The biggest misconception about the relationship between Drake Hannesson and Charisse Mantress was that he worshipped the ground she walked on. This was patently untrue. It simply wouldn't have been practical. Inseparable almost from the moment of their births, Drake and Charisse had worked and played alongside each other for as long as either of them could remember. Drake walked on all the same ground as Charisse did, which, had he chosen to worship it, would have been profoundly irreverent. No, Drake certainly did not worship the ground Charisse walked on. He did, however, worship several of her old hair ties, a long-dead rose she put behind her ear one summer night, the notebook of poetry she kept for a few months before realizing she had no talent, every one of the many scarves she had knitted him over past years, the bundle of letters she wrote him when he was across town for a summer being paid meager wages to do the chores around the farm for his mother's father, and a pair of gloves she "lost" last winter.

Don't look so horrified. He bought her a new pair for Solstice.

Drake and Charisse, now both approaching the age of twenty, lived on neighboring farms on the outskirts of Grangoria, the smallest and remotest town in Versella. Drake still lived with his parents and eight younger siblings by virtue of the fact that he was not yet married; Charisse lived alone by virtue of the fact that both of her parents were dead. Charisse's parents died of tuberculosis when she was eight, willing that Drake's parents, the Mantresses' best friends, manage the farm and make sure that Charisse was well cared for until a husband was found for her. Drake was painfully aware that Charisse ought to have been married four years ago, but, as a result of a tremendous failure on both of their parts, she was still unwed. The failure on Charisse's part was her perpetual attraction to men who appeared to need her, leading to numerous endlessly romantic but emotionally dysfunctional relationships with tragically messed up men whose angst allowed them to milk her sympathy for all it was worth until she finally realized that she was being treated terribly. The failure on Drake's part was that, for as long as he'd loved Charisse, he still didn't have the guts to propose to her himself. Drake had had the ring since he was sixteen and had been trying to confess his feelings for even longer, but was sadly hindered every time by the fact that, when it came to matter of the heart, Drake was a bloody coward.

You could describe Drake as a strapping young lad, but somehow it wouldn't feel right. Drake was almost six and a half feet tall and built like a bull. His freckled, whiskerless boy-face looked completely out of place atop his shoulders, which occasionally forced him to walk through doorways sideways. As strong as an ox and almost as clever, what Drake lacked in intelligence he made up for in heart. Although he could be profoundly annoying, all decent people were kind to him because cruelty to Drake felt like kicking a puppy. When bravery did not entail a proclamation of love, Drake rushed into every new challenge with the naïve valor of an almost-grown man who still thinks it would be fun and exciting to go on a dangerous, heroic adventure. He was almost twenty, but his baby-blue eyes were those of a child.

Charisse was a sturdy young woman, vivacious and by no means dainty, with long, strong legs and round hips. Her hair was curly, strawberry blonde, and fell to her waist, her eyes were a silvery green, and her skin was bronzed from her endless work in the sun. Voracious to the point of wearing out the people around her, she more than pulled her weight on both farms and spent the evenings knitting or lounging around either with Drake or with her newest sub-par flame. Charisse was a bleeding heart, endlessly sympathetic and never happier than when she was taking care of someone. Her impossibly gentle way of handling those in need had led Drake to set a personal moral standard several years ago stating that he could not fake sick to get Charisse to fawn over him more than three times a year. Needless to say, his three little brothers did not adhere to the same code of conduct.

Drake's friendship with Charisse was built on laughter, camaraderie, mutual dependability, and ill-received hints. Every time one of Charisse's relationships would spiral out of control, Drake would come barreling in, sometimes of his own decision and sometimes because Charisse begged him to, and set things straight, whether this entailed informing Charisse that he had caught her lover with one of the local milkmaids or threatening a man who slapped her across the face with dismemberment by pitchfork if he ever spoke to her again. And then he would hint at how she would be much better off if she would just marry someone who was a good person and cared about her a lot (read: him). The major flaw in this was that Charisse, being a woman, would be outside the realms of social acceptability if she expressed an interest in Drake without him saying something first, so this left her to attempt to convey indirectly to Drake that she would, in fact, be happy to marry him if he would just get around to asking already. Alas, Drake was thicker than stale molasses. No matter how obvious Charisse tried to be, ("You know Drake, you would make such a good husband…") Drake continued to back out of proposing again and again and again. Her compliments were blushingly received, but not taken in the right sense; her hints were ignored; and her frequent attempts (while she was single) to initiate wild, spontaneous sex in the hay barn were completely overlooked. Drake was fast losing faith in himself, and Charisse was fast losing faith in whether or not she even wanted to marry this idiot. So while Drake procrastinated, Charisse devoted her affections to men who were bold enough to let her know about their feelings, and as a result of poor judgment got involved with every complete and utter bastard within a five-mile radius.

Our tale began one warm, rainy spring night in Charisse's bedroom, where Drake was pacing irritably back and forth. At his parents' orders and Charisse's request, he was spending the night at her house to keep an eye on things. A week ago she had taken him aside to confess that her fiancé, a fairly wealthy farmer named Frederick, was bossy, demeaning, and overly aggressive, and begged Drake to get his parents, who had signed off on the arrangement, to cancel the marriage. Drake, of course, had immediately acquiesced and his parents had, when presented with the case, agreed to cancel the engagement, but Frederick had been furious and threatened retribution. Ever since, Drake had been staying every night at Charisse's house, because he and his family felt it wasn't safe to leave a woman alone in her house after she'd been directly threatened, and the prevailing wisdom was that Drake was big and imposing enough to deter any attempt at revenge.

Charisse sat at the edge of her bed in her nightshift and slippers, watching Drake pace back and forth with a mixture of regretful embarrassment and defensiveness.

"Oh come on," she interrupted finally "whatever it is you're thinking, just say it. I don't want you being miffed all night and refusing to let me know what your problem is."

Drake stopped in his tracks, terse and agitated.

"I'm not miffed." He said sourly. "I'm just…"

Charisse raised a disbelieving eyebrow and he sighed.

"It's frustrating, alright?" He burst out. "You always do this! Frederick isn't the first guy who's threatened you, you always ignore all the signs and then I always have to come in and save you!"

"I thanked you for helping me!" Charisse reminded him, indignant. "You don't have to do anything, it isn't like I don't appreciate it!"

"Of course I have to!" Drake retorted, but in a kinder voice. "It's not like I could just leave you to deal with these bastards on your own…"

Charisse smiled in spite of herself. "My hero." When Drake blushed crimson, she cocked her head endearingly and patted the bed next to her, inviting him to sit down. "Come on, sit down. I'd be lost without your help. You know how much I appreciate it."

"Well maybe that isn't what I want!" Drake shot back as he plunked down next to her.

"Then what do you want?" She demanded, a little heatedly.

"How about 'it won't happen again'? How about 'from now on I'm going to save my affections for someone who really loves me'?"

"I always think they really love me until they start treating me badly!"

"Then how about 'from now on I'm going to save my affections for someone who is decent and kind and hardworking and loyal and doesn't drink, hasn't had half the women in town, hasn't been married three times, doesn't have illegitimate children he refuses to support, isn't brooding, selfish or irrationally angry, isn't tragically emotionally messed up, and TAKES GOOD CARE OF ME'?"

"Got anyone in mind?" Quipped Charisse, not quite dumb enough to overlook a hint of that size.

"I could probably think of someone." He retorted. Drake could not comprehend sarcasm and so took her response as an indication that she hadn't gotten his hint.

"Well by all means," Charisse said pointedly "let them know about me, because His Perfection hasn't exactly approached me yet!"

Drake was too busy to respond, being locked in an internal conflict like so:

Propose now! She wants you!

You don't know that!

She wants you!

Does not!

Does too!

Propose now!

I caaaaaaan't!

You spineless wimp! I'm ashamed to be you!

Exactly! Waaaaaaaah!

"It doesn't make sense." Charisse said finally, after a very long pause. "I mean, we're almost twenty now and we're still pretty much alone, and I'm worried! What if I don't find anyone decent! Two people like us…should be married..." She paused thoughtfully, and then asked for emphasis "don't you think we should be married?"

She thinks we should be married!!!

Wait, married how? Married in general? Married to each other?

Ask her! Ask her what she means!

no!

"Yeah…" Drake said glumly, choosing the less exciting interpretation. "I do…"

Charisse scowled, and there was a moment's frustrated and depressing silence before she went at it again, increasingly desperate.

"Drake… if you could, say…I don't know, design a wife. Say a magic genie came to you and said he would make you the woman of your dreams. What would she be like?"

This is THE PERFECT OPPORTUNITY!!! The little voice screamed. Come on, not even YOU can screw this up!!!

"I…I don't know…"

I hate being you.

I'm very sorry.

"What about you? If you could design a husband, what would he –"

"Oh," said Charisse eagerly, diving right into it "he would be strong, and brave, and kind and warmhearted, and honest, hardworking,"

That sounds like you!

That doesn't mean it IS! Every girl wants that!

But you fit the description! She'd say yes if you proposed!

You don't know that! She could be holding out for some white knight she hasn't even met yet!

DAMN it, Drake…

"fair, decent, handsome, and…" A look at Drake's face was revealing no flash of understanding. "…tall and redheaded…?" she added with a hint of desperation.

"That sounds nice." Sighed Drake, who had stopped listening after 'hardworking.'

Charisse opened her mouth, then shut it again, paused, and then said,

"Drake, have you ever heard of a biological clock?"

Drake thought about it.

"…no."

"…never mind."

Behind Charisse's house, and Drake's too, there stretched an expanse of farmland with all the crops in full bloom.

This information is relevant because it pertains to the fact that while Charisse and Drake were talking, assassins were hiding in the corn.

There were four of them: a dark-haired woman with a wiry build and a sharp, stern face; a gigantic brute of a man wearing too much armor and carrying a very traditional wooden club with nails in it; a short, bald, disagreeable little bugger who was obviously compensating for something; and a gangly, filthy, moronic ape whose clothes were entirely a dirty brown except for the bright blue bandana around his neck, which his mother gave him.

Not a moment passed between these four that the woman, named Isadora, didn't have to marvel at what an absolutely classic group of cannon fodder the Powers That Be had granted her. Straight from the ranks of her employer's henchmen, they were so perfectly… so perfectly henchmanly that they hadn't even come with names. She had taken the liberty of granting them all easy-to-remember nicknames for convenience purposes; the boulder's was Ugg because of his cliché inarticulateness, the filthy ape's was Mama's Boy because of the bandana and his Mom tattoo, and the shorty's was Eyebrows, because…well, because his eyebrows looked like they were going to crawl off his face and eat someone, and the first thing that had popped into Isadora's head when she first made to get his attention was "Hey! Eyebrows!" And what a typical bunch they were…so typical. Ugg had the brute force of an elephant and no discernible thoughts beyond "SMASH CRUSH ARGH!" Eyebrows and Mama's Boy were so naturally inseparable that Isadora had contemplated having them dragged in different directions until they could no longer see each other just to see if they'd explode, but they did nothing but argue nastily and incessantly over matters of no importance. Mama's Boy was, of course, the dumbest and also the softest at heart, and Eyebrows, determined as so many short thugs were to prove that they were capable of kicking people around, verbally abused him to no end.

With her finger to her lips to keep the others quiet, she stood motionless and alert, with her black-gloved hands on the hilts of the two swords on her back. Her air was of total composure, but the hairs on the back of her neck were standing up. Not including her weapons or her underwear, Isadora was wearing only her long black undershirt, black trousers, gloves, and leather boots. Nothing in the way of armor, not even a chain mail vest. This was only common sense, on a stealth mission it wouldn't do to be clanking around, but she felt naked. She let go of her swords for a split second to shake out her arms. Relax. She commanded herself. You and four men against an unarmed peasant girl, what are you worried about?

"Where's Carl?" Muttered Mama's Boy irritably, scratching the back of his greasy head. "He's too slow! Did they catch him, d'ya think?"

Isadora shook her head curtly.

"I've never known Carl to get caught. He's waiting until he feels it's safe to come out."

"Then we'll be here forever!" Eyebrows spat, unsheathing an unpleasant-looking knife and making to lunge forward.

"Don't you dare." Isadora snapped. "We'll wait until Carl comes back."

"Waste of time!" He snarled.

"We have all night." She said evenly. "Be patient."

He scowled.

"I say we go in now." Decreed Ugg in a low, rumbling growl, standing up behind them.

"That's too bad." Retorted Isadora, who over the last several days had grown extremely irked by Ugg's misconception that being the biggest made him in charge by default. "Do you see him?" She asked, looking up at him.

Ugg looked around from his advantageous high position.

"No." He grunted.

"That's a shame. Now get down, you imbecile! Anyone who looks out his window will see you a smile away!"

Ugg flexed his muscles and gave her a very pointed glare.

"Do not start this." Isadora snarled. "Not tonight. You want to duel for leadership rights? Great. We'll do it tomorrow. Right now we need this done, and if you get us discovered by being stubborn you will live precisely long enough to regret it. Get down."

Just as Ugg was squatting amid snickers from the two other thugs, there was a rustling in the corn directly in front of them and the sound of a gasp.

"There's someone with her!" Breathlessly, Carl stumbled into the cornfield and practically into Isadora's arms, eyes bulging. "There's someone with her! A friend or a…brother, or something!" He gasped, falling to his knees.

"Whatsee like?" Demanded Mama's Boy, brandishing his sickle and blinking dirt out of his eyes.

In his usual state of panic, Carl could only continue to wheeze, still kneeling on the ground.

"Well?" Snarled Eyebrows. "What was he like?" When Carl failed to catch his breath in time to supply an answer, Eyebrows kicked him viciously in the ribs.

A slap stung his face, and he stumbled backwards.

"Good work." Isadora reprimanded coldly. "You have now detracted from our collective power by injuring one of your companions immediately before an important mission. If I see you kick Carl again, I'm going to show you what it feels like." He grumbled apologetically and rubbed his face, and Isadora turned abruptly to Carl. "Relax." It was an order. Carl did the best he could. "What did the man look like?"

"He was…tall…" Carl said nervously, getting shakily to his feet. "Young, about the girl's age. Red hair. They're both awake. Probably her brother?"

"Was he armed?"

"No, but he was huge!"

"Bigger than Ugg?" Isadora raised an eyebrow.

Carl squeaked and swallowed hard, looking up at the requisite thug-giant who was now sulking silently behind their leader, looking a bit like a boulder with a crew cut.

"N-no…" he laughed nervously "not bigger than Ugg. Much… ehehehehe… smaller than Ugg, actually. Much smaller than Ugg. No threat at all, really."

Ugg grunted.

"If the bloody brother is no threat, then why didja bother telling us?" Eyebrows snarled irritably.

"Better to be safe." Isadora replied. "Thank you, Carl." She turned sharply to the other men. "Let's not waste time. Mama's boy – Eyebrows – Carl – Ugg – head in and drag her out."

Carl squeaked loudly.

"Yes, Carl, you're going in too." She said sternly. "They can use all the manpower they can get and you're useless to me out here. Now, try to break in quietly lest you wake the neighbors or alert her to your presence before you get inside – once you're in there, don't worry about it. I'll be waiting out here in case something goes wrong – if you find yourselves unable to handle the situation, break a window and I'll come in after you. If I see someone heading towards the house, I'll ambush them and dispose of them before they can give you any trouble. Be careful with the girl but do whatever you have to with the brother – in fact, it's probably best you kill him just in case. Now get moving. Kendra wanted us to report back as soon as possible." Gesturing them all towards the house, she took off like a breeze, quickly and silently cutting across the farmyard to the hay barn and easily climbing to the roof. She had forgotten how light she was without a full coat of armor. Moving without it felt like flying. On the top of the barn she perched, tensed and alert, with her eyes on the house and on her henchmen. She would see the girl if she escaped and be upon her in an instant.

Grumbling, leering, towering menacingly, and trembling – respectively – Eyebrows, Mama's Boy, Ugg, and Carl made their way as stealthily as possible towards Charisse's front door.