Sunday, 14 April 2013

Sir Cobb, The Prince, The Witch and The Moon Guardian

Frederick awoke to find that he was not dreaming. This concept had never presented him with an issue before. You dreamed while you were asleep, you woke up, you stopped dreaming.

It wasn't even as if he'd woken up anywhere different to the place that he'd fallen asleep. This was still a coaching inn, still solid wood beam roof, still a little cold because the heating was a little bit primitive. There, at last, was the core of Frederick's doubt and fear. Everything around him was a little bit primitive. He was taking a trip through a little bit primitive. A little bit primitive wasn't just a description of a state of being it was also a location that Frederick was visiting.

No sooner had he opened his eyes and heaved a sigh of resignation to this elongated twist in his journey than there came a knock at the door.

"Frederick, first light in an hour, time for food," Avan Weatherstrong's voice was barely muted by the wood of the door.

Avan Weatherstrong. It was a name, it was a sentence. It was a twelve volume epic that Frederick could neither have afforded to buy nor hoped to conceal from his parents. He had read tales of Avan Weatherstrong, of course. No boy nourishing dreams of heroism passed through life ignorant of the first Mage-Warrior-Prince. He was a man who spat in death's eye and cheated the devil himself (adventures related in volumes V and VII respectively).

Now, confronted with the man himself, the experience of Avan Weatherstrong was no less awesome. If anything, it was better. Avan Weatherstrong was no heroic caricature, he was not aloof, he was not proud, he was just an awesome guy.

Frederick did not come from a part of either world, man or folk, that knew what a bromance was. For this reason he was unaware that he was wrapped up in the middle of one. Not that he would have denied the fact even if he had known. Frederick was not such a fool as to deny an obvious truth.

"Frederick?" Avan's voice again. Frederick shook his head to clear it of the hero worship.

"There in a moment, go down without me," he shouted back.

The sound of a hero's assured tread padded away from the door towards the inn's staircase. It was followed by the creak of the steps as Avan went to enjoy his breakfast; a hero's breakfast.

This was the one problem Frederick was finding. Whenever Avan did anything it was always a hero's action. Whenever he said anything they were the words of a hero. Whenever he owned something it was always a hero's whatever-it-was. Frederick had always been wary at the prospect of meeting his heroes. He hated disappointment. In this case it had led to unimaginative adjectivisation.

Was adjectivisation even a word? Frederick suspected that it was not.

Frederick shoved his hero-worship issues to one side, rolled out of bed and put on his clothes. One thing he definitely missed on the road was laundry. You just couldn't get laundry done, even if you visited a city. The major problem was that, as a knight-errant, you owned the clothes you stood up in. He had yet to find a place which offered as much as a spare bathrobe on a rental basis. Such a garment was a must while the, usually smelly and disgusting, knightly garb was being freshened.

It was even worse in this age of legends place (although technically it was time travel time in Faerie is an elastic concept). There were no laundries and everything came with a frosting of dirt, or so it appeared to Frederick. His original knightly garb, which had just been his cooper's apprentice clothes, were gone. A leather jerkin and a couple of small bits of tatty armour, hadn't stood a chance after ten minutes at Avan Weatherstrong's side.

The worst part was that he had lost the comfortable breeches that his parents had gifted him when he turned fifteen. They had received a small tear on the left thigh whilst Avan had been training Frederick in rapier swordplay. Shortly afterwards the tear had snagged in the thorns of an evil living tree. As the tree tried to do to Frederick what Frederick usually did to cherry tomatoes the breeches had given up. By the time of their escape there wasn't enough of them left to make a handkerchief.

Frederick had been forced to cover his embarrasment with a spare blanket Avan carried on his horse. At the next city they had bought him some durable leather trousers to go with his jerkin. Avan had, in fact, acted the part of the stand up guy. He was a mentor and teacher to Frederick. He had covered Frederick's equipment budget without complaint. He brushed aside all objection with some rubbish about being dead if it weren't for Frederick's assistance.

Frederick was under no illusions. In the stories he remembered Avan Weatherstrong lived a long and happy life. None of those stories had featured a yuoung apprentice knight. The wise Sir Weatherstrong found his own domain. A land over which he had ruled wisely. Whatever was happening right now was some odd wrinkle in time and fate. The kind of thing that was best not dwelled upon if one wanted to avoid unnecessary tension headaches.

Dressed and ready Frederick went over to the basin in the corner of the room that he had filled last night and splashed some water on his face. It didn't do much more than to make the grime slide a little but it was a token effort in the direction of cleanliness.

Drying his hands Frederick had to work his way around the ring of fate, gifted to him all those months ago in the vampire swamp. The damn thing had only ever worked the once, after the vampire incident it had stuck fast to Frederick's finger. No matter how Frederick pulled at it the ring would not slide off.

Frederick wondered why this was. The sprite that had given it to him had told him it would accelerate Frederick's destiny. Since splitting him into over one hundred identical copies it had done nothing.

Something fell over in Frederick's brain. A thought so loud he was surprised it didn't make a noise. Maybe the ring was working. After all, how did one come to be training with the greatest knight legend had ever known? A gnome Frederick had fought in a cage match would have everyone believe it was a rogue nose tweak. Maybe it took a little more mischief to work something this big.

Or maybe not. Whatever the case the ring was stuck.

Focusing on the day a head a giddy mixture of excitement and apprehension washed over him. Feelings like this had become his constant companion these days. They followed Frederick as he went down to breakfast.

For a moment Frederick believed, upon entering the main lounge area of the inn, that his mentor was talking to himself. Then he spotted the tiny winged sprite, sat on top of a pepperpot, near to Avan's right elbow.

"...that does offer an explanation as to why the night is so dark," Avan was saying. "A cloud castle you say?"

A second wave of ambivalence washed over Frederick as he came to sit down opposite Avan and the sprite at the trestle. There was no doubt in his mind that Avan was finding something else for them to do. No doubt he was planning yet another daring deed that would see them wreathed in glory.

On the one hand Avan had a great eye for people in need. Frederick had made the discovery that the glory was nothing next to the sense that you had done something that would help people out. About four months ago, back in what he now considered to be 'the early days', Frederick had been happy to be busy. He had spent his first months as a knight stabbing bog fiends and burning cow-vampires.

People always appeared pleased with the standard of his work in these cases. Even so, Frederick had always felt that he was acting more in the capacity of pest exterminator than hero in those times. Then he'd slipped on that pesky ring of destiny. Straight after that he had gone through about three weeks where he had come as close as he had ever come to dying from countless injuries. The school of destiny taught hard lessons.

Then he had fallen through a gnome-portal into the crazy world of Avan Weatherstrong. Now he had received twelve weeks of top-flight tuition from history's most cherished hero. He was not at all ungrateful for this fact. He had to admit that the constant assault of evil sorcerers, ogres, witches, giants and so on was tiring.

These were none of your trench-ghouls or minor trolls. Every bad guy Avan found was your top-of-the-line  detestable evil-doer. Frederick now knew a little something about handling a case of any major malignance. He could diagnose the ills that blighted lands to be found in a variety of terrains. They were averaging something in the region of one every one and a half days. The count of wickedness vanquished was something like forty villains trounced in the last sixty days.

Weatherstrong and Cobb, cleansing the world of wrong-doers two days in three.

Frederick supped at his bowl of warm oatmeal. It didn't matter about the numbers, it was exhausting.

"Chastity Angelwing here was just telling me about a cloud kingdom above this very domain," Avan said to Frederick. This was code for 'today we are going to go and kill something that lives in a cloud kingdom'. "Hope you're full of energy today, Sir Cobb."

Chastity Angelwing looked into Frederick's droopy, water-blue eyes as he masticated some salty oats. Frederick did not get the sense that she was reassured about his competence from her survey.

"'Salright," he said to her after he'd swallowed. "I'm just the sidekick. I'm even more underwhelming before I've had my morning tea."

"Sir Cobb," Avan chipped in, his voice ringing with sincerity, "is so much more than a sidekick. He has saved my life on nine separate occasions, no less."

Chastity was clearly still far from convinced but the look of disdain on her face softened a little.

"Many hands can make for light work," Frederick said. He didn't know whether he even necessarily believed in that platitude. He felt he had to make at least some token gesture of reassurance. Of course, it was Frederick and Avan that would be putting their lives on the line over this cloud kingdom business. So what Chasitity Angelwing needed reassuring for was anybody's guess.

Three hours later, not even nine in the morning, Frederick and Avan tumbled from the basket that had lifted them upwards. The rather cramped transportation hauled into the sky by a gross of grateful sprites. This favour had delivered them over the lip of the cloud kingdom. They picked themselves up to survey the scale of the task that lay before them. For their part the sprites fled the limits of this dangerous land.

Frederick had heard of cloud kingdoms, of course. No student of heroic literature could avoid such an education. He could never have imagined the reality so distinctly. He found himself standing on the lip of verdant greensward that, upon its border dissolved into puffs of soft, white cloud. Rainbows danced through the mists here and there. Off in the far distance Frederick could see a place where a waterfall tipped over the edge of this bright and beautiful land. The flow dissolved into cloud vapour before it could have fallen twenty feet.

"It's beautiful," Frederick breathed, filled with awe at the breathtaking view.

"They always are," Avan said, a note of caution clear in his voice. "It's just a shame that the inhabitants are rarely friendly." He took a moment to look about. "The castle will be that way," he said, pointing in what seemed, at least to Frederick's eyes, to be an arbitary direction. "We'd best be about our business."

"What _is_ our business?" Frederick asked, following Avan along the meadow where they had landed towards the edge of a pleasant wooded area. "I would have asked earlier but we were always knee deep in sprites. They tend to get a little... emotional... when discussing evil things."

"You've learned a lot," Avan smiled. "It's good to see, Frederick."

"Um, thank you," Frederick said, feeling the heat of embarrasment set his cheeks aglow.

"The witch Dumita Fellcraven has seized this cloud kingdom as her domain," Avan explained. "She has imprisoned the moon. She has done this in order to enact an plan. She means to plague the land below with a bestiary of creatures that thrive only in dark places."

"Why would she do that?" Frederick asked before the more pressing question came to his mind. "And... imprison the moon? How would you imprison the moon? I mean, it's the moon."

"The moon isn't one thing, Frederick," Avan said. "I thought everybody knew that."

"When I was in Bellespire," Frederick said. "I visited a cheese emporium, La Lune De Fromage Vert. They said they dispatched miners to the moon in little wooden tubes fired from a gigantic cannon. They said that the moon is made of green cheese. I bought a cube, it was quite pricey, and a little tangy for my liking."

"Well, it is entirely possible that the moon over Bellespire is made of green cheese. I'm sure you can send miners to it firing them in a wooden tube from a giant cannon," Avan said. "I know that I once had to deliver a silver short sword to a Moon Maiden. She received me in the court of a gigantic spherical palace cast in filigree of shining silver. I believe you have made acquaintance of the same lady."

"Oh, you mean my..." Frederick's brain was racing, that always made him feel giddy. He took a moment for a deep breath. "You gave the moon maiden my sword."

"Ay," Avan said, grinning. "Destiny is a strange thing. I once had a brief moment to converse with the Norns. I would tell you what they said to me, save that I didn't understand a word of it."

"I have a ring of destiny," Frederick said. "It's been nothing but trouble. I imagine you noticed that as well."

Avan held up his left hand, encircling his little finger was a ring of destiny. It was cut  differently to Frederick's own but unmistakeable in its hue and design.

"Two knights, both with a ring of destiny, adventuring together. Both having handled the same magic sword," Frederick mused. "What do you think are the chances of that happening?"

"In the pattern of the weave? Given the power of destiny?" Avan replied. "Best not to think about it, could distract you at the vital moment."

So Frederick didn't think about it. He followed his heroic mentor on their journey. A journey towards a castle that Frederick did not doubt lay ahead of them in the cloud kingdom.

Frederick was right to have faith in his companion. By noon they were approaching the forbidding walls of an enormous castle-fortress. Avan studied the high granite walls with a look of apprehension.

"It's built to a large scale," Frederick noted. "Do you think there are giants."

"Giants don't work for evil witches," Avan said. "But giants definitely built this castle. It's their style of architecture."

"So, what?" Frederick asked, puzzled.

"This witch drove the giants away," Avan said. "Or killed them. Either way that's bad news for us... good news also."

"How is facing a witch who can kill or exile giants from their own castle any sort of a good thing?" Frederick asked.

"Oh, that's not," Avan said, his tone light. "Giants like their accomodations dry. They have a tendency to suffer from many damp-related conditions. They're masters of efficient drainage. Witches, by and large, don't care about drainage. They tend to leave the extensive sewer systems unguarded."

An hour and a half later Frederick was swiping his sword clean of green-black ichor. The sticky mess had spouted, in great profusion, from the corpse of a sewer gremlin. The last of seven sewer gremlins that they had encountered in the tunnels beneath the castle. He was not angry at the encounter but he was a little confused by it.

"I thought you said the witch would leave this place unguarded," he said to Avan, irritation leaking through in his tone.

"They weren't guarding this place," Avan said. "They'd just taken advantage of the quiet times since the witch took over and, oh-"

"Oh what?" Frederick asked, he finished off cleaning the blade and stowed his short sword back in its scabbard. He looked over to see his partner stood at the wrong end of a long, curving blade, the design unfamiliar to Frederick's eyes. Holding the blade firm on the legendary prince was a small, athletic figure clad almost entirely in black. Two large, black, possibly female eyes stared out from the tight wrapping that enclosed the woman's head.

"Uh," Frederick said. "Can we help you?"

"You work for the evil one," the woman said. There was a strange accented inflection to her voice. She came from a place that Frederick had never been, the weapon, her garb and now her voice all told Frederick this.

Frederick had learned a thing or two about people from faraway lands during his travels. The first was that you couldn't presume anything when it came to their culture. For example, it might encourage them to behave like crazy people if you didn't treat them with respect. The second was that you would have no idea what action would lead them to believe they had been disrespected. Standing very still and talking slowly and clearly was often a safe bet, nothing was universal. Frederick had to take his chances.

"We were attacked by gremlins," Frederick said. "We're all on the same side here."

Of course, the woman in black hadn't stated which side she was on. It would be unusual to refer to your boss as 'the evil one', but it wasn't entirely unheard of.

"Unless," Avan supplied unhelpfully. "You work for the evil one. In which case we are here to kill your mistress."

Frederick let go of a sigh. Avan was a great guy but sometimes he was too straightforward.

"Why would you tell me this?" the woman asked. "If I do work for the evil one now I will kill you."

"You will try," Avan said.

"Maybe I will," the woman said and thrust her sword forward. Avan ducked and rolled away from the blade. Somehow he managed to pluck his own sword from the body of the last gremlin he had dispatched as he did so. He sprung to his feet swinging the sword down in a heavy parry even as the woman swung round on a second strike.

"Uh," Frederick said as the two traded sword blows in the confines of the tunnel. "Ah."

The fight didn't last long, after a few swings by both parties they split apart, looking set to regroup and come at it again. Frederick wasn't standing for any more nonsense he stood between them.

"What are you doing?" the woman asked. "Stand aside."

"Stop!" Frederick said firmly, splitting his attention between the two impromptu opponents. Once he was sure that Avan was not going to stab him in an accidental opening thrust he turned his attention towards the woman in black. "Are you intending to kill the evil one?" he asked.

"I fully intend to skewer her black heart with the blade of my father's daito," the woman said. Frederick would have to award her full marks for intensity.

"Well, okay," Frederick said. "Then perhaps we could spend a little less time squabbling in a sewer and a little more getting on with our mission then, together. I'm guessing that the witch in the giant castle will find killing us all together a little harder than as individuals. Particularly if we manage to keep from killing each other right now, don't you agree?"

"I travel alone, my target is for my blade only," the woman snarled.

"Well, Avan and I are only here to, uh, rescue the moon," Frederick said. "So if you want to get all stabby and emotional with the witch I, um, guess that's entirely your thing, right?" Frederick turned for support to Avan.

Avan had a strange look on his face, grimly troubled and, at the same time, angry and frustrated. He sheathed his sword, shifted his gaze to Frederick and inclined his head.

"You're a wise man, indeed, Sir Cobb," he said. "I will resolve my own differences with our new 'friend' after the moon is safe."

Differences? Frederick thought. Avan was usually very level-headed and gentlemanly. He didn't start fights with girls, even girls dressed all in black with scary huge weird swords. Frederick made a mental note to ask his companion about this later. For now, it seemed, peace had been restored.

The peace lasted for another forty-five minutes. At which point they had gained access to the central hall of the giant's castle and a truly epic battle ensued.

It transpired that Dumita Fellcraven had siphoned off large amounts of blue plasma from the moon. In this place, Frederick noted, the moon resembled a large blue-white sphere of energy the witch had bound in a cage. Fellcraven laid about herself freely with scorching balls of blue fire. So it took the combined acroboatic and martial skills of both Avan and the woman in black to keep Dumita occupied.

Meanwhile Frederick hacked at the lock of the cage. Frederick frantically swung over and over in his attempts to hack apart the stout lock on the cage door.

"Is that a moon blade?" asked a voice from the moon's direction.

"Uh, possibly," Frederick panted. "I got it from a moon maiden."

"Oh, how wonderful," the voice replied. "So you're here to help?"

"I'm trying to break the lock on the cage," Frederick said.

"Well, I don't know," the voice emerging from the dazzling blue white light at the limit of the moon's energy sphere, said. "Nobody's been a friend to me since the witch forced the giants to haul us from our mounting."

"Us?" Frederick grunted, seeing the lock was on the point of splitting apart. "Who's us?"

"The moon and me," the voice said. "I guard the moon, although the giants were too much for me. This cage is enchanted. Once I am free I will be able to take my revenge on the evil one."

"That's great," Frederick said. "Really, I'm very happy. Let me just get this last... bother..."

Frederick made an extra special effort, ignoring the pain in his aching muscles. The swing went off centre and glanced off the cage bars.

"We will, of course, be immensely grateful for this service," the moon's guardian continued. "How will we be able to repay your kindness?"

"Unless you can return me to the place that I came from," Frederick said. "I think I'm really just doing this for experience."

"What place did you come from?" asked the moon's guardian.

"Not so much a place," Frederick said, lining up his moon blade for one final swing. "More a time. After this. The adventures of my companion, Prince Weatherstrong, are a legend in the time I come from."

"Oh, is that so?" the moon guardian asked.

Frederick did not answer, instead swinging down with all the strength h could muster. He let go a mighty cry as he broke the lock on the cage. The door swung open and the moon began to drift forward.

From the floor Dumita Fellraven paused in her continued plasma assault. She turned to see her prize floating free from its bonds.

"No!" she screamed. "No! No!"

"Yes," said the woman in black and thrust her sword into the witch's chest.

"And everybody gets what they want," Avan breathed, exhausted by his battle with the witch.

"Not quite," said the voice of the moon guardian. "I know that the young man who broke me free is lost far from home. The moon and I would like to offer him a chance to return to the place from whence he came."

"You would?" Frederick asked. "How?"

"We, of course, have to return to our place in the great sky-machine," the moon guardian said. "In a short while, if my time-keeping is correct, and it always is, we will come within close proximity to the cloud of wishing stars. You can ride a wishing star home, if you make your wish when you climb on board. The way may not be straight, but it will surely put you on the path to where you need to be."

"That," Frederick said. "Would be incredible."

"Well, Sir Cobb," Avan said. "It would appear as if our time to travel together has come to its close. I would not stand in the way of your journey home, my friend."

"I wasn't expecting it to come so soon," Frederick said. "But I have to take this chance."

"Of course, Sir Cobb, of course," Avan said. "Destiny's tides are fast and strong, we must accept her gifts even as we weather her storms."

"You talk like a fortune cookie," said the woman in black, her narrowed eyes turning from the body of the witch to Avan once more.

"I don't know what that means," Avan admitted.

"You have never seen the Pheban Empire," the woman said. "It would humble you, overblown knight."

"Then maybe you should take me to your land and teach me to be humble," Avan said moving over to stand facing the woman.

Frederick suddenly understood the strange energy between his mentor and the woman in black. Avan Weatherstrong had fallen in love with a pair of dark eyes wrapped entirely in black cloth. Maybe it was best that Frederick was starting on his path home.

"You could not keep up with the pace set by Kal'hath of Phebe," the woman taunted him.

"That is a challenge I shall be happy to meet," Avan replied. The atmosphere in the room was becoming close, Frederick bristled with awkwardness.

"Your friends appear to be... passionate," the guardian of the moon said.

"You wouldn't believe they only met an hour ago, would you?" Frederick asked.

"Maybe we had best leave them to work out their differences," the guardian suggested. "We do need to return to the great sky-machine."

"Yes, absolutely," Frederick said. "Hey!" he called out to Avan. "I need to go!"

Avan turned his attention away from Kal'hath. He turned a broad smile in his companion's direction.

"One day I hope we meet again," Prince Weatherstrong said. "Or, if fate is not so kind, I hope to read tales of the great deeds of Sir Cobb in a stout story book."

"I hope you do," Frederick said. "Because it would mean I lived."

"Oh, you will live, Frederick Cobb, you will most certainly live," Avan Weatherstrong said.

The prince was right. Frederick travelled from the great sky-machine through the fringe lands. He made his way back to Bridgetown to continue his adventures. But those are all tales for another time.

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