The Champion of Magestra
Merland Kadabra had always dreamed of becoming a great wizard, but it seemed all he was good for was shoveling dung. And there was surely enough of it around for him to prove his prowess with the shovel. Springtime had come to Magestra, and the manure piles around the pens had thawed out, creating a right awful stink.
For Abra Tower, spring was always a busy and bustling time of year. The vegetables and many herbs needed for various spells had to be planted and tended to, which meant harrowing the gardens, clearing irrigation trenches, and mixing into the soil Elder Wizard Bumblemoore’s rotting manure concoction, and on top of all that, the spring babes had to be nursed. For our friend Merland Kadabra, all this meant endless work. He would be lucky to get in any study at the pace the elder wizards kept him running about.
You see, Merland was an apprentice at Abra Tower—one of the best schools of wizardly learning in all the kingdoms. His father, one Lord Albert Kadabra, had gotten his son into the school with the help of a large donation. Merland had shown some proficiency when he took the simple test that all children received, but it alone had not been enough for him to be chosen.
At nineteen, he was quite old for his station. He had failed the tests three times already, but he would be able to take them again in the coming summer—and he was determined to pass this time.
“I’ll show them all this year, aye, Ole Bessy?”
Being that she was a cow, Ole Bessy of course did not reply. Merland tossed the rest of the hay in front of her and sighed. She ignored his lamentations and proceeded to chew her cud lazily.
“Must be nice to just be a cow,” he said. “You get to sit around all day, have your food brought to you. Nobody on you about hanging their wash, cooking ‘em breakfast, taking out their rotting bedpan—but of course…There is always someone tugging at your teets...”
The grating voice of High Wizard Waverly shook Merland into action. He took up two pales and began trudging along toward the hen house, trying to look busy.
“There you are,” Waverly called from behind him.
Merland kept walking, hoping that the old man would forget about him—it often worked.
“Well then, you deaf? Stop!”
Reluctantly, Merland did as he was told.
The old wizard shuffled over to him, bunching his robes in front so as not to trail them in the mud and dung. Merland had given up on that a long time ago, and the weight of his soiled robe kept it clinging to his thin frame.
The elder regarded him over thin spectacles, his bushy white eyebrows poking out from behind them like two extremely old caterpillars.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” said Waverly in a huff.
“I apologize, Elder Wizard. I’ve yet to gather the eggs and milk the cow.”
“What? Never mind all that, you can get to it later. Everyone has been called to the square. He has arrived.”
“The Great Kazimir?” said Merland, almost in a whisper.
“Do not speak his name, fool boy! You are far from worthy.”
“Forgive me, Elder Wizard, but…well…the Olden Wizard has chosen the warriors already, only a week into spring?”
Waverly scowled down on him and turned with a flourish of robes. “Come!”
Merland left his chores behind and followed the old wizard back to the tower. The day was suddenly turning out to be an exciting one. Kazimir was coming to town—the most high Wizard himself! He hadn’t been seen in these parts in twenty-seven years, not since the last time he’d chosen a champion to face the dread dragon, Drak’ Noir.
Once every generation, Kazimir chose a champion from each of the five kingdoms of Falectine. The brave souls would march west, past King’s Crossing, over the Wide Wall, beyond the Forest of the Dead, through the Swamp of Doom, across the Long Sand, all the way to Bad Mountain. There they would do battle with the dreaded black dragon, Drak’Noir.
Merland could only imagine who Kazimir would choose this generation. Perhaps the young knight Maclmoore, or the valiant Sir Johnstonburg. Maybe even Lance Lancer, the best of the wizard apprentices.
They came around the back of the tower and found the wagon already prepared to leave. The entire school was there, consisting of some twenty-seven apprentices ranging from 12 – 20 years old, along with the other six high wizards. Merland found his young friend Gram gathered with the others and joined him behind the elders.
“Holy witch tits, Merland. You hear what’s going on?” said Gram.
Merland laughed at his younger friend, hardly able to contain his own excitement. “Waverly said Kazimir is to choose a champion. What else you know?”
“He knows it isn’t going to be you, dung slinger.” The boy, Lance Lancer slapped one of his stoolies on the back and laughed. Nearly everyone followed suit—guys like Lance Lancer always got the laughs, whether they were funny or not.
Merland laughed with them, wanting Lance to like him. “Nah, Lance, course not. You have a good chance though.”
Lance scowled at him, judging his sincerity. Thankfully his scrutiny was interrupted by the other boys, who expressed their agreement of Merland’s claim with much jubilation.
When the attention shifted from Merland, Gram shook his head at him. “Why you always kissing his ass?”
“I’m not kissing anything. It’s true—Lance is Abra’s best wizard apprentice. He is sure to be Kazimir’s choice.”
“You’re still kissing his ass.”
“Quiet down, boys!” one of the elders yelled from the top of the wagon. He leaned back and eyed them all. “Go on then. Neat rows of four, no pushing, that’s it.”
The boys did as they were told, grouping into ten rows of four that strung all the way around to the back of the tower. Everyone fell in line before Merland and Gram, who found themselves taking up the rear with the youngest of the school’s apprentices.
The trip to the square from the tower took a good fifteen minutes due to the congested streets. The sounds of the gathered crowd came to them long before they reached the gathering. The boys could hardly contain their excitement. Word had gotten around quickly, and everyone with one good leg was making their way to see the legendary wizard of mystery. Suddenly, a commotion unlike anything Merland had ever heard came from the center of the city.
The crowd gushed in from each of the seven streets and surrounded the central podium. Thousands of people filled in the square, and soon the intersections were clogged with those trying to get a closer look. Onlookers took to wagons and rooftops, crowding every window and peeking above every wall. Merland stood with the other apprentices atop the wagons.
“Hey Kadabra, when they pick me, I might just insist they let me bring you along,” Lance grinned at the other boys with a smirk. All the while Merland shook his head happily. “I could always use someone who’s good at handling shit,” said Lance.
Everyone laughed, everyone but Gram. “That must be ‘cause you’re so full of it,” he said.
A collective ‘ooh’ traveled through the group. Lance silenced the boys with a dangerous glare. The worst of it he saved for Gram and Merland.
Gram ignored him and turned to Merland. “Never mind them, every one of ‘em would shit themselves if they even saw Drak’ Noir.”
Merland laughed weakly. “Yeah, I bet they would.”
“Shut up!” said one of the boys, and pointed at the distant podium.
The quiet that followed was so complete that Merland might have heard a mouse fart.
All eyes turned to the high podium. The king had taken the many flights of stairs to the top, and now stood, seemingly out of breath, with a heavily adorned scepter in his hand.
He stood before the congregation with his arms wide. After a minute of silence thick with anticipation, he began to speak into the scepter.
Merland and the others strained to hear, but the king’s voice would not carry far enough. Many in the square began to grumble in kind. The King turned around, and seemed to be arguing with someone out of sight on the high podium. Suddenly his voice boomed, “…idiots can’t even hear me!”
The king shot upright and turned slowly to face the now gawking crowd. He cleared his throat with an authoritative cough. “The olden wizard, Kazimir himself, has called us all to the square this fine morning…for the whispers are true. The sign has been seen at King’s Crossing, and word has come from the wide wall, of a dark, hungry evil stirring on Bad Mountain.”
A panicked exclamation flowed through the crowd, and many voices rose up. King Roddington unsheathed his sword and slammed it into the wooden rail before him, chopping it in half and breaking it off from the post. Silence fell over the crowd as the board fell, and far below someone cried out in pain.
The king continued. “Every generation Noir’Drak attempts to settle Bad Mountain, and every generation Kazimir and the Champions of the Dragon fight her off. This year will be no different! For prophecy tells of the ones who will come together from all kingdoms, and turn back the evil wyrm! Today, Magestra’s champion shall be chosen!”
The crowd began to cheer, but just then an explosion of light atop the podium silenced them all. A great puff of smoke rose into the sky, and there beside the king stood Kazimir. Surprise turned to shock, shock became wonderment, and the crowd cheered with joy.
Merland and Gram shared looks of enchantment and cheered along with the rest. Kazimir wore immaculate white robes with many hanging folds. His long pointed hood covered his face, and a white braided beard hung to his knees, and…the beard was on fire. Merland could see the small glow already growing up the front of his robes. One drunk fool in the crowd laughed, and a flustered Kazimir barked a spell word. The fire puffed out.
The wizard straightened and raised his glowing staff. Finally, he spoke.
“Worms and blood and ooze and sweat, a streaking comet mine eyes have met. The winds of time and whispered names, five kingdoms, heroes, and dragon games. I come for one of power and might, your champion, I name this night.”
He paused as the crowd’s anticipation grew. Merland glanced over at Lance, who wore a big, hopeful smile. He hoped that Lance would be named by Kazimir. A wizard of Abra Tower had not been chosen by the olden wizard in over a hundred years.
“Your champion is a wizard of Abra…”
Everyone in the square turned to regard the gathered boys and their masters. Lance Lancer took a confident step forward.
Kazimir pointed at the group of young apprentices. “Come forth to glory…Merland Kadabra!”
The apprentices and elders all turned, slack-jawed, and stared at Merland. He looked from one to another, not quite comprehending what was happening.
Gram looked utterly delighted. He was patting Merland on the back and saying something. Everyone else was talking as well, but Merland could hear nothing. Suddenly he found himself walking through a parting crowd, being pushed along by a beaming yet flustered elder wizard. The crowd was cheering jubilantly, though they had many questions and much doubt in their eyes.
Merland finally reached the enormous podium and was led up the stairs inside by High Wizard Waverly and a night in shimmering armor. His ears were ringing now, and he became dizzy. Strong hands took him by the shoulders when he reached the top, and Waverly smiled down at him. The sun blinded him temporarily as he came to the top. A hand held to the sky blocked the light enough for him to see Kazimir and the King standing there. Merland froze, unable to speak, unable to breathe.
A bright flash exploded as Kazimir suddenly snapped his fingers, and the sound of the world came rushing back to Merland. He was led to stand beside Kazimir, who squinted at him from behind large round spectacles.
“Whatever you say, say it loud,” said the ancient wizard. “Now stop looking stupid and face the crowd.”
Merland blinked, stupefied. “How…how can this be?” he managed to ask.
Kazimir took him roughly by the arm and turned to wave at the crowd, raising Merland’s hand victoriously.
The people cheered his name over and over.
“So it has been said, so shall it be!” said Kazimir. “Merland Kadabra will fight for thee!”
Merland waved, and a wide smile crept across his face. Had he really been chosen? What untold magic must he possess?
“Say something,” Kazimir urged out the corner of his mouth as he handed Merland the scepter.
Merland was petrified, and though he tried desperately to speak, all that came forth was a stupefied, “Uhh…” His voiced echoed for miles as a high-pitched piercing noise issued from the scepter.
Kazimir pulled it back from his face a bit and the noise disappeared.
“I, uh…don’t know why they picked me…I’m not really that good at performing mag—”
The ancient wizard quickly yanked the scepter away. “Three cheers for Merland Kadabra the humble!”
The crowd cheered again, but with slightly less fervor than before. Merland could already see many of them heading for the beer tents.
Kazimir grabbed his arm roughly and tossed something to the floor. A great flash of light was followed by choking white smoke as the wizard pulled Merland back down through the trapdoor.
As they hurried down the stairs, a delighted Merland asked, “Did we just disappear?”
“Sure, kid,” said Kazimir with obvious annoyance. “Just try to keep up.”
When they reached the base of the enormous podium, the great wizard opened another hidden trap door, revealing a narrow stairwell that led down to the dark catacombs below.
With a whispered incantation from Kazimir, the wizard’s staff began to shine enough for them to see.
“Whoa,” Merland gasped.
“Stick with me, kid, and you can ride my coattails right to the top,” said Kazimir.
To Merland’s surprise, the tunnel led them to the wine cellar of Abra Tower. He followed the old wizard up into the kitchen and out to the main hall.
“Go on then,” said Kazimir, “get your things. I must speak with your superiors.”
“Yes, sir! Er, Olden Wizard.” Merland tripped over his robes but found his feet and hurried up the spiraling stairs to the top of the tower.
Kazimir closed the door behind him and regarded the headmaster with contempt. “Yes, thank you, I will take some wine.”
Headmaster Zorromon the Off-white had been about to ask just that, and deadpanned the ancient Wizard. “Your tricks do not fool me, Kazimir.” Regardless, he poured him a glass and set it on the other side of the desk.
The most-high Wizard downed the glass in one large gulp and tossed the headmaster a heavy coin purse. “That should be sufficient to replace the fool.” He turned for the door, having nothing more to say to his old acquaintance.
“See to it that death comes to him swiftly,” the headmaster called after him, as though the boy’s fate had been weighing heavily on his mind.
Kazimir turned at the door, his long white beard hiding a sneer. “I shall feed him to the dragon first then, when she is hungriest.”
Merland ran down the stairs two at a time, with his pillowcase full of and tied to a stick resting on his shoulder. He came to the bottom of the stairs and found Kazimir waiting for him. The door to the headmaster’s office suddenly opened, and Zorromon emerged, holding a wooden box out before him.
His voice seemed to be croaked with grief. “Dear, dear apprentice Kadabra. It appears that the wide world has more in store for you than the manure pile. Please, take this, from all of us, as a token of our faith in you.”
Merland could hardly contain himself. He knew what kind of box the headmaster held before him.
Zorromon lifted the lid, and Merland dreamily reached for the wand inside.
The lid suddenly closed, and Merland gave a delighted squeal of surprise.
The headmaster laughed.
Kazimir rolled his eyes.
“Go on then, take it.” Zoromon opened the box wide.
Merland carefully took the wand from its velvet bedding. It was oak, he could tell, and lined with silver runes carved into the sides. At its tip was bound a ruby, and in the middle…
“Headmaster, er, is that tape?”
“Yes, that. It is the broken wand of Al’Anon, the last dragon champion of Abra tower. It is said that one might rise up who can mend it,” said Zorromon.
“It is? I’ve never heard that before,” said Merland.
Zorromon pointed a finger to the sky. “Ah! I almost forgot. I’ve a special invention for you. I just finished the incantation last night.” He put two fingers to his lips and gave a shrill whistle.
Out of the office flew a leather backpack with wide white wings. It landed on the floor beside Merland, but having no feet, it simply fell over and tucked in its wings.
“The road is long, and a traveler needs a good bag to carry his burden,” said Zorromon proudly.
Merland put the wand and his pillow case inside the pack and tightened the strap. It beat its wings swiftly and flew up to hover beside him.
“Come then,” said Kazimir, “Drak’Noir waits for no man.”
Merland was pulled along by the old wizard and waved jubilantly back to his headmaster. “I will do Abra tower proud!”
“You already have!” Zorromon waved back, silently sniffling.
The Champion of Vhalovia
In the human kingdom of Vhalovia, far to the south of Magestra, one Sir Eldrick awoke with a pounding head.
How much had he drank last night?
He tried to clear his muddled mind as he sat up. The back of his head was tender, and when he investigated with his fingers he found crusted blood around the spot. He rubbed his bleary eyes to get his bearings.
Refuse surrounded him, and two tall brick walls loomed on either side—he was in an alley.
The sun was bright in the street beyond, and the noise of the crowd emanating from it was impossibly loud. He attributed his sensitive hearing to a bad hangover, but then the memory of the night before came back to him—he had gone to a pub, but had gotten in a fight before even wetting his whistle.
The rest was a blur.
He got up, dusted off his brown trousers, and tucked in his ruffled and stained shirt. He went to the street and he watched, surprised to find people hurrying by. He hadn’t seen the streets so crowded since the King’s wedding ten years before. Listening closely to the murmuring voices, he discerned one name spoken over and over again in excited tones, “Kazimir! Kazimir!”
He then understood. The Champion of the Dragon was being chosen today, Drak’Noir had returned to Bad Mountain.
Sir Eldrick followed the masses down Baker Street, past the docks, over the silver gate bridge, and finally to the amphitheater. He had attended many plays and orchestras here over the years, yet he had never seen such a gathering. Judging by the overflowing crowd pushing their way in, Sir Eldrick guessed that everyone and their sister had come to hear the proclamation of Kazimir the Most High Wizard.
Far below, standing in long rows in front of the raised stage, Sir Eldrick saw his former brethren, the Knights of Vhalovia. The King’s council soon took to the stage, and the buzz of the crowd only intensified. When the King at last appeared, the noise became unbearable. Sir Eldrick fished in his pockets until he found his flask and tossed back his breakfast.
Finally, the king raised his hand, and the racket died down to a slow hum.
“The rumors are true,” said the king.
The gathering fell deathly quiet. He scanned the crowd, letting the tension build.
“It has been twenty-seven years since the great wyrm was driven from Bad Mountain, and now…she has returned. The time has come once again for the Champions of the Dragon to march forth and vanquish our foe. Once again a hero will be chosen from the five kingdoms of men, elves, dwarves, and ogres. Kazimir has come to name the champion of Vhalovia!”
A flash of blinding light suddenly flared. Shocked exclamations gave way to joyous cheers. When the smoke cleared, the ancient Wizard himself stood tall beside the king.
Kazimir raised his glowing staff and the crowd fell silent once more. “Dragon flame seen in the night. Fleeting shadows taking flight. The wyrm has claimed its mountain home, as was written in the ancient tome…”
The man beside Sir Eldrick nudged him. “Who you think he’s gonna name, eh?”
The former knight shrugged. “Who gives a shyte, the beer will be flowing tonight, that’s all I care to know.”
“Right you are, ole boy, right you are,” said the man with a toothless grin.
Sir Eldrick tossed back another shot as Kazimir rambled on with his ridiculous rhyming and monotonous timing. He wished he would get to the point. A feast was sure to follow, and not only would the beer flow, but wine and spirits as well. Not only that, but the women would be all kinds of worked up.
“…I name this night, Sir Eldrick von Albright!”
The name echoed through the amphitheater.
The crowd began to stir. Sir Eldrick found himself sinking lower and lower. What had the wizard been saying? Was he being accused of something?
When no one stepped forth Kazimir repeated his proclamation. “The Champion of Vhalovia shall march forth this night, step forward to glory, Sir Eldrick von Albright!”
Sir Eldrick ducked lower and finished off the flask nervously.
The crowd all looked around for the named one, but no one nearby had recognized him yet. He glanced behind him. People crowded the entrances, and he was a big man, but perhaps he could still quietly push through without raising suspicion. Questioning voices began to grow, and the crowd became restless. He took advantage of the distraction and began to gently push his way through the crowd and up the few flights of stairs to the gate. When he reached the top, he shouldered past a standing guard, making sure to turn his face away in time. With every step his confidence grew, and soon he was at the top, heading for the crowded streets beyond.
The Champion of Fire Swamp
Willow stretched out on her moss bed and gave a great yawn. She reached for the plate of food she had fallen asleep eating, and came back with a frog leg. The meat was cold, but she was hungry…she was always hungry. Even for an ogre she was big, at eight feet tall and six hundred pounds, she was large indeed. The others often joked that she ate enough to feed an entire ogre tribe.
Thoughts of breakfast finally stirred her from bed. She smelled nothing cooking, and wondered if she had missed the morning feast. Her father had caught a twenty-foot python the day before. It was the biggest Willow had ever seen in this part of the Fire Swamps, and she couldn’t wait to try it.
With effort, she dressed in an alligator skirt and vest, tucking in her round green belly and large bosom as best she could, reminding herself to have her mother take the outfit out a few sizes yet again.
When she had finished, she made her way through the tunnel connecting her room to the living and eating pods, which, like the other rooms, were made of clay and twigs and swamp grass, and built in a circle around a tall willow tree. In the kitchen, a clean pot sat on the small table beside the fireplace, and no wooden dishes sat in the wash bucket. Her growling stomach reminded her again of the snake, and she went outside to see if it was still hanging.
When she opened the door and saw the village was empty, she knew at once that something was amiss. The day itself was much like any other—thick grey fog hung motionless in the air, the constant frog song sounded in the surrounding swamp, lizard monkeys swung overhead on vines hanging from spider trees—yet there was not another Ogre to be found.
The smoke from their chimneys was still curling up into the fog, and pet crocodiles sat chained to spikes outside the pod doors, lazily sleeping away the morning. She regarded her family’s croc, asking him what he knew, but, of course, he didn’t answer.
Her stomach growled again, and she returned to the pod to get something to eat; if she was going to investigate the strange disappearance of the tribe, she wasn’t about to do it on an empty stomach. She found nothing to eat inside but yesterday’s leftover frog legs and a loaf of pussy willow bread. She ate that and what little else she could find, and then ventured back outside. After a final look for anyone else still in the village, she headed over to her grandmother’s dwelling. Turtle stew hung simmering in a cauldron over the still-burning fire, and she helped herself to three bowls of it before heading on to the next dwelling. She had to investigate, after all, and to come calling around the village was the best way she could think to do it.
But no one answered their doors.
Willow searched the raptor stables at the center of the village, and found that the mounts remained. Growing more curious by the moment, she made her way to the banks of the swamp and searched the boats and barges, still, she found no one.
Willow worked herself up with worry, imagining what mysterious events might have befallen the village. Perhaps the ghosts of the giant Agnarans had swept across the land from the west while she slept. Everyone knew that those long dead spirits held a special animosity toward the ogres, who had refused to come to their aid when Drak’Noir had descended upon what is now called the Blight. Or perhaps the villagers had been lured to the murky depths by the bog monster and his scaly sirens.
Willow shook the thoughts from her mind and determined to search the dwellings more thoroughly. It appeared that many of the families had been preparing breakfast before suddenly disappearing. In nearly every cooking hut she found food simmering over fires—and, of course, not wanting the overcooked food to go to waste, she helped herself to much of it.
An hour later she sat on a stump beside her families dwelling, rubbing her big green belly and wondering what had happened to everyone. Now that she was full, and no longer had the distraction of hunger, she became genuinely concerned about what might have occurred. She cupped her hands around her mouth and hollered, “Dingleberry!” as loud as she could. The little bugger was bound to be around somewhere. She had to call to him three more times, but eventually the telltale jingle of his approach could be heard.
The tiny little six-inch fairy hovered suddenly before her, his wings a blue blur of motion.
“Willow, what are you doing here? Have you not heard?” His high-pitched voice was even more keening than usual.
“Heard what?” said Willow, nearly going cross-eyed as she tried to focus on him hovering there in front of her face.
Dingleberry slapped himself in the head and did a backflip. “Kazimir has come! He is going to name the Champion of Fire Swamp,” he yelled over his shoulder, zipping away as fast as a humming bird. “Come on, follow me!”
“Wait for this Ogre!” yelled Willow. She ran quickly to the stables and saddled Tor, her father’s raptor, as fast as she could.
Dingleberry led her through the village to the north, past the foul falls and the mushroom forest, all the way to the mouth of Skull Cavern. Thousands of Ogres from all surrounding villages were gathered in and around the ancient bones, and there, at the center of the hollow skull, stood the many chieftains…and the mighty human wizard, Kazimir.
“And here she is now,” proclaimed her chieftain. “Willow Mudpie, the Champion of Fire Swamp!”
All eyes turned toward her.
And she fainted.
The Champion of Halala
Brannon the elf hummed to himself as he clipped the dead leaves from his rose bush. He cupped the drooping blossom and whispered a gentle word. The flower glowed brightly and straightened, and spread its velvety petals.
“That’s better, now isn’t it?” He gave the plant some extra water and finished off the others. Content, he walked to the balcony overlooking the garden pond and stared out over the water at the city beyond. It was turning out to be a lovely day.
“Brannon, Brannon!” came the shrieking voice of his sister Annallia, jolting him from his reverie.
“Must you screech so?” he asked.
She rushed into the room and ran to his side. “Have you heard the news?”
He snapped his fingers haughtily, and a servant rushed over and began fanning him with a large peacock feather. “Do tell,” he said to her impatiently.
She laughed. “You don’t know? Oh, but this is juicy.”
He feigned indifference and waited, yawning.
“Guess who has just arrived in Halala?” she blurted.
“The king of the fools, coming to take you home,” he offered with a grin.
“Clever, but no. Guess again.”
“I grow weary of this game, Sister. Out with it.”
“Kazimir!” she said finally, and then gave a pip of a laugh before quickly covering her mouth, as though she were a child who had just swore.
“The Most High Wizard? He comes so soon? But spring has only just arrived.”
“I know! Isn’t it wonderful? Come, let’s get ready. Everyone has been summoned to the temple.”
Brannon was suddenly filled with dread. “By the Lord of the Wood…what will I wear?” He grabbed the peacock tail from the servant before slumping down on the cushioned bench beside the balcony, and began fanning himself worriedly.
“Oh, brother, who cares about you? What am I going to do about this hair?” said Annallia as she turned this way and that before one of Brannon’s many mirrors.
Brannon snapped to his feet and slapped his hands together. “Forren, gather together the entire staff. We must prepare for the ceremony!”
The head servant bowed once for him and again for his sister before running off to do his master’s bidding.
Brannon paced, biting his thumbnail. Kazimir had come to choose Halala’s Dragon Champion. He instantly thought of Sal, worrying that his brave lover might be chosen. Sal had been away for six months, fighting undead beyond the Wide Wall, and had only returned but a week ago. To think that he might once again be torn from his side filled Brannon with dread.
His sister must have sensed his trepidation, for she came to him then and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Fret not, Brother. If Sal is chosen, he will come home victorious.”
“Sal is the greatest warrior in all of Halala, of course he’ll be chosen.” Brannon shrugged away from his sister and stared out over the pond, tears pooled in his eyes and threatened to ruin his coloring.
Just then their father and king, Rimon strode into the room. He was already dressed in his best golden armor. A red cloak trailed ten feet behind him, each corner held by a scantily clad servant girl. “I assume you have been informed of our visitor,” he said in a deep, authoritative voice that was always laced with disappointment. “We leave within the hour. See that you look presentable…not so much of that coloring that you fancy so.”
Brannon waved his father off and snapped his fingers. “Oh, she’ll be ready, don’t you worry.”
The king deadpanned him. “I was talking to you. This experimentation…phase of yours has come to an end, my flamboyant son. Everyone has been called to attendance, everything has been prepared. Lady Claristra Fallingleaf will be seated beside you.”
“Father, this isn’t the time to argue about that. I—”
“I’m not finished!” said the king.
The servants’ eyes all darted to the floor, and Brannon felt his cheeks flush—his father rarely raised his voice.
“After the champion is chosen,” the king continued, “you will ask the lady’s hand in marriage.”
“I will do no such thing!” Brannon found himself saying. Having forgotten his place, he cowered for a moment. But then thoughts of Sal brought him courage and he quickly straightened again.
He knew that his father had sent Sal to the front lines of the Forest of the Dead as a way to punish his son—the king didn’t agree with he and Sal’s way of life—and Brannon had been mortified for months. Finally, at long last, Sal had returned to Halala victorious. The king had slapped a medal on the brave warrior’s chest, and then given him lands far from the city.
“You will do your duty as my sole heir!” the king said, his nostrils flaring and eyes glaring dangerously. “Or by the gods, the kingdom shall be left in the hands of your sister!”
“You wouldn’t.” Brannon gasped, clutching his chest.
The king nodded. “Mark my words,” he told his son sternly. As he left the chamber, a small army of servants scuttled in to prepare them for the ceremony.
Brannon fell to his knees, distraught, and was taken up by the many servants who then ferried him to the closest sofa. They began fussing over his hair and coloring, and hastily removed the paint from his nails to begin anew. Wardrobes were brought before the elf prince, but were nodded off one after another. Brannon couldn’t focus with so much commotion, so much pressure.
“Calm down,” his sister sang. She snapped her fingers at the servant her brother had just sent away. “He’ll take that one.”
“It’s hideous,” pouted Brannon.
“It’s beautiful, my dear brother, as are you. Come now, get yourself together. No matter what happens at the temple—no matter if Kazimir chooses Sal—your love will make his way back to you.”
Brannon nodded his thanks to her, and then kissed her cheek. He allowed himself finally to be dressed in the brilliant white garments Annallia had selected. They did look good on him, the sleek knee-high boots with ten inch heels and straps winding up his thighs, the single white glove with diamond claws at the fingertips, the tight leather pants with a wide, pluming shock of blue feathers at the hips, and the white leather jerkin with its large upturned collar.
The servants carefully added matching nipple rings, and strapped twin daggers to his thick, low hung belt, which was ornamented with the finest of jewels.
He admired himself in the mirror, striking a variety of poses. The servants had colored his long hair white to match the outfit, and then braided it up into a thick bun. The end of the long braid curled around his shoulder and rested on his bare chest. They had laid his crown upon his head, completing the look. Brannon turned this way and that, biting his long thumbnail—something was missing.
He snapped his fingers at one of the handmaidens. “That there, bring it to me.”
She presented him with his diamond studded cup, and he held it in front of his groin, checking himself the mirror.
“Perfect,” he said after a moment.
When they arrived at the tree temple by way of carriage, thousands of woodland elves had already gathered. The temple had been grown nearly a thousand years ago, and consisted of fifty sequoia trees grown into each other to form a giant dome. From the outside, nary a branch could be seen beneath the thick vine covering and its multitude of blooming flowers.
Brannon and his sister followed the king and queen as they led the procession into the gathering place.
The crowd fell to a hush as soon as the royal family stepped through the hanging leaf curtains and took their respective thrones at the northern balcony overlooking the wide temple. No sun shone through, but the hollow was brightly lit both by the thousands of large overgrown lightning bugs that covered the walls, and the large crystal chandelier hanging from hundreds of snaking sequoia branches.
The Knights of the Wood were gathered in number on the balcony just below the royal family, and Brannon quickly spotted Sal among them. His beloved was facing away from him.
All the while, waiting for the ceremony to commence, Brannon stared, waiting for Sal to glance his way. He needed to see the strength that he was sure to find in those fierce green eyes.
Finally, the king stood and addressed the gathering. “Elves of the Woodland Realm of Halala, I have called you all here today so that you may once again witness the naming of the Champion…”
Brannon had heard it all before, twice actually. At sixty-nine years old, he was young for an elf, some of whom were at least six hundred, but he was as familiar as any with the legend of Drak’Noir.
But never before had he cared so about the outcome. His worry for Sal soon caused his head to swoon, and his father’s words became hopelessly muddled. He needed to see his lover’s face, needed to see him smile.
Brannon was fighting to get a hold of himself when suddenly a hand touched his. He turned bleary eyes upon his smiling sister and found some strength.
He cleared his mind, focusing on the living tree they had all gathered in, and caused the wooden floor beneath Sal to bulge slightly, nudging him. Sal looked down, then to the side.
Look at me! Brannon urged with his mind.
Sal finally turned and glanced back. He smiled at Brannon and offered a wink.
Brannon’s heart soared, but then a pang of lovesickness tore again at his heart.
An explosion of light suddenly flared in front of him, causing Brannon to give a high-pitched cry. The smoke cleared momentarily, and Kazimir the Most High Wizard stood facing the cheering gathering. Sal turned around once more, his eyes shone with love upon Brannon, and his lips whispered three words. He turned bravely to face the wizard once more, and Brannon was left with a terrible thought—had he been saying goodbye? Did he know that he would be chosen?
Brannon nearly fainted, only the wizard’s riddled words kept him lucid. “Your champion shall travel through forests of death and swamps of deadly mist. Elves of Halala, I name as your hero, Brannon Ironfist!”
Brannon shot to his feet, even as Kazimir spoke his name. “No, not Sal!”
Annallia let out a shriek.
Brannon blinked and regarded the Wizard queerly “Wait…what did you say?”
The king regally rose to his feet and began a slow clap that was soon taken up by all in attendance. A thunderous applause then rose up in the temple, along with exuberant chants for Brannon, Prince of Halala, Champion of the Dragon.
Sal’s wide, unbelieving eyes found Brannon’s through the commotion, and the elf prince turned to his father, who regarded his son with a satisfied smirk.
The Champion of the Iron Mountain
If Gibrig Hogstead knew anything, it was hogs. And there was no way a six-hundred-pound pig was going to trade for an unshaped gold nugget. He bluntly told the older dwarf just as much, and spit on the ground to show him just how serious he was.
The old dwarf trader scoffed and spat as well. “That nugget be as big as that brain o’ yours, Gibrig, and be sayin’ somethin’. Yer Pap got his ear to the ground? He put ye up to this?”
“Me Pap ain’t got nothin’ to do with this here transaction,” said Gibrig proudly. “I raised this hog meself, I did—off me own scraps, even. Spy how smooth and firm them shanks be. Prime meat, that is. Like I said, Snorts here ain’t goin’ for no tiny nugget.”
Gibrig crossed his long arms and nodded firmly.
The trader, a very stubborn old dwarf by the name of Kegley Quartz, eyed Gibrig suspiciously. “Ye fool dwarf. Ye went and done gave him a name didn’t ye.” He threw up his arms and shook his fists at the heavens. “By the stone god’s moss covered beard! You ne’er give ‘em a name!”
Gibrig slumped beneath the weight of the glare.
Kegley looked over the pig again, shaking his head. “Snorts, what kind o’ fool name that be for a pig? It be like namin’ a cow Moos.”
He frowned, glancing back at Gibrig. His face became kind after a moment, and he patted Snorts’ hind end.
“He be a fine spec’men, there be no mistakin’ that claim. Tell ye what, I been doin’ business and such with ye’r pap some odd fifty years. ‘Side from that, his stock always be treated right—the best meat, year after year, season to season.
“But this here nugget weighs near five stone, lad, could be melted to ten coins and a pendent to boot! An’ though I can see the pig means a lot to ye, a dwarf can’t be livin’ on love alone…else me wives an’ I’d never leave the bedroom.”
Gibrig couldn’t help a small chuckle and was forced to abandon the pathetic look he was trying to convey. He knew Kegley was right. He should have never named the pig. His father had told him as much since he was old enough to understand the slaughter. Hogs weren’t pets, they were fruits of labor, a means to trade the things that one could not make oneself.
“I’ll throw in five silver and not a shiny turd more,” said Kegley. “Already I’m payin’ more than he’s worth.”
“I just can’t,” Gibrig said with a shuddering breath.
“Now ye’re just bein’ ridic’lous! You know ye can’t be goin’ back to your pap with no gold.”
Gibrig began to whimper, and angrily wiped his face with the end of his long shirt. Others around the market glanced their way.
“Get a hold of yourself,” said Kegley with a darting glance around. His face suddenly went stark white.
Gibrig followed his eyes and froze.
Dranlar Steelheart, King of the Iron Mountains, sat upon a large ram five feet away, looking down on them. Behind him was a procession of twenty dwarven guards. “Excuse me, human,” said the king, and all eyes turned to Gibrig. “That is perhaps the best looking hog I’ve ever seen. There be a banquet coming up, and I would have yer hog’s head be my centerpiece and main course. I’ll give you triple what the merchant offered.”
Gibrig could only stare shock-jawed and blink.
“He’s not a human, er, Sire,” said Kegley as he fiddled with his hat and tried to stay in one spot. “He’s a dwarf to be sure, but he gots that humanism they speak of.”
The king frowned at Gibrig. “Ye don’t be sayin’. Humanism, eh?” He leaned closer and eyed the strange dwarf closely, taking note of his long legs, skinny torso, and arms that nearly reached his knees.
Looking like a human was humiliating enough. But having the king eyeballing him was another thing altogether. Worse yet, a large crowd of human, elf, dwarf, and ogre traders and merchants had begun to form around them.
The king laughed and shook his head, tossing a bag of coins at Gibrig’s feet. “Ye’re invited to my dinner as well. Do ye juggle?”
“Juggle, S-sire?” said Gibrig.
The king regarded Gibrig and stroked his beard as he leaned in to talk to Kegley. “Is the lad slow in the head too?”
Kegley offered Gibrig a warning glance. “Nah, he’s a smart lad, knows when to recognize a good thing at least.”
“Consider my offer, human…d-dwarf,” said the king. “Me hall be sure to pay more handsomely than hog farming.” He pointed at Snorts and told one of his soldiers to take the lead rope. Kegley huffed for his loss, and seeing this, the king threw to him a small sack. “For yer troubles.”
“Thank ye, thank ye, Sire,” Kegley said with many bows.
The king kicked the sides of his ram and the procession began off toward the mountains again.
The guard led Snorts past Gibrig, who imagined the poor hog being led to the king’s halls deep within the Iron Mountains. He saw the fat nobles dining on ham and bacon and pork chops, hocks and side pork…
“NO!” he yelled suddenly, and grabbed ahold of the rope, yanking it out of the armored dwarf’s hands.
The guard squared on him. “Ye out yer head, boy?”
“What are ye doin’, Gibrig?” Kegley hissed.
“This p-p-pig…ain’t for sale,” Gibrig dared to say.
The king had turned his ram around, and the entire market was now watching the exchange. Dranlar offered a slow scowl and dismounted with purpose. A page quickly attached his gold cloak to his shoulders, and another handed him the biggest, and shiniest double-headed axe Gibrig had ever seen.
Kegley bowed deeply and pulled down Gibrig, forcing him to take a knee.
“Please, yer long beardedness, he’s not for sale…for any price,” said Gibrig, wringing the rope with his hands.
Staring at the ground, he watched the king’s steel boots settled before him. “You would dare refuse your liege?”
“I’m sorry, y-yer a-awesomeness, I ain’t meanin’ to offend. It’s just…he’s…he’s my friend. I can’t sell my friend to be killed for nothin’.”
The hog gave a snort, as if to accentuate the point.
“Hand over the pig, lad,” said the King.
Gibrig shuttered. A voice in his head screamed that he was being an imbecile. The king had paid thrice Snorts’ worth. A dwarf would have to be a fool to refuse such an offer—especially from the king. He turned to regard Snorts once more, who was busy eating a tuft of grass growing in between the stone.
“Boy…” said the king, meaning it as a final warning.
“Run, Snorts!” Gibrig yelled, and smacked the hog on the rump. One of the guards reached for Snorts, and Gibrig socked him on the helmet with a closed fist before giving him a shove.
“Get that pig!” the king cried.
Gibrig leapt to his feet, back-peddled, and tripped over Kegley as two more guards lunged for him. He went head over heels but landed on his feet. Before the guards could get their hands on him, the odd dwarf turned and ran after the hog as fast as he could.
King Dranlar stormed into his chamber deep within the Iron Mountains and found Kazimirn waiting for him.
“Good King,” said the wizard with a bow that left his long beard grazing the floor. “I am prepared to announce Iron Mountain’s champion. Have you made a final decision?”
Dranlar waved off the guards and moved to the bar to pour himself a drink. “I have,” said Dranlar before shooting back three fingers of rum. He wiped his mouth with his black beard. “I had thought to send that bumbling idiot Drexle, but I have changed my mind. You will announce the champion to be one Gibrig Hogstead. The little shyte embarrassed me today in the market. I hope Drak’Noir makes him watch while she feeds that damned pig to her whelps.”
“Very well, good King,” said Kazimir with a small bow. “As you wish, so shall it be.”