We were at the mouth of the cave, peering into the darkness that glimmered faintly with the gold of the dragon’s hoard, when my phone buzzed.
I pulled it out of my leather satchel just far enough to see that it was, in fact, the daycare. My heart sank.
“Sorry, I have to take this,” I mouthed apologetically to Glork, the only member of my party within earshot; his bulging yellow eyes narrowed at the interruption between him and his spoils. “Be right back.”
I backed away from the cave, into the majestic-yet-abandoned marble halls of a greedy people who had delved too deep into a mountain whose secrets they could not have fathomed.
Then, I swiped to answer the call.
“Kristen, what’s up?” I asked. “Is Ber okay?”
“He’s fine, he’s fine,” she soothed, knowing my mind had immediately jumped to images of my little baby boy being taken away in an ambulance or tossed atop a Plague cart. But then she paused. “We-ell, he did actually just throw up everywhere. I’m gonna need you to come pick him up.”
“Oh no. Is he okay?”
“He seems better now that he’s gotten it all up,” she chirped. “But you know the policy, he’s gotta be symptom-free for 24 hours to come back.”
Our party’s necromancer had drifted after me into the hall, poking the faceless void of its hood out to check on me. I held up a “one minute” finger; the hood nodded and the lightless form retreated.
“Okay, that’s good—listen, Kristen, is there any chance you can give my sister a call? She’s on the emergency contacts, and I’m a little tied up here at work.”
A whoosh of frustrated breath. “I’ll try and let you know, but if she doesn’t pick up—”
“Thank you, I’ll be here if you need me, I appreciate it, goodbye,” I rattled off and hung up, then dashed back towards the mouth of the cave.
“Finally,” sneered Alohir, a golden-haired elf clutching the magical harp whose enchanted tones would charm the dragon to sleep, allowing us to rob it blind. “Your little gremlin giving you troubles again?”
“Okay, first of all, can we not with the gremlin stereotypes?” I huffed. “And secondly, Alohir, he’s a child. I know you haven’t had elflings for seventeen centuries but some of us—”
“Silence,” the necromancer said, somehow, despite its lack of visible mouth. “The dragon stirs at your bickering.”
Alohir glared at me and began to play. The warm tones rang true in the dark of the cavern, filling the damp, mossy air with a somnolent melody.
We crept in closer, closer. As we drew near, I could make out the dragon’s impenetrable coat of jewel-toned scales stirring with each breath as it slept, curled atop its stolen treasure. We needed to catch it by surprise.
And then my phone vibrated again, clanging against the metal plate of my armor.
The dragon awoke with a roar and a burst of impossibly hot fire that whooshed through the cavern, all aglow with gold and flame. It screeched, baring teeth like pikes. The skull of some long-dead knight was still impaled on an incisor.
“Necromancer! Begin the death-spell!” Glork screeched from where he’d clambered up atop Alohir’s shoulder, making it hard for the elf to aim his arrows.
But I didn’t have time for all that. I rushed forward, reckless, as Alohir screamed “WHAT ARE YOU DOING—” and lopped the dragon’s head off with my broadsword in one brutal swing.
Then, I ran straight out of the cavern to pick up my son before we got kicked out of daycare and had to find a new one with open spots and flexible aftercare.
(I was not about to start that quest over again.)
• • • •
When I climbed over the top of the tower wall, clanking in my armor and cursing the upper-body strength I was still building back postpartum, the beautiful, captive princess at the top smiled gratefully at me.
Until I took off my helmet.
“Oh,” the princess said, tossing her raven cascade of ringlets and looking me over with distaste. “I rather thought . . .”
“Rather thought what?” I snapped, irritable from having left my sick kid with my insufferable sister that morning.
“Well, that I’d be rescued by a knight.”
“I am a knight,” I sighed.
“You’re a lady knight,” she clarified. “A knightess.”
“Most of us prefer just knight, actually.”
The princess blinked her false lashes.
“You know,” I went on, beginning to feel foolish. “Because you don’t say lord knight. Or . . . he-knight.”
“I see,” she sniffed, clearly uncaring. “Still. I expected . . . someone else. For, you know, the kiss.”
“I can still kiss you,” I offered. “Why not, you know, get rescued, subvert a few gender tropes along the way?”
Her mouth formed an unimpressed line as she looked me over, eyes lingering at the dried spit-up on my breastplate. “If I wanted to subvert a trope, I would have just rescued myself,” she said tartly.
My phone rang, and with my sister watching Ber, I had no choice but to answer. “Shoot, sorry, do you mind if I take this?”
She frowned, but made a “go on” gesture.
It was, indeed, my sister. “Listen, I know you said to give Ber some Tylenol if his fever went up, but he just keeps spitting the pills back out.”
“The— the what!? He needs infant Tylenol, the bubblegum-flavor syrup, not—” I stopped, took a deep breath, and realized I had no choice but to dash to the rescue. “Okay, you just put those pills away, and I’ll be there soon.”
The princess had her perfectly-threaded eyebrows raised as I stuffed my phone back into my pouch.
“Could you do that, actually? Rescue yourself?” I implored.
She sighed, and I raced back down the tower steps.
• • • •
“Your Majesty,” I said from one knee in front of the Glorious Throne of a Vaguely European Fantasy Kingdom, “I need a couple days off. I apologize for the wretched timing, but, alas, my son has fallen ill.”
“Oh, quite, quite; we’re a family monarchy,” the old king nodded benevolently. “Work from home as long as you need. NEXT!”
I opened my mouth to protest—that was not at all what I had asked—but the next petitioner was already wailing and rending their burlap garments before the throne, so I left.
• • • •
I eased my little boy into his crib, watched the rise and fall of his chest in ducky pajamas, the sleeping pucker and release of his tiny lips. His fever had stayed away today, but he was still cranky. Getting him to sleep had been a lullaby marathon.
And now he was down.
I crept out of the room, then flung myself over to the crystal ball. I was never gonna make the sales quota they’d given me (I was a tank, not a disembodied spirit) but knight errantry leaves few work-from-home options. It was this or unemployment.
“Hello, is this the Evil Queen?” I asked when my next prospect appeared before her own crystal ball.
“It’s pronounced Queen,” she snapped. “Just the Queen.”
“Yes, yes, I’m so sorry, m’lady. I’m just calling to let you know the warranty on your night-black stallion with eyes like embers and hooves like obsidian is about to expire, and—”
“And what are you going to do about it?” she drawled.
“My employer is prepared to summon the spirits of the damned to haunt you until you renew,” I said, hoping the mystical connection wouldn’t pick on the way my voice shook. The training slideshow had encouraged us to use threats whenever possible; it had never sat quite right with me, but I really needed to get my sales numbers up.
“I don’t hear any spirits of the damned,” the Queen laughed, and my heart sunk. “Now if you’ll—”
At that moment, through the static of the baby monitor (which I had meant to mute, but which was still on full volume) came a cry so ear-piercing, so agonized, that I clapped my hands over my ears even as I saw the Queen do the same.
“Fine, fine, sign me up,” she cried. “Anything to stop that horrible sound.”
“Hey! That’s my . . . tormented soul you’re talking about here!” I said, offended, even as I switched off the monitor, then switched back to my professional voice. “But thank you and have a nice day.”
As soon as I cut the connection, the screeching from down the hall stopped. I checked the monitor, and Ber was blinking up at the camera, eyes bright as stars in the night-vision setting.
Then, his eyes blinked closed. He lay back down and went to sleep.
“Thanks, buddy,” I whispered as I watched him doze.
It was the little moments like this that made all the hard work and sleepless nights I’d spent tricking that pious maiden out of her firstborn worth it.
Spread the word!