• The Knight & the Demon Lord
    ~ By Auric Halcyon

    In Helm’s opinion, the eastern tower and parapets had seen better days. It was, Helm observed, a mean feat to demolish so much of the tower and surrounding wall to be attributed to the work of a single wizard. The large bleach-white quarried stones that built castle Zamir, the capital’s crowning glory, were Dwarven cut and mined; built back in the days when Cassmirday could afford the fine craftsmanship. Before the Dwarven inflation had hit three generations ago and the export of the mountain-dwelling folk’s labour and craft had risen from expensive to ridiculous. In summary, Zamir castle was well built. Built, Helm recalled from her history lessons, to withstand all five sieges it had suffered since initial construction.
    No, Helm took in the careless destruction and her thoughts went immediately to large scaly beasts. But the king of Cassmirday wasn’t paying her for her assessment skills. His skilled and wise old court sages had already determined who was behind the crumbled tower and the missing prince.
    “Dear Moons, that looks like it will take forever to clean up,” Her mother clucked her tongue, finally returning from the castle kitchens after harassing the cooks for the better part of an hour while she got Helm’s supplies for the road. She held out a bundle wrapped with military neatness that Helm took greatfully, “I do worry ever so much when you go on these wild emotional journeys, Helmia.”
    The lady knight sighed, only her mother called her by her full name these days; an annoyance she couldn’t very well stop her mother from committing, since not even the scourge of the orc-chieftain tribes in the east would win an argument with Helm’s mother, “Don’t fuss, mother. I’ve heard that the Demon Lord is quite reasonable. He probably only wants his ransom in gold from the King.”
    Her mother sighed, “Still Demon Lord does have a certain element to it that makes my skin crawl. Who calls themselves a ‘demon lord’- it’s not normal,” Her mother rallied, “At least rescuing the prince will go some way to helping with your marriage prospects. You know how Cassmirday men admire strong women!”
    Helm gave her mother an appropriately horrified look at the words ‘marriage prospects’ since she was supposed to be considering joining the Virgin’s Order of Vigilance- after six letters of recommendation, the Lady Councillors wanted her to dedicate herself to a bigger cause than just dispensing justice on behalf of a crown. She wasn’t a mercenary, but to a prestigious order like the Virgins, she might as well be.
    Helm mounted her dark-bay warhorse Winslow silently, jumping a little to get her leg over his side. She was taller than her mother by a good handspan but on the average side by knightly standards. Her long chestnut hair, the only allusion to her feminine side, was neatly braided and tucked under the neck of her chestpiece. Her mother flatly refused to let Helmia cut her hair to a more militaristic and practical length, and Helm let the battle lie because it was one she would not brave. Loose it was curly and waved all down her shoulders and back, a true pain in a fight.
    She adjusted her tabard and accepted the king’s order from her page, Sonbrie. She’d already read the orders in his presence, but it was proper to keep them on her if she had to prove the legitimacy of her journey. Next came Cassmirday’s flag, neatly folded and she tucked it away with the rations into her saddlebags.
    Winslow shifted impatiently, ready to be off. He, like Helm had been thrilled for the work since they’d been stuck in the city for the better part of the winter and the start of spring. That was a long time for a feisty horse like Winslow who treated his grooms like they were chew-toys and Helmia, who had better things to do than waste away in her mother’s house, reading old books on tactics and being interrupted every few minutes in the practice yards. Helmia relaxed her legs, moving her heels so she wasn’t giving him any pressure, patting his neck gently- bidding Winslow to wait a moment longer.
    “I expect it will take two days to reach the Demon’s keep. Probably three days back- the prince is likely to slow me down,” She said.
    “Ask him to introduce you to some of his handsome peerage- the young stag’s he’d know all of the good ones. A husband of nobility would be a good catch, Helmia.”
    Helm’s lips drew into an expression caught somewhere between horror and shock at this, “I-I do not think that would be… I mean, mother, I’m only a knight.”
    She motioned for Sonbrie to move aside since her mother looked like this wasn’t an acceptable reason not to put it to the prince and Helm was a seasoned knight- she knew when retreat was the only course of reprieve.
    Waving a hasty farewell, Helm urged Winslow forward and turned her gaze outward and onward as he loped out of the castle yards and clattered noisily across the drawbridge, his hooves clipping when they touched the paved city streets beyond.
    A warhorse could be trouble if he got it in his head that his rider had business on the other side of a peasant and cart; and while Cassmirday’s streets weren’t overflowing this morning, it was busy enough with gawkers staring at the damage to the castle and wondering if they’d see the king wailing in despair from the tower, that she had to watch Winslow as he barrelled through the crowd with his usual cool regard for everything that wasn’t bigger than him.
    Her mother’s talk of marriage had been a small background noise to Helm most of her life- a knight simply didn’t have time to fuss over romance or love- she’d been much too caught up in fighting bandits and slaying monsters to worry about her dowry or fancy jewellery. That was why her mail a few weeks ago had been such a surprise.
    Not one but two letters of interest for her. The first was from lovely Farrell the King’s master of arms; whom Helm had always regarded closely over the years as a good instructor and a worthy soldier. Although not as close as a marriage proposal, she’d thought! The second of course was Redwin the Scholar of Treereaches; man of enterprise and adventure whom she’d rescued from harpies off the Crag coast last winter. He had been rather enamoured after their ‘fateful’ meeting and his continued survival- but Helm didn’t expect him to actually go so far as to proposition her.
    She was at something of a loss, really. While the idea of marriage had never really appealed to her- she was aware she wasn’t getting any younger either. Sooner or later she’d have to join the Virgins or start a family. Neither option was ideal.
    The problem, Helm had always felt, lay with the men in her life. They were so… childish. She’d found most men were the same- they just got taller and had deeper voices after adolescence.
    There really were only three types she’d seen; the athletic, arrogant sort who spent all winter and autumn hunting, chasing foxes, discussing breeds of horse and dog; the second type were shy scholars who spent day and night buried in musty old scrolls, researching eostoric potions in laboratories and composing music in their attics; finally there were the craftsmen whom were already married to the sea, the bottle or the petticoats on sale down the alley at night, sometimes all three; men who were already consumed by a trade.
    She wanted a delicate, sweet man. The sort of soft man she could protect from rampaging ogres; with small hands like a woman’s, full lips- one who liked sewing, flowers and candies. A man who was yielding like silk—like a maiden. And she hated, hated, hated those men with moustaches.
    The trouble she’d found was that the sort of men she liked weren’t typically fond of women. Was it so much to ask for a flower-boy who also wanted to ravish her at night instead of ravishing another man?
    Winslow picked up his trot as they reached the city gates and clattered imperiously past a dainty mule pulling a cart full of produce in for the day’s market. She petted his neck affectionately as they passed under the gate arches of the outer garrison. A few pages had stopped to watch her ride past; the bright red tabard and saddle cloth, all freshly laundered, were hard to miss.
    “That’s the Champion, Helm of Birsteed. They say she killed a thousand orcs in the battle of Grayhills and the orc chieftains run like dogs at the very mention of her name,” one of the older boys said excitedly as they passed to the side of the wall to get a glimpse of her and Winslow riding through.
    Helm smiled, well maybe not a thousand. She’d downed the warchief and his guards at Grayhills- so perhaps ten, maybe fifteen if the ones she’d struck with arrows beforehand counted.
    “Naw, I heard she killed the dragon in the overmines of the Dwarven kings and that’s where she got the magic sword from,” his friend shot back, “do you think we’d get a magic sword if we killed a dragon?”
    “Oi! Back to work you two,” One of the garrison guards grunted as the boys were clearly too loud and boisterous this morning.
    Helm chuckled, this was exactly her problem; while the guard had chastisied the two pages, not a second later he was speculating to the other men-at-arms about her.
    She supposed she was being a little unfair to the men in Cassmirday; Helm was the most famous woman in the kingdom- and the position of a lady knight was not the sort of thing that women were famous for typically. Her mother blamed Helm’s father. Rothyrn had raised his daughter rough and in the same manner he’d grown into one of the most respected and powerful knights himself.
    Her first predator she’d killed at eight seasons; an old craggy wolf whose tooth she still wore around her neck. Instead of sewing and cleaning she’d learned tracking and fencing. Cooking and dancing were replaced with brawling and tactics. She’d led an active pursuit of all things martial. When the knighthoods were being elected and fought over, she’d won hers in a competition of wit, skill and bravery.
    It wasn’t the first time in Cassmirday that a woman had become a knight, and it wasn’t entirely unheard of, but definitely unusual. Being as successful as Helm was, didn’t help.
    The kingdom was prosperous- good crops, good weather, taxes were steady, the people weren’t too fussed about the state of the future and all of Cassmirday’s immediate rivals and neighbours had better things to do than invade at present. Aside from the usual trouble with harpies nesting along the coast, and orc war bands causing ruckus when they came on a jaunt down the mountains from Silmeria, the worst thing to happen for Cassmirday was this- the crown prince being taken.
    If Helm were to believe the sages- and why wouldn’t she? The king did- last month the Demon Lord of Haelmoor castle in the west had come to King Aunut’s castle Zamir to sell some exotic goods. Enchanted fabrics for wizards, wagons full of deep-vein ores for the finest weapon crafting, exotic animal parts for alchemy; all very rare and expensive, prized for how hard they were to come by. This was a trade that the Demon Lord only offered on rare occasion in the past; four times in the last two hundred years. It was well known that the Demon Lord was wealthy beyond reason and had great troves of treasure and loot from all the thousands of years he had lived.
    He came on a day when King Aunut was out hunting and so it was the crown prince who received him. Being young and inexperienced, the prince paid much, much less the worth of the goods and during the exchange, offered insult to the Demon Lord by asking him impertinent questions.
    This event, Helm had been told, ended with the Demon Lord leaving in an angry billow of magical smoke, promising the prince that the kingdom would soon owe him more than just money and he’d wish he hadn’t been so stingy.
    Helm set Winslow at a trot as they took the main western road. Her directions to the Demon lord’s castle were well detailed- oddly so, since no one was crazy enough to venture there.
    As it was late spring it was a beautiful sun-dappled day, the perfect day for riding and Helm was happy to let Winslow set his pace down the long winding road, Haelmoor province in the distance.
    She reached the first landmark just as the sun was melting into the horizon; light running like liquid gold over the sky. The small down of Yewshire was the only large settlement in Haelmoor; nestled in a valley and the shadow of two mountainous hills on either side. It was the only, and closest settlement to the Demon Lord’s castle and left Winslow to rest and rejuvenate in the stables while she stopped for supper at the town’s only inn.
    The portly innkeeper served her a heavy slice of meat and that morning’s bread in weak gravy. The boar was gamey, but well cooked and she was in early for the supper-time crowd; or there wasn’t much of a crowd in Yewshire, “it’s unlike to see a lady knight travelling on after dusk,” the innkeeper murmured, sitting down across from her.
    Helm shrugged, “I’ve urgent business at Haelmoor castle.”
    The innkeeper pulled back sharply at this, “Business at Haelmoor? That’s not amusing. You know what lives there, yes?”
    “An immortal wizard, the Demon Lord Roizen, they say,” She nodded, patting her empty belt hold where her sword had been before she’d politely left it at the door, “I have it on good authority that he should be open to reasonable negotiations.”
    “Reasonable?” The innkeeper’s voice was loud enough that the cook poked her head out from the kitchen with concern, “Not even slightly. That monster will just as blast you with a fire as soon as seeing a knight of the King!”
    Helm bit her lip and frowned. Well that wasn’t encouraging, “What do you mean by that?”
    The innkeeper scratched his beard warily now, “Last year some wizards from Odintor academy went up to see him- searching for a lost book or some-such- the demon killed them all! The youngest apprentice ran all the way back down to town and he came after him like the wrath of hell itself; the apprentice exploded right outside, across the square- near what is left of old Isolde’s house. Go and see for yourself on your way- just waved his hand and whoosh! No more screaming wizard, no more house,” He shivered, “it’s downright terrifying; knowing something so dangerous lives up there, immune to the common law. He could be eating our babies every night and there’d been naught to be done about it!”
    Helm finished eating and rose, stretching out her legs. She left coin for the food and information and headed out. she wondered just how old a wizard had to be to create an explosion of that size- seeing as it seemed the older a wizard, the more powerful he was. Enough to demolish a house and another person? Very old and very powerful indeed.
    Winslow didn’t begrudge her as they detoured around the village square so she could check on the burned house. There wasn’t much left to it and she felt for the first time that perhaps it really was possible that the Demon Lord had taken the crown prince after all.
    Night fell shortly after supper and Helm drew her lantern, lighting it with a small cantrip her mother had taught her and hooking it on a bag pole that dangled above both her and Winslow’s heads.
    The path she followed led up into the mountains and hills and began to show signs of age and disrepair. Whole sections were overgrown with weeds and fallen trees and some parts of the edges had simply disappeared to the woods. So far away from the city and towns it was surprising to young travellers how noisy the woodland could get; birdsong, insects and the yap of wild dogs broke over the whisper of the wind in the boughs.
    Her second landmark took longer to find than she would have liked- a waystone at a barely discernible fork in the road. She judged the moonlight in the sky and Winslow’s stamina, factoring in the state of the road and the progress she had made so far. It was going to be hard pressing on; ideally she couldn’t afford to lose the daylight hours since the longer the Demon Lord had Prince Atlan, the more twisted and hideous a curse he might lay on the young man. The King’s sages had stressed that to her.
    “Well Winslow, think it wise we should press on or wait for light?”
    Winslow shook his mane and took a few steps forward impatiently. She let him set the slow easy pace through the darkness, only giving him the smallest of course corrections to stay on the path.
    Winslow was no stranger to long hours in the saddle nor an unforgiving ride into a wall of spears on the forefront of a battlefield. The trick was knowing his limits for him, since breeding and training had driven such thoughts from his horsey mind.
    The first moon was over her zenith when Helm dismounted and took the lantern pole in hand, leading Winslow on with a long lead. He needed a rest of the weight on his back and she needed to stretch her legs.
    Finding the remains of the path had become an exercise in and of itself and she tried not to let that bother her but it slowed her progress much more than she wanted it to.
    She stopped and unsaddled Winslow when the sky flushed an ugly gray overhead, setting down in what was probably once the middle of the road once upon a time to catch an hour’s sleep herself. Strict discipline and regimented training made it possible for her to go a day or so with no sleep, but at times like this, she felt it wiser to rest so she was fresh to continue along the path in the morning.
    She woke a short time later, the grey sky had trickled into pink and oranges, signalling the flush of dawn over the treetops. Helm opened her mother’s packed rations and ate a cold sausage and an apple.
    Winslow was grazing, but she fed him some oats and another apple as well to keep his energy up. She resaddled him but didn’t mount and continued on foot.
    It wasn’t long before she could see the Haelmoor castle in the distance as dawn painted the hills in gold and apricot- an impressive cut into the side of the mountain on this side of the landscape, Haelmoor’s alien design, Helm had heard, had been crafted by an ancient Elven settlement. Although from a distance, she didn’t much see the flimsy but solid architecture she’d always associated with Elven buildings. It was also very cheery in the morning light and she wondering about the Demon Lord’s choice in castle; she’d expected something more… sinister.
    Still, Helm supposed that alone might throw off any enemies, combined with the hard-to-follow path, she’d think many would assume they’d come to the wrong castle. Of course, she might indeed have come to the wrong castle.
    The sun was beginning to warm her armour with a stifling heat when she came to the shore of the lake, her final landmark on her map. It was beautiful and large; the road skirted the right bank- an old stone signpost stood rigidly over the road here, the writing far too old and worn to read.
    That was when she heard the screaming. At first she thought it was a woman, but when she startled and followed the sound with her ears she realized it was merely a high-pitched man’s voice. There- halfway down the other side of the lake was a man- being attacked by a blue skinned, black haired, naked woman. A naiad.
    She mounted Winslow hastily and drew her sword in one hand- digging her knees in, urging him to a gallop.
    The man had a death-grip on a large willow root; although it wasn’t doing him as many favours as it could be; the naiad had obviously grabbed him by the pants and his belt had snapped, his pants were now around his ankles, and he was immersed in the lake up to his waist, “Stop! Please stop! Don’t m-make me use force!” His delicate voice hitched on this last desperate squeak and he tried to bend his elbows to get closed to the tree and out of the water.
    The look on the naiad’s beautiful face said she didn’t think he had much force to muster, and from the lily-white backside that Helm could see, she agreed with the naiad’s assessment.
    The man had a tall body, clothed in bright crème and lavender silks and mostly wet; his face was red and splotchy with tears, but quite pretty- she wouldn’t call him handsome. Golden cherubic locks fell messily out of a jewelled clasp around his shoulders, the sort of hair that looked sunkissed most days. He had a neat chin, pouting lips and big, wide doll-like blue eyes the colour of gemstones. His ears were long, pointed; an Elf, Helm surmised. Although he was screaming in common and she didn’t detect much of an accent.
    “Oi, stop at once, in the name of the King!” Helmia bellowed as she reached the scene. Her fierce no-nonsense voice and the sudden flare of glow from her magical sword, the angry snort of her menacing warhorse did indeed cause the naiad to freeze.
    The naiad had the sort of beauty that most wild fae creatures had- where the elf was all soft and pouty-delicate, the naiad was fiercely gorgeous; long flowing, wet hair, perfect pert chest, and not an inch of shame. She locked gazes with Helm and the lady knight lowered the tip of her sword in warning, “As knight of the kingdom of Cassmirday it is my duty to defend the weak and uphold the law. Please state your name and reason for drowning this man before you continue any further.”

    The fop began to sob as the naiad let go of him, tears gushed from his eyes with alarming ease. He was suddenly blubbering thanks to Helmia for saving him, although she wasn’t listening to much of it.
    The naiad looked Helm up and down, “I am Dillyweed, sir knight, and I wasn’t trying to drown him,” her voice was deep and sultry, her lips parted in an obviously seductive smile and she drew a hand out of the water, touching her heart, “I wanted him to spend some quality time with me. I’m all alone here, you see… and a woman has needs.”
    Helm sighed. Third naiad she’d caught doing this in the last month. It had to be mating season for them or something, “So you were intending to rape him?”
    The naiad flinched at the harsh words, but she recovered and batted her eyes at Helm prettily, “O-of course not. I just need a man’s touch… a real man’s touch, like yours, sir knight. I need it hard… a deep wanting inside me…”
    The fop, realising that the naiad had turned her attention to this more ‘manly’ prey, took the opportunity to wade out of the lake and pull his pants back up with what dignity he could muster.
    Helm put her sword away and dismounted Winslow smoothly, “I see, and you, sir, did you want to be touching her, hard and deeply?”
    He flinched at the redirection of attention and shook his head violently, wiping more tears from his eyes, “ Most certainly not!”
    The naiad gave the elf a withering look; clearly she didn’t have many to choose from or she wouldn’t have had to go to such extreme measures, but that was not an excuse- he was a fop and too delicate to like a gorgeous creature like a naiad. No, that was a man entirely for women to mourn the loss of. Still, she had the law to deal with and she was in a hurry.
    Helm drew out a warrant scroll from one of her satchels and a stick of charcoal, scribbling down a description of the crime and appropriate punishment.
    “Uhm, what are you doing, sir knight?” Dillyweed was nervous and had noticed that Helm wasn’t at all starry eyed over her naked, wanton body. Just her luck to find two men not interested.
    “Normally Cassmirday punishes rape much more severely but as it was only an attempted rape and naiads can’t live away from their watersource for very long I am sentencing you to three months of public services; in which time you are commanded, by order of the King whom I represent, to clear and repair the roads around your lake so it is serviceable,” She handed the warrant scroll to the naiad and sealed the geas contained in the paper that would compel the naiad to obey the punishment.
    The fop sniffled behind her, having moved behind Winslow where he was safe from the aggressive water-fae. Helm adjusted her hat, wiping sweat from her brow, “Right, and when a man says no, it means no, understand?”
    “This isn’t fair!” The naiad cried, she pointed at the elf, “he was leading me on, wearing those silks all the time, parading around here like some floosy!”
    “You’re trying to say it’s his fault you can’t control yourself?” Helm crossed her arms over her chest.
    “What? N-no!”
    “Then be happy that I’ve been lenient on you- rape is a serious crime on Cassmirday. I could have you sent to the stockades in the city square where they normally send rapists; or to the salt mines in the desert, where you’d be dead in a day or two if you were lucky. Instead you’ve got to clean the roads.”
    The naiad burst into tears and collapsed to her knees. Helm shook her head and motioned to the fop to get up on her horse so she could lead him away from the scene. He was tall enough that he mounted Winslow in the most graceful of manners and he leaned heavily against Winslow’s mane and back, wiping his eyes and pulling out a frilled handkerchief to blow his nose with.
    Helmia headed back down the way she’d come from, annoyed at the loss of time for back-tracking, but it couldn’t be helped; she wasn’t going to trust the naiad to leave him alone if he had to come running back this way without her.
    “Thank you, that was really sweet, what you did there, sir knight,” the fop snivelled.
    Helm sighed, “It’s no problem. I’m Helm of Birsteed, by the way. You’re lucky I was passing the other side of the road- did you get lost going to the village of Yewshire?”
    He shook his head, “I was just going to pick a few water-lillies; I’m making a flower arrangement and I wanted something nice to put in the centre. Do you make it a habit to rescue other men from naiads? You didn’t seem affected by her charms at all!”
    Helm bit her lip, oh he was a gorgeous specimen. What sort of man arranged flowers? Surely he couldn’t be so delicate and- was he shivering? It wasn’t even cold today! She pulled out her spare blanket from the saddlebag and handed it to him, “here, the wool might irritate your skin, but at least it’s warm.”
    He wrapped himself in the blanket and smiled brightly at her, “You don’t seem it but you’re very soft hearted, aren’t you? Like what you did back there; naiads can be very violent and dangerous, but you didn’t give her any room to get angry.”
    Helm blushed and pulled her hat down over her head a little more, watching the path instead of the fop on her horse, “I wouldn’t think so much on it. I’m just a knight. It’s my duty to protect the weak and innocent. Did she hurt you?”
    “No, I mean, you know I could have saved myself; it’s just I didn’t want to make a fuss, you see- oh, you don’t though, do you? I must look like such a mess, I was j-just so scared, her hands were all over me and-” he was sobbing again.
    Helm felt her insides melting and she fumbled with her armour until she retrieved her own simple handkerchief, “Please stop crying. Really, you’re safe now. I won’t let her hurt you, okay?”
    He took her handkerchief with a small noise and pressed it to his lips, inhaling the scent with such reverence that it frightened her. He finally got control again and nodded, “I’m sorry, and here you are being so kind to me and I’m probably just a nuisance. But why is a knight so far in the west?”
    “I’m here to see the Demon Lord,” Helm answered lightly she noticed he seemed even paler for this news and she sighed. A delicate man like this, he probably wouldn’t handle the thought of the big-bad demon wizard just up the road, “Are you feeling better, yet?”
    He nodded and she stopped to let him slide off Winslow’s back. His clothing was still wet, and he was clutching her blanket to his chest, “Thank you again for saving me. I just didn’t know what to do.”
    “It’s fine. Keep the blanket, you’ll catch a cold if you don’t. now I’m going this way- you just head back to town where you’ll be safe.”
    “Oh, I can’t let you go that way on your own- let me walk with you,” He shook his head as he pointed at the road leading around the right side of the lake.
    Helm shook her head in return, “No, no, I don’t think you want to go that way; I’m going to the Demon Lord’s castle- that’s,” she stopped, the fop had taken hold of her hands in his, wide sapphire blue eyes staring earnestly into hers.
    “I- can I ask a request of you Sir Helm, can we be friends?”
    “W-what?” She felt her heartbeat speeding up as he took her rough hands in his uncalloused palms and pressed her hand to his heart; the silk of his shirt smooth under her touch.
    “I want to be your friend. I don’t really have many friends you see and I’d really like to be better acquainted with you- and you’re so kind, so I know we’ll just be close and we can talk and share with each-other and really bond.”
    She pulled back with a small gasp. It was too much for a man with such long lashes and innocent beautiful eyes- hell he didn’t smell like wet silk but rather flowers and something sweet- he smelled better than she did after so many hours in her armour.
    “I don’t know-” This was happening way too fast for Helm’s taste. She started walking abruptly, hoping he’d lose his nerve and go back home. She couldn’t be around a man like that- she’d jump him if he kept it up!
    “Please, I want to do all those wonderful things that friends do,” he was keeping up with her, jogging to catch up and then easily matching her quick military pace with his long striding gait.
    “I’m not… I mean… I think…”
    “We can stay up late, roasting nuts in the fire; and I can cook breakfast for you; and make you a shirt- and we can go on boat-rides on the lake together, and read poetry and-“
    “I see-“
    “And we can exchange rings and go to the country fair together and-“
    “And we can hold hands and watch the sunsets-“
    “Uh, this isn’t something you should talk to a stranger about,” Besides, was it normal for men to ask to be friends like this, she wasn’t sure, “And all of that stuff, surely you have some other friends you’ve known longer who would be able to do all that-“
    He shook his head, more tears welling in his eyes, “recently my friends have been suggesting weird things and I don’t feel comfortable with them that way- but… but if it was you, Sir Helm-“
    She swallowed suddenly. This was getting weird.
    “-I could touch you all over, I mean I could be close to you.”
    “So please, Sir Helm, please can we be friends?” He finally stopped talking now, awaiting her response with such a sudden deep earnest expression that Helm felt her whole body twitch with the urge to take his hands roughly in hers and do something lewd.
    She pulled Winslow forward so he pushed them apart, not sure when the fop had gotten so close to her and she exhaled, marshalling her strength, “Look, I think you’ve gotten the wrong impression of me- I’m… I’m a woman, not a man.”
    There, that would stop him dead in his tracks and let him stop doing her head in.
    “I know,” he said, striding ahead of her and Winslow and turning so he was walking backwards down the road; she wanted to tell him to be careful because it was so treacherous and he’d fall over if he wasn’t careful, but he skipped along gracefully so she let it go, “You’re just my type too; please, let us be friends?”
    “I don’t understand why you’re so insistent on being friends,” she grumbled.
    “I want to get to know you more intimately,”
    Moons and Stars, he was really going to give her the wrong impression. Maybe she should go back and let the naiad off the hook; this was bad. Her palms were sweaty, but something said he’d just be a nuisance and besides- she had to go fight the Demon Lord and rescue the prince; she didn’t have time for some lost elf in the middle of the woods. No, she’d be too distracted with him around, better to send him home.
    “Look, I don’t even know your name- we really shouldn’t be friends, I live a very dangerous life, you’d get hurt if you followed me like this- there might be demon guards up the path; hell, the wizard may decide to throw hellfire at us from here; I can protect myself, but I can’t protect you too; it’s not the sort of place… I mean… you’re not really fit for… that sort of thing.”
    His face fell slightly, “You think I’d be a burden to you?”
    “And you don’t want me getting in the way if you have to fight?”
    “And you don’t like me?”
    “Uhm, I mean, no,” She was firm, she had to be firm.
    He sniffed softly, “Then… I guess that settles it.”
    Relief flooded Helm’s stomach, “Yes, let us part ways and I’ll wish you a good day,”
    He inhaled again and she worried he was about to start crying worse now- but instead he looked up and his face flushed with petulance and something else; she felt it like a shock down her spine- he suddenly seemed so determined and firm that it made her stop in her tracks. There was something really fishy about how he squared his shoulders and stepped right up to her.
    “I guess I’ll just have to take you by force,” He said.
    Helm blinked. “Huh?”
    “I was willing to work up to it, be friends first, slowly move through the rituals, but if we can’t start there, then I’ll have to make you mine the hard way,” He placed a hand on her chin and pulled her closer to him. His grip was like steel- not the delicate and soft touch she’d felt earlier- he bent his head a little, knocking her hat off her head as he did and claiming her mouth with his lips.
    Helm was too shocked to react for a few moments, she’d never been kissed before and it was such a sudden rush of feelings that she was helpless for a few seconds before she remembered that this was escalating in all the wrong ways. She took a step back, wincing as his fingers hurt her chin to do it and putting her arms up as a barrier, “Wait a minute-“
    “I’m actually a pretty impatient person, you know,” He smiled brightly at this and suddenly she was backing up, caught between Winslow and this crazy fop, “When I want something I just take it.”
    “I’m a woman! I’m not a man!” She hissed.
    “I’m a man,”
    “I know, that!”
    “You know most women throw themselves at me…” he seemed annoyed that she wasn’t doing that.
    Yes, she’d noticed that with the naiad, “I don’t… we don’t know each other well enough…” his hand was resting on Winslow’s side, just next to her face, she was pressed into the saddlebags there, he was leaning in closer, his face getting dangerously closer to hers.
    “Let’s get to know each other better, my name is Roizen Darkwood,” He was kissing her again now and she had nowhere to run, unless she drew her sword and stabbed him and that seemed a little extreme for this sort of attack.
    She ended up out of breath and pinned against Winslow, her lips tingling and her hands caught above her head. So close she could smell something like strawberries from his hair; strawberries and wild-flowers. Her whole body felt sluggish and strange to her. His lips were sweet like honey, and it was an effort to try and push him off her, “Wait- Roizen? As in Demon Lord Roizen?”
    He smiled brightly, “See, you do know something about me.”
    Winslow moved suddenly, confused by all the pressure on his side, he trotted forward and turned expectantly to his rider. She would have fallen straight down then, except Roizen caught her easily and turned her into his body so they were pressed closer than strictly necessary, “How adorable, I could just eat you up.”
    Panic swallowed Helm’s mind as his lips descended again- this was not the pretty, innocent, sweet flower-boy she’d rescued!