1

The Rainbow Run

Prince Rupert rode his unicorn into the Tanglewood, peering balefully through the drizzling rain as he searched half-heartedly for the flea hiding somewhere under his breast plate. Despite the chill rain, he was sweating heavily under the weight of his armor, and his spirits had sunk so low as to be almost out of sight. “Go forth and slay a dragon, my son,” King John had said, and all the courtiers cheered. They could afford to. They didn’t have to go out and face the dragon. Or ride through the Tanglewood in full armor in the rainy season. Rupert gave up on the flea and scrabbled awkwardly at his steel helmet, but to no avail; water continued to trickle down his neck.

Towering, closely packed trees bordered the narrow trail, blending into a verdant gloom that mirrored his mood. Thick, fleshy vines clung to every tree trunk, and fell in matted streamers from the branches. A heavy, sullen silence hung over the Tanglewood. No animals moved in the thick undergrowth, and no birds sang. The only sound was the constant rustle of the rain as it dripped from the lowering branches of the waterlogged trees, and the muffled thudding of the unicorn’s hooves. Thick mud and fallen leaves made the twisting, centuries-old trail more than usually treacherous, and the unicorn moved ever more slowly, slipping and sliding as he carried Prince Rupert deeper into the Tanglewood.

Rupert glowered about him, and sighed deeply. All his life he’d thrilled to the glorious exploits of his ancestors, told in solemn voices during the long, dark winter evenings. He remembered as a child sitting wide-eyed and open-mouthed by the fire in the Great Hall, listening with delicious horror to tales of ogres and harpies, magic swords and rings of power. Steeped in the legends of his family, Rupert had vowed from an early age that one day he too would be a hero, like Great-Uncle Sebastian, who traded three years of his life for the three wishes that would free the Princess Elaine from the Tower With No Doors. Or like Grandfather Eduard, who alone had dared confront the terrible Night Witch, who maintained her remarkable beauty by bathing in the blood of young girls.

Now, finally, he had the chance to be a hero, and a right dog’s breakfast he was making of it. Basically, Rupert blamed the minstrels. They were so busy singing about heroes vanquishing a dozen foes with one sweep of the sword because their hearts were pure, that they never got round to the important issues; like how to keep rain out of your armor, or avoid strange fruits that gave you the runs, or the best way to dig latrines. There was a lot to being a hero that the minstrels never mentioned. Rupert was busily working himself into a really foul temper when the unicorn lurched under him.

“Steady!” yelled the Prince.

The unicorn sniffed haughtily. “It’s all right for you up there, taking it easy; I’m the one who has to do all the work. That armor you’re wearing weighs a ton. My back’s killing me.”

“I’ve been in the saddle for three weeks,” Rupert pointed out unsympathetically. “It’s not my back that’s bothering me.

The unicorn sniggered, and then came to a sudden halt, almost spilling the Prince from his saddle. Rupert grabbed at the long, curlicued horn to keep his balance.

“Why have we stopped? Trail getting too muddy, perhaps? Afraid your hooves will get dirty?”

“If you’re going to be a laugh a minute you can get off and walk,” snarled the unicorn. “In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a massive spider’s web blocking the trail.”

Rupert sighed, heavily. “I suppose you want me to check it out?”

“If you would, please.” The unicorn shuffled his feet, and the Prince felt briefly seasick. “You know how I feel about spiders …”

Rupert cursed resignedly, and swung awkwardly down from the saddle, his armor protesting loudly with every movement. He sank a good three inches into the trail’s mud, and swayed unsteadily for a long moment before finding his balance. He forced open his helmet’s visor and studied the huge web uneasily. Thick milky strands choked the narrow path, each sticky thread studded with the sparkling jewels of trapped raindrops. Rupert frowned; what kind of spider spins a web almost ten feet high? He trudged cautiously forward, drew his sword, and prodded one of the strands. The blade stuck tight, and he had to use both hands to pull the sword free.

“Good start,” said the unicorn.

Rupert ignored the animal and stared thoughtfully at the web. The more he looked at it, the less it seemed like a spider’s web. The pattern was wrong. The strands hung together in knotted clumps, falling in drifting streamers from the higher branches, and dropping from the lower in thick clusters that burrowed into the trail’s mud. And then Rupert felt the hair on the back of his neck slowly rise as he realized that, although the web trembled constantly, there was no wind blowing.

“Rupert,” said the unicorn softly.

“We’re being watched, right?”

“Right.”

Rupert scowled and hefted his sword. Something had been following them ever since they’d entered the Tanglewood at daybreak, something that hid in shadows and dared not enter the light. Rupert shifted his weight carefully, getting the feel of the trail beneath him. If it came to a fight, the thick mud was going to be a problem. He took off his helmet, and put it down at the side of the trail; the narrow eyeholes limited his field of vision too much. He glanced casually around as he straightened up, and then froze as he saw a slender, misshapen silhouette moving among the trees. Tall as a man, it didn’t move like a man, and light glistened on fang and claw before the creature disappeared back into the concealing shadows. Rain beat on Rupert’s head and ran unheeded down his face as a cold horror built slowly within him.

Beyond the Tanglewood lay darkness. For as long as anyone could remember, there had always been a part of the Forest where it was forever night. No sun shone, and whatever lived there never knew the light of day. Mapmakers called it the Darkwood, and warned: Here Be Demons. For countless centuries, Forest land and Darkwood had been separated by the Tanglewood, a deadly confusion of swamp and briar and sudden death from which few escaped alive. Silent predators stalked the weed- and vine-choked trails, and laid in wait for the unwary. And yet, over the past few months, strange creatures had stalked the Forest Land, uneasy shapes that dared not face the light of day. Sometimes, when the sun was safely down, a lone cottager might hear scratchings at his securely bolted doors and shutters, and in the morning would find deep gouges in the wood, and mutilated animals in his barn.

The Tanglewood was no longer a barrier.

Here Be Demons.

Rupert fought down his fear, and took a firmer grip on his sword. The solid weight of the steel comforted him, and he swept the shining blade back and forth before him. He glared up at the dark clouds hiding the sun; one decent burst of sunshine would have sent the creature scuttling for its lair, but as usual Rupert was out of luck.

It’s only a demon, he thought furiously. I’m in full armor, and I know how to use a sword. The demon hasn’t a chance.

“Unicorn,” he said quietly, peering into the shadows where he’d last seen the demon, “you’d better find a tree to hide behind. And stay clear of the fight; I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“I’m way ahead of you,” said a muffled voice. Rupert glanced round to find the unicorn hiding behind a thick-boled tree some distance away.

“Thanks a lot,” said Rupert. “What if I need your help?”

“Then you’ve got a problem,” the unicorn said firmly, “because I’m not moving. I know a demon when I smell one. They eat unicorns, you know.”

“Demons eat anything,” said Rupert.

“Precisely,” said the unicorn, and ducked back out of sight behind his tree.

Not for the first time, the Prince vowed to find the man who’d sold him the unicorn, and personally do something unpleasant to every one of the swindler’s extremities.

There was a faint scuffling to his left, and Rupert had just started to turn when the demon slammed into him from behind. His heavy armor overbalanced him, and he fell forward into the clinging mud. The impact knocked the breath from him, and his sword flew from his outstretched hand. He caught a brief glimpse of something dark and misshapen towering over him, and then a heavy weight landed on his back. A clawed hand on the back of his neck forced his face down, and the mud came up to fill his eyes. Rupert flailed his arms desperately and tried to get his feet under him, but his steel-studded boots just slid helplessly in the thick mire. His lungs ached as he fought for air, and the watery mud spilled into his gaping mouth.

Panic welled up in him as he bucked and heaved to no avail. His head swam madly, and there was a great roaring in his ears as the last of his breath ran out. One of his arms became wedged beneath his chest plate, and with the suddenness of inspiration he used his arm as a lever to force himself over onto his back, trapping the squirming demon beneath the weight of his armor.

He lay there for long, precious moments, drawing in great shuddering breaths and gouging the mud from his eyes. He yelled for the unicorn to help him, but there was no reply. The demon hammered furiously at his armor with clumsy fists, and then a clawed hand snaked up to tear into Rupert’s face. He groaned in agony as the claws grated on his cheekbone, and tried desperately to reach his sword. The demon took advantage of his move to squirm out from under him. Rupert rolled quickly to one side, grabbed his sword, and surged to his feet despite the clinging mud. The weight of his armor made every move an effort, and blood ran thickly down his face and neck as he stood swaying before the crouching demon.

In many ways it might have been a man, twisted and malformed, but to stare into its hungry pupilless eyes was to know the presence of evil. Demons killed to live, and lived to kill; a darkness loose upon the Land. Rupert gripped his sword firmly and forced himself to concentrate on the demon simply as an opponent. It was strong and fast and deadly, but so was he if he kept his wits about him. He had to get out of the mud and up onto firm ground; the treacherous mire gave the demon too much of an advantage. He took a cautious step forward, and the demon flexed its claws eagerly, smiling widely to reveal rows of pointed, serrated teeth. Rupert swept his sword back and forth before him, and the demon gave ground a little, wary of the cold steel. Rupert glanced past the night-dark creature in search of firmer ground, and then grinned shakily at what he saw. For the first time, he felt he might have a fighting chance.

He gripped his sword in both hands, took a deep breath, and then charged full tilt at the crouching demon, knowing that if he fell too soon he was a dead man. The demon darted back out of range, staying just ahead of the Prince’s reaching sword. Rupert struggled on, fighting to keep his feet under him. The demon grinned and jumped back again, straight into the massive web that blocked the path. Rupert stumbled to a halt, drew back his sword for the killing thrust, and then froze in horror as the web’s thick milky strands slowly wrapped themselves around the demon. The demon tore furiously at the strands and then howled silently in agony as the web oozed a clear viscous acid that steamed where it fell upon the ground. Rupert watched in sick fascination as the feebly struggling demon disappeared inside a huge pulsating cocoon that covered it from head to toe. The last twitching movements died quickly away as the web digested its meal.

Rupert wearily lowered his sword and leaned on it, resting his aching back. Blood ran down into his mouth, and he spat it out. Who’d be a hero? He grinned sourly and took stock of himself. His magnificent burnished armor was caked with drying mud, and etched with deep scratch marks from the demon’s claws. He hurt all over, and his head beat with pain. He brought a shaking hand up to his face, and then winced as he saw fresh blood on his mailed gauntlet. He’d never liked the sight of blood, especially his own. He sheathed his sword and sat down heavily on the edge of the trail, ignoring the squelching mud.

All in all, he didn’t think he’d done too badly. There weren’t many men who’d faced a demon and lived to tell of it. Rupert glanced at the now-motionless cocoon, and grimaced. Not the most heroic way to win, and certainly not the most sporting, but the demon was dead and he was alive, and that was the way he’d wanted it to be.

He peeled off his gauntlets and tenderly inspected his damaged face with his fingers. The cuts were wide and deep, and ran from the corner of his eye down to his mouth. Better wash them clean, he thought dazedly. Don’t want them to get infected. He shook his head and looked about him. The rain had died away during the fight, but the sun was already sliding down the sky toward evening, and the shadows were darkening. Nights were falling earlier these days, even though it was barely summer. Rain dripped steadily from the overhanging branches, and a dank, musky smell hung heavily on the still air. Rupert glanced at the web cocoon, and shivered suddenly as he remembered how close he’d come to trying to cut his way through. Predators came in many forms, especially in the Tanglewood.

He sighed resignedly. Tired or no, it was time he was on his way.

“Unicorn! Where are you?”

“Here,” said a polite voice from the deepest of the shadows.

“Are you coming out, or do I come in there after you?” growled the Prince. There was a slight pause, and then the unicorn stepped diffidently out onto the trail. Rupert glared at the animal, who wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“And where were you, while I was risking my neck fighting that demon?”

“Hiding,” said the unicorn. “It seemed the logical thing to do.”

“Why didn’t you help?”

“Well,” said the unicorn reasonably, “If you couldn’t handle the demon with a sword and a full set of armor, I didn’t see what help I could offer.”

Rupert sighed. One of these days he’d learn not to argue with the unicorn.

“How do I look?”

“Terrible.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“You’ll probably have scars,” said the unicorn helpfully.

“Great. That’s all I need.”

“I thought scars on the face were supposed to be heroic?”

“Whoever thought that one up should have his head examined. Bloody minstrels … Help me up, unicorn.”

The unicorn moved quickly in beside him. Rupert reached out, took a firm hold of the stirrup, and slowly pulled himself up out of the mud. The unicorn stood patiently as Rupert leaned wearily against his side, waiting for his bone-deep aches to subside long enough for him to make a try at getting up into the saddle.

The unicorn studied him worriedly. Prince Rupert was a tall, handsome man in his mid-twenties, but blood and pain and fatigue had added twenty years to his face. His skin was gray and beaded with sweat, and his eyes were feverish. He was obviously in no condition to ride, but the unicorn knew that Rupert’s pride would force him to try.

“Rupert …” said the unicorn.

“Yeah?”

“Why don’t you just … walk me for a while? You know how unsteady I am in this mud.”

“Yeah,” said Rupert. “That’s a good idea. I’ll do that.”

He reached out and took hold of the bridle, his head hanging wearily down. Slowly, carefully, the unicorn led him past the motionless cocoon and on down the trail, heading deeper into the Tanglewood.

* * * *

Two days later, Rupert was back in the saddle and fast approaching the boundary between Tanglewood and Darkwood. His aches had mostly died away, thanks to a pouch of herbs the Court Astrologer had forced on him before he left, and though more than once he found himself wishing for a mirror, the wounds on his face seemed to be scabbing nicely. All in all, Rupert was feeling a little more cheerful, or at least only mildly depressed.

He was supposed to kill a dragon, but truth to tell nobody had seen one in ages, and they’d pretty much passed into legend. Rupert had become somewhat disenchanted with legends; they seemed to dwell on the honor and the glory and leave out the important parts, like how you killed whatever it was without getting killed yourself. “Because your heart is pure” isn’t a lot of help when you’re up against a dragon. I bet mine breathes fire, thought Rupert dismally. He was working hard on a great new rationalization that would let him turn back almost honorably, when his bladder loudly called itself to his attention. Rupert sighed and steered the unicorn over to the side of the trail. That was another thing minstrels never mentioned.

He quickly dismounted, and set about undoing the complicated series of flaps that protected his groin. He only just made it in time, and whistled nonchalantly as he emptied his bladder against a tree trunk. If his diet didn’t improve soon, he’d be the only hero going into battle with his fly undone …

That thought decided him, and as soon as he’d finished what he was doing, Rupert set about discarding his armor. He’d only worn the damn stuff because he’d been assured it was traditional for anyone setting out on a quest. Stuff tradition, thought Rupert happily, his spirits soaring as piece by piece the battered armor dropped into the trail’s mud. After a little thought, he decided to hang onto the steel-studded boots; he might want to kick someone. Clad finally in leather jerkin and trousers and his best cloak, Rupert felt comfortable for the first time in weeks. Admittedly, he also felt decidedly vulnerable, but the way his luck had been going recently, he’d only have rusted up solid, anyway.

“I hate grass,” said the unicorn moodily.

“Then why are you eating it?” asked Rupert, buckling on his sword belt.

“I’m hungry,” said the unicorn, chewing disgustedly. “And since we ran out of civilized fodder weeks ago …”

“What’s wrong with grass?” Rupert inquired mildly. “Horses eat it all the time.”

“I am not a horse!”

“Never said you were …”

“I’m a unicorn, a thoroughbred, and I’m entitled to proper care and attention. Like oats and barley and …”

“In the Tanglewood?”

“Hate grass,” muttered the unicorn. “Makes me feel all bloated.”

“Try a few thistles,” suggested Rupert.

The unicorn gave him a hard look. “Do I even faintly resemble a donkey?” he inquired menacingly.

Rupert looked away to hide a grin, and discovered a dozen goblins had moved silently out of the shadows to block the trail. Ranging from three to four feet in height, scarecrow thin and pointed-eared, they were armed with short, rusty swords and jagged-edged meat cleavers. Their ill-fitting bronze and silver armor had obviously been looted from human travellers, and their unpleasant grins suggested only too clearly what had happened to the armor’s previous occupants. Furious at being caught so easily off-guard, Rupert drew his sword and glared at them all impartially. The goblins hefted their weapons, and then looked at each other uneasily. For a long moment, nobody moved.

“Well don’t just stand there,” growled a deep voice from the shadows. “Get him!”

The goblins shifted unhappily from foot to foot.

“Have you seen the size of that sword?” said the smallest goblin.

“And look at those scars on his face, and all that dried blood on his armor,” whispered another goblin respectfully. “He must have slaughtered a dozen people to get in that much of a mess.”

“Probably chopped them into chutney,” elaborated the smallest goblin mournfully.

Rupert swung his sword casually back and forth before him, light flashing the length of the blade. The goblins brandished their weapons in a half-hearted way and huddled together for comfort.

“At least get his horse,” suggested the voice from the shadows.

“Horse?” The unicorn threw up his head, rage blazing from his blood-red eyes. “Horse? What do you think this is on my brow? An ornament? I’m a unicorn, you moron!”

“Horse, unicorn; what’s the difference?”

The unicorn pawed the ground, and lowered his head so that light glistened on his wickedly pointed horn.

“Right. That does it. One at a time or all at once; you’re all getting it!

“Nice one, leader,” muttered the smallest goblin.

Rupert shot an amused glance at the unicorn. “I thought you were a sensible, logical coward?”

“I’m too busy being angry,” growled the unicorn. “I’ll be afraid later, when there’s time. Line these creeps up for me, and I’ll skewer the lot. I’ll show them a shish kebab they won’t forget in a hurry.”

The goblins began surreptitiously backing away down the trail.

“Will you stop messing about and kill that bloody traveller!” roared the voice from the shadows.

“You want him dead so badly, you kill him!” snapped the smallest goblin, looking busily around for the nearest escape route. “This is all your fault anyway. We should have ambushed him while he was distracted, like we usually do.”

“You needed the combat experience.”

“Stuff combat experience! We should stick to what we’re good at; sneak attacks with overwhelming odds.”

There was a deep sigh, and then the goblin leader stepped majestically out of the shadows. Broad-shouldered, impressively muscled, and very nearly five feet tall, he was the biggest goblin Rupert had ever seen. The goblin leader stubbed out a vile-looking cigar on his verdigrised bronze chestplate, and glared at the tightly packed goblins huddled together in the middle of the trail. He sighed again, and shook his head disgustedly.

“Look at you. How am I supposed to make fighters out of you if you won’t fight? I mean, what’s the problem? He’s only one man!”

“And a unicorn,” pointed out the smallest goblin.

“All right, one man and a unicorn. So what? We’re foot-pads now, remember? It’s our job to waylay defenseless travellers and take their valuables.”

“He doesn’t look defenseless to me,” muttered the smallest goblin. “Look at that dirty big sword he’s carrying.”

The goblins stared at it in morbid fascination as Rupert tried a few practice cuts and lunges. The unicorn trotted back and forth behind him, sighting his horn at various goblins, which did absolutely nothing to improve their confidence.

“Come on, lads,” said the goblin leader desperately. “How can you be frightened of someone who rides a unicorn?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked the smallest goblin. The leader murmured something of which only the word “virgin” was clearly audible. All the goblins peered at Rupert, and a few sniggered meaningfully.

“It’s not easy being a Prince,” said Rupert, blushing fiercely despite himself. “You want to make something of it?”

He took a firm grip on his sword and sheared clean through an overhanging branch. The severed end hit the ground with an ominous-sounding thud.

“Great,” muttered the smallest goblin. “Now we’ve really got him angry.”

“Will you shut up!” snarled the goblin leader. “Look; there’s thirteen of us and only one of him. If we all rush him at once, we’re bound to get him.”

“Want to bet?” said an anonymous voice from the back.

“Shut up! When I give the word, charge. Charge!”

He started forward, brandishing his sword, and the other goblins reluctantly followed him. Rupert stepped forward, took careful aim, and punched the goblin leader out. The other goblins skidded to a halt, took one look at their fallen leader, and promptly threw down their weapons. Rupert herded the goblins together, backed them off a way, well out of range of their discarded weapons, and then leaned against a convenient tree while he tried to figure out what to do next. They were such incompetent villains he really didn’t have the heart to kill them. The goblin leader sat up, shook his aching head to clear it, and then clearly wished he hadn’t. He glared up at Rupert, and tried to look defiant. He wasn’t particularly successful.

“I told you thirteen was unlucky,” said the smallest goblin.

“All right,” said Rupert. “Everyone pay attention, and I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You agree to get the hell out of here and stop bothering me, and I’ll agree not to turn you over to the unicorn in small, meaty chunks. How does that sound?”

“Fair,” said the smallest goblin quickly. “Very fair.”

There was a lot of nodding from the other goblins.

“Do we get our weapons back first?” asked the goblin leader.

Rupert smiled. “Do I look crazy?”

The goblin leader shrugged. “Worth a try. All right, sir hero; you got yourself a deal.”

“And you won’t try to follow me?”

The goblin leader gave him a hard stare. “Do I look crazy? It’s going to take me weeks to turn this lot back into a fighting force, after what you’ve done to them. Personally, sir hero, I for one will be extremely content if I never see you again.”

He got to his feet and led the goblins back into the trees, and within seconds they had vanished completely. Rupert grinned and sheathed his sword. He was finally getting the hang of this quest business.

* * * *

An hour later, the light faded quickly away as Rupert left the Tanglewood and crossed into the Darkwood. Far above him, rotting trees leaned together, their leafless interlocking branches blocking out the sun, and in the space of a few moments Rupert passed from mid-afternoon to darkest night. He reined the unicorn to a halt and looked back over his shoulder, but daylight couldn’t follow him into the Darkwood. Rupert turned back, patted the unicorn’s neck comfortingly, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.

A faint silver glow of phosphorescent fungi limned the decaying tree trunks, and far off in the distance he thought he saw a brief flash of light, as though someone had opened a door and then quickly closed it, for fear light would attract unwelcome attention. Rupert glanced about him nervously, ears straining for the slightest sound, but the darkness seemed silent as the tomb. The air was thick with the sickly sweet stench of death and corruption.

His eyes finally adjusted enough to show him the narrow trail that led into the heart of the Darkwood, and he signalled the unicorn to move on. The slow, steady hoofbeats sounded dangerously loud on the quiet. There was only one trail through the endless night; a single straight path that crossed the darkness from one boundary to the other, cut so long ago that no one now remembered who had done it, or why. The Darkwood was very old, and kept its secrets to itself. Rupert peered constantly about him, one hand resting on the pommel of his sword. He remembered the demon he’d fought in the Tanglewood, and shuddered suddenly. Entering the Darkwood was a calculated risk, but if anyone knew where to find a dragon, it was the Night Witch.

Assuming she was still alive, after all these years. Before Rupert set out on his journey, the Court Astrologer had helped him delve into the Castle Archives in search of any map that might lead to a dragon’s lair. They didn’t find one, which pleased Rupert no end, but they did stumble across the official record of Grandfather Eduard’s encounter with the Night Witch. The surprisingly brief tale (surprising in that the most recent song on the subject lasted for an interminable hundred and thirty-seven verses), included a passing reference to a dragon, and a suggestion that the exiled Witch might still be found at her cottage in the Darkwood, not far from the Tanglewood boundary.

“Even assuming that I am daft enough to go looking for a woman whose main interest in life is forcibly separating people from their blood,” said Rupert, dubiously, “give me one good reason why she should agree to help me.”

“Apparently,” said the Astrologer, cryptically, “She was rather fond of your grandfather.”

Rupert studied the Astrologer suspiciously and pressed him for more details, but he refused to be drawn. Rupert trusted the Astrologer about as far as he could spit into the wind, but since he hadn’t a clue of how else to find a dragon …

Gnarled, misshapen trees loomed menacingly out of the gloom as Rupert rode deeper into the endless night. The only sound was the steady rhythm of the unicorn’s hooves, and even that seemed somehow muffled by the unrelenting dark. More than once Rupert reined the unicorn to a sudden halt and stared about him, eyes straining against the darkness, convinced that something awful lurked just beyond the range of his vision. But always there was only the dark, and the silence. He had no lantern, and when he broke a bough from one of the dead trees to make a torch, the rotten wood crumbled in his hand. With no light to guide him, he lost all track of time, but eventually the closely packed trees fell suddenly away on either side, and Rupert signalled to the unicorn to stop. Ahead of them lay a small clearing, its boundaries marked by the glowing fungi. In the middle of the clearing stood a single dark shape that had to be the Witch’s cottage. Rupert glanced up at the night sky, but there was no moon or stars to give him light, only an empty darkness that seemed to go on forever.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” whispered the unicorn.

“No,” said Rupert. “But it’s our best chance to find a dragon.”

“Frankly, that doesn’t strike me as such a hot idea either,” muttered the unicorn.

Rupert grinned, and swung down out of the saddle. “You stay here, while I check out the cottage.”

“You’re not leaving me here on my own,” said the unicorn determinedly.

“Would you rather meet the Night Witch?” asked Rupert.

The unicorn moved quickly off the trail and hid behind the nearest tree.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Rupert promised. “Don’t go wandering off.”

“That has to be the most redundant piece of advice I’ve ever been offered,” said the unicorn.

Rupert drew his sword, took a deep breath, and moved cautiously out into the clearing. His soft footsteps seemed horribly loud on the quiet and he broke into a run, his back crawling in anticipation of the attack he’d probably never feel, anyway. The Witch’s cottage crouched before him like a sleeping predator, a dull crimson glow outlining the door and shuttered windows. Rupert skidded to a halt at the cottage and set his back against the rough wooden wall, his eyes darting wildly round as he checked to see if he had been followed. Nothing moved in the ebon gloom, and the only sound in the endless night was his own harsh breathing. He swallowed dryly, stood quietly a moment to get his breath back, and then moved over to knock, very politely, at the cottage’s door. A bright crimson glare filled his eyes as the door swung suddenly open, and a huge bony hand with long curving fingernails shot out and grasped him by the throat. Rupert kicked and struggled helplessly as he was hauled into the Witch’s cottage.

The bent old woman kicked the door shut behind her, and dropped Rupert unceremoniously onto the filthy carpet. He sat up and massaged his sore throat as the Night Witch cackled fiendishly, rubbing her gnarled hands together.

“Sorry about that,” she said and grinned. “All part of the image, you know. I have to do something fairly nasty every now and again, or they’ll think I’ve gone soft. What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Thought you might be able to help me,” husked the Prince.

“Help?” said the Night Witch, raising a crooked eyebrow. “Are you sure you’ve come to the right cottage?” The black cat crouched on her shoulder hissed angrily, and rubbed its shoulder against the Witch’s long gray hair. She reached up and patted the animal absentmindedly.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t turn you into a frog,” demanded the Witch.

Rupert showed her his sword. The Witch grinned nastily.

“Sheath it, or I’ll tie it in a knot.”

Rupert thought about it a moment, and then slipped the sword back into its scabbard. “I believe you knew my grandfather,” he said carefully.

“Possibly,” said the Night Witch airily. “I’ve known many men in my time. What was his name?”

“Eduard, of the Forest Kingdom.”

The Night Witch stared at him blankly, and then all the fire seemed to go out of her eyes. She turned slowly away, and moved over to sink into a battered old rocking chair by the fireplace.

“Yes,” she said finally, almost to herself. “I remember Eduard.”

She sat quietly in the rocking chair, staring at nothing, and Rupert took the opportunity to get to his feet and take a quick look around him. The cottage was filled with a dull, unfocussed light that seemed to come from everywhere at once, though there was no lamp to be seen. The walls leaned away from the floor at different angles, and bats squealed up in the high rafters. A cat’s shadow swayed across a wall without a cat to cast it, and something dark and shapeless with glowing eyes peered out from the empty, smoke-blackened fireplace.

Rupert studied the Night Witch curiously. Somehow she didn’t seem quite so impressive when she wasn’t actually threatening him. Rocking quietly in her chair, with her cat in her lap, she looked like anybody’s grandmother, a shrunken gray-haired old lady with a back bent by the years. She was painfully thin, and suffering had etched deep lines into her face. This wasn’t the Night Witch of legend, the raven-haired tempter of men, the terrible creature of the dark. She was just a tired old woman, lost in memories of better times. She looked up, and caught Rupert’s eyes on her.

“Aye, look at me,” she said quietly. “I was beautiful, once. So beautiful men travelled hundreds of miles just to pay me compliments. Kings, emperors, heroes; I could have had my pick of any of them. But I didn’t want them. It was enough that I was … beautiful.”

“How many young girls died to keep you beautiful?” said Rupert harshly.

“I lost count,” said the Witch. “It didn’t seem important, then. I was young and glorious and men loved me; nothing else mattered. What’s your name, boy?”

“Rupert.”

“You should have seen me then, Rupert. I was so lovely. So very lovely.”

She smiled gently and rocked her chair, eyes fixed on yesterday.

“I was young and powerful and I bent the darkness to my will. I raised a palace of ice and diamond in a single night, and Lords and Ladies from a dozen Courts came to pay homage to me. They never noticed if a few peasant girls went missing from the villages. They wouldn’t have cared if they had.

“And then Eduard came to kill me. Somehow he’d found out the truth, and he came to rid the Forest Land of my evil.” She chuckled quietly. “Many the nights he spent in my cold halls, of his own free will. He was tall and brave and handsome and he never once bowed to me. I showed him wonders and terrors and I couldn’t break him. We used to dance in my ballroom, just the two of us, in a great echoing hall of glistening ice, each chandelier fashioned from a single stalactite. Slowly, I came to love him, and he loved me. I was young and foolish, and I thought our love would last forever.

“It lasted a month.

“I needed fresh blood, and Eduard couldn’t allow that. He loved me, but he was King, and he had a responsibility to his people. He couldn’t kill me, but I couldn’t change what I was. So I waited till he slept, and then I left my palace, and the Forest Land, and came here to live in the darkness, where there’s no one to see that I’m not beautiful anymore.

“I could have killed him and kept my secret safe. I could have stayed young and lovely and powerful. But I loved him. My Eduard. The only man I ever loved. I suppose he’s dead now.”

“More than thirty years ago,” said Rupert.

“So many years,” whispered the Witch. Her shoulders slumped, and her crooked, twisted hands writhed together. She took a deep breath and let it go shakily, then looked up at Rupert and smiled tiredly. “So you’re Eduard’s kin. You have some of his looks, boy. What do you want from me?”

“I’m looking for a dragon,” said Rupert, in a tone he hoped suggested that, if at all possible, he’d really rather not find one.

“A dragon?” The Witch stared at him blankly a moment, and then a broad grin spread slowly across her wrinkled face. “A dragon! Damn me, but I like your style, boy. No one’s had the guts to hunt a dragon in years. No wonder you weren’t scared to come calling on me!” She studied him admiringly while Rupert did his best to look modest. “Well, dearie, this is your lucky day. You’re looking for a dragon, and it just so happens I have a map that will lead you right to one. A real bargain, I can let you have it for the knockdown price of only three pints of blood.”

Rupert gave her a hard look. The Witch shrugged.

“Worth a try. Since you are Eduard’s kin, let me revise that offer. The map’s yours, free of charge. If I can remember where I put the damned thing.”

She rose up slowly out of her chair, spilling the cat from her lap, and hobbled away to investigate the depths of a battered oak filing cabinet in a far corner. Rupert frowned uncertainly. He’d fully intended to kill the Night Witch if he got the opportunity, but although she spoke casually of murdering so many young girls that she’d finally lost count, somehow he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. In a strange kind of way he actually felt sorry for her; her long years alone in the Darkwood had punished her enough. More than enough. The Witch was suddenly before him and he jumped back, startled, as she thrust a tattered parchment scroll into his hands.

“There you are, boy, that’ll take you right to him. If you get that far. To start with, you’ve got to pass clean through the Darkwood and out the other side, and there’s damn few have done that and lived to tell of it.”

“I got this far,” said Rupert confidently.

“This close to the Tanglewood boundary there’s still a little light,” said the Witch. “Beyond this clearing, there’s nothing but darkness. Watch your back, Rupert. There’s a cold wind blowing through the long night, and it smells of blood and death. Deep in the Darkwood something is stirring, something … awful. If I wasn’t so old, I’d be scared.”

“I can take care of myself,” said Rupert tightly, one hand dropping to the pommel of his sword.

The Witch smiled tiredly. “You’re Eduard’s kin. He thought cold steel was the answer to everything, too. When I look at you, it’s almost like seeing him again. My Eduard.” Her voice suddenly shook, and she turned her back on Rupert and limped painfully over to sink slowly into her rocking chair. “Go on, boy, get out of here. Go and find your dragon.”

Rupert hesitated. “Is there … anything I can do for you?”

“Just go,” said the Night Witch harshly. “Leave me alone. Please.”

Rupert turned and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Sitting alone before her empty fireplace, the Night Witch rocked gently in her chair. After a while her eyes slowly closed, and she fell asleep. And she was young and beautiful again, and Eduard came to her, and they danced together all through the night in her ballroom of shimmering ice.

* * * *

Several days’ travel later, Rupert had finished the last of his provisions. There was no game to be found in the Darkwood, and what little water there was, was fouled. Thirst burned in his throat, and hunger was a dull ache in his belly.

Since leaving the Night Witch’s clearing he had left all light behind him. The darkness became absolute, and the silence was oppressive. He couldn’t see the trail ahead, the unicorn beneath him, or even a hand held up before his eyes. Only the growing stubble on his face remained to show him the passing of time. He grew steadily weaker as the unicorn carried him deeper into the Darkwood, for although they stopped to rest whenever they grew tired, Rupert couldn’t sleep. The darkness kept him awake.

Something might creep up on him while he slept.

He passed a shaking hand over his dry, cracked lips, and then frowned as he slowly realized the unicorn had come to a halt. He tried to ask what was wrong, but his tongue had swollen till it almost filled his mouth. He swung painfully down out of the saddle, and leaned against the unicorn’s side until his legs felt strong enough to support him for a while. He stumbled forward a few steps, hands outstretched before him, and grunted with pain as thorns pierced his flesh. More cautious testing revealed that a thick patch of needle-thorned briar had grown across the narrow trail. Rupert drew his sword, and was shocked to find that he’d grown so weak he now needed both his hands to wield it. He gathered the last of his strength, and with awkward, muscle-wrenching cuts, he set about clearing a path through the briar. The unicorn slowly followed him, the proudly horned head hanging tiredly down.

Time after time Rupert struggled to raise his sword for another blow, fighting the growing agony in his chest and arms. His hands and face were lacerated by the stubborn thorns, but he was so tired he barely felt the wounds. His sword grew heavier in his uncertain grasp, and his legs trembled with fatigue, but he wouldn’t give in. He was Rupert, Prince of the Forest Kingdom. He’d fought a demon and braved the Darkwood, and he was damned if he’d be beaten by a patch of bloody briar. He swung his sword savagely before him, forcing his way deeper into the briar, and then cried out as a sudden burst of sunlight threw back the night.

Rupert brought up a hand to shield his eyes from the blinding glare, and stumbled forward. For a long time, all he could do was squint painfully through his fingers while shocked tears ran down his cheeks, but finally he was able to lower his hand and blink in amazement at the scene spread out before him. He’d emerged from the Darkwood high up on a steep hillside, and down below him sprawled a vast patchwork of tended fields; wheat and maize and barley, ripening under a mid-day sun. Long lines of towering oaks served as windbreaks, and sunlight reflected brightly from shimmering rivers. Slender stone walls marked the field boundaries, and a single dirt road meandered through them on its way to the huge, dark mountain that dominated the horizon, its summit lost in clouds.

The mountain called Dragonslair.

Rupert finally tore his gaze away from the ominous crag and peered dazedly about him. His breath caught in his throat. Not a dozen yards from the Darkwood’s boundary, a fast-moving stream bubbled up from a hidden spring, leaping and sparkling as it tumbled down the hillside. Rupert dropped his sword, staggered forward, and fell to his knees beside the rushing water. He dipped his hand into the stream, brought his fingers to his mouth, and licked cautiously at them. The water was clear and pure. Rupert felt fresh tears start to his eyes as he leant forward and thrust his face into the stream.

He gulped thirstily at the chill water, coughing and spluttering in his eagerness, and then somehow found the strength to draw back from the stream. Too much water at first would only make him sick. He lay back on the springy grass, feeling comfortably bloated. His stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten in days either, but that could wait a while. For the moment, he felt too good to move. He watched as the unicorn drank sparingly from the stream and then turned away to crop contentedly at the grass. Rupert smiled for the first time in days. He raised himself on one elbow and looked back the way he’d come. The Darkwood stood brooding and silent behind him, and the bright sunlight didn’t pass an inch beyond its boundary. A chill breeze blew steadily from the rotting, spindly trees. Rupert grinned savagely at the darkness, and tasted blood as his cracked lips split painfully. He didn’t give a damn.

“I beat you,” he said softly. “I beat you!”

“I helped,” said the unicorn. Rupert turned back to find the animal looking worriedly down at him. He reached up and patted the unicorn’s muzzle.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” said Rupert. “You were there when I needed you. Thanks.”

“You’re very welcome,” said the unicorn. “Now then, I’m going to graze on this wonderful grass for some time, and I don’t want to be disturbed until I’ve finished. Is that clear?”

Rupert laughed. “Sure. You go ahead; the sun’s high in the sky, and I’ve an awful lot of sleep to catch up on. Afterwards … I think I’ll show you how to tickle trout.”

“Why should I wish to amuse a fish?” asked the unicorn, but Rupert was already fast asleep.

* * * *

It took Rupert and the unicorn almost a month to reach Dragonslair mountain. Regular meals and fresh water did much to restore their health and spirits, but the Darkwood had left its mark on Rupert. Every evening, as the sun dipped redly below the horizon, Rupert would build a large fire, even though the nights were warm and there were no dangerous beasts in the area. And every night, before he finally allowed himself to sleep, he carefully banked the fire so that there was sure to be light if he woke before the dawn. His sleep was restless, and plagued by nightmares he chose not to recall. For the first time since he was a child, Rupert was afraid of the dark. Each morning he woke ashamed, and cursed his weakness, and swore silently to himself that he’d not give in to his fear again. And every evening, as the sun went down, he built another fire.

Dragonslair drew steadily closer and more imposing as the days passed, and Rupert became increasingly uncertain as to what he was going to do when he reached the mountain’s base. According to the Night Witch’s map, somewhere near the summit he’d find a dragon’s cave, but the closer he drew the more impossible it seemed that any man could climb the towering basalt wall that loomed darkly before him, filling the horizon. Yet, despite all his doubts, despite the unreasoning fear that tormented his nights, Rupert never considered turning back. He’d come too far and been through too much to give up now that his goal was finally in sight.

Go forth and slay a dragon, my son. Prove yourself worthy to the throne.

The early morning air was still cold from the night’s chill when Rupert rode into the foothills. Thinning grass and stunted shrubbery soon gave way to bare rock, pitted and eroded by long exposure to wind and rain. A pathway cut into the mountainside itself led steeply upwards, and the unicorn cursed steadily under his breath as he picked his way carefully along the uneven path. Rupert kept his eyes fixed firmly on the path ahead, and tried not to think about the growing drop behind him. The trail grew steadily narrower and more treacherous as they ascended, and was finally interrupted by a wide patch of shifting scree. The unicorn took one look at the gently sliding stones that blocked the path, and dug his hooves in.

“Forget it. I’m a unicorn, not a mountain goat.”

“But it’s the only way up; it’ll be easy going after this.”

“It’s not the going up that worries me, it’s the coming down. Probably at great speed, with the wind rushing past me.

Rupert sighed, and swung down out of the saddle. “All right. You go on back, and wait for me by the foothills. Give me two days. If I’m not back by then …”

“Rupert,” said the unicorn slowly, “You don’t have to do this. We could always go back, and tell the Court we couldn’t find a dragon. No one would know.”

“I’d know,” said Rupert.

Their eyes met, and the unicorn bowed his head to the Prince.

“Good luck, Sire.”

“Thank you,” said Rupert, and turned quickly away.

“You be careful,” muttered the unicorn. “I’d hate to have to break in another rider.” He turned carefully around on the narrow path, and cautiously headed back down the mountainside.

Rupert stood a moment, listening to the slowly departing hoofbeats. The unicorn would be safe enough in the foot-hills. If scree hadn’t blocked the trail, he would have found some other excuse to send the unicorn back; what remained of the quest was Rupert’s responsibility, and his alone. There was no need for both of them to risk their lives. Rupert shook himself briskly, and studied the vast patch of scree before him. It looked treacherous. Forty feet across, but barely ten feet wide; one wrong move and the shifting stones would carry him clean over the edge. Rupert glanced briefly at the drop, and swallowed dryly. It was a long way down. If he were to slip, he’d probably reach the foothills before the unicorn did. He grinned sourly, and stepped lightly out onto the scree.

The packed stones shifted uneasily under his weight, and Rupert held his breath as he waited for them to settle. Slowly, step by step, foot by foot, he moved across the scree, taking his time and testing each part of the scree cautiously before committing his weight to it. Despite all his efforts, the sliding stones carried him closer and closer to the edge, and Rupert knew he wasn’t going to make it. The gusting wind plucked fussily at his cloak, and he felt the scree stir under his boots. He shifted his weight slightly to compensate and the scree ran like water beneath him, carrying him remorselessly toward the escarpment’s edge. Rupert threw himself flat, digging his hands deeply into the scree, and he slowly slid to a halt with one foot hanging over the edge. He could hear stones falling, tumbling down the side of the mountain.

Barely five feet of scree stood between him and solid rock, but it might as well have been five miles. Rupert lay still, breathing shallowly. He couldn’t go on and he couldn’t go back; the slightest movement could mean his death. Rupert frowned as an answer occurred to him. A slight movement couldn’t save him, but a lunge with all his strength behind it just might. It might also kill him. Rupert grinned suddenly. What the hell; if the scree didn’t get him, the dragon probably would. He pulled his legs carefully up under him in one slow, controlled movement, and dug his feet into the scree. The shifting stones carried him a little closer to the edge. Rupert took a deep breath and lunged for the solid rock beyond the scree. He landed awkwardly, the impact slamming the breath from his lungs, but one outflung hand grasped an outcropping of rock, and he held on tightly as the sliding scree carried his body out over the long drop. For a moment he hung by one hand, feet searching helplessly for support, loose stones showering down around him, and then his free hand found a hold, and slowly he pulled himself up onto hard, solid rock. Rupert staggered a few feet away from the edge and then collapsed, shaking with reaction, his heart hammering madly. The unyielding stone path beneath him felt marvelously comforting.

He rested a while, and then clambered painfully to his feet. His whole body ached from fighting the scree, and he’d torn his hands on the jagged rock. Without the water canteens he’d left with the unicorn, Rupert couldn’t even clean his wounds, so he did the next best thing and ignored them. He hoped like hell they wouldn’t get infected; he was a long way from the nearest healer. He shrugged the thought aside, turned his back on the scree, and trudged tiredly along the uneven path that would lead him eventually to his dragon.

Some time later the trail suddenly disappeared, replaced by a seemingly endless series of narrow steps cut into the sheer rock face. Rupert turned away from the sight, and looked out over the long drop, taking in the view. Beyond the many miles of tended fields, the Forest seemed very small, and very far away. Rupert sighed once, regretfully, and then turned back to the steps and began the long climb.

The steps were crooked and uneven, and pain blazed through Rupert’s legs and back as, for hour after hour, he fought to maintain his pace. The stone stairway stretched out behind and before him for as far as he could see, and after a while Rupert learned to keep his head down, and concentrate only on those steps directly ahead of him. The air grew steadily colder as he made his slow way up the mountain, and the driving wind carried sleet and snow from the summit. Rupert huddled inside his thin cloak and struggled on. Vicious gusts tugged at him as he climbed, and the bitter wind blew tears from his eyes. The cold numbed his hands and feet, his breath steamed on the chill air, and still he climbed, step after step after step, fighting the cold and the surging wind and his own pain.

He was Prince Rupert of the Forest Kingdom, and he was going to face his dragon.

The stairway ended in a narrow ledge before a vast cave mouth. Rupert stood swaying on the ledge, ignoring the freezing wind that wrapped his cloak about him, and the harsh breathing that seared his throat and burned in his chest. The cave gaped before him like some deep wound in the sheer rock face, filled with darkness. Rupert moved slowly forward, fatigue trembling in his legs. The Night Witch’s map hadn’t lied; he’d finally found his dragon. Ever since leaving the Court, he’d wondered how he’d feel when he finally had to face the dragon. If he’d be … scared. But now the time had come, and he didn’t feel much of anything, if truth be told. He’d given his word, and he was here. He didn’t believe he could beat the dragon, but then he never had. Deep down, he’d always known he was going to his death. Rupert shrugged. The Court expected him to die; maybe he’d live, anyway, just to spite them. He drew his sword, and took up the best position he could on the narrow ledge. He tried not to think about the long drop behind him, and concentrated instead on the correct form of the challenge.

All in all, he’d never felt less heroic in his life.

“Hideous monster, I, Prince Rupert of the Forest Kingdom do hereby challenge ye! Come forth and fight!”

There was a long pause, and then finally a deep voice from far inside the cave said, “Pardon?”

Feeling slightly ridiculous, the Prince took a better grip on his sword and repeated his challenge. There was an even longer pause, and then Rupert dropped into his fighting stance as the dragon emerged slowly out of the darkness, filling the cave mouth with his massive bulk. Long sweeping wings wrapped the creature like a ribbed emerald cloak, clasped at the chest by wickedly clawed hands. A good thirty feet from snout to tail, with light slithering caressingly along his shimmering green scales, the dragon towered over the Prince, and studied him with glowing golden eyes. Rupert hefted his sword, and the dragon smiled widely, revealing dozens of very sharp teeth.

“Hi,” said the dragon. “Nice day, isn’t it?”

Rupert blinked resentfully. “You’re not supposed to say anything,” he told the dragon firmly. “You’re supposed to roar horribly, claw the ground, and then charge upon me breathing fire.”

The dragon thought about this. Two thin plumes of smoke drifted up from his nostrils. “Why?” he asked finally.

Rupert lowered his sword, which was becoming heavier by the minute, and leaned on it. “Well,” he said slowly, “It’s traditional, I suppose. That’s the way it’s always been.”

“Not with me,” said the dragon. “Why do you want to kill me?”

“It’s a long story,” said the Prince.

The dragon grunted. “Thought it might be. You’d better come on in.”

He retreated into his cave, and after a moment’s hesitation Rupert followed him into what quickly proved to be a tunnel. In a strange way, he felt almost angry that he hadn’t had to fight; he’d spent so long preparing for the moment, and now it had been taken from him. He wondered if the creature might just be playing with him, but it seemed unlikely. If the dragon had wanted him dead, he’d be dead by now. He stumbled clumsily on down the tunnel, a cold sweat beading his brow as the light fell away behind him. The unrelieved gloom reminded him of the Darkwood, and he was glad when the darkness soon gave way to the cheerful crimson glow of a banked fire. He hurried toward the light, and burst out of the tunnel mouth to find the dragon waiting patiently for him in a huge rock chamber easily five hundred feet across, the walls of which were covered with the largest collection of preserved butterflies Rupert had ever seen.

“I thought dragons collected hoards of gold and silver,” said Rupert, gesturing at the hundreds of highly polished display cases.

The dragon shrugged. “Some collect gold and silver. Some collect jewels. I collect butterflies. They’re just as pretty, aren’t they?”

“Sure, sure,” said the Prince soothingly, as sparks glowed hotly in the dragon’s nostrils. He sheathed his sword, sank down onto his haunches opposite the reclining dragon, and studied him curiously.

“What’s the matter?” asked the dragon.

“You’re not quite what I expected,” Rupert admitted.

The dragon chuckled. “Legends rarely are.”

“But you can talk!”

“So can you.”

“Well yes, but I’m human …”

“I had noticed,” said the dragon dryly. “Look, most of the legends, that we’re big and strong and nasty and eat people for any or no reason, all those stories were made up by dragons, to frighten people away.”

“But …”

“Look,” said the dragon, leaning forward suddenly. “One on one I’m more than a match for any human, but no dragon can fight an army.” The huge creature hissed softly, golden eyes staring through Rupert at something only they could see. “Once, dragons filled the skies, masters of all that was. The sun warmed our wings as we soared above the clouds and watched the world turn beneath us. We tore gold and silver from the rock with our bare claws, and the earth trembled when we roared. Everything that lived feared us. And then came man, with his sword and his lance, his armor and his armies. We should have banded together while we still could, but no; we fought each other, and feuded and squabbled, and guarded our precious hoards. And one by one we fell, alone. Our time had passed.”

The dragon lay brooding a moment, and then shook himself. “Why did you come to challenge me?”

“It’s supposed to prove me worthy to be King.”

“Do you want to kill me?”

Rupert shrugged, confused. “It’d be easier if you were the monster you’re supposed to be. Haven’t you slaughtered women and children, burned property to the ground, and stolen cattle?”

“Certainly not,” said the dragon, shocked. “What kind of creature do you think I am?”

Rupert raised an eyebrow, and the dragon had the grace to look a little sheepish. “All right, maybe I did raze the odd village, devour an occasional maiden, but that was a long time ago. I was a dragon; they expected it of me. I’m retired now.”

There was a long pause. Rupert frowned into the gently crackling fire. This wasn’t at all what he’d expected.

“Do you want to kill me?” he asked the dragon.

“Not particularly. I’m getting a little old for all this nonsense.”

“Well, don’t you want to eat me?”

“No,” said the dragon firmly. “People give me heartburn.”

There was another long silence.

“Look,” said the dragon finally, “Killing me is supposed to prove your worth, right?”

“Right,” said the Prince. That much he was sure of.

“So, why not bring back a live dragon? Isn’t that an even braver thing to do?”

Rupert thought about it. “That might just do it,” he said cautiously. “Nobody’s ever captured a real live dragon before …”

“Well then, that’s our answer!”

“Don’t you mind being captured?” asked Rupert diffidently.

The dragon chuckled. “I could do with a bit of a holiday. Travel to strange lands, meet new people; just what I need.” The dragon peered about him and then beckoned for Rupert to lean closer. “Er … Prince …”

“Yes?”

“Do you by any chance rescue Princesses? Only I’ve got one here, and she’s driving me crazy.”

“You’re holding a Princess captive?” yelled Rupert, jumping to his feet and clapping a hand to his swordhilt.

“Keep your voice down!” hissed the dragon. “She’ll hear you! I’m not holding her captive; I’ll be glad to see the back of her. Some Court’s elders sent her up here as a sacrifice, and I hadn’t the heart to kill her. She can’t go back, and I can’t just throw her out. I thought maybe you could take her off my hands …”

Rupert sat slowly down again and rubbed gently at his aching brow. Just when he thought he was getting the hang of things, somebody changed the rules.

“She’s a real Princess?”

“Far as I know.”

“What’s wrong with her?” asked Rupert warily.

Dragon!” yelled a strident voice from a side tunnel. The dragon winced.

“That’s what’s wrong with her.”

The Princess burst into the cavern from one of the side tunnels, and then stopped short on seeing the Prince. Rupert scrambled to his feet. The Princess was dressed in a long flowing gown that might once have been white, but was now stained a dozen colors from dried mud and grime. She was young, barely into her twenties, and handsome rather than beautiful. Deep blue eyes and a generous mouth contrasted strongly with the mannish jut of her jaw. Long blonde hair fell almost to her waist in two meticulously twisted plaits. She was poised and slender and easily six feet tall. As Rupert considered the right courteous words with which to greet a Princess, she whooped with joy and rushed forward to throw her arms around him. Rupert staggered back a pace.

“My hero,” she cooed, bending down to nuzzle his ear. “You’ve come to rescue me!”

“Well, yes,” muttered Rupert, trying to break free without seeming too discourteous. “Glad to be of service. I’m Prince Rupert …”

The Princess hugged him fiercely, driving the air from his lungs. I was safer with the dragon, thought Rupert, as bright spots drifted before his eyes. The Princess finally let him go, and stood back to take a good look at him.

He couldn’t have been much older than her, she thought, but the recent scars that marred one side of his face gave him a hard, dangerous look. His long slender hands were battered and torn, and covered with freshly dried blood. His leather jerkin and trousers had obviously seen a great deal of use, his cloak was a mess, and all in all the fellow looked more like a bandit than a Prince. The Princess frowned dubiously, and then her mouth twitched; all in all, she probably didn’t look much like a Princess, either.

“Where’s your armor?” she asked.

“I left it in the Tanglewood,” said Rupert.

“And your steed?”

“At the base of the mountain.”

“You did at least bring your sword?”

“Of course,” said Rupert, drawing the blade to show her.

She snatched it out of his hand, tested the balance, and swept it through a few expert passes.

“It’ll do,” she decided, and gave the sword back to him. “Get on with it.”

“Get on with what?” asked Rupert politely.

“With killing the dragon, of course,” said the Princess. “That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”

“Ah,” said Rupert, “The dragon and I have talked it over, and I’m going to take him back to my Castle alive. And you too, of course.”

“That’s not honorable,” said the Princess flatly.

“Oh yes it is,” said the dragon.

“You keep out of this,” snapped the Princess.

“Gladly,” said the dragon.

“Who’s side are you on?” demanded Rupert, feeling he needed all the help he could get.

“Anybody’s who’ll rescue me from this Princess,” said the dragon feelingly.

The Princess kicked him.

Rupert closed his eyes a moment. When he got back to Court, he intended to give the minstrels some explicit instructions on how to sing their songs. This sort of thing needed to be pointed up more. He coughed politely, and the Princess swung angrily back to face him.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Julia. Princess Julia of Hillsdown.”

“Well, Princess Julia, you have two choices. Come back to my Castle with me and the dragon, or stay here on your own.”

“You can’t leave me here,” said the Princess. “That wouldn’t be honorable.”

“Watch me,” said Rupert.

Julia blinked, and then peered at the dragon, who was staring at the cavern ceiling and blowing different colored smoke rings from his nostrils.

“You wouldn’t leave me here alone. Would you?”

The dragon grinned widely, his many teeth gleaming crimson in the firelight.

Julia glared at him. “You wait,” she muttered ominously.

“Can we make a start now, please?” asked Rupert. “My unicorn’s only going to wait two days for me to return.”

“You ride a unicorn?” asked the dragon. Rupert glanced at the Princess, and felt his face grow hot.

“It’s not easy being a Prince. It’s to do with Bloodlines; the last thing any dynasty needs is bastard pretenders to the throne popping up all over the place. So unmarried royalty have to be kept … pure.”

“Right,” said the Princess. “That’s why the elders sent me up here.”

The dragon coughed tactfully. “Is it far to your Castle, Rupert?”

Rupert started to answer, and then had to grab Julia’s arm for support as his head suddenly started to swim. His legs trembled violently, and he sat down quickly to avoid falling.

“What’s the matter?” asked Julia, as she helped Rupert lower himself to the cavern floor.

“Just need a bit of a rest,” he muttered groggily, passing a shaking hand across his aching temples. “Hot in here. I’ll be all right in a minute.”

The dragon regarded the Prince narrowly. “Rupert; how did you get up the mountain?”

“Followed the trail until the scree blocked it. Then I sent my unicorn back, crossed the scree, and used the stairway.”

“You came all that way on foot? In this weather?” Julia looked at Rupert with new respect. “I came in mid-summer. I had an escort of seven guards and a pack mule, and it still took us the best part of four days to manage it.” She took his battered hands in hers, and winced. “You’re so cold you can’t even feel your wounds, can you? You must be frozen to the bone; it’s a wonder you were still on your feet.”

Rupert shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m all right. Just a bit tired, that’s all.”

Julia and the dragon exchanged a glance.

“Sure,” said the dragon. “Look, why don’t you warm yourself at the fire a while, and then I’ll fly you both down. It’s a lovely day for flying.”

“Sure,” said Rupert drowsily. “Lovely day … for flying.” His chin sank slowly forward onto his chest, and sleep rolled over him like a tide. The Princess lowered him gently to the floor, wrapped furs around him, and then washed and bandaged his hands. Rupert knew nothing of this, but for the first time since leaving the Darkwood, his rest was free of nightmares.

*      *      *

A few hours’ sleep did much to restore him, and all too soon Rupert found himself perched awkwardly on the dragon’s shoulders, hugging the creature’s neck like he’d never let go. The Princess Julia was sitting right behind Rupert, and holding him just as tightly, if not more so.

“I hate heights,” she confided in a small voice.

“You’re not alone,” Rupert assured her. He looked around at the dark clouds filling the sky, and shivered as a bitter wind swept over the narrow ledge outside the cave mouth. “If this is a good day for flying, I’d hate to see a bad one.”

“Ready?” asked the dragon, flexing his wings eagerly.

“Uh …” said Rupert.

“Then hold tight,” called the dragon, and running quickly forward, he threw himself off the ledge and fell like a stone. The wind whistled past them as they hurtled down, and Rupert squeezed his eyes shut. And then the breath was knocked from him as the dragon suddenly spread his wings, and with a series of bone-shuddering jolts, the fall quickly became a controlled glide. After a while, Rupert cautiously opened his eyes and peered past the dragon’s neck to take in the view. He then rather wished he hadn’t. The cultivated fields far below lay stretched out like a pastel-shaded patchwork quilt. The Forest lay to the North, with the Darkwood clearly visible, like a canker feeding on the body of which it was a part. Rupert swallowed with a suddenly dry mouth as the base of the mountain rushed up to meet him at harrowing speed. On the whole, he just might have preferred to walk down after all. The dragon’s massive wings beat strongly to either side of him, and then stretched to their full extent as the creature soared in to a slightly bumpy landing that jarred every bone in Rupert’s body. The dragon folded his wings and looked about him.

“There you are. Wasn’t that exciting?”

“Exciting,” said Rupert.

“Does you good to feel the wind rushing past you,” said the dragon. “Uh … you can let go of me and get down now, you know.”

“We’re getting used to the idea slowly,” said Julia. “My stomach still thinks it’s up in the clouds somewhere.”

She carefully unwrapped her arms from Rupert, and then the two of them helped each other down from the dragon’s back. The solid earth beneath their feet had never seemed so welcome or so comforting. The dragon had brought them to the start of the mountain trail, and Rupert looked around him. As he’d expected, there was no sign of the unicorn.

“Unicorn! If you’re not back here by the time I count ten I’ll turn you over to the Royal Zoo to give rides to children!”

“You wouldn’t dare!” said a shocked voice from behind a nearby outcropping of rock.

“Don’t put money on it,” Rupert growled.

There was a pause, and then the unicorn stuck his head out from behind the rock and smiled ingratiatingly. “Welcome back, Sire. Who are your friends?”

“This is the Princess Julia. I rescued her.”

“Ha!” said the Princess, loudly.

“And this is a dragon. He’s coming back with us to the Castle.”

The unicorn disappeared behind the rock again.

“Unicorn, either you come out or I’ll send the dragon after you. Even worse, I might send the Princess after you.”

Julia kicked him in the ankle. Rupert smiled determinedly, and vowed to do something unpleasant to the first minstrel he met singing of the joys of adventuring. The unicorn trotted reluctantly into view, halting a safe distance away from the dragon.

“Oh, you’ve decided to join us, have you?” asked Rupert.

“Only under protest.”

“He does everything under protest,” Rupert explained to the Princess.

“I heard that!” The unicorn stared unhappily at the dragon. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance that thing is a vegetarian?”

The dragon smiled. His pointed teeth gleamed brightly in the sunlight.

“I thought not,” said the unicorn.

* * * *

The Darkwood brooded before them, darkness enveloping rotting trees in a starless night that had never known a moon. The path Rupert had cut through the briar lay open before him, and he studied the narrow gap with horrid fascination, cold sweat beading his brow. Through all the many weeks it had taken him to reach Dragonslair mountain and return, he’d been unable to shake off the gut-deep fear the darkness had imposed on him. He shivered suddenly as the chill breeze drifting from the decaying trees brought to him the familiar stench of corruption. His hand dropped to his swordhilt as though searching for some kind of comfort, or courage. His breathing grew harsh and unsteady as the horror mounted within him.

Not again. Please, not again.

“The Darkwood,” said Princess Julia, her voice tinged with awe. “I thought it was just a legend, a tale to frighten children on dark nights. It smells like something died in there. Are you sure we have to pass through it to reach the Forest Kingdom?”

Rupert nodded briefly, afraid that if he tried to speak his voice would betray how much the mere sight of the darkness unnerved him. They had to pass through the Darkwood. There was no other way. But still he hesitated, standing stiffly beside the unicorn, unable to make the slightest move toward entering the long night that had tested his soul and found it wanting.

“I suppose I could fly you and Julia over,” said the dragon slowly, “But that would mean abandoning the unicorn.”

“No,” said Rupert immediately. “I won’t do that.”

“Thanks,” said the unicorn.

Rupert nodded curtly, his eyes fixed on the never-ending darkness.

“Come on,” said the Princess finally. “The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be out the other side.” She looked at Rupert expectantly.

“I can’t,” he said helplessly.

“What’s the matter?” snapped the Princess. “Afraid of the dark?”

“Yes,” said Rupert softly. “Oh yes.”

Julia stared at him in amazement, taking in his pale face and trembling hands.

“You’re kidding, right? You can’t be serious. Afraid of the dark?

“Shut up,” said the unicorn. “You don’t understand.”

“I think perhaps I do,” said the dragon. His great golden eyes studied the darkness warily. “The Darkwood was old when I was young, Julia. Legend claims it has always been here, and always will; darkness made manifest upon the earth. For any who dare to enter, there are dangers for both body and soul.” The dragon stared into the darkness a while, and then looked away uneasily. “What happened to you in the Darkwood, Rupert?”

Rupert struggled for words that could express the true horror of the darkness, but there were no words. He simply knew, beyond any shadow of doubt, that if he entered the Darkwood again he would die or go mad. With an effort that shook him, Rupert tore his gaze away from the darkness. He’d faced the Darkwood once; he could do it again. Rupert clung to the thought desperately. The long night had marked him, but it hadn’t broken him. Perhaps this time the journey would be easier to bear. He had food and water and companions. There was firewood for torches.

If I turn back now, I’ll always be afraid of the dark.

Rupert took a deep, shuddering breath and let it go.

“Rupert,” said the dragon, “What happened to you in the Darkwood?”

“Nothing,” said Rupert hoarsely. “Nothing at all. Let’s go.”

He urged the unicorn forward, but the animal hesitated, and looked back at him.

“Rupert; you don’t have to do this …”

“Move, damn you,” Rupert whispered, and the unicorn followed him silently into the Darkwood, Julia followed the unicorn, and the dragon brought up the rear, the needle-thorned briar rattling vainly against his armored hide.

Night slammed down as they crossed the Darkwood’s boundary, and Rupert bit his lip to keep from crying out as the darkness swept over him. The familiar country sounds of bird and beast and wind were gone, replaced by a still, sullen silence. Out in the dark, demons were watching. He couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there. All his instincts shrieked for him to light a torch, but he dared not. Light would attract the demons, and the surrounding briar made his party a sitting target. He hurried forward, wincing as thorns stung his outstretched hands. The trail seemed narrower than he remembered, but the briar finally fell away, and Rupert whispered for the party to stop a moment. He fumbled the tinderbox from his backpack, and after several false starts, he lit a single torch. The dancing flame seemed strangely subdued, as though the Darkwood begrudged even that much light within its domain. Decaying trees lined the narrow path, gnarled and misshapen. Their branches held no leaves, and gaping cracks revealed rotten hearts, but Rupert knew with horrid certainty that somehow they were still alive.

“Rupert …” said Julia.

“Later,” he said roughly. “Let’s go.”

The company moved slowly along the twisting trail in their little pool of light, heading into the heart of the darkness.

They hadn’t been moving long before the first demon found them. Crooked and malformed, it crouched at the edge of the torch’s light, watching from the shadows with blood-red eyes. Rupert drew his sword, and the demon disappeared silently back into the darkness.

“What the hell was that?” whispered Julia.

“Demon,” said Rupert shortly. The scars on his face throbbed with remembered pain. He handed Julia the torch and moved forward to stare about him. Faint shuffling sounds hovered on the edge of his hearing, and then, slowly, the torchlight showed him glimpses of twisted, misshapen creatures that crouched and scurried and slithered both before and behind the company. Glowing eyes stared unblinkingly from the shadows of the rotting trees. Rupert hefted his sword, but the cold steel had lost all power to comfort him.

“It’s not possible,” he said numbly. “Demons never hunt in packs. Everyone knows that.”

“Obviously these demons don’t,” said the dragon. “Now get back here, please. You’re a little too far from the rest of us for my liking.”

Rupert fell back to join the company. The demons pressed closer still.

“Why don’t they attack?” said Julia quietly.

“Don’t give them ideas,” muttered the unicorn. “Maybe they just can’t believe anyone would be stupid enough to walk into such an obvious trap. I can’t believe it and I’m doing it.”

“They’re afraid of the dragon,” said Rupert.

“How very sensible of them,” said the dragon.

Rupert tried to smile, but it felt more like a grimace. It took all his self-control not to strike out blindly at the gathering demons. Fear writhed in his gut and trembled in his arms, but he wouldn’t give in to it. Not yet. Unlike the darkness, the demons could be fought. He took a firm grip on his sword, and stepped forward. The demons faded back into the darkness and were gone. Julia sighed slowly in relief, and the torchlight was suddenly unsteady as she finally allowed her hands to shake. Rupert glared about him into the unresponsive darkness, angry that the demons had backed away from a confrontation, denying him the comfort and release of action. He slammed his sword back into its scabbard, and led the company on into the endless night.

Some time later they reached a small clearing, and stopped for a while, to get what rest they could before continuing. Julia built a fire in the middle of the clearing while Rupert set torches to mark the perimeter. The need for caution was past; it was clear the demons could find the party whenever they chose. Rupert lit the last torch and retreated quickly back to the blazing fire. The leaping flames threw back the dark, and the fire’s warmth eased the chill in his bones. Rupert frowned as he sank wearily down beside Julia; he didn’t remember the Darkwood being this cold on his first journey through. He didn’t remember this clearing, either. He shrugged, added another branch to the crackling fire, and pulled his cloak tightly about him. On the other side of the fire, the unicorn lay dozing in the shadows. The dragon was off in the dark somewhere, probably frightening demons. Rupert glanced covertly at Julia. The Princess sat huddled under the only spare blanket, shivering and holding out her hands to the dancing flames.

“Here,” said Rupert brusquely, taking off his cloak. “You’re cold.”

“So are you,” said Julia. “I’m all right.”

“You sure?”

“Really.”

Rupert didn’t press the point.

“How much longer before we get out of the Darkwood?” asked Julia, as Rupert refastened his cloak.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Time passes differently here. On my first trip it could have been days or weeks; you lose all track of time in the dark. At least this time we’ve food and water and firewood. That should make a difference.”

“You crossed the Darkwood without light or provisions?” Julia looked at Rupert with something like respect, and then looked quickly away. When she spoke again, her voice was carefully neutral. “What’s your Castle like, Rupert?”

“Old,” said Rupert, and smiled. “You’ll like it.”

“Will I?”

“Of course. Everyone’ll make you very welcome.”

“Why should they?” said Julia softly, staring into the fire. “I’m just another Princess without a dowry. Seven sisters stand between me and the throne, even assuming the elders would have me back. And they won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because …” Julia looked at him sternly. “You won’t laugh?”

“I promise.”

“I ran away. They wanted me to marry some Prince I’d never met, for political reasons. You know.”

“I know,” said Rupert. “Bloodlines.”

“So I ran away. I didn’t even reach the frontier. They already had seven Princesses, and they didn’t need an eighth, so they sent me to the dragon’s cave.” Julia glared into the fire. “My father signed the warrant. My own father.”

Rupert put a comforting hand on her arm, but she jerked away.

“Don’t worry,” he said lamely. “Everything’ll work out. I’ll find a way to get you home again.”

“I don’t want to go home; as far as they’re concerned I’m dead! And sometimes I wish I was!”

She jumped up and ran off into the darkness. Rupert got up to go after her.

“Don’t.”

Rupert looked round to find the dragon watching from the shadows. “Why not?”

“She doesn’t want you to see her crying,” said the dragon.

“Oh.” Rupert shuffled uncertainly, and then sat down again.

“She’ll be back in a while,” said the dragon, moving forward to squat beside him.

“Yes. I’d help her if I could.”

“Of course you would. Julia’s not a bad sort. For a human.”

Rupert almost smiled. “We all have our problems.”

“You, too?”

“Of course; why do you think I came on this damn quest?”

“Honor, glory, love of adventure?”

Rupert just looked at him.

“Sorry,” said the dragon.

“I’m a second son,” said Rupert. “I can’t inherit as long as my brother’s alive.”

“And you didn’t want to kill your own brother.” The dragon nodded understandingly.

Rupert snorted. “Can’t stand the fellow. But if I declare against him, the Forest Land would be split by civil war. That’s why my father sent me on this quest. You were supposed to kill me and rid him of a vexing problem.”

“Your own father sent you out to die?”

“Yes,” said Rupert softly. “My own father. Officially, it was a quest to prove me worthy to the throne, but everyone knew. Including me.”

“But then, why did you go through with it? You didn’t have to face me.”

“I’m a Prince of the Forest Kingdom,” said Rupert. “I’d given my word. Besides …”

“Yes?”

Rupert shrugged. “My family’s other major problem is money. We’re broke.”

“Broke? But you rule the country! How can you be broke?”

“The Land’s just had its second famine in a row, the Barons are refusing to pay taxes, and if our currency was any more debased you could use it as bottle caps.”

“Oh,” said the dragon.

“Right. Oh.”

“So bringing me back alive isn’t going to help you much.”

“Not really,” admitted the Prince. “Apart from the hoard you were supposed to have, dragon’s hide is worth a lot of money, you know. So are dragon’s teeth. And as for dragon’s …”

“I know what they’re worth, thank you,” said the dragon huffily. “I value them myself, rather.”

Rupert blushed and looked away. “Well, you see my problem.”

“I’ll think about it,” said the dragon.

“Will you two shut up and let me sleep,” muttered the unicorn blearily.

The Princess came back out of the darkness with slightly puffy eyes that nobody commented on, and settled herself by the fire.

“What were you two talking about?” she asked.

“It seems the Prince’s family is financially embarassed,” said the dragon.

“Broke,” said the unicorn.

“Maybe when this is over I should go on another quest,” Rupert said gloomily. “Look for a pot of gold at the Rainbow’s End.”

“If you do, you can walk,” said the unicorn.

“Rainbow’s End,” said the dragon slowly. “It’s not just a legend.”

“You mean it’s real?” asked Julia.

The dragon hesitated. “Sometimes.”

“How do I find it?” asked Rupert.

“You don’t; it finds you.” The dragon frowned, struggling for the right words. “Rainbow’s End is a state of mind as much as a place. If you reach it, you can find your heart’s desire, but that may not be what you think it is. There’s a spell …”

Everyone froze as a branch snapped somewhere out in the dark, and then they surged to their feet. Rupert drew his sword and Julia pulled a wicked-looking dagger from her boot. The unicorn pressed close beside the dragon, nervously pawing the ground. And then, one by one, the torches at the clearing’s perimeter guttered and went out, and darkness welled forward like a tide.

“They’ve found us again,” said Rupert.

A figure stepped into the clearing. Tall, spindly and corpse-pale, it squatted at the edge of the firelight, clawed hands twitching restlessly at its sides. Faintly glowing eyes stared unblinkingly from a broad toadlike head. As the company watched in horrified fascination, more demons crept forward out of the dark. Some walked on two legs, some on four, and some crawled on their bellies in the dirt. Firelight gleamed redly on claw and fang. No one creature was shaped like any other, but all had the mark of foulness on them, a darkness in the soul. Rupert raised his sword and moved forward, and the toad demon came to meet him, loping horribly fast across the uneven ground. Rupert dropped into his fighting stance, and then swayed aside at the last moment to let the demon rush by him. His sword swung out in a long arc and bit deeply into the creature’s back. Dark blood spurted, and the demon fell, writhing silently on the ground until the unicorn slammed down a well-placed hoof. The watching shapes melted back into the darkness.

“What are our chances?” muttered Julia.

“Not good,” Rupert admitted, swinging his sword back and forth before him. “There’s too many of them.”

“But we’ve got a dragon with us,” Julia protested. “Everyone knows dragons can’t be killed, except by heroes whose hearts are pure.”

“Legends,” said the dragon wearily. “I’m old, Julia. Older than you can imagine. My eyesight’s poor, my bones ache in the winter, and I haven’t breathed fire in years. Don’t even know if I still can. No, Julia; dragons die just as easily as any other creature.”

“Are you saying we’ve no chance at all?” asked Julia softly.

“There’s always a chance,” said Rupert, hefting his sword.

“Not that way,” said the dragon. “You’ll have to make the Rainbow Run.”

“What are you talking about?” snapped Rupert, eyes still fixed on the lurking shadows among the rotting trees.

“Rainbow’s End. I know a spell that will take you right to it. If you’re strong enough. Any man who can run down the Rainbow will find his heart’s desire; whatever that might be.”

“Try the spell,” said Julia. “I won’t let those things take me alive. I’ve heard stories.”

Rupert nodded grimly. He’d heard stories, too.

“Look out!” yelled Julia. Rupert howled his battle cry and swung his sword two-handed as demons burst from the Darkwood’s concealing shadows. His blade flashed in short, vicious arcs, slicing through his opponents like overripe wheat. Blood flew on the air, but the demons never made a sound, even when they died. The Darkwood silence was broken only by the stamp of feet on earth, and the chunk of Rupert’s blade as it bit into flesh. The dragon reared up to his full height and slammed into the demons, rending and tearing. The dead and the dying lay piled around him on the bloodied earth, and still they came. Julia drove her dagger into a demon’s bulging eye and kicked the twisting corpse aside. The unicorn moved quickly in to protect her, his hooves and horn already dripping gore. Rupert spun and danced, his sword tearing through flesh with murderous skill, but for every demon that fell another rose out of the dark to take its place. A growing ache burned in his arms and back, and every time he swung his sword it seemed a little heavier. Rupert didn’t give a damn. The bottled-up frustration of months on end found an outlet in his fury, and he grinned like a wolf as his sword rose and fell in steady butchery.

And then it was over. The demons melted back into the safety of the darkness, leaving their dead behind them. Rupert stared about him as he slowly lowered his sword, his harsh breathing aching in his chest. Blood and death lay scattered across the clearing, and as his anger ebbed away, Rupert felt tired and cold and just a little sick. He’d been taught the use of a sword, as befitted his station, but his newfound joy in killing disturbed him. To take pleasure in slaughter was the demon’s way. The blood dripping from his blade suddenly disgusted him, and he sheathed his sword without bothering to clean it. He swallowed dryly, and looked round to check how his companions had fared in the battle. The dragon seemed pretty much unscathed, though his claws and teeth gleamed with a fresh crimson sheen. The unicorn’s white coat was dappled with blood, little of it his own. Julia was cleaning her dagger in a businesslike way, but her hands were shaking. Rupert shook his head slowly. Without rage to keep him moving, fatigue left him weak and trembling, but already he could hear faint rustlings and stirrings in the dark beyond the clearing. He turned to the dragon.

“Use the damned spell,” he said gratingly. “Another rush like that, and they’ll roll right over us.”

The dragon nodded. “It’s all down to you, Rupert. First you’ll see a light in the distance, like a beacon, and then the Wild Magic will show you a path. Follow it. That’s the Rainbow Run. What you’ll find depends on you.”

Rupert stared out into the dark, and a voice deep inside him said, I can’t. It had been hard enough to go back into the Darkwood armed with light and friends, but to give them up and go off into the darkness on his own … Haven’t I done enough? I can’t go back into the dark! I’m afraid!

“Rupert?”

I’m afraid!

“Set the spell,” said Rupert.

“Get ready,” said the dragon. “I need a moment to prepare.”

Rupert nodded stiffly and moved away to join the unicorn.

“Look after the Princess for me, will you?”

“With my life,” promised the unicorn. “When there’s no other choice, I can be heroic, too, you know.”

“I never doubted it.” The Prince smiled.

The unicorn shuffled his feet uncertainly. “All in all, I’ve been on worse quests, Sire.”

“I hate to think what they must have been like.”

“Will you shut up,” said the unicorn affectionately. “And mind your back on the Rainbow Run. I’ve grown accustomed to having you around to gripe at.”

Rupert hugged the unicorn’s neck, and turned away to find Julia waiting for him. She offered him a handkerchief.

“A lady’s favor,” she said. “The hero always carries a lady’s favor.”

“I always wanted one,” said Rupert softly. He tucked the silk square inside his tattered leather jerkin. “I’ll bring it back safely.”

“Bring back some help, that’s the main thing.” She leaned forward suddenly and kissed him. “And come back safe yourself, or I’ll never forgive you.”

She hurried off into the shadows. The Prince raised a hand to his lips. There was one thing the minstrels hadn’t lied about. The dragon came forward.

“Are you ready?”

Rupert looked out into the darkness. I’m afraid. But I gave my word.

“Ready as I’ll ever be. You?”

The dragon nodded. “The spell is set.”

Rupert drew his sword, hefted it, and then handed it to the dragon. “Give this to Julia. It’ll only slow me down when I’m running.”

“Of course,” said the dragon.

“A light!” yelled the unicorn. Rupert whirled to look. A crimson glare showed deep in the Darkwood.

“That’s it!” cried the dragon, but Rupert was already off and running. He burst through the demons at the clearing’s edge and was gone before they could stop him. A trail formed before him in the darkness, seeming to glow and sparkle beneath his pounding feet. A demon leapt out of the dark to block his path, only to scream and fall back as light flared up from the trail to engulf it. Rupert shot a quick glance at the motionless body and ran on. Behind him he heard the first sounds of battle as the demon host fell on his companions. He forced himself to run faster. The Darkwood trees rushed past him. The path glowed bright against the dark. Breath burned in his lungs, ached in his chest, and a cold sweat ran down his sides as his arms pumped, but he was beyond pain, beyond fear, driven only by a desperate need to somehow save his friends. He didn’t know how long he’d been running, but the trail still shimmered ahead of him, and the beacon seemed to draw no nearer. It’s not how fast you run, a voice whispered inside him, It’s how badly you need it. Fatigue shivered through his aching legs, and he saw with horror that the path was slowly fading away. He drove himself even harder, crying aloud at the pain that stabbed through him, and then he tripped and fell headlong as the path guttered and went out.

I’m sorry, Julia, he thought despairingly as the dark washed over him. I so wanted to be a hero for you.

Light roared against the darkness. Rupert staggered to his feet as vivid hues cascaded down around him. His ears were full of the thunder of a mighty falls. Time seemed to slow and stop. Brilliant colors burned into Rupert’s eyes as he threw back his head and raised his hands to the glory of the Rainbow.

And then the Rainbow was gone, and the night was darker than before.

For a moment Rupert just stood there, entranced by the splendor of Rainbow’s End, and then slowly he lowered his head, and looked about him. Where the Rainbow had touched them, the gnarled and twisted trees were straight and true, and leaf-strewn branches framed a hole in the overhead canopy through which moonlight streamed, forming a pool of light around the Prince. And there before him on the ground lay a sword. Rupert stooped down and picked it up. It was an ordinary, everyday sword with sharp edges and a good balance. Rupert smiled bitterly as the darkness gathered around him. The treasure of Rainbow’s End … just another legend. From far off the sounds of fighting came to him, and Rupert turned to find the shimmering trail waiting to lead him back to his beleaguered friends. He hefted the sword once and then ran back through the Darkwood.

He burst back into the clearing, and for a moment all he could see was a mass of leaping, clawing demonkind. The dragon surged back and forth, firelight glowing ruddy on his flailing wings and tail. Blood streamed from his terrible teeth. Julia crouched behind the dragon, sword in hand, moving always to keep the fire between her and the demons. Her robe was soaked in blood. There was no sign of the unicorn. As Rupert hesitated at the clearing’s edge, a demon ducked under the dragon’s guard, knocked the Princess to the ground and stooped over her. Rupert screamed and ran forward. A demon leapt toward him. He cut it in two and ran on without pausing. More demons came to block his way. His sword seemed weightless in his hand, and demon blood fell to the ground like a ghastly dew.

He reached the demon’s side to find the Princess busily gutting the demon that had attacked her. She looked up as he joined her, and wiped at her face with a bloodied hand.

“Took your time, didn’t you?”

Rupert grinned, and they stood back-to-back, swords at the ready, as the demons came at them again. Julia wielded her sword with surprising skill, her face grim and determined. Rupert spun and danced, his sword licking out to kill and kill again, but he knew it was hopeless. The darting, leaping creatures swarmed out of the dark in seemingly endless numbers, and he was already exhausted. Eventually, they were bound to pull him down. The company’s only chance for survival had been the Rainbow Run, and he’d failed. Rupert gasped as demon claws raked across his rib cage. He cut the demon down, but he could feel blood running down his side in a thick stream. His head swam dizzily, but the pain kept him from fainting. More demons pressed forward, and Rupert knew he was no longer fast enough to stop them all. He silently cursed the missing unicorn to hell for his cowardice in deserting the party to their fate, and took a firm grip on his sword. He hoped it would be a quick death.

And then the dragon raised himself in all his ancient glory, and fire blazed on the night. Demons curled up and fell away like scorched leaves as the dragon’s flaming breath washed over them. Others fell to roll on the ground in silent agony before lying still. The dragon’s awesome head swayed back and forth, his fire scouring the clearing of demonkind, and then the flame flickered and went out.

In the last of the light, Rupert watched the survivors fall back to join others of their kind, waiting in the darkness beyond the clearing. More demons. There were always more demons. Rupert slowly lowered his sword and leaned on it. He dared not sit down for fear he’d never get to his feet again. His strength is as the strength often, because his heart is pure. Minstrels. Rupert sighed softly. Julia sat suddenly down beside him as her legs gave way. Her eyes were glazed with fatigue, but somehow she still found enough strength to hang onto her sword. Anger stirred in Rupert afresh as he realized not all the blood on Julia’s dress came from demons. He stared horrified as he took in the terrible extent of her injuries, and swore silently. If he hadn’t taken her from the dragon’s cave; if he hadn’t brought her into the Darkwood; if he hadn’t left her to go chasing after a legend … If. You’re a brave lass, Julia, Rupert thought wearily. You deserved better than me. He stared out into the darkness; looking at Julia hurt too much. He could hear the demons gathering. There seemed no end to their numbers. Rupert turned to the dragon, crouching exhausted by the fire. One wing hung limply, half torn away, and golden blood ran steadily down his heaving side. The dragon slowly raised his great head and studied the blood-spattered Prince.

“Did you reach the Rainbow’s End?”

“Yes,” said Rupert. “It was very beautiful.”

“What did you find there?”

“A sword. Just an ordinary sword.” Rupert couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice as threw the sword onto the ground before him. The dragon studied the sword, and then looked away.

“The Wild Magic is often … capricious.” He stared out into the darkness. “The demons are almost ready. One last attack, and it will all be over.”

“We can’t just give up,” Rupert protested. “We’ve beaten them off twice …”

“I’m hurt, Rupert,” the dragon said simply. “I’m too old for all this nonsense.”

Rupert shook his head, searching for some kind of anger to hold back his growing despair. “What happened to the unicorn?”

“He’s over there,” said the dragon.

Rupert followed the dragon’s gaze. Not a dozen feet from the fire, the unicorn lay stretched out and unmoving, half-hidden under a pile of demon bodies.

“Unicorn!” Rupert staggered over to his fallen steed and knelt beside him. The unicorn tried to raise his bloodied head, and couldn’t.

“Will you keep your voice down? My head hurts.”

Bloody rents crawled along the unicorn’s flanks, and his rib cage had been smashed in. His horn had been broken off at the base, leaving only a jagged stub.

“I’m sorry,” said Rupert. “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” said the unicorn. His voice broke, and he coughed a bloody foam.

Rupert started to cry.

“Stop that,” said the unicorn gruffly. “You should see the other guy. Did you find the Rainbow’s End?”

Rupert nodded, unable to speak.

“Well, how about that. Some quest, eh, lad? They’ll sing songs about us forever.”

“And get it all wrong,” said Rupert.

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said the unicorn. “I think I’ll take a little rest now, lad. I’m tired.”

“Unicorn?”

“I’m so tired.”

Unicorn!

After a while, Julia came and crouched beside him.

“He lost his horn for me,” said Rupert bitterly. “What did I ever do for him, except lead him into danger?”

“He was your friend,” said Julia, gently.

She couldn’t have hurt him more if she’d tried.

“Rupert!” cried the dragon. “Demons!”

“I brought your sword,” said Julia as they rose painfully to their feet, and she offered Rupert the sword he’d found at Rainbow’s End. Rupert glared at the sword, and felt a slow, steady rage burn within him. All around him he could see demons spilling into the clearing, bringing the darkness with them. Firelight gleamed on fang and claw. The dragon stood ready to meet them, crippled but undefeated. Julia stood before him, bloodied but unbowed, waiting for him to take his sword and fight at her side. And the unicorn lay dying at his feet.

He was your friend.

Rupert reached out and took the sword. Anger and sorrow surged through him as he realized there was nothing left for him to do except die bravely, and take as many of his enemies with him as he could. He raised the sword above his head, and then all his rage, all his anguish, all his determination seemed to flow up into the blade and out, out into the long night and beyond, like a great shout of defiance against the dark. Light burst from the blade, filling the clearing. The demons cowered and fell back, and then turned to flee as, with the thunder of a mighty falls, the Rainbow slammed down into the Darkwood.

Time seemed to slow and stop. Brilliant colors scorched back the night, scything through the demonkind, who fell to the blood-soaked ground and did not rise again. And still the shimmering light poured over them, until their misshapen forms melted and flowed into the broken earth and were gone. And then the Rainbow was gone, and once again night held sway over the Darkwood.

In the sudden silence, the crackling of the campfire seemed very loud. Moonlight filled the clearing, falling through a wide hole in the overhead canopy, and the surrounding trees stood straight and whole where the Rainbow’s light had touched them. Rupert slowly lowered the sword and studied it, but it was just a sword again. Well, he thought finally, it seems some legends are true

“Can anyone explain to me why I’m not dead?” asked the unicorn.

“Unicorn!” Rupert turned quickly to find the animal climbing shakily to his feet. His wounds had healed, leaving only faint scars, and blood no longer ran from his mouth and nostrils. Rupert gaped at the unicorn, and then quickly checked his own wounds. He had an interesting collection of scars, but he didn’t hurt any more. He felt great.

“I’m fine, too,” said an amused voice behind him, and before Rupert could turn round, Julia gave him one of her best bear hugs to prove it. She put an arm across his shoulders while he got his breath back, and then ran over to hug the dragon, who was flexing his healed wing experimentally.

“Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?” demanded the unicorn.

“I called down a Rainbow and saved your life,” said Rupert, grinning from ear to ear.

“Ah,” said the unicorn. “I always knew you’d come in handy for something.”

Rupert laughed, and carefully sheathed the rainbow sword. Joy bubbled up in him like water from a long-forgotten well. And then his laughter died slowly away as he studied the unicorn more carefully.

“What’s the matter?” asked the animal, frowning.

“There’s something different about you,” said the Prince thoughtfully.

“I feel fine,” said the unicorn, twisting his head round to study himself as best he could.

“Oh dear,” said Rupert, as he finally realized.

What is it?

“Uh,” said Rupert, searching frantically for a tactful way to approach the subject.

“Hey,” said Julia, as she and the dragon came over to join them, “what’s happened to the unicorn’s horn?”

“My what?” The unicorn went practically cross-eyed trying to find it, but all that remained was a nub of bone in the center of his forehead.

“The demons broke it off when you were injured,” Rupert explained. “Apparently the Rainbow only heals wounds; it doesn’t regrow things you’ve lost.”

“My horn!” shrieked the unicorn. “Everyone’ll think I’m a horse!

“Never in a million years,” Rupert assured him.

“In the meantime,” said the dragon, “May I suggest we get the hell out of here? We’re a long way from the Darkwood’s boundary, and no doubt there are still demons to be found in the dark.”

“Right,” said Julia, “The nightmare’s over, but the night goes on forever.”

“Not forever,” said Rupert softly, and his hand dropped to the pommel of the rainbow sword. “Every night comes to an end eventually.”