A/N: Ah, so a lot of you are throwing up your votes on who's behind the mistaken kidnapping. The truth is some of you have already guessed my original tentative choice, and since I want this story to be anything but predictable, now even I'm not sure who it was. Oh well, hopefully it'll work itself out.
"Terry, I'm tired. When we are we going to stop?"
"Not until the others do."
"Here, have some crackers."
"I don't want crackers."
"Well, it's all you can have. We'll need the rest for later."
"My bottom hurts."
"It comes with all the riding."
"I have to pee."
"I told you to go before we left!"
"I didn't have to go then."
Terrence sighed and finally stopped the horse, drawing it off to the side of the trail. He climbed off first, then lifted Rebecca off the saddle and placed her on the ground. "Alright, go," he directed, pointing towards the nearby trees. Turning his back and crossing his arms over his chest, he tapped his toe impatiently.
A little while later, she called out, "I can't go."
"What do you mean you can't go?" he cried out. "You said you had to pee, so pee!"
A long pause. Then, "I can't."
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "So you don't have to go?"
He rolled his eyes. "No what? No you don't, or no you do?"
"No I do." A brief hesitation. "But I can't."
"Argh! So what am I supposed to do about it?"
"Um," he heard her contemplate. "Sometimes whistling helps."
"You know, cause it sounds kind of like"—a slight giggling followed—"tinkle."
Terrence stood silent as he absorbed that new piece of information. "I can't whistle."
"Okay, okay. I'll give it my best shot." He licked his lips and formed an 'o' with his mouth. After several failed attempts, he managed to emit a sound that vaguely resembled a whistle. A while later, he could form those sounds into a tune. By the time Rebecca had finished her business and emerged from the bushes, they both agreed he was quite good.
"Can I take yer horse, sir?" A young boy propelled forward as both horse and rider approached the tavern.
"Yes," Valor replied, slipping out of the saddle with a grunt and making an ungraceful landing. "Take it out back and shoot it."
"Sir?" the startled boy replied, eyebrows disappearing under a pile of shaggy hair of nondescript color.
Valor sighed. "Never mind. Just get this beast out of my sight." He glared at the horse and handed the boy a coin. Cautious snorted back at him before being led away to the small stable where a few other animals awaited the return of their owners.
When he entered the familiar tavern, so aptly named the Drunk Man's Dive, a great sense of relief washed over him. Once, many years back, the place had been known as Lou's, but since no one exactly knew who Lou was, and there were at least three other Lou's in town—a tailor, a blacksmith, and an innkeeper who also provided drinks to customers—the place had eventually found itself renamed.
"Al!" a boisterous voice greeted him as he entered the establishment.
Valor grinned at the big burly man who had spoken. "Hey Jonah," he returned, taking a seat at an empty table as the establishment's long-time owner—who didn't know the identity of the elusive 'Lou' either—joined him.
"Al, my boy, where ya been? Haven't seen ya around in a while now." Jonah gave him a mock disapproving glare.
"Oh, I've had things to take care of lately. You know, duties, obligations, that sort," he said evasively. Jonah, like everyone else Valor associated with when he went out, had no idea who he really was. 'Al' was just a regular guy, a nobody who enjoyed a few drinks and some company every so often, and sometime came in with a small band of dwarves—who, by the way, really knew how to let loose—or sometimes alone. They didn't know he was also Prince Valor, the future heir to the throne, who merely traveled under the pseudonym to avoid being recognized. And that was how he preferred to keep it.
"Right," Jonah laughed, slapping a thick hand on Valor's back, nearly knocking the other man out of his seat. "You with obligations and duties? Face it, yer a bum Al, just like the rest o' these guys," he waved an expansive hand at his customers. "And that's why we like ya so much. Ain't that right, fellas?" he called out.
"Hrmm," came the response, most of the patrons being too drunk or too involved in other conversations to care much for what their host was saying. Besides, Jonah went off like this a good half-dozen times each day.
"So what can I get ya?" he asked.
"A drink," Valor replied. "A very large drink. Or just a series of smaller ones." After his little excursion, he certainly could use the alcohol. He was having so much trouble just getting anywhere, that he shuddered to think how he would fare once he actually faced off against this drag—
Oh right, the dragon… and Vivienne. The purpose behind his visit suddenly came back to him.
He waited until Jonah had returned with his drink. The large man didn't usually do much of the serving himself, but it was morning still, and business wouldn't pick up for another couple of hours at least. Only the most diligent of drunks usually managed to sneak in at this time of the day, or those travelers who stopped by on their way through the town.
"So," he began uncertainly, "I was told, by someone, that I could pick something up here? Something that was left for me?"
Jonah scratched his chin through a thick red beard. "Somethin'? What sorta somethin' are ya lookin' for?"
"Uh, that's the thing," he answered, frowning slightly, "I don't exactly know what. Just that I was supposed to come here today." Well, at least he was hoping it was something he had to pick up, although he supposed the possibilities were endless. Surely the dragon wouldn't want to meet him here. A small tavern in the middle of some no-name town—although, Valor thought with a roll of his eyes, knowing this place, it was probably named Lou's—wasn't ideally suited for any sort of confrontation.
"Now that ya mention it," Jonah spoke loudly, interrupting Valor's thoughts, "There was somethin' dropped by earlier today. Didn't make the connection though, seein' as the person didn't leave a name, just a description." He glanced him over, "Yeah, I s'pose you fit it! Hmm, just never figured it'd be our Al… looks like you have some duties after all. Lemme go get it."
At the same time that Valor reached the tavern, Virtue and Lillith, David, and Luke rode into the small town, a safe distance behind him. They hung back, out of sight, until Virtue indicated it was safe to move further. "Alright, he's gone in. We can go in for a closer look."
"So," Luke said after a moment, "Now that we're far enough away from the castle and we are stopping anyway, don't you think it's safe to leave me to my own devices?" He shifted impatiently in his saddle, bored out of his mind after the last few hours of riding.
"Hmm," Virtue pondered, "You know, he's right. If he's not going to be helping us, there's no point dragging him along."
True though that was, David eyed his brother skeptically. "You want us to leave you here?" he gestured toward their surroundings.
Luke followed his gaze, taking in the uneven dirt roads, the crude constructions lining them, and the general scarcity of attractions to occupy his attention for long. "No, I guess not," he finally replied. Virtue looked disappointed, and Lillith a little wary, but neither said anything.
They reached the front of the tavern and Virtue climbed off her horse. "We should go in," she directed at David. "Just in case Val needs backup, and to see what's going on." She turned to the other two. "You two stay outside with the horses, but out of sight in case he comes out before we can warn you."
Just as she finished doling out her instructions, a boy bound up to the group. "Would ya like me t' take yer horses?" he inquired, pointing toward the small covered area that passed for a stable.
"No thanks," David answered. "Our friends will be staying out here. They'll look after them." The boy nodded and loped off to the barrel on which he'd been sitting before their arrival. Then he proceeded to sort through a pile of worn books that he pulled out of a small canvas sack.
Luke and Lillith led the three horses around the corner where they wouldn't be spotted by anyone going in or coming out of the building, while David and Virtue discreetly entered the establishment.
Luke cleared his throat over the awkward silence, his gaze shifting quickly between his suddenly very interesting shoes, Lillith, and back to those fascinating shoes. "Listen," he began, "about last night…"
"You don't have to explain," she interrupted hastily.
Lillith looked at him sharply, saying nothing for a moment. "Okay?" she repeated incredulously.
"Uh, yeah…" he said uncertainly.
"That's all you have to say for yourself?"
Confusion filtered into Luke's eyes. "You said I didn't have to explain, so I'm, um, agreeing with you."
Lillith glared at him, crossing her arms over her chest. "You're not supposed to agree with me. You're supposed to explain anyway."
"According to who?" he asked defensively. "If someone says you don't have to explain, that means you don't have to explain." When she said nothing, only stared at him angrily, he threw up his hands in exasperation. "I'm not a mind reader… if you say one thing, you can't expect me to know that you mean something completely different."
"It's common sense!" she retorted. "You can't just do something like, like… that, and not explain yourself!"
"Explain what? 'That'? That was nothing—it didn't mean anything!" Oops. The moment the words were out of his mouth, Luke knew he'd said the wrong thing. Or the right thing, the wrong way. He had meant to explain it with some consideration to her feelings—as much consideration as he could ever manage—but it looked like he hadn't quite succeeded.
Lillith's brown eyes widened then narrowed. Her lips thinned and her jaw visibly clenched. He had thought she might start to cry; instead she looked like she wanted to use him for target practice. "Fine," she said in a low voice. "If it was nothing, then we don't have to worry about it. We don't have to bring it up—ever again."
"Fine," he returned. Then he paused, and brow furrowing, looked at her again. "This isn't another one of those situations where I'm not supposed to agree with you, is it?"
"You are an idiot!" With that she turned and stormed off. Well, she didn't get very far since they were still supposed to be waiting for Virtue and David, but to emphasize her point she turned her back on him, choosing to stare instead at the nearby stable.
Luke shrugged. "Girls," he muttered with a shake of his head.
"Don't understand 'em, huh?" a voice inquired. "Well I got somethin' that'll help ya out real good." Turning, Luke found himself staring at the boy who had offered to take their horses. In his hands, the boy was holding the books he'd been shifting through earlier.
"Name's Jeffy," he offered with a grin.
"Luke," he reciprocated. "What are you talking about Jeffy?"
"Why, these," Jeffy replied, waving the books. "My sisters' diaries. Ever wondered about the inner workings of the female mind? Well, wonder no more… all the answers lie in these pages."
"Your sisters' diaries?" Luke cocked an eyebrow. "And do they have any idea what you're doing with them?"
Jeffy shook his head quickly, eyes wide. "'Course not! They'd skin me alive if they knew, they would!" He glanced about furtively, as if the mere mention of his sisters would suddenly somehow bring them running.
"Then why are you doing this?" he asked curiously. Not that he didn't admire the boy's his entrepreneurial nature; he just wondered what would force him to brave the anger of his feared sisters.
"Well, you see," Jeffy explained, leaning in confidentially, "I'm savin' up for these beans."
Luke blinked. "Beans?"
Jeffy nodded enthusiastically. "Magic beans."
"Magic beans… like in the story?"
"Now don't you go scoffin' them," Jeffy warned. "Remember, they turned out to be real. And then up came the beanstalk, leadin' to the giant's castle, with all its riches an' such."
Luke was about to respond, but a sudden commotion from the tavern interrupted their conversation. He glanced up quickly and caught Lillith's worried gaze. Then Virtue and David burst through doors, Valor hot on their trail.
"Get the horses!"TBC
Star* ~ T(o) B(e) C(ontinued)
Jeffy comes to us courtesy of Kerista, who won the renaming the Charmings contest.