Here’s how I know it’s a real monster and not just a spell.
One: this is the Forest of Woe, which is known for its monsters and not its spells. Two: spells tend to hit you right away, not stand there yelling at you for a while. If this monster was a spell, I’d both see it and be getting gnawed on by it at the same time. And three: Torvold sees it, too.
Casting a spell on more than one person is really difficult. Not impossible, but difficult, and not something that sorcerers leave lying around in a forest. If a sorcerer was going to spend the life force necessary to cast a spell on more than one person, said sorcerer wouldn’t just drop it in a forest that had perfectly real monsters of its own.
This monster is completely real. And completely terrifying.
I’m heading back into the river for a third time, but Torvold catches me yet again. He pulls out his sword with one hand and hoists me over one of his shoulders with the other.
“Fear not, my princess,” he shouts as he runs into the rushing river, “these types of beasts loathe water.”
I push against Torvold’s back so I can prop myself up and see behind us while he runs. The view isn’t good.
“Yes, well, this one can fly,” I shout over the sound of the river.
The lion-lizard-eagle flaps its great wings twice and it’s over the river and landing on the far bank before I’m done warning Torvold. The monster starts striding back and forth on the river bank, waiting for dinner to be done washing itself and get in his belly.
Torvold switches gears quickly. He stops where he is, wades to about mid-river, finds a rock and puts me on it.
“Fear not—” Torvold begins, but I cut him off.
“You’ve got to stop saying that. Fear is an entirely appropriate sentiment, given the situation.”
He grins at me. Hello, dimple. Nice to know your owner has a sense of humor.
“Stay here. I’ll go kill it,” he says simply. He brandishes his sword once and charges through the water as if he were on flat ground. I would be eating gravel right now if I tried that.
Torvold scrambles for the bank, but here he’s at a serious disadvantage. He’s got to fight the thing uphill across broken ground. Not to mention the fact that the monster is about fifteen feet tall and nearly three times as long.
I see him lose his footing and think, well that was nice while it lasted, and then Torvold feints to the side on his perfectly solid footing as the monster dips his head down to snap him up. Torvold swings his sword up and around and nearly chops the lion head off. Unfortunately, the mane is probably two feet thick and all that gets cut off is a hank of fur.
Torvold rolls easily up onto the bank next to the monster as it rears back, enraged. He crouches down into a fighting stance, rushes in, but thinks better of it when the reptilian tail swings around and practically knocks him down. Torvold tries another approach only to find flashing talons almost piercing his chest.
The knight and the monster start circling each other, sizing each other up.
“I’ll lead him away. You cross back to other side and find Jackanet. If I do not return, good luck on your quest, princess,” Torvold yells to me, never taking his eyes off the beast.
Torvold starts to back up the far bank to lead the beast away, but as he does so, the long tail that is now facing me shoots out. I try to jump into the river as soon as I see what old anaconda-rear is about, but he catches me in midair. The tail coils around my waist so tightly I feel like I’m going to puke.
There is suddenly a lot more noise. I can hear Sir Torvold shouting to me, the flapping of wings, and the ringing of a sword against tough scales. The lion’s head of the monster starts roaring in pain, but the tail keeps coiling me in. Torvold is fighting like crazy up there as he tries to save me, but in the meantime, I’m rolled up like a burrito underneath this monster’s butthole.
It is pungent down here. And I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got monster balls resting on my forehead right now.
My arms are squeezed close enough together that I can just barely graze the hilt of one of the blades that I’ve got tucked up my left sleeve with my right fingertips. I inch the blade out and nick myself pretty good as I spin it around, but I do finally manage to get the hilt held solidly in my right fist. Then I bring it around sharply and cut into a coil of monster muscle.
That loosens his grip enough that I can yank my arms out, but the blade stays stuck inside of Mr. Stinky Teabag. My other blades are in my bodice, garters, and my boots and as such they are inaccessible right now. Since I can’t get his balls off my mind, I grab two big hunks of them and then squeeze and twist.
The monster makes a yelping sound that’s legitimately pathetic. He tries to drop me and fly away, but I don’t let go of him. I’m too terrified that he’ll slash me with the talons on his hind legs as I fall past them. Not to mention the fact that I could break a leg in a bad landing. There’s no emergency room in Lucitopia. You break a leg, you’ve got a limp for the rest of your life.
The monster’s flapping his wings, trying to get airborne, and I’m swinging from his junk like a baller hanging from the rim, still twisting and grinding whatever he’s got in there like I’m wringing out a pair of wet jeans. Finally, the monster drops back down to earth and keels over.
Torvold vaults onto the monster’s belly and slashes it open with a swing that would have every golfer in my world drooling. The beast makes a screeching sound. I decide it’s safe to let go and I roll off to the side as Torvold searches under the opened scales for the heart. When he finds it, he drives his blade home, putting the poor creature out of his misery.
Torvold jumps down next to me. “You’re bleeding,” he says urgently.
He tries to gather me up in his arms again, but at this point I think I’ve spent more time being carried around by him than on my own two feet.
“I need no assistance, brave knight—no more than you’ve supplied by killing this hideous beast,” I say, holding up a hand to stop him. He looks dismayed and I realize my hand is covered in blood.
“Your hand,” he says, unbuckling his chain mail at the shoulder. Underneath is a white linen shirt.
“Tis but a scratch,” I protest, but he’s already taking off his shirt. I stop talking and just let it happen.
Wow. I never realized how mesmerizing muscles could be. I mean, I’ve always liked them, but Torvold’s are hypnotic. He’s not puffed up or anything, but everything flows from his broad chest and shoulders, down his rippling six pack, to trim hips, in such a harmonious way. Even his back is carved out of thick, curved muscle and his skin is so smooth. I wonder if he shaves—no, that’s silly. Guy here don’t shave their bodies.
Torvold is just about to start ripping up his shirt, most likely to make bandages for my hand, when we hear Thunder whinny.
“That was horrible!” Jackanet shouts. He’s leading Thunder across the river. On the stallion’s back are two barefooted women in white dresses.
Torvold stands and bows to them, and then puts on his shirt. Unfortunately.
“Good. You’re here,” Torvold says hurriedly as Jackanet arrives on our side of the bank. “I need bandages.” He looks Jackanet over. “What’s wrong with you? You’re as pale as a sheet.”
“I’ve never seen an animal so horribly abused,” Jackanet says as he digs in the horse’s saddle bags.
“What are you talking about? You’ve seen me slay dozens of monsters,” Torvold replies as he takes some cloths from his squire.
“Not you—her! Did you see how she was swinging from that poor chimera-griff’s bollocks?”
“Jackanet,” Torvold scolds, as he wraps my hand. “Language.”
“But it’s true!” Jackanet continues pointing at me. “She was ringing his bells like there was a village on fire!”
Torvold is blushing and angry and sputtering, and I figure the best way to handle it is to ignore it.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, good squire,” I say. “But Sir Torvold was quite the hero this afternoon. He saved me from being carried off by that chimera-griff.”
“I can’t take all the praise. You fought bravely, too, princess,” Torvold insists. I can feel my cheeks heat up at the compliment. But princesses aren’t supposed to do things like swing from giant scrotums.
“She’s the one who did him in,” Jackanet insists.
“I was merely holding on for dear life until Sir Torvold could come to my rescue,” I say. That sounded princess-y.
Jackanet gives me a disbelieving look, followed by a wary one, like he’s deciding to keep his eye on me.
As Torvold finishes with my bandages, Jackanet turns to help the two women down from Thunder’s back.
“Princess Pleasant, this is the White Witch Fortitude,” Torvold gestures to a stout little woman, maybe in her mid-thirties, with big brown eyes and a long shiny black braid. Her caramel-colored face is round and jolly, yet there is something about her eyes that say she’s not as soft on the inside as she is on the outside.
I curtsey to her, “Your Grace,” I say.
“No, no. Just call me Tudie, dear. I don’t stand on ceremony,” she says with a crisp nod.
I smile at her while Torvold directs me to the other White Witch. “And this is Dexterity,” he informs me.
I’m momentarily thrown while I have a quick mental debate as to whether or not dexterity could be considered a virtue, but I recover fast and give her a semi-decent curtsey.
“Call me Dex,” Dexterity tells me. She has an open, earnest smile. I smile back at her, deciding immediately that I like her.
Dexterity is in her late twenties, and she wears her blonde hair cropped close across the back and around the ears, but she leaves a grown-out mop on top. She’s got long features and long, lanky limbs. She moves in a loose way, like she’s built out of rubber bands. Standing next to short and stout Fortitude, they look like a Vaudeville comedy act.
“I’m honored,” I tell them, and I’m happy to note that I’m telling the truth. “You may call me—”and here I pause for a moment.
I’ve always hated the name Princess Pleasant. The writer really phoned it in on that one, but I can’t think of a snazzy way to shorten it. Plezdoesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
“Don’t trouble yourself, dearie,” Tudie says, waving it away. “We’ll come up with something to call you as we travel apace together, to be sure.”
“Come, let us move away from this gory sight,” Sir Torvold says considerately. “We can sup together, and the princess can tell us all about her perilous quest.”
Crap. I’d rather fight another monster. The party starts to move upstream from the dead chimera-griff, but I hang back.
“I left my…er…pack back there,” I say.
Jackanet unhooks my pack from the pommel of Thunder’s saddle and passes it to me. “You left it on the other side of the river.”
“Right! Many thanks, trusty squire, for retrieving it for me,” I say while I sling my pack over my shoulder. “I meant something else I dropped in the fight.”
I run back and hastily pull my knife out of poor Mr. Stinky Teabag. He was just doing what monsters do. I give him a little pet and whisper, “sorry,” as I clean my blade hastily in the grass. As I’m sliding the blade back into my arm sheath, I catch Jackanet watching me. He hustles off as soon as we make eye contact.
I join the group again and there’s a little argument about who is going to ride on Thunder. Everyone insists that I ride because I’m injured, but mostly because I’m a princess, I suspect. I can’t really wiggle out of it, though I don’t feel right about making two Virtues walk.
We travel upstream until we find a good spot to camp for the night. I’m thinking about what my quest should be the whole way, but I can’t come up with anything both believable and heroic.
“This looks like a favorable place to pass the night,” Torvold declares. The spot he’s picked is close to the riverbank, but far enough away to be dry. There’s a lovely shade tree to sleep under. I look up into the branches to make sure there are no nests above us. I don’t want to get pooped on in the middle of the night. And, yes, it has happened to me before.
While I’m looking up into the branches for any possible late-night bombardiers, I feel Torvold’s huge, warm hands wrap around my waist. I stiffen with surprise, but he’s already sliding me out of the saddle and setting me down on the ground between him and Thunder.
We are awfully close together. I stare at his chest for a moment, thinking about what’s under all that chain mail, before I look up at him. Another beam of light is filtering down through the leaves and landing perfectly on his head like a halo. The writer must have spent a lot of time describing the light around Torvold, although I bet this guy would look good in the dark. Not that you can see anything in the dark. Why am I think about being in the dark with Torvold?
“I have to unsaddle Thunder,” he tells me.
“Oh, right,” I say, hastily stepping aside when I realize he’s been waiting for me to move. I resist the urge to smack myself on the forehead and nonchalantly go over to the White Witches like I didn’t just make a fool of myself.
Dex pulls out a pocketknife and some flint. She spins the little blade in her fingers, and quicker than I can see she’s got a spark smoldering in a small pile of leaves and tinder.
“You’re quite good at that,” I remark, impressed.
“I am dexterous,” Dex replies, giving me a little wink.
“Show off,” Jackanet snorts.
“He’s just jealous because he can’t start a fire,” Tudie whispers to me, loudly enough for the squire to hear. She’s already got her knitting out, and the needles are clacking away in her hands.
Grumbling, Jackanet goes to collect wood while Torvold joins us at the fire’s edge with a black pot and a haunch of monster meat.
“I’d like to say that I know the perfect way to prepare chimera-griff, but sadly, I do not,” he says with a sheepish grin.
I take a look at the haunch Torvold’s holding. It still a few feathers clinging to it.
“Looks more like poultry than snake. Probably from the eagle portion. I’d go with rosemary,” I say, already digging in my pack for the herb. “And lots of salt.”
Torvold looks taken aback. “Have you eaten snake, my princess?”
Yes, actually, I have. It’s amazing what you’ll eat when you’ve been plunked down in the middle of horrid fairy tale after being hoodwinked by a diabolical used-book saleswoman. Can’t tell Torvold that, obviously.
“At court, once,” I say airily. “It’s considered a delicacy by some.”
Dex and Tudie exchange a look but say nothing to contradict me.
“Indeed?” Torvold replies, considering it. He smiles broadly. “It is fortunate we have you here, then, princess.”
I inherit the pot and the monster meat. I’d go wash my hands, but I think it’s a little late for that.