“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat.”
Marcus took his eyes away from the castle and looked to Lumbert, and asked, “Doesn’t it?”
“No!” Lumbert proclaimed, stepping back from the hillock’s edge to busy himself with tending to the horses, who hadn’t had a thing to eat the entire journey from Toderskül this far out into the Wastes and so had been huffing away irritably at the two men for the last five minutes.
Marcus smiled sheepishly at his traveling companion and friend. He’d spent the previous night spit-shining the breastplate and tassets he now wore over his red buff coat. A short sword in its scabbard hung from his belt at his side. “Come on, all’s fair when it comes to rescuing princesses, right? Can’t fault a guy for preferring to use his brains rather than his brawn, huh?”
Marcus stood only two or three inches over five foot. Lumbert, meanwhile, towered above him by an additional foot. It would’ve been Lumbert storming the castle as one man, doing battle with the foul demon Baalhermon, and making away again with the princess Petunia in tow, except Lumbert was a coward and was mocked from city to town to village for it; particularly by Marcus. But every hero needs his lackey, yes? Someone to watch the horses while he does his brave feats and reclaims the lost treasures and, especially, impresses all the young ladies with his many selfless deeds? Of course! Though common village maidens with their mongrel pedigrees held little sway over him these days, as Marcus had advanced enough in his career to have become a man-of-means, and a man-of-means should never settle for anything less than the very best!
Lumbert had attached the feed bags to the horses’ heads and now he crossed his arms as he turned around once more. “It’s just not the way it’s supposed to be done,” he stated.
Marcus shrugged. “Since when have we ever done it ‘the way it’s supposed to be done’? Remember dispatching that pack of werewolves, wearing silver chain mail under our clothes so that when they bit…? Or that time setting fire to a farmer’s crops just to flush out a troublesome satyr? Or infiltrating that bandit camp by wearing women’s clothes and flashing our—”
“Yes! I remember!”
Marcus grinned. “Well, this is no different, yeah?”
“But it’s a princess.” Lumbert did his best to stare the smaller man down.
“She’s a girl just like any other.” Marcus turned back to gaze at the castle. “See, this is why you’ll never be anything more than someone’s gooney, Lum. You lack the imagination to be anything else.”
Lumbert gritted his teeth and, for an instant, seriously considered unsheathing his own sword, cutting his fat-headed friend’s legs out from under him, and going in to rescue the princess himself. “I’ll stay and watch the horses, shall I?” he muttered.
Marcus turned once more and patted Lumbert on the arm. “Of course, my overgrown beanpole of a pal, someone has to keep the getaway animals awake and limber. Trot them around every fifteen minutes or so and don’t weigh them down with too much feed. I should return in a matter of hours.”
Then the squat man was away.
This far out into the Wastes the grass was purple and the sky a cinnabar red. Everything smelled like hot peppers and the humidity could irritate a man’s lungs just as if he were inhaling balls of cotton. It was only a short lope down the hillock to level ground, and then not much farther to reach the lowered drawbridge into the castle. A deep moat had been dug all around the castle and in it languished no more than three or four feet of slimy, green groundwater, as well as the bodies of decomposing animals who had fallen in and were not able to climb out again. The castle itself was made out of blackened stone and mortar, and reached several stories into the sky with spires and battlements all aglow with the fires of Baalhermon’s watchmen.
Such watchmen would’ve been eying up Marcus ever since he and Lumbert appeared on the horizon, though they seemed largely unconcerned as the under-grown man approached the castle gates.
The hard soles of Marcus’s boots knocked against the wooden drawbridge as he crossed it and rebounded again and again off of the sheer walls of the moat. The giant doors that led into the grounds were five times his height and as he neared them they began to swing inward with a titan’s groan, just enough to allow him enter but no more.
“Yes, I see Lord Baalhermon has sent out the welcoming party!” Marcus announced as the gates groaned shut behind him. “If you’ll just point me in the direction of his whereabouts…”
Ahead of him stood a small platoon of imp-like creatures that were even smaller than he was, all with bug-eyed toad faces and halberds small enough to be comfortably used by a child. They drooled from their wide mouths and waddled from side to side as they began to come toward him.
“You know, fellas, I’m feeling a little claustrophobic right now. Perhaps if we practiced respecting each other’s personal bubbles?”
He unsheathed his sword and swung at the advancing line of diminutive soldiers. The thing about sending an entire dumb-as-rocks platoon to deal with one man is that one-quarter of them will be too far from the action to bother doing anything else but pick their nose, two-quarters will have bunched up and immediately gotten in their own way, impaling one another and themselves on their own weapons, leaving only the last quarter to actually need to be dealt with. As it was, Marcus had no trouble cutting through the swath of toadstool-sized soldiers and making it to the doors leading into the castle proper. The doors hadn’t even been barred and he only had to press his back against them and defend himself from a few pitiful swings from myopic halberds before he’d invaded the castle’s interior and barred the doors himself. There seemed to be a lot less security now that he was inside.
“That’s just the way it goes, isn’t it?” he spoke to himself. “Give a man only fodder to face as he storms your extravagant abode.” He sighed. “Being a lordship of a smelly, oppressive wasteland gets pretty boring, doesn’t it? Hate to have your fun ended so soon by hiring competent military-men; not before you get the chance to have your own face-to-face with the interloper, isn’t that right? Need to show off to everyone why it’s you who’s in charge! Getting out of this place will be another matter, won’t it? But that’s why I have a plan!”
“Who’re you speaking to?” a voice boomed out from the walls.
“Well, it was supposed to be a private conversation, but since you’ve so rudely intruded I suppose I’ll allow you to take part. Who, may I ask, am I addressing right now?”
“The Mighty, Demonic Lord Baalhermon, of course!” The walls shivered with the beast’s deep, resonant voice. “If you would be so kind as to come to the throne room…?”
Marcus politely bowed. “If you would only provide directions, Your Lordship.”
Following the demon’s directions, the squat man made his way to the throne room. Along the way he noted the plush carpets and many fine pieces of earthenware. Paintings of the pure-blooded lineage the demonic lord hailed from lined the walls, as well as a tapestry here and there showcasing hellish battles fought by one ancestor or another. Blunted swords and battle-axes also adorned every nook and cranny. And the silent, timid servants in Baalhermon’s employ kept well out of Marcus’s way as he finally approached the double-doors leading into the beast’s lair.
“Ah,” Baalhermon spoke as he stood up from his throne, “at last, here we have our infiltrator.” The demon stood erect, even taller than Lumbert, and was covered in fire brick red skin from head to toe which glistened in the light cast from the dozens of tallow candles in the hanging chandelier. Thick, twisting horns stuck out from his head and sharpened talons tipped each of his fingers. His black lips curled as he said, “May I ask, why is that you have crashed the gates of my humble fortress?”
“I’m here to save Princess Petunia!” Marcus shouted.
“Then we must do battle, hmm?” Baalhermon raised a non-existent eyebrow, while pulling a longsword from a special compartment in the throne’s armrest.
“Come at me!”
The demon leapt at Marcus and the two blades clashed. Suddenly they were in a dance whose steps took them all around the throne room. Baalhermon employed grand, sweeping gestures in his swordplay while Marcus punctuated these with thrusts and stabs. The demon obviously intended for the sword fight to go on as long as possible, which suited the man just fine, as it would leave Marcus naturally winded rather than just playacting such. Despite his many heroing endeavors in the past, Marcus was not exactly fit and some might even describe him as being on the tubby side. Baalhermon seemed absolutely hellbent on changing location within the room constantly, jumping up and down on furniture, knocking over decorative vases, and leaping back toward the throne and unleashing a mighty shout as if he were about to do some kind of super attack (though then he just continued doing the same as before).
It wasn’t long before Marcus broke into a sweat and fell to his knees, throwing down his sword. “Aargh! I can take no more. You have truly bested me, Your Mighty Lordship Baalhermon! I beg now for your mercy and that you spare a foolish man his life and what dignity he has left. Please?”
The demon Baalhermon brought the edge of his sword close to Marcus’s neck and tightened his lips in a mirthless smirk. Long moments passed as the man began to think his plan had failed and the lord would strike him down here and now instead of keeping him to toy with later. But then, “As you wish. Guards! Take him to the dungeon!”
Monsters in damaged, blood-stained armor marched into the room. And these truly were monsters. They were like overgrown, steroid-infused versions of the soldiers he’d fought before. “Jeez,” Marcus said as they dragged him away, “where were you guys as I was coming in? Never would’ve made it this far if you’d been around! Slouching off on the job, huh?”
They took him down into the dungeon below the castle and locked him inside one of the cells there. As far as dungeons went, there wasn’t anything impressive about it. Everything was cold stone and hard metal. Straw was strewn about on the floor, acting both as one’s bed and toilet. There was a constant unseen drip keeping time off in the distance. And the requisite rat wore a path along the walls as it ran a circuit beneath the torchlight again and again.
“Hey,” Marcus asked, “when’s lunchtime in this place? I’m getting a little peckish after exerting myself like I’ve been doing all morning. What’s on the menu today?”
One of the toadladders drooled and slurped at it cleared its mouth of all excess saliva in order to say, “You’s get your meal…soon!”
Then the creature turned away and Marcus was alone in the dark, dank dungeon. By the smell of it, something had either died down here or had a severe bout of incontinence, perhaps both. Marcus swept together as much straw as he could and made a bed for himself to wait for the next step in his plan to occur. Luckily, he didn’t have to wait long.
“Your gruel, sir,” spoke a female voice, jostling him from a doze.
He snapped his eyes open and there she was, there was the Princess Petunia standing at the bars of his cell, dirtying the hem of her pink dress on the dungeon’s floor. The golden locks of her hair flowed down her back and along her shoulders and her blue eyes were as big as moons and she stood nearly as tall Lumbert, which meant that she towered over him—but, then, nearly everyone towered over Marcus.
“Thank you, miss.”
He took the bowl she handed to him and inspected its contents. As expected, it was a watery, lumpy, unappetizing mess—so he threw it into a corner. The princess watched him do this with severe disapproval.
“Now, wait a second!” she growled. “I’ll have you know that I slaved away to make that gruel and I shall be not disrespected in such a way!” She tilted up her chin and looked down her nose as she hm’ed at him.
“I’m sure we can find better grub elsewhere,” he told her. “I’m here to rescue you! I’m getting you out of this place!”
Marcus pulled a thin, leather roll from between his buff coat and breastplate. He unrolled it and selected a couple of tools from it and began to pick the lock on his cell door.
“You’re here to rescue me?”
“Yeah, but don’t thank me yet. Thank me once we get out of here.” He smiled at her. “A kiss should suffice. At least at first, yeah?”
The princess crossed her arms. “I don’t want to be rescued! I refuse to be rescued!”
This time it was Marcus’s turn to go, “Whaaaa?”
“I regret to inform you that you’ve wasted your time, sir.”
“Whaddaya mean? You don’t want to be rescued?”
“No,” she informed him, “I quite like it here.”
“But that can’t be true! Look at this place! Look at Baalhermon! You can’t honestly tell me that—”
“He isn’t such a bad guy, once you get to know him. He’s actually quite charming, and sweet sometimes. His manners could use a bit of work, but…well, a girl’s gotta have her hobbies, you know?”
Marcus’s mouth hung open, slack-jawed. “Hang on a minute! This isn’t fair! I came here to rescue a princess, you’re a princess, you need rescuing, you can’t tell me otherwise. You’re coming with me! We’re getting out of here!”
As he said this, Princess Petunia’s foot began to tap, and it tapped faster and faster with every word that spilled out of his mouth. “No. We. Are. Not!” she enunciated.
“It’s not fair!” he whined.
“Fair or not, I’m allowed to make my own decisions. And I’ve made my decision. Good day to you, sir!”
She turned away.
“Wait a second. Isn’t there some kind of compromise we could reach?”
She looked back at him and regarded him quizzically.
“I can’t leave empty-handed,” he pleaded.
She thought for a moment. “Well, there is something, I suppose.”
She approached the bars of his cell once more and whispered to him, “Now, I’m not one to spread rumors, but the word is that Princess Dewberry, who’s taken up residence in the castle just down the road from here, has found her own demonic lord to be quite tiresome and that she may be in the market for a change in scenery, as well as company, if you catch my meaning. I’m sure she’d be ever so grateful if a man of your”—she looked him up and down—“you-ness were to come along and extract her from her unfortunate situation?”
“Yeah, I suppose that could work,” he thought. “Wait, this Princess Dewberry, she’s not…you know.” He gestured widely with his hands.
Princess Petunia looked appalled. “Now, why should that matter? A woman’s attractiveness is not be judged based on her figure, yes?”
“I-I-I…I mean…yeaaaaaa…I mean, no?”
“That’s right!” She produced a key, even though her dress had no pockets, and unlocked the cell door. “You scarper now, and when you meet Princess Dewberry I want to hear that you behaved like the utmost gentleman, okay?”
“Yes,” Marcus promised, “I’ll do that.” He looked around. “Huh. Is there a back way out of this place?”
“There’s a secret passage just over there.”
“Ah, yes! There always is in these places, isn’t there? Well, I’ll be off.” He tipped an invisible hat to her.
Marcus met up with Lumbert outside. “Change of plans,” he told his traveling companion, “our princess is, in fact, in another castle, just down the road from here. And from what I’ve gathered she’s really quite lovely.” The squat man paused. “I’ve been thinking, actually. I’ve treated you in such a terrible way, my good friend. How’s about you take this one? Storm the castle, rescue the princess, and all that? You can even do it the ‘proper way’, yeah?”
He clapped the taller man on the back.
“Let’s be off!”