A princess was not supposed to be wallowing in the mud! No. A princess was supposed to be riding in a carriage.
A princess was not supposed to be accosted by brigands! No. A princess was supposed to escorted by soldiers.
But there she was, Caoilinn Mag Uidhir, wading through the mud of a lake without her escort, without her carriage. She wanted to scream! She was even without clean clothes!
Stopping momentarily, she shook the mud off the bottom of her dress. How completely … uncivilized! To be attacked by highwaymen. For all her guards to be killed. What was the world coming too?
“Well, well, there you are Your Highness,” a voice said to her out of the bushes.
Looking up slowly, she saw a tall man with long smooth hair sitting on a horse above her. He wasn’t one of the lowly brigands, that was obvious. His armor gleamed in the daylight and his sword sheath was well oiled. He was someone of importance.
Quickly pushing her ruby hair out of her eyes, the princess straightened her back, “Yes, we were attacked by robbers. You will take me back to my home now.”
“Oh, you’re quite right about that Your Highness,” the man smiled widely. “You’re going back … with me.”
There was a sparkle in his eyes. A … gleam. Caoilinn’s breath left her chest.
“You’re a fae!” she gasped.
* * *
The first dwarf out of the tunnels was Ruadhrí Mac Giolla Eoin. The bramble berries would only be ripe for one day, the very first day of Spring and he had to be there first. His pony rumbled through the underbrush while he searched intently for a bramble bush.
The dwarves would be the first to get to the bushes. The fairies and pixies would be sleeping late … as usual. But to be able to make his bramble berry pie, he would have to get two full baskets. The other dwarves would just sit around eating the bramble berries … they didn’t appreciate the delicacy of making bramble berry pie. But they certainly appreciated his pie when he sold it for two copper coins for each slice.
The forest was nice that morning. The birds were signing, the breeze was rustling through the new leaves and the women were screaming.
Wait … screaming women?
Ruadhrí groaned and reined his pony forward. A fairy maiden had probably gotten lost again. Now his berries would have to wait.
* * *
The screaming grew louder and Ruadhrí peeked through some bushes next to Sapphire Lake. There, on the shore, were ten fairies and one of them was roughly pushing a young human woman onto his horse.
A gentleman would rush out and help her. A gentleman would fight to protect her.
Groaning, Ruadhrí kicked a rock. It sucked being a gentleman.
Grabbing his hand axe, the old dwarf stepped out of the bushes, “All right lads, you’ve ‘ad yer fun. Let the lassie go now.”
The dark haired fae paused without looking back, “A hero?”
Turning, he faced Ruadhrí and smiled, “Well. I know you,” he sneered while pulling his sword from its sheath. “You fought in the Northern Border Skirmish didn’t you?”
“Aye lad,” Ruadhrí nodded, carefully watching the other fae as they backed up, forming a circle around the old dwarf. “Now you just let that lass go and we won’t have ta relive that.”
The fae moved toward him, brandishing the gleaming sword, “Oh, but that’s not where it ended did it? You’re a … what?” he turned his head quizzically, “A baker now?”
“Aye,” the dwarf nodded.
Ruadhrí was worried. Being surrounded by a group of aggressive fae had not been his plan. He was supposed to be gathering berries, not fighting. He was too old for that heroic garbage.
“Well then,” the fae took a fighting stance, “Defend yourse …”
The forest exploded with a deafening roar. A beast nearly eight feet tall ripped through the lower branches and crushed the bushes. It was unnaturally broad and its biceps were as big as its waist.
Exuding power and violence, the ashen-skinned monster tore into the fae soldiers, scattering them like insects. Its huge claymore cut through the surrounding fairies like a sickle mowing down shocks of wheat.
Roaring past its long tusks, the monster grabbed a fairy and tossed him into the lake like child throwing a ragdoll. With all but the leader dead or running, it lowered its long arms where his hands hung below his knees and turned slowly toward the dark-haired man.
“Ah ha!” the man laughed, “I know you!”
Caoilinn gasped. The creature’s face was scarred with ritualistic swirling brands. Its armor was forged from blackened steel and its claymore bore the most recognizable runes in the kingdgom.
The beast was a troll from the Wyrmreaver tribe.
Vicious and brutal warriors, they were known for being more intelligent than their usual barbaric brethren. Being capable of metalsmithing and literature, the Wyrmreaver tribe was notoriously neutral, never taking sides in any conflict, but unceasingly hunting their most hated enemies … dragons.
The troll looked at Ruadhrí, its beard was braided and its black hair, shaved on the sides, was likewise braided in the style of the dwarven knights. It blinked dully and then turned back to the fae knight.
“We’ve been graced by the presence of the mighty Fraaphknot,” the fae laughed. “The Scourge of the Southern Barbarians, slayer of the Western Daggerwyrm, blah, blah, blah …”
Ripping up his blade, he brandished it before the huge troll, “So its your decision. Die here or hunt your dragons somewhere else?”
Fraaphknot circled the soldier and stopped in front of the still mounted young woman. Unceremoniously, he roughly grabbed her with his left hand and lifted her off the horse while keeping his eyes fixed on the soldier.
“What!?” the young princess kicked and thrashed. “How dare you! You filthy beast! Unhand …”
Caoilinn landed roughly on her butt as the beast dropped her.
The dark-haired fae fainted and the lunged, driving his blade toward the gut of the troll. Fraaphknot, without a flinch, backhanded the soldier like a drunken wife backhands a willful husband, sending his sword whirling into the lake and dropping the fae to the ground.
Without saying a word, the huge troll grabbed the smaller man off the ground and threw him over its shoulder.
Ruadhrí laughed as he watched the armored man fly into the bushes, “Well lad, guess ya bit off a bit more’n ya could …”
The troll turned toward him just as a monstrous mountain-boar emerged from bushes. Dressed in a riding saddle and saddle bags, the boar appeared to be Fraaphknot’s mount.
“Ya … don’t wanna do this lad,” the old dwarf explained, adjusting his grip on his axe, “I don’t want’cha to do this,” he chuckled.
Fraaphknot blinked again and then reached back, grabbing the red-headed princess. With complete disregard for her social station he lifted her to her feet and pushed her toward the dwarf.
“Hey!” Caoilinn barked, “Get you’re hands off of me beast.”
“And just what would ya have me do with this lass?” Ruadhrí asked, stroking his own mahogany beard.
“You, dwarf,” Caoilinn ordered, trying in vain to straighten her dress, “Take me home.”
The mighty troll climbed onto his own boar and nodded to the dwarf.
Chuckling, Ruadhrí turned to the young princess, “Well lass, ya see I only have a wee pony. If ya’ll be ridin’ with me we’ll be gettin’ real personal.”
Caoilinn looked back at the troll who was sitting patiently, “I’m not riding on a pig. I’ll ride your pony and you can guide me.”
“Oh no lass,” Ruadhrí laughed loudly, “Took a mace to the knee. We ride together or ya walk home alone.”
Following after the dwarf as he went after his pony, the young woman huffed, “How dare you!”
“You say that a lot don’t ya lass?” Ruadhrí snickered.
“You!” Caoilinn gasped. “You would … I am your princess!! You will show me the proper resp …”
Just as they reached the pony, she felt the familiar rough hands grab her from behind. Lacking delicacy and proper manners, she was dumped on the little horse behind the saddle.
“You were sayin’ Your Highness?” Ruadhrí couldn’t stop laughing. The troll certainly didn’t care for her breeding or station.
Climbing into the saddle in front of the princess, Ruadhrí noted that the troll was still next to him. He was coming with them. Why? Ruadhrí didn’t know or care why, but the brute force of Fraaphknot would be helpful if they ran into more fae.
Caoilinn could only huff, crossing her arms over her chest.
“You should probably hold on Your Highness,” Ruadhrí smiled, “Having him with us, it’s gonna be a ride!” he nodded to Fraaphknot.
Urging his pony forward, Ruadhrí cast a longing glance at a nearby bramble bush. So much for his bramble berry pie.