It was her boots who complained the most. She couldn’t take more than two steps up the mountain without her boots registering some grievance, or so it seemed to Jeralzine Stewpot.
“Be careful on those loose rocks! Do you want me to get scuffed?” and “All this alpine air is drying out my leather” and, inevitably, “Do you ever wash your feet, girl?”
“If you can’t show some gratitude, at least have some manners!” snapped her sword, its voice partially muffled by its scabbard. “Jerzy’s doing her best.”
Jeralzine winced at the name. She’s hadn’t been “Jerzy” since she was a child, as the sword well knew, but she knew better than to argue with it.
“Stop jabbering, you two!” boomed the voice of her armoured breastplate, so loud and deep Jeralzine felt it resonate in her lungs. “She needs to keep her mind on her quest!”
And that was another thing, Jeralzine thought, suppressing a bitter sigh. When, exactly, had this ill-wrought venture become her quest? She had set out only with the greatest reluctance, drawn into state-sponsored heroics and the business of witches very much against her better judgment. If Friedland hadn’t flexed those bare biceps of his; if Bruyalle’s batted eyes had been a slightly less compelling shade of emerald; if Voxxas hadn’t offered to pay half her contract up front? She might have found the voice to sensibly decline.
But no. Here she was, nearly at the peak of the most dangerous mountain in the Principality of Kepheleq, hungry, thirsty and sore all over, abandoned and alone but for the incessant howling wind and her equipment’s ceaseless bickering. The most she could look forward to was her inevitable death at the hands of the Witch of the Forlorn Edifice, which would at least deliver respite from these woes.
She hoped so, anyway. You could never be sure with witches.
“How can she forget?” demanded the boots. “The fate of the whole principality falls upon her shoulders.”
“Aye, and under-developed shoulders at that,” pronounced the breastplate gravely. “Girl, have you been following my lifting exercises at all? By now your pectoral muscles should be stretching my bindings!”
“Oh for Kurq’s sake!” The sword jumped from its scabbard into Jeralzine’s hand, who was so startled she almost dropped it. “Jerzy’s perfectly strong enough to chop off a witch’s head, Friedland. I’ll see to that. Stop being such a creep about her chest measurements!”
“Easy for you to say, Bruyalle,” scoffed the breastplate. “At least you’re going to get some action. What am I supposed to do against the witch? Block a rain of toads?”
As they fell once more into their usual arguments, Jeralzine contemplated their goal. The four of them had set out together to scale the mountain, find the Witch and stop her from carrying out her threats. Unless appropriately appeased, she had promised a generation of wrack and ruin upon Kepheleq– blighted crops, a cloudless summer, and swarm after swarm of fat, festering plague rats. Such dire peril demanded the greatest of heroes, and so had risen up a mighty warrior, a crafty bard, a potent wizard and…her.
Jeralzine the scullery maid, whose lifetime’s heroics had so far been confined to sweeping, stirring and washing every day since she was six.
The three heroes had invaded Princess Naomi’s kitchens, scared most of the servants away, and pointed at the one too slow and dumbfounded to run. “You there,” said the tall one with teak muscles and hair plaited with copper bands, “do you know what an adventure is?”
“Do you know how to cook trail soup and coal-bread?” purred the hawk-eyed battle-singer, balancing a knife on her calloused fingertips.
The wizard with the waterfall-spray beard asked, “Will you take a cash deposit?”
Without ever quite agreeing to it, Jeralzine Stewpot became a mercenary witch-hunter. The distant fourth of a hero band determined to scale the deadliest peak in the Gleaming Principalities and confront the cruel witch in her den.
Her companions promptly forgot about her unless it was time to set up camp, gather firewood or wield the dinner ladle. They spent all their attention on loud squabbles about methods for dispatching witches and the nature of a Princess’ gratitude.
These heated disagreements proved their downfall. Each in turn was killed in action. Friedland the Mighty was carried away and dropped from on high by a snarling pterosaur. Bruyalle the Crafty was spiked on the venomous tail of a manticore. Voxxas the Potent was incinerated when his own fireball reflected off a rebound trap.
And as each had died, Jeralzine found herself with a shiny new piece of startlingly talkative adventuring hardware.
“Quest insurance,” explained her new boots in the voice of Voxxas the Potent. “Tricky magic, but essential in these all-or-nothing quests. The last one standing benefits by the perpetual wisdom of her fallen companions.”
Standing at the crest of the Forlorn Edifice before a hut made of bronze feathers and gnawed bones, Jeralzine wondered about those words ‘wisdom’ and ‘essential’.
Friedland the breastplate was talking tactics. “We’ll go in through the roof. She’d never expect-”
From the hut emerged a middle-aged woman wearing hunting tweeds and peeling an apple with long fingernails. She peered at Jeralzine. “Is it just you, dear?”
Her magical accoutrements all shouted at once.
“For Princess Naomi!”
“For the Principalities!”
But the witch silenced them with a waved hand. She looked at Jeralzine. “Well?”
“They sent four. I’m the last.” She decided not to disclose her qualifications, in case the witch took them as insult. “I – er, we are here to break your curse.”
The witch cackled, sounding more like a pastry cook than a sinister crone. “There’s no curse, dear. That was just advertising for a project I’m planning. Can I interest you in a multidimensional conflict between good and evil? It pays well.”
Jeralzine supposed it was either this or back to scrubbing pots.
“It depends,” she said. “Can I bring my friends?”
It’s been a while since I checked in on the Gleaming Principalities, but instead of featuring Flopknot and the other so-called mafia bunnies, I thought I’d look at what else might be going on. This story was almost called “Three Heroes and a Little Lady” but fortunately I was gripped by a sudden bout of good sense.
If you have no idea what the previous paragraph was gabbling about, I direct your attention to my previous stories The Overzone Rule, The Going Rate for Peace and Harmony, and The Nonemyr Play (the previous Gleaming Principalities stories), and of course, the classic 1991 Selleck-Guttenberg-Danson gay polyamorous parenting comedy Three Men and a Little Lady, a movie about which I remember absolutely nothing other than the title.
Oh, and the characters here are a fantasy riff on Rogue Trooper, a classic old-school comic strip by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons, from that venerable British institution 2000 AD (which I read long before its name became a weird anachronism). I’m rather excited that there’s now a film version on the way, directed by Duncan “Moon” Jones and (possibly) scripted by Grant Morrison. Oooh!