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The Valiant Never Taste of Death But Once
Running, his chest heaved like the bellows of a forge. Running through the forest. To the hag. The hag just beyond the village, he stumbled across the witch years ago, when he was younger. He had fled then, fled to his mother, fled to his father, fled to the castle of their family in fear. He ran back to the hag now.
He ran from his father's troops, swirling before his doorstep, a sea of blood red livery, dented steel mail, and worn leather. He ran from the twenty nine thousand loyal warriors sworn to protect his father. Those troops, that color, his father's troops, his father's colors. They had fought valiantly for the King in battle, they would fight valiantly for the king's son. They would fight for him, Prince Johannes of the House of Libre, heir to the throne of the kingdom beside the mountain and between the two waters. He ran.
He ran from the bodyguard huddled around the white stallion that carried the litter in which lay the body of his father. Once the solemn color of unmatched swordsmanship, the livery of the bodyguard now seemed like sackcloth with ashes. His father wounded, maybe for the last time. If he died...
Soon he had left the fields surrounding the castle of Libre, and fled into the forest. Here, in the edge of the forest, with the trees , and the sun still bright, lived the peasants of the king, the workers of his fields. Down the path, he stumbled, rocks drew blood from his knee, a scent of dust scrubbed at his nose, he leapt up again, down, down the path, deep, deep into the forest.
He saw smoke waft through the pillars of the redwoods. The smoke snuck out of a chimney on the roof of a mud and thatch-work hut. He saw a peasant bent over like a scorched twig with cobwebs for hair. Only fifty yards away, just behind the hut and swine corral, stalked a bear, built as much of legends and warnings as muscle and sinew. The shadow of terror, the incarnation of distress, prowled ever so close to the old women who bent over her turnips in her ramshackle garden, and who desperately tried to whistle a tune. When the harvest did not ripen, the king must open his barns. When the bear struck, the king must rally aid. When a spirit of song could not be found, the king must rally his spirit to song. And if the king died...
He ran on.
A shadow stretched out its hand and slid its fingers down the princess arm and chest; and he shivered as his struck with the fever. The firs let in the light so they could have a little game. Give sight to the wandering man child, let him see, but only so far, and then let him guess, and doubt, and question, and ask of the gods when will the vision of trees end?
Panting, staggering, he fell into a clearing littered with gray boughs broken and cast down like a field of bones. In the center, nested the hut of the hag.
He put out his chest, yanked himself erect, and strode toward the door. The door, a slab of redwood bark, nested inside what could be called a beaver's house, but built of piled nettles, and small river bushes. The stream, or the trickle, walked silently across the path, coming in from the trees to the left, and disappearing silently into the foliage to the right. He missed his step, and boot and shin splashed in; he staggered out of the water. He continued his stride. Up, all the way up to the door, knock, knock again, don't be afraid, knock twice more, wait.
No creaking, only a pop and a crack and the bark door opened inward.
“Yes?” Two eyes, puffed, bloodshot, staring out of a fleshy skull, a cold hand snatched his arm. The hag whispered to him, screeched at him, pleaded with him, all at the same time.
The frost like a wraith clutched at his heart, but he battered it away with a curse. His stomach churned with horror, but he calmly grasped his sword hilt instead of his belly. He stood erect, but casual, and stared deep into those eyes.
“I need a potion,” he tried to sound like it was nothing, and yet at the same time more important than anything this hag would every want. For he indeed, had the needs and desires of a prince, not a hag.
“A prince, the prince, the king's son, what an honor, what may I do for you? The king is dying, yes I have heard, wounded in battle or betrayal. A good choice to come, I have both antidote for poison, and herbs for healing. You will need both when you are king,” she smiled knowingly and her eyes flashed with irony.
“I will need neither,” said the boy deliberately.
“Oh?...” she smiled, beckoned him in and started edging toward a maple bookshelf with a dizzying array of foggy, colored vials and beakers. Her hand stretched out towards one.
“Oh, you will dear, there is a price for everything, and as king you will have everything.”
“If I had everything I wouldn't be here,” grunted the prince, scowling as he watched her fingers wrap around a potion.
“The strongest warriors of the king, the knights, they roam at will. They win freedom and strength and the spoils of war,” suggested the hag.
“The warriors will fight and die like the king, I need more than that,” the words tumbled from his mouth before he could plug the damn. His eyes burned with desire, and his hands shook with trepidation. “I want...”
“To free who you are from the shackles of what you must become.” The witch ground a vial into the flesh of his palm, and wrapped his fingers around the cold glass. “You came for this.”
Sir Elijah of the House of Libre, blood kin of King Josiah, and Adviser to the throne of the kingdom beside the mountain and between the two rivers, trotted quickly along the bridge as the sun set, hand on dagger, eyes darting from possible ambush to hidden trap. A bag of gold clattered at his waste. Ten days ago, Prince Johannes of the House of Libre, heir to the throne of kingdom beside the mountain and between the two waters, vanished. For ten days, Sir Elijah, and the combined armies of the House of Libre had searched for Prince Johannes. For ten days Prince Johannes had remained unfound.
Elijah's feet slapped onto the bridge. The bridge buckled and threw him back, a rumble of thunder rung him out, and he lay panting. The troll stood over him. The monsters reached down, and ripped out a plank of the bridge, and swung it above his head. The club hung in the air like the executioners ax.
The Elijah drew his dagger, clenched the bag of gold, and pushing off one of the lashings of the wood, slid himself back. The creature towered to the height of a man upon a dwarf. As for muscle, he boasted a body crafted of piled mossy boulders.
“I am sent to find Prince Johannes heir to the throne. I will find him or find him dead, and avenge him. You will not stop me!” Challenged Elijah, back flat against the wooden planks.
The troll laughed like the pounding of a waterfall, and he stretched out his rippling arm, with, Elijah could swear a look of pride. Elijah noticed a sycamore, rooted far below in the fertile bank of the river rose up very close to the bridge and one of the branches hung just a child's height above the rail. A a fairly, thick, sturdy, branch, with several others just higher up the tree. Close enough, just close enough to...
“I am troll, I can win, yes, yes, you will die. Gold, yes, I will take your gold, and I will buy trinkets and weapons and feasts for myself, and I will enjoy them. I am a troll. I pillage. I can enjoy my spoils, and no one can question me!”
“On my back as I am, a gnome could stab me...”, tried the advisor, with a hint of elation at his own cunning. Of course, trap him in his own vanity.
“I am a troll. I will smash you on your back. I care not how you die.”
For a moment, Elijah's heart sank, he braced himself for the blow. Then like a rotten egg, a realization came into the belly of Elijah, a revelation of what a troll would want, and he snarled in disgust. “You will smash me and then what? I hear the cats play with their prey before feasting. Why don't trolls do the same?” his snarl curled upwards into a smile, but he straightened his face within an instant. He would trick this troll at last.
The troll knew very well what the messenger was trying to do. If this human could stand, he could fight. For what, the troll had an idea, chivalry, honor, maybe just to die knowing he at least tried to live. His victim had no chance. But what is victory without the thrill of a fight?
The troll stepped back and gestured with his bludgeon for Elijah to stand. He began to shake, and breathe heavily as he watched his plan play out. Desperately he weeded out his thoughts, frantically wiping his mind clear, focusing on the next step. The rail. The branch. He came to his knees slowly bracing himself for this last chance. As his second knee left the floor, the troll charged. Three strides and the brute would be on him. He rolled out from under the guillotine swing of the club, and knocked into the rope rail. He fumbled with his hands for only a second before grabbing the rope and pulling himself up. The troll whacked at him again, but grasping this cord, he yanked himself back wards, just in time to see the place where he once stood splinter into a million pieces and fall into the river.
He had to do it now. He swung his leg over the rail, for moment wavered in to the wind and the pushed off, fell, and with dizzying shock hit the branch of the sycamore. He gasped for air and grappled for the next branch. The sycamore bent partially over the bridge, and after three boughs, the messenger had perched himself thirty feet above the center of the bridge, and the troll.
The troll swung first at the messenger, and maimed the tree. Then he whacked at the tree itself to shake off his victim, but Elijah squeezed his bough like a serpent... The troll grunted, but then smiled as his flesh warmed and his breath burned within him. The thrill of the fight. The exhilaration of life. He almost hurtled himself at the white tree, but a last strand of common sense held him back. He snarled and stood below Elijah He figured to catch his bird in the tree.
The advisor measured his breaths, caressed the branch, and with a will forced himself to think. He opened his mouth, and his head went for a swim. He devoured the cool clean air, and spoke, “Are you still playing cat, or are you back to chasing?”
The troll bellowed like the battle cry of a thousand highlanders, and hurtled himself into to the air grasping for the branch. Short. He crashed down again into a heap. The bridge shook and crackled. Anger steamed in his mind, and his body stung. He threw himself on his feet and jumped again. Short. The bridged cracked and creaked.
“No. I am troll. You are human. I am better than you are.You will never be able to find the prince. I will kill you. Ask yourself why you tried.” A final time he launched himself into the air, a final time he fell short. As he hit the bridge like a boulder hurled down by an avalanche, the bridge rippled with a mighty din, and shattered beneath the troll, casting him into the foamy waters below.
An empty vial in his loincloth shot forth and exploded into tiny crystals lost in the torrent.
“We do not know if he is dead, we must find him or avenge him if he is slain!” Sir Elijah knelt by the kings bed. Elijah had returned to the king after a month of searching. He did not find the prince. His eyes darting away from the tears glistening on the leathery cheek of the king, his cousin, his closest relative. Sir Zachariah of House of Libre Avenger of the Prince, rightful heir to...Zachariah shook his head violently and rendered his thought a sunder. Finding no where for his eyes to rest except on the contorted visage of morning liege, he shut his eyes and concentrated on the voice.
“A manticore has been spotted by the north river, he moves swiftly to Barytown. Oh why must I endure the death of both a son and a village?”
“We cannot bury him without burying his murderer.”
“We cannot bury him and bury an entire city in the same grave. But who will stand against the manticore? The defense of the city is my families responsibility, the victory over the monster is my families right; yet I am dying and my son is dead.” lamented the king.
“Sir Nathaniel may lend aid, his fortress lies just east of the city, and his rule extends almost to the walls themselves,” suggested Elijah.
“Sir Nathaniel is a coward,” the king spat.
Sir Elijah pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. Sir Zachariah of House of Libre Bane of the Manticore; Avenger of the Prince rightful heir to...
“I will lead the troops and they will follow. We will slay the manticore, then find or avenge your prince. I spotted a troll by the eastern river, fifty men may slay a manticore, but fifty men with a troll know they can slay a manticore, if we have no prince, we will have a champion. And I will find this champion.”
They tracked the troll for a fortnight. They watched him make his way down the riverbed, and stalked him to his cave. Outside in the thickening pitch of night, they mustered their courage, Sir Elijah and Sir Daniel of the Knights of the Templar.
“We'll have our troll within the hour!” claimed Sir Elijah with a cocky smile and furtive movement toward his dagger. He choose a leather tunic over a chest plate of iron or shirt of mail. They would only hinder his speed and do nothing against the bone splintering blow of a troll's cudgel. He wore no bulky riders cloak but a tight wool jacket of sparing material, but sufficiently warm. As for his head, he defiantly left it bare.
“Sure friend. You have a troll for a friend. I sure hope you have a god for a friend too.” Elijah's companion caressed his sword with a leather gloved hand. He had forgone his white cloak with one sown of midnight; a lone cross of white embroidered on the left arm like a lonely star. His tumbling cloak hid the bulge of his long sword sword. He wore no armor, but the cross of God emblazoned in gray on his black tunic.
They sneaked into the cave. Two trees had been splintered into a cobweb of branches and set aflame in the middle of the stone floor. Bones of sheep, and goats, and cows, and ogres, lay scattered; here a bone next to a loin cloth, there a bone next to a couple of doubloons. Everything lay everywhere. A battle ax a splintery handle next to a man's tunic, a assortment of flasks and bottles cracked and piled together, scraps of corn and peas buried into the sand, a horse hoof, a wine cask, a tapestry pulled over three long swords like a tarp, a bow without a string, fishing spear, half a door, strands of hair, and a rats nest of heather and webs for a bed. They saw a mule and a few goats tied to a tree nearby.
Elijah, drew his sword and stepped into the firelight. He nodded at the dwarf to swing around to the trolls back as Elijah drew the brutes attention.
“We meet again master troll?” smirked the messenger. “Manticore. Besieged a town under the dominion of the king, and the court of Libre is paying for a hero. I've never fought a manticore, but I've heard its exciting,” he grinned sarcastically, “Life's dull, and you only live it once. Might as well really live while you're still alive” began Elijah in a tone mocking the great orators of old. “Under the king's command, we're searching out ogres and lesser giants to fight for us, but we will give you a chance if you'd like,” he smiled at his own cunning.
“I am troll. I steal. I eat. I hide in the day. I do not need to fight manticore,” replied the troll. The troll cackled and wielded his club and one foot after another advanced upon the messenger, and his sword. Swords do little against the hide of a troll, and the troll knew it and the messenger knew it. The battle would be over quickly.
“I don't ask you to change your wild manners and desperate ways,” said Elijah, allowing himself a step backward, catching the eye of the circling Templar Knight as he did. Signaling for his partner to move into position. “What's a troll if he can't beat a manticore...and save the thirty odd prince-less peasants.” He grinned again, how well he reasoned with this brute. Maybe he should have joined the holy order and become a politician.
“I am troll and I can beat manticore and I can also raze village while I'm at it.” The troll began to pound around the fireplace, slowly.
Silently, Sir Daniel drew forth six feet of razor sharp steel from his cloak. He stood behind a pine only twenty feet from the back of the troll, just outside the firelight. Ready.
“I've challenged you troll, I don't think you can kill the manticore, because I know you can't beat me,” taunted Elijah wily. “Don't your warts hurt? Aren't you sick of the rocks at your back as you cower from the sun? Aren't you sick of man and beast running scared from your sight? Aren't you sick of the stare of the moon on every evil and wicked you do? We will make you a hero.” the Elijah pleaded with the troll.
The troll growled and charged, and Sir Daniel bolted toward the troll like a rogue shadow falling suddenly on his master. The sword fell on the shoulder of the troll with a thud, and the blessed weapon inflicted no wound. Like the tail of a chimera, the troll's arm swung back and slammed into the Templar's chest, hurling him beside the fire. Instinctively Sir Daniel rolled away, shaking his head wildly to get the sparks out of his beard. He tried to stand, staggered and fell back down. The fire in the pit sneered at the Templar, and snatched out to grab him, to short, and then another loose flame, and then another, ever closer to the stunned knight.
Elijah glanced back at the trees, and imagined himself safe in the branches, but this time the troll would have a victim to devour if the brute besieged him in a tree.
Sir Daniel tried again to rise, and using his sword as a cane hauled himself to his knees.
The troll lunged forward and swung at Elijah, but Elijah dodged and rolled between the brutes leg, throwing out a hand to the dwarf, and in the blink of an eye both stood on their feet again, and faced the troll.
The troll faced them. Two against one, and before Elijah had defeated him alone.
“Prepare yourselves,” cried the troll, for a troll he was. This time no bridge would crack beneath him, no tree would embrace his foes. No the fire would bite them, and his cudgel would bash them. He was a troll. He thrust his bludgeon into the fire until the tip blackened and sparked. He wrenched his weapon out of the fire with a passion of spite throwing ashes and coals at his enemies, and waylaid them.
He grabbed the Templar's swinging ax in one hand, and rendered the man soaring into the base of a tree with his bludgeon. As the troll spun round on the Elijah, again the adviser had darted to the back of the troll and raced for a nearby tree. What more was there. His dagger would do no more than the long sword blessed by the holy order. A rock would do nothing. Sand would blind only long enough for a prayer. The sharp glass of the bottles he would never be able to shove down the beasts throat. The...the mace. He bent over and grabbed the weapon with both hands and with a cry raised it spinning, barely spinning for the weight of the weapon proved almost too much for the adviser. The troll laughed as Sir Elijah swung up and down to land a blow, only to send the iron ball, slam into the dirt. The messenger could not lift the weapon again. Gasping and hunched, over he staggered to the tree.
He had hauled himself thirty feet in the air when the troll reached him. The troll without a smug expression of revenge, grasped the tree by the bark, ripped it roots and all from the ground and smashed the ground with the pine like a hammer against a nail.
Elijah scrambled to put the bark between him and impact, but as his body writhed at the impact, he heard a snap. He had landed on a blanket, if he could somehow hurl the blanket into the fire, he might be able to light the tree, and escape from behind the wall. The pain in his leg told him a different story. He thought of another idea.
“I have bested my bird,” stated the troll. “I do not like the meat of men. I am troll, you're helpless now, you're helpless uninjured. I am troll; would I enjoy your screams and your pathetic begging for mercy? Maybe, but for only moments. And then what? I am troll.”
“But we're even now, I'm a veteran warrior, and you're a troll. I guess you're going to do whatever trolls do. I can't catch you. I can't even crawl,” he chuckled, “but a platoon of bodyguards, a cavalry detachment...if you live forever, and I don't doubt your body of stone will live forever, someone will catch you. They will slay you without thought. They will have no reason to let you live. I'll train you. You'll win, you'll be famous, rich, and you'll live in the luxury without ever having to go back. All you have to do is defeat a manticore.”
“I will never be caught.”
“Even I with the luck of the gods defeated you...”, then he added hastily, “but off course you defeated me as well...”. Elijah realized the end had probably come, so he focused on Sir Daniel, willing him to stand because he himself could not. The Templar's chest heaved, but no words or movement.
“I can be defeated,” said the troll. “A manticore can defeat me.”
“Yes, but its the only chance I've got,” Elijah meant this every way.
“Why not?” asked the troll to Sir Elijah “Why not? I may die, but I will never be anything more than a troll, and if I win, I'll will win the glory I abandoned. I am a troll. I do not need glory. However I can relish in it,” the troll began to walk toward the adviser. “Crawl back to your castle and drag your friend with you. I am troll. I like to see you humiliated. But I am bored and will come.”
The troll did not come. But Sir Elijah half guessed it. Without Prince or Champion, he had sent a messenger to the king pleading him to ride towards Bary Town. The king, he claimed, must only go as far as Vernal Town, only so far as to inspire the troops to fight knowing the king, even in his darkest hour, had not surrendered the town to the manticore.
Elijah had chosen his garments personally. Instead of mail or iron, he protected his chest with a doublet the blue of Libre and emblazoned with the Lion of Josiah. He wore his faded dark green riding cloak fastened with a ancient and rough piece of iron. His helm boldly and audaciously left his face bare, and he wore the red plume of the House of Libre. He rode into the city, in the courtyard, where thirty men, most aspiring hero's and wandering swords and restless knights of Sir Nathaniel. He smiled and cast a deliberate and obvious glance at the tiny alligator wrought of iron glistening on his right chest, his personal symbol and the marker of his rank. “I am here in the stead of King Josiah of the kingdom beside the mountain and between the two waters. May he live for ever.”
The thirty men cheered.
“The king is coming. I have been sent as representative of the king and assure that by the time he arrives the manticore will be slain!”
Ear splitting screams and war cry's.
“Today we shall meet the Manticore in the field. He will not see the gates. Our arrows will pierce his wings! Our swords will pierce his mail! Our pikes with gouge out his eyes! His blood will flow like wine. Tonight the women and the children will eat and drink in safety!”
Elijah's chest swelled and he turned on a heel with a flare of his green cape and strode into their midst and cried, “The king is coming.”
Elijah stood over a cold fire pit. He plunged his hand wrist deep into the soot and drew on his upper arm the sun, the noonday sun of the House of Libre. Sir John repeated the ritual. Right hand in the soot, left arm branded. Sir Boris repeated the ritual, Right hand in the soot, left arm branded. Sir Nathaniel branded the left side of his neck. Sir Tyrel signed his arrow sheath. Sir Ivan's stained both shin and forehead. One soldier dashed off to the tar at the wall defenses and plastered the symbol to his shield. One knight shaved it in his hair.
Sir Ivan sped to the bell tower and pulled with all his might. He ran up the tower and yelled out above the city, “The king is coming.” A tipsy pike man yelled out in echo. “The king is coming!” Zachariah sounded out the news again and this time twenty deep voices bellowed in response.
A black speck appeared on the horizon. Within half of an hour the speck could be seen galloping. Another quarter of an hour and a man could be seen riding. Then man and beast stumbled into their company. The man's tunic had been ripped open down the chest and his hair sparkled with sweat. His chest heaved and his head sagged down. Sweat trickled down his face like tears. He grunted and forced himself erect as if shocked with lightening. He tumbled off his horse as well as a rigid wooden doll without locked knees and elbows tumbles of a horse. Just as his arm loosened, he straightened out his arm again. He took one step and collapsed. A knight saw him and ran to him crying for assistance. Together they dragged him to the generals tent and shoved a canteen in his mouth. After a while the glaze in his eyes melted. He spewed out the water, and the words thudded against the air like hammers dropped one by one on cobblestone.
“The...king...is...dead...He's...Slain...at....Vernal town” Tears began to flow from the eyes of this messenger. He squeezed his eyes shut tight and flicked off the water. He opened his eyes again firmly.
The king, being as weak as he was, had been hidden in a old widow's house without a word or a rumor. A lone ruffian had assaulted the house by chance. Of a thousand cottages in Vernal, he had picked the lock of the king's residence. The first room he entered held the king speaking softly and meekly to his queen. The king and the ruffian saw each others swords at the same time, and in seconds, the king had risen to defend his queen and slain her assailant. However the ruffian fell into the arms of his king with a bare sword, and the blow to the chest stunned the king's heart and sent his spirit into eternity.
“The King is dead!” the whispers rippled across the troops. “Did the manticore slay him?” “Impossible, I heard it was a ruffian! Besides the manticore comes from the north and the king from the south!” “The manticore is coming!” “My uncle fell to the blow of a manticore, him and twenty of his companions, all dead and in vain.” “Silence, you scare the children like yourself!” “With the prince gone who will be heir!” “Those loyal to Sir Nathaniel with me!” “The troops of Sir Nathaniel flee !” “You only want to go to the saloon, so you can die drunk!” “Fiend!” “Have you seen the sloth Sir Tyrel? Both him and the infidel Sir John are no where to be found. Ran scared they did!” “They're just cowards!” “The manticore is coming!” “I do not want to die today.” “Who do you answer to Sir Nathaniel the fool or the King?” “The king is dead!” “Who will lead us now” “The manticore is coming!” “We must protect the civilians.” “My grandfather was ripped apart by a manticore just east of the river, took him three days to scream himself to death.” “You insolent cur, shut your hole, and listen to the adviser.” “We will stand for the innocent?” “I've heard the hellfire of the devil spews from his mouth!” “What says Sir Elijah!” “He's cousin not king, I'll die before he commands my house, soldiers of Tyrel the Valiant, fight to the gates, escape while we still can!” “The manticore is coming!” “Draw that sword on me and you will die!” “Spare me mercy!” “The manticore is coming!” “Get back here you fiend, let me relieve you of the waste that sits on your shoulders!” “Shields up! make for the gate!” “The manticore is coming!” “Treason! Stay at your posts you trembling girls!” “The manticore is coming!” “Civil war is upon us” “We shall make our stand at the the castle of our liege Sir Nathaniel!” “The manticore is coming!” “Sir Elijah rally's his troops now, stand with the House of Libre, stand together!” The manticore is coming!”
Iron screamed against Iron. Mud flew into eyes and noses. Screams ripped out like geysers. Knuckles drew blood. Swords flashed in the arm. Merchants shut their doors. Women screamed and yanked closed their shutters. Doors broke into splinters. Trampled bodies bellowed. A stray arrow pierced an arm. A sword pierced a sinew. A mace shattered a bone. Horses whinnied and reared. The pike men swore with what teeth they had left and swung with their pikes and swarmed their Lords and bustled him to the wall of the city.
Four men lay sprawled breathing hard. Two men lay sprawled and did not breath. Black stains of blood glistened on the cobblestone. The prince vanished in the villagers hour of need. The champion slighted the villagers. And the king would never again stand for anyone.
Elijah warned the bartender and his maid that the men of the village would die today, but if they knew how to shelter the women and children, someone might live. Most of the craftsmen in the city either could not fight, chose to defend their families wherever the bartender hid them, or simply ran scared. Only the blacksmith, a widower, remained to fight in the vanguard. Elijah commanded four of Sir Nathaniel's riders to summon the farmers. Three men and two eyed adolescents in soiled trousers and suspenders, shirts opened down the front, armed with pitch forks and rusted short swords rambled through the gates. The messenger's he had hired of Sir Nathaniel's men vanished. Of the soldiers only three burly brawlers, tottering on their feet and eyes blurred and watery, still remained.
Now Sir Elijah stood in front of the nine defenders of the village; only half real men, only two sober warriors.
“For today I am king! I am cousin of the king and thus heir to the throne in the absence of his Prince. I am king and I will lead you to your deaths,” he chuckled, then spat at the ground and inhaled with will, “I will lead you to the house of your maker in chariots of fire hailed as the vanguard of the innocent. Stand with me!”
At every step, the troll's three goats, his pets and only friends, bayed and bolted from their perch, pass for a bite out of the moss, another footstep, the goat glances up in surprise and springs forward to his next perch. Like checker pieces they jumped and scattered at the sound of their masters plodding. Each goat's white coat glistened clean under the moonlight, and their stomachs bulged as they scurried along. The mule followed farther behind the entourage. A gray animal with a streak of black along his neck, weighed down with two leather pack bags. From the shine of the leather and the glint of fine bolt fastening, the work was of men, probably stolen or found. Within the bag, however, troll stuff off, and stuffed indeed. On the right, a leopard print loin cloth snaked out and dragged along the ground, three tunics of men nestled between, a troll vest and an elvish cloak bloomed out of the top, two sandals peaked out of the pouch, and flies buzzed along at the end enjoying the left overs of a meal crammed in the corner. On the left swung the spiked ball of a mace, gold glistened and a necklace swung two and fro, a few bones could be made out, and an assortment of valueless stones and pebbles rose at the very back. The troll piled his caldron, cooking dagger, a nest of strings and ropes, and a comb on the top.
The troll trudged along the rocky stream bed. He walked slowly and deliberately over the white boulders, his shoulders and skull bent over as if contemplating every step. The moonlight dancing through the forest scribbled pale light over the troll, tracing the cracks of his mossy green hide. Of his face, they made out only the tip of his nose, like the conical helmet of a foot shoulder glistening in battle. The troll groaned and shook the tangle of hair and grime and filth that crowned his head. He grunted contemplatively, a humph of thunder that tumbled and bounced and dissipated across the river valley. With an effort he lifted his right hand and snatched a lock of his hair pulled it down before his eyes, and stared at it. He pulled up his left hand and, stretching out a single sausage finger, pushed the hair gently over the bloated blackened warts covering his right hand. Warts covered his skin like the bubbles over a boiling pot. For a minute he rubbed his hair over his warts, then he arched over and ripped a boulder from the ground the size of a melon and dejectedly scratched and grated and smashed his warts. With another groan, he dropped the rock and smacked his hand against a trunk of the tree, again and again with more and more vigor until the tree squealed and cracked, and troll blood oozed from the sore. An earthquake rumbled out of the mouth of the troll. He slammed his the moldy loaf of bred that was his foot, slap!, onto the ground, and with the sound of a war drum pounded again rather quickly along the river bed.
One hundred men in mail. One hundred men armed with swords. On hundred men astride black warhorses and cloaked in black wool and hoods pulled over their manes. Metal glinted on every forehead, steel grate pulled down before every mouth, veil of determination cast over every eye. One leader astride a black stallion, cloaked in navy, hood back, scarlet plume rustling in the wind; he rides before the line. The soldiers of the king of the realm before the mountain between the two rivers. A manticore will die this day.
“I knew you would return,” the hag had said to the troll.
The horse carrying their leader whinnied and snorted steam. The red plumed soldier gritted his teeth.
“Do you want to defeat the manticore?”, spoke the woman a question asked in the dark.
“I do not know, yet I am a troll. I do not need victory or the aid of hell.” a response from the battered flesh.
“Then you lose both. You need redemption”
The leader spurred on his stallion, and the line broke into a gallop under the expanse.
“One day the sun will dawn on your back, and you will be stone. All trolls perish this way in the light. No one will even carve in your back a final message. Your funeral will be a flock of chattering ravens on your shoulder. You will be nothing, neither a hero or a fiend, just a forgotten memory,” she said.
“I will be statue, but the hero and the fiend will be a pile of bones,” growled the troll.
A white knuckled hand caressed his sword, the sword hanging at the leaders waste.
“Have you heard of the Valkyries? When all is in ruin, I have heard they come in chariots of fire. They come for your soul. That is not lost,” she pleaded.
“They do not come for trolls,” moaned the troll.
Tears rolled down a filthy cheek, and the hand of the man cloaked in navy wiped them away. Ride, ride on.
“How can I change?” cried the troll.
“Tell the court what you did. Tell your kingdom what you did. Tell your people that you ran from them. Tell them Elijah's blood and the blood of the city is in your hands.” Tears streamed from his face as she whispered in his ear, “And drink this.” a potion emerged from her waste, “If you confess you will three days. If you do not you will have an hour. Then you will revert to a troll until you die.”
The rider on the white horse glanced at the sun. Three quarters of an hour had passed. He turned horse and addressed the masses.
“Halt men of the kingdom of my father, the kingdom beside the mountain and between the rivers. Halt and hear me speak.” He glanced again at the sun. “I was never taken by the enemy. I was never lost. I ran. I ran to the enemy. I ran to lose myself. I changed myself, hid under the image...became a...I am the troll. The blood of Bary Town and the blood of Sir Elijah the adviser of my father is on my hands. They needed a prince to stand with them against their foe, and I abandoned the vanguard. But today I will avenge the fallen. Today I will have atonement.”
“I have a day to redeem myself...a day to kill the manticore...who will stand with me!”
Not a word.
“The city has already been burned. Your lord and master the king lies dead. Stand back and save yourselves for a better day...A better person...I will not blame you.”
Two mounted knights broke ranks and charged the prince. The one wore a cloak of dark and tattered green, with a silver alligator pin on his left chest; the cloak concealed his tunic and trousers and the armor he wore if any. A pointed ridge in his cloak declared, however, the man armed himself, and armed himself well. A taller man road behind him. His black cloak fluttered to either side of him, and a white cross blazed on his tunic dyed with the hue of midnight. Neither wore a helm.
The man in green throw back his cloak and whipped out a sword of six feet and double edged. Within a second, his horse snorted and reared within four feet of the prince. The man in black placed a hand armed only with callouses on his own weapon, and flanked the prince on his left side.
Two beads of water perched on the bloodshot eyes of the man in green, and his visage glistened. He contorted his mouth into a hideous frown, and whispered, “Do you know who am I?”
The prince forced his eyes to glance delicately at the alligator pin. The prince's horse whinnied and stamped.
“The gods blessed my father. He wore the title of both king and hero. I will die only a hero.” the man in green leveled his sword at the throat of the prince. Within a second, he stood in his saddle and lifted his sword to the sun, to assembled men of Libre, he spoke, “I am Sir Walter son of Sir Elijah, My family has served the House of Libre for eight generations, I am the ninth. My father gave his life in the King's service...and so shall I,” he swallowed hard, but did not look back at the prince. “Who will stand with me!”
The man in black rode up, and address the people of Libre. “I am Sir Daniel Knight of the Templar. Brother of Oath to Sir Elijah. I will avenge him. I will stand.”
Cheers erupted from the core of pikes men. The chance to be named bane of the manticore, the chance to be named fighting brother of the king, the chance to unleash vengeance, consumed their hearts and they marched toward the prince. Several merchants who had abandoned the city before, gritted their teeth and joined the pike men. Sir Nathaniel rallied his troops and marched away to gather his forces. If the prince or the son of the adviser did not return, the strongest would inherit the crown. Most of the cavalry present spat at the ground, and galloped away. The farmers and ranchers who had lost cattle and swine to the troll raised up a angry din. One raised his scythe and ran toward the king, but a wiser man seeing the pike men in ranks around the prince, held back his friend, and contented himself to stomping away. The brothers and fathers of those slain in the defense of Bary Town cursed the prince, but some like the merchants had abandoned the city themselves during the defense, and other hearts burned with vengeance against the manticore. These tramped to the Prince. One by one the companies of men called out their ranks and marched back, marched some with heavy hearts, others with indignation, some with fury, other without thought, across the fields and to home.
Fifty men remained with him.
“Let us ride.”
The manticore perched on the chapel like a gargoyle. The steeple's cross had been snapped at the crux and the beast smothered the shards that remained with his yellow-crimson hide and jet black main.. Two wings waiting at his side, a scorpion’s tail raised above him like a cobra, and in the middle of the spawn; a human face.
Almost every building in the city had been forced to kneel and then decapitated. Only ruins remained. The last buildings not smoking or rendered to rubble stood proud like a man among ants.
The Prince faced the manticore.
“Who have you changed yourself into know?” growled the manticore.
“I am son of my father, servant of the kingdom beside the mountain between the two waters. I have been called troll, and I will be called troll again. For now, I am Johannes.” To troops he called. “Men who stand with me let us fight for we had forgotten! Let us avenge what we lost! Let us redeem the works of wasted life!”
One soldier let out a cheer. Within seconds, the manticore had swept down and the soldier crumpled into blood and rags.
Frank the Miller slashed at the leather wings, but the iron claws punctured his heart. Daniel, Knight of the Templar, plunged his sword into the leg of the beast, and then found himself sprawled and drenched in the rubble of some caskets of wine. He saw the razor sharp teeth of the manticore, and then the flash of a sword, the jingle of mail, and the manticore found another prey. Yonas son of Cory had fallen. However Daniel Knight of the Templar still lived. Three bowmen lit their arrows afire and rained down a barrage from the top of a cobbler’s shop. The manticore twirled into the air and the entire thatched room erupted into flame. Three brothers who’s name’s had long ago been replaced by soldier pulled the archers out of the flame and six more slammed shoulders together to face the now plummeting monster. Two archers had been saved, and with the brothers staggered over to the line, shields up, eyes up, swords up, waiting for the creature to land. All were scattered like marbles when the claw met cobblestone.
A fighting core had assembled around the Prince. Five pike men, peasants dressed up like soldiers, several there just to escape the drudgery of life, others to go where their spouses or brothers had gone, a few to prove to the gods they were more than peasants, and one just to be closer to the beautiful horse. The Prince himself wielded a spear on horseback. They charged the manticore. A spear in a wing, a spear in the tail, a spear wedged in the right chest, steel ground into the right leg. Nothing touched the face. A pike man impaled by the scorpion tail. Another body crushed in the bear trap claws. The rest fall back to the prince, and draw their daggers or short swords.
Sir Walter son of Sir Elijah, second cousin of the Prince rode up to the prince and raised his spear in salute. Seven words. “Charge with me? Charge for my father?”
“All forward,” cried the prince. The pike men, what remained of the archers, the brothers, a dozen foot soldiers, and Daniel Knight of the Templar waylaid the manticore. The sharp reek of blood, the screams, the bellows, the earth shakes underneath you feet, you're bustled between armor and flesh, and fur, and fangs, hack and swing blindly at the giant demon before you, and then like a falcon, the scorpion tale shoots for your heart...and you fall backward in the ranks. Your shield is shattered.
“Make way for the horsemen, make way for the horse men,” cried Sir Walter. Sir Daniel Knight of the Templar took up the cry and parted the red sea of livery and blood. The Prince on a stallion of white, Sir Walter on steed of midnight blindly rushed through the break in soldiers and galloped toward the face. The prince saw the stinger inches from his body and then his stallion stumbled over to the side, Sir Walter threw his body from his saddle and caught the blow of the tail full on in the chest. The impact felled both knight and his horse, and the Prince went down. He heard Sir Walter shivering on the ground. Seven words. Kill him for honor. Avenge my father.
The twenty nine still standing had already smothered the beast again, but for the prince, only himself and the face existed. He plunged his sword into the mouth, screaming in pain as the teeth shredded his arms, trembling in fear as the eyes of the creature turned red and bored through his soul. Deeper and deeper into that black hole he plunged his sword. With a yell of triumph, he released and tumbled backward. In the final death throes of the adversary, few escaped unscathed. As the manticore soared into the sky and plunged down in the town square amidst a ring of bale fire. The prince slew the manticore, and manticore cremated him.
From the ruble of the tavern, a trapdoor swung open, and the tip of a sword glinted out. “I am the bartender. Thank the Creator for salvation. You did not fight for vengeance; merry men,” he chuckled to himself at his own irony, “The wives of the protectors of this city still live and their babes still draw breath. Or many do. Hail! King Johannes of the House of Libre, Lord of kingdom beside the mountain and between the two waters!”