Crossed Swords (From the tales of the Forests of Vastness)

A Grandfather's Story

By Preston V. McMurry III
Crossed Swords

A short sword & sorcery tale, featuring dwarves, elves, orcs, trolls, thieves and all the other usual fantasy fiction suspects, but with a sense of humor. Really, though, it is about what is important in life. I wrote it for my English 101-08 class at Northern Arizona University on April 5, 1987. Yeah, it is old, but you find stuff like this when you dig through 5.25" floppies looking for stuff worth saving ...


It's a cold night out. The kind of damp, windy, cold that makes me feel the old war wounds as if they were still fresh. That was many years ago. I've since settled down to the life of a gentleman farmer & trader. It's often been a hard life, but it's always been a good life. Dinner tonight was roast duck and maple cream peaches. As I relax now before my hearth, I grow weary. Perhaps a drink would put the proper end to a good day.

"Karin, fetch me some ale."

"Papa, you know what the healer says about your drinking."

"Dammit girl, Rictus will have me before you allow me tap the well of cheer!"

"I'll get it for you Pop-Pop!"

"Dieter don't."

"Tell me about the Goblin Wars, Pop-Pop!"

"Dieter..."

"Tell me about the Goblin Wars, or the Dragonriders, or the Temple of the Flesheaters, or the ..."

"Hold on little one. Karin?"

"Papa ... alright. One story, then it's straight to bed for you young man."

While I wait for Dieter to get my ale, let me say that the pleasures of life are a pipe, a fire, and a shaggy beast to fetch for you. Women, these days, certainly won't. Ever since the Council of Dahlgreth they think they own the farm. Why I've heard tell that there are those who would teach them the arcane arts! Even Karin, my daughter, is very much a woman of the times.

"Here it is Pop-Pop," Dieter says as he climbs up on my knee. "Tell me a story!"

Ah, but in the good old days ...


When I was a young sword-sell, I lived for awhile in the small village of Timnickle's Tavern. The town was named after its only major business. The tavern wasn't much as far as those places go, but for many leagues around it was the only place to prop up one's feet and enjoy the pleasures of a strong brew or a willing barmaid.

It was there that I met Eliozon, a half-elf skilled in the ways of the woods; Graalf, a dimwitted dwarf with a disturbing tendency to chew on barstools; and Youol, an old spell-caster who was overly fond of Druid's Weed. It was with these people that I was enjoying a drink when the town crier announced that a reward was being offered for the head of whoever was behind the recent killings at the Kron River bridge. All of us were nearly broke. Opportunity didn't need to knock knock twice. Luk, the Blind Gnome, had smiled on us. As the saying goes we "grabbed the brass sword", and set out upon the adventure that was to kill two of us and make the other two heroes.

Between us, we had not one powerful item -- no magic sword, elixir or scroll. Thanks to the kindness of the tavern owner (and kind he should have been, for the money we had spent in the place could have built it!), we did not leave town empty-handed.

A mile east of town was a trail that lead to an abandoned mine. Graalf mentioned that this might be a likely base for the humanoids to operate from. I thought it more likely that Graalf, being a dwarf, thought he could scavenge some easy treasure there. We continued down the road.

It was nearing evening of the first day, when we spotted a fire burning on a nearby hill. There was some debate as to whether we should continue on or investigate. Suddenly, there was a piercing scream. There was no more debate, we headed straight for the hill.

We should have been more cautious, but we were excited and in a hurry. At the top of the hill was a clearing. In the clearing, slowly turning on a spit over a large fire, was a barely recognizable human being. A young maiden was tied to a tree on the other side of the clearing. We were halfways across the clearing when a hail of arrows descended upon us. I went down with an arrow in my thigh. Graalf had taken one in the shoulder but was still standing. The arrows were followed by the guttural howls of thirty blood-thirsty orcs. We slowly fought our way across the clearing. Then Youol stopped to wave his arms in the air. A purple streak shot from his fingers and ten of the orcs dissolved. Then the rest jumped on him. I tried to go to his rescue but was felled by another arrow. I struggled to my feet, but could go no further. The three of us stood back-to-back fighting off the orcs. Slowly their bodies started piling up. Slowly they started to retreat back into the woods. But, we were so tired and wounded that there was nothing we could do when one of them stopped to run his sword through the maiden's heart. I summoned my last ounce of strength and lunged at the orc. My axe caught him neck high and cleaved his head from his shoulders.

We should have paused to bury the dead, but we didn't. The orcs could have returned with reinforcements at any moment, and there were no less than a dozen wounds among us. We were in no condition to travel much less fight. We descended the hill and made a fireless camp in a ravine on the far side of the road.

The next morning, having bound our wounds and consumed a few healing elixirs, our prospects seemed much better. The bridge was ten miles away and we would reach it by noon. All agreed that there would be important clues there.

A mile from the bridge, the road wound through a small gulley. Eliozol noticed that something was wrong. We lengthened the distance between us. When we got to the bottom of the gulley, we could see what had made Eliozol nervous -- there was a burned wagon, with a maggot-ridden horse still in its harness, laying in the brush by the side of the road. Although the corpse did not appear to be fresh, we decided to investigate. Suddenly, the horse turned into a green dragon. The dragon reared up. It towered over us. Graalf charged the dragon; Eliozol and I -- we weren't dummies -- dived for cover. We expected to hear Graalf's anguished death cry at any second. All we heard though was his labored grunts and the meaty smack of an axe on flesh. We dug our faces out of the dirt. What we saw was Graalf, covered head-to-toe in rotting horse flesh, beating the hell out of a dead horse.

The dragon had been an illusion and illusions don't just pop up in the middle of nowhere. Illusions have a purpose. Illusions have creatures to cast them -- creatures that were probably watching us at that very second. We had to drag Graalf off the dead horse. We had to get out of the gully in a hurry.

We had gone no more than a dozen feet when a fireball burst out of the woods and hurtled towards us. It could have been real -- it could have been another illusion. Having been fooled once, we would not be fooled again. It disappeared before it got to us. What appeared in its place was a dark elf, an evil Drow. The Drow raised a small crossbow and fired at Eliozol. Eliozol went down. Before the Drow could reload, I threw my axe. The blade caught him in a downward arc and split him skull to collarbone.

While Graalf looted the Drow's body, I checked Eliozol. The bolt had only hit him in the foot, but he was already dead. Apparently the bolt had been poisoned. Meanwhile, Graalf had found some gold nuggets on the Drow's body. There were probably more (never trust a dwarf to search a dead opponent), but I said nothing. I was happy enough to be alive. It could have easily been me that got hit by the poison bolt. After we buried Eliozol, we continued our journey.

Having been twice delayed, we didn't arrive at the bridge until well after noon. Everything appeared normal: water bugs skittered across the river and birds dove at them from the roof of the bridge. Still, the inside of the bridge was hidden in shadow. I proceeded cautiously -- I was learning rapidly. Graalf charged ahead -- Graalf was, well, Graalf.

I had barely reached the edge of the bridge when Graalf came charging back out, closely followed by a large, mottled, green and brown creature. Of course, it was a Troll. What else would hide under bridges and rob wagons?

Graalf ran into me and we both fell to the ground. The Troll grabbed Graalf off my back and bit a large chunk out of his head. It was no loss. Graalf returned the favor by biting off the Troll's nose. But trolls regenerate. I quickly rummaged through my pack for a flint and a vial of oil. The Troll saw me, dropped Graalf, and came after me. Graalf jumped on the Troll's leg and tripped it. I found the oil and flint. When the Troll slapped Graalf aside, I lit the oil and threw it. The Troll howled in agony. Graalf had recovered enough to snatch up his axe. He chopped one of the Troll's legs off. As the Troll stumbled back, I cut off its head with my axe. The river blew up a plume of steam as the headless, flaming, corpse plunged into its depths.

It was a great, and very lucky, victory. Trolls aren't easy customers. But, I soon had another problem. There was a bag of gems under one of the bridge's planks. Graalf wanted them -- all of them. I wasn't about to let him have them. I held the bag out his reach with one hand, while I pushed him away with the other. Graalf could only get close enough to take a few vain swings at my kneecaps. When it finally sunk into his dim mind that he wasn't going to get the gems, he stopped. Once I made it clear to him who was in charge, I gave him a few of the lesser gems.


Please wait a moment while I finish the last of my drink. The fire has turned to smoldering embers, the ale is warm, and Dieter is sound asleep. As I sit here looking down at him, smiling in his dreams, I beg your allowance to change something I said earlier: life's true pleasures are a pipe, a fire, a shaggy beast, and a proud grandson.

THE END

Troll

© Copyright 1995-2014 by Preston V. McMurry III