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Heart's Key

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Summary

Leander, a knight of the realm, has been sent through slime and muck to a castle on the edge of everything. The ruler of the castle, a red puff of smoke, has invited him to kidnap their most prized possession - the Maiden in the red dress. Can Leander do it without falling in love and making a mess of himself?

Genre:
Fantasy / Romance
Author:
StephanieVanOrman
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
11
Rating:
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:
16+

ONE

Leander did not like walking through the Spiknit Woods. It had a gross name like that because it was a gross place. He wore his armor and his helmet and walked with his knight’s shield in front of him because, if he didn’t, it felt like he was in the middle of the bloodiest battle he’d ever seen. Branches came out of nowhere like enemy swords.

Occasionally, he’d step in something squishy. He’d tell himself that whatever he stepped in, it was probably just a little bit of bubbling marsh. He’d look down and no, his first instinct—that he had stepped in a dead body—was correct. It was better than the dead body he would have stepped in on the field of battle because it wasn’t a human corpse, but it was worse because it had been dead for quite some time. Maybe it was a deer. Maybe it was a unicorn. Maybe he should stop looking down when he stepped in something weird.

Then he watched for bear traps more carefully. What maniac had planted so many? He’d set off three and his armor was so fly that it protected him against the trap, but he still couldn’t move until he dropped on his butt and pried the mechanism open with the tip of his sword. It was the weirdest when he sat on a recently deceased grizzly bear to undo the trap. The bear hadn’t died from the trap. Leander didn’t know what the bear had died from.

Leander wouldn’t tramp through Spiknit Woods for his own amusement. The Head Wizard of his order had insisted that he answer the call for help from Castle Travista. It was part of their Lord’s domain and, though the slimy woodland ensured it was not in a part of that domain that anyone cared to visit, the masters of Castle Travista paid their taxes religiously. No one wanted them to stop. Seriously. Tax collection was a big deal and it wasn’t unusual for Leander and the other knights to fight battles over it. No one had heard from Castle Travista in years other than the seasonal money they sent via air balloon. That was, until last winter when they had requested aid. They wanted to borrow a single knight.

Leander was chosen because he met the requirements included in the request.

He was single: check.

He was under twenty-four: check.

He wasn’t missing any limbs or any eyes: check.

There was more written, but Leander didn’t see the rest of the list.

The Wizard took the envelope from the messenger, cracked the seal, read the letter, and looked up at the knights sitting round the table. Then he ripped the bottom of the letter off, rolled it into a tight tube, and shoved it down his throat like he was a sword eater. His Adam’s apple bobbed in exactly the same way. Then he pointed at Leander and said that he had been chosen to go to Castle Travista. It was only then that Leander saw the letter and the requirements.

Something was being hidden from him.

Obviously.

Naturally, he assumed it was the requirement of tramping through Spiknit Woods and the craggy gloom that hung from everything around him.

His armor was a sickly shade of green by the time he reached the clearing that marked the end of the forest. Some of it was slick from slime. When had he touched anything slimy? Only every other minute. Other parts were mossy—almost hairy, but he didn’t know where he’d picked those bits up. He found a whole moss ball in his collar. There was also something weird and drippy hanging from his elbow. Was it a jellyfish? Or a deboned crab? He shook it off and it fell with a weird splurch sound. Then it glooped away.

Leander watched it go for a moment before he realized he was watching a living snot ball reenter the forest, where other snot balls were waiting for it. He thought he heard them cheer.

Stepping away from the reach of the trees and onto very ordinary grass, he finally opened the visor of his helmet. What was ahead of him was beyond his imagination. What was he looking at?

The first thing he saw was a moat. It had no water in it and it was so wide that even if there was a drawbridge, the height of the castle walls meant that it would not stretch over the whole expanse. Stepping closer to the drop-off, Leander saw that the mote was filled with heaps of shrapnel. Though, to be fair, there were cheerful little flowers growing between the blades and serrated edges.

He couldn’t cross it.

He took his helmet off and tossed it on the ground. When it landed, a slug curled up inside it and then slowly made away with it. Leander watched it go like he was hypnotized. He should snatch it back, but his helmet was very slimy before the slug glooped into it, and the slug was taking it away very slowly. If it inched away all day, he doubted it would get more than a few feet away. He let it be.

Back to the castle. He sharpened his focus.

The castle was gray, hewn from beautiful bricks. There was a thick curtain wall built around the keep itself and a grassy lawn was visible. On the sloping lawn, he saw white puff balls. They were adorable. Were they hopping? Were they dancing? Squinting, he realized they were sheep, but he’d never seen sheep that cute before. They were all white with little black faces and they were… being cared for… by the… most beautiful woman… he’d ever seen… in a red dress.

If Leander didn’t have laser vision before, it was a skill he suddenly acquired. When he hadn’t been able to see the sheep clearly, he was suddenly very able to see the woman in the finest detail.

Her hair was golden blonde. It hung in waves of morning sparkle, mirroring that liquid white that reflected back like sunlight on the sea. He saw her eyelashes flicker in the wind and he admired their length and curl. Her dress would have been visible if he had been standing on the moon. Her dress… Well, her dress did something to him.

It was red.

Red like his heart.

Red like his pulse.

Red like the fire that flamed inside him when he leaped into battle.

Red like his dreams when he dreamed a soldier’s dreams. It was a dream of a fight well fought, of blood spilling easily, of victory, of a woman waiting for him when he returned, a color of glory, a color of luck, a color of soft curves, and warmth at night.

He had to have her.

He shook his head violently. Such an assumption was stupid. She was feeding a lamb out of the palm of her hand and laughing at the touch of its tongue like a little girl. He was making up whatever he wanted to about her and it needed to stop.

On the plus side, he had been summoned to the castle and so he might actually get to meet her which was something to look forward to. Sometimes when he saw a woman who interested him, he was on a march and couldn’t move more than his eyes to watch her. This time, he was going there and he might have a chance encounter with her.

The thought put a smile on his face until he remembered the moat filled with the jagged edges of abandoned circular saw blades.

How could he get across?

He was still mulling over the problem when something white floated up from behind the castle walls. He watched it with interest, though it moved slowly. Soon, he recognized it as an air balloon. He’d rarely seen them, but one that size was quite impressive. It was even more impressive when it changed directions and came toward him.

At first, he thought it would have a message for him dangling from the cord that hung from under its bulb, but as it got closer, he realized that it was much too large for that.

He stared in wonder as it approached. There was a tiny balloonist in a tiny basket under the enormous balloon and a thick rope hung from it with a disk on the bottom.

“Greetings!” the balloonist called.

“Oi,” Leander replied. “That’s quite the way to travel.”

The balloonist was the most curious person Leander had ever seen. From a distance, it looked like he was a pixie of some kind, but on closer inspection, his race and his face were hidden. He wore a costume made from the same material as the balloon that made him seem like he was a part of it, giving a voice to the balloon. Otherwise, Leander couldn’t see his eyes or his mouth. He spoke from behind a cloth mask.

“I’m Leander Charthlock, the knight sent from Glassmire to assist you.”

“Yes. Yes. You don’t look like the type we normally get here,” the balloonist said. “I’m Blueleg, and I’ll lug you to the castle.”

Leander laughed because the joke was better than the slime forest and better than the shrapnel moat ahead of him.

“Although, I have to say,” Blueleg continued. “I’m a little worried about your weight. We usually use this balloon to carry children and young men who’ve skipped more meals than you. Well,” he huffed. “We may as well try it. Put both your feet on the disk, hold onto the rope, and I’ll see if I can lift us up.”

Leander gave Blueleg a weird look. He’d never been told he was fat before. No one insulted knights. Leander assumed Blueleg was in a unique position. He could float away and leave him in between the forest and the rusting blades of glory.

Leander let it go and scooped up his helmet, removed the slug, with a “Sorry, buddy”, and put his helmet under his arm. Then he stood on the disk and grabbed the rope.

Blueleg gave every impression of a man who was attempting to do his job and get the balloon off the ground. Finally, he gave up. “You’re too heavy. Is there anything you can leave behind?”

Leander let go of the rope, bent, retrieved the slug, put it back in his helmet with a weird slooping sound, put it back on the grass, grabbed the rope again, and shouted up, “Try it now.”

The balloonist laughed. “You need to drop more than your helmet.”

Annoyed, Leander started rifling around his person. He dropped his waterskin (it was empty anyway), his pack (all his camping gear was slick with slime), and his neck kerchief (it stopped his armor from chafing his neck). Then he stopped. Glancing between the collection of things on the ground and the pillowy balloon floating in the air, he realized he was going to have to make some bigger concessions. He dropped his shield, which he felt was the biggest sacrifice a man ought to be asked to make, and tried again.

“Still too heavy,” the balloonist complained, crouching in his white wicker basket with a tremble while hanging in the air.

Was the balloonist scared of him? Leander wasn’t going to hurt him. None of this was the balloonist’s fault, but Leander was getting more touchy by the second. Tugging at his drawstrings, he dropped his plate armor in chunks, noticing all the dents from the bear traps. Standing in his chain mail, he tried again.

“Too heavy.”

“Uh… right.” Leander heaved the chain mail over his head. Once it was off, he felt very undressed. Under it, all he had on was an undershirt, that had once been white, but now it was blotched in sweat stains, blood (not his… probably), and the green slime that got into everything as he waded through marshland that some masochistic moron had called a wood on the map. He wore homespun trousers that were held up with a drawstring. Unless he was mistaken, the fabric was usually used for straining cheese, thus it was loosely woven, but strong. It had no rips in it, but it was basically see-through. His ginch beneath the trousers was very visible, and the fabric was very dirty. It was like all his bad parts were on display.

He was about to try to mount the balloon with that much weight when he saw his sword. He did not want to leave his sword behind. He dropped the sheath and tried the balloon again.

“Too heavy.”

“Son of a…” Leander burst, getting control of himself mid-sentence. He sheathed it, set it on the pile of the other things he was leaving behind, noting that the slug in his helmet was at the bottom of the pile, and tried again.

“Still too heavy.”

Leander dropped his boots. His shirt, his pants, pulled out a razor blade, and let his beard fall on the grass. Then he chopped off his ponytail. Standing there in his dirty undies, he said, “This is the last try. If I’m still too heavy, I can’t go. I’m not chopping off my nose and feeding it to the slugs.”

“Reasonable,” Blueleg agreed, pulling up the fabric mask and showing a more inviting face. “Try it.”

Leander got on the disk and with significant effort, the balloon lifted him off the ground. Slowly, like the slug, they crossed the moat. Leander didn’t bother to look down. He was looking at the grassy plain within the castle walls. More than anything, he did not want the maiden in the red dress to see him. He was caked in filth… and for some reason that he didn’t quite understand, there was another living snotball hanging from his other elbow. He shook it off in hot irritation and kept his focus on the grassy hills. The maiden in the red dress was not there.

Once they passed the castle’s curtain wall, Blueleg positioned them above a pool of water.

“What’s that?” Leander asked, shouting up at the balloonist.

“It’s the landing pad.”

Leander caught the balloonist’s meaning. “Wait!” he shouted. “Was I really too heavy, or did you make me take off all my stuff so you could force a cold bath on me?”

“You’ll never know,” the balloonist said with a smile and wink. Then he snipped the cord.

Leander fell with a shout into the pool when he had no idea how to swim.

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