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The three travelers rode wearily on through the heart of the storm. The wind and the rain hounded them unmercifully, lashing and tearing at their huddled forms, until it seemed that surely they would be torn from their mounts and dashed on the rocks underfoot. Lightning flashed constantly, turning the night into a gray, eerie parody of day. The crash of thunder was a steady rumble of destruction.
Onward they rode grimly, three resolute figures hunched low over their sodden beasts. The night was ugly, their mission desperate. Somewhere ahead in the turmoil lay the Festron Mountains. The evil they would face there, and how they fared against it, would determine the fate of nations. Under those towering, snow-capped peaks lay the very heart of darkness, a darkness that had reached its vile claws into their quiet nation and stolen the very flower of its soul. It was that flower that they had sworn to rescue.
The storm was only the first of many obstacles that the forces of darkness were to throw in their path. Their quest would be long and fraught with many dangers, and death sure to be a constant companion. But, though all the legions of Hell itself lay before them, they would not be swayed. These were the warriors of which legends are made, their deeds to be exalted in song in smoky taverns for centuries to come.
If they survived.
This is their story.
Harold was lost. He was also cold, wet, hungry, tired, sore, angry and depressed. Probably incontinent too, though he wasn’t sure what the word meant. If he could have come up with any more adjectives to describe how utterly miserable he felt right then, he would have added those too. This lousy storm was only the perfect cap to what had been the worst week of his young life. He moaned woefully. The storm howled mockingly in reply, as though even the elements were against him.
His harg slipped in the mud then and he lurched to the side, losing his grip on the saddle and nearly falling off. Wouldn’t matter if he fell off anyway, he thought dejectedly. He couldn’t possibly get any wetter or colder or more miserable. He peered off into the gloom. Rain. Everywhere rain. It had been raining almost since they left Bashertown, three days before. Harold couldn’t imagine how there could be this much water in the whole world, and how it could all be right here, every bit of it falling on him.
His thoughts turned toward the Festron Mountains, lying obscured somewhere in the distance. How in the world was he supposed to find those stupid mountains anyway? He didn’t know the first thing about finding his way in the wilderness—to Harold, wilderness was being more than five minutes from a tavern—yet here he was, miles from anywhere and lost in a storm. Not that he would have been able to find the mountains even if it wasn’t raining.
When the king outfitted him for this mission he babbled something about the Festrons being somewhere to the northwest, maybe, he couldn’t be sure. When Harold asked him for a map, the king gave him one. Some map. A crumpled piece of paper with a few wavy lines that might or might not be mountains with a dotted line leading to them. And someone had scrawled “FESTRONS” across the bottom. Completely worthless.
Unfortunately, the map fit right in with the rest of the gear King Washo outfitted him with. All of it was either rusted or moldy. Some of it was rusted and moldy, which Harold used to think wasn’t even possible. You’d think a king would send more to rescue his only daughter. Of course, Harold mused, when one’s only daughter was a large, domineering shrew like Lucille, thriftiness was understandable, even commendable.
Harold jingled his money pouch. At least Washo wasn’t totally heartless. Right as they were leaving, he’d slipped Harold a hundred quarpets and a mumbled apology. Harold felt that he almost could have liked the guy, if he hadn’t resented him so much for sending him on this stupid mission. A hundred quarpets in Bashland money wasn’t exactly a king’s ransom, not even a princess’ ransom really, but it was still more than Harold had ever had at one time. If he could figure some way out of this, a way that wouldn’t get him tossed in the dungeon, or killed outright, he could set himself up nicely. He certainly wasn’t going to go through with the mission. Even if he could find the mountains—and for now he had to pretend to at least try—he wasn’t fool enough to go charging into them and challenging whatever nasties lurked underneath. Let someone else do it; he was no hero. All he really wanted to do was stay home, drink a lot and maybe chase a few wenches. Live out his life in sodden peace. He didn’t think that was too much to ask.
A fresh wave of water cascaded down the back of his neck. Harold grumbled and pulled his cloak tighter. Much more of this and he wouldn’t have to worry about the Festrons; he’d be drowned in his own clothes. This wasn’t how he’d expected to end his life a few days ago.
He’d been in one of the few taverns that would still give him credit and all he expected was to get drunker and pass out somewhere. Then someone had started talking about how the princess had gotten kidnapped the day before and he’d had to go and turn the subject into a comedy act.
He’d gotten up on one of the tables and started doing imitations of Princess Lucille. Telling everyone how easy it would be to rescue her, how all anyone would have to do was go out and wait for the bad guys to return her. Whoever had her was going to realize that he had the wrong end of the deal and he’d be begging to return her soon enough. Harold was bragging that he could do that with both legs tied behind his back when the king’s soldiers appeared. They knocked him over the head and he just knew it was off to the dungeons for him. Which it was. But, come morning, they let him out and trundled him off to be guest of honor at his own going-away-to-rescue party. The king made a pretty speech, pumped his hand enthusiastically a few times and patted him on the back.
His hangover hadn’t even hit full strength when he found himself staring at the outside of the closed gate of Bashertown with two bewildered, and none too pleased, companions—Lester and Stuper—and a bunch of rusty, moldy gear, including a sword, which the king tossed to him just as the gate was closing.
The whole mess made him want to puke. Upon reflection though, he decided that puking wouldn’t adequately convey how he really felt, being something he did far too often in and around the pubs of Bashertown. What he really wanted to do was rip off all his clothes, flail his arms a lot and run screaming into the storm. Maybe fall down a deep hole for good measure.
A tug on his sleeve interrupted his reverie. Lester was shouting at him, the wind ripping away his words. Harold leaned closer to him.
“Are you just going to keep leading us in circles?”
“I am not leading us in circles! Do you want to get to the Festrons or not? Well this is the best way. Trust me.” Lost or not, Harold was still the leader of this expedition and he didn’t have to take this from anyone. In case Lester had forgotten, he said, “I’m the leader here. Why don’t you leave me alone so I can lead?”
“Some leader. You know, there’s more to leading than mumbling to yourself and riding in circles. We’re getting wet here.”
“Wet?” Harold said sarcastically. “How in the world did you get wet? Not from this nice, refreshing little shower I hope. But I’ll tell you what, just for you, we’ll stop at the next inn we see.”
“But we haven’t passed an inn since we left Bashertown.”
“Exactly.” Harold put as much sarcasm into the word as he could, until it was just dripping with it. Until even an idiot couldn’t help but notice it. By Lester’s vacant expression though, he’d missed it. Harold sighed. Good sarcasm wasted.
Fortunately, an especially brilliant lightning bolt flashed just then, revealing a jumble of boulders off to their right. Motioning to his companions, Harold turned his mount towards them. With any luck there’d be some sort of crevice they could cram themselves into. As far as he was concerned, the hargs were on their own for shelter. He doubted if they noticed the storm anyway, dull, impassive creatures that they were.
As luck would have it, there was a cave on the leeward side of the rocks, big enough for the three rescuers and their mounts. The cave was dry with a soft, sandy floor and a high ceiling. A previous traveler had left firewood there and Stuper soon had a fire blazing and spitting.
They stripped out of their sodden clothing, draping it on the rocks to dry, and huddled close around the fire. After a while Stuper spoke up.
“So, what should we have for dinner tonight? Can I interest you all in some oatmeal? It’s Bashland’s best.” He chuckled as he put a pot filled with water and raw oatmeal on the fire. “It’s either that or oatmeal.”
The other two quickly glared down this feeble attempt at humor. They hadn’t checked their food supply until they were a half day out of Bashertown and then they found nothing but oatmeal. Lots of it. Since none of them knew anything about hunting or living off the land, that was all they’d been eating and hardly a day went by without either Harold or Lester throwing a tantrum about the stuff. Only Stuper didn’t seem to mind the gluey, unwavering fare.
When the oatmeal was ready, Stuper handed a bowl of it to each of them, then sat down and went right at the stuff.
“Do you have to do that?” Lester snapped at him.
“Do what?” Stuper asked blankly, looking up at his twin brother. His cheeks were puffed out with oatmeal and some dribbled down his chin.
“Eat the oatmeal. It’s killing my appetite.”
“What else am I supposed to do with it?” Stuper’s words came out garbled, the hard consonants accompanied by flying flecks of the gray, pitiless food.
“I don’t know. Just…do it somewhere else.” Lester stuck a spoonful in his mouth, grimaced, swallowed, then followed it with a large swig from a flask sitting by him. He took a couple of deep breaths, then turned to Harold.
“Got a plan yet, mighty leader?” he said, with mocking emphasis on the title.
“Of course I do,” Harold exclaimed. “I’ve been mulling it over all day.”
“What is it?”
“Oh,” Harold replied, thinking furiously. The truth was he’d done nothing all day but feel sorry for himself. Still, it wouldn’t do to look unprepared in front of the twins. Bad for morale and all that. “Well…I’m thinking that we should…we should…” Seeing them staring at him, he panicked and did the only thing he could think of. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very good thing. He stuffed a huge spoonful of the thick, unpalatable oatmeal in his mouth. Then he told them his “plan.” The oatmeal did its job, gumming up his mouth to the extent that none of his words were intelligible. The fact that it would soon gum up his intestines in a similar manner was just an unfortunate byproduct.
When he was done, Stuper said, “Hey, that’s a pretty good plan.”
His brother glared at him. Harold pushed his wet hair out of his eyes in a manner meant to convey that he had good plans every day. He even tossed his head for good measure, a gesture that clearly said, in fact, he was thinking of an even better plan right then.
Lester, however, was merciless. “The word around town is that whoever rescues the fair damsel will get to marry her. That’ll be some marriage bed, won’t it? You’re a lucky man, Harold. Old Washo will gladly give you half of everything just to take her off his back. You’ll be the envy of the kingdom.” He laughed cruelly.
Harold glowered at him. Or tried to. The oatmeal seemed to be clogging up his ability to breathe. He tried spitting it out, but that didn’t work either. He was seriously starting to think he was going to die when Stuper jumped up and pounded him on the back.
Harold had heard the rumors too. The last thing he wanted was everlasting union with the princess. It wasn’t that she was ugly, though one couldn’t say she was pretty either. She was more, well, there. The same way that you could, upon finding a large, immovable boulder deposited in your lawn overnight, say it was there. There and not much you could do about it. One couldn’t even really say she was fat, though she certainly wasn’t thin. She was what you might call healthy. Over six feet tall and broad. All the way down. In a kingdom noted for its stunted, scraggly people, Lucille was living proof that sometimes neither environment nor genetics determines anything. There was considerable whispered talk, very quietly whispered, that she wasn’t really Washo’s daughter at all. Her size and strength had to be imported. She was probably the strongest person in the kingdom. Certainly, if she’d wanted to argue the point, no one would have been brave enough to argue with her. Her temper was legendary and when she got mad, no one, absolutely no one, stood in her way. In truth, Harold feared success on this mission almost as much as failure. Death at the hands of all the monsters in Hell had to be infinitely preferable to life at the hands of Lucille.
“Thank you, Stuper. It is a good plan. I’ve got a couple kinks that still need ironing out, but it’s actually quite brilliant.” He liked the way that sounded and he smiled a bit to himself. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Then he saw Lester’s smirk and he knew that Lester knew he had no plan. He had to do something quick, something to take charge of this situation before it got out of hand. He jumped to his feet. But his feet got tangled and he almost fell in the fire. When he’d finally righted himself, both the twins were laughing. Harold turned to them, putting on his grimmest face. It was time to stop playing around.
Harold was a skinny man, with a sensitive, worried face and bright orange hair that had begun to recede long before it was finished even properly covering his head, leaving him bald on top with just a fringe of hair running around the edges. His head was more round than angular, a fact which caused him no end of anguish, and it was a little on the large side, perching rather awkwardly on the end of his neck as though unsure quite why it was there. He wasn’t especially tall, about five and a half feet, give or take an inch, but he towered over most Bashlanders, most of whom barely pushed four. As he talked, his hands scurried nervously around, as though seeking a place to hide.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he told them solemnly. “This is going to be a lot more dangerous than I thought.” Then he started listing all the terrible things they were going to face on their journey to rescue Princess Lucille. He talked of dragons and wraiths and evil, demons with jaws of fire. As he talked he warmed to his story and began stomping around, waving his arms with frantic gestures and adding dramatic pauses as he told them of the desperate times ahead. And it was working. Lester’s smirk disappeared. Both twins stared at him entranced, their pock-marked, gnomelike features showing their fear. Their stubby hands clutched nervously at their blankets and at one point Stuper pulled his over his head.
As he spoke, a plan, a real plan, began to form in Harold’s head. Not a plan for saving Lucille, but a plan for saving himself. If he could scare off the twins with this bullshit—the thought gave him an unexpected pang of sadness—he could play the hero and go on alone. Once they were safely out of sight, he’d simply turn northeast and find this Ice Queen they’d been hearing so much about. The one that was supposed to be plotting to invade Bashland. He’d heard great things about the ice women. It was said they possessed breasts that would drive a man mad if he stared too long. Madness like that he could use.
It was a brilliant plan. When he didn’t return, the Bashlanders would assume he was dead. They’d think he’d given his life in a futile, heroic attempt to save Lucille. They’d come out of the whole thing with a new hero. They might even build a statue of him. He’d come out of it still alive and with a hundred quarpets of his very own. It was definitely a win-win situation.
He did felt a bit guilty about running off like this. After all, Bashland had been pretty good to him, taking him in as an orphan and raising him. And he’d be fraternizing with their enemy, which could get pretty awkward once they were all slaves and he was living the good life with ten or twenty wives. But he soothed his guilt by telling himself that he would be a benevolent dictator. He would treat his former friends and neighbors like treasured slaves.
Besides, it probably wouldn’t even come to that. The rumors were probably only rumors. Surely no one, not even the Ice Queen, would want Bashland. It was the fact that Bashland possessed nothing anyone else wanted that had kept it unconquered all these centuries. That and the unruliness and general dirtiness of her inhabitants. Bashland might just be the most worthless kingdom ever.
So he added in cold dungeons and cruel warlocks, enchanted forests and heartless, cunning giants that fed solely on Bashlander flesh. By then both of the twins were quivering under their blankets. Stuper had his thumb in his mouth.
When he finished, Harold eyed their cowering forms for a second before intoning sadly, “I know it sounds impossible, we probably won’t return, and you two will die slowly and horribly, but it is our duty to try.” He sighed dramatically. “It does seem a shame that you two should die so futilely and so young. I only wish there was some other way,” he said, his voice cracking.
He eyed them. He’d done it. They were terrified. He was free. Time for the final touch. “No, it’s not right, he said, adding a sob to his voice. “I can’t let my best friends in the entire world throw away their lives like this. You’re the closest I have to family, and it’s my fault you’re here. But I’ll tell you what. I’m willing to go on alone. I want you two to turn back, save yourselves.” He wiped his eyes and continued brokenly. “Go home, brave and loyal friends. I shall tackle the evil alone. My small sacrifice will be repaid a thousand times if you are only spared.” He threw himself on the floor and began weeping uncontrollably.
“Yes!” Lester leapt to his feet and started stuffing wet clothes in his pack. We don’t want to go mind you, we’d rather throw our lives away too, but what you said makes a lot of sense. No reason for all of us to die. In fact, better you than me, I always say. Well, God save the king and all that.”
He was almost on his harg when Stuper coughed and cleared his throat.
Lester turned on his brother. “Knock it off will you? You heard what he said. If the man wants to throw his life away, that should be his right. Who are we to interfere with another man’s destiny?”
Stuper stared at him sadly, his blanket wrapped around him.
“I never asked to come on this thing. It’s his fault we’re here. He’s the one too stupid to keep his mouth shut.”
A single, poignant tear leaked down Stuper’s face.
Lester threw his stuff down and stomped back to the fire. “There’s something really wrong with you, you know.”
Stuper looked at the stunned Harold and grinned. “What my brother is trying to say is that we’re with you no matter what.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, not in so many words.”
“Not in any words. My actual words were, ‘I’m getting the hell out of here!’”
Stuper beamed at Harold. “He just has a hard time with his feelings. Don’t take it personally.” Lester threw his oatmeal at his brother, who just smiled fondly at him. “Actually,” Stuper confessed, wiping oatmeal off his shirt, “there might have been some talk earlier about, well, slipping away. But not now. No, sir. We couldn’t back out on you after a speech like that. Especially after that part about being best friends. Friends like us gotta stick together.” He picked up his oatmeal and took a bite. “I’m all choked up.”
Harold gaped at them. “But, but…”
“Don’t try to thank us,” Stuper said modestly. “We know how you feel.”
Harold turned away then, unable to face them. He felt like screaming. He’d been so close. Why the little rats, he thought. Of all the miserable things to do to him. But in a strange way, deep down, he was relieved. And even a tiny bit grateful. They were his closest friends. Actually, they were his only friends. Bashland had taken him in when he’d been abandoned as a child, but he’d never been fully accepted as a Bashlander. They were a stunted, bent race, round shouldered, slope-faced and slow-brained, obnoxious, petty, but very proud of who they were. When the other children had mocked him for being different, because his skin was fair and smooth, his limbs straight and long, these two had always stood up for him. When he’d been unable to play Squeeze Yer Lump, because he didn’t have any, they’d found a way to include him. That he was going to lie to and abandon his two best friends suddenly seemed very small and selfish. He couldn’t back out on them now. Fighting back the lump in his throat, he turned back to them. Stretching out his hand, palm up, he said hoarsely,
“Let’s do this. For friendship. For Bashland.”
Stuper jumped up and slapped his hand. Or he tried to. He missed entirely and almost fell into the fire. Lester, still sulking, muttered something and waved one hand dismissively.
They went to bed a little while later. Harold was unable to fall asleep for hours. He felt awful. What was he thinking? What if those things he’d made up were true? He didn’t know anything about fighting monsters or wizards. He was just a drunk who could usually be counted on to cut himself opening a beer bottle. He had no chance against against an evil lord.
According to King Washo, when Lucille was discovered missing they’d found a cryptic message on her bed that said only, “Don’t try to follow us to the Festron Mountains. Yours truly, Lord Vesper’s henchmen.” It was all very strange. No one ever got kidnapped in Bashland, especially by an evil lord. Maybe the kingdom really was in danger. Finally he dropped off into an uneasy sleep where half-formed dragons that looked strangely like Lucille chased him across endless mountain ranges.
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