Happily Ever After

by Jack A. Warren 24 days ago in fantasy

The Nonsensical Story of How Llamas Were Made

Happily Ever After

Chapter One

Our story begins on a cold dreary Tuesday morning. It was an ordinary Tuesday morning, cold and damp from the light rain that had fallen throughout the night. The sun had just begun to peek over the horizon as our young hero swayed back and forth from atop his steed. The young hero groaned softly between each sway as they made their way up the small hill.

Now, although most people would find an early morning horseback ride a relaxing and therapeutic experience, this ride was far from relaxing (and certainly not therapeutic). No, this ride wasn’t your ordinary morning horseback ride. For, you see, our hero was not riding a horse, but instead an ass: and a lame one at that. This particular ass was missing his right hind leg. This led to the beast jolting forward with a small hop after each step.

This created an already uncomfortable ride for the ass’ master, but the uncomfortable ride was only intensified by the fact that our hero was just beginning to sober up from a long night of drinking just a few too many pints of mead.

And why would our hero be sobering up on an early Tuesday morning, you may ask? Isn’t it too early in the week for a night of too many pints? Maybe our hero was drinking to relax his nerves for his upcoming challenge of defeating the two-headed dragon of Belmouth and rescuing the young princess trapped below the beast’s lair. Maybe the young man was drinking because his trusty steed had left him after years of service to pursue a golden mare that had caught the steed’s heart. Perhaps he was drinking because the only replacement he could find was this lame ass that he had purchased from a shady farmer three towns back. Or, just maybe, it was to escape the horrors of another bloody Monday (and that my friend is more than enough of a reason for another pint).

Whether it was one of these reasons or a combination of them all, our hero was riding into Belmouth atop his ass, groaning and wincing from the hangover created by the night prior. They clambered up the hill and across the old cobblestone bridge before reaching the abandoned shell of what used to be a sprawling city. They moved quietly down the streets as they made their way to the old decaying fortress that once housed royalty.

The knight pulled himself from atop the ass before tying the beast’s reigns to a small dead tree. He sighed deeply as he struggled to pull his gear from the ass’ back. He slung a thin layer of chainmail over his body before covering his chest with a thin dented cuirass two sizes too big. He then fastened a rusty spaulder to his right shoulder (he had lost the left one years ago) followed by covering his hands with two thick gauntlets. He skipped the greaves and gorget, already struggling with the combined weight of metal armor. He tightened the laces of his thin leather boots before throwing on a massive helmet that swallowed the man’s head and wobbled about.

Our hero searched the place over as he contemplated his strategy. The yard was still and quiet. Eerily still and just as eerily silent. Not a single sign of life could be found across the yard. Odd, the knight thought. Usually, there is at least one rodent or small creature that would scurry about picking up the scraps left behind by the large predator. Our hero sighed once more before drawing his rusty blade and picking up his small shield and making his way inside the grim fortress through a small hole in the wall.

The hole led to the Larder. A dank stench of rotten food filled the knight’s nostrils. The knight covered his face with his hand to mask out the smell of mold and rot before moving swiftly through the room as he gagged on the foul air. He made his way from the Larder to the kitchen to the dining hall. It wasn’t until he reached the great hall before the foul smell subsided.

Our hero stopped there to breathe in the fresher musky air of the forgotten hall of old. He studied the ancient room intently as he searched for any signs of where the large beast may be. A large red tattered tapestry caught the knight’s attention. The knight approached the old ragged cloth as he studied the rag’s series of paintings coated in dust and dirt. The cloth depicted the history of the castle’s origins and how the great king Geoffry claimed the land of Belmouth as his own. The images depicted the great battle of Fornost, where Geoffrey slew the three-horned barguest that controlled the land. Ironic, the knight chuckled as he thought of his task at hand.

The knight continued down the hall, ducking and weaving through the debris that littered the fortress. A light rumble stopped the knight in his trek. He stood still as he listened closely, intent on finding the source. Another rumble filled the hall once more; followed by a light breeze of air. The knight slowly crept forward and peered into the nearby room. There it lied, the two-headed dragon of Belmouth.

The room rumbled as the reptilian beast snored. Air bellowed out of its nostrils as the behemoth slept soundly in front of the altar of the castle’s chapel. A sly grin grew across the knight’s face as he contemplated his options. He had two choices: he could sneak by the dragon and search for the princess as the beast slept: or he could slay the beast in his sleep and avoid a grueling battle. Now, as most people know, option two would be the best option for a dragon is quite the dangerous foe (let alone one with two heads). But option one did have its perks. If one is sneaky enough (or if the dragon is a hard sleeper) one could easily sneak by and complete one’s task without blood on one’s hands. But our hero decided to bypass both options and instead use a third.

“Alright, you filthy beast! Prepare to die!”

The room fell silent as the monster opened his eyes. The beast lay still as its four yellow eyes locked onto the small man that stood before him. Time froze as the two stood locked in anticipation. The beast made the first move, slowly lifting its heads from atop a single pew. The monster’s eyes stayed locked on its prey as its left head reared back and gasped for air. A nervous look of desperation filled the knight’s face as he realized the grave error he had made. Smoke filled the dragon’s nostrils as the knight raised his shield in defense. Embers and soot shot out of the dragon’s nose as a stream of fire exploded out of the beast’s mouth.

The knight ducked behind his small shield as the room fell into darkness. The man’s shield turned orange as the stream of fire hit the metal disc directly. The knight cried out in pain as the orange turned to bright red as the metal began to weld itself to the man’s gauntlet. The knight dove to the right as the stream subsided. He ripped the metal glove from his hand, tossing it and the molten shield aside. Our hero peeked out from behind his pew as he began to formulate a plan. The dragon roared violently as it sucked more air into its left head. Smoke billowed out once more as it reared forward for another blast.

Our hero threw himself under the pew and began to crawl forward, making his way towards the beast from under the cover of the rows of seats. The beast howled in annoyance as it flung its right head forward, lifting and flinging the wooden seats in the monster’s path. The knight squealed in fright as the beast flung the pew the man hid beneath to the side before thrusting its second head towards its foe. The knight rolled to the side as the beast lunged towards the man, once more, narrowly missing the creature’s teeth. Our hero jumped to his feet and lifted his blade as the monster reared back for another attack. The knight thrust his blade forward as the beast’s right head flew towards him. The blade hit its mark; splitting the monster’s face from its nose down to its chin.

The dragon cried out in pain as it yanked its wounded face away from the rusty blade. The monster retaliated quickly, rearing its left head back as it gasped for air. Smoke began to flow from the beast’s nostrils once more as the knight leaped forward. Embers showered the knight as he flew through the air, heading directly into the left head’s trajectory. Fire began to erupt from the creature’s mouth as the knight swung his blade. The sword connected, slicing through the dragon’s neck. The monster’s right head lunged towards the knight as he finished his stroke; flinging the carcass of the beast’s left head to the side. The dragon chomped down onto the knight’s spaulder, gripping the knight’s shoulder with its strong teeth. The behemoth lifted the knight high into the air before throwing the man just high enough to catch his prey with his mouth.

The knight’s face turned pale as he plummeted towards the beast’s tongue. Our hero thrust out his sword as the monster closed its split jaw. In one swift movement, the beast raised its head and lifted its tongue, pushing its captured prey down towards the dark pit of the creature’s throat. The knight held his blade firmly as he tumbled down the monster’s tongue. The blade dug deep into the dragon’s throat. The knight thrust all of his weight onto his blade, shoving the sword through the beast’s gullet.

The dragon’s eyes grew large as it gagged and coughed from the pain. Blood spurted out from the new hole created in the creature’s neck as the beast clawed in panic to dislodge the knight’s blade. The knight held true, pushing the blade out as far as it would go. The dragon cried out in agony as the knight began to twist his blade around the creature’s neck. The sharp metal cut through the monster’s flesh like butter, enlarging the small hole with each press. The beast let out one last howl of pain as the knight sliced through the monster’s vocal cords. The creature slumped forward as the blade finished its cut. With a thud and a rumble, the knight was flung from inside the creature and thrown to the ground as the husk of the behemoth crumpled to the floor.

The knight picked himself from the ground and dusted himself off as he surveyed the wreckage the two had caused. The room was filled with soot and smoke, making it hard for the knight to see. Small crackles and pops of embers and small flames ate away at the remains of the wooden furniture that had lined the room. The knight made his way over to the dragon’s corpse and pulled his blade from the creature’s still neck, causing its lifeless head to flop against the ground. The young man sheathed his blade and begun to search through the wreckage for his shield. The disc laid beneath a smoldering wooden board. The knight kicked the board aside and lifted the dented saucer; bringing with it the small gauntlet that had been welded to the shield from the beast’s fiery breath.

The knight pulled and tugged on the two metal pieces as he tried to pry them apart before tossing the junk aside in defeat. “Now, where is that princess?” the knight contemplated aloud before leaving the soot-filled room. He went back to the great hall and continued down the path towards the remaining rooms. He checked each of the bedchambers and even the solar. He searched the cabinets and boudoir before checking the servant’s quarters. No sign of the damsel could be found on the main floor. So, the knight decided to head below and search the undercroft. The young man waltzed down the stairs without a care in the world. He had succeeded in his challenge by slaying the foul beast that had guarded this fortress. The hard part was over, what more did he have to worry about?

The knight danced and skipped down the dark halls whistling a catchy tune as he went. He hopped over debris and kicked small stones as he made his way through the halls. The young man was stirring up quite the racket as he searched the abandoned tunnels. He was making so much noise that it caught the attention of a confused young woman sitting in her cage at the far end of the casemate.

“Hello?” she called out to the source of the racket. “Anybody there?”

The knight stopped whistling as the words echoed down the empty hall. “Princess?” he called out in response. “Is that you?”

“It is I,” the maiden called out to her savior. “Princess Buttercup Flynn Bottom Hera of the Northern lands of Pilmuth. My father must have sent you; although your voice is unfamiliar. I know our noblemen quite well. Though, I cannot recognize your voice. Sir Reginald?”

“Nay, my fair maiden,” the knight replied as he continued towards the voice.

“Sir Vincent?”

“Not I.”

“Sir Weinhardt?”

“No,” the knight called out as he entered the room.

“Sir… Who are you?” The princess asked in confusion.

“It is I, Sir…” Now it was at this time that the knight did reveal his name to the young princess. It was a very ordinary name: An ordinary name like George or Mike or Matt. It was such an ordinary name that quite frankly I have forgotten what it was.

“Sir George or Mike or Matt?” the princess asked once more. “I’m afraid I do not know you. Are you from the Norther lands of Pilmuth?”

“Nay, my fair lady,” the knight replied.

“What about the Great Lakes of Valenshire?”

The knight shook his head as he looked up at the maiden sitting suspended in the air inside of a cage that resembled one that would hold a bird.

“Helendorf? Ravenwood? Hagglespire? Vizenshire?”

The knight shook his head to each of the questions as he searched for a way to release the damsel.

“Well, where the bloody hell are you from?”

Where was the knight from? That is a very good question; for the knight had never had a home. He grew up as an orphan with his first memory being as a boy walking over a hill and under a tree. The knight had since traveled to many places but never did stay long. The closest place the man had to call home was a small tavern outside of a small farm town that sat below a hill and under a large oak tree.

“Oh, just someplace over a hill and under a tree. Now, how do I get you down from there?”

"There is a crank on the wall just to the right of you,” the princess pointed towards the wooden contraption. “Release that bolt and turn the crank precisely six turns counter-clockwise and my cage will be lowered. The key should be in the room next door. I believe the guard left it on a hook above the carpenter’s table… Oh! Please be careful with… Ahh!”

The princess screamed as her cage plummeted to the ground. With a loud crash, the cage crumpled to pieces, releasing the rattled and annoyed maiden.

“Whoops,” the knight chuckled as he tossed the bolt to the side. “Guess we won’t need that key. What was that bit about the guard?”

“The Guard?” The princess scowled, her voice rising in anger. “The guard who placed me here. The guard who locked me in that cage. You didn’t deal with the guard?”

“So… The guard is different than the dragon?”

The princess stared hard at her savior in disbelief. “How is a dragon supposed to lock me in a cage?” She screamed.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” the knight agreed.

“Probably right?” the princess scoffed as she picked herself off the floor.

“Yeah,” the knight replied. “It probably would have some trouble with the bolt.”

“The princess stayed silent as she studied the knight closely. After a brief moment, the princess sighed and attempted to calm down. “You’re a lot shorter than I expected.”

It was true: the knight was a rather short fellow. Reaching only four feet and eleven inches high, the man was barely taller than that of a dwarf. He was a scrawny fellow too: only weighing a little over 100 pounds. He was so small in fact that the princess towered above him as the two spoke.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m tiny. What about that guard. I didn’t see anyone on my way over here.”

“The guard sleeps in the room next door. It is odd though. Usually, he shows up by now with food.”

Crash! The clatter of a metal tray falling upon the hard-stone floor caught the two’s attention. The two turned to face a very confused hunchback standing in front of a mess of broken plates and spilled food.

“Guard look like that?” the knight asked as the hunchback pulled a large wooden club from the clip on his belt.

“Yeah,” the princess sighed. “That’s him.”

“Well alright,” the knight chuckled as he drew his sword. “Let’s do this Igor!”

The hunchback charged forward, his club raised high into the air. The knight jumped into action, shoving the princess aside just in time to intercept the hunchback’s swing.

Twang! The sound of metal cracking echoed along the walls of the dark room. The hunchback lifted his club for another strike as the knight’s broken blade fell to the floor.

“We’re dead,” the princess mumbled as she watched the knight narrowly dodge a blow from the wooden club.

“This isn’t over yet,” the knight assured the princess as he dove behind his assailant. The knight bounced forward and thrust his broken blade into the hunchback’s elongated hunch.

The hunchback cried out in pain as it dropped its club to the ground and desperately tried to pull the sharp hilt from his back. The knight slowly walked over to his opponent's abandoned weapon and lifted it onto his shoulders as his foe danced about the room in agony.

“See,” the knight winked at the princess as he slowly walked back over to the frantic hunchback and bopped him atop of the head with his own club. The hero turned to face the princess as the hunchback fell to the ground, knocked out cold by the blow. “That was easy.”

The princess shook her head in disbelief at the strange spectacle she had witnessed. “How are you still alive?”

“Dunno,” the knight answered. “Ask myself that question often though. Now, let’s get you out of here.”

The two-headed off towards the stairs before the princess stopped abruptly. “Just to be clear, you did take care of the dragon?”

“Aye,” the knight replied. “He is about as dead as they get.”

“How dead is dead?” The princess asked, her face filled with concern.

“Pretty dead,” the knight replied. “Not much you can do with your heads chopped off.”

“Oh no,” the princess sighed.

“What? Do you guys have a problem with zombie dragons around here? Cause that would be new. Why do you ask?”

The castle rumbled as a loud screeching roar filled the fortress. “That’s why,” the princess hushed. “It’s not dead.”

“You know, I was joking about the whole zombie dragon thing. How does that even happen to begin with? You got some witch around here with a stick up her bum?”

“Not a zombie!” The princess screamed in annoyance. “Hydra!”

“Oh,” the knight replied as the words finally sunk in. “Whoops.”

“Yeah, whoops!” the princess screamed. “How do you plan on to get out of here now?”

“Well, my steed is in the courtyard. We can cut through the kitchen and escape through the Larder the same way I came in. You can run, right?”

“Guess I’ll have to,” the princess sighed as she hiked up her dress.

“Good. This way.” The two darted up the stairs and crept down the hall. They made it all the way to the dining hall before another screeching roar filled the fortress. “Hurry, the knight exclaimed as they bounded into the kitchen. It’s coming!”

It was indeed headed their way; for at that moment a series of earth-shaking thumps followed the two through the castle. The knight rushed the princess into the larder and out the hole in the wall as the beast bounded into the kitchen.

“Where is your steed?” The princess cried out in fright.

“Right here,” the knight replied as he rushed to his ass’ side.

“That?” The princess sneered. “That isn’t a steed! That is an ass!” she cried out as the knight rushed to untie the animal from the tree. “Why the hell did you tie it to a tree? Haven’t you done this before?”

“Of course! But it’s an ass,” the knight replied as he undid the knot. “Didn’t want the thing running off. The last thing I need is to lose my ass.”

A loud screeching roar filled the air followed by a loud crash as the dragon burst through the wall Its four heads searching for its prey.

“Time to go,” the knight exclaimed as he jumped atop the ass. “Come on, princess. It's now or never.” The knight held out his and to the damsel and pulled her atop his ride. The dragon cried out once more before charging after its foe. With a swift kick, the knight pushed the ass into a gallop, throwing its two passengers back and forth with its uneven ride.

“Why is it missing a leg?” The princess called out over the loud thumping.

“Not sure,” the knight replied. “Farmer said something about a mining incident.”

Of course, he did,” the princess shook her head as she checked back to see how far behind their assailant was. “Can’t you make this thing go any faster?”

“Not sure,” the knight answered. It's missing a leg, remember?”

“Well, it will have to! The dragon is gaining on us!”

With a giant roar, the monster confirmed the princess’s statement. The knight kicked the ass into gear once more, propelling the beast through the gatehouse and barreling down the bridge. The dragon followed closely behind, throwing himself onto the bridge before raising all four heads back as it gasped in air.

“Faster!” the princess screamed as she watched the monster. “It’s going to blow!”

Embers flew into the air as the dragon lowered its heads. With one last roar, fire exploded from the monster’s mouth. The stream engulfed the bridge in flames as it shot out towards the galloping ass. The ass screamed in pain as fire licked its back end, sending the ass faster down the bridge. The beast flew past the bridge and into the woods before throwing its passengers off its back as it sat upon its tail to extinguish the small flame.

The knight jumped to his feet laughing in excitement at his accomplishment. The princess stayed unmoved: laying face first in the dirt. The knight rushed to her side before he saw why. The princess’s back was charred and black. He had failed.

Chapter Two

The tavern was surprisingly quiet as the knight took his seat at the far corner of the room. The bar was fairly empty that afternoon, seating only a handful of customers. A large burly man sat at the table opposite the knight, stroking his dark bushy beard as a thin waitress topped off his mug. Three hog-faced muglets sat in the middle of the room; snorting quietly as they devoured the basket of chips that sat between them. A mysteriously cloaked figure sat in a dimly lit corner of the room, eyeing each of the occupants with his back to the wall. A group of five passive-aggressive gnomes sat at the bar, snickering quietly in judgment as an annoyed barkeep filled their pints.

Although the knight came here often, each of these faces were new to him. So he sat in silence as he sipped from his pint and kept to his thoughts. It wasn’t long until the tavern’s doors opened, drawing all eyes on the new traveler. He was a tall fellow, reaching just under six feet high. He stood in front of the door, covered head to toe in ragged clothing.

“Vlad!” the tavern exploded as each person welcomed their old friend.

“Aye, mates,” Vlad acknowledged the crew as he made his way to the bar. “Make it two strong ones, brother,” the man ordered as he pulled a dirty scarf down to reveal his ghostly pale face. He searched the room as he undid his coat. “Ralph’s out back tending to the horses.” The man pulled off his gloves and lowered his darkly tinted glasses as his eyes fell on the lone knight. “Well, I’ll be damned! Didn’t expect you to be back so soon,” Vlad exclaimed as he made his way over to the knight.

“Well, here I am,” the knight grumbled as Vlad slapped the man’s shoulder with his two heavy leather gloves.

“Aww, why the long face, brother,” Vlad teased as he took a seat across from his depressed friend. “You didn’t lose another one, did ya?”

The knight sat in silence as he swirled his pint with his finger. A large grin covered the pale man’s face as he took the knight’s silence as an answer.

“You did, didn’t you!” the man howled in laughter. “Lord, you really are bad at this. What is that, the third this week?”

“Second,” the knight corrected from his gritted teeth.

“Aye?” the man chuckled. “How many this month though? Let’s see. There was the maiden of Fornost. She was beheaded by marauders, correct?”

“The knight continued to swirl his drink as his friend continued.

Then the lady of Vinhere; she fell from the tower and broke her neck. Lady Marwere: eaten by wolves. Princess Penelope; lost in the woods of Dunmirk. Oh, and you can’t forget about the maiden of Vermouth. Weren’t you the one who did her in? Lobbed her head clean off. And Lady… Oh, what was her name? Maryweather!”

“Marywater,” the knight corrected.

“Ah, yes. Marywater. Squashed by a giant if I recall correctly. We are going to have to keep you away from these damsels, mate. At this point, you are doing more harm than good. Workplace accidents are one thing, but this is coming across as more of a liability.” Vlad watched his friend continue to swirl his drink with his head low to the table. “It is good to see you, brother. Ralph will be ecstatic you are here.”

At that very moment, the tavern’s doors slammed shut, bringing everyone’s attention back to the door. A small cloaked figure stood in front, heaving in anger with each breath. The figure threw his green cloak from his head to reveal the small furry face of a honey badger.

“Ralphie, mate!” Vlad called out to the badger. “There you are; was beginning to worry about you. Well, don’t just stand there! Come! Pop a squat!”

The badger heaved one last breath of anger before stomping over to the table. He lifted his coat from his shoulders and draped it neatly over his chair. He began to climb up into his seat before Vlad interrupted him.

“Ralphie, mate. Considering you are already up and all… Would you mind getting our drinks?”

The badger stared at Vlad intently, its eyes filled with fire. He dropped from his seat slowly, his eyes never wavering.

“Thanks, brother. I appreciate it. They’re over there at the bar. Go on. Don’t dawdle.” Vlad waited until the badger left before turning back to the knight. “Such a drama queen. I tell ya mate, there is no pleasing a badger.”

The badger plucked the two pints from the barkeep’s hands and waddled back to the table slowly; careful not to spill a single drop. He plunked the mugs onto the table and slid Vlad’s drink to him before hoisting himself into his seat. A large grin formed across his furry face as he raised his glass to his lips.

“Pfft,” Vlad spat as he shoved his drink back onto the table. “You got hair in here Ralph!”

Ralph’s eyes turned red as he stared at his comrade with rage. He lowered his glass from his lips slowly before shouting a string of unintelligible growls and hisses.

“Hey!” Vlad cried out. “There is no call for that kind of language! Just take the pint back and get a new one.” The badger stared at the Vlad in silence as he turned his attention back to the knight. “Now, where were…”

With a splash, Ralph flung his pint towards his friend, covering the man with mead. The badger howled in laughter as Vlad stared at the animal in disbelief.

“Mate, that is not a road you want to go down,” Vlad explained slowly as he eyed the mischievous creature. There had better be a towel on this table and a pint in my hands in the next five minutes or you will be tied out there with the horses!”

The badger stopped laughing and lowered his head in shame. After a brief moment, he peeked a mischievous eye up towards the knight and winked before placing the empty pint in Vlad’s hands.

Vlad’s face turned red as he slammed the pint onto the table. “You better knock it off before I turn your ass into a hat, my friend!”

Both the knight and badger burst out in laughter as Vlad picked himself up from the table and left to find a towel. Ralph picked up both of the glasses from the table and headed giggling towards the bar. Vlad soon returned to his seat and sighed in annoyance at his giggling friend.

“One of these days I’m going to kill him,” he explained to the knight. “Think I’ll throw him in a stew.”

The two friends shared one last chuckle as the badger waddled back to the table with two fresh pints in hand. He placed the drinks upon the table but waited until he climbed back into his seat before sliding Vlad his mug.

“Thanks, mate,” Vlad sarcastically remarked as the two lifted their drinks and took a large gulp. “Now then, tell us what happened, brother. Did ya forget about the dragon?”

“No, I slew the dragon,” the knight replied. “Or at least I thought I did.”

“Thought you did?” Vlad asked as he placed his drink back upon the table. “How do you think you slew a dragon? What did you do? Throw it off a cliff? You know, those wings aren’t just to look pretty. They use ‘em to fly.”

“No, I didn’t throw it off a cliff.”

Ralph lowered his drink from his lips before sputtering a string of light squeaks before releasing a rather loud belch.

“Ralphie’s right,” Vlad replied. “Was there a body? Did you check for a…” Vlad stopped talking as his face scrunched up from a foul odor that had made its way over the table. “Dear God, Ralph! What did you eat?”

The badger sat quietly with a large grin plastered across his face as he raised his glass back to his lips.

“Anyways,” Vlad grumbled as he covered his nose. “Did you check for a pulse?”

“Didn’t think I needed to,” the knight replied. “Chopped both of the beast’s heads off.”

“Chopped its heads off?” Vlad looked at the knight puzzled as he contemplated the situation. “How was it not dead if it didn’t have a head?”

“Well, it wasn’t an ordinary dragon. No, the bloody bastard was a hydra.”

“Yikes,” Vlad sighed. “Lemme guess: ate the princess before you even made it out of the castle?”

“Oh, no. We made it out alright.”

“You did? Well, that’s great!” Vlad cried as he reached over and slapped his friend on the back. “What are you all depressed about then? You should be celebrating! Where is this princess of yours?”

“In a coffin on its way to Pilmuth.”

A shocked look covered the pale man’s face as he watched his broken friend lower his head back onto the table in shame. “But I thought you said you both got out okay?”

“We did,” the knight mumbled. But so did the hydra. Chased us out onto the bridge before incinerating her entire backside.”

“Ouch,” Vlad flinched as he searched for the right words to cheer up his friend. He turned to his badger comrade as the small animal made three light squeaks. “That’s right!” He exclaimed as he turned back to his friend in excitement. “Time to turn that frown upside down! You’ve got another chance, brother.”

“No, Vlad,” the knight mumbled.

“Hear me out,” Vlad replied as he jumped over to sit by his friend, throwing his arm around the knight’s shoulder. “There’s a princess.”

“No, Vlad,” the knight repeated as he raised his head from the table to give his pale friend a look of annoyance.

“No, no. Hear me out. There’s a princess. Beautiful princess. Rich princess. Princess of…” Vlad slapped the table and looked to the badger as he tried to remember where the princess reigned from. The badger let out a sharp squeak in response. “Floringdale!” Vlad cried out with a snap of his fingers. “Princess of Floringdale. Anyways, this princess was kidnapped. Being held for ransom by some group of bandits.”

“No, Vlad.”

“Oh, come on!” the man nudged. “It’s a simple job mate. You go in, free the princess and collect the reward. Bada-bing bada-boom: you’re a hero. Easy peasy! No dragons or giants; just a couple of dumb bandits.”

“No,” the knight repeated once more.

“But, she’s…”

“No!”

Vlad lowered his arm from the knight’s shoulder and stared hard in disbelief. “No?”

“No,” the knight reiterated.

Vlad continued to stare at his friend intently as he tried to understand. “No? What? Are you giving up?”

“Yup,” the knight smugly replied as he took a sip from his cup.

“So, that’s it? No more quests?”

“You said it yourself, Vlad. I’m just a liability.”

“Brother… I didn’t…” Vlad stared at the knight with concern as he fumbled for the right words. “You are seriously giving up?”

“Vlad it's time for me to move on. This line of work isn’t for me.”

“But what will you do?”

“Dunno,” the knight replied. “Might try my luck as a farmhand.”

“A farmhand?” Vlad asked puzzled. “Milking cows? Soiling the land? That kind of stuff?”

“That kind of stuff,” the knight replied.

“Brother,” Vlad laughed. “I just can’t see it, mate. You? A farmhand?”

“Well, you’ll have to,” the knight said as he finished his pint.

“Aye,” Vlad chuckled. “I guess I will. But why a farmhand?”

“There are no damsels in distress on farms,” the knight winked as he rose from his seat. “It’s about time I’m off, fellas.”

“Well mate,” Vlad replied as he stood up and patted the knight’s shoulder. “Good luck. You’ll make a fine farmhand.”

The knight said his farewells before heading around back and untying his ass. He chuckled softly as he noticed the bare patch of pink skin that stood out amongst the charred fur of the animal’s back. “Time to move on,” he muttered to himself before leading the beast out onto the road.

He led the beast away from the tavern and away from the ill as he traveled forward without a destination. He figured he would continue to walk until he felt better and then from there, he would search for a farmer who needed a hand. So, the man and the beast continued down the road until the auburn rays of the setting sun reminded the young traveler it was time to make camp. The knight led the ass off the road and into the woods as they searched for a nice clearing that would do.

“I told you mate; the pot needs to boil before you throw in the food!”

The knight listened closely as the voices broke through the foliage. Deciding company would be nice on a night like tonight, he headed off towards the source of the voices.

“Gimme the spoon, you big buffoon! Make yourself useful and grab me some kindling. Rico, keep that girl quiet! The last thing we need is some curious… Did you hear that?

“Hear what, boss?”

“Sounds like twigs snapping. You buggers made sure no one followed us, right?”

“Uhh, I dunno. I don’t think I saw anybody.”

“Would you shut up you useless galloot! You're lucky you’re big or I’d have ditched you back in Milwood! Now get out there and get that bloody kindling!”

The knight stopped right outside of the campsite, unsure if he should head back or intervene. He stood there quietly as he listened from the shadows of the bushes. It was a small group, with four rough-looking men relaxing around a fire. A short bald man stood in front of a pot of water heating atop the fire, swinging a large spoon in the air as he screamed orders at the group. A tall lanky man with long blonde hair laid sprawled out across a log, humming quietly as he picked the dirt from his nails with a long sharp knife. An average-sized man sat hunched over outside a tent, a large hat covering his face as he tried to sleep. Another man sat upon a log opposite the blonde’s, sharpening his sword with slow smooth strokes.

Thump! A large hand fell upon the knight’s shoulder, startling the young man and spooking his ass.

“Gotcha!” The hand’s owner cried out as it lifted the knight high into the air to get a better look at his captured prize. The man was a large fellow, reaching ten feet high, just a hair shorter than the smallest trees that surrounded the group.

“Giant!” The knight cried out in alarm.

“Half-giant,” the short bald man corrected as his crew came to see what the large man had caught. “Bill here is a half-breed, who is light on his feet. Nice job, you big galloot! Knew you were good for something!” Bill lowered the knight back to his feet for his captain to survey their new prisoner. The bald man made his way over to the knight, jabbing him in the gut with his spoon as he studied him. “And who is this nosy wanderer doing eyeing our camp? We don’t take kindly to nosy pests, do we boys?”

The group cackled as they surrounded the knight. “What should we do with him?” the blonde man snickered.

“Think we should cut ‘im up and throw ‘im in the stew!” the man with the hat cried as he licked his lips.

The group fell silent as the short bald man scrunched up his face. “Eww,” he snorted as he slowly turned towards his odd comrade. “Throw ‘im in the stew,” he mocked as he beat the man in the head with his spoon. “The hell is wrong with you, Rico? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we DON’T EAT PEOPLE, Rico! This is not that kind of party! Get your ass over there and watch the girl before I throw it in the fire and feed the wolves!” Rico lowered his head and walked slowly back to the tent as his bald commander turned his attention back to the knight. “Now then, what’s a nosey little prick doing in these woods?”

Chapter Three

The knight was flung to his knees as Bill pushed him to the center of the campsite. “Sorry, mate,” Bill apologized as he picked the knight back up and placed him back on his feet. “Don’t know me strength sometimes.”

“Bill!” the short bald man screamed. “We don’t apologize to the prisoners!”

Bill looked back down at the knight in shame before thumping him back to his knees. “Better?”

“It’s like I’m working with amateurs here,” the bald man sighed. “Flynt! Search him! Gather his valuables.”

The lanky blonde man looked the knight over from head to toe as he searched for anything of value. “He doesn’t have any,” he called back to his leader as he took a step back.

“What?” the bald man screamed. “Of course, he does! Check his pockets!”

Flynt patted the knight down once more before jamming each of his hands into the prisoner’s pockets. “Nothing!”

“What kind of knight doesn’t have valuables?” The bald man muttered as he hobbled back over to his pot. “Check that damn ass of his!”

Flynt turned and watched as his brunette comrade struggled to pull the stubborn beast into the camp. “Sir, it’s missing a leg.”

“You’re about to too if you don’t get over there and search that bloody beast! Grab the fricking armor! Armor always brings in a pretty penny.” The bald man turned to face Rico sitting in front of the tent with his hat covering his face. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get off your ass and help those blubbering idiots!”

Rico jumped to his feet and ran over to help his comrades pull the beast into the camp. They pulled the animal to a nearby tree and tied the beast’s reigns with a very poor knot before unloading the knight’s gear from the creature’s back.

“It’s junk,” Flynt called out.

“Yeah, boss,” Rico confirmed as he pulled out the dinged-up breastplate. “This stuff is useless.”

The bald man sighed heavily as he tapped his spoon on the pot. “Rico! Get the girl. Flynt, finish this stew.” The bald man shoved his spoon into Flynt’s chest as he made his way over to the knight. “A knight with no possessions. What kind of knight are you?

“The retired kind,” the knight smugly replied.

“Is that so,” the bald man snickered as he picked up the knight's rusty spaulder. “The retired kind walks around with this?”

“Aye,” the night replied. “I’m actually in the market to sell if you folk are willing to buy.”

“To buy?” the bald man howled with laughter. “You are trying to sell this garbage to us?

“Aye. If the price is right.”

“If the price is right?” The bald man chuckled as he walked slowly back over to the knight, leaning his face in close to his prisoner’s. “You see, mate, we aren’t the kind of folk that tend to do the buying. No, mate. We take what we want.”

“Got her!” Rico exclaimed cheerfully as he shoved a rattled bound and gagged young woman to the ground.

The bald man sighed deeply; his musky breath filled the man’s nostrils. “Can’t you see I’m busy here!” he screamed as he lifted himself back up.

“But, what do you want me to do with her?”

“Sit her by the fire and get her ready to eat!”

“Eat? Rico asked puzzled.

“Yes, Eat!” The bald man screamed as he picked the woman from the ground and threw her towards the fire.

“But,” Rico stammered as he looked at his captain in confusion. “Why?”

“Because, Rico,” the bald man heaved in anger. “She is being held for ransom, Rico! In order to receive the money, Rico, she has to be alive! In order for her to stay alive, Rico, she has to be fed! Do you understand, RICO?” The bald man heaved heavily in anger as he stared his subordinate down.

“So… We remove her gag?”

“Argh!” the bald man screamed as he pulled a long silver dagger from behind his back and jammed it deep into Rico’s chest. “Yes, Rico! You remove her fricken gag, you worthless, stupid, bloody imbecile!” He screamed as he pulled and stabbed his blade into the bandit’s chest with each word.

Startled by his captain’s outburst, Bill jumped back, shaking the ground violently from the hulking man’s weight. The small earthquake startled the knight’s ass; triggering a wave of flashbacks from the beast’s time working at the mines. The beast screamed out a blood-curdling scream as it kicked its only rear leg back, knocking the brunette bandit unconscious. Flynt rushed to his comrade’s side as the creature continued to kick and jump about in freight.

“The hell?” the bald man screamed as he dropped his blood-soaked dagger and turned to witness the commotion. “Flynt! Tame that beast!”

The ass screamed once more as Flynt rushed towards it, triggering another PTSD influenced panic attack. The beast charged forward, snapping its tethered binds and trampling Flynt as it barreled towards the bald man. The bald man screamed as he dove to the side, barely missing the rampaging beast’s attack.

“Bill!” the man screamed as the beast flew into the woods. “Make sure that filthy mutt doesn’t come back!” the man picked himself up and dusted himself off as he surveyed the wreckage. “And get rid of that corpse. I don’t want it anywhere near here when it starts stink…” Blood spurted from the man’s chest as a glint of silver poked through the man’s shirt. The man looked down in shock as life began to fade from his body. The blade slid back as the man’s lifeless corpse slumped forward, revealing the determined face of the frazzled female prisoner.

“Finally,” she sighed as she slit her remaining bonds with the blood-stained blade. “Didn’t think he’d ever shut up.”

“Wow,” Bill gasped as he watched the woman free herself.

“You!” She cried as she pointed the blade at the half-giant. “Are there any others? Speak quickly before I do you in like I did your master.

“Umm, the hulking man stuttered as he backed himself into a tree. “I-I-I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so? Well, think harder! You have any more friends hiding in the woods? Any other bandits know that we are here?”

“N-N-No Ma’am,” Bill stuttered.

“No?” The woman smirked with a twinkle in her eye. “Then beat it!” she screamed as she waved her blade about. The man took three steps into the woods before turning back with a look of confusion. “Boo!” The woman cried as she lunged at the hulking fella. The man whimpered in fear as he ran off into the woods, shaking the earth with each step. “Half-giants,” the woman chuckled as she wiped the bloody blade with her ragged dress. “Harmless, really. Just big ‘ol gullible babies.” The woman tucked the clean blade in the wrap of her dress before facing the knight. “I take it you are here for the reward my state is offering in my return? I’ll admit, that was a rather unorthodox way of rescue, but that donkey did a surprisingly well job. In either sense, my family will be more than happy to pay you once we arrive in Floringdale. If we leave in the morning, we should reach there in about three days’ time.

“I’m not here for a reward,” the knight replied as he picked himself up from his knees.

“A knight working for charity? How noble.”

“No, not a knight,” the knight answered. “And I’m not here on behalf of charity. “

“Then what are you here for,” the woman asked as she studied the young man carefully.

“Just passing through,” the knight replied without batting an eye.

The woman pulled her hair away from her face as she continued to study the man. “You are a rather small fellow.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m tiny,” the knight mumbled as he began to search through the bandit’s belongings.

Well, can I at least know the name of my savior?” the woman asked as she pushed her way in front of the knight.

The knight, not wanting to come across as a barbarian, obliged. “George, or Matt, or Mike,” he replied as he pushed his way past the woman and continued to search. “But I’m not your savior.”

“No, that ass of yours is,” she chuckled before pushing her way back in front of the knight. “Jaz,” she introduced herself as she held out her hand. The knight pushed it away and began sifting through the bald man’s pockets. The woman turned her attention to the unconscious bandit. “Shouldn’t we tie him up or something?”

“Nope,” the knight answered as he pulled a pouch of gold from the bald man’s pocket.

“Why not?”

“No need,” the knight replied as he pulled a burgundy cloak from its resting place atop a tree branch. “Here,” he called out as he tossed the pouch and cloak behind him to the girl. “You’ll need these more than I will.”

“What?” Jas asked as she caught the items.

“Cover those golden locks, princess. There are more bandits a lot meaner than these fools in these woods. There’s a tavern about a night’s walk South. Continue past and over the hill and there is a town. That gold should be enough to get you a ride home.” The knight pulled the brunette bandit’s sword from beneath the man’s unconscious body and strapped it to his back before making his way back into the woods.

“Wait, you’re just leaving?” the woman asked as the knight walked away.

“Yup,” the knight replied without looking back. "You’ll want to too. That bandit will be waking up soon.”

“Wait!” Jaz called out as she rushed to catch up with the knight. “Won’t you help me?”

“Trust me, darling, you don’t want my help. Besides, it looks like you can take care of yourself.”

“Wait,” Jaz pushed her way in front of the knight to block his path. “Take me to the town. You said yourself, it’s not that far from here. I don’t know these woods like you do.”

The knight sighed as he looked into the woman’s big pleading blue eyes. “I could use a drink,” he mumbled.

“The tavern! Take me to the tavern. I can make it the rest of the way. Please!”

“The knight sighed as he turned back towards the road. “Fine. But only to the tavern.”

Jaz and the knight headed back through the woods and out onto the road. They traveled for a ways in silence before the young princess grew bored.

“So if you’re not a knight, why did you have a suit of armor?” She asked as a means to break the silence.

“Retired,” the knight replied coldly as he continued to push on.

“Why,” the princess asked as she followed closely behind.

“Not for me,” the knight answered to avoid the question.

“Not for you?” Jaz pried.

“Look,” the knight snapped as he stopped and faced his prying companion. “Do you want to play 20 questions or do you want to go home?”

“Well fine,” Jaz scoffed as she pushed the knight aside and took the lead. “I was just trying to make small talk. You know, back where I come from, knights have better manners. Whether they are active or…”

“Shush,” the knight hushed as he stopped to listen to the woods around him.

“Jaz stopped walking as her eyes filled with rage. “You did not just shush me!” She cried as she turned back around and stomped over to the knight. “I will not be shushed!”

With an annoyed look, the knight covered the enraged princess’ mouth with his hand and placed a finger to his lips. The woman’s face turned red as she tried to pry the knight’s hand away; screaming a string of muffled insults. The knight remained unmoved; his focus locked on the dark abyss hidden in the trees.

Ba-thunk! Ba-thunk! Ba-thunk! The noise reverberated against the trees with a small rumble with each light thump. The knight lowered his hand as Jaz’s face turned white.

“What was that?” she whispered.

“Shush,” the knight hushed as he waited for the next thump. He waited patiently but another thump never came. The knight stared out at the horizon before nudging the princess forward. “Dawn is coming,” he replied softly. “Let’s hurry.”

“But what was it?” Jaz asked once more in a tone a bit louder. The knight ignored the question and continued to lead. “I bet it was that half-breed giant,” the princess exclaimed loudly with a huff. “What was his name? Bill! That’s it! Hello Bill!”

The knight stopped mid-step and turned to face the loud woman. “Shush!” He exclaimed as he turned back towards his path.

“Would you stop shushing me!” Jaz screamed as she pulled the knight back to face her. “I am royalty and I demand your respect!”

“If you do not shut up, we will be dead!” the annoyed knight exclaimed. “Do you understand?”

“Now who is being loud,” Jaz mocked. “We aren’t going to die. That’s just Bill! Hello Bill!”

“That’s not…” Another rumble interrupted the frustrated knight.

“Bill!” the princess cried. “His name is Bill!”

Two louder thumps rumbled as they made their way closer to the travelers. “Shh!” the knight hushed again as he searched through the woods for the source.

Ba-Thunk!

“There you go with the shushing again!”

Ba-Thunk!

“Shh!” the knight desperately pleaded.

Ba-Thunk! Ba-Thunk!

“Stop shushing me!” the princess screamed at the top of her lungs.

Ba-Thunk! Ba-Thunk! Ba-Thunk!

"Would you shut up! It’s not…” the princess screamed as te knight was lifted high into the air. “Bill!” the knight finished as he was lifted higher than the treetops.

The princess screamed again as she dove to the side as a hulking grayish-blue foot slammed down where she once stood; shaking the Earth violently. The Earth shook once more as another foot slammed into the ground a quarter-mile away. The princess watched in terror as the original foot lifted as the monster took another Earth-shaking step as it walked away; taking the princess’ only guide with it. 

The story continues January 1rst, 2020! Pre-order today at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B081J9F1F9/

fantasy
Jack A. Warren
Jack A. Warren
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