Penelope emptied a packet of sugar into the cup of coffee. Gryffon sat across from her, devouring a pile of golden brown pancakes. They had stopped at a diner after leaving the park, picking a booth in the back, away from prying ears. At that late hour, the diner was nearly empty anyway.
"I mean, youíre really out there", she said.
"Youíve read the book", said Gryffon between chews.
"Will you stop with that book already. Listen, the only thing I know about your Sunset Knights is that Iím not gonna be one."
Penelope took a sip of coffee and her face screwed up into a grimace. "Now I remember why I donít drink this junk."She slid the cup off to the side.
"Why me?" she asked. "Why did you pick me?"
"I didnít", replied the ranger. "Are you going to eat that?"
Penelope handed him her plate of eggs. "The book picked you", he continued. "Or, more accurately, found you."
Penelope leaned back against the thick cushions of the booth, a smirk on her face. "Okay, Iíll play along", she said. "Why was the book looking for me?"
"You are a woman descended from the true blood of a Knight", Gryffon answered. "You fulfil the prophecy."
"Lucky me. You know I think Iíve read about this prophecy stuff before. Yea, thatís right. Itís in every fantasy book written in the last twenty years. So let me guess, Iím the only Ďtrue bloodí, right?"
Gryffon looked up from his food. " No. Thereíve been others. But youíre the first in two hundred years."
"Oooh, how exciting. Wait, donít tell me." She put her hands to her head, pretending to concentrate.
"Ummmm, now I remember how this goes", she said snapping her fingers. "The others have been killed by some evil cabal out to thwart the prophecy and take over the world."
Gryffon bit into a sausage link.
Gryffon shrugged. "You said not to tell you."
Penelope ran her hands through her hair. "I canít believe Iím listening to this crap. Alright. Okay. So whatís your role in all this?"
"To train you", answered the ranger.
"Train me? To do what?" Gryffon swallowed the last of his chocolate milk. "Perhaps we speak a different language. Youíre to become a Sunset Knight."
"Hello, smart guy. Hate to break the news but thereís no such thing as a Sunset Knight."
"Thatís the point", said Gryffon. "The Sunset Knights must live again. Youíll be the first."
"What about you? Arenít you supposed to be Gryffon from the book? Did your membership card expire or something?"
"I donít count. Iím here only to prepare you."
"Thatís very brave of you", said Penelope. "And why donít you count? You got something in your contract that says you canít fight evil?"
Gryffon met her stare and would not release it. "What matters is that youíve felt the book. You know you are different. Face the truth. Your truth. Stop being a child."
Penelope laughed. "Iím being a child? You want me to believe that youíve been following a creepy book for centuries waiting for the Ďtrue blood of a Knightí to show up and save the world and Iím the child?"
Gryffon smiled. "Glad to see youíve been paying attention."
Penelope squeezed out of the booth. "Youíre nuts", she said. She turned and stormed out of the diner.
"So it seems", said Gryffon as he rose and tossed some money onto the table. Grabbing the last sausage off his plate, he hurried after his charge.
Penelope fingered the yellow towel hanging from the doorknob of her dorm room. Yellow meant that Laurie had invited Billy to crash after their date. If Penelope had a date of her own, she would have to go to the guyís place if they wanted privacy.
Penelope laughed. How long had it been since she even had a date? Six, seven months? Not that there was a shortage of guys hitting on her. At least they used to. After a while they all got sick of asking. Now she was just a Ďcold bitchí or Ďlezzieí. Even Laurie, her only friend, called her unnatural.
Well, hey, Iím different. Isnít that what the nut said? ĎTrue blood of a Knightí?
She listened at the door and heard nothing. Quietly she entered the room. She was too wound up from that crazy old man to sleep. She decided to sit out on the patio and wait for the morning. Without thinking, she grabbed the strange book as she walked by her desk. Settling into the lounge chair under the patio light, she opened the book and started to read.
"And I said, ĎMarried? She never told me she was married.í"
Listening to Wildboyís tale was making Gryffon hungry. As the Knights elbowed their way through the crowded Yew Market, he tossed some gold to a fruit vendor for a basket of grapes.
"What was the woman doing all this time?" asked Gryffon, popping some grapes in his mouth.
Wildboy snorted a laugh. "Shaking under the sheets."
The two Knights settled in the shade of an oak tree behind the bakerís shop. Gryffon splashed his face with some water from his wineskin. Even in the shade, you could not escape the heat of the sun.
"So, what did the husband do?" asked the ranger.
"He put the club down and said he believed me", said Wildboy.
"Hold a moment", said Gryffon. "If the husband believed you, why did you jump from the window?"
"Let me finish", said Wildboy. "The husband started cursing her, calling her a lying witch. I agreed with him. ĎShame on youí, I told her, Ďthereís a big difference between engaged and married.í
"Thatís about when I went out the window."
Passersby looked sideways at the two men laughing themselves silly under a tree.
"What could be so funny to make Knights roll about the grass like little boys?" asked a familiar voice.
The Knights jumped to their feet. The Lady Samantha ducked under a low branch and hugged each of the Knights in greeting. "Come, tell me", said the Lady, fanning herself. "I could use some humor on such a hot day."
"Lady, Wildboy was in Trinsic last night", Gryffon began, "and a woman... ouch."
Wildboy slapped him in the back of the head.
"Uh, well, itís not important", said Gryffon, rubbing his head. "What brings you here, Lady?" he asked.
Samantha gave each of the Knights a look then shrugged her shoulders. "Octal has been begging me for some strawberry shortcake", she said. "Yew strawberries are his favorite. You two should join us for dinner tonight. Octal would love-"
"Thereís the murderer", came a shout from the crowd. "Over there."
At the cry of murder, the crowd swelled towards panic. People grabbed their children and bundles and began pushing their way out of the market. Heads jerked about in every direction as if they expected to be the next victim.
A band of Yew militia struggled through the tide of people, trying desperately to maintain a direction against the flood. "Be ready to aid the guards", Samantha told the other Knights.
"Who are they chasing?" said Wildboy, looking over the heads of the fleeing townspeople. "I canít see anything in that mess."
The guards stopped in front of the Knights. Gryffon recognized several of the group. He had patrolled the forest several times with the captain in charge.
"Hail, Captain", he said, "if we can be of ser-"
A tiny man with a hawkish face pushed his way past the front rank of guards. The man was wearing little more than rags and he smelled like the bottom of a beer barrel. "There be your killer." He pointed a dirty arm at the Lady Samantha. "There be the foul bitch."
For a moment, no one moved. Then Wildboy slapped the man in the face, knocking him back against the guards.
Steel rang as swords came free. Gryffon and Wildboy moved between the Lady and the guards.
"Knights", said the Lady Samantha, "stand down."
Wildboy took a half step at the hawkish man, sending him simpering behind the guards. The militia fanned out, looking to their captain for orders. For the captainís part, she looked ready to attack.
Samantha placed a hand on Wildboyís arm. "I said to stand down."
Gryffon was the first to resheath his blade. He would die before seeing harm come to the Lady. But he had sworn service to her and would never disobey her. Times like these made the double edge of that oath hard to bear.
Wildboy took a place one step behind the Lady. But his sword remained free at his side.
Samantha smiled at the captain. "Hail brave protectors of Yew, I am Samantha of the Sunset Knights. Clearly there has been some mistake here. I can assure you, Iíve not committed the deed that man accuses me of."
The captain bowed. "Hail Samantha of the Sunset Knights. Your name is known in the forest as a friend. As is the ranger Gryffon there beside you." The captain turned and grabbed the Ladyís accuser by the neck, pulling him to her side. "This man tells he saw you commit murder against a citizen of the land. It is my duty to investigate that claim. Nothing more, nothing less."
"I understand", said the Lady. "But whom did I murder?"
"That I canít say", said the captain. "The body is burned beyond recognition. By my guess, burned by powerful magic. You are one of the landís greatest mages, no?"
"This is ridiculous", said Gryffon. "Captain, there are many that wield such power. And most without the reputation of the Lady. Is he your only proof?"
The accuser tugged at the captainís cloak. "Show them my proof", the man whined. "Show them."
The captain slapped the manís hand away and shoved him onto another guard. From her belt, she pulled a tattered piece of cloth about the size of a fist. The cloth was the same golden yellow as the cloak each Knight wore, including the Lady.
"This was found hanging from a branch near the body. Obviously torn from the murderer during flight from the scene. Lady, may I examine your cloak?"
"Of course", said Samantha. She turned so that the captain could hold the rag against her cloak.
The captain ran her hands along the length of the cloak. The garment was in fine condition. Nowhere was there a tear or rip of any kind.
"That settles it", said Gryffon. "This man was wrong. Now take him away before he learns the cost of his poor eyesight."
The captain shook her head. "The inside if you please, Lady."
The cloak each Knight wore was made by the best tailors in the land, cut from the finest cloth and patterned after the most popular fashions. And each was double-lined.
"Of course", said the Lady without hesitation. She removed the clasp at her neck and held the cloak out to the captain, inside facing out. Again the captain ran her hands down the length of the cloak. This time she found a large tear near the cloakís hem. The ragged piece of cloth was a perfect fit.
"Lady", asked the captain, "would you come with us to the body?"
Gryffon stepped in front of Samantha, his back to the captain. He kept his words to a whisper so none but Samantha and Wildboy could hear. "Lady, let us fly from this place. Somewhere we can think this through."
Their eyes met. For an instant, Gryffon thought she would agree. Then Samantha took a short breath and the stubborn set of her face
returned. "Do you think me guilty, Gry?" she asked.
"Lady, no. On my heart, no. But-"
"Then why would I run." She turned to Wildboy. "Please find the rest of the council. Tell them what has happened here. And tell Octal Iím sorry about his cake."
She took Gryffonís arm and followed the guards into the forest. They walked for some time, past the city border and through the surrounding farmland, into the thickest part of the forest. It was cooler there, the sun unable to break through the overhead canopy of leaves except in small golden patches. Still, Gryffon felt sweat running down the back of his neck.
Finally the group entered a small clearing. At the far side sat what looked to be the charred remains of a wood hut. The trees surrounding the hut were black with ash and twisted as if their limbs had been subjected to some malevolent torture. It hurt Gryffon just to look at them. A scorched husk lay in the middle of the clearing.
The captain stopped. "From here, there are only two sets of footprints. The victimís and the killerís." She directed her guards to ring the clearing in case someone tried to disrupt the investigation. The Knights acted as though they did not understand the implication.
Giving instructions that the accuser be held to a tight rein, the captain waved for Gryffon and the Lady to follow. They stopped again when they reached the body. The smell of it was horrible. Gryffon covered his nose as he bent closer for a look. Whoever the thing had been in life had been wiped away by ferocious magic. Gryffon doubted even the personís own mother would recognize what was left.
The captain had been right about the footprints. The clearing was mostly sparse grass and dirt. Two sets of prints were clearly visible in the mud dried by the dayís heat. That meant the murder would have been done in the morning before the sun reached over the trees.
The captain knelt by one print. "This belongs to the victim. I measured them myself against what was left of a boot. They come into the clearing from the west, behind the hut."
The captain traced her finger along the edge of the impression.
"Listen to me, the two of you", she said, keeping her voice low, "but show no surprise at what I say. The ranger Gryffon is known to all as a friend of both tree and animal. There are not many among the people of Yew that care for the forest with the purity of his service. Certainly, his likewise devotion to Samantha of the Sunset Knights speaks well of her worth."
As she spoke, the captain began pointing to the edges of the clearing and the ground as if explaining something of the evidence.
"When we return to the city, I will swear on my honor that your boot matched none of the prints around the body. The only real evidence left will be the word of that creature over there, who may not last the night if he touches me again. The matter will be closed and forgotten by tomorrow morn."
Gryffon wanted to grab the captain and kiss her. He did not believe for one moment that Samantha had committed this foul deed. Still, it was better to have the whole mess go away before it started. There were too many enemies of the guild that would love nothing more than to see the Ladyís name besmirched, no matter how ridiculous the charge.
He was about to turn and head back to the city when Samantha stepped forward. She hesitated for a moment as if trying to remember the courage of her conviction. Then she put her boot into one of the prints. Another perfect fit. Gryffon groaned.
"I thank you for the offer, captain, but I must decline. As you can see, your oath would be a lie. And not just a lie against my honor or yours. You are right when you say Gryffonís service to the forest is pure. Yet your lie would be grounded upon that very purity. He is one of my dearest friends. Iíll not allow that which he cares for so deeply be sullied."
"Lady", Gryffon cried, "donít do this."
Samantha took the rangerís hand and lightly kissed the back of his fingers. "Peace, Knight. Iíll need your strength in the days to come."
She looked at the captain who was watching her with a shocked expression. "Captain, if you will."
After a moment, the captain bowed to the lady. "Samantha of the Sunset Knights", she said, "by the authority of the Yew Council, you are under arrest. The charge is murder."
Gryffon watched the girl sleep on the patio until the sun rose over the dormitory building. He left when her friend came out to wake her. She was safe for another night and it was time for him to get some rest.
He could not help but wonder how long he had before the enemy found her.