Bill the Brave tied up his pony to a morose little sapling near the old dirt road, away from any potentially-poisonous grasses. Bartholomew the Tortoise hopped down from the satchel on Bill’s back, to plod along beside him as the two trundled up the winding path to the tower.
The aforesaid tower looked rather taller than was structurally advisable. It was so crooked that its top ended at a point about ten feet to the right of its base. The ragged and crumbling stone blocks that formed it climbed high into the sky, twisting up into the clouds at such precarious angles that it looked like a determined breeze would have no particular trouble knocking the whole assembly over. As they approached, a granite rock the size of Bill’s head fell from somewhere amidst the clouds surrounding the monolith, landing on the wet ground with a rather disappointing splorch.
At the base of a disintegrating set of limestone steps meandering up to the base of the tower, a sign read:
Mystickle Spirites of Olde:
“Spirits,” mused Bill, licking his lips. “I wonder what kinds.”
“Probably a bunch of shoddily-conjured wizards’ farts that’ll disintegrate at the first hint of a breeze,” said Bartholomew absently.
“Ah. Can’t stand those foreign brews.”
“Not alcohol, git,” the tortoise snapped. “Actual spirits; magical servants for lazy slobs and rich old ladies trying to impress their friends at dinner parties. My old man always said they were a bunch of cheap tricks.”
“The old ladies? That’s not very gallant.”
“The spirits, idiot. Most of them don’t last half a year, and the ones that do knock over stuff, or walk through you and give you the chills, or mistake your cat for a turnip and throw it in the garbage disposal.”
“Anyway, when the poor sot who’s dumb enough to buy a spirit asks for his money back, hey presto, he’s a bloody frog. Wizards don’t like people questioning their craftsmanship.” The two continued their laborious climb up the steps, Bill having some trouble getting his armor to bend at the knees. At his height, Bartholomew had to jump to reach each successive stone.
By the tower’s door, a broom was sweeping away dirt, seemingly all by itself. This appeared to Bill a somewhat dubious task, seeing as the earth surrounding the tower was made of dirt.
“See?” muttered Bartholomew. “Bloody useless.”
The door at the bottom of the tower could have used the earnest attention of a carpenter. Instead, it appeared to have received the earnest attention of a single-minded battalion of termites. When Bill pulled on the doorknob, it popped off in his hand, in a sad little puff of sawdust.
“That’ll be the bloody spirits coming and going without opening the door.” Bartholomew said. “Ectoplasm has a terrible effect on woodwork.”
The two made their way inside, though not without the almost complete destruction of the door. By the time they found themselves at the foot of a series of winding silver stairs, Bill looked like he had a case of dandruff severe enough to pose a serious threat to bystanders’ respiratory systems.
Inside, the tower seemed wider than it had appeared from the outside, and far more structurally sound. The base was a circular, ceiling-less room of shining pale stone. A glossy silver staircase spiraled all the way up along the inside of the wall encircling the room, higher and higher, straight up into the heights of the tower until it passed out of Bill’s sight. At the foot of the stairway, an oval painting hung a little above Bill’s eye-level, in an ornate silver frame. The painting showed a room much like the one they were in, though lacking the table.
And what a table it was! In the center of the room it sat, like some great sluggish behemoth, leaden lavishly with every type of dish Bill could have imagined, and far more that he couldn’t have. The most wondrous aroma in the world permeated the air; the smell of every type of food worth eating; the blessed scents of sizzling bacon, grilled steak, stuffed turkey, fresh apple pie, warm chocolate cake, trifle, raspberry crumble and steaming beef stew all mixed together, even the slightest hint of Brussel sprouts, peas, or broccoli blissfully absent. Dishes were still being brought to the table as the salivating duo watched, on silver platters whisked this way and that by thin air, or presumably, ectoplasmic organisms. Bill looked at the display with deepest regret.
“I suppose we shouldn’t eat it,” he said at last.
“Definitely not,” Bartholomew agreed. They stared at the food for a while.
“It would be rude.”
“To hell with manners. I’d eat the whole damn thing if this weren’t a wizard we’re talking about. But this is a wizard we’re talking about, and I don’t need to be turned into a bloody amphibian. Reptiles are far more evolved.”
The journey up the tower was far from a stroll in the woods—or even a stroll in Ramton forest. The staircase had no railing; each step further from the hard, stone floor made the idea of gravitational pull all-the-less appealing. Bill’s assorted armor creaked and rattled as he clanked his way up, step by step, Bartholomew puffing wearily as he clambered over each new obstacle.
“You can hop back in the rucksack if you like,” Bill offered.
“To hell with your bloody rucksack!” the tortoise snapped. “I’m doing just fine.” With a grunt, he scrambled up onto the next step, his blunt little claws scrabbling to find a hold on the slick silver.
Bill was soon sweltering in his rusted suit. That quickly changed when a ghostly breeze passed straight through him, whistling through his armor. It felt as though the very marrow of his bones had been frozen solid. The next spirit went through his helm and made his teeth chatter. His visor clanged shut.
“Take that bloody helmet off,” said Bartholomew. “It makes you look like a duck.”
“I think it’s intimidating,” said Bill defensively “More like a goose. And what if I need protection? A knight’s helmet is his guardian; the guardian of his life, his honor, his identity—”
“Shuddup Bill. That thing’s so rusted it would fall apart if a bloody fairy blew on it. Your thick skull will be enough to protect you, I’m sure. And if not, well, a frog’s mug would be an improvement to yours.”
Bill took off his helmet. It was getting hot in there anyway. He blew some residual sawdust off of the plume, and sneezed. “Do fairies exist, then?” he asked.
Bartholomew chose to ignore him, instead focusing his attention on the next step. His stubby green legs slipped as he tried to gain purchase on the glistening metal, almost tumbling him into the abyss, which would probably have ended with him landing in a bowl of scalding hot onion soup. Not the worst way to go, Bill decided.
As the stairway led further and further up, more of the oval paintings appeared on the walls, so lifelike that they looked almost like mirrors, reflecting different cities and landscapes. There were dreary wharfs and ruined castles and old, run down villages; the interiors of glittering palaces, a view of a sprawling, dusty city at sunset, and once, what appeared to be the well-stocked cellar of an inn. The large casks of ale on its stone floor were so detailed that Bill could even make out the name of the brewery. The next picture was a harbor so finely rendered that the masts of the ships seemed to sway to and fro in the breeze, and Bill could’ve sworn he saw a seagull fly into the frame and then out of sight again, lost in the deep blue sky. He moved on to the next painting and stopped.
“That’s funny,” Bill said. “This painting’s the same as the one at the bottom of the stairs.”
While Bill had been admiring the superb artistry that bedecked the tower’s walls, Bartholomew had been breathing more and more heavily. He just barely managed to crawl his way over the next step before he rolled over onto his shell, panting as he stared at the coils and coils of stairs that still waited for them.
“I can’t see the top,” he moaned. Then he seemed to digest what Bill had just said. He sat up. “What did you say?” Bill had moved on and was preparing to surmount the next step, his knee-plates creaking.
“Well, that painting just shows a circular room, with some fellow in a dress looking at a glass ball.”
Bartholomew leapt to his feet. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“The paintings are right there.”
“And I’m down bloody here! I didn’t notice!”
“Ah. I see.”
“Well I bloody well can’t! Lift me up.”
Bill bent down and scooped up the irate tortoise. Bartholomew surveyed the pictures.
“Bill?” he said, hopping back down to the stairs.
“There’s a painting just like this at the bottom of the stairs, you say?”
“Those aren’t paintings.”
“No. They’re magicians’ portals. And this one right here seems to be showing the top of this bloody tower. See how the walls are round, just like in this bloody tower? And how they’re made out of grey stone, just like in this bloody tower?”
“Ah yes,” said Bill. “I see it now.”
“WELL MAYBE YOU SHOULD’VE SEEN IT BEFORE WE HIKED HALFWAY UP THIS BLOODY TOWER!” Bartholomew screeched.
It’s very demoralizing to be shouted at by a three-foot-tall tortoise.
“I’m sorry I forgot that you’re a stunted little turtle!” Bill said.
“Tortoise!” Bartholomew was a step higher than Bill. He used this tactical advantage to slap him upside the head.
“See?” said Bill. “This is why I need my helmet. Ha!” He rammed it on his head. The visor fell down over his eyes. Several windswept, sun-bleached feathers that may once have been red and had really only been holding on by sheer force of will, fell off his plume and began their slow descent to the table on the floor, about ten feet below. No matter how superiorly evolved to frogs they may be, tortoises are not suited to climb stairs. Nor are knights, for that matter, which is why they tend to surmount any particularly tricky towers using someone’s hair instead.
Bill had had just about enough. He snatched up the fuming tortoise and heaved him at the painting. Bartholomew sailed through, the image parting like water before his scaly head. With more than a little puffing and clanking, Bill managed to pull himself up to the silver frame and fall un-elegantly through the portal.
The portal closed up over Bill’s disappearing and struggling feet with hardly a ripple. The only testament remaining of the duo’s presence was a mixed cloud of rust and sawdust, drifting gently to the floor were Bill had stood. The faint echoes of Bartholomew’s scolding faded bit by bit as they were consumed by the chilly stone walls. The painting still showed the same room, though now the man had turned away from his crystal ball and was facing the newcomers; a reptile with a bad attitude, and Bill, who looked from a distance like a college student’s art project depicting how scrapheaps can be used for the progression of artistic values.
The wizard wore a blue cloak that went far beyond his ankles and trailed behind him for several feet. Even his sleeves touched the ground. It was no wonder he never ventured out of the tower, Bill thought; that cloak would get filthy. The Wizard had on a very tall hat, so pointed that it looked as though it could cause anyone he bowed to a severe injury. His ruddy face was partly covered by a flamboyantly curled moustache, a wispy goatee draped over his myriad chins. His eyes were almost concealed beneath the brim of his enormous hat, but he still managed to stare imperiously down at Bill. A small dark snake with lengthwise white stripes was curled up next to him, snoring softly.
“Bill the Brave,” said the Wizard mysteriously. “Long have I have waited for this moment.”
“Hallo.” Bill said. “What happened to your door?”
“Not ectoplasm?” Bill glanced at Bartholomew. The tortoise scowled.
“What?” said the Wizard.
“Never mind.” Bill looked around the room. There was the crystal ball behind the wizard, just like the image in the portal. Various scrolls were strewn across the floor, almost completely hiding the grey stone.
“You don’t look very organized,” said Bartholomew critically, wading through a sea of rolled up parchment and weird occult symbols. “What the hell are these things?”
The wizard looked affronted. “These are Ye Olde Scrolls of Magicke and Wizardry of Yore.” he said haughtily.
“Can’t say I’ve heard of Yore,” said Bill cheerfully. “Is it foreign?”
The Wizard stared at the knight. Then he chuckled conspiratorially. “Drop the act, Bill the Brave. I know what you are. You may try to play the idiot with me, but your reputation proceeds you.”
“Oh.” Bill wasn’t sure if he should feel hurt. “How did you know who I was?”
“I’ve seen your footprints.” The Wizard gestured at the crystal ball. “With each step, you leave a trail of destruction in your wake.”
“I’m sure I don’t weigh that much.”
The Wizard was beginning to look less sure of himself with every word that came out of Bill’s mouth. “You are Bill the Brave, are you not?”
“They say you called down a thunderbolt to slay the High Priest of Hoggshire where he stood.”
“Nah, that was Zagwa, the grumpy old git,” said Bartholomew absently, from the floor. He was looking at one of the scrolls, rotating it in an attempt to decipher the writing.
“Don’t say his name!” said Bill hurriedly. “But really, it was an accident.”
“Many accidents seem to happen around you, Bill the Brave. I have only one conclusion.” The Wizard fiddled with his quill pen. It was a rainbow-colored feather almost as big as his hat. “You are a powerful sorcerer!”
“Ha,” Bartholomew said. “Right.”
The Wizard pointed at the tortoise. “See? You even have a familiar. Only powerful wizards are accompanied by such animals.”
“Well” said Bartholomew. “Them and farmers with their sheepdogs.” He tossed the scroll aside. “And hunters with their bloodhounds, and little old ladies with their fat cats. Its only powerful wizards who are pretentious enough to call their pets something dumb like ‘familiars.’ And I ain’t a bloody pet, mister.”
The Wizard pretended to ignore him. A muscle twitched in his jaw, making the glorious moustache prance like a squirrel’s tail. “What knowledge do you seek, Bill the Brave?”
“I need to find a dragon.”
“To learn from him Secret Mysteries of Yore?” asked the Wizard hopefully.
“Not one for travelling, myself,” said Bill vaguely. “I was more hoping something along the lines of plunging my sword mightily into his twisted demon heart.”
“Oh,” said the Wizard.
“Can you help?” asked Bartholomew. “Perhaps a small dragon would be best.”
“Well, I have a portal to Fangwood, a Majestickal forest known to harbor fairy dragons smaller than your thumb, as well as other fascinating Magickal Creatures.” The Wizard had a voice that could inject capital letters and extra “k’s” into the most uncooperative of words.
“Is this forest in Yore?” asked Bill.
“Shuddup Bill,” said Bartholomew. He turned back to the Wizard. “That sounds perfect.”
“No!” said Bill. “The King of Parnacly sent me on a quest to defeat a dragon on a mountain. Mt. Hellendüm, he said. But all the mountains around here look the same!”
“Mt. Hellendüm…” mused the Wizard. “Never heard of it.”
“Oh dear,” Bill moaned.
“Don’t worry, it’s alright.”
“I wasn’t planning to help you anyway.”
“You weren’t?” Bill’s heart sank back down to the bottom of the tower and stared wistfully at a platter of brownies.
“No!” the Wizard said. He let out a high-pitched shriek of laughter. It was rather disconcerting. The Wizard coughed. He let out a menacing chuckle. That was much better. “I only wanted to meet you, Bill the Brave, before I defeated you, face to face. One sorcerer to another; a Wizards’ Duel!”
Bartholomew shouldered Bill’s ankles aside. “What?” he cried. “We walked up ten bloody steps to get here, not counting your bloody driveway, and now you want to turn us into frogs?”
“Oh, not you,” said the Wizard, eying the tortoise evilly. His moustache was quivering worse than ever. “Alfie will take care of you.” The snake rose up beside him and slithered toward Bartholomew, head rising above his fellow reptile. “Before I take your powers, Bill the Brave, I shall demonstrate the dominance of my familiar! For he is Alfie, a Magickal striped viper from the Southern Jungles!”
“Excuse me,” said Bill, “But I’m pretty sure he’s a common Garter snake.”
Bartholomew looked at him. “Since when did you know anything about snakes?”
“I make it my business to know everything about dragons,” said Bill haughtily. “I am a knight, you know.”
“Snakes aren’t dragons, Bill.”
“Ah,” said Bill. “I feel rather bad for dropping a rock on that one in my garden, now.”
“Shuddup!” screamed the Wizard, his voice cracking high enough to disorient a bat. He coughed again and continued, striving manfully to retain his baritone. “This is a Wizards’ Duel! Observe the formalities, if you please!” He brandished his feather madly. “Alfie; sic ‘im!”
The snake plunged toward Bartholomew, slithering across the rustling scrolls, two beady little eyes fixed on the seemingly helpless tortoise. “See?” cackled the Wizard gleefully. “Your familiar is no match for Alfie. Snakes are fast, and merciless.” The snake’s head reared back and prepared to strike. Bill reached for his sword, fearing he would be too late.
Bill should have known better than to be worried.
Bartholomew turned his baleful gaze on the fast-approaching serpent and gave it a look that would have quenched a dragon’s fire. The poor snake’s frenzied attempt to turn around may have been more successful, were it evolved enough to possess limbs.
“Fast?” Bartholomew said grimly. “I’ll show you fast.” His arm whipped around behind him, blunt little claws curling into a fist like an ogre’s club (albeit a very small ogre); the haymaker landed with a meaty smack that made Bill wince. A concussed Alfie hit the floor like so much sodden rope.
The Wizard’s face turned paler than ectoplasm. “You killed him!” He shrieked. He whirled around to face Bill, moustache gyrating spastically. “I’ll turn you both into termites!”
“Now that’s not playing fair,” Bill chided. “I heard about frogs; no one ever said anything about termites!”
The Wizard began to wave his quill pen in the air, chanting incantations. Magicke ones, Bill assumed glumly. From Yore, probably. The Wizard’s feather pen, which apparently doubled as a wand, started to glow vaguely blue. Sparks crackled around it.
“Bill?” Bartholomew turned to him. “You know the drill.”
“Shuddup and stab him.”
Bill’s visor was already down, so he reached for his sword. “Meet me in battle, sinister fiend!”
The sword came out of its sheath smoothly. The sword did not break in half, nor did it soar from Bill’s grasp. He was so surprised he almost dropped it. Even the hinges of his elbow guards seemed to bend as if they’d been oiled yesterday, which they most certainly had not.
Of course, the moment was far from being as epic as it might have been. There were no thunderstorms, no wailing damsels, nor fanfares to disturb the day’s tranquility. Not even a bellowing dragon. Just a rather portly man in a funny hat screaming in a foreign tongue and waving around a large feather. A bird outside the tower window, totally oblivious to theatrical timing, began to chirp happily. It was horribly inappropriate.
But you have to make do with what you can get. Bill waved his sword at the Wizard in what he supposed was a threatening manner. “Huzzah!” he hazarded. “Have at you, fiend.” The Wizard stopped chanting and looked up.
“Have what?” he asked. The glowing blue nimbus surrounding his quill fizzled out. “Oh, damn you!”
Bill was perplexed. How could this be going so well? He didn’t feel anything like a termite; the only thing he could feel out of the ordinary was an uncomfortable itch in his pants. He raised the sword above his head and plodded onward toward the Wizard, preparing to smite him, or run him through, or do whatever it was knights like him supposedly did.
It almost came as a relief when the multitude of scrolls shifted beneath his feet, sending him tumbling onto his back. His head hit the ground with a world-shattering clank, and parchment paper billowed up in a cloud around him. Now, this he was more used to. Bill stumbled groggily to his feet. His helmet was askew, his visor askance; he couldn’t see a thing.
The Wizard was chanting again. The air was thick with static like a thunderstorm, but it couldn’t be; Bill could still hear that damn bird chirping. He brought his gauntlets up to his battered helm and twisted. It stuck resolutely. He twisted again with all his strength, and the helmet turned with agonizing slowness, rust and bedraggled plumage cascading to the floor as it ground against his gorget with a drawn out screech.
Bill could see again. He looked around frantically for his sword; it was nowhere to be found. He kicked desperately and paper fountained into the air.
There was a clang. There it was! The sword rolled away from Bill’s foot. He dived for it, scrabbling at the stone ground.
For a moment, the sea of scrolls was still.
Then Bill burst from the surface like some great barnacle-encrusted leviathan, the blade clutched triumphantly in his hand.
“Bill!” Bartholomew was running towards him as fast as his stubby legs would carry him. “Duck!”
“I know, I know!” Bill said, glaring at him through the visor. “You’ve told me before.”
“No, you dimwit! DUCK!”
The chanting behind Bill had reached a crescendo. Then, more ominously, it had stopped. Comprehension dawned. Bill turned to face the Wizard just in time to see a large ball of what looked like blue fire, making a beeline right for his fowl helmet. The sword in his hand wilted somewhat.
Then Bartholomew was there instead, leaping in front of him.
“Bartholomew!” Bill screamed. “NOOOOOO—!”
The spell ricocheted off Bartholomew’s shell and blasted the Wizard off his feet. Scrolls cartwheeled through the air, occult symbols spinning wildly. Several burst into flame for no apparent reason. The crystal ball fell to the ground with an ear-rending crash, and shattered into more pieces than specks of rust on Bill’s armor.
“—Oh.” Bill finished. Bartholomew picked himself up off the ground.
“Well,” he said, dusting himself off. “That was educational.”
“Bartholomew!” the sword clattered to the ground as Bill scooped up the startled tortoise. “You’re alright!”
“Ack! Put me down! You’re getting rust all over me!” Bill set the tortoise down gently, beaming.
“You saved me!” he cried.
“Well,” Bartholomew said gruffly. “I’m a magical tortoise you know; I figured this shell is tougher than that dumb helmet of yours. And I said you’d be better as a frog, I didn’t say nothing about bloody termites.” He spat out a mouthful of rust and sawdust.
The Wizard was not in quite as good shape. In fact, he was in a different shape entirely. From the wreckage of the crystal ball, a small brown termite glared up at the pair as they stepped carefully toward it over the mess of papers.
“Seems like we’re done here,” said Bartholomew.
“We can’t leave him,” said Bill.
“Why the hell not?”
“Garter snakes eat insects.” They both looked at Alfie. He was still out cold, blissfully unaware of his master’s predicament.
Bill picked up the termite and brought it to eye level. It glared at him. “I will spare your life this time, foul sorcerer!” Bill bellowed at it. “Remember my name, so you do not make the same mistake again!”
“Bill, you’re yelling at a bug.”
“I’m sure he understands.”
“What are you going to do with him?”
Bill looked at the termite for a moment. It glowered back. “Go back to Yore!” Bill shouted. Then he hurled it out the window. Bartholomew walked over and looked out. The bird outside had stopped chirping.
“It’s alright, he had wings.”
“It’s not that.”
“Birds eat insects too.”
“Ah.” Bill said. “Oh dear.” The tower shook. “What was that?”
“Well,” said Bartholomew. “I think the magic holding this bloody place together is falling apart.”
“I see. Shall we go?”
“I should bloody well think so.”
They bolted from the room. Going down the stairs was not quite as arduous as climbing up them, but the fact that the whole tower was shaking did lend the activity a certain excitement, seeing as polished silver staircases are not renowned for their adhesive properties, and that this particular one was lacking a handrail. Three steps down, Bill knelt. Wordlessly, Bartholomew scrambled up into the rucksack.
Bill was not quite descending the stairs as falling down them in a tenuously controlled manner. He flew past portal after portal, their silver frames swinging back and forth as the tower trembled. Thick blocks of granite fell from high above and plummeted past, crashing into the table far, far below and sending up fountains of beef stew and haddock chowder. As Bill got closer, he saw that the dishes were abandoned, many left scattered over the floor. As he passed the portal they had used to reach the top of the tower, Bill saw the broom that had been dusting outside, now lying prone by the doorway. The doorway! Bill careened towards it, three steps at a time, short legs pumping furiously, bits of rust flying off like the trail of a small clanking comet. He rounded the wall with one more coil of stairs to go, and barreled toward the open air…
…And the doorway collapsed in a shower of dirt and grey stone. Bill skidded to a halt, the whole tower rumbling like a whale with indigestion. He wondered if poor Alfie was alright. Probably not
“Bill!” Bartholomew screeched from over his shoulder. “Use a portal!”
Bartholomew’s voice was possibly the only thing loud enough to be heard over the din, considering the immediate shortage of jet engines. “Any bloody one! Get us the hell out of here!”
Bill turned around. Several steps above him, one of the silver frames had fallen to the staircase. He clambered up the stairs and picked it up, uncovering what looked to be the image of some place in the mountains. An eerie whistling sound came from above. Bill looked up. A wall of rocks was hurtling toward them, as the entire tower collapsed in on itself.
“BILL!” It felt as if his eardrum had exploded. Bill the Brave, accompanied by Bartholomew the Tortoise, dived plume-first into the portal. Rocks the size of a giant’s molar smashed into the stairs where he had been, milliseconds before. Rocks the size of a giant’s cranium followed, and the tower, the table, and, most likely, Alfie, were buried in a massive implosion of grey stone, swirling paper, and various delicacies.
Bill knelt down stiffly, and picked his helmet up from off the dusty road. If it had appeared disheveled before, the battered helm now looked as if it had been on the business end of a stampede of buffalo. The red plume was pretty much a thing of the past at this point. Bill shoved the dented metal cap back over his head. Somehow, luckily, the visor remained intact, and the eye-slits afforded no less than their usual lack of peripheral vision.
As he rose from the ground, armor creaking, and covered now in a layer of dust as well as rust, Bill looked like some ancient statue. Ancient in particular (…and statuesque perhaps to one who has in mind the crumbling subject of “Ozymandias”). But at least Bill rose, which is more than could be said for most in his shoes. This was because most people wearing footwear as rusted as Bill’s were lying in a tomb somewhere. As he rose, Bill’s eyes turned upward, squinting through the scratched visor. And widened.
“Look!” he cried, pointing.
Bartholomew picked himself off the ground. He had tumbled from the rucksack when they had plunged through the portal, finding themselves about ten feet in the air, above what looked to be a rather hard, rather unfriendly ground, covered in pointy bits of gravel. Looks are not always deceiving. As it was, Bartholomew did not appear to be in the very best of spirits.
“What is it now?” he demanded.
“The sky! The sky! Look!” Bill was beside himself with excitement. “Dragon fire!”
Bartholomew looked. They were standing in the middle of a very dusty dirt road, on the slim peninsula rising between two ruts, made by the wheels of a thousand carts. Before them the road led into fields. Many fields, bedecked with course, short-cropped grass, and divided by crumbling stone walls that looked as though they wouldn’t stop a mouse, and populated by some cows who appeared not to give a damn if the walls did or not. Bent, twisted trees sprouted from the holes in the walls and in the grass-covered earth. A solitary tower poked up anxiously in the distance. Beyond it were a couple of mountains. And above the mountains was a dim red glow.
“Bill?” said Bartholomew wearily.
Bill was not to be impeded in his glee. “Sunset? Is that this dragon’s name? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Bartholomew rubbed his eyes. Part of him seemed to be considering slapping Bill upside the head. The other part appeared to decide it was too tired and achy.
“Sunset,” Bill mused. “The fearsome dragon. Ha! The plague of Yore! I will defeat you yet, fiend!”
Bartholomew looked up. “Yore?”
“Yes!” cried Bill. “This land must be foreign! Look at the cows!”
“What about them?”
“They’re brown! At Castle Parnacly the cows are black and white! And look at that mountain!” Bill pointed triumphantly at the darkening horizon. “Look at the snow on it, and see how pointy it is? It must be Mt. Helendüm! I’ve never seen anything more sinister!”
“That cloud next to it looks like a baby,” observed Bartholomew.
“Looks more like a demon or something to me,” said Bill stubbornly.
“Close enough.” Bartholomew yawned.
“Onward, then!” shouted Bill. A bluebird glared at him suspiciously from a nearby crab-apple tree. “To do battle with Sunset the dragon! Where is my steed?!” Bill looked around. “Oh.”
“You left your pony tied up at the Wizard’s tower, remember?” said Bartholomew.
“Yup,” said Bill. His bravado faded somewhat. It dawned on him that he was wearing some very rusty, and yet still very heavy, armor. The fields leading to the mountain suddenly became much larger. The red glow before the two rather small heroes was steadily fading, and already, tiny pinpricks of light glittered in the heavens far, far above. Here, beyond the shelter of trees, were more stars than Bill had ever seen. The sword at his side suddenly felt like a pin beneath the vastness of the sky. And Bill felt like nothing but a piece of dust. “Oh dear.” Bill sat down on the road and looked at the sky. He’d never seen anything so big
Bill felt a tap on the shoulder. He looked over into the face of a tortoise.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” it said.
“I’ve never seen anything so big.” Bill said. “I always thought a dragon would be big. Is there a dragon as big as the sky?”
Bartholomew looked worried. “Not that I’ve heard of. Maybe the Wizard did hit you with a spell after all. C’mon Bill, you’re acting weird.”
“I do hope he’s alright,” said Bill.
“The Wizard? I’m pretty sure he’s not.”
“No, my pony. I was always rather cross with him.” Bill had tears in his eyes. “I just didn’t want him to eat anything poisonous.”
Bartholomew’s scaly visage softened somewhat. “I’m sure he’ll be fine, Bill.” He patted Bill on the shoulder. “Now get up, tin man. We’ve got to save Yore from Sunset the dragon, remember? There’re probably damsels what need rescuing, too.”
Bill straightened up. “You think so?”
“For sure. They’re probably languishing in some cave out there as we speak.”
Bill was jolted to his feet as if he’d just said the name of a certain short-tempered god out loud. “Then what are we waiting for?” he cried. “The people of Yore need our help, Bartholomew!”
“Yep,” said the tortoise, “they probably do. But I’m going to sleep.” He climbed into the rucksack.
As Bill clanked with newfound purpose toward the waning sunset, Bartholomew asked from his back, “Do you really believe we jumped into just the right portal to land us in just the right place to find this dragon of yours?”
“Of course,” said Bill. “That’s destiny for you, Bartholomew. It’s just the thing gods would do.”
“Gods, huh?” Bartholomew said sleepily. “You don’t suppose you’re getting a bit spiritual about it, do you?”
“I’d better be. We’ve already seen somebody get smitten, remember? I’d hate to be the next.”
Bartholomew seemed unable to think up an answer for that. Or maybe he had just fallen asleep.
And as the last ruby drops of sunlight mixed with the hues of rust on Bill’s suit of armor; as it made its creaking way along a winding trail of dusty gravel, through twisting fields of short-cropped grass, stunted trees and lethargic cows; the inhabitants of Castle Parnacly, about three leagues south, blew out their bed-side candles and prepared for bed.