A Fable

October 1, 2016

Last month was a whirlwind. Coming off the august publication of the first two books in the Conquests of Brokk series, I took a break and started writing a story for my boys. Who knows where this will go in the end, but I hope you enjoy the first few chapters. As always, I’m excited to get feedback.

For those of you following the Conquests of Brokk, don’t fear, I’m seven chapters into book three.

A Fable

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Careful child, for when you sleep,

Trolls and goblins like to creep,

Through the field and to your bed,

Such awful terror, such wretched dread.

Once outside an ogre waits,

To the mountain, that’s your fate,

They’ll walk you through the blackest nights,

To a goblin’s market; their paradise.

The wretched beasts will sell you there,

It’s awful grim but don’t despair,

The Kingdom cares a lot for you,

And one brave knight might rescue…you.

 

– A fable told to the children of the Kingdom

 

 

* * *

 

When the King’s daughter was kidnapped by a group of marauding bandits, the whole kingdom fought to get her back. Nearly as quickly as it took for the bell to ring to alert the King’s guard, soldiers were formed in the streets and mounting their horses.

“Get her back!” yelled a brave knight, thrusting his javelin into the air. Behind him, the King’s cavalry roared and soon all young Ivo could hear were the trotting of horse hoofs and the clanking of armor.

“Get away from that window,” Helma shouted. “They’ll think you had something to do with it if you keep watching like that!”

Ivo climbed down and turned back into their room. It was stifling. The air was thick from burnt candle wax and incense. Their humble, two room loft was nearly unbearable to sit in. He needed fresh air. He couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in their wooden hovel much longer. It was even worse to sit in with Helma who fretted about trying to clean up before Koll arrived.

“Stop talking to me like I’m a child, Helma,” Ivo responded with a cold stare and crossed arms. He almost choked on the words as he inhaled the awful incense clouding together on the low ceiling a mere inch above his head. “And why are you burning that awful stuff? It’s going to kill us both you know.”

“Oh Ivo,” she tisked. “Quiet yourself. Go fetch some wood for the fire, would you? Your father will be home soon.”

“You mean Koll?” he protested. “He’s not my father. He’s my adopted father.”

“No,” Helma corrected. “He adopted you. You are our adopted son.”

Ivo snorted. “It’s the same stupid thing, Helma.”

Helma stopped wiping the oak table and stared at him. “He took you in when you were nothing. Whoever your real parents are, Ivo, they left you to die.” Helma started to wipe again but was too flustered. Ivo regretted even bringing it up and wished he could just leave to chop wood for the fire. Too late. “You have a lot of nerve talking about him like that. And me. We’ve spent our whole lives bringing you up.”

“I’m sorry Helma,” he said sheepishly. “You’re right. I’ll go get the wood.”

Ivo took three steps to the wall and grabbed his ax. The rusted blade shimmered in the candle light while the dull wooden handle absorbed whatever part of the flame dared to challenge it. He took one more look at Helma as she busied herself at the table. Short and fat with gray hair and wrinkled hands, Ivo knew she was right. She had worked hard to give him the life a man ought to have. It was his own fault he hadn’t made anything of it, but with a last name like Metsch, everyone knew he was just a commoner. Joining the King’s army to be a knight was hard. Joining the King’s army to be a knight as a commoner was even harder.

Whatever flaw a man had, a commoner had it worse. If a nobleman tried out for the knighthood, they would work with the man to train him in sword play and lancing. When a commoner showed up, even his clothes served to single him out of the competition. Too many standards that made no sense at all in Ivo’s mind.

One more step through the tiny wooden loft and Ivo was out of the door and onto the cold damp cobble stone. It was a warm night for October, but it wouldn’t last. A light breeze was already picking up and would be rustling at almost dead leaves on trees until they had no choice but to surrender and fall to the ground. The moisture in the air clung to his skin and before long, Ivo could feel a sliver of cold sneak its way past his wool shirt and up his spine. He’d need another layer if he would be out long.

In the distance, Ivo could still hear horse hoofs beating at cobblestone. Knights yelled. The sound of steel echoed against steel. Maybe they had found her already? A sudden surge of excitement gripped him. A battle. He had to see it. The wood could wait. Helma could wait. Heck, she could get it herself for all he cared.

Ivo ran into the wooden shack behind their house and grabbed Tipster’s saddle in one hand and his long wool overcoat in the other. Tipster neighed with excitement at the sight of him and barely let him get the saddle on.

“Calm down Tippy Toes,” he said, patting her and throwing the saddle over, cinching it tight against her underbelly until she let out a grunt. “Quit your complaining,” he scalded. “Now where’s my sword?”

Tipster snorted again and spun around twice, stepping on his toe.

“Not helpful,” he hissed, rushing through the stall doors to see it laying on the bench, still in its scabbard.

Ivo gripped the sword, threw on his wool overcoat, attached the scabbard to his belt, shoved the wood ax into her saddle, jumped on Tippy Toes, or Tipster for short, and raced out of the stall and towards the battle.

Cool air slammed into his face as he rode, spurning Tipster onward, faster and faster out of town and into the forest. Tipster, light on her feet glided over the cobblestone streets until she reached the dirt paths of the forest and then, like a free spirit she bolted down the road towards the battle.

Only a few minutes later, Ivo saw lights ahead. Ivo pulled on the reins to slow her. Lanterns from the knights. They were returning. He stopped and she trotted to the side to let them pass. He could hear laughter now. Rejoicing. Had they gotten her?

“Off your horse, son,” shouted the lead knight, his steel armor reflecting an orange glow from the lantern that hung from his lance. “Royalty coming through.”

Ivo obeyed and bowed, then rising he saw her trot past him with her protectors. “It’s too bad you couldn’t rescue the other girl,” she said as she passed.

Other girl? “The King’s orders were strict. Do not venture any farther than we had to find you. When they ran, it could have been a trap.” The knight intuited. “We were lucky to find you so quickly,” he added bragging.

Coward. Thought Ivo.

“Yes, I know. I’m grateful,” the princess responded. “Her eyes though. She was so scared.”

“A commoner.” The knight replied as he trotted past Ivo and towards the King’s palace. “Courage isn’t in their blood. Let us hope she dies quickly.”

“You’re certain of my father’s instructions?” The princess asked hopefully. “Can no one from his army search for her?”

“I’m certain, Princess.” He responded. “He’s trying to keep the peace you know.”

Ivo was furious and before he realized what he was doing, he had already stepped out into the column of soldiers and shouted “Princess!”

Horses stopped. A javelin from the nearest horseman poked Ivo in the chest. “Back of the road, runt.” Growled a grizzly man.

“Runt?” Ivo responded, slapping the javelin down and stepping back to draw his sword. “I’ve beaten half your knights in the training arena this month alone. Come down here and call me that!”

“Quiet!” the man in the lead shouted. “What is it that you want, Ivo?” he sighed.

Ivo was glad to be recognized. If he couldn’t become a knight because of royalty, he at least would be known by them by his perseverance and pestering. It seemed he had succeeded. “I will go search for the girl,” he responded, bowing his head slightly to the nobleman that held the King’s daughter.

“Idiot, Ivo.” He scoffed. I should have recognized you when I was passing by. “You should get back home to your parents. They’ll be worried.”

“Adopted parents,” Ivo corrected.

“They adopted you, not you them…” the knight responded flippantly.

The princess cut him off. “Is it true?” she asked the nobleman.

“Is what true?” he asked. “That he’s adopted? Yes. It’s true. Is that so shocking?”

“No,” she cut him off again. “That he’s beaten half of your knights in the arena.”

“Oh,” he said. His voice lowered. Even in the darkness, Ivo could see the white bearded man blush. “Ivo is a talented swordsman, yes. I’m not sure I’d say he’s beaten half of my men though.”

The princess smiled. “A goblin, an Ogre, and a troll took us,” she called out to Ivo. “The Ogre is the one carrying her. They ran off to the east, towards the mountains. I was by the fire when the knights arrived but the commoner was much closer to them. They grabbed her as they ran. Bring her back. I can’t promise a reward but you must do what you can.”

Ivo was thrilled and jumped back on Tipster. The only words he heard were reward and can. That was enough for him. A special mission from the princess herself. He would make her proud. He’d make the whole kingdom proud. Most importantly, he’d get this girl back and show the King himself just what a commoner could do.

“Good luck,” the nobleman growled and then, looking at the princess, added “Will you tell the king that you sent a commoner to his death or should I?”

She scoffed and Ivo heard nothing more but the sound of Tipster’s hoofs beating against dirt on the open road.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

“Rest,” he growled. The ground came up fast as the ogre dropped her from his shoulder and let her fall into the mud below.

Eliza groaned. Her shoulders hit the ground first and cold water and mud soaked into her clothes and coated hair. She wanted to roll onto her back; to climb onto her knees and get out of the mud, but she couldn’t. She was exhausted, overwhelmed, and terrified.

Eliza looked over her shoulder. The twelve foot tall, green skinned ogre still slouched above her.

“Up,” he snarled. “Eat.”

“Please don’t eat me,” she whimpered over her shoulder.

The goblin, whom she just noticed snickered. “He isn’t going to eat you,” the ugly creature jeered. “He wants you to eat. That big buffoon ate a whole cow half an hour ago,” he added. “Didn’t you see him?”

The ogre now looked at the goblin and smiled. His big fat lips parted revealing giant blackened teeth. “Cow good,” he said.

Eliza rolled over and sat up. A small fire crackled and, roasting above it, were three small rats and some potatoes. Disgusting. “I’m not hungry,” she said to the goblin, whom she judged to be the more reasonable of the two. A crisp breeze blew against her back sending shivers up her spine. If she didn’t dry quickly, Eliza knew she wouldn’t make it through the night.

“You need to keep up your strength,” responded the goblin, who limped closer to her to get a better look at her. He was green too. Paler than the ogre though with a long nose and wild teeth that shot from his jaw at odd angles. His eyes were long and narrow. He wore a dirty white hat that should have been round and pointed at the top but drooped to one side. Tufts of gray hair sprouted from beneath the hat, also at odd angles. “We’ve got quite the journey ahead. It’s too cold outside for you to not eat.”

“I’m really not hungry,” she insisted again, eying the rodents as the hair on their back caught fire and began to smoke, filling the air with an awful smell that made Eliza want to vomit just thinking of eating them. One of the tails, pink and long drooped into the now crackling fire and started to simmer like the wick of a candle. A long slender stream of smoke rose from the tip of the tail and into the clear night above.

“Do you have any idea,” the goblin asked, inching closer still and dropping his voice to a whisper, “how long it took poor Garthf to catch these rats?”

“Garthf?” she asked. Shaking her head as if to indicate she didn’t have any idea about anything anymore.

“Yes, Garthf. The big troll leaning against the rock over there. Just look at him,” the goblin pointed and couldn’t help but let out a maniacal laugh. “He’s exhausted.”

Eliza looked to her right and for the first time saw something uglier than the goblin and the ogre. The troll, whose name was apparently Garthf was leaning against a rock digging a stick into the ground. Eliza wanted to cry. The thought of eating rats on a sickened stomach nauseated her. The thought of offending the troll named Garthf terrified her even more.

As she looked at him, he glanced up slightly and returned to his present work, which consisted of shoving a stick into the ground. The troll was big, but not as big as the ogre. He had thick arms and even thicker legs. Unlike his companions, the troll was almost yellow in color. He had big eyes that shifted back and forth from the ground to his hand and hair that sprouted everywhere. Two sharp teeth shot from his bottom jaw and up past his cheeks.

After prodding his stick a few more times, he pulled it from the ground revealing a furry of ants, which Garthf then brought to his mouth and licked off with a long red tongue. Eliza shuddered. Disgusting, but after looking at the rats roasting on the fire, she wasn’t sure which one seemed less appetizing.

“I suppose,” said the goblin, hobbling away from her and closer to the fire, “you can share his meal. But you must eat!” he sneered turning around to face her.

The ogre was startled. “Girl not hungry?” He lifted his giant arm and scratched the top of his big bald head. “Girl not eaten since morning,” he observed.

“She thinks she’s too good for rats,” the goblin hissed.

The troll looked up confused. “The last one ate rats,” he said. “Do different humans like different foods?”

At this, the goblin raised a brow. “I hadn’t thought of that. That last one was from the north, wasn’t she?” He looked dispirited at this new possibility, as if a human that didn’t eat what the previous human ate changed everything. As if he had carried a whole pack full of rats with him to feed her on the journey and was now reassessing his stock pile.

Eliza didn’t have time to dwell on the comment because another thought was bothering her. She was almost afraid to ask but she couldn’t help herself. “Last one?” she said sheepishly, inching closer to the fire to warm her soaked clothes and nearly frozen skin.

The goblin looked at her and put a hand over his face. “Great, Garthf. Now she’ll never trust us,” he said to the troll.

“It was mistake,” complained the ogre.

“Yes, yes, I know it was a mistake,” the goblin retorted. “Can you do me a favor Throst, since we are on the topic and all? Can you not make this mistake again?”

Throst shrugged.

“Mistake?” Eliza questioned.

He looked at her again. “Throst over there,” he said pointing at the giant green ogre, “shook her to death.”

She gasped and he quickly corrected himself.

“He didn’t mean to. They were playing. Such frail creatures…” he trailed, deep in thought about the last one.

Even though she should have been even more terrified, Eliza’s fears were lessened. The whole conversation was absurd. Playing with a human and accidentally shaking her to death? Was that why they kidnapped her? To play with her? It was absurd. As a girl they always ran away when the bells would sound that someone had spotted a wandering ogre.

Her parents warned her about goblins hiding in the closet. How they would take girls and eat them. This goblin didn’t seem interested in eating her at all. He was feeding her. “Why did you take me?” she asked the goblin, inching even closer to the fire than before until she could almost put her hands into the flame.

“We actually wanted the other one,” he said matter-of-factly. “She’s royalty you know. Royalty always does better,” he sighed.

The troll looked up from licking his last stick and frowned. “Don’t blame me Beyto. I know you want to. Don’t.”

“Why would I blame you?” the goblin, whose name was apparently Beyto, hissed. “It’s not like you were the one that was supposed to be watching her when she ran out to the column of knights!”

The Troll looked back down at his stick and Eliza suspected he felt some guilt.

Eliza turned her attention back to the goblin who was now breathing heavily in frustration. “If you wanted royalty, why did you even take me?” she interrupted. “I’m not worth much of anything. We’re poor and no one will miss me. They certainly can’t pay a ransom.”

The goblin remained silent for a little. He looked at the ground and then the sky. The moon was starting to show itself over the hills in the east. It was half full. Another week maybe and they’d have a full moon. She didn’t want to see what might happen when the moon turned full. Her kidnappers were crazy enough. Finally, Beyto looked back at Eliza. “Throst over there thought you looked like more fun. So we figured, why not.” He paused. “I’m glad we did. Otherwise we’d have no one to bring back.” He raised his voice just loud enough for the troll to hear. If the troll did hear, he didn’t look up. Apparently he wasn’t stupid enough to fight the goblin over whose fault it was.

“But why did you take me?” she asked again. “To play with me?”

Throst smiled and started to giggle until the goblin shot him a look.

“Oh no,” he said. “We’re done with that.” Looking at Throst now he deepened his voice. “Throst, calm down. We’ve been through this. No playing with the humans. They are worth a lot of money and you broke the last one before we could sell her.”

“Sell me?” she screamed. “To who? For what?” Panic returned and she felt herself shivering and sweating all at once. A cold damp sweat formed on her brow and her body felt distant. Her eyes squinted. Had it just gotten darker in here? Blackness surrounded her. The fire dimmed. She could still feel its warmth but it was too far away. Impossible to see. Even the ogre, whose sheer size constantly loomed suddenly disappeared in the blackness. Eliza was all alone. Alone and afraid.

“Calm down, girl” He insisted. “Yes, we’re going to sell you at the goblin market and they’ll either keep you as a pet or cook you, which is why we need you to eat.”

Eliza fainted.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Nearly an hour into his ride, Ivo was certain he had gone too far. Tippy Toes agreed and soon she slowed from a canter to a trot and from a trot to a walk. After Ivo didn’t tug on her reins, she decided it would be best to stop all together.

Ivo looked around. The night was clear and a half-moon was out, hovering over the eastern woods. It was late, certainly getting close to midnight and Ivo was suddenly exhausted. “Besides,” he said patting Tipster’s neck, “we won’t be much good fighting trolls tired, will we?”

Tipster neighed and Ivo decided she concurred. Jumping off the saddle, Ivo grabbed her reins and walked her off the trail. A gentle breeze blew past his face and rustled the trees. A small creek that shadowed the road bubbled and gurgled over rocks and under homes built by beavers. Nothing else could be heard. No footsteps, no maniacal laughing, no weeping of a young, scared, and desperate woman waiting to be rescued. Ivo was alone.

“What do we do now, Tipster?” he asked. Tipster didn’t respond this time, instead deciding to drink water and snort around the ground for some high quality grass, of which the sides of roads were always sparse on. “I bet those dumb knights gave the grass to their horses,” Ivo scorned. At this, she snorted.

After getting Tipster some much needed water and food, Ivo decided it would be best to walk deeper into the trees to set up camp. These woods were his home and he had lived in or near them nearly his whole life. The woods didn’t scare him, even if there were ogres, goblins, and trolls out walking. This was Ivo’s territory. “Still though,” he whispered to Tipster, “we’ve got to stay quiet tonight. No fire either. I don’t want them to know we’re coming after her.”

Tipster got the hint and didn’t respond. “Smart girl,” he whispered again.

She neighed and Ivo hushed her. “I just told you to be quiet,” he hissed.

After another few minutes of walking, they reached a small clearing in the trees. Pulling a wool blanket and some dried venison off her saddlebag, Ivo settled down on a log, tipped his leather hat over his eyes, and fell fast asleep.

 

 

* * *

 

Moving east through was woods was slow going. Every few paces, Tipster would stop to look around. The woods had her spooked and Ivo couldn’t blame her. An eerie fog had settled along the ground and the trees creaked and groaned through a stiff breeze that shot in from the grasslands.

He didn’t want to, but cutting through the woods was the fastest way to reach the highland hills, the place he was certain the three were headed with the woman. Ivo uncapped his canteen and took a swig of the cool water inside. He could feel it rush down his throat and coat his stomach. Refreshing.

Tipster stopped again and perked her ears. A noise? “What is it girl,” he whispered. They had done this drill dozens if not hundreds of times while hunting. She had keen ears. If it was an animal, Tipster would step forward in the direction of the sound. If it was something she perceived as a threat, like a bear or a wolf, Tipster would back step and face the threat.

Tipster, stepped back and a sudden panic surged in Ivo’s stomach and up to his throat. He swallowed hard but his mouth was dry. This was it. Sparring with knights was one thing, fighting an ogre in the forest was entirely something else.

Ivo gripped his sword but then decided it would be better to fight from his horse with his ax. The handle was longer and if he was knocked off, he still had a sword to finish fighting from the leaf covered ground.

The forest was silent. Fog swirled at Tipsters feet. A breeze rustled leaves and branches against each other. She took another step backwards and rotated slightly. Something must have been passing them. Or encircling us.

A cluster of birds, who had been silent, suddenly rushed from the trees in front of Ivo. Tipster, a trained veteran of the woods didn’t respond. Her breathing was steady. She was fearless.

“Let’s step forward,” he whispered to her, clicking his tongue and lifting slightly on her reins. Tipster delicately took a step, then stepped back again and rotated her body once more. Too dangerous. It was right on top of them.

Ivo listened, straining to separate the noises of the forest from the threat in his mind. All of a sudden, he heard it. The swishing of feet. Three pairs, one heavier than the others. The mist was rising now in the early morning sun making it impossible to see anything beyond his own horse. Tipster took another step back. This time, she didn’t pivot. Whatever was coming, was coming straight for them.

Ivo rose his ax. The ground stirred. Tipster stirred. Fog swirled. Mist rose. Feet swished through the leaves to their front. He wouldn’t be caught off guard. He wouldn’t allow himself to be the one that was hunted.

Ivo jerked the reins and kicked Tipster hard in the side. “Yah,” he shouted. Tipster let out a grunt and dropped her head. Powerful legs dug deep into the leaf ridden ground as she erupted forward into a full charge. Cold vapor rushed past Ivo’s head and stung his cheeks. Fifty meters, one hundred. Finally he pulled back on the reins and she slowed to a stop.

Ivo listened. Silence again. The fog swirled in around Tipsters hooves. Her ears perked and suddenly she spun around. It was behind them. The swishing had returned. Louder this time. But he couldn’t see anything. Tipster took a step back.

Ivo had made his decision. He re-holstered the ax on her saddle and climbed off his horse, drawing his sword and holding her reins with his free hand. Something was out there but he wouldn’t find it on his horse. He had to get off and back track. He had to move slower and more deliberately.

The wind picked up and blew across his face, scattering the fog and sending leaves down from their dead branches. And he saw them. Three female elves standing before him. They wore green wool dresses that fell to the ground and covered their toes. Ropes tied them tight at the waist and held shiny steel daggers. Long blond hair draped over their shoulders and covered their backs. The elves on each side stopped while the woman in the center, taller than the other two stepped forward and bowed slightly to the ground.

Ivo gripped his sword tighter. There were many elves throughout this land and he couldn’t tell which these were. Some were helpful. Others were exceptionally dangerous. Capable of seducing and destroying a man for merely making eye contact. Ivo focused on his task and felt his hand start to sweat. Rescue the woman. Don’t let anything stop you.

“Ivo,” she called. “We mean you no harm.”

Tipster took a step backwards and tugged gentle against her reins. Ivo gripped them tight. “How do you know my name? Why have you come to me?” he asked.

“You are ill prepared,” she said, looking up now and smiling at him. The breeze stopped and fog returned to the ground, blanketing the leaves and moss and covering the woman’s feet.

“I’m prepared for anything,” Ivo responded resolutely. Keep your focus. Don’t let them distract you.

She laughed and took a step towards him. “You are just a boy. You’re prepared for nothing.” Ivo stepped back and felt blood fill his face, but he knew not to speak. “My name is Acantha. We followed you after your encounter with the King’s men.”

Ivo was now perplexed. They had been following him since yesterday? Tipster too seemed to relax at the news. If the elves wanted him dead, perhaps they would have done it while he slept. Slit his throat while his guard was down. Ivo dropped the sword to his side and shoved it back into its sheath.

Acantha smiled. “The girl is important to us and we’d like to see you succeed in your journey. We have brought gifts,” she said, motioning behind her to the other two elves, who now bowed slightly and stepped forward with Acantha. Each held something in their hands.

Ivo wasn’t certain he wanted their help. “And what debt will I owe you if I accept your help?”

“No debt,” Acantha assured him. “We just want the girl brought back safely. That is all.”

Ivo was suddenly suspicious again. The immortal souls of the elves rarely interacted with man. They wanted something. “Why not get her yourself?” he asked, hoping to gauge their response.

Acantha, however, said nothing. She simply locked her eyes deep into his. Her green iris flared and then narrowed. The black center became as tiny as a pin. Ivo returned her stare. Focus, Ivo. He told himself. Don’t let them manipulate you.

“Do you want the gifts or not?” Acantha finally asked. “We can simply wait for the next young fool to come along to rescue her when you die.”

Ivo thought for a moment and finally conceded. “It would be my honor to use the tools you want to provide me. But I can pay you nothing back.”

“Nor do we expect it,” she growled. “But the girl, we presume to see again. Now do you want the equipment or not?”

Ivo wanted the equipment but was unnerved by her last comment. What was important about this commoner? Why did the elves want her? “I do,” he finally responded.

The elf on his right, a short woman with curly blond hair kneeled to reveal a silver and gold chainmail shirt. The gold formed a “V” at the neck and ran down to form a point on his chest. Interlocking golden circles wrapped around the arms and another design of the same type wrapped around where the bottom of the armor would cover his hips.

Ivo took the chainmail and held it. It was light but solid. Flexible yet firm. “This is for me to keep?” Ivo asked excitedly, shrugging his wool coat and pulling the chainmail over his head.

She nodded and stepped back, being replaced by the second elf. A straight haired woman whose hair was tucked behind pointed ears and ran down the length of her back. This one smiled at him as she came forward. In her hands she held red cloth, folded into a square. The woman unraveled it to reveal a cape. A golden dragon was embroidered on the back. “This cape” she said, moving towards him and flinging it over Ivo’s shoulders and clasping it to his armor, “will keep you warm at night and protect you from fire.”

Before Ivo could take her hand to thank her, the pale skinned elf retreated behind Acantha. It was now Acantha’s turn. “Your sword is cheap,” she said bluntly. “It would not last against ogre bone and likely couldn’t cut ogre hide either.”

Ivo was astonished but said nothing. The sword was old, he’d agree to that. Suddenly, he noticed that on Acantha’s waist was the gold hilt of a sword that nearly reached the ground. Undoing the leather belt from her hip, Acantha removed the sword, still nestled safely in its scabbard and handed it to Ivo. “This sword is light and powerful. It will never dull and never break. It is yours,” she said, placing it in his outstretched hands. “We will not ask for it back.”

Ivo wasted no time strapping it to his waist and removed the steel sword from its scabbard. Nearly three feet long with a sharpened, double edge, Ivo felt powerful wielding it. Its golden handle sparkled in the light and now he could see three gems nestled in the hilt – a ruby, an emerald, and a diamond.

Ivo looked up but the elves were gone. Vanished in the fog. All was quiet and suddenly a terrible thought dawned on Ivo. What have I done? Taking gifts from elves meant dept. Nothing was free. Nothing.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

“Slow down you oaf,” Beyto the goblin shouted at Throst.

Throst turned and let out an audible sigh. “I carry girl and you complain about too fast? Throst not think this fair.”

“Not fair?” Beyto retorted. “You’ve got six foot tall legs! Mine are half that.”

Garthf snickered and Throst put Eliza down. “Fine,” Throst sighed. “We take break. My arms tired anyway.”

Garthf snickered again. Eliza was grateful be standing on solid ground. Her side hurt from where Throst had been carrying her all morning. Her stomach hurt too from bumping up and down. They’d left plains and were now walking higher and higher into the hills. Rocks had begun to appear, speckling the green landscape with gray boulders. After a few more hours of traveling, they had almost reached the mountain, the base of which Eliza could now see.

Eliza allowed her eyes to follow the mountain to its peak, a snow covered dagger that shot up higher than she could ever hope to climb. Higher than she ever wanted to. Stories about this mountain were whispered in the markets across the kingdom. Around the dinner table, those whispers became arguing among friends. Some doubted the tales. Others were convinced that a dragon made its nest at the top. Eliza never thought about it. Given her present predicament, she was certain there would indeed be a dragon if she climbed too high.

“Who put you in charge, Throst?” Garthf asked. “Did you put Throst in charge Beyto?”

Beyto was now that one that snickered, showing yellow teeth through thinly parted lips. They were sharp, razor sharp, and Eliza shuddered when she considered what Beyto had said last night. Eat me? It seemed like a dream. A nightmare. When Eliza woke up, when she was woken up by Throst, she didn’t believe it was happening. She thought she was in her bed. Just a bad dream. She was wrong.

No breakfast and no dinner the night before left her starving. Her stomach rumbled but she was afraid to say anything. Better to be skinny than to be fattened up by rats to become someone else’s meal. No way.

Beyto poked her from behind. “Garthf doesn’t really like Throst. It’s not Throst’s fault, trolls just don’t like ogres.”

“Why is that?” she asked. He shrugged. “Goblins hate everyone equal. You gotta ask Garthf why trolls are different from goblins.”

Garthf raised a sagging eyebrow at Beyto and then looked at Eliza. “Because ogres think they are better than us,” he said bluntly.

Eliza was amused. It was as if three children had decided to kidnap her. Before she could respond, Throst cut in.

“You carry woman if you better,” he said with a shrug.

“Being big doesn’t mean being better,” Garthf retorted with a grunt as if the argument was settled.

It wasn’t. “Then let’s fight and see who is better,” shrugged Throst.

Garthf considered this as an option before shaking his head. “I haven’t eaten enough today for it to be an even match. Maybe when we get back.”

Beyto giggled. “You see why goblins hate them all?” he asked Eliza.

Eliza nodded. “Why would you sell me?” she asked Beyto, watching his smile fade to a scowl. Throst raised his eyebrows from behind Beyto as if he hadn’t thought there was an option.

“This is our job,” he responded. “Goblins pay good money for you. Goblins pay gold.” His eyes glazed over as he thought about the gold. Eliza wanted to remove the hope of payment far from his mind.

“I’m not worth anything,” she insisted. “No one will want me. I’m just a commoner. Too skinny to eat, too weak to work, too dumb to entertain, and too frail to play with.”

Throst looked concerned. “Not too dumb to play with me,” he said, smiling an awful smile at Eliza. Eliza returned a playful grin at Throst.

Beyto gave them both a blank stare but then looked over her shoulder at something on the horizon. His mouth dropped and then he pursed his lips tightly. “You said you were worth nothing,” he yelled, spitting into her face. “You lied!”

Eliza was confused and spun around to see what he was looking at. Over the next hill was a man on a horse. His chest shimmered in the sunlight and a long red cape flowed in the breeze behind him. A knight. They hadn’t stopped looking for her. The King’s men would save her.

Before she could throw up her arms and scream, Throst the ogre grabbed her around the waist and pulled her over his shoulder. “Head for the mountain,” Beyto shouted. “He won’t get us in time!”

 

* * *

 

Ivo was glad to be out of the forest as he crested the next hill. The forest wasn’t safe, not with elves running around. Not with anything running around. Tipster’s entire body was tense until they finally passed the last row of trees. Then, all at once as if a heavy weight had been lifted off Tipster, she exhaled and pranced lightly up the next hill.

They may have left the forest, but they had now gone farther than he had ever been before. The hills rolled, but each successive hill climbed higher and higher until they culminated in a massive snowcapped mountain. The eastern gate of their kingdom. No enemy had ever attacked from the east. The rumor was that there was a dragon that nested on that mountain, feasting on foreigners that dared to brave its snow filled pass.

Beneath the mountain was where the goblins lived. Stories of trolls, ogres, witches, and goblins filled his childhood. They kidnapped kids and sold them at the markets deep underground. There was treasure too. Tales of brave knights that risked everything to bring back goblin gold. Few returned. Those that did never returned with gold.

Ivo had chalked it all up to fanciful stories simply justifying the worthless effort expended after fictional fables. After his experience in the woods this morning, Ivo had changed his mind. The girl would be under that mountain.

Tipster crested the next hill and stopped, letting out a grunt. Ivo couldn’t believe his eyes. In the saddle between the hills he saw them. A yellow goblin, a pale green troll, and big green ogre. In the center was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Coils of curly brown hair tumbled over delicate shoulders. Her skin was radiant, glowing golden in the sunlight. Plump lips parted revealing crystal white teeth and she smiled. Not at Ivo, but at the ogre.

Stranger still, the ogre actually smiled back. It was hideous of course. Giant red lips peeled back over thick black teeth. But there was no mistaking it. He did smile. Suddenly, the goblin spotted him and pointed. The ogre grabbed the woman and all three were running towards the mountain.

Ivo kicked Tipster hard in the side and rushed them. The ogre was sprinting now and while he wrapped the girl tightly in one arm, he also grabbed the slower goblin in the other. His stride was massive and his powerful legs propelled him faster than Ivo ever thought they could go. They would make it to the caves. Ivo couldn’t stop them. And then, once they reached it, they would be gone. Ivo would be out numbered.

Desperation flooded over him. Worry filled his veins where blood should be. Tipster reached the plain where the three thieves were sitting mere minutes earlier. Suddenly it dawned on him. The troll wasn’t with the other two. Where had he gone?

From the corner of Ivo’s eye, he saw a shadowy figure move against the rock. Tipster saw it too and reeled back just in time for a silver and black dagger to soar past Ivo’s head. From a crest in the rocks, a yellow skinned troll emerged. He slouched as he walked towards Ivo and Tipster. Ivo guessed he was probably six or seven feet tall. His legs were massive, far larger than Ivo’s and he had large thick shoulders that supported even thicker arms. The troll’s face was scarred and two long teeth shot upward from his lower jaw.

Ivo thought about charging the beast with Tipster, but upon seeing a long curved sword in one of his hands, he changed his mind. Ivo couldn’t afford to have Tipster hurt. Without a spear or a javelin to keep his distance, Ivo would have to fight from the ground.

The troll was almost running now and was closing the distance fast. By the time Ivo got his feet out of the stirrups and jumped from Tipster, the troll was just two arms lengths away.

Ivo grabbed his sword from its sheath just as the beasts own sword came down towards his head. The sound of steel against steel rang out. The troll attacked again, from the side this time, swinging wildly. Ivo easily parried this blow and countered with his own attack. The troll backed up. He was surprisingly fast.

The circled each other. The trolls light brown eyes stared deeply into his own. Hatred was the only word that could come to Ivo’s mind.

“I’ve come for the girl,” Ivo shouted at him. “Get out of my way.”

The troll laughed. “They’re selling her as we speak,” he growled. “Soon she’ll be nothing more than the meat flavoring my family’s stew.”

Selling her? To eat? Ivo was furious. Blood filled his vision. His hands trembled with anger. Ivo attacked, closing the distance quickly between him and the troll. The troll was surprised but caught Ivo’s sword with his own. Ivo swung again and again. Steel clanged against steel, but the sword was well built. The hilt hardly vibrated as he attacked the troll.

Ivo swung again, and the troll blocked his sword once, but this time, Ivo stepped forward and kicked the hairy beast in the knee. He buckled and lost his focus. Ivo spun out of his swing, dragging his sword off the trolls and thrust it again, this time at the troll’s waist. He felt less resistance this time and the sword dug into flesh and finally struck bone.

The troll let out a grunt and fell to his knees. Ivo raised his sword and the troll dropped his own. “No,” he shouted, shielding his face from Ivo’s blow. It didn’t come. “Where are they taking her?” Ivo shouted.

“To the market,” he responded. His voice was low and trembled. He grabbed his side with his hands and struggled to stand before falling again. “To the market,” he said again. “You’ll find her in the market below the mountain.”

Ivo picked up the troll’s sword and threw it as far as he could. “Don’t follow me and stay away from my kingdom,” he yelled.

The troll remained on his knees. Blood gushed from his side.

Ivo looked at his own sword. The troll’s blood was halfway down the blade. He had struck him deep. Wiping the sword he returned it to his belt and then a thought popped into this mind. The market. “Give me whatever money you carry,” he ordered, turning back to the troll. The beast’s eyes had glazed over partly and at first, Ivo didn’t think he heard him.

Finally, the troll looked at Ivo and with one of his blood covered hands, he removed a tan leather pouch that had been tied at his waist and tossed it to his feet. Then, without a word he sat and stared towards the mountain.

Ivo picked up the pouch and walked back to Tipster, inspecting the coins inside as he went. Fifteen pieces of silver and two pieces of gold. Not bad, he thought.

“Didn’t think I could do that, did you girl?” Ivo asked, finally reaching Tipster and grabbing her reins.

Tipster neighed and then snorted. She was definitely impressed.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Dark tunnels carved out of the brownish-gray rock wound deeper and deeper into the mountain. The goblin was leading now and waived a lantern back and forth against the cavern walls. He seemed to be on edge. He was searching for something.

“Keep up Throst,” Beyto nagged. “We don’t want to get stuck in the walls.”

Throst picked up his pace and looked down at Eliza. “Beyto scared. Throst not scared of walls.”

Eliza nodded. “I’m glad you’re here to protect me, Throst.” He smiled at her compliment and she suddenly saw an opportunity. He liked her. He’d been smiling at her all morning. “Throst,” she asked gently, “will you really let Beyto sell me? I’d love to be able to play with you.”

Throst grunted and looked from her, to Beyto, and back to her again. “Goblin greedy,” he said at last. “All goblin want is money.”

“The world is more than money you know,” she said, hoping to exploit his feelings. “You never know when someone will take your money. Friendship though,” Eliza added with a tender smile. “Friendship is worth so much more.”

“Throst stupid for killing friend,” he responded, almost shamefully. Eliza wasn’t certain he could experience shame.

“Quiet back there,” hissed Beyto. “Watch out for the wall creatures,” he ordered, flashing his torch from side to side.

“Wall creatures?” she whispered.

Suddenly, Throst stopped. Beyto had stopped too. A lump on the cavern wall shivered. What looked like a rock shifted and then eight orange eyes appeared, reflecting the flame from the torch and opening and closing in unison. Spider legs, twisted and contorted at first to match the shape of the wall sprung out, and before she could blink, a massive spider had leapt from the wall and was standing face to face with Beyto and Throst.

Beyto swung his torch wildly at it trying to scare the spider away. It didn’t work, instead opening massive fangs and hissing at Beyto.

“Let Throst,” the ogre shouted from behind, stepping in front of Beyto and towards the spider. They were both large, but compared to the spider, Throst didn’t seem so big. Throst didn’t let that bother him. Removing a spiked club that was hanging from his belt, the twelve foot tall ogre lunged at the creature. The spider dashed forward as well. Giant pincers opened, preparing to cut Throst in half.

Eliza could hardly watch but was more afraid to look away. Her eyes were glued to the action. Too terrified to run yet even more terrified to blink.

At the last moment, Throst slid underneath the beast and swung his club upwards, striking it right between its powerful jaws. The spider was stunned and stumbled to one side and then the other. Throst wasn’t finished yet and rolled the rest of the way underneath the massive creature until he was behind it.

Eliza was shocked at how agile the ogre was. In one final blow, Throst dropped his club against the spiders back, spilling green goo and black guts across the rocky walls.

“Great!” Beyto yelled. “Now I have to step through that filth.”

Throst laughed, wandered through the spider’s insides, and picked up Eliza to bring her back across. “Throst protect you,” he grunted, cradling her in his massive arms like a parent holding a child.

Beyto rolled his eyes. “Hopefully that was the worst of it,” he sighed. “The horde must have migrated into another tunnel.”

Horde, thought Eliza. She didn’t like the sound of that. She didn’t like the sound of any of it. Her back ached and her feet felt swollen from walking. Her stomach grumbled and sharp pains rose from her belly and up into her chest when she thought about food. She wasn’t just famished, she was starving. Desperate for a good meal. A home cooked meal with warm bread and stew. Sweet carrots that had been caramelized over an open fire and salted just right. Her mouth watered but she shook it off. She had to focus. Survive the tunnels. Survive whatever came next. Keep her wits about her, and her strength.

After a few more minutes of walking through the darkened caverns a light began to appear. It was dim at first but it grew brighter with each step. A horrible clamor could be heard inside, echoing towards her through the dense tunnel walls.

Beyto was giddy with excitement now, walking faster towards the light. “We’ve made it,” he giggled. “We’ve made it to the market! Oh what they’ll pay for you,” he exclaimed. “A pretty girl like you will sell for an awful lot. Goblins love to eat pretty girls like you.” He looked her up and down briefly as he walked, adding, “Some fat to add flavor too.”

Eliza scoffed. Her hunger strike would apparently have to last longer than just a few hours before she stopped looking like a meal. Fat, she scoffed again.

Throst strode alongside her. “Don’t worry, girl,” he said flatly. “Beyto not know what he say. Throst don’t think you’re fat.”

He intended it to be kind but Eliza was too worried to accept his compliment. “Will you really let them sell me, Throst? Will you really let them eat me?”

“Throst have no choice,” he shrugged. “Throst need money too.”

“My family will give you everything they have to get me back,” she insisted, forgetting to add that everything consisted of one skinny cow and a wooden stool. “I’d be your friend forever,” she added, hoping he held that in higher value than gold or silver.

Throst looked down at her and smiled. “There are worse ways to go, you know,” he said reassuringly. “You could be like that knight out there. He rode all this way to get his head smashed in by Garthf.” Throst paused as if to think about what might be happening to the knight at this very moment. “Knight probably regret his decision now.”

Eliza shuddered. She hoped he survived but one knight against a monster like Garthf seemed unlikely. Finally, they had entered the market. The tunnel opened wide into a massive cave. Inside, goblins and trolls hurried about inspecting merchandise while others called out their goods to those passing by.

“Frog legs here,” shouted a particularly short goblin with big feet and a long nose. “Get your frog legs,” he shouted again, slapping the slimy creatures onto a pointed stick and bringing it down into Eliza’s face. She jumped and Throst laughed along with the merchant.

Vendors sold everything from pots to metal to animal skins. Frog legs were in abundance as were dead rats, bats in cages, and even a few colorful birds. Canaries she suspected. Lanterns illuminated the walls, but the ceiling seemed to have no end. It simply rose up forever until the light could no longer climb to match the height of the cavern.

Throst noticed Eliza staring up. “That,” he said with awe, “is where the dragon lives.”

“Dragon?” she asked. “I’ve heard stories but is it true?”

Throst nodded. “Throst thinks it’s true.”

“Why do you say that?” she asked.

“Because Throst saw it,” he said plainly. Eliza looked over her shoulder to see his face as straight as it was when they were running from the knight. He wasn’t joking, not in his mind anyways. To Throst, there was certainly a dragon up there.

“Catch up,” shouted Beyto though the crowd.

Eliza picked up her pace and could feel Throst hurrying behind her, his big feet thumping and shaking the ground as he walked. The market was busy and trying to wade through it was dizzying. Merchants shouting deals and the names of their product while patrons pushed and shoved. Many of them carried wood clubs or rusty axes. Every so often she saw a sharp sword on the hip of a troll. Ogres tended to slouch in the brown rocky corners and kept to themselves. Eliza wondered if any of them were related to Throst, if they were, he didn’t seem to pay them any attention.

Finally, Beyto stopped at a wooden stool against a rock wall. Inscribed above it in big red letters were the words “BEYTO’S GOODS.”

Eliza surveyed his shop. There was nothing. Just the stool. “Were you robbed?” she asked surprised.

Beyto gave her a look to suggest he had no idea what she was talking about. Throst shrugged again and wandered over to a corner, pressing his giant green shoulder into the rocks that made up their wall of the cavern. Suddenly it made sense. The ogre’s that had been leaning against walls were the shop owner’s body guards. But where were Beyto’s goods? Then it dawned on her. She was Beyto’s goods and when he sold her, he would get another girl.

“Am I the only thing you’re selling today?” she asked the goblin who was picking his teeth with a long frail fingernail.

He nodded. “I tried selling the same stuff everyone else was. You know,” he said pointing into the crowd, “rats, bats, yarn, buttons. It’s all so common. What I want to do is branch out to selling humans. They are in demand for reasons we already spoke about and very few are willing to go out to get them.”

He looked at Eliza to make sure she was following. She was and it made her furious. “Look,” he said with a smile. “I’m the only guy coming in with something new. I know you don’t like it, but you’ve got to see it from my perspective. I’m a business man.” He let out a giggle and then let it tumble into a raucous laugh. To Beyto, getting the upper hand in sales was hilarious. Eliza wanted to hit him but was quickly distracted again.

A large man with jet black hair and eyes as dark as night approached the table. He looked human but something was off, as if he wasn’t entirely human.

“You’re Beyto?” he asked in a deep voice that rumbled like an earthquake. He wore a sword on his belt and a blue cloth with a black symbol etched in the center that she had never seen before covered chain mail armor. It was like the face of a wolf but it had a mane and sharp fangs. The picture was almost like a mix between an alligator, a wolf, and a lion.

Beyto smiled at the man. “A customer so soon,” he said to Eliza over his shoulder. Throst didn’t look so certain and had moved closer to Eliza. She suspected he wanted to protect her.

The dark man rumbled again. “I’m not a customer. Maric sent me. He wants you to bring him the girl.”

Throst now stepped between the man and Beyto and growled. Eliza suddenly realized that the whole cavern was silent, wondering what would happen. She wondered too and hoped a chance to escape might be coming. After what Throst did to the spider in the tunnels, she suspected he would make short work of this dark knight.

Beyto’s expression changed from a smile to a scowl. “What does Maric want with the girl?” he hissed.

The knight didn’t appear alarmed. Eliza suspected this Maric was in charge of the market. Maybe more. “That’s Maric’s business,” responded the man, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword and tapping it with his fingers. “If I have to kill you both to appease Maric, I will.”

Throst growled louder and showed his teeth but suddenly Beyto’s expression changed. “No, no,” he said quickly. “Maric wants to see her and I will bring her at once.”

The knight grunted approval and Throst looked back at Eliza. For the first time in their journey she saw fear creep across his face. Whoever this Maric was, Throst didn’t like him. An anxious pit grew in Eliza’s stomach as well and she desperately hoped that the man with the red cape survived Garthf’s ambush and would rescue her soon.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Ivo kneeled to inspect the opening in the mountain. It was small, no taller than four feet and only about four feet wide too. Ivo had trouble believing the ogre he had seen with the woman was able to fit in here. Perhaps there was a different entrance, a bigger one.

Ivo didn’t have the time. They had seen him coming and when the troll didn’t return to their party, they would suspect something happened to him. He had to keep moving and get there fast before they became suspicious.

Tipster snorted and flipped her head forward. The long dark hair on her mane fluttered in the movement. She was a beautiful horse and Ivo wished she could come with him, but this was where they would have to say goodbye. With ogres and trolls nearby, Ivo didn’t want to tie her up either. She had good ears and an even better head on her shoulders. When Ivo whistled, he was certain she would come. “Get to the trees, girl,” he ordered her.

Without another sound she trotted away. Ivo looked back towards the cave and threw his ax in first. He heard a thud as it hit the rocky ground. Next, he swung his legs over the ledge and jumped. He came down light on his feet but the echo of his spurs striking rock still bounced off the cavern walls a seemingly infinite number of times.

Ivo waited and listened. It was quiet. Somewhere in the cavern, water dripped. An underwater spring perhaps. Maybe even a river flowed through here. The water would be frigid but fresh. Something to remember if his stay was extended.

Picking up his ax, Ivo began to walk through the tunnel. While he wished it would be easy, the tunnels splintered and divided. Some went up, others wound down. Intersections broke the main passageway off to the left and right at regular intervals. A man could easily get turned around down here. Ivo decided to keep things easy, he would keep walking straight. No left, no right. Stay straight and back out straight if he had to.

Worst case, he would dead end and then trace his way back until he was ready to make a decision. Ivo had a few items to mark his tracks if he had to also. One of his leather gloves was fraying at the wrist. He could always tack the tan leather into the wall when he turned. If he turned.

A noise broke the silence. The scattering of feet. Ivo froze. Goblins? He didn’t think so. The scattering was too thoughtless, too automatic. The goblin that had taken the girl shuffled and paused. He walked unevenly. This was a noise made by animals.

He listened hard, trying to discern if it was coming or going. Hundreds of little steps echoed off the walls. Tat tat tat. Tat tat tat. Tat tat tat. The rhythm was hypnotizing; unrelenting. Constant. It was almost as if there was a herd of animals flowing through the tunnels. Tat tat tat. Tat tat tat. Some got louder, others got softer.

Ivo crept forward slowly. He raised his ax. Tat tat tat. Tat tat tat. The noise was louder. The rocky tunnel curved to his right. He was certain whatever it was would be around that bend. Ivo crept closer, desperately trying to focus his eyes in the darkness. The tunnels had darkened since the entrance. It was hard to see. He reached out a hand and let the wall guide him. It was then that Ivo felt it.

Sticky? Almost like goo, but it was a strand of something. Tat tat tat. Tat tat tat. It was like hair but it clung to him. Ivo pulled away. No, not hair. It was white. Fear gripped him. Spider webs. Massive spider webs spun by massive spiders. Had he vibrated the webs? Had he disturbed the nest? Suddenly he realized the tat tat tat had stopped. Spiders. Hundreds of them. Were they listening? Were they waiting for him?

Then he heard it. Tat tat. Two steps and a pause. He had caught their attention and dread poured over him. His mind told him to run. Get out of the tunnel. Escape the spiders. Find tipster and don’t look back. Warn the Kingdom. Warn the princess. Tell them an awful terror was lurking in these mountains.

Tat tat. Another two steps. Ivo took a step backwards, and then another. His heart told him to stop. Face your fears. Have courage. Save the woman. His people. The kingdom. Return a hero. Be the man he always wanted to be.

Tat tat tat tat tat tat. It was scurrying now. Each successive footstep got louder until it sounded like it was right around the corner. Ivo raised his ax and backed up against the rock wall. Closer and closer the scurrying came. It was almost upon him. A long slender leg covered in wiry black hair appeared. Then two. Ivo held his breath.

The leg tapped the ground to his right. Then it moved left, closer to Ivo and the wall. It felt back and forth. A scurry told him that the other legs were catching up. It took another step. He could see where the leg bent now, a full foot above his head. The spider would be huge. Massive. Deadly.

Ivo gripped his ax tightly. The hairy leg swept again, feeling the ground directly in front. A third leg now curled around the tunnel and stopped directly above Ivo’s head. That was it. Too much. His skin was crawling. Ivo couldn’t take it anymore. Ivo let out his breath and inhaled again. Grabbing his ax in both hands, Ivo squared his body against the leg above his head, closed his eyes, and swung down hard.

His ax vibrated loudly as he smashed through flesh and hit rock on the other side. The severed tentacle flopped onto the ground and a painful hiss erupted from behind him. The legs that were sweeping disappeared behind the wall, but Ivo knew the battle was on.

Jumping out from behind the curve in the tunnel he saw a massive spider, twice as tall has he reeling back in pain. Upon seeing him it stopped. Saliva dripped from foot long pincers and it lunged towards him, slapping the ground with its front feet. Ivo leapt backwards and swung his ax again, slashing the nearest leg and causing the beast to reel back a second time.

Ivo found his courage and lunged once more at the cave creature, swinging his ax wildly at another appendage. The spider backed up and then retreated deeper into the cavern. Once again his brain told him to stop. Turn around. Find another way. His heart told him to press onward. Rescue the woman. Time was important.

Ivo chased the spider as it scurried off, leaving a trail of blood and goop from two damaged legs. He reached an intersection. The spider went down and Ivo hesitated at the crossing just long enough to see hundreds of eyes in the darkness glow to life. Hissing and screaming could be heard in the tunnels below. Cannibal spiders tore into their wounded brother.

Ivo turned and ran as fast as he could up the other tunnel until he could no longer hear the fighting below. Out of breath he stopped. His entire body shuddered as he thought about the hairy legs scampering towards him; as he thought about the spiders eating each other in the darkness. His skin felt prickly all over, as if a thousand spiders were crawling beneath his clothes. He had to get away from here. He had to get out of the caves.

A light in the distance took his mind off the prickly nightmare below. It was a faint light, but with each step he took down the tunnel, the light grew brighter. Noise could now be heard. Shouting and yelling. Tools banging against tools and merchants offering up their goods. He had made it. He had arrived at the goblin’s market.

As Ivo drew closer, he slowed his pace and began to creep. The light was bright now, and it was hard for Ivo to conceal himself in the shadows. He had to see it all first in order to gauge if he would be an outsider. If the kidnappers would get suspicious. At first, the mass of creatures were indistinguishable. Simply a mass of green skinned ogres and trolls. But as he watched, he could begin to see different groups of people and divisions. Goblins, the shortest of the beasts seemed to be managing most of the markets. They sold everything from fish to clothes. Weapons too were in abundance at the market.

Ogres were in relatively short supply. As he watched, there were only about a dozen of them and most were scattered against the walls. Ivo suspected they played a security role in the market, watching the shops and helping the owners carry their heavy goods. Judging by what lurked in the tunnels below, he also bet the ogres were ready to prevent intrusion of the vile creatures from disrupting their market.

The buyers were what interested Ivo the most. He was shocked to see most of those perusing the merchandise, weren’t monsters at all. They were human. A few trolls lurked in the crowd. Some women, whom Ivo suspected were witches also inspected the merchandise, but again, the men, nearly all of them were human. Thieves probably. But still. The tales never told of the wicked side of men.

As he scanned the market for the woman, a man wearing a blue crest over armor caught his attention. He was tall with dark hair and a nearly black beard. At his hip was a thick broadsword. It nearly drug against the ground. Ivo watched him as he walked towards the far wall and then, he saw her. The woman from above. The kidnapped woman from the Kingdom. His heart leapt in his chest and beat hard.

He had to get to her. He had to let her know he was here, that he was coming. She looked terrified. Worried. Sad. But she was still beautiful. Radiant almost. The man in blue approached her kidnapper and the two spoke. The ogre stepped between them, which threw Ivo off guard but backed away almost as soon as he stepped forward. It seemed a transaction was taking place.

Suddenly, the man turned and the three of them followed. Ivo had to get closer and before he realized what he was doing, Ivo grabbed the hood attached to his red cape and threw it over his head. He had to get closer, he had to follow them. He couldn’t lose them in the crowd.

The four were walking fast and Ivo pushed through men and monsters alike to be able to keep his eyes on them. Some moved out of the way but others shoved him back. He hardly noticed; refusing to take his eyes off the woman.

They were at the far side of the market now, headed towards a wooden door carved into the cavern. Big black bolts secured the door into place and a metal grate at eye level was surely guarded by others inside. Ivo picked up his pace, worried that this might be his last chance to grab the woman before she disappeared into whatever dungeon they were leading her towards.

He was close now. Just a dozen feet between him and the girl. The man in blue pounded on the door three times and waited. The door remained shut and Ivo heard him say something. He was angry. Frustrated. He pounded against the door again.

The ogre remained close to the woman but he wasn’t touching her. In fact, all three of them were staring at the door while she, still within arm’s reach stood behind them. Could he get to her? Could he reach her and disappear into the crowd?

Ivo reached out his hand and grabbed her arm just as the wooden door opened. The man in blue walked through, muttering “took you long enough.”

She gasped when he touched her skin. Her arm was warm and soft and in the split second that they locked eyes, relief flooded her face. She understood and she didn’t scream or gasp. Ivo jerked her close to him and pushed his body into the crowd. “We have to go,” he tried to tell her.

One second passed; two seconds. They were running now, back towards the tunnel with the spiders, towards the exit. Pushing through the crowd of monsters and thieves. Pushing past witches and vendors shoving frogs into their faces. He made it nearly twenty paces before he heard it. A voice boomed behind him. “Stop them!” it shouted.

Another noise louder than the man’s echoed off the walls and sent shudders up Ivo’s legs. It was the sound of an ogre’s footsteps close behind.

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