Penelope stopped at the door to the council chamber. She could hear the muffled
voices of the Knights inside but could not make out what they were saying. They
were talking about her, that was clear enough. Why else would Samantha have
Penelope inhaled deeply and knocked once on the door before pushing it open.
Ar-Kane rose from his chair to greet her. The mage smiled as he directed her to a seat next to his own. The other Knights met her with polite nods.
Samantha stood and faced her.
"Penelope, from our oath we learn to trust each other without question. So it is that we place great faith in the Knight who granted you that pendant, even without knowing his reason or purpose. From such faith, I've named you friend and comrade for all to hear. And what friendship, once given, requires evidence of fealty? None that I would consider worth having. Distrust leaves a bitter taste in my mouth."
As she spoke, Samantha seemed to grow taller. Her eyes pinned Penelope to the chair like twin spear points. "But these are strange times and the fate of the world could rest on our shoulders. Where trust was once freely given and never regretted, the stakes have been raised. As mistress of this guild, many burdens fall to me, no matter how much my heart aches under the weight."
She nodded to a Knight seated at her left. "Tell her what you've seen."
The Knight stood and turned to Penelope with an embarrassed smile. "A pleasure to meet you, lady," he said. "I am Azreal. Some call me seer of the Sunset Knights. A lofty title I admit since most of my visions revolve around the quality of the year's harvest or whether a woman's belly will yield a son or daughter. On that account, I'm usually right half the time."
He cleared his throat. "Some nights ago, I dreamt of you, lady. It's not normally an unpleasant experience to dream of one so lovely but, on this occasion, what I saw left me very disturbed.
"Lady, I saw you with our lives in your hands. Whether you be our doom or savior, I can not say."
Azreal glanced over at Samantha. She nodded and he sat down.
"Lady," said Samantha, "despite the faith we have placed in you, I require that you prove your fealty now. Penelope, what is your purpose among us."
Penelope's stomach clenched into a knot. They were all staring at her, expecting an answer. What could she say? That one of you is a traitor? What proof did she have? But she had to say something and it must be the truth. No way she could lie, not with all the Knights around her. Not with Samantha hovering above her, just waiting for words she already knew to be false.
Think, Pen, before they start to get angry.
"The artifact," she blurted out before she understood why. "I'm here because of the artifact." She winced as their eyes widened in shock.
"How do you know of the artifact?" asked Samantha. The question was aimed at Penelope but the lady's glare was firmly planted on Ar-Kane.
Penelope felt the mage shrug. "It wasn't him," said Penelope. "The Knight who gave me the pendant, he told me. I was to warn you about the Black Rose. They know about the artifact. They'll be coming to get it."
Samantha seemed to consider her words for a moment, as if she were weighing the truth in them. Then she sat in her chair. "So, they have uncovered our secret. It seems the walls have ears. But that is a problem for another time. Knights, we must decide how to meet this threat."
Wildboy crossed his arms over his chest. "Let the Rose come, I say. I'm tired of chasing them in the sewers and alleys like the rats they are."
"The Rose aren't fools," said Rythorn. "They can't mean to just storm the castle, not even if they had a thousand times their number. No, they're sure to have something else in mind."
The other Knights agreed. "The real question," said Azreal, "is do they know of the curse?"
"And if they do," said Gryffon, "why would they want an artifact they can't use?"
"Ar-Kane, can they hope to defeat the curse?" asked Samantha.
Ar-Kane was quiet for a moment. "The artifact can only be awakened by one of us," he said. "But should that be attempted, the one doing so breaks our oath and would no longer be a Knight, leaving the curse unbroken. Therefore, the artifact's power should be safe.
"But such protections can only have the strength of its wielder. Perhaps the Rose will surpass me somehow."
"Peace, brother," said Samantha, "our faith rests in you. If the matter falls to a measure of your might against theirs, the curse will outlive all of us. Still, we must presume they know of the curse and believe themselves capable of defeating it. Perhaps they know something of the artifact that we missed, another way to release its power. So now the question becomes, what other precautions can we take?"
Samantha rose and walked around the table to Penelope's chair. Penelope accepted the guildmistress' hand and allowed Samantha to guide her to the chamber doors.
"I do not ask your forgiveness," said Samantha, "but I do hope you understand the necessity for our doubts. We have named you a friend and we wish to someday call you 'Knight'. If you will you still have us."
"I…uh…" Penelope glanced over at the other Knights. Ar-Kane winked, a warm smile on his lips. Gryffon nodded at her.
"I would have it no other way, Lady," she said to Samantha.
Samantha wrapped her in a tight hug. "Good," the Lady said. "Tonight, we hold a dinner in your honor. Gryffon has promised a special meal just for you."
Samantha opened the door and walked with Penelope out into the hall. "When this is all over," she said, "you and I must sit down to discuss your lineage. I think I'd find it very interesting."
Samantha went back into the chamber, closing the door behind her.
"You won't believe me when I tell you, Lady," said Penelope as she started down the hall.
Penelope knocked on the door to Gryffon's room. She waited a few moments without an answer then knocked again. She pressed her ear against the door but heard nothing from within.
"Gry, are you there?"
She was about to leave when the door opened. Standing there in plain clothes and his stockinged feet, Gryffon looked surprised to see her.
"Penelope? Ha, can't wait to find out what I'm cooking for you?" He invited her into the room. "Don't worry, it's not troll," he said as he sat and started pulling on his boots.
"Gry, what've you been doing in here?" she asked.
"Doing? Changing my clothes. It's too hot to be cooking in my cloak and tunic."
"Ar-Kane sent me up to find what was taking you so long."
"So long? Does the mage think I can just blink in and out of clothes like he does. I told him after the meeting it would take me a few minutes before I'd catch up to him."
"Gry, the meeting ended over two hours ago."
He froze, one boot halfway on his foot. "Two…? What are you talking about? I was there, remember. We left the chamber not…" He looked out of the window. The sun was well past its midday height. "What's happening here?"
She knelt beside him. "Are you alright?" she asked.
He turned and their faces were only inches apart.
"Alright?" he breathed.
She leaned her lips onto his. The hell with everything else, she thought as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
Gryffon jumped up, holding her at arms' length. "Lady, I…you…We…There's a lot of cooking to do." He hopped out of the open door, still trying to pull on his boot.
She followed him to the kitchen, neither of them saying a word. Ar-Kane met them along the way.
"I fell asleep," said Gryffon before Ar-Kane could ask.
The castle's regular cooks had already started on the meal, following the instructions Gryffon had left before the meeting. Luckily, all that was left was for the ranger to put his personal touch on the meal.
Gryffon shooed everyone from the kitchen. "I'm better cooking alone," he said when Ar-Kane laughed.
"You just don't want us to find out what you're making," said the mage, "until we are too hungry to resist. Come Penelope, let's leave the maestro to his designs."
Leaving the kitchen with Ar-Kane, Penelope turned to say goodbye to Gryffon. The ranger had his back to her as he bent over a large pot. He took a measure of some ingredient from a jar and carefully mixed it into the pot.
The hairs on the back of Penelope's neck stood on end and her stomach clenched into a knot. Something about the scene scared her, something that seemed so familiar. As she reached to pull the memory closer, Ar-Kane tugged at her sleeve.
"Come lady," said the mage, "I've some wonderful books to show you in the library."
Distracted, Penelope lost hold of the feeling and it floated away like a feather in the wind. Then Gryffon moved across the room to slice vegetables over another pot and the connection was totally broken.
But as she walked to the library with the mage, Penelope rubbed at the goose bumps still covering her arms.
"I did not," cried Wildboy.
The other Knights roared in laughter.
"Ah, but you did, brother," said Rythorn, smiling. "You were so sodden that you forget Ar-Kane and I were in the tavern with you that night." He raised his goblet. "A toast to our Sage of Valor, the only Sunset Knight to sing the entire Ode to Trinsic in the key of belch."
"As if that wasn't enough," shouted Ar-Kane, a wicked gleam in his eye, "he completed each chorus with a fart."
Wildboy threw a half-eaten chicken leg at the mage. "On the morrow, I will teach both of you a lesson with a very soft club."
"Why a soft club?" asked Azreal.
"It will take me longer to beat them senseless," Wildboy answered.
The table exploded in laughter again.
Penelope laughed with the rest. For the first time since she arrived, she felt relaxed, almost happy. At least for a time, her worries no longer pestered her. Being around the Knights, treated like one of their own, she could not help but join in their festive mood.
The wine doesn't hurt either, she thought. She took another sip from her cup.
Seated beside Penelope, Samantha raised her goblet in a toast of her own. "To Gryffon, a marvelous feast. You have outdone yourself this time, dear ranger."
"Here, here," agreed Rythorn. "A wonderful array of meats and delicacies. Chicken, beef, pheasant. To think, not one vile beast among the lot."
Gryffon stood and took a short bow.
"Now, now," said Ar-Kane. "Stop before Penelope thinks such fare is the custom. Soon enough, lady, you'll be stuck with orc and harpy just like the rest of-"
All the color fled from the mage's face and a wet gurgle escaped from his open mouth. Before anyone could grab him, Ar-Kane slid out from his chair and collapsed onto the floor.
Other Knights suffered the mage's fate. Rythorn fell forward, his face smashing into his plate of half-eaten duck. The Lady Samantha clawed at Penelope's wrist for support before she fell sideways to the floor with a large thud. In moments, all the Knights lie comatose on the floor or slumped over in their chairs.
Penelope jumped to her feet. The food, it had to be the food. She spit out the half-chewed meat in her mouth. But how? Only…
Gryffon stood on the opposite side of the table, staring at her.
"No," she cried, gripping the table to keep her trembling knees from buckling. "It can't be you. It can't be."
For his part, the ranger returned her look of horror. "What is the meaning of this?" he said. He lifted Wildboy upright in his chair. The Sage's head lolled around on his neck as if the bones were broken. But the Knight's eyes were open, full of shock and anger.
"What have you done here?" cried the ranger.
"Not her, little imp," said the woman stepping from the gate in the corner of the room. "You."
Behind her, several assassins came through the gate and began spreading about the perimeter of the room. All were dressed completely in black, covering even their faces with black veils. Only the woman's face remained undisguised.
"Selma?" said Gryffon. He took a step toward her. "What is this?"
"This, my 'love'-" She spit the word like a curse "-is your treachery."
Gryffon drew his sword. "You lie."
"Do I? Think back on those mornings you woke with no memory of passing the night. Did you really believe that fatigue was the only culprit? A simple matter, really, to take over your mind, stealing your secrets and replacing them with instructions of my own. The artifact. The curse. All of it, from your lips to my ears."
She turned to Penelope. "It seems I have you to thank for forcing my hand earlier than I wished. I don't know who sent you or why my poison had no effect but so be it. I'll take solace in the pleasure of opening your throat ear to ear."
Howling, Gryffon charged the woman. As he closed, Selma sang out in a language Penelope had never heard before. Gryffon immediately halted his rush. All the rage washed from his face and the sword lowered to his side. Penelope knew from the blank look on his face that Gryffon was no longer in control of his body.
"Now, kneel to me," said Selma, "so I can pet your head like the dog you are."
Without objection, the ranger bent his knees to the woman.
"Gry, no," Penelope shouted. "Fight her."
"Oh, please," Selma said with a laugh. "There is so little you understand about this man. He is a cretin, so much weaker than the others. That's why I chose him. Oh, somewhere within, he tries to resist me. But he also hates himself for the part he played in my plans."
She ordered the ranger to his feet. "Not that he was truly at fault," she said, stroking his cheek. "He was mine the first time he spilled his essence between my legs. That was the last ingredient for my little spell. Once done, he had no way to resist."
Selma picked up a turkey leg from the table and began to eat.
"But none of that matters to him now," Selma said to Penelope between chews. "The despair of his complicity robs him of the strength he needs to win free. Perhaps you're wondering how I can be so sure? Here's a lesson these others wouldn't have taught you. Dive deep into a man's eyes when he's humping you. That's where you'll find his true measure.
"You see, our poor little Gryffon lost part of himself somewhere in his past. What he lost does not matter. Just that he's the weaker for it. But I'm growing tired of talking to you." She nodded to her henchmen. "Kill her."
Penelope dove under the table as two assassins grabbed for her. She scrambled on her knees to the other end of the table. Rolling out, she barely dodged a thrust from a longsword, kicking the man in the kneecap before he could attack again. Smashing another assassin in the face with a salad bowl, she escaped out into the hall just as a crossbow bolt punched through the door.
They would be after her in an instant so she had little time to weigh her options. One thing for sure, she could not handle the Rose alone. She ran straight for the stairs leading down into the depths of the castle, trying to convince herself that any help was good help.
Down the stairs they chased her. Several times they got so close, she felt their breath on her neck. Finally she reached the door she needed. Throwing the bolt open, she entered the dungeons of the Sunset Knights and disappeared past the light from the lone torch set into the wall.
Her pursuers stopped at the door. "Come now, girl, is this the best challenge you can give us? There's only one way in or out."
The assassins waited but received no answer.
"If you save us the trouble of chasing you," one said, "I give my word your death will be quick."
The man smiled as Penelope came running out of the darkness.
"Perhaps I should have mentioned," he said as he and his companion started toward her, "that I'm a horrible liar."
Penelope did not slow. "At least you're honest about it," she said.
The three water elementals on her heels roared at all the fresh meat in their reach.
The assassins tried to run but Penelope was already at full speed and caught them easily. With the sword she had grabbed from the armory, she slashed open one man's hamstring and tripped the other.
She raced past as the men fell. She stopped at the stairs. "Oh, and about the lying thing," she said, "I forgive you."
Their screams followed her out of the dungeon.
Creeping back into the dining room, Penelope found Selma and Gryffon alone with the Knights. Selma had hold of Samantha's hair, holding the guildmistress upright in her chair.
"…don't believe that he'd kill you," Selma growled into the Lady's face. "I can see it in your eyes. Perhaps a test then? I want you to know how deep my hold is before you die."
With her free hand, Selma grabbed a torch from the wall. She held it out to Gryffon.
"Put your hand in the flame, dog," she ordered.
The ranger placed his left hand into the fire. He did not cry out or show any sign of pain as the yellow flame engulfed his hand up to the wrist. The sleeve of his shirt began to smoke.
Penelope jumped from the shadows. "Stop it. You'll kill him."
Selma twisted to look at Penelope and the torch moved away from Gryffon's hand. "How are you alive?" she said.
Penelope ignored the question. "It won't work, you know. You can't break the curse."
Selma laughed. "I'm starting to like you." She jammed the torch back into its holder. "You're right, I can't break the curse. But Gryffon can. He'll unlock the artifact of my accord, not his own. The oath remains intact. Devious but simple, don't you think?"
Penelope shook her head. Selma could not be right. Despite her confidence, Gryffon would not be able to defeat the strictures of the curse. Otherwise, there would have been no need for the Rose to seek her out or for Gryffon to send her back. "I don't know why but it won't work. You will fail."
The certainty in her words ate at the sneer on Selma's face. She let go of Samantha's hair and the Lady slid back onto the floor. "How do you know this?" asked Selma.
"He told me," said Penelope. She looked at Gryffon. The ranger stood with his arm still out-stretched. Pieces of loose skin hung from his bloody, blistered hand.
"I guess you don't know him as well as you thought," Penelope said.
"You're lying. He told you nothing because he knew nothing. I made very sure to wipe any memories of our sessions together. Till this day he never knew he was my pawn. I've had enough of your games. Kill her, dog."
In a heartbeat, Gryffon leapt over the table, sword in his good hand. He attacked with a flurry of blows, driving her back again and again.
Penelope tried to counter. She flowed into every stroke he had taught her but Gryffon brushed them aside without effort. This was not a training session with a man in his later years, slowed by the ages. This Gryffon was at the height of his strength and ability. And he had no purpose but to kill her.
With a backslash she did not even see, the ranger sliced a gash from the elbow of her free hand to her shoulder. Fiery pain blinded her and she barely brought her sword to bear against the blow that would have left her headless. Gryffon pressed his advantage, slamming a knee into her open midsection. The crack of her ribs echoed off the stone walls.
On her hands and knees, Penelope scrambled away with all the speed her ruined body could muster. She threw chairs, bowls, whatever she could get her hands on, to slow his pursuit. When she reached the corner of the room, she turned and pressed her back against the hard stone.
There was no where else to go and he was still stalking her. A few more steps and he would be on her again.
With one arm numb and bleeding badly and half her ribcage caved in, she would not last five more seconds against him. She knew she had just one choice left, the last attack he had taught her. It would be suicide but she was dead anyway. At least she would die fighting. That had to count for something.
She pulled in a deep breath, ignoring the daggers of pain piercing her side. With a shout she sprang at him, swinging her sword in a wide arc at his right shoulder. Gryffon easily blocked the attack but the instant their blades touched, Penelope dropped down and spun around. Her sword whistled through the air toward his left knee.
She knew it was already too late. Too quick, the ranger reacted to the second attack. From the corner of her eye, Penelope judged her attack would arrive a hair behind the sword into his left hand.
His badly burned left hand.
All the times he had forced her to practice this move, his weapon would be there in his left hand to meet her attack and he would trounce her. Yet, he insisted on repeating the move again and again, deaf to her complaints. Because he had known all along what would happen.
The sword slipped from his crippled fingers.
Her sword sliced into his left knee with a sickening crunch.
The ranger stumbled backwards a few steps then he fell. He never made a sound. The lower half of his leg was held together by a few threads of muscle and tendon. Penelope stayed frozen in her crouch, the bloody sword dangling limply before her. She stared at the man she loved, blood gushing from his split leg. She tried to say something, to tell him she was sorry, but she could not get her mouth to move.
From what seemed a great distance, Penelope thought she heard Selma shouting for Gryffon to kill her.
As Penelope watched in horror, the ranger obeyed. Gripping his sword like a staff, Gryffon lifted himself back onto his one good leg. He hobbled towards her, falling twice but spurred back to his feet by the cries at his back.
Penelope realized he would not stop until she was dead.
"Please, I can't do it," she cried, tears flowing down her cheeks. "Please stop." She could not kill him. She loved him. For a time, he loved her. But he sent her back, knowing she would have to fight him. Teaching her the only way to beat him. He had trusted her with his life. She could not let him down.
As the ranger lifted his sword to strike, she thrust her own up into his stomach. His weight slid him down the blade until he reached the hilt, his face just inches from her own. He said nothing but his eyes were moist with tears. The hold of the Rose had been broken. He nodded once with a weak smile. Then he toppled over sideways to the floor and was still.
"This is not over, fool," Selma shouted. She ran from the room.
Penelope let her go. She knelt beside Gryffon and cradled his head in her lap. His breathing was so shallow she could barely make out the rise and fall of his chest.
"Gry," she said. "it's over. We won. You just gotta hold on until help comes, okay?"
But she could see in his eyes that he did not want to hold on. He blamed himself for everything. He would accept death as his punishment. He was sliding away.
And so was she. Whatever magic sent her back now recalled her to her own time. Bands of blue and gold swirled about her, moving faster and faster. Her body began to fade, the skin of her hands turning colorless. In a few seconds, she would be little more than a spirit.
She could not leave him like this. No one would know the sacrifice he made to atone for his part in the Rose's treachery. She had to find some way to make them understand.
What she did next would always mystify her. Why she thought of such a crazy idea or how she knew it would work were questions she would never answer. But, just before she disappeared, Penelope left Gryffon, floated across the room, and melted her incorporeal body into Samantha. In that last instant, their two minds became one. As the blackness closed around her, Penelope knew Samantha would understand.