Dame Grendela’s fart still lingered in Quill’s face, as damp and palpable as the sultry air. “Quill, come and inspect these tracks,” the knight had insisted. Quill had known what was coming, yet had no choice but to obey. She was a woman grown, but still a squire.
As the stink slowly dissipated, the forest air remained as thick. It clung to her pale, befreckled face and slid down her cheeks and neck in merciless, salty droplets. It pulled on her hair, which she had unbraided nearly an hour ago in wet frustration. It sat on her tongue, and every time she opened her mouth she felt as though she could chew her own breath. Inexplicably, impossibly, the air grew damper and warmer as noon approached, and she began to feel as though she were treading on the floor of the ocean near some roiling, volcanic vent. A very ripe one.
Of course, Dame Grendela was sweating bucket-fulls. Her dark green jerkin and doeskin gauntlets had long been discarded on the leafy ground with no more sentiment than a chicken bone. Even her wide brimmed, silken hat with its enormous yellow plume had been dropped: the trees kept the sun out of their eyes admirably, and the hat therefore served only to moisten her head. Her white blouse, a patchy and holey thing that Quill suspected was older than herself, was grey with salt and oils. The dame had been tugging at it for a half-hour, and Quill suspected Grendela would soon be marching bare-breasted. Her stocks, green pantaloons, and heavy boots all stayed on.
Dame Anu, meanwhile, was still fully clothed and virtually dry. A bony, bloodless creature with large blue eyes rendered all the more bulging by her emaciated face, the elder of the two knights had often been called an ambulatory corpse, usually by Dame Grendela. Yet that starveling aspect served her well today. Her blue linens breathed well, but her black felt hat, its jaunty white ribbon her only embellishment, sat heavily on her head with little ill effect. As she peered into the distance between the thickening trees, her right foot resting poetically on a small rock, not even a shimmer of sweat could be seen about her face.
Quill wondered briefly what sort of hat she might wear when she was knighted. She had a fondness for fiery hues. Perhaps she might be Aquiline the Red someday, with an enormous crimson plume erupting from a gilt yellow hat, a sharp-toothed falchion hanging from her broad leather belt. Then again, a squire of just over twenty years, she may well be called Quill the Dead before a plume ever graced her pate.
Of course, spurs were not required in order to be damned with a hat. Pinne and Goss both had rumbled caps jammed upon their moist heads, presumably at Dame Anu’s command. Pinne was nearly as old as Aquiline and still a squire too, but Anu had recently taken Gossamer under her command, which surely meant she planned to dub Pinne soon. Squires were expensive to keep, after all, and Amosa was not at war. What use could Anu have for a second squire, save another pair of admiring eyes.
Pinne and Goss were watching Dame Anu steadily; Pinne with an amused but polite smile, Goss with wide-eyed admiration. Dame Anu was a war hero, after all, and Gossamer was still too young and naive to know the value of knights in peacetime. “What do your knight’s eyes see?” Gossamer asked in a breathy whisper. Moon alive, she meant it too. Pinne favored Quill with a glance; at least she found the child amusing. Quill was ready to knock Goss to the ground and shove her face into the leafy mud. Grendela would approve, surely.
Dame Anu did not answer right away. Shoulders thrown back, spine straight as an arrow; though she claimed to hate artifice and art equally, everything she did was a performance for those around her. Not that Grendela was any different. Both knights were constantly making presentations of themselves; it was only the content that differed. At that moment, Grendela was rooting around near a tree looking for mushrooms, or tree hogs, or a sparrow’s nest, or maybe a pile of dung to throw at Dame Anu when she was not looking. It did not matter.
The pause continued until Goss could bear no more. “My lady?”
Dame Anu took a significant breath. “I smell sulfur,” she intoned weightily. “To the west.”
Goss’s head swung to the west, her mouth agape. Her voluminous golden hair was bound up tightly under her crumply grey hat, making her face drawn and tight, in addition to drenched with salt. Her dark blue eyes, nearly as bulging as Dame Anu’s, were in all sincerity staring into the west, praying to pick out their charge amidst the trees. It was all Quill could do not to scream. After a moment, Pinne swung her head to the west in an overt parody of Goss’s excitement. “To the west, my lady?” she intoned, broad enough to amuse herself but innocent enough to avoid a clout on the ear.
They were a fitting pair. Pinne had been a gawky stork of a thing with knobby joints and a neck that made her look like a snake creeping up out of her own shoulders. She still was, in truth, but womanhood had stretched her taller than the stout Dame Grendela, who still called her nut and squirrel and other diminutions. Goss had the look of a child who might break a few boys’ hearts when she was grown, but for now she was knees and elbows and scarcely had the arm to hold a sword. Dame Grendela called Anu corpse and Pinne sickly; it remained to be seen what epithets she would throw on Gossamer. The girl was remarkably adept at evading Grendela’s notice, something Pinne had never managed and Anu abhorred.
At present, Dame Grendela was still rooting at the tree. Quill tried to ignore her.
Pinne was swiveling back and forth between Anu and Goss, waiting for the drama to unfold. “Is it the beast, think you?” she asked with scarcely concealed irony. Dame Anu’s lips tightened, and she nodded once before striding off to the west. How she managed to walk so straight without tripping on roots or leaves or her own magnificence was beyond Quill’s comprehension. Goss, who understood hierarchy better than Quill had ever cared too, waited with vibratory excitement for Pinne to follow her sworn mistress before taking up the tail of their procession.
Quill watched them march off like a set of ducklings. She almost walked off with them. Reluctantly, she turned to her own sworn mistress. “My lady?” she inquired.
“Hm?” was all she got.
“My lady, shall we pursue?”
“Quill, Quill, what do the brown mushrooms mean?”
She stared, silently, for several seconds. “They are just mushrooms, my Lady.”
“Ay, but are they–”
“No, my lady.”
A fortnight past, Grendela had stumbled upon a batch of purple mushrooms. They were poisonous, but not deadly, and sunk them both into a foggy stupor for hours, full of illusions and bizarre fancies. Once was enough for Quill, but Dame Grendela had been distracted by the thought of them since.
The knight finally stood and faced her charge. Her cape was left some mile or so back in the woods, along with her jerkin and hat and gloves, so she was now holding a great leather boot filled with small, evil-looking mushrooms. Quill’s eyes widened slightly, briefly, before returning to their neutral mask. “Those are but bitter mushrooms, madam.”
Dame Grendela snorted. “Typical.” She dropped the boot, unattended, and began tromping after the others. “A mushroom, my girl, is like a man. Diverse of relish, though alike in aspect. And though they look juicy on the outside, a single taste reveals them stringy and unsatisfying. Also they give you gas.”
As usual, the knight’s wisdom went unapplauded. Quill let out a sigh of relief as she followed. Few people knew that Dame Grendela was very color blind. Quill suspected that even Grendela herself did not know, so impregnable was she to anything that might make her appear less than superhuman. The knights were creatures of great boasting, and the short years of peace had forced them to swallow their own false medicines, lest they should begin to question their worth in a world that had no need for swords.
Aquiline, on the other hand, was often questioning her own worth. She offered a sharp eye before pursuing her lady.
In the growing distance, Anu could now be heard expounding upon something. “… without hesitation,” she was saying. “A knight may ponder in her solitude, if needs be – solitude, I say, not leisure. I knight is not granted leisure. A brute or highwaywoman may drink and whore and make herself an insensate slop, but a knight is ever at guard, ever ready to draw and die for her liege lady.” Her talk of brigands and drunkards was laced with undertones so overt that Pinne would surely call them overtones in her usual wry quippery. It was odd to think that not even a year ago, Pinne could scarce speak for stuttering and nerves, and now she was the clever one. Quill used to be the clever one. Briefly. For most of their lives, Igglet had been the wit.
“My lady,” Quill said, trying her best to step straight and tall despite the roots, holes, and hillocks of the wood.
“Hm?” Dame Grendela was hobbling about, one-booted, crawling as often as she walked despite the relatively flat ground.
“My lady, Dame Anu appears to be outpacing us.”
This time, the rude noise was made by her lips. “Let her. This is a fool’s errand.”
Quill’s ears perked up. This was her chance. Perhaps she could prevail upon Grendela to abandon this nonsense, maybe head back to Marge’s pub for an ale, perhaps even to Davey’s for a boy or two. Her recent abstinence was gnawing at her belly. Just when she was considering broaching the subject, Pinne’s voice carried back to them.
“My lady, what will you do when the beast is slain?”
“Mount it upon the entry to mine estate, I should think,” Anu offered without hesitation. “Dragons are silly things, ’tis true, yet it may prove a merry sight to those who name me too sober.”
Quill watched Dame Grendela closely, and sure enough, her shoulders had tightened. Grendela often compared herself to the mythical beasts of wild Europe, and was even known to claim descent from northern dragons when she was well and truly drunk. It was an odd claim: Grendela was touchy of her birth. There had been some talk of bastardy two or three generations back. Anu was extremely highborn, sharing some ancestors with the line of Penta itself, yet Anu was always more concerned with piety and sobriety. For Grendela though, the blood was the thing. It seemed strange then, that she would so often claim a lineage linked with monsters from the wilds of Europe. She seemed serious, and after these many years Quill felt that she knew her mistress well enough, but maybe she was wrong.
In any event, Anu had affected Grendela, and Pinne had affected Quill just as well. If they were going to be stuck in the woods, why not have a little fun at their knights’ expense?
“It looks as though Anu does not need us,” Aquiline suggested, all innocence. “Perhaps we should just give up and head back.”
Dame Grendela stood up straight and bellowed out, subtle as a cannon. “That scapegrate could not slay a snake! She has not sufficient puissance in her foot to smash a serpent, leave off a mighty wyrm. Bah!” With that she started off much more forcefully after the others. She somehow managed to stumble more, and at one point she rolled completely over and popped back onto her feet, but there was no question that Grendela was in the game.
Dame Anu stopped briefly enough to offer a patronizing sneer before continuing. Gossamer only glanced, and Pinne examined the green knight with enormously innocent eyes and a knowing smirk so bright it was like to light her head on fire. She had been a clumsy, frightened child, but now she was a woman of subtle mirth and mischief. The girl in Quill liked that, but then the girl in Quill had admired Dame Grendela as well, and look where that had gotten her: chasing down a mythical creature on the hottest day in creation, trudging after a half-naked knight and a gaggle of thin-lipped geese.
Aquiline had been a girl, of course, when her mother had sent her to squire under Dame Grendela. It was before the war, and Quill’s head was full of grand conquests and heroic deeds, of rescuing fair gentlemen from knaves and winning honors from the Duchess, Penti Marria. Yet the first night of her charge Grendela had her serving ales from the bar and pulling tavern boys into the knight’s lap. The second morning of her life as a squire passed unnoticed, as neither woman nor girl awoke until after noon, and both with splitting headaches. It would be another two months before she even held a sword, and almost a year before she sat a horse. Quill never complained, though; the drinks were good, and the company better, and the newly dubbed Dame Grendela seemed a giant among women, already full of incredible tales of brawls well-spiced with exaggerated victories, and of journeys into the deeps of wild Europe to conquer their weak women and love their lusty men. Quill had swallowed all of it, more gullible than young Gossamer.
Then the Duchess died, and her daughters went to war over the throne. Igglet and Henwith were squired to Dames Valion and Estrey, who fought for the bastard Nolia. They had all died. Dame Anu had been on the field, and poor Pinne had watched Igglet die with her own eyes. Igglet, who never wanted to be a knight, was dubbed by her dying mistress on the field, only to be struck down by a thoroughly remorseless Anu. Igglet and Henwith were her friends. Pinne’s too. Yet Pinne watched and did nothing, and now she was soon to be knighted by the woman who killed her best friend. Such was honor.
Shame tasted little better, though. Quill did not fight in the war. True, squires were not necessarily expected to fight, but they were expected to keep near their knights to aid them how they might, even to dispatch them if their wounds were too grievous to bear. But Dame Grendela was drunk in a ditch during the grand sortie. Quill tugged and shouted and kicked. She almost, almost took Grendela’s sword and headed out to the field. Instead, she took Grendela’s wine skin, and soon joined her in the ditch. She was loyal to her mistress, drunkard though she was. Still, Igglet was a great drunkard too, and now she was dead. Igglet never even wanted to be a knight.
“You vaunting Venus,” Dame Anu spat. Quill awoke from her daydreaming to find the two knights corp-a-corp. Grendela was thrusting her stomach into the bony Anu, staring straight up to her without fear. It was odd; Grendela was well into her thirties, yet she retained a cupiditous and cherubic face. One might have expected the drunkard to become prematurely lined, but instead it was the chaste Anu who looked to have a foot in the grave.
Presently, Grendela’s young face was flushed nearly purple as she bellowed. “You tailor’s wrack,” she shouted, “You foil’s sheath, you grave-grown and worm-eaten revenant!”
Aquiline moved to intercede. “What’s going on?”
Pinne was all wide eyes and well feigned concern, “The knights are debating whether we aught to head north or north-west.”
Anu clenched her black gauntlet in her fist, spasmodically. She was seconds away from throwing it at Grendela’s feet. This would be the fifth time this year that one of them had challenged the other to a duel to the death. It was usually Anu that did the challenging, but then it was usually Grendela who started the fighting. It was the Duchess that typically ended the fights, though she was not always patient or kind in her doing so. She had threatened them both with death once, and still they quarreled. Most recently, she had ordered both knights to be hung by their wrists for a night like common thieves. They were sulky and heeled the next morning, but still bickering on their walk out of the palace. Now, they looked set to fight again.
Quill glared at Pinne. The knights’ epithets drowned out all sense, so she tried to imbue as much silent meaning as she could. Pinne’s glance bandied between the knights, and the light of mischief seemed to fade out of her.
“My ladies,” she said, “why do not we simply head north-by-northwest, so we might keep an eye on both directions.
“Bah!” Grendela roared, almost before Pinne had finished. “The Grendel does not do things by halves, but goes the whole hog! Leave equivocations for this specter, this bloodless broom!”
Anu foisted her glove up into Grendela’s face, threatening, as if the threat of a duel could dissuade either of them. Anu’s fist continued to spasm in fury, and her jaw was so tight Quill thought her teeth would soon shatter or turn to diamonds.
Quill could see the moment in Grendela’s eyes. This was the point, where she would either try to push Anu over the edge or walk away as though none of it mattered, leaving the other standing there in impotent fury. Either way, Grendela would win in Grendela’s eyes, and Anu would win in Anu’s eyes. Everyone would win, except of course everyone else.
Grendela chose to walk away.
She trundled off to the northwest, scattering twigs and leaves in her wake. “I’ll find the beast,” she said. “I’ll find it, slay it, and cast its entrails in your face!”
Dame Anu silently stalked north. Pinne offered Quill a shrug, then followed. Gossamer came last, saucer-eyed and gawping the whole while.
Aquiline set her fists on her belt. Her rapier rested comfortably at her left side. She was twenty years old, and had drawn the blade in earnest twice. It looked like a gaudy decoration. If it had not belonged to her mother, and her mother before her, Quill might have slung the thing into the woods and been done with it, like so much sweat-encrusted clothing. But she had a family and a tradition to think of. Pinne’s mother had been common born, and now Pinne would be a knight before her. Pinne, who was younger. The war had been about birth, about rank and privilege. Quill had not fully understood it at the time, and no one talked about the war anymore. Even Pinne, who watched Igglet die, who used to be so terrified of her mistress, now found Anu terribly amusing. It was as if the whole thing had never happened. Maybe it hadn’t. Maybe it was another drunken dream.
Aquiline sighed to no one. She had not had a drink in nearly a month. She was becoming as strict and abrasive as Dame Anu, and surely Grendela would notice soon. If she offended her mistress, she might never be knighted. But then, if she remained a drunken sot her whole life, why would anyone knight her? But then again, the war was over, and Penti Celia sat firmly in power. What even was the point of knighthood?
She could hear Pinne and Goss prattling as they went. Hoisting up her belt, Aquiline turned to follow her mistress. She had committed to this chase, now it was time to hunt down some amusement.
Of course, there was no such thing as a paisley dragon. Quill doubted they had ever existed even in Europe. It sounded like the wild sort of gossip repeated by drunkards who spent their entire lives within a single village. Besides, the tales were from Europe, and mostly from men. European men were taller and fairer, at least some were, but no more reliable than a tavern drab.
The whole affair began when a brick-layer burst in upon the court. Old Dame Morozko was retiring to the coast, and a quarrel instantly erupted over who would inherit the largely ceremonial position of castellan. It was an empty honor, but Anu and Grendela lived their lives for empty honors. Other dames had laid polite claims at the Duchess’ feet, but it was the wayward knights who spoke loudest and most often. The others withdrew their claims quickly, foreseeing that no honor, empty or otherwise, was worth bickering with the Corpse or the Dragon. Many were fidgeting, clearly looking to take their leave, when the doors burst open to reveal the brick-layer, an aggrieved messenger clinging to her ankle as she entered.
She claimed to have encountered a terrible, serpentine beast whilst in the woods. She let fly two or three arrows, but nothing could pierce the monster’s paisley scales. When the Duchess asked what a brick-layer was doing in the woods with a bow, she sputtered and stumbled before explaining that her neighbor had been poaching rabbits; she was merely hoping to catch the villain in the act and drag her before the Duchess for judgment. The Duchess let that go.
She had been ready to let the dragon go as well, but this was the fourth such report in only two months, and the squabbling knights each took it upon herself to expostulate how she might resolve the issue, were she castellan. Anu had her telltale gauntlet in hand when the Duchess stood and commanded them to hunt down the beast together, charging that they would not reenter Amosa’s walls until the paisley dragon was dead.
It was a brilliant stroke, Quill grudgingly admitted. Neither knight was likely to quit while the other still strove. They surely both knew it was nonsense, and yet neither could relent. The Duchess would be free of their bother for days, perhaps weeks. That, or one of the knights would be forced to admit defeat, which might humble her for a brief while. The fact that three squires were compelled to suffer was, presumably, mere collateral damage.
“There!” Grendela was standing upon another rock, pointing into a small, depressed clearing. The clearing featured a small cave that quickly led down into the earth. Something was emerging from the cave.
It was a four-legged creature, long and undulating like a river. Its tail featured three sharp spines, and its head resembled a dog’s, but with scales and a serpentine tongue. It’s skin was a vibrant pink, with purple patches shaped like angled teardrops.
Aquiline’s jaw dropped.
The beast, which looked an awful lot like a paisley dragon, shuffled clumsily northward into the thickening trees.