"7 O'CLOCK!!!," a voice bellowed out over the noise of the crowd. People turned to stare at the brightly colored jester that wove through the masses of people while shouting at the top of his lungs. "7 O'CLOCK PEOPLE! YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO HOME BUT YOU CAN'T STAY HERE!" Slowly the crowd moved towards the main gate of the Renaissance Festival and shuffled through the exit ways. They trampled through the gift shop as they departed, buying T-shirts or key-chains and smiling at the antics of the RenFest employees. As they started the long trek to their vehicles they could still hear the resounding call of the jester, "IT'S TIME TO GO! IT'S TIME TO FLEE! GET OUT PEOPLE! I HAVE TO PEE!"
When the last of the visitors were gone, Max Wellman pried the curly-toed shoes off of his feet and sighed as he stretched out on the ground a couple of yards outside the gate. Staring up at the slowly darkening sky, he let his mind drift over the events of his first day of work at the RenFest. He had arrived early this morning and had the court jester costume thrown at him by a frantic coordinator. The coordinator had mumbled something about broken legs and "no good help these days" before pushing Max out to the gathering crowd outside the gate. From that point on most of the day had been a blur- people laughing, melting in his outfit from the heat, large crowds of people, getting bopped (gently) on the head by the king and hundreds of people pointing at him as they walked by. The only parts of the day that really stood out were the few moments when he had been able to talk with Rosa, one of the court actresses. A smile crossed Max's face as he thought of Rosa; her mischievous grin, her gorgeous lapis-luzi colored eyes, the way she twisted his name around because she said 'it was more appropriate'...
"Hey Maxwell Man!" Max jerked his head up at the sound of Rosa's voice. "Hey dude, you might want to head on over to the campsite if ya want to crash." She grinned widely as Max stared blankly at her. Flipping her long brown hair over her shoulder, she tilted her head and stared at his zone-out face. When he didn't reply, she shrugged and headed off towards the entrance gates of the fair grounds.
Max shook his head and watched her retreating figure for a moment before realizing which direction she was going, "Rosa, where you off to? This place is going to be locked up tight soon."
"I left my goblet in the Courtyard of the Dragons and I wanted to grab it before they closed this place up for the night. See ya in a few!" Max watched her saunter off until she was through the gates and out of view. He flopped back down onto the strangely comfortable mound of grass and closed his eyes, letting his mind drift again- Rosa's laughter, her goofy attitude, the way she... she...
"Wake up dude!," a rough push woke Max, "They're about to seal the gate." Max blinked the sleep out of his eyes and looked up at the grinning face of his friend Hefian Estius. "Wheel me up closer so we can get a good view." Max shook his head and slowly stood. "How long have I been asleep," he asked as he pushed Hef's chair towards the front of the crowd. Hef glanced at the watch on his beefy arm, "I'd say you've been out for half an hour. Not to be unexpected the way you've been working all day."
Max laughed, "Dude, I do cartwheels and tell bad jokes. You smack hot metal with a sledgehammer." He grinned at Hef's humble expression, "Blacksmithing- now that's work." Hef blushed and mumbled something about it not being that tough.
Hef would have continued mumbling but something else caught his attention. All the people who acted in the royal court except Rosa strolled out of the gathering crowd and stood in front of the gate. They paused and waited for Richard, the guy who played the king, to join them. "Hey Hef," Max whispered, "What's the deal?"
Hef wheeled his chair closer to Max and leaned up. "This is how the Royals shut the place up for the night. They say that by doing this...," Hef hesitated and looked warily at Max, "...ritual will protect the fair grounds from vandals. They did a half-ass job at the ceremony a couple years ago at the end of the season and there was a fire during the winter so now they take this really seriously. Watch." Hef pointed at the king's raised arms. When King Richard brought his hands down the crowd silenced instantly. Max watched intently as the king made an intricate gesture, weaving his hands around and mumbling under his breath. The mumbling grew louder as the other court actors and actresses joined in. A cold wind blew through the group, causing Max to shiver. Those for whom it was their first year working at the RenFest looked around, wide-eyed and confused. The cold wind was picking up and swirling around the people like the beginnings of a tornado. King Richard flung his arms wide and the mysterious wind stopped suddenly. A weird light shone over the fair grounds briefly and then disappeared as abruptly as it had occurred.
"Hey Hef, what was that?," Max asked softly. But Hef shushed him and pointed at the king. Richard turned to the crowd and bellowed, "You may return to the campground now without worry for the fairgrounds. Nothing will get in or out without my knowledge. Goodnight people. Get some sleep because tomorrow will be as busy as today was." And with that said, the entire court whirled around and flounced off in the direction of their trailers. The rest of the crowd that had gathered looked around for a moment and then drifted off to the campgrounds.
Hef turned his chair around and faced Max, "That was how I know that my forge and all my crafts will be there tomorrow. It may be strange but that weirdness is what keeps the shopkeepers and the other vendors from worrying about their stuff." Hef stared at Max with a serious expression on his face momentarily and then wheeled off towards the campground.
Max started to trudge after him but stopped to ask Jonathan, the Captain of the Guard, if he had seen Rosa. "Hey dude, I was wondering why the king emphasized that no one was getting in or out." Jonathan's friendly face suddenly became guarded, "Why do you want to know," he asked. Max shrugged, "It just sounded weird and plus I think Rosa might still be inside." Johnathan and everyone else in hearing range froze and stared at Max.
"Rosa is still inside the gates?," Jonathan asked hesitantly. When Max nodded, Jonathan got a panicked look on his face and grabbed the nearest of his guards, " Ted- go get Richard." When Ted didn't move Jonathan shoved him in the direction that the Royals had left in, "GO NOW!!!" Ted took one look at the expression on Jonathan's face and ran.
All the guards looked terror struck and Max wondered what the problem was. "Hey guys, why not just go in and find her," he asked. The guards stared at him blankly until a one of them muttered "newbie". One of them glanced darkly at the gate and said, "Hey newbie, there's a reason why the Royals do this binding spell. Nothing goes in but more importantly, nothing comes out. Rosa isn't getting out until sunrise and there's no chance of us going after her. We know better and so should have she." The other guards nodded in agreement.
Hef wheeled back over the group and they all fell silent at his glowering expression, "If anyone wants to go in and get her, I'm sure Richard wouldn't mind." He looked at the gathering of actors, "Any volunteers?" When none of the guards moved, Max stepped forward. Hef looked at him and smiled, " OK hero, go find Rosa and drag her back here." Hef's grin faded, "But watch out in there, it gets a little weird after dark."
Max glanced at the guards and tried to figure out what they seemed so scared of. "What kind of weirdness Hef?," Max asked. "Well," Hef hesitated, "Things aren't like they are in the day. They-"
"JONATHAN," the resounding baritone of Richard parted the crowd, "What's this all about? Your messenger said Rosa is still inside." Richard strutted through the people and stood next the Hef's chair. " That can't be right. She knows better than to be in there after the sun goes down." Hef reached over, tugged on Richard's puffy sleeve and jerked his head at Max. Richard stared at Max momentarily before speaking, "Tell me boy, where is Rosa?"
Max stammered before answering, "She, uh, said she had forgotten her goblet at the Courtyard of the Dragons and that she wanted to grab it so she wouldn't forget about it in the morning. I saw her go in about a half hour ago but I fell asleep so I don't know if she came out or not."
The king paled. "I can't open the gates. She..." Richard squeezed his eyes shut as though he were in pain, "she will just have to wait until the morning." He, and the rest of the guards, lowered their heads as though in mourning. Hef looked over at Max while the others had their heads bowed and winked. He nodded towards the gate and mouthed "Go get her." Max's eyebrows furrowed and he tilted his head in confusion. Hef waved his hand towards the gate "Now!," he demanded silently. A wave of compulsion crashed over Max and he broke away from the crowd, running for the gate as fast as he could.
"Guards! Stop him!," the king's panicked voice jolted the guards into motion. They ran after Max but they had reacted too slowly. Within seconds, Max had scampered up the side of the gate wall to the cat-walk from where the Royals greeted the crowds in the morning. At the top Max slammed into some type of invisible wall. "What the- ?!?," Max exclaimed as he pushed against the wall of air that kept him from entering the fair grounds. Pressing his hands into the wall, he could feel himself sinking through the air but it felt like he were wading through mud. Max pushed harder and he sank even further through the barrier. Just before his face was about to touch the wall he closed his eyes and took a deep breath- and then he was in the wall. Opening his eyes, Max looked around. Everything around him was fuzzy and distorted. The air around him pushed him back, suffocating him and making him panic. 'So this is what LA is like,' Max thought as he teetered on the edge of hysterics. Slowly he fell through the air and when he was about to try to take a deep breath that he was sure would kill him, he felt himself fall out of the thickness and back into real space. He had just enough time to think that maybe falling slowly off a twenty foot structure wasn't that bad of a thing before hitting the ground with a resounding thump.
"Owwwwwwww, that sucked," Max groaned. Rolling over, he stared at the fair grounds around him. There was movement everywhere he looked. Things were running around, jumping on benches, wrestling in the dirt. What looked to be a small garden gnome waddled over to Max, "Hello stranger. Are you a human?," it asked. When Max nodded, the little man-thing yipped with excitement and howled out to the other gnomes, "We got a human!" From underneath the counter of the cookies-and-milk shop a band of gnomes came scurrying out. They ran to Max and mobbed him, poking and prodding him like he were an experiment in a lab. Max whirled around, trying to get away from the mass of little bodies. But everywhere he turned there were more of the tiny creatures. "Get off of me you bunch of 'Mini-Me's!" Max kicked at the gnomes but for everyone he punted there was another to take it's place. They crawled on top of each other, piling Max under a swarm of bearded doll-sized men.
"Hold!," a strong voice cried out over the din of the gnomes. From out of nowhere a hand reached down and pulled Max out of the pile, yanking him onto the back of a white horse. Gnomes yelled out in frustration from losing their prey. "He's ours," they protested, "We found him first!" But the man on the horse paid them no attention. He turned the horse and galloped out of the heap of tiny people. They pursued for a moment but after the horse squished a few of the more persistent ones, they turned around and scurried back to the cookies-and-milk shop.
Max stared in wonder at the armor clad back of the knight who had saved him. "Thanks sir. You really saved me back there." The knight didn't answer but just grunted in vague acceptance of the thanks. He remained silent until he stopped the horse at the jousting circle in the middle of the fairgrounds. Wordlessly the knight helped Max off the horse and dropped gracefully to the ground. Turning to face Max he raised his visor and Max gasped when he saw the familiar cheerful face. "You're one of the knights from the giant chess set!," he exclaimed.
The blonde knight nodded, "That I am, boy. But only while the sun is up. When the moon is high I am Gwain, Knight of Royal Guard. Pray tell, whom may you be and what brings you into the grounds after sunset?"
Max shook his head in wonder. He stared at the knight in complete disbelief before realizing that while the knight may look cheerful in the day, he may not have too much patience at night. 'Get it together,' Max thought, 'Reality is a little weird right now. You banged your head a good one but just play along and maybe your brain will let you get through this.' Out loud he said, "I am Max... jester of the RenFest Court. I came here to look for my friend, an actress- you might know her as the Duchess Rosa L'Blu. She may be stuck in here and I wanted to come in and get her out."
The knight paused and then asked, "They sent in a jester to rescue a damsel in distress?" he asked hesitantly. He looked at Max and shook his head as though he were revolted at the thought of sending a harlequin to do a knight's job.
"No," Max answered, " I came in on my own. No one else would and it sounded like she might get into some sort of trouble if someone didn't. So I did," he finished lamely. Max glanced back towards the entrance. "By the way, where did all those gnomes come from?," he asked.
Gwain sighed, "Craftmaster Samson carves hundreds of them each year. Horrible little wretches. I can't see how someone would ever think of buying them. At least he stopped carving trolls though." Max grinned at the knight's disgust of the gnomes. He was going to have to have a talk with Mr. Samson tomorrow and see if he couldn't convince the guy to carve something much nicer, like frogs or bunnies. But first he had to get to tomorrow and for that to happen Max would have to survive the night and hopefully save Rosa in the process.
"Hey Gwain, grateful as I am for you saving my life and everything, would you want to help me find Rosa?" Max peered at the knight and hoped that the man's code of chivalry would prompt him to help find Rosa. Gwain straightened his back and cocked his head in a defiant pose, "You would dare to suggest that I would leave a damsel in danger?" he asked belligerently. The knight's hand automatically reached for the sword at his side but Max quickly put his hands up in defense, "No dude, just asking if you would want to help a mere jester do a knight's job." Blinking back the thought that Gwain could skewer him like a shishkabob, Max prayed that his lame attempt of an excuse would work.
"Of course Jester Max. Your cause is just and I will be glad to help one so humble as yourself." Max let out the breath he had been holding. "Now, let us find the duchess and return her to safety." Gwain paused and eyed Max warily. "Where are your weapons, Jester Max," Gwain asked innocently. When Max looked blankly back at the knight, Gwain sighed, "Do you have any weapons?" Max shook his head no and Gwain rolled his eyes and muttered something that sounded like 'Lord protect me from fools.' "Well, we shall just have to acquire something for you on the way. Where do you suggest we start looking?" Gwain leaped onto the back of his horse and reached a hand down to help Max up.
Max clasped his hand and climbed back on to the back of the horse. "Let's check out the Courtyard of the Dragons. That's where she said she was going." Max paused for a second, "Uh, do the dragon statues, um... come to life at night as well?"
Gwain laughed as he nudged the horse to a gallop, "Of course young friend! Oh the battles I have fought against those mighty lizards! I have killed them many times as they have slewn me. But every night we rise again to fight anew. Most nights I fight, for it is what I do- but tonight I have a purpose. Have no worries Jester Max. If the duchess Rosa is there we shall triumph over those overgrown salamanders and save her." With a merry chortle Gwain kicked the horse into a run while Max held on for dear life.
The fair grounds sped by and before Max knew it, they were at Hef's blacksmithing shop. Gwain slid off the horse and helped steady Max as he dropped down. Silently the two of them wandered up the ramp and in to the display area of Hef's shop. While Max looked through the various knives, short swords and katanas Gwain walked over to a window and opened a shutter to let some light in. Moonlight streamed through the open window and shone brightly on a piece of cloth lying on the table in the middle of the room. A feeling of weirdness prickled down Max's back. He pulled the cloth off of the table and underneath lay a magnificent sword. Gwain gasped, "A weapon made by the Great Forger! Young friend, I would suggest you take this incredible blade." Max smiled and grasped the hilt. It was perfectly balanced and felt as though it had been made for his hand. Max had known Hef was an incredible blacksmith but the sword looked and felt as though it had been made for a god. A wave of fearlessness coursed through Max making him feel as though he could take on the world and win. He saluted Gwain and said, "Let's go slay us some dragons."
* * *
Max and Gwain stood before the entrance to the Courtyard of the Dragons, both of them staring at the massive beasts that romped about in the field that was a peaceful sculpture garden by day. Huge dragons in various colors wrestled around. A metallic blue one swiped at a smaller red dragon just inside the gate. Two greens fought in the corner. A black dragon and a bronze one rolled by, locked in a deadly embrace. The only space that wasn't filled with a mass of lizards in combat was the dais in the very center of the courtyard. Rosa lay on top of that platform, pinned down by the weight of a massive golden claw. Max gawked at the giant golden dragon that held Rosa captive but his attention was diverted back to Rosa when he heard her voice ring out over the bedlam of the dragons, "Let me up you freaking steriodic iguana! You have no reason to keep me here. Obviously you don't want to eat me or you'd have done it already. Now let me go damn it! Hey! Darwinian mishap! I'm talking to you. Don't make me break my foot off in your..." A roar of pain from the small red cut off Rosa's spew of insults to the golden giant that kept her down and drew the huge dragon's attention to the gate. The monumental head swung around and focused on the two humans standing awkwardly in the entry way.
"Gwain!" the thing roared gleefully, "I've been waiting for you! I've found a way to make our night more interesting. But it seems my surprise has been ruined, for someone has told you to bring back-up." The beast focused on Max and snorted, "That's the best you can do valiant knight? A fool? Will he make me laugh myself to death?" A rumbling sound echoed across the courtyard and it Max a moment before he realized it was the sound of the dragon's laughter.
Gwain stepped forward and called out boldly, "Silence yourself Gnarth and let the damsel free or I shall kill you most painfully this night." Max looked at his new friend as though he were insane. "Are you nuts? he whispered to Gwain, "This guy will fry us!" But Gwain paid no attention. He strode forward to face the golden Gnarth. All the dragons parted and watched from the sidelines. Their beady eyes peered at the knight saunter up to the dais. When he reached the base Gnarth leaped off the pedestal and attacked. The two circled each other, slashing and swiping at each other. Gnarth blasted a jet of fire that Gwain easily avoided by somersaulting under the deadly flame. Darting under the enormous head, Gwain darted to the left. The dragon swiveled his head that way to try and blast fire at Gwain again but the knight quickly turned and ran right. The swift turn-about momentarily confused the dragon and Gwain had a second to strike. He jammed his sword into the side of Gnarth's giant neck. The dragon reared and Gwain tried to pull his sword back into a fighting position but his sword was stuck under the scales in Gnarth's neck. Gnarth roared with laughter, "You're finished knight! You cause me but mere pain. Now I shall slay you, your fool and the damsel. But they shall not fade and rise again. Your foolishness shall cost them their lives." Gwain paled and glanced fearfully at Max, "I'm sorry young friend, I have failed," he said as he slumped over. Gnarth stared at Gwain, "You lose again." His immense jaw dropped open and a wave of fire poured out, bathing Gwain in a mass of burning pain. The fire blazed and quickly went out. Gwain's blistered body fell to the ground and faded away.
"GWAIN!!! NO!!!" Max shrieked and jumped onto Gnarth's back. The mighty dragon lurched and tried to twist his head around to roast Max as well but Max held on. "Die bitch!," Max bellowed as he plunged the sword between Gnarth's shoulder blades. The colossal lizard reared, throwing Max, with sword still in hand, to the ground.
"Wretched fool. Just for that I shall kill the damsel while you watch. And then I will rip you from limb to limb." Gnarth hissed at Max and started to turn to Rosa.
Max grabbed his sword and bellowed, "Yo momma's a belt" then threw the sword like a javelin. Gnarth turned back to Max and watched as the sword flew through the air like a bolt from a crossbow. The massive jaw opened again to blast the sword and Max with fiery fury. But the final burning flame never came. Max stared at Gnarth and wondered, 'why am I not dead?' but then noticed where the sword had landed. In the back of Gnarth's still wide-open mouth Max could see the hilt of his sword, buried deep into the soft palette and probably piercing the brain. Gnarth stared at Max, wide-eyed and questioning. His gigantic mouth moved as though to ask "What the hell just happened?" but then the huge body slumped to the ground, already starting to fade.
The entire courtyard was still. No one moved. Most were holding their breath. Finally the silence was broken, "Holy shit! Way to go Maxwell Man! You slayed a freakin' dragon!" Rosa jumped down off of the dais and hugged the stunned Max. As she was embraced him she leaned over and whispered in his ear, "Maybe we should run now."
Max broke off the hug, nodded and backed away from her. "On the count of three we truck it for the entrance," he said.
Rosa grinned at him and grabbed his hand. "Three!," she shouted and they took off, leaving the baffled dragons behind to stare at the empty spot where their leader had fallen- to a jester.
* * *
At the gate Max and Rosa collapsed. "I don't think they're following us dude. They're probably still wondering how you killed Gnarth." Rosa giggled, "You should have seen your face when that golden creep fell over. You look like you had just about crapped your tights."
Max laughed. "I'm surprised I didn't. But what really surprised me is that your insults didn't knock him dead long before I got there." Rosa blushed. "My personal fav was Darwinian mishap. That was fabulous." Rosa blush deepened to a bright red and she bowed her head in embarrassment. After a moment or two of silence she glanced up and said, "Well thanks to you we didn't have to find out what the other choice names I had planned to call him would have done. Now let's get out of here so you can have a hero's return and I can get out of this corset and into my sleeping bag."
Max reached for the door and jumped back when it shocked him with a mini bolt of lightning. The two of them looked at the shimmering wall that had cause Max problems getting in and then turned to each other. At the exact same moment they exclaimed, "How are we going to get out?!?" Tiny giggles erupted from the beneath the counter of the cookies-and-milk shop, letting Max and Rosa know that getting out was the least of their worries.