|In a very short time the vampire had wrestled Frederick to the floor.|
Another day, Sir Cobb thought to himself, another dark forest.
The one thing having a blade enchanted to strike viciously at evil had done for Frederick was give him some weight as a real knight. Not that Frederick had ever doubted that he was a real knight. Although he had begun to suspect that the Home Knighthoode Starter Kit had not been of the advertised quality.
Whilst Frederick was able to easily identify black hearted evil, he was a sucker for less obvious forms of scam. When he had responded to the advertisement he had not questioned it. He trusted material printed in the corner of a general proclamation from the Merchant's Guild of Laventine. None of the signs that may have dissuaded the cautious consumer had rung any of Frederick's alarm bells. Not even the 'low low price' of three groats for all the equipment the starter knight would ever need.
To be fair to him Frederick had come a long way since viewing that particular sales promotion. He had slept in cave mouths, meadows, stables and inns. He had paid a field bard to compose a ballad about him, he had seen the mean streets of Vermoniam. In the three weeks since he had left his home Frederick felt that he had really lived.
He had certainly gained more minor injuries at one time than he had ever enjoyed as a cooper's apprentice. This did surprise him because making wooden barrels could be a dangerous business. Particularly sp when you were applying the hoops.
Life on the road was, it turned out, far more complex than being a cooper. The sheer variety of injuries one could sustain was a dizzying notion if you just devoted some thought to the matter.
Right now Frederick had a nailless left big toe, scrapes on both his knees, bruising to his left buttock. Not to mention the remains of a poison ivy rash on his stomach. Also one possible broken rib, defence wounds on his left arm and a cut over his right eye.
The bread and butter of his new career amounted to menial work. One innkeeper had him chasing giant rats out of an inn basement. Another saw him trying his hand, briefly, at featherweight cage fighting. He wondered that he had not entertained second thoughts about his career choice. The remuneration from both activities had earned him about the right amount of money to eat quite poorly. By all reasonable standards he should be fed up and ready for the comforts of home.
Instead of which he was having the time of his life.
After thinking on the matter long and hard he had come to certain conclusions. One was that he had underestimated many things about life. For example, the difficulty of making one's way as a knight-errant. Or, for that matter, the amount of rubbish work your typical knight had to undertake on a daily basis. Thankfully he had also underestimated his own resolve, character and determination.
Frederick had, within the bounds of modest decency, always had a lot of time for himself, generally speaking. To find that he could face poverty, physical abuse and loneliness with a smile on his face had done wonders for his self-image. It had not occurred to him that another view of his current situation was that he was an idiot. Further, an idiot who should go home before he got himself seriously injured.
Because of his growing confidence, Frederick had agreed to take on something a little bigger. . In exchange for a bed at the coaching inn of Kuppsberg and the promise of a modest bag of silver he was to bring back the head of a vampire. The wicked creature had been terrorising the flocks and herds of the town's Fieldworker's Guild. The town mayor had supplied him with a sack for the purposes of head storage. Frederick had the sack looped through his belt for safe keeping.
The vampire's lair was somewhere nearby in the Forest of Grymm. The enormous wood's tracks and paths cross the whole of the Faerie Realm. Frederick's mission was to enter the forest, locate the lair and slay the fell beast. He had undertaken to do so before it could feed once more upon the blood of innocent cows and sheep.
It should be pointed out at this stage that this was not the widow's peak and opera cape variety of vampire. Most of these are sorcerers who have traded common decency for unholy power. This was, rather, an aggressive and sizeable variety of bat. Possibly the creature might be suffused with some minor natural magic. The type of vampire regarded more as a dangerous variety of vermin.
The giant rat job had paid for a slightly less uncomfortable stay in Vermoniam. Frederick was carving out a niche in the pest extermination arena. This wasn't a career direction that Frederick was entirely happy with. Were it not for the fact that a cow-eating vampire qualified as a monster he might have thought twice about agreeing to the gig.
Even so, a giant grumpy flying rat was not the same thing as a troll, an ogre or even a dragon. Not that anyone had seen a live dragon for many years, they were commonly thought to be extinct.
Walking among the trees on a reasonably warm spring afternoon was almost a pleasant way to spend your time. This was true even if you were on the look out for vampire droppings. Ironically it was this moment of calm that caused Frederick to question his life choices.
He did not believe himself to be an utter fool. He was not expecting to have an arch-enemy, a maiden fair, or a fiery steed less than a month after beginning his adventures. He did, however, expect to feel less like an aimless nobody. He had done a good deal of wandering about and poking his magic sword into things that other people had too much sense to. He had thought this would naturally lead on to bigger and better things.
That way of looking at his daily duties did rather tarnish the image of the knight-errant. All you heard in the songs was the glory of competition and the kudos of great deeds. You didn't really think much about that time that Sir whats-his-name spent the day up to his knees in swamp water. Or his grand adventure looking for the rogue lizard-man that had started raiding the local chicken barn. Days like that didn't make for great song lyrics.
Frederick thought about taking twenty minutes to stop for lunch. Then he realised that he didn't have any lunch because he hadn't been able to afford any. He decided, instead, to have a little sit down. While he was sitting he considered that he might take the opportunity to spend a few minutes crying. In that moment disappointment and loneliness overwhelmed him. He felt the corners of his eyes begin to sting.
Before a single tear had rolled over his cheeks, however, a voice said:
"Giving up the hunt so soon, young sir?"
Frederick hoped for a whisper of excitement at the prospect of being accosted by a stranger. Particularly as this encounter occurred whilst hunting for vampires in the Forest of Grymm. There was no whisper. Frederick considered that this stranger could turn out to be of help. He could also try to kill or steal from him. Or the stranger could be, and this was by far the most likely,of no use to him whatsoever.
Frederick looked up to see a small boy dressed in green leaning against a tree nearby. The boy had bright red hair sticking up at random angles all over his head. He wore a light green tunic, darker green breeches and no shoes. The boy's pointed ears gave a hint that he was some form of sprite, a pixie perhaps, or a brownie. He didn't look grand enough to be a full blown elf. If the ears were the hint the wings on his back were the full blown announcement that this was a lower order nature elemental.
Sprites were well known as having deep knowledge of the weave of destiny. For this reason it was no surprise that the little creature knew who Frederick was and what he was doing. Sprites rarely bothered normal folk, though, so the fact he was talking to Frederick at all had to mean something.
"Not giving up, just having a sit and a think," Frederick said.
"You think like that too much," the sprite replied. "And you'll die of a broken heart before you solve any of your problems."
"Oh, it's not so bad," Frederick said. "It's just... well, I'm a knight-errant in my heart. I have a magic sword that I won for a deed of great daring. I've spent the last fortnight sleeping in doorways and under rocks, now I'm out killing a vampire. It's not all that I could have hoped for when I set out."
"So, what?" the sprite said, the little creature lifted off its feet and flitted over to Frederick on its gossamer wings. "You want to give up and go home?"
"Not really," Frederick said. "I just wish I knew how many vampires, lizard men and bog-fiends I'd have to kill before I get a crack at something more... more..."
"Fatal?" the sprite supplied unhelpfully.
"I want an opportunity to do something that will make me feel like a brave knight," Frederick said. "I didn't know that I would have to create one. I thought... I don't know what I thought."
"You thought you'd find one, lying around on the floor, in need of a good home," the sprite said. "It's a common story among your type."
"My type?" Frederick asked, he believed he was beginning to feel irritated. That must mean the sprite was quite irritating, because Frederick didn't get irritated easily.
"Young men who want to be famous knights," the sprite said. "Oh, did you think you were the first? I've seen dozens like you. I may have a dewy fresh complexion but I'll have you know I was about when the survivors fled from the ruins of Afsana. Those were some dark days, I can tell you. The ones in between haven't been much brighter. Even so there has never been a time, no matter how dark, when ambition resolved into glory without pain and effort."
"I know I'll have to work for my ambitions," Frederick said. "I just thought, well, there are hundreds of people who need some help, it can't be that hard to find them, can it?"
"That's the strange thing about people," the sprite shrugged. "They are perversely choosy about who they will take help from. If you're not already a hero then they have a tendency to be grumpy if you go around saving them from great peril. You have to earn a reputation, one cow murdering vampire at a time."
"I suppose you're right," Frederick said. He wasn't sure that the sprite was correct about the whole thing. Frederick could not believe that people were so strange as to only want certain people to help them when they were in trouble. The thing about making a reputation out of jobs well done, that definitely made some sense. "I had better be about finding that vampire then," Frederick said. "Good day."
"Wait, kid," the sprite said as Frederick turned to leave. Frederick turned back to him. "You think I make a habit of seeking out gawky hopefuls in forests so that I can hand out pithy advice? Sorry, but this is my working time, not my leisure time."
"You want me to pay you?" Frederick asked, puzzled.
"No, dummy," the sprite said. "I've got a delivery for you. If you want it."
The sprite reached up into the air and plucked something out of nowhere. He held out a gold ring, criss-crossed with intricate engravings, four small jewels were inset around the band.
"What is it?" Frederick asked.
"It's a ring of destiny," the sprite replied. "Look, kid, between you and me, there's some folk, um, upstairs, that have got their eye on you. They believe you're cut out for, well, something important. You'll get there without the ring but this here speeds up the process a little. Slip it on your finger and your life will get a lot more interesting."
Frederick was the kind of person who always fell for a slick sales pitch, an advertiser's dream. He was not, however, a complete idiot when it came to sprite magic. There was a great deal to read between the lines of the sprite's last statement. So much that you could make at least two more volumes of material out of subtext alone.
"I can do without it?" Frederick said. "So isn't that ring sort of, cheating?"
"Destiny's an odd duck," the sprite said. "It takes a liking to some people but that doesn't form any sort of guarantee. In the great weave there come up opportunities for deeds of great import. Destiny has its chosen for those tasks, Destiny knows that one can fail, another will come along. The ring was designed to ensure that those who could, would. It's not essential, but I would definitely call it recommended."
"Recommended by whom?"
"Aha! That's why destiny likes you," the sprite said. "You can be plenty sharp when the fancy takes hold."
The sprite continued to hold forth the ring of destiny, Frederick continued to hesitate.
"Look," the sprite said. "I'll be straight with you. All this comes down to a choice. Either you definitely want to fulfil the potential that destiny has marked out for you, or you may as well give up and go home. It doesn't matter if you can make it without, if you don't take the help then you will only find yourself asking one question in the end."
"Did I truthfully want to take this path?" the sprite said. "It's that simple, kid. Right now, you get to decide. Step up or go home. What's it to be?"
Frederick had wanted to be a knight as long as he had known what a knight was. Looking at the sparkling gems, twinkling from the golden band of the ring of destiny Frederick understood. It didn't matter if he was battling an ogre or ridding an inn of outsize rodents. He could accomplish either action in a manner befitting a knight. A knight wasn't defined by what they achieved, they were defined by who they were.
"The ring of destiny changes nothing about a person," the sprite said, as if it could hear Frederick's thoughts. "It just gives a person more opportunities to show the world what's inside."
Frederick reached out and took the ring from the sprite. He slipped it on the ring finger of his right hand.
"Attaboy champ," the sprite said. "We're all rooting for you upstairs. Now, it's time for you to step up."
Frederick felt a tingle run through him. It was only a small thrill but it ran bone deep. When he looked away from his new accessory the sprite had gone.
Frederick took a moment and looked around at the woods. Nothing was substantially different to the way it had been before. Frederick was still hungry, still no closer to finding the vampire, still not sure how to proceed.
The problem was that the hunting ground for a single vampire was so big, and full of hidden corners. The vampire's lair could go undiscovered for years. How was he supposed to find it in a single day?
Of course, he could wait for sundown. Even minor league vampires received the strength of ten men after sunset, they were uncommonly tough and fast. Frederick believed that the moon sword would take care of the toughness issue. The only hope of besting the thing in single combat would be to face it before nightfall.
The problem appeared insoluble. It would be a hard enough job for an army to find the vampire's lair, let alone one knight alone. If only, he thought, there were two, or even three of me, that might give me a chance.
There was another tingle from the Ring of Destiny. A strange warm feeling came from Frederick's right hand ring finger and spread upwards into his body. The feeling filled up his entire body from head to toe in an instant. Frederick began to feel very big, all of a sudden... no, not big, full, like he had eaten three roast dinners and pudding besides.
The feeling of fullness grew and grew until it reached a point where Frederick though he might burst apart, and then he did. There was a popping, tearing noise and Frederick found himself face to face with... Frederick.
Frederick and Frederick looked at each other amazed. Before they could speak the tingling started again. It rise up faster this time. The expression upon both Frederick's faces turned from astonishment to alarm. The pressure built a second time and pop, tear, four Fredericks now stood in a circle.
The process repeated five more times. Until there were over one hundred Fredericks assembled in the Forest clearing. Once they had all worked out that it wasn't going to happen again most of the Fredericks looked about as if searching for something. Eventually all eyes settled on the original Frederick.
A silence descended.
Frederick the first looked about into the sea of faces that looked identical to his own. He looked at the identical grubby clothing, the identical worn boots. There were differences between the duplicate Fredericks and Frederick the first. None of the copies had a moon sword at their hip, none of them had a ring of destiny on their right hand.
Frederick the first realised that all the copies were waiting for him to say something.
"Um, find the vampire," he suggested, an edge of uncertainty in his voice.
One hundred and twenty seven Fredericks split up and vanished into the forest. The original Frederick hoped they were all searching for the vampire's lair.
"This is most odd," Frederick muttered to himself. He picked a direction and followed his doppelgangers to join in the search himself.
Even with a small army of Fredericks it took the better part of the day to locate the little cave hollow where the vampire had hidden. Frederick could not tell which of his copies had found it, he didn't even know how he would tell them apart. All he knew was that one minute he was looking up at a rock and wondering if it was worth climbing it. He wanted to see if there was entrance to a cave system on the top. The next minute he felt an odd giddyness.
He reached out to clutch at the rock for support but everything blurred and rushed away from him. He felt that he was, at one and the same time, standing still and speeding through the trees. He found himself flying faster than he could ever have thought possible.
Then there was a feeling of being thin, not slim but flat, like a sheet of parchment being shuffled into a sheaf. There was a moment of that tingling fullness again. Then he was in a dark cave listening to the wet snuffle of a large, smelly beast as it slumbered.
The moon sword began to sing. It always sang to him, a low, flat tone, when there was evil nearby. Frederick was not sure if any one else could hear the note, nobody ever acknowledged it anyway. When Frederick had been in Vermoniam the sword had seemed to sense evil at every other street corner. Nobody had ever picked him up on it.
Not wanting to worry about it now he drew the sword and stepped forward into the cave. The sword glowed with a soft white light, mirroring the light of the moon. The white light revealed the walls of the vampire's cave. The moonlight cast jagged shadows making the cave appear like something from a nightmare. The vampire hung by its feet in the rear of the hollow, enormous leathery wings folded around its bulging furry body.
As Frederick had expected it was the monstrous kind of giant-bat vampire. The wafting smell of sour blood that washed over Frederick when it exhaled, reminded Frederick to act with caution.
Frederick wasn't squeamish, and he wasn't afraid to kill the vampire. Despite this he still found himself needing to psyche himself up to the task. He forced his arm to draw back, preparing to strike at the beast.
He didn't know whether he needed to behead the vampire or to stab it in the heart. He knew all the stories, of course, but they tended to be about sorcerous vampires. It was well known that sorcerers were hard to kill. There were always rules regarding the successful accomplishment of the task. These rules were always secret.
Minor vampires were tough, but did you have to spear their heart or behead them, or burn them? Would anything else heal in the moonlight? Frederick didn't know. This quest was turning out to be quite the eye-opener, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
There was nothing he could do about it now. He decided that he would try and stab through the heart. He didn't have confidence that his short sword would be up to the job of a single stroke beheading.
Setting his jaw and planting his feet on the ground Frederick drew back his right arm. Then he thrust it forward toward the vampire's body. He was aiming for a spot about halfway along the vampire's torso where he believed the heart would be.
Not only was the vampire's hide tough but the leathery wings wrapped around it weren't easy to penetrate either. The sword went through one and the vampire woke up in an instant. It tried to separate its wings and pulled Frederick's sword off course. It missed the centre of the vampire's body and instead plunged into the monster's side.
The vampire did not bleed, instead a thick, black, soupy ichor issued from the wound. The vampire opened its mouth and screamed, a piercing noise that set Frederick's head to spinning. The monster dropped from the roof and spun in the air. Its wings folded over its back and two spindly arms ending in spade-like clawed hands reached out for Frederick.
Frederick made a mental note to book himself in for basic combat training at the earliest opportunity. He stumbled backwards waving the moon sword at the vampire. It appeared that the initial swipe hadn't done much more than annoy the creature.
A short and ignominious scuffle followed. It quickly became clear that the vampire, whilst not a better fighter than Frederick, was stronger. It was also less self-conscious than the hapless knight. The vampire made short work of wrestling Frederick to the floor. It screamed into Frederick's face and then plunged its fangs into Frederick's neck.
Frederick, confused and frightened, expected pain, it was known that a vampire had venom in its bite. Frederick was too muddled to understand that he was probably going to die.
Frederick did not, in fact, die, instead he got another tingle from the ring of destiny. The weight of the vampire appeared to decrease. Frederick attempted a roll to throw the creature off.
The tide of strength had turned and the vampire squealed with dismay as Frederick threw the creature off him and leapt to his feet. Not sure how long the rush of strength would last Frederick picked up his sword. He hacked wildly at the vampire until he was quite sure the loathsome thing was dead.
Frederick staggered out of the cave, exhausted. He stored the head of the vampire in the sack and slung it over his shoulder. Outside the cave twilight was sucking the light from the day.
If I need anything, he thought, as he made his way back out of the woods to collect his reward, it's a bath and a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, his train of thought continued, I am looking for someone to teach me how to do this properly.
Which is what he did, but that is not a story we shall tell today.