Far Indeed From Sherwood Forest
|Xanadu story universe|
"Hold up, Gary," I murmured softly. "I need to rest again."
His exasperated sigh was audible through both masks, his and mine. "The eyes?"
I nodded, and he guided me to a circular bench that enclosed a palm tree. Sitting was a blessed relief, although thanks to the outfit it was somewhat awkward.
I reminded myself that this costume wasn't a result of just my labor, it was also my concept and design. The idea had been to build costumes based on Robin Hood. He would be a robin, of course, and not a fox like the cartoon. Ultimately he would be accompanied by his band of merry men — most notably Friar Duck and Will a-Scarlet Macaw, along with anyone else I could think up a good avian related pun for. But those others hadn't been finished in time for Kubla Con.
One of Robin's companions had been finished, though. His lady love, Maid Marian. (She was a horse — mare-ian. I thought it was a great pun, though few others got it without an explanation.)
The problem was, Marian's costume required a renaissance-style dress, and those suckers were heavy and very cumbersome. "Robin" was lucky; even though his sleeves were modified to look like wings, and he had to carry a bow and quiver (modified to be con-safe), the tunic and vest and hat that he wore were nothing compared to a dress, two skirts, a dress, and sleeves — all before adding the mask, gloves and shoes that made her a horse.
And who wore Maid Marian? Me, of course. I didn't presently have a girlfriend, or even know any women as friends well enough to ask them to wear it. Gary's frame was slender enough that he could have passed for female, but he did better as Robin. His small size made him more birdlike, anyway, whereas my frame could certainly be a better fit for a horse. I wasn't fat, mind you, not at all. It was just that I could hardly be called slender like he could, either. The fact that I topped him by a head added to the effect. At any rate, a build like mine might have been good for the horse aspect, but I would never pass as a female. Not without a lot of work. So in addition to all the clothes the public saw, I wore a corset and stuffed bra, along with one of those padded things that bulks out the hips. With all that, and the mask to hide my face, I could pass as a thickset woman.
All of which was a somewhat long way of saying that I was hot. Being in Orlando, even in November, didn't help much. And the battery powering the fan in the muzzle that kept the air circulating was dying. Moisture was getting blown out of the nostrils slower than I was sweating it into the air, and the plastic eyes had gotten all foggy. It probably looked like my costume had cataracts, and she might as well have. I was about as blind.
For ten minutes we just sat. I tried hard to breathe as little as possible to prevent even more moisture from fogging up the eyes. Eventually I could see more than vague shapes again, and began paying attention to the other costumes. Along with the usual assortment of Klingons, Jedi, and superheroes, some stood out. A few of them were quite good, like the dragon that must have contained at least two men. Others were not so great, like the robot that was clearly assembled in ten minutes from cardboard boxes, spray paint, and a magic marker. And a few were just puzzling. What did a ballerina, a US Marine Captain, or an anthropomorphic white rabbit have to do with science-fiction or fantasy? If the rabbit had been wearing an Elizabethan outfit I could say it was from Caroll, but he was just wearing overalls.
"We're going to be late," Gary complained, though still speaking softly. Although the jaws moved, speaking in these masks was to be avoided. It didn't sound right.
I nodded my reply, but still took my time getting up. The awards ceremony to give out the big prizes — cash, this year! — would be starting any time now, true, but I knew we wouldn't win any of those. I had thought I'd done a good job with what we were wearing, but some of the ones out there were good enough for movies. Besides, we'd already won a prize for "good couple." It was clearly a minor category, and one I've never heard of before at any con, but I wasn't about to complain. Fifty bucks was fifty bucks.
The main ballroom, where the major awards were to be dispersed, was crowded. All of the chairs within easy reach were occupied, and the walls were jammed with people. Nearly all of them were in costume, though for a sizable number it was just the funny prosthetic animal noses that were being sold in the dealer's room.
A man was ascending the low stage to join a woman in a leafy dryad outfit. He was tall, but beyond that details were impossible to discern because his clothing was a featureless black and he wore a mask. He looked like a very distinguished crow, or maybe raven. He must be the millionaire funding all the prizes, I surmised. I was proved right a moment later when the woman announced, "Eric Winters, everyone!" By then everyone at the con knew that name.
Mr. Winters took the microphone, a cat-person on one side and the dryad on the other. For several seconds he said nothing, waiting for crowd noise to die down a bit. Then he swayed, looking like he was drunk or perhaps suffering from heat exposure.
"What a wimp," I said to myself. Even though he was dressed all in black, my costume had to be a hundred times worse. Although, now that I was thinking about it again, it didn't seem so bad anymore. It was still hot and heavy, but not oppressively so, and my field of view was the best I'd had in hours. Maybe ten times worse, then.
The audience was beginning to murmur nervously. Suddenly several people interspersed throughout the hall screamed almost in unison, and panic took hold of the room.
People and costumes were running everywhere, screaming and bellowing. I laid my ears flat against the cacophony. "What is it? What is happening?" I cried. What caused the panic? I was scared more of the people here than of some danger of which I knew nothing!
"Come, my Lady!" Robin shouted over the din. "This place is unsafe!"
A bright red bar of light flashed nearby, leaving afterimages in my eyes. What looked like a man made of silver was exchanging blows with... "A griffin! My goodness, how didst a griffin get in here? Where art the guards?"
I looked at Robin. He only called me by name in the most dire of circumstances. I had to admit that this was the most dire I could recall. "Lead on," I ordered.
He took me by the arm and aimed us at the door. Twas a shame he had not brought his sword, for it would have been of great help. Strangely, I couldn't for the life of me remember why he hath left it behind. Surely it would not have called attention to him in this lot!
For once, my lover was not gentle. Not with me and certainly not with those between us and our exit. We were somewhat aided by the fact that so many others were aimed at the same set of doors, though for some reason Robin was taking us on something of a meandering path which countered that benefit. I was jostled about quite a bit myself by wretches too uncouth or uncaring to properly treat nobility. I had to hike my skirts indecently high to prevent them from being ruined. Something crunched beneath my hooves — a scaly hand, I saw when I looked back. It wasn't moving.
At last Robin pushed aside one final obstacle, a grey-skinned woman whose beautiful dress was ruined by a gaudy overabundance of jewelry. We veered sharply away from the majority of those streaming out of the great hall and ducked inside a smaller room. There was an arrangement of tables on one end, but the rest of the room was occupied by chairs, some in obvious disarray. It was as if an eccentric highborn man had intended fifty people to watch him eat. Most curious.
But there were no people. "This seems safe enough," Robin declared.
Whoever's castle this was (I could remember its name — Xanadu — but oddly, not its lord's), was clearly wealthy beyond compare. The chairs were made not of wood, but metal! Such extravagance! Even with the thin layer of padding they looked uncomfortable, however. But those at the long table looked no different, so I took one near the end and sat.
- And immediately snorted in surprise. I jumped to my feet, rubbing my buttocks. Robin's trilling laugh echoed from the walls. "Watch yourself, my love! These seats were not made for tails. Inconsiderate of our host, whosoever that might be, don't you think?" He, too, had taken a chair, but was sitting on it sideways so as not to ruffle his tailfeathers.
I nodded slowly. So he knew not who ruled here either, did he? But there was something strange about his words...
"A tail?" I yelped, and turned to look closely at my backside. A part of me cringed at such unladylike behavior. Another was screaming that I had never been a lady! Nor had I ever had hooves, or a muzzle, or a tail. The dress hadn't been tailored for a tail! But now I had all of these, and more. I didn't want to contemplate exactly what more I had; I suspected I'd find out all too soon. "What on Earth didst happen to me?" I stopped there, surprised by how I spoke.
Robin — no, Gary — approached and put his winglike arms around me. "I know thou art distraught, love. Twas a terrible row we just escaped. But you seem unharmed, if a touch disheveled." He smiled, somehow, despite the beak. "Though, verily methinks it only adds to your beauty."
For a few seconds I felt comforted by his words and embrace. My lover had ever been the flatterer! Then I pulled roughly away. Gary had certainly never been a lover of mine, and Robin hadn't existed ten minutes ago! I shuddered. It was frightening how easy it was to slip into Marian's personality.
Robin looked deeply hurt at my retreat. "Robin -" I stopped. My voice! It was very definitely a woman's, now. There was no chance of pretending to be male even to a blind man. I gathered my nerve and tried again. "Do you know anyone named Gary?" Please...
But he frowned in thought for too long. I knew the answer well before he spoke. "I know none by that name. Wouldst he perchance be a new recruit for my band?"
I shook my head sadly. His name hadn't brought him out of character. Maybe nothing would, but I vowed to try again later. Still, I wondered why he was stuck so firmly as Robin Hood while I was only a part-time Maid Marian. I shook my head again, more firmly. That, too, would have to wait.
"Not some popinjay after your affections, I hope!" Robin exclaimed. "I do so hate competition."
"Thou dost love competition."
"Ah, well. Tis you who knows my heart best." He paused for a moment. "The noise seems much diminished. We should take our leave ere the guards arrive. Tis by God's own grace that they have not already."
It occurred to me that the local sheriff would probably be much more easily countered than the one he was worrying about. At least Nottingham's knew who he was up against. Still, it would not do to be present when the cops arrived. It would be indecent for a woman of my stature to be incarcerated for participating in a common brawl, however uncommonly large.
I grimaced. These personality shifts were going to take some getting used to.
Outside the room, the place had the seeming of a town after flood. Tables that had been covered with some merchant's wares were overturned and broken, his inventory strewn everywhere. The only people to remain were three stormtroopers marching back towards the great hall. We stayed out of their way and their sight until they were past, then headed in the opposite direction, marveling at the wonderful flameless torches and the impossibly clear glass. I had never seen the like!
Our error was quickly made apparent. Twas clearly the direction the great majority of the mob had gone. We could see the throngs outside through more great sheets of that glass. But when we approached closer to see, another marvel revealed itself. As we neared, a portion slid aside of its own accord, revealing itself to be not a window but a door. We both blinked and looked at each other. Then he shrugged and stepped through, leaving me to follow in his wake.
Outside was chaos. But twas the chaos of a tourney, not that of a brawl. Except it missed the festive air. Most of the people looked quite displeased, indeed! Men and creatures were sitting with dejected looks upon their visages. Some were weeping or wandering aimlessly, as if their wits had deserted them.
Strange movement caught my eye: a pair of turning lamps, one burning red, the other blue. The rested on an oddly-shaped box of metal and glass. More were arriving, accompanied by a wail audible for a mile or more. My awe was less than it might have been, however, as I realized they were some sort of vehicle. There were just too many wonders, and my sense of awe was becoming dulled from overuse.
The guards — no, the police! — were here at last. I glanced at Robin, but while he had seen them arrive he was as yet unaware of their significance. They were already beginning to block off the exits from the parking lot. Within an hour, or maybe half that, none would be able to leave the grounds without their permission.
"The sheriff's men art here," I told Robin.
"Oh?" His head darted about, searching. "Where? I see them not?"
"The cars — the metal boxes with lamps atop them. Those art his."
"Ah... art thou sure, my Lady? Their garb is peculiar."
"A new set of armor doth change not who they be. Tis they, for certain." I hoped Gary would emerge soon. Having to term everything so Robin Hood would understand was an arduous task. And that was when I understood it, myself.
The avian face looked thoughtful. I knew instantly what he had in mind. "Thou art mad if thou thinketh you can force conflict now!"
He trilled, clearly amused. "Against greater numbers, with neither stalwart companions nor plan? Nay, fear not, my love. I dost not be quite so foolish as that!"
I looked at him suspiciously. If he didst not desire a battle, what then? Only one thing came to mind. "Thou art planning a grand jest." Drawing attention to us out of these multitudes was second only to a fight in my estimation of things to be avoided. "We haven't the time! More guards arrive by the moment!" But the gleam in his eye was accompanied now by a stubborn set to his beak. I gulped and tried a different approach, on that I had rather hoped to avoid. I grasped the ends of his wings gently and in the softest, most sincere tone I could muster said, "For me, my... my love?"
For a moment I thought even that might not be enough. Robin Hood was the rogue's rogue. But he was also something of a gentleman. "Since thou dost insist," he said. "Though it doth pain me to leave without tweaking his nose by letting him know who he almost caught in his net." With one backward glance at the police, we left.
Escaping them was simplicity itself. We simply walked out of a side of the parking lot from which there were no sanctioned exits. The police had done little more than block and regulate the ways cars could come and go. By no means was the "net" tight enough yet to catch those without them.
As we walked, Robin turned his head about often to stare at some new wonderment. He said nothing, just taking it all in. And there was so very much to take in! His state made it easy for me to take the lead. And, thanks to how I had somehow not completely become Marian, I even had some idea where to go.
The highway was not far from Xanadu. When it came into view we both stopped and stared. We had thought the cars were going impossibly quick on the local streets, but it was as nothing compared to this!
"What is this place?" Robin said over the din of hundreds of moving cars.
"Tis the highway," I called back. "We needs must ride one of these."
He didn't look precisely scared. Acutely worried, mayhap. "Art thou sure we must? We could always walk."
I nodded. "Twould take days to reach safe haven by hoof." I blinked; that was supposed to be by foot. "Fret not. These cars dost be harmless if thou dost not stand before them."
"How canst thou be so certain?"
"I am a learned mare."
That mollified him. Together we made our way to the highway. Robin had little trouble with the chain-link fence on its edge; he simply jumped over, aided by a few flaps of his wings. I had somewhat more difficulty. Neither my hooves nor my dress were well suited to climbing. We had to search for some time before finding a tear in the links.
We walked onto the shoulder. I let Robin support me a bit; loose stones unbalanced me whenever they chanced to be beneath my hooves. Then I stuck out a thumb in the traditional manner. It felt a mite peculiar, until I realized I had only three fingers.
One more thing to get used to.
Twice cars slowed and began to drift our way, and twice they regained their incredible speed and passed us by. But a third did not veer off, and stopped a few dozen feet away. It was of the type that looked somewhat like the wagons with which we were both familiar, except the driver's area was enclosed and as always there were no horses to pull it. It also was not in the best of conditions, with rust and dents riddling its body.
The glass window near us was absent. Within was a single occupant, large and bearded. "Need a ride?" he drawled.
"C'mon in, then."
We nodded, then paused. How to enter was not immediately clear. Then Robin scrambled in through the opening.
"I will not crawl inside like that!" I declared, hands on my hips. "Twould be unbecoming!"
"Why don't you use the door then, miss?"
We looked at the man. He was trying hard not to laugh. I could feel my ears redden as I blushed. "Thou dost mock me!"
"Sorry, miss, sorry. I just... never mind. Ya open the door by pulling on that handle there. Yeah, that. Now pull..."
Part of the side swung away, and it was suddenly much easier to get inside. "I thought that was an ornament," I declared as I got in. I had to sit slightly sideways on the padded bench, since, as at Xanadu, he had not thought to accommodate those with tails. Robin had a similar problem, and solved it the same way. It changed the seat from small to truly cramped, but I still managed to close the door — carefully, mindful of my skirts.
The strange wagon started to move. Its speed continued to build until it was the countryside that moved too fast for comfort. By contrast, the nearby wagons were almost still, shifting position slowly. I confess that my hands were clenched tight on the metal door.
"First time ridin' a car, is it?"
Robin nodded stiffly. I noticed he kept his eyes on the man rather than the petrifying view outside. Then I closed my eyes so I didn't have to look at it, either.
"Well, as ya can see it ain't so bad, is it? A little scary at first but ya get used to it quick. By the way, my name's Sam."
"We are honored. I am Robin Hood and this is my Lady love, Marian."
"Uh... right. Good job on those costumes. Damn, they can do anything these days! So where do ya come from, that ya ain't never ridden before?"
"We hail from Sherwood Forest."
A pause. "Right. Well... Oh! Heh, I get it now. Robin Hood. Clever!" I wondered what was so clever about it. Twas his name, nothing more. "Well, you're pretty far from there, eh?"
"Indeed. Thou didst speak but a moment past of never before meeting people who have ridden in a... car?"
"Yeah, damn near everyone's ridden in these things — unless you're Amish, maybe, and I don't think you are. They just don't wear costumes like yours. Just about everyone owns one, too, except the poor and those damn Amish again."
I didn't have to be watching to see Robin perk up at the mention of the poor. "So tis only rich Lords such as yourself who own these cars, then."
Sam laughed, a deep bass that set my ears to ringing. "I ain't no lord! Just about anyone can buy one if they save up, thank God. Only the really down-and-out can't manage it." His voice shifted, sounding concerned, as he said, "Gonna need a new one myself, pretty soon. This one's in bad shape. Need new everything. Even the radio's busted, which is why I can't play some music for ya."
We rode in silence for a few seconds. I cracked open my eyes, saw a tree zoom past, and immediately shut them again. I spent the time trying to imagine what a radio was and how one might be played.
"Say, where ya goin', anyway? Or are ya just driftin'? If ya are, then I can only bring ya as far as Miami. Not there's a whole lot after that!"
"I dost not think so," Robin said carefully. "Where were we going, Marian? Thou didst have a place in mind, thou claimed."
I did? But after a moment I remembered our destination, and I told it to Sam.
"Well, great! That's just two exits up!" he said cheerfully. "Good thing I asked when I did, eh?"
When I felt the car slow down, I managed to pry my eyes open once more. The scenery still moved much too fast, but I could stand it now. There were fewer buildings than the area near Xanadu, and they were smaller and less garish. Houses. Sam made a few turns, fast and sharp enough to be nauseating, and stopped before one of them.
"Here ya are. I hope y'all have fun at your party. Ya got some damn good costumes."
"Thankee for the kind words, good sir," Robin replied. I bowed my head, acknowledging our benefactor's praise, then opened the door and stepped out.
Our destination was a dwelling that was apparently average, judging by others nearby, but it was in truth as large as a small Lord's hunting retreat. It had but one floor, however, and a large hollow space to one side that took up a great deal of room. It was separated from the indoors by more sheets of flawless glass.
The building was familiar, yet not. I remembered it clearly, and knew it was safe to remain there after leaving Xanadu. But I could not recall what made it safe. Were it not for how we had no other place to go, I might have shied away from this mystery.
My lover had exited and was speaking to Sam. "Thankee for thine help. Take this as a token of my gratitude." From the purse at his hip he withdrew a square-cut ruby perhaps half an inch on each side.
Sam guffawed as he took it in hand. "Thanks, Robin. Ya do the act pretty damn good, there. Too bad it ain't real."
"Tis real enough, I assure thee."
Sam peered at him skeptically. "Perhaps now thou canst buy a new radio," I suggested. He would want an instrument before the long winter months arrive, else the boredom would become acute.
"Ha! If this is real I can buy a new car! Ha ha! See y'all later, folks. Have a good time." Sam closed the door with a thunk and drove away, still chuckling.
I whirled on my lover. "Where didst thou get those?"
"From the rich, of course!"
"From the guests at Xanadu!" I raged. "Truly thou art mad! Thou stealeth from the guests of our host! Tis a poor way to show gratitude for his hospitality!"
"His hospitality could be better," Robin countered. "Poor seats and a near-battle in the hall, and yet he doth not even deign to show himself! Twas my due, for the inconvenience if for no other reason." I glared at him. He could be so trying at times! "Besides, my sweet, what's done is done. There is no gain in anger now."
I retained my glare for a moment longer, to show I was giving in but did not have to. Then I asked from where he got the gem.
"Twas from that grey lady. Verily, she had more than was good for her soul. I was duty-bound to relieve her of some of her wealth. Half my takings came from her alone!"
Half? "Just how much didst thou steal?"
In response he opened his purse. The small bag was filled with perhaps two score bits of jewelry and loose gems of various sizes and colors. One emerald was near the size of a hen's egg! "My word..." I gasped.
"In all the confusion that abounded, twas simplicity itself to relieve the rich of some of what makes them so haughty."
A girl, mayhap five years of age, was across the street, watching us with wide eyes and open mouth as we argued. I smiled reassuringly at her, and was rewarded with a tentative one in return. I thrust the bag of jewels back at Robin and strode towards the house. "Come. We art attracting attention. This is not the place to show such wealth."
Gaining entry was not quite so simple as opening a door, however, for all we found were locked. But my love had among his many skills those of an accomplished burglar. Twas only a matter of reaching an understanding of these locks.
"There," he said at last as the door from the hollow area opened at last. "After you, my Lady."
I walked into a dwelling that was oddly familiar. Strange furniture filled the room, and the most skillfully done paintings I had seen in my life hung from the walls. Beyond was a room the likes of which I had never seen. In one corner was a large box that quietly hummed and the walls were lined with cabinets filled with plates and goblets filled with glass. Was this the kitchen, then?
Yes, of course it was. I opened the refrigerator and withdrew an apple and a few slices of cheese. I had the feeling it would be wise to avoid the lunch meat. "There is food here, it thou art hungry," I called to Robin.
"Ah, thou art a wonder, my love." Robin nibbled on the base of my neck as he passed — his version of a kiss, it seemed. He paused when he reached the fridge's open door. "Tis cold!"
"Indeed so." There was little else to say.
His face turned thoughtful. "This kingdom in which we find ourselves is rich beyond compare. Beyond dreaming! The Lord who doth maintain this lodge commands such wondrous magics. Twould do much for the poor, methinks."
"Mayhap! How could it not be so? Just look at the riches around us!"
"Struth, but... well."
The next few hours were consumed by giving Robin a brief summary of American society. It was somewhat difficult to convince him that most people, even the poor, had refrigerators and flameless lights, and that most of those without them had no place to put them. Unlike the England we remembered, the poor would not starve. Even once he had some idea, however, it did not change the mission he had imposed upon himself to help the poor overcome their hardships.
"Though it may require a change of strategy, perchance," he admitted. I laughed. His persistence was wonderful. It's one of the reasons I love him so dearly.
No, no. I don't. Not love...
In the course of the conversation I did determine one sad fact: Gary was gone. I knew already that he didn't recognize the name; now I knew that his job, his home town, and even his dog were all unfamiliar to him. Perhaps sometime in the future some part of Gary will emerge, but I didst not hold high hopes.
Our discourse was interrupted by the sound of an approaching car. We halted, then moved back into the kitchen. It was out of immediate view of all the doors, so we might have time to determine if the newcomer was friend or foe.
The car stopped in the hollow space. The door from there opened slowly. "Hello? Guys? I know you're here, I saw you in the window..."
As the man entered the kitchen Robin slid in quickly behind him, his belt knife pressed under the man's armpit. "Who art thou?" Robin demanded.
The newcomer was young and thin, and his eyes were wide with fear. "I'm S-Scott. I live here! Don't you remember me, Gary? I let you guys stay here during the con."
I stepped forward. "Our apologies, dear Scott. We didst not know for certain who might pursue us."
Scott stared at me as Robin put his knife away. He looked as if he had been punched. "Shit..."
"Mind your language," Robin said harshly. "A Lady doth be before you!"
"Uh... sorry. You've turned into them, haven't you? Robin Hood and Maid Marian?"
"Those art indeed our names, good sir," Robin told him.
"Of sorts," I amended. Both of them looked at me a touch oddly, but I said nothing more as yet.
With the introductions past, we took a few moments to look each other over. No doubt he wished to see what this curse had wrought on us, and the thought was mutual. It was not difficult to see what had come of Scott. His face had a decidedly feline cast to it, with a small muzzle and ears atop his head framing a mass or orange and black hair. Most interestingly, his eyes had remained entirely human.
"I see thou didst not come away from Xanadu unscathed," I commented.
We moved into the living room as he told us what happened. He hadn't worn a full costume as we had. (Robin cocked his head here, for he didst not recall any costume, but I forestalled any comment with a hand on his wing.) Instead, he had bought a cheap animal nose, held over his own by a band of rubber, and a matching pair of ears. When the curse was cast, his visage became halfway that of a tiger.
"After the riot," Scott told us, "I couldn't find you. For a long while I was sure you were still there, 'cause I was your ride back. By the time I gave up searching, the police had set up a kind of quarantine. The only reason they let me out is because my changes were relatively minor and I'm a local.
"They art not so minor to mine eyes," Robin said.
"Ah... I did say relatively minor. I mean, just look at you two!"
"What about us?"
Scott didn't quite know what to make of that.
We explained how we made our way here from Xanadu. Beyond that, there was little enough to say. It would never occur to Robin to explain the changes to his mental state, and I was reluctant to clarify the issue to Scott with him present. Our host did attempt some probing questions, which I confess I did a poorer job of answering than I would have anticipated. I could remember a computer, but not how it was used. I knew of television, but only after being reminded of its existence, and had not the slightest of notions about how such a thing could possibly be. But his inquiries were halfhearted at best, as if he feared the answers. It is likely at its end he thought us both equally lost. He seemed discomfited at the conclusion, and it was with a morose air that he announced he would begin work on our evening repast.
I found it interesting that while I found the chicken faintly revolting and had to content myself with the vegetables and a dinner roll, Robin ate it all with little consequence. Still, even such simple fare was tasteful enough to satisfy. But the meal was a somewhat tense affair. Scott was clearly uncomfortable in our presence and ate quickly. He to his bedroom immediately afterwards, pausing only long enough to indicate where we were to sleep.
There wasn't much left to do — that we could do — except prepare for bed. I spent a few minutes explaining to Robin the proper use of a toilet. (He had considered it a basin to wash clothes in, and had been about to resort to using tupperware as a chamberpot — something I doubted Scott would see much humor in.) My own first time using the toilet as a mare was a sensation I would never forget, though twould not do to recount the experience.
That done, I retired to the room Scott had designated as ours. Robin was already there. "What dost thou thinketh of our host?"
"Worried," I replied without a moment's hesitation. "We are not what he expected."
Robin stood before me, looking thoughtful. "What didst he expect, I wonder."
"Who could say?" I could, of course. But how dost one tell a lover — well, a friend — that he is but a figment of a man's imaginings? And how dost one feel when thou art the figment? I knew not the answer to either question.
"He strikes me as morose. But a good man, nevertheless. Merely troubled by the day's events."
"Tis no surprise, surely."
Robin laughed. "Nay, tis not. Twas a very trying day. Very trying." He paused. "Wilst thou be preparing for bed? Or wilst thou be sleeping in all yon finery?"
I honestly hadn't thought about it, but he did have a point. I had no nightgown, and I certainly was not about to sleep in the nude! "My chemise wilst do until we find other garb," I decided.
"Well and good. Thou wilt need assistance with thine dress. With thine permission?"
After a moment's pause I nodded. Donning the dress by myself was by no means an easy feat, and removing it scarcely any easier. Such garb typically requires a handmaiden, but I was under no illusion that I might find one here. Robin could fill the role nicely, however.
His winglike arms and hands were deft as they unknotted the golden silk ribbons that held my bodice closed. He removed the outer dress and folded it neatly over a chair. This he repeated with the underskirt. But when I tried to turn towards the bed, his arms held me, pulled me close. "Thou art a beautiful mare," he whispered.
Oh, no. "I... uh..."
"Truly beautiful," he continued over my stammers. His hands rubbed my sides. "And it has been a long a trying day. Please do permit me to soothe thine fears and comfort thine nerves."
I wouldst welcome some comfort just then, but not in quite that manner! His hands were warm and soothing, yet I stepped back and away. "Thou art forward!" I chided.
My legs struck something and I stumbled. Instantly my love was there, his arms turning my tumble into a graceful seating upon the edge of the bed. "Forward, my life? Yea, perhaps so. But then, I am but a knave, who knows not such manners as those you are privy to. But verily I am an eager student. Speak out, and I wilst halt mine transgressions upon thine person."
He doth try to seduce me! my mind cried. And evidently he was succeeding, for I watched in silence as his hands shifted to cup, then massage my breasts. My body suddenly felt warm, the skin beneath my fur all atingle, and my breathing grew both quicker and deeper. This can not be happening! But my body told me otherwise.
Robin pushed me gently, lowering me back against the sheets. I found myself unable to resist his advances. Unable to want to resist. His words and ministrations and just the scent of him had quickened my blood. As much as I might fight it, I wanted him to consummate our love that was deep and oh so true.
The sudden sound of breaking glass shattered the mood. My mate looked understandably displeased, and I fear I emitted a most unladylike whinny of frustrated lust. But then we realized together that this had been no dropped dish. Something of goodly size had made its way inside by means of a window.
Robin fair to leapt away towards his arms. "Stay here whilst I see to this!" he ordered me as he buckled his belt about his waist.
But I was up but a moment later. "Nay. I am coming as well." I didst not bother attempting to don my dress — twould take far too long. But I did pull on the underskirt. A woman must retain some modesty! Twould not do to run about in one's shift.
The crashing sounds of struggle were audible through the walls as Robin searched frantically for his sword before remembering he had not brought one. He cursed softly and with a single smooth movement strung his bow. "You must. I wouldst not have thee hurt in a fray!"
I strapped my purse about my waist. Twould possibly be more a hindrance than a help in any fray, but twas full of coinage and I was loath to leave it unguarded. "Then I will just have to stay out of harm's way," I said haughtily. "But I wilst be damned if I will merely sit in this room with hands folded, awaiting word of your success or failure!"
Robin waggled a finger at me. "Such words so not become a Lady!" But he was smiling.
The shouts could no longer be ignored. "Go, then!"
It was back in the room we had first entered that the commotion was. The large sheets of glass were broken, shards scattered all about. The couch upon which Robin and I had sat as we and Scott exchanged tales was broken as well, each half in a different corner of the room.
In its center was a sight fit to put ice in my stomach. Scott stood upright, but suspended a foot or more in the air by sheets of a green-tinged lightning. It traveled over and around his body again and again, but there was no thunder, only a sizzle like frying meat. Scott's hair was on end, some of it beginning to scorch, and his face was a rictus of pain.
Standing before their host was an apparition out of nightmare. It was as if sleek red robes and enough gold to buy an earl's estate had been bestowed upon a corpse, who in turn decided not to let it go to waste mouldering away in a grave. Its skin was mottled with rot and oozing sores, and its fingernails were long and yellow. When it spoke its voice was harsh and raspy. "This is your last chance," it cooed horribly, and I shuddered. Each word felt like maggots were crawling through mine hair. "Your very, very, very last chance. Are you quite certain you won't tell?"
"Never! Heard! Of it!" Sean gasped out in spurts.
"That's too bad," the thing said, its tone still a parody of sweetness. "Now I'll have to tear this place apart. Starting with you."
Robin had had enough. He nocked an arrow and cried, "Hold, varlet! Lest I put a clothyard shaft through thine heart!"
The corpse turned without haste. Then its eyes — blind and milky white, but somehow still seeing — widened in recognition. "You!"
"Yea, tis I, Robin Hood! Now release him!"
The thing looked startled at first. Then it did the unthinkable: it turned up its head and laughed. Long and hard, chest heaving with genuine humor. "Of course you are! I should have guessed!" With a casual flick of his wrist the lightning vanished, and Scott was sent flying like so much refuse. He hit a wall and tumbled down in a smoking heap, unmoving.
Robin's face clouded. His feathers were quite literally ruffled. My love didst never much enjoy being himself the object of ridicule. His shot was his revenge. At this distance, mere paces away, he could scarcely miss, and I heard the air whistle with the force of its passage as it flew true. The corpse-thing staggered with the impact.
But it did not fall. It reached to the arrow piercing its chest — exactly where the heart was — and yanked the shaft out. It did not flinch as the flesh tore, gobbets spattering on the floor. It threw it away with an ugly chuckle. "Excellent shot, 'Robin.' But you'll find me harder to kill than that."
I cried out in sudden fear as it pointed at us. We dove away in different directions, somehow knowing that this was no harmless gesture, but Robin was struck by an identical curtain of lightning to that which had ensnared our host. From just inside the doorway I watched as he was pulled upright to float where Scott had. "Now. Where is my Aelpa?"
"I know not."
Its face twisted in absolute rage. "You of all people must know! You took it from me! You!" The lightning increased, the sizzling growing until I thought myself deafened. Robin jerked spasmodically in the things power. After long, long seconds of this it softened enough that he could speak.
And still he resisted, as I knew he would. "I know not what this 'Aelpa' is," he stated as nobly as he could manage under the circumstances. "And I fail to remember taking anything at all from one as ugly as thineself. But if I had, twould be mine by right! If thou canst not prevent thine possessions from going astray then thou hast none to blame but thine own self."
Unsurprisingly, our assailant disliked such an answer. A quick motion and the lightning renewed itself once more. My Robin screamed and flailed about, but the evil creature showed no mercy. For most of a minute I helplessly watched my be tortured.
Finally the display somewhat abated. The corpse stepped in close, until its face was bare inches from my lover's beak. "Now listen, birdy," it said softly, the voice still horrible to hear. "I didn't expect to become a Kestagian Mage at Xanadu, but there's no way in Hell that I will pass this opportunity up. So I'm going to give you one last chance, much like I gave your friend." It gestured vaguely to where Scott still lay. "Where is my Aelpa?"
Robin's reply was terse. "Fuck off and die!"
Its face clouded. "You know, birds and glass have a rather nasty relationship. Did you know that?" My love abruptly went sailing across the room to crash into the lone remaining pane of plate glass. And enormous thud was clearly audible just before the pane shattered and he continued through it.
"Robin!" I screamed, and ran to follow my love regardless of the danger. But danger did not disregard me. Before I had made half a dozen strides I felt a burning across my entire body, and I felt myself lifted in the room's center to hang like a butchered goose on display.
"Perhaps you'll be more co-operative," the nightmare before me rasped.
I tried to shrink away. If its voice was belike to maggots in mine hair when it was merely overheard, it felt like worms in mine skull when it was directed at me. I fear that voice still, and can hear it yet in my mind.
"I know not!" I cried immediately, since I knew what question he meant to ask. Beyond the glass I couldst see nothing but blackness, for Robin had been thrust too far and the night had swallowed him. "Let me go! I canst not give you that which you ask! We know not what it is!" I didst not bother to hide my fear. Not fear of death, for that wouldst only allow me to join Robin in his, hopefully to meet in Heaven (no doubt after a suitable length in Purgatory, in his case). Nay, I must confess that I feared the pain to come, for I was no warrior or hero to resist such torments as I had already witnessed. "Kill me or let me go, but wither way do it and be done! I canst tell thee nothing of worth."
I dost not know which path it planned to choose — though of a certain I have my suspicions! But before he could do either there arose behind him Scott, his hair still asmoulder. He swung a great piece of wood I recognized as part of the broken couch, swung and connected with the thing's head. There was a great crack, and I thought for certain that its head was stove in, for the lightning that surrounded me vanished and I dropped bonelessly to the floor. I scrambled frantically away, sure that the corpse would fall, now a corpse in truth. But it didst not. It only turned, anger written plainly on its visage. Scott's lips peeled back in a feline snarl that wouldst surely have been fearsome, but for the greater horror before me. He swung his makeshift club again at the mage's head.
It never struck. The creature uttered something and flung his hand outwards, and the wood crashed to the floor from thumbless paws. Paws that were in turn attached to a tiger, rather than a tiger-man. The mage realized the error just as the beast leapt for its throat, and twas merely a cub that smacked against the thing's chest. It staggered from the hit, but the cub fair to bounced off to sit on the floor, shaking its head to clear it.
"Dammit!" it cried out in Scott's voice. "I thought I was safe from all this transformation shit!"
The entire room grew still for a moment. Twas a strange thing indeed to hear such words come from a tiger, and a cub at that! We all looked at him wide-eyed for a moment, and he himself seemed stunned. Then the corpse drew back its leg for a mighty kick. Scott saw, and scampered away.
The thing snorted, and I know not whether twas in frustration or satisfaction or mayhap even humor. Then it returned its attentions once more to me, and its visage was truly terrible to behold. It stepped forward as if this time to beat me to death instead of torturing me with its magics.
Yet again twas interrupted. A loud mechanical roaring came from outside. As one we turned to look beyond the broken panes. And twas an incredible sight! Twas Scott's own car speeding towards us, Robin my love behind the wheel!
Once more I scrambled hastily to win clear of a danger bearing down upon me. But he steered it away and directly into the evil mage, who in his startlement had not the thought to cast some spell that might save him. Robin drove the car into and over it, actually rolling over it with one of the tires.
"Marian!" he called through the window. "Make haste! Get in!"
I didst not argue. Already I couldst see stirrings beneath the car — even a blow as great as this couldst not kill it! I hurried into the vehicle, sitting sideways again, and Robin scarcely waited for me to close the door before shifting the lever attached to the wheel before his chest. We sped off, backwards, with a bump that hurt mine tail as we ran over our assailant a second time, and another, greater one as we left the building to the outside. The he shifted again, and we were moving forward at a goodly clip away from the damaged house.
"Art thou all right? Thou art not injured?" he asked once we were on our way.
"Nay. I am fine, although mine nerves art shattered beyond doubt. What of thee?"
"Struth, I am surprisingly uninjured, with the sole exception of a truly monstrous headache. But my bow was broken by the fall, I fear, and most of mine arrows lost."
"I've no doubt you can find another. I myself lost mine only dress!"
Robin's laugher lightened mine heart. "And that too can be replaced without difficulty, I'm sure. But where is our host? I am loath to leave him in yon mage's clutches, yet I saw him not when I drove in."
"Of that I know not, I fear. He hast become a mere cub, thanks to foul magic, and afterwards ran off."
For a few moments the car was silent save for its running. Then he said, "He shalt have to make do on his own, then. We canst not risk a search."
I nodded mine agreement but remained silent. A thought more pressing came to mind. "Robin, my love... How canst it be thy knoweth how to use one of these cars? For I know of a certainty I couldst not."
"Ha! Tis because thy kept thine eyes closed for the previous journey! But I watched how friend Sam managed it, and so was able to do it myself when the need arose."
The answer made sense on the surface of it, but the more I pondered the less satisfying it became. He drove far too skillfully to have learned merely by watching, and never once had Sam touched the gearshift. So how, then, didst Robin know its use?
The only thing I couldst think of was that perhaps, despite all earlier tests by Scott and mineself, some part of Gary didst survive. Twas a notion supported by his last words to the mage: "Fuck off and die." Twas scarcely a phrase Robin Hood might speak.
"Gary?" I asked softly, tentatively. But the bird beside me didst not respond. "Robin?"
"Thankee for returning."
He leaned over to give me a peck on the cheek — quite literally. "What else couldst I do? Twas my Lady in the hands of that villain! So once more I rode in to rescue ye, the fine damsel in distress. Though tis a strange steed I rode in on!"
I blew him a raspberry. My mouth was well suited to them now, it seemed.
So. If twas a touch a Gary that hath emerged, twas only a touch. I shouldst have to wait and see what became of it, if anything at all did.
For some unknowable length of time I watched the lights of the city outside as we passed them by. For this time I felt no need to close mine eyes in fear of the remarkable speed. Perhaps the semidarkness quelled such worries. Or mayhap twas something else...
I had noticed an odd thing, now that the tumult was past. I still loved my Robin, and indeed found the thought of living without him painful to contemplate. Yet I couldst also recall being horrified to find myself in his embrace. Indeed, I couldst still remember all of my life ere Xanadu, and whilst it doth seem a strange life I knew it to be the true one I hath lived to that day. But I still most certainly was Maid Marian, ward of King Richard and future wife of the rogue, Robin Hood. It occurred to me that mine two selves somehow merged, melting together into a whole greater than the parts. It made the world new, yet familiar, as if I had by chance met a friend not seen in years. I thought it likely now that whilst I might still be surprised and awed by the things to be found on our future journeys, I wouldst never be shocked by them — no moreso, at least, than any other mortal wouldst be.
"Dost thou have a destination?" I asked at last.
"Nay, unless thou hast one to suggest. But my only thought hast been to put as much road between us and that thing as I am able ere we rest."
"Aim north, then." I got as comfortable as I was able, given the awful seat, and prepared myself for a long ride.
A strange sputtering jerked me awake from a sleep I hadn't realized I had begun. But I found myself curled against my mate, and straightened as the car began to move in fits and starts. "What's happening?" I asked sleepily.
"I know not. The car just started acting strangely. Forgive me for letting it wake thee."
"Of course thou art forgiven, love." I ran my fingers' hooflets through his plumage as I considered. "Steer it over to the side before another car hits us. How long hath I slept?"
Robin dutifully pulled to the shoulder just as the car gave one last gasp and died. "Merely an hour, perhaps more."
Verily it felt like it. Mine head was foggy and slow. It was a testament to how badly the day had worn on me that it was only after we had come to a complete halt that I thought to inquire regarding its fuel. To which Robin replied, "Fuel?"
This explained much.
"I had best explain as we walk," I told him.
Robin cocked his head. "Why not here? Tis as good a place as any to rest the night."
"Methinks thou still doth not realize how this land works, my love. Nay, do not be offended! I mean no slight! But this country, whilst strange to us both — and us both strange to it, ha! — doth be somehow less strange to me. I tell you of a certainty that shouldst we remain with the car here overlong that we will be found. If not that 'Kestagian Mage,' then by the sheriff or his men!"
Robin agitatedly ruffled is feathers. "Lawks! Doth he be everywhere?"
"In a way... come, love, let us not tarry. We canst still use our feet and hooves, each in turn, and mayhap find an inn. And along the way I canst tell thee a touch more about America, and a wonderful, terrible device called a gun."
The walk was not long in distance, but we took it slowly. Robin surprised me by accepting, in abstract at least, the police as a force for common good instead of a tool to oppress the masses. "There are good and evil men on this Earth," he said, "and just as some of the evil wilst gain power, so too wilst some good." He didst agree, then, the he would refrain from attempting to slay officers on sight in a kind of proactive self-defense. I felt this was likely to be the best I wouldst get from him, for the moment, and moved on.
Of the concept of guns he was much more skeptical. That someone couldst build something belike to a crossbow that shoots only the arrow's head at a speed capable of knocking a grown man off his feet, and still have the device fit inside his purse — twas ridiculous! Rifles he couldst believe in, if barely, but for all else he thought me to be jumping at shadows, and declared he wouldst need to see them ere he grew wary.
By then we had exited the highway and were walking city streets. I didst my best to ignore the rude stares of those passing us by in cars. Twas not easy, for I felt nearly naked, walking about in little more than my shift. Luckily, there was a refuge of sorts not far from the highway, a bright sign proclaiming "Denny's" for all to see. "That looks not like an inn," Robin commented when I headed for the entrance.
"True enow," I replied. "But tis likely they can direct us to one, and give us refreshment in the bargain."
"Refreshment! Thou art hungry again so soon?"
"Thou dost know horses," I said gaily at the door. "Always grazing!"
Inside, twas bright and cheery, though the odors that assaulted my muzzle were nothing I'd ever enjoy. The hostess at the counter looked up from her book with a smile that quickly faded as she beheld us. "Not more of them!" Twas clearly meant to be a mutter, but mine ears heard her clearly.
"Good eve, dear lady," Robin said charmingly. Either he hadn't heard her comment or he was ignoring it. "We wouldst enjoy a meal here, if thou canst offer one. And if ye perchance hath directions to an inn then we wouldst be much obliged to thee."
The young woman's face was blank for a few seconds as she puzzled through the speech. "There's a motel maybe four blocks that way," she said at last, pointing hopefully. "It's a Best Western, you can't miss it."
"Doth this 'Best Western' be an inn, then? I am unfamiliar with motels."
"Excellent! We shalt eat and be on our way, then."
The woman didst not bother hiding her grimace. She led us to a nearly deserted corner of the restaurant before removing herself. The only other patrons in the area were a deer and a white rabbit quietly sharing a table. They perked up noticeably when they spied our entry. With only the quickest of glances at each other they both waved for us to join them.
Robin smiled and strode immediately to their side. I was a touch more reluctant to dine with complete strangers, e'en ones that couldst well have sprung direct from Sherwood Forest itself. But the decision had been made, and I joined my love at their table.
We all took a few moments to check each other out. The rabbit was pure white and about the size of a child. His bright blue eyes stared at me inquisitively, and his hands looked oddly deformed, though I couldst not see them clearly enough to determine how. He wore no clothing. His companion, the deer, was man-sized, with an enormous ten-pointed set of antlers atop his brow that must make dwellings feel cramped. His ears were in constant motion, turning towards the slightest sound. I noticed that his hands were not unlike mine, with four digits bestowed with tiny hooflets on their ends. At first it seemed he, too, was unclothed, but after a moment I noticed he wore a pair of short brown pants that almost perfectly blended with his fur. The cream-colored fur on his chest, however, was uncovered.
"Hey there," said the deer in a soft voice by way of greeting, as I sat down slowly, mindful of my tail.
"Ah... hey," Robin returned uncertainly. I merely nodded my head to them.
"Hiya," the rabbit said. "I'm Phil, and this here's Jon."
"Buck," his companion corrected him. "Given how things are, I might as well get used to that name."
"Good eve. I am Robin Hood, and this is Maid Marian."
The table was engulfed in silence. Finally Buck said, "Well, somebody had a sense of humor."
The waitress arrived then, a large woman who approached cautiously and stood an extra pace away from the table as we ordered food. Phil and Buck already had theirs before them, large salads each, and I asked one for myself. On the woman's recommendation Robin decided to try the french toast. "Tis just like the French scoundrels to claim the dish for their own, I daresay," he told her.
After she left, Phil enthused, "Sure is nice to see others affected by Xanadu's curse."
"Curse?" Robin asked.
"And why is that?" I said at the same time.
"Nothing like this has ever happened before. Everyone's afraid of us. Think we'll show some inhuman ability or instinct or power and ruin the place. Or maybe just infect them."
Buck added, "I hear there's honest-to-God werewolves roaming Florida, now." His eyes darted about briefly as if he expected one to appear.
Phil nodded. "Yeah, that sort of thing. So they shove us in this corner so we're out of the way, even though we're not like that. Even if we were, though, I for one sure don't see what people wouldn't want to become wererabbits!" He wiggled his long ears humorously for emphasis.
Robin trilled, and I giggled girlishly at his antics. "I didst think twas for privacy," I said.
"Yep. Theirs," the rabbit said. "They don't know how to deal with us, so they keep us out of sight and hope we'll go away. This place might not even have seated us if they didn't have a twenty-four-year-old managing it. Even I was able to intimidate him, and I'm a bunny!"
At this we all laughed. When it died away, Buck asked, "Do you know anything, then, about what the heck happened at Xanadu?"
I shook my head no. Robin said, "Only that there was a great riot. Dost thou have news to tell?"
Now twas Phil's turn to shake his head. "We just know what everyone else knows: everyone who was wearing a costume turned into what they went as. Complete with all the powers and abilities that go with it — I saw two superheroes just fly off, and I bet you can shoot an arrow like nobody else, Robin."
We both nodded thoughtfully. "Doth this be the curse that thou mentioned, then?" my mate asked.
"Tis. I mean, it is."
"And some people didst lose all sense of who they art," I said, trying hard not to look at the bird at my side. Phil blinked once, clearly surprised. Twas only then that I realized that he, like Scott, hath believed 'til then that my old knowledge was gone, and that we both entirely thought of ourselves as Robin Hood and Maid Marian. I suppose tis understandable, with our speech, to assume tis that way for us both. Such preconceptions might even come in useful, shouldst our enemy fall victim to them.
"Well, yeah," Phil managed after a few seconds. "I heard on the radio that how bad it is seems to depend on how well-defined the costume was as a character, and maybe how well it was played."
That made a great deal of sense. Robin Hood hath a great deal to build on, from films and books and lore. An archer unsurpassed and good with sword as well, he was witty, clever, friend to the oppressed and enemy of oppressors and lover to Maid Marian. Tis inevitable that a man taking that role at Xanadu wouldst entirely lose his old self.
And what of Maid Marian? Mine only thoughts to her character when I built the costume were that she wouldst be noble-born and in love with Robin, supporting him as best she were able. Such a relatively sparse description couldst well be why I had so much of mine old self left, even if twere more as just memories and less as thoughts and deeds.
"That's likely why you speak so... well, wrong," Buck said thoughtfully.
I looked at him hard. "Wrong? Tis Olde English, is all!"
But he shook his head. "Not really. I'm no history major — well, okay, I am, but it's for the wrong era to know what real Olde English is. But I know what you're speaking isn't it."
"Most likely," Phil chimed in, "you're speaking how the pre-curse you thought Olde English sounded. It's just another aspect of the mental change. It's not proper speech because you didn't truly think of your character speaking properly."
I considered. "That makes sense enough, I suppose. And what of you both? It doth not seem to have turned out too poorly for you."
Buck snorted in amusement, letting out a deerlike bleat. "That's only because you met us in a quiet, unpopulated area. Put either of us in a noisy crowd and I swear we'd have nervous breakdowns inside twenty minutes. Though I suppose if you meant physically we could have come out of it worse."
"Speak for yourself," Phil grumbled. "At least you have hands. All I have are these things." He held up his hands, and I couldst see them clearly for the first time. For they were not hands in truth but paws, if a bit more mobile that those on a real rabbit. His fingers hath all been drastically shortened, and the even coating of white fur made them seem to be covered by slick mittens. His fork was wedged between two fingers, mayhap the only way he couldst hold it. "It's going to be nearly impossible to do anything, now."
"It's your own fault for making the gloves like that," Buck pointed out.
"Yeah, I know. But what's fun for a few hours isn't always all that great when you have to live with it for the rest of your life."
I couldst certainly agree with him, there!
Robin spoke now, the first utterance in some while. "My Lady, I hath been considering. Much now makes sense that little didst ere this. But I dost thinketh we art bespelled."
I doth not be certain what mine expression was on hearing those words. Wide-eyed? Open-mouthed? But tis certain that I was shocked to the core. I hath all this day been wondering at the manner to best tell him that truth, and then he doth realize it for himself!
"I understand, now, why you called me by an untrue name. Yea, and friend Scott as well. The strange questions thou both put to me... Didst thou thinketh I wouldst forget? But now tis a weight off my mind, for I see at last the method behind thine seeming madness."
"Thou art not upset?" I asked warily. "That I didst not tell thee? Nor that you are not..."
"Myself? Nay, I am still mine own self!" His laugh echoed throughout the room. "What I was before matters little. And whether I be a day old or a century, I am still Robin Hood!"
The twas much as he had described, a great weight gone from mine mind. Twas wrong of me, not to have faith in my lover. Twould be much unlike my Robin to become morose at misfortune — especially when tis not his misfortune.
"You remember your old self now?" Phil asked.
"Not a whit!" Robin said cheerfully. "And whilst some shalt surely mourn the passing of friend Gary, I shalt miss him not at all."
Buck's ears twitched. "Yet you remember your old name."
"Tis only because others hath mentioned it to me." Robin waved his wing dismissively before turning abruptly to me. "But come, my dear Lady. Thou art at an advantage, I now realize. For thou knoweth mine previous name, and I reckon some of mine previous life as well. Yet I know naught of thine."
I squirmed uncomfortably. I couldst not bear the thought of his knowing that I was male only yesterday. Though judging by his reactions of a moment ago he couldst well just shrug off the news, twould be me who still must tell it — and before near-strangers, yet! I couldst feel myself blushing beneath my fur, mine ears growing pink at the very thought.
"Though I still retain many memories of myself ere Xanadu," I began, carefully choosing mine words, "methinks twould be best if thou simply calleth me Marian. For that is whose body I clearly wear now, and tis by that name that I think of myself."
"Aah, a secret, is it?" Robin crowed. "Well, tis mine calling to pry out secrets. I shalt make guesses, then. Let me see... a beauty like thine own wouldst have a beautiful name. Marian doth be the most beautiful, of course, but there are others. Gwennyth? Meridith?"
Mine ears positively glowed now, as I realized that he wouldst guess all women's names. That he wouldst never guess rightly wouldst save me from some embarrassment, but only at the cost of embarrassment of a different sort — a lonelier sort, for if no other felt either side of it then I must perforce be the only one who felt both sides at once.
Twas then that our food arrived at last, saving me from enduring more of Robin's guesswork. For a time conversation ceased as we enjoyed our meals. The food was not the freshest I've had, but twas tasty enough. Robin was quite pleased with his own, proclaiming that the French hath for once done something better than any Englishman ever had. Our friends had little left on their plates by then, but they took the opportunity to eat what was there. Phil had trouble with his fork, to no-one's surprise, and punctuated each time it slipped his grasp with mutters that we were all too polite to call him on for content.
"It's a good thing we're all herbivores here," Buck said. "I'm not sure what my reaction would be to eating with a wolf or a lion or something across the table. Too afraid of being the meal, I think."
"Be not hasty with thy judgments," Robin advised around a beakful of bread. "We didst stay briefly with a friend at his house, and he hath become part tiger. Yet we didst not fear for our feathers."
"I daresay that wouldst depend on the person," I pointed out. "Some may well try to eat such as me and thee. Each shalt need to be approached cautiously until we doth be sure of their minds."
"Why didn't you stay with your friend?" Phil asked. "I'm sure staying there would be safer, at least for the next few days until things settle down."
"Or stabilize, anyway," Buck said.
"We were chased from his home. Though not by him!" I added hastily at the looks upon their faces.
At that Robin didst launch into a telling of our escape from Xanadu, the ride to Scott's house, and the battle with the Kestagian Mage. This last came complete with pantomimed throws and shakes at the appropriate times. My mate didst tell the tale ten times better, and with a hundred times the verve, than surely I wouldst have.
"Are you sure he said he was a Kestagian Mage?" Buck asked, leaning forward.
"So he claimeth."
"Doth this be important?" I asked. "Hath thee dealings with such ere now?"
"Not as such, no. There were no such things before today, remember." Robin and I both nodded understanding — though it seemed even I needed reminding now and again. "But I do know of them. I was an avid gamer before this all happened, after all. Still am, I guess."
I nodded thoughtfully, seeing where this was headed. But Robin cocked his head, puzzled. "What sorts of games didst thou play? And what hath this to do with our adversary?"
"Role-playing games," Buck said. "People generally sit around a table and play characters on a quest, and a lot of actions, like trying to hit someone with a sword, are determined by dice rolled and used against the statistics of the wielder and the target. It's pretty complicated, and fairly irrelevant except for one thing.
"You see, these things come with tons of pre-made monsters to fight against at the gamemaster's choosing. And I remember seeing a listing for a 'Kestagian Mage' in one of the books."
Now this was news! "You know, then, what they art! And how to defeat them!" I exclaimed, clapping mine hands merrily.
"No. They're monsters for Traps and Treasures. It's a D&D competitor, but it's not very good. The formulas are badly flawed, making most things either too underpowered to be useful or so overpowered as to be ridiculous. I've stayed away from playing it. But I was browsing through one of its rulebooks some months back, and I remember seeing an entry for 'Kestagian Mage.'"
"Dost thou remember anything about them?" Robin pressed. "Any knowledge you giveth wouldst be more than we have now."
The deer thought for a few moments. "Well, they're undead, for one thing, D&D's equivalent of a lich. So fire might do some damage, though I doubt it'd kill one. I remember that they had different powers and weaknesses than liches, too, but not what they are."
So. We didst know a bit more, then, of the one that pursueth us. Mayhap we had a weapon, mayhap not. But knowing it didst come from a game told me how best to proceed. On the morrow, however. Twas far too late now.
"Thankee for thine help," I said to them.
"No problem," Buck replied dismissively. "I didn't help all that much, after all."
"Nay, thou has aided us greatly," said Robin, "and provided fine company besides. Truly doth I call thee friends."
"Well, thanks. Ah, here's the check," Phil said, and paused. "Um, do you have the money to pay for this?"
"Of course," I said, and took a few silver pennies from mine purse. "This, methinks, shouldst suffice for such a meal as that."
"And a bit more, I'd say," Phil said slowly, eyeing the coins. "But most places don't take silver. That is real silver, right?"
"Right. I think I'd better pay for this one."
It hurt mightily to have our meals bought for us as if we were paupers. Still, I didst understand the need, though I didst give him the coins in exchange. In turn, he didst allow us to sleep in his trailer for the night, rather than seeking out an inn. Twas a grand gesture, as he wouldst of a certainty have been caught up in things had the evil mage tracked us down once more. Thus I didst give him a full gold shilling, for I judged the risk didst not be small.
His trailer was in the parking lot, the size of a small peasant's hut. Twas towed by a car much like Sam's, but newer. "Buck and I got together at my place in Tennessee a week ago," Phil explained, "and drove down here for the con. Now I hope to get far enough north that we'll be out of any large-scale quarantine that the feds might try to set up."
Twas a bit cramped inside at first, for it had only been built to sleep two. Phil graciously gave us the beds, taking the car's seat for himself since he was so much smaller. Buck was relegated to a handful of blankets in its cargo bed.
The next morning we ate at Denny's once more, for if the staff was less than congenial at least we were assured service. We didst not desire wasting time in searching about for a place that might do us better. The only difference from our orders of last night was that I joined my mate in having french toast. Horses eat grains, I reasoned, and breads art grains. Thus I thought the choice safe, and was indeed proved right. Twas a nice change from greens.
After we broke our fast we gathered at Phil's car to journey. In truth Robin and I rode in the trailer. We drove but a short distance before halting briefly, and then we were off once more. But again the trip was short, at least as measured in time, before we stopped. This time Phil and Buck entered the trailer with us.
"Well, here I think we part ways," Phil said. "You told us you needed to find a few things, so I'll let you off here. And until you get some of those coins exchanged for cash... well, this should tide you over for a few days." He pressed a handful of bills into Robin's wing.
"My thanks to ye, good sir," Robin said, and bowed. "Ye hath been the very essence of hospitality. But this is overmuch! Tis we who give out money to those in need!"
They laughed. "True enough," Phil said, and Buck nodded his agreement. "But Lady Marian, here, already gave me more in gold and silver than I just gave you. Keep that in mind, by the way; a few of these coins should last you a week or more. Don't waste 'em on trivial crap."
"Language, good sir! There doth be a Lady present."
"Ah. Yes. And to her I offer my apologies."
"Fret not. I hath no doubts that I shalt hear far worse in my life," I said. Then, "But why dost thou leaveth us? Art thou so eager to part ways?"
Buck shook his head emphatically. "No, it's got nothing to do with you, except maybe indirectly. As he said, you need a few things, so we're dropping you off here. But there's no way we're going in. Way, way too many people."
"I also still want to get ahead of any quarantine," Phil added, ears twitching anxiously. "I didn't hear of any on the radio — except for the convention center itself, that is — and it'd be kind of late to set one up now, but who knows? Nobody ever said the feds were smart."
When we stepped outside, we didst find ourselves in a truly enormous field of cars, set before a windowless building the size of a palace. I giggled. "Verily this doth be the perfect place to set us," I told them. "We shalt find all we need here." We said our fare-thee-wells and watched them drive off, and then made our way to the entrance of the mall.
Inside was a wonder, though moreso to Robin than mine own self. He stood a while gaping at the marvelous place even as people gaped at us. "Gawk later, love," I told him. "We shalt have time after our chores are over. How much money didst friend Phil give unto us?"
"This much," he said, handing over the bundle of folded paper.
All told, twas a full thousand dollars between mine hooflets. I wondered briefly if the rabbit had truly given us less than he gained, but I had been not exact regarding exchange rates e'en before this change, and with Marian's knowledge and memories blurring mine own twas impossible to say. Besides, they hath already gone, so twas little use worrying over the fairness of the exchange.
Still, I knew that this was no small sum. Twould surely tide us over for a week or two, or even three were we careful. I placed it all in my purse; Robin was a good man, and a wonder for gaining cash, but generally helpless when it came to holding onto it.
I still was displeased at the loss of my dress and having to walk about, I felt, barely clothed. Thus our first chores was to find me a new dress. And chore it was. The propetiers were little help. Those that didn't shy away from our approach couldst only show what they had, and what they had wouldst show more fur than cloth, as often as not. Not that Robin wouldst mind me trying one of them!
After a long search I relented, and tried one of the garments. The woman aiding me seemed to think it too dowdy, but at least it covered a decent amount of flesh. Much to my surprise — and Robin's, and most notably the merchant's! — upon fastening the last button the cloth seemed to melt and run along mine body. Its color changed from a brown that matched my fur to a light blue, with frills and lace. I couldst feel another layer of skirts unfurling about my legs, until in the end I wore a gown fitting for one of my station and a beautiful style that I much enjoyed.
A few trials proved that anything I wore wouldst behave in this way, though each dress changed in a different manner. Though Robin was sore disappointed at the loss of seeing me in modern garb, I was well pleased, for I thus wouldst not require custom tailoring in order to own suitable clothes. And since the dresses reverted upon removal, they were much simpler to store and lighter to carry.
The next task was to find Robin a new bow. After a few inquiries we found there was a good-sized sporting goods store in the mall. And amongst all the various balls and shirts and jackets was a wall full of equipment for hunting. Decoys, scents, camouflage, bullets and bows. Verily, quite a few bows.
"Hath thee any guns?" Robin asked the young lad behind the counter.
"Um... uh, no. No," he stammered. The boy looked like he hath been struck on the head, the way he looked at us was so peculiar. "We got ammo, but the chain won't let us sell the actual weapons inside a mall." He scratched his head in thought, looking so comically puzzled that I couldst not restrain the giggles that escaped mine lips. "What do you want with a gun, anyway? Robin Hood used... whatchamacallem... arrows."
"Indeed so! But... ah, well. Another time, perchance." Robin shrugged. "Since I am an archer, I doth require a bow. Bring out your finest, so that I might try a wing on it."
"Uh... wing. Right." In short order the lad — his name, according to the tag on his breast, was Howard, and he fit the name — set down two bows on the counter before us. One was of the familiar double-curved sort, though made of hard plastic instead of good English yew. The other was some contraption that didst seems more pulleys than bow.
"And what is that, then?" Robin cried. He picked it up and turned it about in his hands to marvel at.
"Um, it's called a, a compound bow."
"It doth look more belike to a ship's rigging than a weapon!"
"I think thou hath hit on it, love," I said. "Tis likely that is how twas devised."
Robin was shown how to change the tension on the bowstring. He immediately tested his might against the full strength of the draw, and found it to be to his satisfaction. Twas a great improvement over the old type he hath been used to, he declared. And when he learned it fired with strength greater than it drew, his mind was set. He wouldst never willingly use regular bows again.
We bought the compound bow, after some time testing to see if this one was indeed the best of the lot. We also didst buy some dozens of arrows. They were made of metal, which we thought odd. ("Wooden arrows sometimes shatter when shot from a compound bow, sometimes even in the air. They're just too weak to take the bow's power," Howard told us, which impressed us both all over again.) And lastly, we bought the tools and waxes and glues necessary to properly maintain the weapon, along with a variety of arrowheads. They were perforce necessary, but strangely not sold with the arrows.
Between Robin's purchases and mine own, we had used up over half of Phil's largesse. But there was still one more place of import, one more visit to make ere we could rest and eat our midday meal.
"This is a place of mystic research?" Robin asked doubtfully as he took in the mess. Thin rectangular boxes were stacked everywhere, interspersed liberally with puzzles and more esoteric items. "The clutter doth seem aright for a wizard's den, but the things look not mystical to mine eyes."
"Still, tis the place."
"Oh, my God! Awesome!" This from the person behind the counter. Short and thin, he was even younger than was Howard; I doubted a razor hath touched his chin more than a dozen times. "I'd heard about that convention yesterday, I wish I'd gone! I had the greatest costume for Halloween, too..."
"After all the worried, frightened looks we had gotten since yesterday, the boy's sheer envy was a welcome relief. Still, we had wandered long, and were weary. Twas a poor state in which to properly receive a fan.
Thankee. Truly, thankee," I said with a curtsey. "But we hath need of thine assistance."
"Really? Oh, God. This is so cool!" he gushed. "Oh, I'm Max. Pleased to meetcha! Welcome to The Gamesman!"
"Thankee. I -"
"So whacha need help with? An RPG, right? You guys became characters from a game! That's so cool! What system?"
"Uh..." I faltered to a halt. Max's enthusiasm was becoming overwhelming.
"'Traps and Treasures,'" Robin supplied.
"Yes. Thankee, love."
Max's face screwed up like he had bitten into a beef pie and found it filled with offal. "Why would you use that system? It's a piece of shit!"
Robin's voice was dangerously low when he said, "Watch thy tongue, child, lest I cut it off. Tis a Lady ye speak to!"
Max blanched when he realized Robin's eyes were hard and one wing rested on the knife at his side. "Uh, s-sorry! Sorry! I didn't mean... uh, this way!"
We found but three books under the 'Traps and Treasures' title, and one was a duplicate of another. Max didst apologize profusely for the lack of choice, telling us at length how the store was phasing out the system from its shelves. He acted as if afraid we wouldst grow offended at him for it. Twas a pitiful sight, like a puppy kicked and now afraid even as it was still eager to please.
We were well pleased to buy the two books and be away from him.
Lunch was a noisy affair, loud enough that my ears were laid flat as we ate. Robin had a beef burrito, whereas I needs must satisfy myself with one filled merely with beans and rice. I was unsure if horses ate such fare, and thus it was something of an experiment. So far it was turning out well enough. I was glad that vegetarian dishes hath become increasingly popular over the last few years, making the available dishes tolerably broad.
I watched him eat his food with envy, despite the disgustingly meaty odors wafting from his side of the table. Twas most unfair. Twas my idea, my work, my costumes, yet twas he who hath all the gains. Wit, skill with many weapons, and he couldst even fly, or at least glide for a bit. And what hath I? A major dietary restriction, hooves, and a dress. True, like my love Robin I had gained some skills, but embroidery was useless, as was the ability to efficiently run a castle staff (unless I didst somehow become manager of a large hotel, I reckoned). That I had a shapely body and had retained my own mind to some degree seemed little comfort.
All the walking about the mall's hard floors had made mine hooves sore. I sighed and rubbed my aching fetlocks, and tried hard to ignore the stares of fascinated and curious shoppers so I couldst concentrate on the books.
That was another good thing — though in reality it shouldst be considered the lack of a bad thing. I couldst still read. Robin, it turned out, couldst not.
Twas therefore up to me to pore over the volumes in search of information that might prove useful. The task was not quick, even once I found the area pertaining to Kestagian Mages, for what I needed was inconveniently spread out amongst multiple chapters.
"Listen to this," I told him, interrupting his inspection of the silk plant next to our table. "A Kestagian Mage is an evil wizard that doth be powerful enough to place his soul in a container for safekeeping. No reason doth be given for why it must be an evil mage, I shouldst add. At any rate, this maketh him effectively immortal. Ye canst do anything thy wish to him, but his essence will remain, and it casnt cast healing spells on whatever doth be left of his body, even were it merely ash."
"So it doth be unstoppable."
"Nay. Remember this doth be a game, and tis a poor game that doth not ever let the player win."
"I knoweth some games like that. And by all reports, this doth be a poor game."
I giggled. "Verily, verily. Thou shouldst see what such artifacts as the Rock of Rama-Lama or the Sceptre of Sidhe-Baup canst do! But tis not the case this time, or not in that way. The creature's weakness is his Aelpa. Which is what it thought you had, and I daresay it may be correct."
Robin cocked his head. "Oh?"
"Tis what the game hath named the vessel for the thing's soul. Tis always a diamond, and a mage who has a Kestagian's Aelpa canst do certain things to or with the creature. Cast spells through him like an artifact, using the Kestagian's magic rather than his own. Control him, bind him, or of course destroy him."
Robin's eyes turned thoughtful. "I canst see why our little friend wouldst be so eager to regain it, then. Let us see what I hath in the way of diamonds."
For one terrible moment, as Robin reached for the bag full of gems and jewelry at his side, I didst imagine he was going to simply dump the contents out on the table. But all he didst was to open the drawstring and poke through it with one wing, much like a child examining his marbles. Every now and again he wouldst snatch something from within, but it remained discretely in his palm.
At the end of it, twas a total of seven gems deposited on the tray. The smallest was a circle perhaps a quarter of an inch across; the largest was shaped like an elongated teardrop, and was nearly two inches in length.
"So, then," Robin mused aloud, "all we must do is find the correct diamond amongst these and smash it, and he shalt be undone?" He fingered the largest. "Twould be a true shame, were this the one."
"Nay. It wouldst not be."
"What? But of course it wouldst! See here, tis a gem unsurpassed!"
"Ye misunderstand me. This," I said, tapping the pages with a hooflet, "says the gem cannot be destroyed by normal means. Tis only vulnerable to magic."
"Then we find a mage..."
I shook my head. "All those at Xanadu wouldst have scattered ere now, and I know not of others. Another way dost be to restrain the enemy, and then maketh him swallow it. With his soul within his body once more, he canst be killed by whatever means thou desire."
"Dost thou have any ideas how to restrain a mage who doth not will it?"
I paused for long moments, frowning. "Nay. The game doth assume there wouldst be a mage in the party."
"Methinks it a foolish assumption," Robin said, rolling his eyes dramatically. "Doth there be anything else told about him, or his Aelpa?"
"Quite a bit," I said, and flipped to a new chapter. "The Aelpa does many things, but two of real interest to us. The first is that it allows him to effortlessly assume a disguise, usually that of a normal human. Methinks that is why we doth not remember him from Xanadu; he looked like any other person with a lot of jewelry. But the main tidbit wouldst be how it is tracked by its true owner."
"Yea, verily tis how he didst find us. If we like, we canst simply discard the diamonds and be done with him." I didst not like the notion of leaving an evil mage free to wreck what havoc he willed, but I felt the option needs must be exposed.
Robin's beak somehow managed a frown. "Nay... I want him dealt with. I didst not much like how he treated thee."
"Agreed, on both counts," I said. "But there is one very interesting thing to note, regarding the tracking. To wit, his accuracy in knowing his Aelpa's location doth be of inverse proportion to its distance from him!"
"I doth not be sure I understand thee..."
"I meaneth that when he is ten miles away from it, he canst pin its location down to the inch, for whatever good it does. He canst point straight at it," I said, and demonstrated. "At a mile, he knoweth where it is to within a foot. But at a thousand feet he canst only tell that it is somewhere in a ten-foot cube — and he canst not be certain it doth be at the center, either. And when he doth get to within a hundred feet of it -" and now I smiled "- he canst only tell that he is within a hundred feet. Beyond that he simply canst not get a better fix."
Robin thought on that for a few moment. "He still canst find it by traversing the boundary at a hundred feet," he mused. "He couldst find the center that way."
"True enough. I suspect that most of the people running this game assumeth it to be a gradual decrease in accuracy, with these measurements as milestones of sorts. But that doth not be how tis written, and I am unsure how the curse would translate it. But e'en if it shouldst be a sharp jump like thou noticed, our opponent must think of the tactic before he canst use it, and I hath not been too impressed by his cleverness yet."
"Nor I, now that ye mention it."
"Exactly. And thus I think I have a plan for how to handle this."
Robin sat up straighter in his chair and sent a sharp look my way. "Thou hath a plan for battle? A woman?"
I blew him another raspberry. "Thou hath no cause to look so surprised, dear! I doth not be just some pretty mare to hang off your arm and embroider thine shirts for thee!"
"My apologies, dear Lady." Robin actually stood and bowed to me. "I didst not mean to mock. What, then, is thy plan?"
It didst not take long to tell, for twas quite simple. Robin pointed out a few flaws, made a few suggestions, and asked no small number of questions. But there was little preparation needed. We had only to wait.
That night, as the mall was near to closing, we casually strolled into one of the department stores and headed towards the rear. Twas there that the bathrooms were, but we didst avoid them for the same reason we avoided the changing rooms scattered about the store: workers were savvy enough by now to check those after hours. Instead we went to one of the janitor's closets. Robin picked the lock with some hairpins we'd bought earlier, and we slipped inside unnoticed. Other than a quick check to confirm that it didst not lock on the inside, our task was simply to keep silent and wait once more.
Twas very dark in there, and I actually dozed for some time. I was awakened by a feathery nudge. "They hath been gone for nearly an hour," he whispered. "I thinketh that be long enough."
I nodded, then remembered that birds hath poor night vision. He couldst not possibly see me. "We art lucky the mage hath waited this long. We shouldst hurry, now."
Without another word Robin cracked open the door to peer outside. It must have met his satisfaction, for the rest of him followed a moment later. By the time I blinked my eyes into adjusting themselves to the greater light — twas dim, but far brighter than the closet — Robin had already crossed the hall and was picking the yet another lock with a remarkable skill and silence.
I said a silent prayer to the Lord that the hinges wouldst not squeak as they moved.
They didst not. Robin entered the room beyond silently and unobserved whilst I stayed motionless outside, lest the clops of mine hooves give the game away. There was a cry from within, then a soft thump. My heart raced, hoping... and then Robin poked his beak back into the hallway. "Tis clear, now."
I entered, and took in the sight. A young woman in a security guard's uniform lay sprawled on the floor. Above her was a bank of monitors, numbering half a dozen. Notebook full of paperwork lined the shelves along one wall.
"Surely thou hath not..." I gestured at the woman.
Robin shook his head. "She merely sleeps, though her head shalt ache terribly on the waking."
I released a breath I didst not realize I held. What we had already done was bad enough, but killing her wouldst have made our future very tenuous indeed. "Tie her and gag her, then, whilst I search for the proper notebook."
There was no rope in the security center, of course, so he resorted to tying her hands with a power cord cut from a radio. Before he dragged her off to confine her in the same closet we'd just left, I made sure to take the nametag from her lapel. I wouldst need it soon.
Finally I didst find the correct page of the correct notebook. "Say nothing," I reminded Robin. He nodded, and I took a deep breath. This wouldst be the most difficult part of the night, other than the battle itself. If I made an error here, things wouldst likely turn out very poorly indeed — and an error was more likely than not.
I read the numbers from the page one more time, memorizing them. Then I reached for the phone and dialed.
"AmerAlarm," the woman on the other end said pleasantly. "This is Michelle Young. How can we help you?"
"Hey, hi Michelle. This is account 15539-2377. Could you put all the alarms and alerts on hold, please?" I concentrated furiously on the words as I spoke them. Twas a major effort to speak this way, without any Olde English at all seeping into mine speech.
"Certainly, ma'am. Do you have the pass code there with you?"
"That I do. It's, ah, 612934."
"Thank you," Michelle replied. "And how long do you want this to go for?"
"Until 0800," I said, making sure to use modern military time. I couldst feel sweat on my brow at the effort of saying things correctly. "We're going to be running some tests all night."
"All right, you're all set. And what is your name, please?"
"Sandy. Sandy Middleton," I told her, reading from the nametag.
"Got it. The police will not be called in on any alarms or alerts until eight o'clock tomorrow. Thank you for calling AmerAlarm, Miss Middleton!"
"Thanks a lot. Later!" I hung up the phone and dropped heavily into the chair. (Thankfully, there was an actual opening that didst fit my tail well.) Twas done! All those years of watching cop shows had just paid off. I wiped the sweat off and smiled reassuringly at my mate.
"I am most glad twas thee who made the call," he said gravely. "I could never have spoken as thou just hast."
I nodded wearily. We were lucky the guard had been a woman and we both knew it — even if it had pained Robin to strike her down from behind. And it had, I knew.
Once I had collected myself we left the room. I had to step over the broken broomhandle Robin had wedged beneath the closet's doorjamb on the way out to the store proper, but otherwise paid it no mind.
The sound of my hooves against the tile floor was eerie in the silence. The store was nearly all dark, with only patches of light at the exits and a few places within. It lent the place a downright spooky air. I hoped twould not be a long wait. I had waited enough that day, and was tired of it.
Thankfully, the department I was to wait in was well lit. It made sense enough — the jewelry section hath perhaps the highest-priced items in the store. And twould do well for the plan, as well. What it wouldst do for me was another matter.
We didst not bother to pick any locks, this time. We simply smashed the glass cases open. Somewhere, most probably back in the security room, alarms began to sound, but we ignored them. Twas a wondrously seductive feeling, to wreck such damage with neither restraint nor worry of interruption.
But twas not without purpose. The cases needed to be open for my plan to work, and the diamonds on display wouldst be difficult to find amongst all the broken glass. To make it harder yet we removed the dark felt trays at the cases' bottoms. We didst not take any jewelry, however, and it had not been easy at all to convince Robin of that aspect, for certain!
That done, twas nothing left to do. I kissed Robin's cheek once for luck, then he jogged away to take his position.
I may have been — I was — tired of waiting, but that didst not mean I was done with it. For a long time I simply stood there, or paced. Twas no small risk for me to be standing there in that pool of light like a worm on a hook.
For twas exactly the role I filed: bait. With me here, amongst the ruined cases, the mage wouldst have little choice but to believe we had hidden his Aelpa in amongst the more common diamonds. A purloined letter, of sorts. And thus he wouldst be forced to search the wreckage for it, leaving himself open for Robin to play his role.
We couldst only hope I was not killed before he could.
And so I stood, and paced, and worried. Mine thoughts and fears ran wild. Wouldst he come? Wouldst we know it? Or doth he have some magical means of arrival we wouldst never detect? Couldst we even defeat him, or was this a futile effort?
When doth the guard's relief show up?
My eyes widened as I realized I had failed to consider it. But the shifts were likely a mere eight hours, and the logical time for a changeover wouldst thus be midnight, not eight o'clock.
Desperately I wheeled about, searching for a clock. But there was none. No doubt there were some in with the electronics, but in here there were only... I fair to leapt at a case and rooted through the shards for a watch.
Two other watches confirmed the time. We wouldst have to leave immediately were we to avoid the police. I tossed them back in the case and turned to leave, mouth open to call out.
Twas at that moment that I heard a voice from the darkness, not twenty paces distant. "So there you are," it rasped, instantly setting my fur on end. "But where, oh where, is good Robin Hood, hmm?"
That question was the one thing we couldst not adequately hide or explain away. Twas our main weakness, and our one hope — that he wouldst be too concerned over recovering his Aelpa to ask it — had just failed. "He left," I said simply, and stepped to one side. I couldst barely see him in the gloom, but it was clear enough that he had, whether by luck or design, approached from exactly the opposite side from where Robin lay, putting me in the line of fire.
"Sir Robin ran away? Brave, brave, Sir Robin?" the Kestagian mocked, and stepped into the light. If anything, he looked worse than he had last night. His head looked soft, like the skull was still too badly broken to hold the correct shape. "Now why don't I believe that?"
He gestured suddenly, and I flung myself to the floor in a tangle of skirts as a bolt of lightning crackled by overhead. There was the crunching of glass under a booted heel as the mage jumped the cases to get at me again. "Robin!" I cried desperately as I scrambled to get up, or at least around a corner. Why hath he not fired?
The soft-edged whir of an arrow cutting through the air answered that. It hit the decaying mage with a meaty smack, embedding itself perfectly where the heart shouldst be. He staggered back, forced by the impact to steady himself against a case.
But he didst not fall. "There you are, Robin!" he cried out almost joyfully. "I almost started to believe her!" His hand moved, and something I couldst not rightly see flew from him at my love. There was a squawk, and the mage trotted his way, leaving me on the floor.
"I was worried, oh yes I was," he enthused. I gathered my skirts and took the opportunity to get out of the maze of displays. "Worried I wouldn't be able to pay you back for last night. Wasn't nice, running me over like that! Now I have to kill you, you know. You do know that, right?"
I couldst hear Robin as he ran along the aisles. Why had the mage not fallen? I had managed to fashion a pouch for the diamonds and attach it behind the missile's broadhead tip. That shouldst have been the end of it! What went wrong?
There was another whir, another meaty impact. Again it was met with laughter, not anguish. There was a whoosh and a flash as the Kestagian tossed fire from his fingertips. "You never learn, do you? That whole ambush, just to futilely shoot me again! You're pathetic!"
More arrows, another fireball. But this time there was a cry of pain — from Robin. The mage was playing with him, enjoying drawing out the hunt because he hath proven himself invulnerable to anything we couldst throw at him. Robin was still running around the outer aisles; if he kept this up he wouldst make a complete circuit of the store.
I began to trot, myself, trying hard to get away and keep ahead of them. The sound of mine hooves gave me away, but twould be even worse were I caught in the midst of this battle with no viable weapon, and no available weapon wouldst suffice. The smooth tile was not the best for running on, especially in the state of near-panic that was growing within me. I fell to mine knees as I skidded around one corner.
I sobbed once as I got up. Twas such a good plan! It didst not deserve to fail! We didst not deserve it, didst not deserve to be toyed with and tortured by a sadist who is himself immune from harm! But deserving or no, twas happening.
Another slip, another skid, this one violent enough to knock mine muzzle against the floor. Twas well it did, for it didst also knock some sense back into my skull. I looked around. My flight had taken me to the department in which Robin had hid himself: men's shoes. I stifled a giggle at the incongruous thought that mayhap I shouldst try some on so I couldst run better.
Tis then I noticed the lump, nearly right in front of my nose.
I snatched it up instantly and bounded to my hooves. Twas no wonder Robin's shot failed! The enormous force of the compound bow had ripped the pouch away from the arrow when he released his shot. On another day it might have been humorous, like some cartoon, but tonight it just may spell our downfall. But if I couldst get the diamonds to Robin, perhaps we might still live to see the morrow.
Now I trotted through the store with a different purpose. But when I rounded the last corner, my hoped crashed. The Kestagian was no longer enjoying the chase; he was enjoying the catch.
As last night, Robin was held suspended in midair, legs and wings spread wide. There didst not be any lightning running through his feathers, yet patches had been burned away during the chase, leaving ugly wounds on the flesh beneath. And even as I watched a number of feathers flew away from his body, seemingly of their own accord, trailing blood as they sailed off.
"Gonna pluck you, little chicken," the mage gloated, and Robin jerked as another handful was ripped bloodily away. "I'll rip you apart and serve you for dinner! Then I'll find my Aelpa and make glue out of your dear, sweet love!"
Robin's roar of anguish couldst not possibly be due merely to the painful loss of his plumage. I couldst see his muscles bunch as he tried to free himself from whatever force held him. But his captor only glanced his way and his limbs thrust themselves to full extension — and beyond. It didst look like wings and legs wouldst be flying away next, not merely handfuls of feathers, and a red haze clouded mine sight.
Mine jog turned into a run, a sprint. I cared not at all for the noise mine hooves made now as I bolted for them. The mage was still intent on the torture of Robin — of my love, my mate, my life! He didst not turn at the sound of mine approach, not until I was a bare handful of yards away.
Despite the surprise evident on his face he still managed to raise a hand in my direction. Twas not enough time to fire off whatever spell he had in mind, however, before I slammed into him, knocking him back with all the force and weight of a pony. The air whuffed from his lungs as he reeled on his feet, and mine fist shot out to punch him. The fist holding the diamonds.
Horses art not weak creatures, even when they walked on two legs rather than four. The hard hooflets that covered the last joint of each finger wouldst make for a debilitating blow to anyone, shouldst I ever put the full strength of mine arms behind them. Panicked by the pursuit and enraged over my lover's torture, twas devastating. Mine hand hit his chest and kept going through skin already weakened by rot and a multitude of arrows. His ribs crunched beneath my hooflets as I followed through.
The creature looked down at his chest, at mine arm plunging deep into it. Slowly he backed himself away, and my arm emerged from within with a sickening slurp. But I had released the pouch, and all the diamonds remained somewhere in his body.
The game book had said to return a Kestagian's soul to him by somehow making him swallow his Aelpa. But it had also stated that life wouldst return to the mage once it was "within his body." Now he screamed, wailing loudly as life returned to his body — the same body that had been shot a dozen times and sported a gaping hole in its chest. Blood poured from his wounds, thick and foul-smelling. He collapsed to his knees and clutched feebly at his chest, perhaps to remove the pouch. But twas thrust deep. He wailed one last time, eyes full of disbelief, and died in a growing pool of blood.
I stood for long seconds over the body. Gore matted my fur to the elbow and had spattered all over my brand new dress, but I had eyes only on the body before me. As hard as it may have been for him to believe his life was over, twas even harder for me to believe I had been the one to end it.
Then I didst remember Robin, and I rushed to his side. He looked unwell, indeed not much better than the Kestagian. Patches of feathers had been burnt or ripped away, and he moved stiffly as he regained his feet.
"Is it dead?" he asked, his words sounding strange because he didst not dare move even his beak overmuch.
"Tis," I said, and kissed him full on the mouth. Neither beaks nor muzzles were well designed for it, but I didst manage. "And we art not. We hath won, love!"
"Wonderful. You did wonderful, dear."
"I daresay. Tis good to see you play the role of damsel in distress for once!"
He tried to give me a raspberry this time, but beaks art not built for them like muzzles. He settled for rolling his eyes. "Whatever you say, but I fear we must... must away from this place." Robin swayed on his feet momentarily. "I need a place to recover."
"Mayhap we canst find a friendly inn this night," I suggested.
"Good. Yes. Then we canst plot out... our future plans. What doth we do about all those poor you told me about. Those ones without homes to put their fridges in."
I let him lean on me as we made our way to the emergency exit where we had stored our day's purchases. "Dost thou really think thou canst help so many people? Tis a noble goal, but..."
"I know not! Tis why I must plan! But I shalt say this for certain," he said, and even wounded he managed to trill an enthusiastic laugh, "I doth be Robin Hood! If anybody canst help the poor, tis I!"
I giggled, and poked him in the ribs. "Do not forget his sidekick, lover, and wife!"
"Ack! Mercy, my Lady! Nay, I shalt never forget thee!"
I smiled. "Good."
We stepped outside together, in each other's arms, and left the wailing of alarms at our backs.