It felt as though my stomach had been pulled up into my throat as the floor dropped away from my feet. The prickling sensation in my skin was a wonder in the brief moment before I realized I was falling. Then my toes, my fingers and my eyes screamed in panic, but not for long.

Quickly, my reflexes fought against the fear that had numbed me. I found my hands seeking out the edges of the dark, finding stonework slipping past. My fingers tried twice for a hold against the surface, but lichen covering the stones gave way and I plummeted downward into the pit.

I am certain I would have died if I had not landed on something soft. My boots touched first, followed by my rear and back, the impact knocking the wind right out of me. As I stared up at the hole that I had just fallen through, my chest heaved for relief. A moment earlier I had been creeping through the dark halls on my way out of the ancient keep.

I rapidly loosed the ties of my shirt. The thought that I would die out of breath, after living through the fall was an insult. When air returned, I sucked in heavily and held on. Exhaling was ecstasy as well and for a minute all I could hear was my own forced breathing.

But that ended with the sound of rusty metal coils retracting, damp wood rubbing along wood and a hearty iron lock clamping back together. Then all was silent, except for the ringing in my ears, and a single male voice.

“Trap’s reset.” The voice croaked from the darkness.

My head tipped up and my eyes searched in futility.

“Now you’re stuck down in the bowels of Hell itself.”

I reacted by tumbling away from the sound. That was when I realized that I was lying on bales of hay, as I dropped over the side of the stack and landed face first on the dank stone floor. I scurried until I found the refuge of a sturdy wall, and there I huddled with my small pack nestled across my chest.

“I thought I’d die down here alone. Ha!” The man coughed. “The name’s Finn, how about you?”

Of course, I did not recognize then name immediately. He kept trying to encourage me to talk, but I sat silently in a corner listening for sound of others; listening to hear if the voice was moving closer. It stayed steady, a few yards away, and I stayed silent, not giving him a chance to guess my location. If I was to have any advantage, it was going to be by my stealth.

“There’s no use in being afraid of me. I’m dead anyhow, or I will be soon. Broke my legs in the fall, maybe my back too.”

I slipped the tiny dagger from my boot sheath. I always carried something concealed. I figured that one day I’d need it to save my life. I traveled a lot and never knew what kind of town I’d find myself in next. Robbers, thieves, thugs or maybe just a band of drunken sailors might be waiting just outside the next tavern door. I never guessed I’d be drawing it in total darkness, against an enemy that I could not see.

I crept slowly, circling to the right, while the man kept babbling on and on about himself.

“I’m glad I won’t be dying alone. That’s always been my biggest fear, you know, dying alone.”

I followed the sound of his voice to within a few feet of where he must have sat. I was within an easy arms reach of his throat.

“I’ve always been alone, most of my days. That’s why I like places like the Bear’s Foot; so many people full of drink and cheer. I feel like I have a family there. My stories, they love, you see. Stories of when I was young and brash. I’d rather die there, by the hearth, not here in the cold and stench of a rotted old keep.”

I brought my dagger to within inches of his face and then hesitated. I had no love of killing, and there was no reason to believe this man was truly a danger to me.

“The story teller?” I stepped back a few paces. “Digger Finn, the babbler of Bear’s Foot?”

“The one and the same. I see my reputation precedes me.”

I thought about putting my dagger away, but again hesitated. “You’re the reason I’m here. I ought to just stick you with a knife for what you’ve done to me.”

“Too late, I’ve already done myself in.” Digger Finn coughed again. “I know your voice. You’re that boy from the other night, the one that stayed out of the story circle, clinging to shadows beside the hearth. Thought I didn’t see you there in the corner?”

“Yes,” I whispered. My first night in town, my first cooked meal in days, and I stayed to listen to the stories told by the fireside, by an old man with a gray beard, broken face and a string of tales the length of a river.

“And I overheard you the next day at the mercantile, buying supplies, plotting this little adventure.”

“You followed me?”

“Not exactly. You were not so discrete. I suspected that you had been lured by my tale of the forgotten keep and the diamond heart. That one has always been my favorite.”

“You made it sound so easy.”

“That I did. And I was jealous that you might actually be the one to free it. If I had been thirty years younger there never would have been a tale to tell, because I would have raided the place myself.”

“But you are here now.”

“Yes. Because I could not let you have it. I could not give up the dream of one day finding the heart. It would be my crowning achievement. I packed my bags and headed out before you. So you see you are the reason I am here. You have done this to me, and I shall die for it.”

I put my dagger back in my boot, and leaned against the wall. “I don’t accept responsibility for your own folly.”

“Nor I yours.” He said. “Shall we die together?”

I stood in challenge.

“There must be a way out of here.” I turned to face the wall, reached out and touched the stonework. There was less lichen here than above, but it was still slippery to the touch.

“Oh, there is. There is a door right beside me.” He laughed.

I stepped back toward his voice and felt the wall. It was iron, a large rectangular patch of iron. There were no handles or hinges.

“It opens from the other side. Probably double barred, if I remember how these things are constructed. That’s how they used to drag the limp bodies out.”

“It’s old. I ought to be able to bust it down.”

“Go ahead and try.” He laughed again.

I tried. The framing was on the other side of the wall so there was nothing to break or pry apart. Pushing was no good; the floor was slippery just like the walls. I bashed it with my shoulder, but it only bashed me back. I tried kicking, but I was only successful at producing a deep thud and a sore ankle. That left me pounding with my fists until my rage finally exhausted.

“They built her solid. It would take more than us to break out of here.”

I sank back down to the floor beside him and rested my head in my hands. Digger Finn coughed, sounding even sicklier than before. He did not have much time left.

“Any food?” I asked him.

“Not even an insect in two days. You?”

“It’s outside in a tree.”

Finn tried to laugh but it came out a gurgle. There we sat for what seemed an hour, listening to each other breathing, sharing in the irony, and watching vivid images dancing in the darkness in front of our eyes.

I heard Finn slump a little lower, wheezing and murmuring to him self.

“Did you free it?”

For a moment I could not guess at what he was asking. But then it made all the sense in the world.

“Yes.”

“Was it where I said?”

“On the statue of the serpent dragon, deep in its mouth.”

“And the riddle? How did you answer it?”

“Now that was the hard part, for certain. It made no sense until I was standing in the antechamber and could see the sculpture of the three mystics. Each held a part of the riddle in its hands. And then I simply knew what the answer had to be.”

Finn reached out and touched my shoulder weakly.

“A candle,” I whispered.

“A candle?” Finn gasped in disbelief. “Not the moon or the stars? Not love, honor or truth? A candle?”

I sighed. “Yes, a candle.”

“And the demon wraith let you through with that?”

“He crumbled into dust on the spot. The barrier of fire faded, and the heart was mine for the taking.”

“May I touch it?”

“A lot of good it will do either of us now.”

I pulled it out of my pack and handed him the heart shaped rock. It was the size of his entire fist. His fingers wrapped around it delicately and pulled it back toward his face.

“It’s so smooth.” He marveled and held it for many minutes and then his glee turned to disgust. “Take it away. I am old and dying and it will never be mine. Put it away and pretend for me that it does not exist.”

He foisted it back on me by shoving it directly into my chest. For a while again, we did not speak. Finn wept at first, and so I stayed silent for him. Then he put his hand out and touched my shoulder once more.

“I’m going to die this time. I can feel it. The next I sleep will be my last.”

I did not reply.

“Will you do an old man one last request?”

“There is not much I can do for you here, but go ahead and ask.”

“Be the storyteller for me, just this once. Tell me a story, a good tale, mind you, as it will be my last. Make me feel like I’m home again at the Bear’s Foot, with the crowd and the hearth. Let me fall asleep when the villains have been fought, the maiden rescued and town in full regale.”

It was not too much to ask.

“I will give it my best.”

I had never been a storyteller before, but I had heard many a tale from the tellers in each town. There were tellers that would tell tales with gusto, waving arms and bellowing out loud. Others told pithy little tales, whispering such that you had to crane your neck to hear the good parts. Still, others told tales in verse, strumming instruments all the while. I was neither of these.

My story started clumsily, and I had to keep going back over parts again and again to get it right. Finn did not seem to mind. He lay beside me and tried with all his might to simply breathe evenly.

I embellished the fantasy a little by adding a bit of truth. My own acts of heroism, while not vast, allowed me enough insight to add realism to the somewhat contrived plot.

Finn stayed awake long enough for the hero to slay the foul giant and rescue the maiden from the dark tower, just as requested. He fell into a wheezing slumber sometime between when the two arrived back into town for the celebration, and their marriage the next day.

I suppose I was tired myself. I slumped down on the floor and curled against my pack. Maybe after a little rest, I would figure out a way to climb back up the shaft and pry the trap door open. I fell asleep dreaming of escape.

I awoke from a nightmare, my voice shouting a cry of terror. In my dream I had been alone in a large cavern. Alone, except for the smell and the sound of a dragon lumbering closer and closer, the heat of its breath warming the air.

I sat up. “No worries, Finn, just a dream.”

He did not reply.

“Well, Finn, did you finally slip away?” I suspected that he had passed on in his sleep. I reached over to check his breathing.

He was gone.

I searched the floor for where he may have crawled. The room was not too big, about fifteen feet square. He was nowhere to be found, not on the floor or atop the pile of hay.

“Now Digger Finn, where have you gone? You didn’t just crumble to dust like the wraith.”

I continued to search.

The door was open. A cool draft wafted into the room from somewhere beyond. And so I knew that I had been taken, I did not even need to check my pack.