As evening fell like a pixilated sock, the elderly couple did as they had done every night for many long years: he sat by the hearth, occasionally adding a piece of kindling to stoke the fire, then taking a drag from his pipe; she, in her rocking chair opposite, sewed a patch on a pair of his breeches.
Suddenly this unvarying domestic scene was interrupted by a loud banging on the door.
“Who in blazes could that be?” the old man exclaimed.
“Samuel, do you think it might be our dear nephew Bluth, free of his indentured servitude at last?”
Before they could speculate further, a large axe crashed through the planks of the door. Three more blows and the door was splinters.
Samuel and his wife leapt from their chairs. She defensively slipped behind her husband as a tall, brawny youth with long, blond hair strolled casually through the entrance he had made.
The visitor strapped the axe on his back and pulled a glittering sword from its sheath. His steely blue gaze swept over the modest contents of the cottage, then settled on Samuel.
“Can you tell me anything of the Hidden Path to the Secret City of Kradcak?”
“Who in Hades are you?” Samuel replied. “Why did you bust in our door?”
“I must find the City of Kradcak, there to face challenges innumerable and fulfill my quest. The more knowledge I can gain, the better prepared I will be.”
“Don’t know nothin’ about it,” Samuel spat. “Why would I? I am just a peasant and I have never been there! There are rumors, of course, common to all. Kradcak is a dangerous and evil city, lost for a reason, and always in darkness. There you are, sonny, you’ve tapped my sum total knowledge of Kradcak. Now you owe me for that door.”
The virile youth seemed to lose interest in the man and his wife then, and his eyes began to scan cunningly the sparse room. His gaze came to rest on a medium-sized urn in one corner.
“A-ha!” he yelped, and pranced across the room slicing his blade through the air. He brought it down in a whistling arc upon the urn.
Samuel and his wife flinched as the urn broke into pieces.
To their utter astonishment, a large, blue jewel popped up into the air from the shattered urn.
The young warrior grabbed it from the air and — they were not quite sure — it disappeared, as if he had either quickly pocketed it or swallowed it.
“Where did that come from?” Samuel asked his wife.
“I — I never saw it before,” she stammered.
The destructive guest, with a smug smile, turned to leave.
Shock kept the couple rooted by the hearth for only a moment. They shuffled through the hole in the door after him.
“Tarry just a moment, young ‘un,” Samuel shouted at the warrior’s broad back. “That jewel is ours!”
The blonde hero turned and regarded them with bewilderment.
“I found it,” he shrugged, then turned to go as if that settled the matter.
Samuel’s wife, Leah, who had been silently boiling, now erupted.
“You busted our door to pieces, broke our urn, and stole a gem that is rightfully ours! Just who do you think you are?”
“I am ZaZa, and I am on a quest to rescue the cherry-flavored princess from the clutches of the vile Tortosorcer. The jewels I find in urns power my sword, Lancelitebrite.”
After having said this, his attention was suddenly caught by a hedge growing at the edge of the lawn in front of the couple’s humble cottage.
A fire kindled in his narrowing eyes, and he redrew his sword.
“Ha!” he cried and began smiting the hedge as he had done the urn, showing the bushes as little mercy.
“My trimmed hedges!” Leah moaned, impotently clutching her fists.
ZaZa sliced left and right; leaves and branches flew, and the hedge was rendered completely helpless.
A large heart popped out of the decimated bushes and hovered in the air.
Then it was gone — as with the gem, Samuel and Leah were not sure if ZaZa had slipped it into some hidden compartment or he had simply swallowed it. It had appeared far too big for either maneuver.
“What was that?!” Samuel cried. “What dark sorcery do you possess to draw hearts from hedges?!”
“I must face many lethal foes along my journey’s road. Hearts hidden in bushes and tall grasses make me harder to kill.” His matter-of-fact tone seemed to suggest these were facts everyone must surely know. “Now, I must be off to the shrouded City of Kradcak, so I summon my faithful steed, Hoof Mouth.” He sheathed his sword, put his fingers to his lips, and whistled.
A large, tan horse trotted up the walk to the blasted hedge, and the young man who called himself ZaZa leapt onto its back with a cry of “Hoof Mouth, away!”
The horse proceeded to walk straight into a picket fence surrounding the couple’s yard. It bumped into the fence and stopped.
ZaZa muttered curses the couple could not quite make out, pulled on the reins, backed the horse a few paces, then spurred the horse into a great leap over the fence. He galloped away, chasing the last reddish tail of the setting sun.
The old man and the old woman watched his silhouette fade on the horizon.
Then Samuel turned to his wife. “Did you see that? With the horse? Smacking right into the fence?”
“Amateur,” the woman huffed. “He must be just learning to use it.”
As they shuffled back to their violated door, the woman shook her head. “If only we’d known that urn contained that gem! We might have bought poor Bluth out of indentured servitude.”
“I suppose I could search the tall grasses out back tomorrow,” the man muttered. “Maybe he missed one of those hearts. We could cook it for supper.”
Nicholas Ozment teaches English at Winona State University. His stories and poems continue to appear in numerous magazines, book anthologies, and online zines. He is a co-editor of Every Day Fiction’s sister publication, Every Day Poets.