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Princess and the Good Guy

by St. Germain

Ker eyed his companions as they sat at the table of the tavern. Several mugs of ale had already been raised in toast of their recent success. Their pockets were temporarily lined with gold, and their thoughts turned to the next adventure.

"The land of Geron is where we should head. There's riches to be had just for the taking." Oaroa, the dwarf, had been trying to get them to journey to Geron because of the rumors she'd heard.

"Old wives' tales, Oaroa," Fairn grunted at her. "There are no riches, only lonely women waiting for ones like me to snare into their matrimonial traps."

Oaroa grinned knowingly at him. "Isn't that where your last wife is from?"

At last count, Fairn had acquired seven wives through the lands of Sycos. The others around the table broke out into laughter. A scowling grimace greeted the noise as Fairn glared at each of them in turn.

"I've heard talk of the King of Leir wanting adventurers." Their archer, Raph, spoke up quietly. "Though none will say what he wants found."

Ker said in a very low voice, "Aye, I know. Jac joined up with him months ago and hasn't been heard from since." Drops of ale splashed on his dark brown skin, and he wiped them away.

"Not likely I'll join anything of that ilk. Jac isn't the only one never heard from again. My sister's boy went on that damned quest for Leir and has been missing for over a year." His neck was worth more to Fairn than any number of pieces of gold, no matter the amount.

They raised their glasses in silent memory of the two men mentioned before downing their mugs.

When Ker looked up to get the waitress' attention, a large grayish creature stopped beside their table. Its limbs seemed too long for its body, and the smooth hairless pattern of its face and skin had an alien quality to it. Grime streaked cloth covered its form but barely. Cloudy black eyes stared back at Ker as the creature opened its mouth to speak.

"I am Terch. Please, sirs, your help. I need." From its speech patterns, it was easy to tell it wasn't used to the language it attempted to speak.

Raph turned, resting his arm across the back of his chair as he faced the creature. "What would a Cree want our help for?"

"My princess. Must save princess. I pay. Very well. You help, yes?" He was almost groveling in front of them as he pleaded with him.

The others eyed Terch with contempt as Ker studied him in silence. Of the entire group, he would be the only one interested in the mention of a princess. His visions of his own kingdom were far above him, yet he still dreamed. Hand upheld, he silenced the grumbling tones of the dwarf telling the Cree to go away.

"And what are we supposed to save this princess from?"

"Sycos outland bandits. They stole her. Must save her. I pay very precious metals." As the Cree fell upon his knees in front of the table, he wrung his hands together. "You must help. I pay. You save Princess Eniela."

Rolling his eyes, Fairn abruptly gestured for the Cree to stand. "Why would we bother to save your Cree princess? Save her yourself."

"Not Cree." Terch stumbled over his words in an earnest effort to explain. He pointed to Ker, adding, "She like you. Only beautiful. Most beautiful in all lands."

At that Ker's brow went up. "A human princess?"

When Terch nodded vehemently, a groan sounded from Oaroa.

Nobody missed the calculating look in Ker‘s eyes as he spoke to the Cree, "Why don't you go get yourself something to eat while I and my associates discuss this, Terch."

Once the creature had moved off toward the bar counter, Oaroa started in. "Explain why you think the rest of us should join in on this one, Ker."

Ker grinned. "None of you have anything better to do."

"I can find a million better things to do," Fairn grumbled. Lifting his hand, he scratched under his chin. "And not one of them includes saving any princess."

A chorus of agreement sounded from the others.

"You can have my share of the gold. And I would imagine there is also a very grateful father who would be more than willing to add to that share." Ker spoke in the only language he knew his companions would understand.

"Aye, while you get the gratitude of the princess, I'm sure." Raph piped in sarcastically.

"And each of you will have it made for life. All the food, women, and gold you could ever want." Ker wasn't above seriously bribing his friends. He already envisioned the throne waiting for him. Of the group, he had the looks and desire to pull it off. Few women ever resisted his brand of seduction, and he had no doubt he would have no problems with the princess either.

The lure proved too much for Oaroa, and the dwarf was the first one to give in. Her grizzled features showed more than a hint of her own greed. "If there's not enough gold, I will take it out of your hide, Ker."

"This time I might give you a run for that title." Raph smirked at him. "A kingdom to be had and all for the cost of saving a princess."

"You can try, but I doubt you'll win, Raph."

The eleven archer was handsome in his own way, and had proven once or twice to be a rival in Ker's conquests of the female species. His long silvery blonde hair and ethereal elvish quality tempted more than a fair share of maidens. However, this time Ker was more driven to be the winner.

"Fools, the lot of you." Fairn growled out his disdain of the entire notion. "Outland bandits aren't the easiest prey to tangle with. Not one of you has the skill to do it without me."

"Then I take it; we're all in?" As he glanced over the group, Ker waited for their various sounds of approval before he motioned to Terch. The Cree had settled at a table not too far off and had finished his meal.

Hastily, the creature made his way back to them, almost stumbling over a chair in his way.

The dwarf spoke before anybody else could say a word, "Five pounds and not a mite less. If you don't meet the price, then go away."

Five pounds of gold was a high price to pay, but none of them had any doubts the Cree had more than that hidden away somewhere. Crees were infamous for their hoarding.

"Yes, yes. Five pounds. I give you. You save princess. I give." Terch nodded eagerly in agreement.

Ever practical, Raph asked, "And where precisely is the princess being held?"

"Terpisear Mountain. Cave beneath. Show you where."

"That damn mountain is a rabbit warren of caves and tunnels." Fairn spat out the words. "How in the names of the eight gods are we supposed to find her?"

"My cave. Precious metal. Bandit's cave. My princess. You save her. I show you."

Ker stood and flashed a grin at his companions before he faced Terch. "Lead the way."

Grumbling, Fairn stood with the rest of them. "This is a bloody bad idea. I can feel it in my bones."

* * *

It took no more than a half an hour before the group was ready to head out into the Lichel Swamp. Watching the gangly figure of Terch kept Ker amused as they silently walked one by one down the small path.

"Stay path." Terch pointed out to the surrounding area around them and said, "Bad. Path good."

When it branched off to a larger path, the entire party stopped when it seemed obvious Terch was staying on the smaller road. The wider one appeared well worn and far more inviting. Denser patches of undergrowth surrounded the other path, and it would be a harder trek through it.

"Why not take this path, Cree?" The belligerence in Fairn's voice sharpened his tone.

Terch turned to face them, shaking his head. "Not good. This better."

"It goes to the same place, doesn't it? I say we go this way." Without another word, Raph headed toward the better road, and the others followed. Terch tried to protest, but none listened to him as they bantered between themselves. With a sigh, Terch joined them.

The gloom of the smaller path gave way a sunnier, wider path and instantly lightened the mood within the party, except for Terch. The Cree kept shaking his head and stayed well behind the others.

It was long before the low vibration of a rumble filled the air. Suddenly, the swamp came alive with the sound of alarmed Solnar birds as they left the trees in a swarm. The sight of their bright orange plumes filled the sky. Everybody stopped and looked warily around, unsure of what was happening.

When Ker caught sight of the herd of Spal beasts stampeding toward them, he yelled, "Get off the path."

Fairn grabbed Oanoa and made a wild jump into the swamp, and the rest followed him. The earth around them shook as the massive beasts raced passed, snorting wildly in their panic. Whatever had scared them still remained unseen. Dust choked the air, making it hard to breath as everybody stayed hidden in the muck and underbrush of the swamp. Several moments later, the last of the beasts passed and finally, silence reined again.

Raph was the first to stand, brushing the dirt off of his clothes as he stepped back onto the path. A piercing keen split the air, and Terch's began to back away. Whatever had scared the Spals was coming toward them. Jolting thuds echoed along the path, and the sounds the beast made indicated it was something extremely large, and very hungry.

"Small path. We go now, yes?" Covered in muck, the expression on the Cree's face would have been comical if any of them had felt like laughing.

With great haste, the others agreed with him and in short order followed behind the Cree as he bolted back down the road. They didn't slow until they’d returned to the smaller path, Terch once again in the lead.

"Stay path. Too small for Black Golog. We not see them."

"There's a reason I hate the swamp and never been through it." Fairn muttered as he stoically followed behind the others.

Laughing, Oanoa said, "Think of it as a tale to tell your twenty-two kids. How the great Fairn battled a Black Golog."

Ker couldn't help but join in the teasing, Fairn always told tall tales to his children. "Nobody has ever gotten the better of the Black Golog until you took one on."

None of them were bothered because they had turned tail and ran. Fighting a band of outland bandits was nothing compared to a confrontation with a Black Golog.

"Bah, nobody would believe such. Though my younger ones would." A smile played on Fairn's lips.

The others burst out laughing and when their merriment died off, Ker looked to Terch. "Tell us about this princess we’re saving, Terch."

The Cree bobbed his head as a huge smile spread over his lips. "She most beautiful. I serve. Many years. Make weapons for her father. Best weapons in Sycos for King Niell."

A startled silence fell over the others until Raph found his voice. "King Niell?"

When Terch nodded again, Ker looked over at Raph, the same thought flashing through both of their minds.

Speaking in a low voice to Ker, Raph said, "We're talking one of the largest kingdoms in Sycos. You realize what this means, don't you?"

"A lot more riches than I originally thought. And a very grateful and wealthy father at the end of this journey."

"And a kingdom to be had if the princess stays in one piece." A smirk curved Raph's lips.

"Aye that too."

A challenge in the words rang through his tone. "Don't expect me to give up, Ker."

"And don't expect to win, Raph." The rivalry between them didn't spring up often, but this time it was full out. With a rich kingdom in the offering, the stakes became a great deal different. Ker knew that and so did Raph.

Having had enough of the nonsense, Oaroa barreled between them, forging ahead on the path. "Stupid men."

Raph smirked at her before his attention was drawn to the sight of a luscious red apple, dangling from a slender branch. Taking a few steps off the path, he reached for the apple, but the ground gave way under him.

His startled yell drew the others. Raph struggled, waist-deep in quicksand, trying to reach the edge to solid ground.

Without a word, Fairn grabbed for one of the sturdy branches on the ground. The apple that had been dangling above Raph's head disappeared as its branch slid down into the quicksand. Another startled yelp escaped the elf as he felt something grabbed his ankle. He flailed wildly, trying to grab for the branch Fairn held out to him. "Something's got me!"

Part Two

When Raph caught hold on the branch, Ker grabbed Fairn's waist to hold the man steady. As he dug his heels into the ground, he pulled with Fairn to get the elf out. Oaroa stood near with her sword at the ready. A bubbling bulge appeared on the surface of the quicksand, and Oaroa struck quickly at it. A black liquid stained the white of the sand before the creature released Raph. Fairn and Ker fell back to the ground, pulling Raph from the quicksand.

The three of them quickly scrambled to stand, and Fairn grabbed Oaroa's arm, dragging her to the path with him. Sometimes the dwarf had a habit of getting caught up in the battle and had to be pulled away from danger.

"Stay path." Terch's disgruntled voice cut through them as everybody tried to clean themselves off.

As the wet quicksand dried, the flakes fell from Raph, littering his steps. Stains marred the pristine white of his tunic and every time Ker looked at him; he grinned.

The party stopped once to eat, then repacked their bags before continuing down the small path. The incline of the road rose steadily upward until they reached a crevice. As Ker stared down into the mist filled gaping hole, he could detect no way of crossing it.

Terch gestured to the crevice, saying, "Go down. Jump from small ledge. And other side."

Hastily, Fairn dug out a coiled rope from his pack. "I'm not going down there. You take this and tie this end to that tree on the other side."

After handing the one end of the rope to the Cree, Fairn let the rest uncoil before he moved to tie the other end to a tree near him.

Shrugging, Terch lowered himself to the ground and climbed down the side of the crevice. The others watched him until he disappeared into the mist. A few moments later, he reappeared on the other side of the crevice, climbing upward. With expert movements, Terch pulled himself up and over the edge. Once he gained his footing, he moved to tie the rope around one of the trees.

Ker reached for the line of the rope and carefully made his way -hand over hand- across the crevice. Fairn followed, making the crossing more quickly.

As Oanoa crossed, the taut line of rope slackened when the knot Fairn had tied gave way. The force of her body, slamming into the solid stone of the crevice wall, drew a curse from her as she desperately held to the rope. The others took hold of the rope and pulled her up and over the ledge. As she laid on the ground panting, she looked up at Fairn. "I thought sailors knew how to tie knots. You almost killed me, you idiot."

"Took ten years off your life, didn't it?" Fairn grinned at her as Terch went to her and helped her up.

Grumbling as she stood, she gave Fairn a baleful look. "Never trust a sailor."

"My cave. Here." Terch pointed to an opening in the face of the rock. "Spiders here. But not hurt. The big ones hurt. They deeper in caves. We not go there."

"What's a few spiders? As long as they aren't the big ones." With a shrug, Ker followed Terch to the cave entrance.

The small cave they entered was lit by the glowing phosphorus rocks lining it. None of them had any problem seeing as the cramped space gave way to a huge cavern. Several tunnel openings led deeper into the bowels of the mountain. Everybody followed behind Terch as he crossed the cavern and walked into one of the openings.

The sight of an enormous spider web covering one of the tunnel entries made Ker mutter, “How does he define small?”

A skittering sound across the rock over their heads made them all look up. There were several very large spiders nesting near the ceiling of the cave. At the sight of the nearly ten foot tall creatures, Raph grumbled, "I really don't want to meet the big ones, ya know."

In silence, they filed behind Terch, walking with him through the small tunnel. Fairn had to bend slightly over to avoid banging his head on the rock. The glowing rocks threaded through the stone, lighting their way. Several small lizards, resting on the rocks, watched them as they passed. The shimmering red, blue and green color to their skin displayed an almost hypnotizing pattern.

"I should take one of those things home to my youngest." Fairn said as he paused to study one of the small creatures.

The lizard showed no fear as Fairn reached out to get it. A searing pain flamed through his hand as fire erupted across the skin of the lizard. Dropping it, he cursed as he shook his hand.

"No touch." With a patient air, the Cree dug through his pack and fished out a bottle. Being a blacksmith, the Cree was well used to burns and the best remedy for them. "This help. Medicine. Won't burn."

He opened the bottle then took Fairn's hand, pouring some of the liquid over his palm. From the easing of Fairn’s pained expression, they could tell it worked immediately. After recapping the bottle, Terch returned it to his bag before he walked off.

For a moment, Oaroa stared as the Cree's back before she shoved against Fairn to get him moving.

As they entered a larger cavern, the jarring sound of laughter made everybody freeze. An outcrop of rocks hid them from the interior of the cave, and Ker cautiously looked over the rough stone edge and down into the cavern below. His heart sank as he counted at least fifteen bandits. From his position, he could see a cage in the far corner but couldn't make out who was in it. All he could see was a small figure entirely wrapped in a pink cloak, huddling on the floor of the cage. It was probably the princess. A slope off to the side of the rocks led down to the cavern floor. Drawing back, he glanced toward the others, shaking his head slightly. They'd need to come up with something really good to get the best of this situation.

As he moved back, Terch took his place, peering over the rock. Seconds later, his screeching yell made all of them jump. "Princess, I love you!"

The sight of his princess imprisoned in the cage sent a searing need through the Cree to reach her. Without thought, he darted down the path down the slope, even as the bandits below scrambled from their positions at the sudden sounds. As he reached the bottom of the cavern and ran to the cage, Terch dodged the blows aimed his way with only one goal in mind.

Appalled, the rest of the party froze, but then had no choice but to follow behind the Cree. All had their swords at the ready and took advantage of the resulting chaos Terch had caused. Raph held slightly back in his position, managing to get several arrows off before he began to advance. The satisfying sound of screams followed the solid thuds of the arrows hitting their targets. An unpleasant smirk graced Raph's lips as he reached back to his quiver for another arrow.

Oaroa, in typical dwarf fashion, threw herself into the fight, slashing and hacking with her short sword, then dancing out of the way of any oncoming blows.

Their group lost the advantage as several more bandits came streaming into the cavern from a nearby entry.

Fairn yelled out to the Cree, "Terch, some help here, you bastard!"

Terch on the other side of the battle, smashed the lock of the cage with his bare hand, and helped the diminutive form out of the cage. The wrapped form clung to the Cree, visibly shaking. He paid no attention to the fight around him in his need to comfort his princess. She was all that mattered to him.

"They hurt me, Terch." Crying, she spoke to him as she held out a bruised arm. An enraged roar came from the Cree before he released her and whirled to face the bandits. Snatching up one of the larger swords laying near him, Terch entered the fray. His wild swings repeatedly connected with the flesh surrounding him. The angered Cree seemed to have no care for what he hit, and Ker had to jump out of his way to avoid the wicked slash of the sword.

The bandits weren't aware of the attack from behind until it was too late. Body parts, and the groans of the dying, surrounded them as the party fought with renewed vigor and dispatched the last of the thieves standing.

Panting, Terch stood in the midst, angrily waiting for anybody to try to get up as the others lowered their weapons. Fairn came up behind him and clapped Terch heartily on the back, but then Fairn had to sidestep the sudden swing of the Cree's arm.

"We won, Terch. Calm down there." Fairn grinned at him before he moved away from him to join the others.

Terch paid no attention to them as he dropped the sword, turned, and went back to his princess. Ker and Raph smirked at each other before they stepped forward to be introduced to the princess.

"Safe now, princess. They not hurt you again." Cree's voice softened to a reassuring croon and a soft, melodic voice answered him.

"Thank you, Terch, and all of you." As the princess raised her hands to draw back the hood of her cloak, the others stared at her dumbfounded.

Oaroa tried her hardest not to burst out laughing at the expressions on her companions’ faces. The men tried valiantly to hide their reactions, but the dwarf found a great deal of amusement at the sight of them. The princess was even uglier than Oaroa. Considering the female dwarf had a face only a male dwarf could love, that said a lot.

It tickled Oaroa's fancy to no need that Ker and Raph had been stopped in their grand ambitions of a kingdom by one look at the princess.

Fairn was the first to recover and diplomatically took the princess' small hand as he bowed to her. "A pleasure, your Highness."

The smallish, almost gnome like features lit with pleasure as she smiled at Fairn. Terch kept a tight arm around his beloved princess.

"Me pay now. Follow Terch. My many thanks."

The words were a very sad reminder to Ker of his promise to the others to give them his share of the gold. He didn't even have that to compensate his current misery. One look at the princess and his dreams of his own kingdom flew right out the door.

The others eyed Ker with amused looks before they followed behind the Cree to get their reward. Ker dragged his footsteps behind them.

After traveling through several winding tunnels, Terch paused in one of the caves, then gestured to several bags of ore with a proud look. "Finest metal in all kingdoms. Only the best to who saved my princess."

The party stared at Terch flabbergasted, then the bags of iron ore. Finally, Raph spoke up. "This isn't what we wanted." He barely bit back calling Terch a fool.

"Not want?" Terch looked at all of them puzzled.

All of them turned in disgust to head back down the tunnels. As Terch and the princess followed them, the Cree couldn't understand why they didn't want the precious metal. It would be forged into the finest weapons any of them could ever hope to have.

When they returned to the main cavern, Terch walked past them saying, "I show short cut."

"Short cut?" Ker asked as they all stared at the Cree again.

"Yes. It easy to use now."

Ker gritted his teeth but got the question out, "Why didn't you show us the short cut before?"

"Bandits too close."

Nobody knew what the hell that meant, and they gave up trying to follow the Cree's logic. Filing behind him, they followed him to the back of the cavern. The tunnel led into a smaller cave, and sunlight penetrated the gloom from the entrance nearby.

A sudden whoop from Fairn and Oaroa made Terch pause and turn to look back at them. Everybody was gleefully rushing forward toward the chests littering the floor of the cave. Golden coins overflowed them, spilling to the floor in places. The cave held the ill-gotten gains of the bandits.

Puzzled even more, Terch watched them in astonishment.

"We're rich." Raph crowed as he knelt in front of one of the chests, diving his hands into the gold. As he lifted them, the golden coins sparkled in the dim light as they fell from his fingers.

"You want this?" The Cree could only stare at them, unable to comprehend why they would want it.

Beside him, his princess laughed softly before she tried to explain. "In the outside world, gold is worth more than your precious metal, Terch."

Fairn looked at Terch with a blissful expression. "This is exactly what we wanted."

"But why? That too soft to make weapons from. Metal no good."

Everyone but Ker bursted out laughing at the Cree's words of wisdom. Ker leaned back against the furthest wall, his head hitting the stone with a thud.

Oaroa looked over at him then glanced at the others. Maybe they would still allow Ker his share, but for now, she had every intention of letting him suffer.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author's deranged imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.

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