Gerund knew the princess was dying. The heavy tread of the approaching dragon emphasized her fate, but there was nothing he could do.
“Quick,” she said, “someone turn on the television!”
“Are you still playing that silly game with these children?” The ward matron bustled into Kristy’s room. “Well, visiting hours are over and you, my lady, need rest.”
Jake shook off his alter ego of Gerund the Barbarian. “But we’re watching the news!”
The matron snorted and turned a stern gaze on Kristy. She flicked a finger at the television, which promptly turned off.
Despite being only twelve, Kristy returned the glare boldly, eyes wide beneath the cloth cap pulled low to cover her chemotherapy-ravaged scalp. Angrily she snapped her fingers, and the screen flicked on again.
Jake shook his head; the technology in this hospital was weird.
“Five minutes,” harrumphed the matron, “or I won’t be the one answering to Themselves!”
Kristy stuck out her tongue as the woman left, but Jake’s eyes were caught by the television. “Quiet, guys. They’re talking about the space station.”
Alex and Toby paused in collecting the books, dice, and paper with which they conquered worlds, and turned to the screen on the wall.
” . . . a repeat of the Skylab incident of the nineteen-seventies. NASA officials maintain that the unscheduled re-entry of the International Space Station’s solar power module poses no threat to public safety, but residents of the town of Yardley disagree.”
The picture jumped to an on-location shot of a woman in her sixties. “I lived in Esperance when Skylab fell, and they were still promising it’d fall a thousand kilometers away while pieces rattled off my roof! They say this’ll hit in the national park outside town, but I won’t be staying here next week.”
The news cut back to the anchor. “Thousands disagree, however, and authorities fear an invasion of souvenir hunters . . . “
Alex spun around, eyes bright. “Wouldn’t that be cool to see?”
“Yeah.” Kristy smiled. She looked down at the hospital bed and sighed. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “That’d be cool.”
An awkward silence was interrupted by the matron’s return. “Off you go, now. Even she need their rest.” She flapped her hands at the boys.
Toby raised his eyebrows at the nurse’s grammar and, behind her back, tipped up an imaginary bottle.
Jake scowled; Gerund surged to his feet and swung his sword. The heavy point sheared through the dragon’s neck in a fountain of blood. The matron turned outraged eyes on him and Jake reeled under the unexpected lash. Icy fingers crawled through his brain, and he wondered what he’d done to give himself away.
“Stop that!” Kristy snapped imperiously in a tone Jake had rarely heard her use.
The matron half-opened her mouth, but settled for crossing arms across her ample bosom and glowering.
Uncomfortable, Jake stood. “We’d better go.” He looked at Kristy. “Same time next week? Or are your parents doing something for your birthday?”
Kristy’s mouth tightened. “If they drag themselves away from their duties.” Her lips pursed sourly. She shook her head as if dislodging the thought, ignoring the shocked expression on the matron’s face. “Come anyway, okay? It’s my birthday, not theirs.”
The boys nodded and shuffled out of the room. Behind them, Jake heard Kristy’s voice whisper savagely at the matron. “I will not have you treat my friends that way. I don’t care that they’re human—they care about me, not about impressing my father. And as for — ”
Her voice cut off when the elevator doors closed, and the boys swapped bemused looks. Sometimes Jake wondered if Kristy knew the difference between the game and reality. But since she was the only girl he’d ever met who even knew what role-playing was, he wasn’t going to complain if she was too good at it.
The ride to the ground floor was quiet, each boy lost in his own thoughts. As they left the hospital Alex spoke up wistfully. “It would be cool to see the power module come down, wouldn’t it?”
Jake stopped. “Why don’t we?”
Toby and Alex exchanged confused looks.
“Cause we’re, like, twelve, and we can’t drive, and it’s hundreds of kilometers away,” said Toby.
“No, seriously,” said Jake. “Yardley’s only a few hours away by train, and the module’s coming down next Saturday, on Kristy’s birthday. I . . . ” He looked down. “I thought we could take her, too.”
Alex shook his head. “Dude, she’s got leukemia. They won’t let us take her anywhere—you know what her parents are like. The hospital treats them like royalty!”
Her parents certainly acted like royalty. Jake had met Kristy six months earlier when he’d had his appendix out, and her parents had been horrified when they’d discovered the two of them talking. “But he’s only a . . . he’s so common,” her mother had said fiercely while she’d ushered Kristy away. Jake never found out what he was “only,” but he doubted it’d been complimentary, given the supercilious way Mr. Sealey had then ordered him to stick to “his own kind.”
He shrugged off the lingering hurt. Kristy hadn’t allowed her parents to stop her, and neither would he.
“A princess needs rescuing.” Gerund held out a clenched fist. “Who’s with me?”
Toby looked at Jake and grinned. “Why not?” Tagor the Rat’s thieving hand joined Gerund’s.
Alex bit his lip uncertainly. Jake simply waited. Abruptly Alex nodded, and Exalion’s hand burst into argent flame where he gripped his companions’. “Indeed.”
The week passed in a whirl. The power module’s impending re-entry splashed across newspapers and television, outrage and excitement clamoring for precedence. The boys’ preparations, necessarily hidden from parents, took time—not to mention their combined savings—but finally they met in front of the hospital under a bright Saturday sun.
“I still don’t see why I have to stay with the horse,” Exalion grumped.
“Because it belongs to your cousin,” said Gerund, “and I don’t want to be turned into a toad if something happens to it.”
“We’ll only be fifteen minutes,” Tagor added.
Alex scowled but dutifully pushed his charge toward the bus stop where, if everything worked out, they would all meet shortly.
Jake kept his head down while he and Toby crossed the lobby toward the lifts. Stay calm, he told himself. It was visiting hours and they were allowed to be there, but he couldn’t help feeling that their plans were painfully obvious to everyone.
He was glad Toby had the job of distracting the matron. Gerund was willing to fight the dragon, but for subtlety Tagor was the better choice; the wiry thief had the ability to actually believe whatever lie he was telling.
Tagor peeled off to wait when they passed the dragon’s empty nest; no doubt the beast was out terrorizing poor innocents. Gerund nodded to his companion and headed deeper into the labyrinth where the princess was held.
Kristy’s initial welcoming smile faded when she looked past him. “Where are the others?”
“Helping with your birthday present.” He closed the door, then took off his bag and dumped the clothes he’d swiped from his sister’s room onto Kristy’s bed. “Put these on and we’ll go find them.”
Kristy looked blankly from the clothes to Jake. “Excuse me?”
Gerund grinned broadly. “We’re rescuing you, Princess. It’s time to catch a falling star.”
Jake sighed. “We’re gonna sneak you out of here and go to Yardley to see the power module come down,” he said. “Happy birthday.”
“But, what about . . . ” Her sweeping gesture took in the room and, by extension, her illness.
“It’s only one day. We’ll look after you.” Jake scuffed his feet on the carpet. Maybe this was a stupid idea. They should have asked her first, but he’d wanted it to be a surprise. Well done, genius. “Look, it’s okay if you don’t want to go. We can stay here and — ”
“You’re serious!” Kristy blurted.
“I love you,” she squealed and threw her arms around him. The embrace lasted only a moment. “All of you,” Kristy added, pulling back. “As friends, I mean. So . . . um . . . what’s the plan?”
Five minutes later Jake was shocked by how thin Kristy looked in his sister’s clothes. She swept a self-conscious hand over the thin cap covering her scalp. “They’ll still know something’s wrong. And even if I had the strength to cast a glamourie,” she added with an odd smile, “I don’t think it would fool anyone here.”
Jake pulled a wig from his bag. “That’s why I bought this.”
Kristy stared. “It’s pink.”
“It looks real,” he protested.
“But it’s pink.”
“All the normal colored ones looked like old mops.” Jake shrugged. “Try it!”
She pursed her lips but took the wig back into the bathroom; she never let her friends see her without the cap.
She came out still adjusting her new hair. “How does it look?” Her expression made it clear that smiling would be taken badly.
“Princess,” said Gerund, “you look ravishing. But unless you want to be ravished—by a dragon—we need to leave, or not even Tagor’s cunning will save us.”
“That was amazing,” Kristy said when they walked out into the warm sunshine. “How’d you do that? I didn’t think a . . . one of you could fool her that way.”
“Just one of many talents,” Tagor said, sticking out his chest.
Gerund laughed and clapped him on the back. Tagor stumbled and caught himself on a bench. He opened his mouth to retort, but stopped when the princess collapsed onto the seat. Even for one of the Fair Folk she looked pale.
“Are you okay?”
Kristy’s breathing was labored “I’ll be fine. Just tired.” She smiled weakly. “Haven’t exercised . . . a lot . . . lately.”
“We only need to walk to the bus stop,” Jake said. “Here, let me help.”
Kristy took his hand and stood, and Jake wrapped an arm around her to help before they set off. Toby smirked and opened his mouth, but Jake glared so fiercely that—for once—the smaller boy refrained from making a snide comment.
When they rounded the corner Alex jumped up from where he’d been waiting. “Your noble steed awaits, your highness,” Exalion declared with a flourish.
Jake almost stumbled when Kristy stopped and stared. The wheelchair looked nothing like the square, plastic ones used in the hospital. It was a brilliant metallic blue, all sleek lines and angled wheels.
“It’s my cousin’s,” Alex said defensively. “His wheelchair rugby team got all new equipment, so he let me borrow his old one.”
“It looks, um, heavy,” Kristy said uncertainly. “It’s not made from iron is it? Or steel?”
Alex threw the chair a surprised look. “Aluminum, I think.” He lifted it easily with one hand.
Kristy sighed gratefully and sank into the wheelchair. “This might work after all.” Then, “Oh!” She fished her mobile phone from her pocket. “I probably shouldn’t have brought this.” She turned it off decisively. “Out here, this is the only way my parents can contact me, and if I don’t talk to them, they can’t make me go back.”
Riding the bus to the train station, they could barely contain their excitement, each boasting they would find a bigger piece of debris than the others.
“Size doesn’t matter,” Kristy said, “so long as . . . ” She frowned. “Some of it would have to be iron, or steel, I suppose, wouldn’t it?”
“I thought it was all carbon fiber and ceramic and stuff,” Toby replied.
“There must be something,” Kristy said. “Even a tiny piece of sky-iron might be enough, if . . . ” She trailed off and looked out the window with a wistful expression.
“If I’d known you wanted a meteorite for your birthday we could’ve gotten you one,” Jake said, vaguely annoyed.
“What?” Kristy blinked as she turned to him. “Oh, no, that’s fine. They’re the wrong type, anyway. Besides,” she added with a grin, “this way we get to go on a real adventure.”
Their good mood lasted until just inside the station, where a large television hanging above the crowd displayed the midday news. Jake stopped in horror when security camera footage of them leaving the hospital played behind the anchor. Color footage — Kristy’s pink wig shone like a beacon on the screen.
“Crap!” He herded the others behind a pillar. “What do we do now?”
“Lose the wig,” said Toby. “I told you it was stupid.”
“No!” Kristy’s hands flew protectively over her ears. “I like having hair again.”
Exalion snapped his fingers. “Where there’s a spell, there’s a way. Wait here.” Before anyone could protest he blended invisibly into the crowd. Five minutes later he returned with a bag he handed to the princess. ” Saint Vincent has provided.”
The plastic bag held hair clips and a broad-brimmed hat. She hugged Alex and laughed at his awkward embarrassment. “You are a wizard.”
The wait on the platform dragged at their nerves. Each time transit guards walked past the boys clustered about Kristy’s wheelchair to hide her from view. Casual glances morphed into suspicious orcish stares, the tension ratcheting higher while the minutes mounted.
Eventually the train arrived and they piled inside. They were not the only ones headed for Yardley, and they discussed plans excitedly while the train rolled along, suburbia morphing into bushland and then farms. Distant purple mountains barely moved, but as they neared their destination one rocky arm jutted deep into the plain. A line of green heralded the national park that was their destination.
The crowd that finally spilled from the train was an order of magnitude larger than Yardley’s small station had been designed for. The brief dotting of blue uniforms struggled to impose order. A harried-looking policeman with a bullhorn must have felt like King Canute facing the tide.
“The National Park is closed for safety reasons. Viewing centers for the descent have been set up in the town square. Please proceed calmly . . . .”
The three boys clustered around the wheelchair as the crowd funneled toward the entrance. “This is crap,” Toby said. “The chance of anyone getting hit is, like, nothing!”
“Maybe they’re worried about fires,” Alex said, “and — ”
He stopped talking when they neared the gate and came face-to-face with a policeman. The officer nodded distractedly and Jake began to breathe again, but then the cop frowned and followed them with his eyes while he triggered his radio.
“I think the orcs know we’re here,” Gerund whispered, chivvying the princess’s horse forward.
“Maybe that’s why they want everyone in the square,” she said darkly. “I bet my parents are behind this.”
“I doubt it,” said Tagor, “but it’ll probably have the same effect.”
It wasn’t fair. Kristy’s birthday would be ruined by some bureaucrat’s decision to keep people safe from something that wasn’t even dangerous! Jake scowled in thought, but Alex spoke up first.
“What about the lookout?” he said, pointing at the looming mountain ridge. “It’s not in the park, and we’d at least get a better view.”
Toby raised an eyebrow doubtfully. “It looks pretty far.” He nodded at the lowering sun. “And it’s getting late.”
The disappointment in Kristy’s face decided Jake. “To hell with the orcs,” Gerund rumbled. “We didn’t come all this way to quit now. We promised the princess a star—now who’s with me?” His out-thrust hand was quickly joined by three others.
Yardley was not a large town, but it still took them a good half-hour to reach the road they needed. A large sign waited for them.
“Five kilometers,” mused Toby. “Yeah, we can do that. It’ll take, what, an hour?”
One hour later they had covered barely three kilometers, with the boys taking turns pushing Kristy. Jake massaged his thighs while they examined the latest obstacle thrown in their path.
Almost in their path. The road they’d been following rose in front of them to snake its way to the lookout, but another, wider road crossed its path. Temporary barriers blocked that road to the east where it headed into the national park; a police car sat behind them. Two officers leaned against the bonnet, chatting companionably.
“Are they waiting for us?” Alex whispered.
Toby threw him a withering look. “Who do you think we are, doofus—Yardley’s Most Wanted?” But then the smaller boy frowned. “Of course, they could still be suspicious of four kids sneaking around, especially if one’s in a wheelchair.”
They couldn’t think of any way to avoid crossing in full view of the police without a massive detour, so they decided to brazen it out. Toby and Alex began a loud discussion of the plot weaknesses of the latest sci-fi remake, while Jake concentrated on pushing Kristy across as fast as possible. He heard her muttering something that sounded like “Don’t see me” over and over, and mentally wished her luck. Unfortunately it was only in the game that the princess could cast spells.
They looked at each other nervously while one of the officers strolled over. Whispers flew between them while they pasted on innocent smiles.
“What do we do?” “Nothing. Just relax.” “We have to do something.” “What?” “I don’t know. Anything.” “Anything?”
Toby grinned and, as the policeman approached, waved one hand through the air mysteriously. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. We can go about our business.”
The officer rolled his eyes while the other three burst into tense giggles. Even in the midst of their nerves the three boys shuffled forward to obscure Kristy from the officer’s view.
“What are you boys doing out here? It’s getting late, and the park is closed for a reason.”
Alex snorted but held his tongue, whereas Toby—as usual—was not so restrained.
“But we’re not going to the park. We’re just walking up the hill. Is that illegal?”
The policeman frowned. “No, but — ”
“And it is getting late, so we’ll be off. Bye!”
Toby shoved the others forward while the officer scowled after them, but as the gap widened they all began to breathe easier. They attacked the steep road with renewed energy, and had just rounded the first switchback when a shout rose from below. They could only make out the words “wheelchair” and “hospital,” but that was enough.
They began to run, a panting Jake wishing the wheelchair really was a horse able to take its own weight. A second shout sounded, louder and closer.
“Get off the road,” Toby said suddenly, veering to one side.
“What?” The others skidded to a halt.
He pointed to a sign indicating a walking trail to the lookout. “Quick, before they see you.”
Jake slewed the wheelchair around. Kristy gritted her teeth and hung on. Fortunately the ground sloped away from the road, and it required little extra muscle to drive the chair onto the track Toby had seen.
Toby! Jake spun around to see his friend still standing on the road.
“Happy birthday, Princess,” Tagor called softly. “Hope you make it.” He ran further up the road, yelling at imaginary companions in front of him to wait.
Heavy footsteps pounded in his wake.
A minute after the footsteps faded Jake swallowed to remove the lump from his throat. “Come on,” he whispered harshly, and began to force the wheelchair along the rapidly darkening path. It was reasonably level, but only made of shallow dirt over unyielding rock and the wheelchair jumped around like an oversized mouse. He welcomed the effort as his muscles burned—it took his mind off the burning behind his eyes.
“Will he be okay?” Kristy asked while she hung on grimly.
“He’ll be fine,” Alex said tightly. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
They struggled on in a silence punctuated only by grunts of effort. Toby’s action had driven home that they weren’t playing a game any more, and it wasn’t long before they received another slap in the face from reality.
A barely visible sign stated that the lookout lay only three hundred meters away—almost straight up.
Jake groaned. “Maybe if we carry her . . . ” He looked at the wheelchair helplessly.
“I’m not dead yet,” Kristy said grimly. She levered herself to her feet. “See,” she said with a fixed smile. “I’m fine.”
“But — ”
“But nothing.” Kristy faced the stairs determinedly and began to climb slowly. “It’s my party and I can climb if I want to.”
Alex looked at Jake and shrugged, then started after her. Jake sighed, tucked the wheelchair under a tree, and followed.
Within a dozen steps both boys were assisting Kristy, who stubbornly refused to use the steel handrail. Within thirty they’d all collected painful bruises from numerous stumbles in the thickening dark.
“Didn’t anybody bring a torch?” Kristy said irritably, nursing a nasty graze on her palm.
“No,” replied Alex through gritted teeth as he rubbed his knee.
“Well,” the princess said, straightening tiredly, “I suppose elven magic will have to do.” Pale light blossomed from her outstretched hand.
Jake didn’t know how Kristy managed to get that much light from her phone, but he was grateful nonetheless. Simply holding the phone seemed to drain her even faster than walking did, but she hung on grimly and struggled upward.
Until a jarring ring tone shattered the night air.
Jake did a double-take as Kristy pulled her phone from a pocket. What the . . . ? Then how . . . ?
“Who is it? And how’d you get a signal out here?” Alex said.
Jake glanced at him, but in the dark he couldn’t tell if the other boy had noticed anything . . . odd.
“My mother,” Kristy said distractedly. “I . . . ah, I thought I’d turned the signal off.” She bit her lip hesitantly, then shrugged and put the phone to her ear. “Hello, Mother.”
She immediately jerked it away when tinny screaming erupted from the small speaker. Jake and Alex looked at each other nervously; Mrs. Sealey sounded pissed.
“Mother, I’m fine,” Kristy said eventually. “No, I’m — I said I — ”
After another few minutes of futilely trying to get a word in edgewise, Kristy lost her temper. “Mother!” she yelled. “I’m the one who’s sick, remember? I know I could die. Do you think I don’t know that, with you and Father and everyone all whispering to each other and never telling me a thing? I know I could die, but,” her voice dropped, suddenly weary, “can’t I at least live a little first? Being out here makes me feel alive. This world is so vibrant.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, Mother. Goodbye.”
She closed the phone and slumped onto a rocky step. She looked up at the boys; her eyes shimmered silver in the pale moonlight. “It’s my birthday, and she didn’t even come to see me. Too busy with her duties. Father, too. They said they’d come tonight, but . . . ” She looked around and shrugged. “I know they love me, but our . . . family doesn’t get sick, not often. They don’t know how to deal with this.” She dragged the hat—and the wig with it—from her head.
Jake opened his mouth, but there was nothing there—no wisdom, no advice, no comfort. “Kristy, I . . . ” he began anyway, but she cut him off with a harsh laugh. In the play of shadows Jake swore her ears looked pointed. What’s going on? Am I losing it?
“Forget it. It’s not important anyway.” She returned the ensemble to her head and held out her hand to accept his help getting to her feet, then looked up the hill and sighed. “Come on.”
Kristy draped her arms around the boys’ shoulders and step by step they approached the top.
Suddenly Alex looked at his watch and swore. “It’s six-fifteen. Re-entry is supposed to be six-thirty.”
“Even if there’s no point I’m not missing out now,” Kristy said grimly.
Jake frowned at the fatigue dripping from her voice, amazed that she somehow managed to push her staggering pace a fraction faster.
Finally they were only three steps from the top, then two, and then one. Jake and Alex bent over to gasp in huge gulps of breath, while Kristy simply sank to the ground, spent. The surge of elation that shot through them was enough, though, that after a few seconds they looked around in anticipation.
But excitement turned to ashes when flashing red and blue lights threw everything into stark contrast.
Alex shook his head in disbelief while a soft sob escaped Kristy, but Jake felt anger boil up. No. Not now. Not this close. He reached down and grabbed one of Kristy’s hands.
Despite the frustration surging through him, Gerund’s voice was gentle. “It’s only goblins, Your Highness. When have goblins ever stopped us?”
With a last sniff the princess raised her head. Her eyes searched Gerund’s for a moment before she smiled. “When indeed?”
With Gerund’s help she climbed to her feet and, flanked by Exalion, began the unsteady walk to their goal, ignoring the goblins’ harsh demands to stop. It wasn’t until a burly hand fell on the princess’s shoulder that Gerund unleashed the berserker inside.
“She’s dying, okay! She’s got leukemia and she’s dying!” Jake knocked the policeman’s hand aside and stepped in front of Kristy.
“Then she should be in hospital, son,” the policeman said.
“She’s been in hospital, and she’s going back, but they never let her out and . . . ” All of a sudden Jake had to fight back tears. “It’s her birthday.”
Alex stepped forward. “All she wants is to see the power module come down. Fifteen minutes, that’s all.”
The policeman looked at the two boys, then past them to Kristy. “Where’s your wheelchair?”
She laughed weakly and raised her head. “We had a little trouble with the steps.”
The officer’s eyes widened when he saw her face. He opened his mouth, but Kristy shook her head sharply. His gaze flicked from Jake to Alex, then back to Kristy; his voice was gentler than before. “Do your parents know you’re here? With these . . . boys?”
“They do.” Kristy straightened to take her own weight.
“You’re telling the truth,” the policeman said with a frown. “I’m surprised. Your parents’ court isn’t known for being this . . . liberal.”
Jake gave a start. Her parents’ court? Maybe she really was a princess. Hell, maybe she was even a . . . no. That was ridiculous. Wasn’t it?
Kristy’s chin lifted. “It’s my decision, and these are my friends.”
The moment drew out as the officer locked eyes with Kristy. In the flashing light both pairs of eyes threw back brilliance like a cat’s. Jake tried to ask Kristy how the cop knew her, but she shushed him and hissed back that her father knew a lot of people. Finally the policeman shook his head and Jake’s heart sank.
“You’re crazy, but if you can walk up that hill then I guess we can wait fifteen minutes before I take you back to your parents.”
Jake felt his face threaten to split from the grin that burst out. He gave Alex a victorious punch on the arm and shared an elated look with Kristy. The officer spoke into his radio, and Toby hopped out of the car and raced over.
Apologies and excitement babbled back and forth until the goblin guard cleared its throat and nodded toward the viewing platform. There was a hint of amusement in its eyes that Gerund was unused to seeing from the blue-skinned creatures, and the half-bow it gave the princess carried not a trace of mockery. He rolled his shoulders; that was a problem for another day. He put his arm around her and, together with Exalion and Tagor, moved slowly toward the railing.
Jake’s hands gripped the cool wooden railing and he glanced sideways at the princess. Her eyes shone when they met his and he grinned fiercely. Questions could wait, whatever the answers. He didn’t care what she was—she was still his friend, and that mattered more than anything as he placed his hand over hers and squeezed reassuringly.
He looked up, and there was magic in the air. Lines burned across the sky as stars fell. Closer and closer, breaking into a thousand streamers of fire. Thunder rumbled and the heavens shook as something exploded overhead.
And then the cops were there, dragging Kristy back, yelling at them to get under cover while hail—except it wasn’t hail—rattled off rocks and trees. Jake ducked down but was otherwise frozen by the sight of the sky falling and the deafening noise.
Reflected light drew his eye down, where a warped strip of metal rocked gently near his feet. It was still hot to the touch, but he peeled off his shirt and wrapped the debris carefully before standing and looking around.
A car door opened and Kristy pushed her way out. “Jake, are you okay?”
Gerund smiled down at her as he held out his prize. “Happy birthday, Princess.”
She took it from him with trembling hands, burning a finger when she eased back the cloth. “It is,” she breathed. “Sweet Danae, it really is.”
Her smile was wondrous, and in her eyes he saw, for the first time, hope.