Brian Northington crept through the darkened streets of Filbertford, sword strapped carefully to his back alongside his backpack, making hardly a sound as he flitted between the stone and timber buildings.
At least, that was how he’d thought it would go when he’d planned this escapade. Unfortunately, Brian’s imagination had forgotten to take account of the simple fact that, when flitting along darkened streets, it’s actually quite hard to see. So far he’d tripped over twice, skinning his knees the second time, and making enough noise that he was surprised half the village hadn’t descended on him.
He looked the part for these sorts of nighttime heroics, at least. A life spent handling large snakes, and lately trying to wrangle dragons, had left him with muscles that stood out under the darkness of his sweater and jeans, making him look a lot like he was in the business of delivering particularly heavy boxes of chocolates. The sword on his back was definitely magical, giving off a soft glow that he’d had to block by wrapping the thing in layer after layer of cloth.
It was just a pity, really, that it was the wrong one.
The right one lay ahead, dug halfway to the hilt in a massive block of stone that dominated the village green. It had been an easy mistake to make. After all, how was he to know which sword was for Filbertford’s local wizard to stick in a rock, and which was supposed to go to some would be evil warlord who’d probably be killed by the first set of adventurers to happen along. At the time, it hadn’t even seemed to make much difference.
Then Peter Edgeborough, his employer, had noticed the receipts and explained that it definitely did matter, and not just because acquiring a reputation for delivering the wrong thing was not good for a business dedicated to serving the needs of every hidden dungeon, magical grove and temple of light from here to the end of the multiverse. Well, not quite that far, but they were working on it.
More importantly, the sword currently residing in the Filberfordians’ rock was a thing of almost pure malevolence, crafted from assorted substances that would have the Health and Safety people rubbing their hands in glee, and which definitely wouldn’t do much good to whatever poor person pulled it out. Peter had explained that blades quenched in the blood of a hundred virgins and bespelled with words that would drive a normal person mad were fine for wannabe evil-warlords, because they were mostly halfway there already, but that it just wouldn’t be right to give them to normal customers. Particularly if they wanted them to become repeat customers.
It was at that point that Brian had offered to go and retrieve the thing. Well, that wasn’t quite true. First, he’d demanded to know where P. Edgeborough & Co. managed to get things like that in the first place. The answer wasn’t quite what he’d expected. It was amazing, the things that people sold in garage sales these days.
After that, Brian had suggested simply talking to the wizards they’d sold the wrong sword to, but Spider, the company’s other member, had vetoed that idea. The thing to do, she’d said, was to switch the swords back before anyone noticed. She’d do it herself, except that she was too busy. Or couldn’t be bothered. One or the other.
So that was how Brian came to be creeping towards the Filbertians’ great stone block, armed with the right sword, a potion Peter had assured him would get the other sword out, his emergency portal for quick exits, and an extra large tube of superglue for sticking the new sword in place. He inched towards the stone, finally able to make out the details of the weapon as he got close. Now that he knew what he was dealing with, Brian had to admit that it did give off a feeling that was faintly uncomfortable. It was kind of like the feeling that came when someone you’d been happily talking to for the past few minutes suddenly admitted to being a traffic warden.
Fishing out Edgeborough’s special potion, Brian wondered what you were supposed to do with it. Peter had forgotten to give him any details on that part, so Brian settled for dumping the contents of the vial over the stone. A faint hissing sound followed, sounding like nothing so much as stone dissolving, which was quite surprising since Brian didn’t actually know what dissolving stone was supposed to sound like.
The stone was dissolving! Hastily, Brian grabbed for the embedded sword as the huge rock began to resemble nothing so much as a lump of jelly that hadn’t set properly. He didn’t know what Peter’s potion would do to metal, but he didn’t want to find out. With a wrench, he hauled the thing clear of the rock.
Light flooded the square, half-blinding him. Out of nowhere, a voice that sounded like some god, or at least like Brian Blessed through a megaphone, boomed.
‘Lo! Behold the new king!’
It repeated itself, and the light continued, revealing the sleepy faces of villagers staring down, if not with reverence, then at least with a combination of sleep befuddled confusion and awe that might have passed for it.
Brian did the only thing he could think of. He ran.
Not that Brian was much of a connoisseur of mobs, but this one seemed to be unusually persistent. He’d been running for almost a mile now, and it was still following. The assorted mix of villagers, most of them still in their nightclothes, raced along behind him.
Bizarrely, they didn’t seem to be angry. Brian had expected cries along the lines of ‘kill the thief’ or ‘quick, get him!’ but instead the few yells from the crowd were more of the ‘come back Your Majesty!’ variety. Not that that made him want to stop. There would be all kinds of trouble once they worked out that he wasn’t their rightful king, and probably even more if they discovered the mix-up with the swords.
He thought about jumping out of there. After all, he had his portal. The trouble was, if he just vanished, it would be pretty obvious to the local wizards who had taken their sword. Besides, Spider would probably shout at him.
So he kept running. After another half-mile of sprinting down country lanes Brian managed to pull into a bit of a lead. He threw himself over the nearest hedge, hoping the mob would lose him in the darkness. He didn’t care much about what was on the other side.
Some horrible, ragged thing shoved at him in the dark. Since he was in a business that put monsters in dungeons to do exactly that, Brian found his brain racing. Could it be a Vile Scraps monster, or some sort of hobgoblin, or maybe some sort of undead? The undead were always popular. Well, except at parties.
It took Brian a moment to realise that it was a young man, dressed in scraps of clothing that looked like they’d been put back together almost at random. A crooked staff nearby proclaimed that the young man was a shepherd, though to be honest, the field full of bewildered looking sheep was also a clue. He struggled in Brian’s grasp.
‘Look,’ Brian said, ‘there’s a mob heading this way, could you please keep still?’
‘Oh no! Not again!’
It occurred to Brian that since he doubted the shepherd had people jumping on him over hedges every night and telling him that mobs were coming, he probably meant something else.
‘Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait. Did I mention the mob? Incidentally, I’m Brian.’
‘Stephan, and never mind the mob.’ The young shepherd answered. ‘I’ve fallen asleep again when I’m meant to be fetching the sheep back. Farmer Gustav is going to throw me out this time for sure! And then what will I do?’
Since he was making more noise than was really good for them, Brian clamped a hand over Stephan’s mouth.
‘You can start by keeping your voice down. The farmer’s going to be the least of your worries once this mob catches up.’
He took his hand away, and the other man shook his head sadly.
‘You don’t understand,’ Stephan continued, but quietly, ‘I’d rather be torn apart by a mob. If I’m thrown out of there, then I won’t be able to see Maria anymore.’
‘Maria?’ Brian asked, not really paying attention. The distant, but still approaching, sound of angry villagers would do that.
‘His daughter. He says I’m not good enough for her, but while I’m working for him it’s easy for us to sneak off together. She’s perfect, and wonderful and…’
Brian clamped his hand over Stephan’s mouth again as the mob got close.
‘He has to be here somewhere!’
‘Come out, Your Majesty! We’re just here to… what are we here to do again, Fred?’
‘Swear fealty, bow, shout hurrah, that sort of thing.’ Another voice, presumably Fred, supplied. ‘Though I don’t know what sort of king he is, running off like this. Honestly, I thought this Sword in a Big Rock stuff was supposed to find us the right candidate. I’ll tell you, if he doesn’t come out soon, I’m off home, and we can forget the whole thing.’
Brian, sitting very quietly, stiffened. Partly that was because he’d just leaned back against quite a thorny branch, but mostly it was because he suspected that ruining everything the clients had put a sword in a stone for would not make Peter and Spider very happy. The trouble was, what else could he do?
His gaze drifted to the shepherd, and he wondered how good a view of him the villagers had got while still half asleep. Dragging the sword he’d brought out from behind his back, Brian leaned closer to Stephan.
‘How would you like a chance to really impress that girl of yours?’
‘So you just handed him the magic sword and shoved him out into the open?’ Spider, real name Cynthia, demanded. Brian nodded uncomfortably.
‘That’s perfect!’ Peter exclaimed, slapping him on the back. Or at least as far up it as he could reach.
Brian and Spider said it together, but it was Spider who continued.
‘Peter,’ she said, ‘I don’t get it. Not only did Brian here botch the initial order, but he’s ruined the wizards’ scheme with the sword. How can that be perfect?’
The small man adjusted his glasses and shrugged.
‘Oh, I’m sure it doesn’t matter who got the sword. The clients were complaining when they ordered it that they weren’t sure were they were going to get a suitable candidate to haul it out. If anything, Brian has saved them some work.’
‘But some shepherd…’
‘Is perfect. Nicely mythic. I’m sure they’ll be very pleased. And the young man gets his love, which I’m told can be very important in these situations.’
Spider nodded, and for a moment her expression softened.
‘I suppose so.’
Brian, deciding it was the best he was going to get, turned to get back to work.
‘Haven’t you forgotten something, Brian?’ Spider asked.
Brian’s brow creased.
‘Like the other sword?’ Spider prompted. ‘Come on, hand it over. I’ll drop it off with the warlord. I’m heading that way anyway. I thought I’d try talking him into the super-deluxe dungeon.’
Brian looked at his hands, and then in his backpack, and then, against all common sense, in his pockets. A sense of dread mounted in him, of the sort that usually comes to a man when he thinks he might be about to be sacked.
‘I must have forgotten it,’ he admitted at last. ‘I think I probably left it behind a hedge. I’ll just go and…’
‘No.’ Spider said firmly. ‘I’ll go.’
‘We’ll all go.’ Peter said calmly.
They did. After all, it isn’t every day you get to go to a coronation. And the coronation of King Stephan the Sleepy was universally acknowledged as quite a good one, even if he did nod off half way through.