The King: An Absurd Comic Fantasy

         [AUTHOR’S NOTE: I wrote this silly parody of fantasy novels when I was fifteen years old. I post it more as a matter of historical interest than anything else.] 

Chapter One

This is a story that happened long ago to some poor soul to whom you are in no way related, and who you will probably never meet, him being dead and all. Nevertheless, as all the good books in the world have already been written, this sort of thing is all that’s left to write about.

King Ruthven of Glouderdale was well enough liked by his subjects. Oh, some loathed him, for sure, but the majority of people felt he was about as good as it was going to get. He was old enough—forty-nine—to be wise, yet not old enough to be utterly useless and irritable. He kept taxes reasonable, was fair enough in dealing with his squires and tenants and vassals and lords, and more or less allowed the people to do what they wanted so long as it didn’t actively harm society.

But there was one scandal that hounded the poor King: his loutish son; Tarlywyn. (Nobody is quite sure how to pronounce that; most people call him ‘Tarl’.) This kid was a boorish, lazy, arrogant drunkard. He spent most days lounging around the pubs, flirting with barmaids—real and imagined—smashing beer steins, and generally disgracing the hell out of the royal family. And the poor barkeepers couldn’t very well fling this idiot out, him being the prince. And, though the King made no secret of the fact he thought his son a miserable wretch, the barkeepers didn’t want to risk overstepping their authority.

So, Tarl would hang around bars till five, squandering money, and then weave his way down to the dingy side of town, and hang out in a “Lords’ club”, which today would be called a strip joint. There he’d stay till about midnight, when he would finally crawl out of there, and after that it was anybody’s guess what he might do. Whatever it was, the King would threaten him with death, and then he would plead forgiveness, and they would argue, and the King would say it was his duty to teach his son, and his son would say he couldn’t be taught if he was dead, and the King would forgive him and he would be back on the town the next day.

Today he had hit the town late, and at ten had only just reached the door of the first bar, when an official-looking guy accosted him and said:

“’Scuse me, but do you have a minute?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Thanks. Say… you wouldn’t happen to be the Prince, would you?”

“No, I didn’t just happen to be. It took years of training.”

“Heh-heh. Well, this is lucky; you’re just the man I wanted to talk to.”

“What about?”

“Well, first of all, d’you know they’re only able to ship eight tons of Goblin meat to retailers every year, even though they produce sixteen?”

“So?”

“Well, ya see they can’t just build a processing center easily. Because you have to have men or ogres or something to build it. And that costs some serious gold.”

“So?”

“Let me ask you another question. Do you know what a venture capitalist is?”

“Nuh uh.”

“Okay, then listen closely: A venture capitalist is someone who gives somebody money to do something. You follow?”

“Uh huh. How’s it diff’rent from somebody who gets robbed?”

“I’m not sure, exactly, but I think if the investment works out he gets more money back or something. It’s like gambling. You familiar with that?”

“Yeah! Yeah, I see what ya mean now.”

“Good. So if some rich fellow—you, for instance—were to just pay a little money to mount an expedition to the forest; you know, with guys and wagons and horses and all that, and then build a processing center and get up all that Goblin meat that’s just wasted, you’d stand to make a million gold pieces.”

Tarl liked the sound of that.

“I like the sound of that,” said he, “but, y’see, I don’t have much gold. My dad, the old bastard, doesn’t just let me wander into the treasury and take gold at will. He says I’ll squander it on ale and wenches.”

“Well, yes, I can see that. But if you ask him nicely—really nicely—and butter him up and all, I reckon he’d agree to this scheme.”

“Ya think?”

“I do.”

“Alright then. Meet me tomorrow at sun-up in the town square.”

“Right. Shake on it?”

They did, and Tarl turned away from the bar thinking up arguments to use on his father.

 

The Castle of Glouderdale was an enormous, walled fortress situated high on a hill that sat in the middle of Glouderdale city, itself heavily walled and guarded. So large indeed was the labyrinth of walls known as Glouderdale castle that passerby would never hear the sounds of whining from the throne room.

“Please?”

“No.”

“Ah, c’mon!”

“Nay, my son.”

King Ruthven had decided to be firm with his recalcitrant offspring, and not give him so much as a copper.

“Look,” said Tarl impatiently, “it’s as sensible an investment as I can see anybody making. Think about it! There’s a demand for Goblin meat, right? Some fool’s gonna make some money off it, and it might as well be us.”

“But, my boy,” said Ruthven “art thou blind? If we the governing body have control over the supply of any good, it will absolutely kill the independent businessman—or—elf—or what have you.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because then if people buy from the competition, we shall be compelled to punish them. We’d have to impose a large tax on the competition’s goods to ensure that no one bought from ‘em.”

“Why would we do that?”

“Because we don’t want to ruin the fam’ly business you’re proposing. But if we were to make it successful, we would be disgracing the throne of Glouderdale. That is what happens when one divides one loyalties.”

“I see.”

“Besides which, your mother’s gone off to minister the sick in one of the villages. If you left, the royal fam’ly should be split up overmuch.”

“So?”

“My dear son, I just wanted to mention it. My main argument seemed a little weak, so I threw that in to strengthen it.”

“Sire, if I may–” said the King’s advisor, Boaris.

“Yes, Boaris?”

“It seems to me that the idea is one worth pursuing. If you were to build a processing center, and then auction it off, you should reap great reward.”

The King thought for a while.

“Very well,” he said at last. “You shall not be equipped with any more gold. You will, however, be given command of some of my strongest warriors to take to the forest. Does that work for you?”

“Aye, father, it works.” lied Tarl. He’d hoped to get some extra wench money out of this. Still, there was still much to be gained. He bowed to his father and left for his chambers.

 

Later that day, Ruthven was conferring with Boaris about how many warriors it was appropriate to send with Tarl. Ruthven argued for about fifty to sixty, Boaris for about five. Both sides presented compelling arguments.

“If we send as many as you propose, we will be leaving ourselves shorthanded in the case of a foreign assault.” Said Boaris.

“And if we send as many as you propose, we’ll be risking the life of my son.”

“And is that worth the whole Kingdom to you?” asked Boaris.

Ruthven paused for a moment. At first sight, he thought his son was worth the whole Kingdom. But then, as he thought about it more, he realized that perhaps he was being too selfish. And then he realized he wasn’t actually sacrificing the Kingdom for his son, he was merely risking sacrificing it.

“Can you give me a risk assessment, Boaris?” asked the King. “Maybe tell me how likely an attack on us is?”

Boaris shook his. “It would take days to get an intelligence report, your majesty.”

“Then we must look at the track record. Glouderdale hasn’t been attacked in twenty years. The probability of it being toppled by someone now is low.”

“The King’s word is law.”

“I shall send merely a squadron of soldiers.”

 

 

The next morning, a little before sunrise, Tarl was up and leading the promised squadron down the path from the castle. They were all tall, burly fellows who figured to be good at chopping trees.

“So…” said Tarl, awkwardly, “You guys do actual work, eh?”

“Yes, your highness.”

“Hm. Well, it’s a new one on me, but if you like it–”

“Yes, your highness.”

They marched into the town square and saw the man from the bar, talking with some little guy who looked to Tarl like a Robbit. (Which, as you probably knew, look sort of like a cross between a hobbit and a rabbit, except it has a much greater aptitude for sleaziness.)

“Oh, hello there, your highness.” said the guy from the bar, “You all set?” Tarl nodded and asked the man his name. “M’ name’s Rudolph Hill-Tur. This here guy,” he said, gesturing towards the Robbit, “is Vermin Skaring.  He’s gonna be our guide on this little adventure. Do you have all your stuff?”

“Yup,” said Tarl “I’ve got a sword, a bow, twenty arrows, and something m’ dad gave me called a ‘compass.’”

Hill-Tur snorted. “That’s all?”

“What, should there be more?”

“Well,” said Hill-Tur, with the air of someone about to surprise someone else, “Skaring here has got a magic wand.”

“A what?”

“Not just any magic wand.” said Skaring. “It’s a 9mm wand with a retractable stock. This baby can fire a thousand rounds a minute an’ I got a 32 round magazine in ‘er. Yep,” he said with a nostalgic sigh, “ya gotta know yer magic if you’re goin’ into Rothendike.”

“He’s very well-versed in the realm of the magical,” said Hill-Tur. “We fought together against the Erik-Hi, and he was hell with that thing.”

“What are Erik-Hi?” asked Tarl, feeling he was among creatures far more intellectual than he.

“They’re sort of like trolls, but they are much better at planning large-scale offensives. But never mind that; let’s be off.”

They set out, Tarl, Hil-tur and Skaring leading the way, the troops following behind. After they had walked about a mile outside the castle walls, Tarl began to wish he’d ridden a horse. It was, somehow, much harder to walk a mile on out onto a field than it was to walk a mile to the next bar. They struck out across the large field of Glouderdale, as the morning sun evaporated the hapless dew and the morning breeze swept over the plain. The leaders of the strange group conversed about their plan.

“As I see it,” said Hill-tur “the market for Goblin-meat is usually strongest during the winter, because that’s when people need the most fattening foods. Now, if we can provide them with an equal amount of the stuff as they get now, for cheaper, I’d say we’re well on our way. Assuming our revenue exceeds our profit, we’ll get a market ripple-effect that will result in our stock skyrocketing due to the principle of the invisible hand.”  Tarl nodded. This meant nothing to him, but he assumed it was true because it sounded like it took such a sophisticated understanding of economics.

Presently, they heard a screech off in the distance. It sounded not unlike nails on a blackboard played through a tuba with gargling in the background.

“What the hell was that?” said Tarl, alarmed.

“I reckon it was a Dragon—Bat—thing,” said Hill-tur calmly.

“What’s that?”

“Well, it’s like a dragon, except it can’t see, so it uses sonar to track whatever it’s hunting.”

“Good god!”

“They usually only come out at night, though, so that one was probably just yawning.”

“There’s a whole helluva a lot of ‘em in Rothendike,” added Skaring. “I seen ‘em carry off a guy once.”

“You never told me that!” said Hill-tur.

“Really? Well, me an’ this other guy were out late fishin’, it was about sunset, and we were comin’ back, we’d just about gotten t’ the Robbiton gate, y’know, when just now we hear all this flapping. We looked an’ there were two o’ those damn things right on top of us. And one swoops down and stabs the other guy—Abner, I think was ‘is name—and just gores ‘im with its claws. Thing is, it must’ve missed his spine, ‘cause he was still moving—I got out my crossbow and shot at that monster, but I don’t think it did a damn thing. Tell ya, if I’d had my wand back then, I’d’ve just pointed it at that thing and blown ‘im back to Hades; his blood and guts woulda been all over that place…”

For some reason, Tarl had seemed to be somewhat disturbed during Skaring’s relating this little adventure, and was now eyeing the direction the screech had come from with apprehension.

“They only come out at night, right?”

“For the most part, yeah.”

 

 

 

As anyone will tell you who has ever walked ten miles in the sunshine while carrying a sword, a bow, a quiver, several packs of food and a canteen, and whose motivation for so doing was that if they didn’t reach a certain place by sundown they’d be killed by hideous flying monsters, one begins to wonder if it’s all worthwhile. And if that someone is used to being allowed to stay out partying all night, coming home to a palace and sleeping in late every day, they will become positively certain it’s not all worthwhile.

It was so now. For the first few hours, Tarl had thought the whole thing a grand adventure, but as time wore on, the novelty wore off. Cramps and dehydration suddenly seemed more important than Goblin meat. And the damnable sun meanwhile just kept getting hotter and hotter.

“When c’n we break?” asked Tarl. “I didn’t know this equipment ’d be so heavy.”

“Not for a while, man,” said Hill-Tur, “we have to keep going if we want to reach the next town before nightfall.”

“Before night?”

“Yeah. The town’s quite a ways away, you see.”

Tarl looked back at his squadron, hoping he could convince them to demand a rest, but the soldiers seemed tireless. They were marching as perfectly as when they’d left Glouderdale. Tarl turned and traipsed on, listening to Hill-Tur and Skaring reminisce about bygone days of joy they had shared together killing things.

At long last, with the sun sinking behind the mountains, the group reached the edge of a small, quaint village. Hill-Tur put up his hand, signaling a halt. “See there?” he said, gesturing towards a mountain in the distance. “That’s Rothendike. We’ll be getting there about this time tomorrow, if all goes well.” Tarl had been picturing the famous mountain as a picturesque spot, and seeing the actual thing made him feel disgusted and sick. The mountain was undoubtedly the ugliest mountain there ever was. It looked rather like a large, cylindrical pile of rock candy with mold on it had been dumped on what was previously a beautiful plain.

“So that’s it, eh?”

“Yep.” said Hill-tur. “And there’s Goblin meat aplenty up there.” They walked down the winding path to the village gate. “See,” said Skaring “Hopefully, tomorrow we c’n set up camp up near the summit, then day after we’ll be able to stake out the site for the processing center. I got the blueprints for it in m’ bag, that’ll–” He stopped as they had just reached a small tavern. Tarl ordered his troops to stand at the door, and the three headed in.

It was a dark, dingy place, with ne’er-do-wells and drunkards lying in the floor in puddles of dark liquid. A few shady characters sat at tables, talking darkly. It was, in short, the precursor to the American high school. Tarl felt immediately back in his element. He eased up to the bar, asked the barmaid for three rums. Hill-tur and Skaring took seats on either side of Tarl and both ordered three rums.

“So,” said Skaring, guzzling down the first, “let’s have a look at them blueprints, eh?” He reached into his knapsack, pulled out a scroll and handed it to Tarl. He then proceeded to pour his other two rums into his mouth simultaneously. Tarl examined the scroll. Drawn on it was a crude rectangle, amid little scribbles purported to be trees. Inside the rectangle were the words “Goblin meet prossessin senter.” Tarl was slightly surprised by the low quality of the thing, but then there was no sense arguing with creatures as clever as Hill-tur and Skaring.

“So, how’re we gonna go about doing this?” asked Tarl.

“Well, first we have to clear out the trees. I think your troops will be up to that, right? Good. Then we’ll have to get some guys to pile stone for the outer wall, inside of which can put some water-powered conveyor belts. Then we can hire some Ogres to package all the meat, and of course we’ll need to contract with excess meat disposal services to supply us with the Goblin meat from the other facilities. And then we’ll hire some workers who can hunt more Goblins.” recited Hill-tur, proudly. “And of course, you’ll provide the money and be the celebrity poster-boy.”

“Oh, yeah.” said Tarl.

“Yep,” put in Skaring “We’re gonna be rich.”

 

 

 

They stayed up drinking long into the night. Finally, Tarl managed to explain to barmaid that they wanted a room for the night. (She seemed to be hard of hearing, as she kept accusing him of mumbling drunkenly.) She then pointed out to him that they couldn’t have rooms for the night, as it was now early morning. She did allow them to buy rooms for half a day, which Tarl thanked her for, saying, “Lishen, Lady… you’re hot, but the thing is you don’t know about Goblin meat!” and then staggering up to his room.

He woke up at eleven, crawled out of bed, tried the doorknob, couldn’t work it, hacked the door apart with his sword, and falling downstairs. He tipped the barmaid a copper, and walked out into the irritatingly bright morning sunlight.

After letting his eyes adjust, he saw his squadron standing in a perfect waiting formation, exactly as they had been the night before. “How long’ve you idiots been up?” demanded Tarl.

“We did not sleep, your highness.” came the chorused response.

“Didn’t sleep—Good lord! Why the hell not?”

“We must protect you, your highness.”

“Wow. You must really like me.”

“No, your highness.”

“No?”

“No. We are ordered to protect and serve your highness, by our currently presiding King.” The soldiers said in a dull monotone. “We are paid to do whatever he commands.”

Tarl nodded. He was feeling that engaging in conversation with these soldiers would be somewhat dull, but at that moment Skaring rode up on a horse followed by Hill-tur. “’Mornin’, there.” said Skaring. “You just get up?”

“Yeah,” said Tarl “Where’d ya get those horses?”

“Some fella up the road had ‘em. He was a stubborn old coot; I had t’ use my wand on him.” Said Skaring, grinning slightly. Hill-tur rode up beside him, greeted Tarl, inspected the troops, and then looked off towards Rothendike.

“That’s it boys,” he said with a trace of excitement. “That’s where we’re gonna make our fortune.” He looked down the road that would take them from the village to the mountain. “The path goes ever forth.” He murmured meaninglessly.  “But though we’ll go towards the mountain of enterprise, we won’t fear industry downturns, for, in two, maybe three fiscal years, we will be a monopoly. Sally forth, tally-ho, m’ lads!”

Interpreting this incomprehensible speech as their marching order, Tarl and Skaring began riding down the path following Hill-tur. Behind them, the loyal troops of King Ruthven heaved a mental sigh, and marched on behind their hung-over leader. As they marched through the village, the women and children and old men came from out their houses and began chasing after the band yelling things like “You bloody murderers! You shot the old horse breeder!” Skaring looked back at them threateningly, then pulled his wand out of his rucksack, cocked it, and fired one warning spell to disperse the crowd. They silenced so quickly and so completely that one could hear the casing clatter on the stone road.

After about an hour, during which the stone road turned into a dirt one, the dullness of silent marching set in. Skaring and Hill-tur were talking quietly with each other, something Tarl could barely hear except for certain phrases like “Heat it in the fire.” and “Jus’ need a little knife.”  Tarl reckoned they were probably talking about some battle, and turned his thoughts back to his daydream. The soldiers, meanwhile, marched on in perfect synchronization, staring ahead at the target, in this case, Rothendike. The troops never spoke, nor did their expressions ever change.

It was, as Hill-tur had predicted, nearly dusk when they reached the foot of Rothendike. Tarl could make out an extremely steep dirt path that wound its way up the mountain. Except for the forest on the top, there was little foliage on Rothendike. There were, however, many caves alongside the dirt path. They would use one of these, Hill-tur explained, for shelter. As they rode towards the dirt path, Tarl remarked: “Ah—is that a human skull there, lyin’ in the dirt?” Skaring glanced at it. “No,” he said. “Definitely an elf one.”

“Elf?”

“Yeah. They usually hang around these mountains; work as tour guides. I reckon that one was killed by a Dragon—Bat–Thing.”

“Why’s that?”

“Oh, like I said, there’s a lot of ‘em round here. They live in the forest. I knew a guy once who said this whole damned mountain’s formed from the bones the Dragon—Bat—Things throw away.”

“Hell, man, they couldn’t’ve built a mountain shaped like this ‘un outta bones.”

“Sure, they could.” said Hill-tur. “Most people don’t know this, but D.B.T.’s have a fixation on three-dimensional geometry and landscaping. Why d’you think they’re always attacking towns and such? Fact is, they can’t stand to see other folks messing up their projects.”

“Ya know,” said Skaring, leaning forward on his horse to balance it on the steep path. “My dad told me once ‘bout how, when he was jus’ a little half-yearling, he was in his hut one day eating breakfast when all of a sudden he hears this giant squelch on the door. An’ he ran to the window and looked out an’, surer than hell, there was his next-door neighbor–whose hobby was planting trees—lyin’ there all burned an’ busted-up. Dad ran outside and saw the guy’s guts just splattered all over the door. An’ then he looked up and saw a Dragon—Bat—Thing flyin’ away over the village.”

“You mean,” said Tarl. “that that damned thing flew all the way to that village just to kill one guy who was messin’ with the landscape?” Skaring grinned. “I know,” he said. “They’re absolutely fanatical about their land.”

By this time, the sun had set completely, and Hill-tur suggested that they scout out the caves along the side of the path and find one in which they could make camp. Tarl ordered two of his soldiers into the nearest cave, and the group waited for about ten minutes, at the end of which one of the soldiers staggered out of the cave, covered in mud, slime and something that looked like flour. “I am afraid, your highness,” said the soldier through a mouthful of blood and loose teeth, “that that cave won’t suit your purposes.” He spit out his front teeth. “Sorry about that, your hign–” His apology was interrupted by another fountain of spit, teeth and bile.

“What happened to the other guy?” asked Tarl.

“I am not sure, your highness. I think these are his crumbled bones covering me.” He brushed off the stuff previously classified as ‘flour’. Tarl shrugged and they moved on to the next cave. It was suitable for setting up camp. That done, the medic cut off both of the wounded soldier’s legs, one of his arms, and gave him a potion consisting of rainwater and some other liquids. This was all in keeping with the medical practice at the time.

While this was going on, Tarl read Playprince magazine, Skaring cleaned his wand, and Hill-tur studied the blueprints. Eventually, after Skaring and Hill-tur fell asleep, Tarl rolled over on his cot and stared out the mouth of the cave. It was a full moon that night, and he could just see the strangely beautiful silhouette of a Dragon-Bat-Thing carrying off some peasant. Note to self, he thought. Avoid nighttime strolls.

 

 

 

 

The next morning, bright and early, Tarl didn’t get up. No, he stayed in bed in bed well after nine. It wasn’t until Skaring fired a loud spell that he got up, and even then he was grumpy as hell.

“Damn,” he said. “What’d ya fire that damn thing for, you lunatic?”

Skaring shrugged. “Had t’ get you up somehow, and we’ve got a helluva day’s work cut out fer us. Hill-tur an’ your soldiers’re already out there.”

“What’re they doin’?”

“Well, right now we’re just putting markers on the trees we’re gonna hafta cut down.”

“That’s nothing.”

“At first, it’s easy. But after your—oh, say your three hundredth tree—it might seem harder. C’mon, man.”

Tarl followed Skaring out of the cave and they climbed the path to forest. There, as promised, were Hill-tur and the troops, all digging at the trees with their swords. Tarl pulled out his pocketknife, asked Skaring for an area of trees, and immediately walked over and began etching an ‘X’ into one.

It was tedious work, and Tarl had begun to question the intelligence of it. Several times, he asked Hill-tur if it might be better to mark just the trees on the perimeter, and cut inside them, but Hill-tur just told him to go right along like he was and that it was better safe than sorry. Tarl would then go back to carving X’s, and then, finding that boring, begin to carve obscene phrases into the tree. This went on for nearly three hours; then they stopped for lunch.

“Y’know,” said Skaring, chewing a chicken leg, “I just thoughta somethin’. See, there, off to the North?” Hill-tur and Tarl nodded.

“Well, there’re some storm clouds out there that’re comin’ our way. An’ as I see it, we can just spread some sorta covering out over the trees we need to get rid of, let the rain come in, and then tomorrow mornin’, most of the forest will be soaked, but the part we wanna remove will be dry an’ we can just burn it away.”

Tarl stared at him in awe. This Robbit was clearly a genius. “That’s all well and good,” said Hill-tur skeptically. “But what are you going to cover the trees with?” “Ah,” said Skaring. “I’m gettin’ to that. You remember that there cave you sent those two guys into?” Tarl nodded. “Well, I talked to that fella who made it out and he said that what was in there was a Basilisk. Y’know what that is, right? It’s a giant snake, see, that kills ya if ya look it in the eye. Most people don’t like ‘em for some reason. Anyway, that guy told me that in that cave there was this giant skin that the Basilisk shed. So I sent some of your troops down to pull that skin outta there an’ bring it up here. Then we c’n just spread it out over those trees.”

“I like this idea.” said Hill-tur.

“Yeah, but won’t those troops have t’ fight the Basilisk when they go in there?” asked Tarl.

“Naw,” said Skaring. “That guy said the thing’s much deeper in than the skin. ‘Sides, it’s daytime, and I reckon it’s asleep.”

This proved to be the case, as half-an-hour later five troops came back up the path carrying the giant skin. (Skaring had sent six soldiers; it seemed that a loose boulder falling from the cave ceiling had crushed one.) After many blowings-down, tears, and other mishaps, they were able tie the thing across the specified trees. It was nearly dark by this time, and as Skaring had predicted, the clouds were nearly on top of them.

“You know,” said Hill-tur. “I’m thinking we should stay here in the woods tonight.”

“Why?” asked Tarl, dreading the idea of sleeping in there.

“Well, just to make sure that nothing happens to our tent here. I mean, if it blows off, or comes loose, we can have one of the troops on guard and he can wake us up and we’ll fix it.”

Tarl had to admit it was reasonable enough. After making one last check of the area, they had the Royal guards carry their cots up from the cave. Tarl lay back on his, staring up through the canopy of the forest, until the gentle patter of the rain lulled him to sleep.

 

 

 

He woke suddenly, feeling weirdly hot. He looked around at the forest around him. A thick black fog seemed to have rolled in, its fumes choking him. He looked around wildly. The light was very orange, even for dawn. It also seemed to be… flickering, somehow. Shielding his eyes against the light, Tarl began to run through the woods, leaping over logs that turned to ash behind him.

He glanced through the fire and saw a patch of green. He ran headlong towards it, flung himself through a wall of flames, and landed face-first in slightly wetter grass. He rolled through it and scrambled blindly away from the fire. When the heat began to fade, he looked back through the trees. The entire campsite was ablaze.

Tarl looked around for Skaring and Hill-tur. He didn’t see them, nor any of his troops. Calling them was fruitless, and as he stood watching the blaze, it hit him that he was quite alone, in a strange place, with no food or weapons.

Well, he thought. Here’s a fine how-d’ya-do.

 

            Chapter Two

Queen Arollywyn of Glouderdale looked through her carriage window at the palace. She was glad to see the place again, if only because there were fresh clothes in it. The Queen was quite beautiful for her age—forty-four—and she had a passion for clothes advertising this fact which some considered pathological.

She stepped out of the carriage and walked gracefully as all hell up to the palace door, dismissing her servants and Royal guards with a condescending wave. She knocked at the door, and was admitted by the royal valet.

“Jones,” she asked. “Where is my husband? I should like to greet him after my journey.”

“I am afraid, my Queen, that his highness is not here at the moment.”

“Not here? Why not?”

“He was called away suddenly. I believe he is in the graveyard.”

The Queen was surprised by this news. “What in the world is he doing there?” she asked. Jones smiled sympathetically.

“Decomposing, I expect, my Queen.”

Arollywyn staggered. This was the damnedest welcome back. “He died? Good lord, man! Why, he was the picture of health when I left, and that was not a month ago.”

“I fear, my Queen,” said Jones. “That due to your and the young prince’s absence, his highness was taken ill of worry.” “Shatter my crown, Jones! If Tarl’s gone, why—why that means I must assume all Ruthven’s duties!” The Queen was beside herself. Mister Jones, though, gave a calm, superior smile. “No, my Queen, you mustn’t. His highness died yesterday. Therefore, with you gone and the prince gone, the King’s advisor, Boaris, assumed the throne. Consequently, he is now King of Glouderdale, from now until death.”

This disturbed Arollywyn greatly. She hated Boaris, and had never quite understood why the King trusted him so much. She suspected it was on account of the fact Boaris always told him that there was this twisted, evil fellow aspiring to be King who desperately wanted the job of court advisor, and that if the King were ever to fire Boaris, that fellow would surely be able to trick his Highness during the job interviews, as he was a master of deception.

“Well,” she said slowly. “I guess let me talk with Boaris, then.”

“Certainly, my Queen. He is presently in the grand hall.”

Arollywyn walked to the hall, and indeed there was Boaris, staring out the window over the fields that he now ruled. He turned to her and smiled.

“Ah, Rolly.” he said, using her pet name, which, according to contract, was only to be used by the King of Glouderdale. “How are you this morning? I hope the loss of poor old Ruthven didn’t shake you too much. Poor fellow, for a while there I thought he’d pull through.”

“What did he die of?”

Boaris grimaced, as if he found it hard to speak, then said: “His doctor said he had an inflammation of the eyes. That, he might’ve survived, had he not, while struggling in agony, gotten his neck and spine totally dislocated. It was not a pretty sight, I can assure you.”

“My husband never was.” said the Queen, who had been trained to disguise her emotions. “Nevertheless, I shall miss him. But, tell me, are you going to be King now?”

“I am.”

“For life?”

“Yes.”

“God help me!” said the Queen in despair. “I shall be ruined! My clothes—my food—my rooms, oh, they will all be gone!” She wept pathetically. Boaris smiled. “Oh, no they won’t. I have assumed all Ruthven’s duties. That includes,”–He licked his lips—“Being married to you.”

She might’ve seen this coming. This freak had long loved her, yet he had never been able to speak in front of Ruthven. He had mentioned it to her once, when Ruthven was away, and she had slapped him silly.

“Oh, hell, Boaris.” she said mockingly. “I’ll just get a divorce.”

“Ho! Know thou not, pretty one, that I, who rule this Kingdom, have now in mine power the ability to make you love me?”

“Make me!? You clown, I’m two inches taller than you, exercise regularly, and keep a dagger on my person. You, by contrast, are small, weak, and don’t go out of doors for fear the sun will shrivel you.”

Boaris saw the justice of this; and now he too looked like he was going to cry. But he recovered, and looked hard at the Queen.

“For years,” he began. “I have loved you with a passion that wracks my very soul. My body is flayed, my skin chilled, I have weak muscles, tortured organs, and a slight headache on top of that, all for this obsession! Does that mean nothing to you?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Well, then,” said Boaris, suddenly looking coldly joyful. “Perhaps immersion in a poorly-decorated dungeon, with only one set of clothes, will convince you to love me.”

“What the he—rather, what on Earth—makes you think that?”

“I’m not sure,” said Boaris. “But stories of this sort always seem to have some sort of damsel in distress, so I thought—“

“Besides which,” said the Queen. “I keep the keys to the dungeon strapped round my garter belt.” She said this hoping that thinking about her garter belt would distract Boaris. Alas, he was ready with a response.

“The old dungeon keys, that is. I took the liberty of having all the locks changed. As a precaution, you know.” At this point, two guards appeared next to the Queen and clapped her in irons. “Right then, off you go.” Said Boaris cheerily. “I can send you only my love.” The Queen looked at him coldly. “Tell me, has this method of making someone love you ever—ever—worked?” she asked.

“No, never,” admitted Boaris. “But I’m sure that’s just due to other, uncharted factors. The idea of punishing someone till they adore you is, in itself, flawless.”

 

 

After the Queen had been locked away, Jones entered the hall to announce the arrival of “Lord Rudolph Hill-tur” and “Captain of the Guard, Vermin Skaring”. The two newly appointed noblemen/robbit walked in, still clad in tattered riding clothes. They both bowed smartly to their new King. “My King—Your Highness—etcetera” began Hill-tur, “It’s my honor and privilege to grace your divine ears with my lowly report. May the words I speak be received with only moderate distaste—perhaps even indifference—by your all-knowing greatness, and then…”

“Never mind that now. Just tell me if you carried out your part of the plan.”

“Yes, your Highness—that is, My King—well, ev’rything went exactly as we’d planned it.”

“He fell for it?”

“Yes, your highness. He took it hook, line and sinker and now his burnt-up bones should be lying in Rothendike.”

“Have you seen the body?”

“No. But, we did set the forest on fire. So, I reckon he’s prob’ly dead.”

“But you didn’t get proof, eh?”

“No.”

“I see. Well, I s’pose I must take your word for it.”

“I don’ see how anyone coulda made it outta that damn place. It was burnin’ hotter than hell in there when I left.” said Skaring. “I never seen a blaze like that ‘un, an’ I’ve set fire to more stuff than you c’n imagine.”

“Your King—My highness—you know what I mean—“ said Hill-tur, “May I assume that Ruthven is dead?”

“He is.” said Boaris. “I killed him easily. Just snuck up behind him with a hot poker, jabbed it into his eyes, then, as he was doubled over from pain, I gave him a chop to the neck.”

“Well, then, –my King—you’ve done it! We’ve got the Kingdom!”

“Yes, I know, but it’s not enough.”

“Not enough, my King?”

“No. Arollywyn still doesn’t like me. It’s inexplicable.”

“Hey, man,” said Skaring. “Ya ask me, you oughta thank your lucky stars she doesn’t. Ya know, I knew a guy once who liked this tall, pale, black-haired chick, an’ he courted ‘er and they got married an’ whaddaya think? Turns out she’s a vampire, fer God’s sake, an’ he had a narrow escape. So ya wanna be careful.”

“Thank you for the advice, Captain.” said Boaris, with sarcasm that completely eluded Skaring.

The three stood there for a time, Hill-tur and Skaring nodding  solemnly. Presently, Jones appeared at the door. “Your Highness–Your Lordship—Captain, there is a mob here to see you.”

“A mob, eh?” said Boaris. “What’s a mob doing here?”

“They want to know what’s going on with the government. They demand you to make a state of the Kingdom address.”

“Yes, I’d anticipated such an occurrence,” said Boaris. “Alright, tell ‘em I’ll be out on the Public Address balcony in ten minutes.” Jones bowed and exited.

“Lord Hill-tur—Captain Skaring?” They saluted. “I want you to back me up out there. I’m going to propose some radical new changes to the government, and I want to look competent. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my liege.”

“Yep, yer honor.”

The trio marched up the winding staircase from the Grand hall to the balcony. Boaris looked out over the mob of ignorant fools standing there like potatoes with legs. They stared up at him with guarded interest, not unlike children watching a substitute teacher.

“Lowly and despicable peasants of Glouderdale,” he began. “Let me say that I am a very educated man and speak in a brilliantly sophisticated manner, which undoubtedly be foreign to imbeciles such as yourselves. If you can grasp the gen’ral gist of my utterances, though, we shall proceed. First, a few words in memory of our late King Ruthven. Ah, a great man he was, a great man! How bravely he made his journey into that great unknown which lies beyond! I saw with my own eyes the valiant struggle he made. He was a tough fellow, and would not let the Reaper take his soul with ease. In the end, though, he perhaps saw that deeper victory lies in submission. Why, he seemed almost glad to rest after thirty years of serving his people!”

He waited for this to sink in. The mob seemed to be mulling it over, trying to decide what it meant. Deciding it was pretty much good, they applauded politely.

“But, my friends, I come to bury Ruthven, not to praise him—ah, well, I s’pose he’s already been buried, hasn’t he—I come to give a memorial speech for him, which is really about the same as praise. But I also came to tell you about my plans for improvements to the government. First, a word or two about the ruler–ship. Since both the Queen and the Prince were absent at the time of Ruthven’s death, the chief advisor—that refers to myself—will assume the role of King. This means, effectively, that I am Ruthven. Of course, I shall find it difficult to replace such a great man as he, and I don’t believe I ever could for real. But, from a legal perspective, I am he.

“You should also know that we need fear no halting of our governmental efficiency, as I will institute liberal changes to the government; nor any dark times, as so many kingdoms must endure when in periods of transition. No vile usurper of the throne shall trouble us with his tyranny. We, my friends, have formed a great, new kingdom, one that will be a boon to us all! With this in mind, we shall henceforth allow no evildoers within these walls ever again.” The peasants applauded, deciding that what Boaris was saying was pretty positive.

“It is my intention,” said Boaris, deliberately. “That all citizens who are too weak to work shall be given…” (He paused for dramatic effect.) “FREE RATIONS!”

The applause was thunderous. Boaris made no motion for it to die down, but rather basking in it for roughly three minutes.

“Furthermore,” said the King, feeling he had the audience’s interest. “I have decided to ban bows and arrows from all civilians. The reasoning behind this is that I feel that such weapons are dangerous, inhumane, and evil. Now, I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking: ‘But what if we need those weapons to protect ourselves?’ Well, let me assure that I am only banning such weapons from civilians. The army will still be outfitted with them, and they, I feel, will be able to protect every citizen of this great Kingdom.”

The peasants, after some initial suspicion, decided that this decree too was a good idea, and they duly applauded. Boaris began to feel he was on a roll.

“Also, I intend to increase that army, that they may protect us from foreign enemies. But don’t worry; I will not force you farmers and cooks to join their ranks; no, no, I plan to recruit our army from the ranks of the Erik-Hi. Of course,” he added as an afterthought. “Anyone who wishes to join the army may.”

There was, of course, more applauding.

“And,” Boaris continued, “for my last, but surely not least, announcement; let me say that there is always a risk of the presiding King being assassinated, and the throne usurped by some fiend who will withdraw into his chambers and never address his people again. To prevent this, I will withdraw to my chambers and never address my people again. Thank you, and good-bye.” And with that, he walked back down the stairs, flanked by Hill-tur and Skaring.

Chapter Three

While all this was going on, Tarl was walking down the Rothendike path. He was tired, hungry and covered in sweat. The storm had passed, and the sun was shining brightly again. Damn sun thought Tarl. He wished he had his horse; but alas, the creature had disappeared along with all the others. It was truly bizarre, he had thought, that there was not a trace of any foot or hoof prints leading down the path, nor any burnt bodies in the forest. It seemed that everything in the company had left the very world.

He had now reached the bottom of the path, and looked out across the field towards the village he had stayed at two nights before. He started staggering in the direction of the place, feeling extremely tired. Like the morning after a night out drinking, except without the feeling of contribution and accomplishment.

 

Agnes Grimmalkin, barmaid at the “Never Fail Pail of Ale” had met customers under all sorts of weird circumstances. But today, as she was out for her evening walk, she would do so under the weirdest. The strangest thing was that he was lying unconscious at the door, on the outside. If he had been inside, it would have been business as usual.

She dragged the man inside, flung him behind the bar, and looked at him. It was then that she realized she’d seen him before. He had slept in the tavern two nights before. She dumped some cool water on the man’s head and he awoke.

“Whazza? Wha—why–where am I?”

“You’re in the ‘Never fail pail of ale’, only the finest spot to get smashed in all our Kingdom!” She said, launching into her sales pitch. “We have the cheapest drinks in all the land, and excellent bread.  And if you require a bed for the night, I always have a room. Yes, that’s the ‘Never fail pail of ale,’ where–”

The man looked at her intently, as if willing himself to stay awake. “Bread, you…say?” he asked. “Here… have… some… gold… stuff. Gimme.”

Sensing that the man’s need was urgent, she took his money, and handed him a loaf of bread. He scarfed it down hurriedly. “More.” he said, flinging her some more gold.

Fifteen minutes and two loaves later, he seemed to be feeling well enough to explain what had happened. “You see, I was coming back from Rothendike, and I was really hungry, and I came here, knowing how good your food was, and I must’ve fainted right as I reached the door. M’ name’s Tarl, by the way.” Agnes nodded, and said she was pleased to meet him, and then asked what he was up doing at Rothendike. He explained that he was prince of Glouderdale and that he had been looking to establish a Goblin-meat processing center on Rothendike and—but she stopped him there.

“You’re prince of Gouderdale? In that case, I’m very sorry.”

“Sorry? Why are you sorry?”

“Haven’t you heard? The King—Your father—has died. The messengers were yelling about it all morning.”

“Died?” yelled Tarl. “How could the old fool have died? You’re lying—or insane—or possibly a pathological liar.” He was clearly infuriated by this. Agnes turned and yelled to the Gremlin in the back room who was brewing some stew. “Hey, Jerry, is King Ruthven alive?”

“Hell, no! You knew that, dincha? God, kid, yer memory’s goin’.”

Agnes turned back to Tarl. “See?” she said.

“You’re lying! You and that fellow are in cahoots.”

“Why would I lie t’ you, idiot?”

“I don’t know. But hell, Dad couldn’t ‘ve died. I mean, I saw him just the other day and he was offensively healthy.”

“Hey, Jerry,” said Agnes again. “You got a newspaper?”

“Yeah.” said Jerry. “Had t’ send away t’ a magician for it. Lord, I wish we’d hurry up and invent some sort of press for printing, y’know… anyway, the paper’s there on the table.”

Agnes picked it up and handed it to Tarl who read aloud, in a voice of horror and grief: “Glouderdale—King Ruthven died yesterday of an eye condition, with complications arising from crackage of the neck. The King’s advisor, Boaris Wormlips, has succeeded the throne.’ Good God!” shrieked Tarl. “You were right! Hell’s bells! How’d he get so sick so quick?” Tarl was looking around frantically, as if he might find something that would account for his father’s sudden demise.

Agnes, meanwhile, tried to comfort him, which she did by offering to halve the price of rum. Tarl, making an exception to his own rule of life, declined the offer. “Alright,” he said, mostly to himself. “I’m going to have to go to the Castle and talk it out with Boaris, I guess.” Then he turned to Agnes. “Think you could give me a bed for the night?”

“Well, I don’t know… How much money ya got?”

“Three Gold pieces an’ a silver.”

“Yeah, I reckon you could get a room for that.”

So Tarl paid her and went up to his room to think. However, as it turned out, he simply fell asleep on his bed before thinking of anything.

 

 

 

The next morning, as he wandered sleepily down the stairs, Agnes was waiting for him. “Well,” she said. “It doesn’t look like you’re gonna be going back to yer castle anytime soon.”

“What?”

“According to the daily messenger Eagle, that Boaris guy has banned all outsiders from reentering Glouderdale grounds. He says for safety reasons.”

Tarl mulled this over. It wasn’t very effective mulling, of course, as he had just woken up. “Hmmmmm.” he said thoughtfully. “That’s something.”

It occurred to Agnes that Tarl seemed always to be drunk or tired or hung over. She liked that in a man; it indicated a good customer.

After Tarl had come to, though, he was furious. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Boaris said nobody could enter Glouderdale?”

“His exact words were ‘no evildoers.’ But, see, most people coming in there don’t say they’re evildoers, so the Captain of the Guard said people ‘couldn’t enter unless they had special permission from the King.’”

“What’s Boaris thinking of?”

“Hey, sweetie,” said Agnes. “If I knew that, I’d have been advisor to th’ King.”

“True. Nevertheless, that’s my Kingdom! My subjects! My stores purveying alcoholic bev’rages, for god’s sake!”

He paced alongside the bar tensely, until Agnes told him to cut it the hell out, he was making the customers nervous. So he sat down and brooded for a while. Then, around ten o’ clock, with bar empty apart from himself and Agnes, he said: “Hell with this, I’m gonna go out to Glouderdale and ask him what–”

“Let me come with you,” said Agnes suddenly. She had been brooding as well, and decided that this was best.

“You? Why do you wanna come with me?”

“There’s nothing here for me.” She said. “Well, apart from job security, camaraderie and a guarantee of customers. But that guarantee’s only good as long as I stay pretty, you know. When I’m sixty, no one’ll come here. So I figure I might as well come with you.”

“Well, I s’pose—“

“Besides, when you’re goin’ on some sorta epic journey, ya gotta have some companion.”

“Why?”

“’S a common literary device.”

“Fair enough.”

So, after packing some supplies, the two ventured out towards Glouderdale, Agnes did not glance back at the village in which she spent all her life, for she feared she might cry. (Thinking of how much time she’d wasted in that miserable dump, I mean.) Tarl, was walking along reading the paper he’d ‘bought’ from Jerry and grumbling when he came across something he didn’t like.

After walking in silence for about an hour, Agnes said, somewhat tentatively:

“Couldja give me the ‘Life’ section outta there?”

“Sure.”

He did so, and the silence resumed. Agnes was, as a rule, a talkative girl. But there was something about Tarl that made her feel very strange, very self-conscious. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about the way he kept looking over at her made her feel… something or other.

But after a time, they became more at ease. She asked him if Glouderdale was very nice, and he said hell no it wasn’t, but it was his home and they had good drinks there. This was exactly the right sort of thing to tell a barmaid. She could then give him a lecture on each and every variety of alcoholic beverage. They spent several pleasant—I might almost say “happy”—hours discussing the best forms of that refreshment.

“Hey,” said Tarl suddenly, “See there, up ahead? That’s the outer wall of Glouderdale.” It was sunset, and the orange rays of the sun were casting their faint orange light on the wall. “It’s beautiful,” said Agnes. “As far as looks go, it’s all downhill from here,” responded Tarl. They rode up to the drawbridge, Agnes wondering why the hell someone who hated a place so much could also want to control it.

 

 

Lieutenant Gabson, First Perimeter Guards, and Glouderdale Hero first class (Twice decorated.) awoke suddenly to the sound of someone calling for the gate to be lowered. He looked down from the battlement at the idiot who was calling. In the evening sun, he could barely see the man.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot. Forbidden under Royal decree number eighty-seven.”

“Hey, man,” said the man. “I’m not some peasant. I–” he paused for effect. “Am Prince Tarlywyn, rightful heir to the throne of Glouderdale.”

Gabson rolled his eyes. “Look, I have no way of being sure o’ that. I don’t know what the Prince looks like. You could be anybody.” The man below seemed to talk this over with his companion. Finally, he said; “Fair ‘nough. Ask me a question only the Prince could answer.”

“Hmmm. Okay…let’s see…what color are the pillows in the Princely chambers?”

“Red.”

There was a pause.

“Well, is that right?” said Tarl.

“How would I know? I’m not the Prince.”

“—-!” A hideous obscenity echoed o’er the plains.

“No, I’m kidding. But, I’m afraid you’re wrong, pal. Turns out there isn’t a Princely chamber. His highness King Boaris turned it into a war room this morning.”

“Look, you incompetent Dragon-Bat-Thing —-er,” –another horrible phrase—“I can prove I’m the damn Prince. I’ve been at Rothendike! I—I went there for Goblin meat—tell Boaris that, he heard me tell Dad.”

Gabson brooded. After awhile, he said: “Well, I can’t tell the King myself. He won’t talk to a damn Guardsmen. But I’ll tell ya what; I’ll explain this to my supervisor. Then he can bring it up at the next board meeting. Then the board can appoint a committee to petition His Highness to let you in.” And with that, Gabson walked off to find his supervisor.

Below the battlement, Tarl was trying to think up some way of getting into the place before the Guard came back. He was looking at the moat in calculating sort of way. “Alice,” he said. “D’ya think, if I wade really hard, hell-for-leather, I could get ‘cross t’ the wall before the water-imps got me?”

Agnes, ignoring his forgetting her name, looked at the moat thoughtfully. “Are the imps of a breed, or are we talkin’ about mutts?”

“They’re bred.”

“Well, imps ‘re usually bred for the teeth, at the expense of speed, so if that’s the case—yeah, I reckon you could do it. But, uh, d’you happen to have a slingshot on you?”

“No, why?”

“I was thinkin’ if I shot at ‘em while you waded through, I could prob’ly distract them.”

Tarl turned and looked at her with deep admiration. Not only for her clever plan, but for wanting to help at all. Unfortunately, due to this turning, he didn’t see the sentry creeping back to his post, crossbow at the ready.

Gabson had told his supervisor, Captain of the Guard Skaring, of the Prince, and Skaring, not wanting it to become known that he had failed to kill Tarl on Rothendike, ordered Gabson to shoot the lying peasant. So, the sentry had loaded his crossbow and gone off to carry out the order. He knelt down on the stone floor, taking careful aim at the head of the alleged Prince. For just a moment, he visualized the arrow sailing out from his bow and cracking the skull of his target. It was this ability to visualize violence that made him a great sniper. (And a fantastic dentist, but that needn’t concern us.)

 

 

 

 

Tarl heard the arrow zip past his head. Stupidly, he spun around, looking for his attacker. Agnes yelled and rolled to her left. Tarl flung himself to the dirt and heard another arrow strike the ground nearby. From above him, he heard a thick stream of profanity. Tarl scrambled upright and ran zigzag away from the wall. He could hear arrows beating into the ground behind him. In the distance, he saw a grove of trees, and ran like hell for it. When he got there he flung himself onto the ground panting. He heard a crackling of twigs and saw Agnes running into the grove and leaning breathlessly against a tree. “That,” she panted, “was the damnedest thing…”

Gabson was standing on the tower, staring out into the dusk in disbelief. He had missed both his targets roughly twenty times. He couldn’t for the life of him understand it. He little realized his mistake: He had attempted to kill a primary character, and a protagonist at that. Though he’d never know it, all his previous kills had been secondary characters from other stories.

But he got control of himself and told the scouts to go out after the two criminals. The riders were rushing out past the castle gate in less than five minutes.

Tarl heard the thunder of the horses’ hooves behind him and turned to look. Riders—at least ten–were coming towards them. He pushed Agnes into a convenient shrubbery and drew his dagger, preparing to leap at the first rider who reached him.

The leader of the group looked at the man mockingly and swung his sword down at Tarl in a very impolite manner. The Prince dove to the ground and threw the dagger into the would-be killer’s stomach. The others, somewhat surprised, hastily formed up and surrounded Tarl, pointing their swords at him.

Tarl was just thinking that things were looking somewhat bleak when Agnes leapt out the shrubbery at the riders and began throwing rocks at them. Two of the warriors were knocked unconscious by the barrage, and the rest galloped away immediately.

“Thanks,” said Tarl breathlessly.

“Sure.” said Agnes. “But we’d better get movin’. They must’ve run away like that to trick us. I bet they’ll be back with more guys.”

 

 

Chapter Four

Arollywyn sat on the cot in her call, thinking how monumentally ugly the place was. The curtains were a vivid shade of pink, and, against the cell’s rust-colored walls, looked like something the Devil might’ve cooked up in one of his more spiteful moments. And it was made all the more intolerable on account of the fact she hadn’t had a chance to change her dress for days. Boaris, for all his professions of love, seemed to have a remarkable capacity for hurting his new wife.

She paced the room nervously, trying to think of how she might escape. The window was barred and too small for her to get out through. The door was locked at all times, and meals were slid in through a slot. There was a large fireplace on one side and a chamber pot had been welded to the floor on the other so that she wouldn’t be able throw it at any guards who happened to enter. Despairingly, she sat back down on the cot. It occurred to her that even if she managed to escape, she was going to have to elude the Tower Guard, the Regular Army, and Boaris himself.

Just then, she realized something. On her key ring was a whistle, with which she used to summon her pet pigeon, Robin. She had forgotten about this having not changed clothes for a day, but now she quickly pulled the whistle out, went up to the window, and blew hard.

 

 

 

Several floors up, two of the castle guards heard the whistle. A second later there came a muffled flapping and squawking from behind the door they were guarding. They opened the door, swords at the ready. Inside, they saw a cage rolling around on the floor. A ball of feathers was moving about frantically inside. One of the soldiers picked up the cage and looked thoughtfully at the creature within. He turned to his comrade.

“’s a bird. Should I kill it?”

“Naah, Let ‘im out.”

He did, and the thing flew out the window, squawking urgently. The soldiers shrugged and resumed their post.

 

 

 

Robin flew into the Queen’s cell, perched on the windowsill, and saluted smartly, just as Arollywyn had taught him. “Good boy!” she said cheerfully. “Wait a minute.” While waiting for Robin, she had scrawled a distress note, and she presently tied it to the bird’s feet. “Take that to anyone outside of Glouderdale.” said she. Quoth the pigeon… well, you know, those noises pigeons make. The bird flew out of the cell window and, lacking the innate understanding of geographical and political land boundaries which owls have, flew into the palace’s map room, reviewed the maps, and headed off to find someone brave or gullible enough to obey a note purporting to be from an imprisoned Queen.

 

 

 

Tarl and Agnes were trudging aimlessly through the field. They had spent the night sleeping under a large boulder, and were now extremely tired. Tarl walked with a slight limp, as he lain down for the night on a thorn branch. They followed a dusty path, which had been worn by years of merchants traveling to and from the little farms that were scattered over the countryside. Neither Agnes nor Tarl knew where they were going, and didn’t care. When they came to a fork in the road, Tarl would say, “Let’s head North,” because that was the way his compass indicated.

Towards evening, a light rain began to fall, and as night came, a light mist settled on the field. Agnes and Tarl were beginning to feel very strange. In the darkness, they strayed from the path and began to wander aimlessly.

The mist was continually getting thicker, and the feeling that the ghosts of the past inhabitants of this great plain now swarmed about him, their voices now the night-breeze, their forms now reduced to naught but fog couldn’t have been further from Tarl’s mind. He was far too busy thinking about his own survival to think about trite descriptions of a misty night.

As they walked, the ground began to feel extremely wet. Tarl now realized that they entered a densely forested swamp, which is not the easiest sort of terrain to traverse in a fog. “This place is mis’rable.” said Agnes angrily.

“Mis’rable, is it?” said a voice from the fog in front of them. “That’s a pity! Just because it’s dreary, dark, malodorous and dangerous, don’t tell me you can’t appreciate the subtle, hideous beauty of nature.” Tarl drew his sword. “Who said that?” he demanded.

“Me.”

“Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“I can’t see you.”

“Ditto.”

Tarl and Agnes walked through the swamp calling for the unseen speaker, until finally they found him sitting on a small clump of dirt. He was a tall, blond fellow, with a rather squashed face. Tarl suspected he might be an Elf. “Good evening,” he said pleasantly. “Who are you?”

Tarl shook the Elf’s hand and introduced himself. “Nice to meet you. My name is Fernando Doom. Yes, it’s an unfortunate name, truly. Anyway, though, what brings you here tonight?”

“We’re trav’lers.” said Agnes. “We were walking lookin’ for a place to stay when we wandered inta this mess.”

“Mmmm. Yes, this sort of thing happens all too often. Once the fog settles in that field, you can’t tell when you’re getting into the swamp. Don’t worry about it, though. I can get you out of here. If you like, I can get you some shelter for the night.”

“Oh, wouldja?” asked Agnes.

“Certainly.” came the response. “Right then, follow me.” Fernando stood up and began jogging through the mist. “It helps if you keep talking. It’s harder to get separated that way.”

With that in mind, Tarl explained to him the way he and Agnes had come to be here. In retrospect a stupid thing to do, given that this Elf might’ve been ally of Boaris, for all Tarl knew, but there it is.

By the time Tarl had explained it all as best he could, Fernando had led them out the swamp to where the mist was thinner. He was nodding slowly, having apparently taken a great interest in Tarl’s story. “Yes,” said he “that’s quite a pickle you’ve got there. I wonder if—well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“What, man?”

“I was just wondering if perhaps the High Elf Council could help you out. They aren’t doing much at the moment, and they might be interested in solving a problem like this. They’re a very selfless bunch, you see.”

“What problem?”

“Why, how to get you back to the Kingdom that, by rights, is yours.”

“Where is this ‘Elf Council?’”

“They usually hang around the Elf village of Livenhell.”

“Livenhell?”

“Yes, that’s right. I was thinking I might be able to take you there tonight and you could stay there.”

“That’d be great.” said Agnes. “Things’re finally startin’ to go our way.”

They walked on through the darkness, the gentle rain soaking them to the skin. Every now and then, Fernando would stop, look around and then start leading them in another direction. Finally, they came to the edge of a large lake. In the middle, barely visible through the fog, was a cluster of huts and towers. Most were dark, but a few torches still flickered in the rain. Fernando turned to the left and went to a small dock where a canoe was tied. He lifted the covering off the boat and said “Quick now, in here. We’ll have to row fast to get there before this thing floods.” The three got inside and Tarl and Fernando began rowing hurriedly. Within a few minutes they reached the island’s harbor, where they clambered out onto the long wooden pier. “Hell,” muttered Tarl, who, in addition to being wet, was now extremely sore in the arms. “Why don’t you guys build a bridge?”

“You know, I never thought of that.” said Fernando, as he clambered up the steps from the small harbor to the main streets of Livenhell. Tarl and Agnes shrugged at each other and followed their guide.

Tarl’s first impression of Livenhell was not a good one. The streets were completely deserted, and nearly all the torches were out. Most of the houses and taverns on the street were also dark. Altogether not a very welcoming place. “C’n we go see the Council now;” he asked. “Or are they all asleep?”

“No,” responded Fernando. “They rarely sleep. But are you sure you want to go see them now? You must both be tired.”

“Nahh,” said Agnes. “We’ll be okay.”

“Right-oh, then. Come on, we’re nearly there.”

Fernando led them to a large log hut, shaped not unlike a stadium, but much smaller. The three walked up the stairs and Fernando pounded his fist on the building’s large wooden doors.

There was a pause, and then, slowly, the door opened.

Inside, it was dark and smoky. A few candles flickered and the chamber smelled of pipe smoke and something else that Tarl couldn’t quite place.

Through the smoke, he saw several Elves in bathrobes sitting on cushions. They were all smoking pipes and chuckling. “Ah—hello, wise ones.” said Fernando.

“Hey, Ferdinand, baby.” said one of the elves, before falling over backwards onto the floor. “Aw, man.” said another. “He musta smoked bad weed. But, hey, ‘scool. Whassup with you, man?”

“I have brought these two travelers here to seek your advice, O wise ones. They need help on matters of vital importance.”

“Man, ain’t nothin’ of vital importance. Jus’ let go, m’ friend.”

“Let go of what?” asked Tarl.

“Ev’rything. It’s the only way to be sure.”

“Look, s’pose I don’t wanna let go. Here, lemme tell ya…”

And so Tarl told to them his strange tale. By the end, the wise ones were nodding and saying to each other “Yeah, man…” One looked at Tarl solemnly. “We’re moved by your story. We can’t abide tyrannical Kingdoms like you’ve described. Unfortunately, our religious principles forbid us to do anything about anything.”

“What?” said Tarl. “Why? We need to start gettin’ together some armies to fight Boaris.”

“No, no, no. There must be no bloodshed. We dislike bloodshed. You see, if you fight bloodshed with bloodshed, and especially if you fight bloodshed with bloodshed with bloodshed, you lower yourself down to the level of your enemies. We suggest that you write a letter to Boaris and tell him to knock it off. Besides which, Boaris is a snake, now, ‘tis true. But once he might’ve been an okay guy. To slay him would be wrong.”

“I see.”

“There’s a good man. Now then, you just start writing up that letter–”

“No, thanks,” Tarl interrupted. “I really don’t think I can do that. I wanna do something now.” The Council members looked at each other, perplexed. Finally, one said “Oh, alright then! Fernando, help him on his quest.”

“Yes, sir.” said Fernando, bowing. “Just as you say.” And with that, the trio turned and left the chamber. As they walked down the stairs, Agnes turned to Fernando and asked:

“Why are ya so anxious t’ help us? You’ve saved us from that fog, brought us here fer shelter, and now you’re–”

“Why? Simply put, because I have nothing else to do. If you really want to know, I was in the swamp to kill myself because my wife left me, my dog died and my kids ran away and eloped with each other. I was just about to tie a brick around my ankles and drown myself when I heard your voices. So, I thought to myself, ‘Well, just because my life is a disaster, no reason I should just allow these two to die.’”

“Oh… But why’re you still sticking with us, I mean, ya could’ve just told those wise ‘uns ‘No dice’, and that’d be the end of it.”

“True, but whenever possible, I try to finish what I begin.”

“Well, that’s quite nice of you.”

“Oh, thanks. I try to help out when I can. Now then, my house is just down this street, if you’ll follow me…” He lead them to a ramshackle old hut that had the appearance of having fallen down and been out back up at least once. Fernando pushed open the door and bade Tarl and Agnes to sit down at the table. “Just a moment,” he said. “I’ll get you some tea.” He went into a small room, there was loud bang, and he reappeared a minute later, dripping wet and holding a towel. “Sorry,” he said. “There won’t be tea after all. It seems my wife—the little minx—sort of, ah, put an explosive substance in my tea-pot. Must’ve been some little farewell gift.” He forced a laugh. “Still, never mind. I suppose you’ll want to turn in early anyway. There’re bedrooms up those stairs.” Tarl and Agnes thanked him and headed up the stairs.

 

 

 

The next morning, Livenhell looked much more inviting. The sun was shining, and the sky was blue, and so on and so on. Tarl and Agnes came down to the dining room to find Fernando poring over a giant map. “Good morning” said Fernando. “I’ve been looking at this, trying to figure out if there were any Kingdoms who’d want to help us fight Boaris.”

“And?”

“There aren’t. At least, not as far as I can tell. Now if we speak with some diplomat, or engage in negotiations with say… the Duke of Halknor, we might get some help. Think of this; we talk to the Duke, and tell him that if he’ll help us overthrow Boaris, he can have a chunk of Glouderdale’s chief export when you’re King.”

“Yeah, but d’ya reckon he’ll agree t’ that?”

“Well, I don’t know. Besides which, Halknor is a tiny Duchy, and their army’s only about five thousand strong.”

“And then there’s the issue of gettin’ there.” said Agnes. “I mean,” she looked at the map. “That looks like a coupla days worth of hiking.”

“It is, yes.” said Fernando. “But it’s really all up to Tarlywyn. It’s his Kingdom we’re out to save.”

“Hey, man, whatever.” said Tarl.

“Well, no sense sitting around, then. I’ve packed supplies, so I guess we should head out.”

They picked up their supplies and left the house. They spoke little as they walked until they reached the little harbor. There they saw the entire Elf High Council standing in front of the dock.

“Hold!” said one. “Ere you, Fernando of Livenhell, depart thyself from this, your boyhood home, we beg you take this gift we’re giving you as a token of our deep appreciation.” The Elf then handed Fernando something that was wrapped in a cheap fabric, that the council had obviously patched together. “Wasn’t that a good speech?” asked the old Elf. “We wrote that ourselves.”

Fernando unwrapped the fabric and found inside… a sword. Not a particularly nice sword, you understand, but a rather worn, unpolished sword that looked like it had been used to hit rocks.

“That belonged to your Grandfather, Timothy Doom. Use it well.” said the Council member.

“I shall, wise one. Oh, look, Grandpa wrote his name on the hilt. See?”

Sure enough, there, written with something that would one day be known as a crayon, was the name ‘Timithee Dom.’ Not his name exactly, perhaps, but a close approximation.

The Council members bowed said farewell. The three warriors thanked them for… well, they thanked them, and then got into the boat. “What do those guys do?” asked Agnes.

“Oh, they just help people out with their little problems.” said Fernando. “Granted, I do sometimes find it difficult to follow their advice, but whose fault is that?”

They disembarked from the boat and hiked off towards the distant snow-covered mountain range that hid the duchy Halknor.

“D’you know anything about the Duke there?” asked Tarl. Fernando shook his head. “No, I don’t, but I’m sure your position as prince of Glouderdale will at least persuade him to listen to us. If he’s worthy of his title, he’ll surely be willing to strike a deal like the one I suggested with us.”

Tarl nodded absently. He had just heard a peculiar bird call and was looking around for the source of it. Swooping down towards them, he saw a pigeon with a piece of paper tied round its feet. The bird landed clumsily on Tarl’s shoulder. The Prince then recognized the animal:

“It’s Robin!” he said, surprised.

“Who’s Robin?”

“This bird is.”

“Well, yeah.”

“He’s my mom’s pet,” said Tarl opening the letter and reading it quickly. “Here, listen to this: ‘Dear whoever: A thousand gold pieces will be given to the person who rescues the damsel imprisoned in the North wing of Glouderdale castle. I am an adorable blonde of twenty-three, who enjoys tennis, and moonlight strolls.’ Ha! This is mom’s handwriting,” Tarl chuckled. “Hell, it’s a good thing I got this. Some guy might’ve been upset otherwise.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“My mom’s been a little, um, deceitful in writing about herself. I suppose she wanted to attract as many rescuers as she could.”

“She sounds like me when I’m advertising.” said Agnes, grinning. “Still, she’s gotta be pretty clever…”

“Could I see that letter?” asked Fernando.

“Sure.”

He read it, and seemed to think for a moment. Then he nodded slowly to himself. “This is good.” said the elf. “If she’s imprisoned there… well, she might be able to give us inside information on the castle. Here, write her a note.” He handed Tarl some paper from his coat. Tarl hastily wrote out a letter explaining what had happened, and would she please keep him informed of goings-on there.

When he was finished though, Agnes said grimly “I don’t think that bird’s up to doin’ much.” Tarl looked at the thing. Robin was looking extremely tired. His feathers were worn, his beak hung open, and he was cooing huskily. “Aright, well, keep ‘im with us till he’s feeling better.” said Tarl. Agnes coaxed the bird onto her shoulder and they walked on.

          Chapter Five

Boaris stalked back and forth in the Grand Hall. The Captain of the Guard was late for his appointment. Boaris hated lateness. And when it was considered that Skaring was already in trouble, he should hardly risk infuriating his King more.

The fact that Tarlywyn, Prince of Glouderdale had been trying to gain access to the castle disturbed him. According to Lieutenant Gabson, the outlaw had been scaling the city wall when he was spotted by the ever-vigilant Gabson who had, without hesitation, fired his crossbow and hit the man through the arm. But, apparently the wound wasn’t fatal, as the Prince had fled into the night. And it was then that Gabson had sent out the riders after the Prince, and they had retreated after a brief skirmish because they were a local scout militia, and were somewhat reluctant to slay their Prince. When word of this betrayal had gotten to Boaris, he had ordered all nine of the scouts beheaded and decreed that henceforth the scout rider corps would be handpicked by the King himself.

But Tarlywyn being alive meant that Skaring and Hill-tur had failed in their assignment. And Boaris hated failure even more than he did lateness.

At last, Jones opened the door and announced “The Captain of the Guard, your Highness.” Skaring meandered in, gave a caricature of a bow to his King, and stood at attention.

“Howdy, my liege.”

Boaris glared at him. “I am given to understand,” he said slowly, trying to give a sense of calm before the storm. “That Tarlywyn, former Prince of this place, was observed near city grounds on the night of June twenty-third at seven-oh-nine.”

“Yeah, I heard about that.”

“Let the record show that, five days prior to that, The Captain of the—well, you know who you are—gave testimony stating, and I quote: ‘I don’ see how anyone coulda made it outta that damn place. It was burnin’ hotter than hell in there when I left.’”

“You  makin’ fun o’ the way I talk?”

“No, I was quoting you. Look, do you deny you said that?”

“Naw, I ‘spect I said somethin’ like that.”

“All right then. This testimony was corroborated by the testimony of his Lordship, the Right Hon. Rudolph Hill-tur. I have summoned his Lordship to appear before us in this hall at noon. Let the record show that it is now two minutes till noon and–”

A sound of thumping and heavy breathing came from the hall door. Mr. Jones entered and said “His Lordship, the right–” But Hil;-tur rushed in “I’m here! They know who I am, damn it!” Then, with more formality, “Greetings, My King. I appear as per your royal command.”

Boaris nodded. “Good, you’re on time. Now to business: do you, Lord Hill-tur, admit that you, on the morning of June nineteenth, attempted to assassinate the then-Prince of Glouderdale, on my orders.”

“Yes, my liege.”

“And you believed yourself successful in this venture?”

“Yes, my liege.”

“And you are, of course, aware of the rumor currently circulating to the effect that that same Prince was seen alive after the assassination attempt?”

“I am.”

“Do you deny this rumor?”

“No.”

“So, in short, you’re willing to admit that the Prince still living is a very real possibility?”

“Well, I, uh, see…. The thing of it is…”

“Yes or no?”

“Yes. It’s possible.”

“One last question. Didn’t I express some displeasure at your failure to make sure Tarl was dead?”

“Yes, m’ king.”

“In the future, Hill-tur, ask yourself: ‘What would Boaris do’ alright?”

“I will do just that.”

“Good.” said Boaris, rolling up the scroll he had read the facts off of. “That’s settled. Now, listen up. I am presenting you with a document that gives you permission to command a division of regular army troops. Take them and scour the countryside for that Prince. And when you find him, kill him and bring me the body.”

“Yes, my King.”

“He must be found at all costs.”

“’Scuse me, highness,” said Skaring. “But didn’t ya say that no one was gonna be let back in city grounds? So when we get back from this li’l trip, how’re we gonna get back in?”

“I’ll—I’ll make an exception.” said Boaris. “I’ll write out a little permission slip you can give the Guards.”

“Thank you, thank you, your Majesty.” said Hill-tur.

“That will be all.” said Boaris, and the two bowed out. “Jones,” said Boaris, “bring Rolly in here, if you please.” Jones nodded and went off to fetch the Queen.

A quarter of an hour later, two Guards entered marching Arollywyn in front of them. She was hand-and-ankle cuffed, but looking rather calm. Disturbingly so, in Boaris’s opinion.

“Well, Rolly,” he said when the guards had gone, “How do you like your new chamber?”

“I love it!” she spat. “Why, I could stay in there for another age, and never change my dress, and I’d be fine.”

“Good for you, m’lady. I’ll hold you to that.”

“What do you think you’re doing, Boaris? Look, ever since you put me in there, I’ve started to hate you even more than I used to.”

“That’s what you think.” responded Boaris. “I am well versed in these matters—I have read many an ancient text of romance—and in ninety-nine percent of cases, the two lovers act like they hate each other till, at the very end, they realize they secretly love each other.”

The Queen chuckled coldly. “You fool, those are all old tales made up by crazed monks. The only reason they’re like that is because it’s easier to write conflict than to do an honest portrayal of a relationship.”

Boaris disguised his horror at this revelation. “Well… on the topic of writing… I have here a little love poem I wrote for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a scrap of parchment. Arollywyn took it and read aloud:

i sigh in a melancholy sort of way

as does the wind when blowing through the trees,

and think, for a moment, of the fishes

            and their perfect harmony with the world and nature

            and, for a moment, am repulsed by the way in which they

            swim through the pond of life, whilst I

            my poor accursed self—my own self, personally—

residing in the bubbling swamps of existence

            there among the grime seaweed and kelp

            which shackle me like a prison’s chains

            there among the reeds and water and

            the frogs who croak at me as if to mock

            my poor accursed self—my own self, personally—

            for is not the soul of a man, intangible itself,

            not as precious as the tadpoles and the trees

            the wolf, coyote, basset and the cow,

            to the continuation of the existence

            of the uncertainly shaped world upon which all men tread?

            isn’t it? isn’t it? isn’t it? isn’t it? isn’t it? isn’t it? isn’t it?

            and yet, my soul is crushed to dust, reduced to dirt,

             by the force of spiritual attachment which

            i have for another soul—which i love with all the

            bright light that’s cast by the moon—

            i love and suffer—i do it myself

            my poor accursed self—my own self, personally.

 

“You call that a love poem?” asked Arollywyn disgustedly.

Boaris grimaced. “Rolly, please, don’t be selfish. I am in terrible agony for the love of you. Please, consent to marry me, and I’ll let you out of the damn dungeon. It’s only fair.”

“Fair, eh? Did you forget that about four days ago my husband died? I’m not over it, you know.”

Boaris was now looking actually desperate. It took all his strength (which admittedly wasn’t much) to keep from pleading with her. “Over it? Oh, what do I know of ‘over it’? Look, when I was a boy, I had a dog. It died. Am I over it? No, damn it, I’m not. And I never will be. But that doesn’t stop me from presiding over this Kingdom. When that dog died, my father said ‘Boaris, don’t cry. Crying is for girls and small mammals, like that dead dog of yours, f’rinstance.’ And I said–”

“Oh, you poor dear, I had no idea. I’m sure it was very tragic and hard and that it traumatized you dreadfully. I’m very sorry. But would you mind telling me why it means I should marry you?”

This interruption of his reminiscences was the last straw for Boaris. “That’s it!” he yelled. “Damn it, I’m sick of you!  I’ll see you in the torture chamber this evening. Guards,” he shouted. The guards entered. “Take this lady back to her cell, and at seven take her to the torture chamber and strap her to the rack. Do not harm her, though. Just keep her there till I arrive; that should be around, oh, seven-thirty. See you then, my Queen.” he snarled. And so the guards marched her out, poking her in the back to stop her struggling. Boaris looked after her with fury in his eyes. “I’ll bring some roses.” he called mockingly.

 

 

 

While this powerful, highly dramatic struggle was going on, the two veteran comrades of the Erik-Hi war were walking through the deserted back streets of Glouderdale to the army training grounds. “All I wanna know,” said Hill-tur. “is how the hell that guy got out of that fire. He was in the middle of that forest and he got out!”

Skaring grinned superiorly. “We don’ know if he did, though. Gabson coulda been wrong. I mean, I told ‘im t’ kill the guy who came t’ the wall that night, ‘cuz I didn’t wanna chance it, but hell, fer all I know it mighta been some peasant.”

Hill-tur shook his head. “Yeah, but it’s not likely. Why would he have thought saying he was the Prince would help him?”

“Well, I’m sayin’ if he hadn’t heard about Ruthven, he might’ve thought he’d get in.”

They had reached the parade ground and looked out over the wooden fence at the soldiers training for battle.

“C’mon, I think we need t’ report to the main office.” said Hill-tur.

They walked along the fence until they came to a small shack. Skaring knocked on the door and the two were admitted by a little gremlin wearing spectacles. “May I help you, sir?” he asked. “Yeah,” said Skaring. ‘We’ve been told to take command of a division of soldiers. Here’s proof.” he said handing the Gremlin the paper Boaris had given him. The little creature examined it, nodded slowly, and asked, “Is there any particular army you require?”

“Well, what’ve ya got?”

“Well, sir, there’s blue army, which has one of the most incredible drummers in the army. On the other hand, of course, their banner is weak. It’s just a little blue circle. Now red army has a brilliant banner with lions and snakes and all that kind of thing. But, of course, their drummer’s dreadful. Now, pink army–”

“We’ll take red.” said Skaring. “Where are they?”

“They’re out drilling defensive maneuvers, sir. I’ll take you to ‘em.” He led them out the back door into the field. They passed row after row of troops, some drilling, some standing at attention, but all seeming ready at a signal to issue forth like ants to sugar. (Except in formation, of course. And in the place of sugar, it would be enemy troops. But other than that, it’s a good metaphor.)

They came ere long upon a company of fierce looking warriors, all standing solemnly at attention. ‘Here they are,” said the Gremlin. “Rental’s good for one month, then you have to renew. Gen’rals returning overdue armies are subject to fine. Have a nice campaign.” And he scuttled away.

“Lemme talk to ‘em.” hissed Skaring. He walked in front of the division and saluted smartly. “Howdy, y’all. I’m yer new commander, Gen’ral Skaring.” he said, promoting himself. “Now, the reason I’m here is to direct the search for this guy,” he unrolled a portrait of Tarl he had taken from the Royal gallery. “You prolly recognize ‘im, he was the former Prince of here. Anyways, we’re s’posed to hunt ‘im down an’ kill ‘im. But we have t’ make sure we keep enough o’ th’ body that the King can recognize him. This fella here,” he said gesturing at Hill-tur. “Is sorta like, uh, my assistant. He’s a Lord, ya know, an his job’s t’ report back to the King. ‘S all clear?”

“Yes, sir.” They chorused.

“Good. We’ll meet back here tomorrow at sunrise and move out. That’ll be all.” He saluted again and then walked off, talking with Hill-tur.

“Man, you got any idea how we’ll find Tarl?” asked Hill-tur.

“None whats’ever.” said Skaring grimly. “My plan, though, is t’ just look through ev’ry tavern in the known land. Seems we’d be likely to catch ‘im.” Hill-tur laughed. “Yeah. God, that kid could drink.”

“No kiddin’,” said Skaring. “Really, though, We’ll jus’ have to search ev’rywhere and hope to get lucky.”

“I was just about to say that.”

“Seem’s simple, I know,” said Skaring. “But sometimes it takes complicated fellas like us to think o’ the simplest things.”

 

 

 

 

At seven-thirty, Boaris walked confidently down to the torture chamber. He had drunk a glass of brandy before coming, and was full of a perverse excitement that normally only graced his soul when he was about to kill someone. He rapped on the door to the cell, it swung open, and he strode in, looking around hungrily. He opened his mouth to say something clever.

Instead he said: “What—what—what?”

Two of the guiltiest looking men Boaris had ever seen were standing on either side of the torture rack, grinning apologetically. That would’ve been fine with Boaris, except for the fact that the Queen, despite his express instructions, wasn’t there.

“Where’s she gone?” he said frantically.

“Well—ha ha—I don’t know.” said one guard nervously. “In fact, no one does.”

“No one? Wh-when did she go missing?”

“Between when she was taken back to her cell and right now, my King.”

“Thanks,” snarled Boaris. “You’re so helpful. God! Can’t any guard in this bloody castle keep any kind of watch? Here, c’mon!” Boaris swept out of the room and down the hall and down the steps and around the spiral staircase and up another hall and into the cell that had once housed Arollywyn. The Guards marched in behind him. The King panted for a moment, then looked around at the deserted cell. It didn’t take long for Boaris to figure out what had happened: The Queen had escaped.

It took slightly longer to deduce how. Eventually, one of the guards, acting in the hope that doing so would save his job, realized that there was a secret tunnel built into the fireplace. It seemed that Arollywyn had snuck out that way. Boaris was displeased. The fact that this escape route had been here all along without anyone knowing disturbed him. He was just about to lecture the guards on this, when one pointed out “Perhaps we should follow the tunnel, my King. If we hurry, we might catch ‘er.” Boaris had to admit the guy had a point. They rushed down the dark corridor, Boaris thinking of all the dreadful things he would do if he found Arollywyn.

 

 

 

 

As it turned out though, he didn’t. He and his troops would find the tunnel to lead out into the castle stables. They hunted all around for the Queen, but found no trace.

Which, of course, was only to be expected when you consider that she hadn’t gone out that way at all. The fireplace tunnel had been opened by the chimney sweep. Arollywyn had simply allowed her dress to catch on a nail in the door frame and pull it out slightly. When the guards shut the door it was left slightly ajar, and Arollywyn snuck out. It was almost as if it had been cleverly ordained by some force from above.

Arollywyn skulked about the castle, making nary a sound. It was by now night, and moving silently through empty castle halls gave her an incredible feeling of apprehension. But that sense of apprehension was nothing at all compared with the feeling she got when the halls weren’t empty. There were guards scouring the castle for her. She had evaded the patrols, but there was a problem with how she’d done it: She was constantly being forced upward into the castle, when she needed to being going down to escape. This hit her, unfortunately, when she was standing in a high sentry tower and heard footsteps approaching. She looked out the window at the sinister full moon looming outside. Then, on impulse, she leapt out the window and scrambled up the side of the tower.

In retrospect, it was a stupid idea, but you wouldn’t be at your mental best if you were being hunted by an evil King either. Arollywyn clung to the side of the tower, the chill wind moaning, the gray clouds obscuring the moon, the wolves howling in the distance, and all the world seeming to say “Better luck in your next life.” The Queen, though, wasn’t going to quit without a fight. She clambered across the tower and leapt down onto a narrow wall jutting out from the tower. She shimmied along it, clinging desperately to the side to keep the gale from blowing her off. A fall from this height would’ve surely turned the Queen into something not unlike an omelet.

At last she made it to the other side of the catwalk and jumped down onto a wider walkway. Unfortunately, this walkway was occupied by a guardsman who was marching back and forth. A cloud sailed over the moon just then, cloaking the Queen in darkness. She used this to wait till the guard was in front of her, then pounced from the darkness and hurled the man over the wall into the inky darkness below.

 

 

Jones was out for his evening stroll when the body splashed into the mud in front of him. He peered up at the castle wall above him and realized it was impossible that the man had fallen by accident. He immediately began yelling for help. “A guard’s been killed! The West walkway—intruders!”

The colonel of the castle guards, Brad Dur, came running up from the courtyard. “Wha’ the hell ja do that for, Jones?” he asked furiously.

“Do what?” asked the valet.

“You killed that guy! Caught red-handed, baby. I never did like the look of–”

“I didn’t kill him, sir; I was standing here when his body fell out of the sky.”

Dur seemed somewhat put out. “Oh.” he said dejectedly. By this time, nine other troops had appeared, and were standing at attention. “Look,” said Jones. “If you get up there quickly there’s a chance you might be able to find the culprit.”

“The what?”

“The person who did it.”

“Oh, yeah.”

It took a few seconds for Jones’s words to really sink in.

One.

Two.

Three.

“Let’s get up there!” yelled Dur, leading his troops to the tower entrance. They ran up the spiral staircase, passing only one person;some veiled woman who Dur didn’t think worth questioning.

 

 

 

Arollywyn hurried down to the tower door and slipped out into the darkness. She ran through the courtyard, and had nearly made it to the path to the village when she heard two men approaching. She quickly crouched down behind a fountain. One of the men seemed to have just approached the other to talk. “Well, Rudy,” he said. “I’ve got good news. Intelligence says that the Prince was seen walkin’ through farmyards on the plain.”

“When?”

“Reports differ. But man, that’s great. There’re only two places he could be: He’s either at some farm, else he’s at that damn Elf place.”

“Livenhell?”

“Yeah. Well, I guess he could be in the field, too, but he ain’t gonna last long there. So, I reckon…”

Their voices faded in the night. Nevertheless, they had given Arollywyn much to think on. If her idiot son was alive, and in the fields… well, tactically speaking, it meant nothing to her, but then, the kid was her kid and she had that happiness that mothers get when they hear their children aren’t dead after all.

 

Chapter Six

It’s getting cold, Tarl thought. They were staggering now, getting very near the giant icy mountain range that hid the Duchy of Halknor. Very gradually, the ground they walked over changed from healthy green grass to wintry grayish-brown straw. The trees, too, seemed to lose their leaves here, and only their skeletons remained. The four—if you count Robin—were beginning to feel very uncomfortable. It seemed amazing to them that the weather could be so different out here.

“It’s due to the people of Halknor burning so many trees,” explained Fernando. “They used to do it for warmth in the winter, you see, but they burnt too many which has sort of caused a permanent cloud of smoke to obscure the sun almost constantly, which causes perma-winter, which in turn causes them to have to burn trees for warmth, which perpetuates the perma-winter, and so on and so on.”

“Int’resting.” said Tarl. “How sad for them.”  But he was much more worried about the three of them freezing to death than he was about the Halknorians’ little mishaps. Agnes, though, was interested. “But why won’t the smoke dissipate?” she asked.

“Well, that’s the thing. See, because there’re fewer trees, the air’s screwed up, and has a quality to it that causes the smoke to just sit there.” Agnes shook her head incredulously. “Oh, man. That’s gotta feel bad.”

Fernando smiled grimly. “I imagine it makes it difficult to motivate oneself to get out of bed in the morning.”

By now, they were walking up a small hill, one of the first that led up into the mountains. Tarl remembered how he had hated Rothendike, and realized that he hadn’t known what a mountain could be. There was very little wind here, but what there was blew directly in the travelers’ faces, the icy slap making them feel as though they were being hit with frozen manta rays. Actually, none of them had ever been hit with even a single frozen manta ray, but if they had, they would have thought it was like this.

It was, all around, a dreadful trek. Agnes’s boots filled with snow, which would then melt and soak her socks, Tarl slid on a patch of snow-covered ice into a thicket, and Fernando tripped over a rock and fell face first in to the gravel. And this was all in the space of about ten minutes.

The group spoke little, saving their strength. (And, in Fernando’s case, blood, which was likely to come streaming out of his mouth if he opened it.) The mountains grew steeper, and they were forced to press their backs to the rocks and shuffle along ledges. A few tree branches littered the ground here and there, and it was these Tarl said a few well-chosen words about.

“Damn these things! Damn all tree branches! The things’re erv’rywhere on this bloody place!”  Fernando helped Tarl disentangle himself from the branch he’d tripped over. “Yes, I know. Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Tarl groaned. “How much farther is it t’ Halknor?” Fernando mused for a moment. “It’s hard to say. No one’s ever succeeded in pinning down its exact location because there’re no landmarks here. It’s all mountains. But I don’t know; I’d say we’re between one and ten hours away.”

“Damn it!”

They kept walking the mountain passes. The mountain wolves howled in the distance. It began to grow darker. At first, Tarl thought night was coming on, but Fernando explained: “It looks to me like real clouds are moving in under the smoke.” Tarl moaned despairingly, wondering how this might get worse. “Oh, dear,” said Fernando. “It’s snowing.”

It was, but don’t go running away with the idea it was those big white flakes like snow usually is. No, in looks, this snow more closely resembled ash, little gray flakes that fell from the gloomy sky and disintegrated on impact. It was only for its temperature that it was called snow.

The wind was no longer analogous to frozen manta rays; now it felt more like having millions of frozen needles thrown in one’s face. “This sucks.” Agnes remarked. Fernando smiled weakly. “No, it blows.”

Agnes couldn’t be bothered to reply. If they were going to die on this hideous pile of death that people called a mountain, they might as well be comrades when they did.

At long last, they saw an orange light up ahead. After trudging a few more minutes through the snowy darkness, they finally could see the enormous land of Halknor.

It was surprisingly large, and spread out on a giant plain that must’ve been surrounded by mountains, though the city stretched out much farther than the companions could see. “Thank God.” said Fernando. “C’mon, let’s get down there.” They followed a winding path down the mountain that led into the city. They walked through the metropolis, drawing many a suspicious glance from the peasants. “We might as well try to see the Duke now.” said Fernando. “I know you’re tired, but the look will lend credence to our story. Hey!” he called to a peasant. “Excuse me, pal, but d’you know where the Ducal residence is?”

“Sure, buddy,” the peasant gave them directions and a few minutes later they were banging on the door of the place. They were admitted, and knocked at the door to the Duke’s study.

“Is that you, Ashcan?” came a voice from behind the door.

“Um, no.” said Tarl, somewhat puzzled.

“Ach!” shouted the voice. “Again! This is the twain time this yet young week I’ve jumped to foolish assumptions about who is at the door. Well, whoever you are, I’ll be there in a moment or two.”

And indeed, approximately two moments later, a tall, somewhat stout man opened the door. “Greetings, friend. Oh my, you look like you’ve had a difficult journey. Come in, sit down, have some tea. I am Duke Theolden.”

“Pleased to meet you.” said Tarl, sipping some tea.

There was a tense silence. Then the Duke said “Well, as long as you’re here, I had ought as well talk with you. What may your names be?”

“I am Tarlywn Willerdschnout, Prince of Glouderdale.” The Duke looked at him suspiciously. “Glouderdale? I thought that Boaris reigned as King there.”

“Yes—well, he’s King and I’m prince.”

“But, I’ faith you’re not his son.”

“Well, that’s debatable. Anyway, he’s the King now, and he can’t be Prince and King at the same time, so I’m the Prince. Problem is he won’t agree with me on it. He seems not to want me in his Kingdom.”

“Yes, I can readily believe that.”

“So I decided t’ just take the Kingdom back by force. But the only people who wanna help me are these two.”

“Indeed?”

“So I thought I’d come here and an’ see if you wanted to pledge your army to attack Glouderdale.”

“And why, pray tell, would I want to do that?”

“Well, uh… lessee… Glouderdale has access to a wealth of Goblin meat. If you can help me take the place back, I’d make sure your people could get a good supply of it. It’s very fattening, see, and you guys could eat a lot of it and bulk up an’ be warmer.”

The Duke thought for a moment about this. But finally he shook his head. “Well, it is a kind offer, but I am afraid we have already devised a solution to our warmth impediment.”

“Pardon my saying so,” said Tarl. “But it didn’t look like it on the way here.”

“Well, you see, it’s in this wise:” the Duke said proudly. “We’ve discovered that the animals can be used for warmth.”

“What, fur coats?”

“No, no, not at all. What we did was we put all the animals in cages. One per cage, and then we put the cages in enormous huts of stone. And from these huts run great vents that go into all of the houses in Halknor. Feel the heat in this, the Ducal mansion, and witness the verity of my statement.”

“Yeah, but who cleans up for the animals, though?”

“Oh, various folks. They’re all happy to help, seeing as it gives them warm buildings. So no, my boy, I’m afraid I cannot help you with your troubles, other than perhaps to give you all rooms for the night.”

“I never turn down freebies.” said Tarl. “Sir, show us to our rooms!”

 

 

 

 

In the dead of the night, as he was walking through the corridor to his room, Tarl met Agnes leaving her quarters. In the darkness, they crashed into each other and nearly fell down. “Sorry.” Tarl grunted.

“’S okay. It’s sort of magical, isn’t it?” said Agnes mystically. “Just th’ two of us… alone… in a dark corridor…”

“You feelin’ okay?”

“Yeah. It’s been a weird day, y’know, and it all seems…”

“You been drinkin’?”

“Damn straight.”

“Straight from the bottle?”

“No, no.” she chuckled. “I always pour it in a glass.”

They stared at each other for a moment. Then, caught in the tide of passion, another moment. Then they remembered themselves and stared at the floor. “G’night.” Tarl mumbled. “See you in the morning.” said Agnes. Then the two walked off to their rooms.

Tarl lay in bed staring at the ceiling for a long time that night. He couldn’t help thinking that something strange, yet wonderful, yet forbidden, yet hard-to-concisely-describe, had been shared between himself and Agnes. But then again, it could’ve just been love.

 

 

 

The next morning Tarl came down to the guests’ breakfast room, and, as it was filled with various dignitaries who were visiting Halknor, committed more social faux-pas than it is convenient to list here.

After going, under Ducal orders, to eat his breakfast out on the palace steps, Tarl went inside and wandered through the halls looking for Agnes and Fernando. Instead he found Theolden, who seemed to be trying to conceal his impatience. “My friend,” said the Duke. “I know I said that my letting you inside compelled me to oblige you and what-not, but, uh, well, I have to ask: when will you be leaving?”

“Oh, shouldn’t be more than a coupla weeks.”

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, good. Excellent. Superb. Alright, then. Thank you. Good.” And the Duke staggered away.  Tarl shrugged to himself. He was sorry to be a nuisance, of course, but then again, he couldn’t just go back out into the cold. For it was quite warm in the Palace—the vent pipes connecting the animal warehouses to the Palace clearly worked well—and Tarl had not been this comfortable for days.

He wandered over to the library, and had just picked up a murder mystery, when an ocelot appeared from around the corner and walked up to him.

“Sorry to trouble you, sir,” said the ocelot. “But can you point me over to the economics section?”

Tarl stared at the creature blankly for several seconds before saying. “I dunno… you can talk?”

“Oh, that,” chuckled the ocelot. “Sorry, I forget how it surprises people.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t expecting it. My name’s Tarl, by the way.”

“I’m Ashcan.”

“Ashcan?”

“Yes, Ashcan.”

“Well, no doubt you’d know. Really, though, who took the liberty of teaching an animal to talk?”

“I did. Studying foreign languages is my hobby. So, as soon as I’d mastered Chicken, I set to work on human. Now I serve as the translator for the King and the other animals.”

“Oh, well, tell ‘em they’re doing an excellent job supplying the heat.”

“I’ll do that. Well, I’ve gotta run; have a nice day.”

And with that the ocelot climbed up onto a shelf, opened a window, climbed out and shut the window.

 

 

 

Elsewhere, Skaring was riding in front of his troop column. They had left the city of Glouderdale nearly an hour before, and were now marching towards the hilly portion of the plain where intelligence hawks had indicated Tarl was. Hill-tur rode alongside Skaring.

“When we find him,” asked Hill-tur. “How d’you plan to kill this guy? Or do you reckon we should capture him, then bring him to the King, then kill him?” Skaring thought for a moment. “I’m leanin’ towards the second one, m’self. But then, o’ course, it’s good t’ keep an open mind.”

They rode on over the great plain. The troop column marched behind them, scanning the field for any sign of the Prince. After a time they came into the hilly farmland where the owls had reported Tarl being. “Let’s spread out,” said Skaring. “A hundred men to each cottage. Group one, follow me.  Group two, go with him.” He said, gesturing at Hill-tur. The lord nodded and rode up to the door of a quaint little farmhouse. He knocked on the door and a simple, quaint farmer opened it.

“Yo.” said the Farmer.

“Hello, I’m representing the Kingdom of Glouderdale, and I have come to ask if you’d seen any escaped Princes from there.”

“’Scaped Princes? I dunno, whadda they look like?”

“Tall guy, pretty young, had a sort of scruffy beard.”

“No, haven’t seen ‘im.”

“Oh, no?” said Hill-tur suspiciously. “How can I be sure he isn’t hiding in your house? Here, let me step inside a minute…” He barged in and began looking around the interior of the cottage. It didn’t take him long to spot something of interest. “What’s that pillow doin’ there?” The farmer looked at the pillow in question and shrugged. “I dunno. Jus’ your basic pillow… why d’ya ask?”

“The Prince might’ve thrown it there when he was rushing to hide.”

“But, man, he wasn’t rushin’ to hide, a ‘ cause he wasn’t here.”

“He wasn’t? You telling me he is here now?”

The farmer looked at him angrily. “Hey, dude, don’t make me–”

“I have hundreds of troops outside here, who’ll kill anyone I say without question. Don’t mess with me.”

The farmer saw the logic to this. He fell silent, while Hill-tur continued inspecting the dining room. After he had smashed apart most of the house in an effort to find Tarl, he said to the farmer: “Well, apparently he’s not here. Sorry for any inconvenience I might’ve caused.”

“’S no problem fer me.” said the farmer. “I don’ know if th’ guy who lives here is gonna like it, but what the hey, man.”

Hill-tur headed back out and ordered his troops over to a second farmhouse. No one was home, so they looted the pantry and stole a few of the residents’ clothes. They could be hunting Tarl for a long time, and figured it best to stock up on supplies.

Skaring, meanwhile, was having much more difficulty. Three of his troops had been killed when they were searching a farm field. A stray cow had attacked and gored them as they were taking apart a haystack. After that, Skaring had entered a small hut and alarmed the guard dog, who tried to kill him and inadvertently knocked a log out of the fireplace.

As Skaring and his men stared at the smoking remains of the hut in the mid-afternoon sun, they heard the sharp cry of a reconnaissance owl. The General looked up and the creature swooped down towards him. It landed on the ground, unrolled a map, and pointed with its wing to a portion labeled “Livenhell: Stupid elves live here.” Skaring realized at once what this meant. He turned his horse, yelling to his men to follow him, and rode of to the hill where Hill-tur and his group were questioning some peasants.

“Just give me a moment.” said Hill-tur. “I think I’ve got our man. This guy looks suspicious.”

“Well, he ain’t. According to a reconnaissance owl, the Prince has gone t’ Livenhell.”

“What d’you mean he’s ‘Gone to live in hell?’”

“No, man. Livenhell. The Elf place.”

“Damn it!”

They stood thoughtfully for a while, pondering. Then Hill-tur said “Well, I don’t think we’re going to get to Livenhell by nightfall.”

“I reckon we’ll have to go through the dark,” said Skaring. “We don’ have any shelter.”

“Ah, but we do.” said Hill-tur, his eyes gleaming as if he’d realized something. “We have all these farmhouses. Gen’ral, if I might suggest it, we could all camp in these places. Each one can hold about… oh, six guys.”

“Good idea.” said Skaring.

 

 

 

 

After spending a few days in Halknor, Robin was feeling well enough to return to carrying messages, and it was this that Tarl used him for, sending off a letter to his mother. He made sure not to disclose anything dangerous—such as his location—but made it clear he was safe. He asked her for any details she might have about the new regime of Glouderdale. This done, he felt he had made enough of a contribution to the fight against Boaris for one day, and headed to the dining hall to have a little rum and maybe dance a little.

Yet strangely, he found himself unable to concentrate on his drinking. His mind drifted inexplicably to thoughts of Agnes. Well, it wasn’t completely inexplicable, for Agnes was sitting next to him and talking, but as a general rule, he ignored that sort of thing. Yet now he found himself fascinated with it. Fernando was nowhere around, Tarl having last seen him when he went off to buy a map for them to plot their strategy.

“So, anyway,” said Agnes. “I dunno where we’re gonna get enough of an army to have a chance against Boaris. Tell ya the truth, I jus’ wen’ along with you ‘cause I thought you were cute.”

“That’s weird.” said Tarl. “I thought same thing about you. But you’d think people like us would be able t’ get an army from somewhere.”

Presently, the Duke walked over to their side of the table. He was making a valiant effort to seem happy that they were there. “So, are you young people enjoying yourselves? Drinking my wine, eating my bread, using my rooms…”

“Oh, it’s wonderful.” said Agnes. “Thank you so much. We’re ever so grateful.” Theolden smiled feebly. “So… you enjoy it… good. That’s good.”

“In fact, we’re thinking of extending our stay.”

“Ow! Ah, sorry, stepped on a nail. I’m very, very, very glad that you like—like it here.”

“I don’t wanna be nosy,” said Tarl. “But it seems like you don’t want us here.”

“Well, in truth, no, I don’t.” admitted Theolden. “But I said you could have rooms for… awhile, and I suppose I must keep my word. But I do request that you don’t disrupt our activities too much.”

“Well, that’s really nice of you.”

“We do our best.” said the Duke.

“Cool, man.”

The Duke nodded and turned to go talk with some other guest. Tarl looked at Agnes gleefully.

“Didja hear that? Oh, man, we can really use this, baby.”

“Whatcha mean?”

“I’m thinkin’ this: They seem really afraid of breaking their word. Suppose we trick them into giving their word to pledge their army. We could help them, and they’d owe us, and we could make ‘em return the favor by fighting Boaris for us.”

“I like it.” said Agnes. “But what’re we gonna do that they’ll owe us for?”

“Well, that is a problem, yeah.”

The two brooded for a moment. Finally, Agnes said “Are they in any kind of war right now? ‘Cause, I mean then we could jus’ help ‘em win the war and they’d owe us.”

“I don’t think they’re at war, though. Then again,” Tarl bit his lip calculatingly. “What if we were to start a war? That’d get ‘em goin’.”

“Nahh, that’s too hard.”

The two left the table and went back to the Ducal game room to talk, fearing that in the dining room they might be overheard.

“Well, how ‘bout this?” asked Tarl. “If we just do the commander of the army a favor and he c’n repay us by lending us his army.”

“Yeah, I think you’re onto something there. And they, o’ course, would be compelled by their duty to him to follow his orders.”

“Right. Now the problem is figuring what kind of favor to do for him.”

“Well, yeah, that’s true.”

They thought for a while, but couldn’t come up with anything. Then Tarl stared thoughtfully at Agnes. “T’ change the subject,” he began. “about las’ night–”

“The corridor?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry! I don’t know what came over me!”

“’S all right. I was the same way; I just–just lost myself.”

“What would our parents say?”

“Well, of mine one’s dead, and the other one is in prison. So I don’–”

“Yeah… and mine sorta sold me off to be a bar-maid when I was twelve…”

“So they’d prob’ly be cool with it.”

“That’s true ‘nough.”

There was a long pause.

“Well, anyway,” said Tarl. “d’ya really think I’m cute?”

“Yes. A little.”

“Just a little, though?”

“Yep. What d’you think of me?”

“I’d say you’re a 7.5. You’ve got all the talent to be cute, but you don’ have the discipline. You’ve got potential, but you’re not  ready for the big-time.”

“Thanks for the advice.” said Agnes sarcastically.

“Now, I’m not sayin’ that we couldn’t maybe… work on it together?”

“I’d like that.”

 

 

 

 

Fernando was sitting in his room, studying a map of Glouderdale, when Theolden entered. “Hello, m’ Duke.” said the elf. “How can I help you?”

“Well, I wanted to inquire if you could do something about those friends of yours. You see, they’re kissing in the game room, and it’s disturbing my guests rather. I would have shown them out myself, you know, but I thought I’d let you do it.”

“Of course. Right-oh, I’ll get them. Terribly sorry.”

“Oh, don’t be sorry. I don’t mind you so much; you can respect my property. But those two…”

“They’re under a lot of stress, you see. They’ve had it pretty rough lately.”

“Yes, I can see that. But… well, I’m sorry, sir, but I think I really must ask you and your friends to leave my palace. I understand it’s warm, but I simply can’t allow you to run amok like this. I’ll give you one day to prepare yourselves to leave.”

“I quite understand.” said Fernando. “I’ll go tell them at once.”

After Fernando had pried the couple apart and taken them back to his room, he said: “Now look, I know I said I’d be your assistant and only give you advice when you ask me to, but I really must request that you hold your little dalliances in private from now on. We’re trying to impress these people with our intelligence, commitment and professionalism. This can’t be accomplished by making out in their game room.”

“That reminds me,” said Tarl. “We were thinking…” And he told Fernando their plan for getting Halknor to pledge its troops to them. “I see,” said the Elf. “It’s a good plan. But I’m afraid you’re too late. The Duke’s asked me to make you leave, and I really can’t bring myself to impose upon him further.”

“But, man,” said Tarl. “If we can just think up some way to pay ‘em, we can stay, at least. We might as well try.”

“True. We have one day.”

They pondered long and hard, but every suggestion was invariably vetoed, whether on account of Agnes’s morals, or Tarl’s frugality or what have you.

Utterly baffled and tired of thinking, the three went down to dinner, had a pleasant meal, and then went to their chambers to pack for their departure from Halknor.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, Theolden and Ashcan were having a serious debate over financial matters. Ashcan said the animals felt they weren’t being fed nearly enough—they were paid in food—and that with all the revenue Halknor was generating as an elite tourist spot/ski resort there should be more than enough money to acquire food for them. Theolden disagreed. Hence the debate.

They had been arguing the point for several hours, during which time the meeting had degenerated from a professional discussion into Ashcan threatening to leave “this miserable dump”, and Theolden calling him “A glorified sock-puppet of a two-bit magician.”

At last, however, an idea occurred to Theolden. He realized that Tarlywyn, if he was indeed a Prince, must have access to some form of currency, and therefore it logically followed that he would be willing to pay for the continued warmth of the city. Of course, Theolden would then be forced to allow Tarl to remain in Halknor, but sometimes one has to take the bad with the good.

 

 

 

After leaving the farmhouses they had invaded, red company and its leaders began the laborious march to Livenhell. Skaring and Hill-tur drew their battle plans as they rode.

“Alright, Livenhell’s on an island, so I’m thinkin’ we’ll surround it from the mainland, then send an envoy—Me an’ you—and tell ‘em to hand over Tarlywyn.”

“And if they refuse?”

“We’ll pillage their village, hassle their castle, battle their cattle, and, uh, poison their boys n’ girls.”

“Did you come up with that?” asked Hill-tur, impressed.

“Naw, it’s somethin’ my old commander used t’ tell us.”

They rode on, now going through the swamp where Fernando had met Tarl and Agnes. A couple of troops sank in the muck, but that was fine, as it was an even number, and the line still appeared symmetrical. Finally, as the sun was sinking slowly below the horizon, the Elves’ island village came into view. The troops moved into battle formation, preparing to meet with any outer defenses the Elves might field. It was a good move, as just then, from behind a clump of trees, three old Elves and a dog appeared. Two of the Elves held rusty swords, the third carried a slingshot. The dog ran up to Hill-tur and growled. Hill-tur kicked it, and the dog slunk away.

“What the Devil ‘re you s’posed t’ be?” asked Skaring, addressing the three Elves.

“We,” responded one. “Are the first line of defense for the city of Livenhell.”

“Ya are, eh? What’s the second line?”

“That dog.” said another Elf. “We’re going to throw all we got at you.”

“Ah,” said Hill-tur. “That suggests that you three and the dog are the only defenses.”

“We didn’t say that.”

“You suggested it, though.”

“Anyways,” said Skaring. “Maybe ya haven’t seen all these soldiers in back o’ me. Here,” he moved to the left. “Take a good look, an’ tell me if you still wanna fight.”

“We are willing to face impossible odds for our beloved city. It shows that we’re steadfastly loyal.”

“No, actually it shows you’re too stupid to understand tactics.” said Hill-tur coldly.

The Elves raised their swords defiantly. “We are loyal to ideas! We are loyal! And when we fight for an idea, we fight hard!”

Hill-tur grinned malevolently. “Well, then, why don’t you come fight for our ideas?”

The elves looked at him, puzzled.

“It’s like this;” said Hill-tur. “Your bunch—Livenhell–fights for the idea of Freedom. Our forces fight for the idea of Law and Order. They’re all just ideas. So why not come be on our side, and fight for the idea that’s going to win. You’d lose no honor.”

The Elves had to admit that there was something to this, and cheerfully agreed to row Hill-tur and Skaring across the lake to Livenhell and take them to their leaders. As they went across, red company began setting up a perimeter as instructed. They quickly sliced down any trees in the area and built a defensive wall around the lake. Meanwhile, in the boat, Skaring was fingering the grip of his wand, which at present was in his shoulder-holster. He wanted to be ready for a betrayal by the Elves. The boat docked at the little harbor and all five disembarked and walked up the steps.

The streets of Livenhell were completely empty. Skaring suspected a trap, and, unseen or heard by the others, cocked his wand. The click of the round being chambered was music to Skaring’s ears. He looked around the deserted streets. It was nearly dusk, and long shadows were being cast along the stone roads. Skaring knew that anything might lurk therein.

The Lord and the General followed the Elves through the streets till they reached the log hut that housed the Elf council. One Elf opened the door and Skaring walked in, tightly gripping his wand. Hill-tur followed close behind him.

It was bright in the chamber, and a window was open to let the fresh air pour in, but Skaring could smell a hint of burnt hay. Five Elves were sitting on cushions in the middle of the room playing poker. They hurriedly tucked their cards away and looked condescendingly at Skaring. “Hello, unenlightened one.” said one of them. “How is your life—which, of course, is emptiness—going?”

“I’ve been told that you’ve got Tarlywyn, Prince of Glouderdale, hidden somewhere in yer village. Give ‘im to me now and m’ troops won’t destroy yer nice town.”

The monks looked at each other sadly. “Dear, dear!” said one. “This poor fellow’s soul is engulfed in anger. This won’t do!” Skaring looked at them quizzically. “Whaddaya mean, anger? I ain’t mad at you.”

“But you threaten us with violence!”

“It’s m’ job t’ find this Tarlywyn.” growled Skaring. “If you won’t hand him over t’ me, well, I gotta make you.”

One of the monks rolled his eyes. “Let go of your job, man.” he said.

“I can’t. I s’pose I could be let go from it, but o’ course, I need the money.”

“Let go of money.”

“I need it t’ buy food.”

“Let go of food.”

“I need it to stay alive.”

“Let go of life.”

“You first.” said Skaring, drawing his wand and aiming it at the old Elf’s eyes. As he fired, one Elf let out a high-pitched squeal, startling Skaring and causing him to miss. “Oh, man!” shrieked the Elf.

“Wha’ the Hades is it?”

“A material good! You’ve got a material good!”

Skaring looked at his wand. “Wha’, this?”

“For the love of Anacreon! Put it away, fool! We can’t stand material goods!”

“Hex them!” bellowed Hill-tur. Skaring shrugged and fired the wand, spraying the room with red-hot spells. By the time he was through, the smell of wandpowder covered the hint of burnt hay and Elf blood. Skaring removed the empty magazine and replaced it with a fresh one. Then he and Hill-tur walked out into the dark street.

“Well,” said Skaring. “I guess we’ll have t’ find Tarl the hard way. C’mon, let’s tell the troops to get ready to cross that lake.”

 

It was an hour before red company was rowing out across the lake to Livenhell. It was a bright night, and in the light of the moon the troops could see their General coordinating the attack. Granted, it wasn’t that the operation required much coordination—their orders were to “Row towards the island till you hit it and then get outta the boat and raid houses.”—But it still didn’t hurt.

They came swiftly out of the boats and moved silently across the wharf. The warriors hunched as they ran, looking out for any sentries. Once they’d made sure there were none, a squad would move down a street, opening the doors of a house and searching it for their prey. This happened almost simultaneously throughout Livenhell, and most of the civilians didn’t dare resist. A few did, and were brutally, yet tastefully, slaughtered for their foolishness.

By morning, it had become apparent that something was wrong. To wit, that most of the city had been destroyed and there wasn’t any sign of the Prince. Skaring had forbidden the soldiers to burn anything for fear that they would destroy Tarl’s body, so they had smashed the houses with battering rams. But after scouring the wreckage quite thoroughly, they still hadn’t found a corpse remotely like the Prince. “They’re all goddamn women and children!” complained Hill-tur.

By early afternoon it was confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that Tarlywyn was not in Livenhell. Skaring and Hill-tur were beginning to feel very frustrated. Then, as they walked through the street, an owl swooped down upon them, unfolded a map, and pointed to a spot on it. Skaring turned to Hill-tur. “Find some horses fer th’ troops,” he said. “We’re goin’ t’ get to Halknor fast.”

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

In a cramped alleyway in Glouderdale, Arollywyn crouched behind some old crates. She was hurriedly scribbling a note to Tarl telling him what she’d overheard a few nights back. She hoped that Robin, who was looking very tired from his journey to her, would be able to make it to wherever her son was, and that that wasn’t Livenhell or the farm fields.

She completed the note, and gave it to Robin, who flew into the sky, got blown into the side of a building by a high wind, and finally vanished into the blue. She stared up at the sky for a minute, wondering why, when an evil man ruled her Kingdom, and that King’s minions were pursuing her kind-hearted son, the sky was so beautiful and cloudless. It seemed to her that it ought to have been a dark, sinister day, with gray clouds hanging low over a burnt and desolate Glouderdale, and human bones lying in ditches while the skeletons of trees clacked together in the howling wind. But Nature just wouldn’t cooperate.

Arollywyn went back into the dilapidated house she had made her hideout. It was a dark, gloomy place with more than its share of rats. The Queen had found the place shortly after her escape from the Castle grounds, and had used the supply of rats to her advantage, eating at least three a day. A difficult life for someone used to living in a palace and eating banquets three meals a day, but better (marginally) than being executed.

The sound of footsteps marching in perfect synchronization came softly through the walls. Arollywyn quickly backed into a corner and hoped that this patrol didn’t decide to search the house. They didn’t, and she was able to resume her lunch of rat salad.

 

 

 

Boaris was riding his pet horse, Dortmund, around the Castle grounds, in the desperate hope that he might find the Queen. He had already decreed that the post of Chief of Police was to be filled by the King. The man who had previously held that post had been visiting a Lords’ club the night of the Queen’s escape, and Boaris wasn’t going to let such laxity ruin Glouderdale. The only drawback to this plan was that Boaris now had to take police reports and hunt for fugitives while simultaneously dealing with all the political issues that a King handles. Still, he told himself, if you want it done right; you’ve got to do it yourself.

Presently, Jones came running up to the King, and handed him a note from General Skaring, which said basically that they’d looked for Tarl in the farm fields, hadn’t found him, and had thrown all the villagers out of their homes to provide accommodations for the army.

Boaris threw the note on the ground, irritated. He desperately wanted to imprison the Prince before he (The Prince) could do something awful, such as avenging his father and claiming his birthright.

He dismounted his horse and walked grimly into the Palace. He clomped up the spiral staircases to the Grand Hall and seated himself at his desk and began thinking about ways he could improve life for the peasants of Glouderdale. It was a hard task, as he had made so many improvements his first day as King that there seemed little else to do. But then he thought of the Police chief, and realized something ought to be done about such incompetence. He decided that, instead of the customary beheading, the perpetrators of these crimes would be publicly hanged.

Yes, that idea seemed to him like it would benefit the citizenry of Glouderdale a good deal; it gave them both protection from corrupt government officials and free entertainment. Boaris then checked the time and saw that he had appointment with Brad Dur, the acting Captain of the Guard, in about a minute. He rolled up his parchment and put it in his desk just as Jones was showing the man in.

“Well, Captain Dur, have you found any trace of the Queen?”

“Um… no, my King.”

“Well, I want you to do so very soon or you will suffer serious consequences.”

“Such as, my King?”

“Death.”

This seemed good enough for Dur. “Yes, highness. I will recruit more men to look for her. In fact, if you’ll allow it, I’ll search ev’ry house in the Kingdom!”

“Yes, I’ll allow it, certainly.”

“Yes, my King. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“Excellent. And might I suggest giving a ten-thousand gold piece reward to anyone who brings her to us alive?”

“Brilliant, my King.”

“Yes, ‘tis. One other thing, Captain; it occurs to me that if we were to let the DBT’s search the town from the sky, they might hope to locate her.”

“Yes, my King. I’ll see to it at once.”

Dur bowed out and Boaris was left alone. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a map of Glouderdale. Some guard had drawn X’s on it to signify all the places the Queen wasn’t. These included; The Grand Hall, the library, the King’s room, and the soldier’s house.

Boaris looked at the map, thinking how useful having Dragon-Bat-Things scanning the place would be. Granted, they couldn’t see anything, but due to magical powers they could use sonar to such an amazing extent that they could actually detect the shape of something from miles away.

A little later Boaris glanced out the window to see the beasts flying through the sky, soaring over cliffs in the distance, then swooping majestically up through the clouds, then occasionally crashing against the side of cliffs. The beasts’ sonar did seem to fail them at times. Nevertheless, Boaris felt safer having the animals patrolling the city.

 

 

The next morning found Tarl, Agnes and Fernando preparing to depart Halknor. They were walking down the Exit hall to the door when they were hailed from somewhere above them.

“Hey, you there! Yeah, you three ugly folks!”

Tarl and Agnes tried to ignore this, but Fernando turned round to face the source of the voice. “Excuse me, sir,” he said good-humoredly. “I may be fat, but I think I only count as one ugly folk.”

The man, who seemed to be some sort of courtier, chuckled merrily and explained that Duke Theolden had sent him to bring the three to the Ducal meeting room.

“What’s he want us there for?” asked Tarl. “He just told us to get of here.”

“Oh, yeah, he said that he would rescind that order. You can stay here.”

They followed the courtier to the Duke’s office. Theolden was sitting at his desk, reading a large scroll. Four cups of tea were placed on the desk in front of him.

“Welcome,” said Theolden warmly. “Please, be seated. I apologize for that little miscommunication we had over you leaving the city. You are, of course, welcome to stay as long as you wish.”

“Thank you ver–” began Fernando, but Tarl interrupted:

“What’s the catch?”

Theolden grimaced, but said calmly “Well, since you ask, you’d said you have access to vast amounts of wealth. And we thought you’d probably be willing to pay that to us in exchange for providing you with this warmth.”

“Well, I don’t have the wealth with me. You see, if we want to get at it, we’ll have to go to Glouderdale. Now I’m glad to do that,” said Tarl suavely. “But, as I said before, I’ll need your help.”

There were a few moments of silence after this reminder.

“Well, I’m afraid you won’t get It.,” said Theolden icily.

“Then I won’t pay.”

“Then you can’t stay.”

“Hey, that rhymes.” observed Agnes, but Tarl shushed her.

“C’mon, man! If I go, your heat goes. You’re in no position to bargain.”

“True. But neither are you. I can throw you out on your… ear and let you freeze to death.”

“But I can make you freeze to death in your houses if you do.”

For several tense moments, Tarl and Theolden stared fiercely at each other. Then, whether by the hand of Fate or merely to advance the floundering plot, a man rushed in to the room yelling:

“An army is approaching the city! All warriors, ready yourselves for battle!”

–Whereupon he collapsed unconscious to the floor. This seemed somewhat ominous to the four.

“What’s goin’ on?” asked Agnes.

“Hell if I know. You heard as well as I did.”

“Well,” said Fernando calmly to Theolden. “I’m sure you have a plan for this sort of emergency.”

“Why the hell don’t we have a plan for this sort of emergency?” Theolden was asking his advisors, who had entered on hearing the alarm. “What army is it? Are they against us? What is it?”

“Our scouts report that they carry the insignia of a Glouderdale group.”

“Oh, damnation! They’re after him.” he said glancing contemptuously at Tarl.

“Yes, sir. That’s our guess, too.”

“Well, turn him in.”

“Too late, sir. They gave us five minutes to turn him in, and we missed the deadline. The have declared eternal war on us. They’ve already taken out three of our defense outposts.”

“Three! What’ll we do?”

“Well, there’s always the fortress at Elm’s heap, sir.”

The Duke hadn’t thought of that. Elm’s heap was the perfect place. An ancient structure, it had been the main headquarters of Halknor when it had formed several ages ago. It seemed that I was time for it once again to be pressed into service.

“How far is the army?” asked Theolden.

“A few hours, sir.”

“Then send the announcement that all citizens are to retreat to Elm’s heap.”

“We already did.”

“Without my approval?”

“We figured if you didn’t give your approval, there was no reason for the citizens to pay.”

The Duke shrugged, then turned and walked towards the Royal stables, with Tarl, Agnes and Fernando following behind.

 

 

 

The people of Halknor had been close to panic, but after the announcement to go to Elm’s heap had been made, things became much clearer. The citizens all began to walk quickly through the cold streets through the town. Tarl, Agnes and Fernando had taken some horses and rode alongside the Duke at the front of the group. The other animals, lead by Ashcan, followed at the back of the column.

“What’s Elm’s heap?” asked Tarl.

“It’s a fortress. It’s to be used for emergency purposes only by the people of Halknor. It has never fallen to enemies when Halknorians guarded its doors.”

“Has it ever been attacked?”

“Well, no.”

They had now reached the side of the large mountain at the back of the town. There, concealed in its wall, was a cavernous tunnel. The Duke motioned his people into it, and they followed him in. “Watch out for those stalagmites.” He cautioned.

“Surely those are stalactites.” said one advisor.

“They’re neither,” said the other one. “They’re clearly icicles.”

“That’s absurd! How could an icicle come up?”

“Not the ones on the ground! The ceiling ones.”

“Oh, I see. Well, yeah, but are they icicles or stalactites?”

“You mean stalagmites. Here, I remember it as ‘stalagmites might come off the ground, but they don’t.’”

“You’ve got it backwards!”

“Look,” said Theolden, who was tiring of this imbecility. “It makes no diff’rence which it is! Shut up and follow me.” He turned to Tarl. “Now, as I was saying, when we reach the fort, you have two options: You can either fight alongside us and be supplied with armor or be stripped and used as sandbags on the outer wall.”

After an intense struggle with himself, Tarl said. “We’ll fight with you.”

“It’s the least we can do, really.” put in Agnes.

The column trekked on through the icy cave for hours more. They knew not what lay before them, nor even if this way the way to Elm’s heap was. The Duke said he knew, but he that he hadn’t been this way lately.

It didn’t inspire confidence.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, back in Halknor, all hell was breaking loose. Skaring, knowing it was the main heat source, ordered his men to destroy the animal heat generator buildings. They were somewhat surprised to find no animals, but destroyed the buildings just the same.

The soldiers of Glouderdale stormed the Halknorian palace and began pillaging it. Skaring walked through the halls, looking for any sign of the elusive Prince.

He found none. He did, however, find a map in the Duke’s room that showed a large fortress that could be accessed through a tunnel that had been forged in the side of a mountain. It didn’t take a wizard to determine where the Halknorians had gone, and eventually Skaring figured it out, and ordered his troops to the secret tunnel.

 

 

 

 

At last they alighted upon the grim old fortalice of yore that was Elm’s heap. ‘Twas called Elm’s for the prosaic reason that Elm was the chap who built it, or, to be more exactly precise and precisely exact, ordered its building. ‘Twas called “heap” for the prosaic reason that—you guessed it–‘twas a heap. But a sturdy, solid heap of stone, heaped heavily to help keep the keep that was Elm’s heap steeped in fame; for the heap was a quantum leap ‘yond the keeps made in keeping with standard keep-building practice of its time.

But never mind all that stuff just now; the important thing to understand is that it was a fortress and Tarl and Agnes and Fernando and the Duke and all the soldiers and civilians and animals of Halknor had just gotten there, and were now hurriedly crossing the frozen moat that surrounded the fort and running inside. The Duke and his two advisors rushed to their command chamber at the center of the fort, and began making battle plans.

The women and children huddled in around the command chamber, pitching tents and digging holes for protection. They worked hard, and soon even the youngest of children were tired and bloody. This group was called “The lucky ones.”

The army of Halknor, in the meantime, was moving rocks aside to get points from which the archers could shoot, making wood barricades outside the fort, and digging trenches and similar traps for enemy soldiers. Once the defenses were in readiness, the troops went inside the battlements to set their battle positions. The animals, too, were moving into the snow covered rocks, preparing an ambush.

Tarl and Fernando had taken up a post on the left tower, looking out across the frozen plain to the ice cave whence they’d come. Agnes joined them, and they looked at her with some surprise. “What, ya think I can’t fight ‘cause I’m a girl?”

“Ah, no.” said Tarl sheepishly. “It’s—um—your choice of—uh—weapon.” Agnes looked at the bow and arrows she’d brought with her.

“What of it?”

“Well, ah, due t’ your, um, chest, er, region’s, ah, um, er, uh, shape, can ya, that is to say-“ said Tarl.

“You’ll have trouble aiming that, you see.,” said Fernando.

“Oh, fine. Here, I’ll trade ya’ my bow for your crossbow.”

The exchange was made, and the three looked out towards the ice cave. Behind the giant mountain, one could just see a faint ray of the setting sun glinting through the clouds. The fiery glow was then obscured by the black storm clouds that rolled in underneath the already darkening sky.

 

 

 

 

 

In the ice cave, Hill-tur and Skaring rode side by side in front of their army, discussing their plan of attack. “D’ya remember, when we fought the Erik-Hi at the pass in Deverskille?” asked Skaring.

“Yeah. I have trouble forgetting that.”

“Well, this time it’s reversed. It’s us comin’ through the tight passage, and they’ve got the fortified position.”

“And when we had the fort, we slaughtered ‘em.”

“Yep. So I ask myself, ‘What’d the Erik-Hi do wrong?’ and the answer is: They moved too slow. They sent troops through squad by squad. Well, we’re not doin’ nothin’ like that. We’re comin’ through all at once, an’,” he spoke loud enough for the troops to hear. “As soon as we get outta this tunnel spread out, fer god’s sake, else their archers’ll mow ya’ll down faster than you c’n say ‘Truce!’ Ya got that?”

“Yes, sir.” Came the chorused response.

 

 

It was now past seven o’ clock, and so dark due to the clouds that it might as well have been midnight. Only a few torches that had been lit on the plain and at the cave mouth provided any light for the soldiers to see by. Tarl fidgeted with his bow and arrows, hoping for a chance to shoot at something.

Then, from out the cave mouth, Tarl saw the silhouette of something tall, with physical characteristics of a man and a hobbit and a rabbit. A man flanked the creature, and these grim shapes were followed quickly by hundreds of soldiers. Before it was fully apparent to Tarl what had happened, the soldiers of Glouderdale had gotten caught in the cave door. Too many of them had tried to get out too quickly and they were jammed at the mouth. Tarl, caught up in sheer excitement of the thing, fired an arrow and though he never saw it hit, one of the troops slumped over dead, causing another one to trip.

By now, the hold up at the mouth was cleared, and the soldiers flooded out onto the plain. The Halknor archers let forth a volley of arrows, many of which struck home. More of Glouderdale’s best fell into the trenches dug by the Halknor men. Some were able to clamber out; others broke various bones and ended up just lying there throughout the fight to be mauled by Ashcan’s warriors.

Troops ran across the frozen river, many slipping and smashing their faces, many more simply falling through the ice and being too cold to get out.

Skaring ran parallel to the fortress, yelling at his troops to get as close as they could to the walls. He knew the archers would be rendered useless if they could get there. But for some reason his troops weren’t complying. Maybe it was because they kept getting shot when they tried running towards the wall.

An arrow struck the ground next to the General, and he blindly fired a retaliatory spell in the direction of the battlement. He realized this had little chance of hitting anyone, but somehow it made him relax. Therapeutic, you see, knowing that you’ve at least fired a spell. He observed Hill-tur, who was taking shelter with some other soldiers behind a large rock. “Rudy!” he shouted. “Get t’ the wall! They can’t hit ya there!”

“Right,” said Hill-tur, motioning to his troops as he fought off one of the dogs that leapt out of a hedge. He killed it, and his troops followed him out from behind the rock towards the wall. One was shot through the head, but the rest made it to the wall. Seeing that a good number of his men had made it through the barrage to the wall, Skaring himself sprinted like the scared Robbit he was to the temporary safety.

But indeed, it was very temporary, for not long after this the animals began a full-scale assault, clawing and biting at the troops with terrifying coordination.

Skaring, not knowing what else to do, told his men they’d better get up the castle walls quick.

 

 

On the castle battlements, Theolden surveyed the battle. He was no great strategist, but he saw what his enemies were planning, and he made his countermove.

“Tell the front right tower to drop the bows and get ready for the enemy to start coming up ladders,” he ordered an advisor. “Quick! Run like fire!”

“Like fire, sir?”

“Yes, dammit, like fire!”

“Surely you mean water, sir.”

“Fire doesn’t run by any stretch of the imagination,” put in the other advisor. Whereupon the Duke whipped out his sword and promised to kill these idiots if they delayed further. He delayed no further, but ran to deliver the message.

And the Duke proved to be right, for just as Tarl heard the order, he saw a ladder come slamming down against the edge of the battlement. Thinking quickly, he kicked it down. It came back up. He kicked down again. This recurred several times until finally Tarl thought to hack the top portion off so it couldn’t reach the tower top.

Fernando, meanwhile, was running along the catwalk using his grandfather’s sword to stab the soldiers who were pouring over the wall. At one point, he did a rather neat trick that involved cutting the head off one soldier, doing a three-sixty spin and using the broad edge of the sword to bat the head into the face of another man who was in mid-leap over the wall. That man was slapped backwards and plunged back whence he came.

But before he could ponder this spectacle, another soldier attacking from his left surprised the Elf. The man kicked Fernando’s sword out of his hand and Fernando fell to the floor. He rolled to avoid getting his head sliced off and quickly leaped back up and kicked his attacker in the head. The man, lacking a helmet, was knocked out cold. Fernando picked up his sword and buried it in the man’s brain.

Agnes was in a fistfight with another soldier who seemed to have scaled the castle wall to throw in smoke grenades. She seized one from his pocket and stuck the sparking orb in his mouth. His jaw exploded in blood, smoke and teeth. Agnes grabbed his remaining bombs and began hurling them over the wall towards troops climbing a ladder a few feet from her.

With a quick leap, Skaring threw himself over the wall and landed on the catwalk. He flipped his wand upward and cursed a Halknorian in the stomach. The General then fired a massive barrage into a line of Halknor archers on the far wall. They dropped like flies against his powerful magic. A sentry ran at Skaring waving his sword, but Skaring emptied five rounds into him in the blink of an eye and his attacker fell dead to the stone floor.

Tarl, hearing the loud bang of the spells, turned and saw Skaring firing into the lower level of the fort. Tarl left his post and ran at the General, tackling him from the side. The wand flew from Skaring’s hand and skidded down the catwalk. Tarl scrambled over the Robbit and leapt on to the weapon. He rolled over, saw Skaring coming at him, and pulled the trigger. He held it down for a long time, the rapid barrage of spells making Glouderdale’s general twist and contort like a marionette with mad-cow disease. Finally, the magazine ran empty, and Skaring collapsed to the floor in a heap of bloody tatters.

 

 

 

 

Hill-tur had used a long grappling hook on a rope to scale the fortress walls, and this he now swung into the faces of Halknor soldiers, smashing their skulls and plunging them to their doom below. A Halknorian ran at Hill-tur, brandishing his sword and yelling ferociously. Hill-tur reached into his knapsack and flipped a smoke grenade into the man’s face. Smoke billowed, and the warrior recoiled in terror, coughing and choking. Hill-tur quickly tied his grappling hook round a stone outcropping, gripped the rope, and leapt into the courtyard below.

Unfortunately, before he reached the ground, Fernando came along, seized the rock the grappling hook was tied to, and with his awesome elfin strength hurled it over the stonewall. Hill-tur was violently yanked back up, his skull smashing against the battlement and his body falling lifelessly on the stone catwalk.

All along the fortress battlements and towers the fierce battle raged on. The Glouderdalians would surge wave-like into walls of Halknorians, only to be beaten back. Men plunged off the catwalks, falling with sickening thuds on the stone below, where the animals piled them like sandbags. It was a cold night, and the Glouderdale troops were unused to fighting in conditions like this. The Halknorians, though, had drilled tirelessly in such weather, and it was this that turned the tide in their favor.

Theolden surveyed the field of combat. It was all going far better than he had ever hoped. The earthly embodiments of Good were clashing with the unnatural manifestation of Evil, and the former was beating the latter’s physical and metaphysical brains out. It was all very poetic.

 

 

 

 

By one a.m. the attack on Elm’s heap was over. Every Glouderdale warrior who had gone in was now either dead or a prisoner of war. Halknor had won.

Except now it was just beginning to dawn on the Halknorians that they had allowed the army of Glouderdale to wipe out their town. This caused some understandable trepidation. What’s the point, they asked themselves, of killing all of the enemy troops if you let them destroy your homeland first?

It was then that Tarl, leveraging his battle-worn appearance, made the sort of manipulative political move that inspired Machiavelli to call his book “The Prince.”

“Citizens of Halknor,” he cried from atop the battlement. “Men, Women and Children! Even animals, lend me your ears. I know that those damn Glouderdalians have destroyed your beautiful town. But come help me take my rightful Kingdom back, and as King I’ll give you all the land you had and more!”

This seemed reasonable enough to Theolden and his army, and so, after scavenging what supplies they could, the army of Halknor and the army of Animals marched out of Elm’s heap, led by Tarl, Agnes, Fernando and Theolden.

 

 

Chapter Eight

After passing through the ice cave again, the army was greeted by a most unpleasant sight. The city of Halknor utterly smashed and obliterated by the army of Glouderdale. They had known they would see it, of course, but it was nevertheless rather hard on the people who had once lived here. Theolden himself almost wept at the grim spectacle.

But still, they persevered. They marched on, quite speechless, over the frozen ground. Through the streets and through the town they went, driven on only by the promise that if they succeeded in taking back Glouderdale, they would gain new homes, preferably homes that were better constructed and for which insurance could be purchased at reasonable rates. They went on past the ruined city and into the mountain pass. Against the cold, they marched, neither man nor woman nor elf nor animal much in the mood for talk.

The women and children of Halknor carried the army’s and their own supplies on their backs, the soldiers tried to keep a protective perimeter around them. At the head of the column were Tarl, Theolden, Agnes and Fernando, leading the way through the forbidding mountain range.

As it neared sundown, the great sea of bodies at last descended from the last path of the last mountain. There, at the very base, they began to pitch their tents. Soon a small city of tents had arisen. They began lighting campfires, something that Halknorians hadn’t done for quite some time, and soon Tarl and Theolden were talking over their strategy around one of the little fires.

“Well, as I see it the thing to do is attack Glouderdale as soon as possible,” said Tarl. “We’ll catch ‘em before they can regroup from losing that army.”

“But what if they have another army? A bigger army, say, with various horrible mutants in it?”

“Well, I thought of that. You see, I wrote a letter to my mom asking what the army strength was, and so we’ll know as soon as her messenger bird gets back. So now we wait.”

 

 

They didn’t have to wait long for Robin to arrive. The next morning, as Tarl was walking out of the tent, he saw the bird perched on a nearby tree, clutching a letter. This letter Tarl snatched down and read. It went:

 

Dear Son—

Last night, I overheard two men talking about hunting you down. It seems that they have determined you are either in Livenhell or in the farm fields. It sounded as if they were planning to use an army to track you down. The Glouderdale army is now several times larger than it was under your father, due to Boaris incorporating the Erik-Hi.

                        Your mother.

 

Tarl scribbled a brief response, tied it to Robin, and then began to think. He was disturbed, and with reason. He hadn’t seen any Erik-Hi among the army they had fought at Elm’s heap, and had a feeling that it had been more of a raid than a full-scale attack. Suddenly, the idea of attacking Glouderdale seemed considerably less attractive. Even Tarl, inexperienced as he was, knew how dangerous the Erik-Hi could be.

Tarl heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Agnes coming out of the tent. He showed her the letter and explained his reluctance to attack Glouderdale’s new army.

“But what’ll we do? We can’t just wander around the world until we die.”

“Ah, but at least we’d be together.” said Tarl slyly. Agnes smiled humorlessly. “True, but I’d like it better we were together in a nice, warm palace.”

Tarl conceded this. Just then, Theolden came walking up to them. “Good morning,” he said. “Is that the letter from your mother that you’ve been awaiting?”

“Yeah.” Tarl handed him the letter. The Duke read it over and began to nod solemnly. “Yes, I see. Well, it’s just as well, though, because last night as I was lying on my cot, I was thinking about what we would do if it turned out that the letter said we shouldn’t attack Glouderdale, and I thought of…” he paused, looked around furtively, and then beckoned them closer. “When I was a boy,” he began. “My parent or legal guardian told me of an ancient valley, in which there was a cave. An accursed cave, you see, with the bones of accursed warriors floating in it.”

“Bones don’t float.”

“These ones do. They wear enchanted life jackets. Anyway, the thing is that it was prophesied by the ancient sages that there would come a ‘Prince of Destiny’ who could brave the valley and enter the cave. And, in his land’s darkest hour, reawaken the lost souls of the dead warriors, who would then join forces with the Prince and purge evil from the world.”

They thought on this for awhile, then Tarl said: “Well, yeah, it’s a good story, but how’re we gonna know it’s true?”

“I just thought I’d mention it.”

“If it’s just a myth, we don’ wanna waste time on it.”

Theolden shrugged. “We have nothing better to do. We’re going to need help to fight Glouderdale, and I can’t think of any other Kingdom that will supply us with soldiers. Under the circumstances, I don’t know what else to do.”

“Yes, that’s true.” admitted Agnes. “But do you even know where this valley is?”

“Ah, I’ll field that one,” said Fernando, walking up to them. “My hobby is the study of legends and myths, and I happen to have read about this one you refer to. I always heard it called ‘Hell in the valley of Loi-Kathyll’, but diff’rent people often call these legends diff’rent things. Basically the legend is that the army of Horrodor all were going somewhere when this wizard cursed them to death and then cursed their remains to be zombies.”

Fernando knelt down and unrolled a map from his knapsack. He spread it out on the ground and pointed his finger a crude drawing of a valley. “This, as you likely guessed, is Loi-Kathyll. And this,” he pointed to some strange triangular shapes. “Is this mountain range right here. Now then it looks to be about… a hundred and fifty miles from here to the edge of the valley.”

“Hundred fifty miles! That could take days,” said Tarl.

“Yes, and then there’s the matter of finding the cave. The valley itself is over thirty miles long, with caves along each side.”

“The search will, admittedly, be a long and arduous one,” said Theolden. “Let me ask you this: are there any nearby lands that would be willing to share their armies with us?”

Fernando looked at the map, and then shook his head.

“Well, there it is.” said Theolden. “Without an army, we would just wander around the world forever, so we might as well try this.”

And so it was eventually agreed that they should pursue this course. Theolden explained his plan to the troops and gave them their marching orders, and the great legion set out across the seemingly infinite field.

 

Boaris strode up and down the castle battlements, surveying through a spyglass the defensive earthworks his army was building. Having failed to capture Tarl by hunting for him, Boaris was now going to the other extreme of preparing defenses and allowing Tarl to come to him. It was an old trick, but for some reason he felt sure it would work.

The previous night, a marvelous idea had occurred to the King: if he could capture Arollywyn, he could then allow Tarl to find out about it and the Prince would come running to save his mother. The only difficulty now was capturing the Queen. Boaris had offered a reward of eight million gold pieces to whoever brought her to him alive. He knew he couldn’t pay the eight million, but he had a creative plan for keeping the cheated bounty hunter quiet.

Presently, Brad Dur came up to him and bowed awkwardly. Boaris jerked his thumb upward and told him to rise. “What would you with me, Dur?”

“I’ve come to make my daily status report, my liege.”

“Oh, of course. Carry on, then.”

“Well, my king, I’ve good news and I’ve bad news. The good news is we’ve successfully constructed the new towers for the archers. The bad news is we had to take all the money from the archers’ sal’ries to do it, and they’ve all mutinied from the army.”

“Oh, for God’s—well, then, make the soldiers ‘persuade’ them.”

“We tried, my King, but a skirmish started, and all the archers were killed.”

At this point Boaris made a sort of “Ohhhwaahhgg!” noise and threw his hands in the air. After breathing heavily for a few moments, he said slowly: “Alright… okay…” then did a bit more of the heavy breathing routine, then was silent, obviously thinking. Finally he said: “Well, then we’re just going to have to draft more archers. Go and round some farm boys for that.”

“Yes, my King. Er–” Dur said hesitantly. “But, uh, you promised–”

“Oh, that I wouldn’t do that? Yes, I remember that now. Answer me this, though: how many people are we still supplying free rations to?”

“Perhaps a hundred, sire.”

“Do you think they’re getting healthier?”

“I suppose so.”

“Right. Then tell them we’ll cut off their ration supply eternally unless they learn archery and join the army at once.”

“Yes, sire.” said Dur, beginning to walk away.

“Where are you going?” demanded Boaris.

“To tell them–”

“I didn’t mean you had to do it right this minute! You can finish your report.”

“Yes, my liege. Now, we had to outsource moat security to the merpeople from the eastern ocean of Eiselgrad, who have, in turn, been bringing Red Kaps imported from the realm of Geldik—Jorb, arrived here today. They are now working on digging the moat your highness ordered around the castle.”

“Excellent. Where are they digging?”

“Well, there not literally digging just yet, my King. First they have to write up a mission statement. Let’s see here,” Dur looked at the parchment in his hand. “Item three on the agenda: The trolls of Gogglesmyth are demanding that you increase the amount budgeted for their technical expenses.”

“Technical expenses?” growled Boaris. “What technical expenses? Their job is to cut down trees to reinforce the walls!”

“I have a memo from their chief, Hogrud, saying ‘saws no be cheap.’”

Boaris had had enough of this. “Look, damn it, I’m a King! I don’t have to hear about budgets! I can order ev’ry idiot in this Kingdom executed—well, except perhaps the executioner—and they will die.”

“But we simply don’t have enough–”

“You are dismissed.”

“Yes, my King.”

Boaris climbed sulkily down the battlement ladder and walked toward the castle gate. On the way there, he met the Assistant Chief of Police

“My King, sir—urgent news!” the man said breathlessly. He panted a moment, and then unrolled a scroll he was holding.

It was a canvas, on which was drawn a rough picture of Arollywyn sneaking through an alley.

“What is this?” asked Boaris.

“Why, it’s a surveillance sketch, your Highness, sir.”

“What?”

“You see, there are all these artists we forced to join the militia, and they all turned out to be just awful fighters. So we just moved ‘em into the security squad and had ‘em draw rough sketches of alleyways. See? They just write the date and time, and we know what’s going on in there.”

“It seems like it’d be better to have them yell if they see anything suspicious.”

The Chief shook his head. “No, my King. They all have these horrible little squeaky voices that no one would ever be able to hear.”

“Would it not be better to post soldiers in these places?”

“Yes, my King. However, ev’ry soldier we have is employed in hunting Arollywyn.

“But what I really wanted to say was that this sketch was made early today, and was in the northeast part of town, so she must be around there somewhere.”

“Well, then send some troops to find her! What’re you talking to me for?”

“I need your authorization to do anything involving troop movement, my King, sir.”

“Oh, yeah, right. Well, you’ve got it. Emphatically.”

 

 

The army of Freedom’s defenders—formerly the army of Halknor and the army of the Animals—was marching steadily towards the valley of Loi-Kathyll, having already crossed the moors of Gredilschaft, the forests of Klabberdeen and the field of Pur-Kadun. They were just now passing over the beautiful plain of Gradtens, looking at the grass blowing in the warm breeze, feeling the pleasant warmth of the sun, taking in the bright blue sky, when suddenly a strange little creature scurried out of a clump of flowers in front of the troop column.

It looked like an emaciated child with green skin. Its yellow eyes peered out of its ill-proportioned head. Its mouth was a thin slash across its face. It was clad only in a tattered kilt.

“Who goes there?” asked Theolden.

“’Tis I!” yelled back the little creature.

“Do you have a name?” asked Tarl.

“Aye! When I was born they asked me parents ‘What’re ya’ll gonna call ‘im, then?’ And my parents said ‘Call ‘im?’ And so, henceforth I’ve been called Callem. That’s one of my names. The other one is Beagol.”

“And why are you called ‘Beagol’?”

“Because I hunt rabbits. And I also sing wonderful little hunting ditties whilst I do it. Here, listen:

 

Yoicks! Tally—Ho!

I’ve spotted a rabbit;

I’m going to nab it

And crush its neck to dust

To deal to it a blow

 Is only too easy;

If it makes you queasy

I’m sorry, but Nature’ll do what it must!

 

From this, he whistled a little, then began chanting:

 

Rabbit’s blood I’ll be spattering;

                        Rabbit’s bones I’ll be shattering!

                        To hell with fruits and veg’tables,

                        We need to have meat on our tables,

                                    So cover the ground with gore!

 

“What’s his problem?” Agnes whispered.

“I’ve seen this sort of thing before,” said Fernando. “I think he’s been driven mad by some powerful talisman. Hey, Callem,” he yelled at the creature.

“Yes?”

“Tell me, do you have any strange artifacts or amulets on you?”

“Alas, no, kind sir. I used to have a magic ring and a cursed rock, but I sold ‘em for drug money.”

“Drug money?”

“Yes, kind sir. My ring may not have ruled ‘em all and found ‘em, or even in the darkness bound ‘em, but its equivalent in gold bought me plenty of magic crystals from Orgon where the shadows lie.”

“I see.” said Fernando. “Dear, dear,” he muttered to the others. “I believe this poor fellow’s insane.”

“Insane!” Callem squealed. “Did you hear that, Beagol? They thinks us is insane.” Then the little abomination lowered his voice several octaves and continued: “Quiet, you fool! If you talk to us now they’ll think we are both really crazy. We have to act perfectly sane.”

“Too late,” he said, squealing again. “I give up, master Beagol, it’s too much for my weak old heart! –I care not for your weak old heart—but my weak old heart is your weak old heart—silence you fool–”

“Um, excuse me, O two-man psycho ward,” said Agnes. “It was nice meeting you, but we need to be going to Loi-Kathyll.”

This interested Callem. “Loi-Kathyll, you say? Well, you’ll need a guide then.”

“A guide? Why?”

“Think, girl. The valley of Loi-Kathyll frightens us—I mean me—but for gold we will lead you there. And don’t you think you’ll ever find what you seek without us—me, I mean—what do you seek, by the way?”

“The accursed army of the dead that is said to float in one of the many caves.”

“Oh, yes! I know them well. I’ve oft seen them, floating there in that dark abyss, like the pool of Hades spoken of by Bards. There they float—forever sworn to stay there by the curse of a wizard. You know, there’s a poem about that that ends:

 

But many, many centuries hence,

                                         There will come to the valley of Doom

                                    A royal and mighty Prince

                                                Who is destined to exhume

                                    The army that sleeps in the cave.

                                                That Prince, who won’t fear any

                                    Ghosts, alone will be able to save

                                                The um-dum how’s it go?

 

“Well, I forget the last bit, but you get the picture. Many a prince has come claiming to be the Prince of Destiny, but they always fail the ultimate test.”

“Which is?”

“I cannot tell thee. But you’ll need a guide to lead ye there, I’m sure of it. I will be that guide.”

“Oh, alright.” said Tarl. “It can’t hurt, I suppose.”

So the army marched off again led by Callem over the beautiful field. The little man scurried through the grass, occasionally looking back at the troop column to ensure they were following. As he ran, Callem began to belt out limericks. (Apparently, he was something of a poet.)

 

There once was a villain named Janus,

                        Whose crimes were so terribly heinous;

                                    That all the townspeople

                                    Took down the church steeple

 

At this point, Theolden interrupted; “I don’t care much for that,” he said over Tarl’s chuckling. “Well, that’s fine.” said Callem. “Have you heard the one about the beautiful Queen of La-tun?”

“No. And I don’t want to.”

“Well, how ‘bout this?” asked Callem, and sang:

 

In the shadows of the west

                                    There lies a valley, long and deep,

                        That’s been the object of many quest:

                                    For ‘tis where the army of  Horrodor doth sleep.

                        All the trees in the valley stand dead,

                                    All the grass in the valley is gray

                        All the rocks in the valley are bloodstain red;

                                    It’s not a very nice place to stay.

                        But hey!  When that’s your accursed doom,

                                    You really just have to obey;

                        You’d best to just stay in your tomb

                                    In the dead of the night and the light of the day!

 

            “Is that about Loi-Kathyll?” asked Fernando.

“Yes, master, indeed it is.” cackled Callem sinisterly. “Soon, ‘twill be in sight. But listen here:

 

Oh, the warrior named Bon-Ju

                                    And the dragon on which he flew

                                    And the warrior-princess, too

                                                All died in Loi-Kathyll!

                                    Oh, the people of the Balod-Horde,

                                    And the almighty Death Lord

                                    (With his well-honed sword.)

                                                All died in Loi-Kathyll!

 

“Please, stop.” said Agnes.

“Why?” asked Callem. “There’s another eight thousand verses.”

“Never mind them now. We’ll see the damn place soon enough.” said Tarl.

After a few more hours of walking, during which Callem tried several times to sing and was stopped by Theolden, the landscape became noticeably different. The trees didn’t have as many leaves, and those they had looked withered and sick. The ground seemed harder and colder. Callem began softly humming a funeral march. A cold wind began to howl, blowing the dead leaves along the ground. In the distance, dark blue clouds loomed ominously.

They marched on a narrow dirt road that would rise up over a hill and then descend into a small wooded area. For a time the road went alongside a creek that that gradually became a river. Callem would scamper through the underbrush, occasionally popping up again and whistling some tune to let them know where he was. They passed through the forest and up onto a large hill. They could just see the setting sun, dropping behind the clouds, into dark horizon. They reached the top of the hill after about fifteen minutes and looked at the land before them.

The valley of Loi-Kathyll was a very appropriate place to put an accursed army of the dead. If the landscapes described above sound somewhat melancholy, they were positively cheerful compared with this sinister place. Any hope Tarl had that the song describing Loi-Kathyll had been exaggerated was dispelled. The grass was indeed gray, the trees were indeed dead, and the rocks—well, that was a little exaggerated, as they were really more of a dark orange than a straight red, but nevertheless it was close enough for songwriter’s work. They gazed into the dim dark valley, watching as the orange of the faint sunset spilled over the grass and made the trees cast long, menacing shadows.

 

            The valley is scary!

                                                Eek! Eek! Eek!

                                    Scary it is very!

                                                Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!       

 

Sang Callem, in an irritating falsetto. Tarl ordered him to shut up and he did so, though still humming a little. “Well,” said Fernando, looking down into the valley. “I suppose we should get this over with.” Theolden motioned for the troop column to remain there, and said: “It makes no sense for the whole army to go. The four of us and Callem should scout ahead.”

“Good point.” said Tarl. “We’re the most important people in this group, so we oughta be the ones to go in without any idea what we’re up against.”

They began to head down the path into the valley when suddenly Agnes held up a hand. “Wait,” she said to Theolden. “You shouldn’t go, sir.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“You have a duty to your people. Your life’s not just somethin’ you can just throw away.”

“But, surely–”

“Your people can’t get a Duke just anywhere, ya know.” said Agnes firmly. “You’ve made a sorta promise t’ them.”

“She’s right.” said Fernando. “You must stay alive for the sake of your people. The same goes for Ashcan.”

“Very well, then.” said Theolden. “ You’re right, of course. The ruler of people should keep out of harm’s way whenever possible. It’s his solemn duty.” And with that, he went back to his soldiers. The three companions bade him farewell, then followed Callem into the dark depths of Loi-Kathyll.

Walking through a valley at dusk searching for an army of cursed warriors is a most unsettling feeling. None of the four spoke as they trudged into the foreboding place. Even Callem had been reduced to whistling in a melancholy way. The clouds were now rolling in, making the valley even darker. It might as well have been night now.

Every now and again, they would pass a cave, and Tarl or Agnes would ask Callem if it was the one they wanted. He would shake his head furtively and scurry along. It was completely silent in the valley, save for their footfalls, and one got the sense of being somehow apart from the world.

And then they reached a cave that was so distinctive they didn’t need to ask if it was the right one.

It was a giant opening in the side of the valley wall, big enough for a full-sized Dragon-Bat-Thing to fit through. Above the arching mouth of the cave was carved a hideous skull, and below that was written “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  It glowed faintly, making it legible in the darkness of the valley. The three companions gazed upon it fearfully. Callem seemed frightened, but the prospect of drug money was beating out fear. The little creature gestured frantically towards the mouth of the cave. Agnes drew her dagger. Fernando drew his grandfather’s sword. And Tarl drew the wand that he had taken from a certain general of Glouderdale. Then they followed Callem into the cave.

It was pitch-dark inside. They walked timidly through puddles, their weapons flicking to the ready at the slightest sound. Agnes and Tarl kept close together, neither wanting to lose sight of the other. They moved through the inky darkness, guided only by Callem saying or singing something. Water dripped from the ceiling, rats scurried along the ground around them, and eyes would leer out of the darkness at them.

At last they left the narrow passage and came out onto the bank of an enormous lake. A thick green mist hung still over the water, obscuring the view of the opposite bank. Anchored to a small, rotting dock was a rowboat. Callem pointed at it, then whispered: “This is as far as I go. My money, please.”

Tarl flung him a pouch of coins and the monster immediately scurried back whence they all had come. Tarl glared disgustedly after him, then turned back to the boat.

The rope that kept the craft in place led to a small box with a glass in it. A sign on top of the box read:

 

 

                        TO OPERATE BOAT, PLEASE INSERT BLOOD.

                        Coach………………………………..One drop

                        First class……………………………Three drops

                        Luxury lake tour…………………….Eight gallons

 

 

Fernando shrugged, asked Tarl to hand him the dagger, cut his little finger and let one drop go into the glass. Instantly, the rope detached from the little box, and slid into the water. Fernando hopped in, followed by Tarl and Agnes. They looked around for oars, but suddenly the boat began to move by itself. It sailed silently through the lake, giving all three of the travelers a sense of deep trepidation. Tarl glanced into the water and saw something white moving just beneath the water next to the boat.

“What the hell’s that?” he asked nervously. Fernando looked over the side of the boat and raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“I believe it’s one of the skeletons.”

“Oh, lord.”

“Yes… yes, I can see its life-jacket. It must be one of the cursed warriors.”

“This is creepin’ me out.” said Agnes.

“Well, for now it’s alright,” said Fernando. “Unless I’m very much mistaken, the thing is what’s propelling this boat.”

“That’s not reassuring.” said Agnes tensely.

The skeleton warriors pushed them further towards the middle of the lake. They could barely see each other’s faces now, so thick was the green fog around them. Around them, in the water, they could hear things—presumably dead warriors—moving swimming slowly about.

Presently, the mist began to clear, and the boat came to rest on the bank of a small island. They climbed out and looked around. The island was small and almost featureless. Merely a large rock in the middle of the water, its only distinctive feature was a skeleton, wearing the robes of an ancient warrior, that lay in the center, still clutching its sword.

But it did not remain so. With unnatural speed, the creature leapt to its feet and stared hard at the three.

“Who are you?” the zombie growled.

“I’m Tarlywyn, Prince of Glouderdale,” said Tarl, his voice quivering.

The Zombie seemed pleased. “A Prince, eh? Perhaps the prophecy is at last to be fulfilled,” muttered the demon, his eye-sockets glowing a faint red. “My warriors and I have been shackled to this place for many an age by supernat’ral chains, placed upon us by a sorcerer.”

“We know.” said Fernando.

“Good. But it was said that a Prince would come—and that he alone could lift the curse. Many a Prince, throughout the centuries has applied to us, but one has never met our standards.”

This didn’t comfort Tarl much, but he managed to speak calmly. “I’m diff’rent though. My quest has been long and hard, but I’ve made it through.”

“Aye, how many times I have heard such words from out the mouths of youths who would fain command my troops. Then, when their resumes are investigated, we find that they aren’t really Princes, or that their friends braved the trials for them–”

“We merely fought alongside him.” Fernando said quickly.

“And don’t get me started on their ref’rences.” said the zombie, warming to his theme. “Often times they have ‘Mother Nature’ and ‘The Lord God’ giving them glowing reviews and of course it’s totally unverifiable.”

“Nevertheless, man,” said Tarl. “You’ll find I’m not like that.”

“We shall see. I will now ask you a question only the Prince of Destiny knows the right response to.”

“Oh, no. I’m not fallin’ for that again.”

The Skeleton seemed surprised, but pleased. “Ah, good…good. Seldom has an applicant ever gotten that one. It’s a good trick statement, though. I shall now put the real question to you.”

He paused dramatically, then…

“Know you how much Goblin meat is produced in the forest of Rothendike per year?”

“Sixteen tons.”

The Zombie looked positively ecstatic. “O joy! Huzzah!” he cried. “It’s our lucky day! And now, my Prince, as was prophesied, our army bows itself to your command.” As he said this, there came the sound of water splashing and Tarl looked round to see what was happening.

From out of the lake was rising an army of the dead. The stood at attention in a perfect marching formation. As they stood up in the gloominess of the cave, their life jackets began, magically, to turn into suits of body armor. Swords appeared out of the mist and glided into the hands of the deathless legion. They turned and stared at Tarl, their eye-sockets gazing bleakly at the prince, awaiting his command.

“Uh… at ease.” said Tarl. The army relaxed. The leader of the Skeletons, though, seemed overjoyed. “At last! At last! Oh, how we’ve waited.” At length, though, he calmed down and was able to talk strategy, and after Tarl explained things like who the enemy was, where they were, who Tarl’s allies were, and other such things, they were at last able to leave the cavern. The three mortals took the boat, while skeletons just marched on top of the water.

When they at last made it out of the cave, it was the dead of night and Callem was nowhere to be seen. It was clear that the little creature had been unequal to the terror of the adventure and had fled. Waiting a little further along the path whence they’d come was Theolden and the army. For some reason, the Duke seemed somewhat afraid of the sinister army. Eventually, though Tarl was able to convince the Duke to quit hiding behind the rocks and that the zombies weren’t so bad. The leader of the undead warriors introduced himself as “Gollgruff”, and explained that though supernatural agents could be endowed with brain, lungs, and vocal cords, they could not be supplied with flesh or any of those other organs to which people are accustomed to having.

Then the ever-growing army of Freedom’s Defenders marched out towards Glouderdale.

 

Chapter Nine

In the corner of a Glouderdale pub, Arollywyn sat at a table, her face hidden in the gloom. She looked around at the sullen patrons of the place, all huddled at their tables and muttering darkly. Then she looked at the wall near the door, and saw a poster with the words “Banned for life” written on it, and beneath that was a portrait of Tarl. She sighed inwardly, thinking of what a miserable lout her son was.

But then she was distracted by the low, barely audible mutterings of one of the patrons.

“…Well, I ain’t s’posed t’ be a-tellin’ o’ this tah anybody jus’ yet, but rumor’s a-got it that the ‘ole army they sent out fer th’ Prince has jus’ done disappeared. Seems ain’t no one’s heard from Skaring or Hill-tur fer th’ longest time.”

“Where’d j’y’all hear that ‘un?”

“’S jus’ rumored. Still, I don’–”

But the man’s voice drifted again into inaudibility, and Arollywyn couldn’t hear him without seeming suspicious.

At that moment the door to the pub swung open and in stepped several members of the Glouderdale guards. The armored warriors surveyed the scene in an instant. Then the leader looked over at the grizzled bartender and said, “I’m supposed to search this ‘ere place for Queen Arollywyn. I’ve orders to tear it apart and burn it t’ the ground for to find ‘er.”

“What! Incredible!” said the bartender.

“Yes, I am looking for the Queen,” the soldier continued. “The King’s bribe—I mean bride—is what I’m looking for. The bribe.”

“Eh?”

“The King’s bribe—oh, I must mean bride,” put in another soldier. “she weighs about ten pounds.”

The bartender thought for a moment, then realized what was going on and handed over the money. The soldiers thanked him and left. Arollywyn waited fifteen more minutes to let them get far away, then got up from her table and left the bar.

It was a warm night, and torches flickered brightly in the alleyway. Arollywyn could hear, some distance away, the soldiers going through their bribe/bride routine. The Queen moved quickly away from them, and moved silently through the quiet street.  She walked out into a large plaza, and saw five guards patrolling around the center. She pulled her veil over her face and simply walked by the five sentries casually. Boaris is heightening security she thought. She stole silently through the streets until she came upon a rundown little inn. She entered and, still wearing her veil, bought a room for the night. Here she would be safer from the patrols.

She sat back on the cot and began to think. The army dispatched to search for Tarl hadn’t been heard from for a long time, and meanwhile the defenses of the town had been increasing steadily. She deduced that Boaris must be expecting some sort of an attack. But from who? Or whom? She wished that Robin would hurry up and return to her with Tarl’s response to her letter.

 

In the royal palace, Boaris was pacing nervously.      He was thinking about the new defenses, and how expensive they were, and how hard it was to get the damn workers to cooperate and in general how hard life was for him. And the thing that worried him most was the chilling possibility that it wasn’t enough.

He had no idea what had happened to Skaring and Hill-tur, but he strongly suspected they’d been involved in some sort of battle. It seemed impossible to him that the whole company could have disappeared without a fight. And he had every reason to suspect Tarl was behind it. He was Glouderdale’s only real enemy. He wearily rubbed his forehead, and then lay back on his bed muttering. He didn’t mutter anything of importance, merely his own nameless fears.

Finally, after several hours of trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep, Boaris climbed out of bed and walked to the royal observation tower. He looked out across the town, towards the fields. The rolling plain look very sinister in the night, and Boaris couldn’t look at them without getting a very creepy feeling. He felt sure that Tarl was lurking out there.

 

And, for once, he was right. At that moment, Tarl and the army were marching through the field. The skeletons, glowing a faint green in the moonlight, the warriors and animals of Halknor marching silently in the rear of the column. A warm breeze blew lightly against them, forcing Tarl to concentrate his mind on not falling asleep. He was tired, but he didn’t dare stop to make camp at night. He hadn’t forgotten about the DBTs. His skin still crawled at the memory of that cry he’d heard back on the first day of his journey.

After several more hours, the first rays of sun began to appear on the horizon, shining on the tired army. At last, they came to the farmlands Tarl and Agnes had roamed weeks earlier. (“Oh, isn’t it romantic!” said Agnes. “The spot we went on our first date.”) But the lands were very different than when they’d last seen them. For one thing, many of the huts had been burnt down. For another all the livestock was missing.

Tarl walked up to one of the non–burnt down huts knocked at the door. There came a chatter of whispers from behind it, then silence and then at last the door opened perhaps an inch.

“Are you from Glouderdale?” asked a low, husky voice.

“Why, yes.” said Tarl.

“I knew it! Get ‘im!” shouted the voice.  Instantly the door sprang open and five burly men rushed out brandishing swords, knives, pitchforks and the like. One of them seized Tarl and the others pointed their weapons at him. Theolden, Agnes and Fernando responded by whipping out their instruments of death, and pointing them at the burly farmers.

For a moment, the attackers seemed ready to fight. Then they noticed the army that was hanging around behind the three people and the one elf, and became somewhat more peaceable. “Well,” said one. “Top o’ the mornin’ to yeh.” He put Tarl down and tipped his hat to him.

“What’d you grab me for?” demanded the Prince.

“Well, sir, you’re from Glouderdale,” muttered one farmer. “We understand you were lookin’ fer some prince here–”

“A Prince, eh?”

“Well, ya’ll came here and burnt half the town lookin’…”

“Are you telling me that people from Glouderdale came here, looking for a Prince, and burnt down your houses?” asked Tarl. (He could make really clever deductions when he worked at it.)

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, in that case, you’ll be very interested in what I’m going to say next. I’m the Prince that the Glouderdale people were looking for.” And Tarl proceeded to tell them his entire sordid tale. By the end, the farmers were nodding their heads in agreement with his plan.

“We like this idea. The damnable forces of Glouderdale will suffer for their bastardly, dastardly destruction of our land. Do you know that even when we swored that you weren’t here, they searched our houses, housed their troops in ‘em, and then ate our crops. Revenge, men!” he shouted to the others. “Revenge!”

After this little discussion, they rounded up the other farmers of the land who assembled themselves into a militia and fell into line with the Halknorians and the skeletons.

A little later in the day, even more good fortune smiled upon them. Robin returned, bringing a letter from Arollywyn. She had written to suggest that Tarl look into an old legend about an army of skeletons that floated in a cave and that perhaps they’d be of some help.

Tarl decided to write her a note asking simply “Is there still a forest on the west side of Glouderdale city walls?” as he didn’t want to compromise his position if the letter was intercepted.

 

Lieutenant Gabson, First Perimeter Guards, and Glouderdale Hero first class (Twice decorated.) lolled back lazily in his post at the new archers’ tower on the outside of Glouderdale town. The late-afternoon sun was shining brightly on him through the window as he sleepily set his bow down beside him and closed his eyes. He was the highest ranking soldier present, so none of the junior archers dared rebuke him.

It’s a gorgeous day, thought Gabson, casually tossing his quiver of arrows off to one side. He put his feet up on the sill of the archer window and lay back on his pillow. He had constructed a system of mirrors that allowed him to look out the window while lying on his back.

In the mirror, he fancied he saw something moving in a line of trees in the distance. It looked almost like some sort of giant army moving swiftly to attack and topple the Kingdom. Gabson made a mental note to mention that to someone after he napped for a while.

 

 

 

 

The giant army of Freedom’s Defenders moved swiftly through the trees. They were forming battle ranks already. Tarl, Agnes, Theolden, Fernando and Gollgruff examined Fernando’s map. “Alright,” said Tarl “what we’re gonna do is this. Theolden, you’re going to lead the army in a direct frontal assault upon the city walls.”

“What about my responsibility to my people?”

“Never mind that stuff now. What I want you t’ do is march the army up to the city gate and wait for the army to come out and surround you. Gollgruff, my man?”

“Sir?”

“Yer warriors will be keeping invisible and surrounding the rest of our men. When Glouderdale’s guys attack, you’ll appear and obliterate ‘em.”

“Understood. Where will you be, sir?”

Tarl grinned slyly. “Ah, yes. Now we come to the best part of my plan.  A small strike team—me, Agnes, Fernando, and our inside person, my mom—are going sneak through the town while ev’ryone’s distracted. Our job’s to assassinate Boaris.”

The other four marveled. (Remember, this diversion trick wasn’t nearly as clichéd then as it is now.) “That’s magnificent,” said Theolden.

“Awesome.” agreed Agnes.

“Strategically sound,” put in Fernando.

“Yes, ain’t it?” said Tarl. “Now, the way we’re gonna get in depends on what my mom says when she writes back. If there’s still a forest on that side of the walls, we’ll sneak in there, and climb some of the bigger trees and sneak in. If there’s no forest there, we’ll use grappling hooks.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Theolden. “When do we execute it?”

“As soon as we can, once my mom’s letter comes.”

“But what if it doesn’t come?” asked Fernando.

“Then we jus’ assume the trees are gone and go with the grappling hooks.”

 

They didn’t have to wait long. That night, Robin returned with Arollywyn’s response saying that the trees were indeed still on the west side of the castle. And so, early in the morning, the three strike team members bade Theolden good-bye, and gave him orders to advance. Then they headed off towards the western wall.

Theolden moved his troops into battle formation, telling Gollgruff to keep his men invisible till he saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes, to which Gollgruff said “That’s a common order. I’m glad I have no visible eyes.”      And then the farmers and Halknorians marched off, the dead following invisibly.

They marched slowly, calmly, towards the walls. They halted just outside of the archers’ range and began to prepare their weapons. Theolden yelled at the archer towers, challenging them to come fight like men. They respectfully declined at first, but the chorused insults the army yelled at them became too much to ignore. The archers fired a quick volley of arrows that landed a few inches short of the their target.

The army of Freedom’ Defenders moved forward a few inches and stood there, waiting.

The Glouderdale archers fired a second volley, but before it hit the ground the army retreated a few inches. Once again, the arrows came up short.

Enraged, the commanders of the Glouderdale army decided to open the gates and let slip the cats of war.

The town gates swung open and the Glouderdale army marched out slowly, encircling the apparently outnumbered band. The men, who marched at the fore of the sinister army, moved with military precision. Which, I suppose you’d expect. They drew their swords and readied their shields in perfect coordination. Behind the men, the Erik-Hi waited ominously, their enormous iron spears glistening in the sunlight; their spiky armor seeming to enlarge their already massive forms. For a few seconds, the two armies regarded each other.

Then Glouderdale charged.

 

Tarl, Agnes and Fernando stole quickly through the trees, the wall they sought barely visible through the foliage. They met with no resistance. Apparently, for all his extra security measures, Boaris had overlooked this spot.

Or so it appeared, at first. But as any respectable reader of adventures will know, when ever it says ‘apparently’, it’s a tip-off that what is apparent is actually false. And such proved to be the case. Just as Tarl was leaping over a branch, a giant hairy leg appeared from nowhere and swatted him backward.

From out of a giant pit that had been dug in a hollowed out tree a giant three-headed spider troll monster leapt. It was a sinister beast, its sharp fangs dripping spider venom onto its troll muscles, to say nothing of its three heads and forty-seven eyes. (Eleven of which were spider eyes, the rest troll.) According to its pet I.D. tag, its name was Aracerberusgog.

“Behold, men!” said Aracerberusgog. “I am Aracerberusgog!” Tarl lay on the ground beneath it, still shocked from the impact of its leg. Agnes picked up a stick to defend herself. Fernando seized a rock. “At last!” roared the monster through its troll’s mouth. “Fresh meat!”

Then Tarl remembered he had Skaring’s wand. He pulled it out of his pocket and shot Aracerberusgog dead.

“Lucky I learned magic so quick.”

“Look out, there might be more of them.” said Fernando.                                        There were several more, but they dealt with them in much the same manner, Tarl shooting two, Fernando running the other through with his sword. The trio then walked on through the woods, Fernando and Agnes in front with Tarl covering them. At last, they reached the wall and climbed up the giant trees nearby. Then, one by one, they leapt on to the thin stonewall.

Arollywyn, for her part, had placed a ladder on the wall just as Tarl had asked her to, and they quickly climbed down. At the bottom of the ladder was the Queen, crouching behind some crates.

“Oh, Tarl!” she said, standing up. “Seeing you alive—why I’m so conflicted–”

“Happy, ya mean.”

“—Happy, yes.” she amended. “I was so worried about you.”

“Never mind that now. Is Boaris still in the Castle?”

“Yes. C’mon.”

They ran through the streets, passing squadron after squadron of soldiers rushing to the front lines. The troopers took scant notice of the four, though two of them were wanted fugitives. None of the four felt any need to conceal themselves.

Back in the direction of the town walls they heard faint shouts and screams. The battle was clearly going well for Freedom’s defenders.

At last they reached the castle. Tarl paused for a moment to see how much it had changed. Guard towers had been erected, trenches dug, and all the windows barred. Then the moment passed, and he ran along the bridge with the others. They leapt into a grove of bushes near a bolted door.

“What’s your plan, mom?”

“I’ve got these smoke bombs,” she said, pulling some cylinders out of her sleeve. “You toss ‘em through a window and people immediately have to leave the room.”

Tarl nodded, then took one of the things from her, lit it, and flung into a window to the left of the door. There was a hissing, then a bang, then a loud commotion from within the room.

It worked perfectly. The occupants of the room—the cleaning crew—shambled out the door, coughing and hacking painfully. Tarl quickly put a memory charm on them and threw their bodies into the moat.

Inside the castle, it was smoky. This was a side effect of her plan Arollywyn hadn’t quite thought through. They had to crawl on the floor to get out of the room without choking. They finally made it to the hall and were able to stand up and breathe again. Two sentries rounded the corner at that moment and started to charge at the infiltrators. In a matter of seconds, though, Tarl had put the “curse of the bullet-riddled corpses” upon them.

They ran through the halls, meeting no guards, or indeed any other living beings. That is, until they went into the dining hall. There they found hordes of guards, all apparently waiting to go into the battle.

“We need to get through here.” muttered the Queen.

“I’ll deal with it,” said Fernando.       He walked furiously down the stairs into the hall.

“It is I, King Boaris!” he boomed. “Who are you, who enter my hall unbidden?”

This worked remarkably well. The soldiers, many of whom had never seen King Boaris, were completely fooled. The troopers all scrambled to attention. “That’s better,” said Fernando. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be getting along.”

“But, my liege, sir, what about the address to the troops, my liege, sir?” asked a Captain.

“What?”

“Sir, my liege, we were told to wait in this hall for your highness to explain the battle strategy, my liege sir, sir, my liege.”

“Oh… uh… that’s quite right, um… what’s your name?”

“Captain Mardar Schlenk, my liege, sir.”

“Right. Well, Schlenk, the thing is that the battle’s going so badly at the front that we’ve no choice but to surrender and save what we can.”

“Yes, sir.”

There was considerable murmuring from the troopers. Finally one asked, “But how, your Highness, can this be reconciled with our slogan: ‘Death before surrender or collection of military pension?’’’           

“That slogan is void in wartime. Now then, as time as getting on, I have one or two announcements to make. One: Turn in all your weapons to the enemy as soon as you see them. All weapons, that is. Second: Suicide is a perfectly acceptable alternative to surrender, as long as none of the enemy’s troops are injured. That will be all.” He looked around and saw that the stairs he had come down were empty, suggesting the others had made it through the hall.

“Right, good-bye.” And he hurried out to the sound of many of the soldiers impaling themselves on their swords.

 

The battle for Glouderdale was rapidly becoming epic. Which was odd, because, at first glance, it looked no different from all those other medieval battles that have been fought. I mean, like all other battles, there were two sides trying to kill each other with pieces of metal. Some times the pieces were thrown, and sometimes other pieces were used to deflect the metal. Still, for whatever reason–good marketing, probably—the battle became known as an epic.

Dragon-Bat-Things were now swarming over the army of Freedom’s Defenders, using sonar and breathing fire onto the warriors. They retaliated by firing ground-to-air arrows at the monsters. Many of the arrows missed, but enough hit the monsters to make it easier on Freedom’s Defenders. Many wounded and dying Dragon–Bat—Things crashed into groups of soldiers and crushed them.

Theolden rode along the battle lines, slaughtering the Erik-Hi that poured endlessly out of the town. At last, he was thrown from his horse and lost his sword. He picked a rock up and hurled it at a passing Erik-Hi. The monster collapsed, its skull crushed.

The warriors of Horrodor gave a decided edge to Freedom’s Defenders, but even they could be defeated. It was impossible to kill them, of course, but one could still smash them into such tiny bits as to render them useless. The Glouderdalians had noticed this, and quickly begun to act on the information.

But then again, the farmers, Animals and Halknorians were no slouches. The Halknorian warriors were beating the Glouderdale men, and holding their own against the Erik-Hi. The animals were so disorganized as to be almost impossible to predict and fight. And what the farmers lacked in coordination, strength, tactical ability, organization, weapons, equipment, agility, numbers, intelligence and physical presence, they almost made up for in pure desire for revenge. Unfortunately, this was what diminished their intelligence, coordination and tactical ability.

Well, the battle raged on and stuff was destroyed and things caught fire and people died and Erik-Hi died and others were wounded and things were smashed and the ground was trampled and little birds carried on their sweet songs, totally oblivious to it all, and there was lots of screaming and yelling and then sort of squishing noises followed sharp cracks and then rhythmic dripping.

Eventually, Freedom’s Defenders began to drive their enemies back into the to the city. Many of the Glouderdalians suddenly beat a retreat and formed up again deeper into the town. Only the Erik-Hi held their ground, digging in to give a good fight.

And then something most unexpected happened.

The Dragon–Bat–Things swooped down in formation and, in unison, breathed streams of fire onto the wooden huts and houses in the city. At the same moment, the iron drawbridge closed.

Theolden mused on this turn of events. Then he realized that the only productive course of action they could pursue was to run like hell deeper into the town. This they did, and were of course met with heavy resistance from the regrouped Glouderdalians, who had apparently been stockpiling weapons in anticipation of this eventuality, to put it cleverly.

Then an idea occurred to Theolden. He ordered his men to go to house combat at once. The wave of soldiers that formed the attacking force broke apart, and they all began to move into stone buildings that were out of the blaze. This forced Glouderdale to switch to house fighting tactics as well.

Unfortunately, the farmers had no idea how to do house fighting, and were duly slaughtered by the Erik-Hi. These savages then turned their attention to forming a perimeter around all the houses their enemies occupied. They then fired smoke grenades into the houses, forcing the soldiers out.

Theolden picked up a sword and smashed in the head of a Glouderdale archer. Then an Erik-Hee—The singular for Erik-Hi, you know—leapt out of a trashcan at him swinging its sword. Theolden ducked, and thrust a blow at the monster. It parried and lunged for the Duke.

“Look, behind you—a comet!” yelled Theolden. The Erik-Hee turned around and Theolden stabbed him in the back, honorable fellow that he was. Then he charged into a squad of Glouderdale Guards.

He sliced furiously at them, the world in front of him a mass of blood and blurry metal. But, inevitably, the numbers beat him; the eight living soldiers threw him to the ground and stood over him triumphantly. One of them grabbed his sword and lifted it slowly, ever so slowly over Theolden’s head. A slight smile seemed to tug at the would-be executioner’s lips.

“I’m going to kill you, anonymous enemy guy,” said the man coldly. “I’m going to kill you now and I’m going to kill you good. It’s all over when this blade falls. Chop! Like that—you cease to breathe, you cease to think, your blood ceases to circulate through your body, due, I’m told, to your heart ceasing to beat. Ev’rything you know, all your memories, all your feelings, all your dreams, perish with the swoop of an axe–”

“Sword.”

“Whatever. In an instant, your life is extinguished, like so many candles in a tornado, or, if you prefer it, a flood. What is your name?”

“Theolden, Duke of Halknor. I command this army–”

“Oh, you’re in command?”

“Yes.”

The soldier lowered the sword and turned to the man next to him. “We’re supposed to hold commanders for ransom, right?”

“Yep.”

“Well, then,” the soldier said to Theolden. “You can forget ev’rything I just told you.” He picked Theolden up and began to march him away. But at that moment, Gollgruff ran up and slaughtered all eight soldiers, sucking their brains out through their ears and splashing blood and guts everywhere.

“Thanks.” called Theolden to Gollgruff as he ran back into the fight. “Anytime.” replied the grim warrior.

 

Tarl, Agnes and Arollywyn ran through the deserted castle corridors, trying desperately to reach the great hall. Tarl remembered its general location, but the castle had been so greatly altered that his memory was practically worthless.

At last they came to a large staircase, which Tarl knew led to the Hall. He quickly ran up it, and was conscious of an odd feeling in the steps as he went past them. He reached the top and turned to look behind him.

The staircase was gone.

Agnes and Arollywyn were still standing at the bottom, having seen what was happening, and were looking up at him despairingly. At once Tarl realized what had happened: Boaris had installed a trick staircase.

“Carry on alone,” said Arollywyn. “We’ll try to find another way.” Agnes blew him a kiss, and then the two retreated the way they’d come and Tarl was left standing at the door to the Hall.

He raised a trembling hand…

He put said trembling hand on the doorknob…

He turned said doorknob with said trembling hand…

He opened said door by turning said doorknob with said trembling hand…

He walked into the room, using his legs to move along the ground, swinging his right leg in front of him and planting his right foot on the ground, his left leg following shortly thereafter…

And prepared to face his destiny.

 

 

Chapter Ten

In the Grand Hall, he found Boaris pacing from one wall to the other, muttering to himself.

“… if I can get the seventh army to attack from the hills and have the nineteenth army from the forest, I’ll have ‘em in a pincer movement.”

            “Sir,” said some other guy who was in the room. “Those armies no longer exist. They were all eaten.”

            “Why the bloody hell didn’t you tell me that sooner?”

“I couldn’t find you. Sir, I suggest we surrender; the death toll is rising.”

“Well, of course, it’s rising. Do you expect people to stop dying and the dead to be revivified?”

Tarl chose this moment to announce his presence. He had spent a moment thinking up something good and dramatic to say, and he thought he had it.

“You’d better hope so,” said the Prince. “Or else you ain’t coming back!”

Boaris looked around, confused.

“Who’re you?”

“The rightful heir to this Kingdom, idiot!”

“What d’you—ah, I’m just a courtier, sir, and I don’t—don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t lie; you’re not a courtier.”

“I say I am!”

“The hell you are. You’re King Boaris, who killed the King with a bludgeon–”

“A poker, you mean.”

Then Boaris realized what he’d said and sank to his knees, groaning.

“I knew it!” yelled Tarl, drawing the wand and pointing it at Boaris, who cowered pathetically. Tarl pulled the trigger and….

The wand clicked empty.

Tarl looked around for a new magazine of spells, but of course there was none. He then tossed the weapon aside and strode toward Boaris. “I’ll kill you with my bare hands then,” he growled.

“But you’re wearing gloves.” said Boaris, springing from his cowering position and punching Tarl in the jaw. The prince recoiled in pain, and stumbled backwards over a chair.

Boaris seized the royal scepter and threw it at Tarl, who rolled and dodged. “You’re goin’ down!” yelled Tarl.

“You already are!”

Tarl swore, and leapt up off the floor to tackle Boaris. The King fell to the floor, and Tarl stood over him, grinning triumphantly. Boaris kicked him in the knees, and scrambled to his feet.

“Guards, help, save me!” shrieked Boaris wildly. The man he’d been talking with had vanished, leaving him and Tarl alone. The King and the Prince faced each other, the former screaming for help, the latter looking grimly intent on avenging his father.

“You do realize,” said Boaris hastily, “that I am your father, right?”

“What? That’s the stupidest–”

“No, it’s true. Look, I assumed all Ruthven’s duties. That includes being married to his wife and being the father of his son.”

“Stepfather.”

“No, father. So you see, if you kill me, you’ll be guilty of patricide.”

“Eh?”

“Guilty of killing your father.”

“You know damn well that you killed my dad.”

“Yes. I know it. You know it. But nobody else knows it. And, by the way, the punishment for patricide is death.”

“Any fool can see that Ruthven’s dead already; nobody’s gonna get mad at me for killing some Ruthven impersonator.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s the law, it’s on parchment; the Kingdom officials are bound to follow it.”

Tarl thought for a moment on this. Boaris was beginning to look correct. At last, he said:

“I’d die to kill you.”

“Right oh,” said Boaris, taking a sword down from the wall. “You’ll have it your way. Or should I say, halve it?”

“I don’t follow you.”

“It’s a pun. Never mind.”

And with that, Boaris rushed at him, lifting the sword high above his head. Tarl pulled out his dagger and began to fight a rather stupid looking duel with Boaris.

It is very difficult to block a sword with a dagger, so Tarl’s strategy became one of escape. He quickly made a swing at Boaris’s sword, then turned and flung himself behind a vase. Boaris swung and smashed apart the rich, ornate object. Tarl grabbed one of the shards and flung it at Boaris, who dodged it easily. The Prince then ran (Like fire) to the other wall, from which he took a decoration sword that adorned the Royal crest. He held it out before him, taunting Boaris.

The wicked King stared calculatingly at Tarl. Then, with a piece of magnificent agility that would require words that don’t even exist yet to adequately describe, he flew at Tarl and, with surprising dexterity, engaged him in an indescribably awesome piece of swordplay that lasted for perhaps a minute. He used his sword to artfully disarm Tarl. But as he was moving in for the kill, Tarl kicked the sword out of his hand.

The two combatants stared hard at each other for a moment, Tarl’s eyes blazing with hatred, Boaris’s chilling with irritated distaste, annoyance, general dislike, and perhaps just a soupcon of hate. Tarl advanced towards his enemy, his nemesis, the man who had ruined his life these last few weeks. He reached for his dagger and prepared to settle the score. Boaris looked coldly back at Tarl, then turned and leapt out the window.

For a moment, Tarl thought it was suicide. Then he saw the awful face of Boaris, attached to the terrible neck of Boaris, attached to the hideous body of Boaris, rising up past the window on the back of a Dragon—Bat—Thing. Tarl rushed to the window and saw the foul creature—as well as the Dragon—Bat—Thing—flying away from the castle. The prince looked down and saw, to his dismay, that there were no more Dragon—Bat—Things waiting below the window. He realized that the only thing to do was to try to get to the top of the castle, where Boaris seemed to be going.

 

The battle of Glouderdale was in full swing now, the warriors having shaken off their pre-battle jitters and felt out the other side. It was that most magical of times at which both sides feel “in the zone.” They had both made the necessary adjustments and substitutions, and each and every soldier was willing to give a hundred and ten percent. They all knew that there was no “I” in army, and that you’ve just got to take it one battle at a time. Both sides bearing all this in mind made for a battle the sheer awesomeness of which had never before been seen.

The town of Glouderdale was now truly ablaze. The wooden houses were collapsing; the smoke was so thick it was suffocating the soldiers in the stone houses. But, always just ahead of the flames, the battle raged on. It had become the Erik-Hi’s strategy to try to drive their opponents backwards into the fire, but they would have none of it. They had battled to a stalemate when it occurred to the Halknorians to fight while running parallel to the Erik-Hi. Doing this, they eventually were able to force the Erik-Hi around so that their backs were to the fire. This done, they battled to a stalemate again, but by now the Erik-Hi were getting devoured by fire. The Halknorians, meanwhile, left to assist Gollgruff’s troops in obliterating a division of archers.

Then, just as things were starting to go nicely for Freedom’s Defenders, a Dragon—Bat—Thing, flying as if it was possessed by a demon, came swooping down on them, belching fire into their ranks. Then the monster flew upwards and turned back towards the castle.

Tarl watched all this from the highest tower of the castle, which he had climbed to as part of a desperate plan: He was hoping to lure Boaris close enough that he could leap onto the Dragon—Bat—Thing and have it out with the evil King. It was a long shot, but then, in epic quests, long shots always seem to hit their mark.

Boaris, of course, took the bait perfectly. In a mad rage to kill Tarl, he flew his Dragon directly at the Prince, and thus allowed him to leap onto the animal’s wing.

This was, in retrospect, a bad idea. It is very difficult to hold on to a scaly wing flapping up and down while an incredibly high wind is blowing against you. And knowing that you are hundreds of feet off the ground doesn’t help matters. All of this was just now registering with Tarl. He dug his fingernails into the monster’s scales, trying to drag himself along the wing towards Boaris. The King noticed this, and began kicking out at Tarl. This state of affairs continued for a few minutes until Boaris began trying so ferociously to throw Tarl off that he forgot about keeping control of the Dragon—Bat—Thing.

This isn’t something one should forget. Any decent pet training book will tell you so. But Boaris had become so fixated on killing Tarl he lost track of all else and dropped the reins. The monster, of course, immediately began trying to buck its rider off. Boaris was flung from the saddle and rolled down the wing past Tarl. At the next—to—last possible moment, he grabbed onto a scale and hung on.

Tarl looked down at the villain clutching desperately to the wing. The Prince pulled a dagger out of his vest and threw it at Boaris. It caught him in the shoulder, and for a moment Tarl though the man would fall. But at nearly the last second, Boaris ripped the bloody dagger out his flesh and plunged it into the wing. Using it as a sort of handhold, the King lifted himself along the wing. He slid along the wing until he was right next to Tarl. Then he turned to Tarl and began punching him. Tarl recoiled and lost his grip. As he fell away, he grabbed onto the edge and flung himself around to the side of the wing opposite Boaris. He could see a faint impression in the leathery wing that he knew to be the King. He punched it, and it disappeared.

He thought he’d killed him, but Boaris reappeared a minute later, once more in the saddle of the creature.

Well, he wasn’t so much in the saddle as trying to get into it. The Dragon—Bat—Thing was bucking, trying to throw him off. Tarl watched for a moment, praying that Boaris would be thrown, when suddenly he felt the wing moving and only by digging into it with his fingernails and holding on kept him from death.

He realized what had happened: the Dragon had been gliding, making it easy for him to hold on, and had now started flapping its wings to get rid of Boaris.

He felt lightheaded now, as a result of clinging upside-down to the moving wing while plunging towards the ground. His vision was going blurry, but he could still see the stone sidewalks of Glouderdale town rushing up at him in a most unpleasant manner.

Then the world went dark, and he knew no more.

 

Tarl awoke suddenly, staring up at the black sky. He felt sick, and on sitting up, realized that he had vomit and drool down the front of his shirt. His head ached horribly and his entire body felt rather sore. But he was an old hand at this sort of thing, having been a professional drunkard for seven years. With an effort, he lifted himself to his feet, and looked around groggily.

Eventually, he realized where he was. He was on a roof of a building in the town. He looked behind him and saw, much to his surprise, the Castle of Glouderdale ablaze. Damn the luck, he thought, I wanted to live there someday. He then turned and walked carefully along the roof, thinking he would leap down into the street. But when he reached the edge of the roof he looked into the street and saw Boaris lying there, crumpled in a heap. He leapt down from the roof, and landed next to the wrecked remains of the man who had, for all his evil, been—legally speaking—his father. A lone tear rolled down his cheek. For life, however twisted by evil it may be, is still life.

The wind sobbed quietly down the lonely street. Suddenly, Tarl felt alone… desolate, perhaps. Here, away from the fray of the battle, away from the loud clashing of the warriors, he had found his heritage. He looked towards the burning castle he owned now. He had lived there, by his genetic father’s permission. He smiled bitterly. However grudgingly, Ruthven had let him live there. But now he too was dead. Life, he thought, life was so precious, so fleeting…

He looked down again at the lifeless form, and saw that it was not at all lifeless, but climbing to its feet and picking up a stone from the street; clearly with a view to killing Tarl himself. And at this moment, all his philosophical musings were discarded—as philosophical musings often are when anything important happens—and he wished that Boaris’s miserable life had been snuffed out like a candle.

Dodging the stone, Tarl spun into an alley. He put up his fists, waiting for the King to make his move. The king, however, just looked at him, with hatred blazing in his eyes.

            “You know, you called me your son.” Tarl said slowly.

“I have no son!” Boaris spat angrily.

“Ah ha! I knew you’d admit it!”

Boaris aimed a punch at Tarl, but the prince dodged it and fluidly reached out and seized Boaris by the wrist. Then he proceeded to fling him headfirst into a wall. Boaris yelled in agony and staggered backward, clutching his head. Tarl grabbed him by the collar and flung his into a door, which shattered as Boaris fell limply through it. Tarl picked up a stone from the street and followed him in.

Inside, it was dark. Tarl stepped in and knew at once where he was. A bar. He sniffed the air and knew he was in the “Soused house.” (He knew every tavern in Glouderdale by heart.) He looked down and saw Boaris crawling pathetically across the floor, groaning and moaning.

Tarl looked down at the man, more with pity than with hatred now. As he stared at this twisted creature that had once been a man, who had been so twisted by his hate and his violent nature, he remembered what the Elf Council had said about fighting bloodshed with bloodshed.

“I should kill you,” he said to Boaris. “But I won’t.”

“Oh, thank you, my son! You were dead to me, and you’ve returned! Oh joy, oh rapture!” Boaris thanked him profusely, and then suddenly froze.

“Ah—may I ask why you’re not going to kill me?”

“There’s been enough death because of you.”

“Hmm. I don’t follow you.”

“Really? Look, death’s bad, right? You’ve caused a lot of death. To kill you’d cause more. Thus making things that much worse.”

“Well, alright, if you say so.” said Boaris as he shambled towards the door. He turned back and looked at Tarl suspiciously.

“Is this a trick?” he asked.

Tarl shook his head.

“Alright.” Boaris murmured as he walked out into the night.

 

Outside the blazing Castle of Glouderdale, Fernando, Agnes Arollywyn and Theolden stood staring at the burning wreck. None of them spoke. They were mourning for their presumably dead friend Tarl and the countless other troops who had fallen during the battle. What remained of the army of Halknor stood behind them, also silent in remembrance. The army of Gollgruff had disappeared, the curse lifted from their souls. They animals stood guard round the six captured soldiers of the Glouderdale army.

It was thought that both Tarl and Boaris had perished inside the Castle when a wounded Dragon—Bat—Thing had crashed into the west wall and started the blaze. It was probably the way Tarl would’ve wanted it, though, to die in combat with his enemy. Agnes wept silently, thinking of all the things she’d never said and never would say to the Prince. Arollywyn wept too, thinking of all the things she had said to the Prince that she wished she hadn’t. Fernando didn’t weep, because he knew he could be of no more help to these people. His life was blank once more, and tomorrow he would kill himself.

“What ho, there.” said a voice behind them. The four turned and looked upwards. There, standing atop a rock and looking battered but happy, was Boaris. “What are you all crying about?”

“I am mourning my son,” snapped Arollywyn.

“Our son, you mean. Well, you can stop mourning because he’s alive. Here, son, come up here.” And sure enough, Tarl appeared behind Boaris, also looking battered. Arollywyn looked bewilderedly from one to the other, utterly perplexed. “What the hell?” she said. “Tarl, why aren’t you killing him?”

“Because, mom, as I was standing in that alley, it occurred to me that if I killed him, there would be bloodshed.”

“Well, what of it?”

“Boaris has caused so much bloodshed. Should I go as low as him and cause bloodshed too? That’s not right.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just not. I thought of it just now.”

At this point, a soldier from Freedom’s Defenders stepped forward and said to Theolden “Sir, we cannot follow this reasoning. It seems to be based upon the premise that bloodshed is intrinsically undesirable; disregarding analysis on a case-by-case basis. In this–”

“The point is,” interrupted Boaris. “That your leader has betrayed you. He brought you here to kill me and now he changes his mind. If I were in your shoes, I’d arrest that two-faced villain on the spot.”

The soldiers saw the justice of this and surrounded Tarl, pointing their swords at him. The Prince stared at them blankly.

Then he said hastily,

“Well, we c’n still imprison Boaris, can’t we?” asked Tarl.

Boaris shook his head, with a look of mock remorse on his face. “I’m afraid not, son. You see, I am King for life. That means that, even whether I’m in prison, or I’ve run away, or been paralyzed by a concussion, or what have you, I’m still the King.”

Tarl went back into the blank-staring routine, and Arollywyn looked at him furiously. “Order your soldiers to kill him at once!” she growled.

“No.” said Tarl. “Remember what I said about bloodshed.”

The six remaining soldiers of Glouderdale looked, as one, to Boaris, who said triumphantly, “Take them away and throw them in our darkest, dankest dungeon!”

“We don’t have a dungeon, sir. The castle burned down.”

“Hmmm, so it did, so it did. Well, just take them to some stone house and lock the door.”

 

“Well, fine way to pull a fast one on us with this nonsensical ‘enough bloodshed’ idea.” snarled Theolden, as he sat back on a dusty chair.

“I thought you’d understand my trick,” said Tarl. “You see, as things stand, I’m legally Boaris’s son. That means that when he dies I get the Kingdom.”

“And why didn’t you just kill him?”

“Well, it just came to me suddenly. I was sittin’ there, about to kill ‘im, when I said to myself, I said ‘Maybe I should be merciful to the poor man.’”

“And why? There’s no logic to your–”

“That’s alright,” put in Fernando. “Epiphanies don’t have to be logical.”

“Thanks, Fernando,” said Tarl. “It’s just one of those things.”

“And what about all the people who will die between now and Boaris’s death and your inheriting the Kingdom?” asked Arollywyn.

“Well… we’ll try to be at peace with that. You see, I just thought that the less blood we’re spilling, the better.”

They sat silently in the little room, contemplating this pacifist philosophy Tarl had suddenly started ascribing to, when there came a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” called Theolden.

“’Tis I, King Boaris.”

And indeed, the small slit in the door opened, revealing the eyes of the man himself. “What d’you want?” asked Arollywyn, after calling Boaris a very hideous synonym for—but never mind.

“I’ve come,” said Boaris as he entered the room, flanked by six guards. “Firstly, to mock your pathetic attempts to kill me, secondly to ridicule them, thirdly to jeer at them, fourthly–”

“We get the idea.”

“—And seventhly, to ask you to apologize for ever trying to take my Kingdom over.”

“You’re right,” said Tarl. “I am your son, and will inherit it upon your death.”

Everyone, including Boaris, looked astonished. Then the King regained his composure and shrugged. “Yes, I suppose that’s so. Assuming you don’t do anything that makes me strike you out of the will. Now that that has been settled–”

“But it hasn’t.” said Tarl slyly. “The will is what Ruthven left to me. Not what you left to me.”

“But,” said Boaris, even slyer. “It is settled, because I took over all Ruthven’s duties. Therefore, all ref’rences to him apply to me.”

“Does that include his gravestone?” asked Tarl, with unparalleled slyness.

Boaris started. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean that if you’ve stolen my dad’s identity, and ev’rythin’ that says him means you, you’re dead, according to the death certificate, the gravestone and all that stuff.”

“Well, I’m clearly not dead-”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s the law, it’s on parchment, and so the Kingdom officials have to follow it.”

“He’s right, you know, your majesty,” said one of the guards to Boaris.

“Well—doesn’t matter—I’ll change the laws.”

“Not if your subjects rebel.” said another guard.

“The army will back me.”

“We are the army. All that’s left of it. And we have decided that you are a threat to the Kingdom and agreed to kill you.”

So they did.

 

Chapter Eleven

Tarl stared in surprise at Boaris’s mangled corpse. The efficient way in which the troopers had dispatched Boaris had left him speechless. Eventually, though, he was able to ask the soldiers what the hell they thought they were doin’ and hadn’t they heard what he’d said about bloodshed.

“Well, sir, we figured that he’d caused enough bloodshed already, and it was virtually certain he’d cause more, we thought we’d just wind it up real quick like. Here’s his head, sir.”

Tarl looked at the grisly object being offered to him, then held up his hands disinterestedly. “No, thanks. I don’t want it.”

“Well, you see sir, if you take it out there and tell all the people you’ve killed Boaris, they’ll make you King.”

“Tarl!” snapped Arollywyn. “You take that head out there and show it to the people this instant!”

“Well–”

“Oh, hell, I’ll do it myself.” She grabbed the head away from the guard and stalked out of the hut. The guards shrugged and turned to Tarl. “You see,” he said. “Ev’rybody in the army hated that guy.”

“Well then, how come you didn’t kill him earlier?”

“Well, you see, we each thought we might be the only one who hated him.”

Why didja hate him?”

“Well, the idiot started replacing our gen’rals with his own people, who either didn’t know anything about military strategy or else were just cowardly spies who did what he told them.”

Tarl nodded. This seemed to square with what he’d seen.

“And then when he told us to kill our own people if they attempted to betray him, we didn’t like that, and then, of course he brought in the Erik-Hi mercenaries to do that stuff. ‘The guy should be hanged,’ we said. And getting whipped by your guys was just the last straw. And the rest writes itself.”

Tarl mused on this. On the one hand, he’d opposed the bloodshed. On the other, he hadn’t killed Boaris, so why should it worry him?

Slowly, it dawned on Tarl that there was a rising cheer coming from outside the hut. He opened the door and went out to see what it was about, followed by Theolden and Agnes.

Standing in the middle of the street atop some smashed wagons was Arollywyn. She was surrounded by a mob made up of the citizens of Glouderdale and the army of Halknor. They were the ones doing the cheering while Arollywyn looked down at them gratefully. She saw Tarl and turned to him.

“Okay” she said cheerfully. “That’s taken care of. I am now the Queen of Glouderdale. You Tarl, are now Prince. There, are you satisfied?”

“Sure.” said Tarl, putting his arm around Agnes. Arollywyn looked at her calculatingly, and then said that she supposed that Agnes was the Queen-to-be. Agnes nodded and grinned at Tarl. All was joy and jubilation. In the background, Theolden and his troops were celebrating the victory by organizing a game of soccer with Boaris’s head.

 

Meanwhile, Fernando was going up to the castle moat to drown himself. His usefulness, he saw, had about expired, and there was no reason for him to remain in the world now. He had just finished tying the brick to his ankle

At that moment, however, Tarl and Agnes rushed up to him and asked if he’d like a job as wise advisor to the Queen. He said yes, that he would be glad to be of use, and untied the rope. Then the three walked back down the path to rejoin the celebration.

 

And so ends the tale of Glouderdale. Theolden and his army and Ashcan’s animals purchased Rothendike and went off to build a settlement there, where they could all live off the Goblin meat. Queen Arollywyn reigned in glory for a week, and then caught the bug that was going around and died. Tarl ascended to the throne, and, with Agnes as his Queen, ruled wisely for many years. (Although some say he only ruled wisely on account of Fernando’s presence.)

And eventually, ‘twas only the bards who knew the story. And they considered it vastly superior to the one about the talking lion, or the one about the magic ring, and said that it would indeed be a very sensible piece of lore for which to pay a considerable amount to the author for the film rights.

THE END

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