The foul creature would die this day, would be felled by a single, faithful arrow. I shifted my aim one last time, taking care for this arrow to pierce the sinful goblin’s fetid heart.
My aim was shattered by the screech, the loosed arrow burrowing its head in a tree trunk instead of the goblin’s drooping chest. At the solid thunk of my arrow striking the tree, the goblin shot to its bare feet, baring crooked, yellow fangs as its beady eyes locked on me. It snarled viciously as it charged toward me, surprisingly lithe on its feet, craggy, clawlike nails extended to slash the flesh from my bones.
Cursing under my breath, I turned tail and fled, sprinting through the dense foliage of the forest like a wildcat, my silver hair streaming out behind me like a heralding banner, the hood of my cloak thrown back by the velocity of my flight. The worn leather boots clothing my feet made little noise as I ran, though that hardly mattered now that the goblin was rocketing after me in hot pursuit. The studded leather armor protecting my chest creaked in protest as I leapt across a small brook and, grabbing a thick, leafy vine, swung round the wide trunk of a moss-blanketed tree. I released the vine, touching down at the same swift run I had begun, losing little ground, though the goblin was fast gaining, crashing through the brook in a spray of water and tearing through the underbrush hot on my trail.
“Linda! Linda, come back here now!”
I glanced over my shoulder, and groaned when I saw the hag swooping down from the canopy, crazed eyes of bloody red fixed on me as it flapped leathery wings, the wisps of its wiry hair billowing like so many serpents from its scarred, balding head. It opened its sickly yellow beak and screeched again, its birdlike legs extending sharp talons to sink into my flesh.
“LINDA!” the hag shrieked shrilly, batting its wings harshly in the goblin’s flabby face, making it snarl and lash out at the hag flying raggedly above its hairless head. But the hag was intent, ascending beyond the goblin’s reach and flapping furiously after me.
Then the moist earth rushed up to greet me, my feet tangled in a mass of thorny nettles and gnarled roots. I struggled to rise, but my cloak became caught on the thorns as well. Twisting to wriggle out of my cloak, sweaty fingers slipping on the silver leaf brooch clasp, I watched as the hag descended, talons outstretched and hooked beak snapping, watched as the fat goblin bellowed wrathfully as it threw itself upon me.
“I surrender! I surrender!” I giggled as the old retriever licked unrelentingly at my face, his long gold fur tickling my cheeks. “Get off, Billy, you win!” I laughed, pushing the dog off me and sitting up.
A high-heeled foot tapped impatiently on the hardwood floor, and my eyes followed the hosed legs upward, past the sleek black gown and pale expanse of bosom to my stepmother’s stern face framed by prim, shoulder-length blonde locks. Her dark eyes blazed beneath the fierce scowl drilled to her expression.
“Hi, Vicky,” I said pleasantly, grinning from ear to ear.
My stepmother’s painted lips compressed into a thin line for a moment. Then she said, “Linda, what in the world were you doing?”
“Trying to kill the goblin that murdered an entire village yesterday,” I explained with a shrug. “Billy makes a great goblin, don’t you think?”
Vicky tsked, planting her fists on her hips, ignoring my question. “What have I told you about playing make-believe in the house, especially when we have guests over?”
I glanced over at the living room only a few yards away, where I discovered quite a number of indignant eyes glaring at me. All the people in there, men and women, were in their best dresses and suits, sipping champagne and talking amongst themselves as they gestured absently with the soft tinkling of jewelry. I returned my gaze to Vicky, and informed, “Their legs make a great forest, Vicky. And that one man’s tie was just so long!” I giggled again, unable to contain the mirth. “Besides, the goblin would have caught me a lot sooner if I hadn’t swung on that vine.”
“Linda, someone’s tie is not a vine,” Vicky chastised furiously. “You could have hurt him!”
“But I didn’t,” I pointed out with a smile.
My stepmother opened her mouth to retort, but her chide was quickly swallowed when my dad walked over, short brown hair still slightly disheveled from when Billy had barreled over him. There was a sprinkling of cherry stains from the spilled wine all over his crisp white shirt, but a warm smile was spread on his face, ocher eyes crinkling merrily.
“Hi, Dad!” I exclaimed, leaping to my feet and hugging him tightly. “Guess what! I almost killed the goblin! You remember: the one that slaughtered that whole village yesterday?”
“I remember,” my dad chuckled, tousling my mousy brown hair, “but it looks like the goblin got you this time round, eh?”
“Well, if the nettles hadn’t tripped me,” I admitted ruefully, glancing over at the thoroughly rumpled coils of a rope of Christmas tinsel that had mysteriously flung itself from the balcony banister upstairs, “I would’ve gotten away.”
My dad just laughed again, crouching down to my level as he said, “Now that you have lost the hunt, why don’t you go to your room and play until mine and Vicky’s party is over?”
I nodded. “Okay. C’mon, Billy!” I sprinted away, my golden retriever playmate running alongside me. We raced up the stairs to the second floor of the huge house, down the hall, and into my bedroom. I said that I won, but Billy barked a protest, refusing to quit slobbering on me until I gave the glory to him instead.
Abruptly, I pointed at the ceiling and cried, “It’s a harpy! Billy, run!” We fled the chamber as the harpy screamed at us, its steel-feathered wings tearing the maps and charts to shreds as it stumbled and scrambled to get its talons on us. I shoved the door shut in its snaggle-toothed face, hearing a satisfying moan when it slammed into the barricade. I latched the door in place with a thick bar of wood, and then my companion and I were off into the torchlit passages of the cave.
I gestured silently at a trail of footprints in the dusty earth. My comrade lowered his sharp nose to the ground, sniffing hastily as he gathered the scent. Then he lifted his head and sprinted off into the murky shadows. I hastened after him, pulling my fiery red hair back in a loose ponytail, though my bangs still hung in my eyes somewhat. I pressed the tiny button on my earpiece and whispered into the sensitive microphone, “Come in, H.Q. This is Red Hawk and Yellow Tail requesting backup. We’ve discovered the turncoat’s trail and are following it with all haste. Over.”
A moment later, a dull crackling announced the response from Headquarters, the static tuning itself to a clearer frequency. Then a man’s voice stated, “We read you, Red Hawk. We’re zeroing in on your location; backup will be there in five minutes. Over.”
I nodded to Yellow Tail, and we picked up the pace. I crouched as I went, keeping my footsteps as quiet as possible as we worked our way through the convoluted network of tunnels, Yellow Tail leading the way as he tracked the turncoat’s scent. We followed the trail all the way outside, leaving the dim illumination of the cavern for the blinding sunlight of the arid desert.
Standing there, waiting for us, was the turncoat. He smiled evilly at us, dark eyes glinting maliciously, and raised a machine gun. With sweat beading on his bald head, he pulled the trigger.
I gritted my teeth as I leapt to one side, twisting in the air to avoid the speeding bullets. Yellow Tail growled as he dodged, lips curling back from his fangs as he eyed the turncoat warily. I felt the wind whip by where the bullets just missed. Then, as I landed in a crouch to face the villain, I felt a stinging fire in my right arm. A bullet had pierced the black leather suit I wore, dark burgundy blood oozing in trickles from the flesh wound. I fastened blazing eyes on the grinning turncoat, and drew my own .9 millimeters from their holsters at my belt, straightening as I fired relentlessly at the villain.
He went down in a spray of blood and bits of clothing, his limp body landing on the desert sand with a solid thud. I ceased fire only then, scowling at the dead turncoat.
“This was my favorite suit, you jerk,” I whispered vehemently, stalking up to the still corpse. Yellow Tail joined me, still growling cautiously as he smelled the villain’s jacket and pants’ pockets. He placed a paw on one, barking the alert. I reached inside the pocket Yellow Tail indicated, and produced from its depths a thick bundle of codes and their corresponding keys, along with the latest report to the President from the Pentagon.
“Good job, Yellow Tail,” I commended, scratching my partner behind the ears. Then I pressed the button on my earpiece again, and said, “Come in, H.Q. This is Red Hawk and Yellow Tail. We have the documents. I repeat: we have the documents. Over.”
The usual brief silence ensued, and then the crackling static.
I tapped the button again. “H.Q., come in! This is Red Hawk and Yellow Tail. Do you read us, H.Q.?”
Then, “Linda, what are you doing with the newspaper?”
I looked up at Vicky, and grinned wryly. “Just reclaiming classified documents that were stolen from the Pentagon by a turncoat,” I explained. Billy barked affirmation, tail wagging happily.
Vicky took the newspaper from my grasp, setting it back down on the office desk. “I thought your father and I told you to play in your room.”
“We were in my room,” I said truthfully, “but then a harpy swooped down on us and we had to lock her in. Then we had to track down the turncoat that had left the harpy as an ambush before he could get the documents to enemy spies.”
My stepmother sighed exasperatedly, throwing her hands up in the air.
“Calm down, dear,” my dad said as he walked into the foyer. “I’m sure the documents were really important this time.”
“Will you stop egging her on?” Vicky hissed furiously. “It’s bad enough she doesn’t listen, but to keep feeding her all this fantasy rubbish—!”
“It isn’t fantasy,” my dad assured her. “It’s just another adventure. Right, Linda?”
I nodded. Then I stopped, my eyes fixed on the people in the living room, some of which were still flashing me annoyed glances, especially a man with a particularly shiny bald head. “Look!” I cried out, pointing at the enemies. “They’ve found us!”
“Will you please just stop—!” Vicky began hotly.
“No, wait!” my dad exclaimed, following my wide-eyed stare. “I see them, too! I thought we’d lost them for sure.”
“They’re after the treasure, mateys!” I quickly pushed Billy away from the glaring pirates hiding in the island’s foliage, running behind him as I did. “Back to the ship!”
“Aye, aye, Cap’n!” my dad said, giving Vicky a smile and a wink before hastening after Billy and me.
“Get to the bird’s nest, lookout!” I ordered, pointing skyward as we climbed aboard the ship, the tide already heaving us out to the shallows.
“Aye, aye, Cap’n!” my lookout said, saluting quickly before climbing the center mast to the bird’s nest at its top.
“First mate, lower the sails!” I shouted, locking the treasure away below deck. My first mate woofed understanding and quickly set about releasing the three silk sails. I myself hastened up the narrow staircase to the quarterdeck, taking the wheel in hand and swerving our vessel hard to starboard. Within minutes, the wind had caught the sails and the ocean currents carried us beyond the shelf, leaving the other pirates grumbling on the island’s shore.
Suddenly, the winds changed, the sea becoming rough and choppy. I raised my eyes to the sky, and was bewildered to see pregnant thunderheads of the steeliest grey. A jagged bolt of blue lightning laced viciously across the cumulonimbus’s underbellies, cackling madly as it spider-webbed the darkening sky. A low roll of thunder reverberated through the wood of the ship.
“Where’d this storm come from, lookout?” I shouted up at the bird’s nest over the growing moan of the wind.
“I don’t know, Cap’n,” he admitted, as astonished as I. “It just popped outta nowhere.... Cap’n, the mast!”
I heard it before I saw it, the splintering of the thick center mast as the ocean tossed the ship wildly, the wind ripping and snapping the black Jolly Roger at the mast’s tip, making the skull’s grin even more fiendish. I left the wheel, jumping the flight of stairs to the deck and grabbing the main rope that only just kept the center mast from tumbling over. Rain began to pelt down, a pitcher over turned to splatter the ship’s deck slippery and enrage the already violent sea even more.
“Quick! Help me tie down the center mast before we’re sent to Davey Jones’ locker!” I shouted over the roar of the tempest, tugging on the thick rope as the storm lashed our vessel with gusts of harsh wind and rocking waves of salty sea water. My red bandanna was ripped from my head, unleashing my multitude of wildly whipping, slender black braids, the colorful beads decorating them clacking against each other like strings of bones as they were thrown about. The pelting rain soaked through my white blouse and dark blue breeches, not to mention the swamp that squelched inside my knee-high boots with every shift of my feet.
My first mate barked in reply, grabbing the rope in his jaws and pulling sharply back, his claws scraping against the slippery deck of the ship. The patch covering one eye fluttered slightly in the barrage of the tempest, but thankfully did not reveal the empty socket that lay behind it.
“Cap’n Linda!” my lookout bellowed from the bird’s nest high above us, his white-knuckled hands clutching the railing for dear life as his post swayed dangerously in lieu of the ocean’s fury. “There’s rocks comin’ up on the starboard bow!”
A vile stream of curses swept from my tongue, unheard in the roar of the wind and pouring rain. I swiftly wrapped the rope round a hook in the starboardside rail, tying the knot off securely before dashing to the quarterdeck. The ship was thrown haphazardly by the terrible ocean suddenly, a wave of salty spray and foam slicking the wood beneath my boots as I reached the narrow stairs, sweeping my feet out from under me. I struggled to pull myself up out of the rushing water, the chill of the rain and sea beginning the seep into my aching bones as I climbed the stairs to the wheel. Grasping the spokes tightly, I shoved all my strength against it to port, my wet hands slipping on the slick wood, my braced feet beginning to slide.
Then the wheel gave, spinning to the left in a blur of wooden spokes. As I wanted to keep my hands on my wrists, I released the wheel, allowing it to whirl at blinding speed. The ship banked sharply, taking on water that quickly filtered back into the sea. My first mate barked delightedly from the bow of the vessel, wagging his tail as the deadly rocks were left far behind us, the strong ocean’s current carrying us away from the storm-fraught patch of sea. I caught the wheel as its revolutions slowed, smiling triumphantly at the open sea sparkling in the light of the setting sun like so many magenta diamonds.
My first mate climbed up the narrow stairs to the quarterdeck as the foamy waves calmed, my red bandanna clutched gently in his teeth. He sat down beside me as I took it back, wringing it dry and tying it over my dripping braids. My lookout gave a victorious whoop! as he climbed down the mast from the bird’s nest, dropping the last few feet to the deck and rushing up to the quarterdeck. He picked me up round the waist and settled me on his shoulders, taking up the wheel in my stead.
“Good show, Cap’n,” he said. My first mate woofed indignantly, and my lookout patted the four-legged fellow’s head, saying, “And good show to you, too, matey.”
I folded my arms on my lookout’s head, sighing softly at the beautiful sight of the gathering dusk. “It’s a good thing you spotted those rocks, Dad,” I said sleepily. “We’d’ve been lost with Davey Jones otherwise.”
My lookout chuckled, and though I did not see it, I knew he was smiling. “Much obliged, Cap’n, much obliged.”
“You know,” I said, resting my chin on my arms, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such still waters. Have you?”
“Nope, never. Looks like it’ll be smooth sailing from here on out.”
I lifted a hand, pointing at the twinkling star that glittered brilliantly on the edge of the gathering darkness. “That’s our heading, mateys, to that star and straight on till morning.”
My lookout chuckled again, steering the ship toward the star. “Aye, aye, Cap’n.”