Charles ran through the thick grass, his wavy black hair ruffled from the long chase. The grass bent in waves with the wind, like a huge green sea. But, the sensible side of him reasoned, it was really a lot smaller than the sea.
Charles rounded a large tree that stood on the fringes of the forest, and leaned against the side of it opposite of the house, breathing heavily. He looked around the edge of it and let out a breath in relief: he had lost his pursuer.
He sat at the foot of the tree and leaned against it, taking deep breaths. After a moment, his breathing calmed, and he looked around. In all of his ten years, he had never been that far from home, except for going to the village, which was in the other direction. He was sure that Emma had chased him for fifteen miles, at the very least.
“Charles!” Her voice rang out over the land, and Charles sighed. Maybe he hadn’t lost her as well as he had thought. “Charles, where are you?”
The depth of her accent made it so that she almost didn’t pronounce the R in his name at all. Charles had never been completely sure why her accent was thicker than everyone else’s. Mother said it was because of her voice, but Charles wasn’t sure that was really an explanation at all. It sounded to him
Emma came into view, her light brown hair falling from her braids to launch an attack on her eyes. Charles rose slowly into a crouch, getting ready to run again. He wasn’t going to let a girl catch him, and definitely not his younger sister. That was something he just would not, could not allow.
He stood up, watching her carefully. She had turned and was looking in the other direction. Now was his chance. He took a slow step towards the thicker part of the forest. If he could only—
Emma turned around. “Charles! There—”
Charles leapt for the protection of the forest, and Emma’s voice was cut off abruptly. Now that was odd. Unless something had changed drastically in the last hour, a few trees shouldn’t have stopped Emma’s voice.
He turned around and froze. The forest extended a long way in front of him; it kept going where it should have stopped only a few paces away.
He hadn’t leapt that far.
He took a step towards where the edge of the forest should have been, but wasn’t.
Something moved behind him, and he spun around. He saw a shadow in the corner of his eye, moving, but when he looked again, there was nothing.
The forest darkened slightly, and Charles looked up. The sun was setting.
It set quickly, showing its brilliant colors as though it was late and had been told “You have ten seconds to set.” The forest was plunged into darkness.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Charles surveyed the ground and then bent, wrapping his fingers around a stick. He wanted some sort of weapon, just in case. The stick hissed at him, rearing up to strike.
Charles let out a sharp cry and took several steps backwards, flinging it from him. It slithered off and Charles let out his breath slowly. A snake. It was just a snake that he had mistaken for a stick.
Still, Charles didn’t touch anything again.
He started walking through the forest in the direction hat he hoped would take him home.
He went quietly for a while, afraid to break the dead silence of the wood.
A tree appeared directly in front of him, and he jumped back. He stared at it for several moments. It was probably there before, he reasoned, and he just hadn’t seen it.
He went around it and continued walking, but with a sinking feeling knew that he wouldn’t get home this way. It didn’t matter, though. He kept walking. What else could he do?
The trees began to thin, and he realized that there was stone beneath his feet.
Fear struck him abruptly, an urge to run, to hide. To get as far away from this place as he possibly could.
He turned, about to run, when he heard someone coming, a group of people, it sounded like, without a care for being quiet. He sprinted back to the cover of the trees and crouched there, not entirely sure where the sound was coming from.
A group of men walked into the stone-floored clearing, walking so close to have almost run into him. He held his breath and watched.
It was a group of men, lead by a man of huge man who immediately brought a bear to Charles’s mind. Two of the men, both large but not nearly as large as their leader, were carrying a young man in a jester's costume, tied, gagged and slung between them.
They stopped and stood for a moment, silent. Charles realized that there was another man there, and it was all he could do not to scream.
The man was tall, seven feet at least, with skin white as a dead man's. His face was like a skull, his skin stretched tightly over the bone. His black hair fell over his shoulders.
“Years I have wasted,” the man shouted. “Five years and more bound in this incarnate body, pursuing that little beast. She is not the one I seek. But I won the game!”
Charles bit his knuckles, hiding his head in his other arm. That voice was not the voice of any human, of anything good. Charles took a deep breath and looked up.
“Whatever, Dragon,” the large, bear-ish man was saying. “I couldn’t care less about your little games Just tell me if I can gut this joker man here and now, or if I have to wait a little longer?”
The young man—the “joker man,” as he had been called—was thrown to his knees, his blindfold and gag ripped off. He struggled upright and screamed inarticulately, hiding his face in his still bound hands.
“Come, Dragon,” the leader of the men said. “You told me to bring the wretch to you, and bring him I have, alive even, though I had ideas enough in another direction. Tell me, can I kill him now?”
The Dragon snarled and hissed and Charles pulled back a little. “Prince Lionheart,” he said to the jester. “We meet again.”
“A prince, eh?”The bear-ish man kicked jester-prince in the side. “Thought he had too much snobbery about him by half. That don’t make me like him any better, though. Is he that little brown prince of Southlands what’s been missing all these years? Fancy that.”
Charles developed a great dislike for the bear-man.
The Dragon’s gaze wandered a bit towards Charles’s hiding place, and his heart stopped beating for several seconds. The Dragon looked towards him for a moment, and then turned back to Lionheart.
“You were to be the key,” he said.
“He freed the slave you gave me,” the Bear-man said. “Bold as brass, took off the collar and liberated it! By rights, he should have been put in a gibbet and left to starve years ago. I’m only asking to make up for lost time.”
“Enough.” The dragon said, gnashing his black teeth. Charles shuddered. “You’ve done your work, bringing him to me. Now cease your babble before I forget out alliance and have you for a late supper.”
The bear-man opened his mouth and then closed it, his face red.
The Dragon turned back to Lionheart again. “You were to be the key to the princesses undoing. But she wasn’t the one I sought!” He lunged, his hands around Lionheart’s neck, his eyes burning the skin on Lionheart’s face. “Where is she? All the signs told me that you were the key, but the little goblin withstood me. So where is my rightful prey?”
Lionheart didn’t speak.
“Where is she?” The Dragon roared.
Suddenly, The Lady was there.
She broke the Dragon’s hold on Lionheart and stepped in between the two. The Bear-man screamed, and his men fell to their knees and hid their faces.
Charles screamed at the sight of her, lying on the ground and burying his head in his arms.
His mind reeled. The Dragon. The Dragon and The Lady.
Death and His Sister.
All of the stories that Charles had heard rushed back to him in that moment, every terrible thing that they had done coming to his mind in an instant.
“What is going on here?” Death’s Sister demanded.
Despite his fear, Charles raised his head.
“You should have let me have him,” the Dragon snarled. “He was supposed to be the key. If I’d had him, I could have convinced her to take my kiss.”
Charles shuddered. Let the Dragon kiss you?
“You were never going to convince her,” The Lady said. “You never won her in our game.”
“If not her then whom?”
The Lady Smiled.“Ask the prince what he has in his hand.”
The Dragon’s eyes narrowed to fiery slits. “Why?”
“Ask him and see.”
The Dragon turned to Lionheart, who had slumped to his side, his knees curled up to his face.
“What do you have in your hand?”
Lionheart’s closed fist tightened.
“Lionheart my darling,” The Lady said, kneeling down beside him. “Show my brother what you hold.”
He looked into her eyes. “You… You said—”
“I said I would show you how to deliver Southlands from the Dragon. This is the only way. Show him what you have.”
Lionheart closed his eyes and uncurled his fingers.
The dragon roared.“He holds the heart of a princess!”
“Not just any princess, my brother,” said Death’s Sister, and Charles thought she sounded slightly smug. “That is the heart of Princess Una, Beloved of the Prince of Farthestshore, Your Enemy.”
The Dragon’s cloak billowed out in a blast of heat and fire. Lionheart screamed and closed his hand over the ring again. Charles tried to run, but found himself rooted to the spot. The men and their leader ran, one of them passing directly through Charles.
“Give me her heart, Prince Lionheart.” the Dragon said. “Give me her heart and I will let you live.”
“No!” Lionheart cried, shielding his face with his hands.
“No,” Charles whispered. “If Death wants the ring, you can’t give it to him.”
The Dragon laughed, a terrible sound as hot as the flames flickering between his teeth.“Your life for her heart. That’s the best I can offer you.” The Dragon lowered his head, and Charles thought he might eat Lionheart then and there.
“You must choose!”The Lady said. “Choose your dream!”
“It is an easy enough exchange. Then you may return to Southlands, reclaim your crown, rule your people. Only give me the heart of this princess. Your love.”
“No!” Lionheart shouted.
“No,” Charles echoed. “No, no, no, no, no!”
The Dragon couldn’t take it. He could eat Lionheart, but he couldn’t take the ring unless Lionheart gave it to him.
“I will eat you now, little prince.” The Dragon said. “And I will return to Southlands and burn it to ash. I will swallow your homeland in one mouthful and be hungry for more! Only you can prevent it, Lionheart. Not by killing me. You cannot kill me. No sword you can wield will pierce my skin, little man! So save yourself and save your people and give me the heart of this Una, for I have greater need of it than you do.”
Fire was everywhere.
“Choose your dream,” The Lady urged. “Give my brother the girls heart, for he played the game with me and won, and he must have it now. Give it to him.”
“Give it to me!”
“No! Don’t give the ring to the Dragon! Prince Lionheart, don’t do it!” Charles shouted.
But Lionheart didn’t hear him. No one did.
Lionheart, lying on his face, his arms flung out before him slowly uncurled his fist. The ring rolled from his grasp and lay upon the stone ground.
“It’s yours,” he whispered. “Take it!”
Lionheart, Death and His Sister all disappeared.
Charles found himself back where he should have been, a step within a forest.
“—you are!” Emma was finishing. It was bright, like noon should be.
“No! Lionheart, you didn’t!”
But Lionheart had.