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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dragon in Distress

     All I wanted was a quiet day on the lake with a cold one. Well, a semi-lake-chilled one, anyway. The fish didn't cooperate. They insisted on biting constantly, interrupting my nap. I did my best to ignore the clattering pole while I dozed under the shade of my hat when the wind gusted. I caught the hat, squinting up.
     A dragon, half as big as the Chrysler Building, but with red-bronze scales instead of deco steel, sank into the lake next to my boat. Those eyes stared at me, and I could see myself reflected in their black depths. "You are the one they call the detective." Its voice at a reasonable volume for its size. "The outsider."
     It wasn't a question. I nodded anyway.
     "I wish for you to help me."
     "You've got to be fucking kidding me."
     Which is how, a week later, I ended up riding my horse on the way to the dragon's lair. Never take a job for a dragon. Lousy hours, dangerous—to my patience—and negotiating a fee, well, is rather pointless. Just try saying no to a dragon.
     Prince Geoffrey, handsome, dashing, lithe, courageous, noble, and all around pain in the ass rode his silver stallion to the top of the pass. The sun gleamed off his sword as he gestured for me to catch up to him. "Come forward Sir Sam! We must rescue the fair princess Isabella from the clutches of the dragon! What ho!" He also had a tendency to speak in exclamations.
     If it had not been for the dragon's negotiating skills . . . I sighed, "Come on, Ranger." I patted the horse's neck. My giant Clydesdale-like horse with its shaggy hair and ponderous gait moved to a canter. I liked Ranger as much as I could like any horse, though I was a lot more comfortable with the dirty cars of the B line.
     Never work for a dragon.

     "A princess came to you, captured herself, and demanded to be rescued by a prince? News like this usually spreads like wildfire, and princes are lining up for the job. Why haven't I heard about this?"
     "I do not know. I have suffered through her singing and prattling for three days." The dragon growled. "I would simply be done with her, but some fairy parent enchanted her from harm."

     "Villains! Ha!" The prince jolted me back to the present. "None shall keep me from my fair princess!" Geoffrey spurred his horse into a gallop.
     "What the hell?" I had a bad feeling about this. I kicked Ranger into something faster to see what idiocy Geoffrey was getting into. As I crested the rise, I saw them: brigands. A half-dozen rough looking men with axes, swords, scars, and in various states of sobriety and shavedness. They also had an ogre. Being a prince, Geoffrey could likely handle the six men or the ogre, but both might be pushing it. I really didn't want him to get killed. I'd have to hunt out another prince to do the rescuing.
     "Ranger, body check." My horse, my training. Ranger lurched ahead, pouring on the speed as we charged down the slope. I didn't shout out a battlecry or otherwise give myself away. I drew my nightstick. I preferred my .38, but since I was marooned in the Fairy Tale Realms, I didn't have access to bullets.
     I guarded with my nightstick, ready to spin it around when needed. The Prince held his own in a circle of men, his horse dancing as he laughed and slashed at the men trying to get close. Unfortunately, he didn't make any headway in taking them out. It was only a matter of time until the knot of men broke to allow the ogre and his massive axe in to finish the prince off.
     Fortunately, Geoffrey drew their attention from Ranger's thundering hooves. Ranger slammed a massive shoulder into one man, which carried into a second. Both of them sprawled as I dismounted. "Ranger, penalty box."
     The brigands were disorganized and untrained with their weapons, likely used to terrorizing peasants. I parried a clumsy sword blow with my nightstick, then slammed the heel of my palm into a chin, following it up with a quick throat gouge by stiff fingers. Fairy Tale brigands didn't know police close-combat training.
     "Well met, Sir Sam!" I hadn't seen Geoffrey dismount. "Thanks to your timely arrival, I shall dispatch the ogre!" Geoffrey suited his words by parrying a sword swing, sending the brigand's weapon flying. With no more use for the man, Geoffrey turned to the ogre.
     I groaned. What the fuck is wrong with these 'heroes'? The bad guy does not go away just because his sword is gone. True enough, the man pulled out a dagger nearly as long as a short sword.
     "Hey, Smiley." I swung my nightstick, letting the handle spin in my hand. The gap-toothed brigand caught the nightstick with his dagger. I hated giving warning, but I needed to get his attention to stop him from planting the blade in the noble prince's red-caped back.
     Smiley drew a second dagger, holding this one in a standard knife-fighting grip, like a steak knife. He still gripped the first knife in his fist, good for slashing and overhand stabs, but useless for thrusting. It still meant I had to fend off two knives while Geoff taunted the ogre. I caught sight of him leaping up, somersaulting, then tumbling beneath the ogre's legs while its axe caught empty air.
     Smiley slashed at my chest. I caught it with the nightstick, but then he followed up with a thrust to my gut. I had to jump back to avoid my insides decorating the ground. "Right then." I twirled the nightstick once then thrust. It wasn't meant to connect, just meant to put him off balance as I dashed in. He slashed, but I caught his forearm in my hand. No one in the Realms had thought to try that from the shock on his face. I brought my right knee under his diaphragm. Sour-beer breath whooshed out of him as his knees gave way. I cracked him hard over the head.
     I spun away by intuition; an axe flashed in front of my eyes to catch me high on my left arm. I gritted my teeth and retreated. One of the men Ranger had knocked down had gotten back up, and joined his fellow with the axe. Ranger sat on another, keeping the man in the penalty box. Geoffrey's horse danced around, mane and silver-shod hooves flashing and striking at foes.
     We held our own, but I didn't want to fight two at once. I may be in a fairy tale world, but I wasn't the hero of this particular story.
     "All right, assholes, let's do this." The curse had no effect on them. They just didn't recognize profanity, which ruined it. Fuck 'em. I wasn't going down easy. I bared my teeth, ready.
     The ogre groaned behind me. A sound that loud could only have come from the ogre. The ground shook in protest from the impact. The remaining brigands looked horrified, but I didn't dare risk a glance back.
     "There, villains! You face the might of Prince Geoffrey and Sir Sam! Surrender or face our wrath!"
     The brigands attempted to break the record for the 100 meter. Fortunately, I still had someone to question.
     Geoffrey tended to his horse, congratulating him and stroking his mane. I approached Ranger, who continued to sit on the downed brigand. The man gasped for each breath underneath the massive animal. I took my time, examining my wound. My leather coat had sliced as easily as my arm underneath the axe. I'd have to stitch it up later. For now I pressed a clean cloth to the deep gash, the pain doing nothing to improve my mood.
     "Listen, I don't' like getting cut. Answer my questions and this doesn't get nasty. Who are you, and why did you attack us?"
     "They are brigands! What more excuse do they need?" Geoffrey put in. "Better to simply dispatch him or let him go. We must attend to our quest!" I fully expected a ray of sunshine to gleam off his teeth. Moron.
     "A minute, Highness." I squatted next to the brigand, pitching my voice low. "See, he's right. Let you go or dispatch you. Thing is, I'm not as nice as he is. I might take a slice out of your gut, something that takes hours, even days to die from." Bad cop took on a whole new meaning here. "But that's a lot of work for me. I'd rather just let you go. Nod if you understand."
     He gave a slow nod. He had a lot of fight left in him. I clapped a hand over his mouth and nose. Given Ranger on his chest, he didn't take too long to turn blue. "Who hired you?"
     I let go. He sputtered, coughed, and wheezed, but hadn't lost the defiant look. He spit on Ranger. Given how big Ranger's rump was, I don't think he felt it. I took offense to it, though. I pinned the man's right forearm. "Ranger, slapshot." The horse raised up a front forefoot, and came down hard on the man's hand. It crunched and squished as only bone and tissue could do. The brigand screamed for all the breath he had, which wasn't much.
     I clamped over his mouth just to shut him up. His nostrils flared as he forced breath in and out.
     "Who hired you?"
     He nodded vigorously, so I let my hand up. "The Witch! The Old Witch of the Forest."
     "Which forest?" Most of the Realms were covered in forest of one kind or another.
     "The Forest of Dark Despair." I hadn't been there, but it didn't surprise me.
     "How much?"
     "Cloth pouch."
     "Ranger," I patted the horse, who got up. When I saw the pouch, I yanked it off the brigand's belt. "Go. Next time you won't be walking away."
     The brigand scrambled away, cradling his hand to his chest.
     I felt coins inside the pouch. I opened it, carefully. It didn't explode, which I counted as a good sign. Never could tell with witches. I shook some of the coins into my palm. Gold. One side stamped with stacks of coins, the other a triangle with wavy lines coming out of the straight sides. Something was off, though. The weight was right, the color, everything. But they didn't clink. I tapped them; nothing. They weren't metal. I rubbed them with my fingers, and now I noticed they didn't feel like metal. More like ceramic. And just like that, the enchantment was gone. The gold color disappeared to reveal earthen coins. I chuckled, putting the coins back. Never trust a witch.
     "Sir Sam! The day wanes! We must be off. There are more perils ahead before we reach the abode of the dragon!" Geoffrey jumped to his horse.
     I cinched the bag.
     We traveled for three more days over rivers and craggy hills until we got to Dire Mountain. We didn't run into any more trouble as we ascended the glowing peak.
     The lair's open cave was smooth instead of the rough granite of the mountain. Carved from dragon's fire, and probably not too long ago. To one side of the lair rested a huge boulder with a woman chained to it, a cloth gag over her mouth. She hummed a tune through it. I suppressed a smile. The dragon had chained and gagged her, but he didn't get rid of her. He could have flown her anywhere and left her. It probably never occurred to him. The people here followed fairy tale rules. A captured princess must be rescued. Period.
     "There!" Geoffrey managed to shout a whisper as his red leather gauntlet pointed at the dragon. I wasn't blind, but I had already been suitably impressed by the bronze scaled, black-eyed beast.
     "I see, Highness. While I know it is in your nature to slay the beast, we must first think of the princess. She is there, helpless." I pushed his gauntlet in her direction.
     "Ah, yes! She manages to sing despite her terror! It looks as if we have prevented the beast from ravishing her. I shall charge forth and slay the beast before he rouses, then we shall away with the fair Isabella!"
     It could happen. He was a prince, after all.
     "But, Highness, you must rescue Isabella, or else the dragon could simply make off with her, forcing us to give chase. You tend to her; I will hold off the dragon. Put Isabella on your horse, and he will see to her safety while we slay the monster."
     "Yes! I see the wisdom in your plan." It was the dragon's plan, not mine. "We must rescue the maiden, first, but you, my friend, shall do so!" Shit. "Let us go, now!"
     He charged off before I could say anything, so I followed. The dragon, listening the whole time, drew back and gave a ferocious roar. "She is mine!" and blew an impressive stream of fire and smoke to the roof of the cave. All part of the plan. All part of the plan. Don't freak out.
     I angled for the woman. How do I fix this? Geoffrey wouldn't pull his punches, and the dragon may not, either. He'd be fine with me rescuing the woman. I wouldn't be. Probably end up as a prince of some kingdom. Definitely not what I wanted.
     I got to the rock, and only then realized I had to climb to get to her. About four feet up a shelf had been carved in the boulder that she stood on. Thick iron manacles and chains held her spread eagle to the rock like a flashback to Clash of the Titans.
     I scrambled to the shelf. I didn't bother with the gag. I was pressed for time. I looked at the chains and manacles on her wrists. She wore wide bracelets on each behind the manacles. They must be the enchanted bands the dragon talked about. The bracelets were different from one another in the quick glance I gave them, but I recognized a symbol. I didn't have time to waste.
     I yanked on both chains and manacles. They didn't budge. I had my nightstick, not a cutting torch. This might be a good excuse. "Highness! I cannot free her. Your sword! Bring your sword!"
     Geoffrey laughed as he back-flipped out of the way of a claw, beating out NBA players for the vertical he got. He ran towards us. "Fear not, I shall free the maiden, and then best the dragon!"
     "Be right back," I told the woman, and jumped down. I didn't get far before the prince shot past me. I brandished my nightstick at the dragon. In the history of bad ideas, this had to be the top one. I glanced at the dragon's head. It was hard to tell with the giant golden fangs, but I thought he might be smiling. It was not a reassuring sight. Five giant claws hammered the floor behind me. I nearly went headlong into the floor, but managed to keep my feet, arms windmilling as if that would help. Close, but then it was supposed to be close. The dragon tapped a spot on his breast with a claw. I looked to see a spot devoid of scales. Like out of stories. Sort of.
     "Ha! Evil beast! The maiden is free from your evil clutches, and now I shall—" The prince cut off as a jet of flame seared the air where he had been. The prince managed to get out of the way, but only just. His red cape was aflame. Unperturbed, Geoffrey loosed his cape, and ran at the dragon, dodging and slashing at a claw.
     "Prince Geoffrey! There, on his chest, a weakness!"
     "I see it, Sir Sam! Well done. Now I shall rid us of the beast!"
     I had no idea how he was going to get up the twenty feet. Geoffrey would—Oh. The hero climbed up the Dragon's foreleg. The dragon, in an attempt to get him off, lifted the leg up to swat the prince with the other claws. When close enough, Geoffrey leapt from the one leg brachiated like Tarzan off of the next claw as it came towards him, and planted his sword all the way to the hilt into the spot.
     "Holy shit," I whispered. I'd seen wire work in Kung Fu movies less impressive.
     The dragon bellowed in pain and rage, spewing more fire to the ceiling and thrashing about. Geoffrey used his feet to pull his sword free, and plummeted down. He should break his neck or legs, but he landed with cat-like grace, sword at the ready.
     "Run, Sir Sam! The beast is wild in its throes!" Geoffrey grabbed my arm, pushing me away. I liked the idea of running.
     We retreated to the rocky outcropping where we "planned" the assault. We had no sooner crouched down when a fierce wind hit us from the cave. The dragon's wings propelled it into the air. His body tumbled awkwardly, but it stayed in the air as he left the mountain.
     "There, my friend! We are triumphant! Even now it goes to die."
     I nodded, trying to find my pulse. I had my cardio for the day. Hell, for the month.
     Unaffected by my wheezing, Geoffrey retrieved his cape. His sable stallion rode up, as if on cue—I really hated the convenient coincidence of the Realms. Some things were too damn easy. Just how the hell does the horse know when to come without the Prince calling?
     Isabella dismounted, embracing Geoffrey. "Oh, thank you, Highness. Thank you for coming to my rescue. I knew a true hero would save me."
     "Fair maiden, when I heard of your plight, how could I do otherwise?" Wow, no exclamation points. I rendezvoused with Ranger, patting his neck because he was smart enough to stay out of the whole damn fight.
     Prince and Princess traded more romantic pleasantries. If my watch still worked, I'd have looked at it.
     "Highness," I interrupted at the worst possible moment, right before the kiss. That was a bit sadistic of me. "Even though the dragon is gone, this is an evil place. We should be away." Isabella looked rather cross with my interruption.
     "You speak truly, Sir Sam! We shall take Isabella to my home, where she may be treated as her station demands, until we can arrange return to her homeland."
     The journey to the dragon's lair was a rush hour subway while the trip back was an express. Six days out became three back. I expected ambush the whole way. Nothing. Geoffrey and Isabella spent the days and evenings talking with one another, evidently falling in love as fairy tales demanded. Geoffrey and I donated clothing to replace her torn dress, though the prince never looked anywhere but deep into her eyes.
     Every night used tricks to stop them from kissing. Kisses had power in the Realms, and something still wasn't right. So imagined brigands, Ranger stomping around, and oil in the fire all ruined the mood. Something still wasn't right, my detective instincts niggled. I wanted more information.
     Early on the fourth day Geoffrey's magnificent red and white stone castle rose into view. It stood on its own hill with the town surrounding.
     "There, Isabella! We have arrived! Now you shall forget the torment of the dragon, and gain respite! Welcome to my home!"
     "Oh, my Prince," Isabella fluttered. She stepped into his embrace, head upturned and eyes closed.
     Geoffrey played his role—sucker—as if born to it, holding her close and bending his head down.
     "I think that's about enough." Time to play the hand. "Isabella or whatever your name is, step away from the dashing hero."
     "Sir Sam?" she blinked, confused.
     "You step outside yourself, Sir Sam! She is a highborn lady, deserving of your respect. Apologize, now! I do not wish for ill between us after your service." Geoffrey put a hand to his sword hilt.
     "Highness, I'm not a knight. I'm a detective."
     "De-tek-tiv? What is that? Regardless, you have affronted the Princess. Apologize!"
     "I figure things out, like that she was being held by the dragon when no one else knew she was missing." A lie since the dragon had come to me, but Geoff didn't need to know that part. "Thing is, this is all wrong. She," I pointed, "is not a princess. She's a witch."
     "Sir Sam?!" Isabella shrunk away, cowering behind Geoffrey.
     "You dare!" Geoffrey drew his sword, storming towards me.
     Good. In a way. Them separated was good. Skewered on Geoffrey's sword, bad.
     "The brigands, Highness."
     "What of them?" He didn't slow.
     "They were sent to keep us from reaching the dragon's lair and the princess."
     "Aye, and we dispatched them."
     "They were sent by a witch. The brigand confessed to it."
     "Aye, and her vile plot failed." He kept coming, murder flashing in his eyes.
     I backpedaled. Explanations were unnatural here. "There's no reason to send brigands to stop us if the princess is held by a dragon. And on the way back, no one ever attacked us. Some of the brigands escaped. Why didn't they attack again?"
     Geoffrey slowed, the hamster wheel in his head moving to a jog.
     "Her bracelets." I pointed at her. Isabella turned away from the accusing finger, covering the bracelets. "You've seen the symbols on her bracelets."
     "I have." Geoffrey's brow wrinkled hard in thought.
     "They look like these," I tossed the pouch of clay coins to him.
     Geoffrey caught the bag with one hand. Planting his sword in the ground, he shook the coins into his gauntlet. Recognition. He looked at me, eyes wide.
     I nodded.
     He whirled, taking up his sword again, tossing the pouch to Isabella. Coins spill to the ground. "Explain this, Isabella."
     I expected her to try and weasel her way through. Instead she stood up straight and scowled. Her form shimmered, the illusion falling away. The woman before us was not a hideous hag, but a beautiful woman. I expected the long-nosed, wart-covered witch, not Snow White's stepmom. She was older, but to me seemed even more beautiful than the illusion.
     "I will not forget this Sam Faraday. You will pay for your interference." She threw her hands down. A small explosion of glitter, light, and smoke surrounded her.
     "Witch! I shall—" Geoffrey charged forward, but the witch. . . .
     "She's gone, Highness. Let's get you home."
     "A witch." Only the dragon's head remained above the lake.
     "Yeah. Since she wasn't a real princess and had no kingdom, the word never spread throughout the Realms."
     "That explains much. I must say I am impressed by you."
     "Back atcha. Geoff's sword, it didn't" I trailed off, gesturing at my own chest.
     "A small wound, nothing lasting. I thank you for your assistance."
     "Now, about my fee. . . ."
     "I regret that I do not know of how you may return home." Longshot at best. "Nor is there such a tree as you describe anywhere within the Realms that anyone has seen." God, I was really hoping he'd find that cherry tree coffee came from. "However, I have brought you this," he lifted claws from the lake, dangling a wooden box by a rope handle.
     Once inside the boat, I opened the box to see chunks of old snow packed nearly to the top. I smiled. I retrieved my stoppered bottles from the lake, and plunged them into the snow.
     Can't get home. Can't get coffee. But at least I can enjoy a nice cold beer on the lake.
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