The Princess Who Saved Herself
Once upon a time, there was a princess. She was pretty and smart and trapped in a castle. She was looking out the window of the highest tower of the Evil Wizard’s Castle (Thusly called because an Evil Wizard lived there) in the Valley of Terror, at the end of t he Road To Unexpected Pain, that ran through the middle of the Forest of Very Scary Things, which lay in the Valley of Terribleness, amid the Mountains of Sharp Pointy Rocks that Like to Cut Between The Toes, at the border of her home kingdom (from which she had been taken some time ago). She was bespectacled and raven haired. She was fair skinned (except for that one spot, but she learned to hide it under her bangs, which made her feel better about it) and sweet of voice. She was also very, very, very bored.
You see, she had been atop the that tower for quite a number of years now, having been taken as an infant, payment due for services rendered of some sort or other (usually something to do with money or hair, she had read in a book from the castle library) and there she had stayed. She wasn’t treated like a Princess, but wasn’t mistreated either, mind you. The problem is (and this is what they never tell you) there is a very limited number of things to do in an evil castle. Most of the hallways have signs reading ‘Warning: traps ahead!’, ‘Mind the spikes!’, or ‘ [insert monster] hasn’t eaten in [insert number] days: DO NOT REACH INSIDE THIS DOOR! LOSS OF LIMB OR LIFE POSSIBLE!’. She had seen what happened to one of the goblin servants who wandered down the wrong hall on a Tuesday (Wednesday was the normal dusting day for that section of the castle) and didn’t want to risk being adventurous.
So most days she sat, her elbow on the window sill, head resting upon her hand, staring out the window and hoping to see something shiny and bright in the distance, dust coming from the hooves of a steed on the Road to Unexpected Pain, and maybe this one wouldn’t be an idiot and actually save her. Most knights have more ‘I can’ than I.Q., sadly.
‘Mistress, it’s time for lunch’ slithered into her ear from behind. She squeaked slightly, turning quickly to see her handmaiden.. butler… serving goblin. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you’.
The goblin’s name was Nail. It had been her servant and makeshift friend for the last few years. The size and smell of a large wet dog, the maid outfit didn’t really convinve her of Nail’s gender. The voice was no help, of course, sound as though someone was chocking to death on rocks in the next room.
‘It’s okay, Nail. I was just daydreaming. Have there been any Knight sightings out beyond the woods?’
‘No, ma’am. The Horns of Approaching Failure have not sounded for quite some time, I’m afraid. I’ve brought your lunch. Will you eat in your room or in the library?’
‘The library, please. I’ve found a most interesting book on the history of my captor’s lands. Did you know goblins used to be free? No serving, scrubbing, cooking, or accidentally being fed to the beasts of the Doom Zoo?’
A nod only acknowledged the lesson, Nail being careful not to spill anything as they walked down the spiral staircase. It was very close quarters, the steps extremely narrow and the walls suffocatingly close.
‘Don’t you want to be free, Nail? To do whatever you want, when you want?’
‘Why? You live in constant danger, receive pretty regular injuries from traps, and have nothing to call your own.’
‘I have my dress, ma’am.’ gnarled smile revealing sharp broken teeth. The dress was a source of pride for Nail. Given to him/her by Princess Allura (the Princess of our tale) herself some years ago. It had become too small to fit her, so for Meeman Night she had gifted it to Nail.
‘You could have more! You could come with me, away from the castle and back to my home. Have a wonderful life.’
The library doors easily moved, despite being solid oak and so old to almost be as stone. Despite the easy movement, they still creaked loudly. Atmosphere was everything, after all, when you had an evil castle filled with hungry, nasty things. Dust floated in and out of sunrays, blinding after the torchlit hallway outside, filling the massive room with even more atmosphere (the smaller goblins had jobs collecting and dropping that dust from walkways high up in the ceiling, but you wouldn’t know unless you were told).
Large as a cathedral and twice as tall as the largest of those, the library was lined with books. Massive tomes, leatherbound and heavy, could be found on many subjects. The library was the only other room she had been officially allowed to visit in the castle, with many hours spent reading. What else was there to do most days? Goblin games usually involved bodily fluids and they couldn’t quite get the hang of hide and seek. The game usually ended in finding one or more participants missing forever. They did their best, however, and she counted them almost as friends. At the very least they were accomplices, helping her sneak through the safer hallways and explore some of her home.
All of that seemed quite normal to her then, not knowing anything different. The Wizard had taught her to read, so that changed when she started reading the collections of fairy tales and myths. Most of them involved princesses, ogres, and kidnapping of one form or another, and being a smart child, Princess Allura had questions. The Wizard had told her the truth when asked, finding no reason to hide it. She was from a kingdom far, far away, the daughter of a King and Queen and he had stolen her from her crib on a cool spring night. Allura was angry at first, but anger gave way to curiosity and a yearning to escape and see the world (and home) she had been reading about in the books.
In the middle of the library were more bookshelves and one large table. The table was cover din candles for night reading, and open flat on the surface was her latest reading material. ‘Poke Yu’s Art of Swordplay Volume 1: The Pointy End Goes In the Other Guy’ was halfway through. The pages were filled with diagrams and descriptions, the current technique being ‘I Say, Do You Have The Time, Old Chap?’ The diagram depicted two figures, one with a missing hand, the other smiling devilishly, and the caption reading ‘Without a hand, how can one hold a sword?’
Allura sat, sipping at tea and nibbling on sandwich and cookies lightly, engaged fully with the page before her. She had learned many techniques to aid her escape, including minor magic spells for defense and offense. This was all theory, of course, having no practical way to apply much of the knowledge she had learned. She tried sparring with some of the goblins, but they scared easily and really didn’t like the idea of being poked at all, even by a dull wooden rod.
‘Did you need anything more of me, ma’am?’ Nail questioned, having been idly refilling the teacup as it drained.
‘Help, Nail. I need help escaping.’
‘There is no escape, Princess. Noone has ever, or will ever escape the Evil Wizard’s Castle. No one has been rescued by a knight, milady. The only way out is for the Wizard to tire of feeding you, and the only exit door opens with a key that looks like a blade. Your family has likely forgotten about you, or at the very least, given up hope you’ll ever return.’ Allura, mouth agog, watched Nail walk away, feet lightly slapping the stones. ‘Try to make the best of it, Princess.’
Quite depressed now, Allura finished her lunch, retrieved the wooden rod she used for practicing her fencing, and fenced. She ignored the torchbearing ogre that lit the candles of the library. He ignored her right back. The moon was not quite up when Nail returned with dinner. Stew and bread with milk and cookies.
‘Master will join you shortly, Princess.’ The Goblin laying out two place settings, chairs across from each other. It was Thursday, she realised. The Wizard would be joining her for dinner as he always did. Straightening her dress and brushing her hair, her stomach growled having been hours since lunch. She had been practicing many hours, the rod causing loud rings as she swatted and sliced and stabbed it at one of the many suits of armor standing about (being mindful of the ones the goblins used to sneak in naps).
The swishing of cloth on the stones and muffled steps were the sign of her captor’s arrival. The Wizard was much taller than she, towering over her now as he had when she was a child. Allura had never seen his face, it being deep inside a hood. Purple wool, some gold trimming, and a leather belt. Simple, clean, and precise were the Wizard’s clothes. Functional in it’s lack of grandeur. Terrifying in what it suggested the mind that came up with the look could come up with for you.
‘Good evening, Princess. I trust you are well?’ filled her mind, the voice an echo of her own, as the Wizard sat, elbows propping up clasped hands. She could feel his gaze from the inky black inside the hood, not menacing or threatening, only cold and emotionless.
‘No, Wizard’ small bites and tiny sips allowing her to look away. Staring into that ‘face’ gave her chills followed later by nightmares of the worst kind. The kind where you fear you may die because the ground is coming so fast and you know you’re asleep and must awake, but the ground just keeps flying to meet you.
‘Oh? What is the matter, Princess? Is Nail not doing a good job as your handmaiden… butler… whatever…’ It made her feel better that even the Wizard couldn’t decipher the enigma of Nail’s gender.
‘I want to go outside.’
‘You cannot, Princess.’
‘I want to know why you kidnapped me’ calm and collected, no use in yelling.
‘You cannot, Princess.’
‘I want a sparring partner, then’ she said, losing her calm ‘that I might fight my way to freedom and find the answers myself!’
The Wizard said nothing for a long time. Allura’s anger changed in that silence, going cold, turning to unease and fear that there were consequences. The Wizard rose, slowly making for the door of the library. The only sound was the Dust Goblins sneaking in the darkness, sweeping up the dust to be sprinkled in the sunbeams tomorrow. The Wizard stopped for the door to open, loud creak echoing to the rooftops, then silence.
‘Are you sure you wish to attempt this? I will not be kind.’
‘You’re never kind, only cold.
‘I will not be merciful.’
‘I asked for none.’
‘Then you shall have your partner, and a month. A fortnight to escape, Princess. Should you fail, it will be your death, either by trap, or by monster, or my own hands.’
Allura said nothing for a long time after the Wizard had gone.
The morning came, naturally light filling the library just as most of the candles and torches had gone out. Allura was drooling on Poke Yu’s instructions for performing the ‘Berry Harvest Defense (though she had no berries to defend, she wanted to make sure she was as prepared as possible) when she was awoken by Nail, ready with a breakfast of fruit and oatmeal and milk and juice and coffee.
‘Good morning, Nail’ she yawned, stretching the stretch of those who had slept somewhere other than in a bed. The Wick Faeries buzzed about her, their only job to replace the candles used the night before, but they stayed away from the food. Nail was already handing her the coffee.
‘Morning Princess. Sleep well?’
‘Yeff, sank ou’ escaped between bits of blueberry and oats.
‘Princess, you shouldn’t speak with your mouth full’ seemed odd, coming from a goblin, creatures whose way to celebrate usually meant feces flinging at the very least. ‘It’s… unPrincessy.’
‘Ibs jusd uf, Male’ washed down with Dragon Fruit juice. She wasn’t sure what the fruit used was called, she only called it that because she had seen the dragon tending the orchard in the closest part of the forest. That sounded gentle and all, but she had been watching when a knight, doubtless hungry after the long journey to reach the castle, had stopped to pick one of the fruit. The Cleanicorns took several days to find all the pieces (the forest couldn’t be littered with rotting bodies, afterall, and cleanicorns had two bonuses to being allowed to live in the forest. They were obsessive about cleaniness and they hated people who made a mess. Since most knights didn’t clean up after themselves it was a beautiful system).
‘Not the point, Princess. I was asked to give this to you as well’ from a pocket Nail produced a scroll, bound by a ribbon and sealed with wax. The seal was an ornate ‘W’, pressed into black wax She cradled it briefly, her demeanour slightly sour now, but returned to her breakfast. ‘You shouldn’t wait too long to open that.’
Dishes gone, wide awake, Allura removed the seal and unrolled the scroll. It was a contract. A Wizard’s contract. An Evil Wizard’s contract. She read it several times, turning on occassion to Wendell’s Wonderful World of Words and Witticisms to figure out some the larger words and legalese. It basically gave her everything she wanted. A chance at freedom and a life free of fear of retribution. But she had to be sure. She needed some cheese.
The great thing about Nail was, she never had to do more than think about him, and he would be there. Didn’t ring a bell, blow a horn, scream loudly, none of that silliness. Nail always just knew he was needed and showed up. This time he came bearing cheese.
‘How goes the reading?’ Nail asked.
‘I think I understand, but I need a second opinion’
‘I see. And all the thinking made you hungry for a snack?’ the tray not only had cheese, but crackers as well. Goblin Gruyere (they made surprisingly good cheese), Ogre Gouda (rare and sweet, it was diffifcult to obtain because Ogres don’t like to be milked), and a regular old cheddar.
‘No, Nail, I just need it for the second opinion. How else can I summong a Lawyer Mouse?’
The castle was evil, that much could be told from simplay taking one look in its general direction during a sunset (which was behind the castle of course), but that really also meant it was magical. Magic was essential to the environment surrounding the Evil Wizard’s Castle aas well as those within. You can’t get a giant demon Mauler Goat to do your bidding without magic, after all. Most of the magic, however, seemed to be used to give the creatures within some amount of intelligence. What good is a Giant Demon Mauler Goat if it doesn’t know to stay in the Hall of the Giant Demon Mauler Goat? Can’t have it crashing through the wall and getting into a fight with a Terror Panda, can you? No. That would not be evil, that would be chaos, and frankly you wouldn’t have a castle for very long if you lost too many load bearing walls.
So the necessary enchantments used gave all of the creatures within varying levels of intelligence. No castle ever built was free of mice, and the same was true of the Evil Wizard’s Castle. Being of relatively high intelligence to start with, the boost allowed them to have human level thinking, and they began to form a society. According to the History of the Mice of the Evil Wizard’s Castle (she liked the Gladiator mice it described the best, with their little shields and swords) they had started in the cellar, but decided the risk of being eaten by the Cat Ghouls was too high and thus the Great Mouse Immigration began, and they found themselves in the Promise Library (discovered by Moustopher Columbus) which was free of the more dangerous creatures due to the delicate nature of the books and manuscripts within.
The mice were now safe and had access to all the knowledge in the library. This made for very smart mice, pushed mouse society forward, and in the end you came up with Lawyer Mice. There were mice of all professions, she had learned. Mouse wizards (presumably even evil wizards), mouse knights, farmers, shoemakers, even a King and Queen (though they held no power, being only traditional figureheads following the Great Cheese Shortage Revolution of 432, famous for the Queen’s comments to ‘Let them eat cheesecake’ of which there is some debate among mouse historians as to whether this was actually said).
Holding a piece of the cheddar and a few crackers, she navigated her way to the Mouse Kingdom in the Social Sciences section. The entrance was a mouse hole, tiny and dark underneath one of the shelves, carved out of the stone, and marked only by one tiny mouse knight. His armor was made of some sort of leather, dark and taught, and he raised his spear at her as she approached.
‘Pardon me, Sir Mouse, but I need the help of a Lawyer.’ The mice were not evil (not al of them anyways, laws of averages say there must be at least one evil mouse in there somehwere) but they were xenophobic beings out of necessity when it came to things larger than themselves, which was pretty much everything.
‘I’ll ‘ave to ask me Cap’n bout this’ he said, disappearing inside the hole. Allura knelt before the hole and waited, cheese and crackers in her lap. She had read much about the mice, but had very few interactions with them. Most of those consisted of her, as a child, chasing one into this very hole. She wanted to have one as a pet, then, but was thankful she had never captured one after reading the Mouse History. She had seen the mice all her life, scurrying about the library, but paid them no mind. “If it’s not bothering you, don’t bother it” is a pretty safe way to live in an evil castle.
After a few minutes another mouse appeared. His hat was especially tall, metallic, and shined like a gods smile. His armor must signify his rank, and fathoming a guess Allura figured he must be the Captain.
‘Wot’s this about you needing a lawyer?’ he questioned, hands in fists on his hips, but she could see his nose twitching, whiskers furiously bouncing.
‘I have need of legal consult, Captain.’
‘Cap’n?’ he laughed. A great big (for a mouse) laugh, doubling over slightly and holding his fat belly. She could hear other mouse laughs from the shelves around her. They must be the Mouse Watch, she figured. The History of the Mice described the Mouse Watch as the first line of defense against intruders. Established in 528 after the Privy Rat Invasion, they had fallen from status as greatly respected to a place to put people to forget about them. Have a useless son or daughter (they were very forward thinking about equality, though the rest of Mouse Society was stuck in the old ways)? Send them to the Watch!
‘You’re not the Captain? I was told to wait for the Captain’s word.’
‘No, no. I’m jus a corp’ral. You wanna speak to the Cap’n, you gots to go up the chain, see?’
‘I see. I apologise, I was unaware of the correct protocol.’
‘s’okay. How could you know, after all? Now, I have to get my sergeant, how can get the Gunnery Sergeant, who gets the 2nd Lieutenant, etcetera, etcetera, and eventually you will speak with the Cap’n.’
‘I see. Sounds like it could take a while.’
‘Could be, could be. But you see, my sergeant a very busy mouse, and something has to be pretty important for me to get him.’ his nose twitched further still, his face and then body leaning towards her. ‘You can grease the wheels to help speed things along, if you catch my meaning.’ Blatantly now, he motioned to the cheese and crackers, all but reaching out and snapping and pointing.
‘Oh!’ she said, finally getting the point. She broke off a piece of cheddar and a bit of cracker, handing it to the Corporal. He smiled greatly after it disappeared into his maw, belly almost visibly swollen.
‘Alright, I think my Sergeant just became free. He shall be with you momentarily.’
And that’s how the next hour went, mouse after mouse with ever greater ranking showing up, pretending not know what she wanting, and also that the bribery was not necessary or happening. Hundreds of mice, it seemed, all asking for a piece of the wedge. She didn’t mind. They were cute, after all, little mouse soldiers with shiny hats and armor. Tiny swords and shields. Corruption had never been so cute, she was sure. At long last the Mouse Watch Captain appeared from the entrance.
‘Alright’ he said ‘let’s get to the point. I’m a very busy mouse. You need a lawyer, I need lunch. If you help me out, I’ll help you out. Savvy?’
She already had the cheese ready (going through several wedges alrrady delivered by Nail who just knew she needed the delivery every time) on a cracker, almost as big as the Captain himself. She held it out to him for inspection.
‘Yes, very nice, ma’am.’ and he snapped his fingers. Several mice appeared carrying a table, chair, and place setting. ‘I however am not wont to eat off the floor, despite my many colleagues’ actions. We are civilized mice, after all, and being a Captain I must present a certain image. Besides, I’d like to hear more about why you need a mouse lawyer.’
‘But of course, Captain…’
‘Byasalag. Captain Byasalag of the Mouse Watch. Third generation, ma’am.’
‘Ctapain Byasalag, I’m sure the mice know that this is the castle of a evil wizard. That wizard has kidnapped me, and now I mean to escape. The Wizard has offered me a deal on those grounds and I want to make sure It’s for real and not a trick.’
‘And where does a Mouse lawyer come in, miss?’ crumbs of cheese stuck to whiskers, tiny fork and knife cutting with purpose on a small piece now.
‘The contract is not long, but I’m no lawyer. I have read a few books but would like a second opinion. Why sign something if you don’t know what you’re signing, Captain Byasalag.’
‘Here, here, ma’am. My father once lost his home and all his cheese savings to a crook that way. Damned fool of a mouse. He was quite elderly though, so these things happened. The crook claimed to a be a human Prince that had been turned into a mouse and he only needed the cheese to turn human again, upon which event he would return and give my father ten times that amount of cheese. This has been years, you see, so I’m sure it was a scam.’
‘A situation I would like to avoid myself, so I thought who better to help me than the Mice, and here I am.’
‘Yes, here you are.’ standing now, belly a little bigger, napkin wiping away the cheese on his whisker, Captain Byasalag finished his tea in one gulp. ‘You shall have you mouse lawyer, ma’am. I only hope you have a lot more cheese. This may take some time, so I would suggest heading to the main hall of the library and awaiting a messenger to call upon you.’
‘Thank you Captain. Your help is greatly appreciated.’ she said smiling. Being aPrincess she did, despite living in an Evil Castle, adore cute things and so far the mice were the cutest thing she’d ever seen, with their tiny clothes and cups and knives and swords.
‘As was lunch, ma’am.’ Tiny salute ‘Now, off with you’
Princess Allura waited in the main hall, taking the opportunity to practice more of Poke Yu’s manuevers (this one being ‘Not in the face, not in the face!’) against a suit of armor now covered in tiny dings and dents and scratches from the abuse of many days’ practices. This armor was in front of one of the many large windows, allowing her to watch the road.
She occassionally glanced out the window, like she always did, but today she finally saw something of great interest. A tiny white dot on the horizon. Afternoon sun flashed and glinted off of something. As it approached, the cloud trail becamse more distinct. White, shiney, and moving fast it must have been a knight! Could be nothing else. Maybe the mouse lawyer would be unnecessary. Of course, the odds of that being truwe were slim to none, judging from the past hundred who had come, but you never knew!
Money. Lots and lots of money. That was why he was here, actually. The king and queen had, since Gerald was a young child, had a standing reward for the return of their daughter. Kidnapped under mysterious reasons almost twenty years ago, she was still loved and wanted back. Many of his village had thought, over the years, to try and rescue her. None had returned. Gerald, was different.
Gerald could read (many in his village could not, still, despite the efforts of the monarchy to make for a literate country) and had done exactly that. He journeyed to the royal library and read as much as he could about the land and castle where the princess had been taken. He knew about the Cleanicorns and the orchard dragon and the many tentacled thing in the moat. These things were found in the journals and writing of the many Knights’ Pages who had survived their masters’ attempts to penetrate the fortress. Usually wiser than the knight themselves (and because you didn’t want to accidentally steal the knights’ glory) pages would hide at the first sign of danger and knew well enough to wait until the hungray thing was full and asleep from the knight and horse before leaving.
There is a famous tale in his town about a local boy who had become page to a knight attempting to rescue the princess and had witnessed amazing things. Sir Leon was well known in the kingdom, having bested many beasts and bandits over the years. Finally deciding to rescue the princess was his fatal mistake, however. His page, Roger, had accompanied him on many quests and had seen all the success and was not worried. The day he came back alone, he did not speak or blink. He walked to his parents’ home and sat on the doorstep. He didn’t move or eat or drink for days. When he did, the tale he told was quite horrifying.
Sir Leon and Roger had bested the Cleanicorns in the Forest of Very Scary Things, avoided the Orchard Dragon, made short work of the Blood Moles and an ogre. They found themselves at the front gates and facing a very large door which was closed, and locked.They camped outside for a few days, trying to figure out how to open the gates. Each morning, Leon would awaken and stare atthe door. Before lunch, they could on an assault from a group of goblins, or a tentacle to sneak up from the moat, and once they had even bested a very large snapping turtle (not quite a monstrosity, but once they bite they don’t let go, and depending on what they latch onto this can make one quite distraught). Finally, on the third day, Roger had a suggestion.
‘Maybe we should… knock?’ Roger said nervously. Leon was not his friend but an employer, and could be quite harsh and violent on occassions when he felt like Roger was being pert.
‘Knock, eh?’ Leon said, considering this idea a long moment. ‘Sure. Why not?’
Pleased he had not been thrashed for the very obvious suggestion (he had wanted to say it since day two) Roger waited on the end of the drawbridge while Leon approached the doors again. Three quick raps on the gate were made, and then they held their breath. A small door slid open on the door, darkness beyond betraying nothing.
‘In case the monsters, dangerous path, and general look of the place didn’t give it away, we don’t want any. Good day.’ A light voice, not very kind but not very mean, exelled from the opening.
‘Ah, yes, I see…’ stumbled Sir Leon, not prepared as he wasn’t usually one to speak to enemies only slice and stab ‘but, um.. yes… we are.. I mean, I am here to save the Princess, you see, and…’ he was interrupted by laughing. Laughing that went on and on.
‘And it took you three days to figure out to knock? Not faring so well, are you.’
‘Excuse me?’ aghast and agog, Sir Leon had the feeling he was being made fun of, though his brain hadn’t caught up to his temper yet.
Right, look Sir Leon, three days ago we saw you come up and camp out. Normally, we would send out the Skeletons to chase you off, or the Thing Many Tentacled Thing int he moat would have gotten you. The Wizard thought it would be funny to wait, so we didn’t send out the worst monsters we have. It took you three days just to knock on the door, and frankly you seemed to be lacking of confidence after that. Turn around and go home.’
‘I shall not, good sir, ‘turn around and go home’! I shall break down this door and rescue the princess, and on the way I shall turn you into a skewer! Do you know who I am?! I am..’ and he began to carry on yelling, and shaking his fist and kicking the door, and sometimes brandishing his sword. The brain had turned off, giving way to his great rage, which was a good thing against an ogre, or a herd of Cleanicorns, but against a door of an Evil Wizards’ castle it does nothing.
‘Oh bother…’ said the Doorman ‘I shall let my master know you’ve trurned down his very generous offer. There shall not be another.’ went unheeded and ignored, until the little door slid shut. At which point the door was the target of many stabs and kicks.
Then came the sound like an explosion backwards, things went dark for a second, and there was a person in a purple robe. He stood directlyin the middle of the drawbridge. Being well trained, Roger had taken refuge behind a large rock, staying out of the way and observing the happenings (which would normally be recounted on his Knights behalf to royalty and at parties where the girls read too many books and were easier than most when alcohol was involved).
There was another sound, then, as though a tin can were being cut in half with shears, but that was nothing compared to the screams, which all barely covered the snapping of bones. He watched as Sir Leon was rent in twain, leaving nothing but a bloody mess before the wizard.
‘It was a generous offer. He should have taken it’ he think he thought, but was sure wasn’t his. “and you, Page, shall tell the King and Queen of this day and that I do still have their daughter. They can have her back, but I must be repaid. They know what was done, and they know what they owe. Now, go.’
The not his thoughts’ directions did not seem to be messing around, and so he took the nearest horse and he rode. When the horse refused to run any long, he ran himself. When he couldn’t run, he collapsed and slept, only to wake and run some more. This carried on for the several days’ journey home to the castle, and another after retelling the message and heading home.
The idea of being torn in half without so much as a word was not desirable, but the money was too good. And Gerald wa ssure he had the answer. He was thief, not a knight. The darkness was his cloak, stealth his friend, and assassination his trade. Most knights ran in screaming and alerting everything and everyone within range of those yells, then they swung their great swords about and hoped to kill anything in the way. This usually worked (and was why pageboys knew to stay back), but he had killed enough Knights who used this tactic to know it was not a sure thing.
As such, armed with a long, thinbladed sword meant more for piercing than anything, soundless leather armor, and a bag full of tools (lockpicks, small hammers, and everything you need to get into a house and out before someone knew they were even being robbed) he felt he had the greatest possibility of success.
Reflecting upon this all, he nearly didn’t hear the blast of a massive horn. He knew it was the Horn of Approaching Failure. There was a lot of information about the creatures of the forest and the road leading to the castle, but none of the inside. He was certain he could succeed in reaching the front gates.
His horse trotted on, not at a run just yet, for another hour before he was met by the first of the advance troops. Goblins riding atop boars, they swarmed from the forest to the road. The horse bolted with a kick, easily outrunning the goblins who were struggling to keep the beasts on track. Boars were vicious, but they tired quickly, so he rode on straight leaving them behind after a short chase.
His first obstacle behind him, his mount was allowed to rest, slowing to an easy pace. Boar riders bested, he was confident thus far that he would succeed. The only question left was the castle.
Allura had watched the rider outrun the boars. Far enough back to be just dots, and the failures of past rescuers ever fresh in her mind, she continued with her training until dinner was served. Nail set the plate down behind her on the table.
‘Ma’am, shall I set another place?’ he asked, nodding to the Lawyer Mouse who waited patiently, using a candlestick as a chair.
‘That would be lovely, goblin.’ he said, doffing his tophat to Allura as she sat ‘Bartholomew J Esquire the Third, Mouse of Law, at your service, madaam.’
‘A pleasure, Mr Esquire.’
‘Oh please, call me Bartholomew, Princess. Before we get started, I was offered dinner and as it is a ong way to and from your office, I would quite enjoy a cup of tea and a… spot of cheese?’
‘But of course, Bartholomew.’ Nail had already brought cheese, and located a thimble into which he poured some of the hot tea. ‘Do you take sugar?’
‘Thank you, but no.’ taking a bite of the Goblin Cheese provided, his whiskers twitched and nose sniffed furiously as he begin to nibble excitedly. ‘This is quite good, Princess. Hardly have I tasted it’s equal in the Mouse Kingdom.’
‘Thank you, sir.’Said Nail, sounded almost proud ‘I make it myself. Goblin Cheese is not easy to make.’
‘And what, do tell, is the trick?’
‘Goblin Milk’ said Nail, leaving the information hovering in the air like a swarm of flies, before retiring through the library doors.
‘My Word’ Bartholomew ejaculated ‘Goblin Milk? Is that what I think it is?’
‘Best not to think about it.’ Allura said, ‘Trust me.’ taking her own Goblin Cheese on a cracker and clearly thinking of rainbows and sunshine on a spring day.
‘Well, ma’am, best to make the most of the time while we eat. What could a Princess possibly need from a Lawyer Mouse? I should think human interactions are hardly to our lowered status.’
‘Bartholomew, I have a contract with the Evil Wizard. I need a consultation to make sure it is valid and has few or no loopholes before I sign it.’
‘I see’ muffled behind cracker ‘Much as I hate to be the one to bring it up, with an Evil Wizard involved I must make sure this is worth my while. Dangerous stuff, Evil Wizards. Hate to think what could happen if it was discovered I helped and he wasn’t pleased. Might turn me into frog’
‘That’s only Princes, I think, and usually by witches, but I see your point. As I’ve no experience with said consultations, what is the closest approximation in Mouse Law?’
‘Well, there are none really. There was a time my great grandfather was approached to help with a Princess, Mousish of course, who had a contract from Rumplestiltsmouse. Similarly, he was asked to go check the contract and consult unbeknownst to Old Rumple. He advised some changes that would make things a little easier for her and bring things more even. When the Princess next saw Rumple, my Granddad was there, his briefcase filled with page after page of a new contract he said would be more fair to both parties. Ultimately, Rumple lost his bargain and vowed revenge. A few days later, he was turned into a newt.’
‘Really? WHat did you do?’
‘We started serving flies with dinner, ma’am. His physical form had been changed, but he was still Grandad, after all. Ruined a lot of family portraits, though.’
‘So, what was his payment like?’
‘Well, since he was disfigured so severely he was unable to work again as a lawyer. He didn’t know this would happen, however, and hadn’t planned accordingly. I, learning from his lesson, want to make sure should the same thing happen, I and my family are provided for handsomely for most if not all of our lives.’
‘Fair enough, Bartholomew. You must remember, I have no idea about mouse society in current form, and so would have no idea what could do so much.’
‘Gold, ma’am.’ he said. Allura’s confused face prompted a ‘We may be mice, madam, but we’re not stupid. Cheese fills the belly, but you can hardly use it for everything. You can’t keep it forever, as eventually the mold gets it.’
‘I’m sorry, I..’
‘It’s okay, Princess. We’re mice and do love cheese, after all. I know humans thnk that’s all there is to us. I graduated from Decimal University, and one of the courses is in human literature. An elective used to flesh out one’s resume and show an interest in things other than cheese.’
‘I see. Well, Bartholomew, I believe that should be no problem. There is plenty of gold around, though, so I wonder why all mice aren’t rich. You should be able to drag a candlestick home easily.’
‘That would be stealing! Mice are many things, but not thieves. No need to apologize, it makes sense to think it. Do you need more time to think on the agreement before services are rendered?’
‘I simply wonder what amount of gold could possibly do what you desire.’
‘That would suffice, I believe’ Batholomew said, motioning his nose to her amulet. As round as a saucer and encrusted with diamonds, it featured the family crest of her kingdom. A lion was featured (eyes of emerald, gilded in gold, handcarved by a master goldsmith) holding a stag head in it’s mouth (sapphires for eyes). A thief could eat for a year on its worth, certainly it could last a mouse a lifetime.
Allura handled the amulet delicately. She had always had it a slong as she could remember. Her fingers traced the shapes a thousand times ove rthe years, with thoughts of what her home was like in her head. Her parents. She had done as she did now, lifting the amulet on it’s chain to read the enscription on the back, mouth making the form of the words that rolled through her head: Above all, perseverence. Above all, family and kingdom.
‘I can’t. Not this. It’s all I have of the family I never knew.’
‘I see. I couldn’t take away such an important bauble. But, something in equal value would certainly suffice. Perhaps a day is needed, ma’am. We can meet for lunch tomorrow, if you like.’
‘Yes, I believe that best. I shall find a way to pay your price, Batholomew. Thank you for your time today.’
‘And you yours, Princess. Sleep well.’with a tip of the hat and a tap of his matchstick sized cane, he was gone into the stacks. She had plenty of trinkets and treasures in her room to accomodate the request. Cups and mirrors and combs and various bits of jewelry. She had never thought about what the amulet meant to her before. It shouldn’t mean much, she supposed, never knowing those who had written the words and placed it upon her neck as a baby in the basinet before she was taken. Sometimes she dreamed dreams of friendly voices, warm touches, and fuzzy faces but that was all she could ever hope to remember as she was so young.
The sun was beginning to set, she knew because the dust goblins could be heard starting their descent from the ceiling. She chanced a glance back out the windows, wondering how the hero was faring, knowing it didn’t matter as few made it into the castle and none had rescued her. A campfire could be seen a few miles from the moat. She could also see, given her high vantage point, the flames of torches in the woods. Goblins and ents, she imagined, closing in on the hero’s rest.
She sighed at the loss of another hero in her interest and taking a candelabra made her way back to the stairs, to her room, and to the bath Nail was doubtlessly drawing for her. The same way he did every day. She wondered now if she was really desiring freedom from the castle and the evil Wizard, or the doldrums of boredom produced by a meticulous schedule. Truth be told, her life wasn’t bad at all. She was well taken care of and never abused, after all. Could anyone in the world really be so well taken care of?
The warm bath now enveloping her chased those thoughts way, carrying them off as the steam coming off the water itself. She knew she had to escape. The reason why didn’t matter, only the outside and what mysteries were there. She would have to escape the physical prison of the castle soon or be stuck in the mental prison that was so easily built around her.
Gerald was not in his tent. He was not huddled near the fire. He was in a nearby tree. The trap was set after dark. Waiting for the embrace of the shadows he set to work, placing a few traps about. Tripwires, snares, and a few minor explosions should be enough to scare off anything that got close enough. His horse, tied to a tree anyhow, had been desensitized to the loud noises since this was his common sleeping arrangement. Start fire, set traps, climb tree, wait.
He sat, scanning the shadows of the tree line for signs. The goblins he had noticed right away due to the torches. What they lacked in stealth they made up for in number, with at least a dozen about. The ents were blended in with the rest of the forest, but then again few trees move about and make grunting sounds with the effort. If past experience proved right again, a few traps would go off, the goblins would be scattered and the ents were frankly just not very smart.
The first explosion produced screams and dropped torches from a few goblins. One yelled for help while hanging from his ankle in a snare, which sent an ent into an explosive trap. This produced quite the bonfire as it lumbered (he assumed it was yelling but wasn’t if that’s what the low toned drone was or not) into the forest presumably for water. The torches were now lying on the ground, the forest silent, and Gerald smiled waiting for sleep to overtake him. He doubted the midnight marauders would be back tonight, but knew he had to be inside the castle before the sun set tomorrow. They would return then, for sure, and they would come in greater numbers than he could handle with a few cheap parlor tricks.
His last thought for the evening was that it was strange how the moon always seemed full in these woods. Then again, presentation was everything. Gerald gave one last check of the rope around his waist (tied to the tree for safety in case he awoke to urinate and forgot he was in a tree) and shut his eyes for the last time that evening, and the last for many days he would under the tree branches and always full moon.
The next morning Gerald ate a simple breakfast of a biscuit, jam, and dried beef. No cooking. Cooking meant smells and smells meant attention. Attention meant running and he could run with the best of them, but that didn’t mean he wanted to. His horse saddled, tent forgotten and unneeded withint he castle he began the day’s journey. At this rate he would hopefully make the gates by evening.
He could just make out the castle gate when a thoght occurred to him. This was too easy. He had dodged a few goblin patrols, passed by an ent sleeping on the job, and generally not been harassed all day. Snacking on more dried meat and biscuits for lunch he took a moment to make sure his small crossbow was drawn and notched, sword unhooked in its sheathe, and generallt stretched for what he figured had to be a waiting ambush or battle of some sort.
An uneventful day, he found the rub on the drawbridge. A figure stood there, not wavering at all as he approached. Black clothing on black skin, the zombie waited for him to dismount, greeting him with a salute.
‘Hello’ Gerald said. Hand resting upon the hilt of his sword, not threatening but promising action if provoked. His lean frame was sure to follow that promise truely and deliver.
‘Herro, hero. ‘Said the zombie ‘Here to save the Princess from the caser?’ Gerald stifled a laugh. The zombie’s jaw was slightly askew, tongue not quite agile enough to form all the syllables. ‘What? Why are you laughing?’
‘Ahem.. no reason. Do go on.’
‘Again, I say, are you here to rescue the princess from the Evir Wizards Caser?’
‘The thought had crossed my mind, zombie. Lots of money in that line of work, rescuing Princesses. Are you to stop me?’
‘Me? Oh no, sir. I stand as a testamet to the Evir Wizahd’s cwuerty. I too once wode upon the keep, seeking to rescue the Pwincess. I made it as far as the dwawing woom, only to be stwuck down by a most foul beast. I am stopping you, only charrenging you. I made it fuwther than any other into the caser, and was set here as a test. Best me by blade, and you can enter.’
‘Well, that is interesting. Who were you, then? I have read of many heroes who came to their doom here. Sir Percival the Greedy? Christian the Bold? Peter the Protector of Perfectly Precious Ponies?’
‘I am Garrawin. I slew the Dragon of Potato Keep. I bested the Giant of the Mountain Awena. I outwan the rions of King Wodewick’s estate. And now, I can’t even say my own damned name. Do you know fwustwating that is?!’
‘I can only imagine, Sir Gallarin. My deepest regrets that we should meet under these conditions. I have read many tales of your exploits.’
‘I’m not signing any paintings, so get that out of mind wight away.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it, sir. If I may ask, how were you felled?’
‘..i..’ Gallarin mumbled a bit of something. He sort of looked away and sighed. ‘I sripped on a bit of bat dwoppings. I ferr down thwee frights of stail, bwoke my jaw, and bred to death. The Wizald thought it would be amusing to bwing me back as a zombie and thwall. He raughs at me arr the time! If I could, I’d herp you kir him. Can we get this ovew with, prease?’
‘Of course. Here on the bridge? I’d hate to get the Thing With Many Tentacles in the moat riled up. This contest should be between us, after all, not that thing.’
‘Point taken… uh… thewe’ Gallarin pointed to a small clearing near the tree line. ‘The gobrins make camp there at night. Should be enough space.’
‘As you wish’ Gerald agreed. They walked quietly, Gerald wanting to ask questions about the inside of the castle but knowing this wasn’t the time. Besides, he didn’t want to start laughing at this poor sot.
Reaching the middle they drew swords. Long, thin, and flexible, Gerald’s sword was as balanced as a sword could get, his training in the form of fencing under the School of St Abraham of Fecura. Quick and agile, the swordwork was meant to wear a foe down until you could make a killing blow with stabs from an end meant to pentrate even plate mail.
Sir Gallarin’s sword was curved, almost a cutlass but not quite a scimitar. It was long, looked heavy, and seemed designed for slashing blows to make for a short fight. He had other swords about his person. A large claymore on his back, crushing and slow. A longsword like Gerald’s own. A strange curved sword that appeared to be for slashing and crushing.
The salute started things off. Three quick slashes from Gerald met with a fist, clenching the hilt of Gallarin’s sword, over the heart and a slight bow. A salute exclusive to the King’s guard. The sword was unexpectedly fast, slashing out at his chest. Unbelievably quick for a zombie, Gerald was immediately ont he defensive, parrying each slash and stab with a flair common in the techniques of his teacher.
‘I see your style, hero.’ the stabs became more frequent, aiming at Gerald’s heart. He had barely deflected on such thrust taking a bad slice to the shoulder. Nothing that could kill, and it was his left arm so he could still fight easily. He took the chance after that deflection to step into Gallarin’s guard, bashing his head into the zombie’s face.
Staggered, Gallarin, had to fall to the ground to avoid a vicious thrust towards his throat, angled upwards so it would have skewered his brain. A killing blow to zombie or man, he had no choice but to drop the scimitar like sword to save himself. Rolling away towards the tree line, he avoided several devestating stabs, rising in time to parry another blow with the newly grasped longsword.
‘I’ve seen few people that quick, nevermind a zombie’ Gerald complimented as they began a wide circle of the clearing. ‘How is it so?’ They met in the middle, blades flashing and ringing with each parry, they circled still, meeting int he middle face to face with a grip on each other’s arms.
‘Rell, I twained a wot rhen I was awive. Was arways towd I had natuwal abirity. Upon death..’ a knee made for Gerald’s groin, causing him to dance away and the two to circle again ‘I wearry just had nothing better to do. So I twained with as many reapons as I could.’
‘I can see that. You’re very good. I haven’t been this challenged in a long time.’
They came forward again, each scoring small strikes on the other, nothing life threatening or debilitating. Then came the second sword to Gallarin’s left hand, reaching up in a faint, it brought the claymore off of his back (possibly some of his back with it) and crashing down. Gerald dance to the his own left, his only option at this new development, and took the worst strike so far. A long gash on his right arm, his sword arm, seeped blood through his sleeve. The leather slowly turning red.
‘Sorry. You’re very good, but this is taking much too long. I don’t want to be stuck out here after dark. Have you ever seen a Carrion Crawler? They come out at night and, as their name implies, eat carrion. Not such a great thing being a zombie in that case. I hope you understand.’
‘But of course’ the exchange allowed Gerald time to wrap a bandage on his arm, hoping to stem the bloodflow, but the tourniquet will cause that arm to go numb in a matter of minutes. This was it. The sun was starting to get dangerously close to being behind the tallest tower, signaling to all that night was soon to be released. He also had a schedule to keep.
He came forward, feinting and stabbing and parrying and dodging. The claymore was his main concern, but with the proper timing he could end this shortly. He stepped in and deflected a slash from the longsword, the claymore was pointed into the ground and came back up at him, easily dodged due to the slowness of the weapon. It rested on Gallarin’s shoulder a moment before the moment changed and brought it back down at his head. A quick sidestep and a minor shave let the claymore lodge into the soil again. Gerald allowed a slash to com at him from the longsword taking a minor cut to the chest.
His boot squarely ont he claymore’s blade preventing an upswing, the next moment his left hand flashed out, a small dagger shooting from under his sleeve toward Gallarin’s chest. The zombie was quick, loosing the longsword and taking the dagger through his palm. There was no yell or scream or even heavy breathing. Undead felt no pain and didn’t breathe.
‘Oh bother’ were Gallarin’s last words as Gerald launched off the sword. His knee connected with Gallarin’s chin, knocking him further off balance. He fell to the ground, disarmed and open, unable to stop the longsword from entering through the eyesocket and piercing his brain. The last thing he heard was Gerald saying ‘I won’t tell anyone how you died.’ amid heavy breathing.
Gerald rested a short while, tended his wounds, and approached the gate, The sun threatening to set any minute signaling the release of untold horrors into the world surrounding the castle. Collected, slightly rested, and with a schedule to keep, he approached the gate. Lightly stepping he did not arouse the tentacled thing and rapped upon the gate.
A small door opened, a giant eye peering from the darkness beyond.
‘Wot do you want?’
‘But I won. I’m supposed to be let in now.’
The tiny door slammed, quick whispers and murmers seeped through the cracks, and the main door opened. Creaking and slow and large and heavy, it opened into darkness, except for a large round light in the middle of the inky black. Gerald stepped in far enough for the door to close back. The Gatekeeper Giant looked him up and down then scoffed.
‘Don’t get cocky, boy. You’ve only just started and you look like you’ve been kicked by a horse.’ laughing lightly the Giant took to sitting on his stool once more, closing his eyes in disinterest.
‘So what do I do now?’ Gerald asked, unable to see anything beyond the circle of light. The Giant sighed hevily.
‘Don’t you know anything? Step into the bloody light. And keep the noise down or I’ll step on you.’
Stepping into the light carefully, Gerald was now in unknown territory. Nobody ever came out of the castle, and few had been inside anyhow. Except inside the circle of light all was darkness. In the middle of the area was a pedestal with three levers. The first was green, the second yellow, and the third red. Considering what they could mean, Gerald stared at them for a time.
‘Just pick one already, would you?’ the giant bellowed behind him.
‘What do they door?’
‘They act as a fulcrum in an intricately design system of pulleys and various other simple machines, when combined have an effect of working together to perform a task. One of them opens the way to the next room, two of them will kill you in a sordid and very painful way.’
‘Can I have a hint which one opens the door’
‘That was the hint.’
‘I see.’ Gerald studied the levers. They seemed identical, except for the color of the handles. ‘Is this the only way deeper into the castle?’
‘No, but it is when you enter through the front door.’ The giant remarked with a scoff. It was all Gerald needed. Anyone entering must go this way, and to get beyond must pull the correct lever. The castle had stood many years, and the castle’s workforce had to senter somehow. He checked the pedestal top, feeling his fingers around the slots where the levers entered the device. The yellow handle had a slight indentation on the side it would have pulled toward, a sign of wear from the years of pulling. Not quite sure he was right, he tok a deep breath and pulled. An unseen wall before him slide open, revealing a hallway lit by torches.
‘Lucky guess, boy.’ spat the giant, his voice echoing with Gerald’s footsteps down the new passageway, deeper into the castle than ninety-nine percent of the one percent of heroes who had attempted the rescue hade ever gotten.
Batholomew J Esquire the Third awaited the Princess for their lunch meeting. The table they met before had fresh candles, so this time he sat upon an upturned mug. Proud of himself and eager to get started he was checking his pocketwatch when Nail arrived with lunch, the Princess close behind.
The places set, food smelling wonderful, they ate and exchanged idle chit chat. A sdessert was being served business began.
‘Princess, I hate to be too forward, but have you procured my fee for the services I am to render?’
‘Aye, Bartholomew, I have’ She produced a handmirror from her dressing room. Gold and silver, jewels shining ont he back, and finely polished on the front. She had no attachment to it, but was sure it was at least as precious as her amulet (excluding sentimental value of course).
‘Yes, yes, that’ll do nicely. Melt it down into ingots for easy keeping, I think. I shall send some mice around to pick it up after we are finished. Now, do you have the contract?’
A nod and it came unfurled, rolling out onto the table. One very large piece of paper, handwriting crisp and without a drop of humor. Bartholomew alit from his perch and stood near the top line, and began to read. She could hear him mumbling to himself as he went along, walking slowly, pacing back and forth to read each line, sometimes adjusting his glasses or stopping to clean them. It is amazing what an effort this simle task was for a mouse.
She picked up her rod and chose another book on combat. This one was about using staves, written by a warrior monk from the Northern territories. Wak Yu (She wondered if he was related to Poke Yu by any chance, or if Yu was a common surname in the North) was a member of the Violence Monks, a religious order dedicated to peace through aggressive means. The forward had described roving bands of these monks cleaning up crime int he countryside, defending small villages from bandits, and helping to keep out armies from the South and Western Territories for many years. They used many weapons, but specialized in unarmed and unconventional defense methods.
The staff techniques were developed for housekeepers to defend themselves from intruders. Mostly working at night, when the lords of the house and many of the guard were asleep, they were often the ones killed in robberies. Not allowed to have weapons (only soldiers and the monarchy were allowed any actual weapons) they needed a way to defed themselves long enough to say ‘Hey pal, I don’t own it so I don’t care if you take it, I’m just trying to make a living here’ and thus it came into reality.
They all had amazing names as well. Tiger Swipes at Fish In River was really just a more eloquent way of saying ‘Whack them in the foot, because it really hurts when you stub your toe and this has to hurt more’. Lotus Blossom Caught on Wind, Sailing into the Sunset was really ‘Hit them over the head’. It all seemed silly to her, but she followed the diagrams as closely as she could and tried not to think too much about it.
She stopped when she heard for the first time a tiny ‘Ahem’ from the table. Bartholomew was cleaning his glasses and stretching his back. He sat on the mug and watched, waiting for her to finish fixing her hair that had fallen out of place from all the hopping and spinning.
‘And?’ she asked, dabbing at her forehead with a napkin to dry the sweat.
‘And, it’s all very nice and good and proper. I found no loopholes or tricks. No doublecrosses or outright blatant lies. It seems legit, princess. It all boils down to “escape and you can live, fail and most likely that means death.’
‘I see. So I should sign it?’
‘Yes, Princess. But my advice is this, don’t sign it. Don’t try to escape. Your life doesn’t seem to be that of a prisoner at all. You come and go as you please, are given nice things like the mirror you used for payment, and over all seem very well taken care of.’
‘I know, Bartholomew, but it’s the principal of the thing. Thank you for your services.’
‘Thank you for the privilege, madam. If you ever need my services again, you need only ask the Mouse Watch to retrieve me. But if you do, bring plenty of cheese.’ And he bowed, and she curtsied, and they said so long and thanks for the company.
Allura signed the document just as Nail was coming into the library to retrieve the plates and leftovers. The rolled up contract was signed, sealed, and would shortly be delivered ot the Evil Wizard.
Her understanding of the terms as they stood were that she would, upon acceptance of the agreement, be given a tutor in combat. From that point she had a month to train and plot, followed by a fortnight to escape. If she had not escaped by the end of the fortnight, her life would be forfeit by best, or trap, or the wizard.
All in all, it seemed a fair deal, all things considered. She would be released, one way or the other, under sky or dirt. She continued with her training until dinner. Nail, as usual, brought her meal to the library, but set three places.
Gerald steadily moved throught he hallway, dimly lit by torches, walking to make as little sound as possible. An hour or so later he came upon another door. Plain and wooden, it had a simple latch, swinging inward on it’s hinges it would appear. Light leaked from under it, blue and foreboding. Gerald listened.
Nothing could be heard on the other side of the door. Normally, when not expected, you could hear the residents behind a door speaking, shuffling, about and generally just being normal. There was only silence. That meant a couple of things. The good side meant it was empty, the bad side meant he was expected. Not that he wasn’t expecting to be expected, but he suspected there’d likely be something. No odor of food or tobacco, no shadows disturbing the light under the door. Nothing.
He, of course, had no choice. He would have togo through that door eventually. The way back was long but easy, though he doubted the giant would let him out again anyways. Steeling himself, Gerald undid the latch with hardly a click or jingle or clang, and kicked the door open.
The room was empty. It had no real floor, walls, or ceiling. Columns projected up from the abyss below, blue light flowing up from some deep source giving way to nothing on all sides, except directly across where there waited another door.
Not what Gerald had expected, certainly, but that was a good thing when you were expecting something slimy and hungry with lots of tiny teeth. He took a moment to make sure his supplies were secure, sword latched, pack tightly closed, and leapt to the column before him. He nailed it, easily hopping to the next one, and the next one. Another few leaps and he was almost a quarter way there. Then came the sound.
A rumbling, gravelly, landslide sort of sound of rock crashing and pebbles bouncing. He turned to catch the first column falling into the blue abyss below. The rumble quited but was insistent on annoying him, picking up again as another column fell. Behind him his footholds were disappearing steadily.
‘There’s the rub’ he thought, skipping across the stones. The path abyss opened up more and more behind him, accelerating steadily, and he followed suit by scrambling forward. Nearly slipping a few times, he was three quarters there with a decent lead on the gaping chasm. Then the other shoe dropped.
Almost literally, actually, as he almost nailed another landing and his toes slid off the side. Luckily, his knee stopped him, but he lost more time than he would like getting back up. A full run and no room for error the columns almost fell as his heel struck them and launched him forward again.His arm stretched for the door handle, he made on final jump.
fingers clung and wrapped around the cold steel hoop, his body slammed against the wall and lower door, bounced off and opened the door with him. Hanging over the blue below by a doorknob was not a place to be. He could see into the opened portal, another hallway lines with torches.One hand released and flailed about the other side of the door, finding another handle. He strandled the wood a moment then began swinging his legs back and forth. inch by inch he moved closer to the edge of the hall.
He brought his other hand over to the inner side of the door and sung his legs up onto the stones. Heels dug in deep, weight of the pack on his back threatening to pull him down, making headway in a matter of centimeters. After an age passed his body lay prone on the floor, head dangling backward over the edge.
The blue light was kind of pretty, but maybe that was just the thrill of being alive talking. After such harrowing moments even a troll’s ass would be a welcome sight. Turns out, he was possibly wrong. It’s hard to tell with some trolls which is the ass and which is the face. They both smelled the same and had had as much hair, after all.
He didn’t have much time after he sat up to figure it out anyways. The troll either farted, belched, or said hello (trolls had no language as such, preferring communication through gestures, most of them rude and likely to leave a skid mark of some sort on the ground be it snot or shite) and knocked him out cold.
His frontal lobe was hurting from the assault when he woke up, but not as bad as the back of his head. He knew what it felt like to wake up after being dragged somewhere, and this was very clearly the case here. He was, in fact, still being dragged and quite certain to be eaten.
Trolls will eat anything. They simply either don’t care or have no tastebuds. Slain trolls have been found to have, contained in their stomachs (all specimens died ‘natural’ deaths and this was all for science, the book claimed) tree bark, rocks, human bones, troll bones, various small woodland creatures, a live goblin apparently swallowed whole and completely confused about it all, and even an entire ship’s anchor. Remembering this, Gerald wondered why he hadn’t been eaten.
The troll had a massive hand wrapped around his lower leg, enveloping most of it from ankle to knee, and seemed to not notice he was awake yet. He had not been disarmed, nor any of his possessions taken. He hadn’t even been bound (trolls had issues with knots).
He pulled a knife from his sleeve, raised it high and prepared to bring it down.
‘I wouldna do eet, runt.’ coughed at him from the troll’s back, low and measured. ‘Shees likelee to keel you if yous dun that.’ That’s when he noticed the goblin stuffed inside a sack up to his neck. The face has green and bloody, hair matted and orange and red from more blood.
gerald placed the dagger back into it’s hidden holster. His newfound friend seemed to be in as much danger of being a meal as he was, unless this was some weird interspecies love thing. He tried not to think of the babies.
‘It seems I’m likely to be killed either way, goblin. What have I got to lose?’
‘trusst mee. Yule be fiiine. Tisnt the firssst time sheees buggered mee. Shee be my wifffe.’
Gerald hated being right.
‘So, what do we do then?’
‘Wee waits. Shee be taken to nap before a beeg meal.’
‘Why aren’t you just telling her I’m awake? You’re a goblin in a wizard’s castle, shouldn’t you be trying to kill me and I you?’
‘Sheeeeite, runnt. Sum of us dun liek that. Sum of usss jus wonbe left a loan. ‘Sides, iffen I halp you, yule owe me very beeg.’
‘And I should trust you because?’
‘Wot choice ave you goot?’ and the goblin made noises that sounded like chuckling but could have been coughing up of blood. ‘Wot’s yer name, runnnt?’
‘Geeralt, be keepin tha dagger heed. Yule need it, when I geev the seegnal.’
‘And what is your name, goblin?’
‘Yer slie tongue couldn’t say eet. The Masteer given us names for humens to be sayin. Mine ees Steefen.’
‘Stephen?’ and he laughed lightly and accepted his fate. What choice did Gerald have? A smuch as any since he entered the lands of the Evil Wizard, he supposed. Still, he had to feel he was doing quite well. Inside the castle of an Evil Wizard for half a day or so and not dead? That had to say something significant, didn’t it?
Stephen shared no more of his plan or history while they were dragged, appearing to have either fallen asleep or simply unconcious. He looked to have taken a rather bad beating. Gerald guessed the wedding was not consensual on both sides of the altar. He was dragged a long while before they stopped. He feigned unconciousness when the troll let him go. He thought of running then, but had made a deal with Stephen. A man was only as good as his word, and he had to keep it. Besides, then they’d owe each other and that could come in useful. Stephen would be a valuable source of knowledge. If they lived.
His head scraped the stones again and they were dragged a few more feet before he was hoisted by the leg. It took much effort not to protest, being dragged by his leg that had slammed into the column in the room with the blue light. He dropped hard on a metal floor. Peeking slightly, he realised he was in a cage as the lid slammed shut, a large lock being snapped into place. Inside the cage now, he figured he was relatively safe enough to open his eyes fully. The place was dark, dimly lit by glowing crystals scattered about giving the room an eerie green glow to it.
Gerald watched the troll hang stephen from a hook on the wall like a coat. He dangled there, most likely feigning unconciousness as well. The troll turned to him, no longer fooled, and slammed the cage with a massive, meaty hand.It rose and fell with the force of the blow.
‘Yes, yes, I’m awake… lady?’ he responded, readjusting to sit cross-legged in his prison. His head had barely an inch of room, the cold of the bars radiating into his scalp. A noise like an expulsion of flatulence wafted at him, and the troll gave attention to other matters, satisfied he was secure.
Stephen made no movements, even while the troll poked and prodded and pet him, making an almost cooing sound. Gerald tried again not to think of the babies, or other various acts they would perform to consumate their marriage. He fought the urge to vomit when he failed. Then he began to plot.
The room was bare, almost a cave. The only light from the crystals was dim and green hued, not offering much help to his eyes which were having trouble adjusting. That could be from the blow to the head or various bumps along the way as he was unconcious. Lumps in the corner appeared to be wads of hay (he hoped anyways) perhaps bedding, and there was no door he could tell, though he was certain one was opened. In another corner were piled high what appeared to be swords and bits of armor devoid of most of their occupants.
The lock on the cage seemed old and rusty, easily picked if you had the right tools, and he did. Surprisingly, he had not been relieved of his pack. A bit more thought on the matter and he realised most of the humans who entered were knights, and would likely not have the tools necessary and so there was no fear in his escaping.
The troll picked at the objects scattered on the floor. It seemed ot be… cleaning? A happy homemaker, he supposed. Not a lot was known about trolls, after all, since it was difficult to study them. They mostly lived in deep caves, or swamps, and that was the easy part. If you survived the various wildlife that you’d normally fins in those areas (Asps, giant spiders, vampire bees, voracious giant moles, etc) then you’d have to be undetectable by the troll. They weren’t smart, but far from stupid, so the moment you put up a tent or started a fire to cook, they would notice. And they did hate fire, it being the one way ever found to really kill a troll. Snow, cave, swamp and even mountain trolls all had that weakness and had evolved an aversion to the stuff. Then again, most creatures knew fire could kill them, so that didn’t mean much, really.
So, the room seemingly fully assessed, he waited for the troll (trolless?) to settle down in the corner and take the nap that Stephen had mentioned. Speaking of, he seemed to still be out cold.
‘Stephen’ whispered as loudly as possible ‘You awake?’
‘Yees’ came back, quiet as a pack of gravel being poured on cobblestone ‘Eye c=canna muve. Eye Theenk wee may be fakked.’
‘I can get us free’ laying out the pack and producing the picks to begin work ‘as long as you can get us out.’ slight clicks as the tools worked the lock. This was not difficult under most circumstances for Gerald. He had escaped cages like this one before (not always with the pack picks, either, but sometimes with whetver he had handy. He had once escaped from a dungeon in the local constable’s jail using a bit of chicken bone and a sewing needle) and had the lock open in a few minutes.
The real danger in any escape lie in the captor. Sometimes, there were more than one and you had to time it just right so the patrolling pirates didn’t catch you. Others, you had to feign being sick to get the key from a guard (they had started catching on to that trick, though, being old and well known due to being often used). One time he had even pretended to be a ghost to get a particularly stupid city guardsman to set him free (he had threatened to haunt him and his family by waiting until they fell asleep and passing wind in their faces). He had never escaped a cage in which he was thrown by a trolless who was sleeping though.
The lock opened with a loud click, rust falling out of the keyhole onto the cage floor. One step down, he set the lock aside gently and began to rise. A solid but gentle push yielded a very loud creak. The troll stirred a bit and farted, causing Gerald to freeze. Another push, another creak, another stir. This was the danger in escaping sleeping guards. At any moment the tiniest sound could wake them, or a dark would bark, or a mouse sneeze, and then they were upon you if you were too slow.
‘Hyoomen, ewes thees to greese the hinjees’ then came a horrible sound, almost too loud, that was wet and nasty. Worse yet, the splat landed almost on him. He did not savor the thought, fighting the acid in his throat again, but if he lived it was worth the warm sliminess on his finger. He only hoped he remember to clean his hands before he ate.
Slathering the hinges well, he wiped his hands on his pants and tried once more. His back against the cage lide he pushed up with his legs. There were no creaks, squeaks, or any sounds. He believed Stephen had actually escaped this situation before now. Or maybe that was just what goblins did when they need to grease something up. gently now, the cage lid rested upon the wall, the slightest clang causing him to freeze and watch the troll. No response.
Gerald rolled up his picks, replaced his pack on his back, and stepped out of the cage. Stephen was glad to be out of the sack and not cut at all by Gerald’s knife. He stretched his legs, bouncing up and down slightly to get the stiffness from knees and arms and back.
‘Tank ewe, hyoomen. Now, wee eescapin tru here’ Stephen pointed to a stone on the floor. ‘Halp mee’
The two lifted the stone out carefully, only making slight scraping sounds on the ground. Stephen slipped deftly into the tunnel and called for Gerald to descend.
‘I’m too big, you bastard!’ Gerald called after Stephen. ‘Catch my pack. Maybe I can squeeze in without it.’ The pack came off quickly and dropped into the hole with a thud louder than it should have been if caught. The troll stirred behind me at the sound, and Gerald was out of time.
Head in and an arm, outstreched, were as far as he got with ease, his other shoulder squeezing in. Pushing hard on his belly, worried the sound of his buckle on the stone would wake the troll, he began to feel fear for the first time since entering the castle. He had been told by the doctor he had something called claustrophobia, an immense disdain toward small spaces. This had come about as a child when he became stuck inside a tree’s hollow innards after chasing a rabbit in there.
his outstreched arm caught the lip of the tunnel below and helped him drag himself in. Almsot there, only his lower legs stuck out now. he pulled harder, but was making no headway, The panic began to set in, and he could hold it no longer. His breathing became laboured and his was flailing, actually working his way backwards preferring the fate of being a troll’s dinner to being in here, when he felt something grab his wrist and pull. This did nothing to help his phobia (but really who would have not screamed at a time like that?) and he let out a scream. Behind him the troll could be heard rousing, before him he was being pulled into a dark tunnel, and in the middle he was still stuck.
‘Sok in yere gut, hyoomen’ pelted him from below. He did as ordered and sllid head first into the tunnel below. He almost landed on his head, but was only halfway through the opening. That’s when his pain shot through his leg, nails from the trolless digging in. She pulled him almost to his neck out of the burrow. ‘Halp me ewe, bass turds!’ Stephen yelled, and the tug of war had begun, Gerald the prize.
The slap of shoeless feet and a greater force from below meant Stephen must have help. He felt nearly as though he’d be torn in half if this went much longer when he felt the trolls grip slipping and slipping until finally her crashed into the tunnel fully.
‘Thank you’ Gerald said from his back, he saw a gaggle of goblins had shown up. At least a half dozen of the things were in this tunnel and had come to his aide. ‘Do you think me might get something to eat?’
‘I was thinkeen ewe meyet conideer a dieet, freend.’ and the goblins must have been laughing hysterically, and Stephen seemed to be beaming with pride at his wit.. The troll up the tunnel was making dissatisfied sounds, still reaching into the hole, fingers almost outside the lip of the tunnel. Stephen turned to his comrades and made some noises and motions. Several of them broke away from the pack and ran off down a side tunnel. ‘Allsew, eye theenk it’s thyme I deeel wit me wifffee foer gud. Wee’ll geet you sumwheir dry to resst. Follow old Magee theere.’
Gerald rose with no sense of alarm. The tunnel allowed him to almost stand upright, only hunched over slightly. He was okay with this space but hoped there were no more tight squeezes in this place. The goblins that ran off (he thought the same ones, but really all goblins looked the same to him, not that he was a specist it’s just how it seemed) returned with torches and buckest of what appeared to be pitch.
‘Foller mee, please’ said Maggie, her human language skills much better than Stephen’s. Gerald did as bade, looking down the side tunnels as they passed. This was not really a tunnel so much as a city. He saw what appeared to be marketplaces, homes, and even a barber shop.
‘This is amazing, Maggie. Most of the goblins outside are not like this.’
‘Civilized? We know. It’s the castle’s magic, at least that’s what the Grand Shaman says.’ A fishmonger pushed a child sized cart by, laden with tiny white fish with no eyes. Maggie saw him considering them and knew the question ‘They come from caves deep under the castle. They have no eyes because they don’t need them since there’s no light down there anyways. Makes them very easy to catch when they don’t see you coming.’
‘I’d like to know more of the history of you goblins. You’re quite remarkable. Why not leave the castle and try a new life outside’
‘It isn’t safe outside.’ she stopped before a sidetunnel ‘This is Stephen’s home. He has invited you to be his guest. Also, you can get the answers you seek from the Grand Shaman. He should be in by now.’ And she was gone. The short tunnel had a door at the other end, which opened freely with a twist of the knob. He wondered if it was unlocked, but found there to be no lock at all. Perhaps goblin society was more utopian than human?
The door opened into cave that had several tunnels running off of it. The far wall had a fireplace, before it a low table with pillows surrounding it. The walls were painted and stained with murals, and they looked quite old. They depicted goblins doing many things.
‘Our history’ came a very raspy voice from behind Gerald. Turning he found a goblin, hair white everywhere (and he meant everywhere, as not all goblins felt the need to wear clothing which was perhaps a later development in their social neccessity than when this obviousy ancient being had been introduced to it). ‘Welcome to our home, Gerald. Please, sit’ the hand free of the walking stick (really it was almost a club with a really long handle, the end looking hard enough to crush a skull in) motioning to the table as the old goblin slowly made his way to sit as well.
Gerald found the pillow seating to be quite comfortable and waited for the goblin to sit down. It took a while and was filled with popping, cracking, and ‘oohs’ and ‘ow’s. Unsure of the lifespan of the average goblin Gerald wa ssure this goblin well exceeded it. Finally settled in, cross legged with the staff across his lap (giblets just hanging out for all to see as well) the old goblin looked Gerald up and down.
‘So, I have been watching you, Gerald, since you entered the forest. You’ve made it almost further than the furthest hero has come, you know. Quite impressive. And I’d like to thank you for rescuing my great grandson.’
‘You’ve been watching me?’
‘Yes. Magic is not unknown to us, and being the Grand Shaman of this tribe it’s pretty easy to do that. Don’t look shocked, Gerald, you were probably already thinking that’s who I was. It’s the white beard, really. People see a long white beard and assume you must have some knowledge of the arcane or bits of wisdom to share from high atop a mountain.’ and he cackled. His speaking was immaculate with no real hint of goblin left in it. ‘It is true, though, I do have some wisdom to share with you. It begins with the story of my tribe, the Free Goblins of The Evil Wizard’s Castle.’
He told the tale of the Goblins, pointing to various paintings on the walls to illustrate (literally) his points. In the beginning, the goblins had been wild. Living in the forest, they were free and wild and not very nice, really. Not really intent on warring, just scared mostly. Goblins are not very large creatures and so were not welcoming of things larger than themselves. That was pretty much everything, and pretty much everything bigger than them in the forest was carnivorous and knew the goblins were easy prey.
Necessity being the mother of invention and all, goblin technology quickly developed. It started with sticks, then pointy sticks, then pointy sticks with rocks on the end, etc etc. This worked out rather well since most of the other creatures in the woods didn’t have opposable thumbs and couldn’t hold tools. They went to the top of the food chain really fast. This led to there being more goblins, since mortality rates drastically fell, and that meant expansion.
The great migration saw half the goblins leave the settlement to find more land. Overcrowding being an issue for every growing society. That is how the east and west tribes came into being. The problem with that is, now they had reason to disagree with each other over borders, hunting rights, land rights, and unfortunately that’s when religion began to take hold in the two factions.
The Western Goblins had developed farming and began to worship nature. Why wouldn’t they? Being the land provided the food they were eating, it made sense. It also meant the yearly sacrifice, but since everyone agreed with it nobody minded much. They usually just picked the most useless son or daughter of the most useless house (oddly, it was usually the same house, but this still prompted most goblins to be as productive as possible to avoid being ‘Honored’ as a sacrifice to Thandra the Mother) who wouldn’t be missed by anyone that mattered.
The worship of nature led them to discover magic and thus the Shaman were born. Mostly useful, their magic helped the land heal and the goblins as well, physically and spiritually. Mostly utility magic it was very desired to be a shaman. It was not a life of wealth but one of service to community and leadership. The Grand Shaman became the tribe leader’s position as the most learned should lead.
Now in mentioning all of this it sounds amazingly great, but the thing to remember is they were still very primitive. These sorts of things just make sense when you really thought about them. The natural development of religion and leadership was found either in brains or in blood. In the Eastern Tribe it was found by blood.
The Eastern Tribe’s religion was that of war and blood and power. The area of the forest they moved to was slightly more dangerous, leading to power being desired above all. The Warleader was the leader of the tribe and was the strongest and wisest of the Eastern Goblins (then again, their wisdom was more about making better and bigger sharp pointy things).
Their god Poracke led them to magic as well, but it was all for destruction and death, including fire, explosions, and corpse reanimation. While this magic was greatly respected among the goblins (who wouldn’t be impressed by someone who could make a dead thing walk and then exploded in a cloud of blood?) physical strength was what they respected most. A young goblin could cut and rend his way to the top if he was skilled.
The difference in opinion didn’t drive a war so much as a wedge. Goblins still held fast to the rules of not killing other goblins if it could be helped, so mostly cuts and bruises were traded. This all changed when the castle appeared. It happened literally over night. It wasn’t there when the sun set one day, and the next time it rose it loomed over the forest.
Unsure what to think of this, Eat and West had a meeting and decided to go poke it with a big stick and see what was happening. A large delegation set out but did not return. The Many Tentacled Thing in the Lake most of them in, and the army of skeletons did the rest. Then the Evil Wizard came, riding upon a great black steed with fire for hooves and blod red eyes, he fell upon the goblins both East and West. He lay waste to most of the settlements with ogres and skeletons at his beck and call. A great dragon had been seen in the skies as well.
The goblins tried to fight back, but couldn’t overcome the power of the wizard. Eventually they gave in, attempting to save what of their people they could. Broken and enslaved, they were set about various jobs in the castle and as advanced guards. The wizard’s magic stripped away their pride and free will. This went on for many years and generations, but the magic was loosing its grip slowly.
‘I was the first of the Free Goblins’ said the Grand Shaman. ‘We carved, quite literally, our own little niche in the castle and refused servitude. We regained our identities, both eastern and Western Tribe, and came together at long last here. That’s the abridged version, anyhow.’