Short Stories

The Prince and the Hag

by Joe Williams

1987 by Joe Williams. All Rights Reserved.

Before men built cities and tamed the wilderness; in the ages when magic was stronger than science and not all the creatures were named, there was born to Magwitch the hag a small son.

Now at about the same time, the Queen who lived in a castle near Magwitch’s forest gave birth to a beautiful daughter. The king and queen were quite proud of this, their firstborn child, and they named her Eleena.

Magwitch fumed and grumbled in her underground catacombs, casting gnarly fanged scowls at her crying son. She hated the baby, for although it was ugly, with big ears and a protrudent nose, it was also white and soft and not at all like the black haired pups of the other haggorym. It cried and whined all day long, keeping her awake during those sunlit hours that she preferred to spend sleeping. Wrapping the baby in a filthy grey blanket, she resolved to find herself a better mannered baby, one that cried in the night when children were supposed to. She particularly longed for a daughter to cook and sew for her, a girl that would perhaps grow ugly and withered enough to take her place as Queen of the haggorym.

So, under a moonless, midnight sky, Magwitch slunk from her forest carrying her gurgling bundle. Hearing the high pitch wail of a baby girl coming from the King’s castle, Magwitch slipped a cloak of darkness around herself and slid through the castle walls, seeping like tar through the smallest cracks. Once inside, her shadow glided along torchlight halls, coming at last to the nursery. There, baby Eleena wailed and screamed, for the candle that comforted her at night had burned out, and the darkness frightened her.

“Tis not half as black as the pit you’ll soon be in,” cackled Magwitch. She scooped the green eyed baby girl from her crib, dropping her own filth swaddled package in its place. The girl let out a last terrified scream before Magwitch smothered it with a wrinkled claw.

Footsteps sounded outside, and the bolt on the nursery door was drawn back. Magwitch draped her black cloak about her, blending like a shadow into the darkness of a corner.

The Queen herself entered the nursery, holding aloft a lamp that glowed like silver off her silken nightgown. She hurried to the crib and leaned over it with a mother’s concern. Shock registered on her exquisite features as she saw the dirty grey rags, and pulling them aside, she let out a horrified exclamation at sight of the ugly baby lying in her daughter’s crib.

The Queen quickly realized the dangers of panicking. Her emerald eyes flashed about the chamber, pausing on the window to ascertain that shutters were still locked, and then passing on to probe the dark recesses. But Magwitch’s cloak hid her from even this scrutiny, allowing her to watch with a grin the Queen’s scarcely controlled panic.

The Queen knew what had happened. No mortal kidnapper could have infiltrated the castle to spirit her child away. She tossed the long black hair back from her face with a gesture of her head. “Hear me, whatever evil lurks here tonight.” Her voice was strained and quite, yet unwavering in its purposefulness. “I will not accept this foul creature as my child. Return to me my daughter and take your own wretched offspring back. There is no room in the world of mortals for changelings.”

Magwitch held a wicked chuckle behind a wrinkled claw. Hearing only this faint cackle, the Queen turned back to the crib and from the putrid swaddling she hauled the baby boy by his ankles. Lifting him aloft, she slapped the pink flesh of his bottom. The baby’s face turned as red as his bottom as he set up an ear splitting wailing. Over this shrieking, the Queen shouted, “Return to me my daughter! Or must I make your son suffer for your crime?”

She spanked the squirming baby again and again, driving greater and greater squeals from his small lungs. Mortar flaked from the stone walls, and a candlestick toppled from a mantle. Tears flowed from the baby like water from an overturned jug. Teardrops also stained the Queen’s fair cheek, yet her resolve to regain her daughter was greater than her mercy for the ungainly hellion, and she continued her deliberate blows with mounting fury.

The craggy mug of Magwitch broke into a tortured scowl. For though she was a haggorym, and hence her veins and heart were filled with the blood of ogres, she still retained a hint of the mothering instincts that the Queen intended to play upon. Yet Magwitch refused to relinquish the struggling flesh she clutched so fiercely to her bosom, and at the same time the sight of her son’s beating caused her more pain than she cared to endure. Two taloned fingers slipped into a pouch hanging from her wide girdle, drawing forth a small needle. A flick of her wrist sent the needle streaking into the Queen’s flesh. It brought forth only a single drop of blood as it passed entirely into her body.

The Queen’s hand stopped in mid stroke. Teetering, she dropped the hellion carefully in its cradle before clutching her heart and crumbling. Her green eyes closed, and weeping now for her lost daughter, the Queen breathed no more.

Nursemaids now invaded the nursery, drawn by the baby’s wailing. Two sought to comfort the odd child in the crib, while the third stooped momentarily over the Queen. Finding no life within her erstwhile employer, the nursemaid set about warming a bottle to help soothe the baby. For while there is no comfort for the dead, there is still much the living need.

Old Magwitch chuckled at her mischief. She bent her long, crooked nose down to the baby girl she held. The wart on her nose touched the baby’s forehead, and the little girl smiled, wrapping her small hand around the gross proboscis.

“Your mother is dead, little worm,” Magwitch cooed. “Come with me. Old Maggie will take care of you now. Worms and toads and rotting flesh will be your toys, and a bed of mold will be your cradle.” Thus saying, Magwitch oozed through the castle walls and made her way in darkness across the plains to her forest.

When the King learned of his bride’s death and his daughter’s disappearance, he was stricken with sadness. But when the ugly boy who had been left in the cradle was brought to him, an ember of hope broke through his depression. “Though my family has been taken from me, leaving me without wife nor heir, at least Fate has granted me this son to blunt my sorrow. He shall take his place beside me where once my family sat, and he shall be my family. And in the time of my passing, he shall take my place upon the throne where once I sat, and he shall be King in my stead.”

He called the boy Elan, and upon this small ungainly baby he heaped all his affection and fatherly devotion. The secret of how he had been found in Eleena’s place was hushed, never to pass the lips of the King or the nursemaids.

And the hellion child grew into boyhood, creating mischief and suffering to those around him. The palace cat was found racing the halls with teacups tied to its tail; and there was Elan, giggling. The King’s hounds were found sneezing and whining, their snouts packed with pepper; and there was Elan, snickering. The handles of the chef’s cooking pots came off in his hands, spilling steaming soup down his apron; and there was Elan, laughing.

But when the cook laid hand upon Elan and threatened his rump with a wooden ladle, Elan twisted his ugly lips into a haughty sneer. “I dare you to beat met I am a prince, the son of a king! My flesh is the flesh of royalty. Bruise me, and you bruise the crown. Now let me off your knee before you lose your head along with your temper.”

The cook feared these boastful words, and in his fear he forgot they came from a mere boy. He released Elan and begged his forgiveness, but from then on he was under the boy’s domination.

But Elan wasn’t just a boy. He was changeling. On his chest, he bore the birthmark of the hellions: a pentagram of red over where his heart should have been. But there was no heart in him, for he was the son of a haggorym, and the haggorym have no souls.

So there was no constraint upon Elan. From an ugly boyhood he grew into a grotesque manhood, becoming a proud young prince of repulsive aspect and unequaled vanity. He scoffed at the work of the servants, saying “Who tended my rooms? That maid left my bed unmade.”

And the maid said, “Forgive me sir, but I thought for sure I made it this morn.”

Which only prompted Elan into a rage as hideous as his aspect. “You dare argue with a prince! If I say my bed is unmade, then you are to make if, whether you made it before or not. Now go, and bedevil me no more.”

And so it was with the gardener, the butler, the hostler, the captain of the guard, and all the other palace servants. All suffered the prince’s ingratitude and threats, yet none dared raise protest against the King’s son.

One morning, while the cook served a delicious breakfast of roast fowl and cranberries, the prince paused from complaining how much better he could have prepared the meal to cast his haughty glare upon his goblet. He raised the golden chalice to his eyes, his tin lips curling above his crooked teeth. “Tell me, why must a prince suffer to drink from a plain golden goblet? Why is it not gem encrusted? Are my lips to endure touching such base, unadorned metal?”

“But milord, that is the finest goblet in the palace!” And indeed, the cook spoke true, for the goblet was masterfully crafted in the shape of a dragon’s claw, with each scale painstakingly engraved in the gold.

“Bah!” The prince dashed the goblet to the marble floor. “I will not drink from such a poorly made trinket. If I were king, all my goblets would scintillate with gems. I would have such treasure that the vaults could not contain it. When I am king, I will not settle for the baubles of my father, I will have wealth beyond his grandest imaginings, wealth suited for a king of my indomitable stature!”

While Elan raved, the cook slipped from the dining hall and hastened to the King’s quarters. Well the cook remembered his ill treatment at Elan’s hands, and now he saw his chance to settle the account. With a worm’s tongue, he persuaded the King to come with him. And the King went with the cook, and from the doorway behind Elan he heard all the vain youth’s boasting. The King’s face reddened with rage, his beard jutting boldly.

“So, this is how you slander your father the King! If you are so powerful, then find your own kingdom, for you shan’t have mine! I renounce you. You are no longer my son, for you never were my son. Go from this place in the rags of a pauper, taking neither gold nor possessions, only a small bag of food. You are banished from my kingdom until you can prove your boasting is true. On the day you bring me a wagon filled with the greatest treasure in the world, then on that day I will again accept you as my heir.”

Elan laughed at the King’s rage. “I’ll gladly leave this place, old man, for this kingdom is too small to suit the needs of a true king. And if it pleases me I will come back one day and take this castle, and give it over to my lowest stable hand, for it is not suited for the habitation of real royalty. There are bigger things in this world that are meant for a man of my stature.”

And so that very day Elan was banished from his father’s kingdom. He left the castle gates wearing a peasant’s tunic, and a pair of worn slippers found in the stables. His clothes stank, and Elan felt angry and abused. It had taken six guards to hold him down while three more wrestled him out of his fine clothes and into his rags. Elan hadn’t taken the sack of bread and cheese his father offered him. It was too lowly a meal for his fine palette.

Late into the afternoon, Elan walked along the road from the castle, until the palace was a small speck on the world’s rim. The furrowed fields gave way to rolling grasslands, and afar off a dark line marked the beginning of Haggorym forest.

Elan trudged along with downcast eyes, for his legs hurt and his stomach ached and his pride rebelled at the rags he wore. In a ditch beside the road he came upon an overturned wagon. Scattered crates and baskets and trunks littered the grass, and a horse with broken tack grazed nearby. A fat merchant sat on the overturned wagon, his many chins resting in his ring studded hands. Fine robes of purple silk hung about his shoulders, and satin breeches trimmed with ruffles and frills bedecked his legs, and on his feet he wore high black boots of soft polished leather. Elan felt seething jealousy that this pompous merchant should wear such elegant finery.

Looking up from the ground, the merchant saw Elan and his blubbery features broke into a relieved smile. “Ho, young peasant! You look stout and eager for work. I’ll pay you a shilling if you help me right my wagon and collect my cargo. It’s too much for one man, and I must reach the castle before night fall, least the demons of the forest find me exposed out here,” and he crossed himself to ward off any evil that might be lurking nearby.

Elan looked from the wagon to the powerful draft horse that grazed nearby. “What happened, fat merchant, that you should end up in this ditch?”

“My horse was frightened by a hare that ran across the road. But come, help me right what the small hare has done, and I will pay you well for your troubles.”

Elan broke into sardonic laughter, his big ears flapping. “Why should I work for you? I am the son of a king! It is you who should serve me.”

“Come to your senses, boy. You are but a lad in peasant’s rags.”

This snapped Elan from his mirth, and his brow wrinkled with a frown. “You are right, this raiment doesn’t suit me in the least. I suggest we exchange attire, for you are more suited to rags, just as I am more suited to silk. Its unnatural for royalty to go about in such filth while mere merchants wear robes!”

Sweat blisters popped on the merchant’s brow, wrung from the wrinkles of his forehead by fear and uncertainty. He glanced at the sun, so close to the western horizon, sitting like a giant blood drop above Haggorym Forest, and he realized his fear of the denizens of that forest far outweighed his uncertainty of the ugly youth’s sanity. Dabbing a silk handkerchief over his brow, the merchant smile his serpent’s smile. “You are right, boy. Clothes do make the man. But if you would have my clothes, than let us make a bargain. I shall ask you a riddle, and if you answer it true, you shall have my clothes and you can leave me naked here with my wagon. But if by chance you cannot answer my riddle then our clothes remain on our respective backs and you will help me right my wagon and collect my goods. Are we agreed?”

Elan stoked his knobby chin, his greedy eyes scanning the merchant’s boots and breeches and satin shirt. “You make a fool’s bargain, fat man. With my intelligence, there is no way you could outwit me. So ask me your riddle, but be prepared to lose your shirt.”

The merchant shrugged. My question is quite simple. What is it that wise men have, and fools squander. The soul of man and the bane of ogres?”

“Money,” Elan answered. “That is what wise men have and fools squander.”

The merchant shook his head. “But ogres value treasure , it is not their bane. I’m afraid you have lost the riddle. Now help be gather my goods before the sun sets.”

“Wait! We agreed on three guesses. I still have two left!”

The merchant hesitated. He knew this wasn’t a part of their bargain, but from the wild look in Elan’s pale eyes, he knew it would be unwise to cross him. So he sighed and said, “Very well. You have two guesses left. But if you don’t have the correct answer by the time the sun’s bottom rim touches the treetops, then you will have forfeited, and then you must help me.”

“Silence, fat jabber box, and let me think.” He paced to and fro, his head bent in thought. From the roadside, he picked up a fist sized rock and weighed it contemplatively in his hand. A sudden snicker pulled his lips from his teeth. “Power. That is the soul of man and the bane of ogres. All ogres fear power. How simple was your riddle, fat simpleton. Now your finery shall be mine,” and he strode closer to collect his prize.

“Hold, young man. Yet again I am afraid you have answered wrongly. For while it is true wise men have power, it is equally true that fools do not, and hence how could a fool squander what he does not have?” The merchant wrung his soft hands together. The sun was near the horizon, its red glow slanting into his eyes. “You have one guess left, my boy. You had best use it before the sun goes down, although it seems to me you are incapable of even coming close to the right answer.”

“It’s as plain as the nose on your face,” responded Elan without a second of hesitation. “The answer is my fist.”

Surprise registered on the merchant’s features. “Your fist? But that isn’t the right answer.”

“Oh yes it is!” And still with the rock in his hand, he smashed his fist into the merchant’s bulbous nose. He fell back in a swoon, blood leaking from his nostrils.

“That’ll teach you not to play games with royalty,” murmured Elan as he tossed the bloodstained stone aside. Whereupon he stripped the merchant of his fine clothes and left him lying in the ditch with only his undershirt on.

Clad now in expensive, if somewhat baggy raiment, Elan strode happily onward, his bouncing gait earring far down the road to the forest. The path wound and wound again, turning from a road to a trail as it entered the woods, and from a trail to a footpath as it meandered into the shadowy realm of dryads and unicorns. Undergrowth clogged the forest floor to either side of the path. Tangle vines and bramble bushes formed a wall between the massive tree trunks. Overhead, a roof of greenery and intertwined branches draped in vines blocked the evening sky, allowing only a few stray shafts of sunlight to slip through.

Elan, having been raised since his earliest days in the palace, had no recollection of anything so expansive and mysteriously foreboding as the forest. He felt an inexplicable pull towards the groves and dells and secret places hidden deep within the woods, a tug within his past that drew him on; a tingle within his skin that called him ever further. Never mind the rumors of goblins and night hags. Already twilight dimmed his eyes, but no thought of turning back could stop his legs from carrying him on. And what did he have to fear? He was the son of a king, no one would dare bring him harm.

Darkness congealed in the forest underbrush. With the sinking of the sun, shadows crept up the tree boles and crawled out among the branches, surrounding Elan in a tunnel of blackness. The bounce in his step grew weary, prompting him to consider where he might find a place to rest. The darkness made his task even harder, for he could hardly see an arm’s length ahead of himself.

A full moon rose round and golden above the forest. A single lance of moonlight penetrated the treetops. It landed like white gold on the crown of a giant toadstool sprouting in an opening on the side of the path. The toadstool glowed like a beacon, drawing Elan straight to the cover of its vast dome. The small clearing around the toadstool was just big enough to give Elan space to roll over, the ground here was soft with thick moss, and the toadstool shaded him from the moonlight and protected him from the dew. Happy to find such an opportune spot to spend the night, Elan curled up under the toadstool and was soon fast asleep, dreaming dreams of the treasures and the kingdoms he would find in the wide world outside his father’s castle.

It so happened that full moons are perfect for the harvesting of worms and mushrooms, and that night was particularly appropriate considering the moon was surrounded by a golden ring, and everyone knows a gold halo increases the enchantment of toadstools tenfold.

Of course, on such an ideal night, Magwitch was out collecting toadstools and worms for her kettle. The bag on her back swelled and wiggled with an excellent selection of both, yet Magwitch wanted one more toadstool. She knew where the biggest shroom in all the forest grew, and she had waited years and years for just such a night to reap it.

So Magwitch made her way to the clearing under the moonlight, where grew the giant toadstool. Much to her delight she found a far greater prize curled beneath its wide brim! For there lay Elan, his cloak snuggled around him and his feathered, foppish hat resting atop the toadstool.

Magwitch cackled hideously, her forked tongue darting across her craggy lips. Not often did mortals wander into her woods at night, and this one looked soft and plump enough, but not too fat to make for a fine stew, or maybe she could cook him up whole on a spit with a rotting green apple in his mouth.

Magwitch loomed above the sleeping youth, her claws dragging the serpentine dagger from its sheath on her girdle. She drew the blade only partway, then her fingers loosened on its handle and it dropped back into its sheath. Her hungry grin faded, replaced by a bland expression of uncertainty and confusion.

The lad looked so handsome lying there in his rich garb. Never had Magwitch seen such beautiful features on a mortal. The hooked nose, so much like her own, though not nearly as long. The lad’s reached only to his upper lip, while the tip of Magwitch’s nose touched her chin. And he had such gorgeous ears, so broad and splayed, like the wings of a moth set in a display case. The twisted knob of his chin bore a blackish mole, and Magwitch touched the wart on her own gross chin, scratching the long bristles that grew from it. Confused by her own behavior, she pondered her reluctance in slitting this fine stock’s throat. When it came to filling her cavernous belly, Magwitch rarely dallied for the sake of mere aesthetics.

If, for even a moment, Magwitch had suspected she was gazing down at her own son, she would have gobbled him down right where he lay, for she had hated him as a baby and she would have hated him as a man. Yet Magwitch never realized that the features she found so appealing in him were the reflection of her own exaggerated countenance.

She could eat him at any time, Magwitch realized. But such beauty should first be enjoyed for an hour or two. It would make the feasting so much more pleasant if she personally knew the main course.

Her crooked fingers returned to her girdle, this time pulling a small sliver of hagwood from her pouch. The black wood gleamed in the moonlight with a sickly green sheen. Bending over the slumbering youth, her face drawing close to his similar face, Magwitch puffed her cheeks in a noxious exhalation. Greenish vapor coiled and twisted in her breath, grappling and gripping and clawing into the lad’s nose and mouth.

Elan awoke, coughing and gagging and sneezing and choking all at the same time. His eyes sprang open, and for an instant he glimpsed a horrible visage looming above him, a wrinkled hag draped in stinking rags, with hair like brittle hay and straw-like whiskers jutting from her chin. But even as Elan opened his eyes, Magwitch cast the hagwood splinter into them.

Lark became light and light became dark. To Elan’s eyes, clouded by the hagwood splinter, Magwitch appeared to be a beautiful maiden dressed in white frills. The worms she held were a bouquet of flowers, and the moon was a springtime sun. Elan was too enchanted by the appearance of Magwitch to wonder how he had slept so long.

Rising lithely, Elan bowed deeply to Magwitch, in the same motion straightening his clothes and sweeping his hat into his hand. “My dear lady, I am Prince Elan, at your service. Might I inquire who you are, that you should be all alone in these ill reputed woods?”

“I am Maggie, the princess of the woods.” Magwitch guffawed with sardonic mirth, but to Elan it sounded like the most delicate of giggles. “And I am not alone, I am with you. Would you care to accompany me to my castle? There is a banquet tonight, and I would be much pleased if you would join me. I think the food will surprise you.”

Indeed, Elan felt quite hungry from the previous day’s journey, and he greedily accepted Magwitch’s offer. “It is well that you are having this feast, milady. I am famished, and the hospitality I have met so far is much less than should be granted upon the only son of a king. I am glad to see that at least the kingdom of the woods respect the true worth of a man.”

“The worth of men is easily measured on any scale.” Magwitch visually proportioned Elan. A fair shank and meaty sirloin leg would make an ample meal for the feast of the haggorym, but for dessert, she didn’t think the brain pudding would go very far. “Now, if you’d be gentleman enough to carry my bag for me, we can be off.”

Magwitch handed her bugling sack of worms and frogs and toadstools over to Elan, and he swung it over his shoulder. To him, it looked like a sack of berries and peaches. He moistened his lips at the thought of the feast awaiting him, and he gave a little skip as he hurried after Magwitch. The old witch led him down hidden paths through seemingly impenetrable brambles. Undergrowth parted before her, and the forest closed again right at Elan’s heels, forcing him to keep as close to Magwitch as possible. Not that he minded. He gladly followed her apparently lithe figure, enjoying its every undulation.

Deep within the heart of the forest, Magwitch stopped before a giant willow tree. Its sagging branches touched the ground, forming a vast dome. At a gesture of Magwitch’s hand, the boughs parted, allowing Magwitch and Elan to pass before dropping closed like the door to a trap.

Inside, it was pitch black, but to Elan’s altered vision, all seemed gaily illuminated. The willow’s trunk rose in the center of a circle of barren black ground. Fungus and mold ate at the tree, and swollen carbuncles oozed sap from its bark. Magwitch touched the gnarled, decayed bole (to Elan, or course, it appeared strong and healthy), and a door swung free, opening onto a spiral staircase that descended through the rotted core of the tree.

Elan’s heartbeat quickened as he followed Magwitch down into the tree. All looked pleasant and cheerful, yet his skin crawled where the bag touched it, and his nose wrinkled although the place smelled fresh and inviting to his distorted senses.

Down in the underground roared the sounds of revelry. At the bottom of the staircase, Elan stepped into a world grander than any castle built on the surface. “I have found my fabulous kingdom,” murmured Elan. “Here is a kingdom worthy of my grandeur. How jealous my father will be!”

A cavern larger than any great hall stretched out before him. Arches along the walls led into myriad side passages. Gems glittered in the walls, amidst veins of gold and silver. Throughout the hall, figures cavorted before huge bonfires, their shadows dancing and jumping about the walls as though with personal violation. To Elan’s eyes, clouded by the hagwood splinter, the figures looked like ballroom dancers, waltzing on a floor of marble. Minstrels played a happy tune on lute, flute, harp and violin. There was much laughing and the rustle of ballroom finery, and flashes of scintillation from the gowns and tuxedos.

Only one figure stood in this wonderful crowd, a single flaw clouding this gem of perfection. A serving girl, dressed in a drab dress and apron, waited on the long curved table at the room’s far end. She ran ceaselessly along its length, filling goblets with wine, serving haunches of meat, and ladling stew into bowls. A crowd of ladies and gentlemen feasted at the table; every chair was taken and still others stood and ate buffet style. The serving girl seemed almost done in, for she was the only servant waiting on a crowd of nearly a hundred. But what first caught Elan’s attention, and what made him shudder, was the gruesome appearance of the girl. She was fat and her hair was matted and her ears were big and her eyes were crossed and her nose was crooked and her chin was twisted and her teeth were jutting and her face was sweaty and her hands were big and her legs were bowed and her feet were pigeon toed and he swore he saw snot running down her nose. Elan couldn’t understand how such handsome gentility could suffer to have such a deformed wretch around them. Just looking at her made him lose his appetite.

It was towards this table that Magwitch escorted Elan, although he balked at the proximity to the ugly serving girl. Yet it soon became evident that Magwitch was taking him directly to her.

The dancers parted before Magwitch, and many gawked at her passage. One handsome fellow mentioned what fine food she had brought for them, and Elan grinned and nodded, saying, “Yes, indeed, these berries and fruit I carry look mighty delicious!”

Only the wretched serving girl didn’t step aside at Magwitch’s approach. She faced her with what looked to Elan to be a happy smile. At least the ugly creature is happy here, Elan thought, although he would have preferred to have her banished.

Magwitch said to the serving girl, “You there! I have brought more delicacies for the kettle. See that they are well cooked, or I’ll have your gizzard out!”

You there, as Elan assumed the serving girl was called, waddled forward to take the bag from Elan, and he hastily thrust it out to her for fear she might touch him in the transaction. Who knew, but maybe such hideous malformation was contagious.

You there locked her pale green eyes on him and insisted on stepping closer, though he flinched back, his face averted from her ugliness. In a croaking whisper she gurgled a brief warning to him. “Go back, young man. They mean to eat you. Can’t you see you’re in a den of haggorym?”

What else she might have said was cut off my Magwitch. “You there, what are you up to? Haven’t I warned you to stay away from my guests? Now be off with you to the kitchen, before I put an end to your repulsive evil for once and all.”

“Yes, mistress, as you will.” The serving girl curtsied, and with a final warning glance to Elan, she scurried towards a nearby archway through which Elan glimpsed a large boiling kettle.

Magwitch sidled up to Elan. “And what did the little monster say to you, O’ mighty prince?”

“She merely complimented me on my elegant garb, is all,” Elan replied, although he knew not why he lied. Somehow, he knew, the truth would bring harm to the ugly serving girl, and her life was miserable enough without added troubles. He saw her through the archway, dumping the contents of the sack into the steaming kettle.

“Come with me,” Magwitch said, sliding away from him. “I would show you the wealth of my kingdom. Perhaps you can tell me if they have such treasures outside the forest.”

Elan went with Magwitch. She took him to an adjoining chamber, and there Elan’s breath fled from him at sight of the treasure heaped all around. A throne carved from obsidian and ornamented with rubies sat upon a dais, and behind it and to either side of it was heaped more treasure than Elan had ever seen. The chamber itself was illuminated by a golden light radiating from the jewels and precious metals piled about the room. In the pile Elan saw glowing swords and fiery rings, a rolled cloak and a folded blanket, all he suspected of bearing powerful enchantments. Heaped also were bracelets and necklaces and anklets and girdles and jewelry of all shape and description. And coins! More coins than Elan could hope to count in a hundred years, coins minted in kingdoms of forgotten eons, or from lands m the other side of the world. Coins as big as the wheel of a cart, made from solid gold, down to the smallest coin the size of a pin head, used by pixies to buy ointment for their wings.

At its highest, the mound stood twice as tall as Elan, and at its peak rested the greatest of all the treasures, a supreme crown made from shimmering gold, with gems that radiated magic fires. Elan gasped and pointed to the miraculous crown, but he found no words to express his wonder or his desire.

Magwitch chuckled at his awe. “No, my boy, that pretty isn’t for mortals like you. That be the Crown of Kings. The man who wears it rules the world. All who see him will pledge their allegiance, and give their life in service to him.”

“I must have it!” Elan cried. “By all rights, it is mine! Who else could it have been made for?”

“It was made for no man.” Magwitch lifted a double handful of coins. “But this, this was truly made in the furnaces of hell for all men. Think of what you could do with such wealth, Elan. After seeing such riches, could you ever return to the poverty of the surface, where you have to fight merchants just to steal a few ill-fitting clothes?”

A flush of embarrassment lit Elan’s face, and he wondered how Magwitch knew about his misadventure. The sparkle of the treasure reflected in his eyes, and a slow smile spread across his mouth. “I have found where I belong. I would never want to leave this place.”

“And so you never shall.” Dropping the coins back into the pile, Magwitch removed a medallion from her own neck. “Here, let me bedeck you as properly suits the prince of the forest!”

Elan smiled as she fastened the medallion about his neck. To him it looked very valuable, but it would have turned his stomach if not for the hagwood splinter in his eye! Other ornaments followed, a ring, two bracers, a diamond studded belt. Each pleased Elan more than the previous one, but still his eyes drifted to the crown atop the pinnacle of treasure.

Magwitch enjoyed playing with Elan, she relished debasing him without him realizing the jokes she played. They spent many hours in cloistered company, until from the great hall an eerie chant started:

 

“Blood and bone,

“Gizzard and gall stone,

“Bring us the meat

“We want to eat!”

 

At this Magwitch flew from the treasure vault to quite her guests. In her absence, Elan wandered to the treasure mound, and standing on tip toe he stretched for the glorious crown at its peak. It still lay at least three feet out of reach, and before he could start to climb he heard the rustle of Magwitch’s gown and he guiltily turned his attention to a lesser bauble.

“Noisy louts,” Magwitch muttered. “They’ll have no meat tonight. And if you continue to bring me such amusement, perhaps they’ll have no meat at all,” and she grinned slyly at Elan.

Elan simpered stupidly back, and they returned to their game of dressing up in jewels and finery, a game Elan found enjoyable yet somehow hollow so long as he stood within sight of the Crown of Kings.

A soft pad of footsteps interrupted their play as the serving girl waddled wordlessly into the chamber. She carried a huge soup bowl on a silver platter, and in the doorway she stopped, holding the bowl thusly. Elan saw what looked to him like carrots and potatoes and beef and cabbage floating in the thick stew, and his hunger was reawakened with a growl from his stomach.

Magwitch plopped in the obsidian throne, her glaze gabbing sharply at the serving girl. “You there, bring me my dinner. And then you can go and fetch my guest a bowl of his own, as I can see you have forgotten to attend to his needs.”

Elan rubbed his belly as the ugly girl passed him with the bowl. Its aroma brought drool to his mouth. “My fair Maggie,” he practically pleaded, “I think I will die of starvation if I don’t eat this very minute. I think then that bowl should rightfully go to me, as I am the one in more need, and perhaps you could wait for …”

Magwitch cut him off. “Nonsense! It would be impolite for you to take a bite before your hostess does.”

“Then perhaps, after you have taken a sip, I could consume the remainder.”

“Don’t complain to me.” Magwitch dismissed both his suggestion and the ugly serving girl with a wave of her hand. “It’s not my fault my servant failed to bring two bowls. And if you insist on complaining, I’ll have to request my servant not to bring you any dinner at all. I should hate to think of you gobbling down your food and choking on a turnip or something.”

“I hardly think that is suitable treatment for the Prince of the Forest,” Elan began, but Magwitch simply slurped nosily on her soup. She didn’t bother with a spoon, for none had been brought her. She simply raised the edge of the bowl to her lip and drank heartily, her neck bulging as she swallowed the larger chunks whole. Elan raised his eyebrows in surprise, for even the hagwood splinter couldn’t transform such a revolting spectacle into anything less than nauseating.

Magwitch yawned even as she finished off her stew, allowing a stream of dribble to wash down her chin. She dropped the bowl and yawned again, her jaw distending enough to admit a small melon, and sinking down into her obsidian throne, she swiftly passed into a snoring slumber. From the great hall, Elan noticed the sounds of revelry had been replaced by further snoring, and all was strangely quiet and he felt a tingle of magic in the air. Everyone slept but himself, and he didn’t even feel like yawning.

Turning towards the exit, Elan saw, standing in the archway between the great hall and the treasure vault, one other wakeful person. It was the serving girl. She stepped from the shadows and joined him in the vault.

Horror registered on Elan’s face. “You monster! What mischief have you caused? Stay away from me, or I’ll scream and awaken Maggie, and she’ll smack you soundly!”

“Do not scream,” the serving girl croaked hushedly. “You would undo all I have done to save you. In the kitchen, I had hidden a bag of sleeping powder, a mere pinch I had stolen once when Magwitch had left her bag lying within my reach. I have never dared to use it, for I knew I could never escape on my own. I have never been outside these caves, and I would be lost on the surface. But when I saw Magwitch bring you in, I knew I would have to risk my life to save both our lives. I sprinkled the sleeping powder in the haggorym’s stew, and I served it to them all. I brought only one bowl here, for I knew Magwitch would take it for herself, and you would be left awake and alert for our escape.”

‘Who wants to escape?” Elan demanded in a voice so loud that the serving girl winced and glanced fearfully at the slumbering Magwitch. Elan ignored the fear in the girl’s expression. “Except for you, the people here are beautiful and much more suitable company for me than the boors on the surface. And with the wealth of the underground kingdom, I can raise an army to conquer the surface lands. What ruler needs to escape his own kingdom?”

The serving girl shook her head. “You see this world through the splinter in your eye. Let me remove that splinter, so you may see clearly the choice you have made.”

She stepped forward, her hand raised, and Elan recoiled, a gasp escaping his lips. “Don’t you dare touch me! A ugly hag like you would give me warts! Whoever heard of a hag touching a prince?”

The girl smiled in understanding, and to Elan, her twisted smile made her all the more repulsive. “If you fear for your appearance, O’ prince, permit me to wipe the smudge of dirt from your cheek. It is hardly befitting a prince to have a dirty face. So that my hands don’t touch you, I will use this handkerchief,” and she pulled a silken square of cloth from the treasure trove.

“Dirt? On my face?” Elan scanned about for a reflective surface to examine his features. Lacking a mirror, he caught his reflection in the silver tray used to serve Magwitch’s stew. The warped metal gave back a distorted image of his already unpleasant visage, making one eye larger than the other. In that enlarged eye was something that looked like a small log, but Elan couldn’t quite tell because his reflection was fuzzy and dark. As to the rumored dirt spot, he saw no trace. But he couldn’t quite tell for certain, and after sleeping in the woods it was quite likely he had soiled himself. He could imagine the nobles at the banquet laughing at his scruffy appearance, calling him a vagabond or a peasant, and he knew he had to look his best. So he set the tray aside and said, “Very well. You there, wipe the dirt from my face, but see that you don’t touch my skin with your skin, or else I’ll see to it you’re properly punished.”

“As you wish,” the girl said, and she raised the handkerchief to Elan’s cheek. Elan steeled himself against her touch, expecting it to be cold and clammy even through the silk, but instead he found it warm and pleasant. Confused, he opened his eyes to gaze down at her. At that moment she brushed the corner of the handkerchief below his eyelid and the world became suddenly darker.

“You have blinded me!” Elan yelped. He rubbed his eyes and looked about him, and through the gloom he saw that everything was strange and different and not at all as he remembered. Light was light again and dark was dark, and the pile of treasure was still the same (for treasure can be as bad as it is good, and its opposite is itself). But Magwitch was now revealed as the horrible stinking hag she really was, and the cave was revealed as the dank, dripping hole it really was and the ugly serving girl …

The ugly serving girl was gone. In her place stood a lovely maiden, green of eye and black of hair, who stood in grey rags that were worn from strenuous cleaning in an environment that reeked with filth. Her nose was just the right size and her eyes were quite beautiful and she was pleasingly proportioned and her legs were appealingly shaped and altogether she was even more attractive than she had been ugly. Elan showed his approval of her appearance with an involuntary gasp.

The girl ignored his reaction. In the handkerchief she held, a small green maggot wiggled. She wrapped the cloth around the grub and tossed it distastefully aside.

Elan felt a cold sliminess on his finger, and about his neck something scaly hung. Looking down, he saw the jewelry Magwitch had given him in all its horrid reality. A plump worm was twisted around his finger instead of a ring, and instead of a necklace a dead rattlesnake hung from his neck. Slugs encircled his wrists and frog heads adorned his belt, and a garland of mold hung about his shoulders. Choking on his revulsion, he clawed the revolting artifacts from his skin.

Meanwhile, the girl poked among the treasure as though searching, passing over many a wondrous gem or idol of gold. She cast an annoyed glare at Elan. “Would it be possible for you to be less noisy? I only had a thimble full of sleeping powder, and each haggorym received only a single grain. It won’t take much to awaken them. That’s better. Now, could you help me search through this horde? There’s a magic blanket in here somewhere, and it would help us considerably in our escape.”

“A blanket? What use is a blanket?” Elan scoffed loudly, and Magwitch, still snoring in her throne, rolled over and snorted. Elan and the girl held their breath, and momentarily Magwitch resumed her rasping, regular snoring.

“Come on,” the girl whispered. She found the folded blanket, and carefully disengaged it from the mound. It shone with rainbow colors, each thread radiating a different hue. “Come on,” the girl repeated. “I found the blanket. Let us hasten from this place before the haggorym awaken.”

But Elan wasn’t listening, for his perception was caught by the crown sitting high atop the heap. Without the hagwood splinter, the crown looked even more splendid, its colors sharper and its gems more radiant. “One moment, one moment,” he murmured as he reached for the crown. He couldn’t reach it, so he put a foot on the arm of Magwitch’s throne, mere inches from the hag’s nodding head, and raising himself on that leg he stretched his utmost towards the crown straining to reach so high. His splayed fingertips brushed the coins the crown sat upon, so high atop the pile. The girl watched him from the doorway, too afraid to say anything for fear of distracting him and causing him to fall.

Finding he still couldn’t reach the crown, Elan gave a little jump. His hand closed on the air just to the side of the crown, and then Elan came down. His feet slipped and he fell into the gold, sending an avalanche of gold clattering on the floor. The racket exploded in the silence, and was answered by the grumble of awakening haggorym in the adjoining chamber. Magwitch lifted her head from her chest, and from fanged mouth issued a chilling screech as she saw her treasure tumbling about her. She tried to stand, but the golden cascade tumbled about her waist, pinning her to her throne. Gold fell from behind her and from the piles on either side, and soon she was buried up to her neck.

Elan scrambled to his feet, his head spinning this way and that for a glimpse of the Crown of the Kings. The girl, the rainbow blanket tucked under her arm, grabbed Elan by the hand and forcibly pulled him from the treasure vault. They had to wade ankle deep through coins to make it out the doorway.

“Thieves!” Magwitch screamed after them. Only her head was visible above her treasure, but its snarl was horrible indeed to behold. “You’ll both feed my haggorym tonight! When I catch you, I’ll suck the marrow from your bones, and feed your souls to the minions of hell!”

 

The great hall was dark and musty. Squat shapes, roused from their slumber, rose from the ground, their luminous red eyes blinking and their warty green hides glinting. Their disguise as human revelers was stripped away, and Elan saw them as they really were. Their rat whiskers wiggled and their cow tails twitched, and their hairy arms dangled almost to the ground.

Elan and the girl fled through the cavern. All around them the awakening haggorym grumbled and stumbled, bellowing as they bumbled into each other in their bleary eyed confusion. One haggorym, more alert than the others, caught sight of the fugitives and squawking shrilly, set after them at a long legged lope. Soon the entire horde had joined in the chase, howling like a pack of wolves. Elan’s churning legs raced out ahead of his body, and his hat blew off the top of his head. A craggy claw raked against the trailing edge of his cape as he scrambled up the spiral stairs on the serving girl’s heels.

They burst from the rotted willow’s tree trunk. It was still night, at that darkest part after the moon has set but before the first tinge of purple touches the eastern horizon. Under the willow branches, the shadows were pitch black. The serving girl didn’t know which way to turn, but Elan took her by the hand and guided her through the curtain of leaves.

Yet there could be no escape. The haggorym were pouring out of the tree right behind them. In three leaps and a bound the gangly monsters would be through the willows and upon them.

Elan wanted to run, but the girl stopped and snapped the rainbow blanket out. Its colors dazzled Elan even in the inky gloom.

“Put the blanket about us,” the girl said. “I will be a rock, and you will be the pebbles at my feet.”

Lacking time to argue or to even express his misgivings at the feasibility of such a plan, Elan ducked under the blanket with the girl and she draped it securely around them. The blanket shimmered and became grey, and where once the boy and girl had knelt there now stood a boulder surrounded by a few small pebbles.

The haggorym broke through the curtain of willow leaves and poured around the stones. They bounded over the boulder and fanned out into the woods, never once realizing they had passed their prey. Elan huddled close to the girl, his little pebble eyes making everything look so much bigger. It was a very odd feeling and he didn’t much like being so small. He wanted to ask her if they could switch roles, but there were always haggorym roaming about and he dared not try to speak. At last he did try to voice a protest, but pebbles don’t have mouths, so his endeavor was pretty fruitless.

Sunrise brought twilight creeping through the trees. The haggorym straggled back to the tree, for they had no love of sunshine. They grumbled and complained about losing their quarry, and they fretted most gratingly over what Magwitch would do to them for their failure. It was generally agreed that it would be most unbearable if Magwitch turned them into something gross and disgusting, like a butterfly or a bunny.

Before the sun had topped the trees, the haggorym had all returned to the willow. The girl threw back her blanket and rolled it in a bundle under her arm. Its color, though still brilliant, was slightly faded.

Elan blinked, and finding he still had a mouth, he quickly put it to use. “What an amazing article of bedding! But don’t you think it would have been more appropriate for me to be the boulder?”

“We are what we are,” the girl replied. She gazed about herself, curiously investigating the trees and plants. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. Oh, and look, what a strange animal!” Having spotted a spiny hedgehog that was waddling to its burrow, the girl knelt beside it and was going to pick it up when Elan intervened.

“Are you trying to get yourself stuck? Don’t you realize animals are dangerous?”

“I don’t know anything about animals.” The girl lowered her head. “I’ve never been on the surface before. That is why I need you to guide me.”

“Well, as your guide, I think it’s time we started off. The haggorym won’t be after us until dark, but there are other things that live below that aren’t so adverse to the light.” Pushing his way into the undergrowth, Elan led the girl in the direction he thought the sun was rising, but the trees blocked his view and he actually led her in a more northerly direction.

In her underground lair, Magwitch received her haggorym troops with considerable cursing. Other haggorym had just finished shoveling Magwitch free from her treasure, and she was in an ill mood from her buffeting. The searchers explained that they had seen no trace of the two fugitives. They had seen nothing but a boulder amidst a pile of pebbles.

“Fools!” Magwitch shrieked. “They have the rainbow blanket! They were the stones. Bah! Why send goblins to do a demon’s job!”

With that Magwitch marched to the great hall where the central bonfire blazed, and raising her arms like the wings of a bat, she chanted:

 

“Burn and churn and roast and toast

“Boil and coil and flash the most

“Flame burn higher, bring life to fire

“Turn my foes to ash and cinder

“Bring their heads back as cooked dinners!”

 

The flame quivered, flaring brighter as sparks flew up its shimmering pyre. Two embers coalesced within the blaze. They blinked, while around them an formed an efreet, demonic visage. Its snout breathed gouts of flame and its maw drooled smoke. Curved fangs extended below its bestial chin, and fiery spikes protruded from its brow and ears. A mane of flame lashed and crackled about its evil face. The semblance of a half-human body shifted in the flames below the face.

“Queen of the haggorym,” the fire demon hissed in a voice like steam from a kettle. “Do you have the souls I require? Young souls full of energy to feed the fires of hell?”

The haggorym cringed in the furthest corners of the cavern, murmuring and whimpering amongst themselves, but Magwitch stood before the towering demon, her shoulders hunched and her eyes glancing distrustfully at its insubstantial bulk. “Bring me the two children, and when I’ve finished crushing their bones and turning their flesh to mush, you can have their souls to feast upon. But bring me their bodies first, and then you can demand your payment.”

“So be it.” The demon raised his arms and a column of purple flame and billowing smoke jetted from the bonfire, gushing up through the stones in the ceiling and out into the chill dawn. The bonfire dwindle back to normal proportions. The demon was gone, leaving only a scorched ring of melted rock on the ceiling and a quivering conglomeration of fearful haggorym cringing in the corner.

The forest seemed less intimidating in the daylight. Beery step brought new wonders to Elan’s companion, and their escape was slowed by her desire to stop and investigate every plant and animal they passed. The birds reminded her of the bats of her cave, and the squirrels reminded her of the rats, but the surface creatures were so much more beautiful that she almost cried for not having seen them before.

The girl pulled Elan to a stop in a flower patch. “Ooh, what are these, Elan? They smell so nice, and look at all the colors and shapes! The fungus of the cave was never as pretty as this!”

“These are flowers. The red ones are roses and the white ones are lilacs and the yellow ones are tulips and the blue ones are weeds. They smell nice because fairies sleep in them and leave their gold dust in the petals. Now, if you’ve had enough of botany, I think we should be moving along. I know the road is somewhere along here …”

“What are you getting so hot about? You know the haggorym only travel at night.” The girl cautiously touched a flower, uncertain whether it was safe or whether Elan would stop her as he did with the hedgehog. The petal didn’t hurt, but when she went to stoke the stem, a thorn pricked her finger. “Ooh!” she gasped, unexpectedly sitting down. She sucked on her finger and glared sulkily at the flower. This surface world was scary! Everything was so dangerous!

Elan was too busy worrying about pursuit to watch over the girl. “My ears are hot, so somebody must be talking about us, and I don’t have a burning desire to find out what they’re saying. It’s time we put fire to our heels and got out of here.”

Whereupon the sky burst into brilliant intensity. Elan thought a star had fallen nearby, but there was no resounding concussion, only the crackle of a nearby fire.

Elan ran in a quick circle that abruptly ended against the unyielding trunk of a tree. He staggered back, dazed yet still articulate. “Maggie’s after us! She’s set the forest afire!”

The girl shrugged, her attention more on the flowers than on the approaching inferno. “Magwitch wouldn’t burn down her forest. She’s sent Flareon after us.”

“Flareon?”

“That’s what they call him in the underworld. He’s a demon.”

“A demon!” Elan sprang to his feet and tried unsuccessfully to run two directions at once. The walking inferno was close enough now for him to smell its sharp tang of smoke. The heat wrung sweat from his forehead. “We can’t outrun a demon!”

“Silly, we don’t have to run.” The girl unfolded the rainbow blanket, catching the sunlight in a blur of color. “Put the blanket about us. I will be a rose bush, and you will be an unopened bud upon me.”

“But won’t I be too big for such a small bush?” Elan paced briskly back and forth, barely in control of his panic. “I would hardly fit upon so delicate a limb.”

The girl smiled. “Size isn’t everything.”

Elan felt the ground vibrate under the footfalls of a massive creature. Smoke stung his eyes, and the heat made the feather in his hat droop. He had to agree, size wasn’t everything. Staying alive was much more important. So he joined the girl under the blanket. The colors on its surface shimmered, transforming them into a thornless rosebush with but a single bud.

Flareon lumbered into the flower patch. His flaming head brushed the leaves, withering them into blackened ash. His footsteps smoldered, leaving charred earth. Fire shimmered along his crimson hide, surrounding him in a radiant aura. The air around him sizzled, stifling Elan and making his petals wilt.

The demon snuffled, its snout sending out puffs of smoke. His gaze raked across the field of flowers, his lips curving above his fangs. “I know you are here. I feel the warmth of your souls. But wait. I sense only one soul here.”

Elan was puzzled, until he realized that a girl who had lived all her life with haggorym wouldn’t possess a soul. He felt sorry for her. He knew a soul was important to people, but he could never figure out why. His companion certainly seemed appealing enough without one.

“I hear your thoughts, boy,” Flareon hissed, his head tilted in an attitude of listening. His forked tail lashed irritably. “Are you not enough of a man to face me? Are you, the son of a king, afraid of a mere demon? How are you to be lord of the world if you refuse to face your servants? Come out, boy! I challenge you to show yourself!”

Elan tried to stand. What did he have to fear? He was a prince, and this demon evidently understood the stature of nobility. He would show himself and demand the demon’s fealty. But his flower form had no legs to stand on, and the girl held him rooted to her branch. Anger flushed Elan’s petal’s even redder. Who was this serving girl to hold him back?

Flareon gnashed his fangs, dribbling molten fire onto the sward. His fury doubled the region’s temperature; the leaves around him burst into flame, the tree bark flaking into charred powder. Steam vented from his spiked ears.

Elan abruptly reconsidered the advisability of presenting himself. His pride was strong, but his fear was a tad stronger. It was easy to resist the demon’s temptation with the girl holding him.

Magwitch watched the demon’s progress through the murky surface of her kettle. Her eyeballs bulged with ire, and tendrils of smoke seeped from her ears and nostrils. A bat’s wing floated across her view, breaking her vision and her temper. With a screech, she dashed the kettle over. Gangly haggorym leaped away from the steaming flood. Some caught sight of the tasty rat tails and dove to slurp it up.

“Flareon” the witch screamed. “Back to the pit with you, before you set my forest on fire! I’ll gather the wayward children myself!”

Spinning around, Magwitch swept her black cloak about her knobby shoulders and leapt into the air. In mid jump she became a dark cloud streaking over the sky. Her darkness blocked the sun, spreading above the forest like a gigantic net.

Beneath this spreading cloud, Elan stood scratching his head, staring at the smoldering spot where Flareon had towered only moments before. “I don’t get it,” he muttered. “He just vanished in a puff of brimstone and sulfur.”

“He can’t stand frustration,” the girl said. She rolled the blanket under her arm. It was dingy now, all faded and bright colors were streaked with grey. The girl heard the flutter of wings above the treetops, and looking up, she saw a duck flying from the rainclouds that rolled across the sky.

“Duck!” the girl cried, throwing herself to the ground. “It’s the biggest bat I’ve ever seen!”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Elan said. “It’s only a gander.”

The girl crawled to her knees. “What are those clouds behind it? They’re so dark, and its suddenly so cold. What happened to the sun?”

A cold wind whipped around the trees, tearing at the girl’s long black hair. The dark clouds funneled downwards, twisting in a black finger that pointed straight at the pair in the flower garden.

Elan shivered. “Where’s the blanket?”

“It is here. But it is so grey. The color’s all faded.”

Elan grew pale. His breath clouded in the cold. “Is there still magic enough in it to hide us?”

“I suppose it’ll have to.” The girl held at the drab cloth. “Put the blanket about us. I will be a lake, and you shall be a duck held upon my back.”

Elan took one end of the blanket and wrapped it around both him and her. He felt only a slight tingle, a slow feeling of change. He said, “If my weight is too great, tell me and I’ll fly away.”

Aid the girl said, “Do as you like. I won’t feel you when you’re there, and I won’t know when you leave.”

Then he was floating atop smooth water. How odd, he thought, that this water, so insubstantial and fluid, ever changing and never solid, should support me and cradle me, rocking me more gently than the king’s softest mattress. Feather down and silk sheets were never more comfortable than simple water.

Darkness spread across the water, a shadow fell across his white feathers.

Darkness spread across the water, casting a shadow across Elan’s white feathers. Magwitch stood on the water’s edge, her black cape fluttering behind her. She looked huge to Elan’s fowl perspective.

Magwitch knelt on the bank and stretched out a hooked claw, but Elan paddled to the other side of the pool where she couldn’t reach him. She circled to that side but again he paddled well beyond her reach. To Elan, the burbling waves sounded like girlish laughter.

Magwitch fumed, then smiled cunningly. From under her cloak, she brought forth a scintillating cornet of bejeweled gold. Elan’s duckling eyes popped halfway from his head, for she held the Crown of Kings.

“Such a lovely duckling,” Magwitch cooed. “How handsome he would look in this golden crown! If only he would come closer so I could place it on his head.”

The crown filled Elan’s gaze, blocking its holder from his vision. He paddled nearer, his little beak quivering and his voice quacking with excitement. The water became rougher, but he fought it to reach the bank. The crown was so close! He could almost put his head in it!

But Magwitch nabbed him by the neck, choking off his happy quacks. The spell snapped and he lay with the girl on the now grey blanket, with Magwitch standing astride them, her black fingernails digging into his throat. Darkness swung around them, transforming the trees into the walls of a cave.

They were back in Magwitch’s lair. A stewpot boiled behind her, stirred with a long ladle by her haggorym minions. Hopping from foot to foot to foot, Magwitch chortled gleefully, “Oh, this is good, very good. You there,” she pointed to the girl, huddled on the floor, “you will make a good broth for my pot. And you, little boy, you will continue to amuse me until my hunger claims you, too!”

“I think, hag, I won’t give you much amusement this time.” Elan rose to his feet. The girl seemed more comfortable rolled up on the floor, so he didn’t help her up. “But I will make a bargain with you. Free the girl, and I will willingly remain your slave until the day you devour me.”

“No!” The girl scrambled upright. “I would be lost in the surface world without you. There could be no life for me without you.”

Elan touched her cheek. “If you stay, she will kill you, and I will be just as much a captive. For eighteen years you have suffered here, allow me to set you free. Make my suffering in the darkness bearable with the knowledge that you are spending your life in the sunshine, and not in the bellies of the haggorym.”

“STOP IT!” Magwitch yowled. “I’ll not stand for your complaining. You’ll do as I say whether you wish to or not!” And with a flourish of her hand she capped her squat skull with the Crown of Kings. The sun itself seemed to shine from the rat’s nest of her head. The haggorym in the chamber threw themselves prostrate, groveling before the majestic glow. Magwitch focused its glare on Elan. “Obey me O’ son of man. Gather up the girl and pitch her in my kettle! The power of the crown commands you!”

Elan blinked, almost blinded by the glare. With the back of his hand he knocked the crown from the hag’s ugly pate. “My eyes are open now witch, and you cannot cloud them with your witchcraft.”

The crown’s luster faded as its gold turned to tin and its gems turned to sand.

Magwitch’s rage turned her face purple and her hair crackled with fury. “Throw them both in the pot! Tonight we shall feast on meat aplenty!”

Haggorym grappled Elan and his companion with ragged claws. They lifted the girl off her feet and carried her towards the kettle. Elan struggled to help her, but the haggorym held his arms pinned. In the fight, his shirt tore open, revealing the pentagram birthmark on his chest.

At sight of that crimson blemish, Magwitch released an agonized howl. The frightened haggorym released their captives, dropping them in a pile. “I recognize you now!” Magwitch cried, her claws tearing at her wiry hair. “You are my son! When you were but a baby, I left you in the palace in place of the King’s daughter. Now you are grown and your life is ahead of you. Blast it, be gone from my sight!” And Magwitch hurled her black cowl over Elan and the girl. The cape settled on the cave floor, leaving only traces of white smoke where the two had been.

But too late. Magwitch had seen the fine man her son had become, and her cruel heart cracked within her bosom. A tear leaked from her eye, freezing halfway down her black cheek. The white frost spread across her face and body, turning her to ice from the top of her head to the hair on her toes. The crack in her heart spread through the ice of her body and she shattered into a heap of white snow.

The haggorym scowled at her. This is what became of ogres that felt the bane of the soulless. A drum pulsed within the dark caverns, echoing off the damp stones. The haggorym prepared for the hunt. They were hungry and all worked up for a feast, and their appetite for flesh would not be denied.

Elan and the girl appeared in the small clearing where stood the giant toadstool. The sun was reddening with the oncoming evening, and the ground trembled with the war drums of the haggorym, leaving them no time to congratulate themselves on their unexpected escape. If they weren’t out of the forest by nightfall, their escape would be only a brief reprieve.

The road was within sight of the toadstool, and passing through a fringe of underbrush, they were back on the path. The palace was at least three hours away, but nightfall was only an hour distant. It seemed unlikely they could escape the haggorym hunting pack. The creak of a wagon squeaked from around a bend in the trail. They ran to catch up with it, and there they saw a fat peasant riding an empty wagon. Elan hailed him, and he rained to a halt.

“Good peasant,” Elan called, “could you please give us a ride to the palace? We are very tired from our flight from the haggorym, and if we don’t get to the castle by nightfall, the haggorym will be upon us.”

The blubbery peasant glared at Elan from pools of fat. “I recognize you. You’re the thief who knocked me unconscious and stole my clothes. And while I lay by the roadside, bandits came and stole my wares away. Now I am left with nothing but this rickety wagon, these rags you left by the roadside, and this horse. I haven’t the money to pay the head tax at the castle gates, and I’m left to wander this forest until some foul monster devours me. And you expect me to give you a ride? I’d sooner cut your throat.”

Elan also belatedly recognized the fat man. He was the merchant he had robbed when first he left the castle. Elan’s hopes for an easy escape from the forest fled him. “Very well, merchant. You can leave me. But at least take the girl to the palace. They will welcome the man who rescued a damsel from the haggorym.”

The merchant’s fat orbs ogled the girl. “Indeed, she is a very beautiful woman. She would make a wonderful merchant’s wife.”

“No!” The girl slipped her hand through the hook of Elan’s elbow. “I will stay with Elan. His fate will be mine.”

The merchant shrugged. “But he can come with us. I am a merchant, and I am open to fair deals. He has wronged me, and I will not take him without payment. What can he offer me to take him along?”

“I have no property,” Elan answered. “I have nothing but what you see.”

“Then you still have your wit, don’t you. I am not a cruel man. Answer my riddle, and I will offer both you and your fair companion safe passage to the castle. But if you fail, I will take only the girl. She will ride with me under my promise that no harm shall befall her. If you should make it back to town on your own, you will find her waiting, although I must admit my hope that you don’t return, so that she may have time to consider the benefits of being a merchant’s wife.”

Elan felt the drums vibrating under his feet, and felt the girl trembling at his side. “Very well. What is your riddle?”

“No!” the girl cried, but it was too late, the bargain was struck.

The merchant’s face split in a smile that was lost amongst his multiple chins. “I won’t be fooled this time. Bring the girl into my wagon first.”

“And what’s to stop you from riding off with her,” Elan asked.

“The same thing that stops you from hitting me with a rock,” the merchant replied.

So Elan helped the girl into the wagon. She was very unhappy, and angry enough that Elan had made such an agreement without her consent that she almost hoped he got the wrong answer. But no, he was doing this for her, and it was their only chance to flee the woods before nightfall.

The merchant smiled smugly down at Elan. “I will refresh your memory on my riddle. What is it that wise men have, and fools squander, the soul of man and the bane of ogres? And only one guess this time, and keep your hands where I can see them.”

Elan thought, and thought again. He pondered and contemplated and ruminated and dwelled. He thought so hard his head swelled and his heart beat faster and his brain churned and his limbs quivered and …

And his soul came alive.

Laughing, the merchant was about to whip his horse into a canter, but Elan yelled, “Compassion!”

The merchant faltered. “What?”

“Compassion,” Elan said. “That is what wise men have and fools squander. That is the soul of man and the bane of ogres.”

The fat pendulating from the merchant’s cheeks trembled with fury. But he was a man of his word, so he unhappily gestured for Elan to climb into the back of his wagon with the girl. And turning his back to the two, he whipped his horse into a trot.

While they cuddled in the bouncing wagon, the girl pointed to Elan’s chest. “Look. Your birthmark is fading.”

And so it was. By the time they left the forest, it was gone altogether.

They reached the castle gates at nightfall. The gate was closed, for it was night, but at sight of Elan, he summoned the King to the high parapet.

The King glowered down at him from his great height. “Foolish stranger! Are you back so soon? Return to the wilderness! Have you forgotten your banishment? Remember my vow. I shall never call you son until the day you bring me a wagonload of the greatest treasure in the world!”

Elan stood up in the bare wagon. Over the hills to the west, he heard the howls of the hunting haggorym. “Indeed, sire, that is exactly what I bring you. I bring you the greatest treasure in this world or any other.”

The King scoffed, his beard jutting regally. “But I see no treasure! Your wagon is empty, save for you, that girl, and a merchant. I can smell the reek of your clothes even from here. Where is this treasure you boast of?”

“Behold, here is my wealth that never rusts, my fortune that thieves can never steal, my strength that cannot fade.” He laid his hand upon the girl’s shoulder. “Here is the love so many heroes seek yet so few find.”

The King pulled the chain to raise the gate himself. Over the hilltop to the west, a horde of haggorym loped, but a flight of arrows drove them off long enough for the wagon to roll inside. When the haggorym saw the gate drop closed, they howled and fell upon one another in a cannibalistic fury, until not a single one of the gibbering creatures was left.

The King raced down three flights of stone stairs to the entry hall to meet the wagon, his long robes streaming out behind him. There he gave Elan a joyous bear hug. “Son, you shall sit by my side, and all that is mine will be yours.”

The boy was humbled. He couldn’t even meet the King’s gaze. “I seek only shelter here, sire. For I am the son of a haggorym, a mere hellion, and you have no reason to treat me as your son.”

“It doesn’t matter. So I have known since my only child, a daughter as beautiful as her mother, was taken from her crib and you were found in her stead. But wait!” And for the first time the King saw the girl close up. She tried to hide behind Elan, but the King circled around her to get a good look at her. “Who is this vision? She looks so familiar, so much like my long lost queen. Is this a spirit who has come to remind me of what I have lost?”

“No, milord,” the girl meekly admitted, although she was not too meek to meet his gaze. “My name is Eleena.”

Whereupon the King took her in his arms and hugged her, for he had found both his son and his daughter.

Elan and Eleena were married a year later, and when the King died, Elan ruled fairly and justly, although he never quite found a crown that suited him. The merchant lived in the spillover of their happiness, growing fatter every year until it took the largest chamber in the palace to hold his bulk. But he was happy, and Elan and Eleena were happy, and if they haven’t died, they’re living even now.


The End