To Any King a Crown

By R.J. Barna

Preface:

A Note on the Irredeemable Race of Bogland…

         As is true of most magickal things, Boggarts can only be found when you aren’t actually looking for them. Even the most observant of travelers may find themselves wandering directly through the heart of Bogland without so much as a hint that the fetid swamp is actually populated by a foul and unpleasant race of mischievous goblins. It is in this very way that I, Magister Mendel the Meanderer, did discover the “Grand Muchness of Bogland (or so they call it),” as I had no interest, and have none still, in the wretched community there in the runoff of Centralia’s southernmost sewers. But, as there may be some benefit in putting a face to many of man’s mysterious miseries, I submit to you now as true an account as can be told of the bothersome brutes of Bogland.

         As I meandered near about, as I am wont to do, imagine my surprise when a shriveled, man-like creature, no larger than a child, with a bulbous head topped by wiry wisps of black hair addressed me in the language of the King! I could tell from its wide-set, black marble-sized eyes that it possessed not much of intelligence, but the words that slipped out from between its short, sinister-looking teeth were identifiable enough to mine ear. It insisted that its name was “Undertrumpet,” and that I was its prisoner, to be taken to Il Boggo (their chieftain, I presumed) for questioning.

         I raised one end of my walking staff to push the beast back into the muddy reeds from whence it emerged, but to my great surprise, I was soon beset upon by dozens more, coming from all directions and carrying crude clubs fashioned from discarded human refuse: a candle stick, a bed post, a wooden leg. Armed as they were, and in such numbers, I doubt that even my pistol may have helped preserve me (had I even remembered to bring it along).

         As I was wrestled to the spongey ground of the marsh by uncountable, grubby hands and rolled up tightly in a moth-ridden Parogian carpet, being a learned man, I looked to my lessons in hope of some clever bit of knowledge to use against my captors. Alas, I must have missed the class on “Resisting Boggart Abduction,” and as I lay helpless at their clawed feet and resigned myself to the unavoidable fate before me, I realized that although I had advised Kings and Lords, I knew as little of a Boggart’s nature as any Centralian may. 

         While it is known that Boggarts are akin, in some way at least, to the other children of the once dreaded Faye Queen of the Wyrd Wood in the West, they are neither nearly as curious as Pixies nor helpful as House Elves to ever be studied in any effectively scientific manner. I could hardly think of any, even an ambitious Apprentice Magister, who should even consider suffering the indignity of studying so loathsome a creature as a Boggart… Except perhaps, by dissection, though that hardly seems worth the smell… Regardless, what little we know is this; long since the extinction of Pixies and shortly after the disappearance of House Elves, the Boggarts began their reign of mischief and terror from the sewers of Centralia’s capital city, Lyre.

         The connection between House Elves and Boggarts cannot be denied. In as many ways as the former were kind and helpful with an affinity for children, the latter were spiteful and destructive with a twisted appetite for them. The close proximity too, in time, between the disappearance of the House Elves and the rise of the Boggarts leads the logical mind to conclude that it was indeed the wicked goblins responsible for the eradication of our helpful, brown-capped housemates. A preposterous theory circulating in the Academy, amongst lesser minds, suggests that Boggarts are perhaps the Elves misshapen and mutated by our own decaying home lives, but such notions are the source of much amusement amongst the Senior Magisters. It is entirely illogical to suppose that human beings would ever do anything that would result in self-harm, and harmful the Boggarts have undoubtedly been.

         Once, merely the subject of fanciful tales, the black-hearted beasts began to crawl out from the shadows beneath the street to claim black-hearted boys and girls, taken and never seen again. You may think this a sort of darkly-deserved justice, but even naughty children have parents who love them, or at least will remember that they ought to have once they’re gone. To make matters worse, once the tales of warning began to ring true and children began again to heed the advice of their moms and dads and uncles and aunts, the Boggarts set their eyes upon the cradle of our Most Noble King Eckhard’s only son, Oswald, who was snatched, swaddling clothes and all, during the wytching hour of a wet and dreary Autumn evening. Whilst the Kingdom mourned, the King’s brother Heardred rallied the realm’s fiercest musketeers at once with sharpened steel and packed pistols to scour the sewers in search of the boy and bring him home.

         The expedition was fruitless, and while a great frenzy of violence was overheard by the worried citizens holding their breaths above, ears pressed to every pipe in every home, not one of the expressionless, mud-covered soldiers who returned would comment upon the horrors they’d seen below. That night, Heardred and his men poured red oil into every sewer drain and pipe in town and stood silently with empty eyes as the cobblestone streets smoldered and spewed smoke sent from the scorching fires they started. The putrid smell of broiling Boggarts overwhelmed every home in the city, but the disgusting disturbance was seemingly worth the suffering, as not a child more went missing in the months and years that followed. Heardred was celebrated as a hero, a foul-smelling, ash-covered hero, but he made it clear that he did not accept the title, later defacing publically a statue constructed in his honor at the Market Square. But a victory had been won; the Boggarts were gone, or so we thought.

         It wasn’t until some years after, nearly fifty years ago, that anyone even muttered the “B-Word” again, when, by chance, the King’s daughter Dorothea was kidnapped by the long-slumbering terror: the dragon Fernier. The King, his brother, and the finest Knights of all the Kingdom met the great wyrm in combat, but the lead shot from their muskets was too soft to pierce dragonscale and he roasted many of them in their iron armor before their swords and polearms could ever come to close. Once again, the King stood to lose his only child. It was then that a detestable Boggart, calling itself Bogg, presented the King with a gift: the Sword of Immortality: a sharpened spike of glimmering steel pulled from the trunk of a petrified tree at the heart of the Wyrd Wood. It was said that he who carried it could not be killed by any means, and with it, the King could march up to mighty Fernier and claim his great, horned head without any risk of harm.

         While the King negotiated with Bogg over the terms of their timid alliance, it was Heardred who snuck away with the blade unseen, confronted Fernier alone, and returned triumphant with sweet Dorothea, entirely unharmed; the sword he left buried in the dragon’s cave, lodged in Fernier’s thick skull so that it could never be used for ill. Feeling so proud at last of his great accomplishment, imagine his shock and surprise when he discovered that he had delivered the poor Princess into a fate worse than that he had just delivered her from.

         While he had been gone, the desperate and emotional King, in exchange for the sword, had promised the greedy Boggart land, lordship, and the promised hand of his daughter in marriage to the creature’s intended son: a Boggart Prince! Heardred was appalled by the disagreeable agreement, as any sane person ought to have been, but the King, fool-erm…noble as he was, upheld his promise to the beady-eyed creep, sealed with a handshake that sent shivers up the spines of those men loyal enough to stay and witness it. Many followed Heardred out of the Kingdom at the sight, and they withdrew into the mountains of the North: land to Giants and Wytches of the Arctic Waste. While it is not known, some in the Highlands of Stormcliffe have claimed to see Heardred, a black figure against the snow, standing beside a wretched-looking Wytch and surveying the ruins of his once beloved home.

         Poppycock is what I say to that! “Ruins of his once beloved home?” The Kingdom of Centralia still stands a bright beacon of hope and enlightenment in an ignorant and superstitious world, regardless of any such dark alliance as had been made that day. In fact, in many ways, the pact between Man and Boggart ensured that no child more should be taken unless they be abandoned or asked to be, and furthermore, that no child of Man should again be eaten by the malicious miscreants (which had apparently been a custom of the horrid curs).  

         Even the sinister oath itself can hardly be seen as so vile a thing, as the Princess who was claimed upon her fourteenth birth year returned, as she said, “By (her) own will,” only two years later. From then until now, when I was waylaid and taken against my will, confined (if you recall) within a smartly-fastened carpet, no one had even imagined that the imps claiming lordship of the Bog (upheld by decree of King Eckhard) could possibly have prospered in as much as they had, or even stood to be a threat again to man.

         The gang of cretins, surprisingly strong for their diminutive size, dragged me feet first, my bald head ploughing a shallow trough in the mud behind us as we went. Much to my continued surprise, all of the beasts seemed to have, at least in a fundamental sense, a grasp of the King’s language. I overheard much talk as I was hauled between rows of slap-dash, rickety and rotten wooden stalls, stocked with every conceivable oddity: a Boggart Market. The vendors wore tattered, mud-crusted caps fit tightly above their outstretched, pointed ears, peddling obviously-burgled silverware, buckets of musty-smelling mushrooms, and greasy-looking roasts of swamp rats. To my ever-living horror, as we passed the final stand, I could hear the unmistakably piercing cry of a child in distress, though as I craned my neck to investigate, witnessed only a sign that advertised the sale of “Hubies” and “Kiddens,” the price for each determined by their weight.

         To set your mind at ease, dear reader and future scholar, be it known that I learned later that the agreement had been upheld, and while Boggarts no longer eat children (or claim not to), it is merely by tradition that they are sold by the pound. One could not purchase a single pound of “Hubie (a human baby),” you see, but must rather purchase them in whole according to the scale’s account. As I understand it, the unconscionable beasts keep the children they harvest as pets, favored for the “soothing cries,” they make when “pinched and bitten.” As I said, the Boggarts are a despicable race.

         It wasn’t much longer before my bruised and aching body was dragged across the rough slats of a wooden walkway, elevated above the wreaking, oily waters adrift with trash and a surprising number of discarded socks (only in single, never as a pair) which flowed beneath us. It took great composure not to lose my early morning meal of apple-crumb oatmeal and honeycider, and although the scent of the inside of a gnarled and hollowed out tree in which they brought me next was hardly much better, it was at least some small relief, and I managed to hold my breakfast in place. I believe the boglings could have benefit greatly from sewers of their own, but clearly, proper waste management is something beyond the limits of their simple minds.

         In a crude, circular chamber, Undertrumpet released me from confinement and forced me to sit up with a rudely persistent urging from his cudgel (which I then noticed was studded with rusty bottle caps). I then sat before Il Boggo, a Boggart called “Blat,” who, while still no larger than a child (a very fat child, mind you), was by far the largest and most corpulent amongst them. A large number, it may have been dozens, gathered around me, dressed in soiled velvet, torn silk, and dented jewelry: quite unlike the simple muddied rags worn by my captors, now behind me with clubs at my back. Clearly, I was in the presence of “royalty.”

         All at once, without any due introductions, I was sentenced to death on the grounds of being a “delicious cake disguised as a man” by Blat, who claimed the right of carrying out punishment himself: death by consumption. How fortunate it was for me that Blat was so rotund that he had been quite-effectively stuck on his throne for many years and could not lift himself to step forward and eat me (although how he would have done so, I’ll never know). As the word of Il Boggo was beyond question, as declared a long-nosed Boggart with a pointed hood, it suddenly became apparent that I would not be harmed in so long as I managed to stay out of reach of the tin-can-crowned chieftain, and because those present were forced to regard me as nothing more than a “delicious cake,” they lowered their guard and allowed me to wander off unmolested.

         Needless to say, I immediately began to try and find a way out before I remembered the atrocities of human trading taking place at the Bog Market. I eventually found my way back through a labyrinth of crookedly-constructed dwellings which stood about my height (built with baked clay bricks and cattail reed thatching). I pushed my way into a crowd of greedily groping goblins, keeping them at bay by length of my walking stick, and lifted the Hubie Merchant from the ground by one of its oily ears, to which it protested shrilly. Once again, I kicked myself for the lack of a pistol. I even found myself without a useful potion, a Magister’s true choice of weapon. If only I had known the adventure my quaint constitutional would lead me into!

         The beasts hissed and gnashed their needle-like teeth at me as they circled and made quick, timid thrusts in my direction with broken bottles, lengths of chain, and rusty pipes. I could see that there were three infants and a dirty, blonde child with a running nose kept swaddled in a cage behind the stall, and I was not about to abandon them. Undertrumpet emerged from the crowd with its bottle-cap club lifted high above its prune-colored head and shouted, “Call the Bogguard! A delicious cake is stealing Hubies!” Much to my relief, the boggling’s cry stole thunder from the crowd as they each lowered their weapon and turned to face him with great confusion in their already unintelligent eyes. I made the most of their distraction.

         The shopkeeper, whose ear I still firmly held in one hand (much to its dissatisfaction), I hurled into the crowd, which almost immediately broke out into a chaotic brawl as the participants shouted, “You pushed me,” “You stepped on my foot,” “You got mushroom paste on my swamp rat,” “You got swamp rat in my mushroom paste,” and the like. Now, as the least of the crowd’s concern, which soon after turned its attention to the looting of other stalls, I dragged the cage full of children through the slick mud behind me and ran as fast as I could manage.

         Time and again, the disorganized plan (or lack thereof) of the “city” streets or else some illusionary magickal force led me back to the market where I had started. I was running in circles.  It seemed as though I would never liberate those unfortunate children, and by sight of squad of squat, armor-clad Boggarts (the Bogguard I can only imagine) arriving at the edge of the fray with wicked looking polearms, I was beginning to think that the “delicious cake defense” would no longer protect me. It was at this time, when the most aggressive looking of the bunch, a black-bearded brute with a thick purple scar and yellowed tusks protruding from its lower lip, locked eyes with me from across the squealing fray, that the unexpected happened. I felt a tug on my sleeve.

         “Excuse me, sir,” a Boggart child said cheerfully as he reached up and took gentle hold of my hand with its tiny claw. It was similarly as repulsive as the others, but the warm glow that burned dimly through its soulless eyes seemed to comfort me and dissolve any sinister quality its wide, toothy grin may have expressed otherwise. “May I help you, sir? Come, let’s get you home.”

         Perhaps it was poor judgment to trust the creature, but in my disbelieving state, I followed upon the Boggart’s gentle urging. It said its name was “Whynot,” and that it was to be a “Knight of Bog” once it had grown old enough. What this means, I’m sure that I’ll never know, but much to its credit, I found myself, once again, at the site of my initial kidnapping; the “Grand Muchness of Bogland” was suddenly no longer anywhere to be seen. If it hadn’t been for the rusted cage of wailing children and my unusual guide, I could have summed up the experience to an over-fermentation of my morning’s honeycider! I stood examining the reeds of the bog carefully, but the harder I looked, the less I could remember of the strange city that surely must still dwell within them.

         Whynot calmed the children by tickling their noses with a long blade of grass and played “peek-a-bogg” with the oldest of them. Once they were warm with smiles and excitable laughter, the young boggling turned its attention to me once again. It handed me a crudely-stitched pouch full to the brim with sweet smelling berries and thick bread crusts. “It was nice to meet you, sir,” it declared eagerly before pausing to pluck a small, white-flowered weed from the mud, and vanished, like its home, into the reeds. Sure not to succumb to the apparent trickery of the foul creature’s supposedly warm gesture, scholar that I am, I hurled the most-assuredly poisoned food into the swamp, collected the children from the cage (holding a baby in each arm while the young boy followed behind carrying the last) and returned to my humble cottage in southern Richfield.       

         In the morning, after a bit of breakfast, I gained conference with the Yeoman Council there and I informed them of what I’d seen and offered the children forward as evidence. Surely the stolen goods in the Bog Market must have come from the lands of Men, the Boggarts being too simple themselves to have mastered any form of industry. Lord Primus assured me that his Dragoons, the best horsemen in all of Centralia, would scout the Bog and eliminate any threat found there. I am told that their expedition uncovered no sign of the wretched settlement I had described, and soon after there were some who began to call me Magister Mendel the Mad in dark corners. Still, I know the threat is real, and you would be wise to consider it very real too.

         If I was mad, in fact, where then could I have found four children? Surely, there is no place in the Kingdom of Men where even a single child could go missing without notice or concern. But I have turned my attentions from the ways of troublesome spirits. My studies now I resume in more practical pursuits as ethics and economics, and to join me is the eldest child I rescued that day: a boy I’ve named Gilbert and taken as a pupil. The three infants were left in the good graces of the Noble Lords of Richfield, to become wards of the state, servants of the land, where they will be much better off earning a living by the sweat of their brows than to be subjected to the unspeakable mischief that a Boggart might inflict upon them. With any luck, the Boggarts will have disappeared again though for good, like whatever shadows of the sewers had spawned them…  

     -an excerpt from Mendel’s Complete Almanac of Knowable Things

Chapter 1:

A Boy Becomes a Bogg…or Not

           The early morning sun set the mists of the Bog aflame. Bright clouds rolled off from the trash-cluttered water like wisps of burning cotton pulled out across the pale blue sky. It was the moment just after night and not quite the day, when the gentle blue-crested warbler takes its first breath before sounding the official beginning of today. It was then and here, behind the unbreakable walls of Fort Biggestness (which had only been broken into once, and that was on purpose), that Gruntwerst, Captain of the Bogguard and bodyguard to Il Boggo, assembled together the finest warriors under his command… and Wretch. Of course Wretch would be there. He was the Captain’s son, after all, for better or worse… Mostly worse.

            By all accounts, Wretch was everything anyboggy could ever hope to be. He was tall, nearly twice as much as any other Boggart on the line: a fact that many attempted to hide by placing high plumes of swamp weeds and feathers into the tops of their rusty helmets. He was hairy and he smelled bad. He was apparently so ugly that Il Boggo declared that he couldn’t be seen without his helmet: little more than an iron kettle, hammered to shape with a slatted visor installed to see. He was even so strong that he was the first to lift “Bognasher,” an impossibly heavy, iron hammer, since its now-deceased owner, Gnash the Lucky, tossed it in the air as high as he could on a dare and lost sight of it in the sun.

            Still, there was something about Wretch that wasn’t quite right. Even his skin was the wrong color: pink instead of purple. But more importantly, maybe most importantly, he lacked that certain something “boggy” that keeps a good Boggart bad: keeps him cruel, conniving, and cold-blooded. He was a boy devoid of “bogginess,” a fact that brought his once-respected father nothing but frustration.

           Gruntwerst paced along the line of hardened warriors assembled in front of the brick-faced barracks, standing at attention beneath the shade of its woven-reed roof. They sharpened their jagged blades, filed their teeth to points, and smeared thick, green swamp mud across their purple, pimpled faces in hopes of an even-more-sinister appearance. Gruntgwest deflated upon meeting Wretch at the end of the line, who stood out like a battlepig at a Richfield pony show, gently securing the shoulder pauldron of the Boggart next to him.

           “Wretch!” Gruntwerst barked, causing the entire line to jump. “What do you think you’re doing!?”

           He replied with a soft, muffled voice that struggled to find its way free from the slat in his helmet; “I noticed that Reekmor’s armor was loose. I thought that maybe it might start to chaff if not fastened properly…”

           Gruntwerst indulged in a long, dramatic blink before asking, “What?”

           Wretch’s shimmering blue eyes darted around, hidden behind the visor of his helmet. They searched desperately for the words he just knew that his father was expecting. Not finding them there, he took a shot in the dark, like he usually did. “It might start to chaff, Sir!” he declared as he placed Bognasher over one shoulder and stood at attention, making the height gap between him and his fellows all the more noticeable. “Yes, Sir, we wouldn’t want chaffing. No, Sir!”       

            Gruntwerst scratched his thick, bristly beard with thick, nubby fingernails. “You’re worried about chaffing? Chaffing!?”

            “Um, yes? Sir?”

            “Chaffing’s going to be the least of Reekmor’s problems!” he bellowed, stepping onto his tippy toes in an effort to lift himself high enough to shout in Wretch’s face. He did not. He continued to yell into his belly button instead. “Reekmor’s a warrior! He’s going into battle!”

                        “Rah!” Reekmor roared.

            “He’s going to kill!”

                        “Raaaah!” he roared louder.

              “He’s going to die!”

                        “Raa…wait, what?”

            “Reekmor’s going to suffer horrendous wounds…”

                        “…I am?”

            “…going to be stabbed, and stomped, and set on fire probably…”

                        “…wait, who said…”

            “…and when he’s lying there, bleeding out and crying in the dirt…”

                        “…can I go home?”

            “Do you really think that he’s going to be worried about a little chaffing!?” Gruntwerst grabbed the slinking Reekmor as he tried to slip away and pulled him back into line without so much as a sideways glance. “Bog-gone-it, Wretch,” he growled and shook his head before turning his attention to the rest of his troops assembled there. “Bogguard!”

                        “Rah!” they roared in unison. Even Wretch did his best.

            “Today marks our nine-hundredth attempt at invading the Most Likely Temple of the Rock,” Gruntwerst began, jutting out his chin with pride. “I know we all thought we had it last time, and I did too, but the fact that we failed doesn’t make us failures; it just means we’ve got experience!”

                        “Rah!”

             “I’m pretty sure that today’s the day,” he beamed, pacing back and forth down the line. “Nine hundred is a good number: much better than eight hundred and ninety-whatever, at any rate. The Pronouncicators stole something from us- or at least I think they did- and we’re going to take it- whatever it was- back! So, who’s with me!?”

            The Bogguard shook their long, gleaming polearms above their heads, beat their chests, and howled maniacally, working themselves up into a terrible frenzy. Wretch…tried. As the Captain joined in, trembling visibly with furious anger, he positioned his powerful, calloused hands beneath the heavy wooden bar that kept closed the ramshackle Gates of Fort Biggestness, and swung the high, wooden doors open wildly into the street outside, directly across from which stood the Temple of the Rock, the home of the Pronouncicators, and whatever it was that they probably stole from the Bogguard that one time.

            The charge was broken immediately. It was morning rush hour after all, and the entire Merchant Caste swarmed the swamp road that waited before them with rickety wooden carts full to overflowing with various wares acquired through various methods from the human lands: partly eaten pies set out to cool, damp clothing set out to dry, half-rotten vegetables set out to compost, a fully-rotten child or two set in a corner to think about what they’d done.

           The Bogguard did their best to push, intimidate, and shove through the flow of deliveries, but it was Wretch, who carefully and politely made his way across that arrived at the Temple first. There, a rather relaxed and keen-eyed Boggart with a long, pointed nose and an even pointier hood was waiting calmly for his regular morning appointment to arrive. He fondled an unimpressive stone in his hands that hung around his neck on a leather cord and bid his first guest welcome. “Bog Morning, Wretch…”

            “Bog Morning, Allsright,” the boy replied, looking over his shoulder in attempt to gauge how long until the rest of his party should arrive. At least half of the Bogguard had vanished completely, probably gone home, while the others argued with merchants, toppled carts and yelled at the fat, squealing pigs that pulled them. “Nice day today, huh?”

            Allsright shrugged. “Have you eaten yet?”

            Wretch shook his head.

            “I have,” Allsright declared before belching proudly.

            “Ah,” the boy conceded. He’d fallen for that trick nearly as often as the Bogguard’s invasions have failed. Most days, he’d kept quiet, twirled Bognasher in the dirt, and stared at his feet until the charge of the Bogguard resumed, but from the sight of his father attempting to fight off an angered old sow with a live chicken in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other, he began to figure he’d be waiting a while. He shyly tried to pass the time with conversation. “So, how do you like being a Pronouncicator?”

            Allsright lifted one eyebrow, seemingly amused. “How do you mean?”

                        “Well,” Wretch mumbled, “what is it that you do?”

            “I. Pronounce. Stuff.”     

                        Wretch nodded his helmet slowly, as if he understood.

            “…like what, you ask?”

                        “Uh, yeah. I was going to ask that…”

            “Well…,” Allsright began, standing as tall as his high, pointy hat could pretend that he was. “A Pronouncicator is a very important Boggart, me especially so, being the Most Right Pronouncicator. It is we that are tasked with the burden of interpreting the Law after Law Eight, which everyone knows is written upon the Rock of Bogg in invisible ink…” 

            Wretch’s helmet hid his wrinkled brow. “You mean Law Nine?”

            “What!?”

            “The Law after Law Eight,” Wretch explained slowly. “You mean Law Nine.”

            “How absurd,” Allsright scoffed. “My Bogg, do you know nothing of the Laws of Bogg? The Laws that he, the almighty Bogg, Most Right, set upon the rock in the temple?” Allsright puffed out his chest, crossed his arms behind his back, and began to recite his all-too-often practiced and not-so-great speech. “When Bogg first claimed the Bog,” he proclaimed loud enough to address a large gathering, ignoring Wretch’s silent protest imploring him to stop, “there were six clans of Boggarts. Each possessed their own gifts and flaws, other than we who would become Pronouncicators (of course), as it was through our wisdom that we suggested to Bogg, our undisputed and most terrible leader who claimed a Human wife and sent her away when she smelled bad or something…”

                        “You were saying something about the rock?”

            “Yes, my boy,” Allsright snapped; “It was we who suggested that Bogg write down his law on the Rock, since while it was always known that Bogg was always right, it was important that we had it down in writing so that we could remember it later…”

            Wretch sat down dejectedly on the narrow, stone steps of the temple, Bognasher between his scuffed and knobby knees. Taking a deep breath, he rested his chin in the palm of one hand and when it was time, as indicated by the pointy nose of Allsright jutting toward him, he asked, “How many laws are there? Are there nine?”

            “Don’t be stupid, boy,” Allsright snipped; “There are eight laws and the Law after Law Eight. They are written upon the Rock as follows:

Law One:

There are only three laws of Bogg (this is not one of them).

Law Two:

Bogg is always right and can do anything, so don’t ask.

Law Three:

Don’t take or eat humans, unless, I guess, if they say it’s ok.

Law Four:

If it isn’t nailed down, it belongs to you.
If it is nailed down and you can pry it loose, it belongs to you.
Unless it’s Bogg’s stuff or a human.
Also, don’t nail humans down.
They hate that.

Law Five:

There are no more laws.

Law Six:

Except for these two (this is also not one of them).

Law Seven:

Now that Blat has eaten Bogg, he is always right now…Blat, I mean.

Law Eight:

Whoever took Blat’s sock has to bring it back and be eaten.
The bringer, not the sock.
To be eaten, I mean.

The Law after Law Eight:

This law was written in invisible ink by Bogg, who was right longer than Blat, making him more right, and only the Most Right Pronouncicator can read it.

           “And there you have them,” Allsright beamed with his nose held high: “all eight Laws of Bogg.”

            “And there you have them,” Allsright beamed with his nose held high: “all eight Laws of Bogg.”

            “…now I’m starting to think there’re only six laws,” Wretch murmured.

“What!?”

            “Uh,” Wretch fumbled, trying desperately not to suffer a repetition of the lecture he’d heard all too many times; “I said, uh, that ‘I’m starting to think about- ah- only…that slick rock!”

            “Ah, yes!” Allsright was fooled completely, once again petting the unremarkable stone that hung from around his neck. “How keen of you to notice!?”

            “Yeah,” Wretch nodded, looking past the boastful Boggart at his father, now nearly across the street. “So what’s the deal with the rock?”

            Allsright nearly purred as he rubbed the smooth stone against his leathery chin. “This is the one and only, miniature Rock of Bogg, which says the Law after Law Eight…”

            “I don’t see any writing,” Wretch strained to look closer.

            Allsright pulled the stone quickly away from sight and cradled it jealously against his breast. “I said that it ‘says’ the Law after Law Eight, numbskull; it speaks. Hear it now? It says that Allsright is Most Right!” Wretch waited a moment, trying to listen, but heard nothing and shook his head. Allsright snarled and tucked the stone inside of his robe where it could no longer be judged. “That’s- that’s because you’re a numbskull, Wretch, and numbskulls can’t hear it speak…”

            “Hear what speak, you worthless Rock Hugger!?” Gruntwerst demanded to know. He had finally arrived with four of the Bogguard, each of them covered in mud and the remains of rotten produce, their armor fallen loose and dragging by the straps behind them (all except Reekmor’s whose armor had been securely fastened). The Captain leaned down to pick up the broken point of his unit’s one remaining polearm and held it menacingly like a kitchen knife. “What speaks!?”

             “My rock speaks…”

            “That’s nonsense!”

            “What’s that?” Allsright leaned one ear down towards his chest, so better to hear his whispering stone. “Oh, yes. I see…”

            Gruntwerst leaned forward timidly. “…what’d it say?”

            “Certainly you heard, Captain Gruntwerst,” he smiled a wide, devilish display of tightly sealed teeth. “Only a numbskull cannot hear it, and it says how strong and mighty you are…”

            “Oh,” Gruntwest supposed with a self-satisfied grin. “You all heard it, right?”

            “Oh yeah, Cap’n,” the Bogguard all (minus Wretch) agreed absolutely. “We heard it all right, we did!”

            “Then you also heard it say that the Bogguard cannot attack the Temple of the Rock today…”

            Gruntwerst’s eyes narrowed as he slipped seamlessly into a threatening posture: shoulders perched, head dropped low, and one foot forward, ready to charge. The grinding of his back teeth was as audible as the sounds of heavy wooden wheels crushing stones in the dry gravel street behind him. Wretch had seen this pose many times, and while his father may not have been wise, or smart, or even particularly good at putting any sort of thoughts together really, there was one thing that everyboggy in all of Bogland knew: Gruntwerst was the biggest (second only to his son), meanest, most angriest Boggart there was. The one and only thought seen quite clearly in Gruntwerst’s bulging, red eyes was “anger,” and it was directed at Allsright and his rock, and whatever it was that he probably stole from the Bogguard that one time all those many nine hundred days ago.

           “Unless you answer a riddle,” Allsright quickly interjected, eager to distract the Captain from carrying out the act which the Pronouncicator insisted he could not do. “You cannot attack the Temple of the Rock today, unless you answer a riddle first. Because you’re so clever,” he giggled nervously: “clever and Most Strong. And very smelly. Surely you heard the rock say as much. You’re no numbskull like Wretch…”

              The Bogguard stared slack-jawed at their Captain, waiting timidly for any sign of what their next move should be. Gruntwerst himself seemed confused and altogether uncertain until an unexpected chuckle rolled up from his gut and slipped out between his mighty tusks. A round of laughter rose slowly, but came to a rowdy raucous with the Bogguard, their Captain, and Allsright each holding onto one another in order to keep from falling down. Wretch sighed and reclined on his elbows behind him. “I am Most Strong,” Gruntwerst declared through a prideful smile and punched the wincing Pronouncicator hard in the shoulder. “Ok, I heard it. We all heard it. What’s your riddle?”

            Allsright rubbed his surely-bruised shoulder and struggled to keep a pleasant smile on his lips as he began to think desperately, as though his life depended on it (as it undoubtedly did).

            “…and not that one from yesterday,” Gruntwerst snapped, the mirth quickly gone from his wrinkled, prune face. “It once was yours and now is mine, so whose is it now? That was a dirty trick…”

            “No, no,” he assured the much larger and increasingly irritated Boggart, “of course not. Yes, a dirty trick, indeed.” Allsright was visibly trembling, his panicky gaze darting around the scene from the bedraggled warriors in front of him to the slate steps and smooth, mud-baked walls of the temple behind him where Wretch was still relaxing. All at once, the tension slipped from his figure as the solution that he had been looking for manifested as apparently as the delighted expression his wicked little face could hardly stretch to contain. “Alright…”

            “Alright, Allsright,” Gruntwerst leaned close. “Let’s have it…”

Allsright took a deep breath and said,

“It’s said there’s nothing Bogg can’t do
His strength unmatched as point of view,
And while it’s law to say so too,
I tell you that it’s false as true,
And now the question posed to you,
Since Bogg is perfect through and through,
What’s the one thing Bogg can’t do?”

            Gruntwerst’s eyes grew steadily wider until it seemed as though they may fall from his sockets into the dirt at his feet, where he was already desperately searching for the answer. Not finding it there, he glanced quickly to his son, but thinking better of it, turned instead to his Bogguard (Wretch after all couldn’t even hear the stone speaking!). His warriors scratched the stubble on their dimpled chins, deep in thought (or something like it). On more than one occasion, each seemed to arrive at a conclusion only to then realize that they were actually confused by whatever theory they had managed to imagine but dared not (or could not) seem to bring themselves to speak.

           Allsright grew smug and began to prance delightedly around them, leaning his great nose towards them as a prod, beckoning them to give an answer, especially if it was one which claimed that there was something Bogg couldn’t do. Such an answer could get any Boggart executed just for murmuring it aloud, and by the very Boggarts now put to the task of saying so. Gruntwerst may not have been wise, or smart, or even particularly good at putting thoughts together really, but he knew the law well enough to get by, and that was good enough to know that he could not claim there was anything that Bogg couldn’t do. He tried in vain to find a way to condemn Allsright for having said as much, but he had been clever enough not to, and so, Gruntwerst gave up entirely. He spun on one heel in a huff and stormed back into the thick of morning traffic along the swamp street, his Bogguard trailing along behind him.

           Allsright positively glimmered with self-satisfaction at the sight of his adversary so surely beaten, sulking back, once again, across the street from where he would undoubtedly march from again the following day. Today, though, Alsright was Most Right. He had won, or so he thought. Wretch groaned slightly as he took again to his feet and stepped up to stand beside the silently celebrating Pronouncicator, rubbing his precious stone once again with both grubby hands. Wretch pulled open the visor of his helmet to be sure that his voice would carry the short distance from his lips to Allsright’s left ear where he rested them.

           “Bogg can’t be wrong,” the boy whispered modestly. He closed his visor again after shutting the dropped jaw of the Most Right beside him, whose wide-set, disbelieving gaze, was pinned firmly to Wretch’s back as he hurried to catch up to the others, dragging Bognasher behind him in the dirt. Allsright’s eye twitched as a subtle amusement played across his face as sure as the glowing swamp mists across the sky.

           “No,” he smirked to himself, “no he cannot. A king among men, you are…”

Chapter 2:

Le Roi est Mort, Vive le…Quiconque

            Meanwhile, far to the north in the heart of Centralia, the human city of Lyre was in mourning. The same promising sun that warmed the bog was seemingly swallowed by chilling black banners that lay lifelessly over high stone walls and dangled from every tower, window, and parapet within. The City Guard, normally resplendent in highly-polished silvery steel armor, instead wore dark, heavy cloaks, haunting the cobblestone streets like specters, hiding somber faces within the shadows of their deep hoods. The guards were not alone in their poor spirits. Lyre seemed to have been struck by a terrible famine of mirth and joy. Under the red-tiled roofs of every home and throughout the empty golden tents of the Traders’ Square, there was not a single smile to be found for any price. The Most Noble King Eckhard, you see, had passed away.

            Eckhard had been loved, as we are often told, since he united the Land of Twelve Kings under one banner and defeated the dreaded Faye Queen of the Wyrd Wood. Even the Boggarts would agree, had they not been busy thinking about themselves, that King Eckhard had been honest and true, and his reign brought many years of peace and prosperity (after lots of costly wars that is). His loss hung as heavily upon the hearts of his subjects as any funerary banner. The times were troubled by worse than mere sadness, however, as the good people of Lyre (the bad people too for that matter) were also troubled by another emotion very closely related to the first: fear. They were afraid. With the King dead, it was uncertain whether or not the Kingdom could remain- whether or not the lands of Centralia would accept the rule of the King’s only remaining heir, his daughter, the Princess Dorothea, who had been taken as a bride to the Boggart King and returned without explanation so many years ago.   

           Through the high, open marble pillars of the Grand Academy, Princess Dorothea and two of her loyal Musketeers marched quickly over drifting parchment pages, which littered the vast, polished floors of the ransacked libraries. Inside the halls of higher learning, perhaps because those within knew better than those without (but probably not), the uncertain sense of fear felt by all had concentrated here as a very certain sense of pure panic. Magisters of every rank and station, student and master, ran about frantically, pausing from their self-interested frenzy only to raid ancient tomes of knowledge, scientific instruments, paper weights and other office supplies: whatever wasn’t nailed down, really, and some things that were. The Princess pushed through the panicky rabble and hesitated only momentarily in front of the heavy Wyrd Wood doors of the Lecture Theatre as her escorts forcefully flung them open. Without invitation, she boldly proceeded into the dim stadium as the doors thundered against shuddering stone walls.

             Lifting the edge of her black velvet gown, she strolled surely between tiered rows of nearly empty wooden benches spread around the coliseum of learning like neatly organized horseshoes (normally inhabited by eager young scholars). Down the fifty scuffed steps she continued, to where, at the center of the room below, seven fat, bald, and bearded Magisters argued around a stone table, situated strategically beneath a pale drape of morning light which seeped in from the open oculus above. None had made note of her presence, intentionally or otherwise, as she emerged from the soft shadows around the elevated center platform. She waited patiently as the men continued to scream at one another. Ribbons of saliva streamed from their barking mouths, saturated their thick dark robes, and spattered the many medals that dangled like fishing lures on their chests (no doubt meant to similarly captivate their prey: eager young minds).  

            Beneath her black veil, Dorothea’s frown entrenched itself further into the harsh lines that had been forming since her youth. Nearly fifty now, she still carried herself in all regards as a woman half her age, keeping fit as a result of regular practice at carrying heavy burdens; her father’s passing was only the most recent. Had it not been for the cavernous crevices angled downward from the corners of her lips and a few lazy streams of dull silver that travelled through her thick black hair, likely none could guess at her true age. She stood as an unrecognized monument, timeless and unwavering. 

           Far more impatient than she, the Musketeer on her left abruptly drew a pistol, aimed it at the open window in the high ceiling, and demanded the room’s attention with the deep and resonating blast of powdered shot. The Princess sighed as the throbbing ring slowly settled into silence. She gently lowered the still-smoldering barrel in the hand of her companion with an outstretched finger, and calmly addressed the seven men now cowering beneath the broad stone table they had moments ago been crowding around. “Most Esteemed Magisters…,” she began.

           “You will acknowledge the Queen…,” the Musketeer at her left growled before being silenced by another quiet gesture.

            Seeing that her soldiers were again under her apparent control, the Magisters slowly returned to their feet, eying the trio uncertainly. Before Dorothea had the chance to speak again, however, a pock-marked elder in wire-rim spectacles took advantage of the thin silence to fill it again with his own voluminous noise.

           “As I had just finished saying,” he grumbled, “we are all that remains of the Magisters’ Council. Because our fellows have either fled, are fleeing, or simply cannot be bothered to rise to the difficult occasion of present, it falls to us, as decreed by the late King Eckhard, to interpret the laws of Centralia. Once done, the Lords of the Twelve States must abide by our decree…”

            “Can you blame them for fleeing the capital?” a withered old man with a long white beard interrupted, shaking a gnarled finger at the other. “Heardred has been seen near the border of Stormcliffe with his Wytch at the head of an army of yetis: terrible snow beasts! He may be marching upon Lyre even now to claim the throne!” 

            “Who will defend us,” another whined, “a handful of city guards, all soft and lazy? What about the few Musketeers that didn’t leave with Heardred in the first place? Even the Trade Guilds have fled with their Privateers! Lyre has no army!”

                        “I say we arm the civilians!”

            “I say we vote on a pay increase! We aren’t compensated enough for this madness!”

                      “The Lords and their militias should defend us!”

            “The Lords will do nothing until we establish an heir,” the first snapped, lifting a thick book that lie in the middle of the table entirely for the sake of slamming it down back in its place.  “Reason stands that each of the Most Noble Families, former rulers of the Twelve Kingdoms of Old, will themselves attempt to claim the throne and rule Centralia.” He glanced towards the Princess, but his eyes recoiled immediately at the noble sight of her. “Who’s to say that Prince Heardred has no claim to the throne? He is the King’s brother…”

            “Treason!” the smallest cried in a shrill voice, struggling to slither between a pair of bulbous bellies of the Magisters on either side of him, and slipped forward. “The Black Prince betrayed the King and Centralia! He allies himself with dark powers! He has abandoned the sanctity of reason and science!” He lifted the leather-backed tome with a grunt and dropped it for effect against the solid slate surface of the table. 

            The little man withdrew again from the others, slipping between them as they murmured and shook their fists at him in response. “Very well,” the first Magister sneered as he slid the book to his end of the table, “then it’s decided. The only way to appease the Lords and keep peace is for the Princess to marry one of them…”

            “I cannot marry one of the Lords,” Dorothea asserted herself quickly.

            “I would suggest one of the sons of Richfield,” he continued unabated by the Princess’s objection, fondling the cracked edges of the book in front of him. “I don’t believe that Quintus is yet married. He commands the Dragoons and is on good terms with the Parogian Tribes off the coast…”

            “The lad is half her age,” the oldest protested, “and I cannot ignore the fact that your own family, who happens to live in the State of Richfield, would benefit greatly from this proposed arrangement…”

            “This has nothing to do with what benefits my family!”

                        “Why not one of the Sons of Stormcliffe?’

                                    “I’m a third cousin to Adlebert Stormcliffe, you know…”

                                                “I propose that we shut down the government!”

            “I cannot marry one of the Lords,” Dorothea repeated calmly.

           “Princess, there must be a king,” the first Magister spoke slowly. “Ours is a kingdom. A kingdom must have a king. It is only reasonable. You must be married to a king and produce an heir to legitimize your claim on your father’s throne…”

           Dorothea swallowed hard. “I am already married,” she said, adamantly reminding them of the fact that all Centralia seemed as adamant to ignore. With a thin, shivering breath, she declared, “And I already have an heir.”

           The small assembly fell silent, their eyes narrowed and uncertain. A light breeze invited in through the circular opening in the vaulted ceiling above blew a lonely sheet of paper between her tightly laced shoes. As it clung to her ankle, it proved to be the only presence in the room willing to stand close to her. Even her loyal Musketeers stepped reflexively away. “You don’t mean…,” the first Magister began in horror. He, like the others, was unable or unwilling to voice the dreaded thought held firmly behind every pair of lips in the theatre, but Dorothea would keep hers sealed no longer.  

             “As promised by a treaty made by my father, I was married to the Boggart Prince Blat, who is now King of Bogland.” Her statuesque form remained unshaken in spite of the confession. Only her still-veiled lips trembled as she spoke. “Il Boggo, as he is called by his people, was kind to me- inasmuch as a creature of his cruelty can be. Though he never touched me, through some magick unknown to me, I became pregnant and gave birth to a child: half human and half faye: an elf with noble blood.”

            “Abomination…”

            “Reason preserve us…”

            “How do we know that this is even the Princess? She could be a Boggart spy,” the littlest Magister supposed, reaching again for the book. “We demand to see a birth certificate!”

            The first Magister quickly snatched the book away and flung it into the surrounding seats. The heavy journal, Dramatic Affect as it was titled, spread its tired bindings for flight as it whirled through the air feebly, spitting scribbled pages along its doomed trajectory before crashing unseen in the thick gray shadows where it landed. He rested his clammy hands flat against the cool table and breathed deeply of the stunned silence that his well-studied act had created. Counting to three, the prescribed period of time necessary to add importance to one’s words, he asked, “What is the fate of this ‘noble’ elf?”

            The question sent a visible shudder of surprise (as he had no doubt intended) through the ranks of his colleagues. He repeated the question slowly, and relished the resounding echo of the words washing over and against the solid stone surfaces of the room. “Where is the heir, Princess?”

            “In Bogland,” she spoke plainly, unmoved by the Magister’s swelling waves of deliberate (and cliché) intensity. “I feared for the child. I feared for myself. Much to my ever-living regret, I left my child and I fled. I thought it would be best for both of us.”

            “I’m certain that I don’t need to inform you, Princess,” the Magister suggested cautiously, “about the rumors…”

            “Boggarts do not eat children!” she snapped. “They simply have a twisted fascination for them,” she clarified, tugging at the high, tight ruffles around her throat. “One thing I know for certain is that my child is unharmed. I can feel it,” she nodded, allowing a single tear to slip unseen behind her veil and bury itself in the deep crease at the corner of her mouth; “a mother knows these things.”  

            The Magisters shifted their weight uncomfortably and the Musketeers, who once stood proudly beside the Princess, sat away from her on the nearly abandoned benches that surrounded the theatre. Papers shuffled nearby, drawing the attention of one of the demoralized soldiers, who looked over her shoulder to investigate the source. She spotted a figure, sitting alone about halfway between the front and the back of the room. He was a lanky blonde Magister in unimpressive robes, without a single medal on his chest (and very few hairs on his chin). The young man, having just realized the full importance of the conversation he had been documenting hastily with an overworked quill suddenly leapt to his feet, knocking his inkwell and the journal on his lap to the floor, raising his hand to be recognized. The clatter drew the curious attention of the entire assembly.

            The first Magister narrowed his eyes and leaned toward the apprentice’s shadowy presence, and addressed him uneasily. “…yes?”

            The apprentice smiled widely, bent down to quickly collect the mess of papers and spilled ink that lay scattered at his feet, and jogged unsteadily forward into the group. After tripping over the discarded tome of Dramatic Affect, he rallied again to his feet and enthusiastically introduced himself to everyone he passed, an ink-smudged hand outstretched before him. “Hello! How do you do? I’m Gilbert. I think you dropped your book back there. Hello! My, that’s a mighty sharp sword you have…”

            “Gilbert?” the old Magister gasped: “old Mendel’s ward!? Mendel the Mad!?”

            “Yes, sir,” Gilbert affirmed, shaking the man’s arthritic hand, very much against his will.

            “Gilbert the Gofer?”

            “Yes, yes, go for this, go for that…”

             “What are you still doing here, Apprentice?” the first Magister asked, taking one finger of the black inky hand extended to him between his thumb and pointer finger and shaking it with a grimace. “I’d have thought that you would have fled with the others…”

            “I want to help,” Gilbert beamed, “so I stayed. I’m glad that I did! Since my Master… well, since he passed away, I am the foremost authority on the irredeemable race of Bogland. I think. I mean, probably…” A warm, unexpected chuckle caught the young man by surprise as his attention turned finally to the Princess. Realizing the soiled state of his palm, he dropped the disorganized bundle of books under his arm and wiped his hands feverishly against his robe, leaving a pair of dark smears (very much at home amongst a multitude of others). He giggled uneasily, pinched the corners of his robe above the knee, and offered a labored curtsy. “I too had been to the bog, your Majesty. I was taken as a kidden – erm, as a child, I mean. I can find your heir and bring him back,” he curtsied again, wincing slightly as he did. “I think. I mean, probably…”   

            The general state of horrified confusion that had possessed the Magisters was replaced entirely and quite emphatically with robust laughter. Six of them were so immediately consumed that they clung desperately to one another in order to keep from falling over. Gilbert bit his upper lip hard enough to draw blood, his chin pinned to his chest as if by some unexpected and unrelenting weight tugging on the thin tuft of blonde fuzz that collected there. The gentle touch of a silk-swaddled hand and relieved him of the burden of embarrassment instantly. Gilbert’s dark eyes lifted just quickly enough to capture the brief reflection of a tired smile.

            “I wish nothing more, Apprentice Gilbert.”   

            A sudden and forceful grip on Gilbert’s shoulder urged him away as the first Magister pulled the young man in close to him. He smelled bitterly of sweat and honeycider, but he was not laughing as the others. “Find the heir,” he commanded. “Gilbert the Gofer, with all speed, go for the child. I believe that at least half of the Twelve Lords will see the reason in this, that half-elf or not, the child is of noble birth and the true King of Centralia. Moreover, think of the sympathy that Dorothea’s dark past will evoke from the people! With half the Kingdom convinced, the rest will follow suit, to be sure!”

            The Magister led the Apprentice slowly up the mountain of stairs, gasping for breath after they had climbed only ten of them. “I have a few of my Master’s things for the journey,” Gilbert spoke over his guide’s labored panting. “To be honest, I have had a bag packed since his death. I’m as surprised as you, no doubt, that I haven’t run away even before this. I’m terrible with potions and you know very well how little respected I am…”

            “My boy,” the first Magister wheezed, “I have no idea who you are, or what people may think of you…”

            Gilbert grimaced and looked to the ground as he supported the Magister’s great weight the rest of the way up to the open doors of the Lecture Theatre where they stopped. The man exhaled on his wire-framed glasses and wiped them in Gilbert’s tattered robe. Struggling to collect his composure, he cleared his throat, fixed the lenses back to rest over his nose, and rested a damp hand on Gilbert’s shoulder once again. “If you succeed in this, I know who you can be. You can be the hero who averts a war, and I know what people will think of you then. Do this, and you can make a name for yourself, maybe even redeem the name of your disgraced and departed master…”

            The young man took a deep breath and with an assured nod, he gave the first Magister his unspoken promise: a frightened, but all-the-more determined “Yes.” He could feel that the hidden eyes of the Princess were on him still, and he looked beyond the sloped shoulder of the hefty man to pass a second nod in her direction. He spun on one heel, marched confidently out through the high wooden doors and into the halls beyond. “I will succeed,” he declared proudly, turning the corner and disappearing around the door frame to the right.

           The Magister took a deeply satisfied breath which stuck in his throat like a cherry pit at the sight of the young man slinking back into the room. Gilbert’s brown eyes were a pair of muddy specks on a broad field of white as he crept past the Magister with pursed lips and a low groan. After collecting his things from the pile he had dropped on the floor, a sight that rekindled the other Magisters’ mocking laughter, Gilbert curtsied again to the Princess, climbed the stairs, walked past the Magister, and disappeared around the corner to the left.

           Shaking his head, the Magister’s relief was stolen once more as Gilbert, moments later, snuck across his view through the open doors in the opposite direction. “The rest of my stuff is actually over this way,” he muttered. The Magister stretched out his arms, grabbed each of the thick brass handles of the doors and swung them closed with a clatter before him. His colleagues behind him at the base of the stairs continued laughing even louder than before.

            “The king is dead,” the first Magister muttered, “long live…whoever.”

Chapter 3:

The Magister Returns to Bogland

            Gilbert the Gofer scampered down a dark, twisted corridor that ran beneath the Grand Academy, spilling pages of notes behind him as he went. He didn’t stop to collect them. There was no time, and anyway, it was doubtful he could identify his own notes from the clutter of other loose pages that scattered the dirt floor. He was certainly not the first to scramble recklessly down the Magister office hallway, leaving a trail of loose papers in his wake.

           He read the tarnished brass numbers that adorned each windowless, wooden door he passed in the pale green light of the chemist’s lamps that lined the walls. After a few wrong turns down intersecting hallways, Gilbert finally arrived at his destination, the office of his Master, Mendel the Mad. It was a simple door like any other, set apart from its neighbors by a lack of self-affirming banners, cartoons, and self-published, self-praising articles.  Taking a moment to be sure that no one was nearby, he cracked the door open and slipped inside, shutting it quietly behind him.

           “Do they still think I’m dead?” Mendel shouted from behind a complicated apparatus on his desk. Whatever few scraps of paper Gilbert had managed to hang on to were cast into the air as he jumped in surprise. The old Magister, who was hidden behind a mess of tubes, racks, and devices, showed no real concern. His aged face was further distorted by the bubbling, triangular beaker he chose to look at Gilbert through. “Tell me, boy!”

           “Yes,” he sighed. “I don’t see why you let this continue, Master.”

           “So I could finally get some work done, my boy!”

           “Aren’t you worried someone will take your office?”

           “I’m tenured, son,” he smiled. “No one can kick me out of my office, even if I’m dead! Ha, perhaps especially!” The old man resumed his experiments, carefully combining brightly-colored chemicals with ground minerals from his mortar, and stirred the steaming solutions which simmered over hot blue flames. “What’s the matter? Is that boy Perry still picking on you? I’ve been working on something for that…”

           “No, Master…”

           “Honestly, who in their right mind would name a child Periwinkle!? Of course the boy is going to be a sociopath!”

           “Yes, Master…”

           “Anyway, I’ve been working on a formula to help you bulk up a bit, but I think it’s-”

           “Master!” Gilbert interrupted. “The Princess has asked me to save the Kingdom!”

           Mendel slowed slightly in his work as he watched the young man eagerly recall the earlier meeting of the remaining Magisters from the corner of his eye. By the time he heard mention of the half-elf heir to the throne of Centralia, he had failed to notice that the pointed tip of his long grey beard had slipped into the concoction he had been boiling and immediately disintegrated. The story was quite farfetched (as I’m sure you will likely agree), but Mendel knew his Ward to be a genuine soul. Gilbert concluded, short of breath, and flopped down into a velveteen armchair in the corner of the humid office, resting his head against the cool stone wall.

           Mendel abandoned his experiment and clambered over piles of loose scrolls and leather-backed tomes to stand in front of him. With a sigh, he rested his hand on Gilbert’s warm, sweaty brow. “You may be a lousy Magister,” he said, tucking his lips into a sad smile, “but so is your Master, so who can blame you? You are a wonderful young man, Gilbert, you have been… well, you’re a lousy Ward, but I think you would have been a wonderful son. There, I said it…”

           Gilbert smiled. “I think you’d have been a wonderful father.”

           “Bah!” Mendel scoffed and turned away, tapping a pressure gauge with one hand and wiping his eyes and nose nonchalantly with the other. “We shall have to see you properly equipped for the journey then.” The old man cleared a path to his high shelf and cupboards and produced a droopy, wide-brimmed felt hat, a satchel, and a weathered walking stick cut from the limb of a white birch tree. Years of collected dust erupted from the hat as he beat it with the leather-wrapped end of his stick. He handed them both to his Ward without a word; Gilbert knew quite well that they were the namesake trappings of Mendel the Meanderer, from the peak of his wandering days. Mendel withdrew a sleek, silvered one-shot pistol from the satchel and shared a grave stare with Gilbert before nodding and placing it back inside.

           Before handing the satchel over, Mendel inserted some food wrapped in a napkin (his own neglected lunch of bread, cheese, and a slab of smoked boar meat), a gourdful of honeycider, and a carefully chosen assortment of vials from his potion rack (a Healing Poultice, some Red Oil, a Potion of Truth, and one labelled “Bully Beater”). He gently rested the satchel’s strap over Gilbert’s head, tangling the pair of them up momentarily as the other had already put on the wide hat. After sorting themselves out, they exchanged an awkward collection of misaligned gestures, half-hugs, clammy-palmed handshakes. Finally, Mendel simply stepped away and patted Gilbert on the shoulder, nodding proudly at the sight of the young man dressed in his old travelling clothes.

           “I’m ready. I think. I mean, probably…”

                      “I believe you are. Remember, you can only find Bogland by not looking for it…”

            “I remember, Master. When I come back, maybe you’ll come out from your office?”

                      “Maybe. Thank you for not asking me to go with you…”

             “If I come back, when I come back,” Gilbert insisted, “no one is going to look down on us again. We’ll prove them all wrong. You won’t need to hide…”

            “…and people will finally see you for the man you are, not the life I forced on you.”

            “You did your best,” Gilbert smiled and wrapped his arms around the old man’s bony shoulders. Mendel held him close before pulling away to wipe his face again with the long, tattered sleeve of his robe. As Gilbert crept out through the office door and into the hallway, he was halted by a hushed “Psst” coming from inside. “I know, keep telling people that you died…”

            “No,” Mendel whispered, “I mean, yes, but that’s not what I wanted to say…”

            “I know what you want to say, Master. You can tell me when I come back. When I’ve earned it…”

            But before Mendel could tell his son just how much he’d always loved him, how much he would miss him, or how frightened he was for his safety, Gilbert had hurried away down the hallway, noisily kicking up scraps of paper in a cloud behind him. Mendel listened to the young man’s heavy foot falls in the darkness, the sounds of him stopping abruptly to change direction, his confused and frustrated mumblings as he found himself at yet another dead end. It took Gilbert some time to actually leave; he’d even wound up right back where he had started on more than one occasion. Against Mendel’s hopes, however, the Gofer finally managed to exit the Grand Academy and properly began his journey to Bogland with his father’s gifts in tow.  

             Gilbert the Gofer meandered (as best he could assume how) south along the King’s Road. The well-travelled highway divided the Kingdom of Centralia evenly in half between east and west, much the same way as the Trade Road (which it intersects in the city of Lyre) divided the nation by north and south. Although there was always an abundance of cart traffic on the Kingdom’s main roadways, most of which involved smelly oxen with high-fiber diets, it was not only the most direct route to Bogland, but the safest. There were many roads south, dirt paths really, which snaked through forests of bandits and passed over hills populated by brigands, but the King’s Road was well-maintained and more importantly, guarded by outposts of Musketeers.

            Aside from guard posts, there were also a large number of innes and taverns to find in the small but wealthy towns along the way for a warm meal, a thoughtful song, or a soft bed. Gilbert had no money, however, so this was hardly a concern for him. In truth, he had only taken the highway once as a boy, when Mendel brought him north from Richfield, and he remembered it fondly, in spite of the oxen droppings. Walking over the cobblestones between high marble pillars wrapped in ivy under the cool shade of red silk hanging overhead was magnificent enough to consider. Imagine too the sight of passing between the vastly different cultures of the Twelve States, which only a hundred years earlier had been nations of their own, and being amongst their many diverse people.

            Gilbert was not disappointed by his decision. He gazed into the rocky, rolling hills to his right and marveled at the ancient stone formations of Breogh and the high towers of their ruling Coven further in the distance, black shapes against the horizon. He turned and saw the elaborate filigree and curly ironwork that decorated the high, plaster walls of the blue and gold city of Cieolli on his left. He waved to a very young Palhue girl with feathers in her hair, riding in a covered wicker wagon pulled by a pair of great red elk; she blushed beneath her painted face and tossed him a kind of yellow apple he had never seen before. He listened to three brothers in heavy black coats, Kriegge Iron Men, arguing over mathematics and engineering and which amongst them brought the most honor to their ancestor spirits. There were so many different people, places, and beliefs in Centralia, and Gilbert wanted to hear about all of them.

            After sharing his apple with a patrolling Musketeer who Gilbert had entered into a conversation about birds with, the guard arranged a ride for them both in a supply wagon headed for the southernmost outpost. The King’s Road militia had requested a large amount of black powder and the Musketeer’s orders were that it was sent quickly. By nightfall, Gilbert had arrived in the town of Inkrest, a poor village surrounded by poorer farms just a few miles away from the Bog. He bid a fond farewell to his new friend, headed into town, and traded the Healing Poultice from his satchel to an old farmer with an ailing husband in exchange for a room for the night. Gilbert was given a bundle of straw for the floor between the bunk beds of the farmer’s eight children. The boys teased him that Bograts occasionally snuck in from the Bog and would bite off his fingers and toes if they caught him on the floor, but the youngest daughter assured him that this would not happen, and when he woke in the morning, Gilbert was pleased to see that he still had ten and ten.  

            The farmer’s husband was feeling better from the medicine Gilbert had traded them, and the family showed their gratitude by providing their guest with a hearty breakfast of eggs, hamsteak, and corn softbread. They even loaned him their horse, a bony old nag who “could find her own way home,” after she’d brought him to the Bog. Gilbert told them he was studying water fowl for the Academy. He felt it was best to keep the parts of his story involving probable doom of the kingdom, magickal goblins, and the half-elf heir to himself. After thanking the family and suffering a slow-going ride (the nag insisted on stopping to nibble every clover patch they passed), Gilbert finally arrived at the edge of the Bog, where the horse stopped and would go no further. Immediately after dismounting and collecting his things, the nag turned and trotted much more quickly away than it had delivered him.

             The morning mist had settled over the water and drifted lazily through the high reeds that grew out from the marsh. Aside from the gentle hum of dragonflies and the softening sound of the horse retreating, the Bog was silent. Occasionally there was an abrupt “glub” to break the silence, the sound of a single bubble from some unseen fish or frog below the water’s surface. Gilbert expected it to smell much worse, considering the fact that all the Kingdom’s sewers drained here. He smelled rich earth and something sweet on the gentle breeze which he couldn’t seem to place. “I must be far from the pipelines,” he thought aloud and began to pace the water’s edge, poking the thick nests of reeds he found with his walking stick. After a few minutes, he struck something in the muck and mud that resounded with a “clang.” The gentle impact sent a shiver up his arm and froze him in place, his eyes coming slowly to rest on a rusty old cage, about big enough to hold a kidden and three hubies.

            There was no way to tell if this had been the place where Mendel had saved him from the Boggarts so many years ago, if what he then touched had been the very cage he had been held in. He hadn’t thought about what happened to him for many years. He was very young, and though he scarcely remembered the experience, he had woken in a cold sweat on more than one occasion, his dreams much clearer than his memory. Suddenly though, in his waking hours, he began to remember things: feelings, smells, and sadness, but not fear. Gilbert closed his eyes and tried to remember beyond. He tried to see the face of his mother, his father, of anyone who came before. He began to wonder if they ever looked for him, if they ever stopped looking for him, and he felt guilty that he had only just considered that.

            Gilbert’s lower lip trembled and he bit down on it hard as he threw his walking stick behind him, dropped down into the mud and gripped ahold of the rusty cage with both hands. It wouldn’t budge. He growled and strained and snarled, but at best, the buried cage would reply with an apathetic “slurp” as it shifted in the thick mud. Gilbert screamed as he abandoned the hopeless exercise, and tears rolled down his cheeks as he struggled to get one foot free to at least kick it. His bare foot popped out of his boot, now stuck in the mud, and, not recognizing this soon enough, kicked the iron cage as hard as he could manage with exposed toes. His ferocious cries turned to a wail of pain. He lifted his throbbing foot and tried to hop free from the Bog on one leg, but that was stuck too. Gilbert spun helplessly, craned back, and toppled over the cage, landing face first in the thick mire of the Bog.

            He erupted with desperate laughter, like gravel in his throat, like fire in his chest. Slowly and deliberately, he dragged himself back to the shoreline using the reeds to pull himself along. He’d abandoned his boots and barely managed to free his satchel, and when he felt the grass between his toes at last, he reached inside his satchel and dug around for his pistol. Gilbert’s breath was hot and ragged as he tossed the satchel to the ground blindly, without thought of its contents. The slippery, silvered pistol fumbled and floundered in his wet, muddy hands, but he finally managed to gain a hold of it. He pulled back the flint lock and aimed its barrel toward the indifferent cage, still unmoved, mocking him with its unchanged presence. He held his breath and closed his eyes as he pulled the trigger. “Click!” “Spluuucht.”

             Gilbert opened his eyes in time to see the thick droplet of swamp muck pour out from the barrel. The single lead shot rolled out in pursuit and fell harmlessly to the ground at his feet. The soft “thud” of the heavy bullet dropping in damp earth infuriated him more. He craned his arm back and hurled the pistol as hard as he could manage at the cage. He missed. The pistol spun end-over-end over the reeds, far to the left of where he had been aiming (if he had really been aiming at all). A lightning bolt of intense pressure flashed up his leg as he was immediately made aware of his foolish injury once more. The pain stole whatever strength there was left in his legs after fighting the swamp, and Gilbert tumbled back onto a stony tuft of grass. The gentle “crack” of one of the glass vials beneath him immediately informed him that he had, in fact, landed on his satchel. The Red Oil that began to spill out and soaked slowly through what few dry spots there were of his robe further affirmed it. All Gilbert could bring himself to do was blink.

            Gilbert shifted to one side, pulled the satchel out from underneath him and set it away. No doubt his food was ruined. He looked more closely at his toes; they were sore, but he could move them. He didn’t think that any of them were broken. Still, the pain had caused a strange ringing in his ears, although it sounded more like jingling. He sighed and indulged in a brief smile for “small victories” as he pulled his knees in close to him and tried to comb globs of mud and grass out of his curly blonde hair with trembling fingers. All at once, something was wrong… or, rather, more wrong. If that was even possible at this point, but Gilbert felt something hard press up against him from behind. Whatever it was, it wrapped its arms around his neck and squeezed.

            Gilbert jumped and lifted his hands to his neck, where he found a pair of tightly clutched hands, or claws, or something like them, but smooth and hard as steel. He struggled and tried to roll away, but he was so exhausted and the arms were so strong. The jingling in his ears grew louder the harder he fought. He held his breath, fearing it would be his last. The hands were fastened tightly around his neck, and he could not pry them loose. The more he jerked away, the more insistent the hold became.

           “Shhhhh,” a hushed voice breathed into his ear. “Just let it happen.”          

            Gilbert fell limp and released the air he held tightly in his lungs. Much to his surprise, as he instinctively gasped for more, his breathing was unrestricted. The thing behind him, whatever it was, still held him tightly, but it wasn’t trying to choke him, just hold him. He felt whatever it was begin to sway side to side as it rocked him, cooing gently in his ear, telling him to “Shhhh, just let it happen.” No sooner than he surrendered, he began to feel other things, warm, soft things, pressing into him, and more hands or claws or whatever wrapped around him and rocked him. He felt dozens of breaths on the back of his neck. The more he rocked, the more he began to recognize that the jingling he heard was not at all in his head; the thing behind him was wearing bells.

            “All better, sir?”

            Gilbert nodded, and as he did, the many claws around him released.

           He turned his head slowly, and standing around him were dozens of hideous, red-eyed Bograts. They were pink and leathery and almost entirely hairless. They sniffled the air nervously with their dribbling snouts and bared their thick, yellow incisors at him with extremely unnatural and unnerving smiles. His initial reaction, to back away slowly, was halted immediately as Gilbert noted that all of the knee-high creatures seemed to be wearing knit sashes, each adorned with an assortment of bottle caps, ribbons, and flowers. Behind them, and standing in the center, was a strange little knight, barely three feet tall. He wore a full suit of polished armor, like Gilbert had seen in history books, but there were dozens of small bells hanging from every joint and fastening belt. He wore a wreath of flowers around his helmet, which he removed and handed gently to the waiting claws of the Bograt standing next to him.

           “Hey,” Gilbert laughed, “I remember you! I think? I mean, probably…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s