With Illustration by Florence Scott
When Mrs Grinn next looked out of the window, she found herself in a wide blackened cavern surrounded by layer upon layer of shelf-like ledges. A broad angled hole opened the ceiling to let a thick pillar of dusty light part the shadows. Under this natural spotlight the rocky uneven floor of the cavern revealed itself to be in fact mounds upon mounds of tat: A plethora of carriages, standards, rooftops and other jumbled trinkets from seemingly all-across Urph, its surface broken only be the occasional house-sized stalagmite bursting through. It all had the density of a well-developed city, if that city had been collected into a bag and been used as a shot put in the Titan Olympics fifty-years-running. As well as that, it was upside down and spinning wildly, or at least that’s what it seemed to Mrs Grinn as she tumbled out of her wagon window.
It all got a bit chaotic from there. Mrs Grinn tried to get some purchase off of the pile of tat but found nothing to be fixed in place. She rolled down one of the many slopes, sliding for a while at a time when she met an upturned table or folded rug, before eventually coming to a halt before a heap of tapestries.
‘Ow’ she gasped, muffled into the fabric.
Her wagon trollied past her downhill and collided soundlessly into a statue of a long-forgotten warrior. She leaned onto her elbow and looked up to the hole at the top of the cavern. What little she saw of the sky showed no indication of the dragon. Likely, it dropped its treasure off, then flew right off again.
She should have known something was off as soon as Mrs Berrit strolled outside of the wagon door. It’s very unlike the cat to walk out of an argument. She normally preferred to stare Mrs Grinn down with her piercing wayward eyes until it got awkward enough for the witch to admit defeat. It was in that moment when Mrs Berrit stopped about thirty feet from the wagon entrance and looked to the sky that Mrs Grinn twigged that the cat knew something she didn’t (It was never good when Mrs Berrit was looking forward to something, and her expression had been especially gleeful in this instance). Then, with a lurching crunch, a talon took the place where the front doorway should be, and before Mrs Grinn could even curse, the floor of her wagon came up to meet the back of her head. From that point she was out completely. Even then, when she had next woken up, it had only been for a few seconds before the ceiling took the place of the floor and she was out again.
She nursed the pair of lumps on each side of her head. That damned cat had gone too far this time. She could imagine her excuse now, Oh I didn’t summon the dragon, I just declined to warn you of its approach. It was you who were too busy calling me names to pay attention.
With the help of a lot of unnecessary grunts and curses, the witch convinced her aching limbs to stand her upright, or as close as could be achieved, given the lack of solid ground. There was no floor to see beyond the plies of tapestries, paintings and ornaments, and it was hard to tell what would slide or tip under the weight of her foot. She chose to first step on the painting of a grassy meadow as it felt the most natural to walk upon. Her foot fell through it immediately and twisted her ankle.
It was then she heard a hoarse cry of pain echoing off the chamber walls. She had just cried herself, and a cavern like this does make echoes likely, but what made this strange was that the echo sounded a lot more like an old man being stabbed than a witch twisting her ankle through a canvass.
‘Ow’ she called out again.
‘Argh!’ replied the echo.
‘I said Ow, not Argh.’
‘That’s no better. What sort of echo are you?’
Following the sound, Mrs Grinn reached the edge of a ridge and looked to the sunlit portion of the cavern. What she saw there was almost too much to process in one go.
If you are anything like me, at the sign of someone in immediate danger, you would like to imagine that you’d be able to summon the courage to step in, to help the persons in need and to stop the persons perpetrating the situation, to forego your own safety and be the hero you always dreamed of being. In reality, with these situations it is often hard to figure out what the hell is going on, let alone resolve it.
A pale orc with a crude eyeball painted upon her forehead had an elegantly armoured knight pinned to the floor with heel of her boot. It was him who had, and was still crying in pain under the weight of the great orc’s foot. To their right, a lady who in most situations could be imagined as looking quite regal wept from within an iron cage, clutching a man with a flouncy feathered hat through the bars. His distant eyes, the spear piercing his stomach, and the crimson dripping from his open mouth, all declared him dead.
‘Finish me!’ called the old knight as he struggled fruitlessly under the pressure held on his chest. ‘Finish me here, but let it never be said that the Iron Knight didn’t stand up for his people to the bitter end. Know cyclops, that I shall be avenged!’
'Hahahahahahahahahahahaha’ said the orc, which was spoken just as stiffly as you just read it. ‘Avenged? I think not.’
She leaned further onto her foot and the old knight bawled and shrieked in agony.
Mrs Grinn scuttled back into towards the wagon to look for some sort of weapon, keeping one eye on the events outside as she did so. It hurt her eyes considerably, she didn’t know how Mrs Berrit could make it look so easy.
‘Let him go, you beast!’ shrieked the lady from the cage as she clutched her lifeless friend.
‘I’m not sure what you think you’ll be able to do all locked up in there, milady’ snarled the orc flatly.
'Anything, anything you ask of me’ the trapped lady bawled.
‘I’m not sure what you think you’ll be able to do all locked up in there, milady’ snarled the orc again, just as flatly as before.
For a moment, all were silent. With one eye Mrs Grinn saw the orc furrowing her brow, making the painted eye on her forehead crinkle up; with the other she saw just the item she would need. The wind staff must have fallen out of her wagon window and onto the floor. The green gems imbedded in the wood shone like sunlight through canopies of leaves.
‘Um. You will never be able to break the Sons of Iron’ croaked the old knight. ‘Not the specific way you’re doing it anyway.’
‘Oh, yeah. Thanks’ said the orc, rolling her shoulder back. ‘I should have known fire could never stop iron; it will only anneal it. There is only one way to break iron, that is to beat it with a hammer until it shears!’
The cyclops-orc swung her war-hammer high, but Mrs Grinn was already way ahead of her. Before the creature had the chance to bring the hammer down, the witch fired a discharge of wind strong enough to easily stir the orc’s hair and lift her robes…
The hammer came down into the knight’s face regardless, but the wind did make it look a lot more dramatic. As the current of air elegantly coiled and swelled around her dreadlocks, the orc turned to the witch looking somewhat bemused, then raised her fist high and gave her a hearty thumbs-up and nod of approval.
‘And scene’ called the impaled bard as he spat the blood out of his mouth.
‘Can we find somewhere else for me to lie next time dear Fllegm, this floor is hardly comfortable’ growled the dead knight.
‘We’ll get you some pillows to make your last stand on Sir Kenneth, don’t worry’ said the bard as he removed the spear that pierced his chest from under his armpit. ‘And Olen, you need to learn your lines. This is the most pivotal scene, if you can’t sell this, we lose the audience.’
‘Forgive me if I’m not devoted to the same role I’ve played a hundred times’ said the orc.
‘But Olen, you’re the best at playing the baddies’ said the lady from outside the open cage. ‘No-one does monsters and goons as well as you do.’
‘Uhuh’ said Olen, ‘Glad I’m appreciated. Thanks, Beccus, I suppose.’
‘Speaking of the villain’ said Sir Kenneth, the knight as Olen hauled him to his feet. ‘Wouldn’t it be more satisfying for the knight to kill the beast at the end? That’s always how I knew it as a young squire.’
‘If we were doing the common tavern version, maybe’ said Fllegm. ‘But Kezra’s marathoning tales of the fifth age, if we have the Cyclops King lose the battle, we mess up the continuity.’
‘I recall that she really enjoyed the tavern version of it last time’ said Kenneth.
‘Indeed, she did, it’s one of her favourites. However, the tavern version works as a standalone play, but if we want to follow this up with the Legend of the Sons, as planned, then we need to do the historically accurate version. Do you really want to listen to another one of the dragon’s plot-hole rants?’
‘Oh heavens, please no’ groaned Olen.
‘I don’t think I could bear it’ said Beccus.
‘That is a well-made point Fllegm’ said Kenneth. ‘I think that would be something best avoided.’
The four of them cringed and deflated as they considered the thought of it.
‘On another note, that wind effect really worked, whoever you are’ the bard addressed Mrs Grinn. ‘Some more atmospheric touches like that could really elevate this piece to a new level.’
‘Oh, that wasn’t intentional. I was trying to kill the orc’ admitted the witch. ‘I had no idea what was going on. Glad it worked out though. Sorry for trying to kill you duck.’
‘Don’t worry’ said Olen. ‘I get it a lot.’
‘Never mind the special effects,’ snapped Lady Beccus towards her cohorts, ‘She’s a witch yes? To be able to make magic like that, she must be! I expect she has some spell or concoction that could get us out of here.’
‘It’s no good to ask favours from witches my ladyship’ warned the old knight. ‘There is always a trap hidden beneath their offers.’
‘Not quite’ added Fllegm. ‘As tradition, they stick to their word, at least in the tales they do, the trick comes in anticipating the intended meaning of said words.’
‘I’m right here’ pointed out Mrs Grinn.
‘She’s right’ said Olen. ‘She is right there. Let’s floor her.’
‘That wouldn’t be wise’ Mrs Grinn would have tried to say sternly as the orc came charging towards her. The next second and she was already pinned to the floor and the last two words came out as a gasp.
‘I know’ replied the pale orc as she twisted the witch’s arm behind her back. ‘We’re desperate.’
A prepared witch could have defeated the lot of them in a matter of seconds in at least a hundred different ways; or a hundred ways all at once if she was particularly peeved. The key word there however is prepared. Flustered and dizzy as she was, Mrs Grinn was far from prepared and very much a pushover. The witch was coiled up into the drapes and tapestries of the cavern floor as if she were an un-floured rolling pin pushed over uncooked pastry.
‘Alright,’ said the knight, ‘I’ve been in this hole for far too long. I’m tired of doing plays and I’m tired of being someone’s possession. What say you witch? If we set you free and choose not to kill you, will you promise to help us from this hole in return of us refraining from feeding you to Kezra?’
‘Done’ said Mrs Grinn easily. ‘Unwrap me and I’ll do what I can to get you out of this cavern.’
‘Alive and well?’ said Sir Kenneth.
‘And not a frog or a slug or something?’ added Beccus.
‘Indeed. We would very much like to stay as human as possible’ said Fllegm. ‘And not in eternal pain or with bones missing or some other such nonsense. Can you promise that we can remain the same as we are now, with the only difference being that we are outside this cavern not in it?’
‘On solid ground’ said the orc to the appraising nods of the others. ‘We’d like to be out of this cavern on solid ground. Not in mid-air or above an active volcano or in the middle of the sea.’
‘Somewhere with breathable air too’ said Beccus.
‘Yes, yes. I’ll do my best, I promise’ said the witch.
The knight nodded to the white orc. ‘Olen.’
The orc rolled Mrs Grinn out of the banners with the elegance of a burrito in reverse.
‘Now then’ said the witch easing herself to her feet, ‘a little backstory would be good. How long have you been in here?’
‘A few years now maybe’ said Fllegm the bard. ‘Close to a decade, I think. And I’m one of the newbies. Old Kenneth here has been here since he was in his thirties. Only the gods remember how long ago that was.’
‘How on earth have you not been eaten?’ asked the witch. ‘Only this is a dragon’s lair, and dragons aren’t renowned for not eating people who wander in uninvited.’
‘Ah, you see Kezra, she’s somewhat of a collector’ explained Kenneth. ‘She likes to acquire things of interest or historical significance. For example, in my time, I was a renowned warrior. Lady Beccus here was betrothed to a King, making her as close as Kezra can get to a queen or princess. Fllegm was quite the popular touring bard. And Olen…’
‘And I’m just a rare curiosity’ said the albino orc. ‘Special edition.’
‘As long as we’re entertaining, we’re kept here. So far, we’ve been earning our worth by performing these plays for her week after week. No gold for Kezra; she likes more prefers things,’ said the bard. ‘Of course, what items are historically significant to a dragon are very different to what your layman would consider significant.’
‘And I’m assuming all attempts to find an exit have failed then?’ said Mrs Grinn.
‘Oh, yes. Many have tried to find a way out’ said Sir Kenneth gravely. ‘Many have left our little party in search of a crack or tunnel to escape through. Countless have gone. None returned.’
‘None returned’ said the witch. ‘Have you ever considered that’s because they may have found the way out?’
‘We can ask’ said Beccus. She cupped her hands to her mouth to shout across the mounds of tat. ‘Torra! Torra! Any luck finding an exit yet?’
They waited for an answer.
‘None yet unfortunately’ shouted back Torra, echoey and distant. ‘I’ll keep looking. Sorry.’
‘No need to apologise Torra, you keep at it.’
‘Will do! Hopefully I’ll see you guys again soon.’
‘Hopefully so. Bye for now!’
They all shouted their farewells to each other.
‘Torra is the daughter of a famous Dwarven explorer’ explained Fllegm. ‘She inherited the talent for exploring well and good. However, it’s arguably the skill of actually discovering things that is the important bit.’
‘What was that!?’
‘Nothing Torra. I was just explaining to our new friend about your father.’
‘Ah. Good good’ shouted back the explorer.
‘Guess it’s lucky I dropped in then’ said Mrs Grinn. ‘You lot are in desperate need of some magic. I think I should have just the item you need.’
It shouldn’t be too hard to get them out of the cave, thought Mrs Grinn. A simple flick of her Nomad’s Compass and they could walk out of her wagon to wherever she wanted (Well, that’s maybe a bit of an oversimplification of the process. Imagine a plate with a ball on it. Tilt that plate, and the ball will roll towards the lowest point, until either you tilt the plate differently or you let it roll off. Well, the Nomad’s Compass works like that plate, and makes you into the ball. Want to go to south? Tilt the compass so south is downhill, and off you go. Just put it level again when you get there. Wherever you want to go you can make downhill… It helps if you don’t think about it too much. And I mean that literally; thinking about it ruins the magic. The worst thing you can do while rolling downhill up the inside of a cliff is to try and rationalise it, at which point reality will acknowledge the oversight and immediately remedy it, causing your sudden and terminal collision into the rocks below. Better to just close your eyes or think about other things.)
‘Oh, and madam witch,’ called out the bard as she made her way to her wagon. ‘If the dragon comes before you’ve found your item, try not to be seen by her.’
‘Fllegm!’ cried Beccus in a harsh whisper. ‘What are you thinking!? She’ll suspect we’re up to something if she finds her hiding. Remember what happened when she found Five-Armed-Tim trying to climb out through the ceiling?’
‘Aye’ said the knight. ‘I’ve seen many a limb severed on the battlefield but never so many from a single man.’
‘One of his arms landed near me. It was horrible’ called Torra from afar.
‘At least we were saved the trouble of scattering the ashes’ said Olen dolefully.
‘Not to worry, I can turn invisible’ said the witch from her wagon’s door. ‘Shan’t need to though. Just need to find my compass and then we’re all golden.’
‘There we go’ said Fllegm, happy to have his reasoning backed up. ‘We are not in any danger. We’ll be free of this place soon, and we can all go on our separate ways.’
The lady Beccus threw the bards hand off her shoulders but her stance softened.
‘Fine’ she said. ‘But if we get torched alive your last words better be you screaming Sorry Beccus.’
Though everything the witch said was true she had chosen to omit a couple of facts. She could turn invisible, but not on command, and not before sixty hours after a big meal, lest there be a mess of half-digested food floating about. Still, she would do her best to hide. She had no intention of being someone’s possession and it suited her better not be seen for the moment at least. What she said about the compass was true, all she needed to do was to find it in her wagon and they could all head off.
Mrs Grinn vaguely recalled putting the compass in a safe space, somewhere she was certainly going to remember. She waded through the clutter into the toppled wagon and surveyed the wreck of her home. It was hard to tell where the dragon’s mess ended, and her own mess began. Now she just had to figure out which place it was she thought she’d never forget.
‘It’ll be somewhere’ the witch reassured herself. ‘It has to be somewhere. Should only take a minute to find.’
Unfortunately for Mrs Grinn that ‘somewhere’ was a two hundred miles away enclosed in the paw of a very self-satisfied cat.
Though Mrs Berrit was proud of her improvisation, she was truly disappointed that she didn’t catch too much of Mrs Grinn’s shock before she was launched into the air and out of mocking distance. Fortunately, the glimpse of doubt she did see just before the dragon’s claw came through the door was wonderous. However, it did mean that she was now alone in the middle of nowhere with not a soul to feed her anything worthwhile.
She considered for a moment how the old witch worked the compass. She then gave up trying to remember and picked it up into her mouth.
Food she thought to herself with her eyes closed. Nice, filling, delicious and not at all wholesome food. She presently proceeded to tumble and roll in the most clumsy and artless fashion a cat has ever travelled towards whatever store house most resembled the one she envisioned.
Hours later, and the search had gone well as far as Mrs Grinn was concerned. She had so far found three pairs of brand-new socks she had forgotten she had bought, a packs worth of in-date mints, a lute she had never bothered to learn, and the lid of a teapot that had been missing for a literal age. The pot it belonged to had unfortunately smashed during the tumble, but that didn’t stop Mrs Grinn testing its fit on the numerous other teapots she had recovered that were still intact. In fact, for half an hour now she had been absent-mindedly swapping teapot lids rather than looking for the whatever-it-was… What actually was it again? She had her crochet kit next to her, so it may be the little booklet of projects she was needing to find. She’d had them for at least a century now, may as well put them to use.
She patted herself on the cheek to focus herself. It was the compass she needed to find. Not the crochet patterns: the compass.
She stood up and pulled open the nearest draw. In there was a gladiator battle poster from three decades ago. She began reading it. The battle of the ages is upon us! Mag the Marauder VS Tug the Troll. The man with the heart of a beast against the beast with the heart of a man…
‘Stop’ she told herself. She would not get distracted. She had already spent far too long getting distracted. Kezra would be back soon and she wasn’t quite sure how well dragons could pick up the scent of witches, or how long ago she had a proper bath. No more reading. No more, ineffectual tat-ordering.
Just. Pure. Focus.
Removed from her stupor, the witch noticed how dark it had become. Surely, it couldn’t be night already? She hadn’t been searching for that long. She drew open the curtains to check outside. Oddly enough, she found outside checking in on her. Where she had expected an expansive cavern submerged in a carpet of tat and treasure, she instead found herself looking at a single great eye.
‘Oh, I just love it when they have the figures included’ said Kezra.
Written by Calvin Lowe
Illustration by Florence Scott of Ghastly Creatures
Concepts and ideas from the collective consciousness of Alastair Fleming and Calvin Lowe
The Vague Grinn & Berrit Chronology
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