A Scythe in Time: Part 5
Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.

         The farm, Drake was beginning to realize, was a great deal further away than he had thought, situated as it was amongst sloping hills and crowded forests that masked the distance and made the fenced paddocks seem deceptively near. Every hill they crested revealed another valley to be crossed, another river to be forded, another woodland to be picked through. Some of the more distant hills actually proved to be several separate hills, rising and falling in such a way as to hide their true nature and blend with their neighbors until one was nearly upon them. They'd been walking for hours, and hardly crossed half the distance. Drake could no longer even see the other group, and had lost track of the path they'd been following long ago. He was, in fact, beginning to wonder if D'Gal meant to reach the farm at all, or if this detour had simply been a ruse to lure him away from the others and to his doom.

         “We should head back,” he ventured, “The suns are low in the sky – they'll set soon. If we hurry, we might be able to cut across the hills to where Arcadia was heading. They wouldn't have entered the woods so close to dark; we should still be able to catch up.”

         The black-feathered duck striding purposefully several yards ahead of Drake, glanced back at him with a look of contempt. “What would be the point of that?” he scowled. “I came out here to get that horse, and I intend to do just that.”

         “But the suns are setting! It'll be dark soon!”

         “You afraid of the dark, Duck?”

         “No,” Drake fumed, “And that's not the point. Even if the others stop outside the forest tonight, there's no saying they'll wait for us there tomorrow. If we don't make our way back now, we'll lose them!”

         “There is no 'we' here, Duck. There is only me – and, unfortunately, you. I'm going to that farm to get a horse. You can go fall into a ravine for all I care. You want to go back? Go back.”

         “I can't do that! I promised Birdie I'd keep an eye on you!”

         D'Gal smirked. “More like you insisted, and she obliged.”

         “She saw the danger of letting a criminal like you roam unsupervised through the countryside!”

         “She was glad to be rid of you.”

         “More like relieved to be away from the likes of you!”

         D'Gal paused, a bemused smirk on his beak as he watched the stumbling Platyrian struggle to catch up. “You like her, don't you?”

         Drake was defensive. “So what if I did?”

         D'Gal laughed derisively. “Ha! Oh, that's rich, Duck. Truly.” He chuckled, enjoying the scowling Duck still twenty paces behind. “You realize, of course, that the feeling is far from mutual?”

         Drake's feathers ruffled. “What do you know? You've scarcely spent five minutes in her presence!”

         “But I pay attention, whereas you're a brick wall. She doesn't like you. Trust me on this.”

         “Trust you? Trust you?!? As if I'd be stupid enough to-”

         “You haven't noticed, then. Heh. You really are thick, Dumas.”

         “So help me, if you don't start pronouncing that correctly, I'll-”

         “Threaten me idly and die excruciatingly slowly?” D'Gal supplied.

         Drake blanched. “Why was I the only one sent after you?” he muttered.

         D'Gal grinned. “I do believe the dear lady is trying to get you killed.”

         “Now, why would she do a thing like that?”

         “From what I've seen, Duck, you tend to have that effect on women.”


        The sky had begun its sunset symphony of red and orange hues before Newton was able to persuade the group to stop for the night. They made camp in a small clearing - having ventured into the “haunted” woods to better conceal themselves from scouting parties – gathering sticks and dried leaves for a small cook fire while Lita and Beak went out in search of nuts, berries, and small woodland appetizers. Bob made a show of collapsing exhaustedly to the ground, lying motionless until Ferdie began dumping armloads of pine needles on him, advising the kiwi to busy himself raking together piles of needles if he wanted to sleep on a 'mattress' that night.

         Iiwi, sensing an opportunity to avoid the bustling work about her, flexed her winds and took off into the rust-colored sky. “One last check of our surroundings,” she called down to her friends, “I'll see if I can find us some water, too. Our canteens are running low.” She tuned out Bob's grumbled protests; it was a legitimate enough excuse. She'd spent the better part of the afternoon walking, after all, not wanting to wear out her wings. A quick evening flight would help her relax.

         Back on the ground, Ferdia watched the Flier's departure with a shrug. Redbird would do as she pleased, and if she missed dinner because of it, she'd have only herself to blame. The bluebird turned her attention back to loosening the girth on the warhorse's saddle, slowly easing the battered leather seat and its armor plating from the tired animal's back. The horse rewarded her with a wicker of gratitude, shaking itself vigorously and turning to nip an itch along its withers.

         “Here, now,” Newton said, stepping up to the horse's head and murmuring a spell as he fiddled with its bridle. One end of the bit was suddenly free of the bridle, allowing the metal rod to dangle on the other side. “We don't have proper halters, you see,” he explained sheepishly, giving the horse a quick scratch behind the ears before leading it to the low branch his own mount was tethered to, “This way, at least, they don't have to spend the night with a bit. Spares their mouths.”

         “Ah,” Ferdia nodded, moving to help Squeaks unbuckle the third horse's saddle, which was rusted and had caught up some of the saddle blanket during Bob and Beak's hasty saddling early that morning. “It's a neat trick,” she stated, turning back to the wizard, “Where'd you learn it?”

         “It's a spell, milady, not a trick,” Newton sighed, smiling wanely. It was obvious enough from the bluebird's cheerful demeanor and curious tone that she hadn't meant the remark as a slight, but it still stung his pride. Magicians did tricks. Mages cast spells. “I adapted it from an incantation to unravel knots. Although,” he rubbed his neck sheepishly, “admittedly, I was inspired to do so from a parlor magician's sleight of hand. You have perhaps seen the trick with the brass rings?”

         “You mean the one where they supposedly interlock and unlock a set of supposedly solid rings?” Ferdie joined in, picking through the group with yet another armload of pine needles. Newton nodded. “What about it?” Ferdie asked, oblivious to the prior conversation.

         “Never mind,” Ferdia sighed, tugging her brother away from the horses now trying to make a snack out of the pine needles he carried. She eyed his current armload pointedly, glancing over to the growing mounds of greenery he and Bob were forming. “How much of that do you need, anyway?” she critiqued.

         Ferdie shrugged out of her grasp, continuing towards his pile – the smaller of the two – with his beak in the air. “As many as it takes to make sleeping out here comfortable,” he sniffed.

         “You're missing the point of 'roughing it',” Squeaks intoned, tossing the bird a bedroll and fighting back a grin as Ferdie dropped the pine needles, caught the rolled blanket, overbalanced, and tumbled backwards into his pile, sending pine needles flying.

         “Yeah, well,” Ferdie huffed as the cops snickered, “You two might get a kick out of that sort of thing, but I myself have always maintained that the Great Outdoors pales in contrast to the Fabulous Indoors, which is generally comfortable, dry, and mosquito-free.”

         “Not to interrupt,” said Newton, in the general tone of someone who means to do just that, “But your hunters have arrived with their catch. Is anyone hungry?”

         The energetic stampede and ravenous consumption that followed that remark only served to make the lizard further wonder if he truly hadn't taken up with a rampaging horde of heathens. The tiny cook fire – small enough so as to hopefully avoid detection in the fading twilight – seemed to cringe and flinch away from the feeding, despite the fact that Lita and Beak had brought back only a taproot and a helping of acorns and pine nuts. (Iiwi returned with a fish, but steadfastly refused to share it with the kiwis, citing the fact that they'd lunged at the catch clutched in her talons without even first giving her a chance to land.) Newton himself dined with the princess and her guard on pheasant, which the mouse had caught in a snare by the campsite and wisely cooked before the 'hunters' made their way back to camp.

         It took some convincing to persuade the group to extinguish the fire. The yellow bird wanted the fire for warmth; Prince Ferdinand wanted the light to discourage the wolves howling in the distance from approaching the camp; and the brown kiwi that had gone out hunting insisted that a fire fueled by leaves and green wood was essential for a smoky fire that would keep the stinging flies at bay. Only the princess and her knight seemed to comprehend that the fire would act as a beacon, broadcasting their location to the surrounding hills; the Phoenix had long since fluttered up to the dark boughs of the trees towering over the camp, casting no vote as the outcome would not affect her on her perch, anyway.

         In the end, the fire was smothered, and Newton cast a handful of Faerie Lights around the camp. The spells would last most of the night, each softly glowing blob emitting an eerie blue-green light as they meandered about the campsite, bobbing along eighteen inches above the ground. The effect, the wizard assured them, mimicked the phosphorescent gases of the curious bogs found along the marshes deep within the forest. Forest creatures knew to avoid the lights, which often foretold of questionable ground full of hidden pits of quicksand and sucking mud; people, on the other hand, tended to believe local legends that claimed the lights were sure signs of Faerie Mischief. Their superstitions – and fear of cursed reprisals should they intrude upon the Faerie Realm – would keep them away.


         It was nearly dawn by the time they finally reached the farm, the sky just bright enough in the predawn light to keep them from tangling themselves on the sharpened wire wrapped around the fences. They had walked all night, their process slowed by cloud cover, grass-hidden burrows dotting the hills, and Drake's tumbling discovery of a pack of small, carnivorous sheep, which had pursued him across two streams and down three ravines while D'Gal paused to rest and enjoy the show. Miraculously, Drake had survived; though he now glanced nervously about at every snapping twig or rustling brush.

         “You're sure they're gone?” he asked nervously, snagging his uniform on a strand of wire as he clambered over a section of the fence.

         “They're gone, Duck. Ran off when you opened fire.”

         “You could have helped, you know.”

         “Whatever for?” D'Gal smirked, “They seemed to be doing well enough on their own.”

         “Vicious little things,” Drake shuddered, ignoring the Vycerian's comment. “Supposing they belong to this farmer here…”

         “More power to the bloke if they do,” D'Gal shrugged, “But I'm still taking his horse.”

         The horse in question was a tall, sturdy creature grazing inside a dilapidated paddock just across from the tumbledown hovel that presumably served as the farmer's home. Its black coat glistened off its well-defined withers in the sun, a picture of health, devoid of the matting and patching of overwork and mange. It flicked an ear their way as the ducks approached the paddock, but with a snort and a shake of its head, deemed them unworthy of any other response.

         “Are you sure this place is abandoned?” Drake demanded as D'Gal retrieved a worn saddle and bridle resting in the dirt beside the paddock fence, “That seems like an awfully good horse to just leave behind. Perhaps the farmer is simply too poor to keep the place in good repair?”

         “The farmer,” D'Gal countered, tack slung over his shoulder as he vaulted the sagging paddock fence, “is either dead and buried, or rotting in that hovel. Regardless, I'm relieving him of this horse.”

         The beast in question raised his head to watch the newcomer's approach, eyes flashing a rather sinister shade of red. It began to fidget, dancing restlessly back and forth, tossing its head and whinnying an unnerving warning cry. D'Gal continued onwards, unconcerned; Drake, who had been debating the merits of following the Vycerian into the pen, opted instead to watch from the relative safety of the gate.

         “Yer friend's in fer some trouble if'n 'e means ter ride tha' black dev'l,” a voice wheezed beside him, making Drake jump in surprise.

         “Didn't mean ter startle yer,” the grizzled old badger grinned up at him, adjusting the filthy rag tied around his scarred head that functioned, Drake realized, as an eye patch. “B' Ol' Fiend thar never took t' no tamin'. Mean 'un 'e is, too – bitin' an' kickin' an' crushin'. 'S why th' other soldiers left 'im be when they came 'ere, after 'e roughed 'em up a bit. Yer two'd be best just lettin' 'im be. 'e's na th' only 'un left, yer know.”

         “There are others?” Drake asked, unsure of how much of the man's words he understood correctly, but unconcerned with whether or not D'Gal should be informed of the dangers of his chosen mount. Let someone else be on the receiving end of abuse this time. “Could I get one, then?”

         The old man smiled, revealing a mouthful of pitted gums and yellow-black teeth. “'f course,” he grinned, “An' since yer asked, it's ten pence a head fer 'em.”

         Drake had no idea what sort of price ten pence was for a horse, or what manner of horse was available for it. But whether it was a bargain from a desperate man trying not to get robbed, or a fleecing from a peddler with inferior wares, in the end it didn't matter – they had no money. They couldn't pay.

         The sounds of a scuffled erupted from within the paddock, but Drake was too lost in thought to notice, busily debating how to best break this news to D'Gal. The sight of the old man leading his proposed mount out of the hovel brought him out of this reverie.

         “Thar's th' only decent 'orse I 'ave left,” the badger stated, patting the tubby white pony's neck affectionately. “'e's a good 'un. Kinda small, an' a wee bit o'erweight, but good. Used ter let th' chil'ren ride 'em at 'arvest time, but there ain't been an 'arvest – or any chil'ren – round 'ere fer years, now. Name's Gallant.”

         Drake looked at the pony. It was dirty, shaggy, and drooling, its eyes milky with cataracts, its joints pointed and stiff with age. It stood a full foot and a half lower than the red-eyed demon of a horse D'Gal had gone after, and he was starting to wonder if the creature was naturally white or had simply faded with age. It most certainly was not “Gallant”. But it appeared to be the only horse the man had to offer. Gingerly, Drake took the proffered reins.

         A snort and derisive whinny drew their attention back to the paddock. The black horse trotted up to the gate rather resentfully, D'Gal sitting smugly in the saddle on its back. The old man's jaw dropped in shock.

         Drake felt his beak curl back in a sneer. “I find it strangely fitting that the two fiends get along with each other.”

         The old badger was still staring in blank-faced shock. “Yer…yer got 'im ta take yer weight?” he blinked.

         D'Gal smirked. “We had a brief discussion on the many sources of glue and buzzard food before reaching the inevitable conclusion that this outcome was to our mutual benefit.” He grinned darkly. “I see you've been fitted with a suitable mount as well, Dumas.”

         Drake smoldered quietly. He would not pick a fight in front of a primitive. There was just no telling how the man – and the horses – might react. And the black horse was currently gazing at him with the sort of evil stare that he recognized as willing bloodlust temporarily held in check. Drake settled for sticking D'Gal with the bill. “We owe him twenty pence,” he growled, jerking a thumb in the badger's direction.

         “Correction,” D'Gal scowled, tugging back on the reins until his mount grudgingly backed away from the fence, “You owe him twenty pence.” A quick nudge to the horse's side sent the black fiends sailing over the sagging fence and speeding away down the hill.

         “You'll have to forgive him,” Drake sighed, scowling at the rapidly-diminishing speck of the pair against the hillside, “He's evil.” The pony began chewing on Drake's starched uniform lapels as the duck searched for something of value to pay the old man with.

         Several minutes later, minus the gold epaulets on his collar that had denoted his rank - and would cost a tidy portion of his next paycheck to replace - Drake set off after D'Gal, the tips of his feet dragging along the ground as the pony plodded along at a distinctly un-gallant pace.


         The second sun had begun its morning ascent into the sky by the time anyone began to rouse from their sleep in the forest clearing. Ferdia and Squeaks set off in search of the brook Iiwi had found in her travels the evening prior, leaving Newton to check the horses and guard the others. While the wizard built up the fire in preparation for breakfast, Lita silently stole off into the woods, the Sign Holder quietly creeping along behind her.

         “So,” Iiwi yawned, scanning the waking campsite, “Where's the Fonz?”

         “I've *asked* you not to call me that,” Ferdie growled from a nest of piled blankets.

         “Aw, come on! I'll buy you the jacket an' everything!” Iiwi mock-protested, laughing as she fluttered down to the ground. “Unless you'd rather I call you Waldorf. Personally, I'd hate to be named after a salad, but-”

         “Someday, Iiwi, I'll find out something that embarrasses you, and post it on every known port of the 'net.”

         “Fat chance o' that, Fonzie,” she chuckled, “Especially si-”

         There was a thunk! at the west side of the camp. An arrow had wedged itself into the trunk of a nearby tree, still vibrating from the shock of impact. Following the arrow's flight path across the camp, the pair – and several groggy kiwis – caught sight of the thrashing underbrush an instant before Lita and the Sign Holder burst into view, wide-eyed and out-of-breath. Newton ran over to them, surprise and worry playing across his features.

         “Bandits!” the rabbit gasped, pointing behind her into trees that were thrashing violently as a hostile mass drew near.

         With a resigned sigh, the wizard prepared a spell.

         Barely a minute later, it wasn't the yelling, but the alarming barrage of magefire and lights that caught their attention and brought Ferdia and Squeaks running back to the campsite.


         “So, Newt,” Ferdie ventured.

         “Newton,” the lizard corrected

         “Whatever,” Ferdie continued, “What exactly do you have against the army, anyway? You fight well enough.”

         Newton shook his head. “I fight when I have to, not because I want to.”

         “Yes, but with all those attack spells, who'd want to fight? Wouldn't the losses be too high? The more wizards involved, the greater the motivation for calling a truce, right?”

         “Look, perhaps armies are civilized where you come from, but here they're seldom more than barely-restrained packs of thieves, murderers, and rapists. On both sides.”

         “Oh.” Ferdie blinked.

         “Besides,” the wizard shrugged, “The enemy has mages as well. I for one don't fancy winding up a charred pile of ash, a molten blob, or a grease smear at the bottom of a crater.”

         Iiwi blinked, remembering the scene of carnage she had discovered not long after the group had arrived on this world. “Harsh,” she breathed.

         “So why take up attack magic at all?” Ferdie asked.

         “For protection, of course. The army seldom stops recruiting, ignorant prejudices rarely run low among villagers, and even in peacetime, there are bandits in the woods and on the road.”

         “And it helps fend off the mobs of peasants that form when you turn their kinsmen into slugs and pelt their villages with jellyfish,” Beak nodded knowingly.

         Newton blinked, perplexed. “Is he a Seer?” he asked, nodding at the Magi.

         “Something like that,” Iiwi smirked.

         “Um,” Ferdie hesitated, “About the jellyfish…”

         “That was an accident,” the lizard stated, shutting his eyes and nodding to himself, “The spell misfired.”


         “I was trying to bring down a rain of salt,” Newton winced, opening an eye to meet his companions' curious stares.

         “Salt?” Ferdie queried.

         “To fend off the giant slugs.”

         Ferdie quirked an eyebrow. “Giant-”

         Newton sighed, “Long story.”

         “Oh, I'll just bet it is.”

         “They were going to burn me at the stake,” the wizard explained hurriedly, his tone pleading, “I had to do something.” He turned to Ferdia for support.

         “So,” Bob ventured, mentally trying to retrace the wizard's logic, “You turned them into giant slugs?”

         Newton shook his head. “No, I – I was trying for small white rabbits, actually. But-”

         “Let me guess,” Iiwi sighed, “the spell misfired.”

         “I juxtaposed a word or two, maybe misspoke a few syllables,” the wizard frowned, “The print in that particular grimoire was faded and smudged, after all, and they never give you pronunciation guides. It was an honest mistake,” he insisted, shaking his head. “But it amounts to the same thing, I suppose.”

         “Giant Slugs?” Ferdie asked.

         “Oh, and I suppose you *never* make mistakes,” Newton bristled.

         “Not generally of that magnitude, no.”

         As one, the group rolled their eyes at this. All except for Bob, who developed a cough that sounded suspiciously like a sarcastic remark about temple dragons.


         Drake was in a foul mood. So foul a mood, in fact, that any attempt at a play on words would most likely be met with the sort of violent outburst that can only end in Drake getting characteristically maimed and maligned. (Sort of makes one want to let fly a barrage of puns, doesn't it?)

         It wasn't just that his pony desperately needed a bath and seemed to be experiencing gastrointestinal troubles. Nor was it the fact that the animal delighted in cutting through brambles (to ease an itch), splashing through mud (to cool off), and coming to abrupt stops from a gallop (hmm…is that a patch of clover? Tasty!). Even its tendency to shy at anything that moved, more often than not sending Drake tumbling to the ground, could have been overlooked, had the creature not developed a habit of then backing up over its fallen rider. But it had been scraping him along this rough rock wall for hours now, and that was getting to the Duck. Discomfort aside, it was ruining his uniform.

         He took small comfort in the fact that D'Gal's mount seemed just as discontent with his rider as Drake's pony was with him. The huge black horse was full of evil energy, seldom missing an opportunity to buck or bolt the instant he felt the Vycerian's attention waver. This tactic had yet to throw the fiend, but had led to several impromptu battles between horse and rider. D'Gal's horse, if possible, was every bit as bloodthirsty as he was – though of late it seemed that horse was steadily losing ground to rider. It hadn't tried to behead him on a tree branch for over an hour, and had only attempted to fling itself sideways over the jagged rock wall once.

         The wall was a curiosity in and of itself. Built of big but rather thin chipped slabs of slate piled haphazardly atop one another until the pressure from one side forced the other into braced stability, it stretched out along the hillside as far as the eye could see. Some parts of it had collapsed – or been deliberately knocked down – but still it went, intersected at intervals with others of its kind, coated with moss or covered with wildflowers and vines. At times it was barely more than two feet high; other sections rose so high the horsed riders couldn't see overtop.

         D'Gal was of the opinion the walls formed farm boundaries and livestock paddocks. Drake, on the other hand, was convinced it was to slow the advance of invading armies and small, carnivorous sheep. They had happened upon at least one section of wall that contained a herd of a dozen of such sheep lounging on the other side. D'Gal's horse had leapt over the wall and scattered the herd like an angry sheepdog; Drake's pony had balked at the jump, throwing Drake - then ventured off to graze while the angry sheep set about menacing the Duck. Drake was convinced that, despite D'Gal's conjectures about wolves and theft deterrents and errant rednecks, the only real explanation for the existence of sheep with bad tempers and rows of sharp, pointy teeth was the twisted imagination of a malevolent deity.

         The road was nowhere in sight, which Drake supposed was just as well, as neither was Arcadia and the rest of the group. He thought he'd caught a glimpse of the red Flier earlier that day, high amongst the clouds near the mountains, and D'Gal claimed to have found group's trail where they had entered the forest (for all the faith he put in that villain's assurances!), but they had yet to catch up with the group itself. D'Gal had opted for bypassing the forests in favor of the farm fields, claiming they'd make better time and stood a better chance of the Flier spotting them on one of her air patrols. Drake was convinced it actually had more to do with the fact that, traps or no, the forests of this world had not proven nearly so perilous to him as the open hills. He was going to have nightmares about those evil sheep, he just knew it.


         “Aren't you worried, milady?” Newton queried, munching on a leg of mutton – the remnants of a valley sheep that had drawn too near the group and attempted to drag off the small brown kiwi now riding atop the rabbit girl's shoulders once again (though why was anyone's guess; who'd have expected such viciousness in one so young?). “Two nights, and no sign of your companions?”

         Ferdia shrugged, resolutely attempting to make a sandwich out of mutton, acorn bits, and a few pieces of now-stale bread taken from their stay at the Bravepence. “They've either killed each other, or run into some sort of a delay.”

         “ 'Delay' as in 'that period of time necessary to formulate a convincing story that makes Drake's death look like an accident'?” Lita asked.

         Ferdia frowned. “I can't imagine D'Gal bothering with that. Arriving alone, with no explanation of what happened, so we're completely surprised when Drake does turn up, yes. Arriving alone, and Drake never turning up, even more so. But excuses?” She shook her head. “He's not the type. Besides,” she shrugged, turning to answer Newton's question, “They can take care of themselves. And even if they do run into problems tracking us, we've got Iiwi's patrols. She'll let us know if she spots them from the air.”

         “Assuming she flies any patrols,” Ferdie grumbled, twisting around in his saddle to glare at the dozing Flier half-perched, half-sitting on the war horse's rump.

         “What?” Iiwi blinked in the sunlight as Ferdie's shadow shifted as he moved, “I'm not a bloody swallow, for crying out loud! I don't spend all my time flying!”

         “You did yesterday,” Bob said, from his seat on their pilfered horse.

         “We were fleeing an army regiment yesterday,” the Flier responded tartly.

         “What about the days before that?” Beak queried from the tavern horse, “You spent most of them flying.”

         Iiwi ruffled her feathers. “We were lost in the middle of nowhere, with no maps or working compasses. If I hadn't done some aerial recon, we'd still be wandering aimlessly about. Now that we've got our very own map and wizard guide, I'm taking a break. Besides, I don't see any of you,” she glared at Ferdie and the kiwis, “volunteering to continue walking all day every day. If we had enough horses, everyone would be riding, so I don't want to head any more 'Lazy Iiwi won't fly for us' whining.”

         “She's got a point,” agreed Lita, who was too proud to admit that, after four days of continuous walking, she could use a break as well. Unless Ivan said something, though, or an opportunity to steal the kiwis' horse presented itself, she was determined to keep going without complaint, just to spite those who claimed they were tired with her seemingly boundless energy. (She was also convinced that, when the ducks finally did return, each would have a horse – and she planned on relieving Drake of his as soon as he showed up.)

         The bickering continued as the group wound its way through a mountain pass, abating somewhat as the more aesthetically sensitive members of the party paused to gape at a particularly breathtaking view across a lake of wild heather, moorland blossoms, and tall scraggy brush grass fighting its way up the slope of a granite boulder-peppered peak capped in rock. After a moment or two of slack-jawed gaping, the effect wore off, and the party continued.

         “I could live here,” Iiwi breathed, still enchanted by the mountain view, “Mile after mile of barely-tended grazeland, pristine wilderness, and clear blue sky, hardly a road or house in sight…”

         Newton nodded. “It is nice up here in the mountains. Farm country. Well, livestock, mostly, since the soil's hardly deep enough to sprout grass. I've heard it never snows here, either – just sort of hovers at springtime year round.”

         “So why not stay?” Ferdia queried.

         “I'm not welcome, milady, 'Tis a blessed valley, and the farmers want no part of wizardry anywhere near it.” The wizard shook his head. “They worry it'll bring the army down around their ears. They're right, too. You've seen the towers atop the peaks?” The bluebird nodded. “Ruins, now. But they were once defensive posts, to keep invaders from cutting through the valley. The armies came through at the start of the war and burned everything to the ground. Half the reason none venture through here is the ghost stories that slaughter spawned.”

         “Ghost stories?” Ferdie asked, suddenly listening.

         Newton nodded. “The farmers that survived hid in mountain caves and wreaked all kinds of mischief upon the soldiers, driving them out of the valley. Any party that has ventured into their domain since has suffered a similar fate, and now legend and superstition keep most visitors away.”

         Ferdie was making a show of not looking terrified. Despite his efforts, the actual effect looked more like someone who'd just pulled a groin muscle. “A-and we're j-just riding right through the valley why?!?”

         Newton blinked, perplexed, “Because the legends are simply stories, Your Highness. And because I am a mage, after all, and one does not simply go around attacking mages. I wouldn't advise tarrying in the valley any longer than necessary, but as long as we keep moving, we should be safe.”

         “Says you,” Ferdie muttered.

         “I've done it before,” the wizard replied, looking hurt. “Surely Your Majesties don't believe I'd lead you into harm's way?”

         “Don't mind him,” Ferdia sighed, waving dismissively in her brother's direction as the group made their way up and around yet another hill, following a bend in the mountain range that put them on the steep, rocky slope of the picturesque mountain they had previously admired, “It's his job to be paranoid. The rest of us trust your judgment.”

         “I don't!” Bob yelled from the back of the group.

         Ferdia shot him a LOOK. “As I was saying, Newton, the rest of us that count trust your-”

         “I count!” Bob fumed.

         Ferdia sighed. “I trust you, wizard.”

         “And I am honored by your trust, milady.”

         “Not to spoil the moment,” Squeaks interjected, tugging distractedly at his partner's sleeve, “but we've got trouble.”

         “Trouble?” Ferdia frowned, turning to see what the mouse and the rest of the group was looking at, “What kind of troub-” Something whirred through the air by her head, clattering against the stones behind her with a light, woody sound.

         Newton stared at the splintered shaft of wood. “That's a crossbow bolt,” he said numbly.

         “Yeah, well, there's a whole lot more of 'em over here!” Ivan yelled from where the group stood in shocked panic.

         Newton forced himself to follow as the princess and her guard set off running for the rest of the group. A faint ringing met his ears as he drew near – the muted roar of shouting voices and clanging swords – and with a growing sense of dread, he knew the sight that would meet his eyes before he reached the group and looked out along the slope.

         War had returned to the valley.


         The thing about arriving unexpectedly at the edge of a raging medieval battle is that it gives you a moment of a perfect, detached, Hollywood-style sweeping view of the battle as a whole. All of the participants on both sides are clearly visible, from the commanding officers high on their hills to the ranks of archers and crossbowmen on the slopes to the teeming, bleeding mass of infantry and cavalry clashing in the maelstrom of mud and bodies below. Enough time to register the singing of arrows sailing indiscriminately into the melee below, without concerns for whose side was hit so long as each side's volley hit mostly the enemy. Enough time to realize that while the cavalry had uniforms, most of the infantry did not, leading to interesting questions as to just which side was winning and how a soldier could possibly hope to avoid being killed by his frenzied comrades.

         Enough time to be spotted, and thus drawn into the fray by simple nature of being present.

         Newton watched in horror as first one set of archers (in blue trimmed with silver) and then another (red trimmed with gold) shifted their aim toward the party on the hill.

         “Come on,” he urged his dumbstruck companions, his unease infecting his horse, which sidestepped nervously, shying away with a frightened whinny, “That last arrow wasn't meant for us, but we're about to get a rain of them if we don't hurry!”

         That broke the trance, and the group scrambled, unsure of where to run. Iiwi bolted into the air, her wings a scarlet blur as she fought for quick altitude against the valley's wind currents.

         “Down the hill!” she shouted to the scrambling group, “Uphill's too steep, you'll never beat the arrows!”

         Newton balked at the Flier's advice. Downhill was the battle!

         “Come on,” Ferdia yelled, jerking the wizard's horse's reins as she ran past to slap the rump of the kiwis' panicking tavern horse in hopes of spurring it into action, “Down the hill and cut to the left! Their flank's unprotected; we'll slip right back into the last valley!”

         “Incoming!!” Iiwi's voice shrieked, sending the fleeing group scattering as a volley of arrows clattered down. That did the trick, really. Anyone who hadn't been moving yet was now making tracks down the steeply sloped hill, kicking up rocks and clouds of dirt as they went.

         This didn't go unnoticed, however. A bugle sounded, and a contingent of red-uniformed cavalrymen broke away from the melee, a bevy of blood-soaked infantrymen close behind them, bearing down on the fleeing group. The horsemen shouldn't have posed much of a threat – the party was running from, not charging to, the battle, and their horses, while not fresh, were coming from hours of walking, not hours of battle. Ivan snagged onto Bob and Beak's horse as the kiwis bolted by; Lita, long-legged bunny that she was, neatly outdistanced them, sprinting with the long, bounding strides of a jackrabbit pursued by hounds. For his part, Squeaks had pulled Ferdia into a precariously-balanced slide down a loose-pebbled stretch of the slope, and the pair was making good time toward the valley, Newton galloping back and forth, nervously protecting them. The charging knights should have seen naught but the receding dust-cloud kicked up by their rapidly-retreating opponents. Should have.

         However, at the sound of the bugle, Ferdie's horse – which had joined him in a rather stellar burst of fear-fueled speed when the arrows had begun to fall – came crashing to a halt, and – to its rider's horror – turned and bolted towards the battle as fast as its legs would carry it. It was, after all, a warhorse, trained to answer the call of an army bugle. Trained, as the tattered red-and-gold remnants of its armor's colors boasted, to answer the call of this army's bugle.

         “Ferdie!” Ferdia shrieked, dashing after the runaway warhorse as it bolted into the fray, her brother tugging desperately at the reins in a futile attempt to abort the charge. Squeaks' shouted objection to the move fell on deaf ears as the mouse scrambled to reach his partner before her valiant charge to her brother's aid was cut abruptly short by an arrow or infantryman.

         In one of those curious battlefield phenomena, the berserker infantry following the cavalry actually outpaced the mounted knights, eager to engage this new enemy. They flowed around Ferdie, more intent on the fleeing foes than the charging ones, but a contingent veered to meet the two cops running headlong into their charge.

         Ferdia came to her senses as the first filth-encrusted soldier lunged at her. “Okay, so maybe a blind charge wasn't the brightest of ideas,” she muttered, dodging the man and trying to catch sight of her brother behind the clouds of dust raised by the charging combatants.

         A volley of arrows came flying her way at chest height – short range crossbow bolts fired by one of the charging knights. Ferdia threw herself at the ground as she registered the sound of the bolts firing, twisting around to try and avoid the worst of them – and watching as the air before her took on a transparent opalescent sheen, the bolts bouncing harmlessly off the shimmering patch of air with little dinging sounds. This had the effect of dumbfounding the less frenzied soldiers, and their advance faltered – just long enough for a sudden, focused burst of wind to knock their line back ten paces.

         “Milady!” Newton came charging through the cloud of dust the wind had kicked up, another spell charged and ready. Squeaks clung half-standing on the horse's right side, one hand on the saddle's pommel, one foot in the stirrup, leaning out precariously to catch hold of Ferdia as they galloped by.

         “Here now,” Newton said, loosing a fireball at the nearest knight before slipping one arm through the reins and offering Ferdia his hands, “Come on up; both of you down there'll throw off our balance.”

         Squeaks glanced back at the smoldering knight still trying to beat out the magefire's flames. “Get me to that horse, and I can take it,” he called up to the wizard as Ferdia swung into the saddle behind Newton.

         “Are you mad?” the lizard shouted, heading towards the fiery figure nonetheless, “That's a knight!”

         “He's a little preoccupied right now,” the mouse shrugged, shifting his weight and placing both hands on the saddle horn as they closed on their target. Newton drew up parallel to the stricken knight, the horse's flanks hardly three feet apart when the mouse made his move, swinging up from the saddle horn to knock the knight sideways out of the saddle with a double-legged kick to the torso. Shifting mid-swing and releasing his grip on the saddle horn, Squeaks twisted around and landed – albeit a bit roughly – in the knight's just-vacated saddle.

         “That's a neat trick,” Newton commented mildly, as the mouse, wincing, pushed himself back into a sitting position and gathered the horse's reins.

         “I expect he'll say it's something he learned at the academy,” Ferdia shrugged distractedly, scanning the battlefield for any sign of her brother. “Do you know any spells to call Ferdie back to us?”

         “I know of such spells, milady,” Newton replied, his tone apologetic, “But I do not know them myself.”

         “We won't find him down here, not in this confusion,” Squeaks motioned to a small hill on their right. “We need a better vantage point. You can shield us, right?”

         Newton hesitated. “The spell is complicated. It doesn't always work.”

         “It worked back there with the arrows,” Ferdia pointed out, “Maybe you've got the knack of it now. I have to help my brother!”


        On a hill above the battle, under a red-and-gold gryphon banner, the commander of His Majesty's forces watched the battle below with detached interest. His forces were winning, it seemed, but at a dear price. Bodies lay piled atop one another where they fell, three and four deep in some places, and while the enemy warlord's forces were slowly being routed, the commander's own lines had dwindled to less than half the size they'd started with.

         “My liege!” a voice cried, as a general galloped into view, eyes wide with the rush of battle and himself nearly as breathless as his foam-flecked horse, “There's a mage on the battlefield!”

         “A mage?” This was news to the commander - neither army had started this battle with any magic users. He could think of no units within a day's journey that were both loyal to the King and in possession of a war mage, which meant that either the other side had received reinforcements, or another warlord had joined in the fray. Neither of which was good news.

         “Show me,” he demanded, holding out his hand for the spyglass a servant hurriedly brought over to him.

         “He's in that small breakaway rabble by the mouth of the valley,” the general pointed, “Part of a scouting party, or the last remnants of some warlord's battle group. The archers spotted them coming up our southern flank, but it appears Morgath's forces are engaging them as well. Half their number seems to have fled, my lord; if they truly are scouts, we could be in for a nasty upset.”

         The commander swept his gaze over the area in question, catching sight of the mage when the lizard loosed a plume of magefire at a charging knight. Even without the aid of a spyglass, the knight's gleaming golden gryphon stood out against the King's red – and yet no sooner had he attacked the red knight that the mage threw another fireball - this one at a knight in the blue-and-silver of the enemy.

         The commander considered his options. An enemy mage was a dangerous creature, but a mage who facing mortal defeat could often be coaxed into changing alliances. “Divert all forces not needed to defeat Morgath to the mage's group. Tell them I want him alive, if at all possible.”

         “You mean to capture a mage, sir?”

         The commander cocked an eyebrow, surprised at his subordinate's outburst. The gesture, however, was lost on the general, as the commander wore a plated metal helmet overtop his chain mail, masking most of the man's facial reactions. “Not capture. Surround. Overwhelm. Injure, within reason – just enough to convince him of the merits of serving in the King's army.”

         “As you wish, my liege,” the general bowed, startled when the commander spurred his horse into step with the general's own. “Sir?”

         “I think I'll accompany you, General. Morgath's forces are nearly finished, after all, and it would be a shame to leave the recovery of a mage in the hands of one who does not believe it can be done.”


         Ferdie was no fool. A coward, certainly, but not a fool. Barreling through a band of crazed maniacs with bloody swords while screaming incoherently and begging your horse to turn around was not a tactic recommended to increase longevity. (Admittedly, barreling through a band of crazed maniacs with bloody swords is itself not a tactic recommended for people with vested interests in living.) No sooner had his horse plunged him into this melee of blood and screams and sharp clanging objects than Ferdie had abruptly stopped screaming, started shouting fiercely (sounding more like someone who's just slammed their fingers in a door than a fearsome warrior, but anyways….), and employed Coward's Rule #34 – “When all else fails, change tactics.” Since running away from the melee wasn't working, rushing towards it might. If nothing else, he hoped to confuse people long enough to escape sharp, pointy death.

         Certainly, his horse was confused when he went from pulling back on the reins to kicking its sides and urging it on. So confused, in fact, that it slowed down a bit and started paying attention to what its strange rider was trying to tell it. A moment later, it took off again, still confused with the rider's instructions (Who were they chasing, anyways? None fled before them…), but heading in the direction it had come.


         Ferdia spotted her brother just as a group of fighters spotted them atop the small slope they'd scaled to catch sight of Ferdie. By the time they realized Ferdie had somehow regained control of his horse and was making steady progress out of the melee, they were almost back on level ground again, and both groups were, once again, under fire from the archers.

         “He's going to get hit!” Ferdia worried, turning to Newton, “Can't you shield him?”

         “I can only maintain one shield spell at a time, milady,” the wizard apologized, “and we're coming under heavier fire now. I'm lucky I've managed to keep ours up as it is!”

         “I don't think your brother's in any trouble.”


         “I'm serious,” the mouse insisted. “Most of those arrows are coming our way – or, rather, your way. I can stand stock still twenty feet away, and aside from the occasional sniper shot, nothing comes near me.”

         Ferdia frowned. “That doesn't make any sense. Why aren't they shooting at you?”

         “The archers aren't shooting at me. Those with crossbows in the infantry, however, are.”

         “So, what, we're worth arrows and you and Ferdie are left to the swordsmen? What sense does that make?”

         “Plenty, actually,” Newton frowned. “One of the weaknesses of this particular shield spell is that it's stationary; if you move, you have to recast it. That's fine if you're defending a position, or even just casting one or two as you go – arrows have fixed flights, after all, and if you interrupt them early on, they never reach you. But against a barrage like this?” he indicated the hail of arrows overhead, “It'd be suicide to move.”

         “So the object is to pin us down,” Ferdia frowned. There suddenly seemed to be a lot more soldiers closing on their position. “They're going to surround us, force us to surrender.”

         “If they're accepting surrenders,” Newton muttered. “I'm sorry, milady. I never thought we'd run into an army in the pass.”

         The bluebird shrugged. “If you'd been alone, I doubt it would've been a problem. Heck, if Ferdie's horse hadn't gone nuts, it still wouldn't have been a problem. Now, however, we need a bit of creative thinking to get us out of this.”

         “I'm afraid I'm at a loss there, milady. Even if we managed to break away from the soldiers, we'd have no way of fending off all those arrows. It'd be a miracle if any of us made it out alive.”

         Squeaks shook his head. “You're thinking too linearly. We don't need separate spells to fend off the soldiers and arrows. We're in a mountain valley, and those arrows have flight ceilings. If you don't mind a few minutes of playing bait, I think I've got an idea.”


         The commander watched from a hill, much closer now, as the mage and his guards were herded against the steep slopes of one of the hills, huddling beneath a mageshield against the onslaught of arrows continued to unleash. Slowly, his men were forming a thick, living wall, surrounding them so as to make swift escape from the arrows impossible.

         In the process, however, the men had let another of the mage's soldiers escape. The bird had broken free of the melee somehow, dodged the arrows like a thief fleeing the Watch, and disappeared into the valleys beyond with speed a jackrabbit would envy. But the lad was, in the end, insignificant when compared to the mage.

         “I don't like it, my lord,” the general beside him frowned, “They're planning something.”

         “Let them plan, then,” the commander intoned, waving dismissively. “For all the good it will do them. I've plied this tactic on many mages, and I assure you – all but one have either surrendered or perished.”

         “And the one-”

         “-was a Master, and someone I ought not to have trifled with.” The commander frowned at the memory, peering down at the blue-robed lizard below. “This mage is no Master. Apart from his youth, he was cornered far too easily. Look at that field! No yawning chasms, scorched pits, frozen blocks – nothing! My men should've been halved by now!”

         The general almost said, “Your men have already been halved, my lord, and it didn't take a mage to do it,” but caught himself just in time. There were some things that simply could not be said to the commander without something mortally unpleasant happening to the one who said them.

         Below them, the mage dismounted.

         “There now,” the general began, “They're about to-”

         A huge blast of wind hit the valley, gusting at gale force, currents whipping and churning through the enclosed space, bouncing off the hills and mountain slopes until the general, high enough above the mini-maelstrom to be simply unhorsed, swore he saw the telltale funnels of wind demons touch down briefly here and there. It went without saying, of course, that every last man, horse, and arrow on the field below was knocked to the ground.

         The archers, being high on the hills as it was to aid in their missiles' range, were the first to recover, scrambling to reclaim their scattered arrows and bows. In the valley, most of the infantry had been bodily thrown quite some feet away. Some lay still; others hesitantly got to their feet. The mage and his riders, however, were both unscathed and running full-tilt.

         “Get them!” the commander roared, spurring his horse into a charge as the archers hastily readied their shots.

         “Sir!” the general cried in alarm, urging his horse after the commander, “Those were wind demons, sir!”

         “Nonsense!” roared the reply, “He merely bounced a wind spell off the mountains, amplifying it like the cliff caves modify their winds! Clever little bastard, but he didn't count on the archers coming out unscathed! Now he's on foot, he won't get far!”

         As if to prove the point, the phalanx of arrows began anew, and the mage – now quite a few paces behind his mounted colleagues – stopped dead, trapped once again beneath the safety of his shield spell. The horsemen hardly spared him a backward glance, steadily shrinking from view until they were well beyond the archers' range.

         “My liege, please stop!” the general cried. “He's luring you into a trap – or at least into the path of your own arrows!”

         Despite the desperation in his words – what was he to tell the King, if his son were struck down by a rogue mage? – the general's pleas did not fall on deaf ears. With an angry snarl, the commander jerked his mount to a halt just outside the rain of arrows.

         “Mage!” he roared, his horse side-stepping impatiently as arrows bounced along the dirt before it, “Your tricks will not save you here! Your fellows have abandoned you; your only salvation lies with me! Do not be fooled into thinking you can outlast me – even now, you are tired, and yet I have hundreds more arrows at my disposal! What say you? Serve me and live? Or defy me and die?”

         From his spot halfway up the type of knoll farmers generally swear house the buried tombs of kings, the lizard remained silent, half-crouched in a defensive stance, arrows pinging noisily off his magic shield.

         The general could see fury rise through his commander's frame as the bird demanded an answer yet again. “Perhaps, my lord,” he ventured, “he cannot break concentration and speak, for fear of losing the shield spell.”

         The commander considered this for a moment. “Archers!” he bellowed, “Hold your fire!”

         Slowly, the rain of arrows ceased, and the mage released his shield spell. Rising from his defensive crouch, he took a moment to straighten out his robe, dusting it off as a smirking smile played across his features.

         He's smiling, thought the general. This is a good sign. He's going to join us.

         Either that, a small, sarcastic inner voice interjected, or he's about to unleash some ancient, nameless terror upon us.

         “I am a loyal servant of the Crown,” the lizard stated, bowing respectfully to the commander, “But I would not be a war mage for all the gold in the kingdom.”

         Oh dear, thought the general, as the commander's growl rose into an angry snarl. Here it comes.

         “How dare you,” the bird bellowed, his fury sending a crack of worry across the mage's smiling facade, “Treacherous leper! I'll teach you some respe-”

         A scream split the air behind them, followed by shouts of alarm from the scattering archers. The commander had barely turned to reproach this interruption when a dark, swift shape materialized out of the sun's glare, nearly bowling him over as it streaked by, headed for the mage. The lizard stood motionless – either by fear or design, the general could not tell which – as the scarlet apparition bore down on him, talons thrust forward like a hawk closing on its dinner. It slammed into him at shoulder height, and with a feral screech and a flurry of wings, hoisted its catch skyward, high above their heads.

         It was at this point that the commander and his shaken general realized the mage was laughing.

         “It's a trick!” the commander roared, angrily lobbing his helmet at the rapidly departing forms, “Another one of his spells! Archers! Resume fire!”

         A volley of arrows took swiftly to the air, but the mage, already nearly out of range, shrugged an arm free from the giant bird's grip and cast his shielding spell on the empty air before him one last time, aborting the arrows' flight as they careened into the unseen barrier.


         “So this is flying, eh?” Newton laughed, holding onto the leg still gripping his shoulder as the Phoenix winged her way through the mountains, rising higher and higher above the peaks below. “This is absolutely splendid!”

         “I've always thought so myself,” Iiwi called over the wind.

         “Come and go as you please, beyond the reach of mortal laws. This is freedom,” the wizard mused, “True freedom. You are truly fortunate, little Phoenix.”

         “Thanks,” Iiwi grinned. “But you've got a pretty good gig yourself, with all that magic. Aren't there spells to make you fly?”

         “I've heard of a few, but never successfully cast them.” Newton shook his head, chuckling. “But if this is truly what flying is like, then I'm going to need to redouble my efforts at flight spells.”


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