Prince Karl stretched and yawned luxuriously, the sun felt good on his skin. He was reclining on the balcony adjoining his and Merry's bedchamber in Castle Vard. He always enjoyed her presence, but since she was away attending a cousins wedding at Castle Lancshire, he was taking the opportunity to enjoy the solitude.
Nightshade and Sage, their dragon companions, were off hunting craggy mountain sheep which they considered a delicacy; the beasts were fleet and agile and far from easy prey which added spice to the hunt.
Eldrich, their warrior friend, had journeyed to a village two day's ride from the castle to see a new style of sword wrought by an experienced armorer to the Crown.
Karl sipped at his goblet of mead, then closed his eyes and napped.
The gentle rocking of the coach was making Princess Merry drowsy. They should be arriving at Castle Lancshire by early evening and she was looking forward to seeing her sisters and cousins again.
WHIT! WHITWHITWHIT! WHITWHITWHITWHITWHIT!
Without warning, the air was filled with stubby arrows, more like oversized darts. First the coach driver, then the guard and two footmen toppled from their perches, dead before they hit the ground. Pierced repeatedly, the horses stumbled and fell, the coach slamming into their lifeless bodies sending Merry tumbling to the floor.
Stunned, she heard a babble of oddly pitched voices outside, and then the coach door was jerked open and a quartet of grotesque, wide eyed faces with tangled beards and wild shocks of hair gazed at her malevolently. Trolls!
She cursed and kicked at them, pausing for a second to draw her fighting dagger Snake Fang from it's scabbard. Gnarled hands reached for her and were met by the flashing blade, sending blood flying. Her lips drawn back in a fighting snarl, she slashed at her attackers until a blow to her head sent her plunging into darkness.
"My prince," cried an agitated squire, "An urgent message has arrived from Castle Lancshire for you."
Karl jerked awake and took the rolled paper from the boy's hand.
"It arrived but moments ago by carrier pigeon, sir," the squire continued. "I brought it straightaway."
'Karl', he read, 'Merry has not arrived as planned. We fear she may be in danger. Princess Hyacinth'. Hyacinth was Merry's eldest sister, level headed and cool, she was not an alarmist; therefore, something must be wrong.
"My prince, my prince," cried Roseanthe. It was one of Merry's ladies in waiting waving a ragged piece of parchment as she dashed into the room. "The Trolls, they have m'lady, they demand ransom; this is horrible, horrible."
Karl read the ransom note with his warrior's anger mounting. The little fiends were demanding all the children in the castle under the age of four to be delivered to them by the rising of the full moon, or Merry would be cooked alive over a slow fire and eaten.
He slammed a massive fist down on a serving table breaking it in two as the squire and lady in waiting trembled before him.
"If they harm a single hair of my beloveds head, I will slaughter every last one of them," He roared. "Bring me my armor, my sword; I want two score fully armed guardsmen ready to ride in one hour. Swift and terrible shall be my vengeance upon these vermin."
"Now is not the time for hasty action, my son," said Queen Charlotte as she swept into the room. Stately in her flowing robes, her smooth, rosy skin and flashing blue eyes beling the fact she was two score and four years of age and had ruled the kingdom since she was declared queen at the age of fifteen in an arranged marriage.
She had buried three husbands, two of whom died in battle and one of Swamp Fever and still possessed the joie de vivre of a woman half her age. The squire and lady in waiting bowed and curtseyed, and then left the room.
"If you attempt a full on attack, they will slit her throat before you can rescue her," she continued. "We must reason on this problem together."
"You are right, mother," Karl replied, his battle lust fading.
When Merry awakened, her head ached abominably from the swelling lump on the back of her head. She seemed to be in a shed intended for livestock, as there was straw on the floor and stalls lining one wall. The air was redolent with the odor of manure and stale grain. A thick rope was tied around her wrists and another around her left ankle and secured to a screw eye in a support timber.
Glimmers of light came through cracks and holes in the walls, but the overall effect was one of dimness and decay. Snake Fang was gone from it's scabbard, so she had no weapons save her long hairpins and her fingernails. She would have to bide her time until an opportunity to escape presented itself. She slumped against the stall partition, hating the trolls.
A blaze of light momentarily blinded her as the shed door opened and five stunted figures waddled in, four carrying lances. As they moved closer, the odor from their unwashed bodies made her want to retch. It was four males and one female, uniformly twisted and ugly; their only garments a ragged cloth over their loins. They appeared very much alike, the female apparent by the shriveled dugs on her chest and the long mat of stringy hair.
"Our captive has awakened," she said in a voice like stones grinding together. "I'm afraid we have no more suitable accommodations for such a fine lady, but you would not fit in our burrows. If your castle provides us with your ransom quickly enough, you will not have to wait long."
"Where are my coachmen, my footmen?" Mary barked, "What have you done with them?"
"They, along with your horses, provided the makings of a delicious stew," the crone said, cackling evilly. "We have not had such a feast in many a moon."
"You ate them?" Mary replied, feeling a gorge rising in her throat.
"Oh my yes, and a tasty repast it was too. Now when do you think your castle will send us the ransom we requested?"
Karl shrugged into a long, black robe, pulling the hood over his head. Beneath the robe, he was clad in cured leather armor that was capable of deflecting daggers and swords. After a discussion, he and his mother had decided on stealth and guile instead of force. They had sent a note acquiescing to the Trolls demands and saying that an unescorted wagonload of children would be arriving at their redoubt forthwith. The Trolls accepted this and agreed to the exchange.
Actually the enclosed wagon was to be a decoy and while the Trolls attention was focused on it, Karl would sneak into their stronghold, free Merry and they would escape. The wagon would contain a platoon of guardsmen would attack and wreak vengeance on the kidnappers.
"Children," Merry said, her horror turning to fury and disgust, "Do you wish to eat them as well?"
"No indeed," the crone replied. "They are much too valuable for that. Living underground as we do has rendered us sterile, and although we are long lived, we do incur losses in our ranks that must be filled. We kidnap children whenever we can, treat them with our potions and turn them into Trolls. We lost many of our number in a recent cave-in, so we have resorted to this ransom method to fill in the gaps in our population."
Merry was silent, her mind contemplating rosy cheeked, innocent children being turned into these loathsome creatures and shuddered involuntarily.
"Are you cold?" the crone asked.
"We're nearing the place of meeting my lord," murmured the guardsman driving the wagon.
Karl nodded in assent, dropped from the wagon's tailboard and disappeared into the forest.
Merry barely stifled a scream as a huge hand covered her mouth and a voice said "It is I, Merry. Do not make a sound." She shook her head 'yes'.
"Karl!" she whispered as he pulled back his hood. "I knew you would rescue me. Where are the others?"
"They are creating a diversion so we may escape," he whispered in reply, severing the ropes with his dagger. "We must make haste. Even now the Trolls may have discovered our deception."
As if in answer to his comment, horns began to blow shrilly and the air was filled with hoarse shouts and bellows.
Karl slipped off a knapsack saying "Here is your armor and a sword, dress quickly."
Merry was lacing up her armor when the stable door flew open and a quartet of trolls burst in armed with short swords. Roaring defiance, Karl met them swinging Thunderbolt is flashing arcs and in a twinkling the trolls were bloody heaps on the straw covered floor.
"That's torn it," Karl barked, "Out the back door."
They rushed to it, threw it open, were confronted by a skirmish line of trolls armed to the teeth and ducked back inside as a thrown lance thudded into the wood door.
"Trapped, curse the luck," Karl hissed.