The Storyteller

Tell me a story, please,

Of a princess with long black hair

Wearing a gown spun from silver spider’s threads.

Her voice croons soothing words

To still children’s anxious minds.

Maybe there’s a prince

Stuck in a troll’s dank cellar

Begging for rescue

as his red hair grows longer by the day.

His once handsome face is gaunt

And his arms bear bites from rats and mice

The princess, never interested in balls and gowns

Mounts her armored horse and rides through the gates

In search of the prince, her childhood friend.

Flowers bloom in the meadows and birds sing overhead

Rivers gurgle happy tunes and springs bubble forth

Night falls just as she reaches the edge of the forest.

Hagg’s Forest, a dark and gloomy place

Filled with all kinds of frightening beasts

But she’s not scared for she carries a magic sword.

In the morning she dons her armor and enters

Ready for whatever comes.

Instead of monsters, little fairies dance

Around her head, whispering soothing words

As she rides through the gloom.

A bridge appears. Wooden rails.

Granite chunks of rock neatly arranged.

A muddy debris-filled stream underneath.

The princess readies herself

For this is the home of Grammie, the troll

Known far and wide for her love of men.

Fearing danger, the fickle fairies fly away.

The princess unsheaths her sword and calls

In her loudest voice, “Grammie, come forth.”

Much gravelly groaning ensues as the troll comes forth

Dressed in leather britches, boots and apron.

Her golden hair streams down her back

Arms thick as columns wave in salute.

“Hail, Princess Edme. Haven’t seen you in a while.”

Edme dismounts and wraps Grammie in a hug.

“I’ve been busy,” Edme says with court nonsense.

“But I hear you’ve got a friend of mine.”

Grammie shakes her head. “Nope.”

“Ah, game-playing, are we?

Like when we were kids.”

“Tell me his name first,” Grammie says

As she settles herself in a muddy patch.

“Oscar.”

“Well, he doesn’t call himself that.

Try again.”

Edme thought and thought.

What name could he have given?

“Montrose.”

“Seleen.”

“Jasper.”

Grammie laughed, “You’ll never guess,

So I’ll ask another question. What’s he wearing?”

“Jodhpurs, tunic and boots.”

Grammie slapped her thighs

Triggering a tiny avalanche on a nearby hill.

“Okay, okay. You can have him.

But only on one condition.”

Edme knew about conditions.

Marry the counselor or banishment.

Dress the chicken or starve.

Scrub the pots until your fingers rot.

She’d escaped them all with a smile.

So she smiled as she slid off her horse.

“Grammie, here’s the condition I offer:

Set the prince free or I ride away.”

The resounding chuckle rattled trees.

“Funny. Clever, funny Edme.

You tricked me. I give you the prince

Or you ride away?”

Edme mounts her horse and

Sheaths her runic sword.

“Well, you win the game.

See you next time.

Only choose your princes better.”

“Better? He’s a handsomer one.

Or he was. Now he’s a bit beaten up.

You can have him if you bring me a new one.”

Edme turned her horse around

And rode toward the forest.

“Stop,” Grammie begs. “I’ll give him to you.”

She trundles down the bank, under the bridge

While Edme watches a flock of blue birds

Soaring overhead.

“Edme,” a ragged man whispers

As he is drug up the bank by the troll.

“You came for me.”

Edme looks at his gaunt cheeks,

Bitten arms

Torn tunic and chewed-up leggings.

He stunk so bad that the thought

Of him riding behind her

Makes her gag.

“This isn’t the prince.

I don’t know this man.

You can keep him.”

She whirls about and begins whistling

A jaunty tune to the jingle of the reins.

Grammie’s cackles barely

Cover the screams of the man,

But Edme rides on.

“That’s a terrible story,”

The little girl says.

“What did you think would happen?”

Her auntie asked as she cuddled the girl closer.

“The prince gets rescued.

Everyone gets rescued.

Edme can’t leave him with the troll.

That’s not right.”

Auntie laughed as she ran a brush

Through the girl’s hair.

She kisses the tiny forehead and

Tucks the covers around her shoulders.

“Tell me another story.”

Kraznir Complications: A Resolution

We rode into the forest, far enough to avoid capture by either army. We dropped to the ground and lay amongst leaves and needles. We didn’t worry about our horse making noise, for they were trained to be still.

Little John pointed and waggled his fingers as Nix had done.

“Bae von ox nae,” I whispered while thinking of Kraznir’s army, “bae von ox nae.” And then we waited. And waited.

Both armies remained frozen. Because there was no movement, no blink of an eye, no leaning one direction or another, there was no way to determine if the spellbind had worked.

Time passed and we became hungry. “I’m going hunting,” Little John whispered. “I think I saw rabbit tracks.”

Doughty fell asleep. My eyes grew tired, but I kept them focused on the armies, looking for change. My head fell to my chest, then I forced it upright. Over and over I battled my body.

“I caught one” Little John said as he held up a good-sized brown rabbit. “Can you get a fire going while I skin it?’

I scooped together leaves, then sticks, then searched for larger branches. When I felt there was enough, I held my hands over the leaves, closed my eyes and thought “fire” for I didn’t know the actual spell. Imagine my surprise when a flame burst forth from the heart of the leaves!

I placed several sticks on top, then when they began to smolder, even more.

“Looks great,” Doughty said. “Add the bigger branches. That should work.”

Just when flames rose to shoulder height, Little John appeared with the rabbit on a spit. He held it over the flames, just out of reach so it wouldn‘t char. Soon the smell of cooking meat tickled our noses. My mouth filled with saliva in anticipation.

“There,” Doughty said, “it’s done.” He tore off a leg, bit into it, and smacked his lips with pleasure. “Wonderful.”

We enjoyed our meal. It was not the best one we’d ever had, but since we’d not had meat for the days of our journey, it was exactly what we needed.

“Can I have some?” an unfamiliar voice asked.

Doughty jumped up, pulling his dagger out of his belt. “Who are you?”

“Mastix, sir.” The man wore Kraznir’s army’s uniform. “I’m hungry. If there’s even a tiny bite left, I’d love to eat it.”

I tore off a piece, gave it to him, then watched him slowly chew with his head held back and his eyes closed. “Um, that’s delicious.”

“So, is there something else you want?” Doughty asked.

“A bath, clean clothes and a soft bed.”

“Okay,” I said. “But why did you approach us? Shouldn’t you be afraid of being seen with us?”

The man laughed. “You’re my friends, right? Can I go home with you?’

Little John laughed as movement surrounded us. In front of us stood Kraznir’s entire army, officers and lowly men-in-arms, all with wistful looks on their faces. “Your spell worked,” he said to me with a wink and a grin. “The war is over.”

“For now,” Doughty said. “Only for now.”

“We have no more food,” I said, “but if you ride with us back to Siln and swear allegiance to King Taden, you can live in peace in Siln.”

An officer stepped forward and bowed. “Yes. My men and I will gladly follow you. We have yearned for the freedom and prosperity of Siln, but had no way of getting there. You have offered us everything we’ve dreamt of. Freedom instead of torture, instead of forever being indebted to Kraznir. For that we are grateful.”

Doughty stood and held out his hand. The officer extended his. Once grasped, Doughty pulled the man to his chest in what was considered a bond of trust.

“We’d better leave now,” Little John said. “if we ride hard, we’ll be home by tomorrow night.”

My heart felt light. My spells had worked. No lives had been lost. No injuries incurred. Not a single soldier from Siln had deserted, but the entire army Kraznir had sent was now happily singing their way to Siln.

I knew that from now on I would no longer be a magician-in-training for I had saved Siln’s men from harm. Kraznir, for now, was no longer a complication.

Kraznir Complications: Into Danger

Nix called a halt sunder some low-hanging trees o that we could dry our mounts as well as ourselves. I removed Ruthie’s gear then walked her to an unoccupied patch of grass. She immediately got to her knees and then rolled onto her back. I laughed at her antics. I so wanted to roll about as well, but I felt that Nix would disapprove.

We ate a bit of biscuit and refilled our skins with fresh water. Doughty, Little John and I found a quiet spot away from the others.

“I’m worried,” Little John said. “Nothing has challenged us. Nothing has slowed us, not human or beast.”

Doughty nodded. “By now something would have heard us coming. It’s impossible to move a group this size without attracting attention, so it’s logical to assume that there will be battle soon.”

“What should I do? I’m useless with sword and spear.”

Little John snickered. “You and me both. The one advantage I have is size. I can slink under the bellies of their horses and cut cinches. Then we’ll laugh when Kraznir’s entire army slides off their mounts!”

I rested my chin in my hands. “I’ve been learning some new wards. There’s an invincibility one, but I haven’t mastered it yet. Maybe I’ll set that one up before we enter the forest.”

That’s when the call came to mount, so I saddled Ruthie and as I rubbed her muzzle, I said, “Arq ve naw. Arq se baw.” I repeated it three times, a powerful magical number, hoping that by following the norms, the ward would work.

Was I invincible? Probably not, but it didn’t hurt to think that a few magical words could protect myself, my friends and our entire force.

Nix did not lead the way which told me that he expected trouble. What captain would hide amidst soldiers rather than inspire them by his daring? One who feared death, that’s who.

I pushed my way forward until I was within talking distance of Nix. When Nix and I entered the forest, a loud, piercing scream rattled me so much that I pulled back on the reins, terrifying Ruthie into bucking. I hung on to the horn and gripped her sides with my legs so tightly that my knees ached. I leaned forward until my nose was buried in her mane and spoke reassuring words until her front hooves touched sand once again.

Our ranks were in disarray. Instead of an orderly procession of two horsemen riding  side-by-side, many of us stood alone. I, thanks to being near Nix, was engulfed by armed soldiers brandishing spears and longswords. No word was spoken, no orders given. All acted in unison, however, which must be due to years of rigorous training.

I pulled my sword from its scabbard and tried to hold it steadily aloft, but I was no trained warrior. In seconds my arm tired and the sword fell at my side. Instead I did what little I could do: I chanted wards over and over hoping that at least one would keep us safe.

Karznir’s army surrounded us. We couldn’t move in any direction. Only the outer soldiers could inflict damage, but the enemy was as well-trained as we were. They formed a line about ten feet away: far enough that no sword, no spear could harm them.

Nix glowered at me as he waggled his fingers at the enemy. I understood what he wanted: I was to employ a magic spell that would numb the minds of Kraznir’s men. I was to freeze their bodies into living statues. I was supposed to spellbind them to yearn to be free of Kraznir’s leagues and to skip to our side.

I raised my hands, palms down, closed my eyes and screamed so that my voice would carry over those still harbored in the forest, “Tre at na lee.” I repeated it three times, as all wards were meant to. Were their minds numb? Well, it seemed as if they were as all about me all I saw were blank eyes. Good for the enemy, but not for us! I hadn’t learned how to target spells at some leaving out others!

That left Doughty, Little John and I. The wards couldn’t touch us thanks to a reflection ward my mentor had employed before we left. We were the survivors. We could do whatever we wanted.

Doughty rode up next to me and whispered, “What do we do now?”

I shrugged and turned to Little John. He said, “We could sneak off into the forest, across rivers and mountains to another kingdom. But eventually King Taden’s forces would find us, tie us up, and throw us into the dungeon of Siln.”

“Or,” Doughty said, “we could ride among both sides and steal their weapons. If Touchfire can keep the ward alive, we should be able to disarm all soldiers and hide their weapons deep in the forest.”

They looked at me with hope in their eyes. I nodded, raised my hands, and chanted again. Doughty worked on our soldiers while Little John stole Kraznir’s mens’ weapons.

It took hours. Whenever I lowered my hands, within fifteen minutes a man would stir here or there. Eyes might blink. Coughs might rattle lungs. Then I’d raise my hands and chant, “Tre ot na lee,” and “Linx fa bay,” which was supposed to turn them into living statues.

I was greatly relieved when my companions were by my side once again.

“I have an idea,” Doughty said. “Follow me.”

The three of us wove in and out of Taden’s horsemen until we were alongside Kraznir’s. “Did you learn the spellbinding ward? The one the allows minds to change?”

“I was just starting to work on that one.”

He smiled a devilish smile and said,” Well, give it a try. If we can convince Kraznir’s men to join with us, this battle will be over once and for all.”

I closed my eyes and pictured the words in my spell book. I sept my arm across the enemy ranks and softly chanted, “Bae von oz nae.”

“Do it again,” Little John said.

When I was finished, he asked me to send out a suggestion that they come to Siln of their own free will.

I nodded, closed my eyes, relaxed my breathing, and imagined words traveling into minds. Words changing minds. Words changing allegiance.

We rode into the forest, far enough to avoid capture by either army. We dropped to the ground and lay amongst leaves and needles. We didn’t worry about our horse making noise, for they were trained to be still.

Little John pointed and waggled his fingers as Nix had done.

“Bae von ox nae,” I whispered.

Kraznir Complications: We Ride Off

I didn’t want to get near an active battleground, but I had to follow orders. I mounted Ruthie and set off, trying to stay as near the middle of the pack as possible, thinking that if arrows should fall, I would be somewhat protected.

We rode in as complete silence as one hundred could go. The jingle of harness had been reduced by padding and the iron shoes wrapped in cloth. Even so there are human sounds of coughing and sneezing and mumbling and whispering. Horse breathing, snorting, farting, pooping and peeing. But we were quiet enough not to attract any unwanted attention, for no orcs or wargs or soldiers rushed us.

When night fell Captain Nix commanded an invisibility ward over all, human and horse alike. I had never tried to cloak so many, but I gave it a try. I closed my eyes and pictured our group, than whispered, “Ing spe do nably.” I felt a tingle, but not a rush of magic, so I was unsure whether or not it had worked.

Nix nodded, then turned away. I guess just chanting the ward made him happy. At least he was away from me, which lessoned my anxiety.

The night was long and cold. None of us had warm enough cloaks and since we were traveling, none had blankets either. I rolled up in my cloak, like all the others, and rested my head in a pile of leaves, but no matter how long I lay there, I never slept.

In the morning we rode on. When we came to the river I looked about for the blue dragon, but Pineki was nowhere to be seen.  Doughty thought maybe she was afraid of the large group, for after all, she was only a little dragon.

Before I rode into the water, I watched for sign of crocodiles. I knew that they were upstream, and we had not seen any when we crossed her before, I was cautious. After fifty riders made it safely, I urged Ruthie in and across as quickly as she could manage. In fact, all of us made I without me employing any kind of ward, which was good as I knew none that kept away crocs.

Nix called a halt so that we could dry our mounts as well as ourselves. I removed Ruthie’s gear then walked her to an unoccupied patch of grass. She immediately got to her knees, then rolled onto her back. I laughed at her antics. I so wanted to roll about as well, but I felt that nix would disapprove.

We ate a bit of biscuit and refilled our skins with fresh water. Doughty, Little John and I found a quiet spot away from the others.

“I’m worried,” Little John said. “Nothing has challenged us. Nothing has slowed us, not human or beast.”

Doughty nodded. “By now something would have heard us coming. It’s impossible to move a group this size without attracting attention, so it’s logical to assume that there will be battle soon.”

“What should I do? I’m useless with sword and spear.”

Little John snickered. “You and me both. The one advantage I have is size. I can slink under the bellies of their horses and cut cinches. Then we’ll laugh when Kraznir’s entire army slides off their mounts!”

I rested my chin in my hands. “I’ve been learning some new wards. There’s an invincibility one, but I haven’t mastered it yet. Maybe I’ll set that one up when we get ready to move.”

That’s when  the call came to mount, so I saddled Ruthie and as I rubbed her muzzle, I said, “Arq ve naw. Arq se baw.” I repeated it three times, a powerful magical number, hoping that by following the norms, the ward would work.

Kraznir Complications: Preparations Begin

Doughty shook his head then wiped his mouth from which stew oozed down his chin. “Magic is important, yes. But you also need to know how to fight so as to support the army in battle.”

He was right even though I didn’t want to admit it. So I didn’t complain when after lunch I learned how to ride with a spear. It was hard to balance while bouncing up and down, at the same time trying to keep the point of the shaft aimed at the heart of a dummy on the other side of the corral. I rode again and again, stopping only when permitted, but despite hard work and countless attempts, my skills never improved.

Feeling quite useless, I returned to the barracks for a bath and change of clothes, then sat in the common area waiting for my companions. None of them showed up, so when fatigue took over, I went to bed.

 

Rumors spread that a force was being sent to counter Kraznir’s army which was thought to be assembling just outside Hagg Forest, too close to Siln to be ignored. Archers, crow bow wielders, horsemen and all varieties of wizards were to travel, forthwith.

Since I had no fighting skills and limited magic, I figured I would remain inside the castle grounds, but oh, no, that was not to be. An emissary from King Taden appeared in the barracks where I lived with a dozen other females late one evening. “Touchfire?” he called.

I rose and stood at attention, as dictated by protocol. The King commands you to prepare to join the battle force. Pack your bags and head to the stables.”

“But I’m useless! I’m just a trainee and a poor one at that!”

“Do as commanded or I have been instructed to remove you to the dungeons.” He waved his right hand and two heavily humungous soldiers entered.

I knew by their armor that they belonged to the King’s Guard, the mostly highly skilled soldiers in the kingdom. There was no way I could fight them and live, so I bowed my compliance. Once they were gone, I pulled my stuff-bag out from under my bed and shoved in clothes appropriate for travel: a heavy cape, a split-skirt, winter boots and two tops, one long-sleeved and one Sherpa-lined sweater.

The weather had turned while I was training. The days were chilly and the nights downright cold. I would need whatever protection my garments would provide.

I slung my bag over my shoulder and trundled to the stables.  Ruthie was brushed, fed and saddled. I lashed my bag in place, then stood by her muzzle until instructed to mount.

We were all agitated, riders and mounts alike. None of us knew what to expect. Would there be a battle in which we died? Or would someone negotiate a treaty to stop a useless war? I prayed for the treaty. I didn’t want any more of my friends lost and I certainly didn’t want to die either.

The pounding of boots approached the doors. When I heard them coming, I thrust my shoulders back and stood at attention. Captain Nix, wearing his best blue uniform, strode in with a sneer signaling what he thought of his so-called army. “Well, well,” he snickered. “How can a bunch of misfits defeat Kraznir’s well-trained armies?” He stopped in front of a short, stubby scout named Will.

“I don’t know, sir,” he croaked.

Nix sauntered down the line of us, flicking dust of the shoulder of one, slapping the back of another, harassing each person he passed. Until he stood before me. Then he laughed. No, guffawed. A loud, deep, gaggle of sounds erupting from the bottom of his chest. “What good are you?”

I cast my eyes downward to show deference.

“Answer me.”

“I can do a little magic.”

Nix turned to a soldier standing behind him. “Check with the quartermaster. I don’t recall asking for someone who can do ‘a little magic’. I wanted a master magician.”

The soldier bowed so low that his chin would have touched his knees were it not for his armor strapped tightly to his chest. He turned without saluting and left.

We stood at attention while Nix paced in front of us. He fiddled with a harness on Athor’s horse, the saddle on Will’s and had just reached toward Ruthie, my trusted mount, when the soldier returned. I let out the breath I’d been holding. If Nix’s fingers had gotten any closer, Ruthie would have snapped them off. I would then have been executed as a traitor.

The soldier bowed. “She’s coming with us,” he said.

“By whose orders?”

“Taden’s, sir.”

“But she’s useless!”

“Taden says no other magicians are available. They’ve been dispersed to the outer villages for weeks now. All except for Old Oscar whose blind and this one. Taden says Oscar remains and this one goes.”

Kraznir Complications: Busy at Home

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and fruits, we were called to the training rooms which had occupied our days before we were sent to see what Kraznir was up to. I worked on my sword skills which were sorely lacking while the others went off to study whatever they were learning on before our adventure began.

I assumed Little John was learning to lure bigger prey, things such as orcs and wargs, so to control them to follow his commands. If he could do that, it would weaken Kraznir’s armies.

Doughty was a warrior and hunter, already skilled. So what was he doing? I saw him head off with a master horseman, so perhaps he would use to combat with spears. That would be fun to watch, but my mentor allowed learning only one skill at a time.

I was given a wooden sword which felt childish after wielding a real one on our excursion, but I did as told. I worked on defensive moves, which I knew nothing about, until my arm ached and the nerves in my back sent waves of pain radiating up my spine.

The three of us met for lunch, a hearty stew accompanied by freshly baked bread. Little John was ginning hugely. “I can control those orcs and wargs now!”

“How?” I asked. “Can you teach us?”

He shook his head. “I pick up languages fairly quickly. So now I speak enough orc and warg to tell them what to do! It’s amazing!”

“How do you know it will work?” Doughty asked between bites of stew.

“I practiced in the dungeons with live ones! It was amazing. I told them to sit and they did. To stand, to turn, to stab. This afternoon they will be in the practice ring, heavily guarded of course, and I will learn commands for battle.”

“I worked with a sword,” I said. “I hate it. I’d rather learn more magic.”

Doughty shook his head then wiped his mouth from which stew oozed down his chin. “Magic is important, yes. But you also need to know how to fight so as to support the army in battle.”

He was right even though I didn’t want to admit it. So I didn’t complain when after lunch I learned how to ride with a spear. It was hard to balance while bouncing up and down, at the same time trying to keep the point of the shaft aimed at the heart of a dummy on the other side of the corral. I rode again and again, stopping only when permitted, but despite hard work and countless attempts, my skills never improved.

Feeling quite useless, I returned to the barracks for a bath and change of clothes, then sat in the common area waiting for my companions. None of them showed up, so when fatigue took over, I went to bed.

Kraznir Complications: The Dragon

Eventually we made it across which was good, for now we were only a few miles from Slinsil.  The bad news was that a small blue dragon greeted us as we disembarked.

“I eats dwarfs.”  Smoke streamed from the dragon’s nostrils.  Its long, spiked tail wagged back and forth like a cat’s.  “Gives me the dwarf as toll.”

Athor stepped forward.  He put on a display of some rather fancy swordplay that usually made grown men cower in fear.  “No dwarf, no toll.”

A jet of fire erupted from the dragon’s mouth.  Waves of heat washed over me, causing me to break into a goodly sized sweat.

“Gives me the dwarf or you don’t passes.”

Athor flexed his muscled arms.  “It’s me you want, right, Dragon?”

“Yeses,” he hissed.  “Do I knows you?”  The dragon’s eyes narrowed and its head lowered even with Athor’s.

“Yes, Pineki,” Athor said as he pounded his chest with his closed fist and then splayed his fingers in a salute.  “When I saw you last, you were running into the forest with scales missing from your belly.”

“You were the ones.” Pineki hissed, creating a fog around her head.  “You will die, dwarf.  This time Pineki wins.”

Athor charged, sword pointed at Pineki’s belly.  Little John and Doughty ran alongside, leaving me in charge of four nervous horses.

The fight was intense even though it was remarkably slow. Athor missed the dragon’s belly when she sidestepped to the right. Little John aimed for her talons and caught the nail on one, causing blood to drip.  This angered Pineki so she blew fire at Doughty as he moved toward her neck, confusing him enough that he missed.

For a little thing, Pineki had amazing skills. She leapt at just the right time, spun and danced like a King’s maiden, and spat balls of fire at each of the fighters. She was full of energy while we were weary from our travels and it soon became obvious that the dragon would win.

Just as Athor ran in for one last swipe at the dragon’s belly, Pineki bent her head and blew a stream of orange fire.  The dwarf’s body became entrenched and the stench of burning flesh caused me to lose what little lunch I had eaten.

Doughty and Little John watched helplessly as Pineki grabbed the charred Athor in her talons and flew off.  “I’ve gots me a dwarf, so you can passes,” she called.

Saddened to lose another friend, we didn’t feel like moving on so we built a primitive shelter out of branches gathered along a line of trees, tied our horses amongst tasty grasses, and sheltered for the night. I employed my invisibility spell, but Doughty, not trusting its effectiveness, refused to build a fire which meant we had to eat the crocodile raw.

It was disgusting and chewy, but I ate anyway. I needed nourishment and that was all we had. Afterward I wrote in my journal until it got too dark.  Little John gathered leaves for bedding, and Doughty stood guard for the first watch. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, but my mind would not let go of the image of a charred Athor being carried off.

 

Because Slinsil was not far away and Kraznir’s invasion plans had to be made known, after a breakfast more raw croc we moved into the forest with heads drooped.  Two friends lost. How many more might we lose?

We rode as quickly as possible into Slinsil, fortunately without further excitement.  I had never thought the city to be beautiful, but that morning, with the sun glinting off the metal roofs offering a degree of safely and comfort, it seemed like the most beautiful city in the known world.

As we rode past shops and houses townsfolk greeted us with a cheer as they would any returning soldiers.  It felt good to be what had been my home since I was enlisted into the army, but my heart still ached for our dead companions.

We rode up to the gates of the palace, where, once announced, King Taden’s emissary invited us in for a bath and an audience with the king himself.  After a good soaking in the private bath offered me, a servant presented me with a clean gown of sapphire-colored silk. It fit perfectly, almost as if it was made for me.

I met my remaining companions, equally cleaned up and outfitted in bright white tunics, black leggings and leather belts. We were ushered into the King’s throne room. Taden stood when we entered, complicating things a bit.

According to protocol, if the King stands, we must also but our heads cannot be higher than his. For Little John this was no problem since he’s short of stature, but for Doughty and I, well, we had to stoop our shoulders and shrink into ourselves in order to keep our eyes below Taden’s chin.

Kraznir Complications: Almost Home

We rose before dawn, hoping to cross the river before any enemies passing nearby could see us. I’d like to say that we battled man-eating monsters, but that would be a lie.  In actuality, nothing interesting happened.  The water never rose above my mount’s knees.  Never once did my horse falter and no one fell into the water.

Just as the sun’s rays broke over the tops of the tall trees to our east, we entered the forests of Hagg.  The trees were so tall that it hurt the neck to look at the tops, and they were so wide that it would take ten men holding hands to encircle just one trunk.

We passed areas where entire sections of trees had been cut down.  I was sad to see that, for these trees were hundreds of years old.  Not in my lifetime would another tree grow as tall or as wide. On the other hand, it meant we were close to civilization and nearly out of the realm of orcs and wargs.

Around noon, after an easy ride in the shade we came to the River Siln.  To take advantage of clean water and to rest ourselves and our horses, Little John demanded we rest.  He wasn’t just thinking of the horses, but as we all knew, himself, for he hated horses, like all hobbits.  One time he explained that it felt as if he was riding on the back of a relative.  I understood what he meant for hobbits were covered in a dense fur much like a horse’s, and their course hair on their heads was like the swishy tail of my stallion.

Athor gathered tinder and got a small fire going, while Doughty captured two hares by lying in wait amongst a likely looking group of bushes. Without the benefit of snares, he enticed them with tempting bits of grasses he had plucked. The hares approached without fear. After all, when Athor lay on the ground, his eyes were level with those of a hare. When the first was within reach, he grabbed it, twisted its neck and stuffed it in his bag. He did the same when a second, obviously not knowing what had happened to the first, hopped up for a snack of fresh grass.

Using my wizard skills I lit the fire and before long we had a tasty meal.

After eating I walked into the river in order to finally rid myself of the filth that coated my body, but when the water was shin-high, Doughty hollered, “Get out of there!”

Like a petulant child I stood there, determined to have that bath.  Until I felt something brush against the back of my leg.  I bent to see what it was, fortunately, for at that exact moment, an arrow swished past, narrowly missing my right arm.

“Got him,” Little John said.  “I got me a croc.  Always wanted one of them.”

When I looked behind down there was a tiny dead crocodile, lying half out of the water with an arrow piercing its left eye.  While my heart ached for the dead reptile, my head was very glad that it hadn’t taken a bite of me.

Athor pulled out his arrow and slung the crocodile over his back.  He got a cloth out of a saddlebag, stretched it out on the beach and rolled the crocodile until it was tightly wrapped.  He threw it over the back of his saddle and tied it down.

“Thanks for saving my life,” I said.  “So, how do we cross if there are crocs?”

“Open your eyes, dope,” grumbled Little John.  He pointed a ways downstream where stood a large raft, held in place by two long ropes that ran from one side of the river to the other.

“Oh.”

We led our horses onto the bobbing raft, which was not easy as they were terrified of the up and down movement.  Doughty’s bucked and snorted, upsetting Little John’s.  When Athor’s horse heard the screams of Little John’s, she backed into mine, knocking us both off the raft and onto the beach.  Only when Doughty got his stallion calmed down, did Athor’s stop thrashing about and Little John’s stood as calmly as a tub of lukewarm water.  I finally got my horse on the raft, the last one to board.

We took turns pulling on the ropes and holding the horses.  The ropes burned our hands and sizzled our arm muscles.  My chest felt like it was going to pop open.

Holding the horses wasn’t easy, either.  You had to keep the reins for one in your left hand and for another in your right.  The horses stayed jittery the entire journey.

Kraznir Complications: Continued

Hoof beats pounded in our direction.  Pulling my terrified eyes from the warg droppings took a lot of will power, but I did, in time to see Athor riding toward us, his horse in a lather.

“Ride,” he screamed.  “Ride!”

Just as we had kicked our horses into a gallop we were stopped by a wall of wargs.  Their tusks gleamed in the scattered rays of sunlight that fell through the leaves. Each held a nasty-looking weapon: axes, broad swords and spears. And the drool…pretty disgusting tendrils of drool hung from their mouths as if they were anticipating a good meal. Which would be us.

Rather than being dinner, I rolled off my horse as silently as I could and slid under a log, just like in the children’s tales that I’d loved as a little girl.  I was pretty sure that no one had seen me, which meant that I was in a great position to keep an eye on what transpired and possibly try what magic I had to protect my partners.

One of the wargs grabbed Colwen by the head, lifted him off his horse, and then dropped him into his mouth.  Drool poured from its mouth as he crunched Colwen, bite by bite.

Athor, Doughty, and Little John fought valiantly.  They danced around those wargs, slicing at legs and then dashing away.  I was so proud of them!  I tried sending protection wards over my companions, but since I have yet mastered that talent, I didn’t think they worked.

Perhaps Little John and Doughty’s small size helped in the fight, for the injured  wargs screamed in anger and pain as my companions rushed their legs over and over again.

When one warg fell to the ground and couldn’t get up, the rest ran away, cradling slashed arms or limping on injured legs dripping blood.  Only then did I crawl out from my hiding place, find my horse, and rejoin my companions.

“Mount up quickly and quietly,” Doughty growled.  We complied, then headed in the opposite direction of the wargs even though we knew it would lengthen our journey home.

An hour passed of silent riding through the flat forest. I was glad when Athor called a halt along a slow-moving stream for my backside was tired and I was extremely thirsty. “I heard the wargs coming,” Athor said after we’d drunk and watered our horses. “That’s why I rode back in such a hurry. I hoped to warn you, but the wargs moved faster than I.”

“It’s okay,” Dolwen said. “We made it through with just a few cuts and bruises, and even though Colwen lost his life, none of the rest of us was taken as hostage.”

Athor brushed his dirty blonde hair out of his eyes.  “Do you think they’re gone now?  I’m too tired to fight another battle.”

“Quiet.” Little John cupped his right hand around his ear to amplify his excellent ability to hear, and sat completely still.  Seconds went by.  “They’re gone, but not too far from away. Let’s ride out before they find our trail.”

We were too exhausted to talk and there was little to say anyway. We all carried the image of Colwen being eaten alive. Our horses seemed refreshed, so we hopped on. Muffled our weapons to reduce sound, and continued toward home.

An hour later the forest opened up and we were at the edge of a rather steep cliff.  Down below was the River Siln.  Athor saw a deer trail to our right, so we followed it down, single file.  To our right, nothing but a wall of granite. To our left, a sheer drop.  I stared straight ahead, trusting my horse to get me down safely.

Kraznir Complications: Continued

The underground tunnel was the smallest I’d ever seen.  Considering that our sleeping quarters were guarded, we were lucky that the jailers got drunk and forgot to lock us in the night we’d hoped to escape. We waited until what we thought were early morning hours before tiptoeing past two sleeping guards. We had no idea where the rest were stationed, but we crossed our fingers that we could sneak past them all.

Colwen lead us through the cellars, Doughty opened the secret door, and Athor used his low-slung body to lead the way.  Little John, being a hobbit, only had to bend a little, but the rest of crawled on hands and feet.  The cellar tunnel was disgusting. It stunk of stale water and rat droppings.  Slime lined the walls and stale water pooled on the floor.  In two spots the tunnel was so small that even Athor barely got through, him having to pass through like we had been doing. We literally moved on our bellies.

We came out in the stables just as dawn was breaking, as hoped.  Colwen and Doughty saddled up our mounts that the guards had confiscated, while Little John wrapped their hooves in rags.  Athor found our bedrolls and saddlebags, still full of supplies, stuffed in an empty stall.  I nosed around the head groomsman’s office and found a variety of useful weapons which I carried in my arms until they could be strapped onto our mounts.

We headed for Rea Forest because it’s a great source of meat and well-overhung by dense trees, which at this time of year, were covered in dark green leaves the size of a large man’s hand. The terrifying problem was that strange and frightening things lived there.  We’d heard tales of giant spiders, but none of us had ever seen either them or their webs.

I’d seen wargs which have tusks that could rip a man’s middle out of him before a blink of an eye.  They weren’t tall, but wide as a dairy cow.  Beady eyes and small brains.  Wargs were said to be spirits of sailors who died on land.

I smelled the rank odor of Orcs who must have passed through recently. They were taller than the tallest known man.  Shoulders broader than two doorways and feet as big as plows.  Hands that could squeeze the life out of two men at once.  What was spooky about orcs, though, was that they only had one eye and no nose.  They were thought to be smarter than wargs, which was why Walerian loved them.  He taught many to read and write and when their skills were passable, he sent them out as spies into neighboring kingdoms.

Before entering the forest, Doughty said, “Touchfire, can you disguise us as we ride?”

I nodded. “I think so, but I’m not very good. My wards are better. I can surround us with an invisibility ward that should keep wargs and orcs away.”

Doughty nodded. “Well, at least it’s something. Do we have to ride close together for it to work?”

I closed my eyes thought about it for a bit. My mentor snickered the last time I tried to become invisible, but he’s a powerful wizard. Orcs and wargs have no wizardry skills that I know of. “Yeah, we’d better stay as close to one another as possible. Also we should mask anything that might jingle.”

“I have already done that,” Doughty said as he climbed onto his horse.

I didn’t need wands or powders for my magic to work, but I did need incantations. I spread my hands wide, encompassing the group than chanted, “Ing spe do nobly.” Nothing changed. I could still clearly see everyone. “Little John, since you’re still on foot, walk over by the burnt tree.”

After five steps there was a wave of light and then Little John’s figure brightened noticeably. “Now return,” I said. It was obvious when he came into range, for again there was a blast of light. I smiled. “We’re okay.”

We headed into the forest somewhat confidant that we could not be seen, but we didn’t take any chances. Wherever possible, we sought cover from any eyes that might be watching, whether emissaries from the castle or strange beings that might crush us.  We didn’t ride fast fearing noise that would give our position away, but we did move steadily.

The forest towered blocked out the early morning sun, making us feel somewhat better.  However, disturbing noises assaulted us from all sides.  Some we hoped were birds, others we feared were prey animals, but most sounded like the snuffling of wargs and the grunting of orcs.

Athor wanted to ride ahead to scout out the area as he was feeling nervous, even though he knew that as soon as he rode beyond my reach, he would be easily visible by any and all that might want to harm us.  Fearful that his departure might cause a ruckus, we pulled out our weapons.  I had a well-used light-weight sword, which was just as well, as I wasn’t too skilled in battle techniques.  In fact, if you could only pick one companion on a journey like this one, you’d be better off leaving me behind.

The longer Athor stayed away, the louder the snuffling noises became.  The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention, and I gripped my sword so tightly that my fingers turned white.

We rode on and on, trying not to think too much about what might be out there and why Athor had not come back. We grew tired and hungry, but Little John would not let us stop until he recognized big droppings.  Gigantic droppings.  The droppings of Orcs.  And not just a couple, but lots.

And intermingled among those droppings were small dropping.  Piles of perfectly round droppings.  Wargs.  That’s when I knew we were in trouble.  No, worse than that: in mortal danger especially since there was nowhere to hide. No handy cave, no standing remains of a house, no copse of thick trees. Absolutely nowhere that Orcs and wargs couldn’t find us.