“What’s this? Don’t remember seeing this ‘ere before?” Herbert scratched his head.
Herbert was a poacher. He didn’t have much money and meat was too expensive to buy. His cottage was adjacent to huge woods which teemed with wildlife. ‘Rich pickings’ he called it and he was a master bowman.
He was in the East woods as dusk began to fall; he hadn’t been that way for a while hence his surprise at what he found. He crouched down to examine the perfect circle of unfamiliar toadstools; these were bright red and seemed to glow. His Ma told him of fairy rings in the woods, but he never believed her. “Never tread in a fairy ring, you never know where you’ll end up” she warned him.
“Load of tosh!” he said derisively and stepped right into the centre. He chuckled as nothing happened then with a whooshing noise the ground opened beneath him and he shot downwards, landing on a pile of straw.
As he gawped around the huge cavern his eyes widened and jaw dropped, for everywhere he looked huge sparkling emeralds stuck out of the walls. Now this really is rich pickings, he thought wandering to the nearest wall. He pulled on one and found it easy to dislodge. Soon he’d filled all his pockets.
He needed to find an exit and looked up to find the entrance completely closed. The cavern had three passages, but which one to choose? After deliberating for a minute, he decided to take the one which led in the direction of his cottage and set off.
Laden down by the emeralds’ weight he made slow progress, but after a while, he heard noises from ahead. He continued cautiously, pressing himself closer to the wall, stopping near a large open space containing ugly little men and women with pointed ears and squashed faces the colour of toads; a strange mixture of green and brown as if an artist hadn’t mixed the colours properly on his pallet. They’d been eating and calling to each other when abruptly a deafening silence settled over the area.
“We’ve a thief among us,” a voice cried out. Herbert peeped into the area and spotted someone wearing a crown pointing in Herbert’s direction. He tried to make his escape, but lady luck wasn’t on his side. Within a heartbeat he was surrounded with spears pointed at him. They weren’t big, but didn’t want to find out how sharp they were. Herbert was forced into the cave and made to kneel before the King.
“Why are you stealing from us, stranger?”
Herbert was quaking in his worn down boots. “I-I’m a poor man without money to eat proper. I dunno ‘ow I got ‘ere, but when I saw the emeralds I thought it’d give me enough money to live in comfort.” He said honestly, his voice quivering with fright.
“But you’re greedy. You’ve taken more jewels than you need so you must face a challenge. If you defeat the beast, you may keep all the jewels and we’ll send you home. If not . . . well it depends on whether you survive. The gems disappeared from his pockets filling a basket beside him.
“Take him down,” the King ordered.
At the end of another passage, Herbert’s eyes nearly exploded outwards at the most peculiar creature he’d ever seen; part saber-tooth tiger and part lizard. The fangs on the beast were huge, the tips black. He was left without weapons and the Goblins backed away.
I’m its next meal, he thought, petrified. The beast prowled toward him, sniffed the air then its paw lashed out. Herbert jumped back out of reach. I need to use my brains here. He began to circle the beast watching his every move, a paw lashed out again; Herbert wasn’t so lucky – it ripped into his arm and blood began to seep from the furrowed wounds. The tiger paused to lick the meat and blood from his paw giving Herbert an opening; he dashed forward and leapt onto its back clasping both hands around its neck, pulling back and squeezing with every bit of strength he possessed.
The beast roared, twisted, bucked and shook its body. It twirled, jumped, rolled and thrashed in every direction, but still Herbert desperately clung on. Eventually it sank to the floor closing his eyes. Herbert climbed off, shaking, his arms throbbing from the effort. The Goblins escorted him back and regaled the King with an account of the battle. Staring at Herbert he pronounced,
“You’ve done well, thief, but you haven’t won as you’re injured, nor have you lost. We’ll send you home, but heed my warning - never come here again!”
Herbert was taken back to the hay bale and with a whooshing sound, he found himself back in the fairy ring. He jumped out, running home in fright, not daring to look back.
When he arrived, he wearily removed his jacket and placed it on a chair. Going to the sink to bathe his throbbing wounds, he found they’d disappeared entirely and the pain slowly subsided. He stared in disbelief examining every part of his arm, but nothing remained.
Deciding to go to bed, he grabbed his jacket intending to hang it up when he thought he heard a clunking noise coming from a pocket. He put his hand in and pulled out 4 large emeralds, more than enough to give him comfort for the rest of his days.
Carlie M A Cullen is the author of newly released novel Heart Search, blogger extraordinaire and loyal friend to many -both human and mythical.