Sunday, 27 December 2020

Second Place in 2020 Buzz Words Short Story Prize Competition

Ola slays ogres, a fairy tale

© Talia Uylaki (SA)

                                                                                                                                                Once upon a night they came in shadows, climbing over the city walls with ease. Their humped forms cast fearsome shadows in the pale moonlight, bringing terror into the hearts of the guards. Those that tried to fight the monsters were crushed beneath their feet or battered to death by clubs as large and thick as a child. Their names were ancient curses, original meanings lost through the eons. The bones of their victims called them Ugly and Snot. They were ogres; bent, bristling creatures, leaking mucus and saliva from all orifices. Like all monstrous beings they both envied and hated the beauty of humankind. Most of all, they hated the most beautiful of them all. Her name was Floren. She was the Songbird. 

The Songbird had a voice as sweet as honey, soft and enchanting, lilting, and fair. She was the daughter of the sun and the moon. All who gazed upon her felt blessed, all who heard her spellbound. Floren was betrothed to Eust, son of the wind and the rain. Was there no worse betrayal for Songbird to have been promised in wedlock to Eust? In nature he was indolent and piggish, snivelling, and lily-livered. Eust knew only his own pleasure and surrounded himself by sycophants, fawning men even weaker in spirit and heart than himself. He was boastful of his luck to be engaged to such a jewel as Songbird for even he knew, so deep within the crevices of his own heart, that he would never be worthy of her. As such, Eust was ferociously jealous of all others who sang her praises. 

If ever there was a time for Eust to prove his worth to Floren it was when the ogres crashed through the heavy iron doors of the palace and followed the flowery scent of the Songbird to her chamber. Ugly and Snot burst into the bedchamber relishing in the screams of its two occupants. They gave ghastly grins, cluttered with grey teeth, as their yellow eyes beheld the Songbird. She and her handmaiden Ola were curled up as small as they could, trembling, grasping at each other for a silver of comfort. Snot grabbed Floren by her arm, wrenching her away and tearing the sleeve of her gown while Ugly, with a massive paw, knocked Ola away. Floren’s stomach turned and knotted from the putrid smell of Snot’s breath as he leaned in to rasp a rough tongue over her cheek. She closed her eyes and prayed for deliverance. 

It was not to come. Afraid of the ogres’ destructive path to the Songbird, Eust had ordered the knights to fall back. He would risk no life against the ogres to save Floren. Seeing the knights abandon any attempt of rescue, Floren pleaded with the ogres.

‘I will go with you, O Terrible Ones, if you promise to lay no harm on any other living being,’ the Songbird pledged. The ogres grunted their agreement, spittle and phlegm speckling the ground from their gaping maws.

‘Floren, no!’ Ola cried out but was powerless to stop the ogres from taking her mistress away. She scrambled to her feet, shouting to the guards as she raced through the palace.

          ‘Help! Do something, any of you! She’s been taken. She’s gone.’

But the guards and the knights, though they loved the Songbird deeply and were anguished by her ordeal, with their orders from Eust would not follow the ogres. Ola was not to be stopped.

          ‘Cowards! With hearts of mice and minds of chickens. Where is your honour, your chivalry, your love for Floren? If you shall not go after her, I will,’ she declared. Ola would not listen to those who tried to persuade her to stay. You will fail, they said, is too late – the Songbird is at the mercy of monsters.

‘Ola the handmaiden you go to your death in this foolish venture,’ Eust warned. ‘You may go, nobody will stop you. But I will not send anyone after you meet trouble. Pray fate is kinder to you than it has been for the Songbird.’

Ola set off upon a donkey with only a satchel of food, a pouch of water, and a small hunting knife. Her chances were small but her love for Floren consumed her. Her conscience would not allow her to abandon the Songbird to the brutal whims of Ugly and Snot. She rode throughout the days and nights. Her skin burned then tanned in the sun, her hands grew calloused from the reins, her clothes grew dirty and torn. She passed through small towns and great sprawling kingdoms; all who had known the Songbird and wept for her capture. Ola was given gifts by those she came across: sturdy boots; new gloves; food and water; a bow and quiver full of arrows; and a big, barrel-chested horse to replace her weary donkey.

‘Luck be with you, Ola,’ the people prayed. ‘Fate keep you, for all those who have fought the ogres before have lost.’

‘I will not be one of them for then I would have failed in my quest,’ Ola promised solemnly. ‘But,’ she added, ‘If I do perish then I have done more than anyone else to bring salvation to the Songbird. No one can say that loved her more than I.’

The handmaiden rode her horse to the end of the world where shadows covered the land. It was easy to find the trail of the ogres, dead plants and the remains of animals littered the way to an open cave mouth. Ola steadied the bow in her hand and took comfort in the weight of the hunting knife strapped to her side. She tensed, preparing herself to enter the cave and face Ugly and Snot.

And then chaos erupted.

While Eust had remained sulking in his palace and, unaware that Ola was determined to rescue her, Floren had been working on her own survival. Every morning as the ogres laid down to sleep, she sung lullabies until their eyes dropped closed and their grunting snores drowned out her voice. Then she set to work sawing at the rope that bound her with a hairpin. The work was slow, and she spent every moment in terror that the ogres would awaken and see what she was doing. Then, finally, after what felt like an eon of captivity, the hairpin cut the rope in two.

It was near dusk; the ogres were awakening. Floren started to sing her lullaby. The ogres who had now become used to the Songbird singing them to sleep felt drowsiness wash over them. They blinked dumbly, rooted in their bedding of pelts. Their heads nodded, once, twice, then stilled. The deep rumbling of their snores echoed through the cave. Floren took a step, then another, eyes fixed firmly on the sleeping monsters. She didn’t see the bone on the floor until she tripped over it. She fell with a mighty thud. Ugly and Snot awoke and seeing the cut ropes and missing Songbird roared their displeasure. No time to waste, with surely death upon her, Floren raced out of the cave.

She ran into Ola trying to steady her steed as the horse whinnied and stamped his hooves in fear of the ogres’ cries.

‘Ola!’ Floren said in an amazement. And then, ‘Watch out!’

Ola had an arrow knocked and let it fly. It flew high and true, striking Ugly in the eye as he emerged from the cave. The ogre reared backwards, one great arm reaching up to wrench the arrow out of his eye, but the projectile had pierced his brain. He died before his body slumped onto the ground. Snot raged and wept for Ugly and blindly swung out at the Songbird and her saviour. Ola let loose another arrow. It struck Snot where his heart should be if he had one. Snot roared again, in anger and pain, causing Ola’s horse to rear up in fright, eyes rolling wildly, bellowing, and striking out with its hooves. The hunting knife fell from Ola’s side. Floren snatched it up from the ground and lashed out at Snot’s foot. She severed the tendon, black blood squirting from the wound. Snot fell, unable to stand. Ola released a final arrow into Snot’s throat. Then it was over.

The two women embraced their shaking bodies. They reeked of adrenaline, of dirt and of sweat. They grinned uncontrollably in exhilaration.

‘Ola, you came after me,’ Floren said. She kissed Ola gratefully.

‘I owe you my life. What gift you ask is yours,’ Floren promised.

‘Then I only ask of you two things,’ Ola said. She reached out to hold Floren’s hand. ‘The first, do not marry Eust. He is underserving of you. He would not save you. The second, that you will always have my devotion and love.’

Floren agreed. Ola and Floren jumped onto the horse and set out back to the kingdom. The two of them, together, would live happily ever after.

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