The Ancient Grotto
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T HE DYING HORSE STUMBLED BUT gamely plowed on up the slope,
blood with every step. Overburdened with two riders, it finally collapsed at the crest of the ridge.
Rolling free of the dead mount, Colin scrambled behind a boulder and unlimbered his bow. Roland did the same on the other side. The flurry of arrows caught the pursuing Aragonese patrol by surprise and the troopers beat a hasty retreat, regrouping just out of arrow range.
“How many arrows do you have?”
“I’m out,” answered Roland. “How about you?”
“Three left.” Colin cast a poignant glance at the crumpled horse. The old boy had given his all for them. It would be a long time before Colin found another to match his spirit. He licked his lips, trying to summon a bit of moisture from his parched mouth. They were well and truly cooked now. Any attempt to run and the Aragonese lancers would ride them down.
Down below, the patrol dismounted and convened a war council, determining how best to assault their quarry. Only three arrows stood between the two brigands and sudden death. Colin’s feral grin betrayed his intent to sell his life dearly.
“Best get ready, they’ll be coming soon,” he warned
“Don’t worry. They may kill us but they can’t
“Hold on. I think I found something.”
Colin rose to his knees as the lancers began to spread out on the slope below. Keeping his eyes on the Aragonese troopers, he tracked Roland’s movements by the scrape of boots behind him. Suddenly Roland appeared at his side, breathing heavily.
“I found a cave. Hold these bastards off while I fix the rope, then follow me.” Roland snatched the coiled rope from the dead horse and disappeared to the rear just as the lancers began moving up the hill in a skirmish line.
Colin grinned ruthlessly. Whatever else you could say about the Aragonese, they were efficient.
He waited patiently for the patrol to advance within
arrow range. His first arrow took the squad leader in the throat
and the second skewered a trooper through his muscular thigh. The
third and final arrow shattered on a boulder as the remaining soldiers
went to ground under the barrage.
Throwing the now useless bow to the ground, Colin
scrambled over the ridge.
Just over the crest a black hole beckoned. Colin grabbed the rope and started descending, hand over hand. The dark coolness of the cave was a welcome relief after the dazzling heat of the sun-drenched ridge.
Colin blinked his eyes, trying to adjust to the
A dreadful scream shattered the stillness.
Colin froze, suspended in the shaft of light upon the swaying rope. Frantically he tried to pierce the darkness. Below him the scream tapered off and died with a horrific gurgle. Hairs prickling in horror, he heard a heavy shifting as a large body moved in the darkness beneath his feet.
A dragging sound echoed through the unseen chamber
and gradually receded in the distance. Colin waited, hoping for a
sign or remark from Roland. His knotted muscles began to cramp
with the strain of holding the slim rope.
The light from above abruptly dimmed. Looking skyward, Colin recognized the ring of silhouetted helms. The Aragonese soldiers had found the cave entrance. Caught between certain death above and unknown horrors below,
Colin began sliding down the rope. He breathed
a prayer that the he would reach the cavern floor before they thought
to cut the rope.
Suddenly the rope went slack and he hurtled through space. Somehow he kept the presence of mind to bend his knees and roll upon impact. Rising swiftly, he scuttled into the shadows, hiding from the soldiers above. Sharp pain drew a muffled oath as his head discovered the hidden wall of the cavern. He sat quietly, hoping his escape had been unobserved.
Laughter drifted down from above and the shifting
shadows told him that the Aragonese had left. Colin sat quietly
against the wall, rubbing his aching head. Blood trickled down
his face and his scraped hands and knees burned fiercely. He
wished once more for a few drops of water to wet his dry mouth.
Gradually the details of the cavern emerged as his eyes accustomed themselves to the murk. The room was circular and roughly three spears across. The walls were raw stone and dome shaped, tapering to the hole above. The floor, however, was flat and littered with debris. The open bits of flooring showed unmistakable signs of having been worked by human hands. The shaft of light from the opening exposed the rotted remains of a ladder in the center of the chamber. Two dark shadows rose from the
floor opposite him, looming shapes which filled him with a vague unease. He used
his hands to push himself up and shouted in surprise as something moved beneath his fingers.
Scrambling backwards he drew his sword. The “wall” he had stumbled into was actually a stone seat, and upon that seat sat a man! Colin crouched, anticipating an attack. The seated figure merely stared from gaping sockets. Colin realized that whatever this had been, the thing was long dead. Steeling himself, Colin approached the corpse. Dried skin stretched over brittle bones, and stringy hair hung over rotted garments. This was not a man!
The bones were bigger and thicker than a man, the forehead ridged and knotted in a grotesque mockery of the human profile. Jagged fangs leered from the open mouth, and each arm terminated in a hand with only three fingers. Once fine clothing lay rotting and moldy. An iron belt and helm had crumbled to red dust, while a web-covered saber lay across the figure’s knees. The skeleton was seated on a stone chair, which was hewn from the living rock of the chamber. Much to Colin’s chagrin, there was no sign of gold or treasure anywhere.
Turning, he realized the other two shadows were also stone chairs with corpses. Almost identical to the first skeleton, one held a stone mace while the other balanced an ancient spear with a warped shaft. Roland was nowhere to be seen. A splash of blood near the center of the floor spoke to the violent nature of his absence. Colin wiped his sweaty palms on his shirt and adjusted his grip on the sword. He could just discern a dim path through the scattered debris. It disappeared into an opening on the
Colin measured the distance to the hole above. He glanced disgustedly at the frayed rope at his feet. He looked about the chamber for another means of escape. The rough walls would give just enough purchase for a vertical ascent, but the steep angle of the arching dome ensured that no one would climb from the cavern.
Holding his sword before him, Colin moved to the dark opening in the far wall. The scrape of his boots on the ground seemed unnaturally loud. The debris was thicker here, along with a sweet cloying stench. Colin could just make out numerous bones among the scattered detritus on the floor. A small tunnel ran from the main chamber into the ridge. Huge cracks ran through the walls while rocks and boulders sat among the accumulated debris. A shaft of golden light cut the darkness a hundred feet on, offering an escape from this underground hell.
A flicker of movement to his right brought Colin’s heart into his throat. The glistening sheen of moisture drew his attention to a barely visible lump near the wall. Terror washed over the brigand as he recognized what remained of his former partner.
With a rustle of movement, the attacker was upon him. He struck out blindly and was rewarded with a piercing shriek. But a moment later he felt as if the hammer of the gods had struck him. The attacker hurtled into him with such force that he was knocked from his feet. He flew through the air to smash against the far wall. Rolling over and finding himself weaponless, he raced back into the main chamber.
Snatching the spear from the hand of the first corpse he came to, he was surprised to find that the wooden shaft was still stout. Gripping the weapon tightly, he waited for the attacker to show itself. With nowhere to run, the thief prepared to sell his life as dearly as possible.
The crunch of bones and garbage underfoot heralded the arrival of his foe. A creature of nightmare oozed forth from the protecting darkness of the tunnel into the dim light of the cavern. Gray scales and rotting skin hung from the massive frame. Fully ten feet in length and nearly four foot at the shoulder. Black ichor dripped from the ruined socket of one eye, whether the result of his blow or Roland’s previous efforts was unknown.
The thing stopped short of the central opening and raised its head. Colin remained frozen in place, sweat dripping from his face. The monster turned its massive head and loudly sniffed, dust swirling in the exposed light. The creature’s head abruptly swiveled and with a screech, it launched itself with startling speed across the chamber straight for Colin!
Colin held his ground for a moment before he lost courage and scrambled to the side. Unable to check itself in time, the creature rushed past the lithe thief. Colin plunged the spear deep into the exposed flank of the creature, but to no visible effect. The shaft snapped in his hands, leaving a jagged stub waving in the side of the beast. The massive tail pivoted with lightning speed and knocked him across the room once more.
Struggling painfully to his feet, Colin staggered towards the nearest throne to claim another weapon. Anger and resignation had replaced fear as he realized how little chance he stood of surviving the next encounter. He chuckled blackly when he recalled his earlier jibe to Roland. Perhaps they would get eaten after all! Grasping the saber from the ancient corpse, Colin maneuvered to keep the stone chair between himself and the monster.
“Come on, you bloody big beastie. I’m waiting on you.”
The creature may have understood the taunt. Whatever the reason, the thing rushed for Colin. Leaping onto the throne, Colin struck a mighty two-handed blow. To his immediate surprise, the ancient saber sheared through the thickly corded muscle of the monster and severed its leg. Black ichor gushed from the stump and an ear-shattering screech echoed through the chamber. The creature turned once more and struck at its tormentor.
Dodging the massive head with its snapping teeth,
Colin ran around the stone chair. Emerging on the far side he
struck as quickly and viciously as he could. The blade bit deep
into the hind leg of the monster, cutting muscle and sinew.
Abruptly the leg spasmed and curled into a tight knot. Realizing
that he had cut a tendon, Colin swiftly backed away from the hamstrung
creature. Even then, he barely avoided the thrashing tail of the
Colin gulped deep breathes of stale air and wiped the sweat from his eyes as he watched his enemy. Even with its grievous injuries, the deadly beast struggled to follow its prey. With both its left legs injured, it could only spin and pound the surrounding area with its massive tail. “By the Trinity!” cursed Colin. “You are a bloody piece of work, you are, mate.”
Turning his back on the stricken beast, Colin staggered through the tunnel. Emerging into the sunlight, he collapsed on a nearby boulder. The deep ache in his chest told him he had broken ribs while his blurred vision hinted at a possible concussion. Still, he was alive and his attacker was crippled. He debated retrieving his flint and steel from the dead horse and burning the monster alive, but decided that he was much too tired. Let the damn thing starve to death in its den.
His partner was dead, his mount no more. He himself was banged to hell and he had no loot to show other than an ancient saber which retained a remarkable sharpness. But down below, a verdant stripe on the valley floor promised water. The Aragonese patrol was gone and the Grand Duchies beckoned just beyond the next pass.
“By the Trinity,” he thought as he heaved himself upright, “it’s good to be alive.”
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The Ancient Grotto is copyright by Jeff Stewart. It
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