Seven - The Lady's Quest

"When his teeth were bared, though, I really got scared. / Well, excited and scared."
I Know Things Now (Into The Woods) – Stephen Sondheim

-X-

Alice was so very hungry and thirsty. The peach was the best thing that she had ever tasted. Somehow, though, she could only take a few bites before she realised how tired she was. Too tired to stand. Too tired to worry about the time, or the Castle, or even Michael. She sat down heavily on one of the little goblin chairs, and the half-eaten peach rolled out of her limp hand…

-X-

Once, and not so long ago, there was a king called Tobias. He had a sensible little kingdom, a son and an adopted daughter. And some rather old-fashioned ideas. He thought that a country should be wisely ruled, that a prince should be strong and brave, that a princess should be modest and obedient and beautiful. Only the first of his ideas could be described as having come off. His country was wisely ruled.

King Tobias looked disapprovingly down at his charge. "Really, Alicia," he said, "you will never find yourself a husband if you continue to run about the Court dressed like a ragamuffin. Your mother despairs of your ever becoming a proper young lady."

Young Princess Alicia tossed her filthy curls. "I don't want to be a proper young lady," she declared. "I want to be a knight, like my brother. I want to ride off and have adventures."

"Better you than me," her brother said. Miguel was lounging on some cushions near the fire and showed no inclination to ride off anywhere.

Alicia cast him a scathing glance. "You're so boring," she said.

"I'd rather be boring than dirty and bruised and scruffy-looking," Miguel returned.

"I am not scruffy-looking. This is entirely practical attire for a quest. Who knows? Any minute, dragons might attack and it would be every person's duty to ride out and defend the land against them. Which reminds me, can I borrow your practise sword?"

"Dragons, my foot! There are no such things as dragons. And no, you can't."

"But you never use it. At least I'd be ready if dragons did attack and it would…"

"It would be every man's duty to defend the land," King Tobias said. "Alicia, you have the heart of a knight but it resides in the body of a young lady. The only quest that you're going on now is up to your rooms and into a bath. Your mother and I have guests coming for dinner, and I would like to show them a daughter, not a squire."

After their father had gone, Alicia flung herself down onto the cushions beside her brother. "It's not fair," she grumbled. "They'll probably ask me to do embroidery next or something."

"At least take off your muddy boots," Miguel said. Seeing his sister's crestfallen expression, he softened slightly and gave her a hug, which was well meant but rather ineffective due to him trying to avoid the dirty parts. "Look, Alicia, you're going to have to face facts. You're a girl. Girls do stuff like embroidery and boys have to do stuff like sword practise and archery and horse riding…"

"It sounds wonderful," Alicia said. "I don't know what you're complaining about."

"I think we were born in the wrong bodies," Miguel decided. "You would make a fine prince, riding around and defending the kingdom, whereas I would like nothing better than to sit indoors, wear nice clothes and have someone look after me."

"If only father would let me go on just one quest," said Alicia wistfully. "Just one little quest. And then I'd try to be a proper lady."

"Maybe when you're married, your husband will take you on a quest with him."

Alicia gave her brother a disgusted look.

"It's got to happen some time, and you know it. Now you'd better run off and make yourself as pretty as possible. If there's any chance of father letting you go off on a quest, you'll have to keep on his good side."

"Oh I suppose so," grumbled the princess, and dragged herself upstairs.

-X-

"So you see," said King Tobias's friend, "that we are quite at our wits' end. "Many of my bravest knights have been lost over the past year, if not to the dragon then to the Sorceress of Words. I'm really not sure which is worse, to be honest. I suppose at least there's a chance that those whom the Sorceress has taken may still be alive. The dragon is much more straightforward."

"He eats them?" gasped Alicia, leaning forward over the table and putting one satin-clad elbow into the butter dish in her excitement. Miguel went pale and pushed his unfinished dinner aside.

"Oh good grief, no," said the Count. "He burns them to a crisp with his fiery breath, young lady."

The King gave his friend a disapproving glare. "Really, you shouldn't encourage her gruesome imagination," he said. "I am trying to find her a suitable husband and no respectable young man would be interested in a gore-obsessed little hellion."

"Oh, of course," said the Count, but he gave Alicia a wink when the King turned to summon a page for the next course.

"Speaking of respectable young men," King Tobias said, "I expected to see your son with you today."

The Count's merry expression melted away. He suddenly looked very old. "I sent him on a quest," he said, "to negotiate with the Sorceress of Words. He never returned."

"Never returned?" said Miguel. "But Jacob is my best friend." He had only wondered idly where his friend had been tonight, but had assumed that Jacob had chosen to stay at home. The weather had been rather unpleasant of late and, given the choice, surely any sensible youth would chose to stay in front of a warm fire than to go gallivanting about the kingdom.

"I'm sorry, lad," said the Count.

"Why would Jacob go on a quest anyway?" said Miguel.

"Why?" asked Alicia. "For duty, for honour, for the sense of adventure!" Her eyes shone as she brandished a table-knife. "To slay dragons, to defeat witches!"

Her brother gave her a stern look. "To vanish and to never be seen again, Alicia."

"Be quiet, both of you," scolded the King. "Is there any hope?" he asked the Count.

"We have had word that the Sorceress of Words may be willing to negotiate," said the Count, "but it would require a brave knight indeed to go out into the Forbidden Forest and seek her out. There's the dragon to contend with as well."

Miguel stood up suddenly, his look of determination at war with his shaking knees. "I will go after Jacob," he said.

"I could never ask that of you," said the Count.

"You are not asking it," said Miguel. "Father, you have always wanted me to go on a quest and I have always said that I could not imagine anything worse. I still can't, but Jacob is my best friend and I would never forgive myself if I didn't try. I will set out within the hour!"

King Tobias was troubled. "I do want you to go on a quest, son," he said quietly, "but not one such as this. You heard what the Count said. Many of his best knights have been lost to these twin perils. I could not let you risk yourself alone in the…"

"I'll go with him!" Alicia said, leaping up from her seat and stumbling over her long dress. "Just let me change first."

"Don't be ridiculous, Alicia," said Miguel and the King in unison.

"No," the King added. "No one is going on a quest tonight. Old friend, stay the night. In the morning we will all discuss what must be done about Jacob."

-X-

"It just isn't fair," moaned Alicia as she and Miguel made their way up the stairs.

"No, it isn't," said Miguel. "Look, Alicia, I know you really want to go out and fight but this isn't an adventure. People have been killed. Promise me you won't do anything foolish."

Alicia stopped on the stairwell. "You think I'm foolish?" she said, crestfallen.

"Of course not," said Miguel, putting an arm around her. "But I do think that you do some foolish things when your head is full of the excitement of it all. And even though we argue, you're still my sister. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you."

Alicia hugged him back. "I know it's dangerous," she said. "It just seems so stupid that you don't want to go out and fight, and I do, but we both have to do the things we don't want to do. I don't want anything to happen to you either. I'm better with a sword than you."

"If I could chose anyone to fight by my side, I'd chose you," said Miguel. "But, sadly, you do happen to be a girl."

"I know," Alicia said, tugging at her acres of skirts in disgust. "I promise I won't go running out on some foolish quest right this minute, all right?"

"Wonderful," said Miguel.

-X-

It occurred to Alicia the moment she woke up that she had never extracted from her brother the same promise that she had made him. And, seconds later, she realised that something was terribly, terribly wrong. Usually, her maid woke her with hot chocolate in bed. Today, her suite of rooms was eerily quiet. She pulled on her robe and ran barefoot down the stairs. In the hall, she ran full tilt into the Count, who was so distracted that he failed to notice or comment on the fact that his host's ward was running about the castle in a state of partial undress, unshod and with her hair in complete disarray, very much unlike the proper appearance of the previous night.

"Ah, lady Alicia," he murmured. "You should really, um…"

"It's Miguel, isn't it?" Alicia demanded, grabbing at his arm before he could wander off.

"Young lady, you should… um, well…"

"It is. He's gone running off after Jacob, hasn't he?"

"Alicia, I am so sorry, I…"

"Where is he? Which direction did he go? Where does the Sorceress live? What hour did he leave?" Alicia was becoming quite hysterical, her questions tumbling one after the other until she was out of breath.

"Alicia!" King Tobias said from behind her. She turned, suddenly aware of her appearance. Surely she would be punished for her conduct. But the King merely gathered her into his arms. "Thank goodness you at least are safe," he said. "I always thought it would be you who did something like this."

"What happened?" Alicia said.

"Last night, Miguel took Armchair and his sword, and rode out in the direction of the Forbidden Forest," said the King. Armchair was technically Alicia's horse, but Miguel preferred him to any other in the stable. Alicia had named him because he was so comfortable and dull to sit on. "We can only assume that he has gone to find the Sorceress of Words, and negotiate for Jacob's release."

"He made me promise…" said Alicia in a small voice. "When he comes back safe and sound, I'm going to kill him."

The King took a shaky breath. "My dear, your brother… We found Armchair this morning, wandering about along the edge of the wood."

"But Miguel…" said Alicia. "You found him too. He's hurt but he'll be fine, right?"

"We did not find him," said the King, and turned away before she could see the tears in his eyes.

Alicia ran from the hall, her mind going in six different directions at once. She was angry with Miguel for going out on a quest without her, especially when he had told her to stay at home. She was terrified and upset that her brother might be hurt. Her heart pounded unpleasantly in her chest. Miguel had been taken, she hoped by the Sorceress. Alicia wouldn't even entertain the thought that he might have encountered the dragon. Many of the Count's best knights had vanished or been killed. The King would probably send his own bravest in search of his son, but there was no guarantee any of them would be successful and, besides, it would take time to muster a party like that. Time that Miguel and Jacob did not have.

But it would take no time at all for a rather unladylike young lady to change into her brother's old trousers, borrow his practise armour and sword and liberate some provisions from the kitchens while everyone was distracted...

In fact, it took a little under half an hour. Saddling a horse took a little more time. Poor Armchair was keen to go back out, but Alicia rejected him for the faster and more troublesome Stardust. She had only once before ridden that horse, on a bet with the stable boy. It had taken three weeks for the bruises to fade after she had misjudged quite how high he would jump over the fence. Biting her lip, she clung to the reins as they raced from the stable. They could not go out of the front gate, so would have to risk the fence again. This time, though, determination finally gave Alicia a little grace and she managed to stay mounted. She badly wanted to turn around and say goodbye to the castle, but was afraid that she would lose her nerve. All of a sudden, this quest was horribly real.

It was easy to follow the route that Miguel had taken. The ground was churned into mud by the hooves of the search party this morning. Keeping an eye out lest any riders should still be out, Alicia steered Stardust in the direction of the Forbidden Forest. It loomed, dark and menacing, against the hills. Just as Alicia thought that she would be able to reach it without being caught, she heard a thunder of hooves coming towards her. There was only one place that she could hide. Alicia yanked hard on the reins and dug her heels into Stardust's side. The horse veered sharply and raced into the ravine where the dragon was rumoured to live.

-X-

Really, it wasn't too bad in here, Alicia thought. Yes, the ravine sides were steep and blocked out a lot of light but it wasn't like the Forbidden Forest where you felt as though creatures were watching your every move. This was just a little chilly. And empty. Very empty, actually. It was almost as if there wasn't a single bird or animal in the ravine at all.

As if they had all been burned to a crisp, in fact.

"I'm not scared," Alicia muttered to herself. "I'm just excited about the quest."

"Of course you are," said a smooth voice from behind her. Alicia screamed and Stardust shied violently. Alicia stayed on only by clinging to the saddle with both hands. A real knight wouldn't have dropped the reins, she scolded herself, and he would have drawn his sword. When she managed to turn Stardust, however, she forgot all about her sword.

"How dull, another baby knight," said the dragon.

He was beautiful, Alicia noticed distractedly. Although large enough to eat her in a couple of bites, he didn't seem ungainly in the way that the massive carthorses were. Instead he was sleek and powerful, a thousand shades of sapphire blue scales shimmering in the filtered light, intelligent golden eyes sizing up his tiny adversary. Almost as though he was doing it for theatrical effect, the dragon opened his mouth and ran a lazy tongue across an impressive row of very sharp-looking teeth.

"I'm not a baby knight," Alicia said. "I'm a… well, I'm not precisely a knight at all."

The dragon's eyes widened. "They can't have run out of knights already," he said. "What are you, a squire?"

"Um no, I'm not a squire either."

"A servant?" rumbled the dragon, and there was rising fury in his tone.

"I am most certainly not!" said Alicia angrily. She wrenched off her helmet. "I happen to be the princess of this kingdom, thank you very much."

"Princess, eh?" said the dragon. He reached toward her. His claws gleamed.

I'm going to die now, thought Alicia, but the dragon merely touched her shield, her sword and her rather tangled curls with a massive, lethal claw. Alicia was quite impressed that she managed not to faint. Beneath her, Stardust trembled but was too frightened even to run.

"A little warrior princess," said the dragon. Maybe she was fooling herself, but Alicia thought that she could hear amusement in his voice.

"Did you eat my brother?" she managed finally.

"Eat your brother? I doubt it. If he was your size, he wouldn't have been worth the effort," said the dragon.

"How about burning him? Did you burn him?" Now that she wasn't dead yet, Alicia could feel her courage returning a tiny bit.

"Burn him? You mean like this?" The dragon took a massive breath, and Alicia's newly-returned bravery drained away. The blast of heat which passed her felt as though it would fry away every hair on her head. A group of sad-looking bushes had a brief moment of orange glory and then were ash.

"Yes," said Alicia, in a tiny, meek voice which would astonish anyone who had ever met her. "Like that."

"Little warrior princess, I haven't burned anyone," said the dragon. "The Sorceress of Words started to destroy people with her magic and blamed me so that the knights would try to slay me. She is afraid of me and my power, and she wants me dead."

Alicia stared at the dragon's jewel-bright scales, and the thought that anyone would lie to the kingdom in order to get this beautiful creature killed made her sad and furious all at once. "That's so mean," she said. "Why don't you just find her and eat her?"

"Alas," said the dragon, sorrow in his voice, "I cannot confront the Sorceress. It is said that no man or beast may destroy her. That is why all of the knights have also failed."

"But I'm not a man or a beast," said Alicia. "I'm only a girl."

"So you are," said the dragon, and smiled. "Maybe you are the one who can defeat her. It will still be very dangerous, though."

"I have to go," said Alicia. "She has my brother and I'm on a quest to rescue him."

"Well then," said the dragon, "I will go with you, and make sure that you come to no harm on the way."

The problem was that Stardust wouldn't go anywhere with the dragon. He rolled his eyes and put his ears back, remaining stubbornly and uncharacteristically still no matter how much Alicia dug her heels into his sides and pulled on the reins.

"Come on, stupid horse," said Alicia.

The dragon paced back towards her. Stardust moved suddenly, but in completely the wrong direction, causing Alicia to drop the reins again. Something that sounded suspiciously like laughter rumbled from the dragon.

"You're not helping," said Alicia, forgetting to be scared because she was so annoyed.

"I know that every knight requires a steed, but you are wasting time," said the dragon.

"He's scared of you," said Alicia. She should be scared too. The dragon was still enormous and very powerful; he still had huge, sharp teeth and long, sharp claws; he could still reduce her to ashes. It was almost as though he had cast a spell on her.

"There is another solution," said the dragon thoughtfully, "but it would require a great deal of courage from you and you must trust me with your life."

Alicia gave him a long look. "More courage and trust than sitting here and believing you won't eat me, you mean?"

This time, there was no question. The dragon threw back his magnificent head and roared with laughter. Stardust bolted suddenly and Alicia, who had been leanimg forward to grab at his reins, was thrown to the ground. She could only watch in dismay as her mount tore off down the ravine. When he was found frightened and riderless, Alicia realised with a sick feeling, her family would assume that she had met the same fate as her brother and Jacob.

"I apologise," said the dragon.

Alicia was no expert but she didn't think he sounded or looked sorry at all. She scrambled to her feet, managing not to get tangled in her sword belt. "I suppose I don't have any choice now," she said. "And you haven't eaten me so far so I can probably trust you."

"Very generous," said the dragon. He padded over to Alicia and stretched out his neck so that his head was almost on the ground. "Come on then."

Alicia froze. "You want me to ride on your back?" she said incredulously. The thought was terrifying and wonderful in equal measure.

The dragon bared his teeth in another worrying grin. "You could ride in my mouth if you like," he said.

"Oh very amusing," muttered Alicia. With far less grace and elegance than either her royal status or the dragon's majestic bearing demanded, she scrambled up one glistening shoulder and managed to perch between the folded wings. The midnight blue scales on the dragon's back were as big as the palm of Alicia's hand and diamond-hard but smooth to the touch. She found herself tracing one idly with a fingertip and wishing she was a fraction as beautiful. The dragon twisted his head around, jolting her out of her reverie.

"Do not worry, little warrior princess," he said. "I will not let you fall."

Alicia stared into the big golden eyes and felt as though she was falling already. "I'm not scared at all," she murmured and, in that instant, it was true.

A moment later, the dragon sprang into the air, massive wings unfolding at the apex of the leap, and Alicia was more afraid than she had ever been in her life. Stardust's swift power was a sedate carthorse plod compared to the dragon. In seconds, the rocky floor of the ravine was far behind and the sprawl of the Forbidden Forest began to unfurl below them. Alicia's blinked tears from her eyes as the wind buffeted her face. She didn't dare loose a hand to wipe them away, instead leaning closer over the dragon so her face was almost touching his back. Warmth wrapped around her, soothing her fear. She closed her eyes and let her cheek rest against the smooth scales.

And she could see the world streaming below her again.

Alicia gasped and bolted upright, almost losing her balance. Her eyes had been closed and her face hidden by beating wings. How could she see anything? Very slowly, her heart beating hard, she leaned forward again.

Ah, there you are, said the dragon in her head.

"Am I seeing because of you?" Alicia whispered.

To some extent. You cannot see exactly as I do.

"Is it magic?"

The dragon chuckled. Princess, I am a magical being. Of course it is magic. Now, did I tell you not to be afraid?

"Yes, but…"

Then do not be afraid. Very few humans have ever ridden a dragon. Your quest is great indeed.

Alicia lay still. All her life, she had wanted to go on a quest. She had imagined riding out to fight foes, wielding her sword better than any of the King's knights, facing overpowering odds yet managing somehow to win through. This was nothing like her fantasies. It was far more horrible. Her brother was missing, maybe even dead. Nobody in the castle had any idea where she was, but they would probably guess the worst. She had to fight the Sorceress of Words when she was, after all, only a young, distinctly un-magical girl.

Yet this was better than any of her fantasies too. She could never have dreamed that she would fly on a dragon's back. His power and confidence seemed to flow into her veins. Maybe she could defeat the Sorceress. The dragon had called her 'warrior princess'. He had faith that Alicia was more than any of the knights that had gone before her. When Alicia had beaten the Sorceress, she must come back to the castle and tell everyone about how the dragon had helped her save Miguel and Jacob. Everyone in the kingdom should know the truth about the dragon. Really, the Sorceress deserved to be slain for what she had done. How could everyone have believed her?

She has been my enemy for a very long time, the dragon said, almost as if Alicia had asked the question aloud. She has always sought my power. Because she is not a truly magical being, she must work hard and suffer to do magic that comes naturally to me. She believes that, if she defeats me, she can steal my magic but she is wrong.

"But if she's not properly magical, why can't you just eat her or burn her up?"

I should have done so, years ago. When she was a mere girl, testing her wings with simple charms and illusions, I showed her great generosity and guided her. Yet she threw it back in my face, tried to take everything from me. By the time I realised what she was, she had managed to build up a powerful spell of protection against me and any who might help me.

"No man or beast," Alicia said.

In her arrogance, the Sorceress never imagined that another young woman could be as strong as she is. As you are. She believes that her only threat was from me or from one of those knights who keep trying to fight her.

"Typical!" Alicia said. "Everyone keeps telling me I should be a proper lady and do stupid embroidery. I'll show her!"

I am sure that you will, the dragon said.

-X-

It would have taken Alicia hours, perhaps even days, to pick her way through the Forbidden Forest on Stardust's back but the sun had barely moved in the sky before the trees disappeared and the dragon was descending towards a shining black fortress surrounded by barren fields. Even if Alicia had not been riding an enormous blue dragon, she could not have approached the fortress unseen. Surely the Sorceress could just strike them down at her leisure.

She cannot harm me directly any more than I can harm her, said the dragon. And she probably cannot see you at all just yet. Had you been alone on your horse, however…

Through the dragon's eyes, Alicia saw a charred pile of armour. She felt sick. Had that been Jacob's fate, or Miguel's?

The dragon landed lightly beside the fortress and Alicia slid from his back, her limbs aching. She stayed close to the dragon as they walked up to the massive gateway.

"It's just open," she said. "Is this a trap?"

"Undoubtedly," said the dragon. He stopped, gazing up at the glossy black wall, then stretched out his neck and roared.

Alicia put her hands over her ears but did not move from his side. High above the gateway, she thought she saw a flicker of movement at one of the windows but it came and went too quickly to be sure.

"Come on," said the dragon, "And remember, you are a warrior."

They passed through the gateway, the dragon folding his wings tight. After the brightness of the sun, Alicia could barely see anything. She squinted into the darkness, keeping a hand on the dragon's neck so she did not stumble. "Miguel?" she whispered, although it was probably too much to hope that he might be found straight away.

"You think it would be so easy?" The voice seemed to come from the walls, echoing in the empty space.

"You're the Sorceress of Words?" Alicia said. She flattened her palm against the dragon's scales, reminding herself that she had faced him in all of his terrible beauty. She could be a worthy adversary.

"And you are a princess who wishes to be a knight who travels with a knight's mortal enemy."

"He's not like that!" Alicia said hotly. "You told all of those lies…"

Bitter laughter rang around the chamber. "Oh yes, I am the Sorceress of Words so I spin tall tales. Has it never occurred to you, child, that the dragon would tell you anything to turn you against me?"

"But he…" Alicia began. The Sorceress was right. She had taken all of his words as truth but why had she done that?

"I am not the one holding captives and destroying knights," said the dragon. "I have come to safeguard this girl against your treachery."

"Treachery? You know all about treachery, lying snake. The princess needs no protection against me."

Alicia stepped away from the dragon as her eyes began to adjust to the low light. She felt very small, caught in this hostility between two such powerful beings. All she wanted to do was find Miguel and get home safely.

"Please, Sorceress, I just want to find my brother," she said.

"And you will not attempt to slay me at the dragon's request? I find that hard to believe. Still, I should always give a valiant knight a chance against me."

The chamber flooded with light and suddenly, Alicia saw Miguel in front of her. With a cry of joy, she ran towards him, hand outstretched. But, at the moment when her fingers should have touched his, he vanished.

"That's not fair!" Alicia said. She spun around and saw her brother again. A movement of her head and there was another image of Miguel, and another. In one image, the dragon stood, golden eyes blazing rage. Before Alicia knew what was going on, the chamber was filled with countless copies of Miguel, of the dragon and, finally, of a slender woman with cool green eyes and black hair that tumbled to her waist. The Sorceress of Words.

"They say I create artifice from language," she said. "Yet I have other ways as well."

Alicia started to move towards her and stumbled as the image wavered. This was not a single chamber of slick black stone. It was a maze made up of scores of mirrors and planes of glass set at impossible angles to each other. When Alicia had let go of the dragon, she had somehow become lost. Or perhaps the maze had not been there until that moment. She stared helplessly at the Sorceress.

"You know what you must do," said the Sorceress. "A hundred copies…" She disappeared with a wave of her hands. "…but one original," another image continued.

"I need to find Miguel," Alicia said.

"No one ends a quest without defeating an enemy," said the Sorceress. "I have told a thousand thousand tales and that one is eternal."

A flash of blue caught Alicia's eyes and she turned to see the dragon stalking across one mirrored surface. "That much is true, little warrior," he said. "Do you think you will get out of this maze if you leave the Sorceress untouched?"

Alicia took a hesitant step and bumped against glass. Behind her, she heard someone chuckle softly. It could have been the Sorceress or the dragon. She could not be sure of anything any more. Miguel, she told herself. She had to remember what was important. Alicia placed one hand against the smooth surface and drew her sword with the other. She had chosen this quest or it had chosen her. Either way, she had to defeat the maze or she and Miguel were both lost. Slowly, she edged forward, trying to keep her eyes on an image of her brother. Her wavering sword tip chimed softly as it met another mirror. Alicia turned. Another dead end. She turned again.

She was caught in a circle of glass. In front of her, the Sorceress approached, endless reflections spreading out to either side.

"Will you slay me now?" she asked, her hands spread wide. "But what if this is not the real me?"

"She is trying to trick you. You know she will never let you leave," came the dragon's voice. Sapphire blue spilled from one mirror into the next until the dragon was standing beside the Sorceress, his images overlapping hers, dragon and woman repeated over and over again until they completed the circle and seemed to bleed into each other. Alicia swayed dizzily. Out of the corner of her eye, one of the Sorceress's mirror images seemed to be laughing at her.

Then, from nowhere, Miguel was between the two enemies, sprawled inelegantly on the glossy black floor. Alicia reached towards him but he was secure behind the glass wall. This was the real version of her brother, she was sure, but how could she get to him?

"You know what you have to do," said the dragon.

"You know what he wants you to do," said the Sorceress.

Alicia's sword shook in her hand. "Is he still alive?" she asked.

"Of course," the Sorceress said and one of her images bent down toward Miguel. One image. The only one. The true one.

There! said the dragon's voice in Alicia's mind. Strike!

Alicia turned towards the image, her sword aimed at the Sorceress's heart. The Sorceress raised her head and stared into Alicia's eyes. Her serene, pale face was full of sorrow but not a trace of fear. "Please," she said softly. Alicia glanced over her shoulder and saw triumph blaze in a single copy of the dragon's golden eyes.

Sobbing, the Princess Alicia whirled and drove her sword through the dragon's true image.


Author's Note: The title and first paragraph (more or less) are from the short story by Nicholas Stuart Gray, as are a lot of the concepts in this chapter. The princess in that tale is called Alexa. It's a brilliant story and I have it in the collection "Mainly In Moonlight". There isn't a dragon in his story but, for obvious reasons, there had to be one in mine.

Thanks to white raven for the beta job. You rock!

NOTE TO ALL READERS: There is now a poll up on my page regarding Sarah's eventual fate. Should she be Changed or not? What do you think? This isn't a "choose your own adventure" moment – I'm just curious and I reserve the right to decide that you're all wrong and I'm doing my own thing anyway. evil chuckle

And also, thank you for continuing to read the story despite my erratic posting. Thank you so much to those who have reviewed or added it (or me) to your alert lists. It is very much appreciated. Now to answer a few questions…

Subtilior – stalking is the sincerest form of flattery. Or something. In answer to your questions – no, Alice is not Sarah's daughter. She is genuinely just her half-step-niece, but Sarah loves her deeply. There is, however, a reason why Jareth said what he did and it will be explained. As for the 'getting it on', I say again "mwahahahaaaa!". Oh and also – you were dead wrong about the peach dream!

Anij – Firstly, thanks for reviewing so comprehensively. And now… 1. I agree with you about the emo-Jareth although I have seen variations of that done very well. But I definitely wanted a Jareth who was so totally over Sarah that he'd not given her a thought in years. 2. "Oh Sarah, you didn't…" Sorry, but Sarah very well may have done. 3. Kitchen maid? Hah! In her dreams! She may yet end up as one, however. 4. I love writing Alice but keeping in the six-year-old mindset can be tricky. 5. I also love my Oubliette. Jareth knows everything about Kip's past, including her human past. As for Sarah and Kip's similarities – they may be Jareth's downfall. Mwahahahaaaaaa! 6. Fidget is basically a child so her (yes, she's a girl) act of giving Alice the peach wasn't malicious or even the albeit forced underhandedness of Hoggle's gesture. She just found the peach that someone conveniently left in the house and thought her new friend might like it.

AFY – it's a lot easier making Sarah 37 because she's only a little older than me. It was also necessary in order for Toby to have grown up and got married. But I have absolutely no regrets about it. There are features in my older Sarah that I feel wouldn't have been there in her ten years younger.

Helena Darjeeling – don't worry, I'll separate Kip and Sarah at some point, if for no other reason than the dialogue is driving me insane. Sarah in this story is not 35-year-old Jennifer. Obviously, there's some stuff in common but imagine Jennifer as a slightly bitter writer as opposed to a successful movie star. She's a little heavier, less physically fit, maybe the odd frown line or grey hair. Not to say that she's not beautiful in her own way. But she's normal middle-aged-woman beautiful, if that makes any sense.

violetmadame – if you want a non-elvish Jareth, I'd suggest looking at subtilior's stuff because he's definitely not Elvish there. But be careful, her stories don't pull punches at all.

Solea – finally, a NEW new chapter!