As I neared the castle, I felt my mount stiffen beneath me and was forced to dismount since he wouldn’t move another inch. When I did dismount, he took off in the opposite direction, sliding and skidding down the hill, leaving me alone to face the castle.
I recall muttering something to the effect of “imbecile, half-witted chicken horse” before squaring my shoulders as best I could beneath the clanging armor and marched through a muddy puddle to the bridge.
“Okay, Shane, you’re not a chicken like that horse of yours,” I said to myself. “You’re a respectable knight out to rescue the fair princess, your best friend to boot. Don’t botch this, man. This is your only chance.”
After my little pep talk to myself, I withdrew my sword from its beige scabbard and went running and yelling in a deep booming voice that threatened to make me hoarse down the bridge, ignoring the steam that felt oddly cold in my face, before I could lose my nerve. Then I stood trembling at the giant black doors, trembling in my boots and frozen to the spot. Various monsters raced through my head and I wondered which of them I would be faced with, which one of them would kill me.
Then I heard something like a latch being pulled open and, a moment later, a little door cut into the larger one was yanked open. Without a second thought, I went racing in, swinging my sword wildly, without even realizing it had vanished from my hand until I heard a tongue clucking behind me.
I screamed and jumped, only to be faced with an ogre holding my sword. It was big and greenish-brown with a hat on its head, huge blue-gray eyes, a calico dress hiding a shape I knew to be positively hideous, and a crisp white apron with cheerful lace around it. She had her fists on her hips and my sword was clasped in one of them.
“Oh, good Heavens, MUD!” a voice roared behind me.
I screamed and jumped, yet again, to see a lion-sized manticore standing there, furiously flapping his wings against his lion body. The head was distinctly human with long dark hair and blazing blue eyes. He had a long tail that reminded me of a dragon and it was swinging to and fro like a cat’s would.
“Eva!” the thing continued. “Do you see that MUD? That disgusting brown slime? I need a towel. I need a towel.”
He continued on with these four words as he turned and leaped down the hall, most likely to get a towel. Within moments, he returned with a large towel clamped between his lips. He promptly dropped it over the muddy footprints behind me and began to furiously paw at it. The ogre still stood there, my sword still in hand.
“Listen here, if I find any claw or teeth marks on that towel, you’re dead meat, you hear?” the ogre admonished the manticore.
He looked up at her with a withering glance. “I’m not stupid, Eva. Now get rid of that thing before you take someone’s head off.” He went back to rubbing at the mud.
The ogre sighed and dropped my sword into a cylinder sprouting with ducky umbrella handles. Then she turned to me.
“Would you please remove your boots and hand them to me?” she asked kindly. “If you don’t, you’ll get more mud on the carpet and I’m afraid he’s rather obsessive-compulsive.”
Slowly, I reached down and tugged off the metal boots to reveal my softer leather boots that I wore underneath. I tossed them to her with misgivings and straightened to keep my eyes on both of them.
“Thank you, dear. I’m Evadne, or Eva, by the way,” she said, tucking the boots under her arm.
“Manny,” the manticore huffed.
“What’s your name, dear?”
I gaped at them in fright for a full minute before pulling myself upright, lifting my visor, and attempting my most ferocious look. “Sir Shane of Bottlecreek, here to rescue the Princess Tanith.”
The ogre looked somewhat at a lost. “Tanith? Well, I’m not quite sure where she is at the moment. I haven’t seen her since she helped me do the breakfast dishes. She’s around here somewhere, though. Oh, Flavian!” she suddenly called.
I half turned and caught sight of a lean figure wrapped in a black cape with a heavily starched collar, slicked black hair, and a white complexion glide down the spiral staircase at the other end of the hall. He glided over to us and I started in fright to realize he was a vampire.