Nora looked down between the bars of the cage. Her blond hair hung limp from sweat due to steam rising from below. Her trousers, blouse and leather vest were torn, dirtied and damp, but nothing she wore looked more pitiful that the expression of despair upon her face. If something did not happen soon, she and her companions would be cooked.
    Dobber tried desperately to work the lock of the cage with a tiny dagger. He strained to reach outside the bars; his stubby arms an unfortunate hindrance. Yet, even with only the tips of his fingers able to keep hold of the knife, he worked deftly at picking the lock.
    Far below, small green forms lurched about the throne room in a makeshift dance.  Each of these creatures stood on two legs, had ears like jackals, gleaming yellow eyes and a wide mouth of razor sharp teeth.  Some carried crude short spears made from knobby sticks and chipped stone.  A few hefted rusted blades.  Their dance marched them in waves across the room, chanting.  A small group standing outside of the mob held their weapons pointed upward at the cage.  They barked with drunken amusement.
    Still, what concerned Nora the most, were the two large creatures standing over the boiling cauldron.  “Looks like we are invited for dinner,” she said.
    Nora watched the two dump roughly chopped vegetables into a cooking pot large enough boil an ox.  Both of these creatures looked to be the tallest and strongest in the room. They were the only two wearing splints of wood as armor. They seemed to be directing the others at times, but mostly they hovered about the cauldron, tending it meticulously with large wooden stirring paddles.
    Dobber pressed his face against the wrought iron, nimbly prodding the dagger within the lock.  “I hope that friend of yours is being saved for dessert,” he said.
    Nora said, “I hope he has gone for help.”
    Behind her, lounged the third of their trio cramped in the space remaining.  Rankin had not said a word since all three of them had been tossed inside and the cage lifted by a chain to dangle over the center of the ancient throne room.  His brow was pinched, his arms crossed and his eyes closed. 
    “Your boy friend has run off and left us here to die,” Rankin said.  “The hoard is now all his for the taking.”
    Nora turned backed to face him.  Her motion rocked the cage and sent Dobber fumbling to keep hold of his dagger. 
    She said, “Unlike you, Rankin, Erik is a man of honor.  He will be back for us.”  Her voice shouted above the din and her fist punched into Rankin’s shoulder.  “And he is not my boyfriend.”
    Rankin grabbed her arm as Nora pulled away.  His bloodshot eyes leered back at her and the edge of his own knife stuck at her throat.  The cage rocked wildly.  “You watch yourself, or I’ll make sure you are the first to go.”
    For a moment, the two just stared at each other, and then Rankin slowly withdrew his knife, though his hand still held her tightly around the wrist and he grinned with a modest satisfaction.
    “I’ll just do that,” Nora said.  She tugged herself free.
    Dobber glared at them over his shoulder.  “Stop moving or I’ll never get the door open,” he said.
    Distracted, the dagger slipped from his fingers.  His tiny hand reached after it, but missed.  It fluttered downward, splashing into the boiling water below.
    A large green face looked upward with a scowl.  Annoyed, the creature shook its stirring paddle at the three of them.
    Dobber waved back sheepishly and shied away from the door.
    Rankin sulked in his corner.  “Not in it for the gold,” he said.  “We should have known.  What kind of a man plans to break into an old abandoned castle-- overrun with rats and goblins; fabled to house vast riches --and doesn’t seek the reward?”
    “He’s a holy man.  He fights for just causes,” said Nora.
    Rankin shook his head with disbelief.
    Nora glared back at him.  “His reward is the goodness he can do by putting an end to evil.  He travels the land, tirelessly seeking out infestations of corruption.”
    Rankin laughed.  “Well, he sought you out then didn’t he?” 
    Nora crossed her arms and turned away.
    Dobber rummaged through his pockets.  He said, “I knew he was no good the moment I saw him; finding us at the Bear’s Foot, how clever; finding Nora drunk and alone; making a proposition like that to a woman.”  He produced a small filament of metal and held it up to his eye.
    Nora said, “I was not drunk.  You two always think the worse of me.  He was a gentleman and asked to speak to all of us.”
    Rankin shook his head.  “And yet you did not immediately point us out?  You had a drink with him by the open hearth.  How many secrets of ours did you give away?”
    Nora said, “Secrets!  The only secret I knew then was that we were down to our last two coins.  Without him paying the tab we’d be in prison right now!”  She clenched the bars above her head. “I questioned him, not the other way around.  I spent my time so he would not be wasting yours.”
    “Probably figuring a way to deal us out,” said Rankin.  “With a fancy man like him, who needs the likes of us?”  He paused as he stared at her eyes.  “Thinking about running away?  We trained you little girl and you owe us.  So you’d better stick around until we have been appropriately compensated.”
    Nora gritted her teeth, tensed her arms and legs, but made no sudden movement. A teardrop formed in her eye.  “All you care about is what is owed you. I sold my soul just to stay alive and now I live my life stealing for the both of you.  If I had my choice I’d be fighting for goodness and honor, like Erik.”
    Dobber said, “Big knight with a sword and spindly Nora, what a pair they’d make.”  He laughed to himself as he leaned back to the door of the cage, the small metal tool held delicately in his hand.
    Nora screamed.  She kicked Dobber in the side, pushing him over.  The metal lock pick flew from his grasp, and it too fell down into the water below.
    Rankin lunged.  He grabbed Nora’s shoulders and pinned her to the rear of the cage.
    Dobber huddled into a corner as the cage bounced back and forth.  He said, “Now you’ve done it.  Don’t you want to escape?”
    Rankin pressed his face close to Nora’s.  “Do you?  Because we can always just leave you here.”
    At that very moment, a large boom thundered throughout the chamber.  Something had slammed against the tall double doors at the end of the hall.  A second boom echoed throughout the room and this time the dancing and chanting stopped.  The goblins looked about, uncertain where the sound originated.  The larger two hobgoblins stared at the door.
    The third boom came with a crack.
    The heavy doors were being torn from their frame.  Three more deafening blows came with splintering wood.  The crossbeam cracked in half as the doors pushed inward.  At the sight of this, the majority of the goblins took a few steps backward.  The small group that had been shouting drunkenly stayed put, though looked at each other, confused.
    The hobgoblins searched for weapons on the cutting table.
    When the doors finally swung inward, a bright light shone through, filling the room with its beams.  The shadow of a gigantic creature sprang across the floor and over the raised throne.  Many goblins ran, horrified, to the shadows cast behind pillars or into dark hallways leading away.
    “By the demons,” Dobber whispered.  His arm covered his eyes.  “What could frighten goblins, so?”
    Rankin sat at attention.  “Let’s not stay to find out, shall we.  Get that damnable door open.”  He shoved a small leather bundle into Dobber’s hands. 
    Nora stared into the light as Dobber unrolled the pack.
    A man stood in the doorway, tall with dark hair and neatly trimmed beard.  Nora recognized his shiny plate armor and the emblem of a sword and chalice brandished on his chest.  From behind him, beams of angelic light poured inward and beyond.  For a moment, he just stood there alone, his shadow dominating the entire throne room.  Then he moved inward and down the entry steps.  He raised his sword in both his hands and held it poised, beckoning any challengers.
    Nora said, “It is Erik.  He has come for us at last.”
    The hobgoblins barked orders at what remained of the crowd.  A handful of the short reptile-like creatures slinked together and forward, each holding a spear or a sword.  Erik stood fast on the last step and awaited their approach.
    “I don’t believe it?” said Rankin.  “What fool would step into a room like this?  Alone?  What could he be thinking?”
    “It is suicide,” Dobber said.
    Nora said, “It is the noblest thing I can imagine.  Don’t you see? He is willing to risk his own life for the mere chance of saving ours.”
    Rankin sneered.  “That’s what I mean.  What motivates this insanity?  What could compel him to do this?”
    Dobber nodded in agreement.  “He must need us bad.”
    “You two!”  Nora clenched her fists.  “Dobber, get the door open!” she screamed.
    A line of goblins reached to within a few yards of the gallant knight. 
    Erik stood calm.  He waited for the first to strike and then made his own attack.  His sword arced powerfully in front of him.  The goblins in its wake attempted to dodge the blade, but the sword made contact with each of them.  The tatters that they wore offered no protection, and the blade cut deeply into each.  The first was cut in half.  It fell apart as three more were gutted by the same swing.  They crumpled to the ground with barely the time to cry in agony.
    “He is good,” Dobber said.  He fumbled again at the door’s lock trying desperately to break free.
    “Lucky swing.” Rankin gripped his own knife.
    Nora smiled brightly.
    The goblins fought back fiercely.  Those with swords darted forward and attempted a few hacks before falling back.  Some carrying spears hurled them directly at Erik.  So many attacks came all at once that Erik found no room to maneuver.  He simply took the blows as they came and prepared his next thrust.
    Nora said, “They cannot touch him.  He has his god with him today.”
    “That, or a suit of armor,” Rankin said.  “Wait for one to find a loose chink in the mail or an opportune gap between the plates.”
    “If we had armor, we’d be unstoppable,” Dobber said.
    Erik cleaved two more in half.  Blood sprayed about the floor and spattered his armor, his sword and his face.  He stepped forward and bellowed a loud roar.  Most of the remaining defenders lost their nerve and scampered backward.  The others were called off by the hobgoblins now standing beside the cauldron.  Each held a long bladed pole.  One bellowed a deep guttural laugh.
    A grin spread across Rankin’s face.  “Now those two will be a bit more difficult.”
    Nora said, “Dobber, get us out of here.”
    “I’m trying.  This thing is old and rusted.”  Dobber pried the metal tool in through the keyhole, poking this way and that.  “Wait, I feel something.”
    Dobber grinned in triumph.
    Instead of charging straight for them, Erik ran to the side and headed directly toward the wheel and lever controlling the chain that supported the cage.  He swung his sword to clear the way of a few straggling fiends.  They darted to each side, and he reached the wheel unopposed.
    Nora and Rankin watched spellbound.
    “Have you out in no time,” Erik shouted, his voice rolling off his tongue with great confidence.  He gripped the lever and pulled.  Nothing happened. 
    “Seems a bit stuck,” Erik said.  He hefted his sword to block the swing of an oncoming hobgoblin.
    “Damn.”  Rankin’s face turned sour.
    The lock on the cage door clicked.  Nora turned from the fight and stared at Dobber.
    Dobber smiled and continued to fiddle with the lock.  “There’s a nice tumbler,” he said.
    “Let me out!” Rankin lurched forward.
    “Not yet,” Dobber shouted.  He pushed back at Rankin with his boots.  In the struggle, he almost dropped the lock pick for a third time.  “I have one more tumbler to go.”
    Below, Erik was flanked by both hobgoblins.  Each jabbed their poles at him from opposite sides.  Erik turned his back on one, using his plate armor as a shield, and blocked the second with his sword. 
    The blow struck his back and he stumbled forward from the force.  This put him close enough for the hobgoblin to simply drop his pole and pull Erik into a headlock.  Erik struggled to free himself, but the hobgoblin proved to be much stronger.  He tried to thrust his sword but his assailant was at his back.
    “Erik!” Nora shouted.  She brought her hands up to cover her face. 
    The lock clicked again.  “Have it,” Dobber said.
    Without hesitation, Rankin shoved the half-man through the door.  The door swung open and Dobber fell outward.  In a panic, Dobber caught the bottom bar of the door, and he hung there, stretched out, high above the great hall.
    “Aaaah,” Dobber screamed.
    The metal lock pick tumbled to the ground again.
    Nora reached for the loose fabric of Dobber’s overcoat, as Rankin tried to push his way out through the opening.  The two butted heads.
    “Out of my way!” Rankin shouted.
    Meanwhile, the second hobgoblin lumbered toward Erik who still struggled to free himself from the first.  The creature jabbed the bladed tip of his pole coyly at Erik.
    In defense, Erik kicked at it.  His foot landed solidly.  The pole was ripped from the hobgoblins hands and battered against the stone floor, out of reach.  The creature growled at him and spat, and then closed the remaining distance with his clawed hands held outward.
    Instead of swinging, Erik dropped his own sword.
    He grabbed the shoulders of his attacker to steady himself and then using all his strength, he pushed with both feet at the chest of the other. 
    Shocked, the creature recoiled from the blow and staggered backward.  However, the main effect was the thrust it gave Erik against the one at his back.  It lost its footing and the two tumbled to the floor.  On impact, Erik broke loose of the headlock.  He rolled off the creature and retook his sword.
    Erik held the weapon high above the two hobgoblins.  Both flinched as he swung, but his aim was not at either of them.  The sword struck down on the rusty chain.  The impact sent a shudder up the length of the line, and then the chain snapped with a metallic clang. 
    The cage dropped.
    Nora pushed Rankin out of the way, and pulled with all her might on Dobber’s coat.  She yanked him back inside, and the door swung closed.  The chain rattled up into the air as the large round pulley creaked and rolled.  The cage dropped rapidly downward, sending a chill up Nora’s spine.
    “Hold on,” Nora shouted.
    The others needed no warning.  Each gripped the bars of the cage, bracing for impact. Yet, as they neared the floor the corner of the cage struck against the top of the cauldron.  The cage tipped to one side and fell to the floor. 
    Nora fell upon Dobber, Rankin upon Nora.
    A loud screeched sounded as the cage slid a few feet along the stone floor before it came to a rest.  The door to the cage was now trapped beneath them.
    Erik continued with his fight.  He hacked at the hobgoblin still sprawled upon the floor.  It tried to roll away but was not fast enough.  The blade cut through its wooden splint armor and struck deeply at its back.  A second swing severed its head.
    The remaining hobgoblin retreated a few steps in search of its pole-arm.  Eric took the opportunity to charge.  He thundered a swing before the other could ready the pole in defense.  It too soon found Erik’s blade embedded in its hide.  The hobgoblin bellowed in dismay before it fell to the floor dead.
    Erik turned to the others.  “Quickly, before they regroup!” he shouted.
    Nora peered out between the bars and the bodies.  She said, “Would you be a dear and tip us back over.”  She shoved Rankin off her back.  Dobber moaned beneath her.
    Erik moved cautiously over to them, watching for moving goblins, ready to defend against them with his sword.  “I see,” he said.  He grabbed a hold of the base of the cage.  “Everyone push against the side here.”
    They did so as he tugged.  The cage tilted, tottered and the toppled back over onto its base.  The three inside fell back on top of each other.
    “My, I’m getting to enjoy this,” Rankin said.

The Story Continues:  Nobody Trusts a Paladin - Part II