In which Dodger is captured
Dodger and Lelanea caught up with the others just as the knight was securing his packs to his horse. Boon wasn’t kidding when he said the man dressed differently when not in his knightly getup. Sir Rodger—though it was hard to say that now without the armor—wore pretty much what Dodger usually found himself in; comfortable denim pants, a loose fitting flannel shirt, a well worn pair of boots and a hat that had seen far better days. The man also sported a pair of pistols at his waist, which made Dodger wonder why the man favored the sword when battling something as dangerous as a dragon. Why go for a skewer when you had your own firepower on your side?
“Hello there!” Sir Rodger shouted with a nod as Dodger and Lelanea approached. “Won’t be a moment, then we can head out as a group.”
“He says we may travel with him,” Boon said. “He also says we are welcome to any of his supplies or equipment if needed.”
“Tis true,” Sir Rodger said.
“That is very kind of you,” Lelanea said.
“Not at all,” Sir Rodger said. “It is most unfortunate that whatever magic brought you here was unable to transport your supplies as well.”
“You got that right,” Dodger said. He nodded to Boon, and made a mental note to congratulate the man later for coming up with such a clever cover story.
“It is auspicious for all of us that Mr. Boon found me,” Sir Rodger said. “It is imperative that I help my fellow man, and lady. That is the code of the knight. Any chance to exercise my duties I find most fortunate.”
“And don’t forget,” Boon said, “that we are willing to help you out as well.”
“Of course. I am only too pleased to accept your assistance.”
“We are only too glad to help if we can,” Dodger said.
“Mr. Carpenter,” Sir Rodger said, “if you plan on offering the kind of help you dispensed during our struggle with that dragon, then I welcome the assistance. I have never seen such a display of bravery and accuracy.”
“It was nothing.”
“Nothing? It certainly was something. It was some fine shooting.”
Dodger glanced to the knight’s pistols again, and curiosity got the better of him. “Those are Colts, aren’t they?” Dodger suspected the last bit, because that was the brand Al always carried.
“Why yes, they are.”
“Do you mind if I ask why you were waving that blade around when you have a perfectly good set of pistols?”
With a serious look, Sir Rodger touched his hands to his guns. “I favor the blade for the dangers of the forest and the wandering monsters that I cannot force from my path. I only employ the gun when absolutely necessary.”
“I can understand that. Good ammo is hard to come by this deep in the woods.”
Sir Rodger maintained his serious air, shaking his head at Dodger. “No sir, I am afraid you do not understand. While I appreciate your astounding display of talent back there, I can assure you I would’ve eventually vanquished the beast by blade alone. Firing at everything that poses a problem is not the way of the knight. The gun is reserved for those who have earned Beso de Fuego.”
It took every ounce of will Dodger possessed not to roll his eyes at the drama of it all. Beso de Fuego? Spanish for the Kiss of Fire. No wonder the guns all but blasted a stream of flames at the dragon. For Pete’s sake! What other kind of nonsense had Al been teaching the gal? Dodger felt the pressure of eyes on him, and he knew Boon and Lelanea were watching to see how he handled the knight.
“My mistake,” Dodger said. “Next time I and my guns will stand back and let a professional take care of the problem. Lesson learned.”
At this, Sir Rodger lost his superior air, deflating into pure modesty. “Dear sir, do not take my words as a challenge. Allow me to apologize. I meant nothing by it. Sometimes I get wrapped up in my own codes I forget not everyone around me subscribes to the same ideals. Please, forgive me.” The knight bowed, deeply, almost scraping the ground with his humility.
Again, Dodger had to hold back a huff of cynicism. Just how gracious could one man be? “Nothing to forgive, Sir Rodger. I didn’t mean to step on your ideals. I was just asking a question. Why don’t we just call it even and get on our way?”
The knight righted himself, revealing another wide grin. “Of course. Let us move along before we spend half the day apologizing to one another.” Sir Rodger grabbed the reigns of his horse and clucked, coaxing the animal into motion. “I am afraid I only have the one mare, so we will have to walk.”
“That’s just fine,” Boon said. “There’s nothing quite like stretching your legs.”
“Would you like to ride, Miss Lelanea?” Sir Rodger asked. “A lady shouldn’t be bothered to travel on foot.”
“I think you mean on paw,” Lelanea said, “and no, thank you. I don’t think your horse would appreciate it.”
“Nonsense. Your current form doesn’t trouble her in the least. Isn’t that right, Henrietta?”
The horse whinnied and whipped her head toward her saddle.
“See?” Sir Rodger said. “She offers her services as well.”
“How quant,” Boon said.
“How absurd,” Dodger said under his breath.
“She certainly is good hearted,” Lelanea said. “But I think I will pass all the same. It’s a good day for walking, and it has been some time since I felt the grass under all fours.”
“All fours?” Sir Rodger asked as they walked along.
Lelanea was taken aback by her own slip. “Oh, um, I meant …”
“Lelanea was locked away for a long time,” Boon said. “I managed to rescue her from the basement of the witch’s hut before we fled together.”
“Interesting,” Sir Rodger said. “You are quite the hero, Mr. Boon.”
“Naw. I just did what needed doin’. And please, call me Washington. Everyone does.”
“Washington it is.”
Within minutes, the party reached a well traveled road cut through the thick forest. Sir Rodger fell into this path, heading north at a strong pace. The man was obviously anxious to reach his destination, though where the group was headed, he didn’t say. Dodger reckoned he could corner Boon later, alone, and get as many details as possible.
Turned out, the knight was not only all sorts of friendly, he was also far too chatty for Dodger’s tastes. Sir Rodger spent most of that first day’s travel sharing tales of his great exploits—which consisted of the few stories Sarah had heard about Dodger either from her mother or Al, all dressed up with suitable fairy tale substitutions, of course.
Tales that held an embarrassing amount of truth, even with the embellishments.
“And that,” Sir Rodger said as he wound down his latest story, “is how I rescued Princess Sarah and her mother, Queen Patricia, from the horrible clutches of the Duke of Alabama.”
“That was a delightful tale,” Lelanea said. “You are quite the admirable man, Sir Rodger.”
“Coming from such an admirable young lady, I shall take that as a high compliment indeed. Tell us then, Miss Lelanea, how did you come upon this terrible curse?”
“You don’t have to answer that,” Boon said, an unusual hardness entering his normally gentle voice.
“I apologize if the question was out of turn,” Sir Rodger said.
“No,” she said. “It’s fine. I don’t mind sharing. I’m afraid it is a very boring and short story.”
“I doubt you could bore me if you wanted to,” Sir Rodger said.
Dodger lent one ear to the conversation, while he kept another to the woods around them. Somewhere between Lelanea’s words and the sounds of the party traveling, Dodger swore he heard a snap of a twig, followed by a rustle of undergrowth, both telltale signs of something, or someone, following them.
“My condition is simply the result of being curious,” Lelanea said. “I snooped about in a place I shouldn’t have, and ended up with a curse on my head, as well as my heart.”
The shuffling in the woods returned in a steady rhythm, or rather rhythms, as if more than one person were trying to match the party’s footsteps. Dodger struggled to listen to both the quiet pursuit and Lelanea’s story as he unsnapped the catch on his holster and rested his fingers over the grip of his weapon.
“I have always been inquisitive,” she continued. “I find delight in all forms of knowledge, and that was my undoing. To further my understanding of the world, I sought the company of a wise woman, who wasn’t as friendly as I had hoped she would be. She turned me into the form you see before you now. I sought an answer to my curse alone for many years, until I met Boon, and now I am pleased to say my beloved also seeks a cure.”
“And I will not stop until I find one,” Boon added.
“A cure you believe the princess possesses?” Sir Rodger asked.
“Yes,” Lelanea said. “The, ah, the witch let it slip one day that the only way I could ever return to normal was with the help of royalty.”
“Help I am sure she will willingly give. The princess is nothing if not generous.”
“That is reassuring to know,” Boon said.
“Speaking of reassuring,” Lelanea said. The wolf came to a stop, bringing the whole company to a sudden halt. “It would reassure me if our uninvited company would just join us, rather than eavesdropping so rudely.”
“Funny,” Dodger said as he pulled his gun, “I was thinking the same thing.” He cocked the hammer and aimed the weapon to the line of trees.
The forest fell suspiciously quiet. Not a bird chirped. Not an insect cheeped.
“What sort of game is this?” Sir Rodger said.
“We are being followed,” Dodger said.
Boon pulled his weapons as well, taking a double fisted aim for the trees on either side. “Sir, if these two say there is someone following us, then you can be sure we have been followed.”
Drawing his sword, Sir Rodger stepped in front of the guns. “Show yourself, whoever you are. Or I shall let my friends here open fire. I should warn you, they never miss.”
The underbrush rustled, after which a squirrel ran out from the bushes. The thing came to a cold stop, staring up at the party in wide eyed surprise, twitched its tail once, then ran back for the relative safety of the trees once more.
Sir Rodger turned about to grin at Dodger. “Me thinks you and your friends might be a bit overzealous.”
“And me thinks you should pay more attention to your surroundings,” Dodger said. He raised the gun and fired high into the trees.
There came a soft groan, followed by the slithering sound of a rope slipping away. Branches cracked and snapped in a crescendo of descent as some unfortunate soul fell to their death from a treetop perch. A body hit the ground just a few feet behind Sir Rodger, who, to his credit, never even flinched.
“Point taken,” Sir Rodger said.
“They’ve killed Fiddle Bottom!” someone yelled from the trees.
“Get ‘em!” another man cried.
Out from the forest, on either side of the armed party, poured at least a dozen men. They scrambled down from the trees and burst forth from the bushes, snarling and cursing and shouting obscenities the likes of which would’ve made Al furious to hear. Dodger fired at the one man, a shot that went far too high of its mark. It took Dodger a moment to readjust his aim when it dawned upon him that all of the men were small. Not just on the short side of things, no, small as in miniature. Not one of them stood taller than Lelanea, and she was on all fours to begin with. All of the men dressed garishly in a mix between renaissance garb and modern day attire. Frilly blouses with denim pants, loud colored dusters and patchwork leather hats. They looked more like a theatre troupe and less like a bunch of thieves.
The small men rushed the party, each brigand armed to the teeth with daggers and short swords and throwing knives. Lelanea leapt at her prey, tearing into the enemy with vicious abandon. In seconds, five of the men had her pinned to the ground by dog piling atop of her. Sir Rodger raised his blade but the little men were quick on their feet, throwing themselves at the swordsmen before he got the chance to swing. Boon fired wildly, with both guns, blowing chunks out of trees on either side before the brigands had him face down in the dirt. Dodger managed to take care of a few of the men, landing deadeye shots that knocked them back with an impressive recoil, before three of the little ones grabbed him by the legs and dragged him to the ground. Dodger struggled for a good bit, but to no avail. For a bunch of miniature men, they sure put up a hell of a fight.
“Quit your thrashing!” one of the men yelled. “We’ve got your friends and you ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“I’ll quit fighting when you’re dead,” Dodger said.
The little men chuckled at Dodger’s sass talk while they set to tying his hands behind his back.
“Talks as big as he is,” one of the men said. “We aught’a cut his throat. Teach him for attacking us.”
“I aught to tear your throat out,” Leleana said.
“Shut up, mutt,” the first man said. He whipped a blackjack from the depths of his yellow jacket and rapped her on the nose with the thing. The man then produced a muzzle, which he proceeded to work over Lelanea’s snapping jaws. “Hold still you hound, or I’ll beat you until you howl.”
“You leave her be!” Boon shouted as he wiggled in his bonds, ready to tear the little man apart for harming the lady.
“Keep still,” the yellow coat said. “Or I’ll gouge her eyes out, lover boy.”
Lelanea whined just as the little man managed to get the muzzle over her snout.
Boon fell dutifully still, but couldn’t disguise the growl deep in his chest as they raised him to upright.
“He’s growling,” one of the men said. “Just like his mutt girlfriend.”
“Yeah,” the yellow coat said. “Must’ve learned it from her. I wonder if he’s got fleas, too.”
As the leader and his men laughed again, Dodger heard the sounds of clattering hoof steps approaching from behind. A little man passed Dodger, leading a pair of mules that in turn pulled a large wagon, jingling and jangling with a plethora of supplies tied to the outside of it.
“Pud’s here with the wagon, Gimlet,” one of the men said.
“I can see that, you idiot,” the yellow coat snapped.
“Is that Baron Gimlet of Rocky Way?” Sir Rodger asked. “Shamed seventh son of the dwarven kingdom?”
The yellow coat turned to stare at Sir Rodger. “Depends on who’s asking.”
“I am Sir Rodger Dodger.” The knight bowed, as best he could seated with his hands tied behind him. “Knight of the Royal Court, defender of the Kingdom of Baker and personal guardian to Princess Sarah.”
“That Sir Rodger?” The little man snickered. “Some guardian you are. I hear tale that your precocious princess got herself kidnapped and whisked away to Poison Peak.”
Poison Peak? Well, that sounded as unpleasant a destination as any Dodger had ever visited. He raised an eyebrow at Boon, who shrugged.
“An unfortunate occurrence,” Sir Rodger said. “But true.”
“In that case, I am Baron Gimlet.” Gimlet lowered himself to Sir Rodger’s face to add, “And you’re dead meat.” Gimlet stood upright again and hollered at his men. “Get ‘em on the wagon. Let’s go! Look alive, boys. We ain’t got all day.”
The group of small men worked double time to load the larger folks into the cart, taking special care to manhandle, jab and punch Dodger at every turn.