The King's Tournament

In THE KING'S TOURNAMENT, we are introduced to the medieval kingdom of Windcastle.   The kingdom of King Phillip has been in turmoil since a very dark chapter occurred.  In this opening prelude to the novel, we discover what happened to turn the once-proud kingdom into a xenophobic, isolationist territory where elves, goblins, centaurs and other non-humans are no longer welcomed

In the prologue of  THE KING'S TOURNAMENT, we enter a kingdom of men and women that lives alongside elves, fairies, centaurs, and goblins.  It's a relatively peaceful co-existance, until a terrible tragedy changed it all.

 PROLOGUE: THE DAYS BEFORE

 

 

   You won’t find the country of Eldonia on any current atlas. It’s doubtful that one person out of a thousand would even be able to guess where Eldonia used to be on the map. But at one point in history, hundreds of years ago, when Kings still protected their subjects from giants and monsters and dragons, Eldonia existed.

   Eldonia was split up into four neighboring kingdoms. King Xirus ruled Rio de Arena in the north, and the exotic Empress Mileani presided over Greenjai in the east. Far to the south was the inhospitable state of Okwretch, overseen by the dwarf Lord Tholomar. And in the west, under the rule of King Phillip and Queen Elladonna, stood Windcastle. Under Phillip and Elladonna’s reign, a golden age existed for nearly two decades with the neighboring kingdoms. In those days, the world was a good place.

   On the eighteenth year into Phillip’s rule, Elladonna and the Princess Shiloh set out from Caperthia City on the Surrey Cross Road to visit their neighboring kingdom to the north, Rio de Arena. It was a mild winter that year, with only a thin layer of snow on the ground. A solar eclipse was scheduled to occur in three days, but they were expected to reach their destination long before then.

Accompanying the queen was General Kurtwood Brickton, the accomplished commander of the royal military. His massive frame looked impressive on his tan battle horse, as if he was posing for the statue that would someday commemorate his legacy in the royal courtyard. These days, however, his face was beginning to betray his age. But despite the battle scars he bore and the lines deeply buried in his face, no man commanded more trust and confidence than Brickton. As always, he took the lead as the royal carriage slowly moved through the forest. Four of his most loyal knights rode matching black stallions behind the caravan. They had dedicated their lives to defending the members of the royal family, but they expected no trouble on this journey.     

     Offering even greater protection was the charismatic Scimyran Zaun, the court Sorcerer. Zaun had always spent far too much coin on fine clothing,   especially for a man with such a pallid complexion, undernourished physique and tragically thinning hair. He cut a scrawny figure atop his horse, surveying the horizon for trouble, while occasionally trying to peek into the caravan window to catch a glimpse of the Queen. In the carriage, bundled under several thick blankets to protect her from the cool late winter morning winds, was Elladonna, the radiant Queen of Windcastle. She was a gentle woman with compassionate eyes, full lips and copper hair. No monarch in her country’s history had enjoyed more affection and love from the people than she, and her acts of kindness and charity consistently showed her appreciation for their loyalty.  

    Sitting next to the Queen, taking in every strange sight along the way, was the eight-year-old Princess Shiloh. Against Elladonna’s constant urging to remain seated, the little princess kept tunneling out of the nest of blankets to take another look at the landscape through the carriage window. Shiloh was rarely allowed to leave the comfortable, yet confining area of the castle, and she didn’t want to miss the rare opportunity to see new lands.

This was a significant diplomatic errand for the royal family. Princess Shiloh had been betrothed to marry King Xirus’s son, and this would be the first day the two children would be formally introduced. Prince Taaht was only a few years older than Shiloh, so the marriage would not happen for several years. But the two monarchs were eager to begin the first of many meetings between the two children, in the hopes that a friendship would quickly blossom into a strong relationship later. Not far into the journey, the group traveled through a patch of forest that lay close to a centaur tribe. Here, where the forest canopy was so thick that very little sunlight found its way to the earth, Zaun stiffened in alarm and he began violently waving his hands for the party to stop.

    General Brickton didn’t see any danger, but the court sorcerer wasn’t known for startling easily. The road was narrow and winding here, with thick trees and rocky terrain on either side. The carriage driver had no room to turn the coach around, nor could he pick up any real speed. Potentially, this could be a trap. Brickton craned his neck to look at the carriage driver behind him, and motioned for him to slow down.

    Elton Vesper, the portly little man behind the reigns of the horses, brought the carriage to a stop. As the coach came to a halt, the only noises to be heard were from the breathing of the steeds. There was an unnatural stillness throughout the forest, they all realized. There should be a symphony of animal noises, but it was unnervingly devoid of sound.

    After a few moments, Brickton guided his horse to take a few tentative steps forward. He scanned the road ahead, not sure of what he was looking for. If something was out there, it was expertly avoiding detection.

    Moments passed without incident, and he finally exhaled and signaled his lieutenants to stand down. There didn’t seem to be any danger, although Sorcerer Zaun was still watching the trees cautiously. For his part, Elton Vesper was nervously sipping from a silver flask. Brickton made a mental note to reprimand the driver later for imbibing while operating the royal coach. 

The Queen pushed her head through the window, hoping to get a better view of whatever was causing the delay. “General Brickton? What’s happening?”  

     “Please, your majesty, keep your head in the carriage,” Brickton advised, dismounting his horse. He approached the sorcerer, trying to stifle the frustration at how his odd behavior was putting the entire party on edge. “Sorcerer! What did you see?”

    “I saw movements, behind the trees,” Zaun reported. “Something is out there, General.”

    “Could it be robbers?” one of the lieutenants suggested.   

    “They aren’t here to steal your purse,” Zaun shot back, getting louder. “It’s a goblin horde. We must prepare to defend ourselves!” 

    “Shiloh, come away from the window,” the Queen decided, vanishing back into the shadows of the coach with her child.

    “You’re upsetting the royals,” snarled the General. “Goblins haven’t been spotted in this country since King Nazelbuck was killed. This is the domain of the centaurs now.”

    “Almost as bad,” Zaun muttered under his breath, but a whistling sound cutting through the air prevented anyone from hearing the remark. 

In the next moment, an object quickly approached them, gliding through the air. The youngest lieutenant noticed it only soon enough to flinch, before it severed his head from his shoulders. The scythe blade had been flung from nearly fifty feet away, with terrifying accuracy, before embedding itself into the door of the carriage. As the unfortunate knight fell to the ground, his arm remained gripped like a vise around the reigns of his horse, and he pulled the animal down into the dirt. There could be no further doubt now.

    Goblins!

    Slightly smaller than an average human, but far more agile and vicious, a group of the creatures broke the silence with screams and howls. Wearing no armor other than discarded shreds of leather garments, and carrying weapons of scavenged bone and steel, the foul green creatures raced through the snow, dashing towards the carriage with suicidal intensity.

Brickton saw only four at first, but then four more, then another group joining them from the east. In an obviously calculated assault, they realized they had been surrounded!

    Zaun seemed unimpressed by the approaching creatures, and began to wave his hands. He started reciting an incantation in a language that Brickton had never heard before. When he was finished, wispy streams of fire flew from his hands, hurling through the air like a catapult, and crashing violently in front of the largest groups of goblins.  

    Many of the goblins were able to dodge the projectiles, but a few unlucky ones were hit square in the chest by Zaun’s magic. These unfortunate creatures screamed pathetically before bursting into a violent explosion of amber flames. It was black magic, to be certain, but it gave Brickton’s his men the distraction they needed.

    “What are you waiting for, you fools?” snarled Zaun. “I can’t continue this forever! Save the Queen!”

Brickton drew his crossbow and took aim towards the closest goblin, firing an arrow towards its head. He watched the arrow fly through the goblin’s skull, making it spin wildly in its last breaths before collapsing to the ground.

    It was a clean shot, but it did little to reassure the general. The next goblin charged towards him, demonstrating their complete lack of fear of death. Two more goblins leapt over the corpse of their fallen comrade, disregarding their own safety.

    Zaun let loose a barrage of fiery assaults once again. The goblins had obviously not expected to run into such resistance, and as they scattered to avoid being burned by the fire, they began to fall to the steel and the shafts of the knight’s arsenal.

    It was a small force of goblins, numbering about twenty. A few of them threw themselves at Brickton and the other knights, but several were racing directly for the carriage. It became apparent that the goblins had set their sights on Elladonna. This was an organized ambush.

     “Tighten the circle,” the General called out, stepping closer to the coach. “They’re after the Queen. They will have to go through us!”

     The three surviving lieutenants roared in agreement, watching the next wave of goblins carefully as they began to move towards them. Zaun unleashed more fire to limit the movements of the goblins, herding them into the swords of the knights. Elton Vesper, upon seeing the next wave of goblin warriors stampeding towards them, passed out next to his whiskey flask.

    The goblins may have outnumbered the soldiers from Caperthia City, but surprise was the only real weapon they had in their arsenal. Some of the goblins tried throwing their axes, but the men weren’t so easily surprised this time. Each projectile was deflected with a well-timed swing of their swords. Each goblin that reached the carriage, trying to claw their way into the vehicle, found itself impaled at the edge of a blade.

    One particularly vicious goblin tried to clear a path for his fellows by jumping on the back of the knight closest to the carriage door. The nearest knight dropped his weapon and forcibly pulled the goblin away, but not before its claws dragged a deep bleeding gash across the man’s cheek. It gave another creature enough time to put his hands on the door of the carriage, but General Brickton cut him in half before he could reach his prey.

    There were only a half-dozen goblins left by this point, and the surviving knights had suffered only superficial wounds. Between Zaun’s magic, and the valiant heroism of Brickton’s men, they were certain that a decisive victory would soon be theirs.  

    The facts of what happened next would become well known, but why it happened remained a mystery for years. As the battle continued, General Brickton heard the thunder of galloping hooves coming over the eastern side of the trail. The sound brought a fresh surge of dread to his heart. Did the goblins have reinforcements? To his knowledge, these monsters didn’t use horses for anything other than the occasional meal.  

    A row of human faces appeared over the horizon a few seconds later, but Brickton had no idea who they might be. There was no encampment of knights anywhere near this area, and they were several miles away from Caperthia City. Who were they?

    It was one of the lieutenants that identified them first. He wasn’t looking at their faces, but rather the horses they seemed   to be riding. He was the one that first noticed they weren’t riding horses at all.  

   “Centaurs!” shouted the wounded lieutenant. Zaun twirled his face in their direction, becoming even paler than his usual sallow tone.

Not generally regarded as hostile creatures, the centaurs were a secluded, isolated race that rarely traveled anywhere the humans marched. Goblins and humans alike stopped fighting momentarily as they quickly approached. Brickton wondered if their presence was a coincidence, or were they here to help? He wasn’t sure if he was going to like the answer.

    The sorcerer turned towards these new intruders, angrily screaming in panic. “No!! You’ll ruin everything!”

    The lead centaur, armed with a bow and arrow, aimed his weapon at the humans. “The human sentry was telling the truth! There he is!!” 

    With unnerving accuracy, he pierced Zaun’s arm just below the left shoulder. Distracted by the pain, the sorcerer crumpled to the ground, unable to continue casting his spells. With Zaun out of the battle, the surviving goblins renewed their attacks, now rampantly attacking both humans and centaurs alike.  

     General Brickton swung his broadsword at the closest goblin, forcing the creature to retreat a step. He risked a moment to bark an order at the sorcerer. “Sorcerer! Stand and fight, man!”

     Zaun pulled the heavy arrow from his shoulder, howling angrily as the bloody shaft dropped from his fingertips into the dirt. With a barely audible voice, he spoke a new set of unfamiliar words—and vanished from view.

     The general had never seen such sorcery before, and he stood stunned for two seconds, trying to digest the sight of a man vanishing into nothingness. That single heartbeat of time gave the closest goblin a chance to bury his blunt metal axe into Brickton’s neck. A long and illustrious career of valiant deeds and successful campaigns ended that day when his body hit the ground, leaving a morbid snow angel outlined by ice and blood.

     With the general dead and the sorcerer abandoning them, the battle was lost. The goblins were attacking any human that moved, while trying to fend off the charge of the centaurs. When the humans offered no further resistance, the surviving goblins concentrated on surviving the unexpected centaur attack. A few centaurs were killed, but the goblins had already been worn down in the attack on the humans. Against the raging ferocity of the centaur attack, the last of the goblins had no chance. 

     When it was over, the centaurs searched the area for Zaun. But he had vanished during the battle, and they didn’t wish a further confrontation if reinforcements arrived. They vanished back into the woods, and silence and darkness once again fell on the snowy battlefield.

                                                                                             * * * * *

 

     Elton Vesper, the drunken carriage driver, was the only confirmed survivor of the assault. He returned to the city, bloody and traumatized, to mournfully tell the tale of what had happened. A company of knights was immediately dispatched, where they found a heartbreaking scene. General Brickton and his knights were all found dead, mingled with the many dead bodies of goblins and two centaurs. Scimyran Zaun had vanished entirely.

Queen Elladonna had been butchered by the goblins.  

     The Princess Shiloh, the promising future monarch of the kingdom, had been reduced to a handful of small, bloody scraps of gown. In one dark sweep, King Phillip’s family had been ripped away from him.

There was no doubt that the Goblin Queen had sent her minions to attack them. While some on King Phillip’s council advanced the notion that the centaurs and the goblins had allied together, there was no solid proof. Nevertheless, a poisonous cloud of prejudice towards the non-human species of Eldonia began to form.  

     Elton Vesper was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he and his family were dismissed from the royal court, and they retired in disgrace to a small town in the southeast. He could offer no information as to the whereabouts of the royal sorcerer. Many assumed that Zaun had been dragged away by the goblins or the centaurs. Eventually, the King appointed a new sorceress to fill his shoes, one who commanded even more power than Scimyran Zaun had.

     Life grew darker still in Windcastle. The wedding between Shiloh and Taaht could never happen now and the alliance was broken. The King, a heartbroken man, became increasingly secluded and distant. Relations between the other states began to degrade.

The site where the Queen and the Princess met their deaths became known as Despair’s Corridor. It would forever be known as the location where Glanconda the Goblin Queen declared war on humankind.

     For ten years, the kingdom began to spiritually decay. Fearing that the monarchs of the neighboring countries would invade, King Phillip invested more resources into the upkeep of his swelling military force than he did in the well-being of his subjects. This led to a country on the brink of revolution, ready to rise up against a king who had lost touch with his people.

     And then, when the kingdom’s mood seemed darkest, an unexpected announcement was made. King Phillip, on the advice of his new court sorceress, was going to sponsor a tournament. Only eight would participate, but anyone in the kingdom would be permitted to enter their name into the list of candidates: knights, champions, the middle-class, the mercenaries, the criminals, the insane, the non-humans and the lost souls. Anyone.  

The winner would be given a fortune in gold and a seat on the King’s council. 

     For the first time since the King’s wife and daughter were murdered, the country had something to get excited about. The most skeptical dismissed the tournament as a sly tactic to quell the growing fires of revolution in the kingdom, and perhaps it was. But for the first time in years, the rabble-rousers and demagogues were in the minority. There was a passionate excitement in the kingdom once again.

Who would be participating in the King’s Tournament?

Though a lottery, eight random people would be chosen to participate in the King's Tournament.  One by one, we get to meet them.  Anyone was free to enter, and that meant prisoners, lunatics and rogues could have a shot at the prize.   It is with this knowledge that we first meet the condemned barbarian named Balor.

THE SAVAGE

    It was the first day of May, nearly a month after King Phillip announced his intentions to sponsor a   tournament to his kingdom. But today, Balor only had one thought on his mind. Exactly how was he going to be executed, and how could he get out of it?

     From Othgreiss to Fernsmith, all the way down to Wyminny Cliff, the topic of conversation was dominated by the question of who would be selected to participate in the King’s Tournament.

     Everywhere, except, in the dungeons of Lord Kelt of Chimagneland.

     Madson Krieger was the master of Lord Kelt’s prison, and he was the guard everyone strived to avoid. Charged with keeping order in the cells, he was feared for his cruel disposition and his vicious temper. He kept his prisoners perpetually underfed, clothed only in rags, and tethered to very short chains.  Krieger was a giant walking through a valley of insects, prepared to cut down any disturbance to his peace.  

    Krieger wasn’t particularly tall, but he was imposing enough to intimidate any wretch condemned to Lord Kelt’s dungeons. He was covered in bright red hair as coarse as the fur of a gorilla, which hid the defined muscles on his arms. He strolled quietly through the dungeons, gently tapping his truncheon against his palm. The prisoners would never make eye contact with him, for fear of being struck by the brute’s baton. Krieger behaved as if the day was ill spent if he hadn’t made an example of at least one of the condemned. His weapon was soaked in the blood and tears of the thieves and vagrants hidden down here beneath the sewers of Lord Kelt’s estate. No one dared to raise even a cross voice to the fearsome Guard Master.

    But still, he hesitated in approaching the doomed soul in the last cell.

    Historically, Krieger was a man unaccustomed to showing fear. He had defended King Phillip against a horde of rampaging centaurs. He had bested the gorgon threatening the lives of a family of shepherds. He had even survived an attack by the Spider Clan, and returned with a precious jewel that has never been unmatched in beauty. But this prisoner made him nervous.

    Krieger stood in front of the cell, his hands folded behind his back, calmly staring into the dark, isolated room. Foul smells from different sources were emanating from the room. Krieger’s minion, who followed him everywhere, took a step back as the odor hit his nose.

    “I’ll bet he’s working for Queen Mileani,” the smaller man guessed.

    The bald and unpleasant toady skulking in Krieger’s shadow, holding a short sword in one hand and a torch in the other, was called Gempley. He was once a prisoner of the dungeons himself, until he was finally released when his sentence expired. But he was a scrawny thief with no skills for honest work, and even less talent for survival in the outside world. He begged to stay in the dungeons, and so Krieger gave him employment as his assistant. It was only fitting; he was a repeat offender and wouldn’t have stayed free for long.

    “What are you talking about, Gempley?”

    “I said, he’s probably working for the queen of Greenjai.”

    “She’s an empress, you lackwit,” Krieger corrected him.

    Gempley’s brow furrowed. He didn’t understand that a queen and an empress weren’t interchangeable terms. “The slaves say that Queen Mileani made an alliance with the goblins, you know. They say Mileani paid the goblins to kill our Queen and the Princess.”

    Krieger had heard these rumors before as well, they had started circulating just a few years ago. Mileani was rumored to have a dash of elven blood running through her veins, which made her not exactly human. In these days of wide spread antagonism towards all non-humans, it made her an easy target for malicious rumors. 

    “She wanted her slut daughter to marry Prince Taaht,” Gempley rambled on with a ridiculous air of authority. “That’s why she had to get the Princess out of the way!”

     Having heard enough of his servant’s prattling, the guard master turned around and placed the blunt end of his truncheon against Gempley’s cheek. “Keep your mind on your job, and stop distracting me with the idle gossip of these pig shit wretches!”

    Gempley nodded slowly and silently. Krieger was known to leash his fury on his own subordinates as well as the prisoners, and he had personal experience with how much it would hurt.    

    “Remember what I said, Gempley,” Krieger whispered, returning his attention to the cell at the end of the corridor. “Remain at least six paces away from the bars.”

    Gempley pinched his noise, trying not to gag. “I don’t fear that will be a problem, Guard Master.”

    The cell in question was known as the Tomb. The prisoners housed here would only leave for one reason. Public execution. The cell was spacious enough to comfortably house a dozen prisoners, but for the last week, it had been the solitary dwelling of only one occupant. For the last two days, that occupant had remained quiet and unmoving.

     He could be dead, or just sleeping. They would have to bring the torch closer to find out, and Gempley didn’t seem inclined to risk it.

     “The day has arrived,” Krieger boomed theatrically, spreading his arms out as he addressed the prisoner.  “In just a few hours, you will emerge from these luxurious accommodations to greet the sunrise one final time.”

    If the captive heard him, he gave no indication. The only noise disturbing the silence were the nervous skitters of other prisoners, peering from adjacent cells, hoping to get a glimpse of the Tomb’s notorious occupant.

   “I know you can hear me, Balor.” growled Krieger, scratching his rough thatch of beard impatiently. “When we open the cell door at sunrise, I expect you to walk out into the courtyard and submit yourself to punishment without any incidents.”

    Submit yourself to punishment. The very phrase caused the prisoner to finally express a soft but audible, agitated grunt. He had no issue with dying in battle, but he saw no honor in public execution. Especially for the trivial offense he had been charged with.

    “Balor was only offering the taxes that Lord Kelt demands from us,” growled the voice in the darkness.

    “You hurled it through a window,” complained Krieger.

    “No one specified the manner in how our taxes were to be delivered,” laughed the prisoner. “How is that a crime?”

    “You threw your taxes through his bedroom window!”

    “It was on time,” the prisoner reasoned.

    “It was a cow!” Gempley screeched back, but the man in the shadows merely laughed at the thought of the mess he must have made.   

    “A lesson, then.  The more he demands from the people, the more insurgence he can expect to be paid,” he responded innocently. 

    “Such eloquent philosophy from a mindless barbarian. If you agree to apologize to my Lord Kelt, he is prepared to provide you a last meal worthy of a civilized man before your execution.  What say you, prisoner?”
    As their eyes began to slowly adjust to the darkness of the cell, Krieger and Gempley began to see the faint shimmer of an outline in the back of the Tomb. The massive shape was sitting on the stone bench on the far wall, some ten feet back, where he remained chained to the wall.  Krieger wisely continued to stand a safe distance from the bars while waiting for his answer.

     “Balor shall have three helpings of chicken, spiced with black pepper and ginger. A large bowl of potato stew served with fresh bread.  For dessert, I desire Tart de brymlent.”

     Gempley choked on the request, but Krieger managed to remain calm and collected.   “Balor, these are impoverished times. My lord’s food stores have been stretched thin to feed his own family. You certainly can’t believe that he would offer such a feast to a barbaric savage like yourself?”

     There were a few moments of silence, broken finally by the prisoner rising to his feet.    In the shadows of near darkness, Gempley could just make out the figure standing in the back of the cell. The ceiling of The Tomb was just under seven feet tall, but the man inside seemed to be stooping to prevent his skull from grazing against the granite ceiling.   He took a step forward, and the metallic sound of his chains clinking could be heard throughout the dungeon. The manacles on his wrists were connected to the chains, and the chains were bolted to the wall, preventing him from walking more than a few steps away from the rear of the cell.  

    “Guard Master, I offer my apologies,” growled Balor in an almost pleasant tone. “As an uneducated barbarian, I was not aware that food was in such short supply in the noble house of Kelt.”

    The sarcastic tone was not lost on the Krieger, but he nonetheless retained his composure.  

     “I suppose I can do without the Tart de brymlent,” he decided. “As a substitute, you could send in three women to give me a proper servicing.”

     Gempley snorted dismissively. “A savage like you would think nothing of treating women like dish rags, would you? Lord Kelt does not toss maidens over to dogs like you!”

   The barbarian’s thunderous laughter filled the dungeons, bringing a shiver of dread to everyone within earshot. “You expect anyone to swallow such a mouthful of swill? Everyone knows about his arrangement with Nomandar Haschau! Does he not offer Kelt a volume discount on little girls to spoil?”

   Hearing his lord so openly mocked, Gempley took another threatening step towards the cell wall, only to be stopped by Krieger. The Guard Master would not be goaded into stupid decisions, but even his patience was finite.    

   “Barbarian, I grew tired of your stench the day you were brought here to die.  It was my attempt, only at the request of Lord Kelt, to offer you some comfort before your execution. As you refuse this gesture, let me explain what I can now offer you.”

   The barbarian listened quietly, the chains rustling behind him as he let the guard master speak his threats. He had heard it all before, by men more imposing than him.

   “You shall receive a meal of four morsels of bread, and a cup of fresh water. You will accept that your cock shall never know the touch of a woman again. And you will walk to meet the executioner without struggle or conflict. You will agree to this, or I will send for the archers. They will enter here, and unleash as many arrows as it takes to rid the world of your presence. Do you understand?”

     “I understand…” he slowly responded.

     Krieger turned to his lieutenant, satisfied but surprised with the barbarian’s reply.   “Gempley, have the cook prepare some bread for this man. Then inform the executioner to prepare the courtyard for the ceremony.”

     “I understand…that your daughter has recently turned fifteen,” the barbarian continued.  The chains didn’t give him a great deal of mobility, but there was just enough reach for him to withdraw the one weapon he was born with and display it for the guards to see. “That’s old enough for me.  She should be a sufficient appetizer to get me started.”

     Krieger knew that he was being baited, and he wasn’t about to fall for it. Gempley, however, angrily reached for his sword. He took a step forward, over the protests of the Guard Master, and roared at the prisoner. “You...did not say what I think you said?”   

     “Forgive me,” the barbarian whispered back as he stroked himself. “If you wanted a go at her first, I’ll gladly wait my turn.”   

     It was the last straw, and Gempley charged forward past Krieger.

     While the rusty steel manacles were still securely attached to his wrists, the chains were actually no longer bolted to the wall. Sometime during the night, Balor had snapped them from the wall with his brute strength. As Gempley moved towards the bars, so did the barbarian. Before the impetuous minion could react, Balor had stretched his arms out through the bars, where they wrapped around Gempley’s neck.     With a savage yank, the man was pulled off of his feet, and his blade fell uselessly to the ground.

     “Bootsly!” Krieger’s shouted to a guard behind him. “Fetch the archers. Do not dawdle!” 

    The smaller guard ran up the stairs, nearly tripping in the process. Krieger kept his eyes firmly locked on the barbarian.

    He hadn’t had the opportunity to truly look at him since his arrival in the dungeons a few weeks ago. Standing nearly seven feet tall, easily weighing over three hundred pounds, the barbarian made others of his profession look like chambermaids. Dark body hair covered a canvas of muscle, and primitive tattoos decorated the left half of his polished bald head. Glaring out at Krieger with dark brown eyes, holding his hostage by the throat, Balor carefully considered his next move.

    The barbarian had been notorious for his acts of savagery and debauchery, but it was the stunt with the cow that had landed him in prison. It had taken seven soldiers to apprehend him, and not one of them left the encounter unscathed. Balor had broken the arm of one guard, and stabbed another in the leg with a jagged piece of wood ripped from a rotting beam of his prison wagon. If he were to be honestly asked, Krieger would express regret that Balor wasn’t in his ranks. But he was a wild dog, and it was time to put him down.

    “There’s no escape,” Krieger quietly hissed. “The archers will decorate your carcass with arrows before you could ever hope to get out. Put him down.”

    The barbarian smiled, and pulled a bit. Gempley gagged and howled as his bones were squeezed against the bars of the prison, almost as if the barbarian was trying to pull him through the narrow bars.

   “What are you trying to do, you lunatic?  You won’t get him through those bars!” 

It was the first time that Krieger had raised his voice.  

   The giant relented for a moment, but it was only to allow Gempley to catch his breath.  “We have differing opinions on what is and isn’t possible, Guard Master!   Of course he can be pulled through the bars…if Balor doesn’t require him to be alive!”

     He pulled Gempley once again, causing the helpless man to choke pitifully.   

    “He will make an excellent shield to protect me from your cowardly archers,” Balor taunted. “If you mean to kill Balor, you will have to open the doors and do it yourself.  Like a true warrior!”

     He pulled again, and this time Krieger could hear something begin to snap in Gempley’s body. The door to the dungeon opened a second later, and several pairs of footsteps could be heard descending the stone steps.

   “Well, in a few moments, we shall see how a real warrior dies,” Krieger hissed, turning to meet the archers.

   The barbarian paused, holding the lieutenant tightly in his arms, and watched the drama unfold.

   Two archers had arrived as ordered, accompanied by Lord Kelt himself.   This was unexpected, as Lord Kelt was rarely known to visit his dungeons. Following Lord Kelt was another man, this one dressed in the colors of nobility. Balor could see that it wasn’t a knight. An emissary, or a royal messenger perhaps? Whatever was going on seemed to be causing a disruption between them all. He loosened his grip, allowing Gempley to breathe, but still held him tight.

   The conversation turned heated.   Something was not going according to plan. The emissary was speaking calmly, but Krieger and Lord Kelt were protesting.   After a few moments of raised voices, Lord Kelt seemed to relent, dismissing Krieger with an angry wave of his hand. The Guard Master departed the dungeon, slamming an angry gauntlet into the wall as he left.

    “Well.  This is interesting,” Balor mused, but kept his hostage close.

    The emissary approached the cell a few moments later, flanked by the archers and Lord Kelt. The barbarian stared innocently at them all, waiting to hear what was to happen next, but did not release his victim.

     “You are Balor the Undefeated. Is this correct?”

     The barbarian nodded slowly.

     “Also known in certain circles as Balor the Vicious, Balor the Brutal, Balor the Unwashed….”

     “You forgot Balor the Endowed,” snorted the barbarian, lifting the lieutenant higher off the ground. “State your business, messenger.  You are interrupting this man’s glorious death!”

    “I am here on behalf of the Lady Tamora, Royal Sorceress of the court of King Phillip.”

    Balor blinked, unsure of why this would mean anything to him. Tamora had been appointed the court sorceress three years ago, but the barbarian had never met her.   He didn’t know her any better than he did the Empress of Greenjai.

   “Three weeks ago, in the town of Othgreiss, you submitted your name into the lottery for the King’s Tournament.  It is my duty to inform that you have been chosen to compete, and you are to be released into our custody.”

   The barbarian smiled as a sudden rush of realization came over his face. He released Gempley, who fell to the ground and backed away from the cell so quickly that he nearly knocked over the emissary. As Lord Kelt angrily ordered the cell door unlocked, Balor proudly laughed.

    He walked out of the cell, wearing nothing but his dirty breeches, a pair of tattered leather boots, and the iron manacles still on his wrists. As a possible show of spite, Lord Kelt claimed the keys had been lost, and so the steel cuffs stayed on.

     Balor couldn’t have cared less, so long as he was leaving the dungeons. He may not receive either the food or the women he craved today, but he knew whatever lie ahead would offer unending opportunities.

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