by Mary E. Lowd
The horse ran away before the knight and Ginny were done tangling with each other, and Beverly found herself pulled away, led by Rocky’s gentle paws. The raccoon guided her away from the fight and into the nearest bushes. More shrubs to hide in. Beverly didn’t think her life would ever make sense again.
Even the humans here were playing out parts in a fantasy. It was too much. It was inescapable. She would have to follow the rules of this world for as long as she was here.
Because somehow, she was here.
Maybe Hazy could make it make sense.
Beverly started to cry, but stopped herself. There wasn’t room for tears when a legion of crazed knights was trying to kill her. “I thought they were supposed to find me, bring me to the queen,” Beverly whispered to Rocky. She was back to talking to animals again.
At least the animals answered in ways that made sense.
“Yes,” Rocky agreed, bleakly. “That’s what my queen ordered.”
“Then why did he try to kill me?” Beverly had stopped herself from crying, but she couldn’t stop the emotions from finding some way out: her whole body was shaking, overwhelmed by the adrenaline of the knight’s attack. She’d been moments from dying, a silver broadsword sliced through her middle.
“They’re addicted to the candies Queen Hazel gives them. If they find you… if they bring you back to her…” Rocky shrugged her narrow, fuzzy shoulders.
“The candies stop,” Beverly concluded. “They don’t want the glory of succeeding at their mission. They want to keep adventuring, exactly as they have been. Looking for me; never finding me.”
Rocky nodded. “I had hoped this wasn’t true. I had hoped the candies hadn’t poisoned their minds so fully. But… I haven’t trusted the knights for many seasons. Ginny has distrusted them even longer.”
Beverly sighed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Please, forgive me and keep helping me get to the queen.” The queen who had filled her world with crazed knights, addled by a mysterious candy she’d addicted them to…
Rocky didn’t answer; the raccoon was too busy peering between the leaves of the shrub hiding them, watching for Ginny.
Beverly supposed it was fair that her forgiveness depended on whether Ginny survived the totally unnecessary battle that had been inflicted on them. Beverly should have known better than to turn herself over to a crazed knight. She should have listened to the raccoon and wolf who’d done nothing but help her since she’d tumbled into this insane world.
Several tense minutes later, Ginny limped her way into view, favoring her front right paw. The knight didn’t follow her. Hopefully, he was gone.
Rocky emerged from the shrubbery and said, “You’re hurt.”
Ginny lifted her paw and looked at it, as if she hadn’t noticed she’d been limping on it. “I had to kill the knight,” she said simply. “He would have spread the word if he’d survived, and there will only be more of them as we get closer to the castle. We can’t have them knowing we’ve found her.”
Her. Not you. Ginny wasn’t talking to Rocky and Beverly, just Rocky. Beverly wasn’t part of their small, closed circuit. She was something they’d found — something the knights would want to kill.
Beverly supposed she would settle for a raccoon and wolf who actually wanted to get her to the queen — even if she had growing concerns about the sanity of this queen. It was better to reach the queen alive than to die before even seeing the castle she remembered from that long ago video.
Beverly missed the simplicity of the times in her life when this whole world had been nothing more than a half-remembered movie and a bunch of feckless daydreams. Something she searched for but could never seem to find on the internet.
Daydreams are a lot nicer in your head than when they completely surround you, as real as anything in the real world has ever been. Excitement is more fun from a distance. Strange and confusing are more delightful when they’re optional.
The great thing about daydreams is that anything can happen… but also, they stop as soon as you want them to.
Feeling beleaguered and out of control of her own life, Beverly found herself walking between a limping wolf and grumpy raccoon, who had clearly not forgiven her. They’d be walking the rest of the way to the castle now, as Ginny was in no shape for riders. Rocky kept grumbling about hoping that Ginny wouldn’t have to fight any knights again, because she probably wasn’t up to it. Beverly couldn’t argue with that.
Walking was more exhausting than riding had been, and Beverly’s feet screamed at her for her poor choices before the sun was three-quarters of the way across the sky.
One day’s ride had been traded for two days’ hike, plus another uncomfortable, hungry night spent sleeping on the hard, dirty ground. Beverly would be a greasy, smudgy, grubby sight by the time she made it to Queen Hazel’s castle. She hoped the queen would be happy to see a dirty, tired, unhappy woman, even though she was hoping for a bright, cheerful child.
The child was still somewhere deep inside Beverly — the little girl who wanted to see her confidant again — but it felt like she’d gone to sleep, too tired out by the days of harrowing travel.
When the castle finally came into view in the distance, the change was anticlimactic, like Beverly should have noticed it there before. Thick white clouds stretched across the sky behind the castle like a blank canvas, and the scattered buildings of a small village filled much of the intervening valley. Beverly wasn’t sure how Rocky and Ginny planned to sneak her, hiding in shrubberies and ducking off the road at the slightest sign of movement, through the village. There were too many people in the village. Actual humans, from the look of it. The whole thing looked and felt like being in a medieval reenactment, some sort of renaissance faire, except less fun. Just the dirty, dusty parts, and none of the little booths selling sparkly jewelry or sugar-coated fried dough.
Beverly remembered her parents dragging her to a ren faire as a kid and staying way, way too late until she was tired and cranky and threw a tantrum that it embarrassed her to remember. Even though she had just been a kid, the memory still made her cringe. She’d wanted them to buy her a beautiful plush coyote she’d seen in one of the vendor stalls, but apparently, it had been made from real rabbit fur and her parents thought it was creepy or didn’t want to support animal cruelty… Beverly wasn’t sure. She didn’t remember the details; she just remembered how beautiful and soft the coyote had been. And how tired she’d been from walking around a fair in the heat all day.
Compared to what she’d been through during the last few days, the ordeal that had led to her meltdown at that renaissance faire was laughable. She’d grown up a lot since then, and she could handle so much more.
The little kid who’d desperately wanted a plush coyote though? That kid had been much closer to the person Queen Hazel was looking for. Soft and vulnerable, ready to share secrets and excited by the idea of a castle.
Now Beverly felt all hard inside, like she’d filled herself with walls, and she couldn’t imagine sharing any secrets with someone who hadn’t spent the time it would take to navigate their way through those complicated walls like Daedalus following his string through the twists and turns of the minotaur’s labyrinth.
“How do we proceed?” Beverly asked. Her raccoon and wolf guides had halted just ahead of her, looking at the village spread out in the valley ahead of them.
“We don’t,” Rocky answered. “Ginny can’t go farther. She’s too injured. Besides, the knights have taught the villagers to be frightened of her, and I can’t leave her behind.”
“But…” Beverly’s objection died on her lips. She could see the truth of Rocky’s statement.
Ginny looked haggard and hunched from limping on her wounded leg, and Rocky looked heartsick, stricken by the pain her partner was in — for the wolf and raccoon were clearly partners, possibly even in love. The way they leaned together, held each others’ eyes, speaking to each other without speaking — that was love. They wouldn’t part from each other, even to follow their queen’s command, and Beverly couldn’t ask them to.
“What do I do?” Beverly asked. “Will there be more knights? Will the villagers be a problem for me?”
“There will be more knights,” Ginny said, her voice husky and low. She’d been struggling to make it this far. “But they cannot strike you down where the villagers could see.”
“They’d never defy Queen Hazel so openly,” Rocky added. The raccoon was distractedly stroking her hand-like paw against Ginny’s shoulder.
“Stay hidden until you get close,” Ginny said. “We’ll be watching, and when you get to the village–” Unsteadily, Ginny raised a forepaw and pointed toward the closest buildings. “–we have one last way of helping you.”
“No,” Rocky said. “You’re too tired, too injured.”
“Yes,” Ginny growled, her hackles rising. She said very pointedly to Rocky, “I will do this.” Then turning her long canine face toward Beverly, she snarled, “Now go. Now.”
Beverly’s heart skipped and tripped at the sight of a giant wolf snarling in her face, and she found herself running — absolutely running — away from her companions from the last few days before she came back to herself. She should have said goodbye. She should have apologized again. She should have thrown her arms around Ginny’s neck and hugged her, and then shaken Rocky’s paw.
But instead, Beverly ran like a scared animal, away from the world of talking animals she’d been inhabiting and toward the human village in front of her. She ran until her legs began to buckle, and then she slowed to a more maintainable pace, striding quickly but not quite running, zigzagging from one tree or shrub to the next, trying to keep herself out of sight like Ginny had told her. She should have done what Ginny told her all along.
Continue on to Part VI…