Look upon the horizon, for here approaches the caravan of the great King Leigh! Their quest has been long and arduous. Many bear scars, some physical, some mental, and some those internal markings that come with heavy losses.
Their first blow came within the week that they set off when the King’s mascot, Rooster Rick, was seized by a pack of regular sized but very ambitious were-foxes. Seeing their favourite jester torn apart by a horde of fox-beasts was a harrowing and demoralising experience and not a very good way to start a quest, however even without the continuous motivation that Rick inspired they all still marched tall and proud, the King most of all.
Even on his horse King Leigh somehow gives the empowering impression of strutting. Not the dainty grandiloquent strut of a minstrel (all of whom fell foul to the murderous philistines of the mountainside village Kipit-daun), but the manly strut of a kingly king. It was a strut that commanded allegiance and grandeur if not respect. Emblazoned on his proud chest is the Sigel of his land, the Golden Rooster.
For countless generations have the Gallus family held the banner (or, four banners, in the case of the one remaining flag bearer whose three companions lost their limbs to the armless horsemen of the Ichibak Plains). The Golden Rooster has long been a sign of defiance against the pretender Kings and Queens of house Ovum during the eon long war.
Today, however, these banners are not held for war. For the first time in a century the banner of the golden rooster is being held on a quest for love. The love of the Lady Pluma.
King Leigh had been courting the Lady Pluma for many a year, from way back when he was still just a prince. As they grew, so did their flirtations. However, regrettably Lord Pluma, the lovely lady’s father took an unprovoked and groundless disliking of the young lover’s pairing. But, as a king now, it was customary to marry, and Leigh considered no-one but Pluma suitable for the role. Unfortunately, Lord Pluma must have caught wind of the King’s intentions before he could meet her and bend the knee, as the lady was sealed away in her chamber in the highest tower of Fort Pluma. Upon hearing of her incarceration, the King and his men were prepared to storm the castle and retrieve the lady by force. Were it not for the Lady calling to them from her window, the castle would have been ground to dust by this point.
‘He has placed a curse on me my liege’ she had sung sorrowfully from that tower ‘If I were to ever leave this tower I would be doomed to age at a horrible rate. My skin would sour, my breasts would sag, my mind would wither and fade as I became senile and frail.’
‘Then I will kill every man that holds you there and join you in that tower my love, and we will spend our lives there together.’
‘I’m sorry my liege, but my father is canny and cruel. He wants you to join me up here, for this tower is cursed too. If anyone else were unfortunate enough to enter it, they would immediately crumble into ash like a moth in flame.’
‘Never fear my lady. This obstacle put before us will not hinder my resolve. I will find someone to break this curse and if I cannot do that then I will learn how to do it myself. Have patience dear Pluma, for I will return.’
Were it a quest for anything else, they would have most certainly given up weeks ago, but as the King’s elderly advisor has most wisely said (moments before being squished to death by the black-eyed Hugabears of the Forest of Fi-lyngs) ‘love is the most unstoppable force there is’.
And so, with love as their motivator, every single threat they have come across have stood no chance against the will of the King and at least some of his men. It was as if neither the most treacherous landscape or the fiercest beast could stop them. However, with their goal so close a new obstacle has revealed itself, perhaps their most formidable yet: a small disgruntled cat.
‘A small disgruntled cat my liege’ called the portly voice of the Baronet from the front of the caravan.
The King urged his horse forwards past the remnants of his guard. Where their quest started with an atmosphere of earnest courage and a tenacious vigour in the face of danger there was now an overall feeling of what now? The remaining men at arms unenthusiastically drew their swords and knotted their bows, unsure exactly what was going on, but sure enough that they’d prefer to die with their weapons in their hands, even if they couldn’t muster the effort to use them.
‘And why exactly is this cat halting the whole party may I ask?’ demanded the King.
‘Well, it’s in the way Sire’ called a squire.
As the King and his horse strutted forward the cluster of knights parted so that he could see the creature. It was a scruffy sort of cat, and it was lying determinedly on its side in the middle of the road directly in the path of where one of their carriage wheels would be going. Its shaggy smoulder coloured fur stuck out in all directions as if all its hair was undergoing a motionless explosion from within the cat itself. Its stern wide eyes stuck out at odd angles of a twitchingly-still tennis-ball head.
‘Have you not thought to move it?’
King Leigh lowered himself from his horse, so he could fuss the creature. His hand got within an inch from it before he got the sudden and uncomfortable feeling that fussing this cat would be like fussing someone else’s gran. He recoiled and wiped his hand on his tunic.
He looked up at his liege men. Each one of them wore an apologetic expression of fearful bewilderment.
‘Sir Pullus! Kill the creature’ ordered the King.
The imperious and domineering figure of the giant Sir Pullus paced into the crowd. Upon reaching the wretched cat he drew his enormous silver and bronze broadsword Öhm-letter forged from the armour of the defeated Ovum warriors at the Battle of the Öhm Crossing. His feet planted themselves either side of the wretch and he twisted his sword so that the hilt was level with his chest and the point was an inch or so above the pitiful cat. He clenched the handle with both hands ready to plunge his blade deep into the scruffy little body. He took a deep breath through gritted teeth as he raised the sword. He would strike quickly, to lessen the thing’s suffering. It would be a clean strike, swift and ultimate. The cat wouldn’t feel a thing. One moment it would be alive and thinking cat thoughts and feeling cat feelings, the next, it would be in cat heaven, with all its cat friends and cat family. He hadn’t killed the cat just yet, but he would, and it would be a noble death to be killed by such a great swordsman as Sir Pullus. This creature would join a vast number of fearsome beasts and formidable warriors slew by Öhm-letter’s edge. The cat was looking at him and it wasn’t dead yet. But it soon would be. Very, very soon. In fact, almost immediately. And Sir Pullus would be satisfied that he had once again put his ruthless skills towards helping King Leigh on his noble quest. He just needs to lower the sword into the cat.
Do it! said the cat wordlessly through its mismatched eyes. Do it now!
And then, with an unexpected wave of shock, Sir Pullus came to realise that he would not be able to kill the cat. With an almighty clanger his beloved Öhm-letter. The great knight turned away from the incredulous swordsmen and moseyed to the back of the caravan with his thoughts lost in the distant corners of his mind.
‘What in heavens name just happened!?’ exclaimed the King.
‘We’ve all already tried to kill it my liege, but it keeps looking at us, almost egging us on to do it. It ain’t right, that cat. It needs help’ said on the remaining scouts.
‘Can you not lure it away somehow? Have you thrown some bits of fish or found something for it to chase?’ asked the King.
‘Excellent idea my liege’ said the Baronet, who was visibly starting to sweat. ‘Lord Rostrum, do you still have that silver knife I gave you as a wedding gift?’
‘That I do’ replied Rostrum knowing exactly what the Baronet was thinking.
Lord Rostrum tilted his knife in the sunlight until he caught the pattern of a reflection on the ground. Twisting his knife gently, he danced the glimmer in front of the cat, attempting to attract her attention. He moved it back and forth, as he knew grasshoppers or pond skimmers to move. The cat slowly lowered its eye-line. With the bait recognised, Rostrum flickered the light closer to its ugly face, delicately encouraging her to try and catch the thing. Before Rostrum had time to react The cat’s paw shot out and pinned the light to the floor. Its second paw came to the first, restraining the glimmer pincer-like as she raised it to her gaping mouth. Within a second, the light had fallen down its throat. Rostrum blanched, certain that he had heard a small white cry as it was gulped down. The King’s brave knights stepped backwards, tripping over each other to get away from the small creature. Lord Rostrum desperately flicked the knife wildly to see if he could wrench the light back out. The cat steadily returned to staring them all down.
‘Forgive me sire for I may be going mad, but did that cat just caught the reflection with its bare paws?’ asked the Baronet in a manner that could have been conversational were it not for his voice almost breaking. The King was unable to respond.
‘It did’ determined the Baronet. ‘It caught the bloody light. They’re not supposed to be able to do that, cats. They’re not supposed to be able to catch the light. It’s looking at me sire. It’s looking straight at me. I’m not sure what to do.’
The normally indomitable and reliable Baronet’s increasingly panicky manner was causing King Leigh to start to panic himself.
‘How about we just move around it?’ suggested the King, not confident enough anymore to command it. ‘How about we just go off road and around it?’
‘That’s the thing,’ said the Baronet, his voice wrenched like a wet towel ‘we shouldn’t have to go around it. Because it’s just a cat!’
‘Wait!’ called the weedy voice of the King’s advisor from afar (formerly, the King’s advisor’s advisor) ‘don’t kill that cat.’
From the back of the caravan, the royal advisor wheezed towards them clutching a large leather-bound book. He stumbled in front of the King and awkwardly shifted his arms around until he had a page open facing the group.
‘“The smoke-grey cat that wants to die but never will”’ he recited ‘“The feline with one life and two eyes.” I never understood why they bothered to mention it had two eyes but now I see why.’ The cat stared up at them with its bulbous mean-spirited eyes pointed in different directions. ‘This is the Grimalkin! This is Mrs Berrit!’
There was a murmur of renewed excitement in the party.
The advisor squatted next to Mrs Berrit and called out slowly to her bogeyed cat face to make sure she understood.
‘Mrs Berrit, could you kindly take us to Mrs Grinn pretty please?’
The cat took a long steady breath and rose to its feet with all the grace of a table. It flashed them a sharp look and then ambled off through the bracken next to the field. It was an apathetic but unmistakable indication to follow her.
And so, the caravan followed the cat. There was an overall feeling of expectant relief, like they were nearing the precipice of the last hill on the road that was their quest. Within a minutes’ walk the witches’ wagon came into view sheltered within the folds of a cliff face which, with the setting sun behind it looked indistinctly but markedly like an old man’s face. A ring of leafless trees leaned in like grasping hands towards a star shaped patch of earth within the heath at the base of the rocks. In the centre of that dry patch of soil, the great witch Mrs Grinn sat on a stool trimming her toenails with a knife.
How easily they could have missed this spiritual place. How easily they could have walked over the upper part of the cliff and never thought to look down between the fingers of slate at the base of the rocks. King Leigh decided it must have been some sort of divine providence that they should come across the cat Mrs Berrit.
Their remaining men assembled into formation. And then assembled again into a more appropriate formation after they realised it looked odd with all the gaps. The King’s advisor who also shared the role of royal announcer rolled out a golden laced scroll with a red rooster embossed onto the reverse of it and called out loudly.
‘His royal highness, King Leigh, third of his name, lord of the featherlands, protector of the Öhm Crossing, direct descendent of the first men, of age twenty-eight, grandest noble this side of the white sea, the last warlord of the eon-long war, our most esteemed and almighty rooster, height five foot and eight inches, virgo and rightful King of the throne requires your service.’
Happy that he didn’t make any errors in his role, the advisor rolled up the royal announcement, retied the golden ribbon around it, tucked it into its satchel and then looked to the witch.
To his surprise, the witch was neither looking at him or the King but was instead looking in the opposite direction, craning her neck to see further. The advisor couldn’t tell what she could be looking at. She presently relaxed and returned to slicing at her toes.
The advisor looked towards the King who responded with a curt nod. Once again, the advisor removed the scroll from the satchel, untied the golden ribbon, unrolled the scroll and read the announcement out, this time louder, slower and clearer.
‘His royal highness, King Leigh, third of his name, Lord of the Featherlands, protector of the Öhm Crossing, direct descendent of the first men, of age twenty-eight, grandest noble this side of the white sea, the last warlord of the eon-long war, our most esteemed and almighty rooster, height five foot and eight inches, virgo and rightful king of the throne requires your service.’
Instead of rolling up the scroll as usual, the advisor immediately looked to the witch to see whether she would respond. She had put down her knife and briefly gave the party a stern puzzled glance. She then rocked herself onto her feet and once again turned in the opposite direction to them. She was on her tiptoes with her head rocked back and her hand sheltering her eyes, almost as if she was trying to locate a friend in a dense crowd. After a couple of seconds, she turned back to them with a contemplative judging look, and then returned face the fields away from them, once more straining to spot something they couldn’t see.
‘Excuse me.’ came the advisor spoken as loud as a shout. ‘King Leigh, his royal highness King Leigh, lord of his name, Lord… protector of the Featherlands, direct descendant of age twenty-eight, grandest warlord, greatest grandest warlord noble this side of the almighty, oh cock it, I messed it up at the start… sorry, this side …this side of the white sea, our most esteemed and almighty rooster, height five foot eight and… five foot and eight inches and rightful king to the throne, requires - and he’s a virgo - requires your service.’
Mrs Grinn turned away from the fields and squinted up to them.
‘Who are you trying to talk to?’ chirped the witch.
‘…’ said the advisor ‘well… you.’
She swept away her scattered toenails and placed her stool to the side.
‘What with you calling out so loudly, though you were talking to someone opposite end of the field.’
She patted her skirt to knock away the remaining cuttings, most of which remained clung to it regardless.
‘What was it you were saying again? I wasn’t paying attention.’
The advisor had already rolled up the scroll and put in in the satchel but, flustered as he was, the ribbon had not been tied and the inside was facing outwards. He attempted to remove the scroll from the satchel again but without the ribbon it abruptly sprang open and caught the wind, swiftly landing several paces from the advisor’s feet.
‘The King requires your service’ boomed the Baronet to the advisor’s gratitude ‘and in the presence of a King it is customary to bow.
‘Say again’ said the witch.
‘Bow!’ ordered the Baronet.
‘Bow to you too.’ She turned to King Leigh. ‘Now then Kingy, how exactly can I help you?’
The King, whose throat would get too sore recounting such a long quest swiftly designated Lord Rostrum to the role. Rostrum was normally a confidently eloquent embellisher of stories and was certainly the first choice if the late mascot Rooster Rick were not available, however, something about the cat’s watchful presence caused the flow of the story to falter and stumble.
‘Many a good man commends your skills in the art of magic Lady Grinn’ finished King Leigh once Rostrum had finished with the important bits. ‘We have travelled far and fought many trials. We would be in your debt if you were to aid us in rescuing my betrothed.’
The witch listened patiently and nodded to the King when he and Rostrum had finished their plea.
‘And what of the rest of you? What do you want?’
The King’s men exchanged confused glances.
‘We’re all here for the same thing my lady’ said the Baronet.
‘What!? All of you? All of you have sweeties trapped their bedrooms you want to un-curse?’
‘No, no, no’ chuckled the King cordially, ‘They’re here for the Lady Pluma as well.’
‘Oh?’ said the witch, before raising both eyebrows with a knowing look and saying ‘Oh…’ again as if suddenly understanding. ‘Well, I always pride myself on being opened minded, and if you’re all comfortable with that then I suppose there’s no harm in –’
‘No. No, that’s not… no…’ interrupted the King. ‘These are my sworn swords, my knights, my advisors, my men at arms. By saying we are all here for the same thing what my Baronet here means is that they are all here on my behalf. Not that we are all courting the same… that we are all involved in a… No, they’re here to help me rescue my own lady, my betrothed. And it’s just me she… by that I mean we court exclusively. These men are simply here to help me, to help us get back to… courting.’
Mrs Grinn paced along the formation assessing the Kings’ men. The cat Mrs Berrit followed her stare. Under the gaze of those criss-crossed eyes, Lord Rostrum and couldn’t help reconsidering his allegience to this quest.
‘So, all of you have risked your lives, some even given theirs, travelled mile upon mile, fought countless horrors, abandoned your homes, just so this jobber here could have a bit?’
It wasn’t an accusation, it was phrased conversationally. But to the Kings’ confusion, there was not a commotion of approval in response.
‘Well, is she worth it?’ Mrs Grinn addressed the King.
‘Yes’ he replied firmly. ‘The Lady Pluma is truly the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, indeed the most wonderful woman I have had the honour to look upon in any land. Have you not heard the tales or come across the songs? There is not a minstrel in the land who does not sing of the lady’s beauty, for every song about love or beauty has at some point been influenced and changed after acknowledging her. The earth itself tries to match her wonder in its variety of landscapes but it simply cannot compare. She surpasses every conceivable idea of perfection. She is beyond -’
‘Nice bottom by any chance?’ butted in the witch.
‘Her posterior is reasonably admirable, yes, that as well.’
‘It’s always the bottom’ she mumbled passively. ‘What about the rest of you. You all think the same?’
‘She is just as my liege described’ said the Baronet. ‘Her beauty is incomparable. Even diamonds appear dull and lifeless in her presence. I too, am surprised you haven’t heard the songs, indeed on this -’
‘Yeah, Kingy already said. But between you and me…’ she beckoned him to lower his ear with her eyes inquisitively and accusingly squinted ‘honestly now, given the chance, you know, would you?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.’
‘Would you, you know…’
She began thrusting her waist forward and pumping her fists back and forth while giving the Baronet an enormous dirty grin.
The King scoffed, the Baronet flustered and several of the men at arms stifled their laughter into violent coughing fits.
‘No!’ blurted the Baronet. ‘No, not that she isn’t an attractive person. She’s just a bit too… boisterous for me to… ahem… court.’
‘Ooh, is she now? Boisterous indeed.’ The witch beamed towards the other soldiers, almost skipping as she entered the formation.
‘Who else? I need to know what you all think of her. Slander, gossip. What would you give her out of ten?’
‘Seven?’ proposed a knight, unsure of why he spoke.
‘Seven!?’ exclaimed the witch ‘Seven, ooh. What’s wrong with her then?’
The knight didn’t want to say as the King was staring at him from upon his horse furious and the other men all were looking at him with perverse shocked intrigue. More than anything, it was the cat’s absent glare that provoked him to elaborate.
‘Personally,’ he explained ‘I tend to go for girls with a bit of muscle on their bones. You know, shows they can handle me, I suppose.’
‘I’d give her a five, tops’ called out a squire from near the back of the procession.
‘Five!’ gasped Mrs Grinn, skipping around to him.
‘She’s attractive and all’ said the squire as she came up to him unaware as to why he was speaking ‘but I just never really got along with her. Maybe it’s the class difference but she always came across to me as a bit dismissive, like I weren’t worth speaking to.’
‘Mate, I felt the same too. I thought I was the only one’ agreed the royal blacksmith.
‘To be honest, she is a bit overrated in my view’ said Lord Rostrum. And with that, a man of nobility now putting in his view, a cascade of withheld opinion burst out from rest of the party like an angry drunkard freed from the restraint of his more judicious friends.
‘You know what, three! Her eyes are too close together.’
‘Three? I wouldn’t give her a ten, but she’s at least better than a three. I’d say six.’
‘I’ve not met her, but I’ve seen the pictures and didn’t think she was all that.’
‘The murals exaggerate a fair amount, same as the songs.’
‘I don’t like to come across as shallow, but her eyebrows are really distracting.’
‘Oh, she always has too much make-up on in my opinion. And then sometimes not enough.’
‘Men, men, enough of this!’ cried the King, struggling to make his voice heard over the din. ‘I’ll give you the eyebrow thing, but the rest of you don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘You know, I never thought she were right person for you milord’ came the noble yet gruff resonant murmur of Sir Pullus, sedating the hubbub with a voice like a steel mine in a delicate mood. ‘I feel like the fondness that attracted you to her is mostly made up of nostalgia for when you were kids. The time you spend with her you spend playing the games you used to do when you were first attracted to each other, but in truth, neither of you want to be doing those things anymore. You’ve grown apart and become your own individuals with unique tastes and past-times. The young Lady Pluma would’ve been perfect for Prince Leigh, but you haven’t been Prince Leigh for a while now. You’re the King, and you need you need someone who can help you follow that path in life. If you married the Lady Pluma I can’t help feeling that you would be going backwards.’
Sir Pullus had only spoken three times in the Baronet’s presence, and each time had been just as profound. No, the chemistry between the pair hadn’t been the same as it used to be. The laughs didn’t come as easily and the silences between conversations felt awkward and forced. And now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure if he could recall any sign of the Lady Pluma reciprocating the King’s devotion.
Lost in his thoughts, the Baronet failed to notice the cat Mrs Berrit trotting into the witch’s wagon as if beckoned for a wholesome neck fuss after a job well done.
‘Anyone in mind who you think would be better for him?’ probed Mrs Grinn.
‘The Lady Beccus, of the amber islands’ Sir Pullus said decidedly.
There was a hum of approval amongst the men that knew her.
‘Now there’s a woman.’
‘One of the most genuine and amiable lady nobles I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.’
‘She’s got lovely hair.’
‘She plays the harp as well my liege. You two share a passion.’
‘And her eyebrows aren’t that bad either’ the King mumbled to himself. ‘Very well’ he called out aloud ‘Who would rather that we abandon this quest right now and begin courting Lady Beccus instead, say aye.’
‘Aye!’ said pretty much everyone.
‘Then it is agreed. Sorry to bother you Lady Grinn, thank you for aiding us in our quest.’
The King turned his horse and began leading his procession away from the witch and her house.
‘Excuse my outburst my liege,’ said the Baronet who had not yet mounted his horse. ‘But we’ve come so far, and at great cost. We have almost completed our quest. Even if you do not wish to court the Lady Pluma anymore surely it’s worth saving her as a mark of gratitude for your ongoing friendship?’
‘Fine’ said the King, half turning his horse to face the witch. ‘Crone, would it simply be a case of paying you to break the curse?’
‘Payment would come into it yes, but I’d also need an Orb of Emendure.’
‘And where would I find one of those?’
‘Well first off, you’d have to cross Bridge of the Basilisk’s Pass –’
‘Oh, never mind. She has about three dozen servants waiting on her hand and foot, she’ll be fine. Onwards!’
And so, the King led his men towards the horizon. Maybe it was the excitement of a new quest, maybe it was the fact that the last one was a bit crap and they were just relieved it was over, but there was a renewed vigour amongst the men happy to serve their King once more.
Even so, the Baronet couldn’t help feeling like some cruel trick had fallen upon them. He looked back to the alcove of leaning trees to where the witch was now entering her wagon. In the lower window, partially hidden by the nearest wheel, the Baronet thought he met the eyes of someone. She was young, and oddly familiar. However, Mrs Berrit was there too, staring him down from the outside of the curtains and so he turned away, concentrating solely on forgetting the image of cat that was burned in his conscious imaginings.
After pulling the curtains closed, a young woman sat down and fussed the bogeyed cat that had rested herself next to her.
‘Thanks’ she said to the witch as she in turn took her seat at the table. ‘I appreciate this, he’s been no-end of trouble. I mean honestly, ‘cursed to stay in my room’, you’d think he’d get the hint.’
‘You were right. All those men he’s got giving their lives for an adolescent crush!? I’ve never met such an absolute wazzock!’ said the witch.
The young woman relaxed her apparently distracting eyebrows and leaned back into the comfortably matted cushions and blankets of Mrs Grinn’s sofa as she entertained the thought of Lady Beccus declining Leigh’s ceaseless advances for years and years to come.
‘What an absolute cock’ agreed the Lady Pluma.
Written by Calvin Lowe
Illustrations to be uploaded
Concepts and ideas from the collective stream of consciousness of Alastair Fleming and Calvin Lowe
The Vague Grinn & Berrit Chronology
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