“Barbie and Ken versus the Troll? That is perhaps the most sophomorically dimwitted title for a story in the history of literature!”
“Huh?” Ken almost fell out of the lounge chair he was napping in when he felt the pages of his novel being lifted from his sleeping hands. He squinted through sleepy eyes at a short, squat boy who looked to be about his age, fifteen, who was dressed like a banker. And this overdressed kid with a big head was chortling like a chicken that had just laid the biggest egg in the hen house as his beady eyes worked over his story pages. “It’s just a working title,” Ken said as he snatched the pages back.
“Yeah, well, lawyers like my dad get rich suing plagiarist like you!
“Well, he won’t get rich suing me, ‘cause I’m no plagiarist and don’t have any money anyhow.” Ken surveyed his critic who was standing with his legs apart, hands on hips looking at him like Ken was something disgusting he’d just found in the back of the fridge. “And what could he possibly sue me for?”
“Duh! Barbie and Ken, the dolls. Disney sues everyone!”
“Dolls? There are no dolls, in my story and Disney doesn’t own Barbie, it’s . . . Someone else.”
“Listen, you sticky-fingered Shakespeare, it won’t matter if they’re in your silly little story or not, they’ll sue you because they’re in your title.” With an evil grin, the critic added, “And they’ll win too!”
Ken shook his head, expecting to start hearing that eerie da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da Twilight Zone theme music at any moment.
He had tagged along with his dad who was part of a stone crew that was working on some big fancy pool at some umpteen million-dollar house in an oceanside, gated community. All he was looking for was a quiet place to write. He had set up his folding chair on the big lawn fifteen feet behind the house in the shade of some palm trees where he had a spectacular view of the ocean and had settled down to write. But with the pounding of the surf on the rocks, the warm California sun and the rhythmic clang of the mason’s hammers, it wasn’t long before his head was nodding and he was off to dreamland. Now his pleasant nap had turned into a twisted Twilight Zone episode with some kid who looked like a well dressed Mister Potato Head with a voice like Sponge Bob, talking trash about his story.
And Ken had had about enough, “Hey listen ‘Short-n-Squaty’ who asked for your opinion anyway!”
“I am Leopold Bartholomew Wankmaster the third! And I live here. So my opinion comes with the territory! The question that really needs answering, is who exactly are you?”
Dang and double dang! This must be the Leopold that Jorge, the stone crew foreman had warned me about—the owner’s son.
Fear has a way of clearing the dregs from a boy’s head real quick, and in a flash, Ken realized he had stepped in it now, and he needed to do something—and fast!
Flashing a wide grin, Ken hopped to his feet and stuck out his hand. “Well hey, I’m Kenneth Millwood, number one. How Y’all doin?” Ken thought ‘the number one’ was a clever touch, but Leopold didn’t seem to agree. He regarded the outstretched hand as if he were being handed a dead rat.
“I’s doin’ jess fine,” Leopold said with a dopey southern accent. Extending both hands, Palms down, then he gently shook his chubby digits. I’s a CON-cert PIE-anist and I’s can’t be shaken no hands with jess anyone. I hopes Y’all understand!”
Ken liked to think of himself as a tolerant kid, a live-and-let-live kinda guy, a boy who was just as happy to take a joke or a jibe as he was to give—but this Leopold jerk had managed to poke about all his hot buttons now! He’d heard just about enough from this overstuffed, undersize Napoleon wannabe and was going to let him know where he could shove his ‘PIE-ano’ fingers when he had a vision. In it, he saw his dad, who was standing forlornly by an expressway exit ramp with a cardboard ‘Will work for food’ sign hanging around his neck. All because his son had insulted the homeowner’s snotty kid and gotten him fired!
Through gritted teeth, Ken forced a smile, “So you’re a musician, that’s cool, I want to be a writer!”
“Oooh, Look out Lord of the Rings, here comes Ken and Barbie versus the Troll!” said the suddenly hilarious Leopold.
One, two, three, fourfivesixseveneightnineten! “Ahh, yeah, but like I said, I plan on coming up with a better title for it!” Ken said very slowly, trying to let off steam.
“Okay, let’s can the chit-chat, Charlie! What are you doing camped out here on my lawn? And why are you stalking me?”
“Huh? Stalking you? Until a few seconds ago I didn’t even know who you were!”
“Oh, and I suppose you don’t know who my father is, either.”
“Uh, that would follow since—.”
“Leopold Wankmaster the second!”
“Uh yeah, I might have figured that.”
“Ethics Czar to the president!”
Ken’s face brightened, now the name rang a bell, “Okay, now I’m remembering! I heard about him on Fox News, he got caught trying to scam the IRS and—”
“He had a misunderstanding with the taxing authorities and is, uh, inspecting some federal facilities for a few months.”
The way Leopold stood there, with his chest puffed up and his chin stuck out like he was just daring you to do something, reminded Ken of the little banty rooster they had had on the farm back in Virginia.
“Well, if you’re not stalking me, what nefarious business are you engaged in?” Leopold eyed Ken with a nasty sneer, “Why aren’t you with the rest of your fellow scholars at the government education camps?”
It seemed with this guy the insults never stopped coming. “If you mean school, it’s because I’m home schooled,” Ken said proudly.
Leopold’s next insult died in his throat when he spotted a tall, distinguished looking man with a neatly trimmed white beard walking briskly across the stone patio behind the house and then entering through the double french doors.
Ken had spotted him too, “Wow! That dude looks like a king from a movie!” Immediately Ken felt embarrassed by his enthusiasm. He knew it made him sound like a yokel from the mountains of Appalachia—which he knew he was. Here on the West Coast, he was discovering that the kids acted cooler and didn’t let their enthusiasms show as readily.
But Ken figured that Leopold had already taken him for some kind of hayseed and didn’t even notice.
“That’s my piano instructor, Herr von Muckinsuch.” said Leopold, “He was a student of a student of a student of the great Franz Liszt!” He turned to Ken with a look of disdain, “Though that undoubtedly means nothing to you.”
“I know who Liszt was!” Ken shot back. “My Mom listens to classical music, and we studied him in my fifth-grade history of music. He was a famous Hungarian piano player from the nineteenth century.”
“Oooh! Fifth-grade history of music class!” Leopold scrunched up his face as he spat out the words, “He wasn’t just some piano player, you homeschooled ninny! He was THE PIANIST! An explosion of unparalleled genius, a blinding comet that blazed its way across the nineteenth century illuminating all of humanity with his dazzling brilliance!” He continued without taking a breath, “He is my true master, my spiritual teacher, my mentor, my piano-god. He is the never failing light I follow to lead me from the darkness that is our current cultural cesspool to a more enlightened aesthetic!” Finally, he paused. Not because he had run out of stupid things to say, Ken figured, but simply because he had run out of breath.
Jerk-boy that Leopold was, Ken had to admit that he had enjoyed the performance.
Leopold was not typical of the laid-back Californian kids he had met so far, he had passion. Fire in his belly, his Mammaw would have called it. Much as he hated to admit it, Ken admired Leopold for that. But he still pegged him for a jerk!
With his cheeks flushed and his eyes ablaze, Leopold turned and stared at the doors through which his teacher had gone. Then abruptly, without a word he stalked across the lawn to the French doors, where he waited until a well-dressed woman came running and opened them for him, and he disappeared inside.
Through the window, Ken could see him make a low bow to his instructor and then move with purpose towards the grand piano.
Man, that kid’s a regular wack-a-doodle!
Ken settled back in his chair. He tried to start writing, but while he admired Leopold’s passion he couldn’t let his criticisms go, Ken was still more than a little hacked off about the insults he’d taken. He was sensitive about his writing and had never let just anyone read his stories.
Heck, my mom’s my teacher, and she hasn’t read this one yet!
Growing up poor in the mountains of South West, Virginia amongst the families of miners and ranchers, Ken had had to develop a thick skin towards the comments they made about his dad being a struggling artist, so he learned to keep his writing aspirations to himself.
When his family moved to California, he had hoped it would be different, but he hadn’t planned on going public with his writings just yet. But here was little Leopold von Full-of-Himself, doing the slice and dice on his story already.
He had just come up with the title, Ken, and Barbie versus the Troll so he’d have something to call his story.
Aaah, forget that pipsqueak blowhard and just concentrate on your writing!
Grabbing his pen, he was poised to start writing when he was nearly knocked from his chair by what sounded like an explosion in a kazoo factory!
“Lordy! What was that!” Ken searched the windows of the music room to see if everyone was okay. The music teacher, Herr von Muckinsuch was leaning with his forehead against the window, his eyes shut tight. Slowly he lifted his head and opened his eyes, and for a brief moment, Ken made eye contact with the teacher, who sarcastically rolled his eyes before turning back to his pupil. All the while Leopold was hammering away at the piano like a crazed monkey in some bizarre scientific experiment.
Collecting himself, Ken tried writing again, but the jarring noise coming from inside the house made it impossible for him to concentrate.
As Leopold continued his assault on the piano, Ken was comforted by the thought, At least my writing isn’t so bad it would blind anyone, but if I stay here, I think my hearing is going to be ruined forever.
Mercifully for both Ken’s hearing and the piano, Leopold stopped beating the poor instrument before any permanent damage was done to either. Never realizing how beautiful silence could sound, Ken watched as Herr von Muckinsuch made a hasty exit through the French doors. Wildly gesturing, the music master rounded the corner of the house and was gone.
As the pain in his ears subsided, Ken was about to take another crack at writing when the big French doors opened, but this time it was a deflated Leopold who drifted out. In contrast to his earlier demeanor, his shoulders were slumped now, his head hung limply as Leopold gazed wistfully in the direction that von Muckinsuch had fled. As he turned to go back inside, he spotted Ken. Immediately his head popped up, and his shoulders lurched back, and with a cocky walk he strutted over to Ken.
“Yeah, old von Muckinsuch said he couldn’t take any more of my playing!” Leopold said with a smirk, “He ended our lesson early and almost ran out of the house—in tears! Overcome by emotion, I guess! He said he’d never heard anyone make a piano sound like that before! I’ve noticed my playing has that effect on people,” Leopold stopped talking and stared at Ken with sad puppy-eyes, expectantly.
“Uh. Yeah. It had the same effect on me.”
“Really?” Leopold suddenly becoming animated, “Did you like it? That was my original composition, a symphonic poem, I’ve entitled, Ode to the Greatest Pianist of All Time, the immortal genius, Franz Liszt!”
Leopold looked so earnestly at Ken that for a moment he almost thought he might be human. “What part did you like best?”
When it stopped! But Ken lied, “I couldn’t really hear it over the sound of the stone saw and the hammering of the workmen. Sorry.”
Just as the last words were parting from his lips, Ken realized the terrible blunder he had just made. He tried to recall his words. Frantically racking his brain for some way to exit this mess gracefully, Ken drew a blank. And now he knew what was coming. He stared in terror as Leopold started to speak…
“Well, come inside, and I’ll play it again for you, this time in its entirety!”
Ken wanted to scream and run away, but his throat seized up, and his legs wouldn’t move. The landlord had come looking for the rent last week, which was late—again. When Dad told him he was working and would have the money next week, the landlord left, but he wasn’t happy. Ken knew his dad, his family, really needed this job! So he bit his tongue and kept quiet.
A stupefying numbness gripped his brain as he followed Leopold through the big French doors, and into his musical torture chamber. As the cool air in the room and the smell from a big vase of flowers began to revive him, he quickly scanned the room looking for exits. Covering three of the music rooms was dark paneling and wide impressive moldings. Ken had never seen such beautiful woodwork before. There were painting on the walls in ornate gold frames, they looked like the kind of pictures his Dad made a fuss over when they went to museums. The remaining wall was all glass and looked out over the ocean, it was pretty much the same view Ken had had from the outside, but from this room somehow it looked even more magnificent.
“Have a seat, Ben.” Leopold motioned towards a beautifully embroidered chair. It looked like the kind of chair adults were always telling kids not to touch.
“Ken, my name is Ken.” he said as he shuffled towards the chair.
Leopold sat before the piano, “Okay then, Glen, settle yourself in, you are about to have the experience of a lifetime!”
Ken was afraid that would be true as he slumped into the soft chair to await his fate. Leopold took his seat at a gigantic black grand piano that looked as shiny as a new car and as large as a Humvee. He took a deep breath to compose himself and stared longingly into the eyes of the marble bust of a long-haired man that sat on a velvet cushion on a fancy stand next to the piano. Ken thought he recognized it as Leopold’s idol, Franz Liszt. He noticed how the cold, white, handsome face stared back at Leopold with a serene look.
Yeah, you can afford to not worry about his playing, Franz, your ears are made of stone!
He watched as Leopold closed his eyes, and with his head drooping forward so that his long hair covered his face, his arms shot out straight, the wrists sharply bent, his pudgy body went stiff as a board, and he paused. . .
Good gravy, I think he’s going to do it.
With speed he never would have believed Leopold possessed, his hands crashed down, slamming into the piano keys, like crazed NASCAR drivers they sprinted from one end of the keyboard to the other. Jerking his head spastically from side to side, his hair became one wild blur of brown, Leopold hacked at the keys, his body heaving and sinking as his chubby legs pumped the piano’s pedals at a frantic pace. His hands became hazy, indistinct shapes, slashing, thrashing and flailing away from one end of the piano to the other. High notes, low notes, staccato cords, screaming trills, the noise became louder and louder and LOUDER as Leopold’s whole body became a surging, roiling mass of flesh. Ken tried to look away, but it was like a terrible car wreck, and he couldn’t not look. As the pain mounted in his head, he flashed back to a horror movie that had scared him as a child. Ken became dizzy. He would have almost enjoyed the spectacle, like some out of control carnival ride, if he hadn’t thought his ears might start bleeding at any moment! When…
“Lemmy, darling, would you like some scones?” The well-dressed woman who had let him into the music room had opened the door a crack and leaned her head through, “Chief Pierre has made some delightful cranberry and walnut. . .” Before she could finish, the pint-sized pianist erupted.
“MOTHER! I’ve told you a thousand times never to interrupt me when I’m playing And don’t call me. . .THAT name!” The blur that had been the maniacal musician had come to a halt and Leopold, breathing hard, glared at his mother. “Can’t you hear that we are busy here?”
“Oh, I’ve heard you play your, ‘Ode to the Earthquake’ before, Dear, So I thought—”
“It’s called, Ode to the greatest. . .Oh never mind! Please leave!” Leopold was sputtering now; his face had gone from it usual blotchy pink to a bright crimson.
“ Lem, uh, Dearest, you know you often get faint if you don’t have your regular snack,” she said, in what Ken thought was a delightful sing-song voice, seemingly oblivious that Mount Leopold was about to erupt in front of his piano. “Chef Pierre can spritz some of the organic honey you like so. . .”
“NOW!” Shouted Leopold, hyperventilating now.
Noticing Ken for the first time, Mrs.Wankmaster smiled,” Oh, I didn’t realize you had a friend here. How pleasant to meet you, young man. Would you like some scones?
Ken was getting hungry, and he thought the scones, (whatever they were) sounded great, but a sideways glance at Leopold revealed that he was starting to pull at his hair, and Ken thought he could see the veins bulging in his forehead. All he wanted was to be far away and as quick as possible. “Thank-you, but I’m not hungry right now, Mrs. Wankmaster,” he lied.
“Well, if you boys change your minds, they’ll be cooling in the main kitchen. Have fun,” and with that Mama Leopold smiled, quietly shut the door and was gone.
Ken took an immediate liking to Leopold’s mother. She was a tall blond, pretty and middle-aged and except for being well dressed she looked nothing like Leopold. Whereas she had a pleasant smile and was kinda sunshiny, her son, who Ken could see was still decompressing from his tantrum, seemed like a dark cloud about to rain on everyone’s picnic.
“Well, your Ma certainly seems nice enough,” Ken said, hoping to break Leopold’s spell.
Leopold ignored his comment and continued staring at the floor.
“What about your dad, you said he was a lawyer?” Ken asked, attempting again to break the mood.
At the mention of his Father, Leopold’s head snapped up. “My father?” Leopold responded, almost trancelike, “Leopold Wankmaster the second.” Now his eyes were starting to focus again. “Did I tell you he was the ethics czar for the President? Oh, that’s right I did.” Leopold was sitting upright again, “All that tax stuff, it’s..uh..just something the press made up. He’s really…” Leopold was struggling now, “On a secret mission for the government. They just made up that other story to cover for him!” He finished with a flourish. “Mother is having the stone work on the pool redone as a surprise for him when he returns.”
Leopold got up and was pacing now, “And I have been working hard to finish my symphonic poem, Herr von Muckinsuch has kinda suggested that maybe if it meets his approval, that he could, you know, arrange for me to premier it with the Los Angeles Symphony at a special young composers concert.”
Like a helium balloon left overnight, Leopold started to deflate, “But I suspect, the good Herr feels there are deficiencies in the tonal structure of my piece.” Leopold was staring at the floor again, this time, not in anger but with sadness. “Despite my genius, I fear I lack the inspiration to make my composition the masterpiece it needs to be.” Leopold slumped back onto his piano bench.
Ken was squirming in his chair. He really wanted to get the heck out of there before Leopold started playing again. While he felt sorry for the diminutive pianist, he didn’t think he’d survive if he had to listen while he tried to work out the ‘structural deficiencies’ in his piece. But once again his mouth got in gear before his brain was quite up to speed, “As I recall, Franz Liszt based his music on poems and such, maybe you just need to find some literary inspiration.”
Leopold shot up like a Jack-in-the-box.
“Yes! Literary inspiration! I knew I would think of something. But what to choose? I don’t have time to read books.” Leopold rubbed his chubby chin and pondered. Then he erupted with a chortle, “Yes, I have just had a brain explosion! An idea so simple, yet so radical, so epically profound, that only a genius like myself could have come up with it!”
Ken gulped, almost afraid to ask, “And what would that be?”
“Your silly little fantasy story!” Leopold was almost dancing a jig now.
The sight of that was scary enough for Ken, but the mention of his story had him terrified!
“My s-story,” Ken stammered. “But it’s not even finished, and you hate the title!”
“What are you, homeschooled?” Leopold let loose with a maniacal laugh, “That’s the brilliance of my idea, you self-educated nimrod!” He was stalking around the room now, his beady eyes staring out from beneath his disheveled hair. “What could be more contemporary more NOW! A semi-literate fantasy story written by a half-educated teenager. It’s so American!”
Ken wanted to protest, but fear froze his tongue and caused the words to stick in his throat.
“Like an oyster with a grain of dirt—your story being the dirt of course.” Leopold went on his voice getting higher with every sentence. “I’ll wrap my music around the irritant, layer upon layer, note upon note until I have my precious pearl! The quality of your story is irrelevant, it’s only purpose is to help me break the logjam of creativity in my mind!”
The dancing was bad enough, but the self-congratulatory chortling was getting on Ken’s nerves. He was about to defend his story when a vision of his family living in a cardboard box pushed its way into his brain, and he stifled his protests.
“Read, READ, you struggling scribbler!” Leopold almost shouted.
“Here? Now?” Ken said, his voice rising to match Leopold’s.
“Yes, now!” Leopold said, as he spun the piano bench and took a seat. “The course of Western music is about to change!”
Resigning himself to his fate, Ken hesitantly removed the tattered and folded pages from his back pocket and cleared his throat. “Ken and Barbie versus the Troll, by Kenneth H. Millwood. Chapter one. . .”
With a look of grim determination on his face, the King strode from the castle into the misty chill of the pre-dawn morning. To the East the sky was just beginning to lighten over the tops of the jagged mountains surrounding the village of Stout Oak, coloring the sky blood red. In the distance, he could just make out the general shape of the royal stables through the mists, and he headed towards them. As the King walked, the leather bindings of his armor creaked and groaned, and the hilt of his sword banged against his metal armor in rhythm with his steps. As he got closer, he could hear the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestone aisle as they were readied for the journey. Then suddenly he noticed another sound, the sound of something approaching from behind—something large. Whatever it was it was coming fast! He turned and crouched low his hand gripping the hilt of his sword as a huge form came bounding at him from out of the mist.
“Mighty Dread-Mo, NO!” The King commanded.
Erupting from the mist like a missile, a giant black and white Great Dane came to a skidding halt, tearing up clods of grass as it came to a halt in front of the King.
“How did you get loose, Big Boy?” The King scolded. A quick inspection showed a bit of broken chain hanging from the studded leather collar on the dog’s thick neck. The big dog knew he was being naughty and fixed his master with sad ochre eyes, before giving him a huge dopey dog grin, all while his tail beat a furious tattoo on the ground.
“No, no Old Boy, your days of chasing giants and trolls are over. I know your heart is willing, but your bones are too old.” As he rubbed the dog’s pointed ears, he gave a sad laugh, “My bones are too old, too. But I’m the King, and I have to go.” Behind him the King could hear his Squire, Bernie, leading their horses from the stables. The King pointed back towards the castle and sternly commanded, “Go home Big Boy, go home and guard the Queen and Princess Barbie!” The giant dog’s ears drooped as he turned to go, stopping he shot the king with his sad puppy eyes at full power, hoping to change his mind.
In a quiet, firm voice the King said, “That won’t work, GO!”
With a lowered head, the huge dog turned towards the castle, and with a slight limp, departed.
Coming across the dewy grass, the Squire led the King’s dappled gray stallion, Traveler out to him. The two men watched as the giant dog disappeared into the mist. “It breaks my heart to have to leave him behind like this,” the King said.
“Remind me S-sire,” the Squire stammered, “why we aren’t following him to a warm fire instead of heading to the B-black F-f-forest!”
“You know the answer, Squire Bernie. There is some sort of monster blocking passage across the only bridge on the River Virginia. That bridge is vital to artisans who must cross it to sell their wares in the towns to our west. Many of our best craftsmen are unemployed because of this, and now fear and hunger stalk the land!”
“B-b-but sire, why not send one of your heroes to complete this task?”
The king sighed, “Well, I did, but Sir Trout and Lord Jordan were both killed, and the Duke of Brady and General Manning both came back paralyzed, babbling tales of a hideous creature.”
“Those were our mightiest heroes, and if they were killed or maimed then surely you can’t go! the Squire pleaded. “We can’t afford to lose you too, Sire! Surely there are still some heroes left for you to send.”
“Sometimes a king has to step up and do what a king has to do. Don’t be so morose, remember all the great adventures we’ve had in the past? Like the time we took out the green, one horned dragon, saving all those damsels in distress?” With a wink and a grin, the King gave his squire a quick elbow in the side. “That was fun, remember?”
“Aye Sire, I do fondly remember those days, as fondly as I remember my full head of hair!” Bernie patted his bald head that still bore a few wisps of what were once brown ringlets. “Forgive me Sire, but your beard was dark, and your armor wasn’t quite so snug then either.”
The King put on a brave face, “I know it was a long time ago Bernie, but I think we’ve got one more big adventure in us!” At this, the King puffed out his chest proudly and gave his breastplate a forceful whack.
“If you say so, Sire,” Bernie said, sounding less than convinced.
Grabbing the reins of his prancing stallion the King put a boot into his stirrup and with a grunt and a mighty creak of leather, hoisted himself onto his horse. A bit too snug in his saddle he now regretted not taking the Queen’s advice and going easier on the cream filled donuts at the royal feasts. He feared Bernie was right and it was going to be a long journey.
And a long journey it was. It was also cold, wet and exhausting. For two days the King and his Squire rode through the dark, dank forest along a road that had quickly turned into a muddy quagmire in the constant rain. The heavy clay was clinging like a living creature to the poor horse’s hooves, slowing their pace to a crawl. No comforting sounds of birds lifted their spirits, no flowers punctuated the blackness of the forest. They rode past giant trees, titans that were already ancient when the oldest inhabitants of these lands were born. As the travelers trudged on, tree branches slashed at them, and moss dripped freezing water down their backs, chilling them in their armor.
“P-p-perhaps we are l-l-lost Sire. W-w-we should turn back!” the Squire said.
The King looked back at his Squire with a wry smile, “Why Squire Bernie do you mean to tell me you don’t enjoy spending days in the saddle, cold, wet and hungry while searching the Black Forest for some hideous monster who might well tear you limb from limb when you find it?”
The Squire was in no mood for mirth, and he sat morosely staring at the King through the water dripping from his helmet. Suddenly a savage roar shook the ancient trees and shattered the silence of the forest.
“W-w-w-w-what was t-t-t-t-that?” Bernie said, trying to stay on his prancing steed as it bucked and tried to run off.
The King didn’t answer as he struggled down from his terrified horse. Drawing his sword, he held the reins for Bernie until he too had dismounted.
“But Sire,” protested Bernie as he accepted the reins of the King’s horse, “I will fight beside you!” With some difficulty, Bernie was drawing his sword.
“Not this time my loyal friend. I need you to stay well back, if anything happens to me, go back to the palace and bring help.” He clapped his hand on Bernie’s shoulder before heading cautiously through the trees toward the clearing where the roar had sounded.
As he crept silently through the dark woods, all the fatigue of the journey, all the aches, and pains of his years and old injuries seem to evaporate, and now only the warrior king was left, more alive than he had felt in years, alert and ready for battle. He carried his sword in his mailed fist as he darted from boulder to boulder, using them for cover as he approached the opening in the forest. Crawling under a fallen tree at the clearing’s edge, he lay in the dripping ferns and scanned the opening, looking for whatever had given voice to the roar. A stone’s throw in front of him he could see the ancient wood and stone bridge that spanned the rocky gorge through which the river rushed, but nowhere did he see a monster. Then, on the far side of the bridge, he thought he spotted something. Did it move? Straining to see through the mist thrown up by the tumbling waters he thought he saw a strange, disjointed looking form. Then the tattered shape lurched and shuddered and started to move—it was coming forward! A shambling bag of rags, a hunched over human-like figure, it shuffled across the bridge. It was coming towards him. The creature walked upright like a man, and while it was large, it was too small to be a giant. A were-creature of some sort? Maybe a vampire or zombie? The King’s mind raced pondering what kind of monster this might be and what the plan of attack would be for each possibility. As it drew closer, the King could see it more clearly, and now he recognized the creature—a troll.
It stopped at the end of the bridge, and as the mists parted, the King could see it plain as day. The creature had long arms that stood out at odd angles covered with scaly greenish skin, its clawed feet were large, its legs, thin, lumpy, and rather squat. On its oversized head, greasy black hair hung long and limp. Its eyes were tiny black beads, and its teeth were like shattered yellow bricks scattered randomly through its oversized mouth. The King was confused, surely this could not be the fearsome guardian of the bridge. The creature was not particularly large and actually looked strangely comical. The king couldn’t understand how his best warriors, who had slain beasts seemingly far more deadly than this, could have been bested by such a repulsive, but innocuous looking creature. He crept forward a few feet closer to get a better view and as he did his old and underused armor squealed sharply. Wincing as the sound echoed through the forest, the King held his breath. The Troll’s large ears strained towards the noise as the creature stood tense and alert.
“O’os there?” The Troll hissed as it scanned the dark forest, the boards of the bridge squeaking as it moved forward. “Whats you want? All da time I have yous people coming to me bridge, ‘oping to take dat which be mine. I hope at least you be another handsome knight,” the Troll giggled as it leaped onto the path, searching for the intruder. “Won’t come out, eh? Well, I stop yous, I will!” The Troll cackled as it turned its back on the King and bent over.
Peering from behind a tree, the King was confounded by the disgusting sight of the troll’s stained, and tattered undergarments, so perplexed was he by this bizarre behavior, that he stood up and took a quick step towards the bridge. As he did, he heard what sounded like a distant thunderclap, and a hot wind broke upon him. The King felt as though all the air had been sucked from his lungs, becoming dizzy and nauseous, the sword slipped from his numbed hand as he tried to stagger back to the safety of the woods. With his head spinning, the King stumbled backward, slamming hard into a tree. Falling to the ground, he gasped for breath, starting to go in and out of consciousness. Struggling to his knees, he feared that this is what had doomed the other heroes, and he knew he had to escape! Forcing himself to concentrate he summoned all his remaining strength and with a grunt, gained his feet again. His lungs burning, and vision blurred, he staggered a few steps before the dark shapes swirling around his head overwhelmed him causing a violent nausea, and he went face first to the forest floor.
As black mists swirled before his eyes, the last thing the King remembered was a terrified Bernie leaning over him.