by The Lemon
Princess Anne is kidnapped, leaving an unlikely group of heroes to rescue her.
| Silence. No familiar sounds of rustling carts or chattering townsfolk. Not even a wayward wind could break the stillness of night. Thousands of white pin pricks, a myriad of stars, shone like diamonds and valiantly defied the ebony veil of night while the silvery moon bathed the sleeping town and all its surroundings in a gleaming glow.
The squeaking cry of a rat rose from outside the gates of the town. Seeking entrance for a quick meal and a warm place to sleep, it scurried toward a tiny gap in the stone wall. Racing on silent wings, a lone spotted owl scooped the invader into its claws like a crushing talon of justice. The owl carried the struggling rodent off into the shadows of the forest and returned the land to silence.
An echoing clamber of metal boots atop the cobblestone road, cracked and worn from years of overuse, rattled the air like a beating drum and disturbed the surrounding serenity. A solitary guard stood rigid behind the safety of two towering wooden doors. He spun round to the sound of clanking footfalls at his heels and held his fist against his chest; the approaching soldier stopped and returned the salute.
“All’s quiet as usual, Captain,” the guard announced. His superior officer remained transfixed as if he were expecting further news. When no more words were exchanged, the captain nodded and headed on his way with a low grunt.
“Keep your post until I send for the next shift.”
“Yes sir!” He resounded like a well-trained, yet proud slave. He observed the captain’s gallant manner as he marched away to receive the same report from another guard. Turning back toward the wall, the guard stared up at the two stone towers on either side of the doors; shadowy visages shifted within each. Chortling laughter drifted from above; the town guards were hard at work as usual. He wished he were the one hidden away in the towers assigned to watch out for non-existent invaders through the bottom of an empty wine bottle.
Another sound broke the silence, but this time it wasn’t laughter. It was a raspy, gurgling gasp. Before the soldier could call up to those in the tower, one of the watchmen plummeted to the stone path. The flailing guard landed on his back and bounced only a little due to the height of the fall and the weight of his armor. Bright red feathers at the end of an arrow lodged in his throat rustled in a sudden, chilling breeze. A mixture of blood and wine trickled down the side of his cheek.
An explosive force burst the front gates open wide and sent a shower of smoldering debris in the direction of the gate’s only sentry. Unprepared for the deafening blast, he collapsed onto his side from the crushing impact. With trembling knees, he struggled to bring himself upright and groped at his side with a shaky hand for the grip of his weapon. Casting a final glance at his fallen comrade, he drew his sword and stood at the ready. A figure advanced through the billowing smoke of the wreckage, and before the soldier could strike, a blood-stained battle axe struck his neck above the protection of his armor. Two dark eyes and a grinning face were burned into his fading memory before he was swallowed up completely by darkness.
Again there was silence.
* * *
As the sun rose from the east, the last of the stars fled from sight. Golden beams of early morning sunlight shimmered across the fresh green hills that stretched beyond the protective walls of Oneria.
The events of the previous night brought an awkward silence to the normally lively town. Unsure of their safety, few dared to leave their homes despite the security offered by the patrolling guardsmen in their heavy, glistening sets of armor. The steel-faced helms masked the sullen faces of the town’s finest defenders as they cleared the last of the human bodies from the main dirt path into town. Working in pairs, they stacked the corpses into carts like firewood and transported them toward the church to free the ground for those who still lived. Ignoring the lamenters, family, and friends of the fallen, the soldiers worked like machines to clear the roads and finish out their orders.
“They sure tore this place apart,” one soldier called to another while pulling a heavily-loaded cart. His voice remained calm as if the mayhem could not penetrate the metal casing surrounding his body. “Who would have thought such a small group of bandits could have done so much damage?”
The other guard didn’t respond. He stared off toward a row of small homes away from the main roadway. As his companion approached, he raised his arm and pointed. “Take a look at that, will ya? I’ve never seen anything funnier in my life!” The first soldier followed the invisible line drawn by the other’s finger, and in his sudden surprise he dropped the cart, nearly sending its dreaded contents tumbling back onto the street.
Two small children, a boy and a girl, each clutched one of their mother’s legs as they stood and watched the same sight as the soldiers. A stout figure, grunting and groaning from the strain of his labor, struggled on quivering legs to hoist a large wooden barn door back into its former position. Sweat rolled down his determined brow, divided around his bulbous nose, and disappeared into his thick, black beard. Balancing the heavy fixture across his back and shoulders, he took in a succession of deep, strained breaths. He gave a mighty grunt, pushed backward with all the force he could muster, and guided it from his broad shoulders toward two men standing atop ladders on either side of the doorway. Every muscle in his arms and legs twitched, and he nearly buckled under the massive weight.
“Just a little more!” cried the little girl. Releasing her grip from around her mother’s leg, she started jumping and clapping. Her bright red pigtails bounced up and down like an extra pair of flapping arms. After seeing his sister’s antics, the boy danced around in a circle and started his own round of cheering.
“Come on! You can do it!”
Fueled by their encouragement and a rush of adrenaline, he howled and strode onward to guide the ends of the door into the helping hands of the two men. With a combined effort, the three males soon held the door in its frame.
“Hurrah!” the little boy and girl began crying over and over again, jumping around in circles. Their mother chuckled and mouthed a thanks to the generous individual. Nodding in acknowledgment to the mother, he turned and held his back against the door.
Before too long the door was back on its hinges and looked nearly as good as new. One of the two men climbed down from his ladder and almost fell over as both children ran for his legs.
“Daddy!” the young girl shouted and looked up with twinkling eyes, “Did you see what he did? The nice dwarf man fixed the broken door!”
“I know, sweetie. Why don’t you and your brother go inside and help Momma with breakfast? Can you be a big girl and help?” her father asked.
The girl nodded and ran back to her mother. She led the two into the house and closed the back door behind her.
“Thanks for all your help. I don’t think I even know your name. Are you just passing through town?” the man asked, extending his hand down toward the dwarf.
“The name’s Grom Greystone,” the dwarf responded with a grin and a stiff handshake.
“Unbelievable,” the first guard whispered.
“Come on, we’ve got real work to do,” the second guard said and shook his head. With a wave of his hand, he motioned the other guard to follow with the cart.
Along the way they passed by the only inn found in the town. The two-storied structure towered over most of the surrounding buildings. Its weathered oak sign, covered in a worn coat of black paint, hung above the entrance and swayed on rusted metal chains. “The Black Dragon Inn” was engraved into the wood in red lettering. A unique etching of a dragon in flight, jaws open in an eternal roar, adorned the top half of the door. As usual, the late night drunks were still partying from the night before. The two soldiers stopped to listen to the laughter and shouting that came from within.
“They keep on like nothing ever happened,” one of the soldiers said, shaking his head.
“It takes more than a small disturbance of peace to disrupt the habits of these worthless drunks,” the other said. He motioned with his hand, and the two moved on down the road.
Compared to some of the other establishments spread throughout the land of Feldos, The Black Dragon Inn was a fancy and cozy place to spend an evening. A long wooden bar stretched along the wall to the right, and a multitude of colored bottles lined the shelves behind it. Dozens of tables and chairs covered the floor to the left, and a narrow path extended toward the staircase, which led to overnight rooms for traveling guests.
A few of the stagnant patrons struggled to pull themselves from their drunken stupor and staggered to their unkempt dwellings while others continued to drown their sorrows in large tankards of ale. Sitting alone, one patron slouched over on his stool and leaned on the bar in front of him. Ragged clothing hung off of his gaunt frame, giving him an almost skeletal look. Locks of blonde hair fell along his thin face and covered a pair of bloodshot eyes that gazed lazily at the contents of his mug.
“Are you still here? Why don’tcha get yer lazy ass up and go home, Isac!” came the hoarse, booming voice of the stout dwarven bartender. Tossing back her long black hair, she grabbed Isac’s mug away from him. Isac began to protest, but her ample chest, barely held in by her tight leather top, stole his attention away. Turning away from him, she emptied out the remaining alcohol from the mug, pulled a rag from under the bar, and wiped it clean.
The young lad raised his head and mumbled something under his breath. Grumbling in annoyance, the barmaid reached forward and grabbed the drunk by the tips of his pointed ears until his light blue eyes came into view. “I said it be time for you to go! I would like to go home and get some sleep.”
“Jus’ one more ale, perty lady,” Isac replied. His dry and raspy words came out in a mess of slurs. The tending dwarf twisted her lips downward in disgust. The stench of his breath could bring even the biggest and mightiest of ogres to their knees.
“Isac, yer pathetic! Yer nothing like yer brother, Prescott,” she said as she shook her head with disdain. She was about to go into a lecture about Isac wasting the best years of his life by sitting around in the tavern, but noticed that his eyes had drooped closed. She let go of his ears and allowed his head to smack the top of the bar. Chuckling to herself, she dipped her rag in a bucket of soapy water and began to clean the counter around Isac’s resting body.
As the day drew on, the townspeople began to slowly emerge and go about their normal business. The overall hustle and commotion of the town was overshadowed by an eerie air of quietude. The uneasy calm didn’t hush the noisy merchants, however. They had to make their profits, despite the destruction caused the night before.
A single cart stood out among all the rest in the center of the market. Tall white banners waved in the soft winds and drew the attention of anyone traveling near the massive cart. The man’s round belly shook as he called out from behind his wares to passers-by. “Step right up! Come get yourself some of the finest fruits and vegetables from this side of Feldos! We have apples, oranges, melons, pineapples, cabbage, carrots, onions, and so much more! They’re all fresh and ready to be eaten! Step on up!” his jolly voice rang out down the path.
A middle-aged citizen, who happened upon the boisterous merchant’s wagon, took in a deep breath and savored the scent of sweet citrus and fresh greens. His mouth watered at the thought of tasting the varied produce.
“Sir!” the salesman shouted, “How about you? You look pretty hungry. Try some of my fine fruits!”
Taking a reluctant step toward the man, the hungry customer glanced up from the cart toward the wily grin on the merchant’s face. The rumbling of his empty stomach pulled his gaze back to the merchant’s wares, and that’s when he became aware of the biggest pineapple he had ever seen.
“Ah, so you’re looking at that pineapple, eh? It’s a real beauty, isn’t it? It was brought from the sandy southern coast and is begging to be eaten! I bet it tastes marvelous! I’ll tell you what, since I like you so much, I’ll cut you a deal. Only two silver pieces!” the plump merchant bartered, his eyes glistening with eagerness, “C’mon, is that a deal or what?”
Drool formed at the corners of the potential customer’s mouth as he imagined tasting the sweet juices.
“I only have a silver and eight copper on me,” the man said, turning to the side and searching through his pockets. “Do you think you could . . . hey! Where’d it go?”
Having been caught up in the pending sale, the merchant turned his attention to the fruit-filled cart and found the pineapple missing. The customer shook his head and left with a few angry curses while the merchant scratched his head and searched for the lost fruit.
“It’s almost as if it walked off by itself,” he mumbled under his breath. His once inviting eyes turned to suspicion at those walking nearby. He meant to question a few villagers, but he noticed a new customer waving to him out of the corner of his eye and was forced back to his labor.
While the merchant returned to his business, his precious fruit awkwardly bounced down an alleyway between two houses. Soft grunts rose from behind it as a pair of scrawny legs scurried along toward the shade of a willow tree in the distance. THUMP! The pineapple landed down by the trunk to reveal a halfling, who was not much bigger than the pineapple she had stolen. Her green eyes sparkled with delight as she tucked a lock of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear. After taking a seat, she drew a small dagger from the inside of her leather boot, sliced into the fruit, and extracted a small chunk of juicy, yellow insides. She devoured that bit of food and wiped her sticky face with the sleeve of her tattered shirt. “Mmm . . . nummy!” she squeaked in a high-pitched voice. Her cute statement was followed by a not-so-cute burp.
As the midday sun crept from behind a pair of fluffy white clouds, golden light illuminated the lowering castle bridge just beyond the town’s square. A group of soldiers, each wearing heavy armor that reflected the rays of shining light, marched from the castle into town. Pushing all patrons out of their way, the armored company advanced in step along the busy streets toward the town square. As they neared the center of the town, the armored men halted as one and allowed their leader to step forward. A golden insignia of a two-headed dragon emblazoned the front of his armor. He carried a steel shield, which bore the same bright insignia, and a broadsword hanging at his side shook back and forth as he strode. He took long, proud steps and held his head high in a display of dominance over the men that followed him.
Curious about the sudden emergence of the castle’s guard, the crowd formed a circle around the main path. Having finished her snack, the halfling girl snuck between and under people’s legs and helped herself to a few pouches in the process. She continued to get through the crowd until she felt a strong grip around her wrist.
“Perhaps you should return the townspeople’s gold. They all worked hard for what little they’ve got.”
She pulled to get away, but found it impossible to break the grip that held her. Trembling, the halfling looked up to see a dwarf much taller and wider than herself. His free hand reached up to scratch a long, dark beard tied off at the end. Dark eyes looked down menacingly, but the halfling’s face paled more from the sight of the axe hanging across his back.
“We thieves have to work hard for a living, too!” she squealed and glared up at him.
“I’m not letting go until you decide to return their rightful property,” Grom, the stout dwarf that had helped the family earlier, stated.
The halfling girl planted her free hand on her hip and pursed her lips. Shaking his head in disgust, the dwarf kept a tight hold on the young thief.
“SILENCE!” the captain bellowed.
Shaken by the thunderous command, the crowd began to lower their chatter to a light whisper and eventually to a dead hush.
“And stay out!”
The crowd turned and stared in the direction of the second shout. Shattering the quietude, Isac stumbled through the front doors of The Black Dragon Inn and fell face first into the dirt. The plastered half-elf staggered to his feet and dusted off his clothes. He was about to shout back a comment, but noticed the huge crowd of people. Instead, he stood there and gawked with a blank face at the crowd and group of soldiers.
“I SAID SILENCE!” came the first booming voice. All eyes fell upon the armored man standing before them. “I am Sir Jonathan, leader of the Oneria militia. Last night a group of men dressed as ordinary travelers marched through our streets and murdered many of our fellow townspeople. Villagers and soldiers alike lost their lives by the hands of these insidious men. Although we fought and captured a few of them, one managed to get into the castle. Once inside, he kidnapped the King’s daughter, Princess Anne.”
The crowd burst out into a frenzy of wild cries. Grom turned an accusing gaze to his halfling captive, who shrugged her shoulders.
“Do not be alarmed. King Gregory has ordered that I search for information regarding the princess’s whereabouts. Also, our King has declared that there will be a most handsome reward given to anyone who has further information concerning the events of last night. My men and I will be patrolling the grounds outside of the castle until nightfall. If you have any information that might help us return Anne to safety, I urge you to speak with me at once. Above any doubt, you may all rest well and know that we shall do all that we can to protect our city from another attack of this sort.”
Sir Jonathan turned and strode back toward the castle’s bridge, and most of the other soldiers followed close behind. The rest of the armored men spread out amongst the confused groups of people and attempted to dissipate the crowd with their authoritative presence.
The town rumbled with talk all at once. A woman wearing a tattered brown dress turned to the arms of her husband and buried her face in his chest. A small child tugged at his father’s pant leg and was picked up and taken away.
“There’s nothing else to see here!” a guard called to those gathered nearby. He kept his hand noticeably on the handle of his sheathed sword and turned his head toward one of his comrades. “How much longer do we have before we change shifts, anyway?”
“We’ll be done with the city patrol near sundown,” the second guard replied with a hint of annoyance, “Then we have guard duty within the castle, or have you forgotten?”
“That’s right,” the first guard said, sounding a bit sheepish and turning slightly red, “Of course, the king has scheduled an emergency strategy session after dinner tonight. It’s amazing how well he’s holding up.”
The other soldier seemed to ignore the prattle and stepped toward another group of citizens. He waved his hands and commanded them to move along.
The sudden shock of the terrible news and the continued occupation of the intrepid guard shook what little resolve the townsfolk had left. The crowd disbanded, except for a few citizens who remained to talk amongst small groups in quiet whispers. Grom and his devious captive were among the few that remained.
“Hmm . . . now this sounds like my kind of adventure,” Grom said to himself as he ran his free hand through his beard. He glanced to the side at the pouting halfling. “So, you still gonna keep that money?”
She looked up slowly, wrinkling her nose at him, “What if I decide to keep it?”
Grinning and letting loose a laugh, Grom started walking forward and pulled her along.
“Heeeey! Where are you taking me?”
“You’ll see, little one. You’ll see.”
As they headed toward the castle, the last straggling members of the crowd began to thin out and return to their homes. Isac continued to stand alone in his drunken stupor outside the doors of the tavern. After finally realizing the speech had come to an end, he shrugged his shoulders and stumbled toward the castle.
Sir Jonathan stood at the gates with arms crossed over his chest. A few of the guards that had accompanied him in his declaration paced back and forth along the outside of the castle. He watched the crowd dissipate, but noticed the peculiar sight of a dwarf dragging a most reluctant halfling forward.
“State your business, citizen. Are you here to offer any information?” Jonathan raised his brow a bit and gazed upon the two.
“I’ve come to volunteer my services, Sir Jonathan. I believe a dwarf of my might would serve well on this quest to rescue the princess,” he said, pushing out his chest.
“I believe you’ve misunderstood. We are not looking for any mercenaries for hire. We have been given an order by King Gregory to find Princess Anne on our own. If you have no information, then I suggest that you leave immediately,” Sir Jonathan declared. He squinted his eyes closed and gritted his teeth.
“Do you honestly think that you will be able to handle this situation? You claim that a small group of men caused this much damage, and a single man got into the castle, killed any trained soldiers in his way, and escaped with Princess Anne. Your forces have taken a hard blow, and I am sure King Gregory would accept aid of any kind. All I am offering is to help return the king’s daughter,” the dwarf refuted.
“And who exactly are you to question the strength of the Onerian Guard?” Sir Jonathan shouted down at his smaller opposition. The dwarf realized that Jonathan disliked having his abilities criticized, but he stood his ground.
“My name is Grom from Clan Greystone. My family lives deep in The Kirthar Mountains that lie to the southeast. I left my home to seek out some meaning in my life. I believe that I was meant to help find the princess,” Grom said, pride taking over his tone of voice.
“And the girl?” Jonathan questioned.
“Hey! I’m not a girl! I’m a woman! Get it right!” she yelled up at him.
“Bah! I caught her thieving during your proclamation. I figure she could do some good on this job.”
Sir Jonathan’s stone-cold face twisted into a look of disgust. He took a step forward and peered down at the girl. She tried to step back; her whole body trembled. “You look familiar. I believe I’ve dealt with someone very similar to you. I can tell by the look in your eyes. Tell me your name.”
She tensed and forced open her mouth, but the only sound she could produce was a small whine. “I . . .,” she sighed and looked down, “I’m Cloey, Cloey Wildling. Please, don’t put me in the dungeons! I’ll return the money! I promise.”
Jonathan scoffed and went to grab the young halfling, but he was interrupted.
“Hey! Lemme help! I’ll save that man from Princess Anne . . .”
Isac staggered up beside the dwarf and caught his balance by grabbing onto his shoulder. Jonathan shook his head and stepped in front of him.
“What gives you any right to confront me in this state! What’s your name, drunk?”
Isac looked up with glazed eyes. He drew in a long breath and threw his arms wide open. “I’m the one and only . . . ummm,” he paused and dropped his arms. Stumbling a bit, he caught his balance. “Well, I’m Prescott! No, wait. That’s my brother. I’m, uhh . . .”
“Enough!” Jonathan shouted, now more irritated than before. “I don’t care who you are, but you had better pay close attention. I don’t care if you want to play some game of being a hero. This is no game. Princess Anne’s life is hanging in the balance, and I have no time to waste talking with three lowlifes that have nothing to offer. If you sincerely have information to offer, then I invite you to tell me. If you have nothing to say, then I want you to leave immediately.”
Jonathan motioned with his hand, and two patrolling guards stepped toward the three and pushed them back away from the castle grounds. Grom thought about arguing, but his judgement got the better of him. They were led back into the heart of the hushed town, and the soldiers returned to their posts.
“He was a very nice fellow. Reminds me of my dear old grandmother . . .” Isac mumbled.
The dwarf grunted something under his breath in the dwarven language.
“Care to let me go now? My wrist hurts!” Cloey squeaked and tugged to free herself.
“Bah, you won’t run away or nothin’, will ya?” he grumbled down at her.
She shook her head and flashed an innocent little smile. She felt the tight grip loosen around her wrist. She withdrew her hand and rubbed it, letting out a small cry, “Who the hell did that jerk think he was talking to us like that? Why shouldn’t we be able to help?”
“He has a duty to uphold, but that doesn’t matter. We’re going to the castle tonight and meeting with King Gregory, ourselves,” Grom said.
“What? How do you expect us to get into the castle uninvited?” Cloey said and wrinkled her face at him.
“Sir What’s-His-Face may not want us there, but you heard what those sad excuses for crowd control were talking about earlier. King Gregory is meeting with his most trusted advisors tonight, and that’s exactly where we’re going to be, too,” Grom said, staring up at the walls of the castle.
“You mean we’re going to break into the castle? I might be crafty enough to get inside, but I doubt you’re going to be able to even get past the front gates without being noticed,” Cloey wailed nervously.
“You leave the whole getting inside the castle thing to me,” Grom said. He grinned and gave her a hard pat on the shoulder.
“That sounds like fun! I want to come, too,” Isac slurred, watching Grom and Cloey with glazed eyes.
Grom turned his head to the side and glanced at Isac, who swayed back and forth. “So what exactly is your name, lad?”
“Huh? No, I’m not that drunk. I think I’ll be ok after a short rest . . .” he mumbled and took a few staggering steps to the side.
“Perhaps you should go home and get some sleep,” Grom said and grabbed Isac’s arm before he lost his balance, “If you want to go with, you’ll want to be well rested. How about you tell me where your brother lives and we’ll see about getting his help, too.”
“Awww, Prescott!? He’s such a downer! He’s one of them plant people. You know, with the animals and stuff? He’s at some boring trample outside of town.”
“A temple?” Grom questioned while raising his brow.
“Yeaaah! One of them thingsh! Now jus’ lemme go to bed. My head ish shtarting to feel all funny,” he spat out in slurs.
“Alright, I’ll take you home. As for you, Cloey,” he began and turned back toward her, finding that she was creeping away from them. He cleared his throat, and she stopped in her tracks. His tone turned irritated, “Going somewhere?”
“Well, I . . . I was . . . you see. I was going to find his brother!” she blurted out and grinned wide at him.
“Oh really now?”
“Yeah! I think I know what temple he’s talking about. I’ve snuck . . . err, stopped by there a few times in the past. I’ll find this Prescott and bring him back!”
“You had better come back with him by this evening. We’ll meet outside of the castle. If you don’t show up, then I’ll be forced to report you to the town guard. It won’t take them all too long to follow a thief like yourself.”
Her face fell from a smile to a disappointed frown. She shrank back a bit and nodded, “Alright, I’ll meet you at the front gates of the castle later tonight.” Cloey bowed her head, turned away from them, and ran off behind some buildings and out of sight.
“She’ll be back,” Grom said, “So, where do you live anyway?”
There was no response. Isac, still being held up by Grom, slouched over in slumber. A bit of drool formed in the corner of his mouth as his body shook with loud snoring. Grom shook his head and chuckled to himself. He lifted the young man over his shoulder and walked away from the castle and toward the tavern.