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A Courageous Quest (Fables Of The Forgotten, Book One)

A Courageous Quest

Book One

Fables of the Forgotten

by Valmore Daniels

This is purely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This book may not be re-sold or given away without permission in writing from the author. No part of this book may be reproduced, copied, or distributed in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means past, present or future.

Copyright © 2015 Valmore Daniels. All rights reserved.

Fables of the Forgotten

A Courageous Quest

A Sorcerous Spell

A Monstrous Myth

Visit ValmoreDaniels.com

[Part One
Land Of Myth]

Chapter One

“I’m going to die, Samson.”

Leif leaned against the windowsill in his bedroom at the foster home and looked outside.

Even sitting on his haunches, the Great Dane was just as tall as Leif. Not understanding what was said, the dog thumped his tail on the floor, then opened his mouth and panted.

Leif reached over to pet him—

Like the strike of a lightning bolt, searing pain shot through his lungs. He found himself grasping desperately for the windowsill to keep from falling down on the floor. His head was spinning wildly like a top. It was all he could do to fight off the nausea that welled up in his throat, and burned its way from his stomach to his mouth.

Long minutes went by before he felt a warm nose pushing his arm up. Samson let out a whine.

Painfully, Leif pried his white-knuckled fingers from the edge of the sill. He was all too aware that the spells were coming more and more frequently.

His eyes shifted back outside to the four boys in the yard, who were building a tree house. He wanted to go down and join them, but he was forbidden to leave his room. Doctor Wiley had told him he shouldn’t even be out of bed.

Turning his face away from the window, he looked down at Samson. The dog’s eyes seemed to lift in surprise, his ears flicking back, as Leif, gathering his strength, said, “I don’t want to die.”

Samson pounded his tail on the floor as if hoping to make Leif stop being so glum.

Once again, Leif reached out absently to tickle the short, white-beige fur on the Great Dane’s muscular neck. Samson leaned in hard, moved his body around to get the most from Leif’s moving fingers.

He looked down at the dog, saw those big brown eyes glance back up with nothing but concern and admiration for him.

Samson belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Brown, who believed their foster children would benefit from having an animal in the family.

The dog wagged his tail expectantly. His tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth and a single drop of saliva rolled off and hit the floor.

Suddenly overcome with emotion, Leif bent at the knee and threw his arms around the dog’s neck, barely stifling his tears. Samson, confused, whined again as he accepted the hug, but his tail wagged happily in response to the desperate love that flowed from his friend.

“I wish you were my dog,” Leif said. Samson licked Leif’s cheek and wagged his tail as if to encourage Leif to believe that it would all be all right; everything would work out.

Doctor Wiley had urged Mr. and Mrs. Brown to have him checked into the children’s hospital, but Leif had panicked at the thought of spending his last months alone in a white-walled and impersonal place like that. Besides, hospitals didn’t allow dogs.

After talking it over, they agreed to keep Leif at home for a little while longer, so long as he obeyed the doctor’s instructions and stayed in bed.

He knew he should not be standing near the window at all. If his foster parents caught him, they would give him a stern lecture.

Drawing the blind down across the window, Leif shuffled over to the bed and slid swiftly under the covers.

A sudden bout of coughing overcame him. He did not stop hacking until he spat up a few dabs of crimson-stained phlegm on his pillow.

He’d only started to cough blood in the past few days, and hadn’t told anyone. If his foster parents saw the bloodstain, Leif would be whisked off to the hospital right away.

He turned his pillow over and reminded himself that he would have to sneak the cover into the laundry.

Samson whined and stamped around, as if eager to do something but not knowing what. Leif had to strain his muscles to reach out and give the Great Dane a pat on the head to calm him down.

“There, there.” Leif managed a hoarse whisper. “I’m fine now, Samson. You lay down. Good boy.”

Pulling his quilt blanket up around his chin, Leif closed his eyes and wished things were different.

Suddenly overcome by his emotions, he turned his head into his pillow and let his tears fall freely into the soft fabric.

Oh, how he hated his cancer. He hated the foster home. He hated this room whose walls were the boundaries of his prison, where his sentence was life.

If he was to die, why couldn’t he do some of his favorite things before then? Why couldnt he? There was no reason why not.

Surprising himself with his conviction, he decided that the first thing on his list was to climb that tree in the yard and play in the tree house.

Yes, I will climb that tree the very first chance I get, he decided.

Aloud, he whispered to the darkness, “Even if it kills me.”

Chapter Two

It was a day later when Leif finally got his chance. His foster parents had gone grocery shopping, taking the other boys along, but leaving Samson behind to keep Leif company.

“It’s about time,” he remarked to the dog as he watched them drive off in their minivan.

Leif got busy, replacing his pajamas with loose-fitting pants and a shirt that was too large for him. Samson watched with idle interest, pausing only once to kick at an itch in his neck.

After slipping his boots on over his socks, Leif grabbed a green jacket out of the closet.

Beckoning Samson to follow, he left his room. The dog trotted along behind, his ears cocked in curiosity.

Halfway down the stairs, Leif fell heavily onto the steps. The weak spell had come on suddenly, taking him off guard. But not even that could overcome his enthusiasm and excitement. He paused until he regained his breath and strength, and was quickly on his way again.

When he walked out the front door, it was as though he were on parade for the whole world to see. He breathed deeply of the crisp fresh air of autumn, striding off the porch and into the yard. It was his first time outside alone in more than a month.

“It’s a fine day out today, Samson,” he said as he reached the road and headed for the tree house. Samson was jumping about, trying to chomp a fly that buzzed around his head.

Leif kicked his foot through a patch of brown leaves that were raked into a pile. A gust of wind lifted them up in a flutter. They swirled about in the air—a happy, disjointed dance—before they began the winding, swirling flight back to the ground.

It was, indeed, a fine day.

Leif drew in another long, luxurious breath of air.

“I think I’ll climb a tree,” he told Samson, as if the idea had just occurred to him. “Let’s see … oh, maybe that one will do. Leif pointed to the oak with the tree house built into its highest branches.

Samson woofed agreement, wagging his tail; it sounded as if they were going to play.

Leif continued over to the tree, but stopped when Samson let out a single bark of disappointment.

“Don’t worry, Samson, I’ll be back down soon, and then we’ll play fetch,” he said, giving a heartfelt smile the dog easily interpreted. Samson woofed in reply then sat back on his haunches to wait for Leif to finish with his business.

Although he climbed slowly and cautiously, Leif tackled the tree with determined vigor. Gradually, he worked his way to the lowest branch, and sat on it to rest.

A sudden gust of wind nearly knocked him over, and he had to clutch the trunk tightly or fall off.

Careful! Careful! he admonished himself. It had been a long time since he had climbed a tree, and he was not as strong as he used to be. Even now, he was out of breath and not feeling very well.

Below, Samson began yipping and whining with concern.

“I’m all right, Samson,” Leif called down.

The Great Dane barked back nervously.

“I won’t go any higher, okay?” Leif was not sure whether he said it for his own benefit or for the dog’s.

Just a few minutes rest, he promised himself. Then I’ll go back down.

As he waited for his strength to return, he looked out across the tops of the buildings and houses. His eyes drank in the sights greedily. It looked so different from this height. From here, he could almost get to like the sprawling young town. It was a sunny day with no clouds, and he could see clear on to the mountains. He eyed them hungrily from one end of the horizon to the other.

“Wow! What a view from up here,” he called down to Samson, who would never be able to witness the world from this angle.

Leif marveled at the number of houses in the town. So many! He recalled his foster mother mentioning that there was talk of turning the town into a city, it had grown so big in the last few years.

Over to the north was the rising steeple of a church toward the center of town.

And over there on the outskirts, just on the other side of the river, was the big mill.

And over there was—

The wind suddenly died. Everything went quiet.

Leif felt a sharp wave of weakness. Strength fled from his arms like water from an upended basin. His hold on the tree loosened, and he started to slip.

His mind spun, his eyes fluttered, and he almost lost consciousness.

A pulse of air surged at him, striking him in the chest. He though his ribs were being crushed with the force of it. He kicked his legs wildly, trying to balance himself. His arms flailed out for the touch of the bark on the tree.

Below, Samson barked incessantly.

Before Leif could cry out, there was a giant flash of light from out of nowhere, blinding him.

A fierce gust of ice-cold wind angrily struck him, raking his skin, ripping at his jacket. He was already off balance, and the wind pushed him that extra few inches; he fell off and plummeted to the ground.

Screaming, he desperately grasped for a branch, but he could not see anything; all his fingers clutched was empty air…

Chapter Three

“Are y’alright, my boy?”

The voice was heavily accented, one that Leif found somewhat familiar, yet at the same time completely strange.

“Uhh…!” Leif responded groggily as he pushed his mind against the darkness that swarmed around his senses like bees around a hive.

“Don’t pass out now, laddie, or it might be that you don’t wake again. I’ve seen it happen. Stay awake, hear?”

Leif tried to sit up, and his head spun.

“You’ve had yourself quite a spill,” the man said. “From the look of it, you fell out of that tree. Now, don’t move ‘less you think you’re able, my friend.”

Leif’s head was foggy and thick with pain. He wondered idly who the man was; he had not seen anyone around before he had fallen. Was I out long enough for someone to have strolled by? he asked himself.

He heard Samson’s concerned whimpering and felt a slick wetness on the side of his face as the Great Dane licked him.

“Samson!” He gently, but firmly, pushed him back. When the dog would not stop licking, however, Leif tried to stand to get away from the onslaught—a mistake. Fireworks exploded in his head as he fell back.

“You all right?” the stranger asked again, more insistently this time. “Did you break your leg, my friend? Or something else? You going to be all right?”

Leif’s back was aching, and his head was ringing to beat the band, but there seemed to be nothing as serious as broken bones.

“No. I—I’m fine,” he began to say to the stranger, who was holding a necklace with some kind of jewel in one of his tiny hands. “Just a little—”

…Tiny hands?

He turned his head, forced his eyes to focus on the stranger. And saw the general outline of a man—a very small, very slender man.

Too small!

After hastily rubbing his eyes, as if to wipe away the image of what he had just seen, he looked again. I must still be dizzy, he decided. He stared at the fellow, all two and a half feet of him.

Shouting in surprise and fear, Leif tried desperately to backpedal away across the ground, but abruptly stopped when he smacked the back of his head against the tree.

The miniature stranger gasped in surprise as well, and backed away just as hastily, his eyes widening for a split-second.

Then the little man, seeing that Leif was only startled, recovered with a bright, congenial smile. He tucked the amulet, which was hanging from a necklace, inside his shirt.

He said, “Don’t be afraid of me, my boy. Wouldn’t harm a fly. Now you, on the other hand, were almost the death of me. Gave me quite the start, you did.” There was a pleasant smile on his face.

He extended his hand once more to help Leif up, but Leif made no move to accept it. He did not so much as move an eyelash; he just stared at the tiny man.

The stranger looked like he belonged in some elaborate doll collection. He wore a plaited brown, sleeveless tunic; there was an unfamiliar emblem sewn into the chest. Cut high over bright green stockings, his tunic was old-fashioned, like a bard in a play. His thick-soled, ankle-length leather shoes tapered to points at the ends; a large buckle adorned the upper face of the shoe. The rest of his attire was just as outrageous and remarkable, but what shocked Leif the most was the small man’s face.

Tucked under a wide-brimmed green hat, which had a yellow feather on top, and amid a mass of golden curly hair that had green and brown highlights, the stranger’s gentle face was slender and long, as though his fair white skin had been stretched over his cheekbones like the canvas on a drum. His huge, wide eyes were the richest brown Leif had ever seen. A short, pointed nose seemed to wink when the man smiled, as he was doing now.

Leif pointed a finger. “You!” he accused, his voice breaking suddenly in the face of his fear. “What are you?”

Leif noted somewhere in the back of his mind that Samson did not seem to be overly concerned about the small man. The dog was always distrustful of strangers and barked at them. Always.

“What I am,” the man said, “is a wood sprite; one of the folk. My name is Timber. Pleased to meet you.”

He gave Leif a deep bow. When he straightened, he raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Might you be a hume man?”

Leif frowned. He, a man? He shook his head. “I’m just a boy. I’ll be a man in a few—well, I would be, but…” He let his words taper off to silence, remembering his health, or lack thereof.

Just as Leif opened his mouth to begin his accusations, Timber interrupted him.

“But what?” He seemed genuinely curious.

Suspicious of the strange little creature’s claim of who and what he was—sprites only existed in fairy tales—Leif narrowed his eyes.

“It’s none of your business,” he said. “And I don’t believe you’re a wood sprite, either. You are just a short man, like a midget, only thinner and smaller.”

Timber dropped his smile and frowned disapprovingly. “Are all humes as rude as you?”

Leif flushed. “Oh. Uh, sorry. It’s just that, well, I’ve never met a wood sprite before. Actually, I don’t think anyone has. Maybe I’m dreaming. You have to be a figment of my imagination.”

“A figment? Hah!” Timber laughed uproariously, which caused his nose to twitch madly. He spun around in a mock pirouette. “Do I look like a figment? I’m as real as real can be. I’m as real as you are; as real as you, young hume.”

Looking up at the wood sprite, Leif asked, “What’s a hume?”

“That’s what we call the people of the Land of Myth—its real name being the Land of the Humes: your Land.”

“Well,” continued Leif, “the only people I’ve ever seen are people like me: humans.”

The man snapped his tiny fingers. “They all said the humes were the most ferocious of beings, taller than giants, meaner than ogres, and more devious than the Mage. But you don’t seem all that menacing, even if you’re just a young hume.” He smiled, winking amiably.

“What are you talking about?” demanded Leif shortly, again taken completely off his guard at the other’s words. Giants? Monsters? Mage?

Samson nudged the man with his nose, as if looking for a petting. The Great Dane must have felt left out, Leif guessed, though he raised his eyebrows at Samson’s uncharacteristic familiarity with this strange little wood sprite.

The man was considerably smaller than the dog, and Samson nearly knocked him over by his enthusiastic play.

“Hey, there,” Timber said in a laughing voice. He quickly rubbed Samson under the chin, and the dog settled in for a good scratching, closing his eyes and panting loudly, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Leif, despite himself, got a laugh out of that.

And suddenly, all the tension and suspicion fled from Leif; certainly, Samson would not take kindly to any creature of mischief. If Samson accepted the wood sprite, then so would Leif.

Timber said, “I am not of your Land, if you had not already guessed. I come from afar, beyond the Nardee—which is the apex of the five True Lands. The land of my birth is the Land of the Folk. The Seven Sages have instructed me to find a hume who is willing to help us.”

“Help you?”

“As we speak, my friend, the Lands are being ravaged by an evil man who calls himself the Mage.”

“Mage?”

“A warlock,” Timber explained, mistaking Leif’s astonishment for ignorance of the word. “A user of dark magic. And a very evil person he is, let me tell you, my friend.”

“Evil?” Leif said, frowning.

“For certain. The Mage lives in a fortress in the land he created using magic.

“Magic? Really?”

“Really.”

“That’s awful.” But it was just like a fairy tale. Except this was better, because this was real. Leif did not know whether to put on a solemn face or let his excitement burst through.

“Yes. We’re now all bound to obey the Mage. A legion of monsters enforces his evil decrees. The worst of them is Gorr, an ogre who guards the Nardee.”

“Ogre? Gorr? Nardee? And what are all these Lands?” There was much that Leif didn’t know about Timber’s world.

“Uhm,” Timber said, “perhaps I should explain from the beginning.”

“Please.” Before Timber could begin his story, Leif said, “We should go inside. We can sit down and talk there.”

“Very well,” said Timber without hesitation, giving Leif a bright smile that made his small nose twinkle like the whiskers of a mouse.

He stepped over to the side of the tree and retrieved a rucksack that he had dropped there when he had run to help Leif. Slinging the rucksack over his shoulder, he smiled and waited for Leif to lead the way.

As they walked, Leif said, “Uh, by the way, my name is Leif.”

“Leaf? Like from a tree? I like that. After all, being a wood sprite, I tend to have a liking for things of nature and—”

“Uh, no, not leaf. It’s Leif: L—E—I—F,” he clarified.

“My mistake, friend Leif; I am unfamiliar with the humes’ custom of nomenclature—”

“Nomenwhat?”

“Naming each other. But then again, it has been a hundred years since anyone has visited the Land of the Humes. In fact,” he said, lifting his brows, “so little is known about your Land that we rely only on stories passed down through generations, and it is sometimes called the Land of Myth in jest. I guess I just dispelled that ‘myth’, hey?” He laughed at his joke.

“I guess,” agreed Leif absently.

He was still thinking about what Timber had said before about ogres and magical lands and mages. He wondered whether he was still unconscious from the fall and dreaming this all; but he had never before had a dream that seemed this real.

Chapter Four

At the house, the three of them filed inside, hume, sprite, and dog.

Leif led the way to the kitchen. He motioned to a chair at one end of the table.

“Have a seat,” he said.

Timber pulled the chair out and hopped up, but wrinkled his brow in consternation when he noticed that the top of the table was just below his eye level; he was too short. Leif quickly remedied the situation by putting a phone book on the chair. This solved the problem to Timber’s satisfaction; he was a full head over the top of the table now.

Leif fetched the milk from the fridge as well as two big glasses from the cupboard, and poured one for each of them. He spilled a few drops on the floor. Samson woofed in pleasure, rushing over to lick it up. With a smile, Leif filled the dog’s water dish with milk, though he knew his foster mother would probably scold him for doing so. Samson lapped the rare treat up amid much tail wagging.

Finally, Leif arranged some cookies from the pantry on a plate and brought them to the table.

“Delicious,” the wood sprite commented as he downed the full glass.

From under the milk mustache that had formed on his upper lip, Timber spoke in his oddly accented voice.

“There are five True Lands, created long ago by the greatest magician of all, whose name was Nelvin. There is the Land of the Folk, the Land of the Sea, the Land of the Giants, the Land of the Humes, and, finally, the Land of the Monsters.”

“Wow!”

Leif was wide-eyed in his amazement; he was leaning over the table, completely entranced. All those Lands. He wondered what each of them was like. They were probably much more exciting than the Land of the Humes—his Land.

“The Lands are all connected by the Nardee, which is a magical gate between the Lands—and is a miniature world of its own. If you want to go from the Land of the Folk to the Land of the Giants, you must first Landtrip to the Nardee, and then Landtrip to the Land of the Giants.”

Leif said, “I went on a land trip once, by train. I didn’t like it very much.”

“What’s a train?” asked Timber, blinking. He quickly shook his head before Leif could answer. “Doesn’t matter. I should get on with the story. Landtripping is not normal transportation, like riding or walking, or taking a train,” he added with a nod of his head toward Leif. “We use a rorrim to Landtrip to the Nardee, and then we use the void to Landtrip to another Land.

“Now,” he continued, “it used to be a simple task to get to whichever Land we wanted, for the Nardee was shared by all; but when the Mage came into his power, he put a stop to Landtripping freely between Lands. He placed Gorr, a horrible ogre from the Land of the Monsters, in the Nardee to guard it and control who goes where. So, if you wish to Landtrip to a different Land, you must now pay a heavy toll to Gorr.”

“That’s awful.” Then Leif said excitedly, “So you need someone to kill the ogre?”

“Heavens, no,” exclaimed Timber with wide, horrified eyes. “The folk may not kill. It is…” He seemed to have struggled for the right word. “…we cannot commit an act of violence and cannot ask another to do violence in our stead.”

“We have laws like that, too.”

“It’s not just a law for us,” Timber said. “Whenever any of the folk are faced with physical danger, we find ourselves cowering in fear, totally paralyzed and unable to take action.” After a moment, he cleared his throat, as if just realizing he had given away his race’s secret. “It is our ages-old curse, my friend. And naught can be done about it.”

This was getting more exciting and intriguing by the minute. It was also becoming increasingly confusing to keep track of all this new information.

“But I’m getting ahead of myself.” Timber said. “Ages ago, everyone—humes, giants, folk, mers, and even the monsters—existed in harmony with one another.”

“The monsters existed in harmony with everyone else?” asked Leif, disbelieving.

“Yes, indeed. Actually, before the Sundering, the monsters were the most orderly, law-abiding race of all. They were our advisors, as well as our lawmakers and law enforcers, or so the historians say. Yes, we feared them because of their rather ugly appearances, but inside they were logical, just, and fair.”

“The Sundering?” Leif asked.

Timber took in a deep breath. “This is how it is told by the Sage of History:

“A thousand years ago, there was only one Land. No one knows why, but there was a great war between the five races, and to stop it, the magician Nelvin created the five Lands.

“To do this, he found the source of magic, the Prism of Power, which gave each race of people their aspect. Somehow, he was able to break the Prism into five Shards, thus Sundering the Lands.”

Leif nodded, but did not make any comment.

“The Shards disappeared,” Timber said. “To where? No one knows.”

“You said the Prism gave everyone an ‘aspect’?”

“There are five aspects needed for magic to work: sight, speech, balance, courage, and order. When the Prism was sundered, each Shard took away one attribute from each of the Lands.

“As the attribute of the folk had been courage, we now have no courage.”

Leif sympathized, knowing how it felt to be helpless. “Did the humes have an aspect of magic?”

“Yes,” Timber said, “And they, too, lost it: sight.”

Leif shook his head. “No we didn’t. I can see just as well as anyone.”

“That is not the sight I mean, friend Leif. I meant far sight, the ability to see what is happening in any part of any Land, no matter where the seer is. Also, they would once again be able to see that magic exists.”

Up until he’d met Timber, Leif had believed as other humes did, that magic wasn’t real. Now, he knew different.

After a moment’s pause to collect his thoughts, Timber continued, “The giants lost speech, the mers lost balance, and the monsters lost order.”

He took a bite of his cookie before continuing.

“But then, a few months ago, something happened that changed everything.”

“The Mage?” Leif guessed in an excited voice.

“Yes. The Mage.” Timber shifted uneasily in his seat. “I am afraid to say, friend Leif, that he is one of your kind: a hume. The Seven Sages believe he must have found the Shard of your Land.

“With its power, he rallied the monsters to his side, and used them to protect him while he did the most horrendous thing imaginable, something so foul it…” He could not bring himself to say any more until Leif urged him a number of times to continue.

Timber said, “It is said that the bearer of a Shard can use its power and perform magic. Using that power, he created a Land for himself. The Land of the Mage. It’s a foul, perverted place if there ever was one.”

Leif asked, “Why didn’t he just use the magic of the Shard to take over here, in the Land of the Humes?”

“We don’t know. The Mage must have a reason for leaving your Land and creating his own. Perhaps he’s afraid of losing his power to someone else from here. After all, only a hume can use the power of this Land’s Shard.”

“So, you need one of us to fight him?”

“Not to fight him, friend Leif,” Timber reminded him, “to rescue the Queen of the Folk.”

“Queen?”

“He holds her hostage in his fortress. So long as we work for him, she lives.”

Leif asked, “What makes you think you need a hume for that? Can’t one of you rescue her?”

“We…” He seemed to have difficulty saying it. “We cannot.”

Leif saw that Timber was looking at him hopefully. He bowed his head.

“What is wrong, friend Leif?” Timber asked quietly.

“Well, earlier, when I fell, and you asked if I were a man, I—I was about to tell you that I … that I would never be a man because I will never grow up. I’m—” He struggled to get it out past the sobs that threatened to overtake him. “—going to die.”

It was the first time he felt truly regretful of that fact. Not only would he miss the conclusion of Timber’s quest, but also he would miss everything else this world and the other worlds had to offer. There was so much out there, he realized. So much he would lose. Haven’t I already lost enough? he demanded silently of no one in particular.

“Friend Leif,” exclaimed Timber. Sympathy quickly replaced the look of shock on his face. “Indeed, it is a great misfortune for someone to know of their own end. Have you no chance to escape this fate?”

“No. I have what the doctors call the leukemia. It eats me from the inside out.” Leif shrugged, and managed a weak smile to take the horror from Timber’s expression. “There’s nothing that can be done.”

Shaking his head, Timber said, “My heart goes out to you.”

“I thought dying would not be all that bad, because I’ll be going to heaven, where my mother is, and I can finally meet her.”

“Yes, we always hope to join our ancestors when we pass on. But there are always things that need doing in life. Things to look forward to doing, even under the rule of the Mage,” he added in a quiet, but purposeful, voice.

Leif gulped. It had just been what he was thinking.

Timber said, “You must be very brave indeed to hold yourself so …” His words trailed off, as if trying to recall something someone said.

A thought came to Leif just then: How was it he was able to fix the snack without having had a single weak spell? He was actually feeling stronger. He could not remember coughing even once since meeting Timber. Perhaps the fall from the tree had knocked the cancer right out of him. Was it possible that some of the magic from the other Lands had leaked through?

More likely, he was just too excited, meeting a real-live wood sprite and all, to have paid attention to the disease. Any moment now, it would return. He was sure it was all building up to one big weak spell that would knock him out for days.

He didn’t know how long he would be strong, but he wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to see the other Lands.

“Yes,” he said finally. “I will help you.”

Chapter Five

For a long moment, Timber gave Leif a level stare, and then his eyes shifted to the table, as if he were deep in thought.

“Timber?”

“Just wool-gathering, my friend. ‘Trust in the Nardee, it will take you where you need to go…’ ” he said in a barely audible whisper.

“Pardon me?” Leif asked.

Timber’s eyes lifted, and so did the expression on his face.

“Those are the words the Sage of Arcana said to me before I began this quest. He said to trust in the magic of the Nardee. Friend Leif, the Nardee took me right to you. How did the Sage know?” Then he raised his hands into the air and laughed. “Of course, my friend, that’s why they call him ‘Sage’.”

Leif smiled from ear to ear. “That is good news. And maybe my strength will remain, now that I have a purpose and am not sitting around all day in bed.”

“If we hurry, we can get back to my Land just in time for the Folkfest.” Timber hopped off the chair. “We will throw it in your honor. After that, we will consult with the Seven Sages.”

“Wonderful.” Leif smiled brightly, his excitement showing through as much as Timber’s; this was the first time he had been truly happy in years.

Then his smile slid off his face. “Oh…what about Samson?” he asked, reaching out a hand to the faithful Great Dane.

“Too easy,” concluded the wood sprite. “If Samson wishes to go, then go he shall.” He looked questioningly at the dog.

Samson woofed and wagged his tail. He was ready for anything.

“All right, then,” exclaimed Timber, clapping his tiny hands together. “Now, the first thing we need, laddie, is to find a rorrim.”

Leif paused, his mouth half open. Then he blinked. “I don’t think we have one. And I don’t think I even know what it looks like.”

“Oh, my apologies. The rorrim are large, relatively flat surfaces that reflect a person’s image. In our Land, we usually use a calm brook or lake—and it works best on a sunny day.”

“We don’t have any brooks or rivers near here, except the Bowman River, but that’s too far away,” Leif replied. He thought about it for a moment. “Could we use a mirror?”

“Possibly … I don’t really know what that is,” admitted the wood sprite.

“There’s a full-length one in my foster parents’ room. Come on, I’ll show you.”

Leif led Timber upstairs. Samson, following close behind the two, nipped at Leif’s heels all the way up, thinking it was a chase.

Inside the room, they found the full-length mirror on the other side of the bed, between the closet and the window.

“That’s perfect.” Timber laughed jubilantly. He examined the mirror, marveling to Leif at its construction. “I’ve never seen the like before. What’s it made of, anyhow?”

“Glass,” Leif replied.

Timber furrowed his brow. “Glass?” Then he shook his head. “Makes no difference, really. The point is, it will work, friend Leif. Now,” he began in a lecturing tone, “there are precise rules of magic that apply to Landtripping. Do you remember I said there are five Aspects of magic?”

“Yes,” Leif replied dutifully with a nod.

“You have to use all five: The first is sight; you have to foresee where you want to go—in this case, the Nardee. So all you have to do is think and say ‘Nardee’ when the time is right. I will tell you when.

“The second attribute is speech; there is a rhyme that you must repeat before you enter the rorrim. Don’t forget this part,” he warned.

“I won’t.”

Timber nodded. “The third is balance; while you recite the enchantment, you must turn in a circle two times, quickly, without falling over.

“The fourth and most important attribute,” Timber said with a small catch in his voice, “is courage. You must have courage to believe in magic, friend Leif. It is a different kind of courage than what the folk have lost, but it is courage nonetheless.

“And finally there is order; you must do everything in the proper order, or you will crash into the [rorrim’s _]surface without _Landtripping. Now, the monsters, who have lost order, often find it difficult to remember which order to invoke the magic, and it sometimes takes them a long time to get through. Only the monsters who have done it many times over can get it right on the first or second try.

“Now, do as I say. Stand directly in front of the rorrim,” the wood sprite directed Leif and Samson.

They did so.

“Hold on to Samson and close your eyes. Repeat the rhyme I will recite to you, and turn around twice. Then, at the same time, leap through the rorrim and call out your destination. Are you ready?”

Leif closed his eyes tight, and placed his hand over Samson’s big brown eyes. “Ready.”

Timber chanted:

Twice I turn and seek the star;

In the Land of my desire.

I come from near and travel far;

To the Land of my desire.

Leif repeated the chant, turning twice with Samson, as instructed; then, pulling the Great Dane by his collar, said, “Nardee,” and took one step forward.

But he faltered for a split-second.

Was he crazy? He must be out of his mind to think he could run straight into a mirror without it shattering and cutting him to pieces.

Almost, he did not go through, but Samson, as if understanding what had to be done, and understanding his hume friend’s reluctance, leaped forward with a mighty spring of his legs. Leif’s hand was still around the Great Dane’s collar, and the dog pulled him right along…

…straight toward five-and-a-half feet of solid mirror.

Leif cried out in fear, a long, trailing yell that was abruptly cut off as he[_ Landtripped_].

He felt dizzy as he passed through the glass, which did not shatter.

A terrible wind rushed past him at an incredible velocity, much like the wind that had gripped him and torn him from the young oak tree earlier. He could not have opened his eyes to see where he was going even if he had wanted.

Then, he and Samson landed, hard enough to jar every bone in his body, on what Leif thought was packed sand. But when he finally opened his eyes, he was in a world that was beyond his imagination…

[Part Two
The Nardee]

Chapter Six

It was sand, but sand like none other Leif had ever before seen. Small, grainy, round, and yellow, it gave off a pleasant golden glow that extended right across to the end of the flat horizon, where it met with a dark-blue sky. Even though the dark sky made it seem like late evening, Leif could see Samson as plain as day because of the glowing sand.

There was sand as far as the eye could see. There weren’t even any hills. It was as though he had[_ Landtripped_] onto a vast, never-ending beach, which bordered on an ocean of twinkling stars.

The stars formed almost-familiar patterns. When Leif concentrated, he thought he could make out some constellations. When he saw one very, very bright star, which beckoned him toward it, he wondered, The North Star? Here?

“Welcome to the Nardee,” exclaimed Timber, appearing suddenly beside Leif, who jumped into the air, clutching at his thumping heart.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” the wood sprite apologized, though he had a bright, mischievous smile on his face.

“That’s all right. Er, how far do we have to go now?” Leif asked, ignoring the sprite’s infectious grin. “We don’t have to go all the way to that big star over there, do we?”

Timber shook his head. “We won’t have that great a distance to journey, friend Leif. That big star is not an actual star, but a beacon that shines by the power of the Nardee. It leads to the void that we must enter in order to get to a Land. It is only a ten-minute walk.”

“Well, if this is the Nardee,” Leif began slowly, looking around cautiously, “then where is Gorr? And, come to think of it, doesn’t anyone else use the Nardee? We’re the only ones here.”

Samson woofed in agreement then wagged his tail when Leif stroked the thick fur on his back to calm him.

“It’s part of the magic of the Nardee,” Timber said. “All people here are rendered invisible and muted to anyone else who is farther away than ten feet. So, if I were to walk over here a few paces—” He walked backward as he spoke. “—I would disappear. To you, anyway.”

Leif’s eyeballs nearly popped out when the wood sprite suddenly vanished. Samson barked in confusion, and then growled low in his throat.

This place holds great magic indeed, Leif concluded.

Timber took a few steps forward and reappeared before Leif with a dramatic flourish of his hands, and bowed low.

Leif smiled and was about to applaud, when a strange form appeared in his periphery for a fleeting moment, only to disappear again into the blanket of magical invisibility before he could see who—or what—it was.

Samson also caught a glance of the stranger and snarled a dire warning. Although Leif was just as unsettled as Samson was, he nevertheless tried to calm the dog by scratching harder behind his ears.

“There, there, boy. That’s all right,” he cooed.

The fleeting shape must have belonged to another person who was also petitioning Gorr for use of the Nardee, Leif guessed when his heart stopped pounding so hard.

Timber, not seeming to take any undue notice, pointed toward the beacon that looked like a star.

“The gate between the Lands, as I said, is in that direction. There will probably be a line, and we’ll have to wait a while.”

Leif hastened to follow as the wood sprite started off, lest his companion get too far ahead and accidentally pop out of sight. Then Leif would be really lost.

As they got closer to wherever the gate was, Leif could see more and more petitioners, but he wasn’t sure that he could classify most of these people as ‘people’. At least, they were not like any people he had ever seen before—but of course, he reminded himself, I’m the only hume here, besides the Mage. Everyone else would look much different than he did.

Timber nodded in acknowledgment and exchanged words with other creatures that passed in and out of the ten-foot radius of visibility.

“Who are all these people?” Leif asked when they had started to slow down because of the growing crowd. “There are many more kinds of beings than just other sprites here.”

“Assuredly, friend Leif. We folk come in many different kinds and names; for example, he is an elf,” he said of a slight fellow who was as tall as Leif. The elf was even slighter than Timber. He didn’t walk so much as glide across the sandy ground; his graceful movements resembled a willow bending gently in the wind. His skin was almost porcelain white, smooth and satiny. Long silver hair flowed around a similarly white tunic.

“—And that young lass beside the elf,” Timber remarked of a stout, short, bandy-legged woman who had a beard down to her waist, “is a dwarf.”

Leif’s eyes went wide at the sight of her. A beard? Her skin, in contrast to the elf’s, was almost pitch black. With her perpetual smile, her face glowed with the reflection of the magical sand. Her round, smiling cheeks shone like polished apples.

“That gentleman over there is also a sprite, but a distant cousin of ours from the sea.”

The sea sprite resembled Timber very closely, except that where Timber had fair skin, the sea sprite had a greenish tinge to his. A mass of blond and green hair swirling around his head reminded Leif of seaweed he had seen in pictures.

“And that rather short fellow who just popped into sight is a gnome,” said the wood sprite, pointing.

Leif thought it odd that Timber would refer to anyone as short, but one look at the gnome, and he was forced to agree. The gnome was half as tall as Timber, but he resembled a dwarf in girth and bandy-leggedness. He had bluish skin and short green hair.

“Oh, and there, those three talking—do you see them? The taller one is a pixie, the middle one a brownie, and the shorter is a fairy.” Leif had trouble spotting them, for they were the shortest of all, each standing under a foot tall. All three were slender, flighty beings with tree-brown skin.

Besides the slight variation in height, the only difference Leif could see between the three was the shade of their hair: the pixie had a wild mass of red hair and sported a flame-red goatee; the brownie had short brownish-red hair; and the fairy’s hair was a light auburn. Leif stared at them for a long time; they did not look quite like he had imagined.

Timber said, “They are cousins to each other, pixies, brownies, and fairies; as are, you might have noticed, dwarfs and gnomes, and sprites and elves. Three big families are we, and seven kinds in all. But altogether, we call ourselves the ‘folk’.”

All the creatures of folklore, Leif mused to himself.

“It is all so much,” he commented aloud, rubbing his eyes to get moisture back in them—he had not blinked in the past five minutes for fear of missing any new sights.

Timber smiled appreciatively.

Just then, Leif saw his first giant. They looked like humes, but stood three times Leif’s own height. And they were incredibly huge, with bulging masses of muscles.

A moment later, Leif saw a few very odd-looking creatures dragging themselves across the sand. They had a single fish fin running down their spines, which ended in a large fish tail instead of legs and feet. They used strong arms to pull themselves forward. They seemed to be used to this mode of transportation, and moved quite ably.

“They are mers from the Land of the Sea,” said Timber, expecting a smile from Leif at the contradiction in terms.

“How do they breathe?” Leif asked instead, remembering that most fish used gills underwater and would literally suffocate and drown out of water.

“Uh, the same way we do, I guess. I never really thought about it.” Timber paused in consideration of the question.

There was a moment of panicked confusion when Leif spotted a few monsters pushing their way through the crowd toward him, almost bowling him to the ground. But they soon passed, and Timber’s steadfast smile showed Leif he had nothing further to fear.

“How many kinds of monsters are there?” asked Leif—in a whisper (in case any of the monsters might hear and take undue offense.)

“You’ve only seen two or three kinds here so far: the goblinkind and the troglodyte. The goblins are the short ones with light green skin; and their cousins, the hobgoblins, are the taller ones with darker skin.”

Repulsed by the goblins and hobgoblins, Leif glanced at them out of the corner of his eye and grimaced. They had bony arms and legs, their joints bulging out this way and that. Their torsos were potbellied and gaunt-chested. Their faces were round, except for the tops of their heads, which were flat as boards. Their mouths extended out past their small noses, which were set between two bulbous, yellow eyes. Their ears were thick with hair and little white crawling things Leif soon realized, to his horror, were maggots.

“The two kinds of goblin don’t tend to get along very well,” Timber pointed out. “The hobgoblins are usually the commanders, while the goblins are foot soldiers.”

Leif didn’t think anyone would want to try to get along with goblins.

“Troglodytes,” the wood sprite said after a moment, nodding his head slightly toward a few middle-sized monsters who looked as if they had been carved of stone. Their sculptor, Leif decided, taking one nervous, sideways glance at the creatures, must have been drunk.

“They’re cave-dwellers,” Timber went on. “Centuries of living in darkness have made their eyes large and their bodies sinewy and twisted.” Timber shuddered involuntarily as one of the breed passed near.

Leif caught himself shivering in fear and revulsion as well, when one of them focused its unblinking, hate-filled eyes on him for a brief moment. Then it turned its attention away, and Leif let out a sigh of relief.

“Some of the other monsters,” Timber said in a subdued voice, “include orcs, who are pig-like creatures, and not too smart—they’re even dumber than goblins. There are also owl bears, which have the head of an owl and body of a bear—pray you never meet one of them, friend Leif. There are gremlins, trolls, minotaurs, gorgons, satyrs, dragons—”

“Dragons!”

Timber cocked his head. “Nobody has seen one in a century,” he admitted. “There are many more varieties of monsters, so many that I cannot identify most of them. But if you’re careful, you’ll never have to meet up with them.”

It was all quite interesting—and frightening—to Leif to see all of these creatures. If he had any choice, he would take Timber’s advice. Unfortunately, it seemed, he had to face at least one monster.

Timber said, “And let’s not forget about ogres, like Gorr, who you’ll see very soon.”

Chapter Seven

They were nearing the bright star, and had quickly got in line.

Leif’s thoughts wandered; he wondered how they might get through to the void without having to meet Gorr; he was terrified of seeing an ogre, if it was that much worse than a goblin.

“Tell me again how you[_ Landtripped_] to the Land of the Humes,” he asked Timber. “Wouldn’t the Mage have instructed Gorr to prevent that?”

Timber smiled. “He did; however, the Sage of Arcana gave me a spell that distracted Gorr while I slipped past.”

He pulled out the necklace from under his shirt to show Leif. The gem still had a faint glow to it, but when Leif touched it, the light winked out.

Timber tucked the gem back into the folds of his tunic. “Ogres don’t have enough intelligence to know when they’re being tricked. Unfortunately, the amulet can only be used once.”

It seemed there was no other way past Gorr.

As they waited their turn, Leif thought about what Timber had just said, about the wood sprite tricking the ogre. It seemed that courage did come in many different forms. The folk who had tried to rescue the queen had failed because, when they were faced with a violent situation—like being attacked by monsters—they would become paralyzed with fright; Leif did not blame them.

He had thought, however, the same situation would have applied with Timber going through to the Land of the Humes, having to face Gorr; but the Sage had prevented a confrontation by giving Timber the magic amulet to distract the ogre. Taken in this light, you could overcome any disability, if you thought the problem through to its conclusion, and if you figured out an alternative means of getting past it.

He turned his attention back to the other people around him, noticing just how crowded it had suddenly become.

“I hadn’t thought there would be this much traffic,” he remarked. When they had first arrived, he had seen no one; now it seemed as if there were a hundred people in the same ten-foot radius as the three of them.

Timber glanced at the crowd. “Well, when you think of how many people are in each of the Lands, and how much official business they do with each other—trading goods and foods and the like—and not accounting for personal travel, it is not surprising in the least how busy the Nardee becomes. The volume was greater in the past, but it has dwindled since the posting of Gorr. Most would rather let their associations with other Lands fall apart than have to do business with that ogre.”

“He’s that bad?” Leif asked.

“Yes. You’ll see for yourself in a moment.” Timber nodded toward the front of the line.

There was a gnome standing at the front of the line within Leif’s edge of vision. He seemed to be negotiating with someone just outside his range of sight. The other negotiator was much taller—the gnome was looking way up, but Leif could not see who it was. Nor could he hear what they were saying. The conversations around him drowned out the blue-skinned gnome’s petition.

The gnome seemed to have won a pass through, for he raised a piece of gold up before him.

“That’s his payment,” remarked Timber with a scandalized look on his face. “A whole ounce of gold. Can you believe it? Robbery!”

Leif was about to reply, but then he saw a large, gnarly, hairy, ham-fisted hand reach down and snatch the gold coin from the gnome. He recoiled in horror at the sight of that ugly, twisted paw.

The gnome, shaking visibly, stepped through the void. The line moved up one place. Now Leif could see Gorr in all his grossness.

The brutish ogre was as ugly as he had imagined. Standing almost eight feet tall, Gorr was nearly as thick as he was high. A mass of spindly hair covered his grotesquely muscled, naked torso. His eyes were set far apart on his ugly face, and his mouth seemed frozen in a perpetual snarl under his smashed-in nose. Leif was duly frightened.

Samson snarled, his tail flattening against the back of his legs in a defensive stance; Leif could feel the hair on the dog’s back rise up and bristle under his hand. He tried soothing him with pats and gentle words.

“Don’t worry about his appearance,” reassured Timber in a low voice. “The Mage wanted the gatekeeper to be very intimidating so that they might extract a higher toll to use the Nardee.”

“It seems to be working,” Leif commented wryly.

“Gorr won’t really harm anyone, unless they break the rules or try to get by without paying—he’s very orderly, for a monster.” He seemed to be trying to convince himself more than Leif. “If he was as violent as the other monsters, none of the folk would ever be able to Landtrip.”

Soon enough, it was their turn. Timber stepped up and started his story, but Gorr quickly interrupted.

“Don’t I know you?” His beady eyes narrowed at the wood sprite. “I tink I tole you once today you can’t pass if you can’t pay.”

“Oh? You must have me confused with someone else, friend Gorr. It’s been a very long time since I came through here. And I have something better than the piece of gold.”

Timber pulled out the amulet and handed it to Gorr, who scrutinized it with obvious suspicion. After a moment, he dropped it in the large chest that served as a vault for the tolls.

He put out a hand to stop Timber when the wood sprite took a step toward the void.

“Who is dat?” Gorr pointed a hairy finger at Leif. There was some kind of black, worm-like creature slithering across his hand.

Timber smiled confidently. “That is my friend Leif, accompanying me to the Land of the Folk.”

Leif could tell his friend was nervous and frightened. He hoped Timber would not pass out.

“I means, I never seed his kind afore,” Gorr growled. “He don’t look like no elf. I don’t trust his businesses.” The ogre pointed his grubby finger at Leif again, this time fixing the boy with a very angry stare.

Samson dropped his head low and growled, showing his many sharp teeth to the ogre. Gorr growled right back.

Timber seemed to totter, off balance. Leif put a hand on the wood sprite’s back, and his new friend steadied himself.

Timber found his voice. “Uh, as I said, this is my friend Leif. He—”

“Well, seeing as I never seed him afore, he kin do jus whot his name say, and leave!” he commanded, taking a menacing step forward.

Leif could smell the ogre’s putrid breath, and gagged. His knees knocked together from fright. He was sure he was the one who would faint.

Seeing that the young hume had not yet made any move to comply with his demand, Gorr snarled viciously and bore down on him, anger etched on his brutish face.

Chapter Eight

Samson barked menacingly and lunged at Gorr, jaws snapping, teeth gnashing.

The ogre snarled and made as if to clash with the dog, but Timber wildly waved his hands and, to Leif’s amazement, jumped between the would-be combatants.

“Hold everything. There is no cause for fighting. No need to be rash, now. I’m sure we can all work something out, friend Gorr—”

“De only ting we works out is dat you git. Or I’ll smash you,” threatened the ogre, waving a clenched fist. His face twisted angrily, making it a hundred times more ugly than normal.

“Ah, well, when you put it that way…”

Timber’s eyes started rolling into his head, and Leif thought that the wood sprite would faint straight away. He hurried to hold Timber up before he fell over.

“GIT!” Gorr stomped his hairy, bare foot and flexed his muscles.

Leif almost dropped to the sandy ground in fear himself—he understood what Timber had meant when he said that whenever one of the folk faced danger, they froze up. Unlike Samson, who had renewed his defensive posture and was snapping at Gorr amid vicious growls and sharp barks of warning, Leif did not feel very brave right now; he felt like running away.

He was not turning out to be a very good hero. Leif was thankful for the Great Dane’s presence; Samson was the bravest of them all.

But if Leif didn’t do something right now, he was sure Gorr would kill them. One hand on Timber, he reached out with his other hand and grabbed onto Samson’s collar, desperately hauling back on the dog before they all got dragged into a fight they could not finish. Gorr watched them retreat, a haphazard, but victorious smile on his ugly face.

When they got back to the center of the sandy plain, well away from Gorr, they stopped. Timber had regained his senses somewhat, but he was still shivering, as if having just spent a few days in a meat locker. It took a while for Leif to calm the alert, pacing Samson, and even longer to stop his own shaking.

Almost, he wanted to close his eyes and make believe it was all some fairy tale, in which monsters existed but were not real—he could then wake up in his nice, warm, safe bed. But this was no fairy tale, and Gorr was very real. Leif could still smell the foul beast’s awful breath.

“I don’t think I’m cut out to be a hero, after all,” he confided to Timber, eyes fixed on his boots.

Timber stopped shivering long enough to say, “Don’t you worry too much about Gorr, friend Leif. Many are the brave giants who have backed down from that ogre, and rightly so. It wouldn’t do to be clobbered by his ilk.”

“It wouldn’t do at all,” agreed Leif, with a laugh. He smiled at his friend, and Timber tried to force out a smile in return.

A tense look remained on the wood sprite’s face, now that they had come up against a seemingly impassable obstacle.

Leif pondered the fact that, for a brief moment, Timber had shown the courage that was buried deep down in his soul.

If only Leif could do something to convince Timber that he was brave, and not the coward he had named himself.

“I guess our only option now is to return to the Land of the Humes,” Timber said.

“Return?” Leif asked incredulously, taken by surprise; he had not even considered that. Not really, anyway.

“We don’t need the void to return to a Land we just left,” Timber explained. “We just wait a full day, and the Nardee will return us automatically.” He sat down on the sand, wrapped his arms around his knees, and patiently waited for the day to pass.

Leif reeled back on his heels in horror. Returning to the Land of the Humes was worse than facing Gorr.

“But then I would have to explain where I was to my foster parents. They’ll be mad and never let me leave my room and—” He stopped before he got himself too upset.

There had to be a way to convince Timber that they had to go forward and complete this mission. Not only for the sake of the mission, but also for his own sake. He did not want to spend the rest of his life in his room at the foster home.

There was an even deeper reason he wanted to continue: for some time now, Leif had been feeling strong, alive. It was possible that, if he returned home, he would start to feel the effects of his cancer again.

“What else can we do?” Timber asked Leif, surprising the boy. Never had anyone asked his opinion, let alone turned to him for leadership. But he had said he wanted to be the hero, hadn’t he? He should at least try to act as if he were brave and decisive.

“We … we could wait a while and go back to see Gorr,” he suggested with a joking smile. “That way, he can’t say he hasn’t seen me before.”

Timber, however, did not want to lay eyes upon Gorr ever again, and said so. “Isn’t there any other way?” he asked in a small voice.

Leif tried hard to think of a way. “Well, doesn’t Gorr ever leave the gate?” he asked.

“Never.”

“But he has to sleep, doesn’t he?”

“Yes, but he sleeps right next to the void.”

“Great. We’ll cross when he goes to bed,” Leif decided, heartened.

“What?” said Timber, eyes wide.

“Tonight we sneak across, when Gorr’s asleep. That way, we won’t have to face him, and he won’t be able to see us.”

“Wait just one minute. It’s not that simple,” Timber argued.

“Why not?” Leif asked. It seemed easy enough.

“If we happen to get caught, Gorr will kill us, or worse.”

“Worse than getting killed?” Leif could only imagine one fate worse than death, and that was going back to his foster mother’s house if they did not succeed in getting to the Land of the Folk.

Timber shivered visibly, but did not explain what he thought was worse than being killed.

Leif was exasperated. Was there no way to combat this curse of cowardice? “Well, why not give it a try anyway? I mean, if we don’t get caught, great. But if we do get caught, we can always taunt Gorr into killing us quickly.”

“Ohhh,” moaned Timber. He grabbed a handful of his own hair, tormented by the choices. He shook his head. “I think it would be safer for all of us if we just took you home and forgot about the whole thing,” he urged in a whining voice. “The Sage of Philosophy was right all along: this is a foolish notion.”

“But—” But the curse. Damn the curse, Leif swore silently, frustrated.

Only, he knew better. Timber, and probably all the folk, had all that courage just locked up inside, waiting for the first opportunity to leap out and show itself. What was the key? And where was it hidden?

He put a hand on the wood sprite’s shoulder and said, “That’s all right, Timber. I won’t make you face Gorr or the Mage.”

“You won’t?” The wood sprite blinked in surprise.

“I’ll go on alone to the Land of the Folk tonight, when Gorr isn’t awake. It shouldn’t be too hard for just Samson and me to get through. You can wait until tomorrow and go across then. I’m sure Gorr will let you pass through; it’s me he doesn’t like. You can wait in the Land of the Folk.” He said those words with a steady voice, even though his knees were trembling at the thought of possibly facing the ogre again.

Looking into his new friend’s eyes, Leif could see the struggle going on inside. He squeezed Timber’s shoulder.

Finally, somewhere inside the wood sprite, he gathered up enough courage to make a decision. “I’ll go with you, but only if Gorr is fast asleep and snoring,” Timber said. “If he so much as mumbles in his sleep, we’re turning around straight away and bringing you home.”

Leif, smiling, nodded. “Agreed.”

“All right. We’ll try it, but if we get killed, it’s all your fault,” scolded Timber, trying to make his voice sound light, and not succeeding very well.

Leif just kept on smiling.

Chapter Nine

They waited until they were sure that Gorr had shut down the toll for the night and had gone to sleep.

Most of the petitioners of the day had already gone through. There were a few stragglers caught out on the Nardee, and so had to camp on the magical plane of sand, waiting until the Nardee returned them from whence they came.

“Gorr won’t Landtrip back to the Land of the Monsters or anywhere else,” Timber informed Leif as they snuck past the campers. “That would leave the Nardee unguarded, which is why he sleeps just beside the void. The Mage gave him an enchantment that prevents the Nardee from automatically sending him home.”

“How do you know this?”

“I’ve been caught out in the Nardee at night once before,” the wood sprite answered. “Now, the slightest sound will wake the ogre,” he warned.

“So, let’s not make the slightest sound,” reasoned Leif.

Nighttime here was not much different from daytime—at least, not in the visual sense. The only actual distinction was that nighttime was when Gorr decided it was nighttime. No one else had any say in the matter.

The three would-be escapees slowed as they neared the Gate, and stopped only when they could hear the ogre’s breath deepening. On their bellies, they crawled to just outside the ten-foot radius of visibility.

Samson seemed to sense the need for silence, and tried bravely to stifle the deep rolling growl that wanted to erupt from his throat as he caught a whiff of the foul-smelling ogre. His hackles rose so high they bristled; Leif could feel the dog’s tense muscles under his fur when he patted him.

They could hear the ogre shifting about in his sleep. After a long while, the sounds of tossing and turning were replaced by loud snoring.

“He’s fast asleep,” Leif said in a soft voice.

“Shhh!” Timber whispered, and turned a pointed ear to listen for sounds of Gorr waking. All they heard was the rhythmic snores gradually evening out.

Timber put a finger to his lips, admonishing Leif to be quiet. Leif affected a regretful expression, knowing how nervous Timber was right now; Leif was nervous, too.

After a moment, the wood sprite nodded to Leif. The three began to edge forward cautiously. Samson tried valiantly to crawl alongside, but his back end kept rising up in the air.

Soon enough, the slumbering form of Gorr came into view. It was then that Leif started having serious doubts; but he quickly stuffed them back down where they came from, aware that the slightest fear shown in him would cause Timber’s fears to erupt. That could only end in disaster.

Leif steeled himself for the task ahead.

Gorr was lying on a cot, one large hairy forearm flung across his sloping forehead, and the other arm stretched out, bulbous knuckles touching the ground. His snores sounded like the bread mill back home, with the steady, rhythmic, irritating buzz and crackle of wheat being crushed. Leif could almost see the snores coming out Gorr’s warty, smashed nose.

“There. Over there,” mouthed Timber as he motioned with his finger to a point just behind the ogre. Leif searched the night sky (which seemed no different from the day sky) but all he could see were the pinholes in the dark blue blanket that formed stars in the night. He turned back to Timber in frustration.

The wood sprite pursed his lips with disapproval. He mouthed, “Can’t you see the void? Where the stars are black?”

Leif looked again, and noticed there was a small rectangular area against in the dark-blue sky that held no stars. He nodded that he saw it. That void was the Gate. Gorr’s cot stretched right across the front of the void.

Timber gave Leif an I-told-you-so shrug. “So, how do we get by Gorr, friend Leif?”

Leif thought about it for a short time. How had Timber come through the first time? He’d had a magical aid from the Sage of Arcana in the form of an amulet that had distracted the stupid ogre. Leif had no such object.

…or did he…?

Quickly, he turned to Timber; put a hand on his shoulder to get his attention. “When I give you the signal, I want you to take Samson and bolt for that void, and don’t stop for anything.”

“What of you?” Timber wanted to know.

“I will get Gorr to chase after me; as long as I can stay at least ten feet in front of him, he’ll never know which way I turn to get away from him … or even if I do turn.” The magic of the Nardee would prove itself tonight.

Timber took some time to think through the plan. Finally, he admitted, “The plan might work … but I am much faster than you, friend Leif. I—I will distract Gorr.”

Leif stared hard at Timber, measuring this new courage the wood sprite seemed to have found. Timber did not meet Leif’s gaze, but kept his eyes fixed on the sleeping ogre. Leif was torn: if he did not let Timber go through with this, the wood sprite would ever after think he was a coward. But if Leif agreed, and Gorr caught Timber, Leif could not live with himself.

Before he could say anything either way, Timber whispered, “On the count of three: One… Two…”

“No!”

“…THREE!”

Leif jumped straight up at the unexpected shout—hadn’t they agreed to be as quiet as possible?—but before he knew what he was doing, he had launched himself forward toward Gorr. He almost forgot to repeat the rhyme and turn twice. Samson, barking in excitement, raced around Leif twice in a circle as Leif spun on his heel, barely managing to keep his balance.

The ogre woke immediately at Timber’s sharp yell, but his brain was not quick enough to coordinate the movements of all his limbs at once; flailing about like a turtle on its back, he was having a difficult time getting his bulk out of his cot. His roars of anger were like thunderclaps.

Together, Leif and Samson sailed through the air over the ogre and into the void. Gorr’s reaching fingers brushed lightly across Leif’s pant leg.

As the void sucked Leif through, the ogre’s yells of frustration suddenly stopped.

Leif could only hope that Timber would soon follow him and Samson through.

Chapter Ten

The two landed hard in a grassy dale. In the distance, rolling hills were dotted with trees. It was night, but a fat moon illuminated the Land of the Folk.

They seemed to have landed near a wagon trail that led off into the forest, Leif noticed. To the side of the trail, a slow-moving creek wound a curving path through the forest.

This was the Land of the Folk.

Leif was worried that they might be attacked by some wandering monster before Timber could arrive, but he was reassured by Samson’s presence. The dog paced back and forth watchfully as they waited for Timber to show up.

Please, oh, please, let him be all right, Leif prayed silently.

It seemed like an eternity, but it was only a few moments later that a bright flash of light erupted from out of nowhere a few yards down the creek. A gust of wind whipped harshly at Leif’s face. Momentarily blinded, he could not make out the figure that appeared in the flash.

Samson barked, and then wagged his tail as Timber jogged over, a great smile on his small face.

“What took you so long?” asked Leif, relieved that the wood sprite had made it through all right.

“Gorr came after me, swearing he’d rip me to pieces for helping you get through without paying a toll, but I led him a merry chase around his cot before dashing off into the void. It was everything I could do not to freeze up,” he admitted. “I don’t know what it is, my friend, but ever since meeting you, I find that I have more courage than before.”

Leif wondered if whatever had stopped his weak spells was also affecting the wood sprite.

Timber smiled. “When I looked back just before I[_ Landtripped_], Gorr was busy trying to remove the cot from around his leg.” He laughed merrily. “He stepped on it, and his foot went right through. Oh, but the folk will enjoy this telling for years.” The wood sprite smiled widely, showing some of the vigor he had had when Leif had first met him.

They congratulated each other with slaps on the back.

“So where are we?” asked Leif, waving his arms around expansively. He felt lightheaded, having just escaped such a harrowing encounter.

“We are near the capital, Folkthorpe,” said Timber, drawing a deep breath and looking around to get his bearings. “This trail will lead to a wide river, where we can catch a ride on a boat sailing downstream to the—”

Another intense flash of light a few feet to the side of them interrupted Timber.

A strong wind nearly knocked both of them off their feet.

Blinded by the unexpected burst of brightness, the three were too startled to run for cover before Gorr descended upon them like a wolf on defenseless lambs.

“So, ya tinks ya can gets away from Gorr?” boomed the ogre as he grabbed Leif. “I’m taking ya to de Mage, mister. An’ I’ll be back fer de rest soon enough.” He pointed a ham fist at a terrified Timber and a surprised Samson.

Before the wood sprite and the Great Dane could react, Gorr dragged Leif to the creek, mumbled the rhyme, turned twice with Leif still clutched tightly under his massive arm, and jumped into the water.

The monster and the young hume disappeared amid another explosion of light, neither one getting a drop of water on them as they[_ Landtripped_] to the Nardee.

Leif was blown clear of Gorr when they landed; not even an ogre had enough power to hold back the force of the Nardee’s magic. But Leif did not have time to run before Gorr scooped him up again.

Going through the void so many times was making Leif sick; he almost threw up. The death-grip Gorr had on his stomach did not help matters much.

Leif gulped hard when he heard Gorr, after hastily reciting the enchantment, mumble his destination, “Land of dah Mage,” and jumped into the void.

Leif steeled himself to run as soon as they landed. Gorr expected it. He caught Leif by the neck before the boy could get more than three paces. The ogre might have been clumsy when just waking up, but now he was an alert, determined, unstoppable force.

Helpless in the overpowering arms of the ogre, Leif’s attempts at rebellion were feeble at best. He did not have the strength or size to fight Gorr. His kicks and punches hurt his fists and feet more than they hurt ogre.

Dropping his arms in defeat, Leif looked around.

He got his first real taste and smell of the Land of the Mage…

…and retched.

[Part Three
Land Of The Mage]

Chapter Eleven

The Land of the Mage was a bleak land pitted against an even bleaker backdrop of night sky.

The earth was as black as charcoal and devoid of native life: no trees, no underbrush, no flowers, no insects, no little furry animals scampering along the ground … nothing.

There was not even a star in the sky. It was as though this Land were in a different part of the universe, a long-forgotten part. Then Leif amended his thoughts: [It _]is[ a different part._]

The only light came from torches set atop high poles jutting from the ground like naked, starved trees. One small black cloud that seemed to hover directly over Leif showered them with a light sprinkle of rain.

Even in day—if there was day in this infernal place—the Land would be just as soulless and depressing. Leif’s mind railed against its perverted existence, denied that it could even exist.

How could anyone live here? Yet, surprisingly, there were people everywhere he looked. He saw countless beings of all types—sprites, elves, dwarfs, gnomes, giants—trudging around. Bound in chains, they all wore looks of misery. They were slaves and prisoners to the monsters who guarded them.

It was so nightmarish that Leif could not believe these things were happening. It was as if it came from someone’s twisted, demented imagination. Leif was so shocked at the horrors he witnessed that he could not willfully close his gaping mouth, nor could he turn his head away from the despair and misery of the slaves.

Timber had been right—this was worse than being killed by Gorr. Leif had made a terrible mistake. He had thought this was a fairy tale he was living through. It was a nightmare, and he had volunteered to wander down the dark path that had no end, promising everlasting misery. His fault. All his fault.

Gorr flipped Leif over his shoulder roughly, bringing a short bark of pain from the boy as the wind rushed out of his lungs. He could not even find a voice to protest. The monster proceeded on toward a dark, shadowed spot in the distance, indifferent to his prisoner’s struggles.

Leif, finally getting his wind back, breathed deeply—even fetid air was still air. He twisted around to see where they were headed, and his eyes widened in shock. The dark spot was taking shape. It was a fortress. The Mage’s? he wondered.

A terrible tightening sensation grew at Leif’s temples as he realized that whatever atrocities he had seen out here in the open land, inside the fortress it was worse. He would die in there, he was certain. Whatever fate lay before him in that fortress would be painful, messy, merciless … and he would not even have anyone like Samson there to be close to him in his final moments: just monsters who would revel in his death throes.

The fortress seemed to grow bigger as they got closer. The black, starless sky only served to enhance the dark grandeur of the immense stronghold, illuminated by what must be hundreds of thousands of torches, Leif guessed.

Above the fortress, a large eagle circled. Then Leif blinked. The creature had the head and legs of a lion.

“What is that?” he asked, despite himself.

“Haw, haw,” Gorr replied. “Dat’s dah Mage’s griffin. You’ll likely get ta see it up close, dat’s for shore. Haw!”

As the griffin flew off, Leif could almost make out a figure of a person in a saddle on its back. The Mage?

Gorr, still chuckling, continued, “Dah griffin is goin’ ta eat you alive, while you watch.”

Leif kicked and screamed, trying to get away from Gorr.

The ogre did not even seem to notice.

Fatalistically, Leif collapsed over the brute’s shoulder. Oh, how he wished Samson was here. He needed someone, anyone, to help him. He was isolated, alone, frightened, and just wanted to go back to his nice, safe, warm bed.

He brushed his wet, clinging hair from his face as Gorr jostled him up and down with his exaggerated walk. The ogre strode forward to that dark abode like an unstoppable juggernaut.

There had to be a way out of this. Had to be. Leif’s heart beat fiercely in his chest; his throat was dry, and his skin was hot, even though he was being drenched by the slow, cold rain.

He felt like curling up in a ball. The rain mingled with the tears that ran down his cheeks. His head was pounding, and his bowels were roiling around in his belly.

But there was no way out, Leif gradually realized, as his tears dried up. Though his face was still wet, and his vision blurry, he could see that they were getting closer to the fortress. If he didn’t do something, he could be assured of a slow, painful death.

[_Think, _]he commanded himself.

There had to be a way out. Hadn’t he said before that there was always an alternative way of getting around something?

He had to think his way out, and he could not think until he got his emotions under control. But that was so difficult in this awful, dead Land, with the promise of horror and pain.

How could he get away from Gorr?

What was it Timber had said? “Ogres aren’t intelligent enough to know when they’re being tricked.” Maybe Leif could trick Gorr into letting him go. But how…?

Leif possessed no magical amulet to distract Gorr; all he had was his mind. He needed to figure something out.

He said, “Uhmm, Gorr? I don’t think that—”

“Shuddup!” the ogre snapped before Leif could finish.

Leif rolled his eyes in frustration, but tried once more: “Don’t you think the Mage will be mad?”

“He shore will,” he answered. “I hopes you gets fed to the griffin while I’m there. I’d like to see you tries to sneak past dat. He’ll chomp you good.”

“I mean, he’ll be angry at you, not me.” countered Leif. “The Mage will be furious with you, Gorr.”

“Huh?” Gorr stopped as he pondered this, as if he couldn’t think and walk at the same time. Which, thought Leif, might just be the case.

Licking his lips in anticipation, running on inspiration, Leif went on, “Well, I’m sure she thinks that I am important, but doesn’t she think the Nardee is more important?”

“Huh?”

Exasperated at the ogre’s density, Leif threw his hands up in the air. Then he decided to come down, verbally, to the ogre’s level. He spoke plainly.

“Aren’t you commanded to guard the Nardee?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, where are you now?”

“At dah fortress. Don’t be stoopid.” Gorr pulled Leif off his shoulder and held the boy in front of him at the end of his arms. Two ogre eyes stared unblinkingly at Leif, eyebrows scrunched up, face contorting with the effort of thinking.

“Of course you are at the fortress,” agreed Leif. “And if you are at the fortress, then who is guarding the Nardee?” He cocked a knowing eyebrow at Gorr.

“Uh—”

“No one is there,” supplied Leif. He tried to fold his arms over his chest, but that was impossible with Gorr’s huge hands in the way. He let his arms drop limply to the sides and waited.

Gorr stared at Leif blankly, unsure exactly what the boy was talking about, but his hesitation told Leif that Gorr thought he might indeed be in trouble.

Leif pressed his case. “I’m sure the Mage will be mad that no one is guarding the Nardee. And do you know who she will be mad at?”

“Who?” Gorr gave Leif a little shake, as if that could draw the answer from him.

Leif suffered a moment of fear. Gorr could most likely crush him as easily as an apple. Especially if he got excited. If the ogre thought the Mage might be mad, Gorr might try to redirect that anger to Leif.

“You,” he said finally. “He’ll be mad at you.”

Gorr stood there with an absent look on his face for a few moments, and then glanced toward the fortress, thoughtfully. Leif had to restrain himself from pressing the ogre any more—he might be pushing his luck.

“Oh,” said Gorr, finally, and he bit down on his lip in contemplation.

Now was Leif’s golden opportunity. “I know a way that the Mage will never know you were gone,” he offered conspiratorially.

“Uh-huh?” Gorr looked up expectantly.

“Yes. Go back to the Nardee right away. The Mage will never be wise to you. He won’t get mad, and you will still be the best—er, the most horrible monster in all the Lands.” Leif swept his arms grandly to emphasize.

Gorr looked at Leif with a dawning realization. “You are right.”

“Of course.” Leif smiled. “Now hurry up before she finds out,” he urged.

“Okay.” Gorr looked around. Keeping Leif suspended in the air effortlessly with one hand, he pointed a thick finger at a passing hobgoblin. “You!”

The tall, thin monster, who had a greenish tinge to his skin, came shuffling over, a look of defiance on his ugly face.

Gorr flipped Leif over his shoulder, and the wind rushed out of him.

The hobgoblin snarled, “Grunffph?” when he neared.

Overwhelmed by the horrid stench of the monster, Leif gagged. He twisted around on Gorr’s shoulder to get at look at what was going on.

“Takes dis hume to de Dungeon,” said the ogre. “He tried’a go t’roo de Nardee widdout payin’ his dues.”

Leif almost shouted in protest. This was not what he wanted at all. He had only succeeded in being passed from one monster into the arms of another, and succeeded in helping Gorr stay out of trouble.

“You do it, you overgrown lump of fungus.” The hobgoblin spat on the ground, giving Gorr an intimidating look that only served to intimidate Leif.

Maybe the two would get into a fight. Leif could take the opportunity to escape.

The hobgoblin said, “I don’t have to listen to no stupid, ugly ogre.”

“Do as I says or I knock yer head so hard it turn you into a goblin,” threatened Gorr.

This seemed to strike a nerve. Leif remembered that hobgoblins and goblins were not on the best of terms. Timber had said there was a rivalry between the two species. He choked back his rising emotions at the sudden thought of Timber and Samson left behind in the Land of the Folk—he was glad they were safe, but missed them both. Oh, how he hoped they were all right.

The hobgoblin took a defensive stance. “Oh yeah? Well I’ll mrphff…”

Gorr grabbed the monster’s face with his free hand and twisted in a direction that the hobgoblin’s head obviously was not meant to go. If Leif had not been so scared, he would have laughed at the ridiculous expression that came over the hobgoblin’s face.

“You do it now, wartface!” commanded the ogre.

Gorr was one to call names, Leif thought. But the hobgoblin nodded his agreement. Leif’s hopes sank completely when the hobgoblin, grumbling all the while, grabbed him by his collar and dragged him toward the fortress. Leif saw Gorr stalk off in the other direction, presumably to find a rorrim that would take him back to the Nardee.

After falling face first in the mud five or six times and being dragged along like a sack of dirt, Leif finally regained his footing, but was hard-pressed to keep up with the long-legged hobgoblin. He was getting used to the smell of the monster and the foul Land, but still could not breathe through his nose without cringing.

They still had a way to go before reaching the fortress. Leif decided to try to trick the hobgoblin.

“Whad’s your dame?” he asked, his words coming out odd-sounding, since he was trying not to breathe through his nose.

“What’s my dame?” The hobgoblin looked at Leif in disgust and irritation. With a harrumph, he pointed a finger at Leif. “Understand this: You are nothing but an insect. Don’t talk to me. I’m not in a very good mood, and I’m liable to see to it you never make it to the fortress, worm,” he declared, snarling into Leif’s face to emphasize.

But Leif was not going to give up. Braving the nauseating stench, he said, “I meant to ask your name, uh, Great Sir.”

The hobgoblin stopped short and grabbed Leif by the lapels of his jacket. “I thought I told you not to talk to me, vermin.”

“But—” Leif began in a whining voice.

“Arghh! Will you shut up if I tell you my name? It’s Rankin. All right?” His big yellow eyes bored straight into Leif’s.

“Uh, sure, all right—”

“I said, ‘DON’T SAY A WORD!’” Rankin grabbed Leif’s face in a way similar to what Gorr had done to him.

Now Leif understood why the hobgoblin had given in to Gorr’s demands. Through the pain, he nodded timidly in a promise to be silent.

Satisfied, Rankin stomped toward the fortress, a firm hand on his prisoner’s collar.

Leif was at his wits’ end; his head hurt from the face-twisting, and it felt like his brains were all a-jumble.

How could he escape? The monsters were all far too powerful for him. And he could not outsmart them, because they were too dumb to outsmart. He was not turning out to be much of a hero, he thought dejectedly. He wondered why he had ever agreed to come on this quest.

He wished Timber and Samson were there with him, but glad, at the same time, that they weren’t. He did not want to be alone when they killed him, but he was glad that they would live … if only until the Mage’s monsters eventually conquered all the Lands.

Chapter Twelve

Too soon, they reached the fortress.

It was more ominous on the inside than from the outside. Hundreds and hundreds of sad-looking folk, giants, and mers milled about the mud-filled courtyard in hopelessness, their bodies barely reacting to the abuse they received.

The monsters dragged the mers, who were unable to walk upright, by their tails. The mers did not fight back, but their eyes, Leif saw, pleaded for help.

In quiet despair, some of the prisoners and slaves performed meaningless chores—half the giants in the yard were busy moving large rocks from one pile to another; the other half of the giants were silently moving the rocks from the second pile back to the original pile. An unending, miserable circle of torment.

Leif’s heart ached at the sight.

Crossing the courtyard and entering the building, Rankin swiftly led the boy down a flight of stairs and through a dark corridor, one bony, but very strong hand wrapped around Leif’s biceps in a vise-like grip.

Looking around, seeing they were going downstairs, Leif snapped his mind away from the prisoners in the courtyard. Shouldn’t the Mage be on an upper level? He had never heard of any rulers, self-styled or not, living in a basement or cellar. But he stifled any protest he might have made, remembering again the face-twisting earlier. He also recalled Gorr saying something about a dungeon…

…And being fed to a griffin.

But he did not want to die. Not here, not at home. Nowhere.

Before, in his foster parents’ house, he’d had no hope. Now, since meeting Timber and starting on this adventure, he had not had any weak spells or coughing attacks. He was actually feeling strong. If the magic of the Lands had taken away his cancer, Leif wanted to take advantage of it. He wanted to live.

He began beating his fists wildly against the hobgoblin’s hairy back and arms. He twisted, squirmed, shouted and bit, but he could not get away. The hobgoblin was just too strong.

To stifle Leif’s futile attempts to get away, Rankin backhanded him across the side of the face. The blow sent Leif’s senses spinning, his eyes rolling in the back of his head.

He could not fight Rankin, and fell limply into a heap at Rankin’s feet. Like the prisoners he had seen before, Leif let himself be dragged along to his doom, rather than receive another one of those strikes from the powerful hobgoblin.

Gingerly touching the already swelling skin on the side of his face, Leif tried to keep track of where they were going. The hobgoblin took so many turns, Leif quickly got lost, but they eventually came to some stairs leading down.

On the dungeon level, Leif noticed that there were numerous doors along the walls, each twice as large as any normal door he had ever seen before.

“We’re here,” said Rankin flatly, stopping before one of the wooden doors. He tossed Leif on the floor unceremoniously, knocked on the heavy door, and turned around as if to leave without further ado.

Before the thought even reached his mind, Leif jumped to his feet and ran past Rankin. The hobgoblin, as if reading Leif’s mind, shot out a gnarly green arm to clothesline the boy across the chest. Leif landed hard on his back, hitting his head on the cold stone floor of the corridor. He tasted something metallic and warm in his mouth and realized his teeth had clamped down across his tongue and had drawn blood.

He hurt all over.

Rankin laughed snidely, and stormed off.

The door opened.

A very obese monster loomed in the doorway, glaring down at him with teeny eyes over a large, tusked snout. He had a spear in his hands. Numbly, Leif’s mind decided that this must be an orc. If it could be said, this was perhaps the best-looking monster Leif had yet seen, only because it resembled something Leif could identify: a pig.

The orc spied the new prisoner. “Well, what ‘ave we ‘ere?” The orc snorted. “Smells like garbage t’me.” The monster laughed.

Leif was not going to give him any satisfaction by replying.

The orc, losing his humor, grunted. “So yer wanna play dah straight guy, eh? Well, let’s see ‘ow straight ye can be when dah griffin chews you in half.” With that, he grabbed Leif by the collar and hauled him through the doorway.

Into a row of jail cells, each holding several prisoners. Most of them were folk and mers, but there was one giant among the lot. Even sitting down in the large cell, he was impressive in size, his mass nearly encompassing the entire width and breadth of the cell.

Leif didn’t have time to do much more than get a cursory glance at the others; the orc dragged him over to the one empty cell in the huge, darkened chamber.

He opened the cell and tossed Leif in carelessly, then locked the door behind him. He stomped off, as if having forgotten Leif entirely.

“Lights out, worms,” the orc said, and doused the lantern hanging on the wall. The dungeon plunged into darkness.

Dejectedly, Leif lay down on his side toward the back of his cell to think of a plan to get out, but before he could come up with anything, his mind gave way to exhaustion.

He fell asleep.

Chapter Thirteen

The next morning, Leif woke to the sound of banging.

Rousing himself, he found that sleep, even though on a hard, cold floor, had refreshed him. It was almost as if nothing terrible had happened yesterday. All those horrible images were just a bad dream.

The he realized that the banging was coming from the orc at the end of the chamber. It seemed that as long as the orc was awake, then everyone else had to be up also.

It had been too good to be true, Leif thought. It wasn’t a dream or even a nightmare. He was here, now. People were enslaved, and there was nothing he could do about it. Feeling helpless to do anything else, Leif scowled at the orc.

When the orc noticed, he chuckled. Leif’s head dropped in despair. He couldn’t even shoot dirty looks.

Looking into the cell next to his, he took stock of his neighbors. Inside it was a group of dwarfs, most of whom were curled up in the back corner against the wall, clinging to each other for comfort. The perpetual smiles Leif had seen on the faces of the other dwarfs in the Nardee were missing from this group. He was sympathetic for their plight.

After straightening his rumpled jacket, he stood and edged closer to the bars. “My name is Leif,” he said to them in a low voice. “What’s yours?” When none of them said anything, he pressed on. “How long have you been here?” All he got in reply was silence.

He noticed that the prisoners in the other cells were similarly quiet, each withdrawn into themselves and ignoring Leif. The only creature in the entire room that looked alive was the orc at the end, who was busy picking dirt out of his front hoof nails with the point of a dagger, snorting intermittently with satisfaction whenever he flicked out a particularly large morsel.

That wasn’t right. Why should all these happy people live in despair and that horrible orc be joyous? It was unfair.

Maybe the dwarves had a plan to escape and were doing a good job of hiding it. Leif tried again. “My name is Leif.” He said it a little louder than before; everyone in the room could hear him. A few heads looked up, but that was all.

The orc growled. “Shuddup at d’end d’ere.” When all quieted to his satisfaction, he resumed work on his hoof nails.

Leif was frustrated. There had to be some way out of this place. He was slowly going stir crazy. The bars were closing in on him inch by inch. They would wrap themselves around his neck and strangle him to death.

The thought was so scary that he felt sick to his stomach.

He stood and pressed himself up against the bars of his cell. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he complained to the orc in a whining, desperate voice.

The orc snorted. “So, what’s stopping ye?” He chortled wildly before turning his attention back to his hoofs.

Leif said, “That’s disgusting.”

Enraged, the orc stomped down the corridor to Leif’s cell. “Yer a noisy one aren’t ye? If ye don’t shut yer mouth, yer’ll never make it t’da griffin, hear me?”

Leif’s crying turned to silent whimpering. The orc turned haughtily, gave a snort, and then went back to his post.

“Please, try to be silent,” said a high, lilting voice behind him.

Leif turned, wiped his eyes, and saw that it was a young elf girl. From the cell beside him, opposite the dwarfs, she looked at him with large, worried eyes that were so deep brown they looked like rich chocolate milk in a porcelain-white mug. “We don’t want more trouble than we already have,” she explained. “If you don’t cause trouble, he’ll leave you alone.”

Leif, as though oblivious to his own predicament, moved to the other side of the cell near her, conscious of how terrible he must look and smell. Her beautiful face struck him silent. It was as if he had never noticed how pretty a girl could be, even though the elf herself was as much a mess as he was from spending so much time in the prison. But Leif did not see the filth, the dried blood, the matted hair, and the torn clothes. He saw her long flaxen hair, her swept-up ears, narrow chin, and pouting lips, not to mention her very large brown eyes. She was nearly as tall as he was, but as slim as a willow tree.

She sighed and bowed her head. Leif waited, but it did not seem like she was going to volunteer anymore.

“What’s your name?” he asked in a whisper.

She took in a deep breath. “My name is Fawn,” she whispered back.

He stared at her for a full minute before realizing he hadn’t yet told her his name. “I’m Leif. Spelled L-E-I-F,” he added.

Fawn nodded, and they shook hands through the bars. Her slight hand was quite a bit smaller than his, smooth and pleasantly warm.

“Why are you here?” she asked him.

“I tried to go through the Nardee without paying Gorr,” Leif said.

Fawn’s eyes grew even wider. “No one has ever done that before and lived. I fear that when you come before the Mage, you will certainly be sentenced to death.” Her big brown eyes looked upon him sympathetically, and not without a little admiration.

“That’s all right.” Leif shrugged, blushing at the intense look she gave him. “I was going to die anyway,” he admitted.

Fawn gasped, putting a slender hand over her mouth to mask her horror.

“Isn’t … isn’t there anything you can do?” Fawn asked.

“Well, since I met Timber, my symptoms have gone away. Maybe for good.”

“Timber?” she asked, a little too loudly.

The orc looked up. “Quiet at d’end. Last warning t’ye.” He pounded his fist against the wall in emphasis, and then snorted his satisfaction when he heard no further sounds. He sat down and started working on his hind hoofs.

“Do you know Timber?” Leif asked.

Fawn nodded. “He’s a friend of mine. How do you know him?”

“He recruited me to help find—”

Leif was interrupted when someone knocked on the main door of the dungeon.

The orc, tripping over himself trying to get up, finally opened it.

A monster that looked like a furry owl, or a feathered bear, ambled in. Leif recoiled at the monster’s ferocious appearance, and was silently hoping the creature was not looking for him. The owl bear wasn’t ugly, per say, but it was a giant creature that, like its namesake, had the body of a grizzly bear and the head of a great horned owl.

“Who’s next?” squawked the monster.

The orc grinned, and then determinedly shuffled toward Leif’s cage, snorting and smirking.

Leif didn’t want to die, but it looked as if he wouldn’t have much choice…

Chapter Fourteen

Just before the orc got to Leif’s cage, he stopped at the cell that held the group of dwarves and unlocked it, beckoning one of them out. All the while, he sneered at Leif under his tusked snout, as if to say, “You could be next if you’re not careful.”

Dejectedly, the dwarf followed the owl bear out of the room and down the corridor.

Leif’s heart came up from his stomach and into his throat. He wanted to shout, “No,” but his tongue was sticking to the roof of his dry mouth. This dwarf marched off to his own doom willingly, just to spare his fellows a few more hours or days of life.

Leif realized, suddenly, that Timber was wrong about the folk not having courage: if that wasn’t courage on the dwarf’s part, then what was it? They had courage, all right; they just didn’t know how to use it…

But through the realization, Leif’s stomach was roiling about. More death. This was no fairy tale that would end happily ever after. This was real life and real death for these people, and for Leif. He had volunteered to come along and be a hero, and all he had done so far was to get himself jailed and possibly sentenced to death. He felt like a fool.

The orc closed and locked the cell door, then went back to his post as though nothing had happened.

Leif noticed that the other prisoners had avoided watching all the while and were now pretending that nothing had happened. It would be too painful for them to remind themselves that the dwarf’s fate was their own as well.

After a few disconcerted minutes, pondering the situation, Leif turned to Fawn again. He was almost afraid to ask, but did so anyway: “What’s going to happen to him?” He needed to know for sure.

Fawn looked up at Leif reprovingly. Then she cocked her head. “You really don’t know?”

“No!”

She paused before explaining. It was obvious to Leif that it was difficult for her to speak about the dwarf’s fate.

“The Mage punishes those whom he deems criminals by execution. The monsters, despite their usual stupidity, have come up with some very creative means of doing this. The executions are public, usually in that person’s home Land, to set an example to anyone who goes against the Mage’s orders. That’s if they are lucky.

“Sometimes, they are sent to feed his griffin.” Her eyes brimmed with tears.

“The griffin.” Leif gulped loudly. He’d only spotted it from a distance. How terrible was the creature? How many people did it need to eat? His imagination was running away with him. Despite himself, he found his forehead wet with perspiration as he saw the look on Fawn’s face: her angelic beauty was hidden behind a mask of trembling lips and terrified eyes. He had to avoid the griffin at all costs.

“Compared to a griffin,” she said in a voice so small it was almost invisible, “the other monsters are like butterflies. A griffin is twice as vicious as any other monster.”

Leif recoiled. “That bad?”

“Worse.” She shuddered and, slumping down into the corner of the cell, hugged her knees. “Griffins like to play with their food, nibbling at them for hours on end.” She was in tears.

Is that the fate that would all of them?

“Then why don’t you try to escape?” Leif asked. “What have you to lose?”

Fawn shook her head in despair. “If we resist, the Mage will send ten of our kin in our place.”

Leif sat back, trying to grasp the enormity of the predicament.

“All the more reason to escape,” he finally said.

“What…?” Fawn looked at Leif as though he had grown a third arm.

“What I mean to say is, if you sit idly by and get killed, and the next person does the same, and the next person does the same, and so on, then eventually you’ll all die anyway.” He shrugged again. “If you escape, well, maybe a few more of your people will die sooner—which is terrible—but if you can work to bring down the Mage, then you will have saved hundreds or thousands of others.”

“But—” Fawn started to protest, but couldn’t form the words in her mouth.

Leif saw in her eyes that same struggle that had taken place in Timber at the Nardee. If he could only convince her the way he had convinced Timber…

“Look,” he pressed, growing eager. “I know I have nothing to lose, because I’m going to die one way or another. I mean, I’m no hero. And if you are going to die anyway—which you will if you just stay here—then maybe you should try to do what you can for the rest of your people.”

Fawn was about to object again; instead, she merely leaned against the cold stone wall in desperation, clearly undecided.

Leif came to the realization that the folk did not seem to be able to use their courage when it came to defending themselves. But when it came to the suffering and misery of others, all they needed was a bit of prodding for them to use that courage to do the right thing, as Timber had done at the Nardee.

Wisely, Leif let Fawn think it out for herself, and turned his attention back to his escape plan, or lack thereof. He had to think of something.

Fawn suddenly called attention to this obvious fact, making Leif blush with embarrassment. “Even if we wanted to escape, there is no way. It’s just impossible. No one has ever escaped the dungeon, much less the fortress or the Mage.”

“We’ll think of something,” he assured her, though he was not so sure himself. But he smiled at her encouragingly, because he knew that she at least seemed willing to take the first step with him toward escape. All he had to do now was find a way out.

He thought about the heroes in his bedtime stories. They would probably just take out a sword and slay anyone in their path, Leif guessed.

He thought it through for a time. If he couldn’t overpower the orc himself, maybe he could get someone else to do it. The giant in the cell across from him would surely be able to squash the orc with ease. If only Leif could convince the giant to do it…

He crawled forward to the front of his cell. At the end of the chamber, the orc was sleeping. Leif could hear loud snores coming from him.

He spoke to the giant. “Hey.”

When no response came, he repeated himself. “Hey, you!”

The giant looked up, then over to the orc, who was still snoring. He looked back at Leif, who saw pain and sorrow in the other’s eyes, a pain shared with every other prisoner in the dungeon. If only Leif could ignite that anger, the spark of rebellion. Were the giants like folk, in that they wouldn’t fight back?

“I know a way we can get out of here,” Leif whispered conspiratorially.

The giant didn’t seem interested and bowed his huge head between his knees again.

“I also know a way to stop the Mage,” he said. “If I can get out of here, I have a chance. Then there will be no more suffering.”

The giant looked up at Leif briefly, then shrugged and lowered his head again.

Angrily, Leif lashed out: “Here you are, a big strapping fellow who could knock down the walls of this fortress with one swing of those tree-trunk arms of yours, and yet you sit there like a coward.”

The giant raised his head and looked at Leif with pleading eyes, making Leif feel bad that he’d spoken so harshly.

The orc at the end snorted twice in his sleep, and then his breathing evened out again.

The giant obviously didn’t want more trouble for his people, but Leif knew that they had to take some risks, or they would all be doomed.

Even though he hated talking this way, he was determined to cajole the giant into action. He scowled. “I am just a boy, and I have more fight in me than you. You are pathetic.”

He spat on the floor in front of the giant, not really meaning it, but hoping that it would bring a response. Leif didn’t usually call people names—it wasn’t nice, and he’d been the object of plenty of name-calling. But he couldn’t think of any other way to motivate him.

The giant pursed his lips, frustrated, and shook his hands as though to convey how futile it all was. Odd, though, the giant hadn’t yet said a word.

“Why don’t you answer me?” he asked. Confused, he looked at Fawn. “Why doesn’t he answer me?”

“Giants aren’t able to speak,” she said simply, as though Leif should have known this all along.

The Sundering, Leif remembered. The folk had lost courage, and the giants had lost speech. “Then how did they learn the language? How can he tell what I’m saying?” Leif couldn’t understand this.

“I don’t know. They just do,” she said, shrugging her slender shoulders.

Leif turned back to the giant, who was watching him intently.

“I’m sorry I spat. I didn’t mean it. But I do know a way to defeat the Mage.”

At this, the giant’s massive eyebrows raised high in curiosity.

Leif said, “Please. Will you help?”

The giant took a breath, looked at the orc again, and nodded.

Chapter Fifteen

His courage bolstered by the support of the giant and elf, Leif pressed up against the cell bars, and banged them to wake the slumbering orc. The ugly monster was startled out of his sleep. He jumped to his feet, his spear in his hands.

“Hey orc, you ugly excuse for a hog, get down here now.”

Leif hoped that the orc might be sensitive about his apparent likeness to swine and might get mad about one of the prisoners ordering him around. He was correct on both assumptions.

The orc, rage lighting up his tiny eyes, stormed down the aisle. “Why you little—” he growled when he got to Leif. He was foaming at the snout.

Leif interrupted. “See that giant there?” He pointed over to the giant before the orc could say or do anything more.

The orc glanced at the giant and, seeing nothing of interest, started in again on Leif. “I’m gonna—”

“He says that a dirty pig is a better-looking animal than you,” Leif said. The orc looked back at the giant, his tiny eyes narrowing even smaller.

Not giving the orc a chance to remember that giants didn’t speak, Leif continued his tattletale. “He also says that you’re too dumb to understand when you’re being insulted.”

He didn’t have time to say more as the orc swung around heatedly to face the giant, fueled for a fight.

Pointing his spear, he snorted. “Oi, what was it you says ‘bout me?”

Leif shouted from the sidelines, “Why don’t you open the cage door, go in and teach him a lesson?”

“Why, ‘ow I’m goin’ t’put d’boots t’dis giant ‘ere.” The orc tucked the spear under his arms and fumbled for his keys.

“That’s it,” urged Leif, hoping to keep the orc distracted. “You show him.”

The orc found the key and opened the door. “Yer goin’ to wish you never—erghll splrtt!”

The giant had burst open the unlocked cage door, grabbed the surprised orc’s throat in one hand and the spear in the other before the orc even realized what was going on. Breaking the spear like a toothpick, the giant prepared to do the same to the orc.

“Don’t kill him,” pleaded Fawn, her voice startlingly loud. Leif swung his head around to the elf as she explained. “That would make us no better than they are.”

Leif remembered Timber saying something about that. The folk not only considered themselves uncourageous, but they were also extreme pacifists. Humans didn’t have the same restrictions—what of giants? Obviously, they were not under the same ban, seeing as how readily the giant was going to kill the orc; but Fawn’s words were having a gentling effect on the giant.

Caught between venting his anger on the orc and adhering to the elf’s wishes, the giant stopped squeezing, but still kept a firm hold on the writhing orc.

“Throw his keys over,” called Leif immediately.

The giant did so. Catching the keys, Leif unlocked his own cage then opened all the other cages in the dungeon.

The other prisoners, though reluctant to leave at first for fear of reprisal, eventually gave in and fled amid a flurry of muttered thanks and praise.

Leif, Fawn, and the giant bound and gagged the pig-faced monster and locked him in one of the cells. Leif had a sudden vision of a banquet where a pig had an apple stuffed in its mouth. Leif wondered whether he could find an apple somewhere. Probably not in this dreary Land, he guessed, disappointed.

“What’s your name?” he asked the giant before they all left the chamber. The giant put his right hand to his head, with two fingers raised, the other two touching his thumb, and then he made a twisting motion with his wrist.

“What’s he doing?” asked Fawn.

“I think he’s trying to tell us that motion is what his name is,” guessed Leif. He’d heard of deaf or mute people who communicated by sign language. The giant nodded to confirm Leif’s guess.

“But we can’t make that sign every time we want to get his attention,” objected Fawn. “Do you have a name we can say?”

The giant went down on one knee. With a thick finger, he began to write on the dirty floor.

“Mungus,” said Fawn.

Mungus nodded with a smile.

“Pleased to meet you, Mungus.” Leif reached out to shake the giant’s enormous hand.

“We’d best get going before someone notices we’ve escaped,” warned Fawn.

“Right.”

Leif started out the door and into the corridor, the other two following close behind. He surmised that the other doors in the dungeon also held prisoners—a fact that was confirmed by Fawn. After a moment’s deliberation, he informed his two companions of his first plan: free the rest of the prisoners. He had seen dozens of other doors in the dungeon that no doubt held prisons full of innocent folk, giants, and mers.

“Do you have any idea which cell the queen is in?” he asked.

Fawn stared at him for a moment, then slowly blinked. “Queen?”

“Of the folk. That’s why Timber and I came here, to rescue her. What—?” he asked when he looked at Fawn.

Eyes wide, she put her hand to her mouth. “I had no idea she was here.”

Mungus shuffled and gave them both a pointed look.

“What is it?” Leif asked.

The giant put his hands around the crown of his head, then pointed to his eyes, and finally nodded. He knew where she was being held.

“Excellent,” Fawn said. “We’d better hurry up. The other monsters will come and investigate.”

Before they could go into the other dungeon chambers and release the prisoners, Leif had a thought. What good was it going to do to help them all escape, when the Mage could simply send his monsters to recapture them?

If he wanted to stop that from happening, he had to find a way to take away the Mage’s power.

“The Shard,” he said.

Fawn blinked. “What about it?”

“I’ll bet the Mage keeps it close. It’s probably in this fortress somewhere.”

“Probably,” she agreed.

“If I can find it, then the Mage will lose his power.”

“But…” Fawn started to say, her face paling. “He’ll know you’re coming.”

“He won’t.” Leif remembered what Timber had said. “He can’t use his power to see me. I’ll find the Shard and be gone before he even knows it’s missing.”

Fawn still looked uncertain.

Leif said, “You and Mungus free the queen and the other prisoners. I’m going to find the Shard.” He nodded firmly to them. “We’ll meet at the river east of the fortress—we can use it as a rorrim.”

Fawn said, “Then we can all escape to the Nardee from there.”

Leif didn’t mention his fear that Gorr would be on the lookout for him. He would have to deal with Gorr later. Right now, he had to find the Shard.

He was about to leave, but Fawn put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” she said. “For saving our lives.”

Red-faced, Leif headed down the corridor.

Chapter Sixteen

After sneaking about this corridor and that, careful to avoid any stray monsters, and taking as many stairs going up to higher levels as he could, Leif came to one of the upper floors of the fortress.

The escape had caught the monsters completely off guard. They had all run outside the fortress to try to round up the escapees, leaving the building mostly deserted.

It was a one-sided fight, Leif saw from one of the windows. None of the folk would raise a hand in their own defense, and most of the giants and mers were weaponless. But each giant, barehanded, was a match for any ten monsters. The monsters, however, outnumbered the escapees twenty-to-one. As Leif had guessed, the monsters were managing to recapture most of the prisoners.

Leif had to hurry to take advantage of the empty fortress. He had to find the Shard and take away the Mage’s power. Then no one would have to be worried about being enslaved by the monsters.

For the longest time, all he found on the upper levels were empty rooms, kitchens, and chambers. He was looking for the Mage’s rooms—the likeliest place where he would hide the Shard. But he had no clue as to where his quarters were. The slaves and servants who had presumably been working in these rooms were gone now, either herded away by the monsters or gone off to join in the escape.

I would have been good to find someone who could give him directions, but he couldn’t risk being seen by a monster.

He searched every room he came across in the hopes of getting lucky. An odd assortment of things had been abandoned by the monster guards in the halls, including keys, dice, money, tools, and various other trinkets.

Standard furnishings decorated the rooms, but he noticed that as he rose from level to level, the embellishments in the rooms and furnishings were getting progressively more expensive-looking, even though the state of cleanliness was such that he was sure his foster mother would have had a heart attack at one look at the filth.

He soon reached the top floor. Looking out the window, he could see the roof of the fortress was only a few feet up. In earnest, he began searching every room. But there were so many. After half an hour, he thought he must have covered the entire floor, but then he saw a hallway he’d missed.

Taking a deep breath, he methodically searched each room there, as he had done with the ones before, looking for clues or even a secret door. All the rooms here looked the same: expensive furnishings covered with monster filth.

He almost gave up the search, wondering if perhaps the Mage had his quarters in an entirely different building. Then he walked in one room and stopped dead in his tracks. It was occupied.

For a moment, Leif was about to run, but then he realized who it was in here: a prisoner.

He was a very pale-looking mer wearing a heavy iron collar, laden with chains attached to a leather belt at his waist. The chain, in turn, was fixed to an iron loop on the brick wall. The merman was battered and bruised, obviously tied there to serve as a plaything for the monsters—or maybe even the Mage himself.

“Uh, hello,” offered Leif brightly, as if he weren’t sneaking about the fortress trying to steal the Shard.

“Greetings,” burbled the merman. He sounded like he was talking through water, even though there was no water anywhere near. “Who are you?” he asked pointedly.

“My name is Leif.” He walked over to the merman to shake hands.

“I am Kurrent. What species are you?” inquired Kurrent bluntly. “I’ve never seen one like you before. Like a very small giant,” he observed.

“I’m a … hume.”

“Really? From the Land of Myth? I am a merman, from the Land of the Sea, if you didn’t guess.”

Leif nodded. “Uh, can I help you get out of this?” He pointed to the bindings.

“You’re more than welcome to try,” said Kurrent, looking at the chains forlornly. “Ever since the monsters ran off, I’ve been trying my best to get it off, but so far I’ve had no luck.”

Leif studied the collar and chains, but was baffled as to how to get Kurrent out of them; he didn’t have any keys, and the chains were too strong for him to break, even though he tried until he was red in the face.

Then: “Wait a minute. That’s it!” He snapped his fingers. “Keys.”

“What?” asked Kurrent, but Leif had already darted from the room and dashed down the corridor. He was back in a few minutes, smiling proudly and showing off a handful of keys.

“One of these must work.” He started trying them randomly. It only took a few minutes to find one that fit. He freed Kurrent of his chains.

“Thank you, Leif,” said the merman with a grateful smile. “I owe you my service, and my life. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“You’re welcome. Maybe you can help me. I’m looking for the Mage’s rooms,” he explained. “There might be a way for me to stop him, but I don’t know where his rooms are.”

“Certainly,” Kurrent said. “At the end of this hall is another stairway that leads to the top floor of the fortress. That’s where the Mage’s room is.”

“Thank you very much,” said Leif, grinning from ear to ear now that his searching was over. He was about to dash off, so eager was he to get to the Mage’s rooms, but stopped when a thought struck him. “Wait. How can you get about?” The merman’s arms, though heavily muscled, were bruised and looked very sore. “You must be in a lot of pain, and very tired. Can you crawl, or do you want me to help you?”

“I can manage,” the mer said bravely. “I’ve been through worse. The best way to help me is to stop the Mage.”

“All right,” said Leif slowly. “Uh, listen, everyone who manages to escape is meeting at the river to the east. There, they’ll Landtrip to the Nardee and then to their home Land.”

“Thank you again, Leif. Now hurry before someone comes back.”

Kurrent shook Leif’s hand and started his long crawl.

Leif paused, making sure the mer was well on his way before looking for the stairs. He didn’t have long to search before he found them. With a quick glance around to make sure no one had spotted him, he ran up to the roof of the fortress.

At intervals along the stairs, there were slits, which showed a view of the land outside the fortress. Leif glanced through one of these, just to check on the progress of the escapees. Chaos reigned below as hundreds of folk, giants, and mers ran—or crawled—every which way, trying to get away from the monsters who were chasing them down.

It looked as if only some of the folk, giants, and mers were able to escape. He had to hurry.

The best way for Leif to help them was to find the Shard.

He turned his attention back on the stairs leading to the Mage’s rooms, which were unguarded, and he quickly ascended.

At the top, he came to a long corridor, decorated with fine tapestries and candles set in small brackets along the walls. The carpeted floor was wall-to-wall, and the floorboards looked to be of the best wooden constructions. Unlike the other rooms in the fortress, this hall was well maintained and clean.

Leif grew angry, wondering how someone could live in such a plush environment while allowing hundreds of innocents to live in the vermin-infested filth of the dungeon.

Again, he took a deep breath to calm himself as he neared the door at the end of the corridor. He opened the door slowly and peered in, eyes wide in anticipation. Was the Mage going to pop out? Would he be discovered? Sighing in relief when he saw no sign of anyone there, he edged into the room.

If he had thought the corridor plush, he was in for a surprise with the elaborate decorations in the Mage’s chamber. It was the epitome of luxury. Silk tapestries and paintings hung from the walls. There was a gold fountain at one end of the large room filled with jewels and gems instead of water, and the furniture was of the finest materials Leif had ever seen—leather, fur, silk…

Wrenching his eyes from the splendor, Leif cast about for any sign of the Shard. Where would it be? What would it look like? He lifted lamps and statues, checked under the couch, tried poking behind tapestries, but they seemed glued to the wall; no amount of pressure could even rip one corner free—

A sudden noise from the corridor nearly made him jump out of his skin. His heart stopped, and his legs froze.

He could hear a voice speaking—it was the Mage.

Chapter Seventeen

A split-second before the Mage entered the room, Leif dove down behind the couch and rolled under it.

“I want those slaves back now!” the Mage snapped.

Leif saw the greenish feet of a hobgoblin a pace behind his master.

“B-but, my Mage—” stammered the hobgoblin. It sounded surprisingly like Rankin.

“No excuses,” barked the Mage. “If you can’t get all of them back alive, replace each with a hundred others.” His voice was as sharp as a knife blade.

“We don’t have enough room in the fortress for that many—” the hobgoblin started to protest.

“Do as I say, you worthless, stinking husk, or you’ll be the next meal for my griffin.”

The Mage glided over to a chair and sat, crossing one leg over the other. All Leif saw was a shifting of his long black robe.

He was so petrified with fear there was no room for any thoughts of revenge against the Mage; Leif only wanted to escape here with his life.

“Yes, my Mage.” Rankin—it had to be Rankin—bowed and exited the room hurriedly, leaving only the sound of his heavy footfalls behind him.

“Stupid monsters,” hissed the Mage. “Why didn’t I use giants? At least they don’t talk back.”

He stood and walked over to a large cabinet. Kneeling down, he opened a lower door.

Though Leif could see the back of his head, he couldn’t make out any features; the Mage was wearing a dark hood.

The Mage reached into the cabinet, searching for something. The Shard?

No. The Mage pulled a half-full flask of some kind of liquid out of the cabinet.

A potion? Leif wondered. His excitement died when the Mage poured an ounce of the golden liquid in a glass and filled the rest of the glass with water from another container. It was merely alcohol, he realized disapprovingly.

The Mage stood back up out of Leif’s sight and returned to his chair. He nursed his drink for a very long minute, even as Leif grew more and more tense.

If the Mage discovered him, he would probably cast a spell over him without a second thought. Maybe he would turn him into a newt for his next witch’s brew.

Leif bit his lip and bided his time.

His patience paid off when the Mage, after finishing his drink, meandered over to one of the larger tapestries on the wall, one Leif had already searched.

He thought the Mage was admiring it at first, until he spoke a word Leif thought sounded like rocks grinding together. The tapestry fell from the wall and landed on the floor in a rumpled heap.

Leif’s eyes widened in anticipation. I knew it was behind there.

He couldn’t see above the Mage’s knee level. After a moment’s indecision, he edged around under the couch to get a better look at what the Mage was doing. There was a niche hidden in the wall. Inside the niche was a stand made of gold and silver. On the stand rested a thin, perfect sliver of crystal: the Shard!

It was about six inches long and an inch thick, and had a prismatic quality, reflecting the limited light of the room in a rainbow of color. Leif’s mouth hung open in awe.

“Shard of Sight, show me what I seek to see,” commanded the Mage loudly, breaking the spell the Shard seemed to have over Leif.

Leif had to avert his eyes as a blinding flash of light refracted about the room. He looked back just in time to see a fireworks show that he would remember for the rest of his life. The Shard radiated colored beams of light in a widening spread toward the Mage, but the beams stopped halfway to him, where they formed a multi-colored disk that spun vertically in place.

The swirling magic seemed to mesmerize the Mage. Leif edged a little farther out to get a better look.

The disk took on a new dimension—one of depth—and became a cone, the point touching the Shard and the base a foot from the Mage, almost as wide around as he was tall.

Inside the cone, fluttering images came into view.

Leif strained to see what those images were and, almost in a trance, started to crawl toward the magical cone. He caught himself before he became completely mesmerized and was discovered by the Mage.

The many-colored, spinning cone kept up its dance.

Leif forced himself to sink back under the couch, resolved to be contented with what he could see from there.

He saw more than he bargained for.

It was as if he’d suddenly looked at something far off in a telescope; the images seemed to jump out of the cone in brilliant color and clarity.

They depicted the scene within the fortress’s courtyard.

The monsters were in a mad frenzy, rounding up any folk, mers, or giants they saw.

A few of the giants and mers tried to fight back against the monsters, but it was a hopeless fight. The giants were fierce, but they were unarmed and outnumbered.

Leif almost cried out with horror, seeing the violence, but bit down hard on his lip to keep from giving himself away.

The Mage, smiling ecstatically, made a motion with his hand, and the scene within the cone shifted to the events transpiring outside the fortress.

Leif found himself edging forward again when the image panned over one group of slaves heading toward a long, winding river.

He could clearly see Fawn and Mungus were among them. They were leading an unarmed band of a few dozen folk.

Six well-armed goblins chased them.

Leif almost gave himself away by yelling out to warn Fawn and Mungus but caught himself again just in time. He would have to keep his emotions in check.

The scene shifted over a few other bands of escapees in similar predicaments, but Leif’s eyes went wide when he saw, in the corner of the image, what looked to be Samson and Timber.

The scene shifted away before Leif could get a good look at them. He hoped they were all right and crossed his fingers for luck.

Presently, the Mage, his face so red it was glowing, ended the magic with a quick word: “Stop!”

He began to yell. “Rankin! Rankin, where are you? Rankin! You stupid creature! Where are you?”

When there was no reply, the Mage stormed toward a door on the opposite side of the room. “I’m going to take care of this myself.” He exited, slamming the door closed behind him.

Soon, Leif could hear the sound of wings flapping in the air as the Mage rode his griffin.

In his distraction, he had left the Shard where it was, exposed in the niche.

Only when he was sure the Mage was long gone did Leif creep out from under the couch, eyes drinking in the miraculous beauty of the Shard that was now his.

When he touched it, a warm tingling sensation went through his fingers, and coursed through his entire body.

He heard a sound from out in the hall. Was Rankin returning?

Leif had to move quickly before he was discovered.

Chapter Eighteen

Since the fortress was starting to fill up with all the recaptured prisoners and returning monsters, Leif had to find another way out.

The second door the Mage had used led to a large, flat area on the roof. At one end, there was a giant nest—that must be where the griffin slept, he guessed. Though Leif was thankful the griffin was nowhere to be seen, he knew that any of the remaining escapees were going to be in mortal danger as the Mage hunted them down.

Leif went to the edge of the roof and looked down. Though the brickwork was uneven, he didn’t think he would be able to get a foothold and climb down that way.

As he worked his way along the wall, he neared the griffin’s nest. A foul smell wafted up to his nose, and he gagged. What was that?

Almost, he was about to turn around and head back into the Mage’s chamber, but then he realized where the stench was coming from.

Behind the griffin’s nest, there was a squared-off area that served as the beast’s toilet. There was a section of the wall lower than the rest, with two wide shovels nearby. Obviously, they were used to scoop the griffin’s waste off the roof.

Holding his nose, Leif went to the edge and looked over the wall. A wooden chute was fixed to the side of the fortress, ending at a large pit on the ground.

It was a filthy option, but Leif had found a way out.

  • * *

Pushing the horrifying experience from his mind, once Leif extracted himself from the pit, he raced for the river as fast as he could. There, he dove in and washed himself off.

“What is that smell?” someone asked from the bank.

Leif stood up and looked around.

“Timber,” he called out. “Samson.”

Leif walked out of the river, his heart leaping wildly in his chest as he joined his friends. He gave them fierce hugs.

“I was so worried. When Gorr grabbed me, I thought I’d never see the two of you again. How did you get here? What—?”

“There, there, friend Leif. We’re fine, now.”

Timber wiped a tear of joy from Leif’s cheek as Samson licked the other side of the boy’s face.

Leif gave the overjoyed dog an extra-long hug and a firm scratching behind the ears.

“As for Samson and I,” began Timber, “we followed you through the Nardee to here—the first time I’ve ever seen the Land of the Mage, friend Leif.” He shivered. “I’ll not look forward to returning ever. But when we arrived, you were nowhere. We searched high and low until we neared the great fortress. We didn’t want to get too close to it for fear of the monsters. We spoke to a few of the folk whenever we could, when the monsters weren’t near, but they knew nothing of where you were. And there was no way we could approach those great monsters. So, we bided our time, hoping for the best.

“Then, when we saw so many of our folk escaping, we quickly joined up with one of the groups and gathered as many refugees together as possible, hoping to meet up with you somewhere along the way.”

Leif nodded, and a wide smile broke out on his face again. He’d never been so happy to see someone before in his life.

“What happened to you, friend Leif?” Timber asked. “Tell me everything.” He spoke in a low voice as they followed closely behind the group of about thirty refugees, knowing the need for silence, but not being able to resist his need to know.

“I found the Mage’s Shard,” announced Leif. He quickly gave the wood sprite a brief summary of everything that had happened up until he had stolen the Shard.

“After I got away from the fortress, I tried commanding the Shard. It showed me exactly what I wanted to see, but then a band of goblins spotted me. I picked up the Shard ran for it.”

Timber gave Leif a big hug and clapped his back. “Wonderful, friend Leif. Just wonderful. You truly are a great hero. You’ve succeeded where no one has ever come close before.”

Leif blushed, but inside he felt so bad: he wasn’t a hero. If Timber had been there and seen how much a failure Leif was, he wouldn’t be saying so many nice things about him.

“What was it you wanted to see?” Timber asked.

“I’ll tell you later, when we meet up with Fawn and Mungus.” Leif didn’t feel up to any more undeserved praise.

“Fawn?”

“She’s an elf,” Leif said. “She and Mungus, who is a giant, were the ones who actually freed the queen and the other prisoners.”

“Incredible,” said Timber. “Our mission is a success.”

A group of refugees appeared from around a corner, and Leif pointed. “There they are.”

Fawn and Mungus were among them. They were approaching the murky river, which was barely clear enough to serve as a rorrim.

Fawn immediately spotted him and waved.

Leif and Timber hurried over to join them.

“You made it all right,” Fawn said.

Before Leif could say anything, Timber said, “The queen…?”

Fawn gave him a smile. “We already sent her to the Nardee while we looked for other refugees. She said she would have no problem getting by Gorr.”

Just then, a big hand fell on Leif’s shoulder.

“Hello, Mungus,” he said to the giant, then introduced him to Timber and Samson.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” Fawn said to Samson. She patted the dog on his head, much to his pleasure.

Mungus shook Timber’s hand, and then also petted Samson.

“Are these all the prisoners who got away?” asked Leif in concern.

There were only twenty or so people there. He firmly believed they had done the right thing in helping them escape, but he couldn’t help feeling more than a little guilty for the hundreds who hadn’t made it out.

Fawn said, “I think so.” She turned around in a slow circle. “It looks like everybody here is getting ready to go across.”

“Should we wait to see if anyone else has escaped?” asked Timber.

“Maybe…” Fawn looked at Leif. “Did you find the Shard?” she asked in a low voice, understanding the need for a certain amount of secrecy.

“Yes.” Leif nodded. He didn’t want to launch into his story yet. There were too many people around, and they had a hundred monsters looking for them.

Just then, another small band of refugees arrived at the river. Leif was delighted to notice a familiar merman among their ranks.

“That’s Kurrent.” He pointed the merman out to his friends, and led them over.

Kurrent sat on the shoulder of one of the giants. He waved when he spotted Leif.

“Leif. How are you?” he asked.

Silently, as if words had never been necessary for communication, the other giant transferred the merman to Mungus’s shoulder. The giants exchanged nods of greeting and then used sign language to communicate with each other. Leif had no idea what they said.

He turned to Fawn and Timber. “It was Kurrent who helped me find the Mage’s quarters,” he explained. “Without him, I would never have found the Shard.”

“It was but a trifle compared to the freedom you bestowed on me, Leif,” burbled Kurrent. “I am glad you are all right.”

Before Leif knew what was happening, Fawn climbed up beside Kurrent on Mungus’s shoulders and raised her hands to her mouth.

“Everybody!” she addressed those waiting at the river. They turned toward her.

After a dramatic pause, Fawn pointed to Leif.

“I would like to introduce you all to Leif, of the Land of the Humes. He’s the one who started the great escape and set everything in motion. Without him, we could not have gotten this far.”

It was Fawn and Mungus who had done the actual saving but, to Leif’s dismay, Fawn wanted everyone to recognize him as their hero.

The refugees, surprise on their faces, applauded quietly and bowed, offering heartfelt thanks to Leif. Then they waited patiently, everyone looking at him expectantly.

“Make a speech,” urged Timber. “And then tell them what to do. They want you to lead them.”

“Me?” Leif gulped. “Uh—ummm—” His voice caught in his throat. Fawn, having climbed down from the giant’s shoulders, put a reassuring hand on Leif’s arm. Timber clapped Leif’s back encouragingly.

“Ah…” Best to tell them to do what they were all going to do anyway—he couldn’t think of anything else. “I think that we should go back to each of our Lands and try to protect ourselves from the Mage.”

“But the Mage’s power…” protested a dozen questioning voices.

“He has lost his magic,” Leif said. At least, he hoped that was the case. “He still controls the monsters, so you will have to defend yourselves and your people against them. But the Mage can’t use the magic of the Shard against you anymore.”

“How did he lose power?” “Where did his magic go?” “How powerful is he yet?” “How can we defeat him?” were a few of the questions that bombarded Leif.

He put his hands up to silence them. “I can’t explain it to you right now—we have to get away from here before the monsters find us. What’s important is that we all get home and protect our families…” He lost his voice at this last, realizing, as he said it, that he had no real family of his own.

Not completely satisfied with Leif’s answer, the people muttered among themselves; but finally, they accepted his word when he urged them again to head for their homes.

There were still a few other questions. “Then how do we get past Gorr?” they asked.

“Well,” reasoned Leif, “there are more than two dozen of you, and only one of him.”

A show of power was just as good as having to use it; sometimes it was better, because no one actually got hurt.

“Lead on,” one of the refugees said.

“To the Nardee,” he called out.

“To the Nardee!” they echoed.

Chapter Nineteen

Gorr paced back and forth in front of the void—his post—grumbling.

“Dat hume, he tricked me. Next time I sees him, I’m gonna fix him real good. Teach him to gets me in trouble wiff de Mage. Why, I’ll just … I’ll … wring his neck. I’ll…” He went on in such detail that even the sand around him blanched in horror.

Minutes before, he’d had an encounter with a hobgoblin servant, who had been sent by the Mage to reprimand him.

Even though Gorr knew he could smash the hobgoblin easily, the filthy creature carried the Mage’s message, and he had to heed the words: “Let no one in and no one out.”

Then Rankin said, “I hope you haven’t let anyone pass? They are escaped prisoners.”

But Gorr had already let more than a dozen people through since he’d returned to the Nardee, thinking it was back to business as usual. How could he know which ones were former prisoners?

“Of coarse not,” he told the hobgoblin, hoping the slimy little being would believe him. He vowed from that moment on to follow the Mage’s command like it was law—it was law.

So determined was Gorr that it almost came to blows when Rankin wanted to Landtrip back to the Land of the Mage.

“But you just said dah Mage wanted nobody to come tru,” protested Gorr.

“He didn’t mean me, stupid. I’m a monster. All monsters get to go through. Now let me pass.”

“Na-ah. I ain’t gonna. And if you try, I’ll twist yor face.” He raised his fists.

Instead of attacking, the hobgoblin smiled at him. “If you don’t let me through, then I can’t tell the Mage what a good job you’re doing. You want him to know that you’re doing a good job, don’t you?”

“Uh … uh … yeah. I guess.” And he’d allowed the hobgoblin through.

Now, nobody but nobody was getting through. And that was that.

And all this trouble because of the boy who was named after a leaf.

“Dat little…” He wrung his hands, trying to think of a suitable swear word, but a motion beside him caught his attention. He whirled on the intruder, and then did a double take as he saw it was the boy. The hume. The leaf.

“You!” screamed Gorr. “I’m gonna—” His words were cut off as a two angry giants and a couple of dozen folk and mers all suddenly appeared within the ten-foot radius around Gorr.

Wide-eyed, Gorr followed the first intelligent advice his brain had ever offered.

He turned around and bolted through the gate, almost forgetting the rhyme in his haste.

Chapter Twenty

Leif smiled when the ogre disappeared through the void. Everybody congratulated each other on their victory.

Two by two, the refugees made their way home, plying Leif with thanks and praise, making his face turn red.

Soon, the only ones left were Leif, Samson, Timber, Fawn, Mungus, and Kurrent.

“So, now tell us about the Shard,” Fawn said.

Timber nodded. “Yes, what did it show you?”

Taking a deep breath, Leif said, “I’ve been thinking about how to make sure the Mage never regains his power.”

“How?”

“What if we find all the other Shards and reunite them?” Leif said. Then the folk would have their courage back, the mers would get their balance, the giants would regain speech, and the monsters would have order restored. All humes would get their sight back, and finally be able to see that magic that exists in the world.”

Timber stared at Leif for a few moments, then he smiled wide. “That is a great plan, friend Leif. I’m with you.”

“Me, too,” said Kurrent.

Mungus nodded at him as Fawn said, “Of course we’re going to help you. Did you think we were going to abandon you?”

Leif smiled brightly, realizing for the first time that he had true friends. This was his family.

He said, “Well, Samson, it looks like we have an official expedition now.” He patted the dog, who woofed his agreement and wagged his tail.

“So, where to, Leif?” burbled Kurrent.

Leif looked at each of them one by one, his eyes falling lastly on Mungus.

“We’re off to the Land of the Giants. That’s where the Shard of Speech is.”

To Be Continued In

Fables Of The Forgotten:

A Sorcerous Spell

About The Author

Valmore Daniels has lived on the coasts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, and dozens of points in between.

An insatiable thirst for new experiences has led him to work in several fields, including legal research, elderly care, oil & gas administration, web design, government service, human resources, and retail business management.

His enthusiasm for travel is only surpassed by his passion for telling tall tales.

Visit ValmoreDaniels.com

Table of Contents

A Courageous Quest

Part One Land Of Myth

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Part Two The Nardee

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Part Three Land Of The Mage

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

About The Author


A Courageous Quest (Fables Of The Forgotten, Book One)

Twelve-year-old Leif suffers from terminal cancer and has been getting weaker every day. He decides to climb a tree fort one more time before it's too late. After a flash of light startles him, he falls out of the tree, but is saved by the most unusual person he's ever met: a wood sprite named Timber. Timber is on a quest. He was sent by the Seven Sages to recruit Leif. They must rescue the Queen of the Folk, who has been imprisoned by the Mage. The folk are cursed - they have no courage, and are powerless against the Mage's dark magic; only another Hume, like Leif, has any hope to get past the Mage's defenses. Feeling stronger now that he has a purpose, Leif accepts and heads off with Timber through the Five True Lands. Leif doesn't know what he's signed up for... The secret the Mage has been keeping could mean his life. - Fables Of The Forgotten - Book One: A Courageous Quest Book Two: A Sorcerous Spell Book Three: A Monstrous Myth

  • ISBN: 9781516976072
  • Author: ValmoreDaniels.com
  • Published: 2015-10-07 22:05:12
  • Words: 25341
A Courageous Quest (Fables Of The Forgotten, Book One) A Courageous Quest (Fables Of The Forgotten, Book One)