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The Key to Victory

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When I heard the screaming, I grabbed my axe and ran. Even so, a couple of others got there first. Life in Greenmeadow was a constant struggle against the surrounding forest. Monster attacks had to be dealt with promptly.

"It's alright now, Tally." The burly blacksmith Gunthar had his enormous hands spread wide, stroking them through the air to soothe the agitated seamstress. His black hair was tied into a ponytail over the enormous broadsword strapped across his back. He seemed to think himself dashing, but the way that same dark hair bulged from the collar and sleeves of his shirt spoiled the effect. "You did well to trap the beast in the village pound. We will take matters from here."

Gunthar's condescending tone did little to calm Tally and my eyes were drawn to her wildly heaving bosom until I forced myself to focus on her face. She looked from Gunthar, to me, and finally to Owen--a gap-toothed, mangy haired farmer leaning with his pitchfork against the stone of a nearby well.

An inhuman keening came from inside the pound. Thuds echoed along the wall as the thing desperately sought a way out but it seemed to lack the strength to break free of the stone enclosure.

"Listen to me you blockheaded oaf!" Tally sputtered. "It’s trapped. All we need to do..."

"Is strike it with cold iron!" With a sudden lunge, Gunthar snatched something from her hands; a key ring. "Wasn't it I who beheaded the black bogey last fall? Consider this monster slain."

Tally continued to protest but her words were unable to penetrate Gunthar’s dense head. He drew his immense sword and tossed the key to Owen, who stepped forward to unlock the gate. Gunthar slipped gracefully through the portal and Owen immediately locked him in.

"My but you're an ugly one, aren't you!" Gunthar's deep voice carried easily over the pounds high walls. "Surrender and I will try to make this as pain…!"

The blacksmith's words were cut off by an ear-splitting wail. There was a reverberating sound, like a hammer hitting a gong that I could feel in my chest; then Gunthar's grunts turned into girlish screaming.

"Gunthar!" cried Owen, his concern for his friend obvious on his homely face.

Tally grabbed for him, but the farmer shook her off.

"Stop! That thing just killed Gunthar. Don’t face it! There's no need to..."

Owen hurled his pitchfork like a javelin. It landed at her feet, forcing her to scramble back.

"I know I'm not the fighter Gunthar was, but let's face it: he wasn't the brightest lamp in town."

The farmer pulled one of the torches from the pound’s wall and swung it like a club, weaving a trail of sparks through the air.

"Everyone knows most monsters are immune to swords. Gunthar just loved to show of that big blade he'd made and it was the end of him." Owen sniffed. "But all of them fear fire. I won't make the same mistake."

"Don't be a fool!" shouted Tally. Owen shot her a wounded look, but was through the door with surprising speed. I found myself locking it behind him, more afraid that Tally would go in after him than because I thought the wight would be coming out.

"That's right, burn you bastard!" Owen shouted. "I'll make you suffer for what you did to Gunthar!"

The wight cried out, its own fear obvious; had it been in the forest, it no doubt would have fled. Unfortunately for Owen, it was instead locked with him in a small confined area and had no choice but to attack. The farmer's own yells dissolved into wet coughs and then a silence that stretched too long.

With a sigh, I hefted the axe onto my shoulder, swallowed, and nervously fingered the key in the lock.

"Henrik Woodsman! You are not about to go in there like those two buffoons!"

I shrank back from the venom in Tally's voice. She was beautiful in her anger which, in truth, meant she was beautiful most of the time.

I had always favored her.

Her skin was flushed and a sheen of sweat coated her skin, glimmering in the torchlight.

"Tally! I can't leave them unavenged!" I wished my voice didn't sound so petulant.

"Henrik, you at least aren't a chauvinistic cretin, so to listen to me. You want to avenge them? I'll tell you how. Take your hand off of that key!"

I let go of the lock, putting my hands up defensively. The wight keened from inside the walls, but at that moment it seemed my second greatest danger.

"Okay, I'm listening!" I told her, and I was. I was no great fan of dying and I wasn't half as good in a fight as the two men who had gone before me.

Tally stepped near to me; her proximity made me tingle, but it wasn't me she was interested in. Her hands pulled the key free of the lock, and in one seamless motion, she turned and tossed it down the well to my left.

"Hey! You said..." I stuttered.

She cuffed me in the ear.

"You know what'll kill that thing, idiot?" the intensity in her voice made me cringe. "Not eating! It obviously can't get out of there!"

The monster rapped on the wall as if to make her point.

"It'll take a few weeks now that you've given it a couple of meals! But leave the thing in there, it'll die. Just don't go letting anyone climb over the walls to get at it."

That made a certain sense, it did.

She watched me thinking it over; I pretended not to hear her mutter 'men!' in a disgusted tone.

"I'll keep them away, Miss Tally." I told her weakly. "You can count on me."

She stared at me for a long moment, then broke into a smile that almost made me nick myself with my axe.

"I just reckon I can."

Dan Devine is the speculative fiction author of the Cull Chronicles and other stories. A graduate of Cornell University, he holds degrees in Chemistry and History and he generally makes his living trying to pretend he knows something about science.

 

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