” Wardstein said agreeably. He yawned and stretched. It had been a long journey and he was getting tired of all this shouting and fighting. “We know you’re behind what’s going down at Castle Georg,” he said vaguely.
In her rage, the witch took the bait. Perhaps she was also somewhat stupid or senile. At any rate, like all villains, she was in a mood to spill the beans on her evil plans. “So! You’ve learned my protégé murdered Lady Georg, and is even now working her charms on Georg himself!” The veil she concealed her hideous face with flapped as she spoke. “Well, you’re too late, Wardstein! Lady Georg is now in the ground, and my loyal apprentice Teufel has already secured a marriage proposal from Georg. They take the vows tonight at sundown! And you are NOWHERE near the castle!” She cackled with excitement. Nearby, the corpse of the impaled contractor spasmed disturbingly. “And now, Baron von Wardstein,” the witch relaxed, raising her finger threateningly. “Now, I shall feast on your souls.” Her fingertip began to glow as she summoned her terrible powers.
“Oh yeah? Come get some,” Wardstein sneered. “James – NOW!” he roared.
James leaped forward, executing a perfect mid-air somersault, snatching the Goblin Dagger from the forehead of the downed contractor as he flipped, his long blue garments rustling like the cape of some long-ago hero. Landing on one knee, he flicked his hand overhead, releasing the magical dagger with a flourish. It flashed through the forest air, catching the meagre light as it flew, neatly chopping the witch’s hand from her wrist and thumping into a tree behind. The hand ceased glowing immediately and dropped to the forest floor like a dead spider.
“VRONKKK!” the witch howled. Blood sprayed gaudily from her stump, and she lunged about desperately, hosing everything in the vicinity to the amusement of the men. At last, she staggered backwards, one lethal weapon remaining – her magically hideous face, which would kill anyone who dared to gaze upon it.
“Taste your death!” the witch shrieked, reaching for her veil with her remaining hand.
“Gimme some sugar, baby,” Wardstein replied. “Guys! Don’t look at her face! Kyle!” At that second, Wardstein noticed Kyle daydreaming and looking at the witch, so he shoved him into a nearby mud puddle. He landed on his face with a tremendous splash.
“Hey!” he howled in annoyance. “I can’t see!” At that moment, the witch tugged free her veil, and James and Wardstein shielded their faces.
Nearby, Old Gluepot had been munching on forest moss. Raising his head, he turned to see what all the fuss was about, and beheld the terrible visage of the ancient witch. He goggled momentarily at the sight, moss dropping from his mouth. He managed one moaning honk before his head exploded in a sudden wet bang. Velvety chunks of flesh pattered in all directions, and his carcass settled into the dirt.
“OLD GLUEPOT!” James sobbed in horror. He had been planning on decapitating the mule later on, but now that plan was completely ruined. “Wardstein, do something!” he yelled desperately.
Eyes shut, Wardstein nocked an arrow in his great Elvish bow and set it fly with a twang. It flew harmlessly into the woods. Grunting in frustration, he tried again, but once more the arrow flew wide. Uncanny was the bow’s accuracy, but it aided little with a blind archer. The witch advanced closer, knowing she held the ‘upper hand.’ The blood continued to spray from her stump, but she would remain deadly. Just long enough. She cackled, sensing victory.
Wardstein was suddenly seized with inspiration. “James!” he yelled. “Your shaving mirror! Now! DO IT NOW!” Nearby, Kyle flopped pathetically in the mud puddle.
James reached into his pocket, withdrawing his favourite gilded mirror, and thrust it in the direction of the witch. “Here’s looking at you, baby!” he yelled.
Caught offguard, the witch turned, and saw herself unveiled in the mirror for the first time in her life. “NOOO!!!” she howled. Her head inflated obscenely, eyes bulging and steam jetting from her nostrils. At last, with a tremendous blast, her head detonated. A red mist hung briefly in the air and then rained down on her filthy corpse.
“Wow!” Wardstein remarked, looking around the clearing. Miraculously, he and James had somehow escaped being sprayed with exploding witch. Sir Kyle, not so lucky – he’d sat up just in time to be splattered with several clots of sticky purple and green cerebellum. He was trying to wipe himself clean of mud and brains, without a lot of success. “Well, isn’t that a daisy!” he cried in disgust.
“So now what?” James said. “You heard her. That chick – Teufel? She’s apparently trying to gold-dig my uncle tonight!” He checked the map the dwarf had drawn. Helpfully, he’d included the location of Georg’s castle on the back. “According to the map legend, we’re like fifty miles from the castle. We’ll never get there in time!”
“Not so fast, Beast-Man,” Wardstein said. He was poking around in the ruins of the cabin until he found what he was looking for. From beneath a heap of lumber he extracted a broom. He held it aloft speculatively, and then dropped it, where it floated in space at waist level, humming faintly. “This time boys, we ride in style!” He swung aboard the witch’s magical broom. “Everybody on! Not you, Kyle. You can hang out here while we handle things at the castle.”
Dripping blood and brain remnants, Sir Kyle hung his head sadly. He had not distinguished himself recently.
“Just kidding, big guy! You can ride in the bitch seat behind James. Let’s go!” Sir Kyle brightened and clattered over to the broom, jumping aboard the back.
“Wardstein, hold on, I’ve just got to grab the chest,” Kyle said. “Good thing I noticed we hadn’t mentioned that detail until just now, and that the exploding mule head it was tied to apparently had no effect on it.”
“Err, right you are Sir Kyle. Okay, let’s make like a tree, and get outta here!”
Magical revving noises began to emanate from the broom.
James whooped in excitement as the broom squealed skyward, wishing in that moment for some kind of ornamental hat appropriate for the ride.
“Pilot to bombardier, pilot to bombardier.” James held his hands up to his eyes like goggles and smiled gleefully, the air around him swooshing satisfactorily through his long hair.
“Bombardier ready,” Wardstein replied to him. He held a loosely wrapped chunk of mule intestines aloft.
“Bombs away!” James yelled. Wardstein casually released his grip, then watched as the ‘bomb’ spiraled down soundlessly.
“Classic,” James said, and nodded. “That was the last one?”
“A salute to thee, then, Old Gluepot,” James said, and waggled his fingers in what may have been a nervous twitch.
Kyle was having trouble keeping track of everything. He didn’t like heights. Also, he still had mud on his face. And his seat near the back of the broom left a lot to be desired. The witch had put an after-market exhaust on it and it didn’t quite fit. This resulted in more than the usual amount of broom engine noise (which Kyle thought was likely the point) but it also was terrible as far as emissions were concerned. These witches had no care for anyone else. Climate change, people. Kyle shook his head.
“What happened to Tim-Tak?” he asked Wardstein, having to yell over the noise.
“Who?” Wardstein yelled back.
“Never mind,” Kyle said, deciding he didn’t care.
The ground whizzed beneath them at a moderate speed. Kyle had originally thought the broom powerful, but had later realized it was a combination of the fabricated muffler noise and his not having seen a magic broom in some time. He now knew that it probably had about 75Up. And that was stock, brand new. This model was at least a decade old and had not been properly maintained. That, combined with that god-awful exhaust was probably robbing it of about 10Up. Ten unicorns slaughtered for nothing. Kyle shook his head again. Movement caught his eye. Approaching from behind and to the right was another, much larger flying broom. Before he could alert the others, the noise from its roaring engine did so for him. Their heads snapped back in unison and watched as the broom, a two-seater, slowed to pull up next to them. A muscular man with gold chains and a muscle shirt rode in the passenger seat. His hair was slicked back and he had a sneer on his face. The driver, who was presumably a witch, looked nothing like the old hag they had killed at the cabin. She was lush and full bodied, wearing a sleek broom-suit that would protect her in the event of a skid; though, ironically, no helmet. Her long hair blew in the breeze even more satisfactorily than James’ was. Kyle had a hard time not staring. She wore a slight, mocking smile.
“Hey fun boys,” the man jeered at them. “You lovers out for a cruise?”
The woman tittered her amusement.
“Uh…” James stammered.
The man put his arm around the woman’s shoulders and squeezed her close. He looked at James.
“You have the hair for it, maybe, but I like my women to have a figure.” He leered at the woman, who swatted at him playfully.
“And you, big guy!” the muscled man addressed Wardstein. “Are you the meat of this manwich?” He roared uproariously.
Wardstein opened and closed his mouth like a fish.
“This one had some grievous head injury,” he continued, indicating Kyle. “He is almost too pathetic to make fun of.”
“What happened to your face, you silly armored farce?”
“I—” Kyle began, but was cut off.
“—Did one of your boyfriends kiss you too hard?” More laughter.
“C’mon baby,” he said to the woman, “I tire of these losers. Show these fun boys what this broom can do.”
Their broom revved loudly and accelerated like a rocket in front of them, banking sharply to make its way back. It approached like a missile, making the three men duck and the broom wobble violently. With some effort James kept it under control. The broom zoomed past them again, this time crossways. The wind buffeted them and nearly upset the broom again. The man and woman executed a tight loop that Kyle couldn’t help but marvel at. They spun effortlessly, the broom having more than enough power to execute all kinds of cool maneuvers. They made a few more loops around the three men, nearly tossing them from the broom with every pass. Eventually they pulled up beside them again. The man was still sneering. He patted the broom.
“That’s the best broom money can buy, fun boys. The Bvrroom Mach II. I got this one for my babe, cause she’s super sexy like that.” The woman smiled.
The man looked at his beautiful companion. “What do you call three grown men sharing a broom made for an old woman?”
She shrugged. Even that was graceful, Kyle noted.
“Homosexuals,” he finished, deadpan.
The two looked at each other for a moment and then dissolved into laughter. Kyle felt his face flush. In front of him Wardstein growled and reached for his bow.
“Easy, lover-boy,” the man said, holding up his hands. Or, more accurately, using his hands to hold up a polearm, which he thrust at Wardstein, sending him tumbling towards the ground.
“Hey now–” James said. It looked like he was going to continue, but he too was unseated and falling before he could.
Kyle made a split second decision. He was no fool, and he knew that now was his only opportunity. He could distinguish himself now or momentarily be tumbling to the ground knowing he was a coward. He made his move.
“You are the prettiest woman I have ever seen, we should get together sometime. This jerk is no good for you–“
And with that, he too was falling.
Archduke James opened his eyes and saw clouds, but he no longer had the sensation that he was falling. Lifting his head, he felt a sharp pain in his spine and, wincing, he fell back again and let his muscles relax, which had the unexpected effect of releasing a long, choppy fart. He laughed excitedly. “Your turn, Baron!” James grinned and waited for Wardstein’s response. At first, whenever someone ‘sounded off,’ as they liked to call it, the other would try to squawk back in the same key, but after a while that became too easy. It was at that point when the two had deconstructed the form altogether and invented one that was completely their own. Something they called Freestyle.
There were no ‘rules’ to Freestyling, per se, just as there had been none in their first incarnation of the game, since James and Wardstein’s ears were trained to the point where if one or the other came in a little too sharp or too flat while mimicking the other’s lead, they would simply concede the loss with a somber nod or by avoiding eye contact. On some occasions though, the two would defer to Sir Kyle, whose ears hadn’t needed training. Born with perfect pitch, he served as an infallible judge whenever the rulings got really tricky. By the firelight, where the game typically got under way, Kyle would patiently look up from his book at the other two, brace his pipe between his teeth and say, ‘C-Minor Seventh, Diminished,‘ or something to the effect. Someone would hoot, someone would kick a cloud of dirt, and the knight would then resume his reading: Waste Matter Monthly; Dung Digest; The Brier Pipe Periodical; Girls of the Opium Harvest; and other such subscriptions he carried about with him.
Things likely would have gone on peacefully in that fashion, but it got to be that whenever Wardstein was declared the loser, he would challenge Kyle’s decision and accuse him of being biased, owing to James being King Paulus’s kid, and Paulus being Kyle’s boss. Kyle had denied it, and truthfully. He was a natural arbitrator and, combined with his piety and complete lack of inhibition due to his rampant opium consumption, he was the unsung reason James and Wardstein had become so proficient as quickly as they did.
“Then I suppose it’s because I go out of my way to hurt your feelings all the time then, huh?” Wardstein would growl. “That it? Because I ridicule you for my own fleeting enjoyment all the time?”
In response, Kyle simply shook his head, not wanting to take the bait. What he kept to himself was that his recurring head injuries had pretty much done away with his ability to discern one note from another, along with another bodily function or two he used to take for granted.
And so Freestyling was born, out of spite and necessity, whereby James and Wardstein would try to outfart one another not by demonstrating musical theory and technical ability as before, but by throwing caution to the wind and trying to outdo one another by any means necessary. It was understood that total disregard for one’s personal well-being—or, selfishly, another’s—would result in a high score. On one occasion, James ran at top speed and dove into the air, making his body completely horizontal. He then proceeded to deliver a high pitched fart at the apex of the jump, punctuating it with an upward inflection towards the end, which gave it an inquisitive tone. The stunt required perfect form, precise muscle control, and total resignation towards what had to happen next: but even James’s faceplant into the hard ground was unflinching, and he impacted like a felled oak. Minus the bounce.
To beat him, Wardstein had to wait until Kyle was asleep, when he tip-toed over to him by the dying fire and pressed his butt against the breastplate of his armour. He then delivered what would have been a mighty blast in its own right; but with the added reverberation caused by releasing on the steel, it was amplified throughout nature amphitheater of the canyon they stayed in that night. Also, by the way Wardstein had angled himself, the untended logs in the pit surged back to a full burn when the huge flash of blue flame hit them.
Now though, James was growing a little worried.
“Kyyyy-ulllllll?!” he yelled. Again, no response. All he heard was the chirping of grasshoppers. He frowned, remembering the staggered rate at which they had fallen from the shitty broom, and realized that it’d take some work to regroup with Wardstein and Kyle over this tough country. If he could still walk. If they were alive.
Accepting finally that his fart would not be playing to an audience, James realized that it had served another purpose: because he was not only able to hear the air escape, but feel it too, he deduced that he hadn’t been paralyzed. Bracing the nape of his neck with one hand this time, he again raised his head, and just to be certain, glanced down at his boots and attempted to wiggle his toes. Seeing them move, he exhaled in relief. With considerable effort, he then rolled over to see what had cushioned his fall and found himself staring into the bulging red eyes of a very fat and very angry-looking peasant woman. “DAHH!!!!” James shrieked, scrambling to his to his feet.
“Uh—I mean, I am Archduke James, son of Paulus the Goodheart, the ruler of these lands. One day, all of this will be mine!” He gestured a good one-eighty and grinned, but the woman only stared at him. “That, uh, was your cue to be impressed. But no matter.” James executed a 1/16th bow after quickly crunching the numbers. A high honour for someone so low on the social scale to receive a bow of even that deep, he reckoned. “Madam, I simply wish to extend my appreciation for saving my life. I’d offer you a reward, but I imagine simply being in my presence is reward enough, hmm?”
Again, the woman only stared, and James could feel himself getting angry.
Just then, a slim man carrying a hay fork appeared.
“Helene!” he cried, dropping the farming implement and running to the woman. “My beautiful wife! Monsieur, ma beautiful wife, elle est mort! She is DEAD!”
James looked at the man, and then to the woman. Then, back to the man.
“Sir, I only have one question,” James said. “Of all the corpses you could have married, why did you pick this monstrous woman?”
“She was alive when I married ‘er!” the man sobbed. “And alive five meeneets ago when I went over da rise dair for a drink in da nearby stream!! What has ‘appened to her?”
“Uh—of course I knew she was dead!” James scoffed. “I was only testing to see if you knew!” He smirked, satisfied with his comeback. Whenever he risked looking like an idiot, James would always counter with the notion that only some kind of super-idiot could such an idiotic opinion about him. “What happened to her? Well, I don’t know, but you probably should’ve warned to her to take better care of herself, you know? After a while, a person of that size simply reaches the end of the road. Yes, that’s it. Their heart simply gives out, which in turn causes the eyes to bulge, the chest cavity to cave in, and—JESUS!—blood and guts to spray, like—what would you say that is? Thirty-five, forty feet?” James quickly checked his clothes for stains and was relieved when he found none.
“But that doesn’t—“
“—-GWAHHHHHHHHHH!” A monstrous roar echoed from the distant hills! The uninitiated might assume it was some big, retarded animal; but James knew better. That was Wardstein. He was alive! Possibly in pain, but…alive.
“Sorry, Super-Idiot!” he said, flipping the peasant a coin. “You’re right, that explanation didn’t make much sense, did it? The truth is, I fell from the sky and landed squarely on her. Quite by accident though, I assure you. I had been travelling on a broomstick powered by dead unicorns, which my buddies and I stole from a witch we killed. We made her head explode! Hmm–or was that the mule’s head that exploded?” The peasant’s eyes widened in terror. “Oh, thatttt’s right—BOTH their heads exploded!”
James raised his hands to his head and made the ‘Mind Buh-Loowwnnn‘ gesture, smiling at the double meaning. He then echoed Wardstein’s roar as best he could, but in a sarcastic fashion, and made for the general direction from which it came.
Wardstein fell from the broom for what felt like a very long time. Like days. Men he’d encountered who had survived near-death experiences had told him of how the perception of time changed in moments of extreme stress or excitement. He’d dismissed these conversations as mere drunk talk from mediocre men who probably should have died, but now he had time to appreciate the moment. The warm spring air passing over his body as he fell. The distant warbling of migratory birds returning. Above, still on the broom, he saw Sir Kyle reaching forward with a plaintive expression – he was trying desperately to appeal to the broom woman? It seemed so. Way outta his league, he thought. The woman sneered, and the bigger fellow with the polearm neatly poked Kyle from the bitch seat of the broom and sent him spinning over a hill, his limbs flapping comically as he fell. Good old Sir Kyle, he thought. Always good for a belly laugh. Sans pilot, the broom spiralled somewhere into the trees and was lost from sight.
He felt the flick of a tree branch, and then another whipped his thigh. He wondered—
“HOOONT!!!” Like a dinosaur-killing asteroid, Wardstein slammed into the side of a hill. He floundered hopelessly, bouncing and rolling to the bottom, ending finally with an undignified skid on his face, raising a cartoon cloud of dust.
“Uhhhhhh,” he groaned horribly. “I need a vacation.”
Staggering to his feet, he found himself in a small wood on the edge of a cultivated field of some kind – hay, or some other such nonsense Wardstein didn’t care about. Civilization though, at any rate. Spying something at some distance, he squinted and was able to make out a castle several fields over. A really big one – had to be Castle Georg. Good, at least they’d made it this far. After losing that cool broom, Wardstein was out of ideas on how to get to that stupid castle on time. Hearing something, he turned to see a peasant girl looking at him. He relaxed immediately, accustomed to the stares of lust and admiration from the women he encountered. He grinned at her in reckless, swashbuckling fashion.
“Chrisse!” she yelled in disgust. “What’s dat smell, et calisse? Did you soil yourself? Who da hell are you?”
Wardstein jolted in surprise. He looked down to see an enormous stain spread across the crotch of his longjohns. “Er, no – I must have spilled my travel mug while I was on the broom.” He looked around, wishing his gear was closer at hand. Stupid pleasantly pudgy peasant girl. “Who are you?”
The girl shrugged, bosom bouncing. “Hime jus’ a farmer, me. Mushrooms grow ‘ere in da wood this time of year, so I’m ramasse, Hime collecting dem. My parents are farmers as well – dey are just over there in da hayfield.”
Wardstein absorbed this knowledge, not caring about her stupid family. “Look, my face hurts. I sort of landed on it. Do you have a mirror?” The girl dug around in her mushroom satchel and pulled out a crappy cosmetics mirror, flipping it neatly to Wardstein. He popped open the lid and had a look.
“GWAHHHHHHHHHH!” he shouted in surprise. In the distance, some forest rodent echoed his roar with a mimicking falsetto. It was worse that he thought – the landing on the hill had scratched his face terribly, erasing most of the cool beard he’d been working on. His face was nearly on par with Sir Kyle’s scalp! Well, these scabs would heal and fall off at least. Sir Kyle couldn’t regrow his scalp. He chuckled to himself.
“Hey girl,” he said, tossing her the mirror. “Where’s that farmhouse of yours?” Any port in a storm, he thought.
She laughed. “Har you serious? H’id rather roll in da hay wit’ ma brudder.”
At that moment, James appeared beside the crater Wardstein had left on the hillside. “Hey-ohhhh!” he called down happily. “Wait! No! Everybody hold it! Ready. Are you ready? Wardstein? And – oh. Who are you?” he said, seeing the girl.
She sighed. “Jus’ a farmer. You mus’ have met my parents back ‘dere. Dis is our farm.”
“Your parents?” James looked over the curves of the girl, mentally adding 30 years, 100 pounds and 7 stillbirths. “Right. Nope, didn’t see anyone. Now – nobody move! Wardstein, here it comes! Flipping Double Whistle!”
“No way!” Wardstein cried.
“Way! Lucky I got the hill, I need the air. Stand back!” James took a couple of bounding steps and leaped into the air, his cape flapping with a flourish. Tucking his head between his knees, he executed a mid-air somersault, and at the end of the move – very slickly executed, Wardstein had to admit – he pulled his fists back into the fabled double train whistle. At the latest possible moment, James farted, a tweeting D-note that sent a number of nearby songbirds into chirping flight. James landed on his knees, head bowed in dramatic pose, holding the note for several seconds until it faded into nothing. He looked up, beaming with pride. “Was that great or what! Key of D, did you hear that? The ‘key of glory’! Right? Am I right?”
“That was so boss! The key was a tad off, though. Unfortunately a bit minor.”
“It was not!” James yelled. “Kyle! What – oh, right. We gotta go find him.” He looked at the girl speculatively. “Uh, you wanna…”
“Nah, she said she’d rather bone her brother,” Wardstein sneered in disgust. “I’m telling you, these people are something else. Can’t even speak the King’s English. Let’s go find Kyle, he’s probably into his pipe again in a haystack someplace.”
Casting a final judgmental look back at the girl, the two men continued their excellent adventure.
This is not going to be good, Kyle thought. Not good at all. He was presently falling at what was likely terminal velocity, and although the feeling was pleasant, he couldn’t help think about what awaited him. Well, he chuckled to himself, the ground was waiting for him. There it was, in plain sight. No, the unknown was not the problem. The problem as Kyle saw it was this: he understood from previous experiences that the ground was almost uniformly hard. He also could see that because of its tremendous size it was highly unlikely he could avoid it. That, combined with his terrific speed…well, suffice to say he wasn’t really stoked on the whole idea. Stupid pole-arm muscle-broom dude. Why couldn’t he have just left well enough alone? Chick was hot, though. Kyle called out to God in his mind as he tumbled closer to the Earth. He noted no change in direction or speed. Figures, he thought. He briefly considered calling out to Satan, but the ground was too close now. Bracing for impact he wrapped his arms around his armored chest. Gotta protect the insides, he thought to himself as the air rushed all around his uncovered head. It wouldn’t matter, he knew. He was a goner. The world went soundless and white.
Moments passed. Kyle had no awareness other than his consciousness. The afterlife seemed pretty boring. “God?” he said, hopefully. No response. Kyle made a quick decision. “Look, I never liked all that monk stuff anyway. I think that you and I can get along really well. I have some ideas for the place, and I know, I know, Hades has been an institution for all of eternity or thereabouts, but I grew up on a manure farm and know dudes named Wardstein and James. They-“
“Shut-up.” A female voice. His decision had been the right one.
Kyle did as she asked.
“You have a certain regal quality about you when you are seen from a distance or are otherwise silent. But then you speak and completely ruin it.”
Kyle shrugged. His vision was clearing, the white being replaced by the vision of a ramshackle farm with gentle golden fields of some sort of field-grown crop. A castle loomed in the near distance. That was important, somehow. A women knelt before him. Kyle felt his head. It was miraculously uninjured. Or it hadn’t been recently injured, anyway. Well, not super recently. It was tender, but his hand came away dry.
“How is it that I am uninjured? It must have been divine intervention.”
“I have a knack for the arcane arts,” she replied. “I used my power to cushion your landing.”
“Phew,” Kyle sighed. “I was worried I was gonna get my bell rung really good this time. Happens to me constantly.”
“I can see that.”
“You’re the bird from the boat, yeah?”
“I suppose I am.”
“You lost your accent.”
“I was keeping up appearances. I needed to arrive in secret. Of course you and your friends ruined that.”
“We have a habit of ruining things,” Kyle agreed.
“Now I have had to cross overland in country ruled by King Georg and my archenemy.”
“Archenemy? That sounds serious. I know and an Arch-Duke,” Kyle offered. He stood up, finally, still a little surprised he was unhurt.
The woman straightened. “My sister and twin. She makes the evil of your Archduke look like…well…she is likely on par with him. But she actually is motivated. And is less, hmmm, whats a good word? Bumbling. She is equally evil but considerably less bumbling and infinitely more motivated. And also she can use magic.”
She looked deadly serious.
“So she is bad?”
She looked at Kyle for a second, then shook herself.
“Yes, she is bad,” she replied. “She has put Georg under her spell, and is using a complicated device to—“
“Whoa, whoa. I have learned just to stop people at ‘complicated’. This is too important to waste time with.”
The woman nodded her agreement. She looked to be about to speak it, too, but a noisy disturbance cut her short. They both looked over into the field adjacent to them to see two men. James and Wardstein, Kyle knew instantly. They stood together near a barn. Kyle and the woman started in their direction. Wardstein was flexing a long, vault-like pole while James motioned wildly to him. Wardstein held up a forestalling hand and when James had quieted he held up a single finger, testing the wind. Kyle and the woman were in earshot now.
“–can’t be done!” James yelled, sounding a little panicked.
“Be quiet, man. Anything can be done. What have all these years of Freestyling been for, if not for this?”
“But a twisting barn-vaulting bass-to-squeaker? Madness!”
“I can do it,” Wardstein said, sounding resolved. “I can do it.”
The two men did not notice Kyle and the woman arriving, so intent were they on the barn.
“Wind is right,” Wardstein announced, and with no further fanfare took off running towards the wagon that they had strategically placed before the barn. He quickly picked up speed and at the same time began to let out a steady, low pitched rumble from his pants. At the last second he placed his makeshift vault violently into the wagon. The pole began to flex, using the momentum the large man had created to life him up into the air. At the same time the low rumbling reached its deepest point and then began, magically, to turn around and climb the scale as if to heaven. Kyle was amazed at the grace, the power, the flatulence. And then it all came crashing down. The pole snapped, bursting into a thousand tiny wooden missiles. Wardstein, now without support, fell awkwardly and heavily onto the barn’s roof, then rolled off and fell again onto the ground. He groaned. James applauded.
“What are you doing!?” the woman yelled at them. They turned around, surprised.
“You could have gotten someone killed with your disgusting display!” she continued. “In fact,” she said pointing out into the field, “I think you may well have!”
A pitiful groan rose from the field, and she nodded.
James looked at the women, then at the ground. “Fart games,” he said quietly.
The woman shook her head. “One innocent farmer dead, because of ‘fart games.'”
“Well, one today,” James amended.
She made a disgusted sound. “Pick up your friend. Sir Kyle, come here, we are going to the castle.” She gathered her robe around her.
She looked around, eventually catching a glint of reflected sunlight on the ground off of his armor. She walked to where he lay. He was barely conscious, bleeding from the head, a largish piece of wood beside him. The woman chuckled in spite of herself.
James examined the sun’s position in the sky. It was now beginning its westerly descent, which meant he and the boys only had a few more hours until Georg was scheduled to marry Teufel, the money-hungry Succubus. He looked to the ground where Sir Kyle lay twitching and scoffed. The phallus-shaped helmet McStogie had riveted to his skull all those months ago may have been a little fashion forward at the time, but Kyle had been determined to have it removed, even it was at the expense of his safety.
“Hey Wardstein, what would you rather have: your dignity, or relative invulnerability?”
Wardstein scratched at what remained of his beard in a reflective manner, squinted, and then released what remained of his Bass-to-Squeaker, waving and bowing to some imaginary coliseum audience. “Ha! There’s your answer to that one!” He thumped his hardened leather armour. “I prefer to stay alive, man. I don’t care what people think of me.”
James nodded. “I don’t really need armour so long as I have my lucky blue coa—“
“—Ahem!” interrupted the woman, gesturing wildly to Kyle. “Your friend is DYING?”
Wardstein sniffed. “Him? Nah, this happens all the time.”
“Yeah, don’t tell us how to take care of our pal, lady!” James cawed, kneeling attentively at Kyle’s side. He examined the wound and nodded. “Just as I thought – a simple patch job. Wardstein?”
The Baron began scanning the field. “Bingo!” he announced, dropping and grabbing a fistful of a fresh cow-flop. He then proceeded to mix it with an equal amount of mud and began working in some dry straw and a few strands of beard hair that had come loose when his face impacted the ground earlier. Reaching into a slightly older cow pie, he recovered a few maggots and sprinkled them neatly on top of the mixture, raising his eyebrows at the woman. “They make it work better! Heads up, James!” He did a round-the-back throw to the Archduke, who caught it one-handed.
“I can’t believe what I’m witnessing!” Treufel’s twin exclaimed.
The Archduke smirked proudly. “Right? Partial credit to the good toss, though.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Hey, could you uh, shut up a minute?” James asked politely before turning to examine the compound. “Yep, looks good, Wardstein.” He then slapped it to Kyle’s scalp, causing him to groan in discomfort. The mixture gripped the wound, ceasing the flow of blood. “Easy there, buddy; I’m almost done. Who’s a big, brave soldier? You are, that’s who!”
James reached for Kyle’s satchel and rummaged through it. Locating the den pipe, he loaded it to the brim from Kyle’s dwindling opium reserve and set it alight. “Here, give that a puff or two, big guy.”
Murmuring unintelligibly, Kyle did as instructed and the group watched a satisfied grin creep across his face. The knight’s eyes then flew open, the pupils constricted.
“Whadda ya say there, buddy?” asked Wardstein. “Feeling any better?”
“I feel amazing!” the knight exclaimed, springing to his feet. “Sit rep!”
“Told you it would work!” James goaded, causing the witchy woman to roll her eyes. “The situation’s this: Wardstein and I just saved your life once again, so you owe us big time. Also, she just stood there gawking, so I’d be on your guard around her.”
“Relax, she’s cool,” said Kyle. “She’s the one who cushioned my fall from the broom, actually. Though I’ve got to wonder, why didn’t you just use your powers to help me just now?”
The woman frowned. “Like my evil, but equally-hot sister Teufel, I am but an apprentice of the dark arts. During the daylight hours, our powers are limited, and saving you from that fall exhausted my reserves. I’m running on empty.”
“So let me get this straight,” said Wardstein. “You’re fresh out of magical powers at the moment?”
The Baron winked at James and then latched onto the woman’s bosom with both hands for a squeeze.
“Indignant swine!” she shouted, hitting him hard across the mouth with a right hook and toppling him to the ground.
“LISTEN, morons!” she shouted. “This is important! What I’m trying to explain is that if my twin marries your uncle Georg at sundown as scheduled, her powers will immediately be at full strength, so we cannot be late in this endeavor.”
The men nodded in understanding.
“Also,” James added, “we have to make sure we deliver the all-important chest!
The woman looked to Wardstein blankly. “What’s he talking about?” The Baron only shrugged. James then pointed to the crate at Sir Kyle’s feet, which was covered with blood and dung.
“Oh riiiiight!” said Wardstein. “I keep forgetting about that thing.”
Kyle took the cue and picked up the chest, slinging it to his back with a length of cord from the satchel James had emptied all over the place. He felt powerful. Invincible, even.
“Trouble is, we don’t have much time left!” said James, gesturing to the setting sun, and then to Castle Georg, far in the distance. “And with no magic left, I take it you’re not going to be flying us there in style, are you?”
The woman swallowed hard and shook her head.
“James, look!” said Wardstein and Kyle simultaneously.
Turning, James saw a small heard of pink, sparkly unicorns grazing nearby. Noticing them, one turned in their direction and smiled. “Afternoon, fellas! Beautiful day-hay-hay, isn’t it!”
James turned back to the boys and raised his eyebrows.
The men whooped with happiness, leaping aboard their fancy new unicorns. “Man, don’t you LOVE how things always go our way?” Wardstein yelled in excitement. He pointed at James. “We totally GOT this!”
“I know, right?! Nothing can stop us!” James called. He reached down, patting his steed. “Right, boy?”
The unicorn winked exquisitely. “Mmmm-hmmm!” he asserted.
“And this time, I get my own ride, unlike on that stupid broom!” Sir Kyle cried. Maybe, just maybe, things would go his way for once. He wondered if there was time to paint something cool and ornamental on his unicorn’s flank. Oh, bollocks to that silly plan! He saluted a thunderhead he noticed looming overhead. “Hi-Yo Silver – awayyy!”
At that moment, a brilliant bolt of lightning arced from the sky, striking Sir Kyle’s unicorn precisely on the tip of its magical horn. Sparks exploded in all directions, and the animal collapsed into the dirt under Kyle with a burbling wheeze. Kyle pounded the lifeless head fruitlessly. “Nooo!” he cried. He punched harder, as though it would somehow rouse the spirit of the animal. He’d already thought of a name! Mr. Corny. But now, he was gone.
“I can’t say as though I’m really surprised, Kyle,” Wardstein remarked. Thinking quickly, remembering they had another passenger, he called, “Climb aboard with me, Teufel’s sister! Sir Kyle, you can totally ride in back with James. Um, again.” Teufel’s sister squealed with delight as she swung aboard behind Wardstein. Either that, or total disgust, Wardstein wasn’t really paying attention. Sir Kyle dragged himself to where James waited and climbed aboard dejectedly.
“Wait!” James yelled, looking around. “Did we leave anything alive? Wardstein?” Wardstein peered about, seeing only the crumpled carcass of the unicorn. In the near distance, the dead farmer from earlier. “Nope – we got them. Let’s beat it.” He kicked his unicorn, who leaped into the sky with a whoosh. James followed suit, Sir Kyle wondering if his manure poultice would fly off on their journey. If it did, he secretly hoped it would hit Wardstein in the face.
Within moments, they came upon the castle, deciding to touch down outside of view of the guards. “We gotta be discreet, right?” Wardstein yelled. “WHAT?” James bellowed. Sir Kyle facepalmed. As it turned out though, there was no concern – a stupidly located copse of trees nearby the castle entrance provided perfect cover for the little party. Upon landing, James whipped free the Goblin Dagger and efficiently decapitated the magical animals. “They knew too much,” he explained, wiping the blade on the fur of his expired mount. He regretted urinating before the ride, because doing it now on the expired beast would have been ideal closure.
“James!” Sir Kyle cried, aghast. “Those were priceless magical unicorns! Why – “
James raised a forestalling hand. “Relax! I’m not wasting them. I thought we could eat the tenderloins! They’re the best cut. Back me up, Wardstein.”
“It’s true, Kyle. Tenderloins are delicious, and these ones are unicorn, so probably they’re extra awesome. Wrapped with bacon and all.”
“But when will– “
“Look, I’ve got this little bag,” James said soothingly. “I’ll pop them in there and we can have them later. Catfeesh?”
Sir Kyle sighed. “Okay, Cat-feesh.”
While James set about to carving the unicorns, Wardstein eyed up the castle entrance. It was patrolled by numerous guards – heavy security for the wedding, he reasoned.
“How are we getting in?” Sir Kyle wondered. The invincible feeling he’d developed earlier was disappearing. He longed for his pipe.
Wardstein noticed men pulling carts laden with food and other party supplies, who were waved inside without incident. “I got an idea!” he cried. “Follow my lead! Uhm, Teufel, as a sidebar, I just realized you haven’t said much. You come too. And, uh…you look really awesome and feminine and everything, so we will use that later. Just come with us.”
“Okay!” she chirped.
The little group of adventurers strolled to the castle gate, where a number of guards looked them over suspiciously.
“Calisse!” one of them barked. “What is all this?” Sir Kyle and James shuffled uneasily.
“We’re the band,” Wardstein declared, pulling a mandolin from his pocket. “For the wedding?”
“C’est vrai?” the guard laughed. The men looked like gutter bums. Though, with an attractive lady inexplicably in their company.
Wardstein grimaced in annoyance. “Guys, hit it!” the men began howling atonally and stomping their feet. Turning to the guard, Wardstein commenced singing obnoxiously.
“Ahhh! Ahhh!” Wardstein screamed, somewhat in rhythm with his mandolin.
“Enough!” roared the guard. “You are de worst band I have ever heard! Leave immediately!”
“But we have already been paid,” Sir Kyle remarked, patting a small, dirty treasure chest.
The guard slumped. Unfortunately, this was completely in keeping with Duke Georg’s other bizarre investments he’d made over the years. Undoubtedly, it seemed likely this motley crew had to be the hired band, and he would lose his head today if he sent them away.
“Venez,” he sighed, waving them inside.
“Woo-hoo!” Wardstein yelled.
“That song wasn’t very good,” Kyle commented to no one in particular as they walked on past the guards.
“Shut up,” Wardstein said. “It was all spur of the moment.”
Kyle shrugged at Tuefel’s sister, who would not meet his eyes. She seemed to have her panties in a twist.
“I like that other one, anyway,” she said. “The similar yet completely different one.”
“Which?” Wardstein inquired.
She took on a tortured look and tucked all of her colorful clothing away so she was clad in only black.
She began to sing. “Well they’re building a gallows outside my cell, I’ve got 25 minutes to go.”
“I don’t know that one,” Wardstein said.
“Plus,” James added, “Who cares?”
“Yeah,” Kyle said, ‘We have a chest to deliver.” He patted the chest for emphasis. “And there was something else.”
“Break up a wedding,” Wardstein said.
“No, that’s what it is.”
“How do we know that, though?”
“Because…” Wardstein looked skyward. “Because of lots of things.”
“I have no recollection.”
“Do you remember riding a broom?”
Kyle looked at him quizzically. “A broom? Like, the bull dance?”
“No,” James replied out of nowhere and surprisingly animated. He looked about to go on but stopped himself, getting that faraway look in his eyes. He began scanning around them for something.
“Look,” Wardstein said into the silence, “Just follow us, yeah? And try not to take anymore blows to the head.”
“Okay.” Kyle shrugged again.
“And the whole town’s waitin’ just to hear me yell, I’ve got 24 minutes to go.”
Wardstein and Kyle looked at the woman askance.
James let out a whoop of delight and ran headlong at a cleaning women. Stunned, the woman simply stood there, letting him approach. James roughly grabbed the broom from her hands and pushed her for good measure. Then he began placing the broom stick between his legs. Wardstein forestalled him.
“Not now, James. The time for the bull dance is not now.”
James looked at him dejectedly, but nodded.
“Where do you think this wedding is?” Wardstein asked no one in particular.
Call it a guess, but I bet it is in a chapel,” Kyle said confidently.
“Okay, where is the chapel?”
Kyle shrugged. “I didn’t build the place.”
The woman piped up again. “Well they gave me some beans for my last meal, I’ve got 23 minutes to go.”
“Whats her deal?” Wardstein asked.
“Stroke, prolly,” Kyle said.
“Do you know what a rhetorical question is?”
Wardstein growled in what was likely approaching a murderous rage. Like clockwork, that one.
An officious looking man in a cape came around the corner and exclaimed when he saw them.
“Zere you are!” is what he exclaimed.
“Yep.” Kyle said.
“Not you,” he said shaking his head. “You.” He pointed at James.
“I’m here, too. Yes.”
“Well zat’s the problem. You need to be with ze rest of ze dancers.”
“Ohhh, sexy,” James said.
“But nobody asked me how I feel, I’ve got 22 minutes to go.”
Everyone fell silent and looked at the woman. She offered no more.
“Is she alright?” the unctuous man asked.
“Probably not,” Wardstein said. “Women.”
“No matter, you, with me.”
James shrugged and followed the man, broom in hand. Wardstein took a long look at Sir Kyle and let out an equally long sigh.
“Third wheel. …I really think we coulda done better,” he said under his breath.
“What?” Kyle asked.
“Oh…uh…I said ‘I really think we got good weather’.”
Kyle nodded. It was a good day for a wedding. Every once in a while Wardstein could surprise you with his tenderness.
“Well I sent for the governor and the whole dern bunch with 21 minutes to go”
“Yeah. That’s not annoying at all,” Wardstein said.
Another officious looking man rounded the corner.
“You!” he said, pointing at Wardstein.
Wardstein gave him the ‘Who me?’ look before walloping the man in the solar plexus. “Don’t you ever point your finger at me,” he said, pointing.
The man held his hand up in what Kyle assumed was apology. He didn’t seem to be able to breathe too well. Still, he had remained on his feet, which was moderately impressive. He had seen Wardstein fold men in half with a similar punch, leaving them crumpled in a pile of whatever they had most recently eaten.
“P-p-please…sir…” the man panted. “I…am…in a rush.”
“No excuse for rudeness.”
“No…apologies.” The man straightened slowly, wincing as he did so. He was regaining his composure.
“What do you want?” Wardstein asked impatiently.
“You are late. The rest of the champions are already undergoing their final preparations. You must make all haste to the gladiator stalls.”
“And I sent for the mayor, but he’s out to lunch I’ve got 20 more minutes to go”
Wardstein took a long hard look at nothing in particular. “…lead the way.”
And with that, there were two of them. One and a half, Kyle amended. The woman had been catatonic since she began her odd, rough voiced countdown and he had suffered enough blows to the head to…something. Lots. Metaphors were hard. He poked at the woman, who stood up suddenly. Her pupils were dilated and her mouth was opened slightly.
“Not an attractive look,” Kyle told her.
She did not respond, but pushed him out of her way and began walking stiffly off in the same direction James had went.
“Then the sheriff said ‘boy I gonna watch you die’, got 19 minutes to go”
Kyle watched her disappear around a bend. He looked at the small chest he had slung around his shoulder. He, at least, would not forget his duty. He made his way determinedly down the hall.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Ow, stop zat,” the man in the cape said, reaching down to grab at the back of his legs. James hid the broomstick behind his back and took on an innocent look.
“I did nothing,” he said.
The man shook his head and began walking gingerly down the hall. James brought the broomstick from behind his back and wound up for another swing when something down an intercepting corridor caught his eye. Balloons. Bright balloons. Presumably with sparkles. James was enraptured. He had found the wedding and it was glorious.
“Sir?” the man said, looking at him.
“Uh..” James stammered. He lowered the broomstick from its baseball bat like position. “Ha.” He continued walking after the man.
“So that’s the wedding, yeah?”
“Zat is the chapel, sir,” his guide replied patronizingly. James marked him for death.
“Is that where we will be performing?”
“No,” came the sarcastic reply, “You’ll be performing for the birds in ze courtyard.”
James smiled broadly. “Where are we going?”
“To ze dressing rooms, of course.”
“Yeah, but like how many lefts and rights and suches. Exactly.”
“We will take our second left, zird right and zen the ze final door on ze left.”
James committed that to memory and from behind stabbed his dagger into the man’s kidneys. He twisted the knife, gently. The man was rigid as a board, too stunned to say anything.
“It’s okay,” James said to him. “You can sleep soon.”
He roughly dragged the body over to a courtyard entrance and tossed him outside, leaving a thick trail of blood. “Looks like you will be the one performing for ze birds. Performing lunch!”
Whistling to himself he continued on his way towards the dressing rooms.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye, got 18 minutes to go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Wardstein was mad. Mad at James, mad at Paulus, mad at Kyle. Mostly he was mad at himself though, which was infuriating him even further. It was a vicious cycle. He was mad at himself because he had actually found himself wanting home. Wanting to see his wife and children. He discarded the notion he was getting soft, it was obviously a reflection of how poor of company he had been in these last…amounts of time. He was constantly scrambling to cover for one of his two bumbling sidekicks and he couldn’t even make headway with the blonde chick. Yeah, he had puked in her face, but did people really have to remember stuff like that forever? Hardly seemed fair. Anyway, this tournament of champions or whatever it was would be just the thing. Some blood lust. Well…socially acceptable blood lust. Which made it better. He had fought in the gladiator circuit before, in his youth, but had decided the whole thing to be rather too much work. Instead of earning things, he eventually reasoned, it was smarter to have others earn them and then simply take it from them. He had briefly thought about writing a dissertation on the subject, but could never find the time. He hoped one day to find someone he could rob it from. He brightened at the thought.
His guides voice brought him from his reverie.
“Right through here, sir. You can pick out your armaments.”
“What am I suiting up for?”
“Jousting, for now. Later the Duke may request some individual combat, but there is none scheduled.”
“Sweet,” Wardstein said. Nothing like a good joust to take some of the edge off. He walked through the door and scanned the assorted armor. It was a ragged bunch of equipment if Wardstein had ever seen it. None of the pieces seemed to match in either size, shape or material.
“Is that a paper hat?” he asked.
“Yes,” the man answered brightly. “It is a, um…a real crowd favorite.”
So he was being thought a fool, was he. So be it. Wardstein picked up the sailboat shaped object and nodded. It had a certain understated class to it. He placed it on his head.
“What do you think?”
“Very nice.” The man was barely concealing his laughter. Wardstein smiled and marked him for death.
Tuefel’s sister wandered into a dark room, seemingly at random. There was a large crystal in its center that was emitting a faint glow. She approached it and put her hands on it. Her eyes snapped back into focus and she threw her head back, standing on the tips of her toes. She looked down at the crystal.
“Now here comes the preacher for to save my soul with 13 minutes to go”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Get out of ze way! Hot Hasenpfeffer coming though!”
Kyle scrambled to the edge of the corridor, watching as several carts whizzed past him going the same way as he was. Win-win, he reasoned. They were taking the food to the wedding or they weren’t. Either way there would be food. It smelled delicious.
He continued strolling, not in too much of a hurry. He hadn’t been able to enjoy himself at Paulus’ castle, so he was really taking in the sights. There were all kinds of cool things. Gold ornaments, war banners, hunting trophies and…maps! Glorious maps. He made a mental note to come back and look at them later, wanting to be responsible and not dally any more than strictly necessary.
“You there!” a man yelled at him. A soldier, by appearances.
Kyle stopped where he was and smiled at the man. Just then his manure patch job fell off his head and landed wetly. He held his smile and pushed it behind him with his foot.
“What can I do for you, my good man?”
“You can tell me what the hell you are doing here.”
“I’m going to the wedding.”
“Oh, really? Then why are you here?”
Kyle was confused. “I’m going to the wedding,” he repeated.
The man sighed kind of like Wardstein always did. “The wedding,” he said slowly, “Is in the chapel.”
“I knew it!”
“…yes. And the chapel is not here. Its back the other way.”
“Well where is this?”
“Personal quarters and jerky processing.”
“Neat,” Kyle said.
The man shook his head. “Look pal, you leave right now I won’t throw your a-“ he cut off abruptly to sketch a bow.
“My liege,” he said.
Kyle looked behind him to see a man. A white-haired, regal looking man, to be more specific. Well, Kyle amended, the clothes were regal. They couldn’t hide a plain face. Or broad smile.
“At ease, my good man” came the reply. “Totally at ease. Craig, wasn’t it?” The soldier barely had time to nod and the regal man did not wait for a reply. “Good, good. Good strong name. Scottish, I think. From ‘crags’ or some such. Are you craggy, Craig?” He laughed expansively at his own joke and again did not wait for his questioned to be answered. “Good job, Craig. Here, take this. Some jerky. Delicious. Fresh outta the smoker, eh? That’s the best time for it, but Georg’s Jerky is great anytime, eh? Top notch.”
Kyle was stunned. This was Georg! He could give him the chest right now and be done with it, only he couldn’t get a word in edge-wise. The man was like a tornado. He was addressing Kyle, now.
“And you must be the sampler. ‘Sampler’, eh? Pretty sweet deal, sampling things all the time. I bet you’d like to sample a serving maid or two, eh? Eh? Maybe in time, but today is a busy day. I actually am surprised to see you here, I thought you were supposed to come on Thursday. No matter, you are here now and the jerky is here so we would be remiss to not bring the two things together. Come, sampler, with me. You can see if the operation is up to your standards. Good work, Crag. Ha. Crag. Your name is Craig, but I said Crag. The origin of the name, you know. Scottish, I think.”
Teufel’s sister stared deep into the crystal.
“And he’s talking bout’ burnin but I’m so cold, I’ve 12 more minutes to go”
James arrived at the dressing rooms and stopped outside the door, pausing to check his clothes for blood. Wouldn’t want to let that particular cat out the bag just yet, no-siree. He couldn’t see any, though the light here wasn’t the greatest. Still, confident he was clean he pushed open the door with his broomstick and walked in, immediately striking a pose.
“Behold, grace personified!” he said grandly.
He was met with coughs. A rag-tag group of what appeared to be tramps dressed in his blue looked up at him. James dry-heaved a bit, smelling their hopelessness.
“Ah, I must be in the wrong place,” he said, mentally cursing the man he had killed. It wasn’t the first time James had wished he could kill a man twice. He should talk to his father’s physician. “I was looking for the dressing room for the dancers.”
“We’re the dancers,” said a particularly dirty looking man.
“Mummers, more like,” said another one.
“But dancers, too?” James asked.
“No, fools who dance. There is a difference. They bring us out so they make mock us. The female dancers are the ones taken seriously.”
James nodded. It made sense. There still may be an opportunity here.
“But we will be performing?”
“For the Duke?”
“Ha. Duke. Sure. Yeah. Why not?”
“Before the wedding?”
“Okay, now we are cooking with gas,” James rubbed his hands together. “So what does your routine look like? Why am I not seeing any ribbons?”
“We don’t have much of a routine. We mostly try to avoid the things that are thrown at as.”
“Well that’s a good start. But still…we need ribbons.”
Tuefel’s sister stood transfixed. Her eyes opened wide, back arched. There was a resonance between her and the crystal.
“Now they’re testin’ the trap and it chills my spine, 11 more minutes to go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Wardstein banged open the door to where the rest of the gladiators were waiting. The men all looked up at him, and he saw more than a few double takes. That’s good, he thought. I am already in their head. In addition to his paper sailors hat Wardstein had selected a horribly mismatched pair of a moth-eaten hauberk and lightly chained pantaloons. The pantaloons were mostly garbage, but the hauberk actually still had some use. It had no doubt been cast aside because of its appearance, yet it remained structurally sound. Wardstein thought it may, worst case scenario, keep him from dying instantly. A prolonged agonizing death was still possible, he knew, but a part of him always thought he’d go out like that anyway. Karma and all that. He snorted. Maybe he was getting soft. Karma. Good things happen to people who make bad things happen to others. That was more Wardstein-y. It was balance.
“Hello, ladies,” he said, continuing the psychological warfare. He looked his perspective opponents up and down and chuckled to himself. Not a decent set of armor in the lot. He noticed a few men who looked completely out of shape. One man was drooling. Another was cross-eyed. He noticed a boy that couldn’t be much past 15. A part of Wardstein lamented the fact he would have no challenge today, but a bigger part looked forward to slaughtering each and every one of these fools.
He made his way to the boy-looking man.
“Hail,” he said.
The boy looked up and out the window, then back at Wardstein questioningly. “At this time of year?”
“It means ‘hello’,” he said, trying to remain pleasant. There were Sir Kyles all over the place, apparently.
“So is this some sort of joke? I think that cross-eyed dude just crapped his pants. I thought this was some sort of tournament of champions.”
The boy laughed nervously.
“Do we look like champions?”
“Look kid, listen to me when I talk. I just skipped over that part for you, don’t waste time rehashing it.”
The boy swallowed. “We fight so they may mock us. Sometimes if one of us does particularly well they may get him to engage the Duchess’ champion. He always kills. It looks like less fun then the mocking, all in all.”
“I see.” Wardstein was beginning to formulate a plan.
“A window at the end of the room banged open, and the man who had led Wardstein stuck his head through the opening.
“Competitors!” he yelled. “Come choose your mounts.” He dissolved into laughter and closed the window. A bar could be heard lifting off of its rest behind the side door. It slid open, and the men rushed in to get their first pick. Wardstein rounded the corner, thinking it was weird he did not smell the horses. What he saw was not what he expected.
“Tricycles?” he said to the boy. “Surely you joust?” He looked at the boy expectantly.
The boy looked back at him, confused.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The resonance was building and the glow of the crystal began to engulf Teufel’s sister, bathing her in a soft light.
“And the trap and the rope aww they work just fine, got 10 more minutes to go.”
“I’m telling you, I have what you need. I mean, we are talking high-quality here. Nothing but, my good man, nothing but. I mean, that’s why you are here, right? You wouldn’t have come all this way for nothing, eh? And don’t get me wrong, I understand, you know? I get it. You want to make sure everything is in good working order before you jump into business with someone.”
Kyle opened his mouth to tell him he was actually an emissary from Paulus, but Georg just kept rolling along.
“I know what you are going to say, sampler. I do. It’s a gift of mine. You are going to say ‘but what about the forest’ and I am going to tell you that it is under control. The indigenous population and I have come to an agreement and we are gonna start building a road this summer. Laying tracks, as it were. But not tracks, dirt. Just sounds better when you say tracks. Makes you think you are getting somewhere.”
Kyle was a bit dizzy. He opened his mouth again, but still got nothing out.
“Come on, come on. Listen to me ramble. I am going to test my wife, let me tell you. Did you know I am getting married? Sometimes I forget, if we are being honest. I think it is because I knew you were coming, sampler. Stressed about the new deal. And I don’t seem to sleep well at night, either. Pacing and all that, you know? Not good for a body, not good at all. But troubling dreams. Crystals. Ah, listen to me. On and on. Come on, I’ll show you the packaging room…”
Kyle continued after him.
Tueful’s sister looked enraptured, now completely engulfed by the crystals glow.
“Well I’m waitin’ on the pardon that’ll set me free with 9 more minutes to go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Aaaand, kick. Turn. Twirl. Ribbon. Kick. Turn again. And down.” James was breathing heavily. “Good job guys,” he said, actually meaning it. Choreography had always been a passion of his, and this destitute and lost men were surprisingly quick studies.
“You know,” James told them, “When I first walked in here all I could think of was extinguishing your pathetic flames of life, but now that I’ve hung with you guys a bit I can see you are alright.”
“Thanks?” said the man who had become their spokesperson. James nodded.
“So I like the ribbons. And I think we do a good twirl, just remember head up and eyes open.”
“Why is there a dagger in your ribbon?” another man asked.
James smiled broadly. “Come talk to me out here,” he said, motioning towards the door. “I have to tell you a secret.”
“But this is for real so forget about me, got 8 more minutes to go.”
Wardstein kicked his foremost tricycle wheel and grunted. He had ridden worse mounts, he supposed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“So we are going to perform now?”
“Yes,” said the boy. He sounded scared.
Warstein peeked out at the stands in the arena. They were only about half full. There was no one under the banners that indicated Georgs’ seat.
“The Duke isn’t even here.”
“Oh. No. Georg is not here.”
“Well then who are we fighting for?”
Wardstein grunted again. He had been an assorted dignitary, once. Now he was preparing to joust on a tricycle. Life sure was crazy.
“So tell me about this champion we will face?”
Wardstein resisted the incredible urge to take a large bite out of the boys’ face. Man. He really needed a vacation.
“The one we may get to challenge.”
“Oh, cause there are two.”
“Well the one that we may get to challenge.” Wardstein stretched his jaw to see how far it would open.
“He is from the Duchess’ lands. Speaks with a heavy accent. He is a warrior of Gaul, or something.”
“Gaul? What is his weapon of choice? Stale baguette?”
The boy shrugged. Wardstein’s frustration went up a bit more. He was giving this kid gold and he wasn’t even realizing it.
“Well what about the other one?”
The boy looked around nervously. He spoke in a hushed tone. “A women. A ninja. She can disappear in shadows and carries a cool sword.”
“A cool sword doesn’t make someone a ninja,” Wardstein admonished.
‘She has throwing stars, too.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“With my feet on the trap and my head on the noose got 5 more minutes to go.”
“Look at these beauts! Honestly, have you ever seen anything like it? Honestly? Have you?”
Kyle didn’t know why Georg continued to ask him questions. It wasn’t like he left any time for Kyle to answer. Kyle was impressed though. Water powered conveyor belts ran from huge industrial sized smokers down into the packaging area. A half dozen workers were busy at various points on the line, divvying, weighing and sealing. Quite the operation.
“I sometimes think I am the premier jerky maker in all the lands. Well, not sometimes,” he said conspiratorially, “All the time.” He winked. “Sometimes I think I should spell jerky with a ‘G’. Alliteration and all that. Georgs’ Gerky. And then plus I was thinking about getting into those, like, mini pickles. You know what I’m talking about? You have one with a sandwich, or whatever. Gerkins, they are. Georgs’ Gerky and Gerkins. Has a ring, yeah? That’s the dream, sampler. That’s the dream.”
He seemed to have finally wound down. Kyle opened his mouth to speak.
“I –“ was all he got out. Teufel herself came around the corner.
“Milady!” Georg gasped, “It is not proper for us to see each other so close to the ceremony.”
She took a few steps closer, ignoring Kyle completely and coming close enough to Georg that she could lay her hands on his face. She was fine, Kyle thought. And probably less of a head case than her sister.
“It is fine, Georg,” she purred.
“It is fine,” Georg replied woodenly.
Kyle sensed something was up, but he didn’t want to get between a man and his sorceress wife.
“Come, Georg. We must go to the banquet.”
“Ah, the dancing!” he said, his animation returning.
“No, the dance of fools has been cancelled. There was a singular talent in the joust today. My champion had deigned to challenge him.”
“Ah, good show. But what about the sampler?” he asked, indicating Kyle.
“The sampler wasn’t to be here until Thursday.”
“And yet here he is.”
Teufel looked at Kyle skeptically. “Hmmm,” she said. “I suppose he can come. Sampler or not we can’t have him wandering around here alone.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Won’t somebody come and cut me loose with 4 more minutes to go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Uggggh. I’m hungry.” James cast around for something to eat. He wasn’t used to all that activity. His troupe had the number down as good as they were going to get it, though. He was even entertaining the thought that they may not get booed. Really, teaching these men had given him a respect for the common man he had been lacking for so long. Thank god for this, he thought. I really needed it.
A man poked his head in the dressing room. “Shows cancelled,” he said. “Back to your filth.”
The men grumbled and James felt his jaw was hanging open. How could this happen? He was at a complete loss. The men began taking off their blue, a few of them looking longingly at the discarded ribbon.
“No,” James said.
All the men looked at him.
“No,” he repeated.
The men mimicked him. “No,” they said in unison.
“No!” James yelled.
“No!” the men yelled back.
James was elated. He had been in charge before, but always through intimidation and fear. These men were going to follow him because they liked and respected him. He swelled with pride.
“They can’t cancel us!”
“We will cancel them!”
The door opened. A slender woman walked in. She was tall and clad in black from head to toe.
“Who will you cancel?” she asked. She sounded like a snake.
“Them!” the men yelled, not seeing James holding up his hand to stop them. He had seen the ninja stars in her hand. They were harder to see when they left her hand, though. They sped through the air with deadly speed and accuracy, taking each man perfectly in the throat.
“We can’t have that.” She smiled at James.
James was shocked. Those men were following him. They had died because of him. All the men he had killed directly and indirectly had died cause of him too, he knew. But this. This was different.
“If anyone was going to kill those men, it was to have been me,” he said. His voice was deadly quiet, and the woman looked at him a bit differently.
“Will you fight me to defend their honor?”
“No,” he said. “I am just going to take my ribbon and go.”
He bent down to pick up the ribbon, feeling the grip of the Goblin dagger. Well, he thought, turns out I get to dance after all. With a yell he launched himself at her, ribbon twirling.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“I can see the mountains, I can see the skies with 3 more minutes to go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“I can’t believe it,” the boy said breathlessly. He was hounding Wardstein like a small dog.
“That was amazing,” he continued. Wardstein shrugged. “It was nothing, kid. Really. You folks are terrible warriors. I could have done it blindfolded.”
“Aww, c’mon. You were awesome. Maybe you will get to challenge the champion.”
“That’s the plan, yeah.”
“He’s going to kill you, probably.”
Another window banged open, and again it was Wardsteins former guide poking his head through. “You, big one,” he yelled. “Come through here.”
Wardstein stood and walked through the door next to the window into a room with only him and the man who had asked him in here.
“You have been chosen to entertain the wedding party with single combat against the duchesses’ champion.”
So I can take my bow?”
“Of course. It will make no difference. No one can defeat Jacques Chiraque.”
Wardstein stared at the man.
“You always alone back here?”
“No one checks in on you?”
“Not today, with the wed-“
Wardstein tightened his grip around the man’s neck and once he stopped struggling cast his body aside. A promise was a promise. He walked out the door feeling invigorated. It didn’t last. He entered onto a circular patch of dirt. The stands were twice as full as they had been for the jousting. There was a party under Georgs banners. Was that Kyle? The dunce. He had actually gotten something done on his own. Standing opposite of him was a man of equal size, but vastly unequal armor. He was clad majestically, shining brightly. Wardstein adjusted his sailor hat. He had been in stickier situations than this, he told himself. He hefted his bow and reached for an arrow, letting loose a powerful shot at his opponent, which bounced off his armor. The crowd gasped. He didn’t care. Fights to the death had no rules. Except rule number one. Wardstein wins.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
” And it’s to dern pretty for a man that don’t wanna die. 2 more minutes to go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Ho-ho,” Georg exclaimed to the loosing of an arrow. “Look at the vinegar on that one, eh? He seems familiar, somehow. Reminds me of me, probably. Eh, sampler, eh? In my youth I wouldn’t have feared Jacques, either. Probably yelled as loud as him, too. All vinegar, I tell you.”
Kyle watched the fight, barely hearing the Duke. Wardstein engaged the huge Frenchman time and again, and each time he was driven back. It was hopeless, Kyle thought. He simply didn’t have the armor to compete. Although Kyle definitely liked the sailors hat. He could get behind that himself. Nothing too heavy.
A man walked by passing out jerky. Kyle took a package. It has a picture of Georgs’ smiling face on it. ‘King Georgs Gerky’ it said. Wait. King Georg? He looked up and saw Tueful staring directly at him. Kyle put on his best smile and tore open the jerky. She sniffed at him and turned around in time to see Wardstein barely escape a blow leveled at his torso. He rolled away, coming to his feet quickly. The Frenchman approached him on an angle, trying to cut off an escape route. The man held his sword at the ready. Wardstein held his bow up. He looked tired. Kyle could barely stand to watch. The Frenchman closed the distance quickly, and Wardstein appeared to be cooked, but at the last second he angled his bow to deflect the sword down and to the Frenchman’s off-side. Wardstein stepped closely, denying the man room to free his sword. With his free hand Wardstein reached up and grasped the man’s helmet, ripping it off. He disengaged, then, rolling away towards the middle of the room. The Frenchman cast around for his helmet, and Wardstein tossed sand in his eyes before grabbing a discarded arrow and fitting it to the string. “I had something for this,” he told the audience, and loosed his arrow. It flew truly into the skull of the large Frenchman, who crumpled. “Something about cheese,” Wardstein finished. The crowd watched in stunned silence as blood fountained from the fallen mans face.
Wardstein turned towards the Duke’s dias. “Georg!” he yelled. “You have been put under a spell by your wife to be.”
“Silence!” Tuefel yelled. “He does not know what he speaks of.”
“Oh I know plenty, bird. I know that once I take care of your ninja henchmen you will be powerless to stop me. …until the sun goes down. Then I assume we are boned.”
“Wardstein…is that you?” Georg sounded as if he was just waking up. Kyle could go for a nap too, now that he was thinking about it.
“It is, Georg. Where is the ninja?”
“I don’t know why you are here Ward-“
A crash interrupted him. Blue silks flew in from a side door and metal flashed. James was in trouble. He had no boot knife on and this was the fastest and most skilled opponent he had ever faced. He knew he had one chance. Ribbons. The woman lunged at him again, feinting high before bring her blade down on an angle towards his legs. He twirled out of the way. She kept advancing though, striking high, then low, then thrusting. James used the Goblin dagger as best he could, though he was already bleeding from a few minor cuts. Believe in the ribbon, he told himself. She thrust again and he made his move, pirouetting as he wrapped up the woman’s sword in the blue material. She tugged at it to no avail, and with a twist of his wrists James disarmed her. He sketched a bow, straightening in time to catch a ninja star in the shoulder.
“Gaaah,” he said. “Wardstein?”
“I can see the buzzards I can hear the crows 1 more minute to go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Wardstein lowered his bow and turned back towards the Duke and Kyle and Teuful.
“There,” he said. “That takes care of that. Now there is only the home-wrecker.”
Teuful began laughing.
“Fool. Night has fallen.” She reached out a hand, and energy crackled around Wardstein and James. The appeared unable to move.
“You two wait there. We have a wedding to commence. Georg! This way.”
The group turned from leaving, and Teufel fixed her cold stare on Kyle.
“No,” he repeated. Kyle had a damn chest to deliver. And he was going to do it. He still wasn’t sure about stopping the wedding. He’d want to marry Teufel, he reasoned, so why wouldn’t Georg?
“I have to give Georg this.”
“What is it?”
“A wedding gift. From the people I represent. As the sampler. I came here two days early so I could give it to you.”
Teufel looked at him. “Very well, let’s see it.”
He paused. So much was coming to a head at this moment. He unslung the rope from his shoulder and grasped the chest. Facing it toward Georg and Tuefel he popped it open. There was a flash of light. When Kyle could see again there was one more person standing in the group. Paulus himself. Crowned and all.
“My goodness!” he said. “That was…interesting. Thanks Neufel.” He looked around. “Neuful? Ah, she is probably at the crystal.”
“YOU!” Teufel yelled. “I will kill you here!” She raised her hands and the air turned black around them. Energy crackled and she extended her arms, pointing at the King.
“I think not,” Paulus said as the energy bounced off of him harmlessly. “And it is rude to point.”
“The power of a positive attitude.” He smiled at her broadly. “Now, come with me,” he motioned to the back door. “I have a secret to tell you.”
Paulus strolled away from the group with Teufel and through a gothic archway onto a high balcony of the castle.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said the King, gesturing to the sky, which was presently a wash of rose and amber hues.
“Uhhh, yeah, that’s a pretty swell sunset, alright. I haven’t seen one quite like it since like…yesterday. Listen, about that secret you mentioned?”
The King nodded patiently, stroking his white beard. “Ah yes—right after you tried to kill me, right?”
Teufel averted her eyes.
“Relax,” said Paulus in a calming voice. “Probably just the pre-wedding jitters. Why, I can remember my wife threatening to kill people left right and centre before we tied the knot. Of course…she actually followed through.” Paulus stared vacantly into the distance. “…those poor flower girls.“
“—are you okay, your highness?”
“—Hmmph? Oh, yes, yes, of course. So! You’re probably wondering how I was able to materialize out of thin air, aren’t you? How I rendered your crackling magic useless, even now, after sunset, when you should be at your most powerful?” He brushed his hand across her face and smiled, wiggling his thumb between his ringed fingers. “How I…gotcher nose?!”
Teufel forced a laugh, trying her best to appear affable; though she found this particularly difficult now, having already played nice with Georg and his subjects for longer than she could stand. “Oh-ho-ho! You give me that back, your highness! But seriously though, how can I harness the kind of power I just witnessed?” She was clinging now to his velvet robes like a leech.
“You of course realize that this is valuable information? And from the looks of things—“ He raised his hand again, reaching behind her ear and producing a silver coin with his likeness stamped on it. “—You’re a little cash-poor, m’lady! Ha-ha!” He looked over his shoulder. James, Wardstein and Kyle had their heads stacked atop one another in the archway, obviously trying to eavesdrop on the conversation; but he paid them no mind. Turning back to Teufel, he saw the tail end of a grimace revert back to a smile, putting to rest any doubts he may have had bout Wardstein’s proclamation that she was a big faker. He thought something may have been awry when he received word of his sister’s mysterious death months ago, and with it the news that his brother-in-law Georg was to marry a sexy, money-hungry sorceress. Also, that ‘I will kill you here!’ line in the other room didn’t sit very well will him. But someone who didn’t get a kick out of his awesome parlour tricks? No, he thought. No, this chick was bad news.
“Very well, very well,” Paulus relented, leaning in close and lowering his voice to a whisper. “But! We can’t have anyone else learning of this secret, now can we?”
“No, of course not!” Teufel eagerly cupped her ear.
“Well, it’s really quite simple: all you have to remember is—-HERNNNFFFF!!” Teufel shrieked as the King lifted her small frame above his head. “—to keep your friends close and your enemies—uhmmmm.” Paulus searched in vain for a cool line, but as Teufel squirmed and began to shift her weight, he realized the moment had passed and simply heaved her over the side of the stone wall before she had the chance to break free. A second or two later the sound of a heavy impact echoed throughout the courtyard, spooking a flock of doves into the air.
The boys spilled onto the balcony at this, hooting in celebration. “Oh man, that was awesome!” James laughed, horking in anticipation and running to the ledge. “Toh-wee dinsee—-ate!—ollonaset.” He spat over the side. “Totally didn’t see that coming!”
Kyle smirked. “Your highness, what if you had said, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies on the pavement!’? That could’ve been pretty good. Just say the word and we’ll all remember it that way.”
“…’and your enemies dead’?” Wardstein offered.
The knight frowned and nodded. He didn’t appreciate being upstaged in front of the King, but he had to admit, he liked the Baron’s line better. “Yeah, I’m going to have to concede that one. Hell is a little too flowery, you’re right. Keeping your enemies dead is just sensible, plain-speak.”
“Uh oh!” said James. “I think we may have spoken to soon! Are these witches hard to kill, or what?!”
“Get outta town!” said Paulus, leaning over the ledge beside his son. “Well I’ll be damned! Looks like her fall was cushioned by that shrub!”
Kyle and Wardstein peered over too, just in time to see Teufel stagger to her feet. Beneath her was no shrub, but Tim-Tak! The diminutive creature lay flat on his back and was obviously in pain, but he did his best to smile up at the balcony when he saw the guys. He gave a thumbs-up, indicating that he was going to be okay.
“Aww jeeeeez!” groaned James through an artificial grin as he waved back. “He thinks he’s our buddy or something.”
“That’s really weird,” said Kyle, also waving. “Wardstein, you fed like, his whole family to that orc.”
“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” the Baron giggled. He flashed the ‘OK’ sign at the Ro-Gan. Hey Paulus, you should’ve seen it! We passed through this slum called Orclord Harbourage and this hee-yuuuugge freakin—-“
“Yeah-yeah,” interrupted the King. “An orc, I know. Saw it. I was keeping tabs on you boys the whole time. The small transponder crystal contained within the chest provides its owner—me, in this case—-a ‘second sight,’ or ‘window,’ if you will, into its immediate vicinity.”
“Tell us more Dad!” said James. He opened a pack of Georg’s Jerky and popped a piece or two in his mouth before passing the bag to Wardstein.
“Listen, I don’t pretend to understand exactly how the things work. In fact, I don’t think anyone does.” Kyle opened his mouth as if to speak, but the King continued. “Suffice it to say that these crystals, they let you see, like, fifty or so feet around them if you’ve got a viewing crystal installed in your castle like Georg and I do. What’s really neat though is that when you have a full charge, you can reanimate in the vicinity of the transponder crystal for a short time.”
As if on cue, Paulus began to flicker slightly. “Well, looks like I’ll be heading back soon, but at least the witch isn’t going anyw—” He turned to the courtyard again and saw that Teufel had hobbled off and disappeared into the darkness, and suddenly regretted his speech about crystals. “—-oh. Well, with her treachery now exposed, her spell on Georg broken—along with a few vertebrae, likely—-I don’t think Teufel will be bothering us any time soo–oh Jesus!” He pointed his flickering finger at the doorway. “She’s back!”
Incredibly, Georg had joined them with his demonic bride-to-be on his arm! A spellbound look still flickered in his eyes.
“Oh, don’t worry, your highness,” said Kyle. “That’s Neufel, Teufel’s twin sister. Basically the same lady, but with an N instead of a T. We think she’s less evil.”
“I like this one too!” said Georg, slapping Neufel on the backside as he munched a piece of jerky.”
Paulus sighed. “Well, if you say so. But by royal decree, her name is nowwwww….Tiffany. Less confusing that way.” He made a wild Kingly gesture that looked kind of like he was throwing something imaginary at her, but it seemed to make it official. “Well—nice seeing everybody!” With that, his physical manifestation faded.
“Wait, Paulus!” Kyle cried, “Didn’t I do really good delivering the chest—awwwwn. He’s gone.”
Georg looked off the balcony, took notice of Tim-Tak, and then stealthily shielded himself from view. “Everybody shush, shush! We have to be quiet.” The group did as obeyed. “There’s another one of those goddamn forest goblins on my property again! I swear, they spook the deer, they defecate all over the place, they eat up my vegetable garden—” Inspiration seemed to strike and Georg exerted what looked like all of his strength to shoulder an enormous concrete flower pot off the rail. He, Tiffany, Kyle, Wardstein and James then all looked downward and watched as it flipped end over end and land squarely on Tim-Tak with a horrendous CLANK! The earth and shards shattered into a million pieces over the smear of Ro-Gan blood and guts and all burst into laughter.
“Well, I guess that wraps things up rather neatly,” Wardstein was saying. Around them, the wedding celebrations were escalating in vigor with each new cask of ale that was brought out from the cellar. He was munching on a piece of Tim-Tak, barbequed for the occasion by Georg’s chefs. “There’s no time to turn him into jerky,” Georg explained, hanging around too long at their table. “So barbeque is the way to go with him. Also, he doesn’t have a lot of fat on him. He eats – well, used to! Ha ha! He used to eat my vegetables and such, so he’d make lousy jerky. Too tough. But well enough to barbeque. Hmmm. With a marinade. Hey, Wardstein? A marinade. Something sweet to offset the spices that I was expecting to be delivered in that little chest!” he rambled. Wardstein struggled to look like he was paying attention. “Uh-huh.”
James nodded agreement, his mouth full of Tim-Tak meat, which had actually come out very tasty. He wondered where his unicorn tenderloins went. He had presented them as a wedding gift to Uncle Georg, expecting a masterwork of presentation of the fine meats for their table, but they were nowhere to be seen. Probably selfishly saving them all for later, James seethed, wishing now he’d kept them. Note to self – never give anybody anything. Unless, it was a taste of death, he corrected. “True enough, Wardstein. Package delivered as promised. Uncle Georg’s happy. All secrets revealed. All enemies destroyed. Well, I’m assuming,” he waved his hand airily. At last, Uncle Georg moved off to another table. “…no good for jerky…” James heard him saying. He sighed.
Presently, he saw a handsome, official-looking fellow, dressed in an opulent manner not unlike James himself, though with a more elaborate cape. He seemed unlikely to do anything really adventurous, so he didn’t have a “field length” cape of the sort James sported, he noted smugly. Wannabe. Still though, he pulled it off nicely, James considered. The man swept over to their table. “Excuse me, sires,” the man began. “A request for your presence is urgently required in the Duke’s chambers.”
“What’s this all about then?” James resisted. He resisted anything, just for the sheer need to be obstinate. He was his own man, and took orders from nobody!
The man stiffened. “It is, I should say – a discreet manner, to use the parlance of your King.”
Wardstein glowered. He’d barely filled half of his stomach, and along comes this fussy looking nancy-boy to bug him with some trivial administrative nonsense. “Can’t talk. Eating,” he grated.
But this powdery idiot was insufferable with his insistence. “Sires, with apologies, I do request your attendance. Discreetly,” he added significantly.
James understood the subtle message this cunning artist was communicating. He wondered where he’d found the beautiful ornamental chapeau he was wearing with such confident bearing. “Wardstein! Our journey was to be discreet. My Dad said so, remember? So there’s something else going on! The King needs us – again!”
Wardstein rolled his eyes, tossing the Tim-Tak bone he’d been gnawing to the table with a clatter. “This better be good,” he groused. “Hey – where’s Sir Kyle?”
“He said earlier something about ‘attending to the god of the bogs’ or something.”
Wardstein shook his head. Sir Kyle, always off doing something foolish. “Okay, we’ll just have to fill him in later. Lady, lead the way.” The official spun on his heel and the men followed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sir Kyle wandered the expansive west wing of the castle. He was in heaven, truly. Everywhere, on every available wall, were maps. Beautifully painted maps of the region, with vivid illustrations of forests, seas, even creatures to be found there. The paints used in the creations was of only the finest quality – reds, greens. Even gold, which he was sure contained actual gold dust. The opulence in these works of art was staggering to his humble mind. He committed everything possible to memory, the better to impress the King with later on, but he knew that was impossible – too much to remember, and also, his mind these days was like a bag of water with holes in it. It would hold things for a little while, but then…there would be like a blank period, and then he would become aware of confusion, and of Wardstein saying something rude to him.
Just then, he heard a sound inside a room he was passing, and he looked inside to see a large parchment lying on the floor. Eagerly, he made his way inside, scooping the expensive stationary from the stones.
“Georg’s Spicy Pickled Eggs,” he read. “Eggs, one dozen. Fill jar to capacity with vinegar and water. One large onion.” Kyle considered this brief list with outrage. It wasn’t spicy at all! Georg was a total fraud! He wondered if his namesake jerky actually contained any of the “mysterious recipe of herbs and spices,” he’d gone on at length about earlier. Probably not, he snorted.
Hearing a sound, he turned just in time to see the chamber door closing behind him. Teufel – er, Tiffany, was there, leaning against the now-closed door.
“Ahhh! Please don’t hurt me!” Sir Kyle screeched.
Tiffany giggled with delight. “I have no desire for that at all. And how could I possibly injure he who carries the Avenger?”
“Oh, yeah.” He looked her over. “Say, aren’t you supposed to be at the celebration? What are you doing here? Do you like maps too?”
Tiffany smiled, and just then she was more attractive than even the greatest map in the world to Sir Kyle. “I was hoping you might ask me, sir knight. You see, we have unfinished business.”
Sir Kyle nodded confidently. “I know. We have to go kill your sister. No loose ends, right? I’ll go round up the guys, and – “
“No, not that!” Tiffany said. She flicked out her hand, stinging Kyle’s cheek with a popping slap.
“Why did you do that?,” Sir Kyle yelled in surprise. “Actually – I liked that. Please do it again.”
“In a minute,” Tiffany said with a wink, and Sir Kyle’s eyebrows hit the ceiling. “No Sir Kyle, while we were out on the trail, I developed an affection for you. One that I would like to explore before I finalize my marriage with Georg. I have wanted this since we locked eyes on the ship.”
Sir Kyle was flabbergasted. This incredible woman wanted him? “But what about Wardstein? Surely – “
“The man who vomited in my face?”
“Enough chitchat, Sir Kyle. Let’s see that Holy Avenger of yours. We have only five minutes before I must return to deliver my speech.”
Sir Kyle scoffed proudly. “I only need two.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The officious looking man had led Wardstein and James to a darkened inner chamber. Overstuffed furniture was arranged about the room. Bowing, he took his leave.
James sadly watched him depart. “Well, now what?” he said dejectedly. Wardstein shrugged, already regretting that he hadn’t had the foresight to bring a to-go plate from the banquet in with him. You gotta think ahead, he raged at himself.
Just then, the room was illuminated with a warm glow, as the ruddy visage of King Paulus appeared before them, looming within another magical crystal hanging on the wall.
“Hello, boys!” he called. “The crystals are still charging, so I can’t actually beam over there and attend the wedding and bring over my famous chocolate cheesecake.”
At that, Wardstein roared in frustration and disappointment.
“However, we can communicate at least for a bit. I have a new task for you boys.”
James groaned. “Dad, what now? We just got here! We could at least stay here and finish off the party!”
Paulus’ face reddened slightly. “James, if you are to wear this crown one day, you have to be responsible. You can’t just go around doing anything you feel like.”
“Fine! So what is it now? You want us to come back to the castle for another pointless character building exercise?”
Paulus sighed in exasperation. “My finest technicians have been at work modifying the magic crystals. As you may know, since the crystals enable a corporeal teleportation, this actually in fact is a manipulation of space-time. Time is distance, distance is time. The body may be transported to remote distances, but in addition, due to the nature of the energy field, be transported to a different point in time.”
“Well of course, everyone knows that,” Wardstein scoffed loudly. Secretly though, he was stressed. In pubs, when his somewhat weak background in thermodynamics and quantum physics was threatened, he would usually simply kill his agitator and end the discussion, thus ending the threat of embarrassing exposure. This was the King, though. He hoped he’d get to the point without dwelling too much on the finer details.
“We’ve discovered that time travel is possible for us for brief periods,” Paulus continued. “Just as with routine teleportation, the journey cannot be sustained for long. Anyway boys, the issue is – over a hundred years ago, there was unavoidable family tragedy. James, your great-great-great grandfather, Duke John II, was tragically assassinated before he could take the throne, and the successor, Gordon the Thin, assumed brief control before our family reclaimed succession rights after Gordon the Thin accidentally killed himself. But – not before he initiated the foolish and tragic Orc Wars, a bloody struggle that our people suffer from to this very day. If only John had survived, his plan to unite the kingdoms would have prevented this series of events from happening. So. Our plan is to prevent John’s assassination. We can send you back to this time – but because of the energy demands of this journey, you’re only going to have a week or so to change the future timeline and secure our family destiny. Dess-tiny,” he finished, hissing oddly over the syllables.
“Wait a second, what about predestination theory?” Wardstein protested intelligently. “The space time continuum?” Behind him, Sir Kyle wandered into the room, looking confused and dishevelled. Which is to say, completely normal.
Paulus smiled. “Very astute, Baron Von Wardstein. That’s definitely a working theory by our academics. However, naturally, we’re confident everything today will be even better for us all if you succeed in this quest. So I want to try. Boys, I see my crystal is nearly drained – there will be more to come. Enjoy your party. But not too much.” He laughed, showing that he was joking. But also, that he wasn’t. With that, the crystal went dark.
“What was that all about?” Sir Kyle asked.
Wardstein clapped him on the back, happy with the knowledge he’d be returning to the banquet momentarily. “We’ll fill you in back at the party, pal. Where have you been, anyway?”
Sir Kyle’s face lit up, in remembrance of the past few minutes – minutes that were life changing for him, and sure to be contemplated again and again after lights-out. He’d actually one-upped Wardstein for once! He opened his mouth to speak – and then the balloon in his brain popped, and he was left searching for words. Wait – what?
“I, uh…uh…” he stammered. “What’s going on, you guys? Where am I?”
Wardstein and James exploded with belly laughter.
“That’s our Kyle!”