A Scythe in Time: Part 4
Almost anything is easier to get into than out of.

         Newton had reached the conclusion that there simply was not enough alcohol in the world. "Miss!" he shouted, waving his empty mug at the young serving wench, "More ale!"

         "So are you *really* a wizard?" inquired Iiwi, leaning across the crowded table to snatch up another slice of overly buttered but freshly baked bread.

         "Absolutely," Newton nodded, draining his newly refilled tankard and motioning for the barmaid again, "Order of Merlin, Third Class. A lot of potential and far too little training. I hope to make Adept one day. With a little luck and a good mentor, I might actually make it.”

         "Provided, of course," he muttered, "I can find a mage willing to teach me. Haven't had much luck there - Masters and Adepts are hard to find in the best of times; nowadays they're as good as ghosts. The war's driven most magic-users into hiding - even Journeymen like myself have made themselves scarce. Nobody in their right mind wants to be a war mage. Granted, they're the most powerful piece on the board, but they're also the first the other side goes after. And the *spells*-" he shuddered.

         "I didn't become a mage to boil oceans and burn away armies," he muttered, gloomily gazing into his tankard. "Barmaid! More ale!"

         "Would you stop?" Ferdia sighed, reaching over and placing her hand over the tankard's gaping rim, "Getting drunk isn't going to help things."

         "As you wish, Prin-" he caught her glare "-er, mi'lady."


         "I cannot call a Royal by their first name!"

         "Hey!" Ferdie hissed, "Not so loud! Someone might hear you!"

         "And we're attracting enough attention as it is," Ivan grumbled. "If we intend on keeping a low profile, we're going to need some local attire."

         "And a few more horses," Bob added, "I'm tired of all this walking. My feet are killing me, and I'm far too cute to have blisters!"

         Newton eyed his pint, wondering if one more mouthful would help any. Sensing his intentions, Ferdia snatched the tankard away and plunked it onto the tray of a passing barmaid. The lizard stared after it forlornly; he knew a levitation spell that would call the mug back to him, but had yet to successfully cast it, and now hardly seemed like the time to try again. So much for drinking himself into oblivion and waking up with a hangover and only the faintest of memories of this nightmare.

         "So," he sighed, "where exactly are you planning on heading, now that you know where you are?"

         Ferdia thought for a moment. "I don't really know," she conceded. "We're pretty much stuck here until Newt figures out where we are and how to get us back. I was kind of hoping we could get a mage working on the same thing, but if they're that hard to come by..."

         “We are,” Newton nodded, "I haven't met a fellow magic-user in months. The closest I've come is just within range of a stray war mage or two – and believe me, the first thing I did then was make tracks back out of range.” He sighed. “You'd be better off just staying put somewhere quiet until your mage friend finds you."

         "We can't," Squeaks shook his head, "We don't have any money - or at least none we can use here."

         "Gold is gold," Newton shrugged, "Doesn't much matter whose face is on it."

         "Yes, but our money is mostly paper, plastic, or mixed metals," Ferdie said, displaying the contents of his wallet to the wizard, "And we don't have much we could barter."

         Newton groaned. "But you can't simply wander about the countryside! It's dangerous! There's highwaymen, and looting armies, and spies who'll recognize you and send mercenaries after you!"


         "Yes, yes, I know - you keep saying you're some sort of... doppelgangers, I suppose," he conceded, "But they don't know that, and if they shoot you it won't much matter!"

         "All right," Iiwi said, "So what do *you* propose?"

         Newton thought about that, brow creasing as he considered his options. "Are you *certain* you won't stay in the village? I could probably find a way to finance you, given some time. Alchemy's not quite as hard as they say…or, rather, it is, but I had the good fortune to stumble across the remains of a hermit wizard's cottage a few months ago, and I pulled a rather promising spell scroll out of the ruins. I've been somewhat successful removing the ash, and while the last two lines are mostly burned away, I'm working at deciphering what the most likely final incantations were. And I could always check my spellbooks for something to conjure up some Leprechaun gold with – although that disappears after a few hours…"

         "Wouldn't it be just as dangerous for them to stay here? What if one of the villagers recognizes them?" Beak asked, slowly carving his way through his fifth course, "They *are* on the money, after all. And Ferdie's portrait's right above the inn!"

         "The Bravepence Tavern and Inn is the finest establishment this side of the river," Newton sniffed. "The staff are honorable and discreet. Even if someone notices the resemblance, they're not likely to turn you over to the sentries,” he insisted. “But I suppose you're right,” he sighed. “Exotic apparel or not, someone's bound to recognize you eventually. Or report you on the basis of your clothing alone…"

         "Well," he sighed, "I suppose there's nothing to help it but getting you some fast horses and decent clothing, and accompanying you in your travels. I'm not much of a fighter, but I do know a fair bit of attack magic, and you couldn't ask for a more knowledgeable or courteous guide."

         “I am a bit short on cash, though…”


         Several hours later, having exhausted the inn's supply of fresh fruit and prepared food and driven away the few other travelers with their outlandish attire, boisterous demeanor, and companion wizard, the crew heeded the tired innkeeper's pleas and retired to their rooms.

         The Bravepence was a modest establishment at the edge of one of the many small villages set along the great road, and while it often saw more traffic through its tavern, the inn was fully equipped to handle the occasional sizable party of pilgrims, gypsies, or other such traveling adventurers. It had no private rooms, but rather a collection of larger rooms meant to keep parties together. Guests were separated by sex, of course – men were confined to one wing, women the other, with the tavern serving as the joining space between the two. This was, of course, one of the Bravepence's proudest features, for staircases were a sign of wealth, and for an inn to sport two of them spoke well of its quality. It also boasted two sizable bathhouses – one at the end of each guest section. The separate stone structures had a variety of public pools and private rooms, each heated by its own hearth – a luxury indeed, by common standards. Such things were generally not found outside the castles of the wealthiest nobility. Newton was taking no chances with his newfound companions – as much as they protested otherwise, the bluebirds were the Royals, and he would treat them as such until whatever enchantment currently holding them wore off. He'd spent every last pence he carried on dinner and their rooms, casting a glamour to bluff his way through tips. Nothing but the best for the Royals and their party, he quietly boasted.

         His befuddlement at his companions' reactions to their quarters was therefore quite understandable.

         “What do you mean, we have to stay in separate sections?!” Ferdia squawked.

         “Your Majesty-” Newton began.

         “Don't call me that!”

         “-of course, mi'lady,” the wizard nodded, bobbing in a quick half-bow.

         “Don't do that, either!”

         “Yes, mi'lady,” Newton continued, “But, surely a lady of your stature lives by the standards of proprietary conduct? The party must be separated for the night. I assure you, you will be safe. The nearest army detachment is leagues away –”

         “I still don't like it,” Ferdia grumbled.

         “It's not as if you'll be alone, Highness,” the wizard reasoned, “What with shared rooms and all-”

         “What?!?” Bob squawked, “Shared rooms? No one said anything about having to share a room!”

         “I understand it may not be what you are accustomed to,” Newton allowed, “but-”

         “I'm not sharing a room with villains!” Bob shouted, pointing an accusing finger to where Ivan and the others were standing.

         Newton, still unclear as to why the yellow kiwi considered the gray one to be a villain, let alone why this motley crew traveled together at all if half their number regarded the others as blackguards, rubbed the back of his head in puzzlement. “Very well, then,” he tried, “We've paid for two rooms in the men's section; we'll put the 'villains' in one, and the rest of us can share the other.”

         “You can't leave these criminals unsupervised!” Drake protested, “There's no telling what sort of evil they'd attempt!”

         “All right, then,” Ferdie retorted, “So you spend the night with them as their chaperone!”

         “Are you crazy?!? That fiend,” Drake leveled a finger at D'Gal, “Will kill me in my sleep!”

         “I've promised not to,” D'Gal intoned, folding his arms and leaning against the far wall, steel glinting in his eyes in a silent promise that when Drake did finally die, it most definitely would not be in his sleep.

         Like most death threats not currently being carried out, this one rolled right off Drake's back. “You'll just find a way to make it look like an accident!”

         “That would be nearly impossible,” the ebony duck glared at the puffed-up Platyrian, tone cold. “Nevertheless, I intend to keep my word.”

         “Then you'll get one of the others to do it for you!” Drake yelled, never missing a beat, “Murdering bunch of criminals, the whole lot of you!”

         “Hey!” Ivan fumed, “Watch your step, duck! The rest of us aren't under any cease-fire, and if you piss us off..”

         “See? Ought to be in handcuffs, the whole lot of them, not wandering about like law-abiding citizens! My life would be in infinite peril in their company!”

         “Your life is in infinite peril in anyone's company,” Lita growled.

         “Ace! Back me up here!”

         Squeaks tilted his head to one side, flicking his ears about, amused. “You can't have this both ways, Drake. Either they spend the night alone, or watched – and since you're the only one objecting to the former, you're the logical choice for the latter.”

         Newton watched the scene before him in befuddlement – a feeling that increased threefold as Ferdia propped her elbow on his shoulder. “Interesting crew, eh?” she asked.

         “Er, um…yes, your Highness,” the lizard managed. “And you, uh, trust these people?”

         “Oh, yes,” the bluebird nodded, “With the exception of D'Gal and Drake, who truly are out to kill each other, they all mean well. Most of the time,” she amended. “As long as you don't mention that to them.”

         “A strange enchantment indeed,” Newton observed.


         Newton lay quietly in his bed, staring up at the thatch and wood above him. The darkened room was silent, save for the quiet breathing of his slumbering companions (though the yellow kiwi had begun to snore) and the gentle whisper of a night breeze as it billowed past the drawn curtains.

         Like many summer nights, this one was warm, and Newton dozed in a light nightshirt, his wizards' robes carefully hung on a peg along the wall. He and the mouse had surrendered their quilts to Ferdinand, who had objected quite loudly to the straw-filled beds and made quite a show of padding them with blankets until sleep took him. The two kiwis had also expressed varying levels of dismay at the beds, and like the Royal, they also slept atop their quilts. Only the mouse had retired without complaint – and as one of Ferdianna's guards (For what else could that curious blue garb be but a uniform?), Newton expected nothing less.

         The others had, Newton hoped, also dropped off to sleep by now. If nothing else, the muffled grumblings and complaints had stopped – or, at least, he could no longer hear them through the wall. The white duck had eventually agreed to overnight in the “fiends'” room, claiming the need to “keep an eye on” the room's occupants far outweighed concerns for his own safety. And in the sailor's defense, Newton doubted even he'd find these bunks comfortable after the scalding the duck had received earlier that evening at the bathhouse. The inn's attendants had been extremely apologetic, but could find no reason why that particular furnace had burned so hot…

         Still, Newton reflected, it was nice to have bathed and be resting on a bed again. Hygiene spells may keep one clean, but they were hardly as refreshing as a warm bath – and after weeks spent sleeping on hard ground, any sort of mattress was welcome. Though he would hardly argue with his newfound companions should they insist on more luxurious accommodations – provided they were paying, of course, as he hadn't the funds – such locations were few and far between. The Bravepence was a fine inn, with its freshly-prepared food, staircases, bathhouses, and feather pillows – but luxuries like down-filled mattresses and richly furnished rooms were only to be found whilst enjoying the hospitality of nobles, which was something few common folk - or even wizards – ever had the opportunity to do. At least, he mused, not while said estates were occupied; he'd wandered through several pillaged villas, impressed by their richness even in ruins.

         Newton yawned, turning his mind to thoughts of sleep. The muffled sounds of a scuffle drifted over from the next room – an angry snarl, followed by someone being kicked across the room, booted against a windowsill, and smacked over the ledge with a sizeable wooden object – at which point the sounds switched to the mad scramblings of someone flailing about for purchase and landing, with a great degree of rustle and snapping, in the patch of dire roses growing below.

         “Dear gods,” squeaked a voice, “The pain!”

         “Serves you right,” came the growled reply, “Looming over people in their sleep like that. You're lucky I didn't knife you on the spot.”

         “That might've hurt less,” whimpered the defenestrated individual.

         Newton clamped the pillow down over his ears. Royals or no – why had he taken up with these people again?


         Lita leaned out the window, angling for a better view as she stifled a laugh. “Drake just got tossed out the window,” she observed, amused smirk playing across her face.

         “Probably deserved it,” Ferdia muttered from her pillow, curling away from the window in an attempt to escape the light coming in past the curtains.

         “Looked like a group effort, too,” the rabbit continued, uncrossing her arms and dangling them over the sill, “I'm pretty sure I caught a glimpse of a sign swinging back there…”

         “Fascinating,” the bluebird mumbled, her tone indicating that this news was anything but.

         “Maybe he was keeping everyone else awake,” Iiwi added from her makeshift nest of mattress straw, cracking one eye open to glare at the rabbit. She fluffed up her feathers, burying her beak a bit further beneath her wing in an attempt to get more comfortable.

         Lita stuck out her tongue in defiance. “Nya. You're just jealous 'cuz I'm not tired.”

         “You'll get no sympathy from us if you can't keep up come morning,” Iiwi replied. “Newton's made it more than clear that he doesn't have enough money for more than a night's stay, which means we probably won't be getting any more horses. For you puny earthbound mortals, that means walking –which means, you fall behind, you get left behind.”

         “Go roam the halls if you can't sleep,” Ferdia added.

         “My fur's not dry yet,” the teen protested, “It'll get ridiculously curly if I sleep on it now – and unlike you two, a quick zip-through with a preening comb won't straighten it out in the morning.”

         “Should've thought about that before sneaking out after dinner, then,” Iiwi muttered. “You'd be dry if you'd gone straight to the bathhouse instead of taking a few hours' detour wandering around town.”

         “Fine, fine,” Lita sighed, “But if I look like the Bride of Frankenkiwi come sunrise, it's all your fault.”

         “We'll live,” chorused the response.


         Ferdie woke from an uncomfortable slumber on a scratchy bed of straw to the now-familiar disheartening realization that the past few days hadn't been a vicious nightmare. His muscles ached, his skin itched from the straw, and his back was none too happy about the past night's choice of mattress, either. It was still dark outside, he realized, blinking in confusion – and he was too tired to have awoken naturally. So what had woken him up, he wondered.

         His question was answered a moment later, as his eyes adjusted to the dark and grudgingly focused on the world before him. The party responsible for his rousing was just visible in the low light, pacing the room nervously and pausing every now and again to peer cautiously out the window through the still-drawn curtains.

         “Something wrong, Newt?” Ferdie yawned, startling the lizard. With a yelp of surprise, Newton sprang back, leaping up onto the far wall, left hand half-raised in a warding spell.

         “I'm gonna take that as a 'Yes',” Ferdie ventured, one eyebrow raised in amusement.

         “”My apologies, your Highness,” the wizard said from his perch on the wall, canceling the ward and calling a mild lighting spell instead. “You startled me. I didn't realize anyone else was awake.”

         “I wasn't, but that's beside the point,” Ferdie shrugged, shifting into a sitting position, “So, what's up? Even I'm not usually that jumpy in the morning.”

         Newton stared at the bluebird in confusion for a moment before realization flickered in his eyes. “Ah,” he blinked, “Yes, of course. You are wondering how I am able to stay on this wall?”

         “No,” Ferdie began, before professional curiosity took control, “Well, yes, now that you mention it, but-”

         “I am a lizard, your Highness,” Newton explained, slowly sliding down the wall and onto his empty bed, “I can cling to some types of sheer surfaces.” He grinned sheepishly. “It, er…comes in handy, you might say.”

         “I'll bet it does,” Ferdie agreed, nodding. “So?” he persisted, “What are you doing up at this hour?”

         The wizard frowned. “At what hour?” he dodged, shrugging broadly in a gesture that swept the room and reminded the bluebird that – aside from a grandfather clock in the main hall and a handful of hourglasses in the bathhouses – there were no timepieces of any kind in the inn.

         “At, uh, whatever hour it is,” Ferdie floundered, pointing to the window. “Look, the sun's not up yet – either of them – and where I'm from, that means it's ridiculously early in the morning. Besides, you were pacing. Something's bothering you.”

         “Oh. That.” Newton sighed. “Well, er…does his Highness recall the army garrison some leagues away?”

         “The one too far off to worry about?” Ferdie asked, not liking where this was headed.

         “Yes, well…” The wizard winced. “They're massing at the town gates.”

         Ferdie muttered something unrepeatable, massaging his temples in frustration. “They must've marched all night,” he muttered.

         “It may just be a coincidence, Highness,” Newton stated worriedly. “Nevertheless, I'd recommend we leave before daybreak. Provided no one knows of our presence, it shouldn't be too difficult to slip out of the city. We haven't been here all that long, and I trust the staff here to keep quiet. So long as no one saw us on the road – oh,” he faltered, the color draining from his face, “the bandits…”

         Ferdie sighed. He wasn't used to being the calm one in situations where mindless panic was called for, but he'd seen it done countless times, and right now his detective skills were more awake than the portion of his brain that handled the flight response. “Never mind that. These soldiers outside - do they have a mage?” he queried.

         Newton paused, concentrating. “Not that I can detect,” he conceded.

         “Would they send one if they knew about you?”

         “Only if they had one to send,” the wizard said forlornly, “And even then, only if they felt they didn't have the skill to capture me on their own – which they most likely do.”

         “Okay, okay.” Ferdie frowned, “Let's wake the others, and-”

         “Squeaks!” Ferdia's voice shrieked from the worn dresser by the door, sending the mouse in question bolting to his feet (in a leap that took him halfway across the room) as the kiwis demonstrated their respective high-jump abilities. As Bob attempted to extricate himself from the rafters, Ferdie turned his attention to the police gear sitting atop the dresser.

         “The radio?!?” Ferdie boggled. “That thing still works?”

         “The short range will, at least until its batteries run down,” Squeaks replied, picking up the device in question and toggling the mike. “Go ahead, Ferdia.”

         “Iiwi's just gotten back from an early morning flight, and says the army's just outside of town,” Ferdia explained, the muffled assent of the Flier and Lita echoing in the background, “We're on our way over now. Wake the others, and-”

         “You already done that,” D'Gal smirked from the doorway.

         “Aack! Don't do that!” Ferdie squawked.

         “Don't you people ever knock?!?” Bob demanded from his regained perch among the rafters, scowling down at the villains assembled in the doorway below.

         Beak blinked at the group. “Where's Drake?”

         “Don't know, don't care,” D'Gal shrugged. “He took a spill out the window and never made it back up.”

         “It looks like the rose bushes ate him,” the sign holder ventured.

         “Dire roses will do that,” Newton sighed, taking a cue from his roommates' scramble to get dressed and hastily throwing on his wizarding robes as the princess and her ladies rushed down the hall. (Had no one in this group heard of decorum?) “Still, it takes them quite some time to digest their paralyzed prey. He should be fine, provided we slice him free of the roses as we leave.”


         The group made their way swiftly down the halls of the Bravepence, taking pains to be quiet and nonchalant. It was largely a wasted effort, Newton observed. The commotion spurred by Ferdianna's discovery - and the ladies' subsequent arrival - had hardly gone unnoticed. Guests listened quietly from their beds; some of the bolder ones even ventured so far as to peek through barely opened doors as the curious party passed by. Whispers cut through the darkened hallways like a razor-edged wind; by the time they reached an exit, nearly every last occupant knew the army was at the town gates.

         The white duck's pale pod was easily visible amongst the brilliant blue blossoms of the dire roses, and it split open with barely more than a quick sword stroke. Dire roses were, after all, a mage-creation, designed centuries ago as a simple, reliable, and easily-maintainable way of preventing the inn's customers from burglary or physical harm. Their thorns were sharp but small, allowing the poison secreted by the rest of the plant ample opportunity to seep into the numerous cuts and scratches the thorns gouged into offending creatures. The poison itself was fast but effective, paralyzing the rose's hapless prey in seconds and keeping it immobile while a large, leafy pod encased the victim. The rose grew both as bush and vine, and though it would eventually digest its catch, the process took long enough that night prowlers retrieved after an evening in a pod were essentially unharmed as they were led off by morning lawmen. Nevertheless, to protect the unwary – be they young children, love-struck Romeos, or simply local wildlife – the mage that had designed them had made them sapphire blue – a color found in no earthly roses. Dires were as effective as warnings as they were as security measures. Or at least they were, provided one knew of their existence.

         Drake rescued (and left rather unceremoniously on the cobbled ground in front of the inn by party members that really couldn't be bothered with carrying him until the paralysis wore off), the group continued on to the stables. Newton lost no time in preparing his own horse and the Royals' light charger, but was caught off guard when Bob led the Bravepence's other boarding equine out of its stall and pressed Beak into saddling it up.

         “Beg pardon,” the wizard began, turning to the pair of kiwis, “But that's not ours.”

         “I don't care,” Bob replied grumpily, “I'm not walking anymore. My poor cute feet are getting blisters. Besides, the more horses we have, the faster we'll be able to get out of the city!”

         “But it's stealing!” Newton protested. “You're in the presence of royalty – you're one of their traveling companions, even - you shouldn't be stealing!”

         “We don't have time to argue!” Ferdie cut in, “We need to get out of here as soon as possible, and anything that'll help us there is O.K. in my book – so long as we hurry up and get going!”

         Unprepared for an honest noble like Prince Ferdinand to advocate stealing for expediency's sake, Newton fell silent, swinging himself up onto his horse as Ferdianna and her bodyguard did the same on theirs. The prince took up position behind the yellow kiwi on the pilfered mount, leaving both the brown kiwi and the 'villains' – the latter under silent but glaring protest – on foot. The wizard led the group in a swift and sure-footed journey through still-empty side streets and winding alleys, stealthily making his way to a well-hidden breach in the town's protective stone wall – a testament to the fact that, as much faith as he claimed to have in the river town citizenry and the Bravepence inn, Newton had taken this escape route before.


         “I take back everything I said about horses,” Bob grumbled, shifting uncomfortably in the worn saddle, “This is worse than walking. I've lost all feeling in my tail!”

         “If it bothers you so much, get off and walk for a while,” Ferdia sighed, stretching her arms as she strolled alongside the tawny battlefield mare she and Squeaks had taken to sharing. The beast had been relieved of most of the battlefield regalia Iiwi had found it with in order to cover bartering costs for the extra food and third room at the Bravepence, and was plodding along at a bit more lively pace than before. “It's good exercise, and it gives the horse a break as well.”

         “Besides,” Beak put in, “Some of us haven't had a turn yet, and we've been walking all day.”

         “Yeah,” Ferdie grumbled, “Share the ride, hm? Unless you want to have to carry us tomorrow…”

         “Honestly,” D'Gal rolled his eyes, “It's barely been a dozen leagues. Can't you do anything but complain?”

         “Yes,” the bluebird retorted, “I also have some degree of skill in fleeing in bald-faced terror. But since this conversation's centered around griping, I felt it only fitting that I should put my two cents in.”

         “Oh, for the love of-” Squeaks sighed exasperatedly, swinging off the plodding horse and falling into step with Ferdia as Ferdie lunged at the rider-less animal and clambered into the saddle.

         “Goodness,” Newton blinked, turning to the rabbit girl walking alongside his horse, “Are they always like this?”

         “Yep,” the young kiwi on her shoulders grinned as Lita nodded.

         “Although D'Gal's not usually with us,” the rabbit added.

         “Where are we going, anyway?” the small kiwi asked.

         “West,” the wizard nodded, indicating the hills along the horizon, “We need to put some distance between us and the army, or it won't be safe to sleep in the open or go into the villages we pass.”

         “Any particular reason we're heading west, though?” Iiwi queried, gliding down to float just above eye level with the wizard, “There doesn't seem to be much out this way but mountains and forests.”

         “Exactly,” Newton beamed. “And the army can't navigate either very well. Even if we were spotted leaving the Bravepence, no commander's going to chase a rumor through the western forests.”

         “Why not?” Ferdie asked suspiciously.

         “They can't really afford to,” the lizard shrugged. “Not with the royals missing and the Pale Knight marauding to the South. Besides,” he added sheepishly, “the locals say the forest is haunted, and the army's a superstitious lot.”

         “So am I!” Ferdie yelled.

         “Perhaps, Your Highness,” Newton blinked, “But in this case, I can assure you the rumors are nothing more than stories woven by forest hermits and mountain villagers who wish to keep the army far from their door.”

         Beak frowned. “If that's true, then why aren't you staying there? Why wander the country and risk capture instead of taking refuge with them? Surely they'd welcome someone of your talents - your spells could only convince skeptics that the woods were haunted, or-”

         The wizard shook his head. “Peasants tend to be rather ignorant when it comes to magic – and even if no one tried to burn me alive, no educated soul harbors a mage nowadays. Er, present company excepted, of course,” he backpedaled. “Still, magic users are like beacons in the darkness for any forces with so much as an enchanted divining rod.”

         “What about this 'Pale Knight'?” Ferdia asked. “You've mentioned him several times now. I take it he's a faction leader?”

         “Aye, my lady, and the worst of them by far. He's taken control of a sizeable portion of the southern lands, forming pacts with fellow warlords and local nobility along the way to wrest control away from the crown. It's rumored that he lets these allies take the brunt of the damages in battle, then betrays them, claiming the lands as his own. He takes no prisoners, burns out his mages at an alarming rate, leaves his wounded were they fall, and executes any soldiers that attempt to escape their fate by abandoning their comrades. He destroys everything he comes across – villages, fortresses, bridges – seizing peasants as slaves and soldiers as he goes.”

         “Sounds like the sort of soulless evil someone I could mention specializes in,” Drake sneered, glaring pointedly in D'Gal's direction.

         “Funny,” the ebony duck purred darkly, “I was about to say the same thing, Dumas.”

         As Drake lunged in rage at D'Gal - who smoothly sidestepped the attack, sending Drake tumbling head over heels down the hillside – the conversation on the Pale Knight continued unabated. Indeed, despite the loud bleating and pounding of hooves, no one noticed the stampede of sheep Drake's fall had spurred into action. (Well, no one save the sheepdog, who wasted no time in taking out her frustrations on the Duck once the stampeding herd had finished trampling him.]

         “Why do they call him the Pale Knight?” Lita wondered, “Why not the Spectral Knight, or the Blood Knight, or – if he's gotta go with a color – why not the White Knight?”

         “Maybe his armor's not white,” the sign holder ventured. “It's probably hard to keep that sort of thing clean, with all dirt and blood and grime and stuff.”

         “So?” Lita countered, “He could always be the Off-White Knight, or something. 'Pale' makes him sound sickly. Unless…” she halted, planting her hands on her hips as her lip curled in remembered disdain, “He's not a vampire, is he?”

         Newton blinked at the group – most of whom had stopped whatever they had been doing and were now watching him intently, waiting for an answer. “A…what?”

         “A vampire,” Ferdie repeated. “You know, the undead? The evil dead? The scourge of the night? The army of darkness? The creatures of the night that feed on the blood of the living? The soulless fiends who-”

         “All right, all right, I get the point!” Newton exclaimed, waving his hands in an effort to stop the bluebird's tales and dispel the images they brought to mind, “I've never heard of such foul creatures, I'm sure. I doubt such demons exist, even in these torrid times.”

         “That's a relief,” Ferdie sighed.

         “You bet it is!” Bob cheered.

         “Still,” Beak puzzled, “Why 'Pale' versus 'White'?”

         “Because the White Knight is always the hero!” Bob stated matter-of-factly.

         “Certainly the popular connotation, yes,” Newton agreed. “But not in this case. Reports do say he wears white armor, though I can't imagine why.”

         “To stand out on the battlefield,” D'Gal ventured, nonchalantly strolling past the group, “Probably plays on their concepts of good and evil, or some such rot.”

         “An angel among devils?” Ferdia considered. “His appearance gives the other side hope, and his actions take it away?”

         Squeaks shuddered. “A frightfully effective way to break a soldier's spirit – especially if your opponents are mostly young, inexperienced farmers pressed into service, outnumbered, and ill-equipped. No wonder this knight's done so well in battle.”

         Newton nodded. “Indeed. He's the one the other warlords fear. Many retreat rather than fight him, and the smarter among them have begun packing up and going back home. I've even heard one or two were so worried about his ruthless pursuit that they approached the King, proposing a surrender of lands and loyalty in return for clemency and a postwar title.” The wizard sighed. “Politics is such a fickle thing…”
         “Not that anyone was wondering,” a bedraggled Drake cut in, limping into view, “but I think I may die of rabies from that little mauling back there…”

         “Mauling?” Ferdia asked, glancing back at the Duck, who nodded pitifully. “Is that where you went?” she mused, turning back with a disinterested shrug, “Oh well.”

         “It was all his fault!” Drake yelled, pointing accusingly at the black-feathered Vycerian casually keeping pace with the group.

         “I somehow doubt it,” Ferdia remarked over her shoulder.

         “Can I at least get a little sympathy?” Drake whimpered.

         “Sorry,” Lita smirked, “We're fresh out of that now. But, kindhearted soul that I am, I'd be more than willing to put you out of your misery, if you'd like…”

         “Bloody bunch of savages…” Drake muttered.

         “What was that?” Lita asked saccharine-sweetly, batting her eyes innocently.

         “I said, 'No, thanks',” Drake replied quickly, before Beak could repeat his words to her - earning a curious look from the Magi.

         However, before Beak could precipitate yet another incident that would end in Drake experiencing massive amounts of pain, D'Gal beat him to it.

         “Hey,” the Vycerian called from where he'd paused on a hill, nodding to a distant valley below, “There's a horse paddock down there.”

         “So?” Ferdie shrugged.

         “So, I may not whine about it, but I'd like a horse, and there's several down there. It'd make for faster goings all around if half of us weren't traveling on foot.”

         “You're not planning on stealing more horses, are you?” Newton groaned, “People will start calling us bandits!”

         “Still, it'd be nice to be able to send ground scouts more than a mile or two ahead,” Squeaks mused, toggling his radio and asking Iiwi to swing around for a closer look at the paddock.

         Above them, the red Flier swung around, slowly circling the distant farm in search of signs of life. “If it makes you feel any better, Newton,” she chirped, “the place looks deserted. The barn's collapsed, the house's hearth fires are out, and the fields are overrun with weeds. Don't let the hills fool you, though – you're a lot further away from this place than you think. Blame clean air and lack of smog if you want, but it's a healthy set of leagues between you two. It's a good day's hike, at best.”

         “And it'll be a great deal less for the return trip on horseback,” D'Gal countered, waving dispassionately. “Go on ahead, I'll catch up. You lot are hardly difficult to track.”

         “Oh, well that's reassuring,” Ferdie grumbled, remembering the army troops that might be out looking for them.

         “You can't seriously be thinking of letting him go!” Drake gaped, “He's a villain! A scoundrel! A vicious, murdering fiend who can't be trusted! He's…he's…well…evil!”

         D'Gal smirked. “I'm flattered.”

         “You cannot let him go off on his own!”

         “I don't see why not,” Ferdia shrugged, “It's not like he can get back to our world without us.”

         “Glad to see intelligence prevail,” D'Gal bowed, casting a sidelong smirk Drake's way before heading down the slope in the direction of the abandoned farm.

         “Now, wait just a minute, you-” Drake screeched after him.

         “Drake!” Ferdia yelled, stomping her foot, “If it bothers you all that much, go with him!”

         Drake blinked, incredulous. “Go…go with him?!?”

         “You heard me!” she fumed, pointing in the direction D'Gal had gone in, “Go on, go!”

         “That sounded like a royal command,” Newton remarked, leaning forward in amusement. In all the gossip that had reached his ears on the road, he had never heard tell that the princess had a temper - and yet here she was, doling out orders like a battlefield general. Fascinating.

         “Sounds more like a death sentence to me,” Lita snickered to the sign holder, who stifled a laugh as Drake grudgingly set off after his most hated foe.

         “Aren't you worried about him?” Ferdie asked Squeaks.

         “Not really,” the mouse replied. “Drake's got to learn when to keep his beak shut, regardless of his opinion on a decision.

         “Besides,” Squeaks shrugged, “he's a lot harder to kill than you'd think.”

         “Figures,” Ferdia snorted. “I'd wondered how he'd lasted this long…”


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