King Haracson paced back and forth at the front of his council room. A collection of advisors filled seats around the wall and awaited his address. The king was once a jolly and robust sort, but the past year had left him sour and diminished.
“As much as we hate to admit defeat,” the king began, “or spend the coin it requires, we must send for a hero.”
“Your Highness, have you considered a hero from Valintour?” asked a mousy-looking advisor. “I hear they do not come at a high price.”
“Those are second-rate champions,” replied one of the older members of the council. “And neither do they come with a guarantee.”
“We shall make the decision together,” King Haracson said, and he motioned for a servant in the corner to come forward. The attendant hurried over with a stack of slim parchment books.
“Pass them around,” Haracson said. “This is the latest copy of the ‘Courageous Quarterly.’ The pages are filled with every sort of hero the land has to offer. It also has sketches of what they look like along with a short profile. ‘Heroes for every occasion’ is their claim.”
“How about this one?” said a short balding advisor. He pointed out a man posed with his hands on his waist, wearing a broad toothy smile. “Says he single-handedly defeated the Fire Sprite with nothing more than his icy stare.”
“Keep our budget in mind, gentlemen,” Haracson reminded. “This past year has not left us in the best standing. Let us just aim for a hero that is somewhat sensational.”
With that said, the king and his advisors scrutinized the extensive variety of options. After more than an hour of suggestions and debate, the group settled on Count Masicuvio, who was a three-time winner of the Troll Bane Award and had made the Ohnifaeg Ogre beg for mercy. His bio also said he enjoyed jousting, gardening and long walks on the beach.
A courier was dispatched with their order and the Council of Courage sent a response that the requested hero should arrive in 2 to 3 days. Just after noon on the fourth day a guard rushed into the King’s Hall and announced the sighting of an unknown rider. Within moments, the expansive hall was filled with hordes of excited residents who suspected the arrival of the hero and hoped to catch a glimpse.
After what seemed like a season of waiting, the doormen opened the double doors at the far end of the hall and in walked a dark clad figure. Aside from the splattering of mud, his cloak, boots and clothing were all black. The hornblowers went off key as they noted his gloomy appearance and concerned murmurings erupted around the court. King Haracson looked from the queen to his advisors with a perplexed grimace.
Paused in the doorway, the man threw back the hood of his cloak and revealed a rather intimidating scowl. His dark green eyes surveyed the room in an instant and he strode forward. A goatee stood out from the stubble on his face and a couple streaks of premature gray ran through the top of his hair, which was pulled tight in a ponytail. The sides of his head were shaved and covered with intricate tattoos of twisting black spires. Despite his unusual appearance and the notion he would do well with several days sleep, he might have been considered handsome.
The stranger halted at the end of the red carpet that led to the throne dais. He then made a sudden grab into his cloak. Everyone was relieved when he produced nothing more than a scroll, which he unrolled and held in front of him.
His voice had a raspy edge and he read with put-on enthusiasm. “The Council of Courage extends the arm of apology to the residents of Felliswood for our delay in sending your requested hero. Unfortunately, Count Masicuvio’s latest adventure left him with a number of time-consuming injuries. Given your situation, we realize a backorder would not suffice, so we have sent Lord Bukler in his stead. Bukler is a most formidable hero and he slays the wicked like they are soon leaving favor. We guarantee his success and have also issued a partial refund for the change to your order. Thank you for choosing the Council of Courage.”
Ever the politician, King Haracason made the most of the situation. “Though we did, in fact, order Count Masicuvio,” he said, “we still rejoice that a hero has arrived. Lord Bukler, is it? Are you of noble birth?”
“No, I just like the title. Being a hero affords such privileges. I once fought under the name Prince Vandivinter the Valiant Viking, but that was in response to a dare. You may call me either ‘Lord Bukler,’ ‘The Bukler of Big Swaash,’ or, if you prefer, simply ‘Buckles.’
“Where is Big Swaash?” Haracson asked, growing doubtful. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“That does not concern us at the present moment,” Buckles responded, blanching a bit. “You’ll have to excuse my sense of haste, but I have to fill in for another order tomorrow as well.”
“So you are a backup hero?”
“More or less. When the pretty little heroes twist an ankle, have unmanageable hair or experience feelings of inadequacy, they send for me.”
“Well had we known that, you would have been our first choice.”
“Thank you. Now what can you tell me of this enchantress plaguing your kingdom?”
“She was a fortune teller. However, once her dark magic was discovered, she was banished. Her reaction was vengeance served slowly with a splintered spoon. She delighted in our misfortune. One month, the crops would die without reason. On another occasion, the springs would cause a variety of unpleasantness in regards to our bowels. We began to suspect her as the culprit – mostly because she would send notes claiming responsibility. For the better part of a year we endured these hardships, but with your arrival I am confident our suffering is over.”
“Any more information on her abilities would be most helpful,” Bukler said. “Or perhaps if you know anything about her minions?”
“Yes, I suppose you may not be knowledgeable about such things way out here, but enchantresses, overlords and dark wizards always have minions. Never you mind. Just point me in her direction and I’ll be off.”
“Right away,” King Haracson replied. Then to the congregation of citizens, he beckoned, “Are there any here who would lead our brave hero to the forest of the enchantress?”
“That’s not necessary,” Bukler protested.
“I insist,” Haracson said. “Besides, it will speed things up.”
“I cannot guarantee the safety of a guide.”
The king nodded and then addressed the crowd again. “Any that volunteer also acknowledge Lord Bukler’s declaration of innocence should you encounter any danger.”
After a few minutes of chatter amongst the people, a young man stepped from the mass and said, “I know the area better than most. I will lead him.” He was a tall and lanky fellow with a wild mop of dark blond hair.
Applause from the others died down when another youth stepped forward as well. This boy was shorter with a freckled face and close-cropped brown hair. “I know the area as well, milord. Surely, four eyes are better than two when spotting danger.”
“It warms my heart,” King Haracson said, “to see citizens eager to serve their kingdom.”
“Yes, I’m about to swoon from all the loyalty,” remarked Bukler. He eyed the volunteers and said, “But I have a question for the two of you. Which of you is working with the enchantress?”
Gasps and grumblings sounded around the hall.
“I beg your pardon, hero,” replied the king, “but why would you suspect one of my subjects to be in league with that vile witch?”
“With all due respect, Your Highness, it never fails when there is more than one guide, one of them is always a traitor. I’m just saving myself some trouble.”
Both of the youths feigned surprise at first, but under the stern gaze of Lord Bukler, the second volunteer raised a sheepish hand. “It’s me,” he said, as if scolded.
“Guards, seize him,” King Haracson ordered. He then turned back to Bukler with a smile. “Well done, hero.”
Bukler nodded and said, “Does Your Highness require a trophy, such as the head of the enchantress to place on a pike outside the castle?”
“Why would I do such a thing?”
“Some kings prefer trophies as proof or to serve as a warning.”
“Well I don’t want her head defacing the outside of the castle.” Then the king motioned Bukler closer. In a whisper he said, “Just between us, I collect porcelain dinnerware. If she has anything of that nature, just bring that back with you.”
“You want me to rob her as well?”
“Well, she’ll be dead, won’t she? It’s not like she’ll need it anymore.”
“If I find anything of value, it will be yours.”
“Yes, but don’t deliver it to me openly upon your return.”
“I understand. Farewell, King Haracson.”
The king stood and called for the attention of the hall. “Let us wish our hero well in his endeavor. May he defeat the enchantress swiftly and without a scratch.”
The hall erupted with applause, cheers and whistles. As The Bukler of Big Swaash reached the doors, the hornblowers blasted a triumphant tune for his exit.
Outside the castle, the young volunteer darted to the livery and acquired a horse for their journey. Bukler waited atop his black steed at the gate of the courtyard. Once the boy joined him and indicated their direction of travel, the two set off into the rolling fields beyond.
“What is your name, lad?” Bukler asked as they cantered along.
“Ah, your name reeks of heroism. Are you from a heroic lineage?”
“I would not know, Your Braveness. I was an orphan.”
“All the more reason to assume you are then. You wouldn’t by chance be in possession of an amulet, pendant, or ring left with you as a babe by some mighty wizard?”
“As a matter of fact, I do have an old medallion. My father said it was hidden in my blankets when they found me. The text is foreign. I have no idea what it says.”
“You would do well to have it translated. It will undoubtedly reveal you are a hero-to-be from some valiant lineage.”
“Thank you, Your Championness.” Ildracen said, barely able to contain himself. “It will be my first task upon my return home.”
“If you return home. You may be of a heroic line, but you have assumed the role of a guide and therein lies an uncertain future.”
“What do you mean?”
“I will tell you later.”
After an undisclosed amount of time (the details of the story grow hazy here; it is not clear how long they traveled), the forest of the enchantress came into view. The wide-stretching treeline made an ominous boundary to the field that lay before it. Only a shadowed landscape existed within the woods, despite the afternoon sun overhead.
“Just as I suspected,” Bukler said. “The trees of this wood are gnarled and grotesque, as if they might spring to life and devour us. Evildoers are so unimaginative. They all decorate the same.”
The duo left their horses behind and crept along a faint footpath into the forest. They had not ventured far when Ildracen stopped at the beginning of a shallow valley and pointed ahead.
“What covers the ground?” Bukler inquired. “It would seem the forest floor is a furry writhing mass.”
“Bunnybears, Your Heroicness.”
“All right, first, let’s put an end to these nicknames. ‘Bukler’ will do. And second, what in the name of the heavens is a bunnybear?”
“They are a cruel offspring the enchantress devised to torment us. They have the ears and bodies of a hare, but the teeth and claws of a bear.”
“Well, we won’t get far in that mess.” Bukler reached into a pouch on his belt and brought out a glowing orb filled with swirling white smoke. He tossed the orb out into the swarm of bunnybears and ducked behind a tree.
The horde of cute but vicious creatures clustered around the soft mesmerizing light. Ildracen also watched the orb in curious amazement until remnants of bunnybears exploded into the air. He was splattered with a heaping variety of the animals’ innards.
“That was easy enough,” Bukler said with a laugh. He took note of his guide, covered in blood and guts and said, “Sorry, lad. I guess I should have warned you.”
“It’s quite alright, Your Chivalrousness…err…Lord Bukler.”
“So, what’s next?” Bukler said.
“Rumors say it is the Triple S.”
“It stands for the Soul-Sucking Sentinel. Of course, that is not an official title in the Registry of All Things Nasty, but that is what the stories call it.”
“Begging your pardon, but I would guess the fact it sucks out people’s souls is how it got the name.”
“How do the stories describe it?”
“As a hairy little imp, the size of a young man, that springs from tree to tree as if it were born amongst the branches. It also carries some sort of magical tube to suck out the soul of any who cross its path.”
“It sucks out souls with a tube?”
Just then a bone-chilling screech rang out in the distance.
“It’s here!” said Ildracen as he bolted away.
“Just like a guide,” Bukler said to himself as he watched Ildracen’s retreat. He looked back to the treetops and saw leaves fall here and there as a dark figure zigzagged from one tree to another. Bukler was not afforded a good look at the creature until it propelled itself from a nearby branch and dove for him. At that point, our hero did not bother to dodge, but let the beast tackle him to the ground.
Ildracen peeked out from behind a tree at the sound of the commotion. He saw the Soul-Sucking Sentinel perched on top of Bukler with its magical tube in Bukler’s mouth. The beast sucked hard on its tube, but then fell over backward and gagged. Bukler was back on his feet, with sword in hand, before the Sentinel could recover. The hero slammed his blade through the creature’s chest and then twisted it for good measure.
“You’re safe now, lad,” Bukler said as he wiped his sword with his cloak.
“How did you survive?” Ildracen asked as he darted back.
“The ability to vomit on command may be a strange one, but today it has shown purpose.”
“I do not know, Lord Bukler, I have been no further.”
“Well, obstacles tend to follow the rule of three. I would say you could accompany me, but my experience with guides is they always meet with a horrible death just after they have outlived their usefulness. I’ve seen it times beyond count, so I suggest you turn back.”
“If you think it best.”
“Farewell my young friend,” Bukler said and gave the boy’s shoulder a shake. “You have been an asset.”
“It has been an honor, Lord Bukler.”
Ildracen attempted to hug Bukler, but the hero raised a hand to suggest otherwise. The young guide took the hint and headed back toward the horses.
The forest grew ever darker as Bukler traveled further into its depths. At every darkened turn in the trail, he expected one last challenge or at least some sort of magical trap, but the remainder of his journey was uneventful.
He soon caught sight of smoke as he descended into a rock-walled valley. At the head of the valley was a modest log cottage. Bukler made a silent approach and crouched behind a boulder a short distance from the home. Just as he was about to creep closer, he spun at the sound of a woman’s voice behind him.
“Buckles, is that you?” The woman had violet eyes and a wide smile. She wore a long purple dress with a black shawl draped around her shoulders. Hair white-blond hair fell about her shoulders in gentle curls.
Bukler’s gaze was trapped for a moment by her smile, but he soon recovered. “Haeldiira? You’re the enchantress?”
“Oh you know better than that. My magic is weak, but I have been teaching the fools a lesson. Come inside, we’ll talk.” She gestured him to follow and they went inside. Bukler took a seat at a small table in the center of the one-room cottage.
“I was reading fortunes in the market,” Haeldiira said as she gathered a couple of goblets. “In a looking glass, I revealed a rather embarrassing future for one of the nobles. So of course, I was labeled a sorceress and exiled. You know I don’t take to such treatment.” Haeldiira brought the goblets and a water pitcher as she joined Bukler at the table.
“Yes, of course,” Bukler replied, “but I’m afraid you’re going to have to relocate, or at least leave them alone. The Council sent me to deal with you.”
“Well, it has been a while since you dealt with me.”
Bukler laughed. “I will have to postpone the offer.”
“Always the busy hero. That was our trouble before.”
“I’ll make it up to you, but for now I must take my leave. By the way, I had to kill your bunnybears and Soul-Sucking Sentinel.”
“Oh, those bunnybears breed like…well…rabbits, so that is no trouble. As for the latter, I assume you are referring to that devilish imp. He was here when I came. I won’t say he’s not an annoyance, but he can be easily swayed with a song.”
“That ancient trick? I should have known: music for the beast, right?” Bukler finished his drink and slid his chair back from the table. “I will return for a longer visit soon, Haeldiira, but I must ask you for a small sacrifice to remedy this situation.”
“Anything for you, my hero.”
Bukler pointed to the table and said, “Can I have that porcelain pitcher?”
© 2008 Josef J. Hoskins
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Josef J. Hoskins is a husband, and a father of two, who disguises himself amidst society as a mild-mannered case manager. His writing efforts span a variety of genres, but predominantly take shape in the forms of fantasy and science fiction. He is currently at work on a fantasy novel trilogy and a collection of short stories. His writing has appeared in Haruah, Backwoodsman Magazine, Now and Treadwater.
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