Final Exam

by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/154067.html)

“Next question. Cite three animals into which a witch is most likely to turn a princess.”

“Let’s see… frog, doe and… rat?”

Tristan’s frown turned into a grimace. “Rat? When did you ever hear a tale where the princess turned into a rat?”

Brynn shrugged. “Well who knows, witches like rats don’t they? Why not turn one of the blond tart into one?”

Tristan sighed. “You, my friend, are hopeless. The right answer is a swan. Frog, doe and swan!”

“Swan, rat, it’s all the same.”

“Until you try to give it a kiss,” Tristan pointed out.

There was a pause while Brynn grimaced. “Well that’s another thing,” he added heatedly. “Why should it have to be a kiss? Why not slay the witch or find a counter spell or… I don’t know, something that doesn’t involve snogging the damsel in distress?”

“After ten years in this school, I would expect you to be a little more interested in snogging the damsel in distress. I certainly am.”

Fending off the image this declaration had created Brynn interested himself in the other part of the sentence instead. “What is the matter with this school?”

Tristan snorted. “Well, for one, how about the lack of girls?”

“…You do realise it’s an all-boys school.”

Tristan whirled on his heels, finger pointed at Brynn. “My point exactly!” he said triumphantly “I can’t wait to get out of here and finally get laid instead of having to endure the sight of you guys’ ugly asses in the bath hall.”

Brynn blushed. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing wrong with the guys’ asses. But he wasn’t about to admit it, much less that he had spent the last two years ogling Tristan when his friend wasn’t watching.

His friend remained completely obvious. He walked to the single window in the room, gesturing wildly to illustrate his speech. “Think about it, in a month we’ll finally be able to get out of here and then all the pretty girls will be ours!”

“But I don’t like girls,” Brynn protested.

Tristan turned to face him, looking slightly annoyed. “Brynn, I’ve had enough. You’re too old for that girls-got-cooties thing. I know you haven’t had a chance to get to know many, what with being stuck here when the rest of us are allowed to leave, but I won’t stand for you silly speeches anymore. If you keep at it, you will remain a virgin for the rest of your life.”

“I don’t care,” protested Brynn “I really can’t stand girls! They’re annoying – when they aren’t simply boring – and the idea of sleeping with one is really disgusting. ”

Tristan was about to say something, but then Brynn’s words seemed to register and he paled. “You don’t really mean that do you?” he asked in an uncertain voice.

Before Brynn could answer someone knocked on the door. “Brynn! The headmaster wishes to see you. Now!”

X-X-X

One month later Brynn was leading his horse along a dirt path. Despite the bright sun and more than nice temperature of this beautiful spring day, the prince was brooding. He and Tristan had never gotten around to finishing that little conversation. One of the reasons had been end of term exams, the other reason was Tristan’s sudden “busy schedule”. He hadn’t even tried to be subtle about that last part and had simply fled each time Brynn’s path would cross his. After two weeks, and one very awkward meeting in the bath hall, even Brynn was glad to be out of school. Alone.

That was another thing. The final test before one could pretend to a proper diploma from the academy was to save a princess and go back home to marry her. Since it meant wandering across the country and spending time in unwelcoming places, he and Tristan had planned to travel together. For the fun and security, not because he wouldn’t recognize a princess if she was wearing a sign saying “princess: please save me” as Tristan maintained. But now he was on his own and he was bored out of his mind. There was only so much conversation you could have with a horse, no matter how intelligent the animal.

To add insult to injury, the last letter he had received from home had clearly stated that he wasn’t to show his face there without a potential fiancée. His teachers must have complained to his father about his exam results. Not that they were all bad mind you. He had had excellent results in sparring, riding, warfare and monsters classes. He was also average in economic, geography and history. No, the problem came from the dancing, etiquette and polite conversation lessons. All the princess related part of the business really.

As he reflected on the unfairness of it all, he finally reached his destination. The village didn’t look like much: a church, an inn, and twenty or so houses, all stuck together in a maze of narrow roads. But the straw roofs looked freshly repaired, the people healthy and happy and the place was known to produce a mean apple cider. Who wanted fancy inns with silk sheets and haughty know-it-all nobles when they could have decent portions of filling food and drinking companions who could hold their alcohol?

After a good meal and a most interesting chat with a travelling merchant about the eastern kingdoms, Brynn’s mood had greatly improved. He was about to call it a night when the merchant hunched over and started to whisper mysteriously. “You look like you might enjoy a little adventure,” he slurred with a dopey smile. The meal had been accompanied by a generous amount of the town’s cider.

Brynn was feeling very mellow himself. “Might be. Why?”

“‘Cause I like you. You’re a good lad. Know how to treat your elders.” To illustrate his point he gestured to his glass, still half-full from the last round Brynn had offered. “So I thought I’d share a story with you.” His voice lowered further. “See, there is this forest that everybody calls the Claw Nest, because it’s all dead trees and thorny vines in there and it’s set at the bottom of a bunch of hills so from above it really looks like a nest. And in the middle of this small forest there is this tower, all ruins and rose trees without roses, looking even thornier than the forest itself.”

Brynn was getting bored. Natural wonders had never been high on his list of… well wonders. “No adventure there,” he remarked.

“That’s because I’m not done yet. Now be silent and listen. So this tower, it is the dungeon of a castle that’s been completely covered by the vines. A powerful king and his court once lived there. Due to the spell of an evil witch, the king’s daughter was cursed to die when she reached her sixteenth birthday. And according to the locals, when she did reach said birthday, she pricked her finger on a needle and died and the whole castle was covered in ivy and everyone in it died as well. But I heard…” The man paused and looked around suspiciously. When he was reassured that no one was listening apart from Brynn he resumed “I heard that she didn’t really die. I heard that when he learnt of the curse, the king found a way to save his daughter. So when the princess pricked her finger she fell asleep instead of dying, and so did the whole court. Word has it they will all wake up when someone wakes the princess up.”

“Let me guess,” interrupted Brynn. “She will only wake to the true love’s kiss of a prince.”

“That, or by the first Joe who shows up there and snogs her,” said the merchant before taking a healthy swig from his glass. The disgusted look on Brynn’s face escaped him completely.

X-X-X

The next day was even sunnier; still, Brynn’s spirit could be found somewhere in his boots. Even Brynn’s horse seemed disheartened and was dragging its hooves along the path.

“You don’t want to go either, do you?” Brynn asked with a small reassuring smile that the horse couldn’t see anyway, seeing as Brynn was riding its back. “I can understand you. I don’t really want to either. But it’s a good opportunity and I wouldn’t be a true prince if I didn’t take it right?” The horse whinnied softly. “Indeed, facing danger and saving the weak, that’s me. Even if the weak is a girl I’ll have to… kiss.” Brynn shuddered while the horse walked on silently.

By midday Brynn had found the reason for his horse’s slow pace and his mood had taken a turn for the worse. “Stupid stable boy!” he cursed while walking next to his now limping horse. “Couldn’t do his job properly. What am I going to do now?” The horse snorted and Brynn turned to face it. “And you! Why didn’t you say anything? Stupid animal. Now it will take us weeks to reach that forsaken tower.” The horse shook his head and whinnied. “I don’t care that you’re sorry! Now walk and shut up.”

They eventually reached a small, dreary village whose inhabitants looked even gloomier than the prince. No one answered when Brynn asked for a blacksmith. No one answered when he asked for an inn. And when Brynn got angry and insulted one of the townsfolk no one answered either. In the end, Brynn caught a young boy by the shirt and lifted him a foot above the ground until he was sure he had the lad’s undivided attention. “The hell is going on in this place? What is everyone’s problem?”

The boy’s eyes were wide open in fear – Brynn did feel a little bad about that – “M’sorry M’lord. Really sorry. But you can’t stay here M’lord, you ain’t safe here.”

“What nonsense is that?”

The boy shrank under Brynn’s sharp tone. “No nonsense M’lord. I promise. But you need to leave before he comes back.”

The boy looked so earnest that it was obvious something fishy was going on. Brynn put him back on the ground, in hope it would calm him. When it seemed to have the desired effect, he put himself at eye level with the boy and said, “Now you’re going to explain to me what you meant, leaving nothing out. But before that you are going to show me where I can find someone to care for my horse.”

Once the horse was happily chewing apples and grain under the care of a man that was a living illustration of the boy, only older, Brynn took said boy with him and sat him down on a nearby rock. “Now, you explain.”

The boy took a deep breath. “It all started a year ago. A strange man came to the village asking for shelter. The weather promised to be bad and no one could have left someone out in such conditions. It rained and thundered all night. The next morning, the sky was blue and the sun shining. The man left. Around midday, the man who had housed the stranger noticed that his child, a sweet little girl not five years of age, had disappeared. Everyone helped looking for the child; they didn’t find anything. They looked and looked, but after three days they had nothing more to show for their work and so they stopped.

“A month passed and on day, a storm gathered again. Another traveller stopped in the village. A beautiful woman this time. She had no trouble finding someone to house her. The storm raged all night but come morning the sky was clear. The woman left. When night-time came, the man who had housed the woman was looking all around the village for his son, a strong boy of fourteen years. The search party was reunited and they looked and looked. After two days they abandoned their search. No one said it, but everyone thought the lad might had gone after the lady so they didn’t worry too much. He never came back.

“One month later, the storm was back and an old man asked for shelter. The next day it was his host’s wife that couldn’t be found. We finally understood what had been going on. We didn’t search, but when the storm came back again and a stranger asked for shelter for the night, the whole village surrounded him and asked for those that had been taken away.” The boy lost himself in the memory of that night, his eyes glazed over. “It was dark, the air was heavy with the scent of the coming storm. Suddenly, lightning struck the main square, right on the traveller. When we could see again there was no human. In his stead stood a giant with green skin and a face so ugly it was sickening to look.” A tear formed in the boy’s eye. “He said that he had chosen this village to feed on and that we better give him someone if we didn’t want all of us to die. Then… then his eyes fell on me and he said ‘He will do.'” Brynn watched fascinated as the tear broke loose and the boy started crying. “The adults had brought clubs and shovels with them, all at once they attacked the monster. It didn’t do any good though. Clubs would break when touching him, no blade could cut his skin. He just laughed as they tried to wound him. He advanced toward me, completely ignoring the others. I was so afraid I didn’t move. He stopped right in front of me and I couldn’t lift a foot. And then…” Now the boy was sobbing and it was hard to make out what he was saying. “Then my mother stepped in front of me and told him to take her in my stead. ‘He is so small’ she said ‘he would hardly do for a decent meal, take me instead, I beg you leave the boy and take me.’ The monster laughed harder and he taunted me. ‘What do you think lad’ he said ‘should I take your mother instead? Will you let me take her?’

“I wanted to say no, I wanted to tell him to let her go and that I would follow him but I couldn’t move. I just couldn’t move!” The words were a shrill cry that sent shivers down Brynn’s spine. “I remained silent and he took my mother.” The boy said again. After that he didn’t say a word for some times. Brynn could hear him try to stifle his sobs. When he could control his voice again he continued. “The monster snapped his finger and my mother disappeared. Then he said ‘I am not without a heart, as long as I am fed I do not care whose flesh I eat. I will come back next month and if someone is willing to follow, then I will take him. If no one steps forward though I will choose.’ And since then each month someone disappear to feed the monster.”

Brynn was horrified. “And you just let him? Did you not try to call for help? Or to take refuge elsewhere?”

“We tried.” There was a tired resignation in the boy’s whole demeanour now. “Those who tried to flee disappeared and were never heard from again. When the monster came back after that, he promised to eat us all if we tried something again and so we just abandoned hope. He is stronger than any of us. What could we do?”

Brynn didn’t have an answer to that. He wanted to do something though. “When is the monster coming?” He asked.

“Tonight.”

“But the sky is still…” Brynn looked up and noticed that, while the boy talked, the sky had turned black with clouds and the air had gone heavy with the promise of rain. It was an eerie contrast to the beautiful weather they had had until now. “That’s not normal” Brynn mumbled to himself. He turned to the boy. “You said there was a storm each time the monster appeared?” The boy nodded. “And it always came suddenly like this one?” The boy nodded again. Brynn’s remaining doubts left him as he came to a decision. “Who is to be given away this time?” he asked softly.

The boy looked at him questioningly. “Mathilda. She is a widow who cannot have children. She volunteered when Sonia’s name was drawn. Sonia is pregnant with her second baby. Why?”

“Go tell your Mathilda that she isn’t going anywhere tonight. And gather whoever is in charge of this village. I want to speak with them.”

X-X-X

None of his friends at the school had believed him when he had said that he was a good actor. They had all laughed and told him his thoughts were always written plainly on his face. Well, that was true. But it didn’t mean he couldn’t convince himself that he felt ready to wet his trousers with fear. The elder next to him certainly wasn’t far from doing the same.

The monster had decided to take on the appearance of a fair young lady who looked exactly like the princesses in his textbooks. The lady took one look at his trussed-up state and one shapely eyebrow rose in question. “Who’s that? I don’t remember him from my previous visits.” She asked the elder.

The old man’s voice trembled. “He is a traveller, Sir. He arrived in the village this afternoon.”

The pretty face twisted into a nasty smirk “So you lot decided to give him to me instead of sacrificing one of your people? How distasteful.” Brynn had a few things he would have liked to reply to that but instead he sent a pleading look toward the would-be lady.

“What is going on? Who are you? Why did they tie me up? Please help me they are all crazy!” he pleaded. He sounded rather convincing too if he did say so himself.

The smirk fell from the lady’s lips, replaced by a pout. “Well, despite his pretty face, he is most annoying.” She sighed. “Give him then so that I can shut him up quickly. But I hope that next month’s offering will be less annoying.” She snapped her fingers. Brynn disappeared.

X-X-X

He reappeared in a room that was very dark and smelled of smoke and herbs. The walls were covered with shelves upon shelves of strangely shaped pots. In one, Brynn saw roots that looked like shrivelled old men. He jumped when one of them moved.

“Impressive, is it not?” asked a sweet voice from behind him.

He spun and came face to face with the blond lady. “That isn’t a monster’s den,” he said, letting a little tremor in his voice.

“Indeed,” said the lady with a smile. “But then again I am no monster.” Her smile widened to show a perfect row of very sharp and very white teeth. “Not the kind of monster they imagine at least.”

Brynn processed the information quickly. He had suspected as much before he agreed to play bait, but it was nice to know that he was right. Now though he was at an impasse. He needed to learn more before he decided on his next course of action. In a small pleading voice he asked, “You won’t eat me then?”

The thing – it was easier to think of it as that – scratched its head pensively. “Well you’re not too boring after all.” The smile took on a playful streak. “And you are really good looking. Maybe we can play a little first.” Brynn shivered, the idea of being eaten didn’t bother him much compared to that sentence said in that tone. The thing misread his expression completely because she added with a mean smirk. “I might keep you if you are good enough.”

Suddenly, the door opened and a very small creature with big ears and mud-brown skin entered, a real monster this one. “Missstresss,” hissed the goblin. “There are ssstrangers at our doors.”

The thing clicked its tongue in annoyance. “I am coming,” she told the small goblin. “As for you,” she glared at Brynn. “If you want to live, don’t touch anything.”

As soon as the door closed, he examined the room more carefully. Too many things looked like ingredients and monsters rarely bothered with those, unless they were for cooking purpose. There was another species however who liked to keep around creepy things and boil them in big black cauldrons.

“A witch then,” said Brynn to himself. Yes, he tended to talk to himself when there was no horse about. “Now how do I kill it?” He remembered the boy telling him of the villagers’ attempt. “Not with a sword. I don’t have one with me anyway.” All he had managed to take was a dagger he had hidden in his boot. It wouldn’t be of any help until he found how to cut the witch with it though. He looked some more and noticed a book on the worktable. It was bound in black leather, its title was ‘Spell-crafting for Dummies’. “Now that’s a stupid name for a book,” murmured Brynn.

The book showed marks of use – its spine was cracked, its pages yellowed and stained. When Brynn opened it, it fell open – very conveniently – on the most used page. “To become invincible.” Brynn read. Notes had been added everywhere on that page. The main text was barely readable. “This spell allow you to hide your heart in an object, blah, blah, blah, best material is an egg… it is advised to hide the egg in a duck, hide the duck in a hare, hide the hare in an iron pot, hide the iron pot under an oak tree, hide the oak tree on an island in the middle of a lake and then relocate far away from said lake… Seriously, whoever came up with this idea should lay off the vodka.”

He could be sarcastic all he wanted, but if the witch had indeed done the spell and relocated, then he was in deep trouble. “Shit, how is it done anyway? Let’s see… here. Fresh duck egg, hen can do when no duck can be found, blah, blah, blah, crap and more crap, the fuck is a mandrake anyway? Oh and one pure human heart freshly torn off from its chest and la… ma… macerated thirteen moths … no, months in human blood to be refreshed every month. Nasty.” A sudden doubt plagued Brynn. He got closer to the cauldron and watched inside. It wasn’t boiling as he had first thought. Something was moving inside. Like a beating heart. “Very nasty… but then how come she is already invincible?” He went back to the book. “Oh that’s interesting. Drinking the blood from the holder of the pure heart will grant invulnerability until the spell is cast, beware though for weapons soaked in this blood can strike the one protected by the blood’s effects.” He couldn’t quite feel happy about the whole thing but at least things were rather improved. Wait, no. “Crap! I do need a sword.”

The workroom was completely devoid of swords. Brynn hopped his tiny dagger would suffice for his purpose. The ‘blood from the holder of the pure heart’ he found between a little brown stained dress and the remains of a rag doll. Their sight made Brynn grit his teeth in anger. The thing would pay – he would make sure of it.

The door had been left unlocked, proof that the thing had swallowed his act hook, line and sinker. Holding firmly the blood-soaked dagger, he made his way along one long, dark hallway. He crossed several empty rooms, the first of which held a bed big enough to contain a small town. After the sixth or seventh room, Brynn finally heard something that warmed his heart: the noises of a fight.

There was the screeching of steel against steel, several hissing voices like that of the goblin he had seen before, the sweet voice of the thing and several other voices ranging from deep bass to soft tenor. All men’s voices. The thing’s voice was taunting, happy almost. That couldn’t be good.

A quick peek showed him that the assailants were loosing. It didn’t matter much though. All he needed was a clean strike at the thing. The men had no chance to hurt it with their normal blades. But they did provided a most welcome diversion. Enough for Brynn to enter the room without being stopped and creep close to the thing. Her nails had turned into proper claws, breaking completely the frail woman image she had projected before. She was busy slashing at a tall, muscled man armed with two daggers. The man wasn’t bad, but since he couldn’t harm his opponent he was stuck defending himself and occupying the thing while his companions took care of the goblins. They weren’t bad either. They wore marks of an already harsh combat, their clothes were torn, sometimes stained with fresh blood where nails or weapons had reach the skin underneath. All of them were strong, but that wasn’t what Brynn was most impressed at. Strong people tended to rely on force and their technique was more often than not lacking. Well, those men all had a lot more muscle to show than Brynn, and all of them were at least as good as him with a sword.

A sudden attack on the witch left her completely exposed and Brynn used that moment to rush in to stab her. That’s when the man noticed him. The surprise made him strike clumsily. The witch had no trouble stopping the attack She also had no trouble noticing that something was amiss. Just as Brynn got close enough to launch his own strike she suddenly whirled around and blocked him just in time to stop his dagger from landing a mortal blow. She didn’t stop him soon enough to keep him from slicing her deeply in the arm though. Black blood oozed from the wound and dripped on the floor. The witch screeched in anger and pain. She sent a strong blow to Brynn’s head that flung him backward, made him lose his footing and fall. His hand opened, he faintly heard the sound of metal clinging as it fell to the ground. Then the thing was on him screeching like a madwoman.

“You filthy thing, how dare you!” Brynn barely managed to protect his face from her claws. They nonetheless left deep gashes in his forearms. It stung like nothing he had ever felt. “You are dead! I will cut you into tiny pieces, I will…” She didn’t finish her sentence. She had lifted her claws to strike again but the hit never came. Instead her lips opened in a deafening cry that made Brynn’s ears ring. He saw her wriggle and try to turn around but something was hampering her movements. Suddenly, her eyes went wide and she fell forward. On Brynn. Empty eyes starred at him, the pretty face started to change. Wrinkles appeared, her hair whitened, her handsome face contorting into an ugly mask. He pushed her away and she fell on the side. The dagger’s handle was sticking out of her back.

Around him the combat had stopped. Of the goblins there were only corpses left. The man who had been warring against the witch was watching him with unreadable eyes. The others were also immobile, their eyes on the decaying witch and the man who was untangling himself from beneath her.

No one moved before Brynn got to his feet. Once he reached his full height one of them, a blond man in his late thirties with barely a scratch on him – an impressive feat in itself – stepped forward and stopped next to the brown-haired man who had killed the witch. Some part of Brynn’s tired mind couldn’t help but point out that both men were very handsome in their own way. The blond man had aristocratic features and held himself with pride. He could have been one of the nobles’ sons Brynn had spent his years with at the academy. But it was the brown-haired man who retained Brynn’s eyes longest. His looks were rougher, wilder. His sharp features were adorned with a pair of clear blue eyes – or maybe they were grey, it was difficult to say. He a few years older than Brynn, fitter, stronger, and about two inches taller. Brynn had to rein himself in not to make the inspection go lower than waist level.

Both men were also looking him up and down, the blond man in a blatantly calculating manner. His companion though… well, Brynn didn’t have a clue. He had never been looked at that way. He didn’t think he minded, though.

“Who are you?” The question came from the blond man. The voice was nice and held that calm certainty of those who know they will be obeyed. It was a tone that reminded Brynn of his father, which in turn reminded him of his quest and, by extension, it suddenly reminded him that these men had just seen him being almost cut into pieces by a girl. Irritation seeped through the shock that the rapid chain of events had left him in.

“Excuse me, but I would rather you explained who you are and what the fuck you think it is you are doing here.”

The blond man frowned. His brown-haired companion remained completely impassive, except for a brief upward quirk of the corner of his mouth. It was he who answered his question. “We are mercenaries. We were hired by King Leonin to get rid of a witch who was terrorizing his people.”

Brynn’s mind alerted him, before he could open his mouth, that there was something in those two sentences that he should have noticed. For example the fact that the village he stopped at wasn’t under the rule of a king Leonin. “I beg you pardon?”

“He said we were engaged by the king,” repeated the blond man with an expression that encompassed the ‘Are you an idiot?’ he didn’t voice out loud.

“But… why… where are we?”

“In Verteplaine of course. Where else?”

Verteplaine was a hard month’s travel away from the village he had left, more without a horse and proper equipment. Brynn’s eyes felt like they were about to pop out of their sockets. The expression didn’t escape the two men. “Why?” the blond man asked now amused. “Where did you think you were?”

This time, Brynn’s mouth opened before he could think his answer through. “None of your business,” he snapped.

He received a shrug for his trouble. “Well then we aren’t going to impose anymore.” The blond man turned to the rest of his companions who had been following the conversation with great interest. “Everyone fit to travel?” he asked them. All of the men nodded or voiced their agreement. “Good.” He then started to give orders.

Brynn didn’t give them his whole attention. The brown-haired man was still watching him with his annoying blank expression. At least he had been. When Brynn’s eyes turned to him his lips slowly stretched into a smirk. “So you really aren’t going to give us your name?” the man teased.

Brynn felt like growling. Instead he taunted back. “I don’t remember you giving me any.”

The man had an annoying drawl. Like he was bored already and thought Brynn was a petulant child. “How silly of me. I am sorry.” With his smirk and the way he was eyeing Brynn, he looked anything but. “I am Sean, our captain is Thane and the remaining fellows over there are Marion, John and Jean. Our company is the Falcon’s talon. Pleased to meet you mister… Mister?”

“Tom Thumb,” snapped Brynn. He then stomped past the man and toward what he hoped to be the exit of the witch’s lair.

X-X-X

Miserable wasn’t strong enough to describe Brynn’s state as he wandered the woods that night, tired, cold and lost. He had had no trouble finding the exit. Once back under the sun, he walked for an hour in a more or less straight line, enjoying a competition of name calling that had Sean as subject and himself as sole competitor. It had the advantage of greatly smoothing his frayed nerves. He was much calmer when he stopped to study his surrounding. It was then that he remembered that he was in unknown territory without any supplies. By that time though, he was already lost.

Several hours later night had set and he was stumbling over roots, stumbling over rocks, stumbling over … was that a set of giant footprints the size of a small horse? “I am a moron,” mumbled Brynn as he established in which direction the tracks led and went the other way. “A pig-headed moron. A pig headed moron with a sparrow’s brain. A pig-headed moron with a sparrow’s brain and the good sense of a mule … Well at least I’m hung like a …”

“Who’s there?”

Brynn froze.

“I heard you! State your name and the reason for your presence,” insisted the voice. A familiar one at that.

“Ivan? Is that you?”

The situation greatly improved from there. Ivan was also a graduate from the academy, one with whom Brynn had gotten along quite well at that. He carried with him proper camping equipment, equipment that Brynn was all too happy to show him how to use.

“You have always been useless when it came to outdoor survival,” teased Brynn after the fire was lit and their two stomachs filled with warm food.

“Not as much as you when it comes to etiquette if I remember,” answered Ivan. The food and warmth had mellowed him and he wasn’t one to take too seriously a taunt about a weakness he himself admitted to. “But I am glad to have encountered your mannerless self in these woods. I was getting a little worried that I would have to go to bed hungry.”

“I am always glad to be of help. I am also glad to have met you.”

“I have been wondering about that. What are you doing here? I thought that you were scouring Hautmonts. And where is your equipment?”

Brynn shrugged. “There was an unexpected development. I currently own nothing more than what I am wearing.”

“You mean apart from my horse blanket,” Ivan couldn’t help but point out.

“Apart from that. Yes.”

There was a comfortable moment of silence during which both young men reflected on their situation.

When Ivan spoke again it was with the determination of someone with a plan. “I think I might be able to do something for you regarding that equipment problem.”

Brynn’s head perked up in interest. “Really now?”

Ivan nodded. “You see I haven’t told you why I was here yet.”

Brynn thought for a minute “No you’re right, you haven’t. Why are you here?”

“Promise you won’t tell anyone and you won’t try and steal my goal from me.”

“You know I think you just insulted me,” said Brynn. But his curiosity had been piqued and so he added, “I promise.”

Ivan moved closer to the fire and hunched over, much like that merchant had back then at the inn.

“You see, I have heard a tale…”

Brynn groaned. “Not you too!”

Ivan straightened. “What do you mean? You heard about it already?” There was worry in his voice. “I mean, it has only been a month after all.”

Only a month? Well that was a relief. “Oh, no, I was mistaking with something else. You see I thought you were going to talk to me about a princess asleep in a tower.”

Ivan’s worried frown didn’t get better. “That’s exactly what I was going to tell you about. How did you know?”

Now it was Brynn’s turn to frown. “But you said it was only one month old. I was told she was asleep up there for a century.”

“A century? But the dragon only appeared a month ago! Wait, what do you mean asleep?”

Brynn felt the beginning of a headache settle in. “Now I am lost. How about you pretend I didn’t say anything and start from the beginning?”

Ivan looked dubious but he nonetheless settled back and started his tale again. “I was stopping for the night in an inn when I was approached by this friendly merchant.” Now that sounds familiar thought Brynn to himself. He encouraged Ivan to go on. “We ate, the guy offered me a drink, I offered him one. After a while we were both in a very good mood and the merchant said I was a good person and he wanted to tell me a secret. ‘While I was travelling in Vertesplaines,’ he said, ‘I heard a rumour that said a nasty dragon had kidnapped the king’s daughter. I didn’t believe it at first, who would, but then a trusted source told me that the king had sent out his best knights on a quest. They were never heard of again. Then the king sent his second-best knights. They didn’t come back either. In the end, the king said that his daughter was held by evil rogues in a tower and he would give her hand to whoever brought her back. Now that was fishy. If it had been mere rogues surely the best knights would have solved the problem. That’s when I remembered that dragon story. It so happen that during another one of my travels I had learned of a trick to kill dragons. Apparently the scales that are right where their heart is aren’t as tough as we are led to believe. A well placed arrow in their chest is the trick. If you can convince the dragon to show you its belly, that is. I thought of going myself of course, but I am getting old. Besides I am quite happily married. But there is no reason that such a fine lad as you can’t benefit from my knowledge.’ And with that the merchant left me. I thought about it and decided it was worth trying. And here I am.”

“Okay, that wasn’t the story I heard.” Though the first part is so similar one has to wonder. “But you said I could help you. What did you have in mind?”

There Ivan made a derisive smile “As you might remember, I am not that good with a bow. So I thought that, maybe, since you’re much better with one than I am… how can I say …”

Brynn smiled. “You thought that I could shoot the dragon for you and let you have the girl.”

Ivan nodded.

“Deal.”

Ivan was already good to the eye on his own, but when smiling he was stunning. For a second Brynn was completely swept away. Enough to wonder if he shouldn’t have asked for something in exchange for his service. Like another kind of service. Then a strong hand fell on his shoulder and he was crushed in a heartfelt hug. “You’re a true brother Brynn. I knew I could count on you.” It took a second for Brynn to recover from the surprise and give the hug back. And another to push Ivan gently away when his body started showing signs of just how happy the contact made him.

“We should get ready for bed.” He said hurriedly. The occupation would nicely hide what was going on in his trousers. Beside they would need a lot of sleep if they hoped to win against the dragon.

Ivan was oblivious to his discomfort. They buried the remains of their fire and spread their blankets. At first Ivan acted like everything was normal but then Brynn noticed him fidgeting nervously and stealing glances when he thought he couldn’t be seen. It made Brynn uneasy as well. Had his friend noticed the effect of his hug? But he had been fine right after. Maybe something else was bothering him. Brynn took a deep breath and told himself it couldn’t be what he feared. “Ivan? Is something wrong?”

The other prince avoided his gaze. “Err … Can I ask you one last thing?”

Now Brynn was feeling nervous too. “Sure.”

“If we save the girl, can you just not tell her you real name? Since your family is richer than mine I don’t want her to be… tempted… to seduce you I mean.”

Brynn had absolutely no problem with that.

X-X-X

That dragon business went a lot smoother than Brynn had expected. Ivan soon found himself with an armful of princess who batted her eyelashes at him as if they were butterfly wings. The closer to danger they came was when the princess spared two brain cells to ask the name of her courageous prince’s companion. While Ivan searched desperately for a name he could use, Brynn bowed and said smoothly. “Tom Thumb, your highness. But such an important person as yourself needn’t remember a lowly servant such as me.” In retrospect, that had been the best way to go about being forgotten.

He and Ivan were invited to reside at the castle for a week, the time for Ivan to get some rest before he travelled back home to tell his parent the good news. Then he would come back for the wedding.

During that week they spent at the castle, the princess took it upon herself to tell every single occupant of the castle how chivalrous her two saviours had been. A true feat since she hadn’t seen anything from her tower. Since Prince Ivan was now engaged, it meant that every other lady of the castle reported their attention on Brynn. He could protest with all his might that he was a commoner, Prince Ivan’s horse-handler, a simple peasant encountered on the road, but there was still no way to convince them to leave him alone.

After seven days he almost ran on the way out of the castle. At least he was now equipped with a good horse, a serviceable sword, sturdy clothes and enough coin to last him for the month if spent sparingly. It made it almost worth the hellish stay. Ivan had a good laugh when Brynn said so out loud right before they parted way.

X-X-X

The way back should have lasted no more than six weeks. What he hadn’t planned on was the sudden renown attached to the name Tom Thumb. He had thought wise to avoid his real name for a while but it turned out that he shouldn’t have. Five minutes after he had stopped for the night, a poor old man came to his inn who asked ‘Tom Thumb’ to save his son from an ogre. He was only the first of a long series of desperate people. He didn’t even have time to rectify the situation at the next village. By then people recognized him from his physical description and the horse he rode. That was why, six weeks later, he wasn’t back in Hautmonts but climbing down a very steep path covered in blood. The blood wasn’t his, which he was glad about, but the creature it had come from had stunk something fierce and its blood wasn’t much different.

“I need to stop doing this to myself,” he said to no one. His horse had been left at the inn for security purposes. After the night he just spent he was convinced that it had been for the best. Even if it meant loosing one day to climb up the mountain and another one going down. Even if he was so tired he almost fell down a ravine. Several times. Okay maybe he could have done with the horse after all.

The inn had been built near a river. As soon as he could, he would dive in the water with his clothes on. A hard month’s travel and his last fight had rendered them unsalvageable anyway. He had his whole evening planned when he entered the inn. But he hadn’t expected anyone else to be there already.

“You! So it was your name after all!”

The men of the mercenary company of the Falcon’s Talon ranted for a whole hour about how he had stolen yet again another of their contracts. Apparently they had been travelling through the same villages as him for some time now, learning of his exploits as they were told someone else had taken care of the work. Not that Brynn cared. All he wanted was a chance to go take a bath and eat something. It didn’t happen until the brown-haired man, Sean if he remembered correctly, complained about the smell and ordered him to go take a bath. Which Brynn did, because he had planned to take one and not because he had been ordered to.

They had calmed considerably by the time he came back and made it up to him by offering him a meal. While he ate Thane, the captain, picked up the conversation where they had left it.

“At first we really thought it was a bad joke when we asked for work only to be answered that Tom Thumb had passed through and eliminated all the threats. Not to insult you or anything, but you hadn’t exactly left a strong impression the first time we met. But the description matched and who in his right mind would invent a name such as Tom Thumb?”

Who indeed, Brynn thought bitterly. So far, the name had had only one advantage. Whenever Brynn made up his mind about that princess business and went back home, his father wouldn’t know how he had really been gallivanting about instead of looking for a princess to save. The king wasn’t one to be impressed by a title such as Dragon Killer or Monster Slayer. What he wanted was a son and a daughter-in-law to replace him on the throne and give him grandkids. So far Brynn was a bitter disappointment in that respect.

“Hey I just had an idea!” The words cut through Brynn’s musing and brought him back to the real world. Thane was slurring a little by now but he looked immensely proud of himself. “How do you feel about joining the company?”

What reasoning had brought on this proposition Brynn didn’t know. He suspected it might have something to do with the smug way Sean was now smiling at him. Hadn’t the brown-haired man been whispering something to his captain not too long ago?

The idea was met with enthusiasm by the other members of the company. Marion, a grumpy looking old man, in his mid-forties at least, smiled at him. Or tried at least. “So what do you say lad? Fancy joining us?”

It might have been an interesting proposition if Brynn hadn’t had a whole country counting on him to sit his ass on a throne at some point. He felt really sorry that Tom Thumb wasn’t his real name all of a sudden. “No will have to do.” He said bitterly. “I would really love to join, but I am expected and I am already late enough as it is,” he hurried to add when Thane’s eyes started watering at the corners.

“Where?”

“Uh?”

“I said where. Maybe we can travel together at least.” It was Sean talking again.

“Why would you want to?” asked Brynn suspiciously

“Interesting things happen wherever you pass. We might as well follow you. Besides, it’s safer to travel in groups. Right now there are rumours about bands of bandit roaming around the country. So once again, where are you going?”

Brynn couldn’t find any fault in that; besides, Thane was already looking hopeful. Brynn would need to remember that the man was a very emotional drunk. With one last sigh, the prince gave in. “I can stay with you until Loinlevant in Hautmonts.”

X-X-X

Sean had been right, there were rogues using the roads as hunting grounds. But with the company of the Falcon’s Talon at his back, the only ones who dared attack were reduced to shreds. The company worked well together and Brynn fit in like he had been born for it. It made for good exercising.

Combat was one thing, living together quite another. Brynn soon found out that he could get along very well with everyone except Sean. Despite his insistence that Brynn should come with them, the man was, to put it simply, a constant pain in his ass. He was always mocking him, calling him Thumb in a way that left no doubt what the joke was, laughing whenever he lost his footing or did something dumb in a fight. Whenever something like that occurred he would the spend the evening describing to the rest of the troop what had gone wrong and coming up with a hundred and one things that Brynn could have done instead.

When Brynn complained to Thane, the captain merely told him not to let it get to him. “He does that to everyone,” said the captain confidently. “It’s just his way to help you improve. Beside he notices the good as much as the bad.” Well he might drop a compliment here or there, but Brynn found it creepy to have actions discussed that he wasn’t even aware had been witnessed. When one listened to Sean, one could wonder if he didn’t spend his whole day just watching Brynn. Since every time Brynn was watching Sean nothing seemed amiss, he couldn’t help but wonder how the other man did it.

But all of the above wasn’t the worst Sean was capable of. They once accepted to escort a noble lady and her chaperone. The matron was a tired old lady who spent most of the journey asleep in the cart, but the lady was decently knowledgeable and unexpectedly reasonable. Better, she didn’t know Brynn or his family so he didn’t have to hide his face like a leper, another behaviour that had been greatly discussed by Sean around the fire. Before he could understand how it happened, Brynn found himself participating in a very enjoyable conversation. The girl didn’t know a thing about horses or weapons but she knew how to use her head and how to keep arguments going.

That night, girl delivered and gold paid, Sean did a very lively imitation of the time Brynn had spent with her. Nothing was spared. Every single expression Brynn had showed was put under a magnifying glass until they became grotesque, every quirk of the girl was exposed in details until they eclipsed her other numerous qualities, every joke they had told, every shared moment of complicity was ridiculed until Brynn found himself loathing the good time he had had simply because it was giving Sean so much ammunition. The more the men around him laughed, the more he missed the time when he was alone with his horse, on a quest to save and marry one of those airheads Sean was having so much fun describing.

It took a whole day of pleading from Thane to convince him not to leave right away. He remained as far away from Sean as he could for a whole day, but by night-time Sean had come up with new material for his one-man show and Brynn didn’t even try to contain himself. After a shouting match of epic proportions, followed by another bout of mediation, Brynn sourly accepted Sean’s apology.

Then he had to spend another hour reassuring the rest of the company that he would stay until they reached Loinlevant.

“But the second I see the city walls,” he promised with a side glance at Sean, “I am leaving never to come back.”

They were one week away from the city, and that week was a lot calmer on the Sean front. Thane must have had a talk with him too because he stayed away and left Brynn plenty of space to breath. If he didn’t already have such a bad opinion of him, Brynn might have been inclined to forgive him. Not.

X-X-X

Another band of bandits and a wyvern later, they reached that point where the city’s walls came in view. Brynn had prepared a very short speech of exactly two sentences. He wasn’t even able to start the first one. Five horses surrounded him and four very serious faces and one moody Sean hid the sight of Loinlevant.

“Guys? Something wrong?”

A very serious Thane began speaking. “Yes. You leaving, that’s what’s wrong.” He lifted a hand to stop Brynn from protesting. “We know you have previous engagements. But the guys and I have been talking and you’re too precious an asset to let loose without at least trying to keep. So we want you to think about it” Brynn tried to say that he already had, but once again Thane spoke over him. “Really think about it. We’ve had time to watch you, Tom. Whatever it is that’s awaiting you, it’s not something you think you’ll enjoy. So we want you to stay one more night with us and give us an answer in the morning. If you still want to leave then, well, there’s not much else we can do.” Sean mumbled something that sounded strangely like ‘tie him to the bed’ but that couldn’t be it. Definitely not ‘to the bed’ at least.

Loinlevant was reputed for two things. The first one was its silver craftsmanship, the second its prostitutes. After a good month in the woods with only a night or two in small, crowded inns, everyone was very eager for a night out. Well, not everyone. Loinlevant was reputed for its female prostitutes. Brynn used his need to consider his choice as an excuse to stay at the inn. The thought that they might never see him again didn’t keep the others from leaving in a hurry. Everyone except for Sean. Brynn wondered what had been his excuse.

After one month with five people constantly breathing down his neck, it almost felt like being alone. Which was a statement about how desperate he was if he could call sharing a room with one person ‘being alone’. On the bright side, he wasn’t sharing anything right now since Sean was downstairs. On his way to a hangover too from what Brynn had seen. Well it was all very good because Brynn had made plans with his right hand.

Everything went smoothly for a while. His breeches were discarded without incident, he found a way to lie on the bed that avoided all the bumps in the mattress and managed to build a nice rhythm. So nice that he didn’t spare any thought to the sound of someone coming up the stairs or to a key in the lock. He did react to the door opening. And was very glad suddenly that he hadn’t discarded his shirt along with his leg-wear. It didn’t hide much but it was better than being completely naked. Right?

His frantic shuffling to hide his southern region was a poor attempt to hide what had been going on. He didn’t think it would deceive anyone and, from his expression, Sean wasn’t deceived.

“Sean! I thought you would take… more time.”

Sean only bothered to raise an eyebrow. “Obviously.”

As usual, the asshole was the perfect illustration of ‘highly amused yet very calm about it’. It could have made the whole thing feel less awkward. Only it didn’t.

“I was kinda hoping you might be going back downstairs actually,” grated Brynn between clenched teeth.

“Oh! No,” said Sean with false boredom “It’s getting boring down there. I think I’d rather stay here.” The smirk increased. “Do you need a hand with that?”

Shockingly, Yes, please. was the first thing that came to mind. And the second as well, if Brynn had to be honest about it. “I’d rather you left. Don’t you have someone else to go annoy?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. You’re so much fun when annoyed.” There was something wicked about Sean’s smirk, if only in the way it made Brynn’s cock twitch with interest. Sean, all-aware bastard that he was, somehow noticed the effect he was having and moved closer. “Admit it Brynn, you actually want my hands on your cock.”

It could have ended there. Brynn could have said something nasty and salvaged what was left of his dignity by going to bed with a bad case of blueballs. It might have happened too if Sean’s hand hadn’t jerked suddenly, bringing Sean’s middle to Brynn’s attention. Once his eyes were unstuck from Sean’s face, it wasn’t difficult to see that the jerk’s breeches were tenting at the front. The situation suddenly took on an entirely different meaning for Brynn.

“You’re hard,” he couldn’t help but state. Then his eyes snapped back to Sean’s face to gauge the man’s reaction to his next words. “You aren’t just mocking me, you’re truly interested.”

Sean’s surprise looked genuine this time. There was no smirk in sight when the man spoke. “What you didn’t know?” He even had the decency to look a little embarrassed. “I thought it was obvious.”

Brynn wanted to pound the man’s head. “Well it wasn’t. I was convinced that you hated my guts!” he reproached. If only he had known sooner. Or not, now the decision he had to make didn’t seem as clear cut in his mind as it had been in the morning. Too late now to cry over spilt milk. Or rather unspilt… milk. Speaking of which. “Does that offer stand? The one about giving a hand?”

Sean grinned – he couldn’t bring himself to call it smirk now. “Sure does. Give me a minute.” Sean’s breeches and shirt were abandoned on the floor without ceremony. Fortunately he then hurried to climb on the bed, Brynn might have humiliated himself if he had been given time to think. Instead of flushing at the sight of a naked body, though, he now had the possibility to embarrass himself by coming at the first touch. Before Sean could move and make it happen, Sean hugged him firmly to his chest.

“Been a while?” Sean asked sympathetically.

“Not really,” Brynn admitted, his mind only half on what he was saying. “A while implies that it happened before.” He distinctly felt Sean freeze in his arms.

“You don’t mean?”

Ouch, what was he thinking giving away such information? Well there wasn’t much point denying it now. “I do.” He just hoped that the man would use the information wisely and not turn it against him.

His little declaration was followed by a heavy silence. He didn’t know whether to say something, anything, to break it and he didn’t know what to do. He had a vague idea about what was supposed to be going on but just in case he was wrong he preferred to let Sean take the lead. Which wasn’t going to happen if Sean remained as immobile as a statue.

When it became obvious that nothing was going to happen until he did something he opted for opening his mouth. “If I had known you’d react this way I wouldn’t have said anything, you know.”

Finally, Sean moved. He rolled on his side, away from Brynn. Light blue eyes settled on the prince with an almost palpable weight. “Virgin, huh?” Sean asked softly. Brynn wanted to get annoyed but he just nodded. “Okay,” Sean licked his lips while he thought. “Okay, then I propose that we really just give each other a hand, or, you know, something along those lines.”

“Sounds nice.” And safe enough.

Sean shrugged. “It can be. Do you want to keep your shirt on?”

“No, the shirt can go.”

Brynn was very aware of Sean’s eyes on him as he took off his last piece of clothing. Very aware also of the way he was being appraised., Most of all, he was aware of the hand that went to trace a few marks his last month of travel had left on him. “How come all of those scars look so recent?” murmured Sean.

Brynn fought off the need to fidget. “I just had a lot of opportunities to get in trouble lately.”

Sean eyed him suspiciously but didn’t say anything. Not much was happening and it was giving Brynn too much time to think. The prince decided that it was his clue to start doing some touching of his own. He started with a long scar that ran along Sean’s collarbone. The skin was smooth despite the impressive sight it made. He traced it to the middle of Sean’s chest and then flattened his palm and rubbed slowly downward. There was something akin to awe in Brynn’s expression as he felt smooth skin move over hard muscle under his touch.

Both of them moved to their sides and scooted closer. Brynn paused a few inches away, just close enough to feel heat. Sean wouldn’t have any of that, though, and pulled him closer still until their skin was touching again. Hands explored the prince’s shoulders and back. They tousled his hair gently and angled his head to receive a kiss.

Brynn was all too happy to accept the soft touch to his lips, to play along when it transformed from simple touch to languid caress and finally to open his mouth when Sean urged him to. The wet caress of Sean’s tongue was as welcome as the more innocent touch had been. He did his best to mimic the way Sean slid his tongue against his own or teased him by nipping or pulling on his bottom lip. There was a playful tenderness in the way Sean caressed him, only to suddenly pull on his hair just hard enough to be felt. In the way Sean’s free hand would squeeze his ass and then sensuously massage it, move further down, back up the inside of his thigh and back to his ass.

There was a change in pattern as Sean grabbed his leg and pulled, bringing their hips closer. Brynn relished the friction as his cock slid against Sean’s, both of them trapped between their stomachs. Sean pulled again just as he ground his hips against Brynn and the prince moaned.

“That’s it,” encouraged Sean as he did it again. “Let me hear your voice.”

He wanted to, really he did, but the part of his brain that hadn’t been overwhelmed yet still worried about the people in the inn. He opted for a compromise. His own hand moved to grab the back of Sean’s head in an embrace similar to that which the other man had him in. So close to Sean that every panting breath tickled and every word made his lips touch the shell of his ear he allowed himself to let out every soft whimper and low moan. Resting so, cheek on Sean’s cheek, chest against Sean’s chest, he let the other man set the pace and move him as he saw fit. He didn’t regret it as wave after wave of pleasure flooded his mind. Sean had a knack to put the right amount of strength into his thrusts, to find the right way to cant his hips to provide as much friction as possible, to bring them closer and closer to orgasm without rushing anything.

Brynn’s breath shortened, his heartbeat accelerated and his control over his body became more and more elusive. The noises he made became louder while his hips bucked on their own. His hold on Sean’s hair became tighter and tighter until his whole body arched and he spilled between them with a cry that he didn’t bother silencing. Sean groaned as he felt the wetness between them ease his thrusts. Soon he groaned and spilled too. Brynn felt his hands squeeze harder and his muscles clench tightly as he came.

There wasn’t much talking after that. For a while they just stayed in each other’s arms, too tired and content to move quite yet. In a bout of uncharacteristic courtesy Sean got them a rag to clean the worst of the mess but he then threw it on the ground and went right back to snuggling.

Brynn let him. Now that his mind was working again he was trying to make what had just happened fit with the rest of his life.

“I wouldn’t mind tonight being a repeated thing,” he remarked softly after a while.

“Me neither,” replied Sean in a half-asleep mumble.

“Seem like I might stay with you guys for a bit more after all.”

Sean groaned. “Can’t it wait for tomorrow?” he whined

“That’s all the effect it has on you? Maybe I should just leave,” teased Brynn. When it didn’t get him any reaction he nipped Sean’s earlobe. It was the only thing he could reach without having to move.

Sean didn’t move either but his annoyance was clearly audible in his voice. “Brynn! Go to sleep. Before I decide that it’s a good idea to tell the others what you hadn’t lost until tonight.”

“You do that and I’ll be gone faster than you can say virgin,” warned Sean in a growl.

Sean’s answer was to snuggle closer to him. All the better to snore in his ear he supposed.



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