The horses behind me thundered down the asphalt. I gave my own a kick in the ribs. “On, Dasher!” I shouted as if my horse could understand me.
The barnacle-crusted mutations were behind me, screaming and yelling and waving their clubs. I had a woman I barely knew sharing my horse, hugging me tight as we rode around a curb while my squire was doing her best to keep up.
And I know that sounds like a bad situation, but on the bright side, this was about the third most terrible idea of the day. And I’d had exactly nine ideas that led up to this third most terrible decision.
Terrible idea number one:
“I’m organizing all my stuff,” I told my squire. “And you’re helping me!”
“You’re slumped against the feckin’ wall! I’m doing all the work!” She shrieked.
“And that’s why you’re my squire.”
As an errant, I don’t have much time to organize. Plus, when you’re renting out a third-floor room in a run-down tavern, organizing should probably be pretty low on your priority list.
My squire shuffled about the room, carrying a vaguely indiscriminate mass of plated metal. “What do you think, Ser Davion? Toss or keep?”
“Keep, Beryl,” I said. The sun flared outside the window and everything went bright for a moment. I wondered if we were going to suffer another near-extinction. But the solar flare wasn’t that powerful.
It was too bad. It would have saved me on rent.
“How do you have this many swords?” Beryl asked.
“Each one seemed like a good purchase at the time,” I said. “It made sense when I bought them.” I needed a short sword, then an arming sword, then a longsword, and then two longswords, because what if I lost that first one? Eventually it built up into one gigantic mess that I was watching Beryl try to organize.
She dumped all the swords into one pointy pile.
“Did you know I started out with a rusty little short sword—” I began.
“And now this,” she muttered, gesturing to the pile. “You’re insane.”
“We’re living on a planet that’s slowly dying. We used to be a marvel of technology and now we’re back at swords and citytates. Aren’t we all a little insane?”
“Fair enough,” Beryl muttered. She started sifting through a pile of decidedly less pointy things. “Though personally I think I’d be a little more insane if I was carrying a curse around since age eight that brings ill fortune to me.”
“That’ll do it,” I said. “Where’s the brandywine? I need a drink.”
“I threw it out.”
“You what?” I shrieked while making a goddamn spectacle out of rolling my eyes.
“Your curse is bad enough without making drunk decisions.”
“I didn’t ask to be cursed,” I muttered, pouting objectively more than I should have. “I just wanted to be a baker—”
“—but the sixth time your bakery burnt down, you realized that your only career path was as an errant,” Beryl finished for me. “I know the story.” She picked up a medallion that had lost its chain. “What’s this?”
“An old hag sold it to me a few weeks ago. She said it would protect against curses.”
“A hag. You know—a mutation. She called herself the witch.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Beryl pulled it close, examined it; turning it over and squinting at the thing. “Was it cracked when you bought it?”
“I don’t think cracked medallions work, Ser Davion.”
I snatched it out of her hands. “We’ll have to test it out then, won’t we?”
“You’ll need to wear it on a chain, won’t you?”
Terrible idea number two:
I leapt to my feet, careful not to step on the various oddities strewn about the room. “I’ll go buy one then. I’ll be back with a chain!” I shouted.
The door muffled her response.
When I exited the tavern, however, I saw a woman brushing the most beautiful horse I’d ever seen. His fur was black and shiny—every inch of this beast was the pristine thing in the history of horses. He looked like a warhorse, bred for glory. The kind of horse people might make a song or a cartoon about in the Old World.
“It’s beautiful,” I muttered, and then: “That probably should have been an inside thought.”
“I have a name,” the woman said.
“I was talking about the horse.”
“Thanks,” she said. She flipped her hair out of her face and went back to brushing the horse.
At that point I’d forgotten all about the chain. “Is the horse for sale?”
“No,” she snapped. But her expression softened when she started looking me over. After a moment’s pause, she added, “The name’s Feora, by the way.”
“Davion.” We shook hands. I didn’t notice how clammy mine was until I felt hers.
She wiped her hand on her cloak. “You know,” I said, “I’ve got this medallion,” I produced it between two fingers, “and lots of other valuables upstairs. I’d be happy to exchange them.”
She looked at me, measuring the price of my cloak and the sword at my hip, trying to pin down some kind of fortune on me. “Show me your valuables and we’ll talk.”
I’m wasn’t sure if that meant what I thought it meant. To stay on the safe side, I said, “I’ll be back.”
Bad decision number three:
“Wait.” I decided she seemed too eager to sell it. Nobody builds up something this great, talks about how much they love it, and then considers selling it at the slightest provocation. “Is it stolen? I can’t buy something off you if it’s stolen.”
“I’m an errant. I have a reputation to maintain.”
“A wandering knight has a reputation to maintain? Most errants already have a bad rep.”
“Knights who protect the defenseless have a bad rep?”
“Many don’t do much protecting. They go town to town with swords and shields, but they’re only protecting themselves.”
I didn’t notice she was sauntering towards me until she was standing on her toes, almost nose to nose with me.
“What kind of reputation?”
“I can show you.”
Terrible idea number four:
She had a rented room only a few taverns down the road. And when we were…well, let’s say finished, I got up, stretched and took a look around. Her room was three times the size of mine. Easily. And her bed didn’t feel like it was made of lead. She even had a hearth right beside the window! That was thrice-over I envied her. Actually, make that four times. I really wanted that horse.
A flare dazzled the sky and I rushed to the window.
“It’s just the sun,” she said, pulling her britches back on.
“I know,” I said. “I just like watching. The idea of a new near-extinction fascinates me.”
“Yes, well, perhaps you could be fascinated while not being naked? I have to go soon. I have an appointment out of town.”
“What sort of appointment?”
She shrugged. “An appointment.” Her face was blank in the way that it was obvious to notice that she didn’t want me to notice.
“Is it about the horse?” I asked. “How did you get it?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I know—knew some people. It’s fine.”
She was far too eager to bed me, I realized. I glanced out the window. “Are those guys your escorts?” I pointed to a band of mutations filing into the tavern. Their bodies were crusted with barnacles and they were shaped like the product of a six-year-old who was given clay and asked to carve what he thought a person looked like.
She shoved me aside and checked the window. “Shit!”
“Why do you need to get out of town?” I asked.
She looked almost sad. And I would come to remember that look. “That horse may have been stolen.”
She said nothing. There were crashes of glass and upturned tables coming from the floor below.
“You were a little overeager to bed me after you discovered I was an errant, weren’t you?”
“I mean you’re not wrong.”
“Did you need an errant today?”
“Why do you ask?”
The band of mutations broke the door down and marched in, clubs in hand.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve never fought naked before. This ought to be fun.”
I reached for a log stacked in Feora’s hearth and tossed it at one of them, striking him square on the nose. Blood spurted out from either side like one of those ancient packets of red stuff in those inns with the golden arches.
Then I took the nightstand and charged at them. I bowled into three of them but the rest collapsed on top of me. I swung wildly. I’d only a broken nightstand to fight with. My sword was on the other side of the bed, and I was not prepared to make the dive to get it. I managed to incapacitate a few of them, but within seconds they would overwhelm me.
The barnacles on their palms pinched at me. One of them had claws. I made sure to break his hand under the broken tabletop as I went down.
And when I did go down, I kicked my sword under the Feora’s bed in the confusion.
Fights aren’t like they’re described in the songs. You don’t beat twenty men by yourself. You just don’t.
Why did she need to leave town? I thought, as an indiscriminate mass of punches and kicks struck me. Why did she—
When I woke up, Feora was gone. I took solace in the fact that they hadn’t checked for my sword under the bed. I retrieved it—as well as the first clothes I could find—some too-tight pants and a shirt that covered half my torso.
I raced to my own tavern. My cloak flowed behind me—if I hadn’t just let a woman get kidnapped, I’d have felt like a hero
Instead, I was an idiot. Feora barely knew me, but she knew I was an errant—sworn to protect the defenseless. And yet here I was failing to do exactly that. I raced up the steps, screaming and shouting for Beryl. “Get out here! Get your squire ass out here!”
She flung the door open. “What part of my ass—oh.” The anger deflated from her face. “You look like hell,” she muttered.
“What do you want?”
“I got knocked out and there’s this girl who has been kidnapped and we have to find her and—”
“How do you plan to find her?”
“She’s down Farring Way and being ridden out of town on horseback,” I said. And then: “Wait, how do I know that?”
Beryl squinted at me. “How do you know that?”
The medallion, I thought. “Of course!”
“It would seem that the good-luck medallion works without a chain. And I gave it to Feora when we went to her place.” I stood erect—my shirt sliding up my chest in the process. “Beryl! Saddle up Dasher and Prancer. I need to get dressed.”
I closed the door behind me, drowning out whatever quip she’d thought up.
Terrible idea number five:
I caught up with her at the stables with my shirt halfway on. Beryl was already saddled and mounted on Prancer and she watched me mount Dasher, pull down my shirt, and fasten my cloak.
But she didn’t stop staring at me.
She raised one eyebrow. “Really?” She asked.
“Really? You couldn’t put your shirt on first?”
“I’m just saying—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she muttered, spurring Prancer onward. “Keep your shirt on…”
I spurred Dasher after her, hooves clacking over asphalt. Beryl cantered ahead of me. “How does the medallion let you sense where she is?” she asked.
“Good question,” I said. “I suppose since I had the bad luck to lose her, it negates that bad luck by letting me find her.”
Unfortunately, Feora found us. A dozen mutations zipped out of an alleyway on sleek black warhorses. The most beautiful of them—the one Feora had stolen—was ridden by the largest of the barnacle-men. Feora sat behind him, gagged and bound.
Beryl and I sped after them.
I gained a lead over Beryl, who took a turn down a side road. “I’ll meet up with you!” she shouted.
“You do that!” I said, and booted Dasher in the ribs. My horse pushed faster and faster until I was neck and neck with the mutation who rode with Feora.
He turned to look at me, grinning a smile that exposed whale teeth, like grimy toothbrushes.
“Let her go!” I said, unsheathing my sword.
He took a sharp turn down an alley. I followed. “You want the girl?” The mutation growled. He spoke like there were pebbles jangling in the back of his throat. “You can’t have her. She made a mistake. Girl made a big mistake. Girl had no idea who she was stealing from. She’s stupid girl. No one steals from us.” He gestured with his head to Feora. “She’s lucky she didn’t lame it. Bad for her if she had.”
“To be fair,” I said, “That is a nice horse. I might’ve stolen it, too if I could.” I took a swing at him, but he held up a barnacle-crusted arm that caught my blade’s impact. Rivers of red flowed through the gaps between the barnacles, but he shook the pain from his arm. “Going to have to do better than that,” he said, spurring his horse on.
I could see the plea in Feora’s eyes. The mute cry for help. But I was failing her again I was failing myself. I—
At that moment, Beryl came crashing through an adjacent alleyway. A pile of garbage stood between her and the mutations. Her horse vaulted over it, into the air, and kicked one hoof squarely against the mutation’s chest. The other eleven were in such disarray that they’d rounded the corner before they realized what had happened.
The mutation tightened his grip on the reins as he fell, twisting the horse’s neck so that it fell with him, crushing everything in the saddlebags, including, I assumed, the medallion.
“Hey look,” Beryl said, “It’s a metaphor for your love life.”
“You can banter later,” I snapped. “Help me out!”
I reined Dasher to a halt, dismounted and dragged Feora out from underneath. She was screaming; the mutation was screaming; the horse was screaming; I was screaming. Beryl helped Feora onto my horse and I swung up after her.
“You’ve got wonderful taste in women, Davion.”
“Shut up, Beryl.”
She grinned. “Why would I do that?”
“Because we’ve got eleven more mutations coming our way.” Unfortunately, that meant wheeling our horses around. Have you ever tried to get two horses to make a one-eighty in the middle of the road? It’s pretty timeconsuming.
But at length we managed it and sped off in the opposite direction.
“Can I ask you something, Feora?” I said.
“What is it?”
“Why’d you steal that horse?”
“It looked majestic and I needed a horse.”
“To look like I had money so I could spend a few weeks in a fancy tavern so the owners would think I could pay for it.”
“That’s clever,” I muttered.
“Like I said,” Beryl chimed in, “Wonderful taste in women.”
“Ignore her,” I said. I stole a glance behind me to see how close the mutations were. It turns out there was one close enough to sniff Dasher’s tail. “Also,” I said, unsheathing my sword, “Duck.”
I swung my sword behind me, cutting the mutation’s neck. The barnacles kept his head on his shoulder, but he toppled off his horse all the same.
But there was no time to savor my moment of glory—another mutation was closing in on us. It reined up next to me. “You pay for that, errant. Errant pays big time.”
Terrible idea number six:
“Can you ride a horse, Feora?”
“Because I need you to ride!” I said, and vaulted onto the barnacle-man’s horse.
He was stronger than I expected, and tried to shove me to the ground. I groped at empty air in an attempt to stop this, but my hands found the mutation’s arm. I held firm, dragged along at a gallop while the barnacles pinched at my palm
Three other riders closed in behind and beside me. So I did what any reasonable man in that situation would do.
I jerked the mutation off is horse and onto the point of my sword. This also happened to put him on top of me. Horses were fumbling and falling, heads were cracking and a moment later there was blackness.
I regained consciousness a few seconds later, I think. Because there were two mutations left in the wreckage of downed horses and barnacle-men. Beryl was engaged with one of them who was trying to bash her sword in two with a wooden club. Feora was hiding in a corner, and the other barnacle-man was standing over me his own club raised. “You mess with the wrong guys, errant,” he said. “We run things around here. Those were our guys, our horses—”
I swung my leg in between his and found myself wondering if there were barnacles there, too. “You talk too much.” I said.
He dropped the club and I sprang to my feet, cutting him along his torso.
Beryl’s opponent finally realized the flaw in his plan when he split his club in two on her blade. And with the momentum of his swings he may as well have done her job for her.
I approached Feora, probably looking like a walking nightmare, dirt-stained and blood-splattered. My cloak billowed behind me, which I took a little too much pride in.
I offered her my hand, and she took it, shaking.
“So…thanks,” she said.
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Don’t mention it. I’m an errant, after all. It’s what we do.”
“You’re welcome!” Beryl called while she sifted through the wreckage.
“Thank you, Beryl!” I called back, and then turned to Feora. “So why did they want to kill you?”
“Listen,” she said. “I told you before. I have to get out of town. And this rescue doesn’t change anything. I still have to leave. That said, I do appreciate it.”
Terrible idea number seven:
“Will I ever see you again?”
She smiled at that. The way a parent might smile at a child who asks where babies come from. “Depends on how much trouble I manage to get into. Maybe.”
Terrible idea number eight:
“I’d like that.”
I could feel Beryl wincing at that from behind. She’d come up behind me. “Don’t say a word,” I told her, without turning to look.
“You did help me, though,” Feora said. “Thank you.”
Feora snickered at that. But she had the decency to at least try to contain herself. “I’ll see you around, Ser Davion.”
“Please,” Beryl said, “Call him idiot.”
Feora turned and walked away without another word. And—terrible idea number nine—I watched her go for an objectively uncomfortable amount of time.