Ben gasped for air as his feet pounded on the rough stone floor beneath him. He was running full out before a scrambling horde of goblins that sought after him with blood in their wild eyes. He reached out convulsively to grab at the wall as he turned down a side corridor at a dead run, slipping on the slick stone slightly.
This was supposed to be his first outing as a monster “hunter” like his older brothers. The villagers had shared with him the rumors that they had heard there may be monsters in this old ruined castle, but Ben had not really believed them, as most of the time his brothers would discover that the true “monster” was just a bear, or a wandering pack of wolves.
His brothers had not even bothered to follow up on this supposed “lead” that Ben had run across in the local Inn, but they had merely laughed and pounded Ben’s back saying
“How about you go investigate for us, younger brother? Perhaps the big bad monsters will turn out to be a racoon or a wild, angry squirrel!”
His oldest brother Rand had placed his fingers downward next to his mouth to look like mock-fangs as his other brother Dennin laughed hysterically.
Red-faced, and defiant Ben had taken them up on the offer and had stormed off to the castle later that evening, with a hodge podge of oversized leather armor - vestlike- and a practice sword that the brothers had insisted would dispatch anything that was truly lurking there.
Ben had not really wanted to go, but his pride had prevented him from backing down now. His brothers were accomplished monster hunters, even though they were only in their late teens, and were the heroes of the village. Ben’s father doted on them all the time with small gifts or extra food at mealtimes.
Ben was the youngest, scrawny, and all elbows and knees. He didn’t aspire to become a hunter like his brothers, but his father pushed him constantly to be “more like your brave brothers” or “have a useful trade like your brothers”.
Personally, Ben thought the idea of killing monsters - no matter how fierce or destructive they may be - was not any sort of career, but he was forced to admit that his brothers were good at what they did. And it did bring money and food to the table when times were tough for everyone in the village of Canterwen.
The monsters had been created in a Great Wizard War generations ago, as two powerful wizards had conjured up all manner of beasts and creatures to attack one another in some pointless dispute over the governing of the kingdom. Ben had often wondered why on earth anyone would want to rule a land full of boring farming villages, or have to deal with all of the logistics of equipping and feeding vast armies. It all sounded dreadfully boring and tedious.
It was with this mindset of trying to prove to his father and brothers that he was more than just a “mouth to feed” that he set off to the abandoned ruins of Castle Drake. It was after dark already, and he made his way through the forest to the rotting outer wall of the castle with torch in one hand and battered sword in the other.
It only took a few moments for the small army of goblins who had obviously moved in to overpower him and toss him bound and gagged into one of the ruined cells in the dungeons below the castle. He had only managed to get out a strangled squeal in terror before they had knocked both sword and torch out his hands and pin him down in a pile of greasy, horrible smelling bodies. Did goblins ever bathe?
Ben was not without resources, however since he had spent a lot of time in the past few years helping to create nets for his brothers to trap the various creatures they would be sent out to kill. He was skilled with knots and weaving, and many times his father Issac would leave the mending of clothes and other items to him - not only because he was the youngest, but because he did such a great job.
“If only your sister was as good at mending and sewing, Ben.” he would often say. It was almost an insult to both of them, suggesting that Ben was better and traditional women’s roles, as well as a dig at his sister Lauren who had to take up the cooking and cleaning when their mother had passed away from the Fever that had swept through the village just two years ago.
Lauren was close to Ben’s age, and wanted nothing more than to become a hunter like their older brothers, but their father would have nothing of it. “You’re a lass, and lasses do not go out gallivanting around the kingdom slaying dragons and monsters. The sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be.” But she would not accept it, and her and Ben would often stay up late at night talking about how they could escape from the roles that their father kept trying to force upon them.
It was his skills with knots that had saved his life. The goblins did not seem especially smart, or perhaps underestimated Ben for being a witless village boy and only used the simplest of knots to tie his hands. After much twisting and scraped skin, Ben had managed to get his arms free and remove the gag.
Carefully, he had made his way out of the musty, stinking cell that the goblins had left him - not even bothering to lock the cell door - and he had almost reached the end of the dungeon hallway when a half-drunk goblin spotted him and sounded the alarm.
Now Ben was running for his life - barely avoiding crashing into the cold, ancient stone walls has he flung himself headlong down the corridor. He didn’t even know if this was the way out of the castle, but all he could think about was getting away from the goblins.
‘A right mess I’ve gotten myself into now. If I live through today, I’ll bet Rand and Dennin never let me live this down. ’ he thought to himself as breaths came in gasps and a stitch was forming in his side. ‘Perhaps I should just let them get me. Serve’s my brothers right for letting me go off by myself’ he thought as a tear or two escaped the corners of his eyes.
Ben did not want to die, even if it would teach his brothers a lesson. Who would keep Lauren from getting the worst of it then? Plus, Ben really really liked living.
He stumbled into another pile of old wood and rusty armor with a terrible crash, and he scrambled up to turn the corner on the long hallway. There was light just a few feet ahead of him, and for a brief hopeful moment he thought perhaps that was the way out. But then he remembered it was the middle of the night, and enough time had not passed for the sun to rise - not with the light that was coming from ahead.
With a last thrill of desperate energy, Ben flung himself toward the lighted room and burst into the room. The goblins were only a dozen paces behind him at this point - all yelling and crashing their makeshift swords and shields. Ben thought grimly that this would probably be the end of him, before his life even had had a beginning.
The sight before him stopped him in his tracks and his jaw dropped open. The goblins were forgotten. He knew now that his death would not be at their hands, but instead from the huge creature that lay before him.
Taking up much of the large room was a dragon. A very big dragon. Just like the tales had told. With red scales, a head as big as Ben was tall, and wings that were bigger than Ben’s house.
The dragon’s head was lying on the floor, and a single eye opened.