THE LADIES OF LA MANCHA by Kevin L O’Brien
“The nature of the Dreamlands allows Dreamers with strong wills to alter its form as they see fit. This is usually done through their normal dreams; the creation of the cities of Celephaïs by Kuranes and Ilek-Vad by Randolph Carter being prominent examples. Others who possess a natural conscious talent can become magicians. A few exceptional individuals are able to change the Dreamlands at will, making them Dream-reality warpers; Medb hErenn and the Fomorians are much like this, as were the Parisian Surrealists of the thirties. Every now and then, however, there comes a Dreamer whose personality and mental state allows her to remake the Dreamlands in subtle ways on a subconscious level, such that neither she nor anyone around her is even aware that it is happening or has happened. Whether this results in good or ill depends largely on the nature of said Dreamer.”
—The Dreamlands for Dummies, by Aislinn Síle
Eile and Sunny walked beside Medb hErenn on the massive woman’s right as they traversed an expanse of open field in the Land of Ooth-Nargai. They were heading back to Celephaïs, and travelled across the coastal plain well north of the city that lay between the Tanarian Hills on their left and the Gulf of Cornwall on their right. Whenever Eile glanced in either direction, she could just barely make out the fantastic city of Serannian floating above the water on its foundation of clouds, or the massive snow-covered peak of Mt. Aran rising above the surrounding mountains.
It was a comfortable day. Though the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky, a breeze blew in off the gulf, keeping the air cool. It was at times like this that Eile could appreciate the design of her adventuring costume. It consisted of a long-sleeved linen shirt tucked inside a pair of soft leather trousers, with a sleeveless cuir bouilli byrnie covering her torso. The leather acted as a windbreaker, while the shirt allowed her body to shed heat. A wide belt on her hips bore her short thick-bladed broadsword and a bowie knife along with a number of pouches; gloves, knee-high boots, and a backpack completed the ensemble. Beside her, Sunny wore a collared sleeveless shirt that exposed her midriff, an open short-waisted long-sleeved jacket, and a flowing pleated tie-dyed skirt that hung to her ankles. It was designed to be airy to keep her cool, but it could also retain body heat when needed, with the help of a cloak. Her belt carried a quiver of arrows and a stiletto dagger along with an array of pouches, and
she had an unstrung composite bow strapped to her pack while she carried a quarterstaff. She also had boots and gloves, and they both wore hats, but whereas Eile’s was a utilitarian tricorn, Sunny’s was a bicorn Robin Hood hat with a large fluffy golden plume.
As they approached a hamlet that possessed a trio of windmills, a knight in plate armour sped past them on a horse at full gallop, holding his lance level out in front of them both as he charged the nearest mill.
“He’s... he’s attacking it!” Sunny squealed.
For once, her penchant for stating the blindingly obvious failed to annoy Eile, because the knight’s actions were too bizarre and ludicrous. “What the freakin’ hell is he up to?”
“I believe it is called ‘tilting’,” Medb said.
As they watched, the knight ran his lance through the sail that had reached its nadir, but neither it nor the sail broke. Instead, the lance jammed in the framework, and as the sail rose again it lifted the knight off his horse and carried him aloft. He managed to pull his sword free of its scabbard as he shouted insults of defiance and pious curses at the building while kicking his legs, and began beating on the sail with the blade.
“Come on!” Sunny dashed ahead, and Eile followed out of reflex, though she had no idea what they could do to help.
By the time they reached the base of the windmill, the sail had reached its zenith with the knight in its grip hanging upside-down, though he continued to strike it with his sword. They stood staring up helplessly as the sail began its descent, but as it turned towards the horizontal the knight pivoted, still hanging upside-down, but now clear of the frame’s supports.
“I have an idea!” Sunny said. She waited until the sail dropped below the horizontal, then pointed at the section between the knight and the axis.
A shower of sparks erupted near the lance. The sail snapped in two and the front half drooped, but part of it was still attached to the back half and it did not break away. Instead, it dangled at a crazy angle, and when it again reached its nadir it dragged the knight across the ground. Eile rushed towards him, pulling her sword, and she chopped at the sail. She cut the remaining spokes of the frame and it broke loose under the weight of the knight as it began to rise again. He dropped heavily to the ground, bounced once, then lay still on his back. Sunny ran up beside her, and together they dragged him away from the mill before the next sail could reach them.
Sunny knelt to see if the knight was hurt while Eile stood over them both, but even she could tell that he only had the wind knocked out of him. Except for trying to catch his breath, he was awake and seemed unhurt, though he blinked and shook his head. Even so, Eile was struck by how surreal he looked. He was exceedingly long; were he on his feet she figured he would be as tall as Medb, if not a little taller. But he was also as thin as a pencil. And he was older than she expected: probably late-middle age, but his hair and beard were a mix of grey and white, and his face was creased with careworn wrinkles. His armour, such as it was, looked homemade and ruddy brown from rust, while both his lance and sword were dilapidated. She glanced at the horse, grazing off to one side, and noted that it was swaybacked and well-worn past its useful years, and its saddle, tack, and harness were poorly made. It seemed to her that he was either as impoverished as a church mouse, or he wasn’t playing with a full deck.
Which seemed likely when she spotted the fiery glint of manic excitement in his blue eyes.
Sunny helped him sit up as Medb approached. She came around all three of them to stand at the knight’s feet, and she displayed a crooked mocking grin.
“Ach, it would seem that you continue to insist on fighting unbeatable foes, My Valiant Hidalgo.”
That sounded vaguely familiar to Eile, but before she could puzzle it out, the knight rose to one knee, facing Medb, folded his arms over his chest, and bowed his head.
“As always, I still fight for the right without question or pause, My Royal Lady.”
She grinned broadly at his response. “Stand up, Quixano. I told you before, it is I who should abase myself before a hero of your magnitude.”
He looked up at her, a mischievous expression on his face. “Lady, it would not be seemly for thee to kneel before a knight as lowly as I.” But he stood up.
She chuckled and then regarded them both. “Ladies, allow me to introduce to you the famous Don Quixote de La Mancha, the Doleful Knight.”
Sunny’s eyes and mouth resembled three big Os. “My fabulous gravy!”
“Geezus,” Eile breathed. She realized she should have guessed. She had not yet read Cervantes’s classic, and she doubted Sunny ever would (except as a graphic novel), but they had both seen Man of La Mancha, and while he looked nothing like Peter O’Toole, his appearance matched the character almost exactly.
“I take it these are now thy entourage, Royal Lady?”
“Runt, Crème, and Teehar you know.” She indicated the Zoog and bird on her shoulders and the cat at her feet. “These fine young ladies are Braveheart and White-Lion, recent additions to my circle of retainers.”
Quixote bowed before them. “It is my honour to know two such valiant heroines” He eyed Eile’s sword. “Thou wouldst be the Lady Mayv’s Knight Champion.”
“Huh.” She wasn’t wearing her armour, but she figured his assumption was natural. “Yeah, you could say that.”
He turned towards Sunny. “And thou wouldst be her Court Magician.”
She giggled. “I suppose I am.”
He bowed again. “I thank you for your aid against the four-armed monster.” He then addressed Medb. “In gratitude, Royal Lady, while I still pursue my eternal quest to find and defeat the Great Enchanter, I offer thee my good right arm in service to thine own quest. Together may we vanquish whatever foe thou seeketh!”
Medb bowed her head. “We would welcome your company, Quixano.”
“I shall be but a moment, Royal Lady.” And he walked over to the broken sail to retrieve his lance and sword.
They watched him pull the former loose and take both to the horse. “How’s it possible?” Eile said.
Medb gave her a puzzled look. “How is what possible?”
“In the Waking World,” Sunny said, “Don Quixote is a fictional character. How can he be here?”
“Yeah.” Then Eile did a mental double take. “His name doesn’t mean anythin’ ta you, does it?”
“No; should it?”
The light dawned. “Heh, nah, not really, I guess. Cervantes didn’t write about him until 1500 Waking-years after you entered the Dreamlands. But he’s past history ta us.”
“How do you know him?” Sunny asked.
“I first met him a few years before you two arrived. Though we started off on the wrong foot, he helped me protect a village from raiders.”
“He calls you Royal Lady; what’s up with that?”
She smirked. “He believes I am an exiled queen. After our first encounter I knighted him and gave him his added name. He offered to help me reclaim my kingdom, but I managed to put him off by stating that the time was not yet right.”
“But why do you call him ‘Keyhano?’”
“That is his real name, Alonso Quixano, but he ignores me when I do.”
“You mean, he’s real?!”
“Of course; why would you doubt it?”
“I thought he might be someone’s Dream-construct; like, they admire Don Quixote so much they Dreamed him into existence.”
“Ach, I see. No, after my first encounter I tracked down where he came from, and spoke with his family and neighbours. They informed me of their belief that he had simply read too many books about chivalry.”
“Is he all there?” Eile asked.
“I do not understand.”
She responded by twirling the index finger of her right hand in a circle while pointing at her head.
“Ach, I see. Perhaps not, but despite whatever madness may possess him, I believe he is saner than most normal people.”
By that time he was heading back to them, leading his horse. “I offer thy Zoog the comfort of my steed,” he said.
“I thank you.” She removed Conaed from her shoulder and placed him on the saddle bags as Teehar took wing, and he and Crème scouted ahead.
Before they could start out again, a group of people had gathered to examine the damaged windmill. One pointed back at them, and another hurried over. Medb stepped away to intercept him.
“Did you damage my mill?!” He shouted at her in an enraged tone and gesticulated wildly. She did not react, but Quixote drew his sword, leapt to her side, and pointed it at the angry landlord.
“Speak civilly, and with respect, villain, or I shall pierce thy bowels for the offense.”
The man did look frightened as the blood drained from his face, but he did not retreat. “You dare threaten me? I will see you in Kuranes’ court for this!”
“On thy knees before this Royal Lady!”
“Quixano!” She used a sharper tone than when she had previously spoken to him. “I am not offended, and this man is justified in his anger. Take Braveheart and White-Lion south. I will deal with him and catch up.”
Quixote hesitated for only a moment, then saluted her with his sword. “As thou wisheth, Royal Lady.” He returned to his horse, sheathed his sword, took its reins, and started out. She and Sunny followed, but she kept glancing back at Medb, and she saw her give the man some money.
When she looked forward again, Medb appeared out of thin air beside Quixote, but while she felt startled, he showed no sign of surprise. She and Sunny sprinted to catch up and fell in on Medb’s left.
Quixote gazed up at the sky. “We should cover a fair distance before we must retire for the night.”
“No!” Sunny squealed. “He’s had a nasty fall; he may even have a concussion. We should stop soon and give him a chance to rest, just in case.”
“There is no need, My Lady Magician,” he said in a gentle tone. “A knight does not complain or seek respite, even if his bowels be dropping out.”
Eile couldn’t help grinning as Medb laughed. “Never fear, White-Lion. She is right, Quixano, but do not worry, we will not be delayed, and your welfare is my concern.”
He bowed his head. “As thou wisheth, Royal Lady. Thy word is my command.”
“I know a place near here where we may camp secure. We should reach it in an hour.”
Medb’s site turned out to be a grassy clearing in an open grove of tall tree-like shrubs next to a stream that ran down from the mountains. A flat rock with a slight depression in the middle sat in the centre, making it a perfect location for their fire. As she usually did when she travelled with Eile and Sunny, she let them set up the camp, both as training and so they could gain experience, including taking care of any pack animals, though for their current trip they hadn’t taken any along. They did, however, help Quixote care for his horse, whom, they learned, he had named Rocinante. Then Medb and Sunny made supper while Eile finished up a few remaining chores, such as gathering firewood and water. After they finished eating, Eile and Sunny cleaned up as Medb saw to the needs of her animal companions, but finally, when all the work was done, they lounged around the fire, and sang and told stories until they became sleepy.
Quixote saw to his own bedroll, but otherwise emulated Medb and let Team Girl do all the work. He did, however, show them a more efficient way to build and start a fire, which caught faster and stayed lit better than the method Medb had taught them. He also helped Eile complete her chores while Medb and Sunny cooked, and he seemed to have as many stories as the former queen did, as well as a pleasing and melodious voice for singing. Eile and Sunny did most of the singing, since both Medb and Quixote liked their songs from the Waking World, but they had quite a few stories of their own, from their adventures in the Dreamlands.
Shortly after third dusk, when the night truly began, they grew tired of entertaining each other, but not yet tired enough to go to sleep. Quixote lay on his bedroll, relaxed and content. He had removed his armour for comfort, but remained dressed in his quilted smallclothes for modesty and warmth; the nights in that part Ooth-Nargai could get chilly.
He drained the last of the wine from his cup, then sat up. “May I inquire as to the nature of thy quest, Royal Lady?”
“We are on no formal quest. Braveheart and White-Lion are new to the Lands of Dream, and I have been training them in payment of a debt I owe them.”
Eile noted that Quixote seemed disappointed, as if he had been hoping for some excitement and danger, but if Medb understood that she gave no sign.
“This constitutes their first trip east across the Cerenarian Strait. I brought them here for three reasons. The first is to introduce them to both Celephaïs and Ooth-Nargai, while the second is to have a new suit of armour made for Eile and to have Sunny trained by the leading archers of the army of Kuranes.”
He nodded sagely. “The best armour makers reside in Celephaïs, and His Majesty’s archers are the best trained and most experienced in all the Central Dreamlands.”
“Indeed. Third, and more generally, however, I wanted to give them more detailed experience in wilderness adventuring. I have already taken them on several trips around the Six Kingdoms and through the Desert Lands and up through the Jungle of Kled, but we tended to take advantage of whatever facilities were available along the way, and camped only when we had no other choice, which was rare. Since it would take up to two weeks for Braveheart’s new armour to be finished, I decided this would be an excellent opportunity to give them a crash course in camping out and living off the land as much as possible. I first took them to Carsoon, where we collected our equipment and supplies, and then we departed into the mountains. We took nothing we could not ourselves carry, and while on previous trips we took at least one pack animal, I chose not to this time, so as to limit our options. It was my intention to teach them campcraft, and hunting and field-dressing prey, and to toughen them for wilderness travel.”
He nodded again. “The Tanarian Hills are perfect for that: other than the occasional mining or logging camp, or meeting fellow adventurers, there are no settlements and few other people.”
“Indeed. We toured the trails, passes, and valleys for ten days, then emerged onto the coastal plain. Here there are more people in actual settlements, but most of any size are the fishing villages along the coast, which I have chosen not to approach, while inland hamlets and homesteads are fewer and farther between, and thus easily avoided. We have spent the past four days making our way south, and in that time we entered a community only twice, once to barter for needed supplies, using the hides, antlers, and other items we collected from our prey, and once so I could visit an old friend.”
Eile exchanged a grin with Sunny. That had been a conjugal visit, but they didn’t care. As much as they were enjoying the journey, they were glad of the respite, because it gave them a chance to clean up and spend some quality time together themselves in a soft warm bed. They looked forward to another such opportunity in the ensuing days.
“Our ultimate goal is to return to Celephaïs and then head back to Ulthar, but we are in no hurry. Though we travel each day, we have maintained a leisurely pace, and we do not try to walk a full eight hours; sometimes we make camp early or sleep late the next morning, so as not to tire ourselves too much. Still, Braveheart and White-Lion have now grown used to the exercise, and walking the plain is easier and more relaxing, so we still make good time. I estimate we will reach Celephaïs by first dusk four days from now. Even so, we have not maintained a straight course, and we often zigzagged as one thing or another in the land around us caught our attention, especially White-Lion’s.” She favoured her with a smirk, and Sunny giggled.
Then the massive woman sobered. “I realize this may not be what you had hoped for, but if I may impose on your generosity once more?”
“Ask anything thou wisheth, My Royal Lady, and I shall strive to fulfil it.”
“I would be grateful if you would train my Knight Champion in sword-and-shield combat.”
Eile looked up at her in surprise, then glanced over at Quixote.
“I would be honoured.” And he smiled at her.
She felt embarrassed, but also grateful, and she smiled and nodded back. “Thank you.”
“And now I believe it is time we all got some sleep.”
“Yeah.” Sunny stifled a yawn. “Oh, my! I guess I’m more tired than I realize!”
“I shall take the early morning watch,” Quixote said.
Medb shook her head. “No need. I sleep lightly, and Crème is active in the hours before dawn. Get your rest, Quixano; you are as safe as if you were a babe in the arms of your mother.”
He made a short bow. “As thou wisheth, Royal Lady.” He wrapped himself in his blanket and laid down, turning his back to the fire and draping a fold over his head.
Eile and Sunny exchanged smiles as Sunny winked. They understood that he was being chivalrous, making it so they could undress without him seeing them.
Medb didn’t care, as she stripped off her dress and covered herself with her cloak. The Girls undressed to their underwear and got into their bedroll together. Eile took a quick look around before settling in for sleep. She spotted Conaed curled up with Teehar beside the fire, and she saw Crème trot off deeper into the grove to hunt and patrol the perimeter of their camp.
Sunny reached up and placed a hand behind Eile’s head. She looked down at her partner and they smiled before Eile laid down on top of her and covered them with the blanket.
In the morning, Quixote slept in, giving Medb and the Girls a chance to wash and dress while fortifying themselves with cold coffee, after which they woke him. Eile and Sunny helped him into his armour and to saddle and bridle Rocinante before they extinguished the fire and packed their bedrolls and backpacks. Finally, before they set out, they filled their canteens, dug up the sausages they had buried in the ashes to cook overnight, and ate them with a couple of apples as they set off while Medb and Quixote shared travel bread and jerky.
The morning passed without incident, and they stopped to rest under the shade of a large tree for lunch. After they ate, Medb lay on her side next to the trunk, her head propped up on one hand, as she idly plucked blades of grass. Sunny sat cross-legged beside her head, practicing levitation with a few small stones. At one point, she let the stones fall into her lap and gazed out at the sun-lit meadow, where Quixote taught Eile the finer points of sword-and-shield play. He had lent her his spare shield when he discovered she had none of her own.
“He’s really very good,” she remarked in an awed tone.
“He is better than I am,” Medb added.
Sunny glanced at her in surprise. “I didn’t think that was possible.”
“There are a few who are more skilful at sword combat than I. I have learned a few things just watching him now.”
“It’s just unexpected. In our time, Don Quixote has the reputation of being a klutz.”
“Yeah, um, incompetent, clumsy, even clownish.”
Medb grunted. “Hrrm. I assure you, he is no ‘klutz’. If anyone can make Eile into a great swordswoman, it is he.”
Sunny looked back at the two sparers. “He does look the part, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s the makeshift armour—what’s it made out of, tin? Then there’s the battered shield; the sword looks like it’s been bent out of shape a number of times; the lance appears to have been broken and repaired at least twice; his horse—”
“Did you know that is the only horse in all of the Dreamlands?”
Sunny glanced at Medb again. “No kidding!”
“At least, it is the only horse I have ever seen.”
“Why is that?”
“I do not know. The mix of animals is rather strange. Zebras, llamas, and dromedaries, but no horses; yaks, but no cattle. No dogs or wolves, but foxes and jackals; no pigs, but wild boars.”
She whipped her head around to give the massive woman a startled glance. “Buuuut, we’ve seen pigs!”
“Those are tame wild females. In certain places, such as the Six Kingdoms, they could even be called semi-domesticated. However, each spring the farmers release them where wild male boars can mate with them, then at the start of summer they round them back up again to raise the piglets. In the fall they slaughter most of them, along with a few females too old to produce sound litters, but they release two or three males back into the wild to maintain the local population, and they spare a few females to replace those they slaughter.”
“Why don’t they castrate a few males to keep for next year?”
Medb gave her a look like she just sprouted horns. “That would defeat the purpose of keeping males alive, would it not?”
Sunny felt puzzled for a moment, but then realized what the former queen was trying to get at, and she giggled. “Yeah, it would at that.”
“Even the sheep and goats are not fully like those in the Waking World; both are more cantankerous, especially the goats.”
“Don’t I know that! My heiny’s still sore. There are also cats.”
Medb raised her torso up on one elbow. “Cats are here because they are Dreamers like humans, as are dolphins and the spiders of Leng.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Sooo, why can his horse exist if horses can’t exist... er, I mean—”
“I understand, Sunny. I do not know, but I suspect it is similar to what you were able to do the first time you and Eile came here. Except, you performed your acts through desire, whereas he performs his through belief.”
“What’s the difference?”
“You consciously wished for something so strongly that you were able to make it appear, whereas he subconsciously believes in his version of reality so fervently that he is able to do the same. However, unlike you he is unaware of his talent because he expects it to be, and so does not realize that it had not existed before he brought it into being.”
“Oh. In other words he expects to see it and so makes it appear without knowing that it didn’t exist before he expected it.”
“Essentially correct. You should try to get in some archery practice before we continue on.”
Sunny glanced at the longbow leaning against the tree behind them. “Okay.” She stood up, retrieved and strung it, then attached the quiver to her belt and walked out into the meadow as she put on her archery glove. She understood that Medb had made her suggestion as a gentle way to end the discussion, but she wasn’t sure why. It seemed innocent enough, and yet she had the feeling that something about it made the massive woman... perhaps not nervous, but reticent, as if she didn’t want to talk about it, but it wasn’t important enough to shut her down more forcefully.
Sunny glanced at Eile and Quixote as they sparred in a slow and carefully choreographed manner. Even she could tell that they weren’t flynning: their movements were meant to strike each other, not deliberately miss, and even their parries were designed to attack while defending. They were just moving slowly enough that they could easily avoid mutual injury if necessary. In fact, they defended themselves primarily with their shields, not their swords, though Quixote demonstrated various forms of offensive shield use, such as using it to lever Eile’s sword out of the way, or like a club to strike at her as he fended off one of her blows. She also remembered when Waking-Medb had taught them stickfighting that they practiced their moves, strikes, and blocks slowly and only became faster after the drills became second nature.
She found herself feeling a bit jealous, which surprised her. She was glad that Eile was finally getting the expert instruction she needed, just as Medb had arranged the same for her when she took up archery. And yet, she couldn’t help wondering why she couldn’t learn swordfighting as well.
She shrugged her shoulders as she selected a short but stout sapling as a target. At her current level of expertise, she needed to consistently hit the target, not an imaginary bull’s-eye. She nocked an arrow, raised the bow, and drew the string. Oh well, it was still four days to Celephaïs; maybe she could insinuate herself into Eile’s drills without taking time away from her training.
She released the arrow and watched it fly towards the trunk.
Eile’s skill improved tremendously through Quixote’s drilling over the subsequent three days, which surprised her. He was an excellent teacher: not just skilful and experienced, but patient as well as demanding. He never once raised his voice or became angry with her incompetence, he just repeated the demonstration and encouraged her to try again until she got it right, and while he was quick to explain what she did wrong, he was just as quick to praise her when she did something right, and even his criticism took the form of more in-depth instruction instead of harangues about how she screwed up. Though at first she considered the drills a drag, as she noted her improvement she started to look forward to them, since she wanted to get as good as she could, and she realized that he would be the best way to do so.
He even started to train Sunny, at her request, not in swordfighting, but in how to better use her staff to defend herself. Medb was good, but she had concentrated on attack. Quixote on the other hand showed her how she didn’t really need a sword, because with her staff she could not only block sword strikes, but also subdue any attacker who came at her even if “better” armed. He even sparred with Medb, either with sword or spear, and each time she acknowledged how she had learned something new from the practice.
Not that drilling was all they did. While they walked they exchanged stories of their adventures, which they continued in the evening before retiring as they did the first night. Though he and Medb had the most between them, Eile and Sunny supplemented their meagre supply of Dream-adventure stories with some of their Waking adventures. He also knew campcraft and as with the new way to make a fire, he taught them some things Medb either did not know or had neglected to show them. He turned the care of his horse over to them, and thereby they learned what was needed to properly care for a riding animal versus a beast of burden. They in turn demonstrated their skill at pankration and kapu ku’ialua, and at his request taught him a few holds, throws, and joint locks, as well as ways to break holds used against him.
The only snag was that he tended to react violently to situations that he interpreted as miscarriages of justice. In the afternoon of the first day of their traveling together, he attacked a flock of sheep, believing them to be an invading army of marauders, and was nearly butted and trampled to death before they were able to pull him out from under them. The next day they encountered a group of monks escorting an aristocratic lady being carried in a hammock litter. Quixote assumed they were enchanters who had kidnapped her and challenged them to a duel, which was only averted when the head monk surrendered. Quixote then extracted a solemn holy promise from him that they would convey the lady to safety before he let them go. The day after that, they encountered a group of ruffians carrying a screaming struggling woman towards an isolated cottage. Quixote immediately rode to her rescue, but for once Eile and Sunny followed him, believing as he did that they intended to rape their captive. Between the three of them they made short work of the seven men, but before they could celebrate their victory, the woman angrily berated them for their interference. She then explained that she was eloping with one of the men, and the other six were their friends helping them to get away; her screams and struggles were of surprised amusement, because they had snatched her without warning. To make amends, Quixote tended the men’s wounds with Eile and Sunny’s help, while Medb paid them off so they would not report them to the law.
That evening, as they sought a place to make camp, they found a villa that offered the services of a tavern and inn. Medb ignored it at first, and Eile and Sunny figured she wanted to avoid it as she had the other communities they had passed, but Quixote abruptly turned and rode straight for it, and Medb followed, hurrying to catch him. He passed through the open gate before she could, and in a loud and vibrant voice he declared:
“I, Don Quixote de La Mancha, the Doleful Knight, do beseech the Lord of this Castle to grant the boon of hospitality for myself, this Royal Lady, and her entourage.”
Eile and Sunny caught up with him as soon as Medb did, and Eile examined the interior. The villa was surrounded by a wall, which she realized was more to define the extent of the property than to defend it. It had the shape of a long rectangle, with the buildings in the back third, and the rest of the space taken up by a courtyard, half of which was a garden, dominated by corn, beans, and squash, but which also grew tomatoes, cabbages, potatoes, and melons. Part of the remaining space was occupied by a corral with six yaks, a pig sty, a goat pen, hutches containing rabbits and guinea pigs, a pigeon coup, and a number of beehives, with free-range geese strutting around the open areas, while a place in the back, alongside what appeared to be the main building, served as an open-air refectory, with tables, benches, and a well, and an opening into what she suspected was the kitchen.
The people in the courtyard stood frozen, staring dumbfounded at Quixote. Eile exchanged glances with Sunny, and from the expression on her partner’s face she figured the proper thing for them to do was to take Rocinante by the bridle and lead them back out before any trouble could erupt, but just then a simply-dressed elderly couple stepped forward. Though puzzled and cautious, they nonetheless appeared poised and dignified.
Medb strode forth to stand beside the saddle as Eile and Sunny flanked the horse. Eile wondered if the people were more taken aback by Rocinante than Quixote.
“May we be of service, Sir Knight?” the proprietor asked.
“My Lord Castellano, we seek the boon of hospitality from thee and thy beautiful lady. Is it granted?”
The proprietor and proprietress exchanged confused glances, but when they turned their collective attention back to Quixote, he made a short bow. “It is, Noble Knight, and we are honoured that you will stay with us this evening.”
“I and My Royal Lady thank thee.” Quixote dismounted, then passed Runt to Medb. “Please see that my brave and fleet-footed Rocinante is well cared for and pampered, for he has served me well this past week.”
“Of course, Sir Knight.” He turned and snapped his fingers, and a trio of servants hurried over, took charge of the horse, and led it towards a structure in the back that Eile assumed was a stable. Others come forward and they took Eile and Sunny’s packs and bedrolls along with Medb’s, and her spear and sword along with Eile’s shield and Sunny’s quarterstaff, bow, and quiver, and followed the proprietress to the main building.
“Quixano,” Medb said, “would you please escort Braveheart and White-Lion to the feast while I speak to the Castellano?”
“As thee wisheth, My Royal Lady.” And he started towards the refectory.
Eile and Sunny joined her for a moment. “Go with him, while I speak to the landlord,” Medb said in a quiet tone, “and keep an eye on him.”
They both nodded, and Eile said, “Gotcha.” They hurried after him and caught up beside him halfway across the length of the courtyard.
When they reached the well, Eile saw that they were not the only guests. Eighteen men, possibly the yak drivers, sat at the tables, as seven serving wenches hurried about bringing them food and pouring them wine. Quixote scanned the tableau for a few minutes, as the drivers looked up at him and them, and nudged their fellows to look as well.
He stepped towards them. “Noble Knights,” he began, and as a wench passed close by he bowed deeply and added, “fair chatelaines.” She stared at him in surprise and nearly ran into a table.
“I am the valiant hidalgo, Don Quixote de La Mancha, the Doleful Knight. Should any of you require assistance in fulfilling your quests, my good right arm is at your disposal.” And he raised a balled fist above his head.
At first, the men didn’t know what to make of him as they stared in silence, and even the wenches had paused during his speech, but then the former grinned at each other and a few laughed. Eile felt indignation boil up inside her; sure, to them he was a fool, but there was no reason to insult him like that.
But if Quixote was offended, he gave no sign, for at that moment another wench emerged from the kitchen, carrying a cauldron, which she placed on the nearest table. Tall, buxom, with a strong build and durable frame, she had billowing raven hair similar to Sunny’s own mane, framing a milk-white face smudged with sweat and grease. She wiped her hands on her apron and looked around, when she spotted Quixote staring at her. At first surprised and puzzled, she scanned him from head to toe and scowled in distaste. For his part he stood as still as a statue, as if enraptured, and Eile realized from his expression of reverence and awe that that was exactly how he felt.
The wench balled her hands into fists and jammed them into her hips as if demanding that he speak or look away, but he did neither. Instead he approached her, slowly, gently, as she and Sunny followed at a respectful distance. The wench held her ground with a defiant look, but was taken aback when he knelt before her, and took a startled step back when he took a hand and kissed it.
“My Lady,” he said, and the yak-drivers all burst out laughing. The wench threw them a surprised glare then ripped her hand out of Quixote’s grasp.
Quixote showed no anger or surprise at her action and instead spread his hands in a gesture of devotion. “My Lady, my love, my glorious Dulcinea, long have I dreamed of thee, long have I sought thee, long have I sung of thy lovely delicacy and gentle manner. To find thee here at last in the midst of these sumptuous surroundings and this brave company is God’s answer to my many prayers.”
The yak-drivers again laughed uproariously as the wench stared at Quixote with trepidation, as if suspecting he was mad. A driver close by raised his cup to salute the ‘beautiful Dulcinea’ in a sarcastic tone, and Eile whacked him upside the back of his head.
“Oh my fabulous gravy!” Sunny squealed. “Do you get the feeling we’ve stumbled into a production of Man of La Mancha?”
Eile threw her a reproving frown, but she had to admit, the coincidence was a pretty wild one.
She and Sunny turned around and saw Medb standing in front of the well with the proprietor.
“It is time for us to eat.” And she nodded to the landlord, who headed towards the main building.
Quixote nodded his head. “As thou wisheth, My Royal Lady.” He stood up, bowed to the wench, then joined Eile and Sunny, and Medb led them all to an unoccupied portion of the last table. The proprietor returned a short time later with his wife, who bore a platter of roasted foul, which Eile figured was pigeon. She set it down between them all and Eile noted the birds were surrounded by potatoes, carrots, beans, and onions. The landlord carried plates and utensils, which his wife took and began to distribute.
“Aldonza,” he said, “bring wine for our guests.” The wench Quixote had named Dulcinea nodded and retreated back into the kitchen. Eile exchanged a knowing glance with Sunny; the pattern was getting more obvious.
There were only three birds, so after Eile and Sunny served one each to Quixote and Medb, they shared the last. Aldonza returned with a clay flagon and four clay beakers, and she poured a cup-full of red wine for each of them. She served Quixote last.
“Ah, My Lady Love,” he said as she handed him his beaker, “thou art as graceful and fair as a sleek-furred cat on a night lit by a silvery moon.” Eile couldn’t help grinning and Sunny giggled.
Aldonza’s reaction, however, was quite a bit different: a look of rage flooded her face, and Eile felt certain that if she still held his beaker she would have dashed its contents into his face. “Shut your fool mouth!” she screeched. “I am not your love, nor am I a lady, you crackbrain. I am not some starry-eyed fool swayed by honeyed words; I’m a kitchen slut. If you want my affection, you must pay for it, like everyone else. Then you will get all that money can buy.”
Eile expected him to lose his temper, and for a moment he appeared shocked and confused, but then he flashed an indulgent smile. “Thou seeketh to test my loyalty and devotion, My Lady. I am honoured, but regardless of how thou tryest to disparage thyself, I know that thou art the soul and vision of courtly grace and charity. There is nothing thou canst say or do that would turn me away from my adoration of thee.”
Aldonza snarled and grimaced, and drew back her hand to strike him across the face, but Medb stood and caught her arm. “Come with me.”
Aldonza redirected her wrath towards the massive women and shook loose from her grip. “Take your hand off me, you humongous bitch!”
Medb kept her expression neutral, but her tone sounded soothing. “I only wish to speak with you in private, Come; come.” She stepped away from the table; Aldonza hesitated then set the flagon down on the table and followed, if somewhat reluctantly.
Quixote waited until the two women were out of earshot, then he leaned across the table towards Eile and Sunny. “Valiant Heroines, I would ask a boon of you.”
They exchanged anxious glances, but Sunny said, “Sure, whatever we can do.”
“When you are able, approach My Lady Dulcinea and ask her for a token that I might carry into battle with me, so that I may dedicate all my victories to her.”
This time they exchanged puzzled glances, but Eile said, “We’ll see.”
He smiled and nodded. “I thank you most humbly.” He then began to eat his supper.
Eile heard voices raised in anger, and she and Sunny glanced out into the courtyard. They saw Medb and Aldonza having a terrible row, though they had not yet come to blows.
“Um, excuse us,” Sunny said. Quixote raised his beaker in assent, and they both rose and hurried over to the two arguing women, but before they could reach them Aldonza screeched and stalked off back towards the kitchen. They stopped and as she passed them she waved her arms savagely when they tried to ask her what was wrong and just bulled past them. Neither did she pause as she passed Quixote, but she screeched at him when he stood and bowed to her.
They watched her disappear into the kitchen, then turned as Medb approached them.
“What happened?!” Sunny said when the former queen reached them.
Medb didn’t try to hide her irritated expression. “I tried to convince her to play along with Quixano’s fancies, but she refused, even when I offered to pay her money, and she threatened to harm him if he didn’t leave her alone.” She sighed. “From now on, for as long as we stay, we cannot leave him out of our sight. Understood?”
They both nodded, and Eile said, “Yeah, gotcha.”
They returned to the table and ate their meals past second dusk, which included slices of sweet melon drizzled with honey for dessert. Aldonza did not leave the kitchen the entire time, so they poured their own drinks. The wine had been diluted and spiced, so it wasn’t as strong as it could have been, but while Medb drank copiously and Quixote had numerous beakerfuls, they limited themselves to two servings each, so as not to get befuddle.
When they had finished, they gathered around the well to wash their hands and rinse out their mouths. Eile found it interesting that Quixote swallowed rather than spat out the water, and she and Sunny did the same, but Medb had no such scruples. While they were occupied, Eile saw that Aldonza came out to collect their dishes, utensils, and beakers. One of the yak-drivers spoke with her as she did so, and offered her money, which she accepted, then he and his mates headed off into the courtyard.
She was distracted by singing, and she and the others turned towards the gate. A newcomer came through, singing a merry tune and leading a zebra loaded down with brass artefacts of a wide variety. Eile figured he was either an itinerate craftsman or a peddler, but whichever she was curious to see that he wore an inverted brass bowl on his head, probably both to advertise his wares and for protection from the sun.
“Ah, excellent!” Quixote said. “I do believe a minstrel has come to entertain us.” And he strode towards the traveller as Eile and Sunny hurried to catch him. When he got closer, however, he came to an abrupt halt and visibly trembled, as if suddenly greatly agitated.
“What’s wrong?” Eile said.
“Is it the Great Enchanter?” Sunny asked. Eile threw her a startled look, but with everything else that had happened, she realized she couldn’t discount it.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he drew his sword, charged forward, and confronted the little man, sticking the point in his face. They raced to catch him, but they couldn’t reach him in time.
“Hand it over, villain!” he said.
The traveller appeared terrified, unable to move or speak. Eile and Sunny stood on either side of him and turned towards Quixote.
“Hand what over?” Eile asked.
Quixote lightly and gently tapped the bowl as the traveller rolled his eyes upward to follow the sword.
“The bowl?!” Sunny squeaked.
“‘Tis no bowl,” he said, “but the mystical Golden Helmet of Mambrino. Whoever of a stout and pure heart possesses it is rendered invulnerable. I claim it as my due, as a valiant hidalgo and champion of the right and just!”
They glanced at each other, unable to decide what to do, and they saw that a crowd of servants and yak-drivers had assembled behind Quixote, ready to take him out should he try to make good on his threat. Then Medb appeared out of nowhere and laid a hand on Quixote’s shoulder.
“Stay your hand, Quixano, and lower your sword. I doubt this peasant knows what he has, and I’m sure he will gladly part with it now that he understands its true significance.” And she threw the little man an earnest expression that suggested he play along for his own good.
The traveller nodded vigorously, and Quixote dropped the point of his weapon towards the ground. “Yes; yes, indeed!” He reached up, removed the bowl, and offered it to Eile as Quixote resheathed his sword. She took it and passed it to Quixote, who snatched it up, but then walked aimlessly away as if in a trance as he studied the bowl with great intent.
The traveller nearly fainted with relief, but then he became enraged at the outrage he had suffered. “Of all the wicked, criminal, despicable—”
“Calm yourself,” Medb said; “you shall be well compensated.” To them she said: “Stay with him; make sure he does not get into any more trouble!”
They nodded and caught up with Quixote. The crowd looked ugly, but with the incident over they parted for him as he strolled nearly senseless towards the main building. All the while he muttered things like, “Too long has thou art been lost to glory; together thee and I shall make glorious history;” and so forth.
They stuck to either side of him, saying nothing, and soon Medb appeared with them. Eile saw the traveller lead his zebra towards the stable, counting gold coins held in one hand as he grinned like a fool. She figured Medb had paid him an exorbitant price for his bowl, enough to keep his mouth shut.
“Quixano, it is late,” the massive woman said, “and we need our sleep for tomorrow’s journey. Let us retire to our beds.”
He glanced up at her. “Yes; yes, My Royal Lady, it is late at that.” He tucked the bowl under one arm. “Come, we shall find our rest.” And he marched towards the main building.
“Sunny and I have somethin’ ta do first, but we won’t be long.”
“Very well, but be careful.” Medb disappeared, then reappeared beside Quixote, placing a hand on his shoulder to guide him.
They went into the kitchen to find Aldonza. It turned out to be a typical medieval kitchen, with a fireplace for cooking, a sink for washing, and a table for food preparation. Aldonza stood at the sink, washing dishes and pots, but she looked up when Sunny knocked on the open door.
She scowled at them and went back to washing. “What do you two want?”
Eile almost turned around and left because of her rude temper, but Sunny took her by the arm and pulled her further into the room. “We have a request to make.”
Aldonza paused once more and threw them an irritated look. “I’m already engaged for the night. Besides, I prefer men.”
Sunny jerked from startled surprised. “What?!”
Eile decided to take over. “That’s not what we meant. The request comes from Don Quixote.”
“The knight who’s travellin’ with us; the one who called you Dulcinea.”
She uttered a curse and went back to washing. “My answer’s the same.”
Eile had to admit, that wasn’t a bad riposte on her part. “Nah, he didn’t mean that, either.”
“Then what does he want?” The exasperation was naked in her tone.
“A token,” Sunny said, recovering from her shock.
She paused yet again. “A what?”
“It’s an object a lady gives a knight to insure that he will return from a quest safely and in one piece.”
This time she turned full around and flashed an exasperated expression. “What sort of nonsense is this?”
Eile felt her own irritation flare. “It ain’t nonsense! It’s meant ta be a sign of her respect and devotion to the knight, an indication that she favours him above all others. In turn, he’s honour-bound ta return it when he finishes his quest, and if he loses it ‘cause he fails he’s humiliated. His only option is ta get it back, or die tryin’.”
That seemed to sober her. “You mean, he would risk being killed just to retrieve some bauble?”
“He couldn’t face the lady again unless he did,” Sunny said.
She pondered that for a few moments, but then she smirked. “And what does he expect in return once he gives it back?”
“Ha!” Aldonza cried. “Now we’re getting to it!”
Eile shook her head. “No, no, not erotic love; there’s no physical contact.”
“Chivalric love,” Sunny said.
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s the ideal of love,” Eile said; “a pure, almost spiritual love. What love’s suppose ta be without the physical aspects.”
She really did look confused. “What sort of love is that?”
“The kind you have when you know you can’t be with someone,” Sunny said, “but you’ll still treat them like a lover while you do whatever you can to make them happy and to keep them safe.”
“How can you treat someone like a lover without touching them?”
“It’s more like romantic love. You sing ballads, recite poetry, praise their beauty, do great and glorious deeds in their name, all to show how much you love them.”
She frowned. “That’s what he expects from me?”
“No, that’s what you would expect from him, as his lady.”
The frown grew deeper. “But what does he expect of me!?”
“He hopes you’ll recognize his courage, his honour, his ardour for you, and that you’ll praise him for it.”
She looked uncertain. “Just praise; no physical contact?”
“Nah,” Eile said, “that’d actually ruin it. For him, it’s enough just ta worship you from afar, but he’d be ecstatic if you recognized that in some way.”
She seemed to soften a little. “Like how?”
“Like, letting him fight for justice and battle evil in yer name, dedicate his victories ta you in the name of glory and call upon you for comfort in defeat, and sing yer praises wherever he goes.”
“And where does this token fit in?”
“Well, like we said, it’s a visual representation of yer favour for him. It lets others know that his boasts are true, and it reassures you that his adoration is sincere.”
She turned back towards the sink. “What form would this token take?”
“It could be anything!” Sunny said. “A piece of jewellery, an article of clothing, a keepsake; often times, it’s a veil, or a scarf, or even a handkerchief. Just as long as it has great personal value for you.”
Aldonza leaned over the sink and hesitated, as if uncertain as to what to do, but then she straightened her back. She whipped an arm around and threw something at them.
“Then let this be my token of my feelings for him.”
Eile caught it, and instantly realized it was something nasty. When she opened her hand, she found it was a sopping wet and filthy dishrag.
“Hey! Now wait a minute! We can’t give him this!”
“Yeah!” Sunny squealed. “It’s disgusting!”
She flashed a wicked grin. “And that’s what I think of him. Now, get out, before I start screaming.”
They beat a hasty retreat, and cleaned the dishrag as best as they could with water from the well, then headed for the main building. They found the proprietress and she took them to the outside stairs that led up to the balcony on the second floor.
“You know,” Sunny said as they headed up, “there’s something screwy about this whole setup.”
“Yer just now figurin’ that out?”
She threw her a dirty look.
“Okay, okay; sorry. So, what makes you think so?”
“Well, at first I was willing to believe that the Man of La Mancha references were all just a coinkydink, but now there have been so many that seems too unlikely, even for us!”
“Heh, yeah, I see wha’cha mean.”
They paused at the top of the stairs. “It all feels like someone’s manipulating this whole series of events, like we really were in some kinda play. I mean, all that’s left are the fight with the mule-drivers, Aldonza’s abduction, and Quixote’s confrontation with the Great Enchanter.”
“You left out Dr Carrasco’s ploy.”
“Yeah, but, somehow that seems out of place. I mean, this could be the same kind a thing, but it just doesn’t feel right.”
“Huh. Okay, so, who do you think’s behind this?”
She looked uncertain. “I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I’d say the Great Enchanter, or someone pretending to be him.”
“Why him especially?”
She shrugged. “It’s just a hunch, but I get the feeling that whoever it is doesn’t just want to convince Quixote he’s playing the fool, but to actually break him.”
“Geezus.” If she was right, and in matters like this, Sunny was seldom wrong, that meant they could be up against a formidable foe.
They continued up the balcony to an open doorway that led into a featureless and austere room. It contained two double-decker bunk beds and a cabinet of drawers, but nothing else besides a lighted lamp. Even the floor was bare wood and the walls cracked yellowed plaster. The beds contained mattresses, but no other bedding. Eile wondered if they might also be contaminated with fleas or lice. Still, Medb lay on one, her legs sticking out one end because it was way too small for her, and Quixote sat on another, still absorbed in studying the brass bowl.
However, he looked up with an expectant expression when they came in. He placed the bowl on the bed and stood up, acting like a kid hoping for a present.
“Did My Lady receive you?”
“Um, yeah, she did,” Sunny said, “and, um, she gave us something to give you.”
Eile noted from the look on her face that Medb understood from Sunny’s manner that something wasn’t right, and she got out of the bed.
“A token of her true feelings towards me?”
“Um...” Sunny glanced at Eile with trepidation, while she just shrugged. “Yeah, I... guess you could say that.”
His expectant look grew more eager, and Sunny held out the dishrag. Medb frowned with her whole face, in that way of hers that indicated she was mad as hell for some insult, but Quixote lit up with a broad grin as his eyes twinkled in merriment,
“Oh, wondrous gift,” he said as he took it gently from Sunny’s hand. “‘Tis indeed most beautiful and delicate; sheerest gossamer.” He stared at it for some moments, then rubbed it against his cheek as if it were a silken handkerchief, and sniffed at it. “It carries her scent still.”
Eile grimaced from distaste and Sunny looked like she would throw up at any moment, but Medb flashed an amused smile. “You should put it away, Quixano, lest it become lost or soiled or torn.”
He bowed his head. “You speak truth, My Royal Lady.” And he folded it reverently and placed it in a pouch on his belt.
“In gratitude for His answer to my prayers, I shall hold vigil in the courtyard of this castle until dawn to thank God for My Lady’s Favour.” And he left the room.
Eile and Sunny glanced at Medb, who nodded. “Go with him; make sure no harm comes to him. I will relieve you later so that you can get some sleep.
“Gotcha.” Eile removed her sword and bowie knife and Sunny her dagger, but they kept their singlesticks attached to the backs of their belts. They then headed down the stairs to catch up with Quixote.
It was well past third dusk, into full-on night, when they found him kneeling in front of the main building next to the refectory and holding his sword point down so that the hilt and crossbar formed a cruciform shape. A number of lanterns and tiki torches had been lit, providing sufficient light to see by.
“If you don’t mind—” Eile said.
“We’d like to hold vigil with you,” Sunny finished.
“I would be honoured.” And he bowed his head. He removed the dishrag from his pouch and handed it to Sunny. “Wouldst thou secure it to my left arm?”
“Ummmm, sure.” She took it and tied it around the upper arm. He then kissed the crossbar of his sword and resumed praying.
They didn’t kneel on the ground, but they stood beside him. Instead of praying, however, they kept an eye on the people around them. The villa servants mostly ignored him, or at best gave him a puzzled glance as they went about their duties before retiring for the night, but the yak-drivers, heading for the stable to sleep, gathered around to stare at him. At first they did little more than that, but gradually they began to whisper amongst themselves, then make rude and disparaging remarks accompanied by laughter, and finally openly mocked him. Eile glared at them, but neither she nor Sunny said or did anything to discourage them, since they wanted to diffuse the situation, not escalate it. Then too, through it all Quixote stoically ignored their ridicule, and did not react in either word or deed.
At one point three of the drivers came towards him, but Eile got between them and him.
“Back off, assholes.”
They were defiant at first, and she reached behind her back to grip her singlestick.
“Leave her alone.”
Eile looked off to one side and spotted the driver that had paid Aldonza. The three drivers grumbled and bitched, but they backed down. Eile figured he must be their leader, and she assumed that he didn’t want any trouble either.
Finally, the drivers and servants retired for the night, and they were left alone. Quixote kept up his vigil as if nothing had happened, but Eile couldn’t help wondering if the drivers had been trying to start something, as if they hoped to vex him with insults into attacking them.
Aldonza came out of the kitchen wrapped in a shawl against the night’s chill, and headed for the stable to keep her appointment, but as she passed the refectory she pulled up short in surprise when she spotted Quixote. She glanced at her and Sunny then focused on him.
“What foolishness is this?”
Quixote looked over his shoulder, and when he saw her he jumped to his feet, turned around, and bowed. “Forgive my presumption, My Lady, but I am holding vigil to thank God for the gift of thy favour.”
Her eyes darted to the dishrag around his arm. “Favour!? I meant nothing of the kind, you crackbrain. You wanted a ‘token’ of what I thought of you; well, that’s it exactly!”
He bowed again. “And it is for that I thank God.”
She exhaled a guttural growl as she shook her head. “What is the matter with you?! Are you blind as well as demented? Can you not see that I hold you in nothing but contempt?”
“My Lady seeks to test my loyalty to her and my devotion to my quest, but I assure thee, that I shall remain steadfast in my resolve until my last breath.”
“And just what is this quest of yours?”
“Ah, My Lady honours me with her question. It is fitting that thee knowest what I do in thy name. I travel the Lands as a knight-errant—”
“That is one who wanders the roads, seeking out injustice and righting all wrongs.”
“Why bother? The world is a dung heap infested by maggots. You can’t change that; all you can do is wash it away.”
“My destiny called, My Lady; I had to go.”
“Aye, My Lady. God called me to begin a holy endeavour, so that virtue could triumph at last.”
It seemed to Eile that Aldonza’s anger had dissipated, almost as if what he said had moved her. “And you wish to dedicate this work... to me?”
He bowed. “It would be my greatest pleasure, and honour, if I could do exactly that.”
Aldonza didn’t reply; it appeared to Eile that she couldn’t, though whether from awe, confusion, or shock she couldn’t tell.
Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and when she looked she saw the yak-drivers approaching, with the fellow she took to be their leader ahead of them. She glanced at Sunny, who nodded, and she reached behind herself to grip the handle of her singlestick. If the pattern held, she knew what was coming next.
The men halted while their leader continued until he reached Aldonza’s side. She watched him with a mixture of defiance and anxiety, but she did not try to avoid him.
“You,” he said to her; “you keep me waiting, eh?”
Her expression melted into one of trepidation as she took a step back. “No; no, I—!”
He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her towards him. “Then perhaps you change your mind, eh? Maybe you think you too good for the likes of me?” He grabbed her by both arms. “Perhaps I should teach you respect, eh?” And he slapped her across the face, then started to drag her towards his men.
Quixote had stood stock still until then, as if waiting for a signal, but he raised his sword and pointed it at the lead driver. “Unhand her, foul and graceless knight!”
Eile and Sunny pulled out their singlesticks, and as Eile turned to confront the rest of the men, Sunny moved to stand beside Quixote. “Yeah!” she said. “You heard the hidalgo; you let her go!”
He sneered at them. “You three stay out of this before I split your skulls.”
“Thou art no knight, but a villain, and there beest but one way to deal with the likes of thee!” Quixote lunged, and whacked the lead driver over the head with flat of his sword. He yelped and grabbed his skull, but he still held on to Aldonza.
“You—you strike me?! Compadres, defend me!”
The yak-drivers surged forward, and Eile saw they had come armed with clubs and knives that they had kept hidden before then. Sunny made a grab for Aldonza, but the leader spun around and threw her into the mob. Though she struggled, they caught her and a couple held her fast while the rest converged on Quixote.
She and Sunny rushed to his side, and when the drivers reached him they waded into them. Medb had taught them how to fight with singlesticks, and they combined that with various martial arts taught to them by other friends, while Eile augmented her defence with her boxing skills, but she found that Quixote’s instruction worked just as well in the present circumstances, as she used her stick like a sword and her free arm as a shield. She found the drivers tough and strong, and reasonably good brawlers, but they were no match for their training, despite the fact that neither they nor Quixote were really trying to hurt them. Even Quixote held his opponents off with relative ease, including using his new wrestling skills to break the holds of a couple of drivers who grappled him, while Sunny wasn’t afraid to use her less harmful magic when she deemed it necessary.
Nonetheless, it quickly struck her that the drivers were trying to hurt them, maybe even kill them if they could, because they did not pull their punches. More than once she barely managed to parry a blow that would have broken a bone or lacerated her flesh. That got her mad enough to fight back harder, but she realized that short of killing them, they weren’t about to give up.
One driver managed to push her backwards, and she fell over another on the ground. She ended up on her back and they leapt at her. She whacked one across the face with her stick, but the other grabbed her hand and pushed it aside as he stabbed a knife at her throat. She blocked his strike with her free arm, then spit into his eye to distract him. At the same moment, he was lifted off of her as easily as she would pick up a cat, and Medb held him over her head as he flailed, kicked, and screamed. She turned to face the other drivers, who broke off and backed away from her, and she threw him at them, knocking half of them down.
As Eile jumped to her feet, Medb seemed to grow larger, until she towered half again her height over everyone present, including Quixote. An actinic blue halo surrounded her head and shoulders as miniature lightning bolts flashed out away from her body and sparks danced over her hair like St. Elmo’s Fires, even as her locks rose into the air around her. Her eyes glowed like headlamps and she raised one arm, which glowed and crackled as power currents raced from her fingertips to her elbow and back again.
At the sight of her, the drivers broke and ran, having had enough. But they dragged Aldonza away with them even as she fought and shrieked like a wildcat.
“My Lady!” Quixote made to chase after them, but Medb stood in his way, having returned to normal.
“But I must save her from those villains!”
“I do not believe she is in any danger. Most likely they will release her once they are sure we are not following, and she will return on her own.”
“We can’t take that chance,” Eile said, and Medb stared at her as if she had just sprouted horns.
Eile scowled. “Those assholes meant business. They only ran off ‘cause of yer fireworks.”
“Yeah!” Sunny squealed. “Aldonza could be in real danger.”
Medb looked uncertain for a moment, but then she set her face into a determined expression. “Then go, now. I will settle with the landlord, retrieve Rocinante, and catch up.”
“Let’s go, boy and girl!” Sunny said, and she and Eile headed for the gate.
Quixote caught up with them. “But you are unarmed!”
Eile chuckled as Sunny giggled. “Heh, not hardly.” And she hefted her singlestick.
He seemed speechless at first, but then he grinned. “Then I could ask for no better companions staunch by my side than you two valiant heroines. Together we shall vanquish the foul foes!” And he surged ahead into the darkness.
They tracked the drivers until morning. Sunny had casted a light spell on her singlestick, and it provided enough illumination for them to see the trail. Medb had taught them tracking while in the mountains, and though Sunny was unable to get the knack of it beyond a rudimentary level, Eile discovered she had a talent for it. Even so, she found the trail to be suspiciously easy to follow. She figured that meant the drivers either knew even less than Sunny, were being careless, or didn’t care if anyone was following them.
Even as the sun rose above the horizon, Medb appeared out of nowhere, leading Rocinante carrying their packs and her animal companions. Eile and Sunny took a moment to arm themselves while Quixote claimed his shield. At Medb’s suggestion, Sunny forwent her bow and selected her quarterstaff, being as she was not yet skilled enough to be certain of just wounding her target, and any combat was likely to be hand-to-hand.
“Have no fear, My Lady Magician,” Quixote said when she looked uncertain. “We shall prevail, as our might will be on the side of right.” Sunny’s response was to smile, crinkle her eyes, and giggle.
Also, at Medb’s insistence they had a breakfast of jerky, hardtack, and figs to fortify themselves. They then hid their packs in some underbrush and continued on, with Teehar and Crème scouting ahead.
About midmorning the bird came winging back, announcing he had found them. Crème appeared shortly afterwards and together they led them to a single cedar growing in the middle of nowhere. There was no cover, so they approached openly, but it was clear that Aldonza was in no immediate danger: she was tied to the tree, surrounded by the drivers. To Eile it was obvious they were using her as bait.
They paused long enough for Medb to place Runt on the ground, and he immediately ambled off. When they started forward again, however, the drivers all shouted in unison and charged, waving their weapons, all except the leader, who stood beside the tree. Quixote shooed Rocinante out of the way of the battle, and the four of them stood their ground, as Teehar hovered above them, piping in outrage, and Crème stood before them, hissing and yowling in feline wrath.
They leapt ahead when the first of the drivers reached them. Eile was ready for them this time, and she used her sword and shield as Quixote had taught her, nor was she too concerned about not hurting them, though she still tried not to kill any of them. Sunny and Quixote also held back, while Medb cut a path through them like a scythe through a stand of wheat, though she too used her fighting spear in a nonlethal manner. Meanwhile, Runt hurled nonlethal magical bolts from the side-lines while Crème took on individual targets in typical feline martial fashion, biting, clawing, and raking, as Teehar attacked the driver’s faces, scratching with his claws, pecking at eyes with his beak, and battering them with his wings.
Despite their common desire not to spill more blood than was needed, they still made short work of the lot, and when they fled the ambulatory helped their fallen comrades. A few had managed to land a few blows on Eile, which she figured would produce vivid bruises in a day or so, and Sunny had a sizable mouse on her left cheek, but they were otherwise unhurt, and Medb and Quixote were unscathed. They hurried towards the tree, and found that the leader had remained behind. He also looked unconcerned, as if he had some secret weapon that could best them all.
They stopped when they came within six feet of him and he made no move to defend himself. At first no one spoke, they just glared at each other, but finally Quixote said, “The Great Enchanter; we meet, at last.”
Eile smirked and shook her head at his insistent delusion, but then the lead driver bowed and said, “You have found me, Don Quixote. Our game comes to its conclusion.”
Eile went numb from shock. “Ya mean, yer real?!”
And Sunny went, “Eeep!”
Medb also looked surprised, which she rarely was, but she said, “What else could he be; he is a Fomorian.”
Eile felt her gut turn to ice. “Holy Jesus God!” she breathed. Sunny was right after all!
“So you’re behind all of this!” Sunny said.
He gave her a small bow. “Quite perceptive; you deserve your reputation.”
“To destroy us,” Medb said; “what else?”
“But why the charade?” Eile asked. “You coulda taken us out in the mountains at any time.”
“Now, where would be the fun in that?”
“Huh?” Sunny squeaked.
“Among my colleagues, I am known for my flair for the dramatic, and when you met up with Don Quixote, how could I resist.” He then chuckled. “Besides, I did not know you were even in the area until you came out of the mountains, and it took me a few days to decide what kind of game I would play with you.”
Medb cracked a crooked smile. “I sympathize.”
Quixote took a step forward. “Art thou well, My Lady? Has he harmed thee in any way?”
Aldonza looked terrified, but she said, “No, he hasn’t hurt me.”
“That is good, for thy sake, Enchanter. Release her, and in exchange I shall let thee go free, so that we may meet another day. I give thee my pledge.”
“That is indeed most generous, Don Quixote. I see you are as chivalrous as your reputation claims. But, before I decide whether to take you up on your offer, there is one thing you need to know.
“My farce required actors to play certain parts, and needed to be carefully stage managed so that you would act as I wished you to. I could count on certain proclivities in your natures for some of that, but once you were in my drama I had to present you with the right stimuli to motivate you in the correct way. The villa and its inhabitants took care of most of that, as did the ruffians I hired to play a band of yak-drivers, but for the really critical part of my game I needed a Dulcinea.”
It took a moment for the light to dawn, but then Eile said, “Geezus.”
“You mean, Aldonza?!” Sunny squealed.
The Enchanter chuckled again. “Interesting coincidence, no? It almost felt like kismet.”
“Is this true?” Medb asked.
The kitchen wench looked scared enough to lie, but she nodded her head. “I... I didn’t want to do it, at first. It seemed too cruel a joke to play on a harmless deluded old man.”
“But, as with the cinematic Aldonza, she is nothing if not mercenary. I promised her enough gold to leave the villa and live in Carsoon, perhaps not in style, but better than she had up until now. I also had to promise that I would not harm him, but despite her steely affectation, she can be quite naïve.”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean for any of this to happen!”
“What did you intend?” Medb said.
“I was to pretend to be offended by his behaviour towards me, to reject his overtures, so as to goad him into forcing himself on me or attacking me. If that failed, I was to pretend to arrange to spend the night with the yak-drivers, in the hope that he would become jealous and try to intervene.”
“And you could not see how that would lead to him being harmed?”
“I swear, I thought that at worst he and you would just be roughed up a bit, just enough to humiliate you all and make you laughingstocks. I had no idea he intended murder!”
“You really must not blame her; as I said, she is surprisingly naïve in some ways. In any event, when I realized he would not react as I hoped, I had to improvise. I thought that if I appeared to be about to harm her, he would react in character.” He grinned one more time. “And damn if it didn’t work!”
“You just underestimated our fighting prowess!” Sunny said.
The Enchanter shrugged. “True, but that is not important now.”
“Enough of this,” Quixote said. “Wilt thou release her?”
The Enchanter made a show of considering his question, then shook his head. “No, I am afraid not. She still has a small part yet to play.”
“Never mind about me,” Aldonza said. “I deserve whatever fate he has planned for me. Save yourselves. Just go away and leave me.”
“It is no use, my dear. Don Quixote would never consider that. He does not live in the world you and I do. Oh, he probably registers your sacrifice, but he would see it as an attempt by his lady love to save him, not the attempt of a traitor to expiate her sin. These other three are not much better, though they would see you as a fellow female in distress, despite your treachery. All of them will try to rescue you, in the foolish heroic tradition of knight-errantry. How could they do otherwise?”
“I givest thee one last chance,” Quixote said. “Free her and I will grant thee safe passage to wherever thee wishest to go.”
“Then I challenge thee to a duel; my sword against thy magic, my strength against thy power. If thee prevail, I shall become your slave, but if I prevail, thou shalt release My Lady Dulcinea and accompany me to Celephaïs, to submit thyself to the justice of King Kuranes.”
“I am sorry, my valiant hidalgo, but I no longer need you, and I tire of your delusions.” Twin bolts of blinding white light shot out from the Enchanter’s eyes. They struck Quixote’s shield, lifted him off his feet, threw him backwards, and slammed him into the ground in front of Rocinante.
Medb screamed a wordless battle cry and lunged at him, and Eile and Sunny did the same, while Crème launched himself at him and Teehar dove to attack. He barely moved; all he did was lift a hand, and Eile collided with an invisible barrier that nonetheless felt like a brick wall. The others were stopped as well, and when he raised his hand higher she felt herself lifted off the ground, as were the others. Then he closed his fist, and a crushing force, as if from being caught in a vice, slowly contracted around her body, cutting off her breath and squeezing her frame. Her face contorted in fear and pain, and she saw that Sunny, Crème, and Teehar were similarly affected. Only Medb seemed to stoically resist it, yet she couldn’t speak or struggle.
“No!” Aldonza cried. “Stop! Let them go!”
“My apologies, my dear, but I intend to end this now, once and for all.”
Movement out of the corner of her eye caught Eile’s attention, and when she turned her head she saw Quixote gripping Rocinante’s saddle and pulling himself up onto his feet, despite his obvious pain. She could see that he had sheathed his sword and swung his shield onto his back. Once upright, he pulled himself higher until he lay draped over the saddle, then swung one leg around to sit on the seat. Bent over Rocinante’s neck, he fitted his feet into the stirrups and pushed himself into an upright position. He then removed the brass bowl from a saddlebag and placed it on his head. Finally, he took hold of his lance and fitted it under his armpit, spurred the broken-down horse, and galloped towards the tree.
“My word, but you are persistent, but I suppose any good knight-errant should be.” The Enchanter raised his free hand as Medb struggled to caste one of her word-based spells, but before she could speak a violet shaft of light flashed from the palm and flooded over Quixote and Rocinante both. Horse and rider vanished in a cloud of ash, as if they had been incinerated.
All except the brass bowl. In that same instant, it emitted a bright golden light that enveloped knight and steed, containing then obscuring the ash. For a moment, Eile wondered if in fact it really was the true mystical Helmet of Mambrino, then the light retreated back to the bowl, which had been transformed into a golden armoured helmet. Quixote and Rocinante were revealed to still be intact.
Then Eile blinked, unable to trust her eyes: where the old hidalgo and the worn-out plough horse had been now stood two angelic beings with their likenesses, looking like they were sculpted from crystal, precious metal and glass, and glowing with an inner spiritual light.
Eile turned her head forward. The Enchanter stared at the entities with an utterly flabbergasted expression, as if he too could not believe what he saw.
Eile glanced back at Quixote and watched him draw his sword.
“NO! You are a fool, a madman.”
The sword burst into flames, and the vice-like grip vanished. Eile dropped to the ground with the others and gasped for breath as she struggled to get up.
“You cannot possibly be the real thing!”
Quixote dismounted from Rocinante and advanced towards the Enchanter, fitting his shield over his free arm.
“Stay back; stay back!” The Enchanter rapidly fired multiple bolts of magical energy at Quixote, but they shattered harmlessly off his shield.
Eile had recovered enough that she could stand, and she drew her sword, preparing to attack the Enchanter from behind, but Medb confronted her.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” She shook her head to better clear it. “Mostly.”
“Free Aldonza, then get her away. I will deal with the Fomorian.” She then took a stance between him and her.
Eile looked around for Sunny, and found her with Teehar in one hand, picking up an unconscious Crème with the other. She then sprinted away to one side.
“Come no closer!” the Enchanter screeched. He fired the beams from his eyes, but they splashed off Quixote’s shield and did not even slow him down.
Eile ran for the tree. “Hang on; I’ll get you loose.”
She chopped at the ropes with her sword, parting them with single blows. Once the last had been cut, she took Aldonza by the hand and they fled towards Sunny. Medb backed away, then turned and raced after them.
Eile and Aldonza reached Sunny. She noticed Runt, unharmed, sitting at Sunny’s feet, then she turned to watch Quixote. He reached the Enchanter and raised his sword.
“You cannot defeat me; you cannot—!”
Quixote brought down the weapon and struck the Enchanter in the head, who raised his arms to try to ward off the blow. There was an explosion; Eile ducked out of reflex as Medb threw herself around and raised both arms in front of her, bent at the elbows, with her fists pressed together. A translucent blue glass-like wall appeared in front of her, and the shockwave and fireball impacted it. Medb took an involuntary step back, but the wall held. After the wave passed and the fireball faded, Medb dropped her arms, causing the wall to vanish. The Enchanter was gone, and only Don Quixote remained.
He stood still for a number of moments, as if waiting to see if the Enchanter would reappear, but finally he turned towards all four of them. As he approached them, his crystal, metal, and glass exterior melted away, leaving him as they knew him, except that now his armour shone in the brightening sun like polished gold.
He came up to Medb first. He took off the mystical helmet and knelt before her, bowing his head.
She hesitated, which wasn’t like her. “Don Quixote de La Mancha, I can offer little as a reward for your gallant service that is greater than what I have already given you, but this much I can do. As the one who named you ‘The Doleful Knight’, I hereby now rescind it. Henceforth, you shall be known as Don Quixote, Enchanter’s Bane.” And she touched him on the top of his head.
He stood up, a look of pleasure on his face, and he bowed his head again. He then stepped in front of Sunny. He reached out and touched Teehar and Crème in turn. Nothing appeared to happen when he did, but both awoke after only a few moments. He then reached up, untied the dishrag from his arm, and presented it to her, only it had been transformed into a gossamer silken handkerchief of purest cloth-of-gold. Teehar flew up onto her shoulder as Crème jumped down, and she accepted it as she crinkled her eyes and smiled. Stepping over to Eile, he presented her with his shield, now pristine instead of battered and rusted. She took it, and though the shine faded, it remained unflawed.
“Thank you; I’ll treasure it always.”
He smiled and nodded his head, and finally he stood before Aldonza.
“I’m sorry—” But he interrupted her by taking her hand and kissing the backs of her fingers. The shine from his armour flowed through his hand up her arm and engulfed her. It obscured the sight of her as it enveloped her in a glowing cloud of opaque celestial light, and when he let her go it dissipated like mist at dawn. Where the kitchen wench had stood was now a great lady wearing Aldonza’s face but dressed in a sumptuous gown of silk, velvet, and satin.
He stepped back from them and bowed one last time. He then placed the helmet back on his head, turned, and mounted Rocinante, who had walked up behind him. A cloud drifted down from the sky, and as they turned towards it a shaft of brilliant silver light descended from beneath it. He urged Rocinante forward, and knight and steed rode up its slope into the cloud. The shaft retreated behind them, and the cloud slowly rose into the heavens.
They watched until it disappeared into the sky, then they glanced at each other as if uncertain what to do.
“We will be returning to Celephaïs this evening,” Medb finally said. “I suggest you accompany us, Aldonza.”
She flashed an anxious suspicious look. “Why?”
Medb smiled in an indulgent manner. “It is my belief that you no longer belong at the villa.”
Her look morphed into an expression of surprise. “You mean, you forgive me?”
“If Don Quixote could do so freely and without reservation, how could we not do the same?”
Aldonza glanced at her and Sunny. “We agree with Mayv,” Eile said with a smile, and Sunny nodded her head hard enough for her mane of gamboge hair to whip around her face.
Aldonza smiled with relief and nodded, but when she spoke, all she said was, “My name is Dulcinea.”
One week later...
Eile and Sunny walked beside Medb and Dulcinea as they followed a yak cart back to the lone cedar. Five men accompanied the cart; four walking and one driving. It carried a polished cenotaph carved from fine-grained dark purplish-red porphyry, with an inscription inlaid with mithril.
When they had reached Celephaïs, Medb put them up for the night as guests at a townhouse she rented, then the next day she and Eile and Sunny presented Dulcinea to the court of King Kuranes in the rose crystal Palace of Seventy Delights. After he heard their story, he made her Baroness La Mancha and adlected her to the position of a lady of the court, thereby guaranteeing that she would live out her life in luxury and comfort as a courtly woman. Afterwards the four of them debated how best to honour Quixote’s memory before commissioning the cenotaph.
When they reached the tree, the men secured the cart, and as three unloaded the monument, the other two dug a hole in front of the trunk.
As the ladies watched the men work, Eile finally voiced the puzzle that had been nagging at the back of her mind: “How was he able ta do it?”
The others stared at her as if she had just sprouted horns. “Come again?” Medb said.
“Well, the Enchanter had fried him ta ash. How did he save himself?”
“Ach, of course. Do you not remember? The helmet transformed him.”
“You mean, that really was the Helmet of Mambrino?”
“I...” She hesitated, looking uncertain. “I do not know.”
“You don’t know?” Dulcinea said.
“I sensed no magical power associated with it, when I first encountered it, and yet it both saved him and made him into what he became.”
“I think I know what happened,” Sunny said in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.
“Oh, yeah?” Eile said. “So spill it, ya bimbo.”
“I think it’s like what Mayv and I talked about that one day when we had lunch beside that tree, while Quixote drilled Eile. She said there were people in the Dreamlands who could change things in subtle ways, without even knowing they were doing it. I think he was one of them; I think he believed the bowl was the Helmet so fervently that he changed it into it, and it awakened when the Enchanter tried to kill him.”
“Okay, but him bein’ changed into an angel wasn’t quite so subtle.”
“No, but maybe the Helmet sensed the one thing Quixote wanted to be more than ever, and granted his wish.”
“What was that?” Dulcinea asked.
“A fighter of evil.”
One of the workmen approached them, wring his felt cap in his hands. “Excuse me, Mistresses, but we have completed our work.”
Eile glanced past him and saw that the cenotaph had been placed in the hole. She didn’t like the look of the loose dirt piled up around the base, but she figured that over time the soil would get spread around and be covered with grass.
“It looks fine,” Medb said, and she handed him a leather bag of gold crowns. He bowed, touched a forelock, and shuffled his feet before he turned and hurried back to his mates. Eile watched as they excitedly poured the coins into their hands, then released the cart and hurried off back to Celephaïs.
Medb strolled towards the cenotaph followed by Dulcinea, and Eile tagged along when Sunny touched her on the elbow. They gathered around its front face so they could see the inscription.
“Do you think he would approve?” Dulcinea said.
“I am most certain of it,” Medb replied.
Eile silently agreed with her as she read the words carved into the stone:
“On this spot did the Valiant Hidalgo & Knight-Errant
Don Quixote de La Mancha, Enchanter’s Bane,
Do battle with his nemesis, the Great Enchanter,
In defence of the Innocent, and defeat him
At the cost of his own life.”
“Farewell, My Gallant Knight—D
Generous, Loyal, Brave—MhE
The trumpets call Him to Ride—EMC
And Virtue has Triumphed at last!—SAH”
“Onward to Glory I Go!”
She felt tears well up in her eyes as her breath caught in throat, but she also smiled. She had no doubt that he would be proud of his monument.
After several minutes they finally turned away to head back to Celephais, but after a short period of initial silence, Sunny had to voice a conclusion:
“You know, I think we should count ourselves lucky to have had such a fine role model!”
The other three women stared at her as if she had just sprouted horns. “What left field did that come out of, ya ditz?” Eile said.
“It’s like what he told Dulcinea back at the villa, how a knight-errant fights injustice and rights wrongs.”
“So, that’s what we do! At least, you, me, and Mayv. And now we have a standard we can measure ourselves by.”
“I thought we have adventures.”
Sunny giggled and wrapped her arms around one of Eile’s. “Naturally! But we also seem to help the little guy in the process as well.”
“She is right,” Medb said. “Whether it is our intent or not, we seem to engage in knight-errantry as a matter of course.”
“Heh, yeah, I suppose so. Then I guess that makes us all Ladies of La Mancha, huh?”
“Hey! I wanted to say that!”
The other three women laughed as Sunny pouted and grumbled.