The steps leading down from the Ereban castle were steep and menacing. Through a series of different manoeuvres, which included jumping, sliding, and falling, Hack managed to reach the bottom. His breath came in small gasps as he ran through the trees, the branches tearing at his clothes. Dark beings that inhabited the forest, watched as he ran by, but did nothing to stop him. The cry to give chase had not yet gone out. The fairy lights still glimmered within the dark castle; he had a few minutes start before they realised, he was missing. He stopped when he reached the stream, and his heart leapt, when he realised there was no way across. Stones that the Ereban took in his stride, were too far apart for Hack’s little legs. He backed away as the water hags came out from beneath waves and began to climb up on to the bank. Their condition sickened him.
“Have no fear, little man,” one of the hags said. “We will help you to cross.”
“Why would you do that?” Hack asked.
“We are not here by choice,” she said. “We will help you to escape.”
Hack watched as the hags lay face down in the water making a bridge of their wasted bodies.
“Hurry, little man,” the hag called. “Your pursuers will soon be here.”
Hack took a deep breath and ran across their backs. With every footfall he felt their bones beneath his feet. The wound in his back still bled profusely and the loss of blood was making him faint. He fell on to the ground when he reached the opposite side of the river.
“You must get up, little man,” the hag urged.
“I cannot,” Hack shook his head, trying to clear his vision.
“You must, if they capture you, they will kill you.”
Hack shivered and tried to rise, but he was weak from loss of blood.
“Poor little man,” the water hag climbed up and laid a wet, cold hand on his forehead. “You will soon be a prisoner like us.”
Hack’s eyes became hazy and he tried to focus on her.
“If I had tears, I would cry,” the hag said. “For yours is the first warm touch I have felt in decades.”
They both jumped when the sound of the hunting horn sounded, and they knew Hack’s pursuers would soon be upon him. The fairies swooped down and tried to lift Hack to his feet, but this was beyond them. Even though there were thousands of them, the dwarf was heavy.
“Go and tell Lord Fabien,” General Tromp ordered one of his soldiers. “We will stay and try to hold the Erebans back.”
“What news?” Lord Fabien asked when the fairy flew out from the trees.
“The dwarf is free, majesty,” she said. “But he is injured and has fallen by the river. General Tromp and the others have stayed with him.”
Fabien cursed his decision at not informing those in the other lands. The elves were strong, and the slight figure of the dwarf would be easy for them to carry. It was too late now, and time was short. The howls of a dog stopped him in his musing, and he knew Berrin wished to make amends for his failure to stop the dwarf.
“Go and bring him back,” Lord Fabien ordered.
Berrin reached the dwarf in seconds.
“Climb,” the water hag urged Hack, grabbing him by the back of his shredded tabard and helping him on to the dog’s back.
Hack buried his fingers deep into the course hair and held on as tight as he could.
“How could you do something so stupid?” Lord Fabien asked as the dog deposited the dwarf as his feet.
“I wanted to find out what the secret about the princess and the young lord,” Hack gasped as the fairies tended to his wounds.
“What nonsense,” Fabien laughed. “There is no secret and you will speak no more of this.”
“I think there is, sire,” Hack said and despite his wounds the news reporter in him stirred.
“I said there is not. Do you understand?”
“But, sire,” Hack envisioned the screaming headlines. “Horror of Night in Ereban Castle.”
“Not a word,” Fabien roared. “Or you will be banished.”
In the few seconds it took for him to shake the dirt from his tabard, the fairies had disappeared, and he was alone at the crossover. Feeling hard done by after his adventure and the order not to publish it, he sighed and picked up the note that cause all the upset.
“Did you see the fairy’s face when the dwarf spoke about the secret?” Perius asked General Keyos.
“Indeed, sire,” the general smiled. “The hags are right after all and there is still much to learn.”
“Then let it begin,” Perius nodded. “I have waited centuries to take my rightful place as the ruler of the hidden world. Both mortal and elf will soon tremble at the mention of my name. I will teach them the true meaning of fear.”