by Chris McTrustry
art by Laura Pelick

    The Keep stood dark, shrouded in early morning mist. Norco's nag shifted uneasily under his weight, and a chill breeze nipped his ears. His hand clenched tighter around the neck of the vessel he was entrusted to deliver to the Keep's mistress.
    "I don't like this," he muttered, gently patting the nag's flank. But a quest was a quest. Honour bound, Norco slid out of the saddle, tethered the nag and drew his short sword. His predecessor had warned him of the Keep - and its perils. Norco's ambitions lay further afield than mere courier and to advance further - in any field - the one thing he needed to be was alive.
    Senses tingling, Norco crept along the path leading up to the Keep. Isolated and impregnable, it rose before him, dark and foreboding. He heard the yowl first. The beast came at him from the right. Sweeping past at speed, it body slammed him against the wall of the outer bailey. His sword clattered onto the cobbles and disappeared in the swirling mists. But the vessel stayed firm in his hand. He'd come too far to fail at the first hurdle. Ahead he glimpsed the gate house, portcullis raised, and a plan formed quickly in his mind. He slowly raised himself onto his haunches and listened... Hoarse breathing, snorting, drifted across the breeze. The beast was so close its rancid breath washed over him. He listened, waiting for a sign... A deep snort and a scraping of claws alerted him of the beast's next attack. Norco sprang into a crouched sprint. Focussed on the gatehouse, he drove his legs hard and drew his dirk.  The beast's head speared through the mists to Norco's left, it's fangs bared, its red eyes wide. Within inches of the beast's gaping jaws, Norco dove, full length, slashing at the thick rope holding up the portcullis. It rattled down, smacking the beast a glancing blow, both stunning and pinning it. Success!
    A cough rasped above Norco, then a face appeared in the murder hole. Wide browed, creased with wrinkles and surrounded by matted grey hair, the face smiled.
    "Got here alright, then?"
    "Y-yes," Norco stammered. "Good morning, madam."
     "Hope Rover behaved himself," the face said. "He can be a little playful at times. Over zealous, you know?"
     Norco nodded and placed the vessel on the courtyard floor. A low groan rumbled across the ground. Norco glimpsed the pinned beast - though stunned, it was slowly regaining its senses. Slowly. A fine plan. Norco mentally patted himself on the back as he hoisted the portcullis. The beast moaned and rolled onto its side. Whistling a merry tune, Norco stepped over it and ambled on his way.
     "I hope that milk is low fat?"
    The question stopped Norco dead. Damn, he thought. He looked up at the face and grinned sheepishly.
     "Right then," he said, letting his gaze drop to the beast, now almost back on its feet, its eyes glowing, mouth salivating. "I'll be right back."
   Background by Windy's Web.