The first swing nearly took her head off.
Penelope ducked beneath the axe and drove her elbow into the monster's ribs. Continuing her turn, she slammed both fists into the base of its spine.
The creature staggered forward a few steps but caught its balance before she could attack again. It turned and lumbered toward her, howling some gibberish she could not understand.
"I doubt that's hello," Penelope said as she spun and sprinted away from the creature.
Suddenly a horse jumped over the hedgerow right in front of her, knocking her down. The ground shook as the horse landed, throwing loose dirt and stones up in every direction. Its rider never saw her as he shouted a war cry and spurred the horse at the monster.
An instant later another horse vaulted the hedge. The rider, one hand keeping a large, floppy hat from flying off his head, smiled as he passed. "Never fear, lady," he shouted over his shoulder, "we'll finish this-"
The man reined his horse to a stop so sharply that he went flying over the horse's head and hit the ground with a thud. Once he stopped rolling in a tangle of gold cloak and blue robes, the man leapt to his feet, staring at her. He rubbed at his eyes and blinked at her several times. Then his face split into a huge grin.
Penelope remembered that she was completely naked.
She dove over the hedgerow and huddled behind the thick foliage.
Penelope heard the crunch of boots in the dirt as the man followed her. She could not run. With horses, they would catch her before she got a hundred yards. She looked around for a weapon. Nothing but a thin stick and a rock half the size of her palm. She grabbed both and waited for the man to show his face over the hedge.
The footsteps stopped. She could see a hint of blue through the leaves.
"A bit of a mystery here," said the man. "You can't be a harpy. No wings and certainly not gruesome. A succubus then, sent to lure men with your beauty? A fair deduction if not for your embarrassed retreat. No, after weighing all the facts, I believe you are indeed a beautiful woman walking bare around the countryside."
"What a genius," said Penelope, trying to keep her voice light. Her hands were sweating so badly she almost dropped the rock. "Shouldn't you be helping your friend over there."
"Hmmm…no, he can handle the orc himself. Besides, there's still your lack of apparel that must be pondered. Is the day so warm that-"
"Look, Sherlock, how about you just be on your way?"
"Sherlock? My apologies, lady, for my manners. I am Ar-Kane of the Sunset Knights. I'm afraid I don't know this Sherlock. But if you'd only stand and point out in which direction he lives, I'd be happy to search him out for you."
"Sunset Knights?" Penelope poked her head above the hedge. "Did you say Sunset Knights?"
The man's eyes bulged when he saw her face. Immediately he dropped behind the hedge.
"Hey, where'd you go?" said Penelope.
"Samantha," the man said, "what are you…Lady, for decency's sake, please cover yourself." He threw his cloak over the hedge.
Penelope wrapped the cloak around her shoulders. "What are you talking about?"
Before Ar-Kane answered, the other rider trotted over. Penelope ducked back behind the hedge.
"Ar-Kane, have you taken to worshipping bushes now?" said the man.
Ar-Kane whispered something Penelope could not make out.
"Sam?" laughed the other man. "Behind the hedge? Naked? What have you been sniffing in that lab of yours? Alright, alright. I'll see myself."
Penelope felt hot breath on the back of her neck. She looked up into a horse's face.
"Hello," said the horse. "Could you please tell this fool to lose some weight?"
"Uh…sure," Penelope said.
The rider leaned over the horse's neck. "Here now girl, what are…? Sam!?! What are you doing down there?"
Penelope stood up, holding the cloak tight around her body. Both men stared at her, saying nothing.
"Look, I don't know…" It hit her. Samantha of the Sunset Knights. That's who they thought she was.
Standing as straight as she could, she put her fists on her hips. Actually just one fist. The other held the cloak shut.
She puffed out her chest and gave her hair a regal shake. "Yes, I am Samantha," she said in a voice a few octaves too deep, "and you are my knights. I command you to give me your pants and boots."
"My boots?" said Ar-Kane.
The man on the horse laughed. "Sam," he said with a wink, "if you be wanting my pants, I'd expect a little courting first."
"You must be Wildboy," said Penelope.
"And you must be drunk," Wildboy answered. "What's going-"
"Wild, that's not Sam," said Ar-Kane.
"-on here. What? Not Sam? I have two eyes the same as you."
Ar-Kane studied Penelope's face. "This girl is younger. And taller. See, she's near my height. Sam's shorter by a measure."
"So now this isn't Sam." Wildboy's eyes lost their playful gleam. His hand shifted slightly closer to the sword hilt at his waist. "Then what trick does she play to look like her twin?"
"The mystery deepens," said Ar-Kane. "Girl, where did you get that pendant?" he asked.
She had forgotten about the pendant. She lifted it out from the cloak. Sunlight danced on the gem's blue and gold swirls.
"It was given to me by a friend," she said.
The two Knights looked at each other. They seemed to be speaking to each other but without words. Finally they both nodded in agreement.
"That's not a gift to be given lightly," said Wildboy. "You will come with us to the castle so we may talk on this further."
In a swift leap, his horse cleared the hedge. Wildboy held his hand out to help her onto the horse.
Penelope hesitated. She wanted time to think. Gryffon warned her of a traitor. How could she know who to trust?
As if he read her mind, Wildboy said, "Girl, you're coming, either of your free will or tied hand and foot. Trust me on that."
"The name's Penelope, she said, accepting his hand. He lifted her easily onto the horse's rump. "And by the way, you need to lose some weight."
The horse neighed its thanks.
They rode to the castle after a quick stop for some clothes in a city Ar-Kane called 'Britain'. To Penelope, the city looked much like she imagined a medieval city would look. Except for one oddity. There seemed to be an awful lot of people running around in their underwear.
They dismounted in the castle's courtyard and a stableboy came to take the horses. Penelope walked with Ar-Kane as Wildboy led them toward the massive wooden inner gates. Penelope heard shouting and the clang of metal bashing metal coming from somewhere on the grounds.
Ar-Kane must have noticed the question on her face for he said, "Often, Knights use their quiet time for dueling. Helps to keep us fit."
Someone yowled a curse. "That sounds like more than practice," said Penelope.
Ar-Kane grinned. "We can be a zealous bunch sometimes."
Wildboy pulled open the doors and stepped aside. "Welcome to the Castle of the Sunset Knights," he said, bowing. "Enter as a friend."
Penelope walked into the castle. Just inside, she stopped, marveling at the sheer size of the meeting hall. Beautiful tapestries lined the stone walls, the vibrant colors dizzying. All manners of weapons and shields hung beside the tapestries. Some carried the wear of vicious combat, others were so pristine and majestic that battle would be too mundane a use for them. Finely carved tables and chairs sat evenly spaced about the room, providing a comfortable gathering place for dozens of people.
She had never seen anything like the room. And the fact she was standing ankle deep in water only added to the surreal experience.
Ar-Kane and Wildboy splashed down next to her.
"What the…?" Wildboy said. "Where did all this water come from?"
The entire floor of the hall was covered in water.
"Uh, oh," said Ar-Kane. "Um, I think I forgot something in Trinsic. I'll be back in-"
"Ar-Kane!?!" came a shout. "Is that your voice I hear?"
Ar-Kane's face lost all its color. "Aye, Lady," he squeaked. "It's me."
A woman appeared in an open doorway across the room. She was soaked to the skin, her hair matted to her head in wet clumps. Lifting her dripping robe above her knees, she sloshed her way across the hall. Straight as an arrow, she headed right at Ar-Kane.
Penelope thought she was looking in a mirror. Except she doubted she could ever manage to look that pissed off.
"How many times have I told you," Samantha growled, "to make sure your water elementals are locked up before you leave the castle?"
"Um," answered the mage, trying very hard to look lovable, "I haven't really been counting but if you want my best guess, I'd say-"
"Not another word," Samantha said.
"Shush! First thing you'll do is clean up this mess. Then you'll polish the armor of all the Knights that had to fight your stupid pets. And sharpen their blades. Maybe next time you'll remem-" She stopped and looked a Penelope. Her eyes widened in surprise. "Who is this?"
Wildboy tried to answer but every time he looked at Samantha, he burst into laughter.
Penelope held out her hand and introduced herself. "I'm new here," she said.
Samantha took her hand in greeting. Her eyes never left Penelope's face. "Be welcome in our home, Penelope. But tell me why you have come."
Ar-Kane stepped forward, moving too quick and splashing Samantha. "We found her, Lady," he said before Samantha could complain. "Naked and alone at the edge of the forest."
"Naked?" said Samantha, raising an eyebrow. "That explains why these two showed such an interest in you."
Ar-Kane told her of the pendant. "Show her," he said.
Penelope held the gem out for Samantha to see.
"And you say another Knight gave this to you? Such a gift would carry great meaning to both the giver and taker. Why was it given?"
Penelope had prepared herself for such questions on the ride to the castle. "He wanted you to know that I was a friend." Close enough to the truth, she supposed.
Samantha studied her face for several long moments. Then she nodded, accepting the answer. "He? Who was this Knight?"
Penelope was ready for that as well. "Before he gave the gem, he made me promise not to identify him. He said you would expect too much from me if you knew. He wanted you to judge me on my merits, not his."
Samantha thought on that as well. "A good decision," she said finally. "A wise enough man, this Knight. Which leaves these two out."
Wildboy stopped laughing. "Me? What did I do?"
Samantha put her arm around Penelope's shoulders. "Come, let's find a quiet place to talk while they clean up."
"They?!?" Wildboy cried. "What do you mean, 'they'?"
Some hours later, Penelope found Ar-Kane in the library.
"Hail Penelope," said the mage, putting down the book he was reading. "Has Sam finished with you finally?"
Penelope nodded. "She mentioned you wanted my help with something."
"Well, not help really," he replied, motioning her to sit in the chair opposite him. "I know the day has been hectic for you, with all the questions and meeting the other Knights. I just guessed you might enjoy some time away from the castle. Tomorrow can be a fresh start."
Penelope's eyes narrowed. "What are you suggesting?"
Ar-Kane laughed. "Nothing like that. Unless…unless you have something, er, in mind perhaps."
"Of course not. I didn't think so for a moment. But if you ever…never mind. No, I was thinking more along the lines of a quiet dinner with a friend. He's quite the cook and-"
"Gryffon?" she said.
"Yes. How did you know I was speaking of Gry?"
"Uh, I heard other Knights talking about his cooking. I would love to see him, I mean, join him for dinner."
"It's settled then." He took her hand. "We'll just go down to the elemental room to double check the locks then we're off. We should make it to the Yew forest well before the sun sets."
As they walked down the stairs, Ar-Kane said, "That gold cloak suits you well."
"Ho, Selma," Ar-Kane shouted as they walked up the road towards the small log cabin. "Is there enough for two more?"
The woman glanced up from the pot she was stirring. "Ho, Ar-Kane," she called back with a smile, "you'll run out of appetite before this pot runs empty."
"We'll see about that, lady." He hugged the woman and bent over the pot. "Not harpy again?" he asked, sniffing at the air.
"Troll and ettin. Fresh from this morning." Selma wiped her hands on the apron at her waist. She bowed to Penelope. "Lady Samantha," she said with a wide smile, "it's a pleasure to welcome you to my home again."
Before Penelope could say a word, Ar-Kane cut in. "Ignore your eyes, Selma." Briefly he explained the events of the day.
When the mage finished, Selma bowed again. "Forgive my mistake, Penelope. The pleasure is the same, nonetheless."
The smile remained but Penelope thought she detected a flash of ice in the woman's eyes. Something that had not been there when the woman welcomed her as the guildmistress. An instant later and Selma was all warmth again.
"The stew's about done," said Selma. "Go wake your lazy friend from his nap so we can eat."
"Nap?" said Ar-Kane. "This late in the afternoon?" He took Penelope's arm and led her into the house. "I swear that man is getting old."
"Get up, dog," Ar-Kane yelled up the stairs. "Is this how you treat your favorite guest? Making me wait for my dinner?"
"You mean frequent guest," answered the familiar voice from upstairs.
"Come downstairs. I have a surprise for you." To Penelope, Ar-Kane whispered, "How would you feel about playing a little trick on the ranger?"
"I don't think-"
A door opened at the top of the stairs. "A surprise?" said Gryffon as he came down the stairs. "Have you brought your own food then?"
All the breath left her body when she saw him. How young he looked. So beautiful. It took all her resolve not to run into his arms.
The two Knights hugged in greeting. Gryffon slapped Ar-Kane on the back. "It does my heart good to see you again, my friend," he said. "Now what's this surprise of yours?"
Ar-Kane stepped aside so he could see Penelope. "Look who has come with me."
Gryffon looked at her. "I'm sorry but do I know you, lady?" he asked.
"What?" exclaimed Ar-Kane. "Gry, how could you know that wasn't Sam?"
"Have you lost your mind, mage?" Gryffon walked over to a table and poured out four goblets of wine. "Why would you think I'd mistake her for Samantha."
"Why? Look at her, man. She's almost an exact-"
"He loves her," Penelope said.
The ranger's head whipped around. His eyes cut at her like daggers. "Who are you, that you pretend to know me?" he asked in a dangerous voice.
"Nobody," she said, turning away so they would not see the tears she fought to hold back. "I'm nobody."
Ar-Kane came to her aid. "Gry, I'm sure she meant no offense."
"He's right," she said, "I meant no offense. Please forgive me if I spoke out of turn."
He was right behind her now. She could feel the heat coming off his body. "No, lady," he said, "the fault is mine. Would you excuse my foolishness?"
"Sure, no problem," she said, turning and holding out her hand. "Hail, I'm Penelope. And you are?"
The two Knights laughed. Gryffon took her hand in his. "Well met, Penelope. Gryffon of the Sunset Knights at your service. Come, my nose tells me the stew is ready."
Gryffon led her outside with Ar-Kane right behind. "Penelope, have you ever tasted Troll Goulash."
"Troll? Like in 'hiding under the bridge' kind of troll."
"Um, I suppose so," he answered as they joined Selma at the table, "though that would have to be a pretty big bridge."
During the meal, they talked of Penelope's first visit to the castle and the latest news of the guild.
"By the way, Gry," said Ar-Kane, picking at his teeth with a splinter of troll leg bone, "I thought you were supposed to meet me yesterday to help with the missive to the Cove Council about adding patrols around their cemetery? What happened?"
"Yesterday? Oh, I was…" Gryffon looked very confused. "Yesterday, I…That's funny. I can't remember what I did yesterday. I remember promising to meet you but that's it."
He asked Selma, "What did I do yesterday?"
She shrugged. "I was with the militia the whole day. I didn't see you until evening."
Ar-Kane burst out laughing. He grabbed Gryffon's goblet. "No more for you, my friend. You brain's becoming addled."
Gryffon shared the joke. "Good thing you'll never have to worry about that," he said.
"Aye, one of the benefits of being crazy at the start." Ar-Kane leaned over to Penelope and whispered into her ear, "Not the bad kind of crazy, don't you worry."
"Whew," she replied with exaggerated relief, "that's a real load off my mind."
Selma rose and began clearing the dishes. The others offered to help but Selma refused.
"Finish your guild business," she said. "Tonight's the last day for the Festival of Flowers in the city proper. I thought we could take a walk and enjoy the closing ceremonies."
They all agreed. So, as Selma cleaned up, Ar-Kane discussed what little business he had.
"I didn't come just for dinner," he said. "Sam asked me to bring you back to the castle. The decision has been made on what the council discussed at the last meeting. We will perform the ritual at first light. Sam wants as many Knights as possible to attend."
Penelope guessed they were talking about the artifact Gryffon told her about. Ar-Kane must mean that the Knights would invoke the curse tomorrow morning. Had Gryffon said the traitor attacked before or after the curse? It had to be after because the Rose failed to unlock the artifact once they had it. But how much after? And who was the traitor? She had met most of the Knights and she didn't have a clue one way or the other. How could she stop something when she was as blind as the rest of them?
Ar-Kane had stopped talking and was getting up from the table. "If you'll excuse me, I must attend to business at the privy."
Penelope and Gryffon sat in silence for a few moments. She wanted to tell him everything but how? He would never believe her? She almost didn't believe her. No, he would listen. Even if he didn't believe her, he would hear her story. Once he knew of the traitor, he would be on the lookout too. But for what? For who? And what if he decided to tell the other Knights. Then the traitor would know. Gryffon had said her only chance was surprise. But she could explain everything to Gryffon and…What was she saying? That she would explain to Gryffon what Gryffon had said?
I'm going crazy, because that makes perfect sense to me.
He looked at her and smiled.
"Gry, there's something I have-"
Selma walked up with Ar-Kane right behind her. "Ready?" she asked.
Gryffon nodded. He started to rise then stopped. "I'm sorry, Penelope. Did you want to tell me something?"
They were all looking at her now. She cleared her throat. "Just that the troll was delicious," she said with a weak smile.
They decided to walk to the city. It was not far and Penelope would have the chance to see more of the forest. They had just past a small farming village, mostly empty except for a few stragglers that had decided to skip the festival, when they first heard it.
The sound of marching feet.
"This way," said Gryffon and the four companions headed towards the noise. As they ran, forest animals fled past them in the opposite direction. Gryffon stopped a large deer.
"What's happening," he asked.
"Skeletons," replied the deer. "On the road."
"I don't know. Hundreds maybe. The column stretches too far to see the end. And liches at the head. At least a dozen of more."
"What's a liche?" asked Penelope.
Gryffon stared at her, his eyes full of questions. Behind him, Ar-Kane said, "Liche. What's this about a liche?"
"Undead march on Yew," answered Gryffon. "Flee," he told the deer. "Away from the city. Tell the others. Stay away from the city."
The ranger repeated what the deer had said.
"The militia must be warned," said Selma.
"We can gate to the city and spread the alarm," suggested Ar-Kane.
Selma shook her head. "The enemy's too close. There must be time to raise the defenses."
"The village then," Gryffon said. "Send the villagers to the city. We'll stay to give them time."
"Against an army?" said Penelope. "Not for nothing but that sounds like an awful lot of marching feet."
"Welcome to the Sunset Knights," Ar-Kane said with a wink.
"Yea, I heard that before," said Penelope as they ran back to the village.
"We'll stand here," said Gryffon. "They can only come four or five abreast."
The others nodded. The bridge was the best defensive position they found as they retreated before the advancing skeletons. Beyond the bridge, the road widened as it headed into Yew. Once the undead crossed, there would be little to slow them before the city.
Thanks to Ar-Kane's magic, their vision did not falter after the sky had turned into a dark blanket of stars. Penelope wondered if that was a good thing. At least she wouldn't have been able to see the army of skeletons shuffling toward the bridge. Or that they seemed to have no limit to their numbers.
Among the skeletons walked taller fiends covered in rotting robes and waving gnarled staffs above their heads.
"Liches," Ar-Kane told Penelope.
"Anyone else feel like pissing in their pants?" she asked.
"Lady!" said Ar-Kane in mock despair. "You should have gone before we left the house."
Gryffon snorted a laugh. He and Selma formed the front line, standing shoulder to shoulder at the foot of the bridge. They would meet the skeletons crossing the bridge. Penelope stayed in the rear with Ar-Kane. Her job was to keep Ar-Kane safe of any skeletons breaking through, leaving him free to deal with the liches and their magicks.
Together, Gryffon and Selma lifted their bows and let loose into the mass of skeletons. Arrow after arrow turned skeletons into a pile of bones. The horde never slowed. Where one skeleton fell, another closed the gap.
As the first skeletons reached the bridge, the arrows ran out.
Penelope gripped her sword in both hands to keep the hilt from slipping through her sweaty fingers. She tried not to look into the empty eye sockets coming at her. She tried not to listen to the scrape of the bony feet across the footstones.
"Focus where the danger lay," Gryffon had commanded during all their training sessions.
"Weapons and shields, Gry," she yelled, repeating the words he had drilled into her head. Just hearing her own voice helped release some of the tension in her muscles.
The ranger glanced back over his shoulder. He smiled when he noticed her fighting stance mirroring his own. "Aye lady, weapons and shields."
With a surge, the mass of skeletons fell on them. The liches howled a victorious laugh.
Gryffon and Selma stumbled under the assault. The first ranks fell into dust from their blades but the horde pressed forward without pause, crushing the two rangers with its weight.
Selma went to one knee, her sword barely blocking a rusted axe from cleaving her head in two. Gryffon gave way a step, then another. Bony fingers tore at his armor, his cloak. Blood ran from a cut across his cheek.
Beside Penelope, Ar-Kane worked feverishly to block the fire and lightning thrown against them. But for every spell he cast down, two more came at him from different angles.
A cry froze in Penelope's throat. We can't do this. There're too many.
"Run!" she screamed when she found breath. "For god's sake, run."
"Aye, flee," Ar-Kane shouted. The mage thrust his hands forward and a wave of blue flames flew from his fingertips. The fire passed over the heads of the closest skeletons then fell to form a wall across the width of the bridge. The wall of flame did not halt the skeletons' advance but it slowed them enough to ease the pressure against the two rangers. "Flee, you fleshless devils. All this rattling of bones is giving me a headache."
"As your yelling is giving me," said Gryffon. With his sword sweeping aside skeletons, he regained the ground he had lost. Selma was back on her feet beside him. "It's almost enough to make me envious of these ear-less dead," said Gryffon.
"Ha, Gry," Ar-Kane answered. "Remember they've no guts for food. You'd not fit in well among them."
On and on, the battle raged. No matter how many of their number fell, the undead never faltered in pressing the attack. Neither did the defenders relinquish an inch more of the ground they held. The two sides fought to a stalemate.
Until splashing from the river caught Penelope's attention.
"Knights," she said. "In the water."
Skeletons by the dozens were trying to wade the shallow river. The current dragged at them, slowing them down. But, little by little, the skeletons crossed towards the opposite shore. The battle would be over then.
"We need more time," Selma said. "The city is not prepared yet."
Ar-Kane ran to the edge of the bridge. Blue energy coursed down his arms and flowed into the water. The river rose upward into a water elemental. The monster surged forward and attacked the skeletons.
"That will not hold them long," said the mage. "I hope the militia hurries along."
In answer, a horn blared somewhere in the forest behind them. An instant later, other horns responded.
"The defenses are raised," said Selma.
"Then we are done here," said Gryffon.
He and Selma began giving ground until they met Ar-Kane and Penelope in the road. Skeletons poured off the bridge, spurred forward by the liches. The four defenders fought a slow retreat up the road, maintaining a pace that kept them just out of the skeleton's reach.
"Gry, is there a path nearby that cuts through the forest?" asked Ar-Kane.
"What's your thought?" said the ranger, parrying the backswing of a two-headed axe.
"That these liches will not let us escape easily. If we turn from the road, part of their strength will follow. We can bleed them a bit before they hit the city."
"I hear you," answered the ranger.
"What?" said Penelope. "Why don't we just run up the road and join the city defenses?"
"Then how would we get behind the column for our attack?" asked Ar-Kane.
"Attack?" Penelope's sword split a skeleton's skull in two. She danced away just before a spear pierced her ribs. "Just the four of us? Are you crazy?"
"Pen-" Ar-Kane began.
"I know," she said. "Welcome to the Sunset Knights."
They laughed as Gryffon turned them from the road onto a narrow path through the trees. As Ar-Kane expected, a fragment of the undead army split off from the main body and followed. A much larger fragment than they had guessed.
Ar-Kane mumbled, "Well, isn't that interesting. They must be very mad with us."
"I hope you're happy now," said Penelope.
The mage just smiled.
They fought in retreat for what seemed to Penelope like hours. Her arms ached badly from the weight of her sword. Twice she almost missed a parry. The others were not faring much better. The fight at the bridge had taken more out of them than they would admit. Even the two Knights began to show signs of fatigue.
Finally, Gryffon called for them to increase their pace. They would put some distance between themselves and the undead. Then they could find a place to gather their breath.
Passing water and cheese between them, they hurried through the trees, careful to stay close enough that the undead never lost their scent.
Suddenly, the trees parted into an open glade. A tower stood in the middle of the glade. Candlelight flickered in several of the tower's windows.
"Who lives here?" asked Ar-Kane.
"Some religious order," replied Selma. "They keep to themselves mostly. An old knight sometimes appears in the city for supplies and the like."
"Well, they can't stay here tonight," said Gryffon. "Not with those undead on our heels."
Gryffon knocked on the large wooden door with the hilt of his sword.
"Hurry," said Penelope. She could hear the undead in the forest, tromping closer with every second.
Gryffon banged louder and someone cursed in reply. The door opened and an old man dressed in a nightshirt appeared holding a melting candle. The man's shirt bore the crest of a golden fig leaf.
"What's all this racket?" said the old man. "Do you people know what time it is?"
"Aye, my friend," Ar-Kane answered. He stuck his head inside the door and looked around. "It's time to leave. Is there anyone else here with you?"
The old man pushed Ar-Kane away from the door. "Milady is here, if it's any of your business. Now be on your way before I show you what for."
Gryffon stepped aside so the old man could see the first skeletons approaching the tower. "And there's plenty more to follow. So rouse your mistress and come with us."
The old man blinked in surprise at the sight of the skeletons. Then he recovered and determination returned to his face.
"We're not leaving," he said.
"Have you lost your mind?" said Gryffon. "Go get your lady or we'll drag you both out by your toes."
"You don't understand. Milady is a virgin of the goddess Virilias. She has pledged to love a life of purity in this tower, as tribute to the goddess. I'm her sworn armsman. I can never abandon her side. To leave would be blasphemy, no matter what the reason."
Penelope and Selma took up defensive positions near the door as the skeletons plodded closer.
"Do something soon," Penelope called out.
"We are," said Ar-Kane. The Knights grabbed Selma and Penelope and pulled them into the tower. The old man slammed the door shut and barred it closed with a thick wood log.
"What the hell was that?" said Penelope, shaking free of Ar-Kane's hand. "Those things are gonna be all over this place in a second."
"Unfortunately, you have a wonderful grasp of the obvious," said Ar-Kane. "What other defenses does the tower have?" he asked the old man.
The old man shrugged.
"Defenses?" said Penelope. "We're staying? Are you insane?"
"Insane?" the mage replied, helping Gryffon carry a heavy chest over to block the door. "No, just crazy."
"Penelope," said Gryffon, "this man has sworn a pledge to remain in his lady's service. We find honor in that oath. As Knights, we can not just abandon such virtue."
"Besides," said Ar-Kane, "the woman is a virgin. You see so few around these days. A shame it would be to turn our backs on such innocence."
Heavy blows rained against the door. The wood shuddered and splintered but it held. At least for the moment.
"Upstairs," Gryffon shouted over the pounding.
Penelope and Selma pulled the man up the stone stairway. At the top was a small landing and another wooden door. The two women looked at the door then at each other, sharing the same thought. The flimsy door would shatter with the first stroke.
Behind them, the tower's main door burst apart and skeletons poured into the tower. The Knights backed up the stairs slowly, slaying skeletons with every step.
A liche appeared at the bottom of the stairs, its mad laughter bouncing about the stone walls. The air sizzled with magic as Ar-Kane and the liche hurled spells at each other.
Selma ordered the old man to open the door. The two women followed him through the doorway.
Row upon row of candles lit the room in a soft yellow light. Overstuffed pillows of every color covered the floor, forming one large mattress to walk on. The room smelled so strongly of lilac that Penelope's eyes started to water.
A woman stood by the room's only window. Her large breasts and wide hips stretched her lacey gown almost to the point of splitting. Penelope guessed her age at somewhere in the thirties but it was hard to tell because of all the makeup powder she wore. Her glossy red lips shimmered in the candlelight.
Penelope leaned close to Selma. "I don't know about you," she whispered, "but I was expecting something a little more…'virgin-ish'"
"Milady," said the old man, "we are beset-" He tried to go to her but his boots sank into the pillows up to his knees and he pitched forward onto his face. He climbed to his feet, struggling with his balance. "-by enem-" He tried another few steps and fell flat into the pillows again.
The old man rolled over onto his back and spit feathers out of his mouth. "We're in trouble," he said.
"Oh, heavens above," the woman cried, fanning herself with her hand. "Oh, poor me. Won't anyone save me." She looked about to faint.
At least she'll have a soft landing, Penelope thought.
The two Knights rushed into the room. Gryffon slammed the door behind them.
"Selma and Gryffon at the door," said Ar-Kane. "Penelope and…" He caught sight of the virgin. "Bubbles?!?"
The woman stopped in mid-faint. "Kaney!" She hopped across the pillows with practiced ease and leapt into the Knight's arms. Her kiss seemed to engulf the lower half of his face.
"Bubbles?" said Gryffon.
"Kaney?" said the old knight.
Ar-Kane pushed the woman off him. "What are you doing here?" he asked her. He looked around. "Where's the virgin?"
Gryffon put his back to the door, trying to keep it closed against the pounding from the other side. "This is Bubbles? From that tavern you enjoy visiting so often? The 'you wouldn't believe what she'd do for a diamond' Bubbles?"
The mage's face turned red. "Hehe, stop your kidding, Gry." He looked at Penelope. "I don't know what he's talking about."
"Yea, right," said Penelope. She pointed to his face. "You got some spittle on your chin."
The old man was on his knees. "I demand to know what's going."
"What's going on?" Penelope picked up a pillow and flung it at the old man's head. "I'll tell you what's going on. We're fighting for our lives because little miss trumpet here sneaked out of your precious tower and did god-knows-what with prince charming over there. She's as much a virgin as I am."
Everyone stared at Penelope. Bubbles giggled with delight.
"Okay, forget I said that," Penelope muttered. "The point is, she hasn't kept her side of the bargain."
Penelope glared at the woman. "How'd you get out, sister? Through the window?"
The woman plopped down on the pillows, pouting. "I don't like you," she said to Penelope.
The old man crawled over to her. "Is this true, lady? Did you sneak from the window?"
She shook her head. "I usually just walk out the front door when you fall asleep."
"Usually?" gasped the old man. "How many times have you done this?"
"Well," said the woman, "you fall asleep a lot."
The old man buried his face in his hands. "My life wasted," he cried between sobs. "What a fool I am."
An axe head sliced through the door, just missing Gryffon's ear. The ranger backed away from the door, up to his boot-tops in pillows. "Look at the bright side, old man," he said. "At least we can leave now."
Ar-Kane nodded and opened a gate just as undead burst through the door.
They stepped onto the streets of Jhelom. Ar-Kane closed the gate, neatly slicing in half the skeleton that tried to follow.
As Selma and Ar-Kane tried to calm the shaken Bubbles, reassuring her that no one thought she was a tramp, Penelope noticed Gryffon off to the side with the old knight, whispering into the man's ear. Whatever Gryffon said, it lifted the old man's spirit and his face brightened into a wide smile.
After directing the old knight and Bubbles to a tavern for a hot meal and some rest, the Knights and their companions made ready to rejoin the battle for Yew. As Ar-Kane opened a gate to the city, Penelope tugged at Gryffon's elbow.
"What did you say to the old man," she asked, "that made him so happy?"
Gryffon smiled. "Only that his service remained pure. In that way he held onto honor, no matter the failings of those he swore to protect."
The ranger stepped up to the blue gate.
"And I gave him some diamonds. Hopefully he'll spend it wisely."