Princesses And Peas
They did, fortunately, and a gold coin passed to the owner quickly reserved three of the indoor tubs for them. After a good scrub, Marty and Alice went to the butcher and the greengrocer to get some more food while Victor headed to the tailor. He met them outside the grocer in a fresh set of clothes, his now-mended suit and a few spare shirts and pants in his arms. “He’s got an enchanted needle and thread,” he said, looking mildly amazed as he deposited them in Marty’s sack. “Can sew anything in under a minute. Told me it was a gift from a fairy he helped.”
“Neat,” Marty grinned. “Think it’s been forty-five minutes yet?”
“We can check,” Alice said, heading back towards the blacksmith shop.
Midway there, though, the doors of the local tavern burst open, distracting the trio. A group of young men about their age swaggered out. Marty found himself taking an instant dislike to the one in the lead – a tall (though not quite as tall as Victor), broad-shouldered boy with short dirty blond hair and cold blue eyes. Something about the way he walked, the way he looked around the town like he owned the place, suggested the guy had way too high an opinion of himself and way too low an opinion of others. It reminded him of every bully he’d run across back in Hill Valley.
The boy spotted the group and held up a hand to stop his cronies from walking away. “Well well, lookie what we have here,” he said, looking from Marty to Victor to Alice. “Red Riding Hood’s snagged herself a couple of new snacks.”
“I beg your pardon?” Victor said, blinking in honest confusion.
“One new snack, Biff,” one of the other boys, wearing a pair of peculiar spectacles – one lens tinted red, the other blue – said, sniggering. “That pale one’s too skinny to be a proper meal.”
“Maybe she’ll use him as a toothpick after she eats the other one,” another, with his hair shorn almost completely away, joked.
Alice glared at them coldly. “I don’t eat people,” she said, voice flat.
“Funny, Mr. Wilson says you do.”
“Mr. Wilson is an idiot.”
“Not as much of an idiot as those two buttheads hanging around you.” He grinned maliciously at Marty and Victor.
“She’s been nothing but nice to us,” Marty shot back, annoyed. “She let us stay overnight at her home.”
“Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t hang around her,” Biff said, raising his hands. “I just hope she’s making it worth your while.”
Victor’s jaw dropped. “You – you uncouth, despicable louts!” he said, an angry red tinge coming to his cheeks. “How dare you!”
“Oooh, look who thinks he’s suddenly the physical type,” the third of the cronies commented, a matchstick jutting out of his mouth.
“Stiff wind would probably break him in half,” the bespectacled one commented.
“Hell, a stale fart could break him in half,” the skinhead laughed.
“Can we do something for you?” Marty asked, crossing his arms as Victor blushed despite himself.
“Only if you know any princesses,” Biff said, preening.
“Princesses?” Marty repeated, arching an eyebrow.
“Yes, princesses. I’m going to marry one someday, you know.”
“No, I don’t know. What makes you think you’re going to marry a princess?”
“Because I’m the best-looking guy in this village,” Biff bragged, putting his nose in the air. “And I deserve the best out of life. Which means a princess. Not just any princess, either. A real princess.”
“A real princess?” Alice repeated, sounding slightly confused.
“Yeah! Not one of those crazy girls who thinks that just because she’s pretty and has a crown and a title and can make flowers grow that she’s a real princess. I want a perfect princess. The kind with long golden hair and big blue eyes, who needs fifteen feather beds to sleep and can feel a single pea under all of them.”
Marty squinted a little, trying to picture that. “Seems like it would be a pain in the ass to try and share a bed with her,” he commented.
“That’s not the point! The point is, I only want the best of the best! Any other girl just ain’t gonna do!”
“Well, good luck with that,” Marty said, rolling his eyes. “I don’t know any princesses, real or fake. Victor?”
“Not a one,” Victor said. “Much to my parents’ annoyance.”
“What, they wanted you to marry a princess?” Biff and his cronies laughed. “Any girl who saw you standing at the altar would turn around and run the other way! Except maybe Riding Hood, and then she’d only be thinking of how you might taste served up in a stew.”
Victor looked down at his feet, looking utterly miserable. Marty felt a flash of anger on his friend’s behalf. “Hey, lay off! You don’t even know any of us!” he snapped.
“Yeah, maybe, but we can see you’re stupid enough to hang around the mad woman,” Biff retorted.
Marty felt his hackles rise. He couldn’t help himself – he absolutely detested being called “stupid.” “What was that?” he said, voice turning into a growl.
Biff noticed the change in mood. “What? You got a problem with me calling you stupid, butthead?” he asked, smirking.
“Yeah, I damn well have a problem with you calling me stupid,” Marty snarled. “I’m not stupid.”
“Then why are you paling around with Red Riding Hood? Doesn’t she scare you?” the boy with the matchstick asked.
That caused the gang to look a bit unsettled. “She doesn’t?” the skinhead asked.
“Not a bit,” Marty said, raising his chin a little. “‘Course, it helps that I don’t know what fear is.”
“Don’t know what fear is?” Biff repeated. “How the hell do you not know what fear is?”
“I just don’t. I’m out here looking for it.”
“Looking for it. . . .” Biff snorted, then rolled up his sleeves. “Hey, guess what, you just found it!”
“Yeah! One beating from me, and you’ll definitely know what fear is,” Biff said, a mocking note in his voice. “Come on, let’s rumble! Or are you chicken?” The other boys made clucking noises.
Marty rolled his eyes. “Look, I know when I’m being made fun of,” he snapped. “Bet I could beat the crap out of you any day.”
“Prove it, then! You and me, man to man.” Biff smirked. “Unless you’re too much of an idiot to figure out how to throw a punch.”
That got Marty’s dander up. “Okay then,” he said, rolling up his own sleeves.
“Marty, is this--” Victor began.
Marty held up a hand to silence him. “I know what I’m doing. I can handle this jerk.” He stepped up to Biff, fists at the ready.
“Yeah, right,” Biff said, looking smug. “By the time I’m done with you, they’re gonna think I ran you through a sausage machine.”
“Maybe,” Marty agreed. “We’ll just have to wait and--”
Suddenly, he glanced over Biff’s shoulder with a puzzled frown. “Whoa, Biff – what the hell is that?”
Confused, Biff turned his head to see – nothing. He turned back just in time for Marty’s fist to connect with his jaw. Taken completely by surprise, he stumbled backward and fell on his back. Marty smirked at him. “Now who’s the idiot?”
Biff stared at him a moment, blood trickling from a split lip. Then he growled and scrambled back to his feet, throwing a hard left hook Marty’s way. Marty dodged it by ducking, then countered with a right jab straight to Biff’s stomach. Biff let out a loud “oof!” and stumbled backwards again. Marty pressed his advantage with another hit to the face. “You asshole!” Biff snarled, trying again to hit Marty.
Marty evaded his fist with a quick turn. “Yeah, same to you,” he said, elbowing Biff in the mouth.
By this time, a small crowd had formed around the group. The women in the impromptu audience were shrieking and covering their mouths, while most of the men were cheering on one of the combatants. Marty noticed Dr. Brown standing in the crowd, watching him fight with interest. Marty grinned at him, then quickly ducked again to avoid another punch from Biff. “Stand still!” Biff yelled, resorting to swinging wildly in hopes that at least one hit would land.
“And just let you – ow! – beat up on me?” Marty said, wincing as one fist caught him in the side. “No way! I told you, I’m not stupid!”
“You need some help, Biff?” the boy with the matchstick said, he and his friends moving a little closer to the fight.
Alice promptly moved closer herself. “If you plan on helping your friend, I’m afraid we’ll be obligated to help ours,” she said, the picture of calm.
The gang looked unnerved. “It – it is three of us against two of you,” the skinhead pointed out. “And your friend there doesn’t seem like a fighter at all.”
“I’m not, really, but given Miss Liddell frightens the wolves in the forest, I’m rather certain she fights well enough for three,” Victor commented, moving to stand beside her again. “And I do have a toasting fork, so I would at least cause one of you some inconvenience.”
The gang moved back again. “Sorry, Biff,” the one with the spectacles said.
Biff didn’t pay any attention, too intent on trying to get his hands on Marty. Marty darted around him, making sure to stay low to the ground. “God damn it, you pipsqueak, stop moving around like that!”
“Why? It’s working for me, isn’t it?” Marty teased, grinning like the cat that ate the canary.
Biff roared and flung himself forward. Marty danced out of the way, but Biff managed to grab his foot as he hit the dirt. Marty hopped backwards, trying both to shake him off and stay on balance as the other boy attempted to drag him down.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a shotgun. “All right, what’s going on here?”
A new man muscled his way to the front of the crowd. He was an older man, but apparently one of some authority – there was a shining golden star on the front of his coat, and he walked like someone who was used to having his orders followed. He held his shotgun loosely in one hand as he frowned at the two boys. “Break it up!” he ordered. “Any brawling in the street means you spend fifteen days in the county jail!”
Biff reluctantly released Marty’s foot. Marty stepped back as the other boy got to his feet again. “That’s better,” the man said. “What were you two fighting about, anyway?”
“He called me stupid,” Marty admitted, cracking his knuckles. “And kept insulting me and my friends.”
“Yeah, well, one of the people he’s calling a friend is Red Riding Hood,” Biff grumbled, jerking his thumb in Alice’s direction. The people near her promptly moved away, murmuring.
The man rolled his eyes. “Tannen, how many times have I told you not to provoke people?” he scolded, waving a finger at the boy. “One of these days you’re either going to get yourself killed or turned into a frog. And you, young man,” he added, looking at Marty, “ought to get a better hold on that temper.”
“Sorry, sir,” Marty said with a casual shrug. He’d heard variations on this litany before. It didn’t really mean anything to him.
“Don’t be flippant. I mean it – you might end up in the same situation as him.” The man scowled fiercely at both boys. “Discipline! Without it, the entire world falls apart!” He looked between them. “Am I going to have any more trouble from you two today?”
“I didn’t want to fight in the first place,” Marty said, glaring at Biff.
Biff glared back, then looked back at the man and his shotgun. “No sir, Marshall Strickland,” he mumbled.
“Good. Now scatter, everyone! Show’s over!”
The crowd dispersed amid much whispering, leaving behind just a few stragglers. Marshall Strickland gave Marty and Biff another warning look, then headed back the way he’d come. Biff spat at his back. “Come on, boys, let’s go,” he said, turning to walk down the street. Glancing over his shoulder, he added, “But this isn’t over yet, Marty.”
“Screw you,” Marty said, turning back to his own friends. “It’s over for me.”
“I mean it! One day, I’m going to get you back for this!”
“Yeah, yeah. . . .”
Dr. Brown approached them, having stayed behind while the others departed. “It seems I have to revise my opinion of you a little,” he said, smiling. “That was fairly impressive, Marty.”
“Thanks,” Marty said, rubbing his side. “It comes from a lot of practice.”
“Weren’t you in the least bit worried what he would do to you if he got his hands on you?” Victor asked, tilting his head a bit.
“He told me what he was going to do – I didn’t care. Not like I haven’t been beat up before. What’s to fear from a little pain?”
“I think he meant to give you a lot of pain,” Alice said, looking amused.
“I’m not scared of that, either. Though I’m guessing I should be?”
“I’m certainly scared of excessive amounts of pain,” Victor said, half-jokingly.
“I don’t know about scared, but I certainly don’t like it,” Alice smirked.
“Yeah, that’s how I think about it.”
Dr. Brown shook his head. “Well, however you think about it, you did good, kid. Though I’m still not entirely sure you have a chance against the Queen of Hearts.”
“Only one way to find out,” Marty said. “Are our horses ready?”
“Yes, they’re all set.” Dr. Brown led the way back to his shop. “The standard rate is ten copper pieces for a shoeing, so you owe me thirty copper.”
“I don’t have any copper – damn, I meant to see if this place had a bank,” Marty said, glancing around. “All I’ve got is gold coins.”
“That entire pouch of yours is gold?” Dr. Brown said, eyes widening. “I thought there was some silver mixed in at least.”
“Yeah. I’m planning on getting some of it exchanged, if I can.”
“I don’t know if I’d do it here,” Dr. Brown told him, grimacing. “The local moneylender isn’t the most honest of men. And you’re particularly lucky Biff didn’t hear you say that.”
“He’d tried to steal it?”
“More likely, he’d get his father to come and steal it. Buford Tannen’s a notorious gunslinger around these parts. He’s killed twelve men, and he wouldn’t hesitate to make you number thirteen.”
“Oh my,” Victor said, somehow managing to turn pale. “Is that really true?”
“Very much so. He killed the local newspaper editor last year for printing an unfavorable article about him, right in the press. The locals have nicknamed him Mad Dog for his quick temper.” Dr. Brown smiled slightly. “And his tendency to drool.”
The others couldn’t help snickering at that. “At least it’s somewhat more creative than Red Riding Hood,” Alice commented as they reached the shop.
“Much more creative than what they call me,” Dr. Brown said. “With me, it’s simply Lunatic or Crackpot Brown.”
Marty frowned, chewing the corner of his lip. “That doesn’t seem very fair.”
For some reason, that got a laugh. “Marty, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my many years on this world, it’s that life simply isn’t fair. You just have to make the best of what you’ve got.” He glanced back down the street. “Honestly, I’d recommend you lot just leave town right now, before Biff has a chance to tell his father what happened. Unless any of you are itching for another fight, and the chance to get shot.”
“Not particularly,” Victor said with a shudder.
“Right.” Marty pulled out a gold coin and handed it to Dr. Brown. “Here, that should definitely cover the cost of the shoeing.”
“Oh yes – about thirty-three times over,” Dr. Brown said, looking at the coin in his palm. He made a worried face. “I’m not sure--”
“I told you, I don’t have anything else. And you said you don’t get many customers, so maybe this means you can keep eating for a while.”
Dr. Brown looked back up, a strange expression on his face. “You--” One eyebrow went up. “Why do you care so much?”
Marty looked back at Alice and Victor briefly, thinking that over. “I don’t know,” he admitted after a moment. “You just seem like a good guy. And I think all of us kind of sympathize with the whole ‘being the outcast’ thing.”
Victor and Alice both nodded at that. “It would be hardly right for us not to pay you at all,” Victor added. “Please take it.”
“We outcasts need to look after our own,” Alice agreed.
Dr. Brown looked back at the coin for a moment, then nodded and closed his fist around it. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Marty greeted his horse with a friendly pat on the snout. “Guess we should get going, then. Nice meeting you, Dr. Brown. Too bad we can’t stick around and hear more about the inventions.”
“It’s all right. Maybe if you’re ever passing this way again. . . .”
“We’ll drop by after we’ve defeated the Queen,” Marty promised, affixing his sack of clothes and provisions to the saddle.
Dr. Brown nodded. “Well then – goodbye, and good luck.”
“Thanks.” Marty swung himself into the saddle. “You too.”
“Very good to meet you, Dr. Brown,” Victor said, he and Alice following suit. He nearly slid off the saddle the other way, but quickly managed to right himself.
“All the best,” Alice said, adjusting her cloak and skirts so she could get her legs properly around her horse.
“Thank you, you too. I’ll see you in the future.”
“Right. See you later, Doc!”
With that, Marty, Victor, and Alice left the blacksmith shop, trotting along the road and out the other side of the town. “Nice guy,” Marty said.
“Very much so,” Victor agreed. “It is a shame we couldn’t stay longer.”
“I could always try my skill against Buford Tannen,” Alice offered, smirking maliciously. “I would suspect even he would be somewhat frightened of Red Riding Hood.”
“Save it for the Queen, Alice – we’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Marty said.
“And we’d hardly want for you to get hurt fighting him,” Victor added. “Or worse, k-killed.” He looked away at the last word.
Alice paled. “I wouldn’t want you to have to see that,” she agreed, voice barely above a whisper. “I know all too well what it’s like.”
“We’ll be long gone by sundown,” Marty promised, glancing back briefly as they passed through the gates of the town. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
The other two nodded, and together they spurred their horses onward. None of them noticed Dr. Brown still standing in front of his shop, watching them leave, then looking back at his shop with a very thoughtful expression.
They did notice, however, when the hoof beats behind them started a couple of miles out of the town. Curious, the trio turned around –
To see Dr. Brown astride his own horse, a rifle strapped to the back of his saddle, grinning at them. “You know, I got to thinking,” he said, trotting up to them. “If you three want any chance of defeating the Demon Queen, you really ought to have someone around who knows something about her.”
There was a brief surprised silence, then Marty grinned back. “Yeah, I guess that would help.”
“But what about your shop?” Victor asked, frowning in concern.
“Eh, nobody came there anyway, unless they were desperate,” Dr. Brown said carelessly. “And the other blacksmith will be back in a day or two. That town was never a good fit for me.” He smiled. “I think it’s time to have a new adventure. Never too old, you know.”
“How old are you, anyway?” Alice asked as they continued on their way. “If I may ask.”
“Sixty-five?” Marty repeated, astonished. “Holy shit, I didn’t think you were much older than fifty, and that’s with the hair!”
“So did I,” Victor agreed. “Goodness, you’re doing well for your age.”
“I made sure to try and live my life so I would do well,” Dr. Brown said. “Though I’m sure part of it is that I simply refuse to let age tie me down. I suspect I’ll keep going well into my eighties.”
“Hopefully this trip won’t take that long,” Alice joked.
“Yeah. Glad to have you aboard, Doc.”
“Glad to be aboard, Marty,” Dr. Brown – Doc – nodded. “Now then, is there anything in particular you’d like to know about your target?”
“Just give us everything you’ve got,” Marty said with a half shrug. “We’re probably going to need it all.”
“Okay, I know we finished off this loaf of bread the other day!”
Marty peered suspiciously at the supply of food tucked into the sack. “And I’m pretty sure we ate those apples, too,” he continued, frowning deeply. “And that piece of salted pork.”
Victor took his own look inside the bag. “Well, they’re certainly not missing,” he said. “Did you get the sack from the haunted castle as well? Perhaps it’s enchanted.”
“Nope, this is just a plain old sack from home. I know it is – I remember seeing Mom sew it up.”
“Then perhaps we got more food than you first realized?”
“Victor, Alice and I bought the food ourselves! Alice, do you remember getting more than five apples?”
Alice shook her head. “And certainly not more than six strips of salted pork. Meat’s become rather expensive with the beasts devouring game and livestock.”
“I know! So what’s with the magically reappearing food?”
“Normally I’m not one to suggest this, but perhaps we shouldn’t look the gift horse in the mouth,” Doc said, riding ahead a little of the three teenagers. “We’re going to need all the supplies we can get – it’s a long ride to the Queen’s castle.”
“Perhaps, but what if it’s Fae-tainted?” Alice pointed out. “Even food made by the good fairies tend to have odd enchantments on them. I don’t want to wake up and find myself a centaur or unable to communicate except by singing. And if it’s made by one of the Fae of the Wild Hunt. . . .”
“Why would they target us, though?” Victor asked, flicking his eyes from side to side nervously.
“Why do they target anyone? Do you know how fairies think?”
“It just seems--”
Victor cut himself off with a yelp as an arrow suddenly whistled past his ear. Everyone watched as it embedded itself in a nearby tree. It was quickly followed by another, which came close to taking off Alice’s nose. “Bandits!” Alice hissed, pulling her blade out from her apron strings.
“Better than hellbeasts,” Marty said, unsheathing his sword. He scanned the forest around them, searching for the gang. “Hey, how about you come out so we can have a fair fight?”
His reply was an arrow aimed at his face – he hastily ducked so it whizzed over his head. “Should have know that wouldn’t work.”
Alice spotted someone in a tree and threw her knife. It spun through the air and hit its target in the leg. The man cried out and toppled from his perch. “You must tell me how you got such wonderful aim,” Victor said, twisting to avoid yet another arrow.
“Lots of practice and determination,” Alice replied, pulling her axe free. An arrow sailed by her, and she chopped it neatly in half.
Marty did the same to an arrow that came close to hitting his leg. Unfortunately, that left his shoulder open to attack. A second arrow promptly skimmed it. “Ow! Damn it!”
Doc grabbed his shotgun and pulled open what looked like a little telescope mounted on top. He peered through it as he aimed into the trees. “What’s that for?” Marty asked, dodging another arrow.
“Special telescopic sight,” Doc replied. “I could shoot the fleas off a dog’s back at 500 yards with this thing.” He scowled. “The problem is, I didn’t design it to be used in the woods against enemies you can’t really see!” He fired at a likely target, and was rewarded with a yelp. “Well, that’s one of them.”
Victor’s horse abruptly reared as one arrow hit its hindquarters, sending the young man toppling. “Oh!” He hit the ground hard, and winced. “Oh, that will leave a bruise. . . .”
A man dressed in dark green, face smeared with leaf paste suddenly appeared near him. “All right, boy, your money or your life,” he said, putting a long dagger to Victor’s throat.
“Hey, leave him alone!” Marty yelled, riding up with his sword at the ready.
Two more green men appeared at that, rushing up to Marty with swords of their own. Marty’s horse spooked, and the teen had to grab the reins firmly to keep from falling off. “Don’t be a fool, boy, or you’ll see Death today!” one, who had half of his teeth missing, warned, pointing his sword at Marty’s face.
“I’ve beaten worse than you,” Marty snapped disdainfully, knocking the man’s sword aside with his own.
Alice dismounted and ran to the nearby trees, axe at the ready. “Where’s the rest of you?” she snarled, stopping by the man she’d previously felled and pulling out her knife. The man yelled in pain and tried to snatch her wrist – Alice easily pulled away. More arrows met her inquiry, however, forcing her to fall to the ground.
“Just hand over the money and whatever food you have, and this can be done and over with now,” the man with the dagger said coldly, pressing it a little further against Victor’s flesh. Victor squeaked. “We’ve been doing this for ages, so we’re pretty good at it.”
“Yeah, well, you haven’t met anyone like us yet!” Marty snarled, raising his sword again. The other two bandits lunged for him and his horse.
“Damn it! I wish you bandits would disappear to the farthest point of the forest!”
There was a flash of bright light – and suddenly, Marty was swinging his sword down on empty air. Startled, he halted his swing before it hit his horse, and looked down at Victor. Victor looked up, eyes wide with fright and confusion. “What the hell?”
Alice got back to her feet, also looking quite puzzled. Keeping a tight hold on her knife and axe, she investigated the nearby forest. “They’re gone,” she reported after a moment. “As if they’d never been there.”
“Except for the arrows,” Marty said, touching a nearby one in a tree. He looked over at Doc, who was standing slightly off to the side. “How’d you do that?”
Marty frowned. “Make them disappear like that. I’m pretty sure it was you, given that you just yelled out you wished they’d vanish.”
“The flash looked like it came from between your fingers, too,” Alice noted, raising an eyebrow suspiciously.
Doc hesitated a moment, then sighed, a resigned look appearing on his face as he put his gun back on his saddle. “It’s my watch,” he said, opening his hand and letting his pocket watch dangle from his fingers. “It’s enchanted. Once a day, I merely have to rub it, and it grants me anything I may desire.”
The three teenagers stared. “Anything?” Victor repeated, eyes wide and voice awed.
“Anything. It only works once a day – I’ll have to wait until sunrise tomorrow to use it again – but it’s very useful regardless.”
“Yeah, I bet!” Marty said, quite impressed. “Where’d you get it?”
“From the King of the Snakes,” Doc said, reattaching the watch to his waistcoat.
“And how’d you get it from him?”
“Well – it’s a bit of a story. . . .”
“We’ve all got stories. I want to hear this, Doc.”
“So would I,” Alice said, returning to her horse.
“Me too,” Victor said. “Besides, we have to stop for the moment anyway. My horse can’t go on like this.” He pointed to the arrow still lodged in the rear flank of the stallion.
“Fair enough,” Doc admitted, getting down to help with the operation as Alice came over with her knife. “All right, it all started shortly after I’d completed my tour of duty for the Queen’s army, about thirty years ago. I was wandering around the world, looking for a way to seek my fortune with my inventions. Along the way, I picked up a couple of traveling companions – a stray cat I found tied in a sack and left to drown in a river, and a dog that was being hounded by some boys with sticks and stones. I’ve always been an animal lover, and it just didn’t seem right to leave them in those situations.”
Victor and Alice were both grimacing. “I had a dog once – Scraps,” Victor said, holding his horse still as Alice worked to cut the arrow out. “I would have hated to see someone throwing sticks and stones at him. He was my best friend as a child.”
“Our family cat was Dinah, and you never saw such a sweet-tempered puss,” Alice agreed. “The idea of someone drowning her. . . .”
Doc nodded. “Precisely. At any rate, my sympathy to the animal kingdom extended to a snake I saw being tormented by a farmer with a stick. I bought the animal’s freedom, and was more than a little surprised when he actually thanked me. Turns out he was the son of the King of Snakes. He led me to his father, who thanked me and gave me this watch, telling me that it would give me anything I could possibly want once a day. I greatly appreciated the gift, and used it to set up a home for myself. I ate the best food and wore the nicest clothes I could think of, and I gave myself a fully-stocked lab so I could experiment whenever the mood struck me. The dog – whom I named Einstein – the cat – Newton – and the snake – who answered to Kepler – stayed with me as companions.” Doc smiled a little, looking nostalgic. “It was honestly a lovely time in my life.”
“So how’d you go from that to being a blacksmith?” Marty asked, puzzled.
The stallion tried to rear again, distracting everyone for a moment as they calmed it down. “Well, after about five years of living on my own, a traveling king from Yankovania came upon me and my house. He thought I was some sort of lord – I quickly disabused him of the notion, but invited him and his retinue to stay the night.”
“That was kind of you,” Victor said as Alice finally worked the arrow out.
Doc blushed and chuckled. “Sort of. The main reason I offered was because he had his daughter Jill with him. Quite the beauty, she was. And she seemed quite interested in me at the time.” His face took on a dark cast for a moment. “If only I’d known. . . .” He sighed and shook his head. “Anyway, I was smitten the instant I laid eyes on her. We talked for hours over dinner, and she promised she’d be back as soon as she could when they left the next day. We exchanged letters, she paid a couple of visits – and after about a year, I asked her to marry me, and she accepted.”
“But that’s – wait, I get the feeling this doesn’t turn out well,” Marty said, frowning.
“You feel correctly, Marty,” Doc said, eyes starting to narrow. “After we got engaged, Jill starting asking some questions about how I kept myself in such wealth. I’d previously deflected them with vague answers about an old family fortune, but I thought that, as she was going to be my wife, she should know the truth. So, I told her about the watch. She seemed fascinated by it – only natural. I expected we’d use it to make a good life together.” The dark cast returned to Doc’s face. “The morning after I told her about it, I woke up to find Kepler dead, Newton and Einstein both injured, and the watch and Jill gone.”
“She stole it?” Victor whispered, horrified.
“That bitch!” Marty snapped. “How’d you get it back?”
“It wasn’t easy. I buried Kepler in the backyard, nursed Newton and Einstein back to full health, then set out with them to find my wayward princess. It took me years to track her down – she’d covered her tracks well. Eventually, though, I located her on an island she’d created for herself, complete with a small castle. I built myself a boat, and we snuck over there in the dead of the night and retrieved the watch. I left Jill alone on her island, destroyed the boat once we were back on the other side, and we fled back the way we’d come.”
“That still doesn’t explain how you became a blacksmith,” Alice said, fetching one of her spare petticoats and ripping a few strips off to bandage the stallion’s wound.
“Well, shortly after I arrived home, a group of knights arrived at my door to take me prisoner and drag me back to Jill’s father to be tried for stealing from the princess. Apparently Jill got off the island and told her father a rather different version of what happened. I wished them to return to their homes, and used the time afforded to me to pack my things and escape. I spent most of the next six years on the run, avoiding the king. Newton and Einstein died during those years – I buried them where they fell. Finally, about three years ago, I heard the king had been deposed. Finally deciding it was safe, I settled down in the next town I arrived in – Gale’s Town. I didn’t want to use the watch to create another grand house and have a repeat of what happened with Jill, so I set myself up as a blacksmith to earn money, and simply used the watch to keep my larder stocked.” He smiled weakly. “And that brings us up to today.”
“So us giving you a gold coin was actually something of a hollow gesture,” Victor said, looking simultaneously embarrassed and amused.
“No, no, it was appreciated – I still could have used it to buy new clothes or more iron. Remember, it’s only one wish per day.”
Something clicked in Marty’s mind then. “You’re the reason the food keeps reappearing! You’ve been driving me nuts with that, you know.”
“Guilty as charged,” Doc confessed. “I’m sorry for driving you crazy trying to figure it out. I just felt bad about not using the watch to help our journey in some way.”
“Why didn’t you just tell us about it straight out? Unless--” Marty abruptly scowled, looking very insulted. “You didn’t think we’d be like Jill, did you?”
“You never know! Jill seemed perfectly nice and sweet before I told her about the watch! It becomes much harder to trust people after an incident like that!”
“I can tell you right now I wasn’t going to steal it away from you in your sleep!”
“How was I supposed to know that?!”
“Do I look like that sort of person?”
“You never know what kind of lies someone’s telling you until you find out the truth!”
“Stop it!” Alice snapped, glaring at Doc and Marty in turn. “We’ve just had to deal with bandits, we don’t need you two fighting on top of that.”
“He should have told us earlier,” Marty snapped, folding his arms.
“I was afraid to! Of course, you wouldn’t understand that, being such a stranger to fear.”
“You’re right – try and make me understand!”
“It’s the same reason I don’t tell everyone I’m the godson of Death.”
Both Doc and Marty turned to look at Victor in surprise. “Huh?”
“Godson of who?” Doc said, eyes wide.
“I’ll explain later,” Victor said to him, before turning back to Marty. “It probably is hard to understand if you’ve never feared telling anyone everything about you and not knowing what they’d do with that information.” He suddenly looked rather thoughtful. “Do you do that? You certainly seem very open about the nature of your quest. And you told me and Alice quite a bit about yourself when we first met.”
“Well, yeah, but I don’t do that with everyone,” Marty said, sounding a bit frustrated. “It’s none of their beeswax.”
Then he blinked a couple of times, his own expression softening thoughtfully. “Hey – is that kind of related to it? You don’t tell anybody because, really, they don’t have to know?”
The others all nodded, looking pleased. “That’s some of it, yes,” Alice said. “Though for us it’s because we don’t want people using that information against us in some way.”
“Precisely,” Doc said. “After the incident with Jill, I figured it was safer to keep it a secret from everyone.”
Marty furrowed his brow. “I guess I get it – sort of,” he said with a shrug. “I’m sorry for blowing up at you, Doc.”
“It’s fine,” Doc told him. “I should remember your mindset is much different from anyone else’s. And, if it makes you feel any better, I was thinking about telling you after we’d been together a little longer. Nothing any of you have done has hinted at a defect of character like Jill had.”
“Even me?” Alice said, wiping her knife off on her cloak as she completed the bandaging job.
“Even you. For a rumored psychopath, you don’t usually act the part.”
“I try to save my rage for when it’ll be useful,” Alice said. “Hurting friends and allies – I couldn’t think of it.” She patted the stallion’s flank. “He’ll be all right, but I think you should walk him for a day or two. Unless – that magic potion of yours works on animals too?”
“I’ve – never tried it on an animal,” Victor admitted. “Of course, I’ve only tried it on one human ever.” He looked back at Doc, who was watching him curiously. “Now then – why don’t we all share our stories properly so we all know who and what we are?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Doc nodded. “What’s this business about you being the godson of Death?”
“It’s a really weird story, Doc,” Marty said, getting back on his horse.
“Weirder than my getting an enchanted watch from the King of Snakes, or weirder than you never knowing fear?”
“. . .Okay, yeah, we’re way past weird here.”
Victor gave him a weak smile as they started on their way again. “I don’t know if I’d call it weird. More just – sad. It all started when my father forgot to put on his glasses one night. . . .”