Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chapter Twenty

"Not a bad haul, eh, boys?" drawls the Sheriff of Nottingham. He appreciatively paws through a chest of coins and sorts them into three piles.

His vulture lackey chuckles and nods his head. The other keeps watch over the side of the castle wall, so he doesn’t notice the Sheriff give him a slightly smaller cut of the take.

“Best idea I ever had, if I do say so myself.”

It had been a difficult decision – spearheaded by the cowardly Prince John – to flee to the Lands Beyond, but the rest of the worlds had to be warned about the growing undead hordes.

And though this kingdom would be abandoned, someone would have to stand guard at the Castle of the Door to help the countless refugees. Surely they couldn’t be left behind to be slaughtered.

But who would stay? Who would make that sacrifice?

All the heroes offered; it was only natural of them to want to help the helpless. But the Sheriff begged and pleaded and, truth be told, pulled a bit of rank on the ol’ uppity-ups. He is a sheriff, after all. The seven princes are royalty and must be kept safe, whereas his job is to protect the realm.

Sir Ector fought against it, said it was his duty as a knight in good standing to do the chivalrous thing, but the Sheriff pointed out that the old walrus had a family to watch over.

Ector’s son Kay, who was almost of age and would soon be a knight himself, took insult to this. To prove his manhood, he’d challenged the Sheriff to a duel, but in the end, cooler heads prevailed and the Sheriff got his way.

Robin Hood cast a suspicious eye, but as a wanted outlaw, there wasn’t much he could say. He and his flea-ridden cohorts returned to their forest, promising to escort any survivors back to the castle.

The Sheriff wasn’t sorry to see him go, and so far, none of the Merry Men had returned. Good riddance.

And once he had free reign of the Castle of the Door, he could raise the drawbridge and implement a toll. No one could refuse his price, and he’d quickly accumulated a king’s ransom. Jewels, gold, artwork, fine garments, there was even a Magic Mirror tucked away somewhere.

“Not a bad haul at all,” the Sheriff rhymes. A lot of money from a common coachman. Probably extorted the fees from his passengers, so the Sheriff doesn’t feel too badly about charging such a high toll.

“When this whole thing blows over,” says the Sheriff, “we’ll be the richest folks in the kingdom.” He tugs on a gold bracelet, a bit feminine, maybe, but it’s of such fine quality that he’s determined to make it fit over his flabby arm.

“Yeah, but what if it doesn’t blow over?” asks one of the vultures. He lazily checks to make sure his crossbow is still loaded.

“Boss,” says the other vulture suddenly. “We got company.”

“Well, fly down there and give ‘em the spiel.”

“Not that kind of company.” He raises his crossbow, and then the Sheriff hears it – a strange bouncing noise coming from the grounds below.

“What in tarnation is that?” asks the Sheriff. He clambers for his own crossbow and waddles forward.

“Aim for the head,” one guard tells the other, and he fires his weapon. The bolt zips through the air, but it misses its target. Something small and orange flies over the wall and crashes into the vulture’s head.

The other vulture points his crossbow and pulls the trigger. A moment later, he pulls the corpse off his companion. It’s a small bear, no bigger than a child, with candy-colored fur and dressed in fanciful clothing. The bolt protrudes from the back of its skull.

“Boss, I think that’s a…” says the guard, but the Sheriff shakes his head.

“Naw, can’t be. They ain’t real. They’re just children’s stories.”

But the bouncing noises below say otherwise. More of the dreadful, colorful creatures leap over the wall. Five of them, matted fur, filthy clothes. They aren’t alive, but yet they move.

They look puzzled by the Sheriff and the vulture (who is clumsily trying to reload his crossbow. The Sheriff doesn’t waste any time. Before they can jump, he runs for the door into the castle and slams it shut behind him.

“Boss?” says the vulture, shocked, and then several of the bears launch themselves at him. His crossbow twangs uselessly.

The Sheriff pays little mind to his henchman’s screams as he pulls the heavy bar across the door. Soon there is a loud thudding as one of the bears - the fat one, from the sounds of it - bounces against it, but the door will hold.

Five of them, one bolt in his crossbow, and the Sheriff is dreadful with his sword. Better run for it, make for the Doorway, and finally join his countrymen in the safety and freedom of the Lands Beyond.

It isn’t far, just downstairs and into the main chamber. Not an impossible run, especially if they keep busy feeding on the others.

But a stained glass window above him shatters as the two youngest bear cubs leap through. Their playful bouncing echoes about the stone walls, following the panting Sheriff down the stairs.

Out of breath, the Sheriff of Nottingham turns and fires his crossbow, but his hands are shaking too much. Grimacing at the youthful apparitions of death in front of him, he tries to draw his sword, but they leap toward his face, their mouths wide, hungry, and blackened with congealed blood.

So falls the Castle of the Door.