Moog the HobGoblin marched along the Great Lir's Highway, swinging his staff high above his head as though he were leading a grand parade instead of the raggle-taggle mismatched troupe which shuffled in his wake. The small band of puckish musicians played with gusto, but little competence. The tinny, tuneless cacophony was beginning to grate on Moog's nerves. He winced as the penny-whistle peeped yet another off-key note.
"Enough!" commanded Moog, spinning on a bootheel and glowering at the one-man wind section. The brownie almost choked on his mouthpiece while the remainder of the band...save one....speedily silenced their instruments.
Quint, the enthusiastic cymbalist, was not so easily deterred from his duty. Oblivious to the fact that all was now still, he clashed the twin brass disks which were nearly as big as himself and then raised his arms for a repeat performance.
"I said enough!" roared Moog. Quint stared at his leader with surprise while the cymbals, seemingly possessed with a mind all their own, were drawn to each other like magnets.
"Are you deaf?" bellowed the HobGoblin, seizing the offending objects of percussion and slamming them against Quint's ears. The tiny brownie staggered and feared he might well be deaf now, if he had not been before.
Moog sighed and signaled for everyone to rest by the side of the road. Two drummers scooped Quint from the gravel and carried him into the ditch. One went back to retrieve the cymbals but a threatening growl from Moog stopped the would-be rescuer in his tracks. The drummer sidled into the undergrowth, hoping that "out of sight" also meant "out of mind."
From the depths of his knapsack, Moog pulled a clay pipe and clenched it between his crooked, yellowed teeth. He did not smoke the pipe. He had tried that once and been violently sick. Never again, the HobGoblin had vowed. No...it was merely an ornament which Moog believed added an air of sophistication and superiority to his character. He sucked on the stem. It was a rather disgusting sound which made everyone grimace, in a veiled manner of course. Everyone but Quint, that is, who was shaking his head and wondering if the meadowlark above his head might be singing or merely opening its beak for practice. The minuscule brownie trusted it was the latter since he could discern not so much as a tiny trill of warbling.
Moog closed his eyes and contemplated his marvelous scheme...the scheme which had been hatched not far from this very spot no more than perhaps a month or two previous.
It had been quite by chance that Moog had been traveling the Great Lir's Highway at that time. The HobGoblin had been bound for parts elsewhere...where elsewhere, he could not now recall...but such a triviality was of no importance. The salient fact was that he had been traveling the Great Lir's Highway and had happened to pass the Fighting Pit located close to the Red Gryphon Inn. There, within the Pit, an altercation had been taking place. Moog had stopped to watch...and what he now referred to as the "Prodigious Proposition" had been conceived. It was so astonishingly simple, that the HobGoblin was amazed nobody had thought of it before. Or, he reasoned, maybe it was not as simple as he believed. Perhaps it was the mind of a true genius at work. Yes...he much preferred that explanation!
As the inaugural pugilists struggled, bruised and bloodied from the Pit, only to be replaced by another brace of antagonists who had an axe to grind, Moog noticed that a crowd of onlookers began to gather, mostly workers from the nearby farmlands and commodity mills, but a few who appeared to be landed gentry...doubtless guests staying at the nearby Inn. The HobGoblin grinned. If such entertainment was what they sought, then he had the perfect plan to bring them all that and more. Of course, what he intended to supply would not come totally free. Good heavens, no! There would be a price...in the form of participation fees and wagers.
Moog had rubbed his hands together and sucked noisily on his pipe, reminding himself to control that nasty little tendency toward avarice. Best not to be too greedy...initially, at least. Those who came simply to observe would be charged nothing. A title for the HobGoblin's endeavor was pure inspiration. He would call his prestigious tournament "Lord of the Pit."
And so, the "Prodigious Proposition" has taken root on that afternoon some weeks before and Moog had gone in search of a work force to establish his plan. The first order of the day had been to recruit a complement of fighters. Moog was not overly selective. In fact, he found it desirable that most of the warriors be past their prime. After all, would not the local populace be more incline to wager if they believed the native talent had a better than average chance of winning a contest? The HobGoblin's company simply had to appear impressive.
The majority of Moog's horde consisted of dull-witted orcs (massive of shoulder, but lacking in grace and coordination), empty-headed barbarians (who could take a knock, but would be hard pushed to hit the broad side of a barn) and clumsy trolls (whose bark was far worse than their bite). All had undergone some form of military training, but usually found themselves on the short end of the triumphal banner. Moog had choreographed their moves very carefully. They had to give the impression of ability coupled with vulnerability. Nobody was likely to pay for the privilege of facing an opponent who was an obvious pushover. There was little glory in that. On the other hand, a competitor would like to believe he had a decent chance at victory. It had not been an easy task but, within a month...give or take...Moog had brought his warriors up to snuff.
Sir Boris and Sir Lionel were the HobGoblin's pieces de resistance...a pair of veterans who had seen better days, found in a wayside tavern drowning their sorrows and wallowing in the memory of former notoriety. These two would present the ultimate challenge. After a few rounds of exhibition battles between Moog's lower echelon, the competition would be thrown open for public participation. Upon payment of entrance dues, a competitor would then fight his way through the ranks of orcs and barbarians and trolls, to arrive at a confrontation with one of the two knights. Buoyed by the previous victories of their local conqueror (and Moog would ensure they were victories), the betting would be fierce in favor of the native and against the house. In the final fracas, of course, either Sir Boris or Sir Lionel would prove to be a little too skilled for the community's champion (the knights, after all, were practiced campaigners) and Moog, being the initiator and warden of all wagers, would walk away with a nice profit.
Moog planned on making his "Lord of the Pit" a recurring event. Human nature being what it was, he knew those who had lost to the knights would relish the chance to redeem themselves at the first opportunity, believing their defeat to be a stroke of bad luck or an unfortunate happenstance which would not be repeated. Yes...the idea was flawless.
On the other hand, the addition of a musical ensemble had been unintentional. While leading his troupe of gallants through the woods toward the Red Gryphon Inn and the location of the Pit, Moog had been solicited by a rather comely sprite who had requested permission to accompany the group and announce their arrival by way of a tuneful fanfare. The HobGoblin had been somewhat flattered and readily agreed...even proposing in a moment of weakness that the young fay receive a little something in the way of monetary recompense for her trouble.
She had been a fine player of the pipes. Her music soothed the HobGoblin in times of stress...and ye gods, there were plenty of those in the company of quarrelsome orcs, belligerent barbarians and boorish trolls...not to mention inebriated knights who constantly bemoaned the glorious bygone days. She had been easy on the eye too. In fact, Moog had been strongly mulling over a possible amorous episode when, in the dark of night, she declared that she had been "pawed" by a lecherous barbarian and thus, her sense of decency and honor had been violated. Within the half-hour, the sprite had departed in something of an indignant huff, taking her melodious reeds with her and stating that she was unable to identify the transgressor since "all ignorant barbarians look the same!" Moog was inclined to agree. Nonetheless, he was sorry to see her go. The only good thing to come out of the whole affair was that she neglected to ask for her promised stipend.
Some days prior to the indecent incident however, the sprite had disappeared for a few hours and then returned with a pixie-like band of two drummers, one cymbalist, one penny-whistler, one lyre-player and three triangulists in tow. Moog had not wanted to engage this motley crew of would-be musicians, but had been afraid of offending the engaging sprite if he refused. Now, she had gone and he appeared to be stuck with them!
The HobGoblin sighed again. At times, life was far from fair.
Still, he could put the inept musicians to some use, if only temporarily. Beckoning the brownies to come forward, he handed each one a small sheaf of announcements. "Go post these on prominent locations close to the Inn," he commanded.
Quint, who had never quite mastered the reading ability, stared in dismay at the stack thrust upon him. "What?" he queried timidly.
"I said...," began Moog. Quint poked gingerly at the interior of one ear with his forefinger and shook his head. "Nevermind," finished the HobGoblin. "Just follow your cohorts."
"What" asked Quint, even more timidly than before.
Moog sighed once again and pointed down the road where the other seven brownies were hurrying along anxiously discussing among themselves what might be considered "prominent locations."
"Wait up," called Quint, his tiny legs pumping. He could only hope his comrades had heard, since he himself could hear nothing, except for a vague but continuous ringing.
Bending down, Sir Scat regarded with much interest the parchment which had been nailed to one of the tethering posts outside the Inn. He frowned and carefully raised the visor of his helmet to take a closer look. It failed to help.
"What do we have here?" asked Lillie.
Sir Scat quickly rose and bowed from the waist. His visor closed with a vicious snap, barely missing the tip of his noble nose. "Good morrow, fair lady," said the knight and then scuffled to one side as the Hellion lunged with open beak for the bottom of his exposed tunic-covered rump beneath the armor.
Chuckling, the Maid of Jade halted Kyte with a restraining hand. "I think my Hellion is beginning to like you," she informed Sir Scat. Sir Scat was delighted with this news.
"Do you truly think so?" he asked.
Lillie cast her eyes heavenward. Obviously, sarcasm was lost on this would-be paladin. She could only hope he would not refer to Kyte again as a "foul beast" and make matters even worse. Best if the subject were changed altogether.
"That notice," she said, pointing to the parchment, "what does it say?"
"I do believe," confided Sir Scat, "that it is written in an antiquated and possibly forgotten language."
Lillie peered at the missive. "It's upside-down," she said scathingly. Sir Scat was mortified and tilted his head in order to read the message...an action which almost caused him to lose his balance. He hopped frantically on one foot, the other wavering unsteadily several inches from the ground. Kyte focused on the teetering figure with wide beak and no little longing.
"There is an easier way," said the Maid of Jade, ripping the parchment from its nail and turning it right-side-up. She handed it to Sir Scat and then snatched it back again. "Let me see that," she demanded.
"Of course, fair lady," agreed Sir Scat, relinquishing the missive and turning his attention toward the Hellion. He treated the creature to a cordial nod. "Good morrow, foul beast," he said kindly. Without taking her eyes from the parchment, Lillie reached out and tightly gripped Kyte's brazen beak. The Hellion whirred a submissive protest.
"It states here," began Lillie, "that there is a tournament scheduled to take place in the Fighting Pit this afternoon. There will be elimination competitions and the ultimate winner will be endowed with the title 'Lord of the Pit.'" She scowled. "'LORD of the Pit,' indeed. I suppose that signifies females are excluded!"
Sir Scat leaned forward and asked, with some excitement, "Tournament...would that be akin to a Quest, do you suppose?"
Supremely irritated, the Maid of Jade shrugged her elegant shoulders. "It would be akin to inequality, if you ask me!" Crumpling the parchment in her hand, she threw it at her feet and ground it into the dirt with the heel of her boot. "LORD of the Pit," she muttered, tightening her grip on Kyte's beak in her fury. The Hellion clacked a not-so-submissive protest.
Sir Scat dropped hastily to his knees and began to smooth the crinkled parchment. Kyte hummed a metallic entreaty and blinked at Lillie with expectant eyes. The Maid pursued her lips and released the Hellion's trapped bill. With a series of triumphant clicks, Kyte rushed the knight, delivering a heavy blow to the back of the neck. Sir Scat suddenly found himself face-down in the muck.
"So shall be the fate of all chauvinists!" declared Lillie. Kyte emitted what might have been an evil chortle...had the creature been human.
Sir Scat watched both the Maid and the Hellion stride away. "I shall look forward to seeing you at the tournament," he called in a friendly fashion. Removing his helmet, he attempted to straighten the peaked portion of his visor which had become somewhat creased from the tumble.
"I do believe the foul beast has taken quite a liking to me," he mused happily.
Attendance was even better than Moog had anticipated. The exhibition matches had been exceedingly well-received and the HobGoblin's coffers were already filling up nicely with the fruits of ill-placed wagers. The challenge issued to vie for the coveted title of "Lord of the Pit," however, did not appear to be so popular.
Most of the local inhabitants who had come to watch displayed no interest whatsoever in becoming participants, being content to do just that...watch. Since many of the men had once been engaged in brutal warfare under the command of Karl Strange, they recognized a dupe when they saw one and realized that the whole affair was staged. As a form of light entertainment, the tournament provided an afternoon of diversion from the duties of employment but nothing more. The seasoned veterans in the crowd enjoyed the comedic efforts of Moog's rag-tag army and a wager on which of the two combatants in the arena at any given moment might be the least inept was certainly an amusing way to pass the time...but none had any desire to be crowned with such an empty title as "Lord of the Pit."
Moog was debating whether or not to bring out the knights when he was accosted by a sharp tap on his shoulder.
"Chauvinist!" hissed Lillie of the Valley into his ear. Moog was startled and then somewhat taken aback at the finger which prodded with venom at his bony chest.
"Excuse me?" he stuttered, eying with alarm the open-beaked beast which accompanied the apparently piqued elven maid.
"I said," reiterated Lillie, "that you are a chauvinist."
Given the Maid's angry expression, Moog could only assume that this was not a good thing, although he could not be certain, being unfamiliar with the word.
"I assure you, dear lady, that I am not!" declared the HobGoblin. It seemed to be the safest thing to say, given that the beast was regarding him with a malevolent eye and snapping rather spitefully with its brazen bill.
"Then you have no objection to females taking part in this...," Lillie waved a hand toward the Pit where a red-headed troll was exchanging blows with a gigantic orc, whose club continually missed the mark, "...this fiasco!"
Moog bristled indignantly. Fiasco indeed! He understood the meaning of that!
"What you see is no fiasco," he scowled, "and I take exception to such an insinuation." He glanced toward the Pit and shuddered as the orc swung his cudgel with much vigor and, failing to make contact with anything substantial, executed a clumsy pirouette before falling on his face.
The Maid of Jade quirked an arched eyebrow.
Moog's manner became subservient...almost smarmy. He grinned through his yellowed teeth with what he hoped would be considered a charming smile. "My fighters are gallants, dear lady," he insisted. "They could no more engage in combat with one of the female persuasion than they could....." The HobGoblin struggled for a suitable analogy and, finding none, simply shrugged his shoulders. "You do understand?"
"Perhaps you would allow me to have a word with one of your gallants?" suggested Lillie. "Surely there must be a modern-thinking man among your entourage who believes in equality for all. Such an individual might be willing to pit his talents against those of a lady."
Drawing back the cloth flap of the tent where Moog's company of fighters were waiting for a turn to enter the fray, the Maid of Jade spied Sir Boris polishing his broadsword. "What about that fine fellow?" she asked. "He looks like a reasonable sort."
The knight immediately sprang to his feet. "You have need of my assistance, fair damsel?"
Lillie smiled and beckoned Sir Boris forward. "I have a proposition," she told him. "Would you be willing to join me for a tankard or two at the Inn and discuss the matter?"
Moog groaned. He had managed to keep Sir Boris sober for a whole day in order that the knight would be capable of victory in the "Lord of the Pit" finale, but to raise an objection would be unwise. The curious metallic beast was inching closer and Moog did not like the ominous glint in that bright black eye.
"At your service, dear lady," declared Sir Boris, rushing past the HobGoblin in his eagerness to indulge in a frosty brew.
Taking his arm, Lillie steered the knight toward the Red Gryphon Inn. The Hellion followed close behind. Moog heaved a heavy sigh of relief to see the beast depart. All might not be lost. After all, Sir Lionel was still in a fit condition to do battle.
Standing on tiptoe, the HobGoblin surveyed the ever-growing crowd. He sucked on the stem of his pipe. "There must be at least one pigeon...I mean, worthy contender...among them who will rise to the challenge!" he murmured.
Sir Scat excitedly waved the crumpled parchment before Moog's hooked nose.
"Am I too late?" he queried. "The Quest has not yet been fulfilled, I trust?"
"Quest?" answered the HobGoblin. "Oh, you mean the honorable title? No...no, it has not yet been won."
Sir Scat was beside himself. Moog peered at the knight's helmet. "Do you know that your visor is dented?" he asked.
Sir Scat nodded. "Yes. A rather unfortunate accident. I attempted to straighten a crease by hammering upon the metal with a stone. I am afraid I only made the condition worse."
Sir Scat sniffed. The dent was pressing rather uncomfortably against his nose, but at least the twisted portion remained raised now instead of snapping shut at the most inopportune moments.
"There's an entrance fee," Moog told him. "You do have money with which to pay, I assume?"
Sir Scat was not sure. There was a mesh purse suspended from a small hook on the side of his armor. He had found some coin within when he had paid for his meals and board at the Red Gryphon Inn. He fervently hoped there was sufficient remaining for the required dues. He offered the pouch to Moog. "Is this enough?"
The HobGoblin removed a goodly portion of the gold and nodded before handing the purse back to the knight. "Off you go then," he said, directing Sir Scat into the Pit. Sir Scat trundled down the incline. His scabbard had become entangled in the top of his boot, which made walking somewhat difficult. He pondered on raising his visor in order to better see where he was going, but decided against it. It now had a tendency to become stuck in one position and, as far as Sir Scat was aware, a visor needed to be lowered when one was engaging upon a Quest.
Moog was flabbergasted. Not that his plan wasn't going...well, according to plan, so to speak...but he had never seen such a run of good fortune in his life. "The Fates do smile upon fools and children," he muttered to himself.
The wagers in favor of Sir Scat had been somewhat meager at first, but had quickly mounted as the knight flattened opponent after opponent. Tripping over his own feet, Sir Scat had managed to topple Moog's prize orc with a well-placed, if unintended, head-butt. The knight had apologized to the prostrate giant for several minutes in an attempt to vindicate such clumsiness. The HobGoblin's most skilled troll had almost entangled Sir Scat with his catching net, but had been floored when the gallant knight, politely retrieving the item in order to return it, had caught the troll's bootheel in one of the loops and sent the creature crashing to the ground. The troll had sustained a rather nasty injury when his head struck a rock and Sir Scat had been forced to take a brief respite, becoming somewhat woozy at the sight of blood. The incident which led to the defeat of Moog's most valued barbarian was equally as ludicrous and the HobGoblin really didn't care to dwell on it overly much. The list of ridiculous victories was well-nigh endless!
Still, none of that was of any importance now...the time had come for the tide to turn...the moment had arrived for Moog to play his trump card. Gleefully collecting the bets which were heavily in favor of Sir Scat, the HobGoblin motioned for Sir Lionel to take center stage. The cheers from the crowd were deafening as the two knights faced each other. Even Quint admitted to detecting a faintly distant roar, which he hoped was an indication that his sense of hearing would eventually return to normal.
"Weapon at the ready," declared Sir Lionel, unsheathing his blade.
Sir Scat tried valiantly to comply, but the stubborn sword would not come loose from the scabbard. He bent to pry it free from the top of his boot. Sir Lionel waited. He was an honorable warrior...one who was loath to attack an unarmed and susceptible foe, particularly in friendly fray.
"Weapon at the ready," mumbled Sir Scat with a repentant smile, tugging at the sword with all the might he could muster. Raising his visor, Sir Lionel took a step forward and was about to offer assistance when Sir Scat managed to liberate his blade. The tight fist he had made about the hilt flew upward with an amazing force and struck Sir Lionel squarely upon the bridge of the nose. The unfortunate knight dropped like a weighted stone.
"Oh dear," said Sir Scat, peering down at the unconscious Sir Lionel. "I am most dreadfully sorry!"
Moog could not believe his eyes. Ruined! By the time he had paid out all the wagers, he would be ruined! Unless...tucking the brimming coffers beneath his arm, he turned to make his escape.
"Not so fast," snarled Lillie of the Valley, pressing a small, sharp hunting knife against his throat while the Hellion helped himself to a beakful of trouser-seat. Moog sucked upon his clay pipe with a resigned sigh. Sometimes life was so very unfair.
In the arena, Sir Scat found himself surrounded by a group of adoring young shepherdesses. "You be Lord of the Pit now," they told him, thrusting flowers of victory into his hands. Sir Scat blushed...nobody knew he blushed because his visor was still in place, but he blushed nonetheless. Not sure what to do with so many blooms, he stuck several of them into the tops of his boots, which the young maids found to be totally enchanting. Many of them treated him to coy smiles and surreptitious winks of encouragement, but such coquettish displays were unfortunately lost on the knight and he was far from sure in what manner he was supposed to react.
From the edge of the Pit, a small company of gnomes who hailed from a village just outside Talos Valley looked down upon Sir Scat with hopeful expressions. They murmured amongst themselves and nodded in agreement.
"We came here today in search of a champion and savior," declared one who appeared to be the leader, "and by the mystic opals of evanesce, I do believe we have found him!"