Dragonslayer's Return
Chapter 21 Head On

 R.A. Salvatore

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Gary walked quietly, inconspicuously, down the western trail leading out of Braemar. He had left his armor back in town, glad for the reprieve, glad to be out of the suit, and back there too, talking and singing in the Snoozing Sprite, were Diane and Kelsey, Geno and Gerbil, and all the others. Even without the remarkable armor, Gary was recognized by every sentry he passed and by everyone else walking along the road, most heading back into Braemar for the celebration. Gary's size alone marked him clearly, for the only man in Braemar as large as he was King Kinnemore himself.
The gentle folk granted Gary his privacy, though, only nodded and offered a quick greeting, and soon he was off the main trail, walking down a narrow and rocky path that seemed no more than a crevice cutting between the foothills.
Around a sharp bend, he came into a sheltered dell, almost a cave beneath a wide overhang, where Mickey was waiting for him.
"You asked me to come here to tell me that you were leaving," Gary remarked, having long ago recognized the sprite's intentions.
Mickey shrugged noncommittally. "Would ye have me stay, then? Be sure that all in the town're dancin' and playin', and wouldn't their party be greater if they catched a leprechaun in the course?"
"Kinnemore and Badenoch will grant you your freedom," Gary reasoned. "They owe you that much at least." Again the leprechaun shrugged. "I been too long with humans," Mickey muttered. "Too long in tricking them and too long in dancing from their greedy clutches. And too long working to set aright things that aren't truly me own concern. I'm back for Tir na n'Og, lad, back to me home that's no longer pressed by an army.
"And so I've asked ye to come out," Mickey went on. "Ye should be thinking of yer own home now."
Gary looked around, a hint of desperation in his darting eyes. Mickey was right, it seemed, but it had all ended so suddenly with the revelation of the true King, that Gary hadn't emotionally prepared himself for returning to Real-earth. Not yet.
"Ye fought the war and now ye're wanting to enjoy the spoils," Mickey reasoned.
Now it was Gary's turn to simply shrug.
"Is it over?" he asked plaintively.
Mickey sighed - it seemed that the leprechaun, too, was somewhat sorry the adventure had apparently come to an abrupt end. "All the folk will rally about the rightful King," Mickey reasoned. "Even Prince Geldion and Badenoch have seen it in their hearts to end their feud."
"I do not believe that it is over," came a commanding voice from behind. The two turned to see King Kinnemore walking around the bend.
"You followed me," Gary remarked.
"I do not think it is over," the King said again, ignoring the accusation. "Not with a witch soon to be coming out of her hole."
"Oh, she's coming out," Mickey agreed. "But not with much behind her. Ceridwin's power's in those she tricks to being allies, and she's to find few in these times. All the humans'll be together with yerself returned to the throne, and even the elfs and dwarfs'll come to yer call if ye're needing them."
Gary was hardly paying attention to any of it, still perplexed by the appearance of the King. "Why did you follow me?" he asked bluntly, as soon as he found a break in the conversation.
Kinnemore turned a disarming smile his way. "Because I knew the sprite would not remain," he answered. "And I know that you need our good Mickey to return to your own home."
Both Gary and Mickey turned up their eyebrows at that proclamation. As far as they knew, only Mickey, the pixies, Kelsey and Geno, and a few other of the Tylwyth Teg knew of Gary's true origins, with everyone else merely thinking that he had come from the far-off land of Bretaigne.
"I guess he's the King for a reason," Mickey said dryly.
Kinnemore chuckled at that. "I had many dealings with Bretaigne in my first years on the throne," he explained. "Before the witch interfered. I know a Bretaigne accent, and know, too," he added, looking straight at Gary, "when I do not hear one."
"Fair enough," Mickey admitted.
"And I have entertained visitors from your world before," Kinnemore went on. "Thus I know that you may soon be returning, and thus have I watched closely your every move, even following you to this place." "To say goodbye?" Gary asked.
"To ask that you remain," the King replied. "For a time."
"Oh, here we go again," Mickey whispered under his breath as Gary squared his shoulders and assumed a determined expression.
"The witch will soon be free," Kinnemore declared. "And she does indeed have allies," he added, shooting a quick glance at Mickey. "The mountains of Penllyn hold goblin tribes and great clans of mountain trolls." "She'll not come out with them," Mickey reasoned. "Not in an open fight. Never has that been Ceridwen's way."
"Perhaps not," the King conceded. "But Robert is no more, and the witch will not surrender her designs." "You want to go after her?" Gary stated as much as asked, his tone skeptical and bordering on incredulous. Gary had been to Ynis Gwydrin before, and the memory was not a pleasant one.
The King didn't flinch a bit as he slowly nodded.
"Oh begorra," Mickey muttered.
"Now would seem the time," Kinnemore said. "Ceridwen and her powers are locked upon an island, and our army is already assembled on the field. We can deal Ceridwen a blow from which she will be years in recovering, cripple her to the point where her mischief will not be so great."
"Why're ye needing Gary Leger?" Mickey wanted to know.
"We are not," Kinnemore replied to the sprite, though he never took his unblinking gaze off Gary. "But would it not add to the legend? And would not the presence of the spearwielder serve well the morale of the soldiers? Do not underestimate the power of emotion, good sprite. Why, after all, did Ceridwen try to prevent the reforging of Donigar-ten's spear?"
"Now, how're ye knowing all of this?" Mickey asked.
"I guess he's the King for a reason," Gary answered, mimicking Mickey's earlier tones.
"She feared the emotions inspired by the reforged weapon," Kinnemore said, answering his own question.
Again he put an admiring look directly on Gary Leger. "And rightly so, so it would seem."
Gary held the King's gaze for a long moment, then turned to regard Mickey, the leprechaun sitting on a stone and shaking his head, and lighting his long-stemmed pipe.
"I want to stay," Gary said.
"I knew ye would," Mickey replied without hesitation.
"And you, too, I ask to come along, good sprite," Kinnemore said. "And by my word and Gary Leger's arm, not a man will bother you."
"It's not the men I'm fearing," Mickey whispered under his breath, thinking of the huge mountain trolls, and worse, of the witch herself, as mighty an enemy as could be found in all of Faerie. Despite all of that, though, Mickey knew that Kinnemore's reasoning was sound. Robert was gone, and without the dragon to balance the power, they had to work hard and fast to keep Ceridwen in check.
Mickey just wanted to know why he, a carefree leprechaun used to romping in the secluded meadows of a sylvan forest, kept getting caught up in the middle of it all!
Gary knew that there was something big, probably a mountain troll, crouching around the tumble of boulders. When he paused and concentrated, he could hear the monster's rhythmic breathing, barely perceptible against the steady breeze that blew over Penllyn this day.
The armored man turned back to his companions and nodded; the four of them, Gary, Diane, Tommy, and Mickey, had played out this same routine three times already in the five days of fighting since the Connacht army had entered the mountainous region around the witch's island home.
Diane, more than any of them, held her breath now. She still hadn't quite gotten used to the spectacle of a mountain troll. They weren't nearly as big as Tommy, only twelve feet tall, but they looked like the stuff of the mountains that gave them their name. Their skin was a grayish color, sometimes tending towards brown, and their heads were square, faces flat, like a big slab of stone. They wore little clothing, and needed no armor with their thick skin; and whatever hair they had, on top of their heads, across their massive chests, or anywhere else, typically stuck out in clumps, like small bushes among the rocky sides of a mountain. No, trolls weren't as imposing as Tommy, and certainly the spectacle of the giant had somewhat prepared Diane for the enemies she was facing now, but she doubted that she would ever be comfortable seeing one of the dirty monsters, even a dead one.
Gary rested back against the stones and took a deep, steadying breath. He lifted his mighty spear in both hands, took another breath and adjusted his too-loose helmet, then rushed around the bend, shouting wildly. The troll leaped out at him, club in hand, but the man, expecting the resistance, had already begun to backpedal.
Around the bend came the pursuing troll, and its square jaw surely drooped open in surprise when it found an eighteen-foot-tall giant waiting for it!
Tommy's uppercutting fist had barely begun its ascent when it connected squarely on that jaw, and by the time the troll broke free of the giant's swinging arm, the dimwitted evil brute was several feet in the air, and rising as rapidly as the fist. The troll slammed down against the rounded top shoulder of the boulder tumble, cracking its thick head, and slid slowly down the side, unconscious at least, and probably dead.
"There's another one, lad!" Mickey squealed from his high perch on a ledge against the mountain wall behind the main group.
"Behind you!" Diane added, rushing to Gary's side.
The young man spun on his heel, thrusting desperately with his spear, scoring a solid hit in the rushing troll's belly. The brute roared in agony, but could not stop its charge, further impaling itself, and running Gary down.
Tommy turned to try to catch his tumbling friend, but Mickey yelled again, and the giant spun back just in time to take a hit from yet another troll's whipping club. Tommy grunted, not really hurt, and responded with a punch that crushed in the troll's face.
But two more trolls stood behind that one, each delivering a solid whack against the giant's thick arm. And another troll came in from the back side of the boulder tumble, bearing down on Diane, whose short sword surely seemed shorter still facing the likes of a twelve-foot-tall, nine-hundred-pound troll!
Diane shrieked and stabbed, scoring a glancing hit. Her heart stopped as the troll's great club swished across, but to her ultimate relief (and amazement) the monster somehow missed her cleanly. Not stopping to consider her fortune, she struck again, and a third time, each stroke of her elfish blade drawing a line of red blood on the massive creature's torso.
The troll responded with its club, and again missed badly. It snorted in disbelief and kicked with its huge boot - and missed again, overbalancing in the process so that when Diane wisely snuck in under the high- waving foot and jabbed at the knee of its lone supporting leg, the monster fell heavily to the stone.
Diane rushed around near the monster's head, slashed at grasping troll fingers - which, for some reason that Diane could not understand, were grasping at the empty air three feet to her left - and dared to dive in close, poking hard at the fallen behemoth's throat.
She scored a single hit, and dove away desperately as the suddenly wheezing monster began to thrash and kick. The troll grasped at its torn throat, bubbles of blood and spittle coming out through its fingers. Its shin slammed against a boulder and sent the stone flying; its foot slammed straight down, cracking the stone beneath it.
"More, lass!" Mickey called above the tumult, and Diane nearly fainted away when she looked back around the boulders to see half a dozen more mountain trolls rushing down the path behind the boulder tumble, bearing down on the group. She called for Gary, and saw that he had slipped out from under the dead troll, but was working hard (and futilely) to free up his impaled spear.
Diane looked to Tommy, just as the giant caught a handful of troll hair in each massive hand and, ignoring the clubs pounding hard against his sides, slammed the brutes' heads together with a resounding crack! Diane winced as Tommy slammed the heads together repeatedly. The clubbing stopped after the third or fourth smack; the heavy clubs fell to the ground.
"Six of them!" Mickey called.
"Run away!" was Gary's sound advice. He finally tore free the spear, but slipped on the wet, gore-covered stone, falling hard to his back.
Diane was beside him, helping him, urging him to his feet.
Trolls swarmed about the boulder tumble, spiked clubs in hand, with only poor Tommy to block their way. Tommy, and a hail of arrows.
Horns sounded from every trail, and scores of Connacht soldiers, led by Prince Geldion, followed the volley, shouting for Sir Cedric at the top of their lungs.
It was over before Gary had even found the opportunity to strike another blow, all six of the new trolls joining their five comrades in death.
"How did you know?" Gary asked Geldion when all had settled.
"Credit the King," the Prince explained. "He did not approve of your little band running off to fight on its own."
"We've been doing that since the war began," Diane interjected.
"So my father knows," replied the Prince, "and so, he believes, does Ceridwen. The witch understands the implications of the war, and knows that the spearwielder is an important target. He would not let you go out on your own, though you believed that to be your course."
"Thank him for us all," Diane remarked.
"I guess he's the King for a reason," both Mickey and Gary said together, sharing a knowing wink. Gary looked at the fallen trolls - nearly a dozen more in this encounter alone. And similar battles were being waged all across Penllyn, with Kinnemore's army, bolstered by Lord Badenoch and the forces of Braemar, rousing the trolls and goblins from their filthy mountain holes, scattering them to the wastelands to the east, and killing those that did not flee. By all reports nearly five hundred mountain trolls had been slain, and perhaps ten times that number of goblins, the unorganized and chaotic tribes proving no match for the teamwork of the skilled and trained soldiers.
In five short days, the heart of Ceridwen's ragtag forces had been torn out of her mountain stronghold. Gary wished that Kelsey might have witnessed this. And Geno! Yes, he decided, the sturdy dwarf would have liked to walk over the bodies of so many dead trolls and goblins. But neither had chosen to make the trek to Penllyn, not now. Kelsey was off to Tir na n'Og to report on the monumental happenings and to advise his elders in their dealings with the rightful King, and Geno had simply decided that he had been too long from his forge and his backlog of work.
They would have enjoyed this rout, Gary knew. They would have applauded every battle, knowing that the land of Faerie would be a better place when Penllyn was purged.
And so, with grim satisfaction, Gary Leger looked over the newest battlefield, and Ceridwen looked over Gary Leger, the frustrated witch fuming, feeling positively impotent. She could not yet go free of her island, could not even send forth her magic to aid the monsters in the mountains. And the one contingent of monkey bats she had sent flying out from Ynis Gwydrin had been met by a seemingly solid sheet of arrows, most of the strange-looking monsters falling dead in Loch Gwydrin before they had even cleared the lake.
She had lost Kinnemore, and had lost her hold on Connacht and the army that came with that hold. And now, before her very eyes, the remnants of her last force, the mountain trolls and goblins that she could always manipulate or force under her control, were being swept away.
Positively impotent.
It was a feeling that the mighty witch did not enjoy.
"Geek!" she screamed, and the spindly-armed goblin, who had been standing only a foot behind the witch, jumped so violently that he left one of his shoddy boots sitting in place on the floor. "Yesses, my Lady," he grovelled, falling to his knees and slobbering kisses all over Ceridwen's beautiful shoes (and at the same time, trying to quietly manipulate the boot back on his smelly foot). The goblin had been beside "his Lady" for many years and knew that this was no time to give Ceridwen any excuse to vent her rage.
The witch pulled her foot from the goblin's spit-filled grasp, retracted the leg, and kicked Geek hard in the face.
"Thank you, my Lady!" he squealed, and she kicked him again, closing one of his eyes.
"Did you send my messenger?" the witch demanded.
Geek looked at her quizzically - and promptly got kicked in the face a third time. Of course he had sent the monkey bat - Ceridwen knew that he had sent the monkey bat!
A single thought overruled the goblin's confusion: No time to give her an excuse!
"Yesses, of yesses!" the goblin squealed. "It flied off last night, it did! It should be close to Giant's Thumb . . ."
"Oh, shut up," Ceridwen grumbled and kicked the goblin square in his smiling face one more time.
"Yesse . . ." Geek started to reply, but he wisely realized that answering that command was directly contrary to that command. With a whimper, he rolled out of kicking reach and cowered on the floor. After a few minutes he dared to look up again, and saw his Lady standing by the tower's window, staring out to the east, to the mountains and beyond.
Ceridwen was more calm then, finding a measure of composure in the knowledge that she was not sitting idly by, that she was at least taking some action to aid in her cause.
But even then, standing safe in the bastion of her evil power, a castle that she had owned longer than the memory of any living man, the witch realized that she might be playing her final card.
At the end of that fifth day, bold King Kinnemore set his camp on the very banks of Loch Gwydrin, in plain sight of the witch's crystalline castle. Assured by Mickey that the witch could take no personal actions, magical or otherwise, beyond the boundaries of her place of banishment, the King, still carrying the scars of outrage from his years running wild in the Crahgs, thought it fitting to push the witch to the edge of her sensibilities, to taunt her in every manner that he could find.
To that end, he set his soldiers to singing, loud and clear, the ancient songs of proud Connacht. Diane was charmed by the magical sight of Ynis Gwydrin - and the witch's castle was truly an enchanting vision - but Gary Leger, who had been to that island and that castle, was not alone in his trepidation of simply being in view of the place.
Even Mickey, who constantly assured Gary that the witch was fully bound to her island, seemed on the edge of his nerves. So great was their fear of the witch that Gary and the other soldiers were honestly relieved each morning when they left the encampment, and the sight of Ynis Gwydrin, and went into the mountains to hunt giant trolls.
Those trolls were getting harder to find, and by the third day of the Loch Gwydrin encampment, the eighth day of the assault on Penllyn, only a single small skirmish occurred, and that with a handful of goblins that surrendered before the Connacht bows thrummed from the release of the first arrows. That same day, when the sun was at its highest point, King Kinnemore declared Penllyn secured.
"And a good thing," Mickey remarked to the King shortly thereafter. "The witch'll be walking free in just two days, by me guess, and we'd be a smarter bunch to be gone from the mountains before she can start her mischief."
"Off and running," Gary agreed.
King Kinnemore said nothing, just turned a longing stare out towards the crystalline castle. In ages past, Ynis Gwydrin had been the seat of goodly power in Faerie; Kinnemore's own ancestors had presided over their kingdom from the place that Ceridwen now called home.
"Don't ye even be thinkin' it!" Mickey spouted, recognizing the gaze, and the wish behind that gaze. The leprechaun's outburst brought a number of looks - Geldion's, Gary's and Diane's included - sharply on him. One simply did not talk to a King that way!
But Kinnemore gave a short laugh and nodded his head in agreement. "We came to Penllyn to cripple the witch," he said. "To steal her means of mischief, or at least, to steal the army she might conjure to deliver that mischief. Penllyn is secure, excepting the island fortress, and Ceridwen will be a long time in recovering from the wounds we have inflicted."
"And from the alliances you have forged," Gary put in.
Again, King Kinnemore nodded his head in agreement; then, to Gary's profound relief (and the leprechaun blew a sigh, as well) the King gave the orders to break down the camp.
The tents were almost down by midafternoon, and the four friends hoped that they would get several hours of marching before setting the next camp (though Tommy, who had spent many fairly good years serving Ceridwen on Ynis Gwydrin, looked to the isle more than once, his expression almost homesick).
Geldion came to the group then, his face grim. "Lord Badenoch rode in," he explained, "just a few minutes ago. He sought a private audience with my father."
"Are ye feeling left out?" Mickey asked, not quite understanding the Prince's sour expression. "There are rumors that an army approaches from the easf," Geldion explained. "A vast host. Robert's old minions, come to the call of Ceridwen."
"Lava newts," Gary whispered.
Diane eyed Gary, and then Geldion, nervously. She remembered Gary's tales of the dragon's mountain castle, of the lizardlike guards that served and protected mighty Robert.
"We will hold the mountains against them," Geldion said determinedly. "Our position is one of strong defense." "For a day and a half," Gary put in. "Until the witch flies free," Mickey added grimly.