Excuse Me, Miss…

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1

The dogs took off down the trail, ducking into the woods, to chase rabbits. It was a cool October afternoon and the shady areas of the trail through the woods still retained frost from the night before. Dale, an older man very near retirement, trudged along the trail with his assistant, Holly, following behind him. This was part of their daily routine, walking the dogs and "talking business". After the walk, Holly would drive Dale and his two dogs home, finish any errands, and then go home.

"I forgot to tell you that Hudson has a vet appointment on Friday at 10am" Dale finally said. Usually these walks were fairly quiet and any "business talk" was essentially Dale reminiscing about this or that. Holly pulled out her phone and made a quick note on her digital memo pad.

"What's he going in for?" Holly asked.

"The doctor wants him in for a rabies shot since he's four" Dale replied. The older man pulled on his billed knit hat to block the sun that drifted in between the leafless branches. Dale ran an advertising company in the moderately sizable city of Hinesworth. The company was slowly being taken over by the younger partners, but Dale still spearheaded some of the older long-term clients. Holly was just his assistant. She had always meant for the position to be temporary until she could sell her work as a novelist. After five years, she was still just an assistant trying to finish writing some books.

Ahead of them, the two dogs, Hudson, a brown Labrador, and Ripley, a silvery weimeraner, shot across the trail after a rabbit. Dale stopped and laughed. Both dogs had tongues flopping around and looked to be having a good time.

"Go get that rabbit boys!" Dale yelled after them. The dogs tore into the woods until they vanished behind some brush. "I don't think they'll ever catch one of those rabbits."

"You never know" Holly replied. "What happens if they do?"

"Just take it home, clean it, cook it up, serve it to them…" Dale said with a shrug. He moved again, continuing on down the trail. The trail went into the woods deep enough to that any city sounds were lost and signs of people were almost completely vanished. The trail was an old running/skiing trail, depending on the season, and was not usually kept up by anyone other than those who used the trail. The dogs ran back and forth, into the woods, onto the trail, running ahead, and falling behind after finding a new smell. Holly had leashes for them, but they were often not needed on this particular trail since it was a little "out of the way" for most people in Hinesworth.

The trail was always pretty, even in the dead of winter. Dale made it to a small marker at a fork in the road and whistled for the dogs. The marker was nailed to a tree and it announced '1.5 miles. River Trail. Rock Castle Trail.' Beneath the marker was an old large tree stump that was worn from people using it over the years as a place to sit or adjust boots or whatever. Currently, a small man stood on it.

"C'mon, boys!" Dale called out. The dogs trotted ahead of him as he started to go back the way he came. Holly looked at the small man, then at Dale. The small man was not a dwarf, but just a miniature version of a tall man in strange clothes that almost looked like something out of an Arthur Rackham illustration with very long pointed ears. If he was the size of a normal man, he would be quite handsome. "Holly, you coming?"

"I'm just going to get a picture, Dale" Holly called back to him. The small man removed his bright red cap and bowed slightly. Dale didn't seem to even notice the peculiar man on the stump.

"Excuse me, Miss" The man said lightly. "I am in search of a champion."

"A champion?" Holly repeated. Dale and the dogs were rounding a corner. "What? What do you mean?"

"My name is Sorrel and I'm looking for a champion to save us" The small man said with a hopeful smile. "Are you a champion?"

"I'm an administrative assistant" Holly answered. She internally cringed at the lame response. She was simply trying to figure out the little man. "Are you real?"

"Of course I am" Sorrel answered. He demonstrated by dragging his foot on the stump, making a light scraping sound.

"I don't think Dale saw you" Holly said checking over her shoulder for him. Sorrel gave her a big smile.

"Only the special humans can see me" Sorrel said proudly. "You must be a champion. Come with me. Come help us."

The small man jumped down from the stump and began to pull on Holly's hand. Sorrel's shoulder's came to Holly's knees and for being so small, he seemed fairly strong. Holly dug her heels into the ground and pulled her hand free from him.

"Hold on" Holly said a little horrified. "I'm not going with you."

"I've been waiting for 5 days for help" Sorrell said. He looked up at her with pleading eyes. "You're the only one who has seen me."

"I—" Holly muttered unsure of what to say. Sorrell fixed her with a terribly frustrated and sad look. "Let me take Dale, and his dogs, home. I'll come back and hear what you have to say."

"Promise?" Sorrell asked. Holly's mind swirled in confusion and curiosity. It was a mixture that easily made her mind run wild.

"Yes" Holly said firmly. Sorrell climbed back onto the stump and sat down cross-legged. "I'll be back, right here."

"Today" Sorrell stated. Holly nodded 'yes'. The small man gave her a big smile and looked relieved.

"I'll try to be fast" Holly said before heading down the path after Dale.

Holly's head had been spinning since she left Sorrell on the trail and it continued to spin, almost as if she was in a daze, when she dropped off Dale. He let the dogs out and they raced each other to the door of Dale's large house.

"I'll see you tomorrow" Dale said with a brief wave. He shut the door and disappeared into his house. Holly took a deep breath, trying to clear her head. She was trying to figure out what had happened on the trail. Had the little man been real? Was it a prank, like a candid camera prank? She pulled away from Dale's house and headed for the trail. It bothered her that she was so unsure.

It took a long twenty minutes to get back to the trail head. By the time Holly parked, she was certain that she had imagined the small man. She grabbed a small flashlight from her glove compartment and the spear-head knife she kept hidden next to the driver's seat. If the whole thing was some kind of elaborate prank or some kind of crime-thing, as her mind generalized it, she wanted to be ready. She looked around at the trees ahead of her car. The forest seemed a little darker now that she was here alone.

"Why do I do these things?" Holly asked herself as she stuffed the knife and flash light into her coat pockets. She left the car, locking it, and hurried down the trail. Her better part was yelling at her. This is the dumbest thing you could be doing. You don't even know who this Sorrell guy is. What if he wants to hurt you? Yes, you have no problem defending yourself, but he's so small…like the size of a…kid or something. What if a bear is on the trail? Holly trudged down the path, ignoring her own thoughts.

She picked up the pace and soon found herself approaching the 1.5 mile marker. Two trail runners came running back from the River Trail. Holly watched as they ran past the stump and past Sorrell, who was leaning against the stump looking a little bored. The runners nodded as they passed Holly and she nodded back. Sorrell smiled when he noticed her and, almost as if he had been lifted by strings, he simply leapt onto the stump.

"I'm glad you came back" Sorrell said. "Come with me, Champion."

"Wait a second" Holly said. "I said I would hear you out. I didn't say I would go with you."

"But, we need you" Sorrell said with a concerned look. He took off his red Robin Hood cap and watched her with sad eyes. "Our king was taken away and we are unable to rescue him. We need someone to save him."

"Where was he taken?" Holly asked. She barely noticed that her brain had shut its mouth. "Why was he taken?"

Sorrell jumped down from the stump and put his hat back on his head. He pointed at the center of the stump. "He was taken to the Labyrinth and you must reach the castle beyond the Goblin City to help him." His other finger touched the edge of the stump. "We need you to go through the Labyrinth." His finger zig-zagged to his other finger. "We were granted permission to find a true champion. Will you help?"

"You want me to go through a maze?" Holly asked.

"You must travel the Labyrinth" Sorrell emphasized. "The kingdom is large and you will have to get to the castle beyond the Goblin City." Sorrell reached into his pocket and pulled out a green jewel. "I can give you an emerald as payment."

"An emerald?" Holly asked. She felt completely dumbfounded by the whole thing. Here was a little man talking to her about a king and a mysterious Labyrinth. Sorrell held out the emerald and smiled. She felt hesitant to take the emerald. The late afternoon sun caught the jewel and it glimmered beautifully. "Is that real?"

Sorrell simply held the stone out to her. She squatted and took the stone. It was nearly the size of her thumb.

"Thank you for accepting, Champion" Sorrell said with a smile. He shoved his hand into a large belt pouch.

"What? I didn't—" Holly said. Sorrell opened his clenched hand, revealing white powder pulled from his pouch, and blew it in her face. Holly's eyes naturally shut tight and she felt herself suddenly falling.